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THE STEADFASTNESS OF THE PROMISES, AND THE
SINFULNESS OF STAGGERING.
“He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief."-Rom. iv. 20.
In the first chapters of this epistle, the apostle, from Scripture and the constant practice of all sorts of men of all ages, Jews and Gentiles, wise and barbarians, proves all the world, and every individual therein, to “have sinned and come short of the glory of God;"—and not only so, but that it was utterly impossible that, by their own strength, or by virtue of any assistance communicated, or privileges enjoyed, they should ever attain to a righteousness of their own that might be acceptable unto God.
Hereupon he concludes that discourse with these two positive assertions:
First, That for what is past, “every mouth must be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God," chap. iii. 19.
Secondly, For the future, though they should labour to amend their ways, and improve their assistances and privileges to a better advantage than formerly, " yet by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in the sight of God,” verse 20.
Now, it being the main drift of the apostle, in this epistle, and in his whole employment, to manifest that God hath not shut up all the sons of men hopeless and remediless under this condition, he immediately discovers and opens the rich supply which God, in free grace, hath made and provided for the delivery of his own from this calamitous estate, even by the righteousness of faith in Christ; which he unfoldeth, asserteth, proves, and vindicates from objections, to the end of the 3d chapter.
This being a matter of so great weight, as comprising in itself the sum of the gospel wherewith he was intrusted,—the honour and exaltation of Christ, which above all he desired,—the great design of God to be glorious in his saints,-and, in a word, the chief subject of the embassage from Christ to him committed (to wit, that they who neither have, nor by any means can attain, a righteousness of their own, by the utmost of their workings, may yet have that which is complete and unrefusable in Christ, by believing); he therefore strongly confirms it in the 4th chapter, by testimony and example of the Scripture, with the saints that were of old;—thereby also declaring, that though the manifestation of this mystery were now more fully opened by Christ from the bosom of the Father, yet indeed this was the only way for any to appear in the presence of God, ever since sin entered the world.
To make his demonstrations the more evident, he singleth out one for an example who was eminently known, and confessed by all to have been the friend of God, -to have been righteous and justified before him, and thereon to have held sweet communion with him all his days; to wit, Abraham, the father according to the flesh of all those who put in the strongest of all men for a share in righteousness, by the privileges they did enjoy and the works they did perform.
Now, concerning him the apostle proves abundantly, in the beginning of the 4th chapter, that the justification which he found, and the righteousness he attained, was purely that, and no other, which le before described; to wit, a righteousness in the forgiveness of sins through faith in the blood of Christ. Yea, and that all the privileges and exaltations of this Abraham, which made him so signal and eminent among the saints of God as to be called “The father of the faithful,” were merely from hence, that this righteousness of grace was freely discovered and fully established unto him;-an enjoyment being granted him in a peculiar manner by faith of that promise wherein the Lord Christ, with the whole spring of the righteousness mentioned, was enwrapped. This the apostle pursues, with sundry and various inferences and conclusions, to the end of verse 17, chap. iv.
Having laid down this, in the next place he gives us a description of that faith of Abraham whereby he became inheritor of those excellent things, from the adjuncts of it;—that as his justification was proposed as an example of God's dealing with us by his grace; so his faith might be laid down as a pattern for us in the receiving that grace.
Now, this he doth from,-
First, From the bottom and foundation on which it rested, -viz., the omnipotency or all-sufficiency of God, whereby he was able to fulfil whatever he had engaged himself unto by promise, and which he called him to believe, verse 17, “He believed God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.”
Two great testimonies are here of the power of God.
1. That he “quickeneth the dead:”—able he is to raise up those that are dead to life again.
2. He “calleth things that are not as though they were :"_by his very call or word gives being to those things which before were not, as when he said, “Let there be light, and there was light," Gen. i. 3; by that very word “commanding light to shine out of darkness," 2 Cor. iv. 6.
These demonstrations of God's all-sufficiency he considereth in peculiar reference to what he was to believe; to wit, that “ he might be the father of many nations,” verse 11,—of the Jews, “according to the flesh,”—of Jews and Gentiles, according to the faith whereof we speak. For the first, “his body being now dead, and Sarah's womb dead,” verse 19, he rests on God“ as quickening the dead,” in believ
1. ing that he “shall be the father of many nations.” For the other, that he should be a father of the Gentiles by faith, the Holy Ghost witnesseth that they “were not a people,” Hos. ii. 23. The implanting of them in his stock must be by a power "that calleth things that are not, as though they were,”—giving a new nature and being unto them, which before they had not.
To bottom ourselves upon the all-sufficiency of God, for the accomplishment of such things as are altogether impossible to any thing but that all-sufficiency, is faith indeed, and worthy our imitation. It is also the wisdom of faith to pitch peculiarly on that in God which is accommodated to the difficulties wherewith it is to wrestle. Is Abraham to believe that from his dead body must spring a whole nation ?—he rests on God, as “him that quickeneth the dead."
Secondly, His faith is commended from the matter of it, or what he did believe; which is said in general to be “the promise of God,” verse 20, “He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief.” And particularly, the matter of that promise is pointed at, verses 11, 18,--that he should be “the father of many nations;" that was, his being a “father of many nations,” of having "all nations blessed in his seed:”-a matter entangled with a world of difficulties, considering the natural inability of his body and the body of Sarah to be parents of children. But, when God calls for believing, his truth and all-sufficiency being engaged, no difficulty nor seeming impossibilities that the thing to be believed is or may be attended withal, ought to be of any weight with us. He who hath promised is able.
Thirdly, From the manner of his believing, which is expressed
1. “Against hope, he believed in hope," verse 18. Here is a twofold hope mentioned ;-one that was against him, the other that was for him.
(1.) He “believed against hope;" that is, when all arguments that might beget hope in him were against him. Against hope,” is against all motives unto hope whatever. All reasons of natural hope were against him. What hope could arise, in or by reason, that two dead bodies should be the source and fountain of many nations ? so that against all inducements of a natural hope he believed.
(2.) He “believed in hope;" that is, such hope as arose, as his faith did, from the consideration of God's all-sufficiency. This is an adjunct of his faith,-it was such a faith as had hope adjoined with it. And this believing in hope, when all reasons of hope were away, is the first thing that is set down of the manner of his faith. decay of all natural helps, the deadness of all means, an appearance of an utter impossibility that ever the promise should be accomplished, —then to believe with unfeigned hope is a commendable faith. 2. He was
“not weak in faith,” verse 19, usi dodevous, “minimè debilis,” Beza. He was by “no means weak;" a negation that, by a figure, peiwors, doth strongly assert the contrary to that which is denied. He was no way weak; that is, he was very strong in faith, as is afterwards expressed, verse 20, He “was strong in faith, giving glory to God.” And the apostle tells you wherein this his not weakness did appear: saith he, “He considered not his own body being now dead, when he was about a hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah's womb,” verse 19. It was seen in this, that his faith carried him above the consideration of all impediments that might lie in the way to the accomplishment of the promise.
It is mere weakness of faith that makes a man lie poring on the difficulties and seeming impossibilities that lie upon the promise. We think it our wisdom and our strength to consider, weigh, and look into the bottom of oppositions and temptations that arise against the promise. Perhaps it may be the strength of our fleshly, carnal reason, but certainly it is the weakness of our faith. He that is strong in faith will not so much as debate or consider the things that cast the greatest seeming improbability, yea, impossibility, on the fulfilling of the promise: it will not afford a debate or dispute of the cause, nor any consideration.
Being not weak in faith, he considered not.” 3. He was "fully persuaded,” verse 21, rampopopnosis, “persuasionis plenus." This is the third thing that is observed in the manner of his believing. He fully, quietly, resolvedly cast himself on this, that “ he who had promised was able to perform it.” As a ship at sea (for so the word imports), looking about, and seeing storms and winds arising, sets up all her sails, and with all speed makes to the harbour; Abraham, seeing the storms of doubts and temptations likely to rise against the promise made unto him, with full sail breaks through all, to lie down quietly in God's all-sufficiency.
4. The last is, that “he staggered not,” verse 20. This is that which I have chosen to insist on unto you, as a choice part of the commendation of Abraham's faith, which is proposed for our imitation: “He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief.”
The words may be briefly resolved into this doctrinal proposition:
Observation. All staggering at the promises of God is from unbelief.
What is of any difficulty in the text, will be cleared in opening the parts of the observation.
Men are apt to pretend sundry other reasons and causes of their staggering: The promises do not belong unto them,-God intends not their souls in them,-they are not such and such,--and this makes them stagger; when the truth is, it is their unbelief, and that alone, that puts them into this staggering condition. As in other things, so in this, we are apt to have many fair pretences for foul faults. To lay the burden on the right shoulders, I shall demonstrate, by God's assistance, that it is not this, or that, but unbelief alone, that makes us stagger at the promises.
To make this the more plain, I must open these two things :-
I. The promise here mentioned is principally that which Abraham believing, it was said eminently that "it was accounted to him for righteousness.” So the apostle tells us, verse 5 of this chapter. When this was, you may see Gen. xv. 6; there it is affirmed, that “he believed the LORD, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” That which God had there spoken to him of, was about “the multiplying of his seed as the stars of heaven, whereas he was yet childless."
The last verse of chapter xiv. leaves Abraham full of earthly glory. He had newly conquered five kings with all their host, was honoured by the king of Sodom, and blessed by the king of Salem; and yet, in the first verse of chapter xv., God, “appearing to him in a vision," in the very entrance, bids him “fear not;"—plainly intimating, that notwithstanding all his outward success and glory, he had still many perplexities upon his spirit, and had need of great consolation and establishment. Abraham was not clear in the accomplishment of former promises about the blessed seed; and so, though he have all outward advancements, yet he cannot rest in them. Until a child of God be clear in the main in the matter of the great promise,--the business of Christ,--the greatest outward successes and advantages will be so far from quieting and settling his mind, that they rather increase his perplexities. They do but occasion him to cry, Here is