"AND WHEN HE CAME TO HIMSELF HE SAID, HOW MANY HIRED SERVANTS OF MY FATHER 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 WORTHT TO BE CALLED THY SON: MAKE ME AS ONE OF THY HIRED SERVANTS."
THE parable of the prodigal son is divisible into three distinct parts. The first part describes the falling away, with its consequences. The spending all, the famine, followed by the hard bondage under the citizen of the "far country," the feeding the swine, and yet no man giving the sinner even the husks to eat,--these earlier features of the parable represent the whole period before the crisis of the conversion. The next part embraces also a complete period. The coming to himself, the returning desire for his father's home, the resolve to go back, the thought that fills him by the way, of attaining at least the hired servant's place,--these events bring us to the very meeting with his father, when the end is gained. The third part, which commences at this point, has a double purpose. It portrays in vivid colours the peace and loving reception of the true penitent even in this life, while the elder brother is introduced in connection with this view of the parable, as a warning against the spirit which would grudge such an oblivion of the past, and such richness of mercy to one who had sinned so grievously in the abuse of such great grace. But allowing for this one feature of the parable to have its possible realization in this life only, the remainder points to a yet higher fulfilment. Its language can find an adequate meaning only in the completed and unchangeable bliss of the Eternal Home. The terms have an initiatory accomplishment, a foretaste of their ultimate fulness, in the perfect absolution of the penitent on earth. But nothing less than the heavenly greeting can exhaust their inner truth. The coming forth of the everlasting GOD, the embrace, the kiss, the best robe, the ring, the shoes, the fatted calf, the feast, the merry-making,--are the full satiety and assured certainty of eternal beatitude in the embrace of heavenly love. It is a symbolic picture of the entrance into the Presence of GOD.
The second part, therefore, is the converted life, the entire earthly course, from the first return to GOD until death. It represents the state of penitence, and describes it as continuing on in an uninterrupted course, even to the end of life. The continual going onwards to the father, and the lowly thought not allowing itself to rise above the prospects of a hired servant, while yet in trustful contentment casting all on the assured hope of mercy,--a self-distrust dissipated only in the startled surprise of the actual meeting with the father,--these circumstances mark the whole interval between the return of the prodigal to his right mind, and his final irreversible acceptance. The penitence is represented as continuing until heaven is won.
Other parables also, which more or less clearly indicate the hope of repentance, imply that it is a lifelong state. This truth is involved in the parable of the lost sheep laid upon the shoulder of the good Shepherd. The sheep clings to the state in which it was first recovered, even until brought home to the fold. It is borne on upon the shoulder, as it was taken up. In the state of penitence in which it was found, it remains to the end. To leave it would have jeoparded its hold upon its deliverer. The same is implied again in the parable of the labourers. Those hired latest were to labour, not knowing with any certainty what they should receive. They were to be dependent upon mercy. There was indeed a promise of reward given to all, but no definite agreement except with those who were first hired. The householder agreed with them for a penny a day. But for those who were hired at the third, the sixth, the ninth, the eleventh hour, there was no sum fixed. The first assurance had been forfeited, and the uncertainty must continue up to the last moment. It was only said to them, "Whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive." They laboured indeed with hope, but with no express assurance. They had forfeited this blessing by their delay. They were therefore to toil on for they knew not what. They had to bear to the end the consequence of having been for so large a portion of the day standing idle. They were thus far in a lower state than those first hired, even up to the very crisis of the final settlement. The dependence on pure mercy in their lowly expectancy is shown indeed to have been their safety, a protection against the envy which the other labourers exhibited. Their loss had become their gain. But it was their gain, only because they unwillingly accepted it as their continued state,--a state of penitence which failed not even till the fulness of their unexpected reward, given at last to their utter amazement at the end of the day, when their labour wholly ceased.
The same momentous truth of lifelong penitence is implied in many expressions of Scripture familiar to all. "Happy is the man that feareth always." "Pass the time of your sojourning here in fear." "Let us have grace whereby we may serve GOD acceptably, with reverence and godly fear." "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of GOD, that He may exalt you in due time." "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted." "Godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation, not to be repented of," and therefore, lasting until the salvation, which is beyond the need of repentance, is secured.
All these texts speak one pervading truth. They are grounded on one prevailing idea, and describe a state of life. One essential feature characterises all the conditions involved. They are very axioms of the faith reduced to practice, cardinal texts through which one momentous verity comes out to view again and again. And they are manifestly component parts of the one idea of Penitence. Fear, trembling, reverence, lowliness, humiliation, sorrow, are more or less the necessary and expressive characteristics of an abiding consciousness of sin. They are the proper expressions, and the true safeguards of a penitent, and they are represented as enduring throughout life.
Further, this same truth appears, if we enter into the causes of penitence. Penitence springs from the power of grace working in the soul a sense of sin. As the sense of sin grows, so penitence grows; and a sense of sin grows, as a true life grows. It follows from this, that penitence deepens with advancing life. It is a striking fact, that we may trace the very same progress of the knowledge of sin in Holy Scripture, which is experienced in our own personal consciousness. Its depths only gradually open to view in the Scriptures; and they only gradually open to us in our own experience.
How remarkable is the simple quiet way in which the first sin is mentioned in the Scripture! The sin of our first parents is recorded as a child's common fault might be spoken of, as a thing creating no surprise. "She took of the tree, and did eat." "She gave also to her husband, and he did eat." Scripture indeed never speaks as with surprise either of Divine or human events. The all-seeing GOD surveys all things with calm undisturbed equanimity, and accordingly Holy Scripture, which is His mind revealed, speaks a similar language. Still it is striking that the first entrance of sin into man's nature should be chronicled as one of the simplest facts in his history. Then again throughout the Old Testament, it is not so much the inner character of sin as affecting man's nature which is dwelt on, but its outward consequences, the judgments it brings, the wrath of GOD it provokes, the misery and disorder it works in the world and in the human heart, its infectious and spreading power, its perpetual resistance to the will of GOD,--external results rather than the working of sin in itself. Even the Ten Commandments speak of sin chiefly as it affects social relations. The sins forbidden are viewed under the forms in which they produce injury to our fellow-creatures. Even in the Gospels, if we except the Sermon on the Mount, what strikes us most is the daring, the malice, the blindness, the enmity, the alienation from GOD, the hardness, the selfishness, the hateful contrast to all that is pure, and lovely, and Divine, and the utter hopelessness,--still only external manifestations of sin.
More terrible consequences of sin are revealed in the Gospels, because shown in the very Presence of GOD, in the Face of JESUS CHRIST; yet still these are but its outward results. Only in the later books of the New Testament, in the writings of the Apostles, the inner working of sin in man's heart is laid bare, the sinful nature displayed, its very roots exposed to view, the inward disorder out of which all those outward manifestations arise, made clear. There we read of the "law in our members warring against the law of our mind;" of "the flesh lusting against the spirit;" of the "doing what I would not, and not doing what I would;" even of, "what I hate, that I do;" of the "not being sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves;" and the accurate, the scientific analysis of sin into "the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life." Only in the New Testament do we at all discern, that lust indulged in the heart is adultery already committed, and that hatred even in thought is actual murder.
We have thus a progressive series of revelations, beginning with the simple fact of disobedience, followed by the manifold outward dreadful signs of the continued increase and working of sin, and closing with the view of the inward seat and full enormity of the secret disorder, as the end of this sad history. The knowledge of the real nature of sin is the final result of the gradual development of the Divine dispensations.
In this very same order sin reveals itself to the sinner's soul. At first it is felt only as a simple fact, as in a child's history, unexplained, unintelligible, with an instinctive sense of shame indeed, but without any consciousness or discernment of its causes, or its real horror. As life grows, the outward consequences of sin are felt--the evils which it produces, as they act on others who are dear to us, or react on oneself. Later still, and then only by little and little, the inward working of sin, its secret springs, its hidden power, the disordered elements of the soul itself, are revealed to the consciousness. As we live on, the advancing inner revelation becomes increasingly clearer, and more appalling. It still grows more deeply, more intensely perceptible, as the end approaches; and on the bed of death, before the glazing eye, even though the soul may be full of peace in the atoning Blood, though the vision of the very Face of GOD may have become all the brighter and more assuring, yet, even because of that very light, and its intenser brightness, sin at the close of life appears yet more exceeding sinful, even to the Saint. If penitence deepens as the sense of sin becomes more vivid, so with advancing life there will be an ever-advancing penitence.
Shall we venture further into the mystery of life, and attempt to realize the consciousness of the soul in this respect after death? There will be assuredly, to the faithful, rest in the clear vision of the LORD,--the full, unchangeable assurance of peace, the ring, the kiss, the best robe, the feast, the intense rejoicing; but even in the fire of that illumination which will cleanse away the remains of sin, blotting out, we may trust, at last the very faintest records of it from the memory, we may surely believe, that as sin will only then in the full blaze of the Face of GOD appear in its full horror, so only then will penitence take its profoundest and tenderest form. Only then will penitence, as only then will sanctity, be complete,--complete when the last absolution from the lips of the Son of Man Himself shall fill the soul with the untold rapture of its final most restful assurance, doing away for ever the possibility of a relapse,--the Voice from the Judgment Throne sealing the accomplished predestination of GOD.
Consider, moreover, the terms by which Holy Scripture denotes penitence. They are chiefly three--conversion, repentance, contrition. Each of these terms may be viewed either as a single act, or as a state; i.e., as a temporary, or an enduring condition of the soul. The two are intimately connected together, if they represent real workings of the grace of GOD. Viewed as simply expressing separate acts, they are the springing up to the surface of currents of feeling, ever deepening below. There are rivers which, after showing themselves above ground, bury themselves, and run silently beneath the soil, and this for long periods of their course, to rise again, and again to be hidden, till they are lost in the central seas from which their waters were drawn. The difference between an act of penitence, and the life of penitence, is of a like kind. The one rises above, the other flows on beneath, the surface. The stream, whether seen or unseen, equally runs on its own predestined course.
But all these terms alike imply properly enduring progress, conditions of soul extending to the end of life; never reaching absolute perfectness on earth, but deepening as life deepens. Conversion is an entire turning of the soul, a turning together of the whole constituent elements and powers of the soul, until there is formed an harmonious conformity of the faculties and their several tendencies, now weaned from all evil bias, in unison with the Mind of GOD. [The preposition "con "in composition implies "thorough," "pervading," as though carrying with it all parts related to the subject. Its force is seen likewise in the term, contrite. "Verto "is to turn, so as to produce a complete change from the former position.] Repentance is the very mind itself changed, its transformation, nay, its very transubstantiation; the passing away of the old mind, the creation in its stead of the new mind. It is the Mind of CHRIST taking the place of the mind of the mere natural man. [Metanoia, the Greek term for repentance, is derived from nouV, the mind, and meta, implying the change of state. It has no real Latin or English equivalent.] So, likewise, contrition represents a work which must ever be imperfect in this life. It differs from attrition in this, that the latter means only the temporary bruising of the soul struck by fear, shaken by the judgments of GOD; contrition, the thorough breaking and bruising of the whole substance of the soul, an interpenetration of it, a making it soft and tender throughout. Both terms are metaphors drawn from the action of force on a stone,--the one a mere external bruising, the other a reduction of the entire substance into powder. [At-tero is literally to rub or break upon the surface; con-tero to rub and grind down together the whole body.]
While thus it appears that penitence, if viewed as a complete work, embraces nothing less than an entire life, yet it is not one and the same in quality, neither does it always wear one aspect. Repentance has its periods, characterised by different phases. To a superficial eye it may seem to have ceased, when it has only changed its form. Penitence in this respect resembles a lifelong sorrow. The paroxysms of a first grief will cease. The desolation of the wilderness, which at first succeeded the garden of Eden, will be clothed again with sweet flowers. There will break in upon the soul new lights, and peace, and sweetness of resignation, and the grasp of a higher fellowship within the Communion of Saints. There will be a shining in of GOD within the soul, now taught meekly and hopefully to suffer with CHRIST. But the remembrance of what once was, and the feeling of what no longer is, or can be,--this remains fresh and keen, only it has gone down deeper. It has settled into the depths of the soul's consciousness, as an accepted presence, brooding over all life, more penetrating far than the first gush of woe. It has coloured all the life, and keeps its sad reign within, even while it is felt to be a welcome guest, a precious boon of GOD, through which the soul has thankfully become more intimately, more entirely, and more consciously united with Himself. The sorrow has laid its calm and permanent spell upon the soul, which once so tremblingly shrank from its approach, and now so willingly, so lovingly accepts its embrace. Yet all the while it has constantly worked itself downwards, and from this very cause all the more surely. Outwardly it has seemed to have passed away, but only because it is veiled within hidden depths from the common eye.
So it is with penitence. The first convulsive state will subside. The gushing of the floods of tears will become less and less frequent. The utter anguish of remorse will be moderated. Those first fervours of zeal, indignation, fear, self-revenge, will assume calmer, gentler, more disciplined forms. That first overwhelmed consciousness of sin, which absorbed into itself all other thoughts, will quiet down, and become more real, more true, more simple, more reasonable. The self-consciousness of that first engrossed state, that one terrible idea which possessed the soul, will be disenchanted; and as the inner life expands and rises, becomes more intelligent, more illuminated, it will more quietly accept the consciousness of its sin, and hope will grow, and the sweetness of the sense of forgiveness penetrate, and the feeling of new powers, purer tastes, higher efforts, will prevail. New worlds will spring up around; and through the vista of the changed scene the Face of GOD will be restored to view, shining in more and more. Thus a hopeful, bright, and energetic condition of soul will supervene upon that first half-maddened remorse. And as the spirit rises higher, and forms of saintliness appear,--a new creation rising out of the chaos, once "without form and void,"--life, more and more given up to GOD, will assume a steady, progressive tone of enlarging and diffusing holiness; it will become more and more heavenly in its renewed powers. It may then appear as though penitence had ceased; to the outward superficial eye its necessity, too, may have seemed to pass away. But it has only gone into deeper depths; it is hidden, because it has penetrated into all the inner forms of life, and clothed itself with them, and now assumes their shape. It has no longer that demonstrative being it once had, simply because it has assimilated itself with all the inner life, and intermingled itself with all its actings it has become the sweetness, the softening influence, the savour, the penetrating tenderness of all faculties and all energies. The secret working of penitence has settled in, to become the precious consciousness of forgiving love, the inner bond of union with CHRIST, the dearest plea of its renewed adoption, its constant safeguard, its root of power, its strength of development and advance. The penitent is being numbered among the Saints. The advancing soul rises into surer, truer, more enduring saintliness; and this the more, because it ever remembers what it once was, and why it has become what it now is. And the perpetual penitential act is really all the more profound and living, because it is calmer, and more secret; it has more of understanding and of assurance, less of impulse and of self-reproach; more of faith and of the Spirit, less of flesh and blood.
There is a tradition in the Church, that S. Peter, even to his last days, whenever he heard the crowing of the cock, wept afresh. It was the continued silent lingering swell of the storm which broke through his heart, when on that dark night he went out and "wept bitterly." His Epistles are remarkably calm; none of the bitterness of the Penitent's woe appears. But no Apostolic Epistles contain so many, and such touching appeals for humility and reverential fear. Nothing again in all the records of the Apostolic writings is more heart-stirring than S. Paul's remembrance of his youthful sins, which he utters in one of his latest Epistles, when he reckoned full thirty years of a life almost unexampled in faith and endurance. How strikingly fresh and tender is the tone of penitence which pervades them! One instance will suffice; "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that CHRIST JESUS came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first JESUS CHRIST might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting." [1 Tim. i. 15, 16. The date of this Epistle is ordinarily stated to be A.D. 65; his conversion, 35.]
True penitence, therefore, is a life-long thing; a perennial flow of godly sorrow, not the gushing of a fountain once opened to be quickly closed; an abiding state, not a passing paroxysm; a clothing which the Saint lays not aside until it be exchanged for the robe made white in the Blood of the Lamb. And even then we know not how much of the hue and colour that melts into the perfect light, is composed of the sadness of penitence, as the rainbow above and about the Throne is drawn upwards from the tears of earth to be suffused with the Divine Glory.
The call to penitence, therefore, needs to be made, not merely to one just awakened to a sense of sin, but to those also who, being in different stages or at various levels of the spiritual life, are advancing progressively onwards. It is a rule sometimes given in Confession, if but lesser faults form its subject matter, that some former deadly sin should, if such there were, be recalled and revived in memory, in order that penitence may be deepened and thus the absolving grace fall upon the soul freshened in its consciousness of sin, and stirred to a more vivid act of contrition. This advice which may at times be discreetly urged, is borrowed from an universal law of true Christian life,--that past sin should live in the consciousness, as the memorial of an abiding sense of need. Not indeed that acts and feelings which may provoke fresh sin, (with certain sins such a caution is deeply needed,) should be rekindled into life, but that the general, the pervading consciousness of sin requires often to be deepened by the remembrance of the past, that the thirsty soul of the penitent may thus drink in more eagerly the dew of benediction, This may well be more especially suggested as a Lenten rule. One of the reasons, perhaps, why memory has such an awfully retentive power is, that the sin of one's life may always live with us, even when the new life of GOD has taken its place. GOD has impressed His own eternity on the sinner's conscience, that his past may ever be present, the more surely at last to be obliterated, through the vivid horror of the retentive conscience ever pleading for renewed mercy. Even while grace casts a veil over the past, covering transgression with a true oblivion in the full free pardon of the Atonement, GOD suffers the letters of the handwriting which was against us to be still dimly legible, as of a palimpsest manuscript, through the characters of the new law which the Spirit has traced over the fading marks of fallen nature's workmanship. Even together with, and through the glory of the newly-imparted life, we retain the shadow of the darkness out of which we have been delivered, while gaining more and more the peace of a perfect freedom.
Recall therefore the hated past, not to diminish hope, but to increase godly sorrow; not to cloud the vision of the Redeemer, but to deepen the sense of His loving forgiveness; not to lessen the recovered power, but to infuse into this power a profounder tenderness; not to separate from GOD, but to unite with Him by a firmer and a closer bond. Review the past, that a deeper penitence may awake in the present. Deepen the penitence, that a tenderer spirit may enter into the life; that a deepening tenderness may receive a greater grace. Seek to be found at last in the humility of the returning Prodigal, who, having cast all away to win heaven, returns in his homeward track with the one end absorbing all other thoughts and aims, and yet preserves the thought that the hired servant's place in his own Father's home is all he merits and can claim. Look well and see, not merely if there be any way of wickedness in you, but what your repentance has been, its motives, its depths, its reality, the truth of its sorrow, the honesty of its purpose, the fulness of its resolves, the perseveringness of its resistance of sin, its progress from grace to grace, and "from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the LORD."
How many have failed, because too soon they left off their penitential garb, and ceased to utter their penitential acts! How many stunted growths even of true life have there been, in consequence of imperfect repentances! How many, all their life long, are beset with old sins, and lingering returns of early life, because their foundations were not laid low, nor grounded on an acceptable penance! Try your very repentance, that it be a repentance not to be repented of. Bear in mind that the very terror of the Judgment consists in the startling truth, that it must fall first on the heirs of the kingdom. "For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of GOD; and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the Gospel of GOD? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?"