What Saith the Scripture?
Faith the Work of God
by Charles Grandison Finney
President of Oberlin College
from "The Oberlin Evangelist" Publication of Oberlin College
October 10, 1849
Public Domain Text
Reformatted by Katie Stewart
Text.--John 6:28-29: "Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent."
In the preceding context Jesus rebukes the people for following Him, not because
they saw his miracles, and in his miracles the proof that He came from God, but for
the sake of the loaves and fishes; and then takes occasion to exhort them to "labor
not for the meat which perisheth, but for that which endureth to everlasting life."
Upon this they start up with the question--What is this "labor" of which
you speak? What shall we do to secure this everlasting life?
To this Jesus answers in our text--"This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent."
In discussing the subject here presented, I shall
I. Notice the difference between the letter and the spirit of a commandment.
II. Show what is not the work which God really requires.
III. What it is.
IV. What is implied in it.
V. Notice some delusions into which persons fall on this subject.
I. Notice the difference between the letter and the spirit of a commandment.
The letter respects the outward doing--the executive act, or as sometimes called, the proximate act, (as being the last in the series,) as distinguished from the ultimate end or intention which in the order of nature comes first in the series.
For example, in the act of going to meeting; the mere external act of going is the last or proximate act, and may be obedience to the simple letter of the precept. If all is right, the proximate end may be to join in the singing, the prayer, or to participate in the instructions of the sanctuary; but the ultimate end will be to worship and glorify God. The letter of a precept says--Do this--Abstain from that; and yet every one knows that all acts do in fact proceed from some ultimate end to which the spirit of the precept refers. In the case of going to church, the letter of the precept respects only the outward going, and of course the outward going fulfills the letter of the precept. But the precept has also a spirit, and this refers to the ultimate intention of the act, and requires that this shall be right before God.
This distinction is not only a very plain one, but in morals it is altogether fundamental. An act shall have a bad character, a good character, or none at all, according to its ultimate moral quality. For example: giving to the poor may result from a great variety of motives, and its real character can be determined only from its ultimate end.
God, therefore, not only requires the outward doing, but much more, and above all, the motives; so that a man would obey who had a right spirit even if prevented from the outward act. For example, the precepts requiring attendance on public worship and giving to the poor, would be obeyed in the mere intention, provided circumstances were such as absolutely to forbid the outward act. Yet it should not be forgotten that if the outward act is possible, the sincere intention will always require and secure it. Still it is true that if the intention exists, the deed, so far forth as its morality is concerned is actually done, If the intention be wrong, the command is disobeyed; if right, it is obeyed, whether the man is able to carry it out in external action or not. If the intention be not right, there is no obedience, how much-so-ever the letter may be observed.
II. What is not the work of God. That is--What does not constitute that obedience which is acceptable to God?
So, and much more, in religion. Unless a man goes out of himself for his end, he is really serving himself, and not God. Suppose he prays, or preaches, or goes to meeting; if his ultimate object be to secure some good to himself, he is not doing the Lord's work, but only his own. He is as really doing his own work as he who goes to California to dig for gold in its mines. The moral difference does not lie in the business done, but in the spirit of the act. One goes with a spade and mattock to dig for gold--all for himself alone;--another goes to his closet or to church to do his religious services, and to work out his own salvation. If the latter be done as really for self as the other, and as truly without an ultimate regard to the will and glory of God, it is no more acceptable to God than the former. No matter what the course of life is, if self and self only be the end.
It is not strange that in some situations these persons should seem to be very religious. Since I have lived in Oberlin I have conversed with hundreds who have told me how much their religious life had improved since they have been here. But this change may have been simply the result of external circumstances--no principle at bottom controlling their conduct except a regard to public opinion. Such persons are greatly in danger of misjudging their own character, and of becoming very self-complacent in the idea of their making great progress in holiness, while really they ought only to condemn themselves for being under the control of public sentiment rather than of faith working by love.
But listen to that man who acts from a mere sense of duty: "I have been to meeting twice today. I went because I thought it to be my duty." You did, indeed! And is this the spirit of God's requirements? Where is the faith and love of the gospel in this act! It is not there. There is not a particle of evangelical obedience in such doings. No man ever assigns as a reason for true love to God--I did it because I thought it was my duty! To be sure, a man who does right from love to God is conscious of conforming to his conscience; but he does not act because he is lashed up to duty by a scourge he dare not resist and can not endure.
"O where shall rest be found,
Rest for the weary soul."
Yet there is the utmost danger lest men seek it as an ultimate end, and otherwise than in the way of God. Men need a monitor to follow them about, crying evermore in their ears--Brother, sister, that is not the work of God. What, you say, perhaps,--what! does not God require me to pray? Yes; but with faith, not without faith. Does not God require me to give to the poor? Yes; but not without faith and love. O, how some men need an angel at their elbow continually to keep them from falling into the pit--they are so prone to make mistakes. Many need to be warned most earnestly and made to see that their great efforts to obtain exemption from agonies of mind, conviction and distress, are not really the work of God.
Indeed, no matter what the effort may be, though made in ever so exact conformity to the letter, yet it is not acceptable obedience unless made in faith. Nothing whatever which is not faith and love, or the spontaneous results of these exercises, can be deemed real obedience to God. This is most manifest, and needs to be thoroughly understood.
III. What is the work of God?
When Christ's hearers made this enquiry in our text, they had reference merely to executive or outward acts. They had fallen entirely from the spiritual apprehension of God's commands, and supposed their requisitions to lie merely in the external act. They understood God as requiring a mere external course of life. Christ, therefore, understood them as enquiring--Shall we sacrifice? Shall we give alms to the poor? Shall we make many offerings at the temple?
Christ understood their enquiry, and saw that they fell exceedingly short of the truth; therefore He for the time being left out of view, utterly and purposely, all which they called works. No doubt they esteemed this a most marvelous answer. To them his answer must have seemed equivalent to this: Do not anything at all. You ask, says Christ, what acts you shall do that you may work the works of God. I see that you have infinitely misapprehended the case. This is the work--that you believe God--exercise faith. "Faith? what is that?" they answer. "Do tell us what we shall DO!" Do none of those things which you have in your minds.
Yet we are not to suppose that Christ forbade the doing of any right external acts. He knew perfectly well as we also do, that if the heart could be got into the right state, all would be well. He therefore aimed at one blow to cut them square off from all their vain dependencies. "Do none of those things," said He, "as THE work of God; but believe." Suppose that they had replied, "We do believe already." Many hundreds have said so to me who yet were in a state similar to that of those Jews. We certainly believe, say they; and there is a sense in which they do; but it is not any such sense as involves obedience and love. It is only a purely intellectual assent to the truth; but this is not gospel faith.
You will observe that we are not now enquiring into the grounds, but simply the conditions of salvation. Christ did not intend to teach that faith can be the meritorious ground of salvation; but simply that without which men can not be saved.
It is remarkable that Christ speaks as if faith comprehended all God's requirements. Obviously it is here spoken of just as love is where it is said to be the fulfilling of the law. In real love, we really fulfill the whole law; because love is connected with the whole circle of obedient activities and should be the moving spring of all our external actions. Faith sustains the same relations to all our activities that love does.
Now suppose the student does not believe this--suppose he lacks confidence in the writer. O, he says, this looks very fair, but I am afraid he will fail in his business, or at least that he will change his mind. I don't believe I can rely on his promise. Now in this state of mind, he will not be at rest. Perhaps he will be as anxious as ever. But on the other hand, if he believes, he will be at rest. If he has all confidence in the character of his friend, he will feel as calm as evening. He can sleep as quietly as a babe. No longer will he let his bosom burn up with intense, wasting anxieties
So of all confidence in God's wisdom and power.
If any of you have ever been at sea in a fierce and dreadful storm, when every wave broke over you, every plank creaked as if it must be wretched asunder, you know how anxiously you looked at the captain--how you watched his countenance, and studied especially his confidence in his ship and in her capacity to weather the storm--and you noticed with what composure he saw his masts twisted almost double and bent up like withes, yet breaking not; then you had an illustration of faith. You trusted in the captain's judgment and skill; he trusted in the seaworthiness of his ship and in his own experience.
So of faith in God. You want faith that God loves both yourself and everybody else; for it you believed that He loves you, and yet did not believe that He loves everybody else, you might have trouble. So if you admit that He loves others but not yourself, you will find that more faith than this is needful before you can have universal peace.
You know how the little child feels towards his father. You may have an axe in your hand, or a sword;--the child is not afraid, for he knows you are a father. He will seize hold of it and play with it as with a feather, for he can not dream of danger or fear, so long as the instrument is in his father's hand. He believes that you love him; and knows that you will not hurt him, so that even a sword in your hand awakens no fear in his bosom.
So of God. You are no more afraid when God plays with the forked lightning than when he paints his bow on the vaulted sky in the stillness of approaching sunset. This is faith. It trusts God amid the storm as in the calm, assured that He is forevermore the same and always infinitely good and wise.
But you are sick;--yes, you are sick. What then? Suppose your mother could save your life and restore your health at any moment. You would feel very calm;--and why? Because you have so much confidence in her love. Ah, but you say--I have confidence in God's love; but perhaps God does not see it best to save my life. So your mother might not see it best to save your life; and if she were as good as God is, and as wise, she would do the very same thing. You may therefore now be just as peaceful as if your destiny lay in the hands of the kindest and wisest earthly parent, for you may know that you shall live or die just as infinite Love and Wisdom shall appoint.
Christ tasted death for every man;--consequently for both you and me. Now the faith that God requires involves the full belief of this. Faith includes the confidence that Christ is ready, able and willing to save you. Suppose you are in the deep waters, and you seem just ready to sink--when suddenly you see a man just by, and you know that he is both ready, able and willing to save you. The fact that you believe this fully will make you quiet under any circumstances of danger. This confidence will make you as calm as if your feet were already on a rock.
Some of you have seen the power of this faith illustrated in the dying saints of God. In talking with them you found it impossible to name a thing which gave them any anxiety. "God," said they, "will keep all in his hand of love." You speak to that dying wife and mother;--"are you going to leave your husband? How can you bear to go?" God will take care of him. "But how can you leave all your children?" God will take care of them. "But your youngest one--that dear feeble thing?" God will take care of that. "Are you not afraid that you may die under a cloud!" God will take care of that. "But you may dishonor God, and may sin against his name in the last struggles?" Aye, God knows how to take care against that. This is the universal answer. Everything is committed to God.
Press this dying mother yet farther. Say--you are to leave your children in a wicked world--a world full of temptations and snares. Your husband may marry badly and your children may suffer for want of a mother's sympathy; you know not how many dangers and evils may befall them. What does she reply? God, she says, will take care of that. This is the antidote for all cares and anxieties. God's immutable character and promises are a great sheet anchor to her soul. Stayed upon them, she is not afraid to leap over hell itself--making the entire sweep over its burning crater.
This faith is no visionary thing--no mere speculation. Nothing has ever been more abundantly attested by living and competent witnesses.
But go to the speculative believer. There he lies, on his dying bed. "Are you near your end?" No doubt I am. "Have you any anxieties?" O yes, anxieties enough. I am afraid about my children, my wife, my property--a thousand things.
Now all this fear and anxiety is real unbelief.
IV. Several things implied in doing the works of God.
So in regard to God. When you have perfect confidence in his character and sympathy with his ends, you will need only to know his will and obedience will not be forced, but entirely spontaneous, not less so with you than with an angel, so far as you have real faith in God.
V. Delusions incident to this subject.
How remarkable that men should have such a conscience! A conscience not developed at all toward the real things of religion; but all their ideas of right and wrong relate to matters in which there is not a particle of right and wrong whatever! Shall I call this a conscience? It is not worthy of the name; yet it may answer my present purpose to use the name, for this thing of which I speak supplies to them the place and executes the functions that conscience ought to fill and execute. The delusion often remains unshaken even to death, that religion refers to nothing more or other than to the outward life. For instance, a woman is absent from prayer-meeting because her children are sick, and her conscience is exceedingly troubled. What ails that woman? O she has commit so great a sin! Does she not know that she may have committed more sin in her unbelief than she ever could commit under any circumstances in being absent from prayer-meeting?
An occurrence in my own personal history made impressions on my mind of the sin of unbelief which I can never forget. A friend of mine had manifested so great a regard to my personal wants, and so strong a determination to supply them, that when I came to notice its effect on my own feelings towards him, it struck me forcibly that I had not so much confidence after all in God as I had in that man. This thought came like a wave of death over my soul. Is it possible, said I, that after all the revelations God has made of his love to me, I have not trusted Him so much as I trust one of my fellow-mortals? And shall God never be able to gain my confidence? Shall my unbelief forever grieve his heart and bar me from his bosom?
This train of thought served to show me the greatness of my own sins of unbelief.
Now this all results from misapprehension of what faith is. Many seem not to see that faith is the simplest thing in the world. Little children understand it and exercise it every day. They have faith in their parents and friends, and it does not cost them a terrible struggle and a great fermentation of feeling to get it. It seems as natural to them as their very breath. Why should they not have confidence in their parents? Why not trust themselves implicitly to their parent's care?
O when will Christians understand the difference between beginning outside as if they thought to work in their religion through the skin, instead of beginning with the heart and planting first of all its deep foundations there in faith and love?
Often it is the case that their class of persons are not only dissatisfied with themselves, but with everybody else. They look upon the religious state of their brethren through jaundiced eyes and see nothing as they think it should be. How is it, say they, that you can be satisfied with your present state, or have any peace of mind at all? I am in as good a state as you are, but I am not by any means satisfied with myself. I live as near right as you do, but I am surely far from being right. You must be altogether deluded. You think yourself nearly, or quite free from sin; but I know you are not, for if you are, I am too; but I know that I am not, and therefore know that you are not.
Now such persons do not seem to consider that the outward life is not always an index to the inward, and that of two persons whose outward life is substantially the same, one may live by faith and walk humbly with God, while the other lives only by works and in the deepest guilt of unbelief.
1. Christ speaks of faith as if it were the whole of religion. We have seen why he should. It is the natural root from which a religious life springs.
2. We may see why Paul says that faith establishes the law. It does so both because it embraces and honors God's system of atonement, and because it works by love and thus begets a spirit of sincere obedience to law.
3. The exact difference between a legal and a gospel life is this: the gospel life is a spontaneity of faith and love. A legal life is a spontaneity of selfishness. Sincere and hearty obedience flows naturally from faith and from love. It must be so, and always will be. Just as naturally does selfishness, when it aims to be religious at all, put on the type of legality.
4. Sinners look upon religion in a selfish light, and hence regard it as gloomy, cheerless; and its self-denials as a life of painfulness. Judging of its duties by their own state of mind and principles of action, they see it only repulsive and profitless. Since it does not promise them earthly riches, or earthly honor, or sensual delight, they see no beauty in it that they should desire it. Since it demands a reasonable subjection of those appetites which they delight to indulge, they think it a most burdensome system. If they would look at it, in a directly opposite point of view, they might see it as it is. Is it any self denial or hardship for Love to seek to please? There is real affection between that mother and her child. Now why does she make up a little nosegay and bring it in so cheerfully and sweetly to her little one? Is this a grievous act of self denial to the affectionate mother?
Or observe how the sea-captain gathers up the choicest things he can from the ends of the earth to bring home to the wife he loves. Is this a hardship? Does he drag out a miserable bondage in performing services of this sort for his beloved wife? If not, then you may know how to judge of the self-denials and hardships of the true Christian's life. It is not the gospel Christian, but the legalist, who is dragging his snail's pace up the hard hill of his religious life. Ah, his whole religion is nothing better than penance--a penance of such sort as God neither asks nor accepts. Sinner, you misconceive of religion, and your misconception results from your selfishness. If in the place of selfishness you had true love to God, you would see far other things in religion than what you now see. Go and ask that young convert how all these waters of life taste to him. He will tell you that they are sweeter than the honey or the honey-comb. If you would know this, try it. O, when will you understand what religion is, and having understood it, yield your heart at once in obedience to its claims? Then should your peace be like a river, and your righteousness as the waves of the sea.
of easily misunderstood terms as defined by Mr. Finney himself.
Compiled by Katie Stewart
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