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Written by James Oliphant/Silas Durand   


Dear Brother Durand: In your article in the Signs of the Times of January 15th you quote the words, “To will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good, I find not;” also, “Ye can not do the things that ye would.” If you quote these words to prove that God’s people can not do good works, you contradict many texts that speak of their doing good works, as, “Let ours also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses;” “Ye are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works.” Many texts speak of God’s people as doing good works. Or perhaps you quote them to show that man’s obedience is independent of the will, which I understand to be your position. But if this is your design, then you set aside the very idea of obedience, as no such thing as obedience or obedience could exist independent of the will. You object to the word “invite,” because it suggests some dependency on the will. You may well object to the words “obedience,” “duty,” “faithfulness,” etc. You speak of God leading people, and the word “lead” or “leading” would be rejected on the same principle.

Paul, in the words you quote, is speaking of the complex nature of the Christian. This warfare should not be so explained as to excuse the Christian for his sins. Paul said Peter was to be blamed; and this is the experience of the Christian. This warfare should not be so explained as to set aside the moral nature of man. Man is a moral being, and God’s government of man is a moral government, and these texts should be explained in harmony with this truth; and, when so explained, they are a beautiful description of the experience of the people of God. You say, “The sun by his presence makes the day; by his absence he maketh darkness and it is night,” and refer to Ps., civ, 20. You represent the sun as being the cause of night as well as day, and I suppose you design by this to infer that God has the same connection with sin that he has with holiness. John declares that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If there is no darkness (the emblem of sin) in God, no sin could emanate from him; and the most serious objection I can have to your views, is, the failure to make a clear distinction between God’s relation to sin, on one hand, and his relation to holiness, on the other. You say, as quoted above, “the sun makes the day, and he maketh darkness.” But this gives a wrong impression. The psalmist does not attribute darkness to the sun, His words are, “Thou makest darkness and it night.” The sun remains the same all the time---an unvarying source of light---and the earth in its daily revolution turns a way from that light, and so, logically speaking, it is the earth that makes the darkness. If we study the attributes and nature of the sun, we are prepared to say that the gloom of midnight is not of the sun. And so, Christian experience, with one mind, traces sin and iniquity to some other source than God. God made “the greater light,” the sun, to rule the day and to DIVIDE the light from the darkness, and God saw that it was good.

When Paul said, “By the grace of God I am what I am,” he would show that his hope and spirituality were alone of God’s grace: but nowhere and under no circumstances does he trace his sins to the Lord; and he would not endorse the idea that the sun in nature, or that God in the kingdom of grace, was the cause of darkness. In your writing you do not make the distinction in this that meets my experience and my understanding of the Bible. For instance, you say,  “Would anyone dare to say that David’s terrible sin, and Jonah’s refusal to obey, and Peter’s denial of his Lord were contrary to God’s purpose and will?” I suppose you mean by this that they did his will, and also that every wicked man does God’s will. If the vilest of men do God’s will as truly as the most faithful men, where is the difference between right and wrong? I think you ought to distinguish between the sense in which evil men do the will of God and that in which his people do his will. Perhaps, in some explained sense, Nebuchadnezzar did the will of God in punishing his rebellious people, but did not in the sense intended by our Savior’s words, (Matt., vii, 21. ) “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father, which is in heaven;” and also Rom., xii, 2, “That ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” Surely, you would not say that Jonah, David and Peter in their sins were obeying Paul’s admonition here given; and if not, why should you not take some pains to distinguish in this particular? The London Confession holds that the purposes of God extend to all events, but it is careful to distinguish between the relation they sustain to sin upon one hand and holiness on the other.

No brother that I know of believes for a moment that chance and uncertainty rule even in sinful events, yet we can not accept any theory or explanation that fails to make a clear distinction in the purposes of God toward right and wrong. We can not believe that sinful things receive the same recognition, the same endorsement, or minister to God’s pleasure equally with that which is holy and good. We must reject the theory and the teaching that wicked men do the will of God as the obedient saint does. Jesus says, “My meat is to do the will of my Father;” John, iv, 4. Paul says, “After ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promises.” Jesus also declares, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine;” John vii, 17. Your position seems to be that everyone, even the vilest men, do his will. Can you say, they shall know of the doctrine? This position places the Savior and every faithful servant of God, with Jonah, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus and Judas as doing equally the will of God. Such a course confuses the mind and detracts from the virtue of obedience. Without this distinction we place ourselves against the lessons of experience. We read in Heb., xiii, 21, 22. “The God of peace * * * make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight.” The Lord connects his approbation with the doing of his will, as in Prov., xvi, 7, “When a man’s ways please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” Now, if every man does the will of God, how can the ways of any man be displeasing to him? You would refuse the terms “free will” and “free moral agency” because they have been so long used with an unscriptural meaning, and say, “The Bible terms will do for us;” but you do not apply this rule to the expression, “The absolute predestination of all things,” and which seem to the most of our brethren to teach a very objectionable sentiment. I still complain of your position because it strips man of all WILL, or CHOICE, in his conduct as truly as if he were a tree or a stone. In your reply you say, “That is true,” admitting that men are as destitute of will in their actions as a tree, because the prophet uses the figure, “Trees of righteousness”, and you accept the comparison of a Christian to a stone without any will, because Peter speaks of them as “lively stones.” This, it seems to me, is begging the question, for both stones and trees have various qualities, and the inspired writers do not mean that God’s people are as stones in every respect, for that would leave them, as your argument seems to do, trees and stones sure enough. Stones are firm and durable, and they may be hewn and polished for the building---in which sense, no doubt, Peter used it. But a stone can not love; it can not obey or praise God; it can not say, “Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul.” When you divest man of all choice or will in his conduct, and put him on the level of a tree or a stone, you clearly deny that God exercises moral government over him, and he becomes as inert as the idol that must be carried about. The figure on the chessboard exercises no choice as to its movement or the space it occupies, and merits neither praise nor blame as to the result of the game. But not so with the believer. Paul says, “Therefore as ye abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge, and in all diligence, and in your love to us, see that ye abound in this grace also.” Speaking of their sorrow and repentance, caused by his exhortation, he says, “What carefulness is wrought in you; yea, what clearing of yourselves; yea, what indignation; yea, what vehement desire; yea, what zeal,” etc. Paul does not say that God will make his children perfect, as you quote, but he earnestly invokes God TO DO SO! I must kindly protest against your dropping the words, “In every good work,” from Paul’s words. It would be unimportant had you not dared anyone to say that the sins of David and Jonah and Peter were contrary to God’s will! Paul petitioned, or desired that God would “Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight.” But you would have us understand that God’s will is as effectually wrought in their disobedience as in their obedience, and that “From him is their fruit found.” Did the Lord say this of Ephraim when he had provoked the Lord to bitter anger by his idolatry, and when he fell by his iniquity? It was not when Ephraim offended in Baal, but when he spoke tremblingly, saying, “What have I to do any more with idols?”
Paul not only prays God to perfect his brethren, but also exhorts and beseeches them, sometimes with tears and anguish of heart, to a righteous course; to take earnest heed to themselves; to quench not the Spirit; to grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby they are sealed unto the day of redemption. He speaks of doing despite to the Spirit of grace, and of sinning willfully after we have received a knowledge of the truth. If we are as destitute of choice, or will, or incapable of any intelligent activity as a stone or a tree, how can we do any of these things or be benefited by exhortation? Inanimate objects, like a stone or a tree, can make no response, for they are not moral beings; but men are, and choice is one of the essentials of that state. If men are not moral beings, there would be no moral government: and as such terms as “right” and “wrong” belong only to moral government, I see no reason, your theory being true, why these works might not have been left out of all language.

It is a cardinal doctrine of Primitive Baptists that regeneration is independent of the will of man, but you are the first brother I have known to frankly admit that the Lord’s people are stripped of this will as fully as the tree in bearing fruit. You say, “That is true,” and that they are trees of righteousness. You quote from scriptures widely separated and connect them with comments that do not make the meaning clear: For instance, where it says in Isa., lxi, 3. “That they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.” This beautiful language, no doubt, portrays the conquest of the gospel in proclaiming liberty to the captives, and not to the fruit they shall bear; though in that also God is glorified, but when we turn to John we find Jesus saying, the Father is glorified in the fruit they bear: we find he also says that every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it that it may bring forth more fruit: evidently meaning that he prepares it by trial or discipline, or in some way, that it may bring forth more fruit. And he tells them in this same sweet discourse, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love.” And he continues to fill heart and soul with promises good: “Ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you;” and for this fidelity to him they should have the honor of being hated by a graceless world. Surely these blest disciples had within them something responsive to his teaching, something to catch the meaning of what he said and consider its import. If not, they were but stony-ground hearers, and there would be no fruit to glorify the Savior. Not for a moment would I say that the branch can bear fruit of itself, nor the believer, except he abide in Jesus; but it is mutual. “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you;” and, as he told the believing Jews in the temple, “If ye continue in my words, then are ye my disciples indeed.” When Jesus says, “If any man serve me, him will my Father honor,” and when Paul says that God will render “to every man that worketh good, glory and honor and peace,” are we not taught that those who have received the renewing of the. Holy Ghost have all intelligent comprehension of what is taught? No such language is ever addressed to an unthinking tree, that it may bear fruit. So the difference between a tree and a believer is very great. You refuse the word “invite” in the gospel, perhaps for the reason that it suggests some dependence on or connection with the will; but you use the words “obey,” “will,” and “duty,” and quote the words, “Come unto me,” and “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me,” all of which words denote some dependence upon the will. The response of the obedient child is not that of blind matter, but of a willing mind.
Relative to baptism you urge that I would not accept Webster’s definition of the word. But do accept it, and must say that if we do not have some standard to settle the meaning of words found in the Bible, we can not interpret a single text in it. Webster says “baptism is from a word meaning to dip in water, thus giving its original and scriptural meaning and then adds its general meaning of to-day. You discredit Webster On this word perhaps as ground for rejecting the word “if,” as defined by him, when applied to the New Testament, under the plea that it is using old covenant language in speaking of new covenant things. You say that under the new covenant of grace no such language is used, and that our Savior did not say, “If you WILL keep my commandments, you shall have my presence and favor.” Now, my brother, our Savior did use just such language, leaving out the word “will.” His words are, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love;” John, xv, 10. To abide in his love is certainly to have his presence and favor. “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed.” Why these sentences do not express CONDITIONS, it is impossible for an ordinary mind to conceive. “If a man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Of this you say, “Here there is nothing promised to man if he will come after Jesus.” Again, my brother, the Scriptures place you in the wrong. Peter said to Jesus, “Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have there for?” Jesus told him, in short, that everyone who had done that for his name’s sake, should receive an hundred fold and inherit eternal life; Matt., xix, 27-29. In Mark he says the hundred-fold shall be now in this time.

Paul often refers to the old covenant and uses its language to persuade to obedience under the new covenant of grace. He applies it in the same manner that Moses did to warn and encourage believers to an upright life. You are familiar with the many places where, he does this with an earnestness and directness that can not be questioned, and your objections to this course lie heavy against the faithful apostle. While the little word “if” is used so often to denote a concurrence of the will, it is not the only word that needs a new interpretation to suit the views you express. No doubt you speak of God as LEADING his people, and no authority, speaks of a time when anyone is LED without the concurrence of the will. To LEAD is NOT to drag. Obedience is not to be expected independent of the will. In the separation you make between the believer and his compliance with the will of God, you seem to leave no place for gospel exhortation, warning and rebuke. The tree is never exhorted to bear fruit nor warned of any sad result if it neglect to do so. It bas no enjoyment, although the crop be an hundred fold. It sheds no tears when the autumn finds its branches bare.

You insist that “The reward is not in something obtained BY the obedient work, but IN the work,” while I think it is both. I John, iii, 22 says, “Whatsoever we ask we receive of him, BECAUSE we keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in his sight;” and again, he says, “For the Father himself loveth you, BECAUSE ye have loved me and have believed that I came out from God.” The woman who poured the precious ointment upon Jesus was happy in the doing of it---but that was not all. Jesus said it was a good work and it should be told for a memorial of her wherever the gospel was preached in the whole world. By that act her memory was to be preserved forever. The aged widow rejoiced in ministering to the saints---but this also entitled her to special benefits in the church. The servant that doubled his lord’s money enjoyed the service---but that was not the end: his lord said unto him, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” Thus our Savior made an illustration of his kingdom.

The issue is not whether ALL our happiness is conditionally enjoyed, but whether ANY of it is. If one moment of peace and joy has ever come to us as the result of obedience, it shows that in that case it was conditional. If obedience is necessary to the attainment of any end, then that end could not otherwise be obtained. You know we are to maintain good works “for necessary uses,” and as being good and profitable unto men. We know that good works are not necessary in the matter of atonement: but is an obedient life worth anything to God or man? If we hold that a faithful life merits nothing, we must mean that it is worth nothing, and I can not see how it serves any necessary uses, or how it is profitable unto men. If obedience answers any good end, that end is the reward we should aim at. If it serves no good end, why should we seek it or try to induce others to do so? If the Lord’s attitude and grace in obedience and regeneration are precisely alike, why are men exhorted hundreds of times in the Bible to obey, but never once called on to be born again? This fact ought to convince us that there is an important distinction in the matter of obedience and regeneration.

If we object to old covenant language and forms of expression, we shall lose much wholesome counsel contained in the New Testament. In his last address, just before death, Moses says, “If thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth; and all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God.” Here is Old Testament language, and it seems like an echo of those words when the Savior himself says, “If any man serve me, him will my Father honor.” And in another place be says, “My Father will love him, and we will come unto him and make our abode with him.” The word “commandments” is used in both places, and wonderful blessings come upon and overtake the obedient child in both cases. Peter’s address has the same spirit: “And besides this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue,” and he names many other things to be added. He is not told to obtain faith, but he is told to add these things to it: and if these things abound in them they shall neither be barren nor unfruitful: but he that lacketh these things hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins; and he adds, “Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure, for if ye do these things ye shall never fall.” Peter thinks “It meet to stir you up by putting you in remembrance.” Such admonitions are never given to a tree that it may bear fruit. It is needless to talk of different forms of speech, when they are so much alike. The Hebrew Letter is almost entirely devoted to showing wherein the Old Covenant is but a shadow of the New. The blood of the Old could not put away sin, but Christ by his shed blood obtained eternal redemption for his people. In this the difference is world-wide, for it refers to the eternal world; but in time it has pleased the Lord to connect blessings and chastisements with both dispensations.
Though Israel as a body failed in keeping the covenant of works, Paul gives a long list of examples where men and women were faithful to God and obtained a good report. The apostle says, “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for he that cometh to God must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Paul had told of many with whom God was not well pleased, as examples for us to take heed lest we fall. So he speaks of these faithful men and women to encourage us in the race set before us. He calls them “a great cloud of witnesses,” and, continuing his exhortation, he says, “Looking diligently, lest any man fail of the grace of God: lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble us, whereby many be defiled.” After showing that we were not come to Sinai, but unto Mount Sion, he says, “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh, [from heaven,] for if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven.” It was Paul’s custom to make the two covenants the same as far as they refer to time. He teaches that every transgression and disobedience against the word spoken by angels received a just reward, and that he that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses, and asks how shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation. The forms of expression persuading to obedience are alike under both covenants, and I know of no authority for explaining the words of the Old Testament by one method, and the same words in the New Testament by another. To do so is to depart from the only way we have of understanding the Bible. Israel was a type of God’s people; their leader was typical; so were their shoes and clothing, their bread and their water, and you admit they were under a conditional state of things. You will admit that in this conditional state they were the type of the church; that with some of them who sinned God was not well pleased, while others by obedience obtained a good report. You must see there are many instances where conditions are expressed in the New Testament in the strongest possible manner; that some please God by keeping his commandments, while against the disobedient his wrath is revealed. You know that the apostles would beseech and pray and exhort and warn in order to affect the conduct of men; and yet you insist that our happiness is in nowise conditional or dependent upon our walk, but that God’s will is effectually wrought whether we obey or disobey, and that our will is no more concerned in our obedience than the tree is in the bearing of fruit. You think the dead Lazarus coming back to life representative of Christian obedience, but I think not, Paul’s exhortation effected much with the Corinthian believers. He says, “What carefulness it wrought in you, what clearing of yourselves, what zeal;” and so they acted as he would have them do; but you know that a thousand Pauls could effect nothing with the unconscious Lazarus until the Savior made him alive. As you view it, the Savior must repeat his life-giving act every time one of his children renders obedience to him, and all exhortation and mutual helping of one another is unnecessary. Now, we would take no position that would make exhortation and the use of the ministry a nullity, while at the same time we concede the need of God’s grace to serve him acceptably. I am sensible of this every moment that I live, but still think that in obedience men act from choice and WILLINGLY, while in cases like Lazarus men are passive, unconscious, without volition or life, and---we may say---do not act at all in coming to life. Obedience is a virtue, and disobedience a sin, but it was no virtue in Lazarus to come to life, and no sin to remain dead. Obedience is not the act of an inert, lifeless body, but the intelligent, willing act of a conscious being. It is a MORAL ACT with respect to MORAL LAW, while quickening into life is the independent act of God, and is not a moral act.

You think I should not treat the predestination of all things as being an apology for sin. We agree with you that God called Cyrus to execute his counsel, and that this does not apologize for Cyrus’ sins. He works his will by the wicked without making their wickedness the Lord’s.
There is no issue as to God’s sovereignty, his universal control and just government of men. This meets our hearty approbation, but when you have shown and we have shown that God controls, governs and overrules evil men so as to carry out his divine purposes, we are as far away from the heart of the controversy as we were at first. This mode of reasoning does not make their wickedness the Lord’s. When some deny predestination altogether, and some interpret it to mean that God ordains beforehand by an unlimited decree all the wickedness that men do, we turn from both as the right-hand and left-hand departures, to the voice behind us that says, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” Your text from David that the Lord uses the wicked as his sword, or his hand, and the cases of Pharaoh and Ahab and Judas and Peter, and, in fact every text in the Bible that speaks of God’s conduct toward wicked men---not one of them, nor all of them together, attribute the corruption of nature or man’s wickedness to the Lord. There is a voice within every regenerated heart that speaks on this subject with no uncertain sound. The most unlearned of all the saints can understand it---high and low, wise and simple,---they need no learned man to explain it; and that voice traces all our sins to some other source than God. You may sweep the stars from the firmament, cover the sun with the pall of midnight---but you will never obliterate that voice from the quickened soul! That God governs with certainty the myriads of wicked men that dwell upon the earth, does not warrant, but forbids, the use of that modern expression, “Unlimited predestination.” This expression can not be interpreted by any known system of ethics, or by the utmost stretch of human ingenuity in any other way than to say it is the first and efficient cause of sin. I call your attention kindly to this, and ask you to think of it.
Four years ago Elder Potter, of this State, wrote the following conservative and comprehensive view of this subject: “I most heartily agree that God intended from eternity to give sin its course and bounds, and to order it in such a way as to be to his own glory, and that his eternal counsel extends his divine providence to everything that occurs, both good and evil, from the rustling of a leaf or the falling of a tear, and the crying of a child, to the most noticeable and extraordinary occurrences.” If you can show that God governs, controls, limits, bounds, directs and overrules sin, there is still a LIMIT to predestination, unless you also hold that sin is EFFICACIOUSLY from Him. We object to any and every form of expression that confuses sin and holiness in their origin and operations. Our issue is not as to whether grace is needed to serve God acceptably, but whether we should so emphasize that grace as to set aside the moral nature of man.

Elder Lemuel Potter admitted (or believed) that God’s purposes extend, in some limited or modified sense, to every evil; yet he held there should be a distinction made between God’s purposes concerning sin and his predestination of holiness. And this is the view of all the ablest predestinarians of to-day, or of any age. Not only so, but it is the view held by a large majority of the Primitive Baptists of the United States. But you in your writing do not make this distinction. The words, “Unlimited predestination of all things,” involves the idea that sin is unlimitedly predestinated, and this is to apply the decrees of God to sin in every sense that it is applied to holiness, which is to destroy and set aside all distinction between right and wrong, and is contrary to the experience of God’s people, and contrary to God’s Word.

Your brother in hope,
 JAS. H. OLIPHANT

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 27 September 2006 )
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