It has always been a cause for much gratitude to God on my part that He gave me some very wonderful experiences in connection with the salvation of souls in my very early days as a worker for Christ.
I was only a lad of fifteen when I left my home to become a Salvation Army officer, and at the age of sixteen I was commissioned as Lieutenant. I served in this capacity in the city of San Bernardino, California, where at that time our meetings were attracting large audiences because of the many remarkable cases of conversion that had taken place just shortly before Captain R——and I were sent to that post, as also after our arrival.
For some two weeks I had noticed a handsome, blond young man who always occupied the same seat about half-way down the hall on the left-hand side from the platform, and he seemed to me to be listening with great earnestness—so much so that I could not get his face out of my mind, and felt sure that God must be dealing with him. On several occasions I made an effort to speak to him before he reached the front door, but he did not seem to wish to speak with anyone, and the moment the benediction was pronounced he would leave as quickly as he could.
This had been going on for over a fortnight when on one particular evening he came in a little later than usual. The meeting was already in full swing and every seat occupied except two, and they right up at the front of the auditorium. He came diffidently up the aisle, looking to right and left for a place, and finally slipped into one of these vacant chairs. He sat there holding his hat in his hand, looking as though he felt somewhat like a fish out of water, and very uncomfortable, because of being so near to the speakers.
Mentally I said, "Well, young man, I've got you tonight," for I knew that if he did not leave before the benediction he would not get out afterward before I could reach him.
And so it happened. The moment the meeting was dismissed he turned to go, but the aisle was full, and I stepped over the penitents' form and asked him if he would mind sitting down for a few moments' conversation. He looked as though he did mind, but he was polite enough to say he did not, so I took him at his word rather than at his looks.
A conversation ensued very much as follows, so nearly as I can now remember it.
"I have noticed you here for a number of nights, and wanted to speak to you before. May I ask if you are a Christian?"
As he endeavored to reply I saw that he had difficulty with his speech; in fact, he stuttered very noticeably and he was evidently very nervous. He replied, "No, I certainly am not!"
"Have you any desire to be?"
"Well, that is a difficult question to answer. I can hardly say."
"Just what is your attitude, then, toward Christianity?"
"You want to label me, do you?" he parried. "In that case, it is rather hard to say what my attitude is. If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have told you I was an atheist. But tonight if you must label me, you would have to call me an agnostic!"
"Well, you are making progress, anyway. I certainly have much more respect for a man who says 'I don't know,' than for the man who can look out over this wonderful creation and deliberately say that there is no God! May I ask what has led to your change of front?"
He told me that he had been brought up in a very cultured but infidel home, both his parents in England being unbelievers who scornfully rejected the Bible as a revelation from God. He was graduated from Cambridge University, and there and afterward had identified himself with atheistic groups. But recently he had been struck with the great change which had taken place in a man who had professed conversion some time before, and whom he knew well. This man had been a drunkard and a gambler, a well-known character in the city. The change in his life had been marvellous, and everyone who came in contact with him realized it.
"There is something there," the young man went on, "for which my philosophy cannot account. I would never have believed that so great a change could have come over anyone so suddenly. I know it is not will power, for that man has tried over and over again to free himself from the liquor habit. But when he became what you call a Christian, he was delivered instantly! It has set me to thinking, and so I have been attending your meetings, and what I have heard and seen has convinced me that there must be some supernatural power at work. So now I call myself an agnostic rather than an atheist."
"Have you read the Bible?" I asked.
"Not until recently. I have read scores of books against the Bible, but I had never taken the trouble to read the Bible itself until these things began to exercise me. I bought a copy of the Scriptures at a secondhand bookstore for twenty-five cents, and I have been reading it every evening after going home from the meeting, but somehow I cannot seem to make it out."
"Have you read the story of our Lord Jesus Christ."
"You mean the Gospels. Yes, I have, but to be perfectly frank, I have ridiculed the entire story of His miraculous birth, His resurrection, and other things so long that I find it very difficult to take it seriously. The last few evenings I have been reading the book of Isaiah, in the Old Testament. My, how that fellow can sling the language! I have always been a great admirer of oratory, and real eloquence holds me spellbound. But I have never read anything finer than the speeches of that old prophet! I was thinking last night that if I could only be a Christian by believing Isaiah, and did not have to believe the New Testament, I would be prepared to make the change immediately."
Opening my Bible, I said, "I am going to read you a passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah. I will read about an unnamed man, and when I finish I want you to tell me of whom I am reading."
"Oh," he replied, "that would be quite impossible! I am not familiar enough with the Bible to do anything like that."
"I do not think you will have any difficulty! Just let me read it to you."
And so I read the entire fifty-third chapter, which I am reproducing here because some readers may not be any more familiar with it than this young man, and I want you to have its precious words before you;
"Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: He hath no form nor comeliness: and when we shall see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected of men; a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from Him; He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth: He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment; and who shall declare His generation? for He was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was He stricken. And He made His grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death; because He had done no violence, neither was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief: when Thou shalt make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. He shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied: by His knowledge shall my righteous Servant justify many; for He shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong; because He hath poured out His soul unto death: and He was numbered with the transgressors: and He bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."
When I had finished reading, I said to the young man, "Now of whom was Isaiah speaking?"
Eagerly he exclaimed, "Let me read it for myself, sir!
I handed him the Bible, and watched him carefully as he read. Several times I noticed him furtively wipe away a tear. He was quiet for a few moments after his lips ceased to move. Then, handing the Book back to me again, he said, "Well, I must confess it looks like Jesus!"
"Ah, there is no difficulty in recognizing that portrait, is there? Now let me give you a nut for skeptics to crack! That description of the life and death, and intimation of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ was written about seven hundred years before our Saviour was born in Bethlehem. How do you account for that?"
"Can you prove that statement? How do you know it was written so long ago?"
"Well, of course I am simply accepting the record that Isaiah lived in the eighth century before Christ. But if you reject the testimony of Scripture, I cannot prove it. But there is something else in connection with it that anyone who cares to investigate may prove for himself. That Scripture was translated from the Hebrew into Greek, and deposited in the library of Ptolemy Philadelphus in Alexandria, Egypt, about 230 years before the birth of Christ. It must have existed in the Hebrew for some years before it was translated into Greek, and it was as great a miracle to produce it in Greek over two centuries before the birth of the Lord Jesus as to write it in Hebrew seven centuries before. How did Isaiah know of these things except by divine inspiration?"
He looked fixedly at me for a moment or two, and then without a word he rose to his feet and hurried from the hall. I wondered why, and learned afterward that he had not wanted me to see that he was overcome with emotion, and could not restrain his tears.
I went to my room to pray for him. The next evening I looked for him, but he did not appear. Nor on the second evening, nor on the third—but oh the fourth night he came in just after the meeting had begun. As he looked in at the door his eyes caught mine. There was something about his face that told me a great change had occurred. He walked boldly up the aisle, took a front seat, participated in the singing, and the moment an opportunity was given for testimony he was on his feet.
For an instant I dreaded his attempting to speak, as I thought that his tendency to stutter might make him confused, if not actually ridiculous. But though he had difficulty with the first word or two, his stammering soon disappeared, and he spoke right on in a firm, clear voice.
I cannot reproduce his exact words, but I shall never forget the substance of his testimony. He said something like this:
"My dear friends, I want to tell you tonight that after years of infidelity and unbelief, God has revealed Jesus Christ to me as my Saviour through the fifty-third chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, which I have read over and over and over again in the last few days and nights. I have passed through deep exercise because of my sins. I felt as though I had sinned too greatly for God ever to forgive me, but tonight I am certain that He has forgiven all my sins through the merits of Jesus Christ.
"There is one confession that I feel I must make in this public way. I graduated from Cambridge University in England as a civil engineer, and I was one of the first group sent out to survey the railroad from Jaffa to Jerusalem, in the land of Palestine. I cannot tell you how strangely I was affected by everything I saw in that land. The very stones of Palestine seemed to rise up against my unbelief, and to declare that the Bible is true. But I told myself that this was all superstition, and I refused to believe it.
"One day a group of us were taken by a guide outside the Damascus Gate to what was known as 'Gordon's Calvary,' the place which General Gordon thought he identified as the actual scene of the crucifixion. As we stood on the top of that skull-shaped knoll it came to me with much force that there Christianity, which I regarded as a delusion, really began. My anger flamed up, and I burst forth in uncontrollable cursing and blasphemy, so that even my ungodly companions were afraid and ran from the spot. They told me afterward that they thought a bolt from the blue would strike me dead for cursing on that sacred place.
"But oh, my friends, I have lived to learn in the last few nights that the One whom I cursed on Calvary's hill was wounded for my transgressions, bruised for my iniquities; the chastisement of my peace was upon Him, and with His stripes I am healed!"
He could say no more, for his feelings overcame him, and as he sank into his seat our hearts were filled
with rejoicing, and we took up that old, familiar strain:
"He breaks the power of canceled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean—
His blood avails for me!"
The young man in question had a splendid bass voice, and it was soon his delight to help us sing the gospel to others. I can see him yet, singing some of the grand old hymns of the Church in those deep, rich tones which carried so much conviction with them. His stay on earth was not very long after that, for within a year he was called to be forever with the Lord who had redeemed him with His precious blood.
I am glad to retell his story, hoping it may be used of God to speak to someone who, like my dear friend of long ago, has been rejecting the testimony of God in spite of all His love and grace to sinners. Let no one think he has sinned too greatly to be saved, for the vilest who comes to Christ is instantly cleansed from every stain.