William Bacon Stevens, 1857
"He told them still another parable: "The kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough."
"Again he asked, "What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough."
Under this figure, borrowed from household economy, our Lord represents the diffusive power of His truth, when brought in contact with the human heart. In the parable of the Mustard Seed, He illustrated the outward, visible growth of Christianity in the sight of the world. Here, however, He brings out its increase and power in a new aspect — its spreading rather than its accretive property — its internal, penetrative, and diffusive energy, rather than its external outspreading and magnitude.
Yeast, or leaven — is a small piece of fermented dough, which, placed in a larger mass of meal or paste, produces fermentation, and thus, by the escape of the generated gas, diffuses a lightness, or, in technical phrase, raises the dough with which it was intermixed. The word is generally used in the Bible in a bad sense; and, accordingly, there have not lacked interpreters, who, saying with Cyril, that "yeast, in the inspired writings, is always taken as the type of sin," have contended that the design of its use here was to indicate the damnable heresies and corruptions which would ferment in and adulterate the Church, puffing it up with vain delusions, and eventually making it a mass of apostasy and crime.
This, however, is a forcing of language beyond its legitimate construction. The character of the parable, viewed in its contexts, is against such interpretation; and we hence regard the word yeast as used here in an exceptional sense to its ordinary employment — our attention being directed, not to its fermenting and puffing up properties — but to its penetrative and diffusive powers, by which the whole mass in which it is hidden soon partakes of its own nature. Using the figure, therefore, in a good sense, it illustrates, in a forcible manner, the work of grace — first in the individual heart, then in the great mass of humanity.
It is the property of grace to change the whole soul into its own likeness. The incipient operation of the Holy Spirit may be as small and apparently as insignificant as a little piece of yeast; but once hidden in the heart — it will work little by little, until the man becomes a new creature in Christ Jesus. The principle of holiness, of love, of faith, of godly sorrow, or any other which is wrought by the Holy Spirit — cannot remain inactive in the heart. The moment that any of them are introduced there — there begins a commotion, an inward struggle for ascendancy between the new principle of grace and the old principles of sin, which is continued even until death. As sin and holiness cannot commingle — they necessarily antagonize: one must displace the other — they cannot co-exist in the same heart with the same power.
The heart, however, is by nature depraved; it is preoccupied with evil; it is, in the words of Scripture, "full of iniquity," and sin has so blinded its perceptive powers, and hardened its sensibilities, and perverted its judgment, that it now "calls evil good — and good evil," loves its present depraved condition, "and rejoices in iniquity." The character of God is not loved, the Son of God is not loved, the law of God is not loved, the word of God is not loved; nothing pertaining to God is an object of regard; He is not in their thoughts; they "desire not a knowledge of His ways."
But as soon as the Holy Spirit infuses into that heart, as vile as it is, and dead as it is in trespasses and sin — the first element of holy love, there begins a change there, which, working silently, gradually, yet effectively — will soon leaven the soul with the power of Divine grace.
One by one, the old sinful affections and passions of the soul become eradicated or changed.
The things in which the man once took supreme delight — now afford no joy.
The emotions which he once cherished — are now uncultivated.
The plans which once absorbed his energies — are now neglected.
The passions which once were rampant in his breast — are now tamed.
The desires which once engrossed his thoughts — are now viewed with disgust.
The things which he formerly hated and shunned — communion with God, love to Christ, delight in the Sacred Scriptures, the cultivation of holiness of life, the walking by faith and growing in grace — are now sought for and cultivated with assiduity and delight!
Grace is completely transforming in its nature and power. It causes everyone whom it visits — to wear its own likeness, and grow up into its own image! And when it once begins its work, though its progress may be slow, it will nevertheless go on unto perfection, not resting until Christ is formed in the soul the hope of glory.
It is perhaps important to a right understanding of this truth, that we should distinguish here between regeneration and sanctification. Both, indeed, are the work of the same Holy Spirit, and therefore too often confounded — though in reality quite distinct.
Spiritual regeneration, or that new birth of the soul, so emphatically taught by our Lord in His discourse with Nicodemus — is the work of the Spirit of God, by which He causes the rebellion of the heart to cease, and the sinner to yield himself as a humble servant of Jesus Christ. This act of faith, whereby the penitent lays hold on the Savior as "the hope set before him in the Gospel," is the work of a moment. Up to a certain time, He was a transgressor and an unbeliever. Then the Holy Spirit visits his soul . . .
opens to him a view of his sins;
points him to the Lamb of God;
makes him hear the thunders of Sinai;
holds up before him the sacrifice of Calvary;
melts him with the displays of love;
woos him with the invitings of grace;
warns him with the threatenings of the law;
and, under the influence of one or more of these — he is led to break off from his sins, to repent, and to believe on the Lord Jesus; and the turning point is on the hinge of a single moment.
There may be long and tedious processes of thought gone through before reaching that point; but when reached, the act of submission, of belief, of embracing Christ — is the act of a moment, and not a lengthened, tedious operation.
Nor does it follow from this that all are able to date the hour when they were born again; for they may have been so carefully trained in youth, and so gradually led to Jesus, that it would be impossible for them to discriminate the time when He first became precious to their souls. But, as they were born once in nature — and now are born again in the Spirit. As they were once enemies of Christ — they are now His friends. As they were once exposed to Divine wrath — they are now freed from condemnation. And as, when they were not in one of these states, they must have been in the other, because there is no middle path.
It follows, even in the case of those who are unable to mark the exact time of their conversion, that their change, or regeneration, was effected by the Holy Spirit in an instant of time. All the examples of conversion in the Bible, all the terms and phrases which designate this change, and the experience of each believer, confirm this statement. Regeneration, then, is that work of the Holy Spirit, whereby there is begotten in the soul an entirely new principle of spiritual life, so that henceforth the man lives, "not unto himself — but unto Him who loved him and gave himself for him!" And so radical and thorough is this change, that the recipient of it is with truth said to be "a new creature in Christ Jesus," in whom "old things have passed away," and with whom "all things have become new."