A friend of mine, who is an evangelist, gave me a book about Charles Haddon Spurgeon called, The Forgotten Spurgeon. It recounts the life of the “Prince of Preachers” with a focus upon the struggles and opposition that he faced, mostly from other clergyman. Early in the book, the biographer, Iain Murray, provides a quotation from Spurgeon in a footnote that arrested my attention:
There is a deep-seated unbelief among Christians just now, about the eternity of future punishment. It is not outspoken in many cases, but it is whispered; and it frequently assumes the shape of a spirit of benevolent desire that the doctrine may be disproved. I fear at the bottom of all this there is a rebellion against the dread sovereignty of God. There is a suspicion that sin is not, after all, so bad a thing as we have dreamed. There is an apology (in this sense, a defense or excuse), or a lurking wish to apologize (make an excuse) for sinners, who are looked upon rather as objects of pity than as objects of indignation, and really deserving the condign (deserved) punishment which they have willfully brought upon themselves. I am afraid it is the old nature in us putting on the specious garb of charity (love), which thus leads us to discredit a fact which is as certain as the happiness of believers… Some cannot bear the thought; but to me it seems inevitable that sin must be punished… If sin becomes a trifle, virtue will be a toy.
Spurgeon made these comments in 1865, and one hundred forty-seven years later, the temptation to the same error is present in the Church.
It is present in me.
In order to turn to Christ, it is necessary that we become aware of our sinfulness. But, even as we acknowledge our sinful depravity, the enemy would have us remain focused on ourselves rather than truly relying upon the Savior. What we call repentance may be only so much wallowing in self-pity, and we almost enjoy the state of our wretchedness rather than being repulsed by it. Though I know it would be wrong to pass judgment on someone’s motives, I must admit that I cannot help wondering at some of the dramatic testimonies I have heard and at what the responses might be to such testimonies. Someone shares the sordid details of the life that he led before he came to Christ with what seems like a bit too much enthusiasm and not enough discretion. His listeners seem riveted by the depths of sin in which he indulged as opposed to finding it revolting. I have been that kind of listener, and it only reveals how corrupting an influence sin really is. At the same time we recognize it as sin – and even recognize our need for deliverance from it – sin has a strange attraction for us. As Spurgeon observed, we are tempted to minimize how bad it really is, I suppose because we don’t want to be too hard on ourselves.
Spurgeon exposes another way that we focus on ourselves when he speaks of making excuses for sinners and looking upon them as “objects of pity” rather than “objects of indignation.” It seems that it is easy to develop the idea that there is something pitiable about us that moves God to show us mercy and to extend to us His grace. Here again, we cannot seem to escape our egocentrism. It is not something about us that moves God to mercy and grace; it is something about God. His nature is to be merciful and gracious. We don’t deserve it by being good enough, and we don’t move Him to compassion by being bad enough. He is merciful and gracious for His own reasons, for His own glory and pleasure.
As it comes to bear upon our sin, the other side of the story of God’s nature is that, while He is merciful and gracious, He is at the same time just. I suggested that we are mistaken to think that there is something about us that brings out God’s benevolent characteristics. However, it is important to understand that there is something about us that brings out God’s justice. In other words, our sinfulness does not prompt God to mercy, it prompts Him to wrath. Spurgeon’s thoughts reveal his concern that we fail to understand this and therefore, develop a wrong response to sin in ourselves and in others.
The writer of a popular book has written:
Thank God! I am wonderfully content with a God who doesn’t deal with me as my sins deserve. On the last day when Jesus calls me by name, “Come, (author’s name), blessed of my Father,” it will not be because Abba is just, but because His name is mercy.
A very appealing sentiment, one must admit, but also very inadequate. What this writer has written in the first of these two sentences is true: God doesn’t deal with me as my sins deserve. But what he has failed to mention is that God did deal with Jesus as my sins deserve. God the Father (Abba) poured out His wrath on His own Son because He took my sin – and yours – upon Himself. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). When, in his next sentence, this popular writer goes on to say that his welcome in heaven will not be due to God’s justice but because of His mercy, he has departed from the truth. God’s justice and mercy are not two opposite sides of His character. They are coexistent and coeternal aspects of His singular nature. God’s mercy upon me is made possible only because He is a just God, and His justice on me was satisfied when He turned His back on His only Son who bore my sin. Anything less is not the Gospel. It is inappropriate to be thankful to God only for His mercy and, in any way, to minimize the gratitude and praise that is due Him for His justice.
Spurgeon expressed his concern that “if sin becomes a trifle, virtue will be a toy.” I think he means that if we don’t take sin seriously, neither will we be serious about holiness. God’s justice makes possible His mercy, and the grace with which He favors us makes possible a real transformation – conformity to the likeness of His Son (Romans 8:29). Grace may be unmerited favor, but it is not favor without purpose. God means to change us; to make new men out of us, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4: 24). What is amazing about grace is not that we get a forensic benefit from it only, but that we get an organic benefit. We not only have a new record with God, a new account crediting us with the righteousness of Christ; we have a new spirit with which to respond in relationship to God in obedience and, as Spurgeon put it, virtue. Another way of saying this is when we truly understand what we have been saved from, we will rightly understand what we have been saved to. I think I am beginning to realize why my evangelist friend thought that the book he gave me was so important.
Spurgeon reminds us that God hates sin and that the punishment that sinners must suffer “they have willfully brought upon themselves.” Those of us who are redeemed are saved not merely from our mistakes, from trifles, but from eternal damnation. It is because He rejected His own Son that God accepts us. The terrible divine justice meted out upon Jesus Christ for our sin paid for the mercy and grace which brings us so much joy, now and into glory. We must understand and acknowledge the dreadful sinfulness of sin if we are ever to comprehend the amazing graciousness of grace.