The Stray One Recalled!
George Everard, 1874
In the whole revelation which God has given to us, there is nothing which brings home to us our Father's tender compassion for sinners, more than His appeals to the backsliding. We find this especially the case in the books of Jeremiah and Hosea. He complains of the strange ingratitude of His people in thus turning away from Him: "You of this generation, consider the word of the LORD: "Have I been a desert to Israel or a land of great darkness? Why do my people say, 'We are free to roam; we will come to you no more'?" Jeremiah 2:31
He reminds them how foolish and unwise it is thus to forsake the sole source of true happiness. "My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the Fountain of living waters — and hewed out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water." Jeremiah 2:13. It is a very forcible image that is here employed. God is a Fountain, a Well of Life — He is the source and spring of all true life, pleasure, holiness, hope. In Him is a continual freshness of all that can fill the soul with joy. In Him are inexhaustible streams of mercy, grace, and consolation. But men forsake this Fountain for cisterns — yes, more, for broken cisterns, from which soon leak out the few drops of water they may contain.
A traveler in the Holy Land tells us that in one part he found the land riddled and honeycombed with the remains of these broken cisterns, and that the foot of his horse was again and again caught in one of them. When water was needed, they would just dig in the earth one of these little clay cisterns; it would hold water for a time, but soon, when the sun was hot and weather dry, it would crack and leak — and so another and another would be needed.
Ah, what pains and trouble men take in hewing out cisterns like these . . .
wealth unsanctified by true riches,
the acquisition of knowledge with no end beyond its possession,
a position and name that shall dazzle those around,
schemes of self-indulgence and pleasure,
a comfortable home where God is forgotten,
some object of affection which engrosses every thought —
how often something of this kind steals the heart from God!
But before long there is sure to be a crack, a leak — and the joy and the comfort is dried up and gone! So God in His tender compassion would have men see this, and remember that nothing can ever take the place of Himself as their Well-spring of joy.
And how marvelous in pitiful compassion are the exhortations and entreaties which God addresses to His people, beseeching them to return back to Him. He does not hide from them the greatness of their sin — He sets it before them in all its aggravation.
He speaks of it as the adultery of the wife treacherously forsaking a faithful husband.
He tells them how repeated has been the provocation, for they have sought after many lovers.
He reminds them how utterly hardened and shameless they had become, and how they had polluted the whole land with their wickedness!
And then, over against this dark background of their iniquity, He reveals His free mercy and willingness to restore them to His fatherly love: "Will you not from this time cry unto Me: My Father, you are the guide of my youth?" "Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, Return, O backsliding Israel, says the Lord; and I will not cause My anger to fall upon you — for I am merciful, says the Lord, and I will not keep anger forever." "Return, O backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings. Behold, we come unto You; for You are the Lord our God." (Jeremiah 3:4, 12, 22. See the whole chapter.)
Surely no words could express God's mercy to Israel more clearly, in spite of all their backslidings against Him. And it is a pattern of God's mercy and longsuffering toward backsliders in all ages. He is ever the same. It is true there is grievous ingratitude and great peril in this sin:
it grieves the Spirit,
it hardens the heart,
it discourages young beginners,
it puts a stumbling-block in the way of the ungodly,
it may lead to a total and final apostasy from which there is no recovery.
But, nevertheless, where conscience still wakes, and there is the very least desire to return to the fold — God will never reject the trembling penitent.
Let us consider for a while this backsliding spirit, and how it arises, and how the soul may be restored from it. The idea is taken from the heifer: "Israel slides back as a backsliding heifer." The heifer has the yoke placed on its neck, to go forward into the field and plough the land — but instead of this, it pulls back, rebels against the yoke, and endeavors to cast it off — it slides back little by little, and shrinks from its appointed work.
And thus it is often seen in the Church of God: men are called to bear the easy yoke of Christ; they profess to accept it — and yet instead of going forward, faithfully obeying the Savior's precepts — they turn away, cast aside His yoke, and go back to a life of worldliness or sin.
This spirit is often found in two classes of people. I believe it is most frequently found among those who have never gone far. Perhaps they have had Christian parents, and religious privileges; they have had convictions of sin; they have seen the blessedness of having their portion in Christ; they have outwardly enrolled themselves among His followers — and this is all. They have never . . .
had close, personal dealings with Christ;
cast themselves upon Him for salvation;
yielded their hearts to Him, desiring to be His alone.
So that in this case, we need not be surprised that they go back. They have the form — but not the power and life of godliness — and so after a little temporary profession, we find them gone back to the world which they had renounced.
It was thus with the followers of Christ who were offended because of the hard saying. They had never cast in their lot with Him, to follow Him wherever He went. They had never trusted in His mercy, nor seen His true glory. So, after a while, they went back and walked no more with Him. It was precisely the same with Judas. His heart was not whole with Christ — he was a covetous man from the beginning. So, by and by, his sin grew stronger and led him even to betray his Master.
But in Christ's true disciples, we often see something of the same spirit. Perhaps we would have imagined that after conversion it would have been impossible for the Christian ever to go back — but practically this is not the case.
One of the greatest Saints in the Old Testament, and one of the chief pillars of the Church in the New Testament — have both left us an example of the danger of falling back.
With David for two long years the altar was unfrequented, prayer either omitted or but a dead form, no Psalm penned, no holy desire arising — all was dark and heavy overhead, and God and he were as strangers one to the other.
It was the same with the Apostle chosen to open the door of faith both to Jew and Gentile. The warm-hearted, zealous Peter looked for a season as if he were altogether an apostate from His Lord.
Nor need we be surprised that the people of God are exposed to this danger. Consider what mighty agencies are brought to bear upon the young believer with the purpose of utterly overthrowing his faith! He wrestles not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers! The great adversary has in his hand ways and means to overthrow the weak one, which at present we can little comprehend. Then there is the dead weight of the old nature still striving for the mastery in dragging the soul down to the world's level! A thousand influences for evil are about us on every side!
So that . . .
if the Christian is not strengthened abundantly with grace from above,
if he fails to watch and pray,
if secret duties are lightly passed by —
then it is no wonder if the power of evil get the upper hand, and his religion becomes a dry and withered thing. And instead of being like the tree growing and flourishing by the rivers of water — he becomes like the dried up heath in a desert land.
A few thoughts on the story of Peter's fall and recovery may keep back someone who is in danger, and may be a word in season to restore another who has turned aside.
Ah, Peter, I see you a rock, standing firm and confident in your own strength! You were to be a rock, because you are knit to the great Rock, and one with Him. But now you boast of your own goodness and purpose: "Though all shall fall away — yet I will not!" "Even if I should die with You, I will never deny You!"
Have you not learned your lesson yet, Peter? Remember the winds and waves, and how soon your faith failed you! Is it not wise to be more humble — more distrustful of your own heart?
Here is our first lesson. Our weakness is our strength. Self-reliance is a sure precursor of a fall.
Believer, keep on low ground — never speak of the triumphs you will win, or the temptations you will overcome. The Master must hold you up — but pride and self-glorying will drive Him from your side.
"Hold me up, and I shall be safe!"
"Blessed are the poor in spirit."
"God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble."
But I see Peter in another light: not now a rock, standing firm — but a reed, shaken by the wind. Once, twice, thrice I hear him denying the Lord who loved him — ashamed of the Lord of glory for fear of a maid-servant; and when His Lord was about to lay down His life for his sake, turning his back upon Him, yes, with oaths and curses!
And is this, Simon, all the proof you can give of your faithfulness? Is this your boasted supremacy over all the rest? Is this your willingness even to die with Christ? A strange contrast this to your confession of Christ as the Son of the blessed, and the honor your Savior gave you: "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, for flesh and blood has not revealed it unto you, but my Father who is in Heaven!"
But let me trace the downward steps. This fearful fall did not come all at once. In the garden I see you sleeping, instead of praying: "Simon, are you asleep?" I hear the Master saying — Satan is just about to assault you, and it were well for you to be girding on your armor to resist him. "Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation." Let me remember this: if I would be safe, I must keep up prayer — it must be a reality. I must pray for the spirit of prayer; I must guard against interruptions in prayer; I must watch, lest sloth and indolence and forgetfulness of danger lull me into a false security, and Satan find me sleeping at my post.
But another step downward. I see Peter showing off his zeal by rash and hasty blows. The sword is quickly unsheathed — without asking counsel from the Master, he begins to fight bravely, as he thinks, that he may fulfill his vow. "Nay, Peter, put up your sword! I have not bidden you do this; but I ask you to be faithful. Only follow Me and hold fast your faith in my name."
I must beware here also. Christ does not want a showy, noisy zeal — but He wants me to do His bidding and tread in His footsteps. When He calls me to the very fiercest conflict, let me be ready to go — let me be ready to gird on the sword of the Spirit and go forth in His name when the time comes. Meanwhile let me be willing to suffer with Him — and then I shall reign with Him.
Yet another downward step. Peter follows afar off. He is now afraid of the consequences of his own conduct. He trembles lest he should be recognized — so he falls back in the crowd. O Savior, keep me very near You! May I never lose sight of You — Your loving smile, Your power to help by a look, by a word. May I never leave Your companionship because there may be danger — but may I cleave to You the closer for help to be faithful!
Then see Peter seeking His own comfort. While the Master is witnessing a good confession, and is bearing the taunts and indignities of the chief priests — Peter stands by the fire warming himself, instead of standing close to the Master and showing that at least there is one not afraid to own His cause.
Just so, if I would be faithful I must beware of this snare also. The Lord delights in the happiness and comfort of His servants, and would not have me refuse, without a needs-be, the blessings He gives. "Every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it be received with thanksgiving." But I must ever be ready at His bidding to relinquish all. To honor Him I must deny myself and take up my cross daily. Rest, friends, yes, food and clothing, yes, life itself — let me be willing to sacrifice to Him who gave Himself for me.
Then, too, we see Peter mingling with the servants — he is making friends of those who share the guilt of crucifying the Lord. He talks with them in tone and manner as if he were one with them. Thus another downward step is taken. We must ever avoid the company of the Lord's enemies. "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers." Psalm 1:1
Then comes the climax. The fear of man has supplanted the fear of God. He is ashamed of the Master — lie after lie comes from the lips of him who had once witnessed so good a confession. An oath is employed to confirm the lie — and Peter has fallen as low as he can.
O Lord, keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins, lest they get the dominion over me! Never let the fear of man rule in my heart! Why shall I fear one who soon shall return to the dust whence he was taken — when I have You as my faithful and Almighty Friend? Oh, let me confess Your name even before Kings, and never, never be ashamed of Your Word, Your Gospel, or Your service!
But we have yet to look at Peter in another light: A wandering sheep restored by the faithful care of the Good Shepherd. His sin was all his own — his recovery was all of grace. His self-confidence, his neglect of prayer, his fear of man brought him into the pit — but the hand of his unfailing Guardian rescued him!
Judas falls — and finally, for in him there was no root of true grace — Satan enters into him and brings him to destruction both of body and soul.
Peter falls — but the Savior leaves him not in the hands of his adversary, but lifts him up and places his foot again upon the rock.
Christ pleads beforehand. He foresees the plot of the enemy for the overthrow of His disciple, and He prays for him: "I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not."
It is a comforting thought that Jesus foresees . . .
all our temptations,
all the assaults of the enemy,
all our backslidings.
And in view of all, He pleads for each soul that relies on His all-prevailing name. Hence there is a limit placed to the power of Satan — and there is restoring grace granted to the stumbled believer. The fall is great — but not final. The mercy that called the sinner at first, recalls him from his backsliding. The Savior uses means to recall His disciple — it was but a simple thing, the crowing of the rooster, but it was enough to bring back all the past, and especially the Master's warning, and his own broken vows.
Then there was the look: "Jesus turned and looked at Peter." Chiding, remembrance, pity and tenderest love — all mingled in that look.
And withal the Spirit of God is at work. Without this, all else were in vain — but He works, and none shall hinder it. He teaches and humbles as none else can. And we see Peter, who just before is denying his Master so boldly and daringly — now leaving the High Priest's palace, going home to weep and lament his treachery, his falseness, and the grief he has thus caused the Lord who loved him.
And Christ sees it all. He has heard the threefold denial, the oaths, the curses — but He hears also his sighs, his confessions, and marks every tear he sheds. He who heard the prayer of Nathanael beneath the fig-tree — hears equally the sorrowful sighing of His repentant disciple — and He freely loves, and freely forgives all.
"Go and tell my disciples and Peter," is His first command. He commits again to him the care of His Church when He bids him "feed His sheep;" and He gives him grace boldly to confess His name before the great assembly of the chief priests and elders.
The narrative has its lesson of blessed hope and encouragement to any who would retrace their steps after forsaking Christ. The Good Shepherd still loves to restore wanderers to His fold. To those who have turned back and would return to Him — as to those who seek Him for the first time, He still declares, "Him that comes to Me, I will never cast out."
He points you to the example of Peter, and reminds you that, after the greatest fall, He still opens to you the door of mercy. Whether in former days you have ever truly known His love or not — whether you have only gone a little way and then turned back — or whether you have turned aside after having experienced very much of His special goodness — in either case He invites you to come home, and find your everlasting rest in Himself as a merciful and faithful Redeemer.
The story of Peter's restoration shows plainly the track by which you may return to the fold: "Peter went out and wept bitterly." He went out — he sought where He might be alone. Perchance he went to the lonely garden where awhile before, his Master had been apprehended, and under the quiet shade of olive trees poured out his soul before God. He was alone with God and his own conscience — and as he confessed his sin, and wept, and prayed — doubtless the Omniscient Savior marked it all. He who marked Nathanael under the fig-tree, marked Peter also — and we may be sure met him with the comfort of His forgiving mercy.
Here is the true Confessional! Alone with God! Alone with my great High Priest! Keeping back nothing from Him — but telling everything unto His merciful ear. Alas, that men should introduce another confessional, and should teach that Christian people must tell their sins to a human priest, and obtain through him the absolution which Christ loves to bestow freely on all who come to Him; what is this, but the overthrow of the blessed Gospel of grace and salvation! What is this, but to deny that Christ is as ready and willing to give pardon to the penitent as He proclaims Himself to be! What is this, but to give the lie to His blessed promise, "Come unto Me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest"? What is this setting up of a man-made Confessional, but to usurp and throw into the shade the true Confessional which the saints in all ages have loved to frequent?
But if, like Peter, you have fallen back and forsaken the Savior — remember the way of return is open. Christ is still the same as ever — a great Savior for great sinners! Do not hearken to the suggestions of unbelief — do not suppose that because of special aggravations of your offence, it is impossible Christ should pardon and save you. In Peter's case there was almost every possible aggravation of his sin — yet in spite of all, he was mercifully welcomed.
Do not think that because you have thus departed from God, your heart is now so hardened and insensible that you can never again experience the power of His love. Only believe . . .
that He is ready to pardon,
that He delights to give His Spirit to those who call upon Him,
that He still beholds you with fatherly compassion —
and His love will rekindle yours. And with a deeper self-abasement, with more entire dependence upon Divine grace, you will still prove more than conqueror over all evil, within and without.
A young man in India was fearfully persecuted by his relations for desiring to be a Christian. For a season he stood firm, but at last gave way, and forsook Christ. But he had no peace. He felt an aching void within — he knew that none but Christ could really satisfy. About ten months after he met his old teacher: he said, "Will Christ take me back again? Did He not take Peter, and will He not take me?" So he once again came back to the Savior. He renounced Hinduism; He cast away his sacred Brahmin thread. He was openly baptized in the Church, and the one desire of his life hereafter was to follow Christ. In some such words as these he expressed it:
"Nothing on earth to me be given;
Nothing I want, but Christ and Heaven."