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THE POWER AND EFFICACY OF CHRIST'S DOCTRINE.
For without me ye can do nothing. John xv. 5.
Our Lord in this context compares himself to a vine, and his followers to branches. Some think that these words were spoken upon occasion of things recorded in the other gospels, after eating the paschal supper, and Christ's instituting a memorial of himself, to be observed among his people where he speaks of " the fruit of the vine," Matt. xxvi. 29; Mark xiv. 25. Others think that our Lord was now retired with the disciples to the mount of Olives, which is said to have abounded with vines. Whether either of those conjectures be right or not, unquestionably the affecting discourses recorded here, and in the adjoining chapters, are such as our blessed Lord had with his disciples at the paschal supper, and after it, the night in which he was betrayed, and a little before he was taken from them. Those discourses had made deep and lasting impressions upon the minds of the apostles. We may suppose, that St. John had often repeated them in his public preaching, and in conversation, in the history he had given of his Lord and Master by word of mouth. And now that he was induced to publish a written gospel, in which he designed to insert some particulars omitted by the former evangelists, he determined to record those discourses somewhat at length; being persuaded that they would be of signal use to all that would seriously attend to them.
Ver. 1. "I am the true vine :" a right and generous vine. Or, as the phrase is in one of the prophets," a noble vine," Jer. ii. 21. In this gospel of St. John, our Lord, at several places, styles himself " the true light, the true bread, the good shepherd." He is all these by way of excellence. He is himself faithful: his words are most true and sure: and his doctrine is most excellent and powerful; suited to cherish the spiritual life, and to afford genuine fruits of righteousness and true holiness.
"And my Father is the husbandman :" or the proprietor, who cultivates it in the best
Ver. 2. "Every branch in me, that beareth not fruit, he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth," or pruneth" it, that it may bring forth more fruit." All who 'make a profession of faith in me, are disciples by name, and visible members of my church. 'But there are methods of Providence, that will shew who are true and sincere. In time of 'temptation, when any extraordinary offers of worldly good, or dangers of evil, are presented, 'some will fall away, whilst others will be purified and improved by the same events.'
Ver. 3. "Now ye are clean, through the word, which I have spoken unto you. • As it is 'meet for me to encourage, as well as to warn and admonish you; I readily own, that you have received my word, and have shewn a great regard to it. And it has had good effects upon you.'
Ver. 4." Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine: no more can ye, except ye abide in me.” And I recommend it to you, as 'what will answer the best purposes to retain your present esteem and affection for me, and regard 'to my words.'
Ver. 5. "I am the vine: ye are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit. For without me ye can do nothing." 'Let me inculcate this upon you under the similitude which I have mentioned. You will find the case to resemble that of a vine and its branches. If you are my disciples indeed, and throughout: if you always maintain your respect for me, and consider my words as true and divine, the rule of your conduct, and the ground and measure of your hopes, you will abound in the practice of all virtue, and will be steadfast and unmoved. But if you neglect me, and my words, you will 'not any longer bear that good fruit, but will be like a branch, cut off and separated from the
"Without me:" is the same as separated from me. In the margin of some of our bibles the phrase is rendered "severed from me." Which is the meaning of the expression: though the literal rendering may be," without me," or "out of me."
Ver. 6. "If a man abide not in me, he is cast out as a branch, and is withered: and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.” If you cast off your regard for me, and for the truth and simplicity of my doctrine, you will resemble a branch separated from the root, which soon withers, and becomes fit for nothing, but to be burned. So you, not bringing forth fruits of true holiness, or bearing nothing to perfection, will be worthless ⚫ and contemptible.' "Ye are the salt of the earth. But if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men," Matt. v. 13.
Which is agreeable to what is said in another gospel, under a different similitude.
"He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth fruit. For without me ye can do nothing."
The general meaning is: Whereas by a close adherence to me, and my words, you may 'excel in virtue, and persevere therein: if you should forsake me, or abate in your respect for 'me and my doctrine, you will do nothing considerable, and may become destitute of all 'true worth.'
I shall now endeavour further to illustrate this text in some propositions: and then add two or three remarks by way of application.
I. The propositions for illustrating the text are these.
Prop. 1. Our Lord does not here intend to say, that without the knowledge of him and his religion, no man can ever do any thing that is good, or right, or virtuous, and acceptable in the sight of God.
Indeed it is hard to think, that rational and intelligent beings should be destitute of all power to do that which is good. It is not reasonable to suppose, that God should form any intelligent beings destitute of such a power: or that he should suffer them to fall into such incapacity, whilst they are in a state of trial, and their everlasting interests are depending. And there are many things in scripture, either said occasionally, or on set purpose, from which we can conclude men to have this power.
Says St. Paul to the Romans: "For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law; these having not the law, are a law unto themselves. Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts: their conscience also bearing witness,
-either accusing, or else excusing them," Rom. ii. 14, 15. They discerned some things to be good and right, others wrong and evil. When they did the one, they were well satisfied with themselves: when the other, their conscience accused them of evil. That text seems manifestly to teach, that heathens had knowledge of things praise-worthy, and otherwise; and that they had power to choose the one, and decline the other.
It is true, the apostle says in the same epistle, that "all the world was become guilty before God," ch. iii. 19. The meaning of which appears to be, that there was a great degeneracy in the world, both amongst Jews and Gentiles: that there was great need of the gospel, to reclaim and reform men: and that there are none perfectly righteous, and free from all sin: wherefore all stand in need of the pardoning mercy of God. But he does not say, I apprehend, of every individual among Jews and Gentiles, who had not the knowledge of Christ and his gospel, that there were none sincerely good and virtuous none, who had that righteousness and integrity, which a good, and holy, and gracious, God will accept and reward.
There are in the gospels instances of persons, not within the pale of the Jewish church, who gave proofs of a good disposition, and were commended, and accepted by the Lord Jesus. In like manner, it is not impossible, but that still some, not acquainted with the Christian religion, may do what is good and virtuous?
A Roman centurion, quartered in one of the cities of Galilee, sent to Jesus, saying, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented," Matt. viii. 6. But when Jesus was coming toward him, recollecting that it had not been usual for Jews to converse with him, and persuaded of the great power of Christ, he sends him a second message, saying, Lord, I am not worthy, that thou shouldst come under my roof. Speak the word only, and
my servant shall be healed When Jesus heard it he marvelled, and said to them that followed, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel." The woman of Canaan is another remarkable instance. She cried, saying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David. He answered, I am not sent, but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel," Matt. xv. 22, 24. But at length her importunity was so great, and the truth of her faith was so manifest, that our Lord said to her: "O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt."
Cornelius, after our Lord's ascension, is another Gentile, without the limits of the Jewish church, who performed commendably. "There was," says St. Luke, "a certain man in Cæsarea, called Cornelius, a centurion of the band, called the Italian band: a devout man, and one that feared God, with all his house: who gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always," Acts x. 1, 2. An angel appeared to him about the ninth hour of the day, or three in the afternoon, when day-light is clear, who said unto him: "Cornelius, thy prayers and thy alms have come up for a memorial before God." This person, though still a Gentile, was approved of God. He was sincere and upright, according to the light which he had: and his prayers and alms were good works, which God accepted. And he is pitched upon to be the first Gentile, who, with his family, should have afforded to them the greater advantages of the knowledge of the gospel, or way of salvation through Jesus Christ, and be received into the Christian church, or among the disciples of Christ, without subjection to the law of Moses: which had been hitherto the way of admission into the Jewish church, the only people who were professed worshippers of God.
We might further argue from things said by our Lord to the Jews. "Jesus answered them: My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself," John vii. 16-18. Where our Lord speaks of men doing the will of God before they believe in him. And his intention is, that upright and honest men, who have an unfeigned regard to the will of God, so far as they are acquainted with it, and have an opportunity of knowing it, according to the dispensation they are under will be disposed to believe in him. They who at that time were free from prejudices would soon discern, that divine attestations were afforded to him: and would own, that the doctrine taught by him was true, and from heaven.
Prop. 2. I would observe, secondly, that our blessed Lord does not intend to say, that no men, not even his disciples, can do any good thing without immediate and effectual impulses and impressions from him: but the ability to do good, which he here speaks of, is to be understood as ascribed to his word and doctrine, or the principles taught by him: without a regard to which, he says, men would do nothing.
God may give special aids to men whenever he thinks fit: but they are not always necessary, nor always to be expected. And that our Lord rather speaks of his word and doctrine, than of himself personally considered, is evident from his manner of speaking in many places.
Our Lord in this context does several times speak of his disciples" abiding in him, and he in them," as necessary to their bearing fruit: but he chiefly intends a strict and steady regard to his word, and the influences of that upon their minds. This appears from many texts. Ver. 3."Now ye are clean through the word, which I have spoken unto you." Ver. 7. "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you." "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you." This latter expression explains the former: or it may be taken a little otherwise, as if he had said, If you continue to believe in me, and to pay a steady regard to my doctrine, you will be highly acceptable to God.'
Again: "I have manifested thy name unto the men, which thou gavest me out of the world—and they have kept thy word," John xvii. 6. "I have given them thy word. Sanctify them through thy truth. Thy word is truth," ver. 14, 17. In the word of God are contained those sanctifying, strengthening influences which are needful for us, and are so powerful and effectual.
To which we might add other texts from the same gospel.
Verily, I say unto you, he that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation: but is passed from death to life,' John v. 24. “Then said Jesus unto those Jews which believed on him: If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples," ch. viii. 31. In this chapter, where is the text, he speaks of
abiding in him." There it is, "if ye continue," or abide," in my word." They are both one and the same, as is manifest: and may also appear further by comparing a place in St. John's first epistle: "But whoso keepeth his word, in him, verily, is the love of God perfected. Hereby know we, that we are in him," 1 John ii. 5.
Our Lord having spoken of himself as the living bread that came down from heaven, says, "He that eateth me, shall live by me," John vi. 51. But afterwards, for preventing offence, and making himself clear, he explains the meaning of those expressions. "When Jesus knew in himself, that his disciples murmured at it, he saith unto them, the flesh profiteth nothing. The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life,” ver. 61, 63.
This shews, that when our Lord speaks of himself, he often means the word taught by him." And we need not suppose him to say, that no man can do any good thing, without immediate impulses from him. Nor have we reason to think that this is the ordinary way of inducing men to that which is good, or that such impulses are always necessary.
That men may be good and virtuous, it must be their own choice. So far as men are passive, and are acted upon, they are not agents.
Without power to do good or evil, men cannot be moral and accountable beings, and be brought into judgment, or receive according to their works.
If you should say, that men cannot improve the outward advantages afforded to them, nor hearken to the divine calls, nor act according to the light vouchsafed to them, you would justify them, and lay the blame of their wrong conduct upon God himself.
God, in the prophets, laments the refractory temper of the Jewish people, and reproves them for it: "Now because ye have done all these works, saith the Lord: and I spake unto you, rising up early, and ye heard not: and I called, but ye answered not, therefore I will do unto this house, which is called by my name, as I have done unto Shiloh," Jer. v. 13, 14; see also ver. 25, 26.
But if they had no ability to do good, they might have said, We would have answered thee, when thou calledst, and would have obeyed thy statutes: but we had no power of our own, and thou didst not work effectually in us, and upon us.'
But that is a vindication which no man can bring to God. For our Lord says to the Jews: "Ye will not come unto me, that ye might have life," John. v. 40. And lamenting the sad case of the city of Jerusalem, he says, "How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings? and ye would not!" Matt. xxiii. 37.
And in this fifteenth chapter of St. John: « If I had not come, and spoken unto them, they had not had sin, but now they have no cloak" or excuse "for their sin." And afterwards: "If I had not come, and done among them the works that no other man did, they had not had sin,' John xv. 22, 24; that is, no sin in comparison of what they now have; which shews, that men may improve by advantages: and therefore where much is given, there much may be reasonably required.
All which things are so clear, and do so manifestly depend upon the supposition of men having a natural power in them to do good or evil, that it may be wondered it should be questioned: and to contest and deny it, seems to be contrary to all sense and reason: and to overthrow al! notion of duty and obligation.
Against so clear texts as have been now produced, and against such cogent arguments, it must be in vain to allege texts, which, probably, in their true meaning, do not at all contradict these things.
Our Lord says: No man can come unto me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him," John vi. 44. But those words do not import immediate impulses: the meaning is, no 'man will come to me and receive my pure, sublime, and spiritual doctrine, unless he have first gained some just apprehensions concerning the general principles of religion. And if a 'man have some good notion of God, and his perfections, and his will, as already revealed, he ' will come unto me.' If any man be well disposed, if he have a love of truth, and a desire to advance in virtue and religious knowledge, he will readily hearken to me and believe in me.
That this is the meaning, may with high degrees of probability be concluded from other texts, in which our Lord tells the Jews: "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the a." I can do all these things through Christ who strengtheneth me," [Phil. iv. 13.] that is, through the directions of Christ, and through the arguments and motives of the Christian doctrine. Dr. Jer. Hunt's Sermons, Vol. III. p. 188.
doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself," John vii. 17. And, "Had believed Moses, ye would have believed me,' ver. 46, and from many other texts to the like purpose. It is also evident from the words next following those which we are considering. "It is written in the prophets: And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father cometh unto me," John vi. 45; which is saying, in other words, what was just observed by us: that if any man by serious consideration, and particularly by attending to former revelations, has gained just apprehensions of God, he will come unto me, and submit himself to be my disciple, to be farther instructed by me.
Would any say, that the necessity of immediate and particular influences from Christ himself is implied in this context: where he says, that "he is a vine," and his disciples "branches," and that their bearing fruit depends as much upon influences from him, as the life and vigour of branches depend upon the sap derived from the root of a tree? It would be easy to answer, that the argument in the text is a similitude, not literal truth. Neither is Christ, literally, a vine: nor are his disciples, strictly speaking, branches. Men have a reasonable, intellectual nature, above animals and vegetables. They are not governed by irresistible, and necessary, or mechanical powers. But it is sound doctrine, and right principles, particularly the words of Christ, which are the words of God, that are their life, and may, and will, if attended to, powerfully enable them to practise good works, and to excel, and persevere therein. Which brings me to the third and last observation for illustrating this text and context.
Prop. 3. They who understand, and have a strict regard to the true doctrine of Christ, the principles of the gospel, will be able to practise good works, and abound therein, and be steady under difficulties: whereas, if they should disregard it, or corrupt it, they would perform nothing considerable and excellent.
I think this must be allowed to be the design of this context; and I need not enlarge much farther.
Every considerate person may perceive, that the gospel, as it teaches and inculcates universal holiness and virtue; sobriety, righteousness, and godliness; so it sets before men the strongest arguments, or affords the best helps for attaining real excellence. True religion and virtue are taught by Jesus Christ in all their sublimity and perfection: the worship of God in spirit and truth: doing good from a principle of love to God, a desire of his favour, and hopes of rewards from him, without views to worldly honours and advantages: resignation to the disposals of Providence: maintaining the truth in all circumstances: of which virtues the Lord Jesus himself was a conspicuous and perfect example: who also, after he had died in testimony to the truths taught by him, was raised from the dead, and exalted to glory. And all who follow him sincerely are to be made perfect and happy, like him, and to be for ever with him.
They who attend to this must be disposed to do somewhat considerable. And, if they should meet with temptations, they will be able to surmount them.
Accordingly, the apostles of Jesus, who did abide in him," and retained his words, did bear much, and good fruit. Their conduct was excellent and exemplary: and they could endure shame and all manner of sufferings for his name's sake, and in hope of partaking in the recompenses of his heavenly kingdom.
Under what discouragements Peter with the eleven first preached the gospel at Jerusalem, and under what discouragements it was professed by their first converts, and by many others afterwards, the history in the Acts, and other things in the epistles of the apostles, plainly shew. And the power and efficacy of the divine word are attested to by every part of scripture. Says holy David: "Wherewith shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto, according to thy word," Ps. cxix. 9. And, "Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee," ver. 11. ;
The word of God is represented as the great mean of forming, and of cherishing and im proving good dispositions. The Christians, to whom St. Peter writes, "had purified themselves in obeying the truth" And had been "born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible," even "by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever," 1 Pet. i. 22, 23. And he exhorts them, "as new-born babes, to desire the sincere milk of the word, that they may grow, thereby," ch. ii. 2. And St. James: "Receive with meekness the ingrafted word, which is able to save your souls," James i. 21.
What St. Paul says at Miletus to the elders of Ephesus, is very observable: "Wherefore I