Zechariah 12:9-14; 13; Luke 22:31-34, 54-62; John 21:15-19.
It is interesting, as well as instructive, to see how the principles, the great moral principles, of God run through all the Word. The subjects of these principles may be in different relations with Him and differently circumstanced, so much so, that what is characteristic of an Old Testament saint is not at all the position in which Christians are looked at in relation to God in the New Testament; but always allowing for that, the great moral principles of God in His ways with the soul and with the conscience are alike in both Old and New Testament. And that is the reason why I have directed you as well to the prophecies I have read as to the history we have looked at in the New Testament, because both Scriptures relate to restoration. It may be of different individuals and under different circumstances, but still it is restoration in both cases; and not only that, but restoration on the same principles; that is to say, that the conscience and heart are reached by God in both cases. And I affirm that strongly, because all I have to say about it this evening is connected with the fact that all restoration begins in the conscience, even as the first work of God in a man's soul begins in his conscience. I quite grant that it is better for a man to be an intellectual believer in the Scripture than an avowed infidel; but unless his conscience has been reached, he is not one whit nearer to God, though he is in a most responsible position, for this reason, he believes what condemns him. I say that, because I feel it must be conscience work, whether it be conversion in the first instance, or whether it be restoration after a person has wandered from Him. Oh, these are not subjects upon which you can let your intellect play! You have missed the mark if you do; you have mistaken the arena. You are entirely at sea as to this matter, if you think it a subject on which you can dilate as you would upon any ordinary theme. It is a subject for the conscience, a subject for the affections of the new man, if you are a new creature in Christ; and unless the conscience and the new man are in exercise, it is impossible that you can really grasp and understand these things. As I said before, I quite own that you may understand them in an outward way; but you cannot understand them as they relate to you individually. It is a remarkable fact — I only mention it in passing — that you will find just now a great deal of what I may term outward interest in the things of God. Just as a man would be interested in some scientific problem, and would survey all its parts to see the due arrangement of all the phases of it, so it is quite possible that a man may take the word of God and subject it to the analysis of his mind, and perhaps believe it outwardly. But let me tell you solemnly, it is exactly of that very class of people that the Lord Jesus used those words in John 2. When He was at Jerusalem, on the feast-day, at the passover, "many believed on His name." They were not infidels or sceptics; "they believed in His name when they saw the miracles;" and yet of them, it is said, "Jesus did not commit Himself unto them, because He knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man: for He knew what was in man." And what follows that? "Ye must be born again;" there must be a new nature, a new principle. There must be the introduction of that which is not in any man naturally; and that is the meaning of the new birth — it is the introduction of a completely and totally new thing.
Well, I say, beloved friends, that is the very first work of God in a man by His Word and Spirit. The conscience is wrought upon by the Word of God and by the Spirit of God, and the Word by the Holy Ghost becomes the forming power of this new nature in every one that is born again. There I come to an entirely new thing, a new creature, which is empowered by the Holy Ghost to understand the things of God, as we have it in 1 Cor. 2:12: "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God." But unless you have the Holy Ghost you cannot understand the Scriptures according to God's thoughts. You may take and put them together, as I said, in an intellectual way, just as one would take up any ordinary subject in this world; but you do not understand their bearings as to yourself. I have been led to make these remarks by noticing, and it has much struck me, how that, when it is merely an intellectual interest in Scripture, people most carefully avoid the personal application of it. They do not like what is personal, hence they avoid it. They will speak about Scripture, reason about it, argue about it, as they would about any other subject; but when it comes to be a question of what is personal, and what relates to their own conscience and soul, then there is an almost inevitable turning away from it. I am very far from saying that all personal dealing is to be dragged into open daylight, so to speak; but still, at the same time, it is very apparent as to whether a man's conscience is truly in exercise because the truth relates to him, or whether it is merely a subject of interest, as people would speak about any ordinary matter in this world.
Well, I have only said that in connection with the scriptures we have read, to introduce the first point that I desire to speak a little about to-night, and that is with reference to "restoration."
It is exactly like conversion in this particular, that the first work is in the conscience; and I say, beloved friends, and I am thankful to be allowed to say it, the more distinct the work of God is in the soul, the more it is in the conscience in the first instance. And, further, the first effect of the work of God in a man's conscience is to produce, not joy, but misery; I affirm it without the slightest fear of contradiction, on no less authority than that of the word of God. And it moreover agrees with the order in which Scripture reveals what God is — "God is light," and "God is love;" that is the order, and that is the order in which a soul apprehends it. And, may I ask, what else but misery could be produced in a man's conscience when, for the first time in his history, he is introduced into the searching presence of One who is said to be "light"? For a man who is a sinner to be brought into the presence of that light, what is the effect? Joy? No; but misery, and rightly so. I quite admit that there comes in the blessedness of what follows, "God is love;" and very blessed and wonderful is that which follows even this, the provision for removing all that the "light" makes manifest; but that is the order in which a soul learns it, whether in conversion or in restoration.
I am speaking now specially for those here who may have wandered. I have such in my thoughts this evening, looking to the Lord that He may be pleased to make His word fit into the conscience of anyone here who may have in any way departed from Him. The first effect of the light, then, in a person's conscience who has slipped away from God is to produce misery and unhappiness. Of course it is different from the misery that one has in his unforgiven state; yet it is deeper. Oh, there is no sorrow, no anguish, no pain, so bitter as that which comes from the heart that knows it is forgiven. Its very bitterness is that it has wandered away, from the One who has expressed such love. You see it in the history of Israel; and this is the reason why I have referred to this prophecy in Zechariah, which relates to the restoration of Israel, the bringing back of Israel from all the distance they were in. I must say one word in connection with the first verse of chapter 13, which perhaps may offend some here, though I am only saying what is a matter of fact. "In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness." Observe, that is not a fountain of blood; poetry says so, but not Scripture. I refer to it because I believe this verse has misled a great many people with reference to the question of the cleansing after conversion. It is the restoration of Israel, and the cleansing by Jehovah of those who had Lo-ammi written upon them as to their relationship with Him, and it answers to the purifying power of the word of God upon a person's conscience who has wandered from Him now. There is no such thing in Scripture as a re-application of the blood of Christ; it is a mere invention of man. It is the greatest dishonour that was ever — unintentionally, no doubt, in many cases — put upon the precious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. I cannot believe that any Christian would intentionally dishonour the precious blood of Christ; but still it is a dishonour. To talk of the re-application of the blood of Christ is doing an unintentional dishonour to the value of His work. "The worshippers once purged," says the Holy Ghost, "should have no more conscience of sins." "Once purged" — no frequent repetition. It is quite true that there is a constant application of water, or in other words, the continual application of the word of God by the Holy Ghost, but there is not a single line of Scripture, not a solitary sentence of Scripture, upon which a person could found truthfully the thought that the blood of Christ is re-applied to a man every time he sins. I say it is a total and complete misapprehension of the gospel of the grace of God, and a total perversion of the truth of God. I challenge you to search and find, if you can, a solitary scripture that speaks of it so. I can find you abundance of scriptures that speak of the purifying by water, that is, the Word, as it is here, "There shall be a fountain opened for sin and uncleanness."
Now if you trace in this prophecy what will be the future of God's dealings with that people, you will find it is exactly the order in which He deals in restoring grace now. Let me refer for a moment to another scripture, Hosea 2:6-15. The expressions that are used here show that it is all conscience-work. If we look at the order, we shall find, first, that there is the sense in the conscience of the remnant of the condition they had got into. It is as in every case — conscience first. And oh! if there is anything that one longs for, if there is anything that one's heart desires, in these days more than another, it is for more real, solid, earnest work of conscience amongst us. What we mourn is so little real exercise of conscience. I am sorry to be compelled to say it, but I fear it marks the character of the conversions at present, there is not the ploughing of conscience; it is not out of the misery, and unhappiness, and wretchedness, and weariness of a heart broken with the sense of death and judgment brought upon it, that people find the Saviour's love coming to remove it all. This is God's order; this is the divine way of working. God forbid that I should say that no one was ever converted who was not converted that way, but I am speaking of what is normal, of God's way, of God's order of working. I know God can overrule even the mistakes and follies of His people; but I am speaking of the way in which God works, as we find it in His word. It is, then, the conscience which is reached, whether it is a sinner before conversion, or whether it is a saint after he has fallen, all must begin in the conscience. It is the sense brought home to him of the misery he is in, and not simply the consequences of his actions. Many a one would be sorry enough to find he has got into a false position, but that may be mere selfishness; I am not speaking of that, but of the terrible sense which God gives the conscience when He begins to deal with it — "I have departed from the One who loves me better than every one else." Is it nothing to have the light of God showing me that I have grieved the One who loves me better than every one? That I have turned my back upon the One who loves me perfectly, and with an eternal love — who loves me still, even in my wanderings — who is not changed? Is not that a wonderful thing? And, beloved friends, it is because He is not changed I feel the bitterness of what I have got into.
It is His love to Israel that is brought out here in Hosea; and He works with the conscience of the remnant until this point is reached, and then He says, "Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfortably unto her. And I will give her her vineyards from thence, and the valley of Achor for a door of hope: and she shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt." (Hosea 2:14, 15.) That is, the very scene of judgment will be the very starting-point of recovery. It must be out of "Achor" — that is, out of trouble — that the deliverance comes; it cannot come in any other way. That is the way He will work with Israel by-and-by, and similarly now in the souls of any who have wandered from Him.
If you will turn to another scripture in Hosea, viz., the first three verses of the last chapter, you will find another beautiful description of this restoration. "O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity. Take with you words, and turn to the Lord: say unto Him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips. Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses: neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods: for in thee the fatherless findeth mercy." Look at the way in which the conscience is in exercise there; there is all the sense of what they had sought after instead of God, how they had turned to the contrivances of this world instead of Jehovah. Afterwards, in verse 4, you get God's reply: "I will heal their backslidings, I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him," etc.; but, before that, there is the sense of their whereabouts, there is the true work of God in the conscience, and it always is so.
Take that prophecy of Zechariah once more. Look at the mourning of every family apart — could you conceive anything like it? Is there any one here who knows what it is to mourn after this fashion, to be "in bitterness as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn"? (Chap. 12:10.) If there is a pang, a wound that reaches down to the very depths of the heart, it is the loss of the firstborn. Well, that is the character of the sorrow, of the work in the conscience; and observe the individuality of it: not all in a lump, but individually, "every family apart." It is a thing between God and the conscience, and every one of them in their individuality is made to taste in his conscience the terrible bitterness of the position he is in. It is then that the grace of God comes in with the fountain opened for sin and uncleanness.
Now I turn to the New Testament, because it bears more distinctly upon us, and gives more the character and details of the way in which God works in His restoring grace with us at this present moment. I turn to the case of Peter, and the first thing I call your attention to (I alluded a little to this last week) is the solemn warning of the Lord Jesus to Peter, with reference to the fact that He would deny Him. Peter was warned; oh, remember that! The very lips of the Lord Himself carried the tidings to him: "I tell thee, Peter, before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice." But, then, along with that — and bear this specially upon your hearts to-night — there is this blessed, wonderful word, "Nevertheless I have prayed for thee."
Now there is the grand, precious foundation upon which all restoration to God now rests: "I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not." I love to think of it, because it brings out this, that on Him everything rests from beginning to end. I believe that no man ever became a child of God by his own will. "Oh," you ask, "do you deny the freedom of the will?" By no means. I fully, entirely, and completely own the freedom of the will; but all on the side of what is bad, all on the side of what is evil. As regards this question of restoration, the beginning of it is with Christ, as we have it in Peter's case, "I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not;" and it was that prayer of the Lord Jesus that maintained his faith. Peter's faith would have gone to wreck if the Lord had not prayed for him. All his boasted attachment went to pieces, all his fancied devotedness to the Lord went to the winds; he denied Him three times over, with even an oath and a curse upon his lips; but his faith was kept by the prayer of Christ: "I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art brought back [that is the meaning of the word "converted"], strengthen thy brethren."
There is another thing connected with this history which is exceedingly precious for our hearts — that after Peter had thrice denied his Lord, notwithstanding the warning, notwithstanding the fact that the Lord Jesus had pressed it solemnly upon him that he would deny Him, the Lord "looked upon him." Now I beseech of you to think of this — think of the prayer of Jesus, think of the look of Jesus! How affecting to one's heart to think of it! "I have prayed for thee!" "He looked upon him!" And that prayer and that look restored Peter's conscience; and what was the effect of it? "He went out, and wept bitterly." His conscience was reached; the prayer and the look effected this moral revolution in his conscience, and he went out and, as it were, broke his heart; and, as another has beautifully said, he lived on that look until the resurrection morning. Have you ever thought what kind of a look that was? Have you thought what expression was conveyed to Peter's heart by it? Oh, how much there was in that look! That eye of love smote deep down to the depths of his conscience. I do not believe there was hardness in it, or severity, or reproach; but there was the deepest, most tender and wonderful love. The effect of it was that the fountains of Peter's heart were broken up, and "when he thought thereon he wept." Oh, think of it, beloved friends, for a moment! What an affecting thing for our hearts! Jesus praying, Jesus looking, and Peter weeping! These are the things which the Spirit of God puts together in Luke 22. The Lord prayed, the Lord turned and looked, and Peter remembered and wept! It is interesting to trace the work of God in bringing the thing back to the conscience. He used the crowing of a cock, a simple thing like that, to awaken the memories of conscience. Oh wanderer, have the memories of your conscience been stirred? When you get away from everything, and get alone, I ask you to-night, (poor child of sorrow, and yet of brighter days, you that have known what it is to have had happier and better times,) do you ever think of that love that you have sinned against? Do you ever sit down and think of that grace that you have turned aside from? Do you ever sit down to ponder over that unfailing goodness which all your sins have never altered in the smallest degree? And is there nothing in it to melt your heart? Is there nothing to awaken the thoughts of other times in your soul? Oh, to think, "Here am I departed from Him, and yet He is still the same." Here have I chosen my own way, and He is still the same. Here have I brought the clouds in between Him and me, and He is still the same." I say, if that cannot touch your heart, nothing can. If that is not sufficient to awaken the depths of your conscience, nothing can. May God by His Spirit give you, as it were, to see that eye of Jesus turned upon you to-night, wanderer! "The Lord turned and looked upon Peter;" and He can use some little circumstance, trivial it may be, something that no one thinks of but Himself, to touch the memory, as He made the crowing of the cock to awaken the memory of Peter. Peter "remembered," and went out, and wept bitterly.
Now I desire to say one word upon the second part; and that is, restoration to service. The account is not given in Scripture of what took place between Peter's denial and his restoration, beyond the bare record of the fact of the Lord's first interview with him. The details of that interview are not recorded; the fact is recorded, and that only. (Luke 24:34.) How blessed to think of it. Peter got a special visit from the Lord after His resurrection; and hence the apostles and disciples, when they announced the resurrection to the two disciples from Emmaus, announced grace along with it. "The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon." What grace in the Lord Jesus, to single out his poor wandering sheep, and give him a special, peculiar appearance of Himself after He rose from the dead! But I only mention that in passing; we have no details of it. In John 21, from which I read, we have the second phase of restoration, which does not refer to conscience at all. Peter's conscience had been restored; the Lord's prayer, the Lord's look had done that.
You may ask me to prove this. Scripture does it, beloved, in the most simple, beauteous way that can be conceived. In the earlier part of John 21 we find the disciples had gone back to fishing, and they had toiled fruitlessly all night; and Jesus shows Himself, and displays Himself in almost identically the same way as in Luke 5, when Peter received his first call to follow Jesus. Here the Lord works a similar miracle, and it says they were not able to draw the net to land for the multitude of fishes. John says, "It is the Lord." Now, mark. "When Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher's coat unto him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea." For what purpose? To get to Christ. Do you think he would have done that if his conscience had not been restored? Do you think, if there was a sense of dread and distance upon his conscience, that he would like to get to the One whom he had denied? If you offend and grieve even a friend in this world, one whom you have walked in happy intercourse with — if you have violated the confidence that was between you in some way, unless there is perfect clearance you do not court the society of that friend. The thing must be removed which has brought in the distance. It was so with Peter. His conscience was good; his conscience was restored; his conscience had been in the light. It is true, the roots of his sin were still to be probed; but as to his conscience itself, it had been dealt with, and the moment that Peter heard it was the Lord, he said, as it were, "I will get to Him as quickly as I can." His faith had not failed; his confidence in Christ's love had not broken down.
But mark, friends, what follows. As soon as ever they had partaken of the repast, then the Lord Jesus speaks to Peter in this remarkable way; which was intended, no doubt, to bring back to his memory his threefold denial. And what I believe is taught in John 21 is this, that the Lord reaches down to the roots of that which had produced the fruit. The fruit is one thing, the root from whence it springs is another; and it is the root which is touched here. I believe that when the Lord turned and looked upon Peter, the fruits were apparent before Him; but when He said, "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?" three times, the roots of all Peter's denial, of all Peter's sin, were exposed. The Lord applies the probe deep down to that which was at the bottom of it all. And what was it? Self-confidence. "Though all should deny thee, yet will not I." And that is what the Lord exposes to His servant here in this threefold question. He puts it to him in this wonderful, blessed, distinct way; and it reaches down to the very depths of the man's heart, and brings the thing in all its vivid distinctness before him. And what was the end of it? The man who would boast that he would go to prison and death with his Master, who could say, "Though all men should deny thee, yet will not I deny thee," that man has learned from his fall. He has learned a wonderful lesson; God grant that every one of us here may learn it. He now says, "Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee." Once he would say, I am equal to any sacrifice. Though everybody in this world should disown you, I will not." But oh, he has learned differently now; he has been through the furnace! He has been sifted; he has been tried; he has been in every shape and form so completely manifested, that he can now say, as it were, "Lord, I retire upon the infinite knowledge that you have of what a poor worthless creature I am. Thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee."
There is one point more about this scene that I could not leave out to-night. I feel it would be leaving the thing imperfect if I were not to notice it. It is so unlike us, so beyond all our thoughts. I mean the exquisite grace that puts this poor, erring, feeble servant and child back into his place as a pastor and a shepherd of Christ's flock, as well as a witness for Christ. I know what kind are our poor hearts naturally. I know what we should say — "You will never trust a man like that again! What? Do you mean to say the blessed Lord would put a man that positively swore and cursed that he did not know his Lord, in the place of prominence, in the conspicuous position of a shepherd of His sheep and lambs, and to follow Him to prison and to death too?" That is what we should say; and I tell you why. Because grace does not belong to us naturally. Grace is not a plant that grows in any of our hearts naturally; but it is one of the most blessed characters of God. He is "the God of all grace." It is this very apostle Peter who uses those words. How well he understands it for himself! "The God of all grace, who hath called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you." You have the grace brought out here in John 21 perfectly. Peter is restored to his service — "Feed my sheep," and to the position of being a witness — "When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake He, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He saith unto him, Follow me."
One word more before we finish, to prove the thoroughness, the completeness, of this restoration, both in conscience and heart. So completely was the past wiped out for Peter, that in the Acts of the Apostles, we find him in the irresistible energy of the Holy Ghost, in the moment of that new and blessed anointing, charging home on the Jewish people, his own nation, the very thing that he had done himself: "Ye denied the Holy One and the Just." Was not that what Peter himself had done? And do you think he could have branded his nation with it if he had not been completely cleared, as to his own conscience and heart, from every stain? Oh no! he had been subjected to the action of the towel, as well as the water in the basin. Oh, the delicacy of that hand which uses the towel to remove the very smallest spot that could be upon him! Thus it was that Peter is free to bring home upon the conscience of the nation their denial of Christ, though he himself had been guilty of the very same sin.
I bring these things before you this evening in the hope that the Lord in His mercy may be pleased to use His word to any soul here who has wandered from Him. I know there are those in this room to-night who have had brighter days than they now have, and that by their own confession too. There are those here to-night who once enjoyed the blessed communion of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord; they have known what it is to have a peace, and a joy, and a satisfaction, that the world cannot give. And where are they now? All the joy is fled, leaving them miserable and depressed. Let me say one word. He says, "Return, come back!" He is where you left Him; He is unchanged. "Thou art the same." His love is the same, and more than that, He is interceding for His people, just as He prayed for Peter beforehand. He has not forgotten you, though you have forgotten Him. That eye of tenderness and love is on you, and He loves you. There is for you a welcome, if you will but come back, just as with Israel in the day that is coming. Jehovah says, "My people," though they had wandered and got far away from Him. So He says to you, as it were, My poor wandering child, my poor wayward child; but my child still! Remember that! Perhaps some of you may have known, beloved friends, or if you have not known the pang of it practically, it may have come under your observation, what it is to have a wandering son. Is that son less a son because a wanderer? Is he not the child of your heart still? Are your affections gone? Would the most determined wandering that was ever known alienate the heart from one who was a child? Never. And do you think, beloved friends, it is otherwise with God? Do you think if God is a Father that He has not a father's heart and a father's eye? Oh, be assured that as the eye of a father or a mother would look with the most intense tenderness and pity upon a wandering child, even though as yet there seemed no prospect that that child would come home, so the eye of God is upon His wanderer and it is to me a most blessed privilege to be able to say to any such who may be here this night, His eye is on you, and His heart is the same. How blessed, how comforting is the thought!
"Still sweet 'tis to discover,
If clouds have dimmed my sight,
When passed, eternal Lover,
To me, as e'er, thou 'rt bright."
The Lord, by His Spirit, use His word at this time to restore any who have gone back from Him and may He keep those who are in danger. Perhaps some are on the eve of wandering, if they have not as yet. The Lord, by His Spirit, make His word His messenger of grace to your souls to-night, and thus bring afresh to your hearts and consciences the sense of His love that never changes, never alters, through Jesus Christ our Lord.