the three objects of faith

According to John Colquhoun (1748-1827):

John ColquhounThe objects which the eager hand of faith grasps and receives are strictly speaking three – a word, a person, and a thing; or a verbal object, a personal object, and a real object. The word brings the person near to us, and the person brings the thing near.

These three should, in our exercise of faith, be distinguished, but never divided. The man who has one of them possesses all; and he who has not all possesses none. Christ Jesus, the glorious person, with God in him, is, as an object of faith, between the word and the thing, and it is he alone who gives importance and value to both. The former is the Word of God, and the latter the righteousness of God.

We therefore may with full assurance of faith rely on both, and be as firmly persuaded that they can never fail us as that he is the only begotten Son of God, and God equal with the Father.

A View of Saving Faith, p98.


the ethical context of knowing

It isn’t possible to really know the truths of the gospel without it having a thoroughly life changing impact. If you know the truth without it making any particular difference in your day to day life, then you don’t really know it at all.

Obviously there are plenty people who are familiar with what the Bible teaches and even accept that it’s true. They know that they’re sinners and Jesus is the Saviour and they have no hope for eternity without him. But somehow it doesn’t translate into them putting their knowledge into practice and actually believing in Jesus for salvation. To all intents and purposes, they might as well not have the information at all. Because, if you know these things, why aren’t you acting like it?

The reason is that the knowledge that we hold in our heads doesn’t just sit there in a space purely reserved for facts and propositions, abstracted neatly from our likes and dislikes and experiences and inclinations. What shapes our knowledge, and especially how we act on our knowledge, is fundamentally the kind of person we are. For human beings, and fallen human beings, there are only two possibilities – either the kind of person who is simply fallen, or the kind of person who is fallen yet renewed.

To fallen humanity, nothing is more antithetical than God. Accepting that God is true is the last thing we want to do. We will generously concede some points when we have to, but only on our own terms, when it suits us to live with the consequences. What we can’t outright deny we ignore, and what we can’t forget we suppress. Our own sinfulness blinds our minds to the glaringly obvious realities that confront us in creation, providence, and scripture. Our own fallenness is the snarling gatekeeper for all the truths we’re prepared to accept in our minds and any truths we’ll ever act on in our lives.

It’s only that subset of fallen humanity who are renewed who are ever pleased with God and happy to hear what he has to say. The only kind of heart that gladly embraces the truth is a new heart. The Word gets a warm reception and is put into loving practice only when it’s sown in an honest and good heart, the kind that doesn’t come naturally.

This is what makes the difference between knowing you’re a sinner, and knowing you’re a sinner. In the unrenewed, this knowledge is denied, ignored, or suppressed. In the renewed, this knowledge is accepted, consented to, and motivates repentance towards God. The unrenewed know that Jesus is God’s appointed Saviour, and they reject him anyway. The renewed know that Jesus is the Saviour, and they love him and trust him accordingly.

It’s the state of our own hearts and minds – whether we hold our knowledge in the ethical environment of an unrenewed or a renewed heart and mind – the context of a heart and mind at peace with God or still enmity against him – that determines our relationship and reaction to the truths we’re acquainted with. The fallen person’s mind encounters the truth and resists it as far as they dare because of their own fallenness. The renewed person’s mind welcomes the truth and lives in harmony with it as far as they can, because of their renewedness.

The only way out of the trap set by our own nature is divine and gracious. We can’t renew ourselves. Attempting to know contrary to our own nature is as hopeless as trying to jump off our own shadow – trying to persuade ourselves of truths we’re fundamentally averse to, trying to empower ourselves to live as though we believed what we relentlessly reject, or trying to pretend to ignore the gross conflict between living life knowing that Jesus is the only Saviour and still refusing to be saved by him.

We simply cannot get beyond the constraints of our own nature. God has to rescue us from ourselves, if we’re to be rescued at all. Although we prefer to think hard thoughts about him, it is actually true that if any of us lacks wisdom we can ask it of him, as he gives it liberally to all sorts of people, and doesn’t reproach us over it.

Our minds are too dark for us to deal with, even supposing we wanted to come to the light, but not so dark that his Spirit can’t shine in. It’s a key part of his work to enlighten our minds in the knowledge of Christ in such a way that we’re persuaded and enabled to receive and rest on him as he is revealed in the gospel. Poor preachers have the task of preaching the truth to people whose minds and hearts are hardened, sermon-proof strongholds of resistance, but the situation is not hopeless while the light of God’s Word is shining out, and while the Holy Spirit is authorised and equipped to take of the things of Jesus and reveal them savingly to us.

the turning point of history

For thousands of years of the world’s history, God’s people lived and walked in a state of expectation. They knew that the Saviour was coming, so the bulk of their religion consisted of waiting, and looking forward to the time when this promise would be fulfilled.

When the Son of God did come in our nature, obviously not everyone, even of his own people, recognised him for who he was. But there were still some in Jerusalem who were looking for redemption, and when they saw him, they actually saw his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. When they realised that their eyes were seeing the Lord’s salvation, they rejoiced and blessed God and felt such a sense of peace. ‘We have found the Messiah!’ The Lord had demonstrated himself to be true to his word, the promised Saviour had come, and the Lamb of God was even now in the process of bearing away the sin of the world.

Some years back, I heard a group of ministers discussing the incarnation and the cross. The main thing, they said, or something along these lines, was to adore Christ crucified. The glory of the incarnation is not so great as the glory of the cross, and the real mark of grace is to see the glory of the Saviour in the light of Isaiah 53, and to understand the cross as the wisdom and power of God.

This is of course true. No doubt there is and has been a sentimental tendency to talk up the grace of the Son in becoming man and joining us in our difficult and depressing circumstances – all fluffy complacency about the sympathy and empathy we feel we need in our state of misery, and little concern about the salvation we really need from our state of sin. It is completely wrong of this kind of sentimentalism to try to avoid mentioning uncomfortable things like sin-bearing and propitiation and expiation, Jesus setting his face like a flint to go up to Jerusalem to lay down his life a sin-atoning sacrifice, for love of his holy Father and love of righteousness and love of his sinful, unlovely people. Nobody is more caring than the Lord Jesus, but first he deals with the guilt and pollution of our sin, and that means the cross.

But I think and hope that it can still be a mark of grace to wonder and worship on account of the incarnation. The thought that he came to die on the cross still includes the thought that he came. When the Son of God became the son of man, it was truly the turning point in human history – the triumphant fulfilment of what the Lord had been speaking by his prophets for centuries, the point when the fullness of the time had come, and it brought unheard of glory to God in the highest. The fact that Christ, being the Son of God, became man, was unprecedented humiliation. It was not the deepest part of his humiliation, but it was the first part. This person who was God, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being and all his other attributes, became man – finite, needing to be sustained in life, undergoing growth and development, prone to suffering and sorrow. It is a mystery. And there is such grace to be seen in it: not just the vast distance between how rich he was and how poor he became, but the fact that it was for sinners – sinners, who by definition didn’t deserve it, and whose sin made them utterly hostile to receiving it – and for them, in their place and on their behalf. He had to do all the work for them, and it was a hard work. He who knew no sin was made sin for them, so that they, who knew no righteousness, might be made the righteousness of God in him, even though they didn’t know or care that they needed him, appreciated nothing of what he had to suffer and do for them, had nothing holy or good or attractive about them, and would have carried on perpetually in their enmity against him if he hadn’t made the provision for that as well.

Of course, the fullest scope for adoration of the Lord, in terms of satisfaction with his word coming true, wonder at the mystery, or worship for his grace, is at the cross. It’s the Lamb that was slain who is worthy to all eternity to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and blessing. But that’s not to the exclusion of worshipping him for everything else that he is and does and did and suffered. It is still fitting to sing glory to God in the highest for the day the Saviour was born, even while there is yet more to praise him for over and above that. It is a faithful saying, worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came.

names to remember

A note of something I read ages ago, that I found while looking for something else.

“You are not called at first to believe your interest in Christ, and his will to save you in particular – but you are, on the peril of your souls, to trust this Saviour with your salvation; and the rather, because of his declared ability and goodwill to save.
Saving faith in Christ is not a bare assent to any proposition of truth concerning Christ the Saviour, for that is but an act of the mind, and it is in devils, and in many ungodly men – but it is an act of the heart on the person of the Saviour. Men believe with the heart unto righteousness.
It is a trust on this divine person, as revealed to us by his names in the gospel. So faith is called so often ‘believing on his name,’ John 1:12, 1 John 3:23.
There is one name of Christ, Isaiah 63:1, ‘I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save,’ where we have a taking [attractive] description of the object of faith. All he speaks is true, and you may trust him, and take his word. And he can do all, any thing, every thing, in and about salvation, that a sinner can need to be done. Never did a sinner perish through Christ’s want of might to save.
Remember these two names of Christ in all your employing of him about your salvation. The truth of his saving word, and the might of his saving arm, ought never to be out of the eye of faith. How strong would faith grow in us if our faith did duly fix on both?”

– From Traill’s sermons on the Lord’s prayer, sermon VII.