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Row, row, row your boat…or don’t.
H. A. Ironside on the fallacy of rowboat religion.
As long as the church has existed, there has, seemingly, persisted a push-and-pull conflict between faith and works. The apostle Paul, of course, goes to great lengths to examine this issue in Romans and Galatians. His other epistles allude to this, too, but not with the same keenness or intensity as seen in those former two treatises. This tension is also felt throughout St. James’s epistle — which is just to say, that a large portion of the New Testament is concerned with this precise matter. The weight of apostolic doctrine is, without doubt, marshaled behind the fortress of faith alone. Yes, sola fide is maintained even James’s letter (but that’s for another time).
Accordingly, I have come to believe that one of the fundamental convictions to which anyone in the church can come is a tenacious grasp of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Period. You might not think that that is still a trenchant church topic, but I assure you it is. The confusion and frustration which hampered the early church regarding how one is reconciled and redeemed is very much alive and well. Indeed, the need to recover the beauty and brilliance of sola fide did not end when the Reformation proper ceased. Even now there are hoards of churchgoers who are still operating under the assumption that getting to heaven is as simple as “row, row, rowing” your boat. I’ll let H. A. Ironside take it from here:
On what are you resting for your salvation? I have received letters from people who are indignant because I have said that salvation is through faith alone. It makes one start sometimes to find that after all our gospel preaching so many people who make a Christian profession have never yet learned that salvation is absolutely of grace through faith. We almost forget that there are hundreds of people who do not believe these things. And yet how can anyone profess to believe this Book and yet insist upon salvation by human effort? In Romans we read, “If by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work” (Rom. 11:6). Can you not see how the Holy Spirit of God shuts us up to this, that salvation is either altogether by grace or it is altogether by works? It cannot be by a combination of the two.
Someone says, “But do you not remember the old story about the two preachers who were in the rowboat, who were debating as to whether salvation were by grace or by works, by faith or by works? The boatman listened to them, and when they were unable to come to a solution of the problem, one said to him, ‘You have heard our conversation; what do you think of this?’
“‘Well,’ he said, ‘I have been thinking it is like this — I have two oars. I will this one Faith and this one Works. If I pull only on this oar the boat goes round and round and does not get anywhere. If I pull on that one it goes round and round and gets nowhere. But if I pull on both I get across the river.’”
And people say that is a beautiful illustration of the fact that salvation is by faith and works. It would be if we were going to heaven in a rowboat, but we are not. We are going through in the infinite grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and like that lost sheep that went astray and was fond by the shepherd, we are being carried by the Saviour Home to Glory, and it is not a question of working our way there. And so we come back to what Scripture says, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lets any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). If I had to do as much as lift my little finger to save my soul I could strut up the golden streets saying, ‘Glory be to the Lord and to me, for by our combined efforts I am saved.’ No; it is no works of mine, no effort of mine, and so Jesus shall get all the glory. (99–101)
It’s all of grace or it’s all of works. You can’t have both. You can’t mingle these two contradictory means of justification. And putting your confidence in your works inherently means consenting to your own condemnation. There is only one heaven-approved, divinely-accomplished means of salvation: by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone. There’s no row boat in this picture. Only a cross and an empty tomb.
Grace and peace, friends.
H. A. Ironside, Expository Messages on the Epistle to the Galatians (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Bros., 1972).