ROMANS, vii, 5, 6.
'For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law-, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.'

THERE is a twofold change which takes place, at the moment of a believer’s transition into the peace and privileges of the gospel. He in the first place passes into a new condition, as it respects his legal relationship with God; and he in the second place passes into a new character, as it respects the feelings and principles by which he comes to be actuated. You know what his relationship to God is, under the old economy in which he is situated. The moral Governor of our world ordained a law of rectitude, and authoritatively bound it on the observation of our species. That law has in every individual case been violated; and it were giving up the very conception of a moral government, for us to delude ourselves with the imagination, that a certain penalty shall not follow in the train of an offence, or that condemnation shall not follow in the train of disobedience. This in fact were stripping the jurisprudence of Heaven of its sanctions, and so reducing the divine administration to anullity; and this is the perpetual tendency of those who have not yet been arrested by the awful realities of the question. They hurry themselves away from the contemplation of God’s inviolable majesty, and uncompromising truth; and, in the pleasing dream of His tenderness for the infirmities of His erring children, would they lull themselves into a sweet oblivion of the alone elements, on which hinge the fate of their eternity.

It is indeed most true, that God has all of the love and the compassion and the amiable kindness wherewith they have invested Him; and the gospel of Jesus Christ is the very development of these attributes - the very expression of a longing and affectionate Father after His strayed children, for the purpose of recalling them; but at the same time of recalling them in that one way, that shall illustrate the entire character and perfection of the Godhead. It is a dispensation of mercy free to all - only of mercy through the medium of righteousness - not of a mercy which dethrones the law, but of a mercy which magnifies that law and makes it honourable - not of such an indulgence as would pour contempt on the face of the Divinity, but such an indulgence as pours a deep and awful consecration over it. We sit under the economy of grace, but of grace in conjunction with holiness; and the overtures of reconciliation - coming to us as they do through the channel of a mysterious atonement, and an unchangeable priesthood, and a mediatorship sealed with the blood of an everlasting covenant - come to us, if I may so express it, through such an intervening ceremonial, as serves to guard and to dignify the Sovereign, even in the freest exercise of His clemency to the sinful - So that they cannot by this path of access enter into peace with the Deity, without beholding Him in the awfulness of His purity, without feeling for Him the profoundest reverence.

From this rapid sketch of the great moral characteristics that sit on the economy of the gospel, you may come to undertand how it is that the believer, on being translated into a new condition is also moulded and transformed into a new character. It is easy to profess the faith, and a mere profession will induce no radical change on the habits or the history; but if a man actually have the faith, then he has that which never fails to be the instrument of a great spiritual renovation. It is upon this principle, that he is prompted to comply with the overtures of the gospel; and, in so doing, he is made to feel what Nature never feels, and that is a calm and confident sense of his own reconciliation with God. The man who has never experienced this sensation, will not adequately conceive of its delights and its influences; yet still may he have some distant imagination of the new feelings and the new impulses, to which it is the harbinger. On this single event in the history of a believer’s mind - that, whereas formerly there was in it a distrust or a jealousy of God, there is now in it the assured conviction that the Almighty is his Friend - on this single event, there is made to turn an entire revolution of its desires and its principles. In the language of the Psalmist, its bonds are indeed loosed; and, in place of that terror or that hopelessness which froze the soul into downright inactivity, is there now the freeness of a grateful and confiding spirit - the alacrity of a willing obedience. "I will run in the way of thy commandments" says David "when thou hast enlarged my heart."

It is just this enlargement that is opened up to the disciple, on his accepting of Christ, and so being delivered from the fears and the fetters of legality. The mountain of a before inextinguishable debt is now liquidated; and a discharge is given by which, from a peculiar skilfulness in the method of our salvation, the very justice of God, as well as His mercy, is guaranteed to the acceptance of the sinner; and he now has a comfort and an expectation in the service of that Being, before whom he had hitherto stood paralysed, as if in the hands of an unappeased and unappeasable creditor; and the holiness, which formerly he would have attempted in vain as his price or his purchase money for that heaven the gate of which was shut against all his exertions, he now most cheerfully renders as his freewill offering and his preparation for that heaven whose gate is now open to receive him; nor can he look to the whole process and principle of his recallment to the favour of God, without seeing depicted therein the love which that God bears to righteousness, and the hatred which He bears to iniquity. The very contemplation from which he gathers peace to his breast, brings down upon it a purifying influence also. The same spectacle of Jesus Christ and Him crucified, that charms from the believer’s heart the fears of guilt, tells him in most impressive terms of the evil of it: And that deed of amnesty, on which are inscribed the characters of goodwill to the sinner, is so emblazoned with the vestiges of God’s detestation for sin, and so ratified by a solemn expiation because of it - that the intelligent disciple cannot miss the conclusion, nor will he fail to proceed upon it, that this is the will of God even his sanctification.

I trust that even those of you who have no experience of this transition at all, and to whom I still speak as in a mystery, will at least admit, that, when a man comes practically and powerfully under the operation of these influences, he must feel another moral pulse, and breathe another moral atmosphere from before. It is the doctrine of the Bible, that without supernatural aid the transition cannot be effected - that, even for the establishment of that faith which is the primary and presiding element of this great renewing process, an agency must descend upon us from on high which nevertheless it is our duty to watch and to pray for; and that unless from the first to the last we feel our dependence upon the Spirit of God, we shall not be upheld in those habits and affections of sacredness, which constitute our meetness for the inheritance that is above.

But my purpose in introducing this remark, is to demonstrate how wide is the dissimilarity in the whole frame and forthgoings of a man’s mind, after the accession of this influence from what they were before it - how certainly a new character, as well as a new condition, emerges from it: and, when you connect the change with that which the Bible reveals to us of the power from the upper sanctuary by which it has been effected, you will be at no loss to perceive on the one hand, why converts to the faith of the gospel, as born of the Spirit are said to be in the Spirit; and, on the other, you will be at as little loss to perceive the meaning of the apostle’s phrase, ‘when we were in the flesh ‘ - when we were what nature originally made us; and before that transition by believing, which introduced another relationship with God, and introduced us to another habit and another disposition in regard to Him. The apostle tells us what took place both with him and with his disciples, at the time when they were in the flesh. Then did the motions of sins, which were by the law, work in their members to bring forth fruit unto death. We should like here to know in the first instance, what is meant by the phrase of ‘sins which were by the law’ Some understand such things as were declared by the law to be sinful - as if the apostle had said, ‘then did certain affections which by the law were pronounced sins, work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.’ Others assign a still greater force to the law in this passage, as if the law had not only declared the affections in question to be sinful, but as if it was the law that had made them to be sinful.

And indeed there is nothing hyperbolical in ascribing this function to the law - and that, on the principle that where there is no law there is no transgression. If a man break no rule he is no sinner - and if there was positively no rule to break, then sin were an impossibility. It is the law that characterises sin as sinful; that makes the affection to be sin which but for it would have been no sin at all, and that purely by forbidding it. So that it is quite fair to understand the motions of sins which were by the law, to be not merely such motions or desires as the law had declared to be sinful, but also such motions and desires as the law had actually constituted sinful. But admitting both these explanations as quite consistent the one with the other, and as alike applicable to the passage before us, there are others, who, additional to these, would ascribe to the law an influence of a still more active and efficient quality - as if it not only rendered certain affections sinful which but for it could not have obtained any such character, but as if it called forth into being the very affections themselves. They would make the law, not merely a discoverer and an assertor of sin, but they would make it a provocative to sin; or an instrument for calling it into existence, as well as an instrument for detecting and exposing it. They think themselves warranted in this explanation by the text, "that the law entered that the offence might abound ;" and still more by the text, that "the law wrought in me all manner of concupiscence " - so that these last interpreters, in explaining the phrase of the motions of sin which were by the law, would not object to the idea of the law having actually excited these motions, and being thus the efficient originator of the sins that proceeded from them. Nor is this view of the matter so much at war with the real experience of our nature, as may at first be supposed.

The law may irritate and inflame the evil propensities of the heart to greater violence. The yoke, which it lays on human corruption, may cause that corruption to fester and tumultuate the more. The perverse inclination is just fretted to a stouter and more daring assertion of itself, by the thwarting resistance which it meets with; and you surely can conceive, nay, some of you may have found - how legal prohibitions, and remorseful visitations, and all the scruples of a remaining conscience and sense of rectitude in the bosom, which lie in the way of some vicious indulgence on which the appetite is set, may give the keener impulse to its demands, and make it more ungovernable than had there been no law. And when once all the barriers of principle are levelled, you may well imagine - how, on the pressure and the prohibition being removed, the depraved tendency will burst out into freer and larger excesses; and the harder the struggle was ere the victory over a feeling of duty had been obtained, the prouder will be the rebel’s subsequent defiance to all its suggestions, and the more fierce and lawless will be his abandonment.

Nay, I can figure how the existence and felt obligation of a law may, on minds of a more delicate cast, have somewhat of the same operation. It is not too subtle a remark, for there is substantial and experimental truth in it - that, if the imputation of guilt lie hard upon a man, and he overwhelmed therewith sink into shame and into despondency - in addition to losing his sense of character, he may lose the character itself. He will come down in reality to the level of the surrounding estimation; and you have only to envelope him in an atmosphere of disgrace, in order to impart a corresponding tinge of moral deterioration, to the living principles by which he is actuated. This proves of what importance it is, for upholding the tone of character in society - that we should all be predisposed to turn to our fellows with kindness and confidence and respect; and there is no saying how much the opposite habits of suspicion, and detraction, and fiendish delight in the contemplation of human ignominy, may contribute to lower the real worth and dignity of our species. But our present aim is to show, that, by the very establishment of a law, we become exposed to the sense of its violations; and this degrading sense works a regardlessness of character, and lays us open to other and larger violations:

And thus the law may become not only declaratory of sin, but Creative of sin; and that both by constituting certain actions to be sinful and multiplying these actions - And in all these ways may we understand the phrase of our apostle, even the motions of sins which are by the law. The remaining clause of this verse, brings into view the distinction that there is, between feeling the motions or tendencies of sin, and the actual following of these tendencies. To have before abundantly insisted on the presence of sinful inclinations, even in the regenerated Christian; but that he differs from him who is still in the flesh, in that while the one obeys the inclinations, the other utterly refuses to indulge or to gratify them. Paul himself was not exempted from the motions of sins; and this is what he feelingly laments in the subsequent verses of this chapter. But then he did not suffer these motions so to work in him, as to bring forth fruit unto death. It is of importance for the believer to understand, that, so long as he abides in his present framework, he occupies an infected tenement - he bears about with him a vile body charged with a moral virus from the presence of which death alone can deliver him; and against the power of which, it is his appointed warfare so to struggle, as that it shall not have the practical ascendancy over him.

This is the inward constitution even of a saint upon earth - a constant urgency to evil. But what distinguishes him from the wilful sinner is, that he so resists this urgency that it does not prevail. There is no conflict with the one; for he walks altogether in the counsel of his own heart, and altogether in the sight of his own eyes. With the other there is the conflict of two opposite principles - of the Spirit lusting against the flesh, and the flesh against the Spirit; but so as that the Spirit has the habitual predominance, and by the Spirit he is practically led. They who are in the flesh have no such principle of counteraction within them to their evil tendencies - so that the motions of sins which are in them work in their members, so as to bring forth fruit unto death. Paul now under the power of the gospel, and in the full career of his sanctification, speaks of his being in the flesh as a thing of remembrance. He could now look back upon that state, with the full advantage of a tender and enlightened conscience, that recognised as sinful what he before had never charged himself with, as incurring the guilt of any violation that should suffer death. He was even then free from the grosser profligacies of human wickedness; and lived in the deceitful security of one, who thought that all his duties were adequate to all his obligations. But he now could discern, that, unblemished as he was in respect of all outward enormities, he was then wholly given over to the idolatry of his own will; and that when tried by a law which questioned him of his godliness - of his preference for the Creator above the creature - of his obedience to the commandment, that he should covet and desire no earthly good, so much as the favour of that Being at whose bidding he ought to have subordinated all the affections of his heart.

When thus tried, he could now plainly perceive, that, at that time, he was altogether carnal; and not the less so that at that time too, he with self was altogether satisfied. But the difficulty is to make that which was a thing of remembrance to Paul after he was converted, to make it a thing of present consciousness to those who are not yet converted. It is true, it was on the eve of his becoming a Christian that the conviction of sin first seized him - nay, this very conviction might have been the instrument of turning him to the gospel. And therefore it is the more desirable, to reach the same conviction to the hearts of those who are still in the flesh and now hearing me - to make them understand, how wholly it is that they are in the flesh - how unreservedly they give themselves up to the impulse of all those constitutional tendencies, which results from the existing mechanism of their soul and body and spirit, without any conscious help from the accession of a principle of godliness - how much they live and talk and feel, just as they would have done though the idea of a God were never present to them - So, in fact, as to be as far as possible from the habit of glorifying the Lord with their soul and body and spirit, which are the Lord’s.

For the purpose of awakening this conviction, the thing wanted is both a more tender and a more lofty conception of the divine law. Where there is glaring deceit, or fell malignity, or abandoned licentiousness in the action - there may be less of difficulty in tracing it to the operation of such propensities, as in truth work those palpable deeds of disobedience, which obviously and undeniably have their fruit unto death. But when the actions are those of industry for example in a lawful calling, or of light-heartedness in a gay and harmless amusement, or of courteousness in a circle of decent and estimable companionship - Surely they are such actions as a Christian may perform; and in what circumstances, it may be asked, do they indicate the performer of them to be still in the flesh, and under the dominion of such appetites as bring forth fruit unto death? Whatever difficulty we may feel in answering this question, it can be replied to, and on a clear and intelligent principle too, by that law which is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. You are still in the flesh, if what you habitually do is not done unto God. However more amiable and more refined your species of worldliness may be than that of another, yet still, if you are not walking with God, you are walking after the flesh, and you move in a pictured world of atheism.

Such may be your dark and. obtuse apprehensions of the spiritual morality of the law - that the general drift of your affections being away from God and set upon earthly things, may not appear to the eye of your contemplation as being very deeply tinged with the hue and character of criminality. But by the law itself this is declared to be a state and habit of the soul, that is exceeding sinful; and all that is devised and all that is done under that dominant and unquelled spirit of secularity, which is the universal spirit of unrenewed and unregeneratcd nature, is done by those who are still in the flesh, and all the desires of whose heart bring forth fruit unto death. To quicken you from this state - to transfrom secularity into sacredness - to make those who are dead in trespasses and sins alive unto God - to usher you into other feelings and other principles, than those which unichristianised humanity ever can exemplify - This in fact is the great and ultimate design of the gospel, which, after translating you into another condition, also transforms you into another character.

Ver. 6. ‘That being dead wherein we were held’ might be rendered ‘having died in Him in whom we were held.’ The law has wreaked the whole force of its vindication on the head of our great sacrifice; and this is tantamount to our having borne the penalty ourselves; and so, by our death in Christ, being delivered from an infliction that has now gone by. The law has no further reckoning with us, on the old principle of do this and live. We are not now under what the apostle in another place calls the ministry of condemnation, or under the authority of what he in the same place calls the letter that killeth. The commandment no longer frowns upon us, from the place which it before occupied when written on tables of stone; but it is now felt in persuasive influence within us, because written now on the fleshy tablets of our heart. It no longer acts as a master, who drives his reluctant slaves into a forced compliance with his bidding; or keeps them in perpetual terror, under the consciousness of a displeasure which no act or strength of theirs can allay. It is now their hearts’ desire, instead of their constrained drudgery, to fulfil the requisitions of the law. The honest struggle in which they are embarked, is to make head against all that corruption of nature, which would incline them to disobedience; and now in the hands of an approving friend who deals out to them supplies of grace and strengtheneth for the warfare, they serve in newness of spirit and not in the oldness of the letter. So that whatever the change be, which takes place on this transition from nature to the gospel, it is not such a change as carries an exoneration from service along with it. It may be service in another spirit, and under a different stimulus from before; but still it is service.

There is nothing in the true faith of Christianity, which exempts its disciples from the active performances of virtue; or from the most assiduous cultivation of all moral; and of all spiritual excellence. So that there must in some way, be a misapprehension of the matter, when it is thought of the New Testament or of the system that is contained in it - as if it annulled every motive to righteousness; or substituted the contemplation and quiet of a mystic theology, in place of those moralities by which human life is adorned, and which send a powerful and practical impulse to the conduct of the busy walks of human society. It may be difficult on this subject, to reach the understanding of those who have not the experimental feeling of it; but still perhaps they may be able to apprehend, what the leading characteristics are of that service which is rendered in the oldness of the letter. Under this economy, heaven is held out to man as the reward of his obedience - an inheritance for which he must pay value: and that never will be his without the purchase-money of certain specified merits, and certain prescribed services. There is something in this state of matters that is powerfully calculated to set man agoing; and more particularly when he understands it to be the alternative, that, should he lose heaven, he will have his part through eternity among the unquenchable torments and ever during agonies of hell.

And so without any love to virtue in itself, but from the single principle of regard to his own safety - without any native hatred of sin, but from the terror of that awful and intolerable vengeance which he conceives to be attached to it - may he be set on a most laborious course of dutiful and diligent and painstaking obedience. Now only suppose him to have a just imagination of the law, of its high demands, and of his countless deficiencies therefrom; and do you not perceive, that, after all, they are the jealousies of trust, and the scrupulosities of fearfulness, and the mercenary feelings of a bargain, and the extorted homage of sordid and slavish devoteeship, and in a word the desires or the dreads of selfishness - that these form the main constituents of that old legal service, which it is the purpose of the gospel to supersede. But the most blasting circumstance of the whole is, that the primary influence by which this course of obedience has been originated, and by which it continues to be sustained - is not the love of rectitude at all, but of a something in the shape of reward that is distinct from rectitude; and not a spontaneous aversion of the heart to sin, but the recoil of animal or physical nature from that suffering which follows in the train of sin. There are no great moral characteristics, to stamp or to signalize the activities of such a service; and to view man plodding and drivelling in this career, is to view him the mere creature of his own personal interests, the degraded bondsman of his own fears.

From this view of what it is to serve God in the oldness of the letter, let us proceed to the view of what it is to serve Him in the newness of the spirit. Under this economy the door of heaven is thrown open to a sinful world; and the signals of invitation are hung out from all its portals; and, instead of being proposed as the unattainable reward of an obedience utterly beyond the power of humanity, it is held forth in the character of an accessible gift by God through Jesus Christ our Lord. But then it is not a heaven of sensuality: It is a heaven of sacredness. It is not a place for the recreation of animal nature: It is a place for the high recreation of the moral and spiritual faculties. It is described as the land of uprightness; and its main delight as lying in the play of holy affections, regaled by holy exercises. No man can purchase heaven by his virtue; yet no man can be happy in heaven without virtue - for virtue is the element of heaven; and without the preparation of a virtuous heart and a virtuous character, all the appropriate extacies of that pure and lofty region you would be incapable of sharing in. On this single change in the relation between virtue and heaven, do you pass from service in the oldness of the letter to service in the newness of the Spirit. Your virtue is not the price of heaven; for then all the jealousies of a bargain, and the freezing apprehensions of legality, would degrade it from a thing of spontaneous love to a thing of selfishness. But virtue is your indispensable preparation for heaven, to which you are freely beckoned in the gospel by all the tokens of welcome and goodwill; and the man who has this believingly in his eye, forthwith enters with a new-born alacrity and delight on the career of holiness. He loves it, not for any distinct or separate reward, but he loves it for itself; and gratitude to Him, who poured out His soul as an expiation for his sins, engages his affection to it the more; and the soul, disengaged from all anxieties about a debt which Christ hath extinguished and a condemnation which Christ hath done away, is now at leisure and at liberty for the prosecution of all moral excellence ; and the law, put into his heart by the Spirit of God, is now his heart-felt delight, instead of being as before his hopeless and unavailing drudgery.

He has become a new creature. The taste and the affection of holy angels have been given to him and we refer to you all - in comparing the service that is prompted by a love for the reward of the law, with the service that is prompted by a love to the righteousness of the law - which of the two presents you with virtue in its most generous style of exhibition, and which of them it is that forms the highest and the noblest offering. It might perhaps help to clear this matter, did we think that the great object of the economy under which we sit is to become like unto God. Now, it is not for reward that God is righteous but the love of righteousness for itself is the original property of His nature. Neither is it under the dread of punishment, that He shuns iniquity but it is because He hates iniquity. There is nought of legalism in the morality of the God-head ; but it is a morality which springs from the primitive and emanating fountains of His own character, and spreads out in free and spontaneous efflorescence over all His ways. It is not with a prospective regard to some future heaven, that is to be adjudged to Him from a tribunal which is loftier than Himself - it is not under an influence like this, that God is so observant of truth, and so strict in justice, and of such unwearied beneficence. These in fact have constituted His heaven from eternity; and it is just this spiritual heaven, the delight of which lies in its love and in its holiness - it is this. and no other, that awaits those who are here admitted to the number of his children through the faith which is in Christ, and have the family likeness. Then it is that you pass from the oldness of the letter to the newness of the Spirit - when, instead of toiling at the observations of virtue for a sordid reward distinct and separate from virtue itself, you are prompted to the observations of virtue by the spontaneous love which you bear to it. This alone is true moral excellence, purified of all that taint of selfishness by which it were otherwise defiled and vitiated; and it is only when transformed into this, that you are formed again after the image of God in righteousness and in true holiness.
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