Spiritual Transformations

“Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

Isaiah 4:13

For many centuries the Holy Land has been covered with thorns and briers. Travelers tell us it is so exceedingly barren that except upon the dreary desert of Sahara, you cannot find a more absolute sterility than in many parts of Judea and Israel. But the land will not remain forever thus unproductive. Even now, in spots where it can be cultivated, it flows with milk and honey, and the day is coming when the chosen people shall return to their own land which God has given to them and to their fathers by a Covenant of Salt–and when again they shall begin to irrigate the hills and to plant the valleys, to cultivate the vineyards and to scatter the seed broadcast into the well-plowed furrows! The Holy Land will again blossom–“Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree.” When this is done, the whole world will ring with the fame thereof. They will say, “Is this the Zion whom no man sought after? Is this the land which was called desolate? Is this the city whose name was FORSAKEN?” Then shall Mount Zion again be “beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth.” And then shall the whole land flow with fertility–“and it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

But the spiritual meaning of our text, to which we draw more immediate attention tonight, is this–God, by HisGrace, is able to work moral and spiritual transformations. Men, comparable to thorns and briers, are, by the Sovereign Grace of God, changed and renewed so that they may then be compared to fir trees and to myrtles. This wonderful transformation is to the glory of God and is to Him “an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” Let us talk a little with one another, first, concerning these transformations. And, thirdly, letus

contemplate their happy result–they “shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”


It appears, from our text, that there are some men who may fitly be compared to thorns and briers. The similitudemay be applied to their original. Here we must all take our share. The thorn is the child of the curse. The brier is the offspring of the Fall. There were no thorns and briers to cause the sweat to flow from Adam’s face until after he had sinned. Then did the Lord say to him, “Cursed is the ground for your sake; sorrow shall you eat of it all the days of your life, thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to you.” And we, too, are the offspring of the curse. What says David? “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” We are born under sin. We are subject to it from our very earliest moments and we go astray, not merely by the imitation of bad example, but from the force of a corrupt nature.

It may be that there are some here, this evening, who feel that they are under the curse. You cannot look back upon your original without discovering this. It may be, my Friends, that your parents taught you to sin–you cannot remember ever having been instructed in the way of God. It may be that this very moment you can recollect some of the earliest training that you received–and you remember that it was such as might fit you for the service of Satan, but could not lead you to the Cross of Christ. You feel that you are under the curse and you have met such afflictions and your own heart is so heavy that if I were to write anyone down as a child of the curse, you would boldly say, “Put my name in the list. Indeed, I am born of a traitor and I feel in my blood the taint of his sin.” There is comfort for us, however, even though this is true of us! We are thorns, but the Lord can transform us into myrtles. Jehovah knows how to remove the curse of the first Adam by the blessing of the second Adam. He can tear up by the roots everything that is vile, sinful and accursed, and can plant in the place, thereof, everything that is lovely and of good repute–and so we shall inherit His blessing. So be of good comfort–though you are now under the curse, the Lord Jesus, who was made a Curse for us, is able yet to pronounce you blessed!

Again, the thorn is the true image of the sinner because it is of no sort of service. I suppose almost everything has itsuse, but I do not know that there has been discovered any use for the thorn and the brier. So has it been with many of us, and it is so with some of you tonight. What have you done for God? Twenty years, young man, have brought you to maturity, but what quit-rent has the Almighty ever received from you? Perhaps 40 years have ripened your manhood, but, hitherto, what songs of praise have gone up to Heaven from you? What acceptable fruits have you laid upon God’s altar? You are His vineyard–what ripe grapes have ever come to Him from you? He has dug about you. He has protected you by the wall of His Providence and watched over you with tender care. How is it that when He looks for grapes, you bring forth only wild grapes? When He expects to have some return for the talent which He has committed to your care, how is it that you have wrapped it in a napkin and have hidden your Lord’s money? You have been useless–not exactly so to your fellow men–your children have received your care–you have been, perhaps, some help to your neighbors and to your friends. But, as far as God is concerned, the natural man is perfectly useless! He brings no harvest to the great Owner of the ground. Did I say, just now, you were 40 years old? What if there should be, in this place, some unconverted person of sixty, seventy, or even eighty? And all these years, in vain has the light of Heaven shone for you! In vain has the Divine long-suffering said, “Spare him yet another year.” In vain the preaching of God’s Word to you and all the ordinances of His House–you are still bare, leafless, fruitless! You have only lived unto yourself and you have in nowise glorified your Creator and your Preserver. You are a thorn and a brier! Yet be of good comfort–if you have a heart for better things, God can make you into the fir tree and the myrtle that yield genial shade and gladden the gardens of the Lord! He can yet transform your uselessness into true service and take you from among the idlers in the market to go and work actively and with success in His vineyard!

The thorn, too, wastes the genial influences which, falling upon good wheat, would have produced a harvest. The rain fell today, but it fell upon thorns and briers as well as upon the green blades of the wheat. The dews will weep and they will fall quite as copiously upon the thickly tangled thistles and matted briers as upon the cottager’s well-weeded garden. And when the sun shines out with cheering ray, he will have rays quite as genial for the thistle and for the briers as for the fruit trees and for the barley and the wheat. So it is with you unconverted men and women! You have received God’s daily favors in as great abundance as the righteous have. No, perhaps you have had even more! You have been sitting, clothed in fine linen, like Dives, while God’s own saints have been rotting at your gates, like Lazarus. You have not pined for lack of the outward influences of the means of Grace. Some of you are sermon-hearers. You are constantly within God’s gates. You frequent the place where the proclamation of mercy is freely made. Your Bibles are not unknown to you and yet, all this has been wasted on you. Are you not near unto cursing? Visited by daily favor, rebuked by conscience, awakened at times by the natural motion of your own heart, awakened by God’s Spirit, awed under His Word and yet, for all this, you are aliens from the commonwealth of Israel! Yet despair not! If your souls seek after better things, God is able to transform these wasteful thorns, these briers that bear no fruit into fig trees that shall shower their luscious fruit all around!

It was a foolish saying of a certain preacher that the tares would never become wheat–what business had he to strain Christ’s parable? This I know–the brier can become a myrtle and the thistle can become a fir tree by Divine Grace! Did the man mean to deny the possibility of conversion? Did he mean to say that Almighty Grace could not turn the lion into a lamb, the raven into a dove? If so, he uttered a direct blasphemy, for there is no miracle of Grace which God cannot perform! He can take the black lumps of ebony and make them alabaster! He can cast the tree of the Cross into Marah’s bitter waters and make them sweet as the water of the well of Bethlehem for which David thirsted! He can take the poison out of the asp and the sting out of the cockatrice–and make them serviceable to God and man! The camel can go through the needle’s eye! Know for sure that nothing is too hard for the Lord! He can accomplish whatever He pleases.

To continue our remarks upon the thorn and its transformation into the fir tree–Is not the thorn a hurtful thing?It rends and tears the passers-by. Sometimes, if I would pursue my path straight across to yonder point, I must break through a hedge of briers–and how often has the Christian been tormented and torn by the thorns of the ungodly? Let the age of martyrs tell how God’s saints have had their flesh torn from their bones by these thorns and briers! And let a weeping mother tell how her son has broken her heart and turned her hair prematurely gray. And let a sorrowing wife tell how an ungodly husband has sent her to her chamber with briny tears streaming from her eyes. And let us all tell how sometimes our ungodly relatives have made our hearts beat fast with dread anxiety for them! Lot cannot live in Sodom without being vexed and David cannot sojourn in Mesech without crying, “Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!” But remember, however much you have persecuted God’s saints, however harshly you may have dealt with the followers of Christ, the Lord is able to transform you into one of them! Paul little thought, when he was riding to Damascus, that it would be so with him. He had his precious documents all safe. “I will harass the Nazarenes,” he seemed to say. “I will bring them to the whipping post. I will drag them out of the synagogue and compel them to blaspheme!” Little do you know, Paul, that you shall soon bend the knee to that very Jesus of Nazareth whom you hate! A light shines about him, brighter than the noonday sun! He falls from his horse. He hears a voice which says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” Them meekly he asks, “Who are You, Lord?” And the answer comes, “I am Jesus whom you persecute: it is hard for you to kick against the pricks.” Ah, Sinner, perhaps you do not know that you arepersecuting Jesus. You think that it is only your child, or your wife, or your mother. But, in persecuting the members of the body of Christ, you persecute the Head! Saul of Tarsus is lead by the hand to Damascus and, after his conversion, who is more bold than he? The preacher upon Mars' Hill, the witness before Nero, the aged man of God sitting in the dungeon, the child of God with his head upon the block–this is the man who persecuted the saints of God–but is now full of zeal above all others for the spread of the knowledge of Christ! The thorn is turned into a fir tree and the brier into a myrtle tree.

Nor have I yet exhausted the figure. The thorn sows its own seed and when the winds blows they bear upon theirwings the thistledown–and the seed is dropped here and there and everywhere! You cannot keep thistles to themselves. If you grow them in your own garden, they will be in your neighbor’s garden before long. And if your neighbor grows them, it will be difficult for you to keep them out of your plot. And here is the worst point about an unconverted man. If you have been doing mischief, your children grow up in your own image, or your servants imitate their master. If you are an unscrupulous trader, you assist to make other traders, if not palpably dishonest, yet scandalously lax. Your language pollutes the air you breathe. Or if you keep that tolerably right, your sentiments are not without their influence upon your fellow men. You live not unto yourselves. If you were to lead a hermit’s life, your very absence from society would have its influence. If you are literally a leper, I may shut you up and make you cover your lips and cast ashes on your head and cry, “Unclean! Unclean!” but with your spiritual leprosy, I cannot so seclude you. You will taint the air whereveryou go–it is not possible for you to do otherwise than to spread pollution round about you. O thorn, seed-sowing thorn, my God change you!

Do I tonight address some infidel who has been very earnest in the propagation of his views? How would my heart leap if the Lord would make you just as earnest in lifting up the Cross upon which you have trampled! He can do it! I pray God that He may. Do I speak tonight to one who has been furiously set against the things of God? Brethren, the worst of sinners make the best of saints! And if the Lord shall please to touch you, you shall be just as hot for Him as you now are against Him. He that has much forgiven shall love much. No one could break an alabaster box of precious ointment but the woman who was a sinner. John Bunyan used to say that he believed there would be a great band of saints in the next generation, for his own generation was noted for its many great sinners and he did hope that as these great sinners grew up, God would transform them into great saints. We could mention many names of men who have been, as it were, the devil’s sergeants, but who, when God has once transformed them into His own soldiers, have made most blessed recruiting sergeants for the Kingdom of Christ. Look at John Newton, John Bunyan and other men of that stamp–and see what Sovereign Grace can do in similar cases.

Yet once more. I cannot help remarking that it was the thorn and the brier that composed the crown that pierced theSavior’s temples. And it is our sins, our cruel sins, that have been His chief tormentors. Every soul that lives without Christ, after having heard of Him, is piercing Christ’s temples afresh. When you think that He is unwilling to forgive you, that ungenerous thought wounds Him more than anything else. And when you speak ill of His name–when you slander His people and despise His saints, what are you doing but plaiting another crown of thorns to put upon His head? Yet you, you who have pierced the Savior’s brow, you can yet become a myrtle to crown that brow with victory! The Savior, having fought for you and won you–having bought you with His heart’s blood–will put you as a wreath about His brow “and it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not, be cut off.” The meaning of the whole is that God does, by the power of the Gospel, transform His enemies into His friends. He turns men from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to the Kingdom of Christ, from being possessed with devils to become full of the Holy Spirit, from being a den of dragons, full of sin, to be temples where every Grace shall shine to reflect the Glory of the Most High. Some of you can bear witness to this as a matter of experience–others of you contemplate it with strong desire.

II. Secondly, we are to consider HOW THIS TRANSFORMATION IS WORKED IN MEN.

It is worked by the secret and mysterious agency of God the Holy Spirit. Certainly, dear Friends, it can never beworked in us by the power of man! Let us tremble if our religion rests upon any man, for that is a poor, unstable foundation. I learn each day more and more my utter inability to do good to my fellow men apart from the Spirit of God. There come to me, sometimes, cases that completely stagger me. I try, for instance, to comfort a broken heart. I seek, but in vain, all sorts of metaphors to make the Truth of God clear. I quote the promises, bow the knee in prayer and yet, after all, the poor troubled spirit has to go away still unbelieving, for only God can give it faith! There are other cases where we know of men who have lived in sin and God has been pleased to put His afflicting hand upon them and we do not know what to say to them. They profess repentance, but we fear it is only remorse. They talk of faith in Christ, but we are afraid it is a delusion. We would convince them of sin if we could. We remind them of the past and they give an assent to every sentence we utter against them, but yet they feel not the evil of their own ways. Oh, it is hard work to deal with sinners! It needs a sharper tool than man can keep in his toolbox. Only God Himself can break hearts–and when they are broken–only the same hand that broke them can bind them up.

It is the Holy Spirit, then, who is everywhere in the midst of His Church, who comes forth and puts Himself into direct contact with a human spirit and, straightway, a change is affected. I cannot tell you with what part of man the Holy Spirit begins, but this I can tell you–He changes the whole man! The judgment no longer takes darkness for light and light for darkness! The will is no longer obstinately set against God but bows its neck to the yoke of Christ! The affections are no longer set upon sinful pleasure, but they are set upon Christ! It is true that corruption still remains in the heart, but a new heart and a right spirit are given. There is put into the quickened soul a living Seed which cannot sin because it is born of God–a living Seed which lives and abides forever! “I don’t know,” said one, “whether the world is a new world, or whether I am a new creature, but it is one of the two, for, ‘old things are passed away, and all things are become new.’” When Christ descends into the human heart to reign, He seems to take this motto, “Behold, I make all things new.” Therefore is “a new Heaven and a new earth, wherein dwells righteousness,” within that poor sinner’s heart! It is a complete change. You will observe that it is not the thorn, somewhat trimmed and pruned–it is not the brier made to grow upon a wall and trained into order–that is reformation. But it is the thorn turned into a fir tree–this is a perfect re-creation, a making anew of the man and this happens to everyone of us, by the power and energy of the Divine Spirit, or else in the garden of the Lord we shall never bloom, nor ought we to join the Church of God on earth, for we have no part nor lot in the matter.

But, while I have said that it is the Spirit who works this change, you are enquiring by what means He does it. If youwill kindly refer to the chapter from which my text is taken, you will observe that the Lord Jesus has to do with it–“Behold, I have given Him for a Witness to the people, a Leader and Commander to the people.” That verse comes before my texts. We must know Christ before we can ever be changed. Some people think they are to change themselves and thencome to Christ. Oh, no! Come to Jesus just as you are! It is the work of His Spirit to change you. You are not to work a miracle and then come to show the miracle to Christ, but you are to come to Chris to have the miracle worked. It is Christ’s work to begin with the sinner as the sinner, even as the Good Samaritan did with the man who fell among thieves. He did not wait for him to be cured before he helped him, but he poured oil and wine into his wounds, lifted him upon his beast, and then carried him to the inn. And Christ is able to save to the uttermost all who come unto God by Him.

But the chapter seems to teach another lesson. You say, “I know that the Holy Spirit brings Christ home to the heart and conscience, but how am I to get at Christ?” The chapter tells you. It says that God’s Word shall not return unto Him void. The way by which Christ is discovered and found by a sinner is by Christ being preached to him! “Hear , and yoursoul shall live.” That is the Gospel! The way by which Christ comes into the soul is through Ear-gate. “Satan tries to stop up Ear-gate with mud,” says John Bunyan. But, oh, it is a glorious thing when God clears away the mud of prejudice so that men are willing to hear the Truth of God! There was an old man, a member of this Church, who used to preach every Sunday in Billingsgate. Many persons tried to begin a controversy with him, but he was an old soldier in more senses than one and his answer, when anybody tried to dispute or enter into an argument with him, was, “‘Hear, and your soul shall live!’ I have not come to argue, but to preach the Truth of God–‘Hear, and your soul shall live.’” That was a plain answer, sure enough!

Now you know that simple trust in Christ is all that He asks of you–and even that He gives you. ‘Tis the work ofHis own Spirit. Hear this, then, you thorns and briers, before God sets Himself in battle array against you–before His fires devour you! Hear the gentle notes of a Father’s heart as He speaks in Gospel invitations to you, “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” “Ho, everyone that thirsts, come you to the waters.” May you all be brought there! May God’s Grace bring you all to lay hold on Christ!


To whose honor shall so beneficial a change accrue? “It shall be to the Lord for a name.” As soon as that great sinnergets converted, it makes a buzz and a noise in the workshop where he goes. “What?” they ask, “has that wretch become a saint?” He used to curse, but, “Behold, he prays!” He could drink with the drunk, but now he walks in the fear of God “in all temperance and sobriety.” He could not be trusted, but now temptation cannot turn him from his integrity. The name of Christ at one time brought the blood into his cheeks, but now–

“Sweeter sounds than music knows
Charm him in Immanuel’s name.”

I say there is a buzz about the workshop–the men say to one another, “What is the meaning of this? How came this about.” And though they hate the change, yet they gaze at it and admire it. They cannot understand it. They are like the magicians of Egypt–they cannot do these things with their enchantment and, therefore, they are compelled to say, “This is the finger of God.” If God converts some ordinary sinners, He does not get half as much glory out of them as He does out of these extraordinary ones. The man whose vile character was known in a whole parish, whose name was foul in the court where he lived, who had acquired a reputation for evil in the whole district–when this thorn becomes a fir tree, then everyone wonders! If I had in my garden a great brier which had once torn my hands, but one day when I walked down I saw, instead of that briar, a fir tree growing and a genial shade could be enjoyed under its branches, how astonished I would be! I would naturally ask, “Who has done this? Who could have transformed this brier into a fir tree?” And so, when a great sinner is converted, the finger of God is recognized and God is glorified! Even the ungodly are compelled to honor the name of the Most High when other ungodly ones are saved!

And then as to the church, the members are, perhaps, at first rather shy and cannot believe it is true. They hear thathe who once persecuted the Brothers and Sisters, now professes the name of their Master and, at last, they get good evidence of the truth of it–and oh, what hallowed glee there is among the sons of God! There is a church meeting and he comes forward to confess his faith–they know how foully he has erred and they rejoice to see him brought back again. There may be one “elder brother” who is angry and will not come in but, for the most part, the household is very glad when the prodigal returns! And chief in joy among you all, when such a scene occurs, is the one who has preached the Gospel to you. Oh, the joy of my soul when some of you were brought to Christ! I remember the cheering nights I had and how I went to my house rejoicing and triumphant in my God because of some of you! You were once foul, “but you are washed, but you are sanctified, but you are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” And truly, there would be more of such joy if others were brought in! Some of the best of the members of this Church are those who were brands plucked out of the burning. May we have more such sinners saved by the blood of Jesus!

Nor is this all. There was an angel present when the deed was done. They are always present in the assemblies of thesaints–hence it is that the women have their heads covered –“because of the angels.” If no one else could see it, yet theangels, who cover their faces when they bow before God, would have us come into His Presence in decency and in order. This angel hears us weep–a stream of light ascends to the regions of the blessed. Straightway the bliss spreads throughout the celestial field and, as the news is propagated, “A prodigal has returned, another heir of Glory is born,” they take their harps and tune their strings anew! They bow with great reverence! They sing with loftier joy! They shout with more glorious praise, “Unto Him that loved the souls of men and washed them in His blood, to Him be glory, and honor, and power, and dominion, forever and ever!” And thus the songs of Heaven are swollen, made more deep, more mighty with tumultuous joy by sinners saved on earth! Yes, they tell it in Heaven that the thorn-brake has become a grove of firs, that the brier has become a myrtle and what, shall I dare to say? –even the Divine Trinity break forth injoy. Their joy cannot be increased, for God over all is “blessed forever.” But still, it is written, “He will rest in His love, He will joy over you with singing.” Is it not said that when the prodigal was yet a long way off, his father saw him? Can it be that among the servants and friends there was joy and none in the father’s heart? Impossible! The Eternal God, Jehovah, Himself, views with delight the chosen of His heart! Jesus sees the purchase of His blood! The Spirit sees the result of His own power and so, up to the very Throne of God, the impulse of a sinner saved is felt! She came from the brothel. He came from the prison and yet even Heaven thrills with the news! She had defiled herself with sin. He had polluted others with his crimes and yet angels tune their harps to Jehovah’s praise because of them! Was that prophetic when the woman broke the alabaster box and filled the house with the perfume? Was that prophetic of what every repentant sinner does when his broken heart fills Heaven and earth with the sweet perfume of joy because he is saved? And when she washed the Savior’s feet and wiped them with the hair of her head, was that also prophetic? Did that show how Jesus gets His greatest honor, His purest love, His fairest worship and His sweetest solace from sinners saved by blood? I think it was so. May He get such joy from us! Truly Jesus died for me and, at the foot of His Cross, I now stand weeping to tell of His true love to sinners! And O poor Sinner, Christ is able to save you! Whomever comes to Him, He will in no wise cast out. Oh, that you would come! May Sovereign Grace compel you to come in!

I sat, this afternoon, looking at one with a withered countenance and a sunken cheek, marked out for death, once a member of this Church, but foully fallen and gone far astray. And I remember two or three of his age, once also professors who, strange to say, also went away from God as he did. When I talked to him about the Lord and His infinite compassion, I could but have in my mind’s eye the prodigal who wasted his substance with riotous living, and yet his father did not spurn him, did not even rebuke him, but he–

“–was to his Father’s bosom pressed,
Once again a child confessed,
From his house no more to roam.”

And I thought I would say to you tonight–

“Come and welcome, Sinner, come.”

Do not think that God is harsh. Think not that Christ is not tender. There is no breast so soft as His, no heart so deeply full of sympathy. He cries over the very worst of you, “How shall I give you up, Ephraim? How shall I deliver you, Israel? How shall I make you as Admah? How shall I set you as Zeboim? My heart is turned within Me. My repentings are kindled together. I cannot destroy you, for I am God, and not man.” Oh, shall my Savior plead with you in vain? Shall the tears of Jesus fall to the ground? Shall the love of God have no attracting influence? Shall not Mercy, as it rings its silver bell, draw you to the feast of love? Oh, why will you die? Is sin so sweet that you will suffer for it forever? Are the trifles of this world so important in your estimation that you will lose Heaven and Eternal Life? I pray you “seek the Lord while He may be found: call you upon Him while He is near,” and think not that He will reject you, for “He will abundantly pardon.” Oh, may He do this tonight!–

“My God, I feel the mournful scene!
My heart yearns over dying men
And gladly my pity would reclaim
And snatch the firebrands from the flame!
But feeble my compassion proves,
And can but weep where most it loves–
Your own all-saving arm employ,
And turn these drops of grief to joy!”

O Lord, do it, for You can! Come forth, O Jesus! Mount Your chariot! Hell shakes at Your majesty. Heaven adores Your Presence–earth cannot resist you! Gates of brass fly open and bars of iron are snapped. Come, Conqueror, and ride through the streets of this city and through the hearts of all of us, and they shall be Yours, “and it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” May God command His blessing on you, for Jesus' sake! Amen.