"For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad." -- II Cor. v: 10.
Forgiveness and Retribution.
I can imagine some one saying, "I attend church, and have heard that if we confess our sin, God will forgive us; now I hear that I must reap the same kind of seed that I have sown. How can I harmonize the doctrine of forgiveness with the doctrine of retribution? 'All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.' And yet you say that I must reap what I have sown."
Suppose I send my hired man to sow wheat. When it grows up, there are thistles mixed with the wheat. There wasn't a thistle a year ago. I say to my man:
"Do you know anything about the thistles in the field?"
He says: "Yes, I do; you sent me to sow that wheat, and I was angry and mixed some thistles with the wheat. But you promised me that if I ever did wrong and confessed it, you would forgive me; now I hold you to that promise, and expect you to forgive me."
"Yes," I say, "you are quite right; I forgive you for sowing the thistles; but I will tell you what you must do -- you must reap the thistles along with the wheat when harvest time comes."
Many a Christian man is reaping thistles with his wheat. Twenty years ago you sowed thistles with the wheat and are reaping them now. Perhaps it was an obscene story, the memory of which keeps coming back to distress you, even at the most solemn moments. Perhaps some hasty word or deed that you have never been able to recall.
I heard John B. Gough say that he would rather cut off his hand than have committed a certain sin. He didn't say what it was, but I have always supposed it was the way he treated his mother. He was a wretched, drunken sot in the gutter when his mother died; the poor woman couldn't stand it, and died of a broken heart. God had forgiven him, but he never forgave himself. A great many have done things that they will never forgive themselves for to their dying day. "At this moment," said one, "from many a harlot's dishonored grave there arises a mute appeal for righteous retribution. From many a drunkard's miserable home, from heartbroken wife, from starving children, there rings up a terrible appeal into the ears of God."
I believe that God forgives sin fully and freely for Christ's sake; but He allows certain penalties to remain. If a man has wasted years in riotous living, he can never hope to live them over again. If he has violated his conscience, the scars will remain through life. If he has soiled his reputation, the effect of it can never be washed away. If he shatters his body through indulgence and vice, he must suffer until death. As Talmage says, "The grace of God gives a new heart, but not a new body."
"John," said a father to his son, "I wish you would get me the hammer."
"Now a nail and a piece of pine board."
"Here they are, sir."
"Will you drive the nail into the board?"
It was done.
"Please pull it out again."
"That's easy, sir."
"Now, John," and the father's voice dropped to a lower key, "pull out the nail hole."
Every wrong act leaves a scar. Even if the board be a living tree the scar remains.
For our worst sins there is plenteous redemption. My sin may become white as snow, and pass away altogether, in so far as it has power to disturb or sadden my relation to God. Yet our least sins leave in our lives, in our characters, in our memories, in our consciences, sometimes in our weakness, often in our worldly position, in our reputation, in our success, in our health, in a thousand ways leave their traces and consequences. God will not put out His little finger to remove these, but lets them stop.
Let no man fancy that the Gospel which proclaims forgiveness can be vulgarized into a mere proclamation of impunity. Not so. It was to Christian men that Paul said, 'Be not deceived, God is not mocked: whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.' God loves us too well not to punish His children when they sin, and He loves us too well to annihilate (were it possible) the secondary consequences of our transgressions. The two sides of the truth must be recognized -- that the deeper and (as we call them) the primary penalties of our evil, which are separation from God and the painful consciousness of guilt, are swept away; and also that other results are allowed to remain, which, being allowed, may be blessed and salutary for the transgressors.
MacLaren says, "If you waste your youth, no repentance will send the shadow back upon the dial, or recover the ground lost by idleness, or restore the constitution shattered by dissipation, or give back the resources wasted upon vice, or bring back the fleeting opportunities. The wounds can all be healed, for the Good Physician, blessed be His name! has lancets and bandages, and balm and anodynes for the deadliest; but scars remain even when the gash is closed."
God forgave Moses and Aaron for their sins, but both suffered the penalty. Neither one was permitted to enter the promised land. Jacob became a "prince of God" at the ford of Jabbok, but to the end of his days he carried in his body the mark of the struggle. Paul's thorn in the flesh was not removed, even after most earnest and repeated prayer. It lost its sting, however, and became a means of grace.
Perhaps that is one reason why God does not remove these penalties of sin. He may intend them to be used as tokens of His chastening. "Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth." And if the temporal consequences were completely removed we would be liable to fall back again into sin. The penalty is a continual reminder of our weakness, and of the need of caution and dependence upon God.
One night in Chicago at the close of a meeting in the Y. M. C. A. rooms, a young man sprang to his feet and said: "Mr. Moody, would you let me speak a few words?"
I said, "Certainly."
Then for about five minutes he pleaded with those men to break from sin. He said:
"If you have anyone who takes any interest in your spiritual welfare, treat them kindly, for they are the best friends you have. I was an only child, and my mother and father took great interest in me. Every morning at the family altar father used to pray for me, and every night he would commend me to God. I was wild and reckless and didn't like the restraint of home. When my father died my mother took up the family worship. Many a time she came to me and said, Oh, my boy, if you would stay to family worship I should be the happiest mother on earth; but when I pray, you don't even stay in the house. Sometimes I would go in at midnight from a night of dissipation and hear my mother praying for me. Sometimes in the small hours of morning I heard her voice pleading for me. At last I felt that I must either become a Christian or leave home, and one day I gathered a few things together and stole away from home without letting my mother know.
"Some time after I heard indirectly that my mother was ill. Ah, I thought, it is my conduct that is making her ill! My first impulse was to go home and cheer her last days; but the thought came that if I did I should have to become a Christian. My proud heart revolted and I said: 'No, I will not become a Christian.'"
Months rolled by, and at last he heard again that his mother was worse. Then he thought:
"If my mother should not live I would never forgive myself."
That thought took him home. He reached the old village about dark, and started on foot for the home, which was about a mile and a half distant. On the way he passed the graveyard, and thought he would go to his father's grave to see if there was a newly-made grave beside it. As he drew near the spot, his heart began to beat faster, and when he came near enough, the light of the moon shone on a newly -made grave. With a great deal of emotion he said:
"Young men, for the first time in my life this question came over me -- who is going to pray for my lost soul now? Father is gone, and mother is gone, and they are the only two who ever cared for me. If I could have called my mother back that night and heard her breathe my name in prayer, I would have given the world if it had been mine to give. I spent all that night by her grave, and God for Christ's sake heard my mother's prayers, and I became a child ot God. But I never forgave myself for the way I treated my mother, and never will."
Where is my wandering boy to-night --
Once he was pure as morning dew,
O, could I see you now, my boy,
Go for my wandering boy to-night,
My dear friends, God may forgive you, but the consequences of your sin are going to be bitter even if you are forgiven.
A few years ago I was preaching in Chicago on that text, "Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there." After the meeting a man asked to see me alone. I went into a private room. The perspiration stood in beads on his forehead. I said:
"What is it?"
He replied: "I am a fugitive from justice. I am in exile, in disguise. The government of my state has offered a reward for me. I have been hidden here for months. They tell me there is no hell, but it seems as though I have been in hell for months."
He had been a business man, and having, as he thought, plenty of money, he forged some bonds, thinking that he could give his check any time and call them in, but he got beyond his depth and fell.
He said, "I have been here for six months. I have a wife and three children, but I cannot write to them or hear from them." The poor man was in terrible mental agony.
I said, "Why don't you go back and give yourself up and face the law, and ask God to forgive you?"
He said, "I would take the first train to-morrow and give myself up, except for one thing. I have a wife and three children; how can I bring the disgrace upon them?"
I, too, have a wife and three children, and when he said that, the thing looked very different.
Ah! if we could do our own reaping, it would not be so bitter, but when we make our little children or the wife of our bosom, or our old gray-haired mother, or our old father reap with us, isn't the reaping pretty bitter? I don't fear any pestilence or any disease as much as I fear sin. If God will only keep sin out of thy family, I will praise Him in time and in eternity. The worst enemy that ever crossed a man's path is sin.
If a man comes to me for advice I always try to put myself in the place of the one to whom I am talking, and then to give the best advice I can. I said to this man,
"I don't know what to say, but it is safe to pray."
After I had prayed, I urged him to pray; but he said:
"If I do, it means the penitentiary."
I asked him to come the next day at twelve. He met me at the appointed hour, and said:
"It is all settled; if I ever meet the God of Bethel I must go through the prison to meet Him, and God helping me, I will give myself up. I am going back, and I should like to have you keep quiet until I give myself over into the hands of the law; then you may hold me up as a warning. Little did I think when I started out in life that I was coming to this! Little did I think when I married a girl from one of the first families in the state that I should bring such disgrace on her."
At four o'clock that afternoon he went back to Missouri. He reached home a little past midnight, and spent a week with his family. In a letter he said that he didn't dare let his children know he was there, lest they should tell the neighbor's children. At night he would creep out and look at his children, but he couldn't take them in his arms or kiss them. Oh, there is the result of sin! Would to God we could every one of us just turn from sin to-day!
One day, when this man was in hiding, he heard his little boy say:
"Mamma, doesn't papa love us any more?"
"Yes," his mother replied. "Why do you ask?" "Why," the little fellow said, "he has been gone so long and he never writes us any letters and never comes to see us."
The last night he came out from hiding and took a long look at those innocent, sleeping children; then he took his wife and kissed her again and again, and leaving that once happy home he gave himself up to the sheriff. The next morning he pleaded guilty, and was sent to the penitentiary for nineteen years. I believe that God had forgiven him, but he couldn't forgive himself, and he had to reap what he sowed. I pleaded with the governor for mercy, and the man was pardoned.
Some time ago I was telling this story, and some one doubted it, but the governor who pardoned him happened to be in the meeting, and rose and said, "I pardoned that man myself." The governor pardoned him, and he lived a few years, but from the time he committed that sin he had to reap. Oh, reader, I plead with you, overcome your besetting sin, whatever it is.
I can imagine some one saying, "I am glad Mr. Moody hasn't tried to scare us about the future state. I agree with him that we shall receive all our reward and punishment in this life."
If you think I believe that, you are greatly mistaken. One sentence from the lips of the Son of God in regard to the future state has forever settled it in my mind. "If ye die in your sins, where I am, there ye cannot go." If a man has not given up his drunkenness, his profanity, his licentiousness, his covetousness, heaven would be hell to him. Heaven is a prepared place for prepared people. What would a man do in heaven who cannot bear to be in the society of the pure and holy down here?
It is not true that all reward and punishment is reaped in this life. Look how many crimes are committed, and the perpetrators are never caught. It often happens that the worst criminal uses his experience to escape detection, while a more innocent hand is captured. A man ruins a girl. Does he always reap punishment here? No. He holds his head as high as ever in society, while the unfortunate victim of his lust, who, perhaps, was innocently beguiled into sin by him, becomes an outcast. His punishment, however is, at the latest, only adjourned to another world.
Oh, the clanging bells of Time!
Oh, the clanging bells of Time!
Oh, the clanging bells of Time!
Oh, the clanging bells of Time!
-- Ellen M. H. Gates