|RPM, Volume 11, Number 38, September 20 to September 26 2009|
The text for this purpose you can find in 1 Peter 4:18: "And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?"
In the meditation of these words let us consider:
1. We must first inquire into who is meant by the righteous.
They are not such people who with perfect Adam, in the state of rectitude, are completely holy and righteous in themselves, for such people are not found upon the earth after the fall of Adam, whereas in this sense there is none righteous, no, not one, (Rom. 3:10). Neither are they such righteous who imagine, as the Pharisees, to be righteous in themselves, and as such they belong to that generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet is not washed from their filthiness, (Prov. 30:12). But they are those righteous who by divine light have learned to know themselves to be poor, lost, leprous, guilty of punishment and impotent people, as deeply irretrievable sinners, being sinners to the very core; who with all their guilt have learned to take refuge believingly in the open wounds of Jesus; who have learned to look upon Him with a poor sinners faith as upon the precious Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world, (John 1:29); who with the publican have learned to supplicate for grace, viewing all their best virtues and righteousnesses before God as filthy rags, (Is. 64:6). They are those people who have learned to see in Jesus, as the precious Surety of sinners, such suitableness, preciousness and necessity that they can not neglect to constantly bow down before Him, saying with Jacob:. "Lord, to me it is such a sad thought to go on without being blessed; I need Thee in and for everything, therefore I hope in Thy Word. I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me." (Gen. 32:26). They are those people who feel such an emptiness and insignificance in their best duties and therefore have learned to underline them with: "these are worthy of death," and who, on the other hand, view such a meritorious and perfect sufficiency in Jesus' blood and intercession, and as a propitiation for their sins, to liberate them from guilt and punishment and again completely give back to those who are lost, the right to eternal life. They are those people who seek to receive back in the second Adam what they lost in the first and also upon this refuge-taking faith's activity, the looking upon Jesus and sheltering with Him, they are justified before God and have peace with Him, (Rom. 5:1); so that there is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, (Rom. 8:1); for He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him, (2 Cor. 5:21).
But whereas it may happen, that a person can, to a degree, be a complainer of his sin and can become a supplicant for forgiveness, without, however, belonging among the righteous people of God, the Scripture teaches us further about the true righteous people, namely, that out of gratitude they begin to perform righteous deeds to the Lord. By a new and heavenly birth, which is not known by the world, they are inclined to live and act uprightly before the Lord in all things, doing that which is right in His eyes. Their new regenerated nature is righteous or proficient in doing right and is greatly pleased to do all that the Lord commands in His Word. And it must only be attributed to their depraved nature that they so often are found to be so dull and sluggish in God glorifying duties and they must complain with the poet: My soul cleaveth unto the dust, (Ps. 119:25), which therefore is the reason for their grief and complaint and causes them to constantly look upward for strength and grace from above. Consequently, forgiveness, acquittal or righteousness of those people who have been driven from their old dead foundations, leaning alone and entirely upon Jesus, but also heartily desiring to live for Jesus and thus prayerfully follow after perfection, these are of the true stamp and genuine, and no imaginary work: He that doeth righteousness is righteous, (1 John 3:7).
2. Let this suffice for the righteous and let us, in the second place, consider the ungodly and the sinner, who, in our text, are placed opposite the righteous.
Thus mention is made of the ungodly and the sinner which by some are joined together as if it were the ungodly sinner. Now this union is not groundless, for surely both these designations mean unconverted people. However, others of learning would rather separate the names of ungodly and sinners in this way: By ungodly such people are understood who in every respect live reckless, licentious, unrestrained, onward in the most abominable sins and day by day provoke the Lord by a life of lasciviousness, drunkenness, vilification, dishonesty and such like things. And by sinners they understand such people who do read the Bible, use the means, still have a little impression of death and eternity and live respectfully, but who yet are without truth within, having no work for Jesus, and thus, still are unconverted and unprepared for eternity.
I for mine, however, am more in accord with those expounders who make the separation just the opposite and understand therefore by ungodly all people how respectful they might live and what they might resemble who still lack the grace of conversion.
Indeed, ungodly means to be without God, the same as careless means to be without care, or parentless means to be without parents. And behold, such is the case with every person by nature from his youth. By nature he is without God in the world, (Eph. 2:2). He is born ungodly or without God, and as such he lies as n child in the cradle and sits as such upon its mother's lap. Therefore the words we read in Ps. 58:3 are so significant: "The wicked are estranged from the womb," and at another place, "and was called a transgressor from the womb," (Is. 48:8). And then we can understand by sinners such unregenerate people who daily reveal more and more their works of all kinds of offensive sins so that everyone can know them as such. Those who daily provoke the eyes of God's glory, since their tongue and their doings are against the Lord, (Is. 3:8), such, with whom almost all fear and respect for a Supreme Being have departed, who no longer have any impressions of death and eternity and who by living in all kinds of provoking sins are so set as if they must hasten to have a place in hell. Of this kind there are many in our reckless age among young and old, distinguished and poor, which we can see daily.
3. I will again let it go with this and go over in the third place to consider the blessed portion of the righteous. Here we must notice two separate matters: first, the righteous are saved and secondly they are scarcely saved. First then, they are saved. Yea, thereto he has been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, (Eph. 1:4). He cannot be deprived of salvation, eternal salvation, for he is one of those of whom Jesus said: "Father, Thine they were, and Thou gavest them Me; I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which Thou hast given Me. Father, I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where lam. "(John 17:6,9 & 24).
This faithful Jesus bought them with the price of His precious blood, (1 Cor. 6:20). This faithful Jesus sought and called them while they were going astray from Him in the world. Yea, when they lay as a lost piece of silver under the dust of sin, so unwilling and unable to bring themselves to rights, as a piece of money to do anything to its recovery, (Luke 15:8-10). He also remains faithful to them; He sanctifies, comforts and keeps them and gives them grace to endure upon the way to heaven unto the end, (Matt. 24: 13). Thus their salvation is in the strong hand of the faithful Saviour, who knoweth their frame and who will never regret that He has purchased them at such a high price and therefore they shall never go lost but shall surely become heirs of the heavenly crown, for the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are His, (2 Tim. 2:19); and Jesus promises them a place in the house in which there are many mansions, (John 14:2). The Lord's people cannot be deprived of this and each day here shortens their troubles and their strife and brings them nearer to perfect glory. And when they have served God's counsel here below, they become partakers of a salvation of which the poet cried out in amazement: "Oh how great is Thy goodness, which Thou hast laid up for them that fear Thee!" (Ps. 31:19).
However, secondly, they are scarcely saved. From that which has been said, it sufficiently appears that this scarcely by no means must be regarded as being uncertain. No, they certainly shall be saved and also on the Lord's side they are fully saved, whereas God is reconciled and pacified with them to that extent that He has sworn that He would not be wroth with them nor rebuke them, (Is. 54:9). They have exemption from hell and the right to eternal life in Christ, who is their Head and Lord. But in Acts 14:18 we read: They scarce restrained the people that they had not done sacrifice unto them, and Acts 27:16: We had much work to come by the boat. In both these places it means that they could not accomplish that without great difficulty. Now, when we read here that the righteous are scarcely saved, it is to be understood that they will not be able to enter heaven except by much strife and difficulty. The way to heaven is a new and living, a sweet and precious, but at the same time a narrow and difficult way for flesh and blood. The gate of heaven is open for the righteous but it is small and narrow, and there is much strife connected to it in order to be able to enter therein.
There are, indeed, many people whose religion never cost them any strife or any trouble, but such we suspect with good reason and we have grounds to do so, not only because God pronounces the woe to them that are at ease in Zion, (Amos 6:1), but also because our text and the constant experience of all God's people teaches us that much strife and difficulty is joined to the way to heaven. Oh, seldom is there a time without strife. This will appear from the following:
First. A Christian will experience that he scarcely is saved when he must sigh under the doubtings and onslaughts of the prince of darkness. Oh, that subtle enemy, that insolent opponent put his endeavors to work to cause Jesus, in His state of humiliation, if it were possible, to doubt His eternal Sonship and therefore said repeatedly to Him: "If Thou be the Son of God, " (Matt. 4:3 & 6). And it isn't surprising that he will also assail the righteous as to their being children of God and afflict them by causing them to fear that they are still building outside of the true foundation and that everything which they understand of heartfelt Christianity, is simply speculative knowledge, which is lodged a foot too high, namely in the head whereas it should be in the heart. Alas, he can make it so dark for the soul that they cannot discover anything anymore of the work of God to salvation in themselves and that they settle down in discouragement and they, with David, must put as title over their prayers: "A prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed, " (Ps. 102).
Second. The Christian experiences it is being scarcely saved and with much strife and difficulty when the Lord hides His friendly face. O friends, as to their feelings they learn to know a going and coming Jesus. Yes, they know what it is when Jesus, by His own light, reveals Himself to their hearts, but also what it is when Jesus keeps Himself hidden and gives them no prayer. The eunuch went on his way rejoicing, (Acts 8:39b). But at such dark times and under the feeling of the lack of God's presence, a Christian goes on his way with sadness and must lament with David: "Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me?" (Ps. 42:11). Oh, when he seeks Jesus in the means, at the assembly of the saints and in prayer, but finds Him nowhere, then he experiences what it means to be scarcely saved.
Third. A regenerated person is a great enemy of all sin. He says of it: "Sin worketh death in me." (Rom. 7:13). And yet, that wicked tare is not yet taken out of his heart with root and branch, and to the grief of his soul he often feels the aboundings of his sins and they pain him, even under his prayers. Alas, what evil thoughts can vex the soul; what hard thoughts can rise in his mind against the Most High in the fearful day of adversity! How often, to his sorrow, does he not feel things go on within him which he would not dare to confess to anyone except before God alone. Yes, must he not at times think: if the godly knew what went on within me to my grief and yet how little I can strive and pray against it, they would not be willing to accept me in their home and never have any respect for me anymore, but they would say to me as Balak said to Balaam: "Go now, flee thou to thy place." (Num. 24:11). Oh, in such a condition the soul learns to understand what these verses mean:
My sins a heavy load appear,But at the same time he also experiences the difficulty of being saved. A heart full of anxiety and no eye upon Jesus. Oh yes, then the righteous are scarcely saved.
And o'er my head are gone;
Too heavy for my soul to bear,
Too hard for me to atone.
My thoughts are like a troubled sea,
My head still bending down;
And 1 go mourning all the day,
Beneath my Father's frown.
Fourth. In the best time, when the Lord's candle is shining upon his head and when by God's light he walks through darkness, as Job said (chapter 29:3), even then he is not entirely liberated from experiencing the difficulty bound to being saved. Is he not at all times a defective son of man who possesses but a small beginning of perfect obedience? And still he endeavors to go forward. He must mortify his members which are upon the earth; he must crucify his flesh; cut off hands; pluck out eyes; fight against and conquer enemies, and oh, this does not take place without pain, strife and effort. Running in the race and never becoming weary; doing violence upon God's Kingdom and always remaining upon the seat of ease would be foolishness.
Fifth. Add to these that those who desire to go to heaven must endure the hatred and enmity of a wicked and blind world. If a person begins to consider within himself; if he does not think so lightly as before about the matter of being saved; if he begins to use the language of one poor of spirit; if he seeks all his salvation alone in a crucified Saviour; if he desires to live a close godly life; if he begins to walk the way which the world calls too narrow, entirely too circumspect: behold, then often his own parents, children and spouse begin to hate him and can no longer endure him. People of God, you need not be concerned about whether the world hates you. This is an ancient beaten path upon which thousands have traveled before you and are now within. But be careful that you do not give occasion for this hatred by being ill-tempered and unfriendly, and especially not by an uncharitable and sinful conduct. But now, from all these things it amply appears that strife and difficulty is bound thereto, if a Christian is saved. However, no fear because of four reasons.
First. The Lord will keep and watch over them in all their strife and difficulties, and never remove His hand from them. Discouraged Zion says at times: "The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me," (Is. 49:14), but then the Lord answers in the following verse: "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee."
Second. All their strife and difficulties shall work together for their good, (Rom. 8:28) and will be serviceable to God's honor and their salvation, though in dark circumstances they often cannot see this.
Third. The time of his anxiety, difficulty and strife is but short and soon passed. In the first world the strife of the righteous sometimes lasted seven hundred, yes, even with some eight hundred years, and all this time they had to stand upon a difficult battlefield as spiritual warriors. But what a gracious reduction for the Christian of our day! Now instead of seven or eight hundred years, it is only seventy or eighty years and thus reduced to one tenth. And sometimes the strife only lasts a half century or even less, and this time soon hastens by, and by far not always difficult either, but often the soul that is joined to God has sweet days in which he says with David: "Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased," (Ps. 4:7).
Fourth. The crown is hanging at the end of the race, They shall be certainly saved, therefore, let the way be somewhat difficult, what is the consequence? Are they here weary? "There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God." (Heb. 4:9).
Must they often, while here, have tears in their eyes; there God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, (Rev. 7:17). Can they not live here without defect, there they shall be eternally perfect, beholding God in righteousness and be satisfied with His likeness. (Ps. 17:15). Do they, while here, often lack the company of loving friends, or are they snatched from their side by death, there they shall eternally dwell in the company of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Paul, John and all the saints of both Testaments, and also meet their godly relatives which were taken from their side by death. Do they here have a poor house or hut to live in; there they will dwell eternally in the heavenly palace, in a house where there are many mansions, (John 14:2). Yes, if they had to roam about here as exiles, away from their fatherland and wander about in sheepskin and goatskin, being destitute, afflicted and tormented and if they had to wander in deserts and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth as Paul records of the saints of old, (Heb. 11:37 & 38), still no fear, for they shall receive a kingdom which cannot be moved, (Heb. 12:28) sit with their King in His throne and eternally enjoy peace and blessedness. Then, according to Paul's words, Satan shall lie bruised under their feet, (Rom. 16:20). All enemies shall be eternally outside and all friends eternally within. Their heavenly Father shall never again hide His face from them and never shall they be vexed by any sin. Now then, ye that fear the Lord, rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, pray without ceasing and in everything give thanks, (1 Thess. 5:17 & 18) and rejoice because your names are written in heaven, (Luke 10:20).
4. But now what shall the portion be of the unconverted sinner? This we must consider in the fourth place. Our text says: "If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? You can easily understand, my friends, that the apostle does not inquire as to the place where the sinner shall appear, but, as it were, desires to say: If the righteous, who are so truly bound to God, do not go in except by such a difficult way, ah, what shall the portion then be of those who serve the world and love sin? With this inquiring proposition of the apostle it is as with Ps. 90:11, who knoweth the power of Thine anger? and Heb. 2:3, how shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation? No one knows the strength of God's anger and there is no escape for us if we neglect this great salvation. So also in this text, where shall they appear? They certainly shall appear before God and this for them shall be a frightful appearing. Scripture teaches us that all people must appear before God. He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom He hath ordained, (Acts 17:31). We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, (2 Cor. 5:10). The hour is coming in the which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation, (John 5:28 & 29). John saw the dead, small and great, stand before God, (Rev. 20:12). This appearance before Christ shall be glorious for the poor people of God who will not view a strange Jesus then, for He is the same Person before Whom they have bent their knees a thousand times while here and to Whom they have sincerely committed themselves with all then-distresses.
But it shall be a dreadful appearance for every person who must enter eternity unconverted. Here on earth an unconverted person dares to go boldly to the fairs, the circus and other places of amusements and appear in all kinds of sinful company. With an impenitent heart he dares to appear before God to say his heartless and irreverent prayers. He often dares to appear among the people of God with a hypocritical heart, to display an appearance of godliness, while he denies the power thereof; yes, great multitudes of impenitent people dare to appear at the Lord's Supper, not fearing that there they eat to themselves damnation. But what shall it be when they shall have to deal with God in the day of judgment? There God shall bring every work into judgment. (Eccl. 12:14). There man must give account of every idle word spoken, (Matt. 12:36). When the Lord shall come He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the heart, (1 Cor. 4:5). Oh, this dreadful judgment! And there the wicked and sinner must appear. They cannot hide in the grave, neither can they take shelter under the hills and mountains. There each year of life which he had spent unconverted, each means of grace which he had neglected and each invitation of Christ which he had despised, shall be so many articles in his eternal death sentence. There the sinner shall cry for sorrow of heart and howl for vexation of spirit, (Is. 65:14). If he will look about him, he will view a burning world which shall pass away with a great noise, and a multitude of his former companions in sin who are now standing with him on the left hand of Jesus and whose terrified faces cause his heart to sink.
When he looks down, he sees a wide abyss, a lake of fire and brimstone, Where the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever, (Rev. 14:11). When he looks up, he sees a righteous Judge Who, in time, gave gracious soul's acquittals, but then, no longer in eternity. When he looks to the past, he sees a lamentable neglectfulness of the time of grace and the means of grace which he had trampled upon, and looking forward, alas! he sees an eternity without an end. Oh, how the hearts of the wicked shall fail them under the frightful sight of an inflexible Judge and under the doleful thought: now it is forever too late for me!
Behold, what a pitiable state this poor man was in! But this was only before an earthly judge. It is possible that he still received pardon and grace from the heavenly Judge. This was only terror for a temporal sentence of death. It could be he was still delivered from eternal death. But if you die as you now live, then your future terror and agony shall be much greater and you shall be consigned to the place where man shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever, (Rev. 20:10). Oh! the Lord is still so condescendingly good that He not only warns us of hell, but informs us of a way, a means whereby we can flee from the wrath to come and receive a portion in the blessedness of the Lord's people.
May you yet learn to ask with our Catechism: By what means canst thou escape this punishment and be again received into favor? And then you would be directed to such a Mediator who is in one person very God and a real righteous man, (see Question 14). May solitary places become precious to you, to there plead for soul-discovering light of grace, to rightly learn to know yourself as one wicked and to there make trial of Jesus' willingness and meritoriousness, to bless and save such as you are and to there proclaim Him to be King over your soul and to forever renounce your service and obedience to your former master.
Beloved fellow-sinner! carelessness is the shortest way to hell. Unrest must come; prayer and strife must be known; the way of being scarcely saved must become amiable and precious to you and you must learn to willingly take the wind of hell and the world in the face and not to do as dead fish, which float with the stream and follow the great multitude in serving the world or be inclined to serve God and the world together. You must learn to make an upright choice, to serve the Lord, and God's poor and despised people must become your friends and companions, though they possess nothing of the greatness of this earth. Jesus loved them more than the entire world, yea, more than His own blood and life, which He willingly sacrificed for them, and you, too, must learn to love them and pray and strive with them, so that you may also overcome and be crowned with them. Does this way please you? Then choose you this day whom ye will serve, as Joshua said in chap. 24:15. It must be done this day for tomorrow might be forever too late. A matter of such great importance allows for no delay. Therefore today, fall upon your knees before Jesus and surrender completely to Him, that it be well with you for eternity. And if you are disposed to go upon this way of strife and prayer, of self-renunciation and narrow godliness, oh, then it will not stand in your way if you have, up to now, indulged in many vile sins and squandered your time and strength in the service of Satan. Yes, though you be a gray-haired man of a hundred years, Jesus' blood cleanseth from all sins, and where sin abounded, grace did much more abound, (Rom. 5:20).
But to you, people of God! First, do not complain because of the difficulty of the way which leads to salvation. For almost six thousand years the way to heaven has gone through cross and strife and all those who are now before the throne have entered by this way and would you now desire another way more pleasant for your flesh? And besides this, you enjoy, do you not, notwithstanding your strife and difficulties, alternatings of so much comfort and sweetness, that you would not exchange with a possessor of the entire world. Your solitary inner-chamber and confessions testify of this with Asaph: "It is good for me to draw near to God. " (Ps. 73:28).
Second. As one righteous, seek your salvation and righteousness only in Jesus, and seek but to learn to float smoothly upon free grace and to lean upon that everlasting Mediatorial life of your Surety.
Third. Ye who are righteous, show your readiness to do right in all your conduct and walk, so that in word and deed you can be watched and as lights you may shine in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.
Fourth. Backsliders! return to the Lord and the way of your duties. Ah, seek to requite your Master for the years which the caterpillar and the cankerworm have devoured. To that end seek grace and strength only from Him, so that He be glorified in His own work.
Fifth. Godly people! seek altogether to walk with the earth under your feet, with Jesus in your heart and heaven in view. Soon you shall receive a kingdom which cannot be moved. Rejoice in the prospect; be poor in yourself; bear one another's burdens and often pray that the Lord, when He comes, shall find you watching, to take you over Jordan to your blessed heavenly Fatherland, for then:
They all shall sing in joyful lays
And laud His ways
For great is God in majesty,
The Lord is He
Of all creation.
Jehovah looketh from on high
With kindly eye
Upon the lowly,
But knoweth those from far who hide,
In sinful pride,
Their ways unholy.
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