A Sermon to Debtors!
Archibald G. Brown, January 15th, 1871, Stepney Green Tabernacle
"Therefore, brethren, we are debtors." Romans 8:12
No sin is more hateful to God or hideous in man, than pride. It is against this sin that some of the strongest invectives of Scripture are hurled; and the saint of God, although finding it still lurking within himself, knows no language too severe to employ in its condemnation. "The LORD detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished!" Proverbs 16:5
And it is against the man of pride that God places himself in battle array; for "God resists the proud — but gives grace to the humble." 1 Peter 5.5. Pride is a daring sin that disputes the very sovereignty of Jehovah, and ventures to rob Him of the glory which is His due. It hardens the sinner in his sin, and ensures his doom by making him spurn the only salvation that saves. Pride dries up and withers the strength of the saint, and places an insurmountable barrier in the way of his usefulness for his God. Pride is the pioneer of disaster and destruction, and it heralds the way to eternal misery and ruin. The direst judgments of God recorded in the Word are those that came on pride. Other sins have slain their thousands — but pride has slain its tens of thousands!
What solitary word can be said in its excuse? I know that all sin is without excuse, and that it is not for us to attempt the palliation of any sin; yet at the same time, there are degrees in guilt. Some sins lead more to pity and sorrow than anything else; but pity is wasted when bestowed on pride. Rightly viewed, pride can only produce burning indignation and deep loathing. It is a sin that can plead no possible cause for existence. It is founded on a lie and supported by ignorance. Pride!! — it is a sin without foundation; for what has man to be proud about? The natural man being nothing but a mass of guilt and unforgiven sin, has only cause for shame; and the saint being only what he is by the grace of God, is equally destitute of ground for boasting. Pride is the first-born child of its mother, ignorance; it can only thrive in darkness, and it expires in the light.
Have you not observed in daily life that the most ignorant and untaught — the men whose minds are most cramped — the men who can only be described as "little" — are always the men most crammed full of conceit. They know so little that they do not know the smallness of their knowledge, and consequently they pride themselves on knowing everything.
Let but a little light stream into their minds, and the first thing they perceive is that they know next to nothing. So it is spiritually. A soul unenlightened from on high remains content with itself; and from its dusty darkness, pride is bred. Ignorant as a post, it talks proud nonsense like the Pharisee, and it thanks God that it is not like the man whom He justifies.
But when the Holy Spirit shines into the man — the dark chambers of his heart are lit up, the unrevealed filth is manifested — and in a moment the building in which he has so gloried, tumbles down about his ears! Confounded by the sudden revelations made, his pride collapses; and taking the position of the publican he once despised, he borrows his prayer and cries, "God be merciful to me, a sinner!"
But alas! pride has many lives, and dies hard. Although in the hour of conversion it receives a death-blow, it is still far from dead, and its dying struggles are all too strong for native strength; it lingers with the saint a lifetime, and only dies when he himself is dead.
Shall we excuse the sin because it lingers with us to the last? God forbid. Of all pride, saint-pride is the very worst; it is unaccountable — unthankful — hateful, and if this evening's service does nothing else than cut its plumes and cast it to the ground, we shall not have gathered here in vain.
"Brethren, we are debtors!" This assertion is well calculated to bring us to our senses and stop our mouth from boasting. The verse is a sharp and glittering axe. May the spirit now place His hand on ours, and direct the blow at the very root of the sin. I purpose dividing the subject into three parts, as follows:
First, I will ask you to have a look at the debtor himself in order to find out who he is.
Secondly, I will try and go through his accounts in order to see how he stands.
Lastly, I will try and give a little advice as to what he had better do.
I. Let us have a look at the debtor himself.
Who is the debtor, and what is his name? These are the questions that naturally arise and we will try and briefly answer them. I notice first that there are many of them. The text is in the plural; "we" are debtors. A long line of them appears, innumerable for multitude. Looking along them, the features of the apostle Paul arrest the attention, and I now find that it is he who says to his companions the words that this evening fall upon our ears, "Brethren, we are debtors."
Surely there is something strange here, at first glance almost irreconcilable with previous words that have fallen from his lips. Paul — a debtor? Why, I thought he was the one who spoke of being Christ's free man, and not under the law but grace. Paul — a debtor? Was it not he who said "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us"? Has Paul become legal in his doctrines? After speaking so plainly to the Galatians about their becoming entangled with the works of the law, has he himself fallen into the same error? Was it not Paul who loved to declare in glowing language that Christ had fulfilled the law, paid all its requirements, and completely exonerated all His people from every liability? Surely it was. And yet here we have him declaring himself to be a debtor, and not only himself — but a great company with him.
Who are those he links with himself? Are they a number of unconverted sinners — and as such, is he simply speaking on their behalf? No, far from it. The mystery is not to be explained in that way. Those to whom he is writing are those who are "in Christ," and concerning them he declares most emphatically in the first verse of this chapter, that "there is no condemnation." This seems a strange contradiction, "no condemnation" — and yet debtors. Acquitted from all charges made against them — and yet debtors. All debts paid in full — and yet debtors still. This demands investigation and careful study, for evidently the debtors mentioned here are debtor saints, not debtor sinners. God's children are God's debtors — but in a very differed sense to what they were before. It is no longer a burden that crushes them in the dust, heavy with condemnation — but a sweet obligation from which they do not wish their freedom.
The debtors Paul speaks of, and among whom he places himself, had been debtors of a different kind in previous days. They had all known what it was to pass wearisome years in the great debtor's prison, within whose walls all mankind are by nature born. They had owed an infinite debt to the justice of God, and to the demands of His broken law. They could never have paid it themselves. Had they been delivered over to the tormentors until the uttermost farthing was returned — they would have been in the hands of avenging justice even now, with their debt not even diminished, far less removed! The creditor required that; they had lost all power to pay.
But divine mercy intervened between the debtors and their doom. Christ took upon Himself their liabilities — he became their surety, and consented to be held responsible for them. What tongue can describe the reckoning that he made? No gold or silver paid that debt — but blood — the precious blood of Jesus! Staggering under its crushing weight, he fell upon His face in Gethsemane, while from His body every pore dropped blood. He carried the load to Calvary's cross, and there in unknown agonies, he paid the debtors' debts in full! Yes, though the load broke His heart, He did not die until Heaven and earth had heard Him cry, "It is finished!" Down into the grave He carried his people's debts, and then rising on the third day, he left them there forever. The surety being acquitted — all for whom He stood, must now go free. No debtors' prison can hold them now. They can look into the face of infinite and inflexible justice itself, and say, "I owe you nothing; you have received my debt in full from Jesus' hands."
How then can these people be said to be in debt? This is the question that yet remains to be answered. It is easily done, for every Christian's heart supplies the answer. It is the debt of obligation — gratitude and love we owed to Him, by whom we are what we are. Not having paid our own debts — we are indebted to Him who paid them for us. We no longer owe anything to a broken law and divine justice — but we owe all to a loving Savior. Blessed debt that requires no payment but love. Just in a word or two let me, by an illustration, make more clear the indebtedness I mean.
There is a poor wretched forlorn creature, who has lost his all. One thing after another has gone, until now he is penniless, besides which he owes more than he will ever be able to repay. What few sticks of furniture he once possessed are now no longer his — the broker is in his room, and he is just about to be cast on the street with his weeping wife and starving child.
In the moment of his supreme agony, there enters one whom he has always hated and treated cruelly. Without one word of reproach, this man pays the rent, and tells the broker he may leave — he calls in every account the man has ever owed, and pays them all. He provides the best food, beautiful garments, and a lovely home — and besides clearing off all past debts, he makes ample provision for every future need. Now that man is out of debt, is he not? Go and ask him, and he will tell you, weeping tears of joy, "Yes, I am; and no, I am not; for if I owe my former creditors nothing, I owe my all to my former enemy." Brethren, in this sense we are debtors.
II. Let us now go through the Debtor's Accounts.Up to the present we have only spoken of the saint being a debtor in general terms. But as doubtless there are some present who, although acknowledging themselves debtors — yet remain in a certain measure ignorant of the amount to which they are indebted, I purpose going more into detail. I mean, God helping me, to turn accountant and inspect your books, asking you to follow me carefully and mark the result.
There are several books of yours I will want you to fetch down, and together we will add up the columns of "received" and "paid," and then try and strike the balance. Unless greatly mistaken, I think we will find that in every item we have received far more than we have paid for — and that in the sum total, we are tremendous debtors.
Let us first inspect the SPIRITUAL account book. I can see at a glance that in the left-hand column of "Received" there is a long list of benefits, and that the right-hand column of "Paid" presents a very barren appearance. Let us, however come more closely to the work and take it line by line, for general appearances will never do in making up accounts.
Standing at the head of the list, I read, "Received mercy." Yes, blessed be God, many of us present can speak of mercy, not as what we entertain a faint hope of possessing some day — but as what we now have to the joy and rejoicing of our hearts. There was a time when mercy was our one desire and daily cry. To obtain that, we felt we would sacrifice all besides, and the lack of it spread a gloom over our life that nothing could enlighten. Hundreds of times we went as near the mercy-seat as we dared, and that was "afar off;" and with downcast eyes that streamed with tears, we struck upon our breast and cried, "O God be merciful to me!"
Well, thank God, those days are now over. There came a time when, as we were weeping and praying, mercy flew to us and said, "Your prayers are heard; you have obtained the desire of your heart. I am yours!" O, with what joyful haste we recorded the fact, how our tears — but not tears of grief — stained the page as we wrote, "I have obtained mercy!" No longer did we half despairingly cry for it — but in a song that vied in joy with those of the heavenly hosts we sang, "God has been merciful to me!" Many days have passed since then — but the memories of that moment linger with us still, undiminished in their sweetness. Surely of all we have received from God, mercy is not the least.
In the book of Hosea, the second chapter and the first verse, there is a most precious salutation that was to be given by one godly Israelite to another. It is as follows, "Say to your brethren, Ammi, and to your sisters, Ruhamah." This translated means, say to your brethren, "My people," and to your sisters, "Having obtained mercy." What a sweet salutation this is, and sweeter still to think that it can be addressed to some hundreds present.
My brother, in spirit I grasp you by the hand and cry, Ruhamah! Ruhamah! We have obtained mercy! My sister, our joy is yours also; to many of you I say, Ruhamah! Ruhamah! For you too have obtained mercy. Truly this is a glorious item heading the list.
Let us look at the corresponding line in the other column, and see what we paid for so great a blessing. I look in vain for anything; but wait, there is a memorandum there; let us read it. "So then it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs — but of God that shows mercy." Romans 9.16. What, was mercy received for nothing? Yes, for mercy to be mercy — it must be perfectly free. It came to us unsought, most undeserved, unasked. Unasked! Did we not pray for it? Yes — but it was mercy that made us pray for mercy. Sweet mercy, how free you are! As free as the sunbeams that enter the hut and the palace alike! As free as the raindrops that fell this afternoon. Brethren, we are debtors, for we have obtained mercy and paid nothing for it.
Another most important item now appears on the list of receipts. It reads, "Received a perfect righteousness." Something more than pardon for transgression past, is needed for the soul to enter Heaven. There must be possessed a perfect righteousness without a flaw — a righteousness not comparative in its merits — but superlative. It must be a righteousness that will satisfy God himself — a righteousness that could not possibly be increased — one that will defy the brightness of the great white throne to detect an imperfection. Where is sinful man to obtain it? How can he, who has broken every commandment of the law — yet appear as one who has honored it in every particular, and given to it a never-failing obedience?
The answer to this question could never come from man — for how can a clean thing come out of an unclean? When the leopard changes his spots — then man may hope to make himself anything else than a sinner.
But thank God, the answer has come not from us — but from our Savior. He who was our sin-bearer also becomes our righteousness. While by His blood and death He made an atonement for our guilt, and cleanses us from all our sins, He also — by His perfect obedience to the law, worked out a righteousness, which He imputes to all, the moment they by grace believe.
O, blessed fact beloved, we are as righteous in the sight of God as Jesus Christ Himself. It is on His righteousness that our God looks when He bends His eye on us. This righteousness can never be impaired, and can never be removed. It will abide the test of death, and only shine more brightly when the light of the judgment day arises.
What, dear friends, did we give for this justifying robe? I find in the other column no mentioned price — but simply a text recorded, "and this is His name, whereby he shall be called 'The Lord Our Righteousness.' Jer 23.6. Brethren, we are debtors.
I can only mention the other remaining blessings that I find recorded as being received. There is Peace. Perfect peace, sweet peace, increasing peace . . .
peace with God,
peace in our souls,
peace in relation to the future,
peace that will culminate in Heaven.
Blessed portion, who can measure its preciousness?
But did we purchase it? Far from it. It was our effort to purchase it that kept us so long from obtaining it. He, yes, He who is our righteousness, is also "our peace" with God; and it is he also who gives sweet peace within. "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you." John 14.27. Brethren, under this head, we are debtors.
We have, moreover, received very great and precious promises. Each one more precious than a thousand diamonds! But they are no purchased promises. With all we have already mentioned, they are all "yes, and in Him, Amen." 2 Cor 1.20. For innumerable promises, we are, brethren — but debtors.
Last — but far from least, indeed, greatest of them all, there stands recorded, a promised Heaven. A promised Heaven? Yes, not a purchased one. Listen to the songs of those who have already entered into full possession of their bright inheritance. The song does not speak of any price paid by the songsters — but it is full of praise to Him who, having purchased their bliss by His agonies, presents it to them free. "To Him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever — Amen." Rev 1.5-6.
My brethren, from Hell's gate to Heaven's throne, and for every step between the two, we are debtors to sovereign grace! All that we are, and all we ever hope to be, we owe to Him alone.
Let us now take down another account book of the saint, and see if this one in any measure reverses the decision we have been obliged to come through the former. It is his PROVIDENTIAL account book.
I notice, first, that he has received health. This is a mercy, the value of which is never known until it is removed. To some present, illness is a thing almost unknown, and pain is a comparative stranger. You can hardly remember the time when sickness kept you a prisoner at home, and made God's house a strange place to you. The doctor is the least frequent visitor you have, and his bills have never proved any drawback to your prosperity. Well, friend, you are quite blessed. You have received a great mercy.
But are you not a debtor for it? Assuredly you are. There are multitudes who love Jesus with a love as warm, perhaps more fervent than yours — who hardly ever know what it is to feel the joy of buoyant health. Days of pain and nights of weariness are appointed to them. Their most healthy days are what you would term your days of sickness. They have as ardent a desire to spend and be spent in His service, as ever you possess — and yet their devotion to their Savior can only show itself in patient suffering. Together with pain of body they often have perplexity of mind, for all their little savings are swallowed up by sickness. To find many of the holiest saints on earth this evening, you would have to go, not to the crowded sanctuary — but to the silent bedroom. Why so? Only because health is God's gift, and you are His debtor for it.
Many of us also have a happy home to be reckoned in our mercies. Wherever else we may have trial, we live free from it at home. And he who is happy at home, can well bear much abroad. Of all the providential gifts of God, a home of peace and joy stands first. Is this mercy ours because of any superior goodness belonging to us? Surely not! For some of the holiest find their troubles in their home.
Doubtless, there are many here who know only too well the truth of what I state. The return home from the sanctuary is almost dreaded, as it is sure to lead to an experience the very reverse of what they enjoy in the Lord's house. They know that persecution and unkindness await them, and the Savior's words are true in their case, "A man's foes shall be those of his own household." Mat 10.36.
Brethren, for that bright happy little spot we call home, and for all the charms we find within it, we are God's debtors.
In the book also of many present, there will be found recorded "many comforts denied to others." True, you are not wealthy, or surrounded by luxuries — but you are free from poverty, and have a sufficiency of all that is truly needful. Many of the comforts as well as the necessities of life, are yours. In the whole of your course, you have never known what it is to be more than occasionally "pinched" in circumstances. To what do you owe this fact? Only to the sovereign mercy of God.
Many of His children as prayerful, perhaps more so, than yourself, find life is one long struggle. What you complain of — they would consider prosperity; and your "trying circumstances" — they would look upon as next door to an Eden. Many a brother and sister in Christ are often, as James expresses it, "destitute of daily food."
I wish that we could see God's hand more in all our temporal mercies, and acknowledge by our willingness to help the poorer of Christ's flock, that we know and feel ourselves to be debtors for everything we have, as well as for everything we are.
There is one other book I want to examine, and as it closely concerns us as a church and people, I ask your careful attention. It is the account book of our church mercies. The page of "Received" is crowded from top to bottom. God has most marvelously blessed us. Standing at the head of the list, I read . . .
"restoration of many backsliders."
"Joy, peace, and prayerfulness in our midst."
While many churches have had to deplore barrenness and few converts — we have had cause to say, "Where do these come from that flock as doves to the windows?" Many have been our church blessings. But what have we paid for them? I find nothing on the other side of the page recorded. The blessing given has been the result of free and sovereign grace. There is not one of us that can say, "It has been through me." No, the more we see of ourselves, the greater becomes the wonder that God can bless us in any measure. Beloved friends, let us, as a church, walk humbly; and while we rejoice in the prosperity given, remember that we are debtors.
Having now gone through some of the debtor's books, what CONCLUSION are we forced to come to? Why only that he is over head and ears in debt. Never was there such a debtor before, and there never can in future ages be a greater.
He owes for all he is.
He owes for all he has.
He owes for all he hopes to be.
His debts are beyond all calculation, and his power to pay any portion of them is simply nil. "Over head in debt" did I say? Yes, and something more than that; he is over heart in debt.
Remember, moreover, that every minute adds to the amount. Each ticking moment is an extra debt. While I have been preaching and you listening, our indebtedness to God has been silently augmented. O, how can we overtake a debt that grows with every second? We never can, and until our last hour, and in the very moment of our death, we must still exclaim, "Brethren, we are debtors."
III. Let us see what is best to be done.
Time warns us that on this division we must be brief indeed; so I will do little else than just mention a few suggestions.
Let us frankly acknowledge our debts. Let us shun all boasting either in the heart or conversation. If ever we are called to speak of what we are or what we have — then let us always take care to let it be known that it is by the grace of God that we are what we are, and that it is by the mercy of God that we have what we have. Let us never boast at our God's expense — but delight to say, "We owe Him for all."
Secondly, let us walk humbly because of our debts. Debtors should not lift their heads too high. If they do, they forfeit all claim to sympathy. If I see some poor fellow who has been fairly crushed by adverse circumstances, if I mark him walking with downcast eyes and seeming to shun all observation, there is something within me that says, "Go and take him by the hand, his burden is heavy enough without your adding to it by lack of sympathy." I see the man feels his lowly position, and that is enough to command pity from any heart that is not less than human. But if on the contrary, the man grows proud on his poverty, and laughs at his debts, and goes ahead more than ever — my heart is steeled against him. Brethren, let us walk humbly with our God, and with all our joy for pardoned sin; let there be an abiding sense of the fact that we are still debtors and nothing else.
Thirdly, let us deal leniently with others. I will tell you an incident and leave you to draw the moral. There was once a servant who owed his lord ten thousand talents, and as he had nothing to pay it with, his lord was about to sell him, his wife, his children, and all he had. Falling on his knees, the servant entreated for mercy. Moved by compassion, his lord forgave him that great debt. Going forth as a forgiven debtor, he happened to meet a fellow servant who owed him the paltry sum of a hundred pence. Taking him by the throat he demanded him to pay the debt; and refusing to listen to his cries for mercy, he cast his fellow servant into prison. Do you wonder that upon his lord hearing of it, he was angry with the servant, and sued him for his great debt? Brethren, we are debtors — let us forgive those who are indebted to us.
Lastly, let us make a willing surrender of all the Lord asks for. It is the very least return that we can make. Owing Him for everything — we can grudge Him nothing. At least we should not. Bought with blood divine, we are no longer our own, but His. Having nothing but what we have received from His hands, there should be nothing that we would not give up with joy into His hands again. Brethren, we are debtors. Let us show it by our lives.