If So—What Then?
“If the righteous are scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?”
1 Peter 4:18
SOME people suppose that it is a very easy thing to be saved, but our Lord said, “Strive ("Agonize” is the original word) to enter in at the strait gate, for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in and shall not be able.“ When men hear a simple Gospel sermon of which the pith and marrow is the great soul-saving message, "Believe and live,” they say, “If it is such a simple matter, will not all believe?” But the Prophet Isaiah spoke not so, for his sad inquiry was, “Who has believed our report ("our doctrine” is the marginal reading)?“ Faith seems so easy that one might ask, "Where will it not be found? But our Savior thought not so, for He asked, "When the Son of Man comes, shall He find faith on the earth?” He who knows where to look for it and who has the quickest eyes to discern it, asks whether He shall be able to find, anywhere on the earth, that scarce thing called faith–“the faith of God’s elect.” Believe me that though “the wayof holiness” is so plain that “the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein,” yet on account of the hardness of our hearts, it is no easy thing for any of us to enter that way and to continue in it until it leads us to our everlasting Home above.
I do not intend to keep strictly to my text, but to give you the meaning of it in this way. First, here is a fact stated–“The righteous are scarcely saved.” Then, secondly, there is an inference drawn from that fact–if they are truly savedwith great difficulty, “where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” When we have considered that inference, we shall take the liberty to draw two other inferences which may afford us further instruction.
- First, then, HERE IS A FACT STATED–“The righteous are scarcely saved.” That is to say, they are only saved with great difficulty. This is not because there is any deficiency in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, or any lack of efficacy in His atoning Sacrifice, or in His intercession for transgressors. God be thanked that there is no difficulty there!It is not through any lack of power to save on the part of the Holy Spirit. Nor is it through any failure of God’s faithfulness that “the righteous” are only saved with great difficulty. But it is for two reasons which I will now give you.
The first reason is, because of the strictness of Divine rule. Read the first clause of the verse preceding our text–“The time is come that judgment must begin at the House of God.” And that judgment is so severe that even “the righteous are scarcely saved.” When Christ comes even to His own people, He comes to purge and purify them. The Prophet Malachi wrote concerning His first coming, “He is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers' soap; and He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; and He shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.” John the Baptist said, concerning Christ, “He that comes after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire: whose fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His floor, and gather His wheat into the garner; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Judgment must always “begin at the House of God” and there is, as good Archbishop Leighton very properly says, both “equity and congruity in such an arrangement.” There is equity in it, for Christians profess to be better than others and so they ought to be. They say they are regenerate, so they ought to be regenerate. They say that they are a holy people, separated unto Christ, so they ought to be holy and separate from sinners, as He was. It is right that where there is a high calling and an honored name, there should be a life proving the accuracy of these two things. So, when God begins to test that which professes to be gold and silver, who can say that He does not begin His testing at the right place, and with the right material? There is also a congruity or fitness in this arrangement. The Church of God is His house–and where does a man begin cleansing and reforming? Why, in his own house, of course! He might perhaps feel that he must have some filth in the farmyard, but not in his own sitting-room! There may be much evil abroad that he cannot remove, yet he can begin cleaning up at home. If we want to do any good in reforming the world, the very first duty for each of us is to begin reforming at home– and the Lord, when He means to clear away the dross, begins at home by setting up His “fire in Zion and His furnace in Jerusalem.”
The tests to which God subjects those who profess to be His people are not easy ones. When His fan is in His hand, woe be unto those who are “like the chaff which the wind drives away.” The Lord says, by the mouth of the Prophet Amos, “I will sift the house of Israel among all nations, like as corn is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not the least grain fall upon the earth.” Nor shall an atom of chaff be left in the sieve. When Omnipotence and Omniscience unite to sift the chaff from the wheat, you may depend upon it that the sifting will be thoroughly done! There is also the testing by fire. And if any are not able to endure that test, “reprobate silver shall men call them because the Lord has rejected them.” Then God will weigh us–we shall be put into the balances of the sanctuary and if we are found wanting, how terrible it will be! We often judge by appearances, but God looks at the heart. We may be deceived by the outward profession, but God sees what is within. He looks for the Truth in our inward parts and in our hidden parts there must be the true Wisdom or else we are not saved.
Now, dear Friends, as the tests are so severe, you see how it is that the righteous are only saved with difficulty. Oh, if I may but come out of that scale full weight, if I may but come out of that fire as pure gold, if I may but remain with the wheat in that sieve and not be blown away with the chaff, I shall bless God forever and ever that I was saved, even though it was with great difficulty!
Further, the experience of all Christians proves that the work of Grace in their hearts is not easily accomplished andthat their pilgrimage to Heaven is full of difficulties. At the very beginning of the Christian life, some find it hard to lay hold on Christ. We truly sing or say–
“There is life for a look at the Crucified One.”
Yet there was a time when I felt that I would gladly give my life in exchange for that look! Easy as it seems to be to cast ourselves into the Savior’s arms, there are Satanic doubts, evil questionings, and fierce temptations that cause even that simple act to be accomplished only with great difficulty. Indeed, wherever it is accomplished, it is a miracle of Divine Mercy and in every case saving faith is “the gift of God.”
Then, how difficult it is to overcome the flesh! Are you a Believer in the Lord Jesus Christ? Then I need not ask whether you find it so. You love holiness, yet unholiness tries hard to make you its slave. Perhaps it is a fiery temper that is your “thorn in the flesh,” or some constitutional sin, or some lust that you thought had been subdued. You may have said, with David, “My feet were almost gone; my steps had well-near slipped.” And I know that if your life is that of a true child of God, you have to fight hard in order to “put off the old man with his deeds,” and to lead a godly life in the midst of this ungodly generation.
The temptations that assail you from without are equally hard to overcome. There are temptations of wealth and temptations of poverty–temptations to turn aside to the right or to the left–and it is not easy to keep to the middle of the King’s highway and to walk in the footprints of Jesus who has left us an example that we should follow His steps. When the world, the flesh and the devil combine to assail us–if the Lord does not cover our head in the day of battle, how can we gain the victory? With some Christians it is a very hard struggle from day to day, and even from hour to hour–and then we are like Mr. Stand-Fast who, when he was in what Bunyan calls the Enchanted Ground, was assailed by Madam Bubble and who could do nothing but fall on his knees and cry to God for help! There are many of us who have felt like that and who, in the bitterness of our agony, have had to cry to God to help us, for it is only with difficulty that we are saved. I can say, with good John Fawcett–
“Temptations everywhere annoy,
And sins and snares my peace destroy.
My earthly joys are from me torn,
And oft an absent God I mourn.
My soul, with various tempests tossed,
Her hopes overturned, her projects crossed,
Sees every day new straits attend,
And wonders where the scene will end.
Is this, dear Lord, that thorny road
Which leads us to the Mount of God?
Are these the toils Your people know,
While in the wilderness below?
‘Tis even so, Your faithful love
Does thus Your children’s graces prove–
'Tis thus our pride and self must fall,
That Jesus may be All-in-All.”
How difficult is it for a true Christian even to perform necessary duties in a humble and holy spirit! It is a simple matter to pray–it is just going, like a child, to tell God all that you feel and all that you need. Yet I ask you, Christian, whether you do not sometimes find it hard work to pray? When you are on your knees, all sorts of cares come buzzing about you, like so many hornets. You want to wrestle with God as Jacob did, but you find that your wrestling has to be with the devil! I know what it is to long to pray when I cannot find a prayer in my soul! I make this confession because I believe there are many of God’s people who get into that state. And, moreover, I know that we often pray best when we think we are not praying. Perhaps those groans that come from the lowest depths of our spirit when we think we are not groaning at all are just the most potent prayers that ever reach the Throne of God! But there are seasons when one can only say, “May the Holy Spirit feel for me what I cannot feel, and utter for me what I cannot speak, and do for me what I cannot perform!”
And if such ordinary acts of devotion are so difficult, how much more difficult is it to reach gracious attainments in the Divine life! If any of your graces come to you very easily, suspect whether they are genuine, for in the Christian life, all that is worth having has to be fought for in stern conflict. So determined are the powers of darkness to prevent the Christian pilgrim from entering the Celestial City that all the way to Heaven will be more or less a Hill of Difficulty. You will have to go often upon your hands and knees because the road is so rough and the ascent is so steep that you cannot advance in any other way. We would be holy as God is holy, but there is another law in our members warring against the law of our renewed minds. God knows that we yearn after perfection but, alas, like the bird that would gladly fly, there is something that holds us down! Many of you have seen an eagle in a cage and you know how he looks up with those bright eyes of his that were made to gaze into the sun! If he stretches his wings and tries to fly, he only wounds himself against the bars of his cage and, oh, what wounds some of us have had when in our aspirations after better things, to will has been present with us, but how to perform that which we would, we found not! Often have I had to cry, with Paul, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Yes, it is hard work for any of us to get to Heaven. God, the Eternal Spirit, helps us to overcome our infirmities, but we are often made to feel those infirmities and to confess that our weakness is no match for the strength of sin–and to admit that were it not for God Himself, we should certainly perish after all. I delight to sing with holy John Newton–
“Beyond a doubt, I rest assured
You are the Christ of God!
Who has eternal life secured
By promise and by blood.
The help of men and angels joined
Could never reach my case,
Nor can I hope relief to find
But in Your boundless Grace!”
Do you not, dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, sometimes feel how hard it is for you to be saved when you put your soul before the tribunal of your own enlightened conscience? Our own conscience, at the best, is a poor partial judge compared with the impartial and Infallible Judge who will, by-and-by, sit upon the Great White Throne. Yet I ask any Christian here who is really aware of his own frailties and infirmities–when he comes seriously to take stock of himself, whether he finds any reason in himself for glorying? I have turned over my sermons and my many labors for the Lord, but there is scarcely one of them that I dare to think of without tears–they are all marred by sin and imperfection! As I think of every act I have ever done for God, I can only cry, “O God, forgive the iniquity of my holy things!” But what about our unholy things? Brothers and Sisters, look well to the evidences of your new birth. And as you examine them, see if you do not have to say with the Prophet, “We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” If so, then let each one of us pray with penitent David, “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean. Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” If we are really God’s people, it is a great consolation for us to know that–notwithstanding our many infirmities and iniquities, our many anxieties and doubts and fears as to whether, after all, we have been self-deceived or devil-deceived–God will never forsake us!
II. This must suffice concerning the fact that Christians are only saved with great difficulty. Now, secondly, let us consider THE INFERENCE FROM THAT FACT.
Peter says, “If the righteous are scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” By which he means, I think, first, that if even the righteous are so severely tested, what short work will God make with the unrighteous–if thewheat must thus be winnowed, how certainly will the chaff be destroyed–if the gold must pass through the fire, how assuredly will the dross be consumed! The God who tries and tests the best will certainly not wink at the worst.
He means next, I think, that
if “the righteous” only attain to felicity with great difficulty, “the ungodly and the
sinner" can never attain to it. Suppose there has been a terrible storm on a rock-bound coast. The lifeboat has gone out and the men have nobly done their duty and saved many precious lives. But as each man leaps ashore, he says, “I was never before out in such a storm. It is only by the merciful Providence of God that we were able to get back.” When the people on the shore see that even the lifeboat so narrowly escaped destruction, they naturally ask, “What must become of those poor leaky and unseaworthy boats that are hardly fit to be in a mill pond?” Or imagine a river, full of sandbanks, with a channel that twists and turns in a tortuous fashion–and there is a vessel on it with an experienced pilot on board–yet even he is very anxious and is constantly heaving the lead, and frequently going at half-speed, or stopping altogether! Now, if a steamer with a good pilot on board can scarcely get up the river, what will happen to a small sailboat, in the charge of a reckless drunk, who scarcely steers at all, but lets the boat drift wherever it will? Why, it must be lost! So, if “the vessels of mercy…before prepared unto glory,” on which Christ is the Pilot, barely escape the rocks and quicksands, what must be the end of “the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction” which have no pilot on board and drift here and there at the mercy of winds and waves? If there is a great conflagration in the city and there is a massive stone structure with iron girders which the firemen can only save from destruction with great difficulty, what will be the fate of a wooden house, covered with pitch and tar and full of oil? If a man who has built for eternity upon Christ, the only true Foundation–and who has built, not with gold, silver and precious stones, but with wood, hay and stubble–if such a man “shall be saved, yet so as by fire,” what will become of the sinner who is only like a dry log fitted for the everlasting burning?
My text does not tell us where “the ungodly and the sinner” will appear. This is one of the unanswered questions ofScripture–“Where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” So I shall scarcely speak of that dreadful place where our Savior says, “There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” “where their worm dies not and the fire is not quenched.” These metaphors, terrible as they are in their grim suggestiveness, are only faint images of the awful reality! And I again remind you that they are the words of Him to Whom we teach our children to pray–
“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child.”
In Psalm 50:22 there is this dreadful Divine warning, “Consider this, you that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.” If it is difficult for a Christian to be saved–and I have shown you that it is–where shall you who are not God’s people, you who have no Christ, you who have no Holy Spirit to guide you–where shall you appear?The Apostle Paul wrote, “I keep my body under and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” If Paul entered Heaven with difficulty, where will you be? MartinLuther’s biography tells us that he was the subject of grievous doubts, depressions and soul anxieties. So, if he only reached Heaven as a sinner saved by Grace, where will you be who know nothing experimentally of the Grace of God? IfJohn Knox, after serving his God so faithfully that his epitaph truly says, “Here lies a man who in his life never feared the face of man”–if he, on his deathbed, found it hard to cherish a hope of Heaven–what will you do who despise Christ'smercy and riot in sin?
Before I close, I want to draw two other inferences. The first is this–IF THE RIGHTEOUS ARE ONLY SAVED WITH DIFFICULTY, WHAT ABOUT THOSE PEOPLE WHO ARE “SAVED” SO VERY EASILY? It looks as if they were not righteous, does it not? Perhaps there is a man here who is like Bunyan’s Formalist. This is his hope–“I was ‘christened’ when I was a child, I was confirmed as a youth, I attend my church and take the ‘sacrament’ regularly.” Or he may say, “I regularly attend chapel.” He says, “Don’t talk to me about anxieties as to my state–I have no such anxieties.” No, I expect you have not, but if you have no doubts about yourself, permit me to have my doubts about you!And let me go a great deal further than doubts and solemnly tell you that a hope founded on ceremonies will lead to your “everlasting destruction from the Presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”
There may be another who says, “I have made a profession of religion, but I never have any questions about whether I am saved or not. I pray–in a fashion. As to praising God, I always could sing and I believe I am about as right as I can be. I don’t see any cause for distressing myself.” Yes, Friend, but let me remind you that there is a great difference between presumption and “full assurance of faith.” There is also a very great difference between believing that you are saved and being really saved!
Possibly there is another who says, “I believe I am one of God’s elect and that I am quite safe.” Well, Friend, if it is so, no one is more thankful than I am. But if that is your only hope of salvation and you have never been born-again and know nothing of the new life with its anxieties and joys, I would not give a bent pin for your hope of Heaven! And the sooner you get rid of it, the better. A dead fish finds no difficulty in floating down the stream–it is only the living fish that can swim against the current. The broad road is very smooth and there is a good deal of company on it–but it leads to destruction. There are few in the narrow way and many difficulties there–but it leads to eternal life. You say that you never know any changes. No, nor do the statues in St. Paul’s Cathedral. There they stand, year after year, upon their marble pedestals because they are dead–and you are the same. “But I never have to fight that battle of which you have been speaking.” No, of course not, because the world and you are friends! And because you are of the world, the world loves its own. If you were a stranger and a foreigner in this world, you would be treated as strangers and foreigners are in an inhospitable country.
I will draw only one more inference from our text and that is a very comforting one. THE RIGHTEOUS ARE ONLY SAVED WITH DIFFICULTY–THEN TEMPTED SOULS MAY BE SAVED. That Truth of God has given me comfort when I have thought, “Well, it is difficult for me to be saved, then it appears that I am numbered with the righteous and that I am on the right road.” “Oh, Sir,” says a poor sinner here, “I am glad you said that. I hope I have cast myself wholly upon the Lord Jesus Christ and I thought I was going to have peace always, but, instead of that, ever since I have believed, or thought I had believed, I have had more fights in my soul than I ever had before.” Well, the righteous are only saved with difficulty, so do not be depressed. “But I have been more tempted than I ever was before and it seems, Sir, as if everybody is against me and tries to drive me back. I thought I should find cheerful companions who would help me on the road to Heaven, but I seem to be alone in an enemy’s land.” My dear Brother, it is always so with the righteous–no strange thing has happened to you. “But, Sir,” says one, “horrible thoughts and terrible blasphemies arise in my mind even when I try to pray. And I say to myself, ‘If I were a child of God, could it be thus with me?’” Dear Friend, be comforted! Satan is afraid of losing you, so he is putting out all his force to try to hold you. Now that you are a Christian, you are a target for all the devil’s fiery darts, so do not be astonished–this is the lot of the people of God! When a man has been drowning, I have heard that his sensations have often been very pleasant, but when the circulation of the blood commences again, pain begins at once and the more pain he suffers, the more surely is he being restored to life! It is just so with the spiritual blood that is circulating in your soul. You are not dead, so you smart and suffer because you are alive. If you imagine that the moment you believe, your battle is over, you make a great mistake–your battle has only just begun and because while really trusting in Jesus, you have battles, contentions, difficulties and troubles, conclude that, therefore, you are a child of God!
Remember this, if the righteous are only saved with great difficulty, they would never be saved if they did not look right away from themselves to the Lord Jesus Christ. There lies the one hope for sinners and saints–in the finished work of the blessed Redeemer! “I know what you are at,” said a good man once to one who was doubting, “Christ has finished the work of salvation, but you are not content with what He has done, so you want to patch it up with something of your own.” Come sinners and come saints, back to the foot of that dear Cross where Jesus bought with His own blood the souls of all who believe in Him! let us throw ourselves prostrate before Him and say, “You are all our confidence, our only hope and our full salvation forever and ever. Save us, O Savior! We are sinners and You are the sinners' Friend–save us now and we shall be saved forever!” Amen, so let it be!