Is it Returning Backsliding Saints that Cause Rejoicing in Heaven, or is it Sinners that Repent?
The great supper of Luke 14 speaks of what God has prepared for sinners and it is to such the invitation goes out, “Come for all things are now ready.” Where then, will God find His guests? How our heart rejoices and the soul bows in adoration and praise as we think of the grace of God which goes out to the despised man of the street, or the destitute inhabitant of the lanes, or any wretched child of poverty who has been driven by sheer necessity to take shelter wherever found. “Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind. And the servant said, Lord, it is done as thou has commanded, and yet there is room. And the Lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I say unto you, That none of these men which were bidden shall taste of my supper” (Luke 14:21-24).
In the beginning of chapter 15, our gracious Lord is in the midst of a company of just such people, and who can measure His joy of theirs as He eats and drinks with them? If there are those among men who cannot be happy with publicans and sinners, God can: not only so, BUT IT IS SUCH AND ONLY SUCH, that He receives; “This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them,” was the sneering gibe of the Pharisee which was true then and thank God is true still.
Does your heart murmur against the grace of God that stoops to woo and win publicans and sinners? Are you Pharisee enough to speak sneeringly of such grace? Well, whether you are or not, our Lord finds His joy in His love to sinners and vindicates Himself against all the murmuring of the Scribes and Pharisees who scorned to be called sinners.
The parable of chapter 15 shows us this. The first two parts of the parable tell us of the joy there is in heaven, and in the presence of the angels of God over A SINNER WHO REPENTS. It is suggestive at least, that the three parts of the parable represent three of the epistles of St. Paul: Romans, Ephesians, and Galatians.
In Romans we have man walking in his own willful and sinful way. “There is none that seeketh after God” (romans 3:11). In Ephesians, which shows man dead toward God, though made “in His image and likeness” he is, as the coin, dead toward God. “You hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). While in the latter part of the parable, in the returning son, we have man’s responsibility to come to God just as he is, “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26).
In the first of these divine pictures, the sheep going astray, God is seeking, the sinner is the wanderer, who goes on and on, ever further away until not only the joy of his own way vanishes, he comes to the place and to himself where he is content and willing to be served by the God of all grace, who finding such an lost and needy one, takes him up in His arms of strength, and rejoices of him with joy immeasurable, saying unto them, “Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over ONE SINNER THAT REPENTETH, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” (Luke 15:6-7).
In the next part, beginning with verse 8, God is the seeker still, but we have more of the means and the methods used to bring the sinner to the place where God in His grace, can meet him. Man in his alienation from God has no true apprehension of God in his soul, or his own true condition before God. The lighted candle of the word of the testimony of God, and often the broom which may be used to illustrate circumstances, providential dealings which are wholly under the ordering of God (whatever agency may be employed in producing them) brings the sinner from his hiding place which may be a heap of dirt and rubbish, or a church membership, to the place where sovereign grace can meet him. The coin of silver was not hidden from the eyes of God. Here again we find it is THE SINNER WHO REPENTS that God finds; and such, and only such, give the occasion of the joy with which all heaven rings; surely this is in full accord with the heart of God.
The last part of the parable describes, for our profit and learning, the wondrous welcome and reception God gives THE SINNER WHO REPENTS, and in connection with this we have the display of what true repentance is. The younger brother, having received his portion from his father, goes to the far country. He now belongs to the class we find in chapter 14, who made excuse; one had a piece of ground, the other had five yoke of oxen, another had married a wife, each had in his possession what he wanted to enjoy; but in the far country it soon goes; all is soon squandered and lost. Then there is the famine, and he is in want, his hand is empty now, he has nothing to enjoy. Why does not the father go to meet him now? Because he is not yet THE SINNER THAT REPENTS! He does not yet think himself an object for pure grace, and so he joins himself to a citizen of that country to try and see if he can retrieve his lost substance; but thank God, this cannot be done. When we have spent all our goods and lost our reputation, our character, no effort, no reformation, no church membership, no turning over a new leaf, no vows and promises, can possibly regain what we have lost. We have written our history, we have sinned and turned our backs to God and we have used every faculty God has given us for our own pleasure instead of for the glory of God. We belong to the class designated at the beginning of the chapter, as publicans and sinners. Yes, our names, as being sinners, are indelibly stamped upon us, in spite of everything we can do. Happy is he who submits to this name, “Lost Sinner,” for until then, we must remain strangers to the welcome and the reception of the God of all grace and thus cause “joy in heaven”; yea, “in the presence of the angels of God!”
At last we find the prodigal, commonly called, bowing and submitting, then he thinks of the grace and the plenty that are with his father, and we can hear him say, “that is just what I need, it just suits me.” A hungry, perishing sinner needs the grace of God. He says “I will arise, and go to my father and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” He is a sinner now, he has accepted the council of God against himself.
Many have taught that this is the return of a backsliding child of God, instead of a repentant sinner, and because of this word “son” it has carried with it some authority, but the word “son” in this chapter does not mean the same as those who have been “born of God” and thus are “children of God.” In Deuteronomy 14:1 we read, “Ye are children of the Lord your God.” That was spoken of all the nation of Israel. In Matthew 15:26 the Lord again calls the nation of Israel by the name “children.” “But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to the dogs.” The Lord is there contrasting the people of Israel with the Gentiles. Then again, in the beginning of the book of Luke, 3:38, Adam was called “son of God” by creation. Then, the Apostle Paul uses the word “For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:28). It is in this way our Lord has given us the three-fold parable, not illustrating a returning child of God who had gone astray, but a SINNER COMING TO GOD in his rags, in his sin and shame. No matter how far astray a child of God may go, he is never dead or lost. Those words describe only man in his natural, sinful state.
“Sinners Jesus still receives,
His Saints He loves and never leaves.”
But some have said “he was dead to all intents and purposes,” but that is adding to God’s word, and that is condemned by the Holy Spirit. “Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar” (Proverbs 30:5-6).
The son, we read of Luke 15, was DEAD and he was LOST, actually and not to intent and purposes, but he was made alive, and he was found and caused joy in heaven. If the prodigal was a son, then we must be consistent and say the elder son was also a true child of God, though he knew nothing of the heart of his father in grace and was a real Pharisee who had no need of a Saviour, because he always served God and never transgressed his commandements at any time. “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment; and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends”; (Luke 15:29. No true child of God would ever utter such words of folly and yet, he too, was a son in the same sense as the so-called prodigal.
What a reception for the prodigal! No demanding of sinners to cease being sinners; they are invited to come as sinners, and nothing else; and the moment they take God at His word and come, in the reality of their souls, the God of all grace meets them still in the far country. “His father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” How blessed!
But that’s not all! Without the least delay, the father brings out all the provision he has made for the sinner as set forth here, in the best robe and the ring and the shoes. When a sinner tells God he has no worthiness, God answers, “I will clothe you with worthiness.” As the prodigal breathes out the words, “I have sinned and am no more worth,” the father replies, “Brings for the best robe and put it on him.” How wonderful! At one moment a sinner in his rags and his sins, in the full consciousness of having nothing else but his sins, in God’s presence telling Him so, and the next moment God giving him change of raiment, and a ring, the emblems of eternal love, and a standing before Him without blame. Oh, what grace!
No wonder the Apostle exclaims, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). It is the ungodly that God justifies. Those that come as ungodly, as without strength and lost, He meets and assures a full and hearty welcome and provides all that they need.
“As I was the Father loved me,
Loved me in my sin and shame,
Yet a great way off He saw me,
Ran and kissed me as I came.
Gave me Christ, the robe of glory,
Spotless as the heavens above;
Not to meet my thoughts of fitness,
But His wondrous thoughts of love.
Not a servant at God’s gateway,
But “a son” within His home,
To the love, the joy, the singing,
To the glory I am come.”
Thus has the poet voiced the thoughts of the returning wanderer. The kiss upon the cheek of the prodigal is the true token of hearty welcome, and the best robe, ring and shoes; speak as clearly of the unreserved loved to the returning sinner as words and actions possibly could.
Beloved reader, have you ever caused joy in heaven, joy in the presence of the angels of God? You may if you come to God without any reserve in your soul and tell Him all your heart—all your sins. If you do, you will find before your tale is told, a change of raiment will be yours, “clothed with the garment of salvation,” a new standing before God, no longer “in Adam,” but “in Chirst,” in the Beloved One, accepted! Then, having clothed and accepted you, God, in His love and joy, will rejoice over you with singing. It is His joy to have you in His family, and no doubt, it shall be yours to be there, a son and an heir of God, yea, a joint-heir through our Lord Jesus Christ. “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs: heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:16-17).
“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.” We never read of the merriment ceasing. No the joy thus begun is endless, eternal. May our hearts enter into it more and more.
“A weary, homeless stranger,
In a far and unknown land,
Benighted, lone, and friendless,
All shelterless I stand.
The world is cold and cheerless,
And far the longed-for goal—
I fled unto Thee to hide me,
Thou refuge of my soul!
O long have pride and passion,
Within my bosom reigned
And long some human fortress,
My refuge hath remained.
Now all have fled and left me,
To ruin wild and vast—
I flee unto Thee to hide me,
Till the storm is overpast.
My Shepherd, true and tender,
My Refuge, O how dear!
Thy light shone out, I saw Thee
In mercy, waiting near.
M Rock and my Salvation,
I’m safe in Thee at last;
And Thou wilt surely hide me,
Till the storm is overpast.”
But now I give some excerpts from the pen of prominent writers:
The third parable shows us the dead alive again, the subjective side, therefore, of this recovery of the lost, which the first two were incompetent to express. The sheep is simply brought back; the piece of money is unchanged when restored; but the lost son returns to his father, and in heart, though under the pressure of famine at the first. The parabolic veil also is thinner, and permits the affections of the heart to manifest themselves with freedom. The two classes seen in the first parable, lost sight of in the second, reappear and come fully out in contrast here, the mirror being held up before the Pharisee as never before, in the elder son.
Sons they both are. This, which has led some astray as to the application, is intelligible in view of Israel’s relationship to God, as in Deuteronomy 14:1: “Sons ye are of Jehovah your God.” This, of course, must not be understood as if involving the Spirit of Adoption, which they had not, nor what would be implied by such language in the New Testament. It involved of necessity neither new birth nor salvation. An adoption they had; and the Lord says to the Syrophenician woman, “It is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it to the dogs.” Again in the parable which He spoke to the Jews after His solemn entry into Jerusalem, He speaks of PHARISEES AND PUBLICANS both as “sons,” exactly as here. Those to whom He was now addressing Himself claimed this most unhesitatingly in their own behalf, and in a sense in which He could not allow it: “We be not born of fornication,” they said indignantly: “we have one Father, even God” (John 8:41).
This relationship, though it might be only external, furnishes the basis of appeal in the story before us. External only it was, at first, with the younger son, and to the end of it with the elder. The prodigal naturally is the younger son: the elders of Israel were with the Pharisees.
This younger son soon shows where his heart is. The “substance” that he gets and squanders is, of course, his portion in natural things, that which God has in fact divided among men to use as accountable to Him. The far-off country which he seeks classes him at once among the many whose backs are habitually turned on God. Here for awhile he enjoys himself after the fashion of those to whom transgression has its own delight, in the lusts which yet consume and never satisfy. An end must come, therefore, in which not only his own resources are at an end, but a famine comes upon all the sources of supply. He is in a land, too, where no man gives, but he joins himself to a citizen of that country, and is sent into the fields to feed swine. Sad pictures of Satan’s service, in ministering to men given up to their own lusts entirely, longing even to be as they are; thank God, (this is His mercy merely and the door of hope) thank God, in vain.
Now he comes to himself, and in his misery the thought of his father’s house breaks in upon him. Alas, it is not yet his father; nor does he think aright of it either, if we realize of what it is the parable speaks. Bread there is there, to be sure, enough and to spare—abundance of bread in that Bethlehem, where our Christ was born, and whence He came to us; bread enough, but not for hired servants. No hired servant, as such, could eat the Passover in Israel (Exodus 12:45). God has all children in His house, and service but for the free hearts who know the constraint of love in serving Him.
The prodigal is not yet in place to know this, and fain would be one of those hirelings himself. All else is gone for him; but he will go back and confess the sin which he committed, which has deprived him of the son’s place (never really known), and after the fashion of man’s humility, which recognizes not the worthlessness of such labor nor the grace of God, he will say, “Make me as one of thy hired servants.”
With all this, he is yet on his way to his father. The father’s love anticipates and effectuates the son’s endeavor. “When he was yet a long way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him.” Not a word of the confession intended has been uttered; not a question is put: “I said, I will confess my transgression to the Lord; and so Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.” There is no reproof for the past, no stipulation as to the future, no condition in this free forgiveness. How it would spoil the revelation of the Father’s heart which is to be the yet needed work in the soul of the returning prodigal, make the son a son, and deliver from all thought of that far country, save abhorrence of that which had carried him thither!
Now, in another spirit than that which dictated it, he can pour out his confession. “Make me a hired servant,” he cannot say for shame. And the right acknowledgement of his unworthiness is cut short by the father’s preemptory joy which bids, “Bring forth a robe,—the best,—and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and sandals on his feet.” What he could not have pretended to claim as if he had never wandered is now his in the father’s delight to have him back: Christ, the sinner’s robe of wondrous righteousness, what can equal it in the apparel of the angels as they shine in heaven? Then the ring unites the working hand to God forever: and the feet are shod for all the way, whatever it may be.
“And bring the fatted calf, and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again, and was lost, and is found.”
Death is the food of this new life, for which in fact, that it might be, life had to be given. Such is the ransom price by which the prodigal has to be redeemed from the bondage of sin. And henceforth death is not merely conquered, but becomes the minister to a life in which the shadow of death is passed for ever. The fatted calf—or young ox, not immature but in the first fresh vigor,—the type of the laborer for God, is here the peace-offering, that aspect of the Lord’s work which the Gospel of Luke expresses. The prodigal is welcomed into the joy of reconciliation and communion with God; but it is the Father’s joy, let us still remember, which is all through prominent: “This my son was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found.”*
The publicans and sinners draw near to hear Jesus. Grace had its true dignity to those who needed it. Self-righteousness repulsed that which was not as contemptible as itself, and God Himself at the same time in His nature of love. The Pharisees and the scribes murmured against Him who was a witness of this grace in fulfilling it.
I cannot meditate on this chapter, which has been the joy of so many souls, and the subject of so many testimonies to grace, from the time that the Lord pronounced it, without enlarging upon grace, perfect in its application to the heart. Nevertheless I must confine myself here to great principles, leaving their application to those who preach the word. This is a difficulty that constantly presents itself in this portion of the word.
First, the great principle which the Lord exhibits, and on which He founds the justification of God’s dealings (sad state of heart that requires it! marvelous grace and patience that gives it!)—the great principle, I repeat, is that God finds His own joy in showing grace. What an answer to the horrid spirit of the Pharisees who made it an objection!
It is the Shepherd who rejoices when the sheep is found, the woman when the piece of money is in her hand, the Father when His child is in His arms. What an expression of that which God is! How truly is Jesus the one to make it known! It is on this that all the blessing of man can alone be founded. It is in this that God is glorified in His grace.
But there are two distinct parts in this grace—the love that seeks, and the love with which one is received. The first two parables describe the former character of this grace. The shepherd seeks his sheep, the woman her piece of money; the sheep and the piece of silver are passive. The shepherd seeks (and the woman also) until he finds, because he has an interest in the matter. The sheep, wearied with its wanderings, has not to take one step in returning. The Shepherd lays it on his shoulders and carries it home. He takes the whole charge, happy to recover his sheep. This is the mind of heaven, whatever the heart of man on earth may be. It is the work of Christ, the Good Shepherd. The woman sets before us the pains which God takes in His love; so that it is more the work of the Spirit, which is represented by that of the woman. The light is brought—she sweeps the house until she finds the piece she had lost. Thus God acts in the world, seeking sinners. The hateful and hating jealousy of self-righteousness finds no place in the mind of heaven, where God dwells and produces, in the happiness that surrounds Him, the reflex of His own perfections.
But although neither the sheep nor the piece of silver does anything toward its own recovery, there is a real work wrought in the heart of one who is brought back; but this work, necessary as it is for the finding or even the seeking of peace, is not that on which the peace is grounded. The return and the reception of the sinner are therefore described in the third parable. The work of grace, accomplished solely by the power of God, and complete in its effects is presented to us in the first two.
HERE THE SINNER RETURNS with sentiments which we will now examine—sentiments produced by grace, but which never rise to the height of the grace manifested in his reception until he has returned.
First his estrangement from God is depicted. While as guilty at the moment that he crosses the paternal threshold, in turning his back upon his father, as when he eats husks with the swine, man deceived by sin, is here presented in the last state of degradation to which sin conducts him. Having expended all that fell to him according to nature, the destitution in which he finds himself (and many a soul feels the famine which it has brought itself into, the emptiness of all around without a desire after God or holiness, and often into what is degrading in sin) does not incline him towards God, but leads him to seek a resource in that which Satan’s country (where nothing is given) can supply; and he finds himself among the swine. But grace operates; and the thought of the happiness of his father’s house, and of the goodness that blessed all around it, awakes in his heart. Where the Spirit of God works, there are always two things found, conviction in the conscience and the attraction of the heart. It is really the revelation of God to the soul, and God is light and He is love; as light, conviction is produced in the soul, but as love there is the attraction of goodness, and truthful confession is produced. It is not merely that we have sinned, but that we have to do with God and desire to have, but fear because of what He is, yet are led to go. So the woman in chapter 7. So Peter in the boat. This produces the conviction that we are perishing, and a sense, feeble it may be, yet true, of the goodness of God, and the happiness to be found in His presence, although we may not feel sure of being received; and we do not remain in the place where we are perishing. There is the sense of sin, there is humiliation; the sense that there is goodness in God; but not the sense of what the grace of God really is. Grace attracts—one goes towards God, but one would be satisfied to be received as a servant—a proof that, though the heart be wrought in by grace, it has not yet met God. Progress, moreover, although real, never gives peace. There is a certain rest of heart in going; but one does not know what reception to expect, after having been guilty of forsaking God. The nearer the prodigal son drew to the house, the more would his heart beat at the thought of meeting his father. But the father anticipates his coming, and acts towards him, not according to his son’s deserts, but according to his own heart as a father—the only measure of the ways of God towards us. He is on his son’s neck while the latter is still in his rags, before he has had time to say, “Make me as one of thy hired servants.” It was no longer time to say it. It belonged to a heart anticipating how it would be received, not to one who had met God. Such an one knows how it has been received. The prodigal arranges to say it (as people speak of an humble hope, and a low place); but though the confession is complete when he arrives, he does not then say, Make me a hired servant. How could he? The father’s heart had decided his position by its own sentiments, but its low towards him, by the place his heart had given him towards himself. The father’s position decided that of the son. This was between himself and his son; but this was not all. He loves his son, even as he was, but he did not introduce him into the house in that condition. The same love that received him as a son will have him enter the house as a son, and as the son of such a father should be. The servants are ordered to bring the best robe and put it on him. thus loved, and received by love, in our wretchedness, we are clothed with Christ to enter the house.
WE DO NOT BRING THE ROBE; God supplies us with it. It is an entirely new thing; and we become the righteousness of God in Him. This is heaven’s best robe. All the rest have part in the joy, except the self-righteous man, the true Jew. The joy is the hoy of the father, but all the house shares it. The elder son is not in the house. He is near it, but he will not come in. He will have nothing to do with the grace that makes the poor prodigal the subject of the joy of love. Nevertheless, grace acts; the father goes out and entreats him to come in. It is thus that God acted, in the Gospel, toward the Jew. Yet man’s righteousness, which is but selfishness and sin, rejects grace. But God will not give up His grace. It becomes Him. God will be God; and God is love.”**
*Excerpt from F.W. Grant’s excellent Numerical Bible. Volume Matthew to John. An invaluable work for Preachers and Teachers of God’s word.
**Excerpt from J.N. Derby’s valuable Synopsis. Volume Matthew to John. Unexcelled by any commentary.