"But when he came to himself he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare and I perish here with hunger. I will arise and go to my father and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight: I am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet afar off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight: I am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring the fatted calf, and kill it, and let us eat and make merry, for this my son was dead, and is alive again: he was lost and is found. And they began to be merry."—Luke 15:17-24.
THE explanation of this parable is to be found largely in the occasion of it. This occasion is clearly stated in the first two verses of the chapter. Jesus received publicans and sinners and ate with them and taught his doctrine to them. You understand that publicans and sinners were Jews, two classes of the Jews. The publicans were Jews who had taken office under the Roman power and who collected the revenue for the oppressors of the country. The sinners constituted that class that neglected the temple service and whose lives were externally evil. The Pharisees and Scribes represented the respectable portion of the Jewish nation. They constituted its intelligence largely, and its patriotism and its wealth. They answered very well for what may be called the respectable moralists of the present time. The sinners of the text correspond largely to those who are outrageous and outbreaking sinners.
Now the objection made by these respectable Scribes and Pharisees was that Jesus Christ consorted with two very unrighteous classes of people; one of them had turned away from the love of the nation and taken office under the Romans; and the other was an outlawed, socially-banned class of people. In his justification of his conduct he says that in going out to seek these people to do them good it was as if a man had lost one sheep of a hundred and went out after that lost sheep, and in further vindication of his conduct he represented the joy, the approbation of heaven in what he was doing; that while indeed these Pharisees and Scribes murmured and complained, in the high and holy heaven there was very great joy; that whenever any one of these publicans and sinners turned from his sins and accepted the mercy of God heaven was glad over it.
And over and over and over again, he brings out that thought, his own joy, the Father's joy, the joy of the angels, over one sinner that repents. So that we find as the second occasion of the parable the necessity of repentance. He is not here discussing faith in himself, but repentance towards the Father and the attitude of the Father towards the penitent, his mission being to reveal the Father. In the last parable, the parable of the prodigal son, and in the paragraph which was read as the one to be commented upon to-night, there are clearly presented certain fundamental doctrines of our Saviour, doctrines which he taught, doctrines which, if obeyed, lead the soul to eternal life. And the advantage of having them in this form is, that they are not here taught in the abstract, but are illustrated in life, an exemplification of the doctrines is presented so that you may look at them and clearly understand them, their necessity, their appropriateness and coincidence with reason as well as with the law of God.
You will also believe that he presents these doctrines not in their gracious cause in the mysterious and inscrutable work of the Spirit, but in their human aspects. The first doctrine taught is conviction of sin. You will observe that this prodigal son, as he is represented here, began to be in want. He saw the hopelessness and helplessness of his condition. In his mind he had reached the perishing point. "I perish here in want." That part represents conviction of sin, when a man no longer relying upon himself, but recognizing the condition into which his own conduct has brought him, sees that his course is about to end in eternal death.
The next doctrine presented is the doctrine of repentance, where the mind changed toward God; when he says, "I will arise and go to my father, and I will confess the sin of which I have been guilty." Here is repentance illustrated. Repentance is a change of mind, a change of mind toward God, a change of mind toward God concerning sin. A man who has never sinned cannot repent in the Bible sense of that word. When a man sins, in his sin, in the act of it, his mind is at enmity against God, or he would not sin. He does not love God or he would not willfully transgress his law. In his heart he hates the government of God, or he would not trample the laws of that government under his feet. Now repentance is a change of mind in regard to sin toward the Father and is abundantly expressed here by the language, "I will arise and go to my father, and will say, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee."
Conversion or turning is represented by his doing what repentance resolves to do, when it is said "he arose and went." Conversion means turning right about. It is that action of life which is induced by the internal change, by the change of mind; as it is expressed in the third chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, "Repent and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out." Change your mind toward God and turn. Let the action correspond to the resolution. "So he arose and went to his father."
Now, when he got to his father we come to another Bible doctrine, the doctrine of confession. Before this he had resolved in his mind to make the confession, and having turned about and forsaken his evil way, and gone back in a deep sense of humility and of consciousness of demerit, he does actually say to his father, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight and I am no more worthy to be called thy son." Here, then, are these doctrines, conviction, repentance, conversion and confession, not abstractly taught, but exemplified in the action of this prodigal son. And then we have the attitude of the divine mind toward the penitent. We have the watchful love of the Father, looking out for that son. We have the readiness with which he meets the very first step of the sinner in coming to him, and we have the fullness of the forgiveness, the absolute blotting out of the iniquities, when he puts his arms around his neck and kisses him much and clothes him in a new robe and puts a ring upon his finger; and then we have the heavenly joy excited by this transformation of character.
Now, it did not fall within the province of this parable to discuss faith; that is implied; that is discussed in other connections. The precise point here is repentance and how repentance is illustrated and exemplified.
Now, I want to apply this briefly. What is presented in this parable is exactly what every sinner should do and it is what every sinner must do in order to be reconciled to God. There are two expressions used that will show you the necessity of it. One is, "When he came to himself," and the other is, "My son was dead. My son was lost." Now, what is implied by this language? It certainly is implied by the first part quoted that when a man commits sin there is some kind of insanity in him; that it certainly is an unreasonable thing, that it is out of proper harmony with God, considering our relation to him, and that one cannot be at himself who does it; that he is going contrary to right reason, and that it is moral and spiritual insanity and sin.
As a proof that there is this change of mind as remarkable as is the actual change from insanity to sanity, take the judgment of men who have devoted a great part of their life to dissipation, to all forms of outbreaking sin, and then by the grace of God have been led to see the heinousness of these offenses and to repent, and who from the latter standpoint of reconciliation with God and the joy and peace that comes from righteous living, have looked back upon their past course and said: "When I did that I was beside myself. I was not governed by reason in that kind of life. It showed that I was a fool when in my heart I said, 'no God.' And I said it every time I sinned, 'no God.' I said it when I distrusted his Providence, 'no God.' I said it when I preferred the temporal and wicked things to the good and eternal things that he offered to me."
Now, this kind of insanity is everywhere characteristic of sin. I appeal to your own judgment about it, you men and you women, who are now living every day just as if there were no God. You are living just as if there was no life after death. You are living as if this world were all, and as if you had nothing better upon this earth to do than to follow pleasure with a species of insanity, to follow business with a species of insanity, money or fashions with a species of insanity.
Take a devotee of twentieth century fashion among the richer classes of this world. I look at such a woman and see how she devotes her time, where she goes, what her thoughts are about; and as you observe the ceaseless round which society exacts, and to which she conforms and which she makes virtually her God, you will see that there is no true God in her thoughts at all; that she does not live at all with any perception of her moral accountability for her life. When a mother will leave her children, when she will turn away from the best interests of her husband and instead of helping him to nobly fight the battle of life, she becomes absorbed in worldly amusements and entertainments and fashions, until she is really no wife to him at all, she is no mother to her children. Is not that insanity? Is such a woman at herself?
Now, for a man of intelligence, a man who has read and thought, for a man to devote 365 days of the year to his business, with no Sunday in it, with no Bible reading in it, with no prayer in it, with no thought of eternity in it, one exacting round of devotion to business, that man is mad. You know it as well as I know it, that a very large proportion of the men of this town, as far as their life is concerned, do say, "There is no God. There is no judgment. There is no responsibility to a higher power." I have asked more than once this question and I ask it of you again to-night.
Have you ever done this, gone around yourself to the different congregations of this place, or sent others for you, and ascertained how many unconverted people in this town do not attend religious services anywhere? There are many hundreds of men and women in this town that no more come to church than if there were no God at all. Now, I ask you if there is not a species of insanity in that? Suppose such a one to be at last in stress of circumstances, and after reflecting upon such a course, begins to see the vanity and littleness of it and to see how far short it falls of true manhood, as God intended manhood to be, and that man should come to himself, it would be as if he had waked up, as if heretofore he had been walking in his sleep, as if he had been acting under some enchantment, or delusion, or hallucination of some kind, that warped his judgment and caused him not to see things in their true light.
And when he began to think of the utter inadequacy of all the things which he was striving for to satisfy the cravings of his soul, he would then begin to say, "I perish here in want." Now, there is conviction, conviction resulting from reflection upon his past life and upon the folly of that life, a conviction which shows clearly to him that if his existence has any true goal commensurate with the powers and faculties of man, that he certainly has missed the mark. Now, under such a conviction as that, resolution comes into the heart. The man soberly thinks over the situation; it makes no difference whether these thoughts have come to him gradually or suddenly. It does make no difference about the manifestations of his grief. But has he been stirred up by the thoughts of them so that he determines to trifle no longer? Does his heart say, "This course means death to me? I see that it does and I will not go this road any longer. My mind is changed. I see that this is wrong, and if it is wrong I ought to confess it; I ought to say so. And not only ought I to say so, but God helping me, I will do that very thing."
Now, here is the substance of repentance: He comes to himself; he realizes the evil of himself toward God; and this is the conversion part of experience: "He arose and went to his father." What he had resolved to do he did. That resolution ripened into action. It was not one of those conclusions of the mind temporarily affecting the thought, to be followed by no fruit, but it did ripen into action. He not only said, "I will," but he went. He not only said, "I will confess," but he actually confessed.
Now, I will put the question to you who are disposed to think upon this subject. Assuming that upon a review of your past life in its relation to a man, on a sober afterthought you become conscious that you have done him a wrong; that is the verdict of your own conscience, that you wronged him, then you are making great strides toward moral honesty when you admit that, when you will say within yourself, "I did do that man wrong." But you make a grander stride when you convert that sentence of your conscience into a fact, when you not only say within your heart, "I have wronged him," but when you resolve to rise up at once and go right along to him and look in his eyes and say, "My friend, I have wronged you; I am sorry for it. I ask you to forgive me." So we apply the same line of thought and argument to our relations to God; when we ask you not merely to feel miserable and wretched over your life, to do more than to resolve, to do more than to become conscious of your need; it is to go to God. Go to him humbly, go to him penitently. Go to him and say, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight." No man's repentance can be regarded as having reached its fruition until it reaches what is called conversion; until he turns.
Let me illustrate this. Suppose here a path and on it a number of people walking with a great deal of satisfaction to themselves. They are young people and are not very thoughtful about directions and tendencies, but for the present with song and speech and gladness, they are going along down that road. After a while their satisfaction in their way begins to diminish; it seems to head toward a darker and more desolate country, and later it seems to lead into danger, and dangers thicken, and at last the conviction begins to seize upon them that continuation in that course means death to them. Now, suppose that they turn around and look back and say, "It is too far back now. We regret that we ever started this way, and at some convenient time we will turn around and go back." Concede more, that they weep much over the folly of going that wrong road but stop at that; you know their death is certain unless they actually about face and go the other way. I remember a case one night at a meeting I was holding, a man about sixty years of age heard a sermon that stirred him very much, so much that he actually cried out and wept like a child, and everybody was full of hope about him except myself. I had seen the same man stirred that way before. There was no argument needed to convince him that his life was sinful. He knew it. There was no question that in certain hours he was filled with compunctions of conscience for his wrong-doing. But often before I had called upon him not merely to weep but to turn about, he seemed to be satisfied with the fact that he had been sorry; so on this occasion he stopped at grief and died there. Soon after he died in just that condition. Do make the application. Many a time some of you have said within yourselves that there was unrighteousness in your life; many a time you have said, "I am going to amend. I am going to change my course." But it has all ended in empty resolution. You said, "I will arise," but you did not arise. You said, "I will go to my Father," but you did not go to him. Perhaps some day when you were sick and so sick that all the gold in the world was nothing to you, when you were so sick that you could taste the bitterness of death, you said, "Oh, if I could be well one more time I would turn about. I would go to my Father. I would go humbly, and I would reform my life," and yet when the sickness passes you continue just as you had been doing before.
Now, the object of this meeting is not merely to make people think, though that is a portion of the design; it is not merely to convict people, though that is purposed; it is not merely to get people to resolve, though that is included. But its prime object is to induce them to convert thought, conviction and resolution into action; that is the principal object of it. And that is why we ask people to move. I have been told by some that what I ask people to do is too rigid, that it is too hard, that I ought not to ask a man to come up here and kneel down; that there is an actual pain in kneeling down and so remaining for any while. Let us be frank with each other that we may come to terms. If I be frank will you be frank and as fair?
Then I concede there is no virtue in the mere act of kneeling. I do not think there is any sort of atonement in whatever pain or inconvenience it may be to you to occupy a kneeling posture for a short while. I do not believe that the power of God in converting men's souls is limited to this front row of seats, not at all. Indeed, if you would do what I call upon you to do without taking any of these steps it would be just as satisfactory to me. God can convert you where you are. God can convert you if your repentance is genuine, and if in your heart you do go to God and confess your sin. Your very lips need not move if you will confess it in your heart and if your soul will accept Jesus Christ, why, it will do just as well there as here. God is a spirit and localities have no sanctity about them.
But there is a philosophy, a sound reason in asking you to move after some fashion. So long as a man sits still and does not move that man usually never gets farther than the good resolution. That is the trouble. If he does not in some way indicate the state of his mind the probabilities are, ninety-nine out of one hundred, that he will not consummate the matter; it will not amount to a transaction; he will not close it up. It will be like a trade which he is on but which he never concludes, where the papers are not prepared, where he does not sign his name, where he does not actually commit himself to it before men as well as before God. And that is the philosophy of asking people to give expression, to give expression before men.
I shall never forget what one of our deacons said on that matter. It was during Brother Penn's meeting years ago. I refer to Brother William Martin. He said: "For weeks I sat back in that meeting and in my mind abused Major Penn for asking me to come up and occupy a certain seat. I sat there and ridiculed the idea of asking a man to get up from one part of the congregation and go to another part of the congregation, and thought I would attend to the whole matter of my soul's salvation better right where I sat." But he added: "I noticed this. I never got anywhere. I never made any progress. I was all the time simply thinking what I would do. I never closed the trade. I never committed myself in any way." And finally, I am telling you this just like he told it to me: "Isn't there this danger with me, that I am prescribing to God where he must convert me? Am I not making a condition with the Almighty? Am I not saying, Lord God, I will repent and turn if you will let it take place quietly, here, but there are some places I will not go to?"
Here is the question: Is that man thoroughly in earnest who is not willing to go anywhere to meet eternal life? I say there is philosophy in what the preacher asks you to do. He does not mean it for a humiliation on you in the sense that you understand it. He prescribes no penance. He does not mean to exact of you anything that will not be conducive to the settlement of this question. It is much like what the lawyer said to the old woman who was always going to make her will, "Madam, madam," says the man of the law, "you will die and never make it. Why don't you make it right now?" "Why, I am ready in my mind to make it now." "Why not, then, let me draw up the paper and you sign it?" Now, it is to break that very inactivity, that inertia; it is to overcome that fiction of sticking to a place; it is to cut you loose from every form of delay and to commit your soul to do anything that breaks the passiveness of your irresolution and inaction.
To go back to the prodigal. Look again at the case; it is the case before you. He studied that matter over very thoroughly, very thoughtfully, and he reached his conclusions one after another, and every link in the chain is a perfect one. "I have been a fool. I have been beside myself, and my folly has brought me to the brink of destruction. I perish here. I am determined to go to God. I will do it. I have reached the decision and that decision means right now. I will get right up and go," and go he did. On Sunday night I told you that neglecting the great salvation lost its 10,000 where atheism, materialism and evolution lost its 1,000. Neglect, neglect, defer, postpone. I ask you to act to-night.
Now, I am going to try you on your merits, to show you that I do not care about places and that I believe in God's power just as much in one place as in another. The only thing on earth I want to reach is self-surrender and submission to God. If you do that it will be sufficient, even if you sit there. But will you do it? Let us come to the point right now.
As you sit there, you being the judge, your conscience rendering the verdict, is it right to live without God? Is it right to violate the Sabbath day? Is it right to do a thousand things that you know you do? If it is wrong ought you not to confess it? Ought you not? As it is God's law you have violated ought you not to go to him, and say, Father, Father, I have sinned? "Can a man be pardoned and retain the offense?" Ought you not to forsake the evil doing? Can you keep on doing it and be forgiven all the time while you are doing it?
Now, here is my proposition to you to-night. It will suit me as well as if you come up here, if what you do to-night amounts to a transaction, if it closes up a piece of business, if your soul acts on it honestly and genuinely, if your soul speaks to the Almighty to-night and says, "God be merciful to me a sinner." Here is my proposition. I do not want the congregation to rise. You all sit still. While we sing a hymn I ask every man, woman and child here who is not a Christian, who, your conscience being the judge, is satisfied that the life you live has not been right in the sight of God, and that you have sinned, and have said in your heart, "I have sinned," then I ask your conscience to render another decision on a question of law. O thou judge, inside the soul of man, thou arbiter of questions of right and wrong, I ask you what is the penalty of violated law? Does your course mean life, or does it mean death?
We will suppose we have got a verdict on that, and that the decisions have been: First, I am a sinner; second, the wages of sin is death; third, unless there comes a change over me I now am lost, lost forever. Now, when the reason has reached a conclusion and the conscience has passed judgment upon the rightfulness of that conclusion, and there has been suggested the only possible escape, what ought a man to do? Well, you will say, he ought to repent. He ought to reform. You will say, he ought to turn about. Well, we will have no trouble about that, but here is my point. "O thou judge in the soul of men, when ought he to repent? When ought he to right about face?" Be honest, and your soul will tell you you ought to do it now, now, and that no man has a right to trifle with the sentence of the law, and that no man has a right to presume upon delay in the execution of its penalties. Therefore I ask you, there right where you are, say within yourselves: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight. I am not worthy to be called thy child. But I do now confess my sins, and in my heart renounce them and place myself wholly at the feet of thy mercy and cry out, God be merciful to me a sinner! Father, for Christ's sake, forgive my sins."