Taken and adapted from, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom
Written by Samuel Bolton
Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?’
–Romans 8. 33
This may be thought a strange question, ‘who shall?’, for there are several such accusers…
Satan is ready to lay things to their charge. He is called ‘the accuser of the saints … night and day’ (Rev. 12. 10). He is the great Calumniator, ever bringing forward bills of indictment against the saints. Sometimes he accuses God to man, as in the case of our first parents, where he charged God with envy to His creatures, as if He had forbidden the tree lest they should become too wise. It is ordinary with Satan, either to accuse God’s mercy by telling men they may sin and yet God will be merciful, or to accuse His justice by saying that, if they sin, there is no mercy for them. As he stretches God’s justice above the bounds of the Gospel, so he stretches God’s mercy above the bounds of His truth.
And as Satan accuses God to man, so he accuses man to God. Sometimes he does this by way of complaint, as appears in the case of Joshua (Zech. 3. 1-4). In this fashion he is ever charging crimes home, and introducing bills of indictment against the saints. So that, in all his temptations, we may say, as the man said to Joab when he was asked why he had not killed Absalom: Thou thyself didst hear what the king commanded, that Absalom should not be hurt; and if I had done this thing, thou thyself would have been the first to accuse me to the king’ (2 Sam. 18. 12-13). So may we answer Satan: Thou thyself dost know that God hath forbidden this thing; and if I should have done it, wouldst not thou have been the first to accuse me to God? Such is Satan’s way; he is first the tempter to draw us to sin, and then an accuser to accuse us to God for sinning.
At other times Satan uses the method of suspicion and conjecture. It was so in the case of Job. God commends Job; Satan condemns him, as if he knew Job better than God Himself. Nay, and though he could not condemn Job’s actions, yet he would quarrel with his affections. Surely, whatever his actions ￼are, yet Job’s intentions are not good! This was as much as to tell God that He was deceived in Job; it was as if Satan said, Certainly, whatever Thou thinkest of Job, yet Job doth not serve Thee for nothing. He is a mercenary fellow, one that serves Thee for loaves, for belly blessings. Thou hast heaped outward favors on him and hast made a hedge about him, fenced him in with Thy favors so that nothing can annoy him. Thus it is that Satan brings his accusations.
But Satan cannot condemn. The issues of life and death are not in his hands, nor will his accusation against us before God take effect. A man who is himself condemned, though he has the voice of accusation, yet he has no power to condemn. His testimony against another is invalid. Satan is a condemned wretch, and all his accusations against the saints before God have no effect. Joshua’s case shows this: though the accusation was true that he was clad in filthy garments, yet God would not receive it: The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan; is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?’ (Zech. 3. 2).
But it is not only Satan who accuses us; wicked men may do the same. Sometimes they do so justly, for sins committed, but forgiven, and in this they show their malice and lack of love in not forgetting that which God has forgiven. Sometimes they accuse the godly unjustly, laying to their charge things they never did, as Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of uncleanness because he would not be unclean. David, too, complains that men laid to his charge things he never did; so also, Daniel. But none can condemn the truly godly.
Again, not only Satan and wicked men, but conscience itself may accuse; and then, is it possible for us to say. Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? Conscience, I say, may accuse, sometimes bringing true light, sometimes false information, sometimes reviving old bills cancelled and crossed long ago. In the first case, we are to listen to the accusations of conscience when it charges us truly. Joseph’s brethren were accused by their consciences when they were evil treated in ￼Egypt, and told by them that they were verily guilty of the wrong done to Joseph. After David had numbered the people, his heart smote him. Conscience had not been a bridle, and it was now a whip; it had not been a curb, therefore it was now a scourge. David did not hearken to the warnings, and therefore he feels the lashings of conscience. And when conscience justly accuses us, when it comes in with evidence according to the Word, we must hear it, for there God speaks. If a sun-dial be not set by the sun, it is no matter what it says; but if it is correct by the sun, we must hearken to it. So, if conscience does not speak according to the Word, we need not give heed to its accusations, but if it speaks according to evidence there, it is good to listen to it.
Sometimes conscience charges us falsely. It will perhaps tell us that those things are sin which are not sin. In this case it is an erroneous conscience and we are not to listen to it. At other times conscience will revive old cases, answered and satisfied long ago. Then it is a quarrelsome conscience, like a contentious troublesome fellow at law, and God will deal with it as an honest judge with such a fellow; He casts the charges out of court as matters not worth hearing, or as things that have been settled long ago. These accusations must not take hold of the soul. In this case, I say, when conscience condemns, God is greater than conscience, to acquit and absolve the soul.
But there is a fourth party which is ready to lay sin to the charge of God’s people, and that is the law. The law may come as accuser. How then can it be said, ‘Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?’, for if the law may accuse, we cannot be said to be free from the indictments and accusations of the law. I answer thus: if we speak of sins pardoned, neither conscience, nor Satan, nor law, has any right to accuse the people of God. God has justified them, and who then shall accuse?
Indeed, before faith, while we are under the law, we are subject to the accusations, judgments, and sentences of the ￼law. The law not only accuses us then, but its sentence and curse take hold of us. It accuses us, as Christ told them that would not believe in Him, but looked for justification by the law: ‘Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuses you, even Moses, in whom ye trust’ (John 5. 45). The law by which they looked to be justified would accuse them. The law also sentences the sinner, and the sentence and curse take hold of him: ‘He that believeth not is condemned already… the wrath of God abides on him’ (John 3. 18, 36). So that while a man is under the law, before faith and interest in Christ, the law not only accuses but also condemns him.
As for those, however, who have an interest in Christ, the law cannot accuse them of sin committed before grace saved them, because it is pardoned, and thus this accusation is made void. Nor can the law accuse them of sin after grace saved them, sin after pardon.
They are not subject to the accusations, arrests, and sentences of the law. The law cannot so accuse believers as to call them into the court of the law; so the word signifies, ‘Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?’; or rather. Who shall call them into court? The word not only signifies to accuse, but to summon to court (jus vocare). Yet the believer is freed from the law as a covenant, and hence from its judgments, sentences, condemnations, curses, and accusations. If it sends any of its officers to accuse us and arrest us for sin, we may refuse to obey and to appear in its court, for we are to be tried by another court; we are to be tried by the Gospel. If God’s people, when they have sinned, go to the right court, they will both sooner get sorrow for sin, and assurance of the pardon of sin; they will find more sorrow and less dismay for sin.
When I say that we are freed from the accusations of the law, I mean such accusations as are subordinate to condemnation. There is a twofold accusation, first, an accusation leading to conviction and humiliation for sin, second, an accusation ￼resulting in sentence and condemnation for sin. All the accusations of the law against those who are under the law come under the second head. But all its accusations against the godly for sin are with a view to conviction and the humiliation of the godly under it, and so are subordinate to life and salvation. And so I conceive the law may accuse those who are, notwithstanding, the freemen of Christ. It may show them how far they come short of the glory of God, and how far they have wandered from the paths of righteousness, and may accuse them for it; but this results in humiliation, not condemnation. As I shall show hereafter, either this must be so, or else it must be denied that the law is a rule for believers.
But there are two queries that arise here. The first is whether the law may justly accuse us, seeing that we are not under it. Briefly I answer that we are not under its curses, but we are under its commands. We are not under the law for judgment, but we are under the law for conduct. So far as we walk not according to it, as a rule, it has an accusing power, though we are taken from under its condemning power. There is no further power left in the law than is for our good, our humiliation, our edification, and this is intended to lead to our furtherance in grace.
The second query is whether the law is just in its accusations against us, seeing we do not sin. This is founded on the previous query; if it be true that we are freed from the law as a rule or as a direction of life – were this so, it would be our bondage rather than our freedom – then our breaches of the law are not sin. If we are not subject to law, then we do not sin in the breaking of it, any more than we do if we break the laws of Spain or of any other nations, which are no laws to us.
I shall show later the invalidity and the danger of these two queries. In the meantime I must tell you that the law in its directive power remains with the believer. This must needs be plain from the words: ‘The law, which was four hundred and thirty years after (the promise), cannot disannul (the promise), that it should make the promise of none effect’ (Gal. 3. 17). For if the law, as the apostle says, was given 430 years after the promise, then it was given either as a covenant or as a rule. But as a covenant it could not be given, for then God would have acted contrary to Himself, first in giving a covenant of grace and then one of works. Therefore He gave it as a rule, to reveal to us, after our justification by the promise, a rule of walking with God so that in all things we might please Him.
Furthermore, that can never be said to be a part of our freedom which is a part of our bondage; nor can that be said to be part of our bondage which is part of our holiness. But conformity to the law, and subjection to the law of God, is part of our holiness. Therefore it can never be said to be a part of our bondage. There is, indeed, a twofold subjection – the subjection of a son, and the subjection of a slave. We are freed from the one, namely, the subjection of a slave, which was a part of our bondage, but not from the other, namely, the subjection of a son, which is a part of our freedom. But I shall speak of this at greater length in the discourses that follow.