How to Begin Well
George Everard, 1866
In the life of most, the duties, the cares, the trials that are man's daily portion on earth, are the drag-weight that keeps them from rising to higher and nobler thoughts.
Yet it need not be thus. Every day the earth revolves upon its axis, and yet, at the same time, it is being carried along in its immense circuit around the sun.
Even so may it be, that a man daily performing his round of duties, and patiently meeting the trials that befall him — may yet by grace be moving onward along his heavenly course. Common life may be the discipline by which he may learn to rise above the world. It may be the battlefield, on which he may fight the good fight of faith. Nothing less than this is true religion.
True religion is not wearing a garb of piety on the Sabbath, to be cast aside with the Sunday clothing. It is not saying, "Lord! Lord!" while a man walks in his own way, and disregards the commands of the Master. Rather is it Christ reigning within, and His will followed in the trials and temptations that every day come upon us. It is Christian principle so rooted within, that it issues day by day in Christian practice. Godly living is but the necessary fruit of living faith abiding in the heart.
True religion has been compared to the blood in our system, which is not confined to one or two grand arteries — but warms, and vitalizes, and moves the whole man. It pours the tide of life through a thousand vessels, some of them almost too minute to be seen.
Just so, pure religion is the moving principle of the new man. It is not confined to special places or seasons, but will ever diffuse itself through all the thousand little actions that are every day performed.
To this subject, the following pages are devoted. It is of primary importance that a subject so intimately connected with the interests of the Church of Christ should not be neglected. It has been alleged that those who proclaim most fully the doctrines of grace, are not sufficiently alive to the necessity of enforcing practical godliness. This complaint, whether it is true or otherwise, may do good. Let it lead Christian ministers more forcibly and more in detail, to press home practical duties upon the consciences of their hearers. Let it also lead Christian people more carefully and diligently to perform them. Let such duties, however, be placed on their right footing. They are not to be legal strivings to obtain justification, but the necessary fruits of living faith abiding in the heart.
To enter upon the duties of life aright, it is therefore essential to begin well, and to examine the foundation upon which they rest. The true foundation is the free forgiveness of the sinner through Christ.
Here is the starting point of a happy useful course.
If a man sets out upon a distant journey, how can he do so with any comfort while he is laden with a burden beyond his strength?
If a tradesman is responsible for long arrears of debt, how can he with any reasonable hope of success, enter upon a new business?
In like manner, unless the weight of sin is removed, it is impossible cheerfully to run the race set before us. Unless the enormous sin debt is cancelled, it is impossible, hopefully, to commence afresh the duties that are incumbent upon us.
A few thoughts on the forgiveness revealed in Scripture, shall occupy the remainder of this chapter.
God delights to forgive. Guilt makes men suspicious. It makes those whose conscience is awake, afraid to credit the amazing mercy of the Most High. So seldom do we see a frank hearty forgiveness among men, that men cannot believe how readily God pardons those who return to Him. Joseph had long before, thoroughly forgiven his brethren the wrong they had done to him; yet when Jacob was dead, they imagined he would surely avenge it. So slow are we to believe that God frankly forgives His erring ones.
To be assured of this, study carefully the declarations of the Word. Even Sinai bears witness to it. Scarcely had the revelation of the law been given amidst the fearful tokens of His awful justice, than Jehovah steps forth to proclaim His mercy and love. Little conception can we now form of the preciousness to a penitent Israelite, of the declaration made to the Mediator of the Law, and within a short time after its promulgation. "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty." (Exodus 34.6, 7.)
Notice, again, a passage which occurs, with little variation, at least four times in the Old Testament. It is found in the 103rd Psalm, and the 8th verse, "The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy."
Nearly two hundred years pass, and the prophet Jonah takes up the same strain, and declares, "I knew You that You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness."
Some fifty years more pass, and the prophet Joel repeats it: "Turn unto the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness."
Three hundred and fifty years more pass, and Nehemiah gives it as a reason why such forbearance had been shown to the Jewish people. "They hardened their necks, and in their rebellion appointed a captain to return to their bondage. But You are a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness." Here we have handed down from century to century, from prophet to prophet, the same precious declaration.
Even when the sense of sin may be most oppressive, let us never doubt the readiness of God to forgive us — even us.
At Glasgow, a man was charged with the commission of murder. The crime was clearly proved. The sentence of death was passed. The criminal uttered a most piercing cry, "Mercy, mercy!" A tear of pity spontaneously arose in every eye. The judge himself was so moved that he left the court. Had it been possible, how gladly would he have spared the guilty man. There was deep compassion in the heart of the judge, and of each one present — but what a drop compared to the well of compassion in the heart of the Great Father of mankind!
God forgives righteously. Never can one attribute of the Divine character be set aside, for the display of another. If God is merciful and gracious, He is also just and righteous in all His dealings. Not one shadow of a cloud must rest on the perfect equity of Him, who is alike the Governor and Judge of the universe. The very pillars of the eternal throne are the faithfulness and truth of Him who sits thereupon. This is manifested in the forgiveness of sins. Look at the great expedient, which has been planned for our salvation. "God devises means by which His banished may not be expelled from Him."
The glory of the Gospel is found in the principle of substitution, by which the Righteous One stands in the place of the guilty.
View this principle as standing out clearly in the Levitical ceremonials. What could be the intention of all the sin offerings, of the sacrifice of bulls, and goats, and lambs — were it not to engrave upon the hearts of men, as with a pen of iron, the great truth that guilt could only be removed by the death of another, and that without shedding of blood there is no remission of sin!
The same truth is also revealed in the prophetic Scriptures. Take but one single chapter: study the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. It is evident from this passage that to the Messiah, and not to any other, the ancient Jews believed the prophecy in question to apply. With equal clearness is this truth revealed in the New Testament. What could be clearer than the words of Christ at the institution of His Supper, "This is My blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." What could be clearer than the testimony of Paul, "He has made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him." What could be clearer than the words of Peter, "Who His own self bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we being dead to sins should live unto righteousness, by whose stripes you were healed."
Reader, let none rob you of the consolation that arises from this doctrine. To satisfy the conscience that has been thoroughly convinced of sin, nothing less will suffice than this, "Jesus has answered for me — He has paid the debt of my transgressions to the very last farthing — He has suffered every whit what was needful in the sight of the Most High — He has made an end of sin — He has made full reconciliation for iniquity — He has made it a just and righteous thing in God to pass over the evil that I have done!"
"Be sure you keep close by the cross," was the direction once given by a peasant woman in Switzerland, to a traveler climbing a mountain. A large wooden cross stood by the path leading to its summit. "Be sure you keep close by the cross" — would I earnestly say to every pilgrim on the way to Mount Zion. Ever regard the blood which was shed there, as the only plea by which you can approach to God.
God forgives freely. Now that full reconciliation has been made by the blood of our Surety — to us, mercy is free. No compensation is required of us for the wrongs we have. No sufferings of our own, either in this life, or in purgatorial fires hereafter, are needed as a make-weight in the scales of justice. The gift is without money and without price. It is open to those whose sins lie heavy upon them, and who see nothing in themselves — not one single thing as a ground of hope.
An aged servant of Christ, who had long been faithfully serving the Master, once told the secret of the joy and peace which he enjoyed. "Some fifty years ago," he said, "I was a hearer in a London church. The preacher pressed home the freeness of salvation. He dwelt upon the text, 'And when they had nothing to pay, he freely forgave them both.' That was just my case," he added, "I felt that I had nothing good in me, so I rejoiced that the message was for me, and I have rejoiced in it ever since."
God forgives now. The inward thought of many is, that at some distant day, possibly forgiveness may be theirs. "I hope I may be forgiven before I meet my Judge," is the feeling that is uppermost in their minds. Even those who are seeking after salvation frequently imagine, that it would be mere presumption to expect this blessing, until after many months, or years.
Reader, it is a dangerous thing to leave this to a dim, uncertain future. Have we not present dangers? Have we not present sorrows? Have we not, daily, fresh sins to lament? Need we not, then, a present pardon, that in the midst of all these, we may be emboldened to look up for consolation to our Father above? It is the will of God, and for His glory, that without delay we should accept and rejoice in the forgiveness which He offers.
The prodigal son has long been a stranger to his home; in the far country he has been wasting his father's substance. But he begins to reflect; he contrasts his own lot with that of the lowest of his father's servants; he turns homeward. He says in his heart, "I will arise, and go to my father!" And, as we imagine, with much trembling, with many fears, he comes back. How is he welcomed? "When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him!" How quick and ready was the forgiveness! Before he reaches the door, before he could utter the confession which he purposed — a father's arms are around him, and the kiss of tender love has been given to him!
A palsied man is brought by his friends into the presence of the Great Healer. He who knew the thoughts of man, could doubtless discern within him a conscience troubled by the remembrance of by-gone days. The man felt the weakness and suffering of the body, but he felt still more the burden of sin. How does the Savior greet him? What is the very first word He addresses to him? No sweeter word was ever spoken, "Son, be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven!" An immediate forgiveness is granted to him!
An outcast and immoral woman presses into the house of Simon. Long a stranger to peace with God, she has begun now to desire it. She disregards the scorn of those who would keep her back, and comes close to the feet of Jesus. Burdened by guilt, she has no words to utter, but her flowing tears are a prayer which cannot be despised. What does say Christ to this perishing one? Does He bid her go home and amend her life, that she may at length obtain the mercy which she seeks? Does He bid her come again on the morrow, or a week or month hence, and He will forgive her? Nay, nothing of the kind. He will not keep her waiting for a single hour. Just as she was, stained through and through with sin — He freely and at once forgave her. He said unto her, "Your sins are forgiven!" He feared not that she would abuse the pardon He granted. Constrained by grateful love, she would henceforth live to Him who so freely loved her.
Reader, cast away the thought that a long preparation is needed before you may rejoice in Christ. Be not led astray by the idea that you must bring so much repentance and so much right feeling, before you can be accepted by Him. Has the false security of your former state passed away? Has the Spirit of God so convinced you of sin, that you are willing to take the place of the publican? Do you cry from your heart, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" Do you lay bare before God the iniquities of the past, and long to walk henceforth in newness of life? Then do not doubt the free love of God in Christ. Own, without hesitation, the greatness of your sin — but set over against it the preciousness of Christ's blood. In spite of much hardness of heart, in spite of much every way that would make you fear — yet at once take up your position as a child of God, only for Christ's sake, and by reliance upon Him maintain it without wavering.
Just as I am — and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark spot —
To You, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am — You will receive,
Will welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
Because Your promise I believe —
O Lamb of God, I come.
God forgives perfectly. It is not partial and limited, but a complete and entire forgiveness. "All manner of sin and iniquity shall be forgiven;" "justified from all things;" "having forgiven you all trespasses;" "the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin." Such are some of the statements of the Word of God, showing forth the perfect remission of sin to those who believe.
Mark, also, how God searches Heaven and earth for figures and illustrations by which this truth may be made plain.
Do we gaze upon the unblemished purity of the newly-fallen snow? Then hear the promise, "Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow."
Does a man search in vain for that which is irrecoverably lost? Hear the promise given by Jeremiah, "In those days, says the Lord, the iniquity of Israel shall be sought for, and there shall be none."
Does a man cast behind him that which he will no longer regard? Hear the words of Hezekiah, "You have cast all my sins behind Your back!"
Do you look on the wide ocean, and feel assured that you will never again see that which you cast into it? Hear the promise given by Micah, "You will cast all their sins," not into the shallows, but "into the depths of the sea!"
Do you look upward and watch the dark, heavy cloud gradually disperse, until not a speck is to be seen upon the clear blue sky? Hear again the promise by Isaiah, "I have blotted out as a thick cloud your transgressions, and, as a cloud, your sins."
Do you stand on a high mountain, and look eastward and westward, and imagine the vast distance that lies between the two horizons? Hear the words of the Psalmist, "As far as the east is from the west — so far has He separated our transgressions from us."
What a marvelous variety of figures have we here, to set before us the completeness of forgiving mercy!
An illustration of the same truth may be taken from the manner in which the lives of God's servants in previous ages, are referred to in the New Testament. In the historical narratives of the Old Testament, their lives are recorded with the most transparent truthfulness. No attempt whatever is made to conceal their grievous falls, or their lesser infirmities. Not a word is said to excuse or palliate the evil.
Noah is drunk in his tent;
Job is impatient, and curses the day of his birth;
Abraham acts deceitfully with respect to Sarah;
Lot is no sooner saved out of Sodom, but he falls terribly;
Jacob deceives his aged father;
David commits adultery, and then slays Uriah;
Elijah flees, from fear of Jezebel;
Jonah is first disobedient, and afterwards murmurs against God's goodness.
All this is fully and most clearly narrated. But turn over the pages of the New Testament, and what do you find? Not one single mention of all these sins! The graces of these saints of God — their deeds of faith and obedience — are referred to continually; but not a word is said, as to all the sins and spots and blemishes which were found in them. Is there not a purpose in this? Is it not the silence of Scripture teaching us, in a very striking manner, that the sins and iniquities of His people God remembers no more forever?
Christian, take courage. Sin may harass you — but it cannot condemn you. There may fall across your path the dark shadow of old sins. You may remember with sorrow of heart, the years you spent in the hog pens of the far country, and the unnumbered negligences and failings of your walk with God, but neither the one nor the other shall be brought against you. "Who is he who shall condemn us? It is Christ that died; yes, rather, that is risen again." "There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus."
Why is it then, that so large a proportion of those who hear these glad tidings, still carry with them the tremendous load of unforgiven sin? Since the mercy of God is so abundant — why do so few avail themselves of its mighty efficacy? Why is it, that as yet there rests upon them the bitter curse of a broken law, and there awaits them the dread woe of eternity without hope? It is because . . .
the burden is unfelt,
the conscience is slumbering,
and the soul is dead!
What does it matter, though you lay upon a corpse the heaviest weight? It is not felt by him, who lies silent and dead. What does it matter to the soul that is dead in sin, though the wrath of God, the curse of the law, the guilt of a lifetime of iniquity is resting upon him?
It is but too true, that men are well content with the state into which sin has brought them. They have no desire for a higher, holier life. Years ago, when the Bastile was about to be destroyed, a prisoner was brought out who had long been lying in one of its gloomy cells. Instead of joyfully welcoming the liberty which was granted to him, strange to say, he entreated that they would take him hack to his dungeon. It was so long since he had seen the light, that his eye could not endure the glare of the sun. Besides this, his friends were all dead; he had no home, and his limbs refused to move. His chief desire now was, that he might die in the dark prison, where so long he had been a captive.
What is this but a picture of many a sinner? There is no desire for the glorious liberty which Christ offers. The eye has been so long accustomed to the darkness of alienation from God, that it cannot bear the light of His presence. Outside the prison-house of a carnal state, the soul can see no friend, no shelter, and so the sinner would gladly be let alone to live and die without Christ, without God, without hope in the world.
Oh, for the Spirit of the living God to quicken dead sinners! Oh, for His mighty power to awaken within, a sense of their extreme peril, and a desire for salvation in Christ. Then will they find Him near to save; their very first cry for mercy shall not be disregarded. He will open to them the door of everlasting life, and bestow upon them the full blessing of redeeming love.
Let the Christian reader remember that forgiveness is not the end — but the beginning of service in the vineyard. It is not the goal — but the starting-post. If salvation has been truly received, it must lead . . .
to grateful labor,
and to holiness of life.
Were the forgiveness of sins in any measure the reward of holiness, or of our service in the vineyard — there never could be certainty — there could never be the assurance that enough had been done. Beside this, the motive could not be right — in part, at least, it would necessarily be self-righteous striving, rather than self-renouncing love.
On the other hand, let it not be forgotten that he in vain boasts of pardoned sin, who is not led by it to love Christ, and faithfully to endeavor, after His example, to do the will of God.
Be assured that the doctrine of free forgiveness is one according to godliness. It is written, "There is forgiveness with You — that You may be feared." (Psalm 130.4.) Mark the connection. It is not written that God is to be feared that we may obtain forgiveness — but that He forgives that we may fear Him. It must ever be so. Here is our motive and our strength. He who is forgiven much, will love much. He who loves much, will gladly, joyfully obey God. Who ever honored God more, or labored more abundantly than Paul? Yet who, more than he, gloried in the free justification of the Gospel?
It is our wisdom day by day to rejoice, in the midst of all infirmities, that our acceptance is secured, and our sins forgiven in Christ. "Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
It is our wisdom also, in the strength of this, to serve God more and more, never to grow weary in running the way of His commandments, but to make manifest to all around us, that no motive is so influential as the love which arises from being freely forgiven and "accepted in the Beloved."