by John Nelson Darby
It is a wonderfully blessed thing to have one who could so well manifest God, not only in His words, but in His works and ways, as the Lord Jesus.
We may look at our sins, as a question to be judged of in the light of righteousness before God; and most important it is. But still, in one sense, God moves above all the evil, and asserts His right to show what He is. And blessed it is for us that God will be God in spite of sin. God is love; and if He will be God, He must be love in spite of all the reasonings and murmurings of the heart of man against Him. God will act upon (what I may call) the feelings of His heart and make them find their way into the hearts of men. And this is the reason there is such a freshness in certain passages of the word of God, however often we recur to them; because God especially reveals Himself in them. God never fails; the moment He speaks and reveals Himself, we have always the full blessedness of what He is. It is Himself who has come forth with power to our hearts-the blessed God. He will take no character from man. He has to deal with sin, and show what it is, and how He has put it away; but still above and through all He will manifest Himself. Now this is where our hearts get rest. We have the privilege to have done with ourselves in the house and bosom of God.
Man could not have borne the manifestation of God in the brightness of glory; so He hid it in grace in the person of the Son, of man. He clothed Himself in flesh; but the effect of the wicked and heartless reasonings of man’s corrupt judgment was this: -it forced Him to show Himself what He really was as God. When He presented Himself as Messiah, the Son of man, the fulfiller of the law and the like, this was not all the fullness of God. Man was always rejecting, and finding fault, and carping at certain things with which he could not agree; but, by thus pressing upon and urging Christ, man only forced Him to reveal Himself more fully, pressing out Him from what He really was.
In the chapters which exhibit this, the soul is arrested, and finds itself with unhesitating certainty in the presence of God Himself-in the presence of love. There we get rest and peace.
So in this chapter: He was forced to tell all the truth,-that God would be God. If there was that which could make God “merry and glad,” as it is expressed in the parable (and such was the case in the welcome of the poor prodigal son), He would have His own joy in spite of the objections of men. This is what men object to. They do not deny that He is going to judge men (I do not, of course, speak of professed infidels); nor, as a general principle, do they object to God’s being righteous, because their pride makes them think that they can meet Him on this ground. But the moment He comes to have all His own full joy, and to bring out that which is the joy of heaven, man begins to object. It must not be all of grace-not God dealing with publicans and sinners thus! And why not? Because what then becomes of man’s righteousness? Grace makes nothing of man’s righteousness; “there is no difference; for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Christ manifesting the light proved this; and man hated it. The thing that levels down the moral condition of man, and brings in grace to the sinner, is what man cannot bear. It is the setting up of what God is, and the putting down of man
What man is always seeking to do is to make a difference between the righteousness of one man and another, so that character may be sustained before men. In John 8 we read that Jesus had one brought before Him who by the law was worthy of being stoned-undeniably guilty-that He might deny either mercy or righteousness. They thought to place Him in this inextricable difficulty. If He should let her off, He would break the law of Moses; but should He say, “let her be stoned,” He would do no more than Moses did. How did He act? He let law and righteousness have all their course; but “he that is without sin amongst you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Conscience begins to work (not rightly, it is true, for their character was what they cared about; still it would speak); and they get out of the presence of light, because the light made manifest what they were-it proved them sinners. From the eldest to the youngest all went out. He that had the reputation of the longest standing was glad to be the first to go away from that eye which penetrated and detected what was within; and they left Jesus with the sinner alone. He would not execute the law, for He came not to judge; “neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more.” That which is produced here is light and love.
“Then drew near unto Him all the publicans and sinners to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.” And after all it may seem strange to many, that, if God did come down here, He should take no notice of the righteousness of man, but be found in the company of publicans and sinners. Why this would upset all the moral righteous thoughts of men! And this is what God has to do, because they are wrongly based.
These parables then chew with what sort of spirit grace is objected to. We have in them this great and blessed troth-God manifested.
” I will suppose,” it means, ” a man in the worst and vilest condition you please-one reduced to the degradation of feeding with swine: but then there is something still beyond all this that I am going to bring out, something which your natural hearts Ought to recognize-the father’s delight in receiving back a child. The father’s heart would justify itself in its own feelings of kindness, let the condition of the child be what it may.”
After sorrow of heart among men,-after the Lord Jesus had gone through the world and found no place where a really broken heart could rest (He could find proud morality, but no place where a poor wearied broken heart could find sympathy and rest, to open it and give it life), He goes on to show that what could not be found for man anywhere else could be found in God. This is so blessed! that, after all, the poor wearied heart, wearied with its ways, wearied with the world, can find rest in the blessedness of the bosom of the Father, and-what it could not do in any other place-tell itself out; now, that it has found God, it can; and this in truth of heart, too, as we read in Psa. 32-“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.” So long as I am afraid of being blamed, there is guile in the heart; but the moment that I know that all is forgiven, that nothing but love is drawn out by it,
I can tell out all to God. The only thing that produces “truth in the inward parts” is the grace that imputes nothing. This is the secret of God’s power in setting hearts right with Himself:-“there is forgiveness with thee that thou mayest be feared.” There is all the difference between finding a man flying from God by reason of his conscience, and his finding in God what in truth relieves and heals a conscience completely convicted. We cannot in our actual state, if under the law and acknowledging its righteousness, take it into our own hands. If I take the law to smite you, I must kill myself; it is too sharp to handle. The man who would stone the adulteress must put his own head under the weight of the blow. “O wretched man that I am!” If I am a man, I am undone.
We have three parables presented to us in this chapter. The source of that which is taught in them all is love.
1. The shepherd who sought the sheep that was lost.
2. The woman who sought the piece of money that was lost.
3. The father that received back again the prodigal son that was lost.
In the last it is not a question of seeking, but of the manner of receiving the son when he had come back. There is many a heart that longs to go back, but does not know how he will be received. The Lord Jesus says, that the grace and love of God are shown out, first in seeking, and then in the reception. In the first two parables, we have the seeking; iii the third, the reception by the Father. One great principle runs through them all; it is the joy of God to seek and to receive the sinner. He is acting upon His own character. No doubt it is joy to the sinner to be received, but it is the joy of God to receive him “It is meet that we should make merry and be glad,”-not merely meet that the child should be-glad to be in the house.
Beloved friends, this is a blessed truth! It is the-tone that God has raised, and that every heart in heaven responds to. The chord God strikes Himself; heaven echoes it; and so must every heart down here that is tuned by grace. What discord, then, must self-righteousness produce! Jesus tells. forth the joy and grace of God in thus acting, and puts this in contrast with the feelings of the elder brother- any self-righteous person,-though the description be of the Jews.
It is this note that is sounded from heaven in love, that we read in the heart of Christ down here; and oh, how sweet! In one sense it is more sweet to have it here than up there. It is down here that this love of God (and it must be, if man is to be reached) is astonishing.; it is natural in heaven. It is here, on earth, amongst us, tint God has manifested what He is; — that He has delight in saving lost sinners; and angels desire to look into it.
The shepherd puts the sheep upon his shoulders, and he brings it home rejoicing;-“Am I not right to seek lost sinners Is it not a meet thing for God to come among publicans and sinners?” This may not suit a moral man, but it suits God; it is His privilege to come amidst sin-to come near to ruined sinners-because He can deliver out of it. The shepherd has the sheep upon his shoulders and rejoices; he charges himself with it; he takes the whole toil of it It was his own interest to do it, because he valued the sheep; it was his, and he brings it home. Thus he presents the shepherd to us. And thus it is with “the Great Shepherd of the sheep.” He presents it as His interest to “seek and to save that which is lost.” He even makes it His interest in the sense of love; and He does bring the sheep home rejoicing. There is the strength and power of salvation. But how does He set about it? We tell people sometimes to seek Christ. Well, in one sense that is right; for it is quite true that “he that seeketh findeth;” but He never said, “Come unto me,” until He had first come to them-come “to seek and to save that which was lost.” He did not say it from heaven, for the sinner could not go there; but, because the poor sinner could not go to heaven to seek Christ, Christ came to the earth to seek him. He does not say to the poor leper, Come up to heaven; but He comes Himself down here, and says, “Be thou clean.” Had any other laid his hand upon the leper, it would have made him as unclean as himself; but Christ could touch the power of evil in the leper, and receive no contamination but dispel it. He says, “Come unto me, all ye that labor…… and I will give you rest.” It is not to be found here, any more than it was for Noah’s dove amidst the deluge. I have tried the world all through, and it is a sea of evil without a shore: come to Me, and you will find rest. Who but Jesus could have said this?
Then there is another thing in the second parable; -the painstaking of this love in seeking that which was lost. It is not a sheep, but money in a house. Everything is done to get the money. The woman lights the candle, she sweeps the house; she could not stop in the task of love-diligent active love-until the piece was found. It was her affair and interest again. And then we have the joy when her possession is recovered. She gives the tone to those around her: others are called in to have communion with it;-“Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I had lost.” And this is the way of the Lord.
Thus then we have the same great principle in this parable as in the former. There is the patient activity of love until the result is produced. In the two I see this common principle:-it was the joy of the woman, as of the shepherd. The first great thing was the energetic power and activity of this grace, as well as the good will. There was entire inactivity in the sheep and in the money. The shepherd and the woman alike did all.
It is true, at the same time, that there is a most important work-an effect produced in the heart of the one who has gone astray and is brought back again; and therefore we have the third parable, which she ws the feelings of the wanderer and the manner of his reception. In a word we have not only the manner of the workings within, but also the manifestation of the father’s heart. It is not the estimate of love in the one brought back that gives the answer to all his thoughts, but the manifestation of the father’s own heart. There is this one simple fact-the father is on his neck kissing him! and this tells him what that heart is.
Here the Lord takes up a case, meeting the objections of the Pharisees to His receiving publicans and sinners. He says, as it were, I will take the case of a man brought into the degradation of feeding with swine (we must remember what swine were to the Jews); I will suppose him to be as bad, as worthless as you like; and then I will show you what grace is -what God is. But remark, whether we are living in vice or not, we have all turned our back on God. The young man was as great a sinner when he stepped rich across his father’s threshold, as when feeding with the swine in the far country; he had chosen to act independently of God, and this is sin. He reaped the fruits no doubt, but this is not the question. In one sense the consequences of his sin were mercies, because they showed him what his sin was.
But man makes a distinction between sinners. So the Lord puts a case, where the sinner is gone even in man’s judgment to the fullest degree of evil, showing that it does not outreach the grace of God-a case which wonderfully exhibits the truth, that, if sin abounds, grace does much more abound. This young man goes forth (verse 13) to do his own will; and this is the secret of all our sins. Our child sins against us, and we feel it. We sin against God and do not feel it. We are all of us big children.
“And there he wasted his substance in riotous living.” Any person who lives beyond his means looks rich; so does the sinner, wasting his soul, seem happy.
“And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land: and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks which the swine did eat; and no man gave unto him.” There is no giving in the “far country.” Satan sells all, and dear: our souls are the price.
If you sell yourself to the devil, you will get husks: he will never give you anything. Would you find a giver, you must come to God. Hearts are not easy in the world: leave a man for a few hours to himself, and he will soon be in want. “He began to be in want;” but his will was not touched yet. There are very few hearts that have arrived at a certain time of life, without beginning “to be in want.” They go to seek in pleasure or in vice something to satisfy them. The last thing the world thinks of is God; and then only when they are convinced that nothing else will do. They never think of the Father’s house, for they know it not. If indeed they think of God, it is in judgment, not in grace. So it was with the prodigal.
“When he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants.” He had not yet understood how he would be received, yet he did understand that there was love in that house: the very hired servants had bread enough and to spare. And he did understand, too, that he was not only hungry but perishing with hunger. All was happiness there; the very servants were happy. And it was all over with him where he was; the need of his condition, all, told him he must get back;-” I will arise,” &c.
Every soul that returns to God is thus brought to the conviction of goodness in God.
I see the same thing in Peter. He goes and falls at the feet of Jesus, and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” What an inconsistency! at the feet of Jesus, and yet telling him to go away! And there is ever this apparent inconsistency where there is a work on the conscience and the affections. God becomes necessary to us, and yet conscience says, “I am too sinful.” Peter felt his worthlessness -that Jesus was too holy, too righteous, to be with such a one as he: and yet he could not help going to Him.
Well, the prodigal goes back, and says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” He did not understand what his father was-what a father’s heart was. He was glad to be in the father’s house, but still “make me as one of thy hired servants” was his thought. He measured the father’s love in some little degree by the sense of what he had been, and the evil in which he had been; he thought to get into the place of a servant. Now there are a multitude of hearts in this state,-lowering down the standard of what the father must do, to some sort of adaptedness to their fitness-(I am not speaking of positive self-righteousness). They have still the remains of legalism, and would take the place of a servant in the house-” make me as one of thy hired servants.” But this will not do for the father, if it would do for the son: it would be constant misery to the father’s heart to have a son in the house as a servant; neither would it be testimony to the servants in the house as to the father’s love. The Father cannot have sons in the house as servants; and if His boundless grace brings them, He must show the manner of the reception to be worthy of a Father’s love. The prodigal was not yet brought to thorough humbleness-to feel it must be grace or nothing.
The father does not even give him time to say, “make me as one of thy hired servants!” He lets him say, ” I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son;” but no more, for he is on his neck kissing him. How can he say, ” Make me a hired servant,” when the father is on his neck, producing the consciousness that he was a son? The prodigal’s judgment about the father must now be drawn from what the father actually is to him, and not from any abstract reasonings about it. The one was a father, if the other was a son. And in this way we truly receive the gospel of the grace of God. It is not the working of manic mind as to what I am before God, but the revelation by the Holy Ghost of what the Father is to me; and, if He is a Father, I am a son.
I dwell on this, because I know there are so many souls who fail to show that they received the Spirit of adoption, neither knowing what they are as sons in the house of the Father, nor finding their rest in that of the Father.
See again the manner of the reception of the prodigal here. His mind now renewed, he says, “I will arise,” &c. But before he has time to reach the father’s house and say all this,-“while he was yet a great way off,”-we read, the father sees him, and has compassion on him. The son’s path is now lost in the father’s love: the father rims to meet him, falls on his neck and kisses him. There is nothing in the son but confession of unworthiness. Once received, we are left, as it were, to discover what were his thoughts and feelings from our knowledge of what the father is.
So-entirely-is the estimate of salvation: we are left to discover what we are in the love of the Father. The father is on his neck, while all the rags of the far country are on his SOIL The father does not stop to ask him anything: he knows he has acted very wrongly; he could see this very well. It is no question of fitness in the son: the father is acting for himself-worthily of himself as a father. He is on his neck, because the father loves to be there.
But there is another thing. The servants are called out to introduce him into the house fittingly, to make merry and be glad. It is the knowledge of the father’s love that makes me feel what I am. But if I know my sins are forgiven, and the Father is on my neck kissing me, then the more I know of my sins while I know the Father’s love, the happier I am. Suppose a merchant having liabilities which he knows himself unable to meet; he would be afraid to look through his books. But if the debt was discharged, and he had the certainty of an immense fund of riches after all was paid-if some friend had done it all-he would no longer be afraid to look at them. The discovery of the extent of his obligation would only enhance the sense of his friend’s love. If, instead of £1,000, he found his debt had been £10,000, he would say, “Why, this is better than I thought;” and if on looking farther, he found the amount £100,000;-” Well, there never was a friend like this friend of mine!”
Grace has put all away; and the whole effect of the discovery of sin, when we know forgiveness, is but to enhance the love and heighten the joy. If the Father is kissing me, the very consciousness that He is doing it while I am in my rags, proves what a forgiveness it is. There is not another in the whole world who would not have thought of my rags, before he was on my neck.
“But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring hither the fatted calf and kill it,” &c. God shows His love towards us as wretched sinners, but then clothes us with Christ. He brings us into the house where the servants are with nothing less than all the honor He can put upon us. His love welcomes us while in our rags, but here the same love acts in another way. He introduces us into the house, as He would have us be there, with His mind expressed about the value of a son. We read here the description of the fatted calf, the best robe, the ring, and the feast. The Father’s mind was that a son of His was worth that robe, &c.; and that it was worthy of Him to give it. How little worthy would it have been of a father, acting in grace, to keep him as a servant in the house! There are, perhaps, some who would think it humility to be a servant in the house. Now it is not; it is only ignorance of the Father’s mind.
I read, “that he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness towards us through Christ Jesus.” For, if you begin at that end-the Father’s mind and grace, would it have been worthy of Him to put us in the house with a constant memorial of our sin and shame, of our former dishonor and degradation? If there was any, sense of shame-the merest trace of the far country, would it have been worthy of the Father? No! ” The worshipper once purged has no more conscience of sins.” The condition that finds its place in God’s house must be worthy of God. Perhaps our wretched unbelieving hearts may say, “Ah, that will be quite true when there-when really in the Father’s house.” Let me ask what faith is. Faith judges as God judges. I see sin in the light of God’s holiness, I judge it most truly when I see its opposition to Him, and the dishonor it puts on Him. I learn grace, too, in the heart of my father. He that believes sets to his seal that God is true. Faith is the only thing that gives certainty; reasoning does not. -Reasoning may be all quite well for the things of this world; but, if God speaks about anything, faith receives it; faith sets to its seal, not that it may be perhaps, but that God is true. Now, having this, I am as sure that it is true, as if I was now in heaven.
Just so of old, Abraham believed God-not in God (though this is also true), but God; he believed that what God said was true. And this is what we ought to do; the first point is to believe God. What does He tell me if I am a believer in His Son? That my sins and iniquities are remembered no more; and I believe it. And I believe that I have eternal life: it is sin to doubt it. If I do not believe what He assures me of, I wrong God. It is a sin not to believe myself a son-that I am in God’s presence without a spot of sin through the blood of the Lamb. Faith believes this. If it were only my own righteousness, it must be torn to shreds; but it is the blood of the Lamb: and what has this done? Cleansed half my sins? The question is, What is God’s estimate of His blood? Do you think that God limits the efficacy of the blood of Jesus? No! He says, it “cleanseth from all sin.” If we go on to see farther, it is-“who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree.” Is it some of my sins? It is my sins. If my soul knows, on the one hand, the value to God of the blood of the Lamb, T know, on the other hand, that it all results from the love of the Father. It would be an evil thing to doubt this love, as it would have been an evil thing in the prodigal (when the father was kissing him) to say, I have the rags of the far country upon me. Did he then think of his rags as a reason why there should not be that expression of the love which was in the heart of his father? Then, when I see the character Christ gives me of what God is towards me as a sinner (and He was forced to do this by the self-righteousness of the Pharisees), the doubts of man’s heart are silenced before such grace.
Is there one here who would say, Divine grace sanctioned sin? Let him read his judgment in the spirit of the elder brother here. Yet let even such a one see how grace speaks to him: “the father went out and entreated him “-this wretched one-not merely a poor prodigal, but the wretched man who shared not in the general joy. The servants were glad; they say, “thy brother is come, and thy father bath killed for him the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.” All catch the tone but one: and who was he? The man who thought of self and self-righteousness! “therefore came his father out and entreated him.”
Take care of this, lest your hearts be turning to sourness the love and grace that God shows to a fellow sinner. “He would not go in.” The father reasons with him-“it was meet that we should make merry and be glad; for this thy brother was dead and is alive again; and was lost and is found.” But he remained without, and had none of the happiness and none of the joy, but manifested opposition of heart to the riches of the father’s grace.
Do you know God thus? You would know yourselves too? Be it so: it is indeed well; but do not roll God’s heart in question because of that. How can I know God’s heart? Is it by looking into my own heart? No, but by learning it in the gift of His Son. The God we have to do with is the God who has given His Son for sinners; and, if we do not know this, we do not know Him at all. Do not be saying to God “Make me as one of thy hired servants. ‘ Service must result from the knowledge of Himself. Do not be putting the estimate of your own heart as God’s goodness. Our hearts have such a tendency to turn back to legalism, and to think it humility. The only real humbleness and strength and blessing is to forget self in the presence and blessedness of God. We may be brought thither by a humbling process but it is not in merely thinking evil of self, that we are truly humble: we have the privilege of forgetting ourselves in the love of God and our Father, who is love to us.
The Lord grant you through Jesus to know, as poor sinners, God thus revealed in love.
J. N. D.
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