Is the fact, that a man is a great sinner, any reason why he may not, and should not, be a partaker of the salvation which is revealed by the cross of Christ? Some of us have a deep interest in this question, because some of us, when the book of God’s remembrance shall be opened, will be seen to be among the greatest sinners. "Some sins in themselves, and by reason of their several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others." There are those who are vile, exceedingly depraved by sin, and openly and flagitiously wicked in the sight of God and the world. There are also those who, though not vile in the sight of the world, are vile in their own eyes, and whose habits of sinning, though not known to men, fill their own bosoms with reproach and shame, and not infrequently with despair. And there are not wanting those, who are neither vile in their own eyes, nor in the view of their fellow-men, who are yet vile in the eyes of God, and whose wickedness is so masked and veiled under the forms of serious godliness, or grave morality, that its enormity is naked and open only "unto the eyes of Him with whom they have to do." Is there relief in the cross of Christ for such sinners as these? Does it open the door of hope to them? or are the gates of the heavenly city forever shut against them, so that of all the multitudes who enter within its walls, not one such grievous offender shall be found? The answer which the gospel gives to this question is truly a wonderful answer. Hear it, O earth! "O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord!" Glad tidings is it of great joy to all people. It is, that "where sin abounded, grace did much more abound." It is no fiction, no dream of a disturbed and enthusiastic imagination. "It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, even the chief." It is, that sins of the highest enormity and deepest die do not exceed the efficacy of atoning blood. It is, that men whose wickedness is so flagrant that it would seem the most daring presumption, the most mortal effrontery, for them to hope for salvation, may find it at the cross. "And is this the manner of man, O Lord God."
Little as these thoughts may accord with our self-righteous notions, we shall find them distinctly and most abundantly revealed in the word of God. The method of salvation devised for men is very different from that which men would sincerely devise for themselves. Men of a comparatively harmless and inoffensive life, the self-complacent moralist, and the punctual and exact observer of all the outward forms of religion, rest their hopes on something short of the great work of Jesus Christ. If you could enter into the secret operations of their own minds, you would find great multitudes who have hope toward God because they are not so bad as others; or, which is the more true account of the matter, because they are better than other men. A reliance on some less degree of demerit, is the same thing with reliance on a greater degree of merit in the sinner. This whole moral arrangement, in every shape and form, is based upon the single principle of justification by the deeds of the law. The salvation devised in the counsels of heaven is a very different method of salvation from this. Conscience unites with the cross in teaching us, that the man who would find acceptance with God by his own well-doing, may not be an offender even "in one point." His obedience must be sinless; he must produce a perfect righteousness, or be "weighed in the balances, and found wanting." When it is testified to us, on the truth of Him who cannot lie, that there is a Surety accepted by God, and a satisfaction rendered by that Surety which is apart from any obedience of ours, we have the assurance that the righteousness upon which we are accepted regards us as worthless. When it is testified to us that grace reigns, "through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord," we have the assurance that, as there is no hope for an individual of the race because his sins are few and small, so is there not an individual of the race who is excluded from hope because his sins are many and great. If his righteousness be not of his own, but of God’s providing—if it be not of his own working, but of God’s imputing—then, at the moment of his believing in Jesus Christ, has he the full remission of his sins, and a title to eternal life, whether his iniquities are few or many, small or great. Save upon these terms, there is no hope for the least sinner; while, upon such terms as these, God will "abundantly pardon" the greatest. He whose infinite mind alone estimates the turpitude, the malignity, the pollution, the ingratitude of all sin, and who alone is capable of measuring the height, and length, and breadth, and depth of it, allows no reserves and no limitations to be imposed on the all-sufficiency of his redemption by the number and greatness of man’s transgressions. The blood of sprinkling covers the whole ground of his disobedience, and cleanses its foulest stains. "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool."
The great God is infinite. Not more true is it that his wisdom and power are infinite, than that his mercy is infinite. Everything about it is infinite. It proceeds from infinite Being, flows through the medium of an infinite sacrifice, surmounts obstacles that are infinite, and addresses itself to those who are infinitely unworthy and ill-deserving. Unlike the cold and inactive compassion of men, it acts itself out in ways best fitted to gratify and express its plenitude and tenderness. This is its great motive and impulse. It goes after the lost sheep; it becomes familiar with the abodes of guilt and shame; it binds up the broken-hearted—it proclaims liberty to those who, from the deepest dungeon and the most dreary darkness, are waiting the hour of their execution. Compassion and tenderness here find something to interest them. "The greater the sin, the greater the misery and helplessness." The greater the misery and helplessness, the stronger, the more resistless the appeal to God’s tender mercies. Never do those mercies more truly consult their own intrinsic tenderness, and never do they more truly act in keeping with their own heavenly nature, than when their richest bounty is lavished on the greatest sinners. It is not to "call the righteous" that the Savior came, "but sinners to repentance." The tenderest expostulations of the Divine mercy are not uttered over the boasting Pharisee, but over the corrupted and dishonest publican; over the degraded and ruined; over the pitiable demoniac that dwelt among the tombs; and over idolatrous Ephraim, abandoned to his paganism, wedded to his lusts, and offering sacrifice to devils, and not to God. It is over these, and such as these, that the admonition has so often been poured forth—"How shall I give you up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver you, Israel? how shall I set you as Admah? how shall I make you as Zeboim? My heart is turned within me; my repentings are kindled together—for I am God and not man!"
Human charities are for the most part exhausted on virtuous suffering. Misery, when self-procured, and the fruit of crime, is least pitied by men. But such is not the history of the Divine compassion. "O Israel, you have destroyed yourself, but in me is your help!" Heavenly mercy has robes for the chilled and emaciated limbs of guilt and ignominy. The heavenly Physician comes with a remedy for the dying, even though they have destroyed themselves. He rescues the drowning sinner, though he plunged himself into the deep waters. The poisoned arrow which the headlong and reckless transgressor had plunged into his own bosom, he draws gently forth, and bids him live. These are the deeds of mercy to which the mercy of Heaven is most inclined, and, were there no other considerations to restrain it, the very deeds in which it would most abound. If there be one sinner in the world greater than another—one who is of all others "the farthest from God and the nearest to hell," and who, if not rescued, will be the most miserable of the race to all eternity—other things being equal, that is the sinner in whom the mercy of the cross takes the deepest interest, over whom it weeps most in secret places, and whom, by every means and every motive, it would most encourage and allure.
God teaches men by facts. Ordinary minds, and indeed all minds, are better taught by facts than general principles or argument. When we look into the Bible, we not only see the calls and invitations of the cross extended to men of every description of character, but learn that very many who were justly numbered among the vilest, have actually been brought to repentance, and found mercy. The Scriptures intentionally record this fact, and the sacred writers take pleasure in dwelling upon it. They furnish the names and history of not a few of the vilest ever known among the generations of men, who have found pardon and peace, and who "washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." Manasseh and Saul of Tarsus—the former the seducer of his nation into idolatry, and by his merciless and cruel sword filling the land with the blood of the innocent, and the latter a bold blasphemer and relentless persecutor of the church of God—were made monuments of redeeming mercy. "This
man receives sinners, and eats with them," was the proverbial reproach which his enemies cast upon the Son of God. Publicans and harlots attended on his ministry, and found cleansing in his blood. Degenerate and apostate Jerusalem, whose "very temple was turned into a slaughter-house of prophets and holy men," and whose inhabitants were the ringleaders of that fearful mob that crucified the Lord of glory, was the spot selected, above all others, where the first wonders of the Divine mercy were unfolded, and where thousands became obedient to the faith. The churches of Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome, were made up of men who were once fornicators, adulterers, idolaters, effeminate, abusers of themselves with mankind, thieves, drunkards, revilers and extortioners; "but they were washed, they were sanctified, they were justified, "in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God." The book of providence records facts like these on every page of this world’s history. On the deck of yonder slave-ship, was once a foul-mouthed, profane young man, who knew no law but his guilty passions, and had no object but gain. That young man was John Newton, afterwards the distinguished friend of God and his grace, the humble follower and minister of Christ, and the chosen comforter of his people. In yonder shop was a low-bred man, who says of himself, that "from a child he had few equals for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God," and who was, to a mournful extent, the victim of debasing lusts and the corrupter of his fellow-men. It was no other than he whose "Grace Abounding" and "Pilgrim’s Progress" have lighted up the wilderness to so many travelers toward the celestial city. What the cross was to these, it has been to thousands and thousands like them. Great sinners there are in hell, but sinners as great, in great numbers, are also found in heaven; and while the one show forth the glories of the Divine justice, the other are rivals in the blessed work of showing forth their obligations to unsearchable grace. The self-righteous may murmur, and express their envy; they may cast reproach upon that grace which they reject, and which so many viler than they humbly and thankfully receive; while it still remains a truth, that the greatest of sinners may find salvation in the cross. They are not the amiable and the moral only, to whom this grace is extended, but the wayward and vicious. It is not to the youthful sinner only, and before his wickedness has become matured by age, and aggravated by abused privileges, but to the "hoary scalp" of him who stops in his mad career, even on the outer verge of human life. It is not to the new-born babe alone, but to the dying thief.
When the redeemed reach the shores of their long-looked for eternity, the song they will sing will be, "Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood." Great and everlasting honors will accrue to him for his love to guilty men, and for that wonderful stoop of condescension which brought him down from heaven to save them from their sins. No angelic song will ever equal this "new song" from the lips of Christ’s redeemed. And many a tongue will utter it which once cursed him; and many a voice will swell its harmony which once reveled in debasing wickedness, and was heard louder than its compeers amid scenes of brutal dissipation.
This is no doubt among the reasons why there is mercy for the greatest sinner. The exalted Savior professes to be "mighty to save"—"able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him." To prove his sufficiency, and make it known, he saves the vilest and most hopeless. No matter how black the night of ignorance, or how strong the bonds of sin, or how damning the guilt; he illuminates the darkness, breaks the bondage, and, for all the guilt his blood atones. Rigorous as are the claims of law and justice, he satisfies them. Deep and fresh as are the wounds in the bleeding conscience, he staunches them. Be the spiritual maladies ever so desperate and incurable, he has a remedy for them. And while he thus demonstrates his title to the honors he receives, and in the ages to come shows forth "the exceeding riches of his grace," he at the same time demonstrates the all-sufficiency in which he glories. Many a great sinner, in the last stage of a distressing conviction, has rested his plea at the throne of grace on this one argument. It was his only hope. And many an offending child of God, too, has here rested his plea for the restored light of God’s countenance, which he had lost by his wickedness. Not unlike this, was the argument of the psalmist, when, stained as his hands were with the double crime of adultery and murder, he ventured to say, "For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great." Strange argument for pardon, but as effective as it is strange! There is amazing power and grace in saving the viler sort of men, because there is everything to oppose and overcome. It is not always safe to rouse the tiger in his lair. In the language of Bunyan, "Satan is loth to part with a great sinner," and when his deliverance is accomplished, it is an emphatic triumph of the Omnipotent Deliverer. Just as the sun shows not his power so much by shining across the clear sky, as by dissipating the thick and lowering storm, so the Sun of Righteousness never rises so sensibly with healing in his beams, as when he scatters the blackening clouds of the approaching tempest. The grace that reigns by the cross, is never so gracious as when it holds back the sword of justice from the most vile and worthless, and rescues its victim as "a brand plucked out of the fire." He who left Pharaoh an unconverted man, and in his rightful and adorable sovereignty hardened his heart, that "his name might be known in all the earth," often, to make his great name known, takes the heart of stone away from the most obdurate and hardened of our race, that it may turn to him for "a name of joy, a praise, and an honor before all the nations of the earth."
Another end to be answered by such dispensations of Divine grace, is to afford encouragement to all men, without exception, to come to Jesus Christ. If the greatest sinners may be saved, none may despair. If there be grace for the worst who come to Jesus, then is there sufficient for all. The spell of the great Deceiver is broken, and he may no longer hold men in bondage by the fiend-like suggestion, that they are beyond the reach of mercy. By bringing so many of the most obdurate and guilty to the cross, God would have the world distinctly understand that there is no ground and no room for discouragement. No man may say that his sins are too great to be forgiven. But for what God has said and done in the acceptance of great sinners, thousands who have, on this account, been encouraged to seek religion and come to Christ, never would have dared to approach him. When we hear such a man as Saul of Tarsus say, "It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I AM CHIEF," which of us does not feel the greatest encouragement to repair to the cross? The writer will not easily forget the impression which the following sentence from the forcible writer to whom he just now referred, once made on his own mind—"When one great sinner finds mercy, another great sinner is encouraged to hope that he may find mercy also." It is a simple thought; but there are states of mind in which it is unutterably precious. The great mass of awakened and convinced sinners would be utterly discouraged by a view of their own ignorance, weakness, darkness and wickedness, were it not for just such facts and assurances as these. But who shall be depressed, when he looks at the long catalogue of vile and atrocious offenders, from Adam down to the present hour! "Oh! I am a reprobate. The measure of my iniquity is full. I am just fit for eternal burnings. It is not possible there should be hope for such a sinner!" Who is it that says this? It sounds like a voice from the caverns of despair, rather than from this world of mercy where Jesus wept and died. And who is it that is the prompter to such despondency? It is some dark spirit of the pit. It is not the Spirit of God; it is not the Savior of men; it is not the Bible; nor is it the prompting of those multiplied proofs of the power of grace with which heaven has been filled from our apostate world. God does not save men from tenderness to their own souls merely, but that, through his mercy to them, others may also find mercy. Eternity alone can reveal the number of those who have been kept from sinking into despair, and into hell itself, by those narratives of conversion which have abounded in this land within the past twenty years. If Christ "had rather save than damn" that poor drunkard, that vile debauchee, that hardened infidel, that son of godly parents who has become a very maniac in wickedness, and every one of these is now hoping in his mercy, and adorning that hope by a well-ordered life and deportment; what encouragement is there for me—for you—for all! Never was a truth more fitted to the condition of our lost world than this. Oh, the unspeakable fullness and riches, and sovereignty of grace in the cross! What can the guilty sinner want more? Not until a voice from heaven, calling him by name, and foretelling his dreadful doom—no, not until he has passed the regions of this world of hope, and actually made his bed in hell, may he despair of mercy. Tell me where the vilest sinner is to be found that dwells on God’s footstool; conduct me to his abode of wickedness and gloom; and if it be anywhere this side the grave, I would assure him in God’s name, that he who was lifted up from the earth came to save just such sinners as he. Question not the truth of God. Limit not the infinitude of his mercy. Distrust not his omnipotent power. Reject not his only Son. He is the sinner’s Friend, and his last hope. His language is, "Let him that hears say, Come; let him that is athirst come; and whoever will, let him take the water of life freely."
There is one most beautiful feature in this arrangement of the Divine mercy—it is, the reaction which it exerts upon the mind of the saved sinner himself. "Simon," said our Divine Lord, "I have somewhat to say unto you.—There was a certain creditor which had two debtors—the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay he frankly forgave them both. Tell me, therefore, which of them will love him most? Simon answered and said, I suppose that he to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, You have rightly judged." Great sinners who have found mercy, never forget the love of Christ. They more usually have deeper and more pungent convictions of conscience and of sin, both before their conversion and afterwards, than other men, and are very apt to carry these convictions through all their subsequent life, and with these a befitting and corresponding sense of God’s wonderful love and mercy. David’s convictions of his great sins, as recorded in the fifty-first Psalm, were of this kind; and when he speaks of God’s redeeming mercy, his language partakes of the same strong and deep feeling. "He brought me up out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he has put a new song in my mouth, even praise to our God.—Many, 0 Lord my God, are your wonderful works which you have done, and your thoughts which are to us-ward; they cannot be reckoned up in order unto you—if I would declare and speak of them, they are more than can be numbered." Paul’s convictions were also of the same powerful and overwhelming character. They prostrated him on the ground; shook his whole frame, and produced such internal conflict and agitation, that when he found peace and joy in believing, his love was as ardent as his convictions had been overpowering. Nothing cooled the fervor of his grateful attachment. The sacred flame that was kindled on his way to Damascus, burned brighter and brighter, through darkness, through trial, through the floods and through the flames, until it rose pure from the spot where he received the martyr’s crown, and whence his spirit ascended to receive the crown that fades not away. Ungrateful as the heart of man naturally is, when subdued by grace it is not insensible to the love of the cross. To whom much is forgiven, the same loves much; but "to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little." Show me a man in whom the singleness of purpose which marked the character of Paul is manifest, and in whose whole life is discoverable his fixedness of aim, his all-absorbing consecration, his growing resolution and activity—superior to discouragement and undaunted by enemies, and never relinquishing its object until he has lost the power of exertion—and I will show you the man who, with the buoyant hopes of a Christian, was once a great sinner. The love of Christ constrains him, as it constrained the great apostle, and with him he can say, "Of sinners I am the chief."—"By the grace of God, I am what I am!" Who washed the Savior’s feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head? It was the Mary who loved much, because she had much forgiven. What single church in the world was ever so distinguished for its graces and its conduct, and the light of which shone so brightly, and so long, as the first Christian church that was gathered at Jerusalem? And this church was composed of people who had been preeminently vile, and who had "killed the Prince of life." They were what Bunyan calls "Jerusalem sinners." Great sinners, when once brought to the knowledge of Christ, are for the most part the most shining examples of piety, and stand out before the world for the instruction and comfort of those who fear God and love his Son. Such instances of conversion in a family, in a congregation, or in a town, are "monuments and mirrors of mercy," and they love to "show forth the praises of Him who called them out of darkness into his marvelous light." Our views of our obligations to the Divine mercy are always determined by our views of personal sinfulness. It is not to dissever the remembrance of past sins from the grace that pardons them, and its consequent claims, that great sinners are so often brought to the cross.
There is a single thought with which I will close the present chapter. It is one which will bear to be often repeated. No man is excusable for neglecting so great salvation. It is a great salvation that saves great sinners through so great a Savior. "If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin; but now they have no cloak for their sin." What will his excuse be at the day of judgment, who sees so many of the worst of sinners saved? Will it be that the sin of Adam brought him, without any actual transgression of his own, into a state of sin and misery? He will there see that thousands born in sin like himself, and irresistibly prone to evil, have laid hold of that method of mercy, which, without any consent or doing of their own, forms a wonderful counterpart to the first apostasy. Will it be that he was exposed to peculiar snares and temptations? Will it be that he was depressed, and discouraged by a view of his sins, from seeking the kingdom of God? Will it be that his sins had gained such amazing power over his mind, that it was vain for him to think of becoming a Christian? Will it be that he was so wicked as to be beyond the reach of mercy? Will it be that God was so severe and inexorable that it was useless for him to sue for pardon? Will it be that the cross brought no glad tidings of great joy to such a sinner as he? Will it be that no man who has lived as he has lived, that has so "sold himself to commit deeds of wickedness," that has abused such light and such privileges, that has passed through so many affecting scenes, and for whom so much was done to prevent his falling into perdition, and all in vain, never obtained mercy? No, it will be none of all these. Great multitudes, even viler than he, will then be accepted in the Beloved, while he is cast out. He will see then, that nothing could have destroyed him if he had returned to God through the cross of Christ. Greater sinners than he will rise up in the judgment and protest that he might have been saved as well as they, and upon the same condescending and gracious terms. And what cutting and bitter reflections will then pass through his mind! "Oh, why, why did I not flee to the blood of the cross! Why did I not listen, while it was called to-day! Why did I so often and so long turn a deaf ear to the counsels of heavenly mercy! I was a great sinner; but so were those who ‘washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb;’ and now they are ‘before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple,’ and I am a wretched outcast!"
Bitter, most bitter, will be such reproaches. How true it is that the sinner will be hereafter his own tormentor! He needs no vengeful storm of almighty wrath to crush him, for he is crushed under the burden of his own reproaches. Nor can he escape, any more than he can run away from himself. There will be no mercy for him to think of then, save the mercy he has abused. Truly, that dismal world will be a world of tears. Sighing and sorrow will go up from it, and groans will mingle with its inflicted wrath and anguish.
Think, then, of the cross and his rich mercy, his free, immeasurable, everlasting mercy, whose blood makes the foulest clean. If you are the greatest sinner in the world, then have you the greatest need of Christ, and what is more, the greatest encouragement to come to him. There is room for the greatest sinner, because there is room for the least. The least has sinned enough to perish without an interest in the cross, and the greatest has not sinned so much but the cross may be honored in his salvation.
"My crimes are great, but don’t surpass
The power and glory of your grace—
Great God, your nature has no bound;
So let your pardoning love be found!"
Particular Baptist Reading Group:
The Attraction of the Cross Discussion Page:
Internet Archive Book Page:
The Internet Archive Page above includes a number of full versions of the book in a variety of file types including pdf, epub and Kindle.