You know that thing that happens when you read something and think it has beautifully captured a thought you’d vaguely had but could never have expressed like that, and then, on closer reading, it turns out to be saying something a bit different?
The vague thought, clumsily expressed: that faith has to rely on rock solid truths, and these truths do not include (a) the conclusions you’ve come to after attempting to interpret what particular providences mean, or (b) the marks of grace you may be able to identify internal to yourself. So, when things get confusing and disappointing, the answer is not (necessarily, or not ultimately) to struggle for greater understanding on the providential front or less failure on the personal front. The rock solid truths are things like the faithful saying that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, or the fact that God is good and does good even when it isn’t particularly enjoyable, or the fact that Christ is making continual intercession for his people, even when they are a bit rubbish. Your soul could be a barren wasteland as far as spiritual exercise goes, and in providence security and creature comforts could be crumbling all around you, but faith and hope were never meant to terminate on yourself or your providences anyway – they can only cling to the absolute certainties about the person and work of the Saviour.
What I momentarily thought was a better way of expressing all of this was another section from that book of Hugh Martin’s sermons I quoted the other day. He talks about crosses, difficulties, illness, sin, and all the other things that make it seem nonsensical for beleaguered believers to claim the status of sons and daughters of the Almighty. Asaph was perplexed by the relative lack of prosperity of the godly – Paul complained of a sense of wretchedness – how can problems like these be compatible with the “bold and firm assertion” of 1 John 3, that we are now the sons of God? So the sermon discusses at length the “candid acknowledgement” that it is not yet apparent what we shall be. “If they say that, granting we are the sons of God, we do not look like it, … frankly we admit the difficulty!”
The section itself is as follows, but as a second glance showed, it is mainly targeted against the view that God is a father to everyone in the same way, a view that was becoming popular at the time as the doctrine of God’s ‘universal fatherhood’ (on which see ideally John Kennedy’s 1869 treatise ‘Man’s Relations to God’). The bits that jumped out at me were the recognition that we need to get beyond “this sphere of dark and complicated providence,” in the search for comfort in the face of “sense, shame, and sorrow, … conflict and the cross”, and the mention of “propitiation,” which at first glance I took to be synonymous with the title of the volume, Christ For Us, and the be all and end all as far as sources of comfort and encouragement in the Christian life goes. Except that in this context, it’s more a question of “for me” personally and particularly in my own individual circumstances, than “for us” in the sense of a more general confession of what is true for the Lord’s people en masse. Which is just another way of saying that even if a believer is perfectly safe without the conscious sense of being personally justified and adopted, maximum comfort can’t be had without it.
“Be very sure that it is on the peculiar love of God, his special call, and personal fellowship with the Son that you must rest your sonship, if you would distance its security and truth from this conflict with sense, shame, and sorrow, while the glory, the victory, and the joy are not yet apparent. Vainly will you try to defend your sonship against shame and sorrow, conflict and the cross, merely on the basis of the fatherly benignity of God the Creator which is in no sense peculiar but embraces all alike. Whatever may be traced to this beneficience is visible in precisely the same earthly sphere of the world’s history in which all the pains and griefs of your earthly state reside. These pains and griefs, therefore, meeting with the general benignity of God in the self-same realm and sphere, limit its obviousness and effectiveness, and cloud with real difficulties that general Fatherhood of God. If you only rest on such paternal love, taking no hold on the special sovereign love of God in Christ Jesus, the propitiation for your sins, making no account of God’s special call, addressed personally to you, summoning you to special sonship, and not asserting by faith a special union and communion with the Eternal Son, – then you do not rise from this sphere of dark and complicated providence at all into the higher and unclouded sphere and kingdom of the Son of his love into which no counteracting doubt can come. Alas! you are helpless in the grasp of the trials and humiliations of time, and conscious, craven weakness will choke your utterance if you attempt the bold and glorious protestation, ‘Now are we the sons of God.'”