The Sincerity of Divine Expostulations
By Horatius Bonar, 1867
Now as for you, son of man, say to the house of Israel: You have said this: "Our transgressions and our sins are heavy on us, and we are wasting away because of them! How then can we survive?" Tell them: "As I live"—the declaration of the Lord God—"I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked person should turn from his way and live. Repent, repent of your evil ways! Why will you die, house of Israel?" Ezekiel 33:10-11
Let us beware of putting a human and finite construction upon things divine and infinite. We need to keep these words in mind, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways." God's character stands out as the contrast of man's, even as light is the contrast of darkness, as paradise is the contrast of the waste howling wilderness.
1. What a contrast are God's THOUGHTS of man to man's thoughts of God!God is seen yearning over his poor wanderer with the profoundest compassion, cherishing thoughts of peace and friendship towards him. Man is seen suspecting God, looking on him as a hard master, an austere man, reaping where he has not sown, and gathering where he has not strawed.
2. How opposite are God's FEELINGS towards man to man's feelings respecting God!The one love—the other hatred. The one kindness and goodwill—the other enmity!
3. How different God's ESTIMATE of man from man's estimate of God!God's estimate of the value of man is the price he paid for him—his own Son. Man's estimate of God is the price he offered for the Son of God—thirty pieces of silver.
4. How unlike God's PURPOSES to man's!God says to man, "Live!" Man says to God, "Let him die! Crucify him! This is the heir—come, let us kill him!"
5. How far asunder are God's WAYS from man's!God's are all towards man—in the direction of reconciliation. Man's are all away from God—repelling his fellowship, and heedless of his favor.
Such is the contrast presented in these two verses. In the former, we have the state of man's heart in reference to God; in the latter, the state of God's heart in reference to man. Let us take up in succession these two points.
I. The state of man's heart in reference to God."Our transgressions and our sins are heavy on us, and we are wasting away because of them! How then can we survive?" Ezekiel 33:10. This verse clearly refers to Israel's revengeful murmurings against Jehovah. God had visited them both with warning and entreaty, with threats and invitations. These being utterly slighted, judgment smote them. Still God continues entreating and inviting. The judgments are not removed—but the gracious messages remain; no, are multiplied. This was the state of things which drew forth the rebellious mutterings of our text. Messages of mercy, in the midst of judgments, were what they could neither comprehend nor endure. It was this that raised their enmity to its utmost pitch of blasphemous defiance. They did not, they would not, see how perfectly consistent these were with each other; the grace not contradicting the judgment, nor the judgment canceling the grace—but both together forming a blessed and marvelous combination of goodness and severity. But they set the one against the other as if they were irreconcilable, and the one the mockery of the other. They murmured, they fretted, they caviled, they sneered—"If our transgressions and our sins are heavy on us, and we are wasting away because of them—how then can we survive? That is, You tell us of life; you promise us life; yet we find judgment lying on us in full weight; we find ourselves pining, perishing, consuming away; is it not mockery to speak to us of life? Is not the message of life a falsehood; and is not God insincere in sending it? Surely, if we do perish, we are not to blame; let him bear the blame who is wounding us to death, and yet mocking us with the promise of life!" Desperate and daring words! how fearful to hear the creature thus blaspheming, to see him fighting against the God who made him, especially when that God is entreating him in all the tenderness of divine love, yearning over him in all the lingering fondness of paternal pity and unextinguished grace!
It is in this way that the sinner murmurs still. It is thus that he reasons against God, struggling with the Almighty, contending with his power, rushing against his thick, strong shield.
He murmurs against God for not giving him life. He hears the promise of life, yet feels that he has none; and he asks, Why am I thus? God promises life. He proclaims his willingness to give it. I have no life. Is he not mocking me? Christ promises rest. I have none. Can he be sincere? I have been doing all I can—striving, praying, reading books, amending my ways, using means; still there is no peace, no life for me. Can the message be a true one?
No, more, he casts the whole blame of his perishing on God. He says, I see that I must just die; there is no help for it; the blame is not mine—but God's. Death may be my portion hereafter; but how can I help dying? how can I help sinning? If sin and death are my lot, let God see to it. My fallen nature, my education, my circumstances, my temptations—these are my excuses. Thus he accuses God of his sin, and of his doom. He has done all he can, and God will not give him life; must not God be the sole author of his ruin?
To this we answer, No! God is not the author of a man's sin, or of his death. He is pure of their blood. The evil is not of God—but of man. If they perish, the guilt is all their own. For mark, the sin is their own, wholly their own. No one forces them to sin. God does not force them to sin, and Satan cannot force them. Their sin is their own, in the fullest sense. But more—it is wholly they who are to blame for their not being delivered; for the real and true reason why they are not delivered is, that they will not take life in God's way, and upon God's terms. They may be willing enough to have it—but not in God's way. They insist on paying for it, or meriting it, or doing something towards its attainment, or at least towards rendering themselves not wholly unworthy of its being conferred upon them. And when God tells them that it is bought already, and cannot be bought over by them, that it cannot be earned by them, that if they will not take it free they cannot have it at all—they turn around upon him, and, in the fierce rage and dark rebellion of disappointed pride—urged on and embittered by the deep anguish of their wretched souls, exclaim—It is all a mockery, a deception! As if it were some relief to them, in their anguish, to find God insincere, and to be able to fling upon him the blame of their perdition.
There may be some here thus putting eternal life away from them. You feel your need of it; you are wretched under a sense of the need of it; and yet you are refusing it. You will not have it after all; for the terms do not please you. This life becomes yours, not by toiling or struggling—but simply by receiving the divine testimony concerning it—by listening to the voice of Him who, while he says, "You will not come to me that you might have life," says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." "He who believes on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." Could the blessing be cheaper? Could it be had on easier, simpler terms? Could it be brought nearer, or could you be made more entirely welcome to it? It is not by climbing some inaccessible hill, or treading your darksome way through some tangled forest. It is just by sitting down where you are at this moment, and drinking of that well of living water that is bursting up freshly at your side.
The life of a sinner, as such, can only end in eternal death. If it is to end in gladness, and to run on into the life everlasting, it must be begun over again. The evil does not lie merely in the leaves and branches of the tree—but in the stem and root; the sap is tainted, and unless that is healed, all efforts at improvement are vain. It was this, evidently, that the Lord meant to tell Nicodemus, when he startled him with the dreadful words, "You must be born again." Our whole life must be treated as utterly evil, our spiritual life-blood thoroughly corrupted; and no remedy can be of any use but that which goes to the very source. The sinner's life must be recommenced from its very first outset. It is not merely to be gone over and retouched; but it is begun anew, as if it had never existed before. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, EXCEPT A MAN BE BORN AGAIN, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3).
It is the disbelief or forgetfulness of this that produces so much false religion, so many abortions, so many half-discipleships, so many shipwrecks of faith. The religion of form and rite, of lukewarmness and compromise, of sentiment and fashion, of intellect and philosophy, has begun somewhere short of this—short of the birth from above. It may have gone back a considerable way—but not to the very beginning. It may have dug a little way down, to reach some kind of foundation—but not deep enough to reach the one sure foundation laid in Zion. In this it falls short—and therefore totally fails. It does not matter how long the cable may be; if it be but one foot too short, it is useless. So it does not matter how greatly a man may change his life, or how religious he may make it. Unless he begins it all over again; unless we be "BORN of the Spirit," it profits nothing. The one authentic commencement of religion in the soul of a man, is the being born again, "not of corruptible seed—but of incorruptible, by the word of God which lives and abides forever" (1 Pet. 1:23). And, as it was connection with the death of the first Adam that wrought our ruin, so it is connection with the resurrection of the second Adam that works restoration and blessedness. "We are begotten again unto a lively hope, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1. Pet. 1:3).
That well-known apostle of the last century, John Berridge, wrote his own epitaph some years before his death; and in it he left his solemn testimony on this point. It is a sermon in itself. "Here lie the earthly remains of John Berridge, late vicar of Everton, an itinerant servant of Jesus Christ, who loved his Master and his work; and after running on his errands many years, was called up to wait on him above. Reader! ARE YOU BORN AGAIN? No salvation without a new birth."
Unready sinner! yonder is the Judge, and the throne, and the gathering crowd, waiting their sentence! Hear the shout, and the trumpet, and the thunder, and the voice of Majesty! Are you looking out, or are you asleep? Are you preparing, or are you resolved to risk everything, and brave the Judge of all? What is time worth? What is gain, or pleasure, or sin, or earth worth? Nothing! What is the soul worth? What are heaven, and God, and Christ, and the kingdom, and the glory, worth? Everything! And yet these are nothing to you! One piece of earth's gold, one acre of land, one smile of gay companionship, one wreath of the world's honor, one day of time's power and greatness—you would prefer to—all that is divine and eternal! O madness of the human heart, how unsearchable and incurable! O spell of sin, how potent and enthralling! O snare of the evil one, how blinding, how fatal, how successful!
II. Let us mark the state of God's heart in reference to man, as we find it brought out in the eleventh verse—"As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?"
It is thus that God meets Israel's hard thoughts concerning him. Instead of being provoked to anger by this most daring rebelliousness, he answers their suspicious unbelief by a reiteration of his words of grace. How patient, how condescending! Instead of executing vengeance, he renews the assurances of his most sincere and affectionate interest in their welfare. Unmoved by their horrid taunts and charges of insincerity, he approaches them in the posture of a friend; he repeats the declaration of his gracious mind; he adds new, and larger, and fuller asseverations of his unwearied and inexhaustible compassion. No, in order to efface every suspicion, and anticipate every form and shade of unbelief, he adds his oath—his oath as the living God—that by two immutable things in which it was impossible for God to lie, they might have the most deliberate assurance of his gracious mind, and the remotest possibility of such a charge against himself as that of 'insincerity'—to be provided against.
God has thus in the most solemn way declared to us his loving intentions. He has laid bare the inmost thoughts of his heart. He tells us that these thoughts are the very opposite of ours; that his desire is not to curse—but to bless; not to destroy—but to save. And what an oath is this! It is not the oath of a man—but of the eternal God; of him who lives forever and ever. As if his word might be called in question, he adds his oath. He swears by himself, because he could swear by no greater; he swears by his own life—the greatest of all realities, the most certain of all certainties. "As surely as I am—as surely as I am Jehovah—so certainly I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked." What an infinite certainty is this!
"An oath for confirmation is," the apostle says, "an end of all strife." So should this oath be to the sinner an end of all suspicion, of all doubt, as to the gracious mind of God. How anxious must Jehovah be to meet and remove all your jealous fears—to convince you that he is not the false being which you take him to be—that he is sincere in his desires to bless you! O sinner, what could you have more than this? If this will not make you ashamed of your unbelief, what will? If this will not convince you of God's honesty and truehearted yearning over you, what will or can? Ah, how sincere, as well as how infinite, are his thoughts of grace towards you! And is there not something in this gracious commiseration, so solemnly affirmed upon oath—fitted irresistibly to attract and win the most jealous and unbelieving heart?
Let us consider now the substance of this divine declaration, thus made on oath, and recorded for the sinner's use in all ages. It is a twofold declaration—In the first part of it God denies the imputation cast upon him, of seeking the sinner's death; in the second, he declares himself to be most sincerely desirous of the sinner's life.
1. God has no pleasure in the sinner's death.This does not imply that the wicked shall not die. No. The wicked shall be turned into hell. Millions have already perished; millions more shall perish. There is the second death—the death beyond which there is no life for the impenitent—the unquenchable fire—the everlasting burnings. But still it remains true that God has no pleasure in man's death. He did not kindle hell in order to gratify his revenge. He does not cast sinners headlong into its endless flames in order to get vent to his blind fury. No! He has no pleasure in their death. He will finally condemn the unbelieving—but not because he delights to do so—but because he is the righteous Lord who loves righteousness. Whatever your treacherous heart may say, whatever your jealous suspicions may whisper, it remains a truth forever true—a truth affirmed upon oath—that God has no pleasure in your death! Are you seeking to escape eternal death? It is well. But do you think that God is trying to thwart you? No, he is as desirous of this as you can be, only his desires run in a righteous channel, and he can only give vent to them in a righteous way. He is not bent upon your ruin. Was the father bent upon the ruin of his prodigal? Was the shepherd intent upon the destruction of his stray sheep? Was the Son of God delighting in the desolation of Jerusalem when he wept over it? Or was the God of Israel bent upon the misery of his people when he said, "Oh, how can I give you up, Israel? How can I let you go? How can I destroy you like Admah and Zeboiim? My heart is torn within me, and my compassion overflows." The God who made you is not your deadly enemy. The God in whom you live, and move, and have your being—has no pleasure in your death. He did not send his Son to destroy—but to save. He did not nail him to the tree that you might die—but live. He did not send his Holy Spirit to seal your perdition—but to pluck you as a brand from the burning.
2. God's desire is that the wicked should turn and live.As in the first clause of this oath he denied the imputation cast upon him, that he had pleasure in the sinner's death; so, in this second part, he declares his wish that they should turn and live. This declaration is the expression of a thoroughly honest desire on the part of God. It is not the language of insincere profession, or of pretended earnestness. There is nothing here of exaggeration or random utterance. Each word bears the impress of ingenuous truthfulness. God means what he says when he affirms, "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked person should turn from his way and live." It is to life—life everlasting—that he points your eye, sinner. It is of life that he desires to make you partaker. And surely it is life that you need. For what one word more fully or more terribly describes your present state than death? You are dead! Dead, not like the stone or the rock—that would at least be freedom from torment. Dead, not like the withered leaf or the uprooted tree—that would at least be unconsciousness of loss, and ignorant of what might have been won. But you are dead to all that is worth living for, and yet alive to all that makes life a burden and a woe. Yours is a death whose present form is the utter absence of everything that God calls peace or blessedness; whose future form is the undying worm, the weeping, and the wailing, and the gnashing of teeth. You are dead to that which you were created for, as well as to him who created you. You live in pleasure on the earth—yet you are dead! You smile, and sport, and dance, and revel, and make merry—yet you are dead! For the life in which God is not; the life of which he is not the spring and center—is utter death! And that is misery to you—misery now, misery in the long, long ages to come!
Ah! surely, then, it is life that you need—such a life as will fill that soul of yours with gladness—such a life as shall not merely shed sunshine around you—but shall pour its joyous freshness into every region of your spirit, and fill every recess of your immortal being with the joy unspeakable and full of glory.
It is such a life that God desires you to possess. It was to bestow upon you such a life that he gave up his Son. It is that such a life might find entrance into you, that he is striving with you by his Spirit. And it is that, without another hour's delay, you might become possessors of such a life, that he sends to you once more this message of life—so unequivocal, so genuine, so pitiful.
Do you say, If God wants me to live, why does he not at once give me life? In other words, why does he not force life upon my acceptance, and burst through every barrier? I ask in return, Is God bound to take your way in giving life? I ask again, Do you really suppose that a person is not sincere in his kindness, because he does not carry out that kindness by every means, lawful or unlawful? Is it not possible that there may be a limit to that kindness compatible with the most perfect sincerity? You admit that God does not wish you to be ungodly; yet you are ungodly; might you not as well say, God must really desire me to be ungodly, else I would not be so? No, you admit that God wishes you to be holy, just as he wishes all his creatures to be holy. Would you think of saying, God does not desire me to be holy, else he would make me holy; God must have pleasure in my unholiness, else he would not permit me to remain in it. Surely this would be false reasoning as well as daring profanity—not less so is it when you argue—God cannot really desire to bless me, else he would bless me; God cannot desire me to live, else he would give me life.
There may be difficulty for finite man to reconcile the two things—our lack of life and God's desire that we should possess it; but there is no difficulty and no doubt as to the blessed fact itself. God's desire is, that we should turn and live! Not all the sophistry of unbelief, nor all the malignant falsehoods of the evil one, can shake or alter this mighty, this most glorious truth. God's desire, his undisguised and cordial wish, is, that the wicked should not die—but live! He has spoken it, he has repeated it; he has sealed it with his own most solemn oath; and woe be to the sinner who, giving way to the subtle suggestions of his own jealous heart, refuses to take God at his word, hesitates to give him credit for speaking the plain truth when he lifts up his hand to heaven and swears, "As I live, says the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but rather that he should turn from his ways and live."
The admonition, with which all this closes, is one of the most urgent importunity on the part of God, proving yet more fully his real desire to bless. It is like one vehemently enforcing an invitation upon an unwilling listener—making a last effort to save the heedless or resisting sinner. He lifts up his voice, he stretches out his hand, he exhorts, he commands, he expostulates, he entreats, "Turn! turn from your evil ways; for why will you die?" must not he who thus reasons and remonstrates with the sinner, repeating and re-repeating his entreaties, enforcing and urging home his message with every kind of loving argument, as well as with every form of solemn appeal—must not he be truly in earnest? Is it within the remotest bounds of possibility or conceivability that he is insincere—that he does not really mean what he says?
The ways from which he calls on them to turn are named by him "evil ways;" and what he calls evil must be truly so—hateful in his eyes, as well as ruinous to the soul. The end of these ways he pronounces to be death; so that sinners must either turn or die. It is the broad way which leads down to death on which they are walking, and there is no hope of escaping unless they retrace their steps. As certainly as their bodies shall return to dust, so certainly shall their souls have their portion in the second death, and their dwelling-place in the eternal tomb of the fiery lake; where, instead of the worm of earth preying upon their lifeless flesh, there shall be the worm which never dies, gnawing their spirits, and making them feel that all that has hitherto been known of death on earth—its pangs, its throes, its horrors, its separations—has been but a type of what is coming; and that the reality contained in that word DEATH had never before been imagined—nor, indeed, can be—until the Judge's sentence has cut them off from God forever, and flung around them the darkness of the endless midnight; until hell has closed its gate upon them, and made damnation sure!
But then there is another way, whose end is life; and the life, which forms the termination of the one, is as certain as the death which forms the termination of the other. It is on this way that God so earnestly desires to see them walking. However wide astray they have gone, and however near the confines of the second death they may have come—he beckons them back with his gracious hand, and beseeches them with his most loving voice, "Come now, and let us reason together." No, more, he commands them to turn. It is not mere liberty to retrace your steps that he gives you; he lays his command upon you; and it is at your peril if you disobey. "Am I at liberty to come to God?" you ask perhaps. At liberty to come! Is that the way you put it? At liberty to obey his direct command! Do you ask—'Am I at liberty to honor my father and mother? Am I at liberty to forbear swearing, or stealing, or coveting?'
Who asks such questions as these? And shall any sinner upon earth—even the ungodliest that ever forsook God and walked in his lusts, and trampled on the cross, and quenched the Spirit—shall any on this side of the second death presume to ask, Am I at liberty to return to God? At liberty! YOU DARE NOT DO OTHERWISE. There is all the obligation that a command can give; there is a necessity laid upon you, an immediate necessity, a necessity from which nothing can loose you, a necessity arising out of the very righteousness of that God who is commanding you to leave your unrighteousness, a necessity springing from the certain doom that awaits you if you turn not. Yes; there is a necessity, one of the greatest of all necessities, laid on you by God, to turn and live!
God expostulates with you, and asks, Why will you die? Have you any reason to give for preferring death, or for supposing that you must be condemned, and that you cannot help it, and that the blame is not yours—but God's? Must you die? Must you really die? Is there no help? There was, indeed, once a reason for your dying, a reason which made dying inevitable—the ancient law of the universe, "The soul that sins—it shall die." But now the Son of God has come, and he has taken up that law, and has so fulfilled and honored it by dying himself, that the same inevitable necessity for your dying no longer exists. It was once only righteous that you should die; now it is as righteous that you should live. Righteous death—that was once your doom; now righteous life is the gift which God presents to you. Life upon righteous terms; life in a way that honors righteousness; life through a channel as holy as it is free—it is this that is now announced to you, and it is in reference to this that God asks—Why will you die?
Is life not desirable? Can a soul be in love with death? Or is death so inevitable that it is vain for you to flee from it? Or is there some barrier in your way? Or is God not really willing to remove the death, and to bestow the life? Are these the reasons? Or what answer do you mean to make to God's question, so urgently, so importunately put and pressed home on you—"Why will you die?"