I was leaving the Birmingham station for Manchester the other day, when I noticed three soldiers walking on the platform. I felt an inward conviction that my Master had something for me to say to these men. Taking my seat in the carriage beside their three knapsacks, I looked up in prayer, that the right man might come and sit next to me. They took their seats. I remained silent for some time. At last I saw tears begin to roll down the face of the man next to me. It is often better to pray than talk; one gets to see more of God that way. After a while I said to him, "When I saw you three walking on the platform, I felt assured that the Lord had a message for one of you; and I asked Him to bring the right man next to me; and now, will you tell me what is giving you so much grief this morning?" He looked very much surprised, and said, "Oh, sir, it is eighteen years since I ran away from home; my father was a man of prayer; I never saw him again; he has been dead many years now, but I can never forget his prayers for me. I have been abroad most of my time since I enlisted — have never seen my dear mother from that day to this — she does not know whether I am dead or alive; but I am going, to-day to see her; I have got her address in Manchester; and this brings to my mind those happy days when my father had a prayer-meeting in our house." He also showed me a worn-out letter, written by his sister, on leaving his native shores. No, words can tell the value he set upon this tender treasure; he had worn it near his heart in every part of the world he had seen. He also opened his knapsack, and shewed me a well-worn Bible: his two companions, I found, also had each his Bible. They were, in fact, three praying soldiers. I read their testimonials, and three more noble, upright men I seldom met. The thrilling interest of that conversation I shall not easily forget. One point, however, I must name. Though these three soldiers were, like Lydia of old, men of prayer, and I trust the Lord had opened the heart of the one next me, yet they were totally ignorant of God's plan of salvation. In order to meet this ignorance, I put the following question: — "How does a man become a soldier? Doe he go to some old rag-shop, and buy old cast-off regimentals, and try to imitate the soldier, until he gets to be one?" "Well, well," said one of them, a pretty soldier "that would be, wouldn't he, now?" "But," said I, "then tell me, how does a man become a soldier?" "How, why simply by receiving the shilling,* to be sure." "Just so," said I, "does a sinner become a Christian. It is not by going to some religious rag-shop, and buying the rags of self-righteousness; and trying to imitate the Christian, until he gets to be one. No, it is simply as a lost sinner receiving Christ, as the man receives the shilling." "As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name." "
What!" said one of the soldiers, "do you mean to say then that a man does not ought to do his duty to God, to read His word, and pray?" "Oh, yes! the Christian earnestly desires to do all this; but you have to do your duty, you have to keep your regimentals bright, and to obey your orders; but tell me, have you to do your duty to get to be a soldier, or because (since you received the shilling) you are one? Just so the Christian. He loves to keep his regimentals bright, to walk with garments undefiled, and to obey, as a son delights to obey, the will of his Father. But this is not to get to be a Christian, but because he is one."
* [Written in the XIXth century]
"I never saw it in that light before," said he. "I know you never did; and after all your sincere desires to live to God, and thus get to be a Christian, when you come to look back at your past life, have you not often done the things you most hate? Don't you often feel you are as far from being what you wish to be as ever — sin has such terrible power? Now, has it not?" "That's all true, sir. But what is a poor fellow to do? You have no idea, sir, of the temptations of a poor soldier! Why, now, we three, because we are steady men, are sent to be recruiting sergeants. It makes my very heart sick to think of the dens we shall have to go into to get our men." "Oh," said I, "what a world of sin and wretchedness! and how much there is in every fallen man that answers to the iniquity around. If God had not known it all, and sent His own dear Son to die, the sacrifice for sin, on the cross, so that salvation might be as free, yet as binding, as the soldier's shilling, who could be saved? Who, with such a fallen nature, in such a world, could imitate the Christian, until he got to be one?"
At Crewe, two old pensioners got into the same carriage one, of whom appeared to have tried hard and long to make himself a Christian. This man, I believe, found blessing to his soul through the conversation. As an old soldier, he remembered well the shilling; and he remembered he had not to buy his regimentals; and he remembered well that he had to do his duty, not to get to be a soldier, but because he was one. But he had never known that it is just the same with every sinner that is brought to God. When a man is enlisted, he is stripped of everything — not a rag is left. He then stands in royal uniform — but that royal suit is a gift — he has not to pay a penny for it. He only receives it. No matter how dirty his old rags were. Every man in the regiment stands in the same cloth. It will be so with thee, poor, lost sinner, no matter how filthy thy life has been; no, if even thou hast been like the thief on the cross, or a very Mary Magdalene. If the Holy Spirit shall open thy heart to receive Christ as thy entire salvation, thy royal clothing shall be the very righteousness of God. Yes, every soldier of Christ wears the same spotless robe. "For he hath made him sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." (2 Cor. 5:21.) "But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption."
Perhaps one of the dealers in old rags of self-righteousness will say, "Won't you come to my shop, and try my sacraments and ordinances? I will teach you how to imitate the Christian best, and then you may hope to get to be one. I assure you my shop is the oldest in the line?" No, thank you; no religious rags for me. I have put on the Lord Jesus — He is my only trust — I need no more; for God says of all that are in Him, "There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus." And, "Ye are complete in him." What God says is complete, let not man try to mend. No, no! fellow-soldier of Christ, don't be tempted into the rag-shops of the day; thou hast not to put on old regimentals to get to be a soldier of Christ. Watch and pray, that thou mayest walk worthy of thy royal uniform. As says the word of God, "I will that thou affirm constantly that they which have believed in God (those that are saved) might be careful to maintain good works." (Titus 3:4-8.)
It is impossible to describe that poor soldier, as he came within sight of Manchester. I spoke of the return of the prodigal son. Whatever might be the joy of that poor mother's heart, in receiving her long-lost son, still infinitely greater is the joy of God, in receiving the long-lost prodigal. Oh! careless sinner, what a God of love dost thou despise! Thou art starving in wretchedness, and there is bread enough and to spare. See, see, He comes to meet thee with outstretched arms of love; fall into them, crying, "I have sinned." The first words the prodigal heard were these, "Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hands, and shoes on his feet."