The Stray One Recalled!
Adapted from a Sermon by George Everard, 1874
In the whole revelation which God has given to us, there is nothing which brings home to us our Father's tender compassion for sinners, more than His appeals to the backsliding.
We find this especially the case in the books of Jeremiah and Hosea. He complains of the strange ingratitude of His people in turning away from Him: We of this generation, let us consider the word of the LORD: "Have I been a wilderness to Israel, or a land of thick darkness? Why then do my people say, ‘We are free, we will come no more to you’?" (Jer 2:31)
He reminds them how foolish and unwise it is to turn their back on the sole source of true happiness. "my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water." (Jer 2:13) It is a very strong image that is made use of here. God is a Fountain, a Well of Life — He is the source and spring of all true life, pleasure, holiness and hope. In Him is a continual freshness of all that can fill the soul with joy. In Him are inexhaustible streams of mercy, grace, and consolation.
But men turn their backs on this Fountain and instead choose cisterns — more than that, they choose broken cisterns, from which soon leak out the few drops of water they may contain.
And what pains and trouble and effort men take in hewing out cisterns like these . . .
- wealth unsanctified by true riches,
- the acquisition of knowledge with no end beyond its possession,
- a position and name that will dazzle those around,
- schemes of self-indulgence and pleasure,
- a comfortable home where God is forgotten,
- some object of affection which engrosses every thought —
how often does something of this kind steal the heart from God!
But before long there is sure to be a crack, a leak — and the joy and the comfort is dried up and gone! So God in His tender compassion would have men see this, and remember that nothing can ever take the place of Himself as their source of joy.
And how marvellous in pitiful compassion are the exhortations and entreaties which God addresses to His people, beseeching them to come back to Him. He does not hide from them the greatness of their sin — He sets it before them in all its aggravation.
He speaks of it as the adultery of the wife treacherously forsaking a faithful husband.
He tells them how repeated has been the provocation, for they have sought after many lovers.
He reminds them how utterly hardened and shameless they had become, and how they had polluted the whole land with their wickedness!
And then, over against this dark background of their iniquity, in the next chapter of Jeremiah, chapter 3, He reveals His free mercy and willingness to restore them to His fatherly love: "Have you not just now called to me, ‘My father, you are the friend of my youth?" "Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, “‘Return, faithless Israel, declares the LORD. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the LORD; I will not be angry forever." "Return, O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness.” “Behold, we come to you, for you are the LORD our God." (Jeremiah 3:4, 12, 22. See the whole chapter.)
Surely no words could express God's mercy to Israel more clearly, in spite of all their backslidings against Him. And it is a pattern of God's mercy and longsuffering toward backsliders in all ages. He is ever the same. It is true there is grievous ingratitude and great peril in this sin:
it grieves the Spirit,
it hardens the heart,
it discourages young beginners,
it puts a stumbling-block in the way of the ungodly,
it may lead to a total and final apostasy from which there is no recovery.
But, nevertheless, where conscience is still awake, and there is the very least desire to return to the fold — God will never reject the trembling penitent.
Let us consider for a while this backsliding spirit, and how it arises, and how the soul may be restored from it. The idea is taken from the heifer: "Like a stubborn heifer, Israel is stubborn." (Hos 4:16) The heifer has the yoke placed on its neck, to go forward into the field and plough the land — but instead of this, it pulls back, rebels against the yoke, and endeavours to cast it off — it slides back little by little, and shrinks from its appointed work.
And so it is often seen in the Church of God: men are called to bear the easy yoke of Christ; they profess to accept it — and yet instead of going forward, faithfully obeying the Saviour’s commands and precepts — they turn away, cast aside His yoke, and go back to a life of worldliness or sin.
This spirit is often found in two classes of people. It is often found among those who have never gone far. Perhaps they have had Christian parents, and religious privileges; they have had convictions of sin; they have seen the blessedness of having their portion in Christ; they have outwardly enrolled themselves among His followers — and this is all. They have never . . .
had close, personal dealings with Christ;
cast themselves upon Him for salvation;
yielded their hearts to Him, desiring to be His alone.
So that in this case, we need not be surprised that they go back. They have the form — but not the power and life of godliness — and so after a little temporary profession, we find them gone back to the world which they had renounced.
That was the case with the followers of Christ who were offended because of the hard saying. They had never cast in their lot with Him, to follow Him wherever He went. They had never trusted in His mercy, nor seen His true glory. So, after a while, they went back and ceased to walk with Him. It was precisely the same with Judas. His heart was not whole with Christ — he was a covetous man from the beginning. So, before long, his sin grew stronger and led him even to betray his Master.
But in Christ's true disciples, we often see something of the same spirit. Perhaps we would have imagined that after conversion it would have been impossible for the Christian ever to go back — but in practice this is not the case.
One of the greatest Saints in the Old Testament, and one of the chief pillars of the Church in the New Testament — have both left us an example of the danger of falling back.
With David for a long period the altar was unfrequented, prayer either omitted or but a dead form, no Psalm penned, no holy desire arising — all was dark and heavy overhead, and God and he were as strangers one to the other.
It was the same with the Apostle chosen to open the door of faith both to Jew and Gentile. The warm-hearted, zealous Peter looked for a season as if he were altogether an apostate from His Lord.
Nor need we be surprised that the people of God are exposed to this danger. Consider what mighty forces are brought to bear upon the young believer with the purpose of utterly overthrowing his faith! He wrestles not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers! The great adversary has in his hand ways and means to overthrow the weak one, which at this time we can little understand. Then there is the dead weight of the old nature still striving for the mastery in dragging the soul down to the world's level! A thousand influences for evil surround us on every side!
So that . . .
if the Christian is not strengthened abundantly with grace from above,
if he fails to watch and pray,
if secret duties are lightly passed over —
then it is no wonder if the power of evil gets the upper hand, and his religion becomes a dry and withered thing. And instead of being like the tree growing and flourishing by the rivers of water — he becomes like the dried up scrub in a desert land.
A few thoughts on the story of Peter's fall and recovery may keep back someone who is in danger, and may be a word in season to restore another who has turned aside.
We see Peter, we see him as a rock, standing firm and confident in his own strength! He was to be a rock, because he was linked to the great Rock, and one with Him. But now he boasts of his own goodness and purpose: "Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away!" "Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!" (Matt 26:33,35)
Had Peter not learned his lesson yet? How soon his faith failed him in the winds and waves? Would it not have been wise to be more humble — more distrustful of his own heart?
Here is our first lesson. Our weakness is our strength. Self-reliance is a sure first step to a fall.
Believer, keep on low ground — never speak of the triumphs you will win, or the temptations you will overcome. The Master must hold you up — but pride and self-glorying will drive Him from your side.
"Hold me up, that I may be safe!" says the Psalmist.(Ps 119:117)
"Blessed are the poor in spirit," says Matthew.(Matt 5:3)
"God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble," says a restored Peter. (1 Peter 5:5)
But we see him in another light: not now a rock, standing firm — but a reed, shaken by the wind. Once, twice, three times we hear him denying the Lord who loved him — ashamed of the Lord of glory for fear of a servant girl; and when His Lord was about to lay down His life for his sake, turning his back on Him, yes, with oaths and curses!
And is this all the proof Simon can give of his faithfulness? Is this his boasted supremacy over all the rest? Is this his willingness even to die with Christ? This is a strange contrast to his confession of Christ as the Son of the blessed, and the honor his Savior gave him: "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven!" (Matt 16:17)
But let us trace the downward steps. This fearful fall did not come all at once. In the garden we see him sleeping, instead of praying: "Simon, are you asleep?" (Mark 14:37) We hear the Master saying — Satan is just about to assault you, and it were well for you to be putting on your armour to resist him. "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation." (Mark 14:38) Let me remember this: if I would be safe, I must keep up prayer — it must be a reality. I must pray for the spirit of prayer; I must guard against interruptions in prayer; I must watch, for fear that laziness and forgetfulness of danger lull me into a false security, and Satan find me sleeping at my post.
But another step downward. We see Peter showing off his zeal by rash and hasty blows. The sword is quickly unsheathed — without taking direction from the Master, he begins to fight bravely, as he thinks, that he may fulfill his vow. "No, Peter, put away your sword! I have not told you do this; but I ask you to be faithful. Only follow Me and hold fast your faith in my name."
And here, I must also be beware. Christ does not want a showy, noisy zeal — but He wants me to do His will, to obey his commands, and walk in His footsteps. When He calls me to the very fiercest conflict, let me be ready to go — let me be ready to take the sword of the Spirit and go out in His name when the time comes. Meanwhile let me be willing to suffer with Him — and then I will reign with Him.
Yet another downward step. Peter follows afar off. He is now afraid of the consequences of his own conduct. He trembles for fear that he should be recognized — so he falls back in the crowd. Well may the believer pray: “O Savior, keep me very near You! May I never lose sight of You — Your loving smile, Your power to help by a look, by a word. May I never leave Your companionship because there may be danger — but may I remain ever close to You for help to be faithful!”
Then see Peter seeking His own comfort. While the Master is witnessing a good confession, and is bearing the taunts and indignities of the chief priests — Peter stands by the fire warming himself, instead of standing close to the Master and showing that at least there is one not afraid to own His cause.
Just so, if I would be faithful, I must beware of this snare also. The Lord delights in the happiness and comfort of His servants, and would not have me refuse, without a good reason, the blessings He gives. "Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving." (1 Tim 4:4) But I must ever be ready at His call to give it all up. To honor Him I have to deny myself and take up my cross daily. Rest, friends, even, food and clothing, even, life itself — let me be willing to sacrifice to Him who gave Himself for me.
Then, too, we see Peter mingling with the servants — he is making friends of those who share the guilt of crucifying the Lord. He talks with them, in tone and manner, as if he were one with them. And so another downward step is taken. We must ever avoid the company of the Lord's enemies. "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers." (Ps 1:1)
Then comes the climax. The fear of man has taken the place of the fear of God. He is ashamed of the Master — lie after lie comes from the lips of him who had once witnessed so good a confession. An oath is used to confirm the lie, — and Peter has fallen as low as he can.
Well may the believer pray: “O Lord, keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins, for fear that they get the dominion over me! Never let the fear of man rule in my heart! Why will I fear one who soon shall return to the dust from where he was taken — when I have You as my faithful and Almighty Friend? Let me confess Your name even before Kings, and never, never be ashamed of Your Word, Your Gospel, or Your service!”
But we have yet to look at Peter in another light: A wandering sheep restored by the faithful care of the Good Shepherd. His sin was all his own — his recovery was all of grace. His self-confidence, his neglect of prayer, his fear of man brought him into the pit — but the hand of his unfailing Guardian rescued him!
Judas falls — and finally, for in him there was no root of true grace — Satan enters into him and brings him to destruction both of body and soul.
Peter falls — but the Savior does not leave him in the hands of his adversary, but lifts him up and places his foot again upon the rock.
Christ pleads beforehand. He foresees the plot of the enemy for the overthrow of His disciple, and He prays for him: "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail." (Luke 22:32)
It is a comforting thought that Jesus foresees . . .
all our temptations,
all the assaults of the enemy,
all our backslidings.
And in view of all, He pleads for each soul that relies on His all-prevailing name. And so there is a limit placed on the power of Satan — and there is restoring grace granted to the stumbled believer. The fall is great — but not final. The mercy that called the sinner at first, recalls him from his backsliding. The Savior uses means to recall His disciple — it was but a simple thing, the crowing of the rooster, but it was enough to bring back all the past, and especially the Master's warning, and his own broken vows.
Then there was the look: "the Lord turned and looked at Peter." (Luke 22:61) Reproof, remembrance, pity and tenderest love — all mingled in that look.
And all this time the Spirit of God is at work. Without this, all else would be in vain — but He works, and no one will hinder it. He teaches and humbles as none else can. And we see Peter, who just before is denying his Master so boldly and daringly — now leaving the High Priest's palace, going home to weep and lament his treachery, his falseness, and the grief he has thus caused the Lord who loved him.
And Christ sees it all. He has heard the threefold denial, the oaths, the curses — but He hears also his sighs, his confessions, and marks every tear he sheds. He who heard the prayer of Nathanael under the fig-tree (John 1:48)— hears equally the sorrowful sighing of His repentant disciple — and He freely loves, and freely forgives all.
"Go, tell his disciples and Peter," (Mark 16:7) is His the command to the women at the empty tomb. He commits again to him the care of His Church when He bids him "feed His sheep;" (John 21:17) and He gives him grace boldly to confess His name before the great assembly of the chief priests and elders.
The narrative has its lesson of blessed hope and encouragement to any who would retrace their steps after forsaking Christ. The Good Shepherd still loves to restore wanderers to His fold. To those who have turned back and would return to Him — as to those who seek Him for the first time, He still declares, "whoever comes to me I will never cast out." (John 6:37)
He points you to the example of Peter, and reminds you that, after the greatest fall, He still opens to you the door of mercy. Whether in former days you have ever truly known His love or not — whether you have only gone a little way and then turned back — or whether you have turned aside after having experienced very much of His special goodness — in either case He invites you to come home, and find your everlasting rest in Himself as a merciful and faithful Redeemer.
The story of Peter's restoration shows plainly the path by which you may return to the fold: Peter "went out and wept bitterly." (Luke 22:62) He went out — he found a place where He might be alone. Perhaps he went to the lonely garden where awhile before, his Master had been arrested, and under the quiet shade of olive trees poured out his soul before God. He was alone with God and his own conscience — and as he confessed his sin, and wept, and prayed — doubtless the Omniscient Savior marked it all. He who marked Nathanael under the fig-tree, marked Peter also — and we may be sure met him with the comfort of His forgiving mercy.
Here is the true Confessional! Alone with God! Alone with my great High Priest! Keeping back nothing from Him — but telling everything to His merciful ear. And Christ is as ready and willing to give pardon to the penitent as He proclaims Himself to be! "Come to me,” he says in that blessed promise, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest?" (Matt 11:28)
And if, like Peter, you have fallen back and forsaken the Savior — remember the way back is still open. Christ is still the same as ever — a great Savior for great sinners! Do not pay attention to the suggestions of unbelief — do not suppose that because of the special seriousness of your transgression, it is impossible Christ should pardon and save you. In Peter's case there was almost every possible aggravation of his sin — yet in spite of all, he was mercifully welcomed.
Do not think that because you have thus departed from God, your heart is now so hardened and insensible that you can never again experience the power of His love. Only believe . . .
that He is ready to pardon,
that He delights to give His Spirit to those who call upon Him,
that He still beholds you with fatherly compassion —
and His love will reawaken yours. And with a deeper self-abasement, with more entire dependence upon Divine grace, you will still prove more than a conqueror over all evil, within and without.