DELIVERED IN S. PAUL'S CHURCH, BALTIMORE,
IN THE EVENING OF 21ST OCTOBER, 1830,
RIGHT REV. HENRY U. ONDERDONK, D. D.
Assistant Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church
[PUBLISHED BY REQUEST OF THE VESTRY.]
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2009
Man Saved by Mercy.
"According to his mercy, he saved us."
WELL has it been remarked, that "redemption is one of the most glorious works of the Almighty." It is to the honour of the Deity, that creatures who had come short of his glory, are, by the scheme of salvation through Christ, restored, and that thus his retinue of saints is enlarged, and the number of beings multiplied, who will sing his praises throughout eternity. It is to the honour of God, that, in the hearts of his renewed people, innumerable victories are gained over sin, innumerable trophies reared to the renown of his holiness: each individual who resists the power of depravity, and overcomes it, fights a battle of the Lord's, gains a triumph over his enemies, and adds to the extent of his spiritual kingdom. But, more especially is the redemption of man glorious, because it is a signal honour to the Most High that his MERCY is by it exalted above "all his works." Mercy is the chief and most lovely attribute of Jehovah; and, [3/4] when acting in harmony with his other attributes, it more redounds to his glory, than the display of his power, or justice, or any other of his perfections.--Mercy, is the brightest and most beautiful feature in the universally adorable character of God.
The passage before us, brings into very prominent view, this divine attribute, and will open to us a course of deeply interesting reflections,--"according to his mercy he saved us." We shall declare from these words; 1st. the principle in which the plan of our salvation had its origin in the counsel of God; 2nd. the principle on which the offer of that salvation is made, and its course conducted, now, while we are candidates for it; and 3d. the principle on which that salvation will be consummated in heaven: the principle throughout, is "mercy," or free and unmerited grace, ourselves not deserving favour or salvation, but Christ procuring them for us.--May the Holy Spirit sanctify these meditations to our everlasting welfare!
I. The principle in which the plan of our salvation had its origin in the counsel of God, was "mercy."--Mercy, we may view as an extension of the sentiment of love. Divine love, strictly defined, may be regarded as goodness towards beings who are not unworthy, as the pure angels, and man in the state of innocence. Mercy, is goodness towards those who are unworthy, [4/5] yet capable of being reclaimed, as men in their fallen condition. Mercy, therefore, is more than love; or rather, it is the highest act and exercise of love in its larger sense. It was love, that prompted the Deity to become a Creator, to form other beings than himself, that this benign sentiment might have an opportunity of acting, that there might be creatures for the divine love to embrace. It was "mercy," that provided a rescue for the human family of these creatures when fallen; when, without this rescue through Christ crucified, they would have been without God, and without hope.
And, do we not, in this view, perceive that the salvation devised for us by the Godhead, was wholly free? Yes, survey the matter in any light, and you will see that nothing in man could have contributed to the grant of saving "mercy" graciously provided for him. In the first place, salvation was devised for man before he existed, the Lamb was fore-ordained before the foundation of the world. And those who had not yet their being, could contribute as little to their own redemption, as to their own creation. In the next place, the very fact of our having fallen, precludes the possibility of any excellence foreseen in us, having had a share in procuring the scheme of grace. For, if men could, by anticipation on the part of God's [5/6] prescience, have offered a meritorious consideration towards the providing of mercy for them after sinning, they could have offered more to prevent their sinfulness, and secure themselves against the need of mercy. Man surely could contribute more, while yet innocent, to avert the approach of that tempter who brought sin into the world, than he could to move God to provide a pardon after sin had made him depraved. But we can claim no merit in either of these respects; we had not that in us, at first, which could have us spared the trial under which our nature fell; much less, when fallen, have we aught in us, which, being fore-known, could avail in bringing us restoration. In the last place, what could be thus foreseen in man, that would entitle him to the favour of God, or his forbearance? Perfect obedience is impossible, in our present state. Imperfect obedience, does not satisfy the law of God; much less can it buy off the just sentence of that law. It was imperfection, or failure in duty, that banished man from paradise; and surely, imperfection and failure, could contribute nothing towards procuring the salvation which brings him the higher privilege, of the paradise of God.
Is it not, then, infallibly true, that, in the counsel of the Godhead, which provided "mercy" for fallen man, no claim whatever, on the part of man, was anticipated? [6/7] It was a counsel of mere, and pure love, and of higher love, than that which moved the Almighty to bring man into being.
But, while we thus assert the free mercy of God, in providing pardon for men, we must not confound it with arbitrary mercy. There was doubtless a reason for forgiving fallen man, and denying forgiveness to the fallen angels. Both, indeed, were equally without a claim on the divine favour; neither had merit, or any thing like merit, to plead. But, were there not other than meritorious considerations, which rendered it proper to grant a further trial to the one, yet refuse it to the other? The fallen angels had dwelt in heaven, in perhaps the most perfect happiness creatures can attain to; they had there enjoyed the fullest measures of the Holy Spirit, to maintain their purity; and they had no appetites of the flesh to betray them: and, when they sinned, in spite of these advantages, against the highest sanctifying power, and, despising glory itself, nothing more (is it not, obvious?) could be done for them. Man, however, was of a lower order of creatures; he had never tasted the heavenly bliss, for which ultimately he was destined; he had not such ample effusions of the Holy Spirit; and, clothed with flesh, he was exposed to many temptations, to which merely spiritual beings are strangers: and may not these palliating circumstances, in the [7/8] case of man, have been a reason for respiting him after his fall, and granting him another and easier trial;--a reason for allowing him a Saviour, though there could be none for the lost angels? If so, there is sufficient proof, that we are not saved by arbitrary grace. Yet we are unquestionably saved by free grace. For, in a being fallen, sinful, and in himself helpless, nothing of a right or claim to God's favour, nothing of merit, can exist, or could have been foreseen.
II. The principle on which the offer of salvation is made, and its course conducted, now, while we are candidates for it, is "mercy,"--mercy, as truly free as that which first devised our salvation. As there was nothing foreseen in man to deserve his being provided with a Redeemer, so there is nothing now existing in him, which deserves the actual offer to him of that Redeemer, or the seal of pardon through him, or the positive and repeated gift, from time to time, of the influences of his Holy Spirit.
When the offer of restoration through Christ is made to a sinful mortal, yet unchanged in heart, what is there, what can there be, in such an one, to deserve this kindness? He has lived in neglect of God, in rebellion against God: where then is his claim to the offer of peace, and favour, and reward? He has made either worldliness or deeper sin, or both, his choice; in them are his pleasure and enjoyment; holiness is [8/9] ungenial to him: on what quality then of his own, or on what actions of his own, can he found the least demand on the kindness of that Being to whose glory he is so vitally opposed? Nay, depravity is engrained, as it were, into his nature; it is stamped and fixed in the very depths of his soul; he is born radically corrupt: where then can be worth, in one so unworthy? where merit, in one so marked by shame and ill-desert? And what rights can such a being have before the thrice-holy God? Surely none; the offer of salvation to him is a free offer, it is wholly of grace.
Or, do you argue that, as many human beings are of a better character, than we have just described, who, though wanting in true piety and holiness, are at least of creditable standing, and not without good qualities, these good qualities may give them some right to claim of God, that they be set in the way of becoming yet better? The answer is,--that, in so far as these good qualities spring from mere natural turn and disposition, there can be no merit in them, however they may rank with virtues--and that, in so far as they result from improvement of a good natural bias, or from the subduing of any contrary bias, these very qualities are from God; they have been produced by a measure of the Holy Spirit already acting in the heart and conscience, since "every good gift is from above." And surely the reception of one gift cannot [9/10] make the right to demand another; it cannot create a claim to either more of the Spirit, or salvation through the Redeemer. On the contrary, if the class of persons there described, duly improve the holy influence which has brought them to this degree of excellence; if they so improve it, as to make a full and candid survey of their hearts, they will not fail to experience a wholesome conviction of sin, of past transgressions and neglect, and of present infirmities and omissions. And, in this spirit, they will feel so humbled, as to acknowledge that salvation, and all that tends to salvation, is derived from the unmerited and free "mercy" of God.
And, when pardon is sealed to us in the sacraments, the same high doctrine is to be maintained. We have been placed within the fold of Christ, by baptism, and have thus had redeeming "mercy" made the covenant of God with us: if this were done in our infancy, there obviously could not have been merit on our part to procure it; if in riper years, the repentance and faith we brought to the font were the gift of God, were produced by his Holy Spirit; and we certainly could not, on a grant thus allowed us, build a title to any further grant, from the Deity in that ordinance. The eucharistic seal of pardon, is also a free favour from God; for we are, at least, unprofitable servants, and do not merit our pardon; nay, [10/11] it is the oft-recurring conviction of sin, leading us to seek as often the renewed light of God's reconciled countenance, that brings us repeatedly and continually to the altar: in the accurate words of our liturgy, "we do not presume to come to that table trusting in our own righteousness, but in God's manifold and great mercies."
Nay more: when our holy conduct and conversation show that we have become christians indeed, and throughout the christian course, we, still humbly acknowledge the same doctrine. To the last, we expect each new token of the favour of God, each daily increase of the Holy Spirit, which is to maintain and brighten our piety and virtue, not from our own de-servings, for having improved his influences already received,--for none of us, not even the most pious, have improved them as we ought--but we hope for this continued and more abundant grace, only from the unmerited kindness of our Heavenly Father, vouchsafed to us through Christ. For, let me again ask, does a favour conferred by a patron to-day, give us any right to another favour to-morrow? He may, indeed, of his large benevolence, promise us more kindness, if we use rightly his former gifts: but, have we, in ourselves any right to such a promise? Surely not. All, therefore, that we receive from our Heavenly Patron, from first to last, whether to make us [11/12] holy, or, to keep us so, is truly and absolutely gratuitous.
But let us guard this part, also, of our doctrine. These supplies of divine help, the influences from above, increasing within us from time to time, though entirely free, are not arbitrary. There are, as we have just hinted, conditions, on which they are continued to us, and granted in fuller abundance. And the great condition is,--that we implore God's grace, as it is conferred; so improve it, as constantly to feel and practise true repentance, and exercise entire faith in Christ, as our only source of pardon. Expressly to this effect, one of the parables declares, that he who uses profitably his talents, will receive more, while he who does not, will have them taken from him. Our increase in grace, therefore, does not seem to be arbitrarily ordered. Still, every new gift of the kind is free. For, our best fulfilment of the conditions named is but imperfect, and cannot give us a claim on the yet greater kindness of God.--Our best obedience, has not merit to cover its own defects, and make it positively good; much less can it merit any further assistance from the Divine Spirit. Throughout, therefore, it is only by "mercy," constantly new mercy, that we are sanctified and "saved."
III. The principle on which our salvation will be consummated in heaven, is "mercy."
 For the infinite rewards of that blissful region, we have, most clearly and most decisively, no plea or price in ourselves to offer. For when, in the final moment of life, our course is finishing, our warfare ending, and our victory has been pushed to the utmost, we are still imperfect creatures; not free from sin are we, to the latest breath. And shall we expect, with a character so deficient, to demand the glories of heaven in our own right? Our hearts, in candour, exclaim, no; our every honest feeling, our every true sentiment, our whole burden of serious conviction, unite in exclaiming, no.
How then, it may be asked, are we to estimate, the effect of our good works on our final salvation? For, it is said of those who die in the Lord, that "their works follow them;" it is also said, that we shall be "judged according to our works;" and in those "works" are included the faith, the graces, the holy living, of the pious Christian. Of what value are all these, faith, and graces, and holy living, before the final judgment-seat? Of great value, I answer, as showing that we have secured an interest in Christ; but not of the least, towards our making a claim there, independently of Christ. Our godliness in heart and in conduct, is the proof that we have true faith; and it is by such faith only, always fruitful, and always increasing in good fruit, that we so accept of the Redeemer, [13/14] as to obtain a final interest in his merits, and thus, get possession of the reward which he procured in our behalf. We must accept of Christ practically; and our principles and deeds are brought into judgement to show whether we have done this or not. Nothing but the fruits of righteousness will testify, that we are branches of the true vine.
That our final happiness is the free gift of God, we shall see more clearly, if we consider the disproportion between our earthly works and our celestial reward. We, at best, struggle on through a few years in a state called holy, which, however, requires to the last continual repentance and continual improvement; in a state, and course, the imperfections of which we continually acknowledge and lament. Yes, we see occasion to lament our unholiness the more bitterly, in proportion to our love of true holiness, and the depth and soundness of our pious feeling. And shall we, for a service so short, a service at best so poor, claim a bliss infinite and eternal, as its due and merited reward? Does not the idea of such a claim, carry with it its own refutation?--Look also at the earthly kindnesses of God: are not they an ample recompense for all we may think we have done for him by our obedience? He gives us life, and breath, and all things; he preserves them to us: and these favours alone are more than the due price of our stinted service; they [14/15] would be an adequate price for our serving him without fault, and perfectly. Is it not, therefore, of God's mere indulgence, that we receive blessings in this life? How then shall we ask heaven besides? And ask it as a right; as, in any degree, due to our merit? As, in any degree, or in any sense, purchased by our obedience? How shall we dare, in and of ourselves, to think even of claiming that supreme and everlasting reward!
To Christ, then, be our every thought brought into captivity! Before Him, at whose Name every knee is to bow, let every heart be prostrate in the humble conviction, that He is the only "righteousness" and only "redemption" of the sinner. When we reflect that our faith and holiness are themselves full of imperfections, and are also tarnished by much remaining sin, in our renewed character,--and that they are exercised by us only during the brief term of life,--nay, during only the briefer term of our converted and religious life,--let us not fail to acknowledge, that our services, were they even not overpaid in temporal bounties, are as nothing, compared with the unspeakable, heavenly reward that awaits them. Through "mercy," through mercy only, are we saved!
What, however, let us enquire before concluding, is the utility of this doctrine? of what advantage can it [15/16] be to men, who are but too ready, from other causes, to go on in sin, to assure them that salvation is a free gift? The benefit of the doctrine is great.
But, let me first say, to those who would abuse this fundamental Christian principle, that such folly cannot exist except in those who labour under sophistication of judgment. The Saviour died, they loosely argue, to procure acceptance for the sinner, and, therefore, we are safe; but we would remind them, that it was for the penitent sinner only, not the impenitent, as the gospel plainly and most abundantly declares. And, besides: to sin, or to continue in sin, in the hope that grace will abound, is to mock that grace; it is to render despicable that divine pity which is their only hope, and which, as such, they ought with the deepest reverence to exalt and adore. And, by thus bringing contempt, they bring also refutation, on the idea of such abounding grace, and so sweep away the very foundation on which they profess to build their unworthy expectations. Such expectations presume that man may take advantage of God, may make God the abetter of the sin he has prohibited, and may cast derision into his face, by new sins, in the very act of laying claim to his forbearance. O, let none be guilty of presumption so infatuated, of arrogance so insane!
If, however, the doctrine be not abused, it will be found worthy of our deepest reverence and affection.
 First. It tends to the rightful honour of the Saviour; and to pay Him all due honour, is a duty of the same kind with that of giving glory to God. Why may we not as well believe, that, in the beginning nothing produced matter, or that dead matter formed itself into an orderly creation, as that the lost sinner can redeem himself, the dead and impotent sinner newly create his heart in righteousness and true holiness? If the one opinion be not only absurd, but atheistical, is not the other kindred with it in both respects? Let no such vain imaginations be indulged. To God belongs the exclusive glory of creation,--to Christ, the exclusive glory of your redemption. Never, then, let that glory be denied him!
Secondly. The doctrine, that we are saved by mere "mercy," is valuable, inasmuch as it humbles our pride, is a perpetual rebuke to our self-sufficiency, and thus furthers our sanctification. The worldly-minded set a high value on the virtues they possess; the godly are tempted to make great account of their holy sentiments and deeds. But in both, this delusion is fruitful of mischief. For, whoever thus regards himself with complacency, will be disposed to relax in his improvement, under a latent, if not avowed impression, that his character has become sufficiently good; it being far from unnatural to argue, that, having attained a worthy standard, little or nothing more can [17/18] be required. But--will he, who never indulges in such imaginations, but casts them all down,--he, who forgets not at any time his unprofitableness and need of constant expiation through Christ, and who is thus daily led to search his conscience, for the imperfections which yet remain, for the infirmities and omissions, which will show specifically what fresh need there daily is of pardoning mercy,--will he be tempted to relax in his godly improvement? Will he feel self-flattered and self-satisfied, at his efforts against sin, and think he is safe, and may now be less vigilant? Surely not. Feeling, on the contrary, that he still has much to do, he will spare no labours to be always growing holier, to be always advancing the sanctification of his heart and of his life.--This it is, to use without abusing the doctrine of salvation by mere and free grace. This makes it a doctrine eminently practical.
Lastly. This doctrine is unspeakably valuable as a comfort to the sincere penitent. The true penitent, more frequently than the world imagines, feels his yet continuing unworthiness, and dares not, in reliance on any thing existing in himself, "lift up his eyes to heaven;" often and bitterly does this consciousness overpower him. Shall he, then, not hope at all? Shall he abandon himself to despair? You point him, perhaps, to his virtues, his graces, his goodness [18/19] of character, and bid him have brighter thoughts: but he, alas, feels the insufficiency of his best deeds and best qualities; and he knows that the Omniscient God must see that insufficiency in a tenfold degree. Shall he, then, through this dark conviction of his want of merit, abandon hope? No: for he is to be saved by mercy, not by merit; by a mercy, which his very humility shows that he does not reject. It is to be the free gift of his Saviour to all who, though like him unworthy, like him, lament that unworthiness, and strive to be more and more conformed to the Saviour's holy and perfect image.
Reposing on this "sure and steadfast" hope, the true penitent finds, in such humility, his choicest and most hallowed consolation. The tears of his contrition are wiped away; the mourning of his bruised spirit is assuaged. Christ crucified, is his one and only redemption, his all-sufficient redemption. Here is his peace; here, his joy: and this joy, if himself surrender it not, no one taketh from him. Thus supported in his soul, he proceeds gladly in his course--knowing in whom he had believed--trusting that He who hath promised is faithful, and will keep that which he has committed to him, till the day of death, till the day of recompense and reward.
 Yes,--even in death, the christian can triumph over death, in the assurance of scripture, and full persuasion of his heart, that CHRIST is his life, his life for evermore!