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THE LONGSUFFERING OF CHRIST.
“Then came Peter to Him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.”
IN St. Luke’s Gospel this same answer is given with a change of expression which makes it even more emphatic: “Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.”190190 St. Luke xvii. 3, 4. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, the parable of the two servants who owed, the one ten thousand talents, and the other an hundred pence, immediately follows. It is therefore evident, that the great law of mutual forgiveness is founded 362both on the law of nature, and on the fact of the still greater forgiveness which we have received at God’s hand. If He have forgiven us so much, what is there that we shall not forgive our brother? if He have forgiven us so often, how can we ever refuse forgiveness? Seventy times seven, seven times in a day, what is this to those who have the forgiveness of God through the blood of Jesus Christ?
But the point I wish to draw attention to is, not the duty of forgiveness as it is here enjoined, but the character of Christ as it is revealed in these words. It is plain that He does not lay on us a rule of mercy by which He does not proceed Himself. He has not two measures, or an unequal balance. As He would have us measure to others, so He will mete to us. The law He here lays down is a transcript of Himself: this seventy times sevenfold remission, what is it but His unwearied mercy? and what is this “seven times in a day,” but His all-enduring patience?
Now it is this particular truth which distinguishes the Gospel from all religions of nature, and even from all other measures of the earlier revelations of God. The great truth here revealed to us is, the love, clemency, forgiveness of God to sinners. All this was, indeed, exhibited before in promises and prophecies, and in God’s manifest dealings with His chosen people of old; 363but it was never so fully revealed as by the Incarnation and atonement of Christ. It may be said with truth, that a full perception of this great mystery of mercy is the very life of faith; and that there is nothing we are slower and more unwilling to believe in its truth and fulness. The greatness of it is too large for our narrow hearts. It is very easy to say, God is merciful, Christ is full of compassion; but these general truths, as we utter them, are limited and overcast by others not less certain. For if the Gospel has revealed God’s mercy, it has also revealed God’s holiness; if it has taught us that God is Love, it has also taught us that He is “a consuming fire.” With the atonement, we have learned the judgment to come; with the sacrifice of Christ, we have learned the guilt of sin; with the gift of regeneration, the defilement of our inmost soul; if baptism has brought us remission, it has made sins after baptism more fearful. The Gospel is an awful twofold light, before which even faithful Christians tremble, and often see but in part, and, through weakness and fear, and the earthliness of their hearts, often believe and speak amiss. It seems inconceivable that God should pardon so great sins as ours; or if He pardon us once, that He should pardon us when we fall again. The number and the frequency of our falls and swervings, the many warnings and the full light against which we often 364offend; the periodical returns of temptation, and, with them, of disobedience; the depth and intensity of guilt which even lesser sins attain by repetition after repentance; above all, when committed neither by surprise, nor by suddenness, but with a certain measure of deliberation, and with enough of resistance to shew that nothing can be pleaded in excuse: all these, and a multitude more of particulars, which it is impossible to touch on in detail, make people often feel that, undoubted as is the perfect and exhaustless mercy of Christ, yet in their particular case there are features which shut them out from the consolation they would readily minister to others.
Now I am not going to argue against this feelings, so far as it promotes in us bitterness of repentance, fear, humiliation, and prayer for pardon. It is to be corrected only when it clashes with the perfect revelation of our Lord’s character, and of His dealings with us. Too much humbled we cannot be, too tender of conscience, too fearful to offend; but we may dishonour Him by unworthy and faithless mistrusts, by thinking that He is verily such an one as ourselves, and that His forgiveness is no readier and broader than the perception we form of it in our hearts. If there be any one thing of vital force in a life of Christian obedience, it is a true and full knowledge of Him 365whom we obey. His character is our very law; it imposes on us the conditions of our whole life, in thought, word, and deed, and defines the whole of our relations to Him. Now these words of His in the text reveal to us that to those who repent, howsoever often they may have sinned, there is perpetual forgiveness; that as often as we turn to Him, saying in truth, “I repent,” He will take us back again. And this is, indeed, the very grace and mystery of the Gospel. Let us consider it a little more fully.
1. The state of man by creation was this: God made him sinless; he sinned, and died,—one sin, and all was lost. The work of creation had in it no remedial provision; it was a state of sanctity for a sinless creature; it contemplated no fall, no imperfection, no infirmity. Once fallen, all was marred; the relation of God and man once broken, the power of restoration must be sought in a new order and law of grace. The state of creation, then, was awful and severe in its perfection, and in itself had no remedy or healing for sin. Adam fell, lost his gift of righteousness, and passed under the power of death. He begat a son in his own likeness, and handed on the dark inheritance of the fall; the tide had set away from God, and every generation swelled the stream and made it run more fiercely. The first Adam was shorn of 366all his powers, and there was no help in him. The fall and sorrow were the heirloom of his children.
2. Now it is exactly in this point that the Gospel, or the new creation, of which Christ our Lord, the second Adam, is the head and root, differs from the first. It is a mystery of restoration; it has in it an inexhaustible source of healing for the sin of the world. By one act of disobedience the first creation passed away for ever. The second is the perpetual remedy of sin. And this is the meaning of St. Paul’s words: “As by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. . . . Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of Him that was to come. But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by 367one, Jesus Christ.”191191 Rom. v. 12, 14-17. In the first creation repentance had no place; in the second, repentance is the first idea and law; it is a dispensation given to penitents. That is to say, Christ has made atonement for sin; He has taken away the sin of the world. By His obedience, and by His death, He has cancelled, in the unseen world, the sentence which is to us as inscrutable as the existence and origin of evil, to which mystery it is related. In this sense, then, the Gospel is emphatically a remedial dispensation; and for this end the Incarnation and atonement of the Son of God was accomplished. And farther: by its very first law it contemplates in us imperfection, frailty, and evil. It is a power to heal, and its mission is to the sick. That which could not so much as enter into the scope of the covenant of creation, fills the whole field of intention, so to speak, under the Gospel. It has to do with creatures both infirm and infected with sin; and for their raising, cleansing, and recovery, the whole ministration of the Spirit by mysteries and sacraments is shed abroad. And still more: even in those who are made partakers of these gifts of peace and grace—that is, in the regenerate—there yet remains the infection of original sin. To the end of life, though never so much subdued, it lingers still. The most perfect saint is not sinless; 368this, since creation, has been the prerogative of One alone. It will be the inheritance of saints in bliss; but on earth, so long as they are in the flesh, there is in them the mystery of the fall. In some it is the spur to watchings, fastings, mortifications, prayers; it keeps them in perpetual watchfulness. God wonderfully keeping them, their foot steps never slide. These are they of whom St. John says, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” And again: “He that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.”192192 1 St. John iii. 9; v. 18. There is, doubt less, a state in which the fallen nature, though still in us, does not shape itself into sin—a high and rare endowment, the earthly crown of those who walk with God in a perfect way. In others (and they are the greater number, even among such as may be counted holy), the sin of our nature still abides, in the form of ignorance, obliquity, passion, frailty, and the like. Though these things be not imputed to them to their condemnation; though they do not so far prevail as to break their bond of peace with their unseen Lord; yet they are imperfections which the law of the first creation would not endure; they could find no sufferance but in a dispensation of healing, and under a law of restoration. The 369obedience of imperfect saints, though it could in nowise bear the severity of God’s judgment, yet is pleasing in His sight for Christ’s sake; and their imperfections are not laid to their charge as sins. The Incarnation of the Word made flesh has laid the beginnings of a new creation, in which, until they be made perfect, the imperfect obedience and imperfect nature of His servants is accepted as well-pleasing in the sight of God. Not that the Gospel is a relaxation of the Law, or a sort of easy compromise, by which, for Christ’s sake, a lower standard of obedience is accepted in full, as if it were perfect. Far from it. As the light of truth has from the beginning waxed stronger and stronger in the world, shining more and more, through the ages of patriarchs and prophets, unto the perfect day, so did both the law of righteousness and the gifts of grace expand and grow upward to the law of Christ’s example and the gift of regeneration. As a law of obedience, the Gospel is higher, deeper, holier, and more peremptory, in proportion as the grace of the Gospel is mightier and more abundant. It is not of types and shadows that St, John speaks, when he says, “the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth;” but of the gift of righteousness, and of the law of love. Except the righteousness of a Christian exceed the righteousness of Gentile and of Jew, it will go hard with him in 37O the day of judgment. “To whom much is given, of him shall much be required.” The grace of regeneration and of the holy eucharist has not been given to Christians that they should live less humbly in obedience and fear than the Jews. As they have greater gifts, blessings, and endowments, so have they higher laws, more searching precepts, more perfect counsels of devotion. Thus much is said by the way, lest in what has been expressed, any thing should seem by the farthest consequence to detract from the sanctity of the Gospel as a law of life. As a law of obedience, it is a transcript of Christ’s perfection; but as a ministry of grace, it is full of healing and of divine compassion. It is a dispensation of forgiveness; and the very spirit and life of it is in this precept of our Master: “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.”
Let us now take some particular cases to which this truth is directly applicable.
1. And, first, of those who fall into sin after baptism. In one sense this all men do; even those I have spoken of before, in whom the virtual presence of sin seems to us never to become actual; even they have all sinned. But I am not speaking of these, nor, indeed, of any whose life has been such as to keep unbroken the relation of peace and forgiveness between them and their Lord. We have 371now to deal with the case of those who after baptism fall into sins which forfeit the favour and countenance of God. In dealing with these persons there have been two extremes: one is that of the Novatian heretics of old, who denied that there was to such any place for repentance; the other in these days, of those who treat sin after baptism as lightly as sin before it. Both these errors are a dishonour to our blessed Master: the one to His compassion, the other to His sanctity. It cannot, for a moment, be denied, that sin done in spite of the grace of baptism, and of the light of the Spirit, is far guiltier than the sins of any unbaptised man can be. We cannot say what wound it may inflict upon the soul, what it may forfeit in the kingdom of life, into how great peril it may bring us of the second death. Nevertheless, we were baptized into a state of repentance; we were thereby made partakers of the healing and perpetual restoration of the Gospel; we were put into a living relation to the Redeemer, in which there is the law and the grace of repentance for all sinners. We were regenerated, that we might be penitents; not, indeed, that we should lay up new matter for repentance—there is no need of that, God knoweth; but that we should repent all our days of the fallen nature which by our birth-sin is within us. And this regeneration contains in it 372also the grace of repentance for those who fall again, and after their fall turn to Him for pardon. The grace of baptism, which should have been unto holiness, if resisted and baffled, may still become the grace of repentance. It is the plank of escape after shipwreck, perilous but sufficient, if clung to with a fast hold and a steady heart. So far, then, is sin after baptism from being excluded from forgiveness, that it is baptism that lays the foundation both of grace and promise to the repenting Christian.
2. Again: there is a darker case than that of those who have sinned after baptism: I mean, of those who have sinned after repentance. So deep and lasting is the hurt done to the spiritual nature of man by sin, that even after it is repented of, it still soils and weakens his heart; and for this reason so many who have become penitent of their past sins are again drawn into relapses. The same out ward solicitations, after a while, address themselves with subtil allurements and sudden returns to the same surviving passions; and there are few penitents who have not been more than once retaken in the same snares, after they have begun to break them. There is no need to say that this is a dangerous condition. Such a man grieves not only the Spirit of regeneration, but the Spirit of repentance; he lessens the force and power of warnings 373and convictions, fears and hopes, upon his conscience and heart. So much of the discipline of salvation has been tried upon him in vain; his after-backsliding seems to betray the falsehood of his seeming repentance.
3. And once more: there is a still more fearful case even than these, namely, that of a Christian who sins after a course and habit of religion. We deceive ourselves by thinking that none turn aside into after-sins but those whose profession of repentance and of religion has been insincere. It is most certain, however, that people of a sincere but shallow or secure habit of mind do fall by the strength and suddenness of temptation, and by their own want of watchfulness and mortification of heart. Sins which they would never believe themselves capable of committing, they sometimes wake up and find that they have indeed committed. For all such men Satan lays cunning snares: he knows what baits have most allurement for them; and he dresses up his temptations with his own stolen light, making them seem all fair and akin to God’s service. He knows how to open pitfalls in all lawful and in all holy places—in our homes, in our chambers, in church, at the very altar; and many whose religion is sincere but frail, fall heavily, and with high provocation of the Divine longsuffering. In such men, so enlightened, so familiar 374with holy things, so aware of temptation, evil thoughts, unhallowed motions, dishonest casuistry, cheatings of conscience, evasions of light, deafness to warning, wilfulness, trifling with the preliminaries of temptation, and the like, have intenser spiritual evil than the ruder and broader disobedience of less practised and instructed minus. There is something very awful in the reiterated commission of any sin long known, professedly repented of, and habitually prayed against. If sin after baptism, or sin after repentance, be a provocation, what is sin against the light of many years and the realities of a mature probation? In such persons, year by year sin becomes more exceeding sinful; though their greater sins be forsaken, yet the less become more guilty; though they be less frequent, yet each one outweighs a multitude of sins done in the days of weakness and of twilight.
Still even for all these there is mercy. There is unspeakable consolation for them in the words, “not until seven times, but until seventy times seven;” “if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.” What else remains to us but this alone? and what does this teach us, but that no provocations, no reiteration of disobedience, how often soever committed, even between the sunrise and the sunset, 375shall shut out the true penitent from pardon? This is the one and only condition: “if he turn to thee, saying, I repent.” There is no limitation in the covenant of God, no tale of sins fixed by number, no measure of duration or of frequency registered in heaven. If only the sinner repent—this is the one and only necessary condition; the longsuffering and compassion of the Son of God are inexhaustible. If any sinner be lost, he will be lost through his own impenitence.
Let us, then, fear to lose time in turning to Him. Delay hardens men’s hearts. “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and so ye perish from the right way, if His wrath be kindled, yea, but a little.”193193 Ps. ii. 12. Let us, when through our great frailty we sin against Him, go to Him straightway, and cast ourselves at His feet, and put our mouth in the dust; let us confess all we have done, with all its aggravations, leaving nothing for the accuser to add against us. Morning and night let us lay ourselves open before our forgiving and pitiful Lord. When we have fallen into any definite and particular sin, let us record on our knees before Him our solemn resolution to avoid, with all watchfulness, all the preambles and invitations by which we have been betrayed to it. Let us lay the rod upon ourselves, praying Him to spare, us. Let us ask of 376Him not forgiveness alone, but bitterness and brokenness of heart, perpetual compunction, shame at our ingratitude, trembling and awe at our rashness in sinning against Him, the brightness of whose Presence would smite our whole being into dust and ashes. Blessed truth, that with Him is forgiveness seven times a day! for seven times a day do we commit greater sins than lost the paradise of God. “How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman? Behold even to the moon, and it shineth not; yea, the stars are not pure in His sight. How much less man, that is a worm? and the son of man, which is a worm?”194194 Job xxv. 4-6.377
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