A Sermon by David Carment
2 Corinthians 5:7. For we walk by faith, not by sight.
Many and keen have been the contentions among the professors of Christianity on the nature, tendency and effects of true faith. But it has been reserved for an age of unbridled and proud laxity to contend that simple assent to the truths of Christianity is all that is required to constitute a Christian. The devils were forced to confess Christ, and their sad experience of the effects of the just anger of an offended God fills them with trembling. Yet they believe that, so long as He exists, they must suffer. Men, blinded by Satan and their own corrupt reasonings and depraved affections, have contended that the faith of devils is a good faith. If it be, its fruits are bad; for they remain enemies to God; and those who follow the devils in their faith, prove by their fruits from whom it comes and whither it tends.
But it is evident from the context of the passage before us that the Apostle and his Christian brethren did not find it so easy, by believing, to attain joy and to fancy that all their corruptions were subdued, for they were often in the dark and obliged to walk by faith when they could see no such evidence as they desired of their being delivered from the power of sin. Yet they had recourse to the promises of God addressed to those in similar situations, which the far greater part of those cannot do who call themselves believers because they have no doubts or fears. In short, it may be said of faith in the present day, as an eminent English divine said of morality, that they had preached it so long as to have driven it out of the nation. Thus vain speculative men have contended so long about faith that the faith of God’s operation is seldom to be met with. Faith, however, is not to be rejected any more than morality, because wicked and unreasonable men do not have it, although they deceive themselves with a vain opinion that they have this precious grace; for the Christian must and will walk by faith.
In the further prosecution of this subject, I shall:
1. Explain the nature of faith.
2. Show how it is begun and carried on.
3. Point out its effects in those who possess it.
1. Faith is the belief of the truth – a reception of the truth in such a way as to influence the soul to act in conformity with it. We all allow that belief of the truth is essential to the nature of faith, but a question arises: What truths ought this faith, when saving, to receive? I would just observe that the belief of a fact impresses me very differently according as I do, or do not, have an interest in the fact to be believed. For instance, I hear of a rich man who dies abroad and leaves his friend a great estate and much property. I believe this, but I feel little interest in it, though I may for his sake feel glad at the news if the person to whom it is left be my friend. But the matter will be very different if I myself have a valuable property left to me. Then I will be afraid of the frauds of executors, the bankruptcy of those who hold the property, and the dangers of the seas. Every stormy night, whilst my treasure is on the deep, my mind will be anxious and agitated. Thus those who possess only a speculative belief of the truth can talk easily and argue lustily about faith, because they have no serious interest in the matter; whereas those who have a real interest in it, and whose whole treasure it is, tremble because they know that they are exposed to many dangers of various kinds.
It will surely be allowed that it is essential to, and included in, the very nature of faith, to believe in, and assent to, the whole revealed will of God, and not merely the simple facts of Christ’s sufferings and satisfaction. If so, I must take truths as they are and, in doing so, I must believe that I am an enemy of God. I must believe that I am under the curse of the law, “for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them”. I must believe that I have long rejected Christ and there is a sore punishment awarded against such (Heb 10:20). And when I believe all this, will simply telling me to believe in Christ effect a cure? You will say it is a duty to believe. I know it, but this augments my sin and sorrow that I have so long neglected this duty and that I still feel myself unable to practise it. They who so confidently call upon men to believe, as if by their own power they could do so, seem to forget that true faith is the gift of God, and of the operation of His Spirit – that it never was and never can be acted by an unregenerate sinner – so that, putting faith first, they put the effect before the cause, for if their words mean anything, they mean that I am to believe, then I shall have the Spirit, and then assurance and freedom from all doubt.
But I would ask those who reject all doubts and fears as inconsistent with faith: 1st. How they are able to prove that their faith is anything more than delusion. A beggar may get a piece of base metal and, thinking it is pure gold, go away rejoicing and treasure it up carefully for the day of need; but does all this care and joy alter the nature of the metal, or constitute it pure gold? It will only serve to aggravate his disappointment when the cheat is discovered. 2nd. Whether, in this sense, the Pharisees had not faith; for they believed the Scriptures, yea, even their own interest in the promises, whilst He who knew the heart calls them hypocrites. Such persons substitute, believing that they believe, for saving faith. They yield a historical assent to the truths of revelation and then, persuading themselves that they have faith, notwithstanding sin, corruption, formality, neglect and lukewarmness, persist in imagining themselves to be strong Christians, and look down with contempt upon poor doubting souls. But I will hazard an assertion which may seem strange to some: that doubts and fears are the natural concomitants of saving faith. The sun is the source of light, yet its influences are also the cause of clouds and fogs which at times obscure its rays. Thus faith, which is aptly termed the eye of the soul, and which enlightens the soul, has the effect of remotely producing darkness and hiding comfort from the soul. Were there no impure soil from which these things naturally arise, faith could only produce light, joy and comfort. Unshaken faith might suit a perfect saint, but it does not agree with the state of an imperfect believer who, the more he sees of the fulness of the Godhead in Christ, sees for his humiliation more of a hell of sin in himself, and of course must often fear that he will come short at last.
But you will say that these feelings dishonour the Saviour, and injure the soul by keeping it from Christ. This is an assertion often made, but it proceeds from total ignorance of the experience of God’s people, for in no case do they cleave closer to Him, never are they more emptied of self or see more their need of Christ than when under fears – for then they often resolve, like Esther, if they perish, they will perish at His feet. In short, if these things be not consistent with faith, how are the promises, in almost every page of the Bible, expressly framed so as to suit tossed, afflicted, fearful, dark, complaining, mourning Christians, who even go so far as to refuse comfort? How do we hear so much of the fears and complaints and darkness of patriarchs, prophets and apostles; even the father of the faithful is not exempted. But have not many saints, it may be asked, attained and enjoyed uninterrupted assurance? Doubtless, not a few have attained to this, but they attained likewise to what the deluded enthusiasts of the present day have not – to great spirituality of mind, humility, and abstraction from the world. But when we see men professing to enjoy this assurance, who yet give no evidence of spirituality of mind, or weanedness from the world, we pity the delusion which substitutes a false and selfish notion for the faith of God’s elect.
Here it may not be amiss briefly to show how far men may advance in religion and yet be devoid of saving faith. (1) They may, like those mentioned in 2 Peter 2:20, not only escape the pollutions that are in the world, but be decent and grave in their conduct and deportment, and seemingly desirous of knowing more of the will of God, as the young ruler mentioned in Matthew 19:20. (2) They may come to follow Christ apparently for a time, like those mentioned in John 6:66, who, when they heard doctrines which they neither understood nor relished, went back and walked no more with Him. (3) Men may be brought to have a vivid and terrible view of sin and its consequences, as Belshazzar, Felix, Cain and Judas, and yet, after all, be devoid of saving faith. (4) They may be influenced by many serious religious principles, may hear with constancy and delight; may be stirred up to devotion and the perusal of good books, may fast, pray and partake of the Lord’s Supper, yet still be without faith (Isa 58:2, Ezek 33:31). (5) Men may believe in, and zealously contend for, all the truths of the gospel, and yet be wholly destitute of grace. If we look around on the professing world, we shall receive ample and awful proof of this fact. (6) Men may labour to come to Christ, disclaiming every other hope, and yet, under all this humility, self may be at the bottom. They are trying to make themselves good in order that they may be fitted for Christ. (7) Men may be filled with joy under the influence of high and warm affections, like the stony-ground hearers and those who cried, “Hosanna”, and be destitute of faith after all. In short, there is no one experience of the people of God but that Satan will mimic, hypocrisy imitate, and pride build upon it.
But we come now more immediately to consider what faith positively is. We shall give you a definition of faith, not in words of human invention, which have led many astray, but in words indited by the Spirit of God: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. Faith is the substance of things hoped for; it gives them a real subsistence in the soul. We not only believe the promises, but we realize, feel and enjoy them; we are practically influenced by them as truly as we are by sensible objects. As in the first creation, though the Spirit of God moved upon the waters, nothing could be seen until God said, “Let there be light”; so in the new creation, when the Spirit begins to operate on the mighty mass of corruption in the human soul, until God sheds into the heart the light of His glorious gospel, nothing can be seen or traced. But, by means of this light, the convert is enabled to discern spiritual things formerly hid, and obtains by faith convincing evidence of their existence, though unseen by the bodily eye. Faith then is in the spiritual life what the senses are in the natural life, and thus they are contrasted in the words of our text: “For we walk by faith, not by sight”. When a person truly believes, the gospel is written on the heart and engraven on the mind, so as to become the moving principle of his actions and affections. It is thus that he is enabled to walk by faith, and to receive and rest upon Christ alone for salvation as offered in the gospel.
Some divines of great eminence have held that assurance is essential to saving faith; but we have no warrant for this in Scripture, and the whole current of experience is against it. It is true that assurance is a blessed attainment; many have enjoyed it, and all are commanded to seek after it as that which honours God and especially enables the soul to walk with ease and delight in the path of duty. But I must observe that the assurance which these divines have contended for is far different from that confident presumption which puts an act of the mind in the place of the Spirit of God, and supposes that a mere persuasion of the truth of the gospel is all that is necessary to constitute and uphold Christian assurance. There are only two ways by which we can attain the assurance of faith – that is, satisfactory, unclouded, scriptural evidence of our being possessed of saving faith – (1) By the witness of the Spirit, spoken of in Romans 8:16; (2) By examining our experiences, and being enabled to trace in them the works and fruit of the Spirit.
It may be said that, as perfect love casts out fear, so faith, from the very meaning of the word, must exclude doubting. We know, however, that this is not the case; and that, if we hold this doctrine, we must exclude thousands of Christians who afford otherwise the most genuine evidence that they are the real children of God. But this state of matters may be easily accounted for when we reflect that the extent of man’s spiritual vision is so limited that he cannot arrange the objects of belief as he ought, nor adapt and apply the truth as his situation may seem to demand; so that, by confining his view to a part instead of the whole, he is left to doubt his interest in Christ and the promises because he sees the extent of his sin and the depth of his depravity. Now, this state of mind is generally termed unbelief, but I think very improperly in the generally-received acceptation of that word. It is true, it is so used in Mark 9:24, but there it denotes weak faith, and not damning unbelief, as is clear from the connection: “Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief” – that is, help me to believe those truths which I do not yet fully understand and have not yet received. The same cause which operates to depress the Christian, tends to deceive the hypocrite with proud presumptuous hopes, for he again overlooks all his corruption and formality and fastens on the bare promises as the ground of his confidence.
There is a twofold walk of faith, according to the state the believer is in: (1) when he feels the gracious presence of God, and His candle shines upon his head, then it is easy for the believer to walk in the paths of righteousness – yet still carefully, for we are proud, presumptuous creatures and ready to be exalted above measure, so that we often need, like Paul, a thorn in the flesh to keep us humble. Otherwise we are apt to suffer grievous falls – lamentable instances of which the history of the saints furnishes us with – so that, though this be the most comfortable walk, it is not the safest. “Let him that standeth take heed lest he fall.” (2) when in darkness as to his state. Who will say that Job, Asaph, Heman, and even Thomas, did not walk by faith, though in much darkness? Surely they did, for though they had then no pleasing feeling, no confidence in past experience, Christ – and Christ alone – with His unconditional promises, was their stay and support.
Before concluding this head of discourse, we would just observe, in addition to what has been already said of the nature of faith, that it is called in Scripture a lively faith, effectual faith, faith unfeigned, the faith of God’s elect. Now surely all these terms – if language has a meaning – imply that there is a dead faith, a faith that is not effectual to salvation, a feigned faith, a faith which is different from that possessed by those who are God’s elect people. Faith is also expressed in Scripture by such metaphors as these: embracing Christ, looking to Him, coming to Him, feeding upon Him, leaning upon Him, taking shelter under Him. All these significant figures, with many more which might be mentioned, must surely mean something greatly more than mere assent to, or bare belief of, the truth. It would be wise in many who think that they have faith, to enquire whether they do indeed experimentally understand what these expressions mean. True believers do understand them, and they bless God for the sweet experience He has given them of their meaning.
2. We come now to consider how faith is begun and carried on in the soul. Faith is the gift of God, and is wrought in the heart by His Holy Spirit. As our Shorter Catechism well expresses it, “The Spirit applies to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling”. The Spirit is the agent, the gospel is the means, and faith is the fruit; it is impossible for a sinner to do anything spiritually good till the Spirit of God breathe upon him. Of this great and momentous truth, we have a striking illustration in Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. Though the sinews and flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above, in consequence of the prophet’s address to them, yet still they were without life or motion until the wind breathed upon them. Thus, however far in outward appearance and likeness to life a sinner may attain under the means of grace, still he can perform no saving act, he is not alive, till the Spirit breathes into him the breath of spiritual life.
The Spirit begins His work in the soul by bringing the sinner to see the evil of sin, and the dangerous estate he is in by nature – things formerly hidden to him. See what is said of the converts under Peter’s sermon. They were pricked in their hearts and, filled with terror, exclaimed, “What must we do?” Then was the promise exhibited, and then they believed and were baptized. The Philippian jailor trembled and was in great agitation of mind, even after he knew that his prisoners were safe, and all his enquiry was, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul himself was evidently under great distress of mind until he was visited by Ananias. All these were first brought to see the guilt and danger of their state by nature. This must be seen and felt before the sinner will seek or prize Christ. It is worthy of remark here that, in pronouncing the curses and blessings under the law, we find it enjoined expressly that all the people should say Amen to the curses, whilst this is not expressly mentioned in regard to the blessings. What is the reason of this difference? It is evident that nothing but a principle of obedience could induce man to assent to the curses – the blessings he would naturally receive readily. So men would willingly persuade themselves that they have a right to the blessings of the new covenant, but nothing except a day of power will bring them to assent to the curses of the law as that which they are deservedly under.
When the sinner is effectually called, by whatever means: hearing, reading, conversation, affliction or remarkable dispensations of providence, what he first feels is a sense of sin and wrath – a sense of unworthiness and guilt. He says Amen to the curses of the law: “I deserve them all, and they are my portion”. Yet, though still blind to the way of salvation, he prays, he pleads, he confesses, he mourns. He cries, but as yet with a legal spirit, “What must I do to be saved?” He has no faith except in the threatenings of the law. He believes the record that God is just and holy but as yet has no view of His mercy in Christ. But in due time Christ is revealed to the seeking soul though at first it may be dimly. The spirit of bondage gives place to the spirit of adoption. And now the awakened soul, though still in distress, and though destitute of that clear view of Christ which it pants after, is no longer devoid of faith; it has the faith of adherence. It cleaves to Christ, and will not let Him go; it prizes Him above all things, thirsts and hungers for Him. Faith therefore exists in that soul, though it may be like a grain of mustard seed hid in the earth – lying under, and surrounded by, a load of corruptions and temptations. It is there, and it evidences itself to be a living faith by its cries and breathings, as the new-born infant indicates life though unable to move or help itself. Thus the beginnings of faith are small and often not easily discerned even by him who is the subject of the marvellous change.
The work being thus begun by the Holy Spirit, must be carried on and completed by the same glorious agent. And so it is; He makes the path of His people to be like the shining light which shineth more and more unto the perfect day. But the life of faith in the Christian’s soul is not one of uniform comfort or confidence. Various reasons may be assigned for this, independent of sore temptations, trials and crosses. Man is an erring, fallible creature; he is mutable and inconstant – and, of course, liable to decay in grace, to be guilty of many actual transgressions, to grieve the Spirit. In this case, God never intended that he should retain his assurance, and sin at the same time. As Newton says, the assurance which sin will not damp is not worthy of the name. Yet he still advances heavenward, after all his changes and fluctuations, like the river in its course, which still advances to the sea, various as its windings may be. And as the river increases in its course to the ocean, though often by imperceptible degrees and though at times it may appear almost dried up, yet resumes its former volume when the rain falls – so the Christian increases in faith and steadfastness, abounding more and more in the work of the Lord, as he advances in his course.
The outward means whereby the work of faith in the soul is carried on are so well known that they need scarcely be repeated here. Reading, Christian conference, but especially the Word, sacraments and prayer, are the outward and ordinary means which ought to be used. But faith is also made to grow by other means, hidden from the world and sometimes from the soul itself for a time – afflictions, losses, trials. Though they prove poison to the worldling, yet the Christian, by the blessing of God, extracts honey from them to feed and refresh his fainting, weary soul. Thus, by various means, the believer’s faith is carried on and grows, even though he should live and die without assurance, yea, full of fears. The increasing fruits of faith prove this to be the case, for it is by these that its reality and strength are manifested.
3. We proceed now briefly to point out the fruits and effects of faith.
(1) Faith worketh by love (Gal 5:6). Love is the source of every duty of the Christian life. Without it we are nothing; we will do nothing; we can do nothing. Love is the fulfilling of the law. Now it is evident that faith must work by love, if we consider the great object of faith, even Christ, the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world, and is to be loved, not only for what He has done for us, but for what He is in Himself. It is easy for us, however, in speculatively contemplating the glories of the Redeemer’s character, to deceive ourselves, to persuade ourselves that we possess love to Him. But, that we may escape the danger of self-deceit, He Himself has told us how we are to prove that our love to Him is genuine. “Ye are my friends,” says He, “if ye do whatsoever I command you” (John 15:8). The commandment is to love God and our neighbour. Love to God will show itself by our endeavouring daily to glorify Him in our bodies and our spirits, which are His; and love to our neighbour by labouring for his spiritual and temporal good. It is indeed impossible to suppose that true faith can subsist in any soul without this work of love. Can we imagine that he who has seen himself a condemned sinner, deservedly exposed to the wrath and curse of God, and who has been delivered out of this dreadful state, and found rest in and by a Saviour, can ever cease to love this Saviour? Or, loving Him, can he cease to delight in doing His will, and thus manifest his gratitude for the great deliverance wrought out for him? It is true indeed that the weak Christian may be apt to think that he is destitute of this love; but if he reflects on what he was and how he felt and acted before he became a believer, and contrasts that with the manner in which he now feels and acts, he will find that, though still surrounded by corruption, this Christian grace does exist in his soul.
(2) Where there is true faith, it purifies the heart. The first view given to the soul in conversion is a view of its own sinfulness. Of course, that soul will strive with God in prayer that His Spirit may be given to cleanse and purify it. It will be its earnest desire to be cleansed from all filthiness of the flesh and of the spirit, to be enabled to hate all sin, and to love and follow holiness. Those who believe that Christ has suffered and died for them, must desire to die unto sin and live unto righteousness. Corruption, no doubt, may sometimes prevail, and faith be shaken, but still it is true in the main that sin no longer has dominion over them.
(3) Where there is true faith, it overcomes the world (1 John 5:4). Great is the influence of the world over the children of men while they are in a natural state. It is their chief good, yea, their god. They love it; they fear it; they cling to it. By its maxims and opinions they regulate their lives, even while professing to believe the gospel. But faith overcomes the world and enables the Christian to live above it – using it, but not abusing it. The believer sees that Christ gave Himself for this very end, to redeem us from the world (Gal 1:4). He remembers that, in order to be Christ’s disciple, he must take up his cross, leave all and follow Him. He now possesses desires which the world cannot satisfy, and therefore he looks above and beyond it. His eyes behold the King in His beauty and the land that is very far off, so that he can see neither beauty nor permanence in this present evil world. These, then, are those heavenly fruits which, in whatever soul they exist, prove its faith to be genuine.
Do you possess this precious faith? Remember that it will profit you nothing to say you have faith, unless it be a faith of the operation of God – a faith not speculative, but practical. Therefore “examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Cor 13:5).
1. Reprinted, slightly edited, from The Free Church Pulpit, vol 2. Carment (1772-1856) was inducted to the parish of Rosskeen in Easter Ross in 1822. An ancestor of his was baptized under cover of darkness by the famous Covenanting minister John Welsh of Irongray. Always an active minister, Carment writes of a time of special blessing: “There has been since 1840 a very remarkable awakening and religious revival in this parish and neighbourhood, especially among the young; and numbers, I have reason to believe, have been savingly converted. . . . I have been enabled to preach frequently on weekdays to attentive, impressed and weeping congregations, who flock by night and by day to hear the Word.”