I read recently of a speaker who preached on the mercy of God 'until it seemed there was nothing in God but mercy.' But I fear he misrepresented God. Such misrepresentation is easy, and to people who do not think deeply, and who do not want to take life seriously, it is pleasant, but it is unspeakably dangerous.
If we are to win souls and save our own, we must not distort the picture of God's character which we hold up to view. It is life eternal to know God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent (John xvii. 3); but it must be the true and holy God, as He is, and not some false god who conforms to our poor little warped human desires and opinions.
Some religious teachers misrepresent God by making Him utterly savage and cruel, and they gloat over unutterably horrid pictures of Hell, where they imagine God delighting in the most exquisite tortures of the damned, and thus men are embittered against God until they feel there is no hope of His mercy.
Others misrepresent God by making Him appear as a sort of goody-goody God, who fawns upon sinners with mawkish sympathy and looks upon worldlings and triflers and lukewarm professors with weak, sentimental, old-womanish pity. Nothing can be further from the truth concerning God. We find God Himself bitterly rebuking those who, living in sin, thought He did not disapprove their ways. He sets before them a list of their sins (Psalm 1. 17-20), and then says: 'These things hast thou done, and I kept silence; thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself; but I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thine eyes. Now consider this, ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.' (vv. 21,22.)
The truth lies between these extremes. There is mercy in God, but it is mingled with severity; there is wrath in God, but it is tempered with mercy.
The great soul-winners from Bible times till now have recognized this; they have held an even balance between the goodness and the severity of God, because the Bible does so; and the Bible, of all the innumerable books written, is the only one which gives us an authoritative representation of God.
The book of nature reveals to us the goodness and the severity of God. Fire will not only bake our food, and bless us, but it will also burn us; water will not only quench our thirst and refresh us, but if we trifle with it, it will drown us; if we recognize God's ways of working in nature, and take heed and obey, we shall find nature's laws most kind and helpful; but if we neglect or refuse to obey we shall find them most terrible and destructive.
But if we want to know God in all the richness of His character, and all the fullness of His self-revelation, we must study the Bible and compare Scripture with Scripture.
The Bible tells us of God's unutterable love leading Him to seek sinners in mercy; but His righteousness requires of the sinner penitence, faith, separation from evil, and obedience to His will.
Various Bible descriptions show how God holds an even balance between His mercy and His judgments.
'Behold the goodness and severity of God,' writes Paul: 'on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in His goodness; otherwise,' he says (showing that God's goodness does not destroy His severity), 'thou also shalt be cut off.' We must beware! Then he adds a touch of tenderness -- making clear how even in His severity God waits to show mercy -- 'And they also,' though they have been cut off, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in, for God is able to graff them in again.' (Romans xi. 22, 23.)
Again Paul writes, 'I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto Salvation to every one that believeth..... For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, the just shall live by faith.' And then he adds, 'For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness.' (Romans i. 16-18.)
And again he writes: 'Despisest thou the riches of His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds; to them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doeth evil,.....but glory, honor, and peace to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile, for there is no respect of persons with' God.' (Romans ii. 4- 11.)
The saving mercy of God revealed in the Scriptures is invariably set over against the wrath of God, as the great mountains are set over against the deep seas.
The writer to the Hebrews says of Jesus, 'He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him' (Hebrews vii. 25): while Paul writes of some upon whom 'wrath is come to the uttermost.' (1 Thessalonians ii. 16.)
There is, then, an uttermost Salvation for all who 'trust and obey,' and an uttermost woe for all who go on in selfish unbelief and worldliness and sin. Truly 'God is not mocked,' and He is a God of judgment.
Again, we find Jesus keeping this even balance when He says that those who hear His sayings and do them are like those who build upon a rock, against which rain and floods and winds cannot prevail, while those who hear and do not obey are like those who build upon sand, which will be swept away by rain and floods and wind. (Matthew vii. 24-27.) And again, He says that the wicked shall 'go away into everlasting punishment; but the righteous into life eternal.' (Matthew xxv. 46.)
Again, He tells of the shut door at the marriage, with some on the inside with their Lord, and some on the outside, rejected and unknown; of the joy of their Lord into which good and faithful servants enter, and the outer darkness, into which the wicked and slothful are cast; of the great, fixed gulf which is impassable, with some on the right side in the bosom of comfort and security and peace, and some on the wrong side in the bitter woe of fierce remorse and torment.
We find John the Baptist faithful to this great truth. He cries out, 'He that believeth on the Son of God hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on Him.' (John iii. 36.)
Likewise all through the Old Testament this even balance is maintained. 'Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land; but' and here is the unfailing alternative -- 'but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured by the sword.' (Isaiah i. 16-20.)
These Bible word-pictures show us that no one word, not even the sweet word 'mercy,' will sum up the rich and manifold character of God. The Bible says, 'God is love,' but it also says 'Our God is a consuming fire.'
To penitent hearts who trust in Jesus, God will be found to be rich in mercy; but He will defend the moral and spiritual order of His universe by uttermost penalties against those who go on proudly, careless, or wickedly in their own ways.
When Dr. Johnson lay dying he was much concerned about his soul. A friend said to him : 'Sir, you seem to forget the merits of the Redeemer.' 'No,' replied Dr. Johnson, 'I do not forget the merits of the Redeemer, but I remember that He said that He would place some on His right hand, and some on His left.'
Our only hope is in the wounds of Jesus, and the shelter of His Blood. There, and only there, shall we find mercy, since we have sinned; but there mercy is boundless and free. Hallelujah!
Must You Be Fed With A Spoon?
I am watching with much interest and some personal profit the development of my grandchildren. They are a luxury to my old heart; but, like all children, they are somewhat of a problem as well as a joy to their parents. At first, when brought to the table, they were fed with a spoon, but one day the spoon was put into their tiny hands and they were permitted to feed themselves. I was fascinated. Plunge would go the spoon into the porridge or apple sauce and come up at various and sundry angles and start on a wobbling journey to the sweet, wee, wide-open mouth. Sometimes it would hit and sometimes it would miss. If it reached the open mouth, well. Its contents were soon lost in the dark 'little red lane' below. But if it missed, or if there were miscalculation as to time, and the mouth closed before the spoon arrived, it was awesome. The little mouth closed on air, and another plunge and wobbling effort was made. The bib and plate and platter were often a fearsome sight, and the small face was often battered and buttered in a way that was a joy to behold, but they were learning. It was the only way they could learn. They could not always be fed with a spoon by others. They must feed themselves, and some day they may have to feed others. But their first lesson is to feed themselves.
Of course, their food is all prepared for them by other hands. But the day will come when they will not only have to feed themselves, but they may have to prepare their own food. But before the food can be prepared, it must be found. The farmer must cultivate the soil and raise wheat and corn. The fisherman must catch the fish. The horticulturist must grow the fruit. The herdsmen must raise the cattle and sheep. And it is just possible that in some far-oft day these children must not only feed themselves, and prepare the food, but go out and find the food to prepare and eat; or they may toil for the money with which to buy of those who have labored to produce.
The feeding of men is a complex process, which we may live a lifetime without considering, but which is most instructive and humbling to consider.
Can you feed your own soul, or must you still be fed? Do you prepare your own soul-food, or do others prepare it for you? Do you labor for it, or do others give it to you?
'I will guarantee I can send the worst kind of a backslidden Officer to the Corps at W., and in three months the Soldiers will have prayed for him and helped him, and loved him and gotten him so blessed that he will be on fire for God and souls.' So said young Divisional Commander Thomas Estill, as reported to me the other day by an old Officer who knew him in those days of long ago, when we were returning from the graveside of our friend and comrade, the Commissioner. Those Soldiers were no longer spiritual babies that had to be fed with a spoon. No doubt they had vigorous spiritual appetites, and enjoyed a meal of 'strong meat ' prepared for them. But they were no longer dependent. They were independent. They were no longer babes in Christ. They had 'exercised their senses' and become spiritual men and women, able to feed themselves; able to prepare their own food; able to work and forage for themselves and find their own food. And not only so, but they were able to feed others. If their Officers did not give them suitable soul-food, then they fed the Officers. If nobody blessed them, then they rose up in their splendid spiritual manhood and womanhood and blessed somebody else, and so blessed themselves. Like the widow of Sarepta, who divided her poor little handful of meal and her few spoonsful of oil with Elijah, and found the meal and oil unwasting through months of famine, so they gave of their spiritual food to more needy souls, and found themselves enriched from God's unfailing supplies.
I know one of the finest Bands in the U.S.A., composed of a splendid group of Soldiers, who for years would not have, and for ought I know to this day, will not have, as Bandsman, one who has not the Blessing of a Clean Heart. 'We want our Band to be not only a Combination of musical instruments, but also of harmonious hearts. We want to produce melody from our hearts as from our instruments. We cannot have discord in our Band. We must have sweetest harmony.' And so, before a man was admitted as a member of the Band, he must not only give evidence that he could play an instrument, but that he could live peaceably, humbly, lovingly, loyally with his comrades. They were prepared to pray with him and lead him into the blessed experience of Holiness, of perfect love, of purity and power, and then gladly accept him as a comrade in the Band. They could feed themselves and others too. And that Band became a great spiritual influence in that city and famous for a hundred miles around.
One day Paul came to Corinth and found a certain Jew and his wife, Priscilla, and because he was of the same trade he lived with them and worked, for they were tent-makers, just humble, lay people. But they later moved to Ephesus, and then one day, Apollos, an eloquent man, mighty in the Scriptures, came to the city, fervent in spirit and speaking and teaching diligently the things of the Lord. He was a great orator, teacher, and preacher. But this humble tent-maker and his wife had learned more from Paul than Apollos knew, so they invited him home to dinner with them, 'and expounded unto him the way of the Lord more perfectly.' Read the story in Acts xviii. 1, 2, 24-28.
Aquila and Priscilla had learned to feed themselves and others too, even such a man as Apollos, eloquent, burning with zeal and mighty in the Scriptures. They must have had fullness of love and very gracious ways, and a divine tact to approach a great man like that and lead him into fullness of blessing. Oh, for an army of soldiers like that!
'Were you? I missed you and wondered where you were.'
I had seen him sitting down in the audience while the Commissioner poured out his heart in a torrent of searching truth upon the crowd. There was a look on his face that puzzled me. I was not sure whether defiance, cynicism, questioning, indifference, or soul-hunger was revealed in that look. When the Prayer Meeting began every head was bowed, but he sat erect with that puzzling look in his face intensified. People were melting and flowing down to the penitent-form, but still he sat erect, open-eyed, apparently unmoved. I knelt to deal with seekers, and when I looked again he was gone, and not till after the Meeting did I learn that he had been to the penitent-form.
'Yes, I was at the penitent-form. An old Officer came and asked if he could help me, but I told him, "No, I want to be left alone." I was vexed; half angry.'
'Angry! What were you angry about?'
'Well, while I listened to the Commissioner, I wondered, "Why don't our leaders feed us young fellows? They don't have Meetings with us. Why don't they help us?" '
I had up to that time thought of him as a youngster. He belongs to the younger set of Officers. I had known him since he was a small lad, and I had always thought of him as a young man, but when he called himself a 'young fellow' my mind turned a somersault. I looked at him and asked, 'How old are you?'
'And you have been married thirteen years and have a family of children, the oldest of whom is twelve. You are not a young fellow. You are a middle-aged man. And you want your leaders to feed you. But that is not what you need. You need to feed yourself. Your leaders cannot tell you anything you do not know. But do you diligently practice what you know? You don't pray enough. You do not search the Scriptures and feed on the Word of God as you should. "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God." Is not that your trouble? Do you deny yourself as you should? Do you search for soul-food in good books? Or do you not spend more time reading the sporting page of the morning and evening papers, than you spend over your Bible and books that would enrich your mind and heart? Are you not starving yourself and waiting for some one to come and feed you, when you should be feeding yourself?
I knew a Field Officer who, when I first met him, was sodden with drink. But within a few days he was saved and sanctified. Shortly after he became an Officer, and then got himself a small, but choice library of the most deeply spiritual books. He would sit up till after midnight reading, praying, and meditating on what he read, until in a short time I marveled at him. His mind was all alert, his soul was on fire and his mental and spiritual equipment was a joy to those who knew him. He labored for spiritual food, and grew in mental and spiritual stature and in favor with God and man. And he was soon able to feed others. Whenever I met him he wanted to talk on spiritual things. His grasp of doctrine, his knowledge of Scripture and the literature of Holiness, and his intimate acquaintance and communion with God delighted and refreshed me. He was an ordinary country boy, but he became extraordinary by the diligence with which he sought fellowship with God, and the eagerness with which he hunted for truth from books and from experienced comrades, and the loving zeal with which he sought to impart the truth to other souls about him. Officers should feed their Soldiers; Commissioners and Divisional Commanders should feed their Officers. But both Officers and Soldiers should learn to find spiritual food and to feed themselves.
'Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared,' said wise old Nehemiah (Nehemiah viii. 10).
Learn to feed yourself, and not only so, but to share your soul-food with yet needier souls, and so you shall know no soul-famine, but be 'fat and flourishing.'