The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.
Members of the Stone-Campbell Movement are often accused, now and in times past, of gross overconfidence both with regard to humanity’s ability to know facts about God and our role in our own salvation. There is a degree to which both these accusations have merit, and J. W. McGarvey often does as much to confirm them as to refute them. In a pair of sermons preached on redemption and forgiveness, however, he goes a long way toward reaffirming not only the limits of human knowledge but the limits our redemptive powers. In the process he carves out a place in restorationist thought for both human ignorance and divine agency. Consider this abbreviation of his first sermon, “Redemption in Christ” where the dual theme shows through clearly:
As sins are acts performed in the past, they can not be undone. A man may as well attempt to snatch the sun out of the sky, as to undo a single act, good or bad, that he has ever done. And, inasmuch as suffering is the inevitable consequence of sin, it is a most serious question how it is possible for men ever to escape the penalty due to their sins. I presume that this is the most serious problem ever considered by the minds of created beings, and perhaps by the mind of God, if God stops to consider any question.
Men commit crimes against human law, and escape the punishment by outrunning the sheriff, by bribing the jury, by breaking jail; by a great variety of corrupt methods which they employ. But there is no similar way of escaping the penalties that are assessed against our sins by God. We can not run away from Him. A part of that penalty is within our souls, and we can not run away from ourselves. We can not deceive anybody in this matter, because the eye of Him against whom we have sinned searches us through and through. Death is a very swift messenger when he starts after us, and when God calls on the Great Day we shall all appear before Him in judgment. How then can we escape that eternal penalty for our sins, which was the subject of the two discourses last Lord’s day…
What is, then, the explanation? Well, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t believe any other man knows what the reasoning of God was on this subject, by which he felt compelled, according to His own infinite nature, to refuse to pardon a single sin except through the blood of His Son. I don’t know. I don’t know how many sermons I have heard, trying to explain it. I don’t know how many pages–heavy pages–in many books, I have read, from some of the ablest men in the world, trying to set it forth; but I have never yet been able to see it; and if any of you have, I congratulate you.
God’s thoughts are not as our thoughts on many things. His ways are far above our ways, as heaven above the earth, and we may not expect to understand the reasons in His mind for the wondrous works of His prudence and mercy. I think, on all such themes, we are prone to look at the subject from the wrong point of view. We try to get at God’s ideas about it. It is enough for us to see the part which addresses itself to man. There are multitudes of things that God does in nature, and in the providence that He exercises over the world, the divine reasons for which it is utterly impossible for any human mind to penetrate; but it is not difficult, generally, when we look at these same inscrutable workings and ways of providence, to see their effects, and to know by their effects that there is wisdom and prudence, as the apostle says in my text, behind them all.
Note that when it comes to our own means of redemption, McGarvey is not so much confident in human nature as he is confident that we can neither understand nor accomplish on our own the great plan of redemption which has been worked out mysteriously by God. He summarizes in his following sermon: “He it is who forgives. He it is who blots the record out of the book that He keeps. He it is that throws [our sins] away. It is He who will remember them no more forever.” Human efforts to escape the consequences of sin are themselves as sinful as they are futile. It is in the hands of God alone to redeem his people and forgive their sins; it is for us to be the delighted, unworthy recipients of that gift, for which we will never understand in this life fully divine means or motivations.
Now, so as to avoid the accusation that I am remaking McGarvey in my own image, it is important to recognize that his appeals to human ignorance are incomplete, and he gradually moves from his own profession of ignorance into declarations of confidence in the Christian’s ability to fully grasp the promises of God, thus allowing each to be assured of forgiveness. Moreover, he offers such a confident view of humanity’s cooperative role in their redemption that he all but does away with any divine role in the process of sanctification. Yet, both of these impulses need to be understood historically as reactionary statements, rhetorical flourishes against the “very doleful life…that low ground of doubt, and gloom, and hopelessness” that is Reformed thought on conversion. Whatever his anti-Calvinist polemics, he still supposes that “Paul was no more able to look in and see how God’s mind worked out the problem, than you or I” and begs Christians to “to come and cast yourselves into the deep flood of the Saviour’s dying love.”
Neither his endorsement of human ignorance nor his confidence in the ability to interpret and understand divine promises, neither his appeal to divine agency nor his exhortation for Christians to take hold of their own salvation are ends in themselves. They are all impulses toward a common theme to him which is foundational for his soteriology: the trustworthiness of God. This theme finds its culmination in the latter sermon “Faith,” in which McGarvey tries to define the causes and consequences of our “confidence as to things hoped for; conviction as to things not seen.” He launches from this scriptural definition into an examination of the so-called Heroes of Faith and discovers therein a common thread. Faith in God comes “not by reasoning about it; not by dreaming; not in answer to prayer” but through divine self-revelation. It is on these grounds alone that Christians can be confident in their faith. In fact, he scoffs at the idea that we would need any assurance beyond God’s own testimony of the objects of faith. “Why, my friends, if God’s word will not do it, what power is there in heaven or earth that you can conceive of, that could?”
The readers (as I’m sure was the case with the listeners in 1893) leaves with a confidence that no matter what they can or cannot do, no matter they can or cannot know, they can trust the steadfast promises of God. McGarvey reminds his readers that when they put money in a bank, they trust, on the basis of the character of the bank, that the money will still be there when they come back. When they make a contract with a person, they trust it will be honored based on the character of the signatories. How much more is a supremely trustworthy God worthy of our trust? So when McGarvey asks how we can know that we are redeemed, how we can be confident in our salvation, he has his set up his answer well:
Now there is a way, and it is this–God has said, over and over again in his blessed written word, in the plainest possible language, what you and I shall do in order to forgiveness of our sins; what we shall think; what we shall feel; what we shall believe; what we shall do; and He pledges His own blessed word that when we do these He will forgive us. When a man knows these things, and complies with them to the very last point, he has God’s pledged word that his sins are forgiven–the word of Him who can not lie. Here is something solid to build on, the pledged word of the living God. This makes it certain.
We can certainly quibble with the language here, about complying with everything “to the very last point,” but in doing so we miss the message. When we rely on our feelings, on a vague sense of forgiveness, to assure us that our sins are remitted we make the same gross error as those who believe they are forgiven because they have reasoned what they need to do in order to get God to do what they want Him to do, balancing a rationalistic salvation ledger as it were. In either case, assurance is located in the sinner, in the heart or in the mind. Insofar as both are susceptible to error and doubt, Christians set themselves up for failure. We can have confidence in our forgiveness and redemption not because we feel it or have reasoned it out but because God is faithful; He has told us that forgiveness is there and that, if we seek, we will find. Whatever else may be said, that is an optimism with a sure foundation.