Alexander Maclaren

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"He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself."
2 Timothy 2:13

The faithfulness of God is a familiar enough phrase, but I suspect that the depth and scope of the thought are not as familiar as the words. It is employed in Scripture in many ways, and with many different applications of exhortation and encouragement. Like a prism held at right angles to the light, the thought flashes out different tints according as the rays impinge upon it. It is a favorite with Paul. He speaks it in his very first letter; and here in his last, after a lifetime spent in testing God, he comes back to it. He had proved it in a thousand dangers and struggles, and now, when he has all but done with earth, he 'sets to his seal that God is true.' But all the other New Testament writers employ the expression likewise, and I have thought that it may be profitable to gather together the various aspects and applications of this great truth in Scripture, and so to draw out, if we may, some of the lofty thoughts and treasures of strength and hope which are enshrined in it.

1. Let me ask the question, What does the faithfulness of God mean?

Now when we speak of one another as 'faithful,' we mean that we adhere to our word; that we keep faith with men, that we discharge the obligations of our office or position, and that so we are trustworthy. We mean just the same things when we speak about the faithful God.

I suppose that the first thought that occurs to most of us, when God is called faithful, is that it means that He keeps His promise. That, of course, is included in the idea; but it is very noteworthy that this, which to most of us is the only meaning of the expression, is rarely its meaning in the New Testament. Out of all the cases in which the phrase occurs, it only twice has reference to God's fulfilment of His spoken words, and these two instances both occur in the Epistle to the Hebrews were we read, 'He is faithful that promised,' and 'She judged Him faithful that promised.' Now it is a great truth that out of the darkness God has spoken; that, like some constitutional monarch He has declared the principles of His government, and so has bound Himself by articulate expressions to follow out these in His dealings. He is not a despot; He is a King who has laid down the law to which He Himself will adhere. His promises hang out over the troubled stream of life, like boughs from the trees on the bank, for His half-drowned children to grasp at and to hold by.

But great as that thought of our God's fulfilment of His every word is, it does not go halfway down to the depths of meaning in the New Testament use of the expression 'the faithful God.' My text witnesses to a deeper meaning. 'He cannot deny Himself.' That is Paul's notion of the faithfulness of God--that His nature and character constitute for Him, if I may so say, a solemn obligation; that He is His own law; that He is bound by what He is, and that He never can be in the smallest degree anything contradictory to or falling beneath the level of His own equable, consistent, and uniform Self. As God, He must be true to the character of goodness and wisdom which the very name of God brings with it. We drop below our best selves; contradictory impulses and thoughts fight in our nature; the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. No man is always himself; God is always Himself. We are like the little brooks that are dried in drought and swelled in spate, are parched in summer and frozen in winter. But this great river is always bank-full, and always clear and always flowing. This ocean is tideless and has no ebb or flood, and you can look down into its deepest depths. As far as the vision of the eye can go, all is clear and pure; and where vision fails, it is not that the ocean is dark but that the sense is limited. So John says, with a simplicity that is sublime, 'God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all.' The sun has spots; it has, as astronomers tell us, a photosphere, an envelope that gives light, but possibly its core is black and dark. But that is not so with the true Light. 'God is faithful; He cannot deny Himself.'

Then there is another deep thought in the word which is recurrent in the various applications of the expression throughout the New Testament--that God's faithfulness implies that He is true not only to His words, not only to Himself, but also to the trend and drift, so to speak, of His past acts. That thought is applied in the New Testament in two different ways. Peter says to the troubled disciples to whom he was writing, 'Commit the keeping of your souls to Him in well-doing as unto a faithful Creator.' The fact of having made creatures binds God to certain obligations in regard to them, and He will discharge them. The other application of the idea of God's faithfulness is in reference to His past acts bearing on man's redemption. We find verses like these: 'Faithful is He that calls you'; 'God is faithful by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of His Son.' The thought there is that, by the fact of His redeeming work, God has come under certain obligations to the persons who yield to the invitation that is wrapped up in the message and gifts of Christ and of Christ's Spirit, and that He will faithfully discharge these.

2. Now, then, carry these three simple thoughts with you--faithful to His word, faithful to Himself, faithful to His past--and let us ask, in the second place, what does this faithfulness guarantee?

What does His faithfulness as Creator guarantee to the creature whom He has made?

It guarantees, first, that the faithful Creator will care for His creature's well-being. Creation is not merely a work of power nor merely a necessary process, as some people seem to think. It is the outcome of the love of God, and so the wise psalmist says, 'To Him that made great lights; for His mercy endures forever.' He came forth and poured Himself, as it were, into beings because His name is Love; and having thus created, He recognizes the obligations under which He has thereby come. The smallest microscopic animal, because it has the mysterious gift of life, has a claim on God; and He is bound--I was going to say, 'to do His utmost,' but all that He does is His utmost--to care for that creature's well-being. The birds lay their eggs and hatch their young, and then let these go as they will. Men sometimes forget the duties of parents and the responsibilities that are involved therein. But God the Creator lets us plead His faithfulness with Him, and turn to Him and say, 'Thou hast made me; therefore I bring in my hand Thine own bill with Thine own name to it. Pay it, O God!' 'Commit the keeping of your souls to Him as to a faithful Creator.'

Especially does this conception of His faithfulness to His past in creation guarantee to us that all desires implanted by Him will be satisfied, and all needs created by Him will be supplied. Our wishes, when they are right, are prophecies of our possessions. God has put no craving in a man's heart which He does not mean to fill. Remember the homely old proverb: 'He never sends mouths but He sends meat to fill them.' And if in your heart there are longings which you know are not sinful, be sure that these are veiled prophets of a divine gift. All these necessities of ours, all these hungry desires, all these sometimes painful thirsts of the soul that we try to slake at muddy and broken cisterns--all these are meant to take us straight to God. They are like the long indentations of the coast on our western shores, openings by which the flashing waters may run far inland and bathe the roots of the everlasting hills. So when God gives us a desire, He binds Himself to fulfill it. The world is a bewildering and unanswerable riddle and mystery, and human life is one long misery, unless we believe and know that because He is the faithful Creator no man need hunger with a ravening desire after food that is not provided, nor need any man thirst with a thirst that there is no water anywhere to slake.

Again, his great thought of the divine faithfulness as Creator guarantees that our tasks shall be proportioned to our strength. So Paul uses the thought in one tender sentence when he says, 'God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able.' Or as the psalmist has it in his sweet words, 'He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.' Nothing above our power will ever be laid upon us. Careless and cruel drivers load their horses beyond their strength, and the patient drudge pulls until it drops. Unwise engineers put too much pressure on their boilers, or try to get too much work out of their engine. But God knows how much pressure the hearts that He makes can stand, and what is the utmost weight of the load that we can lift; and He will not be less merciful and faithful to His creatures than is the merciful man to his beast. He is the faithful Creator who recognizes His obligations to care for the works of His own hands, who will satisfy their desires and supply the needs that He has made, who will shape their burdens according to the strength of their shoulders.

And if we turn to the other side of the thought and ask what is guaranteed by God's calling of us in Christ Jesus, then we get three answers.

The first thing that is guaranteed is forgiveness. The Apostle John, in words that are often misunderstood, grasps the thought of God's faithfulness in this application when he says, 'He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.' Since Christ has come and has died in order that men might be pardoned and cleansed, God's faithfulness is implicated in God's pardoning mercy; and He would neither be faithful to His promises, nor to His past act in Christ's mission, nor to the invitation and call that He has sounded in our ears unless, when we obeyed that call, we entered into the full possession of His pardoning grace. So the gentle, tender attribute of Mercy becomes solemn, and stately, and eternal, when it is regarded as the outcome of His faithfulness. In some tropical forests you will find strong tree-trunks out of which spring the most radiant and ethereal-looking blossoms. So the fair flower of forgiving mercy springs from the steadfast bole of the divine faithfulness. He is 'Just, and the Justifier of him who believes in Jesus.'

Again, God's faithfulness guarantees the progressive perfecting of Christian character. That is the application of the thought which is most frequent in Paul's letters. We find it, for instance, in the passage where the prayer--that the saints in Thessalonica might be 'preserved, body, soul, and spirit, blameless unto the coming of the Lord Jesus,'--is by the Apostle based on the words 'faithful is He that calls you, who also will do it.'

The progressive perfecting of the Christian life is guaranteed by the thought of the faithfulness of God. He does not begin a work and then get disgusted with it, or turn to something else, or find that His resources will not avail to work it out to completion. That is how we do. He never stops till He ends. As the prophet says about another matter, 'His hands have laid the foundation of the house; His hands shall also finish it.'

I remember a place on our coasts where some man, who had not calculated his resources nor the strength of the ocean, began to build a breakwater and seawalls, and today the blocks of dislodged concrete are lying in wild confusion on the beach, and the victorious waves break over them at every tide and laugh at the abortive design. None that look on God's work will ever have the right to say, 'This man began to build, and was not able to finish.' There are no half-completed failures in God's workshop. Only you have to keep yourself under His influences. It is useless to talk about the 'final perseverance of the saints' unless you remember that only they who continuously yield themselves to God are continuously the subjects of His cleansing and hallowing grace. If they do, the progressive perfecting of those upon whom He has begun to work is sure. Like some patient artist, He lays touch upon touch on the canvas, or smites piece after piece off the marble, till the ideal is realized and stands there before Him. Like some patient seamstress, He works needleful after needleful of varying colors of silk on the tapestry until the whole pattern is accomplished. 'He is faithful; He also will do it.'

But again, that conception of the divine faithfulness guarantees ultimate blessedness. That thought is always taken in connection with the preceding one, in the various passages to which reference has just been made. Paul says in another place, basing his assurance on the same thought of the divine faithfulness; 'He will confirm you unto the day of the Lord Jesus.' And so we have to think that just [simply] because God is faithful, therefore the Christian life here on earth--because it is so much and because it is so little, because of its devotion and because of its selfishness--bears in itself the prophecy of a time when all that is here checked tendency shall become triumphant realization, and when the plant that here was an exotic and did put forth buds (though poor and pale compared with what it would give in its natural soil) shall be transplanted into the higher house, and there shall blossom forevermore. God is a liar unless heaven is to complete the experiences of earth. If these poor natures of ours at their best here were all that Christ had won by the travail of His soul, do you think He would be satisfied? Certainly not. We need heaven to vindicate the faithfulness of God.

3. And now one word is all that I can spare on what I meant to make the last point of my sermon, and that is, what attitude in us corresponds to the faithfulness of God?

I need only quote one of the expressions in the Epistle to the Hebrews to give the answer: 'Hold fast the profession of your faith without wavering, for He is faithful that promised.' Our faith corresponds with and is the answer to God's faithfulness. As with two instruments tuned to the same pitch, when a note is struck on the one the chords of the other vibrate it back again, so God's faithfulness should awake the music of answering faith in our responsive and vibrating hearts. If He is worth trusting, let us trust Him.

But further, unwavering faith is the only thing that truly corresponds to unchanging faithfulness. Build rock upon rock; and since He is faithful, do not answer his steadfast faithfulness with a tremulous and vacillating confidence. What would you think of a man who had been given some magnificent site on which to rear a fortress, some impregnable crag which he might crown with a sure defense, and if on the top of it instead of rearing granite walls that might match their foundation, he should run up some hasty shelter of lath and plaster or of fluttering canvas, and so think that he had adorned, when he had insulted, the rock on which he built? Make your faith to match God's faithfulness and 'commit the keeping of your souls to Him in well-doing, as unto a faithful Creator,' leaving all things in His hands and trusting them absolutely unto Him.

Imitate the faithfulness in such fashion as you may. Paul in one place says, 'As God is faithful, our word to you was not yea and nay.' It does not become a man who is trusting to the faithful God to be shifty and unreliable in his own utterances and manifestations to men.

Let us turn away from the illusions of vain hope, from all doubtful refuges, from all the fleeting defenses and treasures that earth can give. Why should we build upon a sandbank when we can build on the Rock of Ages? Why should we trust mere wealth, creatural love, success, to do for us what only the faithful God can do? All these deceive or betray or fail or pass. They are unworthy of trust. 'God is faithful'; Christ is 'the faithful and true witness.' 'This is the faithful saying . . . that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.' If we will join ourselves to the faithful God and accept the faithful saying of His faithful witness, our hearts will be calm, our lives will be steadied, we shall be delivered from the misery of leaning on props which, like rotten branches, break beneath our weight. On earth we shall attain growing completeness, and shall pass thence to that perfecting in the day of the Lord Jesus which the faithful God, by His words, by His great redeeming act, and by His present workings on us, has bound Himself to give us. There we may hope to hear the wondrous welcome, which points to our assimilation to Him in whom we trust, 'Well done, good and faithful servant.'

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