Great Texts of the Bible
And he said unto the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.—Luke 7:50.
The woman in this story is described as a sinner. But there was something in her not dead to good, and one day she had stood on the edge of the crowd when all the publicans and sinners drew near to Jesus to hear Him, and had heard Him with the rest. As she listened and looked on His face, it dawned upon her that there was something in the world of which she had never dreamed. She had often seen good people, or those who were counted such, men and women who drew in their robes as they passed her that they might not be defiled by her touch; but here was One whose goodness was unmistakable, who was pure and holy through and through, yet who did not repel such as she, but “received sinners and ate with them.” Often she had mourned her lost innocence, but never till now had she believed in the possibility of restoration. Now she did believe. A holy One who receives sinners, who is inexorable to sin but infinitely gracious to the sinful, is forgiveness incarnate; He is a pledge of reconciling and restoring love that sweeps away every sense of human wrongs. And as the woman looked upon Jesus, her heart dissolved in penitence and love unutterable, and she was born again.
So when she hears that He is in the Pharisee’s house, what can she do but hasten thither, and brave the cruel, scornful looks of the respectable people there, to get near Him who has loosed her bonds? She finds no difficulty in making her way to the table. Silently she kneels behind Him, with a cruse of ointment in her hand. She meant to pour it on His feet, which the attitude at table made easy to do; but before she can open it, her heart opens, and tears of thankfulness and sweet penitence rain down so abundantly as to wet His feet, inflicting an indignity when she had meant an honour. She has nothing at hand to repair the fault, and so, with a touch she looses the hair, which it was shameful to let down in public, and, with the ingenuity and abasement of love, makes it a towel. Then, gaining confidence and carried farther than she had dared to intend, she lays her lips, sinful as they were, on His feet, as if asking pardon for the tears that would come, and only then applies the ointment, her only wealth. This woman that was “a sinner” and Judas are the only two recorded as having touched the Lord with their lips. Love may be bold even while penitent, and Jesus does not withdraw His foot from such a kiss.
Softer than silent, penitential tears,
Sweeter than nard upon His sacred feet,
Fell His dear pity on her shame and fears,
Calming the heart that once so wildly beat.
Oh, tender Saviour, how Thy heart was moved
Because so very, very much she loved!
The Act of Forgiveness
1. Forgiveness is an act of God—an act originative, antecedent, fertile. God must begin. This is the secret that burns through all the strong appeals of St. Paul and St. John as they reiterate their conviction that nothing of our own enters into the primary movement of our justification. No goodness at all of ours drew out a response from the co-operating favour of God. It was our badness, not our goodness, that drew it from Heaven. It was pity for our perishing that moved the Father to send His Son to save the world. “While we were yet weak, in due season Christ died for the ungodly.” Not because we loved God, but because we could not love Him, did His love for us break out over us in His Son. God first loved us while still we loved sin rather than holiness, in order that, by loving us, He might restore to us the lost power of loving Him. The heat of His love alone it is that wakes up in our cold hearts the forgotten love for Him.
2. God makes forgiveness available by sending us His Son. Has He no forgiveness without the shedding of blood? Yes indeed; He is ever ready, He has never ceased to be ready, to forgive. But His ready forgiveness is shut up, of melancholy necessity, within Himself. It can discover no way by which to enter, no point of attachment by which to lay hold. The love of God wanders round this bitter, inhospitable world, and can find no haven that is not barred.
Therefore it is that He sends His Son, in whom His forgiveness can find a road into the repellent earth, into this repugnant humanity. God’s expelled forgiveness, as all other doors are bolted, will open a way for itself; as no man will admit it, it will itself become a man, that it may find admittance. God will forgive man in spite of man. God’s forgiveness issues out of Heaven in the shape of a Man, wearing human flesh. Jesus Christ is the Forgiveness of the Father. The Father had already forgiven the world when He sent His Son to be born of the Virgin Mary, to be crucified under Pontius Pilate. The Son arrives, bringing with Him the pardon of the Father; and this pardon is effectual. For there is now in man one spot at least clean from defilement, on which the eyes of God’s purity can afford to rest. There is now, amid the loveless herds of sinners, one Heart at any rate upon which the Father can risk the outpouring of His love; one Body, amid the hopeless and the faithless, and the diseased, which can admit the rushing power of the transfiguring Spirit.
Just as a secret act of God’s original energy underlies all our natural life—one act, prevenient, enduring, hidden—so a secret act of forgiveness, original, enduring, prevenient, underlies all our regenerate life. God spoke once, “Let us make man”; and lo, in the unending force of that fiat, we all are, we have our being. God spoke once in Christ, “Let us work out man’s forgiveness”; and in the everlasting power of that one word, so spoken and done, the new race of the forgiven finds itself existing, the Church of the redeemed rises, grows, gathers, swarming upward out of some hidden will, as clouds that make and build themselves out of the very vacancy of air under the strong eye of the risen sun.1 [Note: H. S. Holland, Creed and Character, 225.]
3. Jesus gladly takes up the task assigned to Him. With Divine authority He says, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” He approaches the fallen with a boundless sympathy, and draws them to Himself by the spiritual law of attraction. He came from an infinite height into this world, that He might be near sinners, able to touch them, and ready to be touched. It was to take their nature upon Him in the very likeness of sinful flesh, that they might feel Him closer still, and that He might not be ashamed to call them brethren. It was to become sin for them, though He knew no sin; that He might bear it, first by pity, then by sacrifice, and at last by pardon. This is the great and Godlike plan, the very heart of the reason why “He lifted up His feet to the long desolations,” and touched the soil of our sin-stricken earth. And now He is only carrying out His grand plan in one of its applications when He draws the sinner near Him, and suffers her to clasp His feet that she may feel she is in contact with God’s infinite and saving mercy. It is a ray of the glorious Sun of Righteousness, whose going forth is from the end of the heaven, and His circuit unto the ends of it, which He has made to glance into this woman’s soul and to stray across this Pharisee’s threshold, that men may be made to see how the Son of God came to win back their hearts, and may learn that, while He hates the sin, He loves the sinner with yearning, quenchless compassion. If the sinner’s heart is ever gained, thus it must be, when He who in His character is “undefiled, separate from sinners” comes so close to them in sympathy, and stretches out a hand to them, stainless in purity, but filled with pardons. The Pharisee, when he sees it, sets it down as folly. But wisdom is justified of her children, and God “hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence,” because He hath abounded “in the riches of his longsuffering.”
Once in old Jerusalem
A woman kneeled at consecrated feet,
Kissed them, and washed them with her tears,
I think that yet our Lord is pitiful:
I think I see the castaway e’en now!
And she is not alone: the heavy rain
Splashes without, and sullen thunder rolls,
But she is lying at the sacred feet
Of One transfigured.
“And her tears flow down,
Down to her lips—her lips that kiss the print
Of nails; and love is like to break her heart!
Love and repentance—for it still doth work
Sore in her soul to think, to think that she,
Even she, did pierce the sacred, sacred feet,
And bruise the thorn-crown’d head.
“O Lord, our Lord,
How great is Thy compassion!”1 [Note: Jean Ingelow.]
4. Forgiveness comes first to us, who have nothing, not even love, to pay with, and it unlocks the flood-gates of the heart as nothing else will. We are not pardoned because we love, but we love because we are pardoned. We are pardoned because He loves us, and the knowledge of His forgiving love melts our hearts. Jesus seems here to teach us that there must be this experience of forgiveness before there is real and deep love. Certainly the principle involved in these words has been proved true in all the history of Christianity since they were spoken. Forms of Christianity which minimize sin, and have little to say about pardon, have always been, and always will be, cold and stagnant. The one power that set souls aflame with a holy and self-sacrificing love is the experience of God’s pardoning mercy in Jesus Christ. The measure of our consciousness of forgiven sin will be the measure of our love.
She sat and wept beside His feet; the weight
Of sin oppress’d her heart; for all the blame,
And the poor malice of the worldly shame,
To her was past, extinct, and out of date,
Only the sin remain’d,—the leprous state;
She would be melted by the heat of love,
By fires far fiercer than are blown to prove
And purge the silver ore adulterate.
She sat and wept, and with her untress’d hair
Still wiped the feet she was so blest to touch;
And He wiped off the soiling of despair
From her sweet soul, because she loved so much.
I am a sinner, full of doubts and fears,
Make me a humble thing of love and tears.2 [Note: Hartley Coleridge.]
The Condition of Forgiveness
1. Some would regard love as a condition of forgiveness. And they point to the text, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much.” Love is indeed the complement of faith. The expression “for she loved much” would seem to favour the view that love rather than faith is the saving grace. But the word “for” in this connexion is not causative but illative. Moreover Christ Himself says presently, “Thy faith hath saved thee.” Faith and love—this is the logical and chronological order. For, as Tyndale said, “Faith is the mother of love.”
Faith is the first motion of the soul away from itself, away from its own interest and self-seeking, back to God the Mighty Giver. Faith, then, is the germ of love. Once let the current of the will be set running towards God in faith, and the whole force of the passionate soul of man will be drawn into the stream, will pour itself along the channel opened until it flows with the full, swelling flood of love. In faith, the eye of the soul looks away from itself: in love, the entire heart follows the direction of the eye. Faith must begin; there is no love without faith; the soul’s motions remain locked, dammed, and barred, until faith gives them free opening.1 [Note: H. S. Holland.]
Were not those sweets, though humbly shed—
That hair—those weeping eyes—
And the sunk heart that inly bled—
Heaven’s noblest sacrifice?
Thou that hast slept in error’s sleep,
Oh, wouldst thou wake in heaven,
Like Mary kneel, like Mary weep,
“Love much,” and be forgiven?2 [Note: Thomas Moore.]
2. The text confirms the teaching of the whole incident in reference to the human condition of forgiveness, which it plainly declares to be not love but faith. The order is first faith, which has for its under side the consciousness of sin and helplessness, and for its upper side trust in Jesus, the sin-bearer. On faith follows pardon, to which we contribute nothing, and which we have but to receive through our faith. To pardon received succeeds answering love, gratitude blended with penitence, all the deeper because we know ourselves forgiven. To such love are granted the acceptance of its poor offerings, a vindication against the sarcasms of cold critics, a confirmation of the pardon received already, and a calm peace, in which henceforward to abide and advance.
(1) How does faith save? It saves by bringing the soul into vital union with God. A railway train is standing on the line. The engine has full pressure of steam; the bell rings; the locomotive moves; but the carriages stand still. What is the trouble? The engine backs up and tries again, but with the same result. What is the trouble? The coupling has not been made. A link makes all the difference. There are foolish people who are acting thus all the while, trying to reach heaven without the coupling of faith. It is impossible. Faith is the sine quâ non because it brings us into oneness with God through our Mediator Christ Jesus, so that our destiny is bound up with His for ever and ever. When once we believe, our life is for evermore hid with Christ in God.
The woman took Jesus at His word. Man though He was, somehow she felt that when He spoke God spoke, and that He could do as He said. She felt that this Man had the value of God. And, trusting Him, she felt in her soul the “rest” of God’s forgiveness. And now
The opening heavens around her shone
With beams of sacred bliss.
Earth was Paradise Regained; freedom was hers and a clean soul, the peace of God entered her heart.1 [Note: G. S. Walker, The Pictures of the Divine Artist, 72.]
When God, the ever-living, makes
His home in deathly winter frost,
And God, the ever-loving, wakes
In hardening eyes of woman lost,
Then through the midnight moves a wraith:
Open the door, for this is Faith.
Open the door, and bring her in,
And stir thy heart’s poor fires that shrink.
Oh, fear to see her pale and thin,
Give love and dreams to eat and drink;
For Faith may faint in wandering by—
In that day thou shalt surely die.2 [Note: Edward Ellis.]
(2) Saving faith implies penitence. In the case of the sinful woman there was penitence too deep for words—the broken and contrite heart which God will not despise, a loathing of sin which this Pharisee cannot understand, and a glowing love which made his frown forgotten in the irresistible attraction to a Saviour’s feet. What worlds of emotion may be passing within, where man cannot look, a bitterness of grief which the heart alone knows, and a joy with which no stranger can intermeddle! He knows it who is its Author and its End. He sees the birth of an immortal spirit, the glow and grandeur of a second creation better than the first, and welcomed with gladder songs. But all the while the poor Pharisee, in presence of its tokens, can understand it no more than he can hear the angels who rejoice over it; and he complacently charges with ignorance Him who searches the heart, and proudly condemns her who is being acquitted by the Judge of all!
At the gateway of the Parthenon in Athens was an altar dedicated to Tears. No sacrifices were consumed, no votive offerings placed upon it; but the sorrowing bowed there and wept out their sorrows. It was the shadowing forth of a great truth; to wit, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:17). Dearer to God than all the misereres of the chanting Pharisees is the cry of the returning prodigal. He sees him bowed with penitence, and goes out to meet him while he is yet a great way off.1 [Note: D. J. Burrell, Christ and Men, 253.]
(3) The deepest penitence does not imply the greatest sin. The highest degrees of sin-consciousness may be experienced by the man who is outwardly the most correct in conduct, and who has ever been,
Thro’ all this tract of years
Wearing the white flower of a blameless life.
The greatest saint may know and feel himself to be “the chief of sinners.” It is Paul—the man so conspicuously Christ-like, so unique in Christian excellence—who so characterizes himself. It is the Psalms of David—the man after God’s own heart—that are so blotted with tears, and so vocal with sobs of distress and penitential prayers. It is that eminent saint, Francis of Assisi, of whom it is said that he wept so much over his sins that he injured his eyesight, and who, in reply to remonstrance, said: “I would rather choose to lose the sight of my body than to repress those tears by which the interior eyes are purified that they may see God.” It was George Herbert who, when he lay dying, said: “I am sorry I have nothing to present to my merciful God but sin and misery, but the first is pardoned, and a few hours will put an end to the latter.”
One thing very remarkable during those last years must have struck all who conversed intimately with Erskine—his ever deepening sense of the evil of sin, and the personal way in which he took this home to himself. Small things done or said years ago would come back upon him and lie on his conscience, often painfully. Things which few other men would have ever thought of again, and which when told to others would seem trifling or harmless, were grievous to him in remembrance. “I know that God has forgiven me for these things,” he would say, “but I cannot forgive myself.”1 [Note: Principal Shairp, in Letters of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, 378.]
There is no better test of spiritual growth than increasing sensitiveness to the repulsiveness of all kinds of sin, and deepening consciousness of the constant peril from it in which every human soul lives. In the greatest saint there are all the possibilities which, being worked out, make the greatest sinner; and the truer the saintliness the deeper the consciousness of this fact. The materials out of which heaven and hell are builded are found in every life, and the man who slowly builds heaven within him has constantly the terrible knowledge that he has only to put his hand forth in another direction in order to build hell; both are within reach.2 [Note: H. W. Mabie, The Life of the Spirit, 24.]
Amos Barton, in George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life, had been an affectionate husband … but now that Milly was laid in the grave he re-lived all their life together, with that terrible keenness of memory and imagination which bereavement gives, and he felt as if his very love needed a pardon for its poverty and selfishness. What, then, must our love seem like when it is compared with the Love Divine? If any man will bring his life—even the best part of it—to the Light in which is no darkness at all, he will have enough discovered to be much forgiven.3 [Note: G. S. Walker, The Pictures of the Divine Artist, 79.]
The Peace of Forgiveness
1. “Go in peace.” The phraseology employed is not the ordinary phraseology of that familiar Old Testament leave-taking salutation which was the “good-bye” of the Hebrews—“Go in peace.” But we read occasionally in the Old Testament a slight but eloquent variation. It is not “Go in peace,” as out Authorized Version has it, but “Go into peace”; and that is a great deal more than the other. “Go in peace” refers to the momentary emotion; “Go into peace” seems, as it were, to open the door of a great palace, to let down the barrier on the borders of a land, and to send the person away upon a journey through all the extent of that blessed country. Jesus Christ takes up this as He does a great many very ordinary conventional forms, and puts a meaning into it. Eli had said to Hannah, “Go into peace.” Nathan had said to David, “Go into peace.” But Eli and Nathan could only wish that it might be so; their wish had no power to realize itself. Christ takes the water of the conventional salutation and turns it into the wine of a real gift. When He says “Go into peace,” He puts the person into the peace which He wishes him, and His word is like a living creature, and fulfils itself.
2. We continue in peace by continuing in the life of faith. For peace, like pardon, is dependent on faith. If we would enjoy continuous peace, we must exercise continuous faith. The two things will cover precisely the same ground, and where the one stops the other will stop. Yesterday’s faith does not secure to-day’s peace. As long as I hold up the shield of faith, it will quench all the fiery darts of the wicked, but if I were holding it up yesterday and have dropped it to-day, then there is nothing between me and them, and I shall be wounded and burned before long. No past religious experience avails for present needs. If you would have your peace to be “as the waves of the sea,” your trust in Christ must be continuous and strong. The moment you cease trusting, that moment you cease being peaceful. Keep behind the breakwater, and you will ride smoothly, whatever the storm. Venture out beyond it, and you will be exposed to the dash of the waves and the howling of the tempest. Your own past tells you where the means of blessing are. It was your faith that saved you, and it is as you go on believing that you “go into peace.”
3. The gift of peace does not carry with it exemption from life’s struggle. But although the upper waters of the ocean may be brushed by the breeze, or even violently disturbed by the tempest, where the ocean is deep the depths are unmoved. Trust in God deepens the spiritual life; it carries it down into the heart of things. It is by it that duty loses a certain hardness which sometimes repels us, however much we acknowledge its dignity and its claim; it is by it that the varying experiences of life come to us with the real force of teaching. The past is no empty story for us, viewed only with regret; the present is no chance condition of things, to which we give no patient thought. We are sure that there is a Providence which has been ordering all things well, even though its purposes of love have sometimes been thwarted by our sins. And thus our trust deepens our repentances, makes our confessions more searching and sincere; or, even when we are dissatisfied with our confessions and repentances, enables us with loving confidence to feel sure that, as we know our intentions are right, all that is wanting will be supplied from the merits of our Master’s Passion and from the treasures of His grace.
Christian faith does not wriggle out of the responsibilities that attach to a human life, but it does bring in the thought of a mighty hand that guides and protects; and that itself brings calm and gladness. The advanced guard that had to be all eyes and ears is glad to slip into the rear, and let somebody else take the task of finding the path and looking out for the enemy. The officer that has had charge of the great ship as it ploughs its way through the stormy night feels a lightened burden when he comes down from the bridge, and knows that there is somebody else on the look-out. You fathers have got far more anxious faces than your little children have, because they trust, and you are responsible for them. And though it is no pillow for laziness, yet it is an anodyne for anxiety, when we remember that if our “believing” grasps God in Christ, it is His business to look after us; and we may leave ourselves in His hands. So there will come stealing into the heart that trusts, just because it does trust, a strange calm like the centre in a cyclone, where there is absolute repose, and the sail hangs lank and straight in the windless air, however storms may rage madly all round about it.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
4. At the very moment when one would have thought it would do this woman good to be with the Lord for a little while longer, she is sent out into the harshly judging world. Yes, that is always the way by which Christian men and women who have received the blessing of salvation through faith can retain it, and serve Him—by going out among men and doing their work there. The woman went home. It was a home, if what they said about her was true, that sorely needed the leavening which she now would bring. She had been a centre of evil. She was to go away back to the very place where she had been such, and to be a centre of good. She was to contradict her past by her present, which would explain itself when she said she had been with Jesus. For the very same reason for which, to one man that besought to be with Him, begged that he might remain, He said, “No, no; go away home and tell your friends what great things God has done for you,” He said to this woman, and He says to you and me, “Go, and witness for Me.” Communion with Him is blessed, and it is meant to issue in service for Him.
One day Brother Masseo said to St. Francis: “I wonder why the whole world runs after thee more than after others, and all men want to see thee and hear thee and obey thee? Thou art not fair of body, thou art not deeply learned, thou art not of noble birth—why does the whole world run after thee?” When St. Francis heard this, he rejoiced in his soul and turned his eyes to heaven, and stood a long time thus, with soul lifted up to God; and when he came to himself he kneeled down and gave thanks and praise to God, and turned to Brother Masseo and said to him with great spiritual power: “Do you wish to know why this happens to me? Do you wish to know why the whole world runs after me? For I knew that thing from the all-seeing God, whose eyes see the good and the bad over all the earth. For these most holy eyes have nowhere seen a greater, more miserable, poorer sinner than I; because in all the earth He has found no more wretched being to do His wonderful work, which He wishes to have done, therefore He has chosen me, so as thus to put to shame the noble, the great, strength and beauty, worldly wisdom, that all may know that all power and all virtue come from Him and not from creatures, and that no one can exalt himself before His face; but he who praises himself, let him praise himself in the Lord, for His is the honour and the power for ever and ever.”1 [Note: J. Jörgensen, St. Francis of Assisi, 74.]
If one reads a book like the Confessions of Saint Augustine, one sees what an intensely individualistic conception permeates it. The new light which breaks in upon him only enlightens him as to his relations with God, it does not arouse in him any impulse to the service of other men. It does not occur to him that to arrange comfortably and securely for one’s own tranquillity and salvation, to have, so to speak, a private understanding with God, is in the least a selfish conception. It seems to Augustine the most natural thing in the world. Then that belief begins to alter insensibly, and the highest spirits begin to turn away in shame from a conception of religion which is merely a desire for moral security, a stoical ideal, a deliberate practising to become superior to pain and calamity by avoiding the desires and designs which are quenched and marred by suffering, an attempt at invulnerability. More and more do the highest spirits perceive that their duty is to the brotherhood of man; that there is much preventible sorrow and misery in the world, and that their work is to persuade men to prevent it.2 [Note: A. C. Benson, Thy Rod and Thy Staff, 140.]
Atwool (H. C.), At His Feet, 15.
Bourdillon (F.), The Parables of our Lord Explained and Applied, 30.
Brown (J. Baldwin), The Divine Treatment of Sin, 135.
Burrell (D. J.), The Gospel of Gladness, 310.
Burrell (D.J.), Christ and Men, 246.
Cuckson (J.), Faith and Fellowship, 123.
Davies (T.), Expositions on the Epistle to the Philippians, 526.
Holland (H. S.), Creed and Character, 219.
Leach (C.), Sunday Afternoons with Working Men, 269.
Little (W. J. K.), The Journey of Life, 143.
Maclaren (A.), After the Resurrection, 249.
Roberts (W. P.), Liberalism in Religion, 17.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), x. (1873), No. 818; New Ser., xi. (1875), No. 945.
Walker (G. S.), The Pictures of the Divine Artist, 69.