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Paul affirms of the Thessalonians, that he knew their election of God. "Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God" (1 Thess. 1:14). In both his epistles to this church, he often speaks of them in a manner that implies, that he regarded their salvation as certain, and yet he also frequently warns and exhorts them to faithfulness, and to guard against being deceived by false teachers, etc. "Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means; for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition" (2 Thess. 2:1-3). He addresses the same strain of exhortation to them that he does to all Christians, and plies them with admonition and warning, just as might be expected, considering the moral and conditional nature of the certainty of their salvation.
In writing to the Philippians, he says, "Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. Even as it is meet for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart; inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel, ye are all partakers of my grace" (Phil. 1:6, 7). Here he expresses the confidence of an inspired apostle, that Christ would secure their salvation. But yet, he says: "Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; For it is God which worketh in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12-13). Here he warns them to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. There is no stronger passage than this, where the saints are exhorted to fear; and mark, this is addressed to the very persons of whom he had just said, "Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). Almost at the same breath he expresses the confidence of an inspired apostle, that he who had begun a good work in them would carry it on until the day of Jesus Christ; that is, that He would surely save them; and at the same time exhorts them to "work out their salvation with fear and trembling." Paul also addresses the church at Ephesus as follows:
"Paul an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace be to you and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy, and without blame before Him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, To the praise of the glory of His grace, wherein He hath made us accepted in the Beloved. In whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace; Wherein He hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence; Having made known unto us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He hath purposed in Himself: That in the dispensation of the fullness of times, He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth, even in Him: In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will: That we should be to the praise of His glory, who first trusted in Christ" (Eph. 1:1-12).
Now, let any one read the epistle through, and he will find, that these same elect persons are addressed throughout with precept, exhortation, and warning, just as all other saints throughout the Bible. To quote the instances of this were only to quote much of the epistle. Indeed this is the common usage of the inspired writers, to address the saints as the elect of God, as persons whose salvation was secure as a matter of fact, but whose salvation was after all conditionated upon their perseverance in holiness; and they hence proceed to warn, admonish, and exhort them, just as we might expect when we consider the nature of the certainty of which they were speaking.
But if it be still urged, that the fact of election is not revealed in any case to the individuals who compose the elect; that if the fact of election were revealed to any one, to him threatenings and warnings would be out of place; I reply, that this is only saying, that if certainty is revealed as such at any time, and in respect to anything, then warnings, and threatenings, and fears, are wholly out of place. But this is not true, as we have seen in the case of the shipwreck. Here the certainty was revealed to the individuals concerned, and accredited. Christ also revealed to His apostles the fact of their election, as we have seen, also to Paul. Can any one reasonably call in question the fact, that the apostles understood well their election of God, not only to the apostleship, but also to eternal life? Observe again, what Paul says in writing to the church at Ephesus, in the passage which has just been quoted.
Here he expressly recognizes himself as one of the elect, as he does elsewhere, and as the apostles always do, directly or by way of implication, and yet Paul and the other apostles did not feel that warning, and watchfulness, and fear to sin were at all out of place with them.
Job speaks as if the certainty of his salvation had been revealed to him. He says: "For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me" (Job 19:25-27).
Can any one suppose that Job regarded threatenings, and warnings, and fear to sin, as out of place with him? It is generally admitted, that there is such a thing as the full assurance of faith or hope, or as attaining to the certain knowledge that salvation is secure to us. But would a saint who has made this attainment be less affected than others by all the threatenings, and warnings, and exhortations to fear, found in the Bible? Would such souls cease to tremble at the word of God? Would they cease to pass their time of sojourning here with fear? Would they cease to "work out their salvation with fear and trembling?" Would God no longer regard them as belonging to the class of persons mentioned in: "For all those things hath Mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at My word?" (Isaiah 66:2).
Christ prayed for the salvation of His apostles, in their presence, in such a manner as to leave no room for them to doubt their ultimate salvation, if they expected His prayers to be answered. He did the same with respect to all that should believe on Him through their word. Now will you affirm, that they who are conscious of believing in Jesus, must cease to have confidence in the efficacy of His prayers, before they can feel the power, and propriety, and influence of warnings, and threatenings, and the various motives that are addressed to the elect of God to preserve them from falling? The supposition is preposterous. What! Must we doubt the efficacy of His prayers, in order to credit and appreciate the force of His warnings? In fact, the more holy any one is, and the more certain he is of his eternal salvation, the more does sin become an object of loathing, of fear, and even of terror, to him. The more holy he is, the more readily he trembles at the word of God, and the more sensibly and easily he is affected by a contemplation of sin and divine wrath, the more awful and terrible these things appear to him, and the more solemnly do they affect him, although he has the fullest assurance that he shall never taste of either sin or hell. It is true, indeed, as we shall have occasion to remark hereafter, that in general, the Bible assumes that individuals are not sure of their salvation and upon that assumption proceeds to warn them.
But still it is insisted that, if the end is certain, so are the means; and if one is revealed as certain, so is the other; and that therefore it is absurd, and implies unbelief, to fear that we shall neglect the means, or that either the end or means will fail. But as we have said, to fear to neglect the means, and to fear that we shall neglect them, are not the same. We are naturally able to neglect them, and there is just as much real danger of our neglecting them, as there would be if no revelation were made about it, unless the revelation of the certainty of their use be a means of securing the use of them. We are therefore to fear to neglect them. There is, in fact, as much real danger of our neglecting the means of our salvation, as there is that any event whatever will be different from what it turns out to be. There is no more real danger in one case than in the other; but in one case the certainty is revealed, and in the other not. Therefore, when the certainty is not revealed, it is reasonable to fear that the event will not be as we desire, and as it ought to be. But in the other, that is, when the certainty is revealed, we have no right to fear that it will be otherwise than as revealed, nor to fear that the means will in fact be neglected; but in all such cases we should fear to neglect the means, as really and as much, as if no revelation of certainty had been made; just as Paul did in the case of his shipwreck.
Again, it is inquired, are we not to fear that any of the saints will be lost, and pray for them under the influence of this fear? I answer, no. The saints are the elect. None of God's elect will be lost. We are to pray for them as Christ prayed for His apostles, and as He prayed for all believers, not with the fear that they will be lost, for this were praying in unbelief; but we are to pray for all persons known to be saints, that they may persevere unto the end and be saved, with confidence that our prayer will be answered. But it is said, that Paul expressed doubts in regard to the salvation of the churches in Galatia. I answer, that he expressed no doubt in respect to their ultimate salvation; he says, "I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice; for I stand in doubt of you" (Gal. 4:20). In the margin it reads, "I am perplexed for you." He says in the next chapter: "I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded; but he that troubleth you shall bear His judgment, whosoever he be" (Gal. 5:10); Paul set himself zealously to reclaim these churches from error, and expresses full confidence of the result; and no where, that I see, intimates, that he doubted whether they would finally be saved.
But it is said still, that if the salvation of all the saints is secured, and this certainty is revealed, there is no real danger of their either neglecting the necessary means, or of their being lost, and therefore warnings, and threatenings, and fears are vain; and that the certainty being granted, it is irrational and impossible to fear, without doubting the truth of God; that certainty is certainty, and it matters not at all of what kind the certainty is; that if it be granted that the event is certain, all danger, and of course all cause of fear, is out of the question.
To this form of the objection I reply, that it proceeds upon the assumption, that there is no danger of the saints falling, if God has revealed the certainty of their ultimate salvation. But what do we mean by danger? It has already been said, that all events are certain, in the sense that it is and was from eternity as really certain that they will be, and how they will be; and that all their circumstances and conditions are, and eternally were, as certain as they ever will be. So that there never is any real danger, in the sense of uncertainty, that any event will be otherwise than it turns out in fact to be. By danger, then, is not meant that there is really any uncertainty in respect to how anything will be. But all that can properly be intended by danger is, that there is a natural possibility, and, humanly speaking, a probability, that it may be otherwise than as we desire; that this is probable in the sense that there is, humanly speaking, from the circumstances of the case and so far as we can judge, from the course of events, a probability that a thing may not occur as we would have it.
Now, a natural possibility always exists in respect to the falling and final destruction of the saints; and in most cases at least, the circumstances are such that, humanly speaking, and aside from the grace of God, there is not only real danger, but a certainty that they will fail of eternal life. There are, humanly speaking, many chances to one that they will fall and be lost. Now, this danger is as real as if nothing of certainty had been revealed. The event would have been as certain without the revelation of the certainty as with it, unless it be true, which I suppose in many cases is the fact, that the revelation of the certainty helps to secure their perseverance.
But thus far I have replied to the objection, upon the assumption, that the certainty of the salvation of the saints is revealed, in the sense that individual saints may know the certainty of their own salvation. I have shown, as I trust, that admitting this to be true, yet the nature of the certainty leaves abundant room for the influence of a wholesome sense of danger, and for the feeling of hope and fear. But the fact is, that in but few cases comparatively does it appear, that the certainty is revealed to the individuals as such. The salvation of all true saints is revealed, as we have seen, and the characteristics of true saints are revealed in the Bible. So that it is possible for individual saints to possess a comfortable assurance of salvation, upon the knowledge that they are saints. And as was shown, it is doubtless true that in some cases, in the days of inspiration, and not improbably in some cases since the Bible was complete, individuals have had a direct revelation by the Holy Spirit that they were saints, and accepted of God.
But in the great majority of cases in all time hitherto, the saints have had no personal and clear revelation of their being saints, and no evidence of it, except what they gather from an experience that in their view accords with the Bible description of the character of the saints. When Peter addressed his epistles to the elect saints, for example, although he regarded the elect as certain of salvation, yet he did not distinguish and address individuals by name; but left it for them to be satisfied of their own election and saintship, by their own consciousness of possessing the character that belongs to the saints. He did not reveal to any one in particular the fact of his own election. This was for the most part true of all the letters written to the churches. Although they were addressed as a body, as elect, and as saints, yet from this they were not to infer, that they were all saints or elect, but were to learn that fact, and who were real saints, from their conscious character.
We have seen, in another place, that the Bible represents perseverance, in the sense already explained, as an attribute of Christian character; and therefore no one can have evidence that he is a saint, any farther than he is conscious of abiding in obedience. If saints do abide in the light, and have the assurance that they are saints, we have seen the sense in which they may be influenced by hope and fear, and the sense in which moral law with its sanctions may be useful to them. But when a saint shall backslide, he must lose the evidence of his being a saint, and then all the warnings and threatenings may take full effect upon him. He finds himself not persevering, and has of course to infer that he is not a saint; and the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints can be no comfort to him. It is in fact against him; for this doctrine is, that the saints do persevere; every day he lives in backsliding, it becomes less evident that he is a saint. The Bible is manifestly written, for the most part, upon the assumption, that individual saints do not certainly know their election, and the certainty of their own salvation. It therefore addresses them, as if there were real uncertainty in respect to their salvation; that is, as if, as individuals, they were not certain of salvation. It represents the salvation of real saints as certain, but represents many professed saints as having fallen, and warns them against presumption and self-deception, in the matter of their profession, privileges, and experience. It represents the danger of delusion as great, and exhorts them to examine and prove themselves, and see whether they are truly saints. The warnings found in the Bible are, for the most part, evidently of this kind; that is, they assume that individuals may deceive themselves, and presumptuously assume their own election, and saintship, and safety, from their privileges, relations, and experiences. Inspiration, therefore, proceeds to warn them, assuming that they do not know the certainty of their own individual salvation. We shall by and by have occasion to examine some passages that will illustrate and confirm this remark.
There is, therefore, I apprehend, no real difficulty in accounting for the manner in which the Bible is written, upon the supposition that the doctrine under consideration is true. But on the contrary, it appears to me, that the scriptures are just what might be expected, if the doctrine were true. When we consider the nature of the certainty in all cases, and also that the great mass of professed Christians have no certain revelation of their being real saints, that there is so much real danger of deception, in regard to our own characters, and that so many are and have been deceived; I say, when we consider these things, there can be no difficulty in accounting for the manner in which both professors and real saints are addressed in the word of God.