So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.
I. THAT TO THE YOUNG THERE COMMONLY OCCURS SOME VISION FROM HEAVEN. We do not expect the miraculous now. God may, and probably does, make known his will in ways that are outside and above the ordinary and the natural; but we have no right to reckon on these. He does come to us by the illuminating influences of his Holy Spirit, and he thus elevates the mind, awakens the soul, subdues the will, renews the nature, transforms the life. God visits us through various means, acts upon us by many instruments, wins us in different ways. The heavenly vision is sure to come during the days of youth, when the mind is more open and the heart more tender; "for of such is the kingdom of God."
1. It may take the form of a vision of Jesus Christ - his excellency and claims. The young heart may see him, as it had never before, as One who is infinitely worthy of trust, of love, of service, of submission.
2. Or it may take the form of a vision of human life - its seriousness and responsibility. The mind may awake to this great fact: having regarded human life as nothing better than a thing to be enjoyed, or as an opportunity for making money, or gaining a brief reputation, or attaining to some social position, it comes to see, in the light of God's revealing truth, that it may be something immeasurably more and higher - that it may be made a sacred opportunity of spiritual culture, of holy usefulness, and of Divine service.
3. Or it may take the form of a vision of the human soul - its greatness and value. It may suddenly become conscious of the fact that God has created us for himself, that we may possess his likeness, live his life, and share his immortality; that within the humblest human frame resides a spirit whose worth the wealth of a planet will not weigh.
II. THAT THEN COMES THE TIME FOR THE GREAT DECISION. There are other occasions in the course of human life when a decisive choice is made; when it is resolved what vocation shall be pursued, what life-companion taken, what country adopted for a home, etc.; but there is no occasion which compares with this in sacred interest, in lasting issues. It may be even said that "on this winged hour eternity is hung." Obedience or disobedience to the heavenly vision makes all the difference between success and failure, between peace and unrest of soul, between life and death. Obedience means
(1) becoming right with God;
(2) spending a life in accordance with his will and in harmony with our true and deeper cravings;
(3) a title to everlasting joy in the future. Disobedience means the sad and dark opposites of these:
(1) remaining under God's displeasure;
(2) living a life at variance with his purpose and the true end of man;
(3) rejecting the offer of eternal life. - C.
Whereupon, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.
I. THIS HEAVENLY VISION SHINES FOR US TOO. Paul looked back to this as being equally available as ground for his convictions as were the appearances of the Lord to the eleven after His resurrection. And what we see and know of Christ is as valid a ground for our convictions as this. For the revelation that is made to the understanding and the heart is the same whether it be made, as it was to Paul, through a heavenly vision, or, as it was to the other apostles, through their senses, or, as it is to us, by the Scripture. Paul's sight of Christ was for a moment; we can see Him as long as we will by turning to the Book; it was accompanied with but a partial apprehension of the great and far-reaching truths he was to learn; we have the abiding results of the life-long process.
II. THE VISION OF CHRIST, HOWSOEVER PERCEIVED COMES DEMANDING OBEDIENCE.
1. The purpose for which Christ made Himself known to Paul was to give him a charge which should influence his whole life. And the Lord prepared the way for the charge. He revealed Himself in His radiant glory, in His sympathetic unity with them that loved Him, in His knowledge of the doings of the persecutor; and He disclosed to Saul how the thing that he thought to be righteousness was sin. And so whatsoever glimpse of the Divine nature, or of Christ's love, nearness, and power, we have ever caught, was meant to animate us for diligent service. So the question for us all is, What are we doing with what we know of Jesus Christ? It is not enough that a man should say, "Whereupon I saw or understood the vision." Sight, apprehension, theology, orthodoxy, they are all very well, but the right result is, "Whereupon I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision."
2. But notice the peculiarity of the obedience which the vision requires.(1) There is not a word about the thing which Paul always puts in the foreground as the hinge upon which conversion turns — viz., faith; but the thing is here. He got up to his feet "not disobedient," though he had not done a thing. That is to say, the man's will had melted. The obedience was the submission of self to God, and not the consequent external activity in the way of God's commandments.(2) Paul's obedience is also an obedience based —(a) Upon the vision of Jesus Christ enthroned, living, bound by ties that thrill at the slightest touch to every heart that loves Him and making common cause with them.(b) Upon the shuddering recognition of Paul's own unsuspected evil.(c) Upon the recognition of pity in Christ, who, after His sharp denunciation of the sin, looks down with a smile of forgiveness, and says, "But rise and stand upon thy feet, for I will send thee to make known My name."
III. THIS OBEDIENCE IS IN OUR OWN POWER TO GIVE OR TO WITHHOLD. Paul shows us the state from which he came and that into which he passed — "I became — not disobedient." It was a complete, swift and permanent revolution, as if some thick-ribbed ice should all at once melt into sweet water. But whether swift or slow it was his doing, and after the Voice had spoken, it was possible that Paul should have risen not a servant, but a persecutor still. Men can and do consciously set themselves against the will of God, and refuse the gifts which they know all the while are for their good. It is no use to say that sin is ignorance. Many a time when we have been sure of what God wanted us to do, we have gone and done the exact opposite. There are men and women who are convinced that they ought to be Christians, and yet there is no yielding.
IV. THIS OBEDIENCE MAY, IN A MOMENT, REVOLUTIONISE A LIFE. Paul fell from his horse a bitter enemy of Jesus. A few moments pass. There was one moment in which the crucial decision was made; and he staggered to his feet, loving all that he had hated, and abandoning all in which he had trusted. His own doctrine that "if any man be in Christ he is a new creature," etc., is but a generalisation of what befell himself on the Damascus road. There are plenty of analogies of such sudden and entire revolution. All reformation of a moral kind is best done quickly. It is a very hopeless task, as everybody knows, to tell a drunkard to break off his habits gradually. There must be one moment in which he definitely turns himself round and sets his face in the other direction. Christ cured two men gradually, and all the others instantaneously. No doubt, for young people who have grown up in Christian households, the usual way is that slowly and imperceptibly they shall pass into consciousness of communion with Jesus Christ. But for people who have grown up irreligious, the most probable way is a sudden stride out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God's dear Son. So I come to you all with this message. No matter what your past, it is possible by one swift act of surrender to break the chains and go free.
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
1. It was first of all a revelation of self and of sin. "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" The light which shone down upon him on that Damascus road showed him very plainly how much there was in the innermost recesses of his heart that was antagonistic to the God whom he thought he was serving. "I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest."
2. It was a revelation of self and sin, but it was also a revelation of Christ. How full and how complete that revelation was we only know from the writings of his later life.
3. It was a revelation of self, it was a revelation of Christ, and, above all, it was a revelation of duty. To whom much had been forgiven from him much was to be expected. In some form, at some time or other, the heavenly vision comes to every man.
4. Let us consider the effect of obedience to the heavenly vision, and, first of all, let Us consider its effect upon character. It destroys existing ignoble traits. We see this very clearly and vividly in the life of the Apostle Paul. When once the heavenly vision possesses a man fully and completely, there is no room in his life for the low aims which have previously directed his actions. He has now learned to say with the apostle, "This one thing I do," etc.
5. It is difficult to overstate the influence of obedience to the heavenly vision upon the life of him who is thus obedient. The memory of that vision ennobles life amidst the most ignoble surroundings. It makes the poor slave Onesimus a worthy subject for one of the great apostle's Epistles.
6. They who would obey the Divine call have constantly to contend with the objections of those who endeavour to measure eternal issues by temporal standards, and who estimate the value of lofty actions of heroism and self-denial in the scales of a hard utilitarianism, or what they are pleased to call a matter-of-fact common-sense. Such persons tell us that obedience to the ideal involves waste, that it is far better to act always in the cold, clear light of reason, than to allow ourselves to be guided by what they are pleased to call "sentiment." The life in which there is no obedience to the heavenly vision, no faithfulness to the highest ideals of duty, may be successful if judged by the sordid rule of a hard utilitarianism, a selfish and self-complacent common sense, but such a life can lift no man, can do nothing to make the world better. The world has been, is now, and ever will be saved from corruption by those who, at all costs, are true to their ideals and obedient to the heavenly vision.
(H. S. Lunn.)1. God could address each one by name, and thus indicate what we should believe and do. He could speak to us by dreams or visions, as He did to Abraham, Isaac, and Eliphaz; He could address us by a voice, as He did Samuel; He could send a special messenger to us, as He did to Ahaz, Ahab, David, and Hezekiah; He could direct an angel to convey a message to us, as He did to Daniel, Zacharias, and the Virgin Mary; He could call us to His service by an internal voice, as He did Jeremiah and Ezekiel; or He could speak to us in His glory, as He did to Isaiah, to Saul, or to John.
2. There were reasons, however, why this should not be the usual method by which He addressed mankind. Such a mode, while it might have the advantage of determining at once the question of duty, would to a great extent render useless the faculty of reason, designed to aid us in investigating truth, and take away the stimulus to human effort in the search after what is right.
I. As we cannot rely on dreams, visions, etc., to guide us, WHAT METHODS ARE THERE BY WHICH OUR MAKER MAKES KNOWN HIS WILL TO US?
1. By His Holy Word. The Bible does not address each one by name, but it gives directions adapted to our common nature, and applicable to all the situations in which man can be placed. A case has never occurred in relation to which some principle could not be found in the Bible that would be a true indication of the will of God.
2. Our rational nature. We cannot suppose that God would so endow man as to lead him astray; nor that any direct statements from Himself by a revelation would be contradictory to what man's reason compels him to regard as true. Reason never lends its voice in favour of irreligion or crime. When, indeed, it attempts to penetrate the counsels of the Almighty and to form a system of religion which shall supersede that of revelation, it errs, for it has departed from its appropriate sphere. But it does not err when it speaks of the obligations of virtue, justice, and truth; when it directs the mind up through His works to God Himself.
3. The voice of conscience. Its province, indeed, is often mistaken; and hence, like reason, man makes it an unsafe guide. It is not given to be a revelation, for it communicates no new truth. In its own place, however, it is a method by which God communicates His will, and is as true to its office as the magnet to the pole. It urges to duty; it condemns wrong; and, when we have done what is right, it expresses approbation in a manner which we cannot but regard as the voice of God Himself. It is a way in which God is speaking to millions; and in such a manner, that if they would follow His counsels according to the laws of this arrangement, they would be in no more danger of erring than was Saul of Tarsus when he yielded obedience to the heavenly vision.
4. The events of Divine Providence. Every one may find in his own life not a few events that were designed to indicate to him what was the will of God. The Providence which commits to his care an aged parent, an unprotected sister, which lays at his door the afflicted, so speaks to him that he is in no danger of mistaking the Divine will. The Providence, too, which has given to a man wealth or learning, or which takes away an endeared object of earthly affection which stood between the heart and God, is an intimation as clear as if the lesson were written with a sunbeam. So a man in one pursuit in life finds his plans blasted, encounters obstructions; and he may find in these things an intimation that he is in a wrong path as clear as was that in the case of Saul.
5. The calls of the gospel — when the minister brings before a man undoubted truth in such a form as to be adapted to the particular circumstances.
6. The voice of a stranger. So it was when the eunuch was addressed by Philip. And so, now, on a steamboat, on a railroad car, in a remote hut where a traveller may tarry for a night, in a Christian sanctuary casually attended, the feet of the stranger may have been guided in order that he might speak about the way of salvation.
7. The influences of the Holy Spirit: a teaching and a guidance superadded to all the others, and without which none of them would be effectual. Life is made up of thousands of suggestions from some unseen quarter, starting some thought of what is wise and right. Sometimes they come with the gentleness of the evening zephyr; sometimes with the fury of the storm; sometimes when we are alone, or in the crowded place of business; or under the preaching of the gospel; and sometimes when there are no apparent causes giving a new direction to the thoughts. Can anyone on any other supposition explain how it was that Saul of Tarsus, , Luther, Bunyan, John Newton were converted? Can any mere philosopher explain how it was that John Howard was led to spend his life in the dungeons of Europe, that he might relieve the sufferings of the prisoners? or how it was that Clarkson and Wilberforce were directed to the evils of slavery? And can we be in danger of error in supposing that the same Spirit breathed into the hearts of Morrison, and Schwartz, and Henry Martyn, a desire for the conversion of the world; and that God by His Spirit appeals now to the sinner by a voice as real as that which addressed Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus?
II. TO WHAT DOES GOD CALL US IN THESE VARIOUS METHODS? Let us learn from the example of Saul. As in his case, so now, God calls the sinner —
1. To forsake the ways of sin.
2. To faith in the Saviour.
3. To prepare for another world; to be ready to give up their account to Him.
4. To devote themselves to His cause.
(A. Barnes, D. D.)
I. OUR POSSESSION OF "HEAVENLY VISIONS." Here it was a voice and a vision too — it was the face and voice of Christ. And this is just as true for all of us. Behind the heavenly influences that play about our paths from veriest childhood, that try to arrest and touch and move us behind them all; in and through them all we, too, can hear these words of power and pathos, "I am Jesus." Behind light, and voice, and vision, there is to be traced the personal agency of the personal Lord. Let us thank God for such visions, and voices, and influences; providences, if you like, adapted to serve God's purpose and His will concerning us. Where would Paul have been, and what would he have become, but for this voice and vision from heaven? This is God's way of coming into contact with man. We are not to be left utterly to ourselves. Voice or vision shall declare to us what we are to be and do, and where to go. But for these heavenly visions and voices we should stand still in blankest ignorance or doubt, God knows whether. Thank God, lights do flash, and fingers do point, bright visions do make the face to smile, and the heart to rejoice, and set the being all astir with a tumult of joy and wonder. Then add to these the vision and voice that looks out and speaks from out the pages of the written Word. Add to this those ideals of higher Christian life; of duty and sacrifice, that come to us in those solemn pauses of life.
II. OUR ATTITUDE towards these "heavenly visions." Paul's was obedience. How, then, shall we act if we obey the heavenly visions? Turn back, if He bids us, from our worldward wanderings! give up, if He bids us, our life of rebellion; throw down, as did Saul, the weapons of our hostility to Christ and truth. It may be they may never come back again to us. The bright light that flashed across the paths of earlier years, and the voice that then arrested us may never call us again by name.
But showed...to the Gentiles that they should repent and turn to God and do works meet for repentance.
S. S. Times.It is difficult for us to realise what Paul's message to the Gentiles — "That they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance" — actually meant to the world that lay between Rome and Asia Minor. (Apol. 12-15) gives a picture of that ancient world and its religion, which may not be repeated here. Suffice it to say, that the heathen gods were conceived of by their worshippers as guilty of the most shameful crimes; and while the philosopher scoffed at the popular religion, the crowd eagerly followed it, and the vicious and degraded pleaded the examples of the gods as an excuse for their own excesses. Divine worship was in many cases an exhibition of the most shocking immorality. The dishonest man prayed at the shrine of Mercury for a blessing on his dishonesty; the debauchee, at those of Bacchus and Venus. "Men generally," says Canon Rawlinson, describing the period, "looked to this life as alone worthy of their concern or care, and did not deem it necessary to provide for a future, the coming of which was uncertain...Death, ever drawing nearer, ever snatching away the precious moments of life, leaving men's stores perpetually less and less, and sure to come at last and claim them bodily for its victims, made life, except in the moments of high-wrought excitement, a continual misery. Hence the greatness and intensity of the heathen vices; hence the enormous ambition, the fierce vengeance, the extreme luxury, the strange shapes of profligacy; hence the madness of their revels, the savageness of their sports, the perfection of their sensualism; hence Apician feasts, and Capuan retirements, and Neronic cruelties, and Vitellian gormandism; they before whose eyes the pale spectre ever stood, waving them onward with his skeleton hand to the black gulf of annihilation, fled to these and similar excesses, to escape, if it might be for a few short hours, the thought which haunted them, the Terror which dogged their steps." It was into this world where religion was divorced from morality that Paul carried his proclamation of a God who punished all sin, and to whom men should turn, bringing forth fruits meet for repentance.
(S. S. Times.)
1. The repentance for past sins, which is more than a regret for their consequences.
2. The "turning to God," which implies faith in Him, as far as He is known, and therefore justification.
3. The doing works meet for repentance (we note the reproduction of the Baptist's phrase; see Matthew 3:8), which are the elements of a progressive sanctification.
I. THE CHIEF ARGUMENTS ON BOTH SIDES THE QUESTION CONCERNING THE VALIDITY OF A LATE OR DEATH-BED REPENTANCE.
1. I begin with the opinion of those who represent the case of a sinner that defers his repentance to a death bed as wholly desperate, even though we could suppose it to be sincere. As harsh as this doctrine may seem, yet it must be owned the reasons where by it is supported are by no means contemptible; for —(1) It is urged by those who maintain it that Christianity is represented as a state of continual striving and watching and praying and doing all diligence; that it is compared to a race, wherein those only that run through the several stages of it, from the beginning to the end, shall obtain the prize. To the same effect, Christians are represented also as soldiers fighting under the Captain of their salvation, the Lord Christ, against those powerful enemies, the world, the flesh, and the devil.(2) It is further urged that more fully to explain the meaning of these metaphorical expressions we are required (Romans 14:8; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Philippians 2:15). How does a sinner who exercises not any act of repentance till the last moments of his life come up to these characters, or indeed to any one of them?(3) As the precepts of the gospel require, so the promises of it are all made upon condition of a constant and uniform course of obedience (John 15:7; Hebrews 3:14; 2 Corinthians 7:1). If the promises, then, of the gospel are only made to Christians upon these and the like conditions, how can we reconcile the hopes of a dying sinner with them? of a sinner who never had any vital or sensible communion with Christ, who has been so far from going on to perfection in a state of holy living, that he has hitherto perhaps lived, to all appearance, without God in the world, or so much as any true or distinct notion of holiness?(4) It is said, further, that at the day of judgment sentence will pass upon man, not according to some transient and occasional acts of piety and religion, but according to the general course and tenor of their lives or the habitual or standing bent of the inclinations towards good or evil (Matthew 16:27; Revelation 20:12). Upon all these considerations of the general expressions in Scripture concerning the necessity of a holy life, of the precepts and promises of the gospel, and the account we have in it of the process of the last judgment, several pious and learned men are of opinion that sinners who have all along lived in a wicked and unregenerate state and never repent till they come to die cannot, according to the terms of the new covenant, "die the death of the righteous," though we could suppose that there is much greater reason always to suspect that their repentance may be sincere; for repentance, say they, in the Scripture notion of it, does not barely imply a thorough change of mind and a steady resolution of amendment, but a new and actual obedience, and a resolution to become better can no more be called that new obedience than the spring can be called the harvest or a blossom the fruit. A good resolution is a hopeful step to begin our obedience upon; but till it carry us forward and discover itself in some real and sensible effects it is still only a principle of obedience, but cannot be called obedience itself.(5) Men are the more confirmed in this opinion, that repentance does not only consist in our forsaking of sin and resolving to do well, but in the actual, or rather indeed habitual, practice of piety, because we have no instance or example in Scripture of any person that was saved at the article of death who had all along lived in a wicked and vicious course of life. As to the case of the thief upon the cross (besides that it was extraordinary, and which therefore no rules can be drawn from, in the ordinary and standing methods of God's grace), we do not know how he had behaved himself in the general course of his life; he might have been drawn into the fact he is charged with in the gospel by ignorance, by inadvertency, or surprise. There are mitigating circumstances of his crime; and some of the best men in Scripture are charged with crimes of as high a nature, and with committing them deliberately. This poor criminal might have been, in other respects, of a regular and sober life, or he might, during the time he was in prison, have exercised a hearty repentance for his past sins and miscarriages, and have evidenced the sincerity of his repentance by some real and sensible effects. As to the parable of those who were called at the last hour, and yet received the same wages with those who bore the heat and burden of the day, it is equally insignificant to prove the validity of a death bed repentance. The design of that parable is plainly to show that the Gentiles, under the gospel dispensation, are entitled to the same privileges with the Jews, who were the first in covenant with God and called so many ages before to be His chosen and peculiar people. Accordingly our Saviour Himself explains the design of this parable (Luke 13:29, 30). If no arguments can be drawn from either of these parables for the validity of a death bed repentance, what shall we say to that parable of the wise and foolish virgins, which seems to conclude directly against it? There is the greater reason to suppose that this parable is particularly designed by our Lord to show the incapacity sinners are under of being saved who never take any care to prepare themselves for another world till they are going out of this from the application which our Saviour Himself makes of this parable (Matthew 25:13).(6) Besides these arguments from Scripture, there are others made use of from the nature and reason of the thing itself to show the invalidity of a death bed repentance. True repentance implies at least a. thorough change in the frame and temper of our minds; it requires that we "put off, concerning the former conversation, the old man, which is corrupt, according to deceitful lusts"; and that we "put on the new man, which is created in righteousness and true holiness." Now, it is as contrary to the nature and established order of things that a man should all of a sudden pass out of one of these different states into another as that he should be in a high fever and the same moment in a perfect state of health. The ill habits of the soul, as they are contracted by degrees, so they can only be destroyed by contrary and repeated acts. And till the body of sin be destroyed, how good soever our resolutions may be, we are but where we were; and should we die with such ineffective resolutions, God, who sees us in a state of disorder, and whose judgment is always according to truth, cannot, say they whose principles I here proceed upon, but judge us, notwithstanding all our designs of forsaking our sins, to die in a sinful and unregenerate state. So that could we suppose the repentance of an old beaten sinner in his last moments might recommend him to the pardoning grace of God, yet without His sanctifying grace also, and that too in a very extraordinary manner, such a sinner could not die in that heavenly temper of mind which is necessary to qualify him for the vision and enjoyment of God. According, therefore, to that principle whose grounds I have been explaining nothing but a miracle can save a dying penitent who has lived all along in a sinful, impenitent state; that is, nothing can save such a sinner but what might have saved him if he had never exercised any repentance at all — nothing but that Divine almighty power which is able of these stones to raise up children to God. I proceed now —
2. To lay before you the reasons of those who are of opinion that a late or death bed repentance, if it be sincere, may come within the conditions of the new covenant, upon which the pardon of sin and eternal life are promised.(1) It is said that in other cases where there is no opportunity for practising our duty God will accept a virtual instead of an actual obedience. By a virtual obedience I understand not only a true sense and conviction upon our minds of the general obligation we are under to obey the laws of the gospel, but a firm and settled resolution to do it as the occasions of obedience may be offered; and by actual obedience I understand our putting those good resolutions in practice when such occasions are offered. Now the apostle, in the case of charity to the poor, has expressly determined (2 Corinthians 8:12). And indeed if God did not in other cases accept a virtual for an actual obedience — that is, as we commonly say, the will for the deed — the obedience of the best of men would be only partial and temporary, because it is impossible that any man should actually discharge all the duties of religion at all times; nay, there are some particular duties of religion which very good men may not have a call or opportunity to exercise at any time. If we may not be allowed to judge thus favourably of the case of late penitents, what shall we think of those (and there were a considerable number of them) who had no sooner embraced Christianity but they suffered martyrdom for the profession of it? Shall we say that these short-lived converts, who were faithful unto death, shall not inherit the crown of life? Shall we be so uncharitable to conclude that because they had not time to evidence the sincerity of their repentance by doing works meet for it that therefore they died in a state of impenitence and disorder? No man will say so.(2) That God Almighty does sometimes infuse such a charity into the hearts of dying sinners, upon their sincere repentance, seems highly agreeable to the doctrine of the Church of England, the practice of whose clergy it is not only to administer the Holy Sacrament to sick persons who desire it, though they have been of a very wicked and dissolute life, but to notorious criminals and condemned malefactors, where they give any visible or public testimony of their repentance. This practice of the Church, it is said, supposes it to be her doctrine that if the greatest sinners truly repent and turn to God, though in their last moments, they may partake worthily of the Lord's Supper. Why else is it administered to them? And if they be duly qualified to partake of so high an ordinance, then it is beyond supposition that they partake of all the real effects and benefits of it; so that their sins are not only pardoned, but their natures sanctified and renewed: they dwell in Christ and Christ in them; they are one with Christ and Christ with them. It is impossible that a penitent upon whom the holy sacrament, according to the doctrine of the Church, has these heavenly and sublime effects, should die in an unregenerate or unsanctified state. But —(3) As to the objections on the other side, from the metaphorical allusions that occur in the gospel, from the precepts and promises of it, and the process of the last judgment, which were said all along to suppose an entire and continued course of obedience, it is answered, they may be accounted for from the distinction of a virtual obedience, where men have not time or opportunity to reduce it into act, and that God will look upon a foreseen course of piety and reformation which men sincerely resolve upon, as if they had lived to execute their resolutions. It is granted, indeed, that we have no example in Scripture of any dissolute and habitual sinner to prove the validity of a death bed repentance. It is acknowledged, further, that the parable of those who were called at the last hour has no relation in the main scope and design of it, as we have observed, to such penitents. But it is answered, again, that the silence and want of precedent in Scripture to prove that a death bed repentance may be valid, is, at the best, but a negative argument, which ought not to be admitted against great appearances of truth and reason on the other side. As to the parable of the virgins, it seems to be directly intended to discourage men from casting all their hopes upon the uncertain issue of a death bed repentance. This, too, is readily owned by those who contend for the validity of such a repentance. But then, say they, we are not to strain every passage or circumstance of a parable, which is mentioned for the greater decorum of it, too far, but are to consider the chief arguments and tendency of it according to the general sense and other concurring proofs of the Holy Scriptures; and therefore what we are to understand by the parable of the virgins is this, that all the prayers and tears, all the deep sighs and bitter lamentations, of a sinner in the extremity of life, will be to no effect except he sincerely repent and turn with all his heart to God, which, because it is a case that very rarely happens, and which, when it does happen, no sinner, considering how deceitful the heart of man is, can certainly know to be his own case, therefore all wise persons will take care to be always prepared for the coming of the Lord, and not put their everlasting salvation upon the dangerous and, to say the best of it, very disconsolate issue of a death bed repentance.
II. TAKE WHAT SIDE OF THE QUESTION YOU PLEASE, IT IS THE HIGHEST FOLLY MEN CAN BE GUILTY OF TO DELAY THEIR REPENTANCE TO THE LAST AND CONCLUDING SCENE OF THEIR LIVES.
1. If you do believe that he only who leads a holy and religious life can have hope in his death, and that a sinner who does not timely repent and turn to God, so as to do works meet for repentance, is excluded the covenant of grace, why then, considering the uncertainty of life, you have in effect, every moment you continue in a sinful state, the sentence of death, of eternal death, in yourselves; and should you happen to die, as you cannot foresee you shall not, by a sudden disease or accident, by your own principles and out of your own mouth shall God judge you.
2. Because sinners are more generally of opinion that a death bed repentance may, if it be sincere, at last save them, I shall more particularly apply what I have to say to such persons, and desire them to go along with me in the following considerations: —(1) It is extremely uncertain whether men who go on in a course of sin, in hopes that they may take up and remedy all at last by a death-bed repentance, will, when they come to die, have any time to repent.(2) But what if a sinner should not be surprised by a sudden and immediate death, but have some short warning of its approaches, yet how is he sure that he shall be in a condition to exercise any true or proper acts of repentance? He may be deprived of the use of his understanding or memory, or the pains of his distemper may seize upon him in so violent a manner that, though he may have some confused notions and designs of repentance, yet he cannot apply his thoughts distinctly without great distraction to the business of it; and repentance is a work which at all times, but especially at a time when a thorough change of a corrupt heart is to be wrought all at once, requires great attention and composure of mind.(3) Supposing God Almighty should be so merciful to a sinner as to allow him not only some short time to prepare for death, but the free and undisturbed use of his reason — let us suppose, I say, a case which very rarely happens, that the approaches of death should be so easy and gradual as to give a man no sensible pain of body or disturbance of mind, yet it is still uncertain whether he may find in his heart any true inclinations to repent and turn to God; for it is no easy matter for a man to resolve in good earnest to hate what he has all his life long placed his great happiness and satisfaction in, or even to desire to free himself from the chains which have held him for many years in so agreeable a captivity.(4) But let us suppose, further, that a sinner in his last moments may have some good inclinations towards repentance, yet still it is uncertain whether they may be so well grounded or rise so high as to make his repentance sincere; for it is natural for wicked men, if they be not wholly hardened through the deceitfulness of sin, to have their conscience awakened under the apprehensions of death and a judgment to come, so that they cannot but wish at least that they had served God more faithfully and never indulged themselves in those transient pleasures of sin for which they are now in imminent danger of suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. Why this is no more than the repentance of a hardened malefactor when he is going to execution; a mere motion of self-love is sufficient to fill him with regret for having made himself a sacrifice of public justice, without any real change in the temper and disposition of his mind. And it is to be feared that the repentance of a dying libertine seldom proceeds from any better principle than that of a servile fear of suffering for his sins; for he now finds that he can sin no longer, and that there is no other remedy left to deliver him from the punishment of his sins but to repent and turn to God. Besides, he looks upon the terrors which he feels in his conscience and the indignation which he expresses at himself for not having incurred the wrath of Almighty God as proper evidences of the sincerity of his repentance. And it must be owned these are good ingredients of a saving repentance; but, alas! how often do they prove of themselves to be, in the event, deceitful and ill-grounded! So that here is uncertainty upon uncertainty to discourage any man from the hopes of a happy death who defers his repentance till he come to die; and therefore, admitting that a death bed repentance, if sincere, may be available to salvation, yet there are so many blanks against one prize, that no man, one would think, who might otherwise be sure of it, should run the hazard, the almost desperate hazard, of drawing it. Even those persons who talk the most loosely of a death bed repentance, yet look upon it as the best plank, after shipwreck, upon which it is possible indeed a man may come safe to shore; but no man that duly consults his safety would choose to venture his life upon such a contingency.
(R. Fiddes, D. D.)
(C. H. Spurgeon.)
Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day
(S. Baring Gould.)I. THE STRENGTH OF THE GOSPEL MINISTRY IS OF GOD. There is an acknowledgment here —
1. That the preservation of life and health is from God. It is very evident that a reference is here made to the wonderful deliverances by which his career had been marked.
2. That the preservation of consistency, faithfulness, and zeal is of God. We know well that that God who imparted spiritual life is alone able to preserve and to consummate and to complete it. One great truth must be remembered here — viz., the great importance of our seeking the help of God in prayer.
II. THAT THE TOPIC OF THE GOSPEL MINISTRY IS CHRIST. Note the very careful and emphatic endeavour of the apostle to state the perfect identification of the great subject of his own personal ministry, with the arrangements of the early economy (vers. 5-7; Acts 22:14, 15). The only difference between the law and the gospel consisted not in nature but in degree. That was the type, this was the antitype — that was the shadow, this was the substance — that was the prediction, this was the fulfilment — that was the first fruits, this was the harvest — that was the dawning of the morning, this was the splendour of the day. Now, the one grand topic that is here mentioned is that the excellency of the two united dispensations of Divine mercy is found in the person and work of Christ. In the Mosaic economy, the various arrangements which there were made were all concentrated in Christ; and Moses delivered Codes by which the attention of mankind was to be directed to Him. Ceremonies, sacrifices, predictions, and events were all made to offer one united testimony to Him (Luke 24:25-27, 44). Here is Christ —
1. In His mediatorial humiliation. "That Christ should suffer." It was fixed in the eternal purposes that the Messiah, when He came in the fulness of time, should be given, to suffering and to death, and accomplish the object of the great sacrifice for sin which, through the medium of faith, should be the one ground of pardon and eternal salvation. From the creation of the world this great object was declared. All the victims whose blood was shed upon the Patriarchal and Jewish altars were. only so many signs and symbols of that great offering which, in the fulness of time, was presented on the summit of Calvary. And if we refer to the prophets, did not David speak of the sufferings of Christ? (Psalm 22.). Did not Isaiah speak of Him who was to be wounded for our transgressions? etc. Did not Daniel testify that the Messiah should be cut off, but not for Himself? Did not Zechariah tell of Him who was to be pierced? The great doctrine of the Atonement by the sufferings of Christ is one upon which both men and angels delight to dwell. It is a doctrine which graces all the perfections of Jehovah. It is a doctrine which chases away the clouds of despair, and sheds around the tomb the brightness of life and immortality.
2. In His mediatorial glory. "And that He should be the Firstborn that should rise from the dead." The types of the resurrection of Christ might be found in the ceremonial law, more particularly in the reappearance of the high priest on the great day of annual atonement. That this was one great topic of the prophetic writings must be evident to every person reading Acts 13, and one which occupied much space in the ministry of the apostles. That Christ, in our text, should be said to be the first to rise, cannot be considered in the sense of priority in point of time; for it is well known that several persons were raised before; and therefore it must signify a priority in point of dignity and importance. He is elsewhere called the Firstborn from the dead, that in all things He might have the preeminence, signifying that He was more illustrious and dignified than anyone restored, or to be restored, from the abodes of the sepulchre. With regard to the precise purposes for which Christ's resurrection in His mediatorial capacity was accomplished, He rose —(1) To testify to the fact of His Messiahship. His resurrection was a proof beyond dispute that He really was all that He professed, and that He really deserved all that He demanded.(2) To proclaim the acceptance of His sacrifice.(3) To give a pledge of the resurrection of His people. Christ is the First fruits of them that sleep.
3. In His mediatorial influence. "And that He should show light unto the people," etc. Light, in this application, is a figure frequently used in the Scriptures (Isaiah 49:6). And when Simeon held the infant Redeemer in his arms, he said, Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation,...a Light to lighten the Gentiles, and the Glory of Thy people Israel." Here, it will be observed, that light is the emblem of knowledge opposed to ignorance, of holiness opposed to impurity, of happiness opposed to misery; and these blessings are held through the administration of our gracious Messiah to be imparted to the nations of the earth.
III. THAT THE OBJECTS OF THE GOSPEL MINISTRY ARE ALL MANKIND. "Witnessing both to small and great." This commission was precisely accordant with the general commission which our Redeemer gave to all His apostles, and through them to all His ministers to the end of the world.
(J. Parsons.)Genesis 8:20; Genesis 13:18; Joshua 4:1-9; 1 Samuel 7:12). Altars and temples, statues and pictures, arches and obelisks, hospitals and churches, nunneries and convents, schools and almshouses, have abounded in all ages as marks of the founder's vanity or thankfulness. Where they testified the undissembled sincerity of the latter feeling it well demands our respect and imitation. The gratitude due to God for the bounties of His providence, or the higher and nobler gifts of His grace in Jesus Christ, may not be recorded upon tables of stone, to attract notice, and challenge admiration. But no mercy should be received, no blessing enjoyed. without its recollection being engraven on fleshly tables of the heart; that He who seeth in secret may read the memorial.
I. It is, then, because you have obtained PROVIDENTIAL HELP of God that you continue in life unto this day. Amidst perils of every description, by which the life of a persecuted man could be beset, Paul was still delivered. Hazard less apparent, danger less imminent, may have accompanied you in your journey through life. But preserved as you are from the pestilence that walketh in darkness, and from the destruction that wasteth at noonday, while thousands have fallen at your side, and ten thousands at your right hand, to what is your safety owing, except to the unslumbering watchfulness of Him who called you into being, and whose providence has been your guard. Visited, as many of you have been, by sickness — nearly as you have viewed, and closely as your feet have trodden the borders of the eternal state, it is of the Lord's mercy that you have not been consumed. Will anyone presume to say that he hath continued unto this day by some of those lucky combinations of fortuitous circumstances, by which a ship, deprived of mariners, sails, rudder, and compass, might float upon the ocean, the sport of every wind, and yet escape shipwreck and utter loss? Shall we not rather confess that He who, in the person of His dear Son, bought our dying souls with the sacrifice of Himself, and would save us from everlasting woe, did we flee to the refuge of His Cross, now upholds us in life? Shall we not glory to acknowledge that, however long may be the chain of second causes, and however invisible its termination, God, as He sits upon the throne of providential dominion, holds every link in His hand? Are you in prosperity? it is the gift of God; in adversity? it is His messenger of reproof and love; in health? it is His loan; in sickness? it is His memorial. He is providentially with you; He ministers to the life He gave: and however little His interference may be discerned, or His love acknowledged, it is because you have received help from God that you continue unto this day.
II. I turn now to matter of still higher and more solemn import. Let me then admonish any here who are living insensible of their soul's danger, prospect, and hope, and careless of the salvation of Jesus Christ that, only because you have obtained from God the help of His LONG-SUFFERING MERCY, and of His unmerited, unsought, undervalued FORBEARANCE — you continue unto this day, blessed with the gospel, and not separated forever from its redemption. Saul, the injurious blasphemer, continued his daring career, when a single word from on high would have freed the suffering Church from his malice, and hurried him before the judgment throne of that Saviour whom he had persecuted in ravaging His Church. Now, who among you is living in the spirit and temper of Saul, unbelieving and unconverted? Who among you is a law unto himself? Who has preferred his sin to his salvation, or been a lover of pleasure more than a lover of God? Whence, then, is it that you continue to this day? Whence is it that the Spirit is still pleading with you, that ministers, conscience, the Scriptures, and the voice of God, uttered in almost every mode in which He speaks, and man can hear, are soliciting you to be happy? It is simply because, insensible and disobedient as you are, you have received help from God, and therefore continue to this day. It is because He would not that any should perish, but that all men should come to repentance and live. Oh see, then, ye whom it may concern — see, while yet sight may profit, that ye receive not this grace of God in vain.
III. And now, who are believing, obeying, and journeying heavenward, with the patient undivided perseverance enforced in Paul's motto, This one thing I do — let me remind you (although I know your own hearts in the humility and thankfulness of Divine experience will gladly own it) that, having received help from God, you continue unto this day. You feel for the danger in which those to whom I have just spoken are placed by their insensibility to the salvation of Christ. Why, such were some of you: but ye are washed; but ye are sanctified; but ye are justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. Whence, then, is this good derived? Was it wrung, as it were, from the hand of the Most High, as the merited price and purchase of your own godliness, virtue, piety, and love? No, it is with you, as with the apostle, you have obtained help from God; and therefore you continue to this day to run the way of His commandments, and to live by faith on His Son, who loved you, and gave Himself for you. It was His Spirit which found you in unbelief, and rooted out the infidelity, deeply seated as it was; and enabled you to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, that you might be saved. That same Spirit, in mercy, subdued the enmity of the carnal heart, mortified the love of sin within you, and made the love and service of Jehovah your pursuit and your delight. His goodness induced you to flee for refuge to the hope set before you. You were not sufficient of yourselves to think anything as of yourselves, but your sufficiency was wholly of God. While, therefore, I earnestly exhort you to believe that this is the true grace of God wherein you stand, I as affectionately beseech you to believe that you still continue in it, only because you have received help from Him. Are you liberated from all need of working out your own salvation, because you know that God worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure? Far, very far otherwise. The same Paul who declared, "By the grace of God, I am what I am," was not a whit behind the very chiefest of the apostles; nay, he laboured more abundantly than they all, though he added, "Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me."
1. Let me now commend the obvious deduction from this Scripture "to those who live in entire disregard of that help from God, upon which alone depends the life of the body and the life of the soul." Let me say to each of them, "Truly as the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, there is but a step between thee and death." If you continue to neglect the gospel pardon and redemption, there is no other refuge whither the endangered spirit may betake itself and live. The compassions of heaven, however, still wait, although their wings may be plumed for flight; because they are unwilling to forsake and carry the last hope away with them forever: "Why sit ye here then until ye die?"
2. In conclusion, I affectionately exhort those whom the help of God, in the provisions of His Son's mercy, hath quickened to newness of life, to run the way of His commandments with earnest zeal, and yet with simple reliance upon the effectual power of His grace.
(R. P. Buddicom, M. A.)I. IN WHAT LAY THE STRENGTH OF ST. PAUL'S MINISTRY? "Having therefore obtained help of God I continue unto this day." The apostle clearly alludes to his ministry in past years, and acknowledges —
1. That both his life and his health were preserved by God: and who can review the apostle's history without observing the truth of this? And which of ourselves can look back to the years that are passed and not discover the same merciful care and protection of God manifested to ourselves? Our spared lives, the many trials and difficulties which have awaited us, both as minister and people, and through all of which we have been safely conducted, loudly proclaim that our mercies have been many and great: they call for our gratitude to the Father of mercies, and ought to inspire us with the feelings of the Psalmist (Psalm 116:13).
2. But the words of the apostle may equally imply that God had preserved him in his zeal and faithfulness for the truth. The principle which he fell within him, and which animated him in all his labours, was the "constraining love of God"; "it was shed abroad within the apostle's heart," and in the midst of his most trying difficulties it was the buoy that upheld and encouraged him in his work. And the same principle of love to God must inspire and animate every minister in his work and duty, and which alone will enable him to labour with success, and to triumph over his difficulties, and "in the end to lead him on his way rejoicing." In the most trivial circumstances of life, unless God be with us, how can we prosper? "Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain." But in the far more important concerns of the soul, how much more needful is prayer! "It is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure." And is not prayer equally needful to keep alive within the Christian's heart that spark of spiritual life, so easily quenched and so ready to become dormant and sluggish, if not carefully watched over and cultivated by the spirit of meditation and prayer? How needful also for the minister of the gospel, considering the many temptations and trials that beset his path! It was this feeling of the need of prayer which led the apostle, together with his fellow labourers, on one occasion to exclaim, "We will give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the Word." Oh, for more of this spirit of prayer to descend upon us who are your ministers; and upon you who are our people! Oh, that each one amongst us this day may be directed in the spirit of David to say, "We will lift up our eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh our help"; and with him also to feel "that our help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth."
II. WHAT WAS THE SUBJECT OF THE APOSTLE'S MINISTRY? He tells Agrippa that it was Christ. He clearly sets before Agrippa and the Jews that they accused him without just grounds — "that he said none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come, that Christ should suffer" — that they could not fairly condemn him, without at the same time condemning their own writings, — that the gospel which he preached was not different from that which their own prophets and Moses had declared — that they could not, as they received and acknowledged the writings of the Old Testament, justly condemn him for preaching Jesus.
III. TO WHOM WAS THE APOSTLE TO DIRECT HIS MINISTRY? who were to be the objects of it? All mankind: "witnessing both to small and great." Wherever the apostle went, in whatever situation he was placed, he called the attention of sinners to the same great truths, telling them that if they repented and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, they should be saved. Conclusion: The subject is full of instruction, equally important to the minister and to his hearers.
1. To the minister. It reminds him of his high calling and responsible position, that he may occasionally be placed in a difficult position in upholding his office.
2. And to you who hear the subject before us is not without a word in season likewise: it reminds you of your duty to receive the truth in affection, and to pray for it, "that it may have free course."
(J. L. F. Russell, M. A.)
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