Chapter 15: The Cross the Preservation from Final Apostasy
Such is the attraction of the cross, that what it once secures it holds fast forever. Those who are once interested in it never lose that interest. Once attracted to it by a true and heaven—imparted faith, they never so break the bond as to be ultimately severed from Christ, and finally perish. There is no falling away from the cross.
This is a truth which is liable to perversion and abuse, and ought therefore to be stated with some clearness and caution. There is no doubt that not a few who profess to have received Jesus Christ, and who are for a time outwardly conformed to the requisitions of the gospel, do ultimately apostatize and perish. To deny this forms no part of the truth we propose to establish. Though, in a well-instructed community, there are comparatively few who, when they make a profession of religion, either intend or expect to renounce their profession, there are, notwithstanding, very many who profess religion, without possessing it, and who, on that account, apostatize from their profession and perish. The word of God, as well as melancholy facts which have taken place under our own observation, show us that the professed disciples of the cross have become apostates, and have renounced both the principles and the duties of Christianity, beyond recovery. But it is no impeachment of the efficacy of the cross, that it does not continue to hold men whom it never held at all. People of this description were never at heart believers in its truths and power. It is perfectly natural for such people to fall away, even from all their false appearances of godliness. It has only "happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire." The exalted Redeemer will say to all such deceivers, when he comes in the clouds of heaven to judge the world, "I never knew you." The true account of all people of this description is given by the apostle in a single sentence—"They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us—but they went out that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us."
Nor is it any part of the truth we propose to substantiate, that true believers in Christ may not and do not fall into great sins. Not only are all of them imperfect in holiness, but too many lose so much of the spirit and power of godliness, as to bring deep reproach upon the sacred name by which they are called. Inward declension almost always leads to outward negligence; while an uncircumspect and untender walk and conversation, are very apt to degenerate into some of the forms of open wickedness. The Spirit of God is often thus grieved away from the bosoms of his own people; and where that fountain of living water within them is at its ebb, or for a time diverted into other channels, not only do the plants of righteousness wither, but noxious weeds spring up in their stead. Where spiritual activity and diligence are superseded by indifference and sloth, where vain desires and inordinate affections after this world shut out the love of God, the fellowship of the soul with Him is interrupted, and the believer for a time exhibits little evidence that he has ever passed from death unto life. Such defections form no part of the Christian character; and while from all such defections every believer is ultimately recovered, from none of them is he infallibly sure of being uniformly and always preserved. The Scriptures nowhere represent his condition as such, that in consequence of his union to Christ, he is in no danger of sinning. Their admonitions imply directly the reverse of this. "Let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall." "Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God." "Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it." "Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief." "You stands by faith. Be not high minded, but fear—for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not you." Admonitions like these would be out of place, if there were no danger. If there ever was a man who was warranted, from the strength and ardor of his piety, and from the assurance of his faith; to live above this cautious and watchful spirit, that man was the apostle Paul. But, so far from bordering on presumption, his language is, and in perfect consistency with his conscious glorifying, in the cross, "I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection—lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway." There is nothing in the nature of holiness to keep good men from falling; for if there were, neither the fallen angels, nor our first parents, would ever have lost their primeval integrity. It would be the highest arrogance for those, who have perfectly conclusive evidence that they are accepted of God, to yield to the temptation that they are in no danger of falling into grievous apostasies. Everything is leagued against them, from within and from without—a heart by nature "deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked"—an alluring and a threatening world—and a powerful, malignant and subtle adversary, watching every avenue through which he may enter and lead them captive at his will. If they do not fall, it is not because there is no danger of falling; for they often stand on slippery places, and where it wants but little to precipitate them into the gulf below. It is with extreme caution that they keep from turning aside, and with great difficulty that they are rescued from the pit. The righteous are scarcely saved.
But while all this is true, and important truth, it is like wise true that "the righteous also shall hold on his way, and he that has clean hands shall be stronger and stronger." What the cross of Christ has done for all true believers, it has done effectually and forever. While many who profess the religion of Christ, and appear outwardly conformed to it, will apostatize and perish; and while true believers may, for a time, be left to themselves and fall into sin, and are always in a condition which calls for unsleeping vigilance; yet will they persevere in holiness to the end, and be infallibly preserved from final apostasy and perdition. This is what I mean, when I say there is no falling away from the cross.
Before I call your attention to the evidence by which this truth is substantiated, it is important to a just view of this truth itself, to show by what power, or influence, believers are thus preserved, and enabled to persevere. On this part of the subject, I desire to do honor to the cross, and to ascribe all glory to its atoning blood, its sanctifying power, and its unchanging faithfulness. No creature, were he ever so holy, can persevere in holiness, independently of Divine power. It belongs to the nature of creatures, to live, and move, and have their being in God. Gabriel does not possess a holy thought independently of his Maker. The unremitting and powerful energy of the great Supreme is the immediate cause of all the holiness—perfected and continued as it is, without intermission and forever—of cherubim and seraphim in the upper sanctuary. Divine power is as necessary for the preservation of right principles and right affections in the heart, as for their original existence. Firm in principle and vigorous in action as the faith of Christians may be—no, though it were a thousand-fold more deeply seated than it is, and though it uniformly pervaded and consecrated all their powers and conduct—it is not so incorruptible and unchanging that, if forsaken of God, they will not fall and perish. Their dependence on all-powerful grace is one of the sweetest and most cheering truths in all the Bible, and is most deeply, and, at the same time, most gratefully felt, when they themselves have most of the spirit of that blessed book. Take from them their dependence on God, and they sink in despair. They are "kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation." Who, that is acquainted with his own heart, has not felt how much more in accordance it is with his own depraved desires to give way than to resist, and to yield the conflict with his spiritual enemies, rather than maintain it! The best of saints would be the worst of sinners, without preventing and sanctifying grace. Of all the trials a good man deprecates, this is the greatest, that God should depart from him! Were their perseverance in holiness dependent on the saints themselves, there is not one among them all that would persevere. Moses would have turned away in disgust from the bright visions of Pisgah, but for this; David would have persevered in adultery and blood, but for this; but for this, Paul would have drawn back to perdition, though within sight of his crown of righteousness. Hence, Moses so earnestly prays, "If your presence go not with us, carry us not up hence!" and David supplicates, "Hold you me up, and I shall be safe;" and Paul expresses the assurance, "The Lord will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom." The Scriptures are full of this truth. "The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord:—though he fall, he shall not utterly be cast down—for the Lord upholds him with his hand." "Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy." What but the fulfilled promise, "My grace is sufficient for you—for my strength is made perfect in weakness," spreading itself before them, like the cloud by day, and shining on their path like the pillar of fire by night, could ever guide the people of God to the heavenly land!
The truth we wish to illustrate, may be made still more plain and unobjectionable, if in addition to the power and Divine influence by which believers in the cross are preserved, we also advert to the means by which they are kept from falling away. There are appointed and appropriate means of their perseverance, as well as an efficient cause; nor may the former be dispensed with any more than the latter. The Scriptures insist on this truth, as itself a component part of the doctrine that there is no falling away from the cross. This is that feature of the doctrine which is overlooked by that class of its opposers, who affirm that it is a doctrine which tends to licentiousness, and one which even the best of men would feel strong temptations to abuse. "He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved." "Be you faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life." "To him that overcomes will I grant to sit with me in my throne." "He that overcomes, and keeps my words unto the end…I will give him the morning star." There is no hope without continued holiness. The believer may not suppose his work is done, because he has found pardon and peace. It is not more necessary that he should come to the cross, than that he should keep at the cross, and live and die by the faith of that finished redemption. There is no Divine purpose or grace to keep him from perdition, if he does not persevere in faith and holiness. His own faith and holiness are themselves the very things to be secured in order to his salvation; nor can there be any salvation without them. It is a disingenuous and perverted view of the truth, to say, that because a man is once in Christ, he is sure to be saved, though he goes away from Christ. The true doctrine is, that once in Christ, always in Christ, and that the only proof and way of being in him at all is to continue in him. "I am the Way," says the Savior. Men are no longer in the way to heaven than they are in Christ, and pursuing the strait and narrow path marked by his footsteps and his atoning blood. The Christian is engaged in a perpetual conflict; and no sooner does he put off his armor, than he is at the mercy of the foe. He must watch and pray, lest he be led into temptation; he must live above the world, and walk with God; he must hunger and thirst after righteousness, and grow in grace, and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. As he advances in years, he must make advances in piety, until his hoary head is a crown of glory, because found in the way of righteousness; nor must he be satisfied until the last vestige of corruption is erased, and he "beholds the face of God in righteousness." Men, therefore, must continue in holiness, or die in their iniquity. God has solemnly declared, "When a righteous man does turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity—he shall die." He may not dismiss his solicitude, because he is once righteous, but must hold on his way. If he be lifted up, and grow presumptuous, because, in some favored hour, he has enjoyed some peculiar tokens of the Divine favor—if he stop where he is, and be satisfied with his present attainments—he will draw back to perdition. He will not gain the price without reaching the goal, nor wear the crown unless he achieve the victory. He must never be satisfied, without pressing forward. "I count not myself to have apprehended," says Paul; "but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." There is no other doctrine of not falling away than that all true believers "are kept by the power of God, through faith unto salvation." A continued faith is the appointed means of perseverance; and to look for the end without the means, is stumbling upon palpable error, walking in darkness, and ignorantly and rudely separating what God has joined together. The design of the cross is to make men holy as God is holy. God would make them meet for his presence, by the continued and progressive influence of the death of his Son. The most confident will lose their confidence, if they work not out their "own salvation with fear and trembling," because it is God that works in them "both to will and to do of his good pleasure."
I have occupied more of your time in these explanatory remarks than I intended, because the illustration makes the proof of our position more intelligible and easy. Our position is, that there is no such thing as finally falling away from the cross. Once in Christ, always in Christ; once justified, always justified. The final perseverance of every true believer is certain. The reasons for this position I will state with as much brevity and simplicity as I can.
We find one of the fallen children of Adam at the cross; penitent, humbled, and believing, at the foot of the cross. He came there, not because it was naturally in his heart to come, for he was once a totally depraved being, and hated nothing so much as the holy salvation procured by God’s crucified Son. Salvation was freely offered to him through the cross, but he would not accept it; nor did he accept it until God, by his own almighty power, created within him a new heart and a new spirit, and transformed his character from death in trespasses and sins to spiritual life. He is God’s workmanship created anew in Christ Jesus, "after the image of him that created him." Now, is there any reason to believe that God would thus have made bare his arm to awaken, convince, and renew this once depraved creature, and conduct him to the cross of his Son, and give him joy and peace in believing, only to suffer him, at some future period, to break away from the cross and perish? Is it thus that the God of heaven honors and magnifies the riches of his grace toward guilty men? Would he do all this, unmoved and uninduced by a single trait of excellence in the sinner, and from mere compassion toward him as self-ruined and condemned; and, now that he has imparted to him a portion of his own loveliness, leave his work unfinished, and suffer him to sink unrecovered, and irrecoverably, into deeper sin, and a deeper damnation? Is such the method of grace revealed in the gospel? Is this the extent of God’s compassions? Does he do no more than introduce men, in all the weakness and ignorance of their spiritual infancy, into his own family, and then leave them to go alone and stumble, and fall, and perish? Or does he, now that he has led them so far, pledge himself never to leave nor forsake them? to keep them as the apple of his eye, to nourish and bring them up as children, and fit them for his heavenly kingdom? Which were the most like God? I read in the Scriptures such declarations as these—"Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end." "The gifts and calling of God are without repentance." "The Lord forsakes not his saints—they are preserved forever." "In whom also after that you believed, you were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession." "Being confident of this very thing, that he which has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ." And what do they teach us, if not that the God of love never leaves his own work unfinished, and that what he begins with grace he ends in glory? It would be a new view of God, to my own mind, that he ever abandons those whom he has once united to his Son. It is, I am persuaded, a view unauthorized by the Scriptures. There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents; but the joy would be premature, if he had entered on a course that might, after all, terminate in the chambers of death. Strange that the dream should ever have been told, that the grace of God, so wonderful and so unchanging, does not preserve and secure the triumphs it has once achieved.
Take now another view of this same general thought. This regenerated and believing sinner, so lately brought to the cross, is pardoned and justified. By faith in the cross of Christ, he not only possesses a different character from that he once possessed, but is brought into new relations. He is no longer under the law, but under grace. He is in a state of grace—a justified state. From the moment of his believing, the sentence of condemnation which he had incurred by his transgressions is removed; he is judicially absolved from punishment; his debt to Divine justice is paid; and a righteousness is imputed to him which answers every demand of the law of God. He is reinstated in the favor of his once offended Sovereign, and entitled to all the immunities of his kingdom. He is united by a living faith to the Savior, and has become one with him, as the branches are united to the vine, and the members of the body to its head. The precious faith by which he is thus united to the living Vine he "obtained through the righteousness of God, and our Savior Jesus Christ." Now, how does the notion of falling away from the cross accord with this justified state of every believer? Paul, in speaking of this condition of all true believers, uses the following language—"Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in the hope of the glory of God." He regards the believer’s justification as a permanent reinstatement in the Divine favor; and he goes on to reason strongly and conclusively in support of his position. His argument is this—If God gave his Son to die for men, while they were yet enemies to him, how much rather, now that they are become his friends, shall he save them through his death! "God commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him." In perfect accordance with this are all the representations of justification which are given in the Bible. God never forgives one of the sins of his people, without forgiving them all. When he once forgives them, there is no more condemnation. "Their sins and iniquities will I remember no more." Justification is represented as being unto life, to life eternal. "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,…for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death." Is the hypothesis to be allowed, that those who bear so near a relation to Jesus Christ as to be the members of his own body, will ever perish? or is it more in accordance with what we know of him to believe the encouraging assurance, "Because I live, you shall live also!"
The faith which was at first through his righteousness, will, through his righteousness, be perpetuated to the last; and the union which it once forms with him will never be dissolved. Such is the obvious teaching of the Scriptures. "He that believes shall be saved." If, as we have already seen, none will be saved without persevering in holiness, and if all who believe shall be saved, then all who believe shall persevere in holiness. God has given this promise the solemn and emphatic form of a covenant—a covenant "ordered in all things and sure," and pledging to his people "the sure mercies of David." Read his own interesting description of that covenant—"Behold, the days come, says the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers—but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel—After those days, says the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.—And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they SHALL NOT depart from me." In writing to the Hebrews, Paul speaks of this covenant not only as a new covenant, but a "better covenant," and established upon "better promises," than the covenant of Sinai. The covenant at Sinai was a pledge of the Divine favor so long as the Israelites persevered in their obedience, but did not promise persevering obedience itself; but this new covenant contains this "better promise," and this promise constitutes its great preeminence. A justified state is one of the promises of this covenant—a promise made to faith as the revealed condition of its blessings. The great and primary condition of that covenant was the sufferings of the cross; and it has been fulfilled, and "by one offering he has perfected forever them that are sanctified." But there is a subordinate condition fulfilled by believers themselves in those transactions into which faith enters with their great Surety, and this also has been fulfilled. Nothing can be more to our purpose than the declarations of the apostle, urging the encouragements of this gracious covenant, when he says, "The just by faith shall live—but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of those who believe to the saving of the soul." If there be such a final falling away from this state of justification, what is the import of such declarations as the following? "He that believes on Him that sent me has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life." "This is the will of him that sent me, that every one which sees the Son, and believes on him, may have everlasting life—and I will raise him up at the last day." "Whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified." "Faithful is he that calls you, who also will do it." "For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from you, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, says the Lord that has mercy on you."
But there is a view of the believer’s permanent hold of the cross, which relates to the great Sufferer himself, and which furnishes evidence certainly not less satisfactory of the truth we are considering. The Savior himself has a chartered right to the final perseverance in holiness, and the ultimate salvation of every sinner who once truly believes in him. It is a right guaranteed to him in the ages of eternity, and purchased and sealed by his atoning blood. "When you shall make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed—he shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied." Paul speaks of those who have the "hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began." To whom was the promise of eternal life made, before the world began? Not certainly to men, because they were not in existence; but to Jesus Christ, for all who should thereafter believe on him, and who were thus early given to him as the reward of his sufferings and death. He did not lay down his life for nothing, nor for a reward that was indefinite. It was "to the intent that now, unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church," which he redeemed, "the manifold wisdom of God," and his triumphant victory over the prince of darkness. Had the success of his great work been dependent on the ungoverned will of man, none would have accepted his salvation; or had it been dependent on their own fickle and faithless minds, when once accepted, there would have been no security that those who once came to him would not finally be cast out. And did he descend from heaven, and pour out his soul unto death, on any such uncertain and dubious enterprise? or had he the promise, before he left the bosom of his Father, of the conviction, the conversion, the faith, and the final perseverance and salvation of a great multitude which no man can number, not one of whom should furnish occasion, by ultimate apostasy, for the fiend-like exultation that the great Conqueror is spoiled of his reward? Nor was this great promise ever lost sight of by the Son of man, but often adverted to while he was on the earth. "All that the Father gives me," says he, "shall come to me; and him that comes to me I will in no wise cast out." "You have given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as you have given him." "I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand." "Father, I will that they also whom you have given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which you have given me!" Here lies the security against their falling away. The suffering Savior has a claim upon those who is respected in heaven and which he is able to enforce. We say of the cross, what a remarkable man once said of one of its kindred doctrines—"I understand, sir," said a friend, to the late sir Rowland Hill, "that you hold that terrible doctrine of election." "It is a mistake," replied sir Rowland; "I do not hold election, election holds me." Believers hold the cross, because the cross holds them. I do not see that the Savior has any security for the salvation of those thus given to him, if the doctrine of falling away be admitted. If one may fall away, all may fall away. The charter may be violated, and he may lose his reward, unless the grace of his cross hold them fast and forever. There are obliquities in their course, but his faithfulness is pledged to rectify them; there are sins to which they are exposed and will commit, but that same faithfulness will purge them away. "I have made a covenant with my chosen," says the Holy One of Israel; "I have laid help upon One that is mighty; I have exalted one chosen out of the people.—His seed also will I make to endure forever. If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; if they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes; nevertheless, my loving-kindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail."
The Father’s engagement with the Son was a bona fide engagement; and so long as God is on the throne, and is able to control the hearts, and govern the condition and destiny of his children, their unfaithfulness shall never be allowed to "make the faith of God without effect." Dangers may stand thick around all the paths they are traveling, and they may often tremble lest they should fall by the hand of the enemy; but from that altar of intercession, he who bled on Calvary looks down and says to them, "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!"Nor could there be any such thing as the full assurance of hope, in this covenant and promises, if believers ultimately fall. No present evidence of a change of heart, be it ever so convincing; no consciousness of love to God and faith in his Son, be it ever so strong and infallible; no indications of a pardoned and justified state be they ever so conclusive; could warrant that full assurance of hope possessed by the saints of the Old Testament and the New, expressed by Abraham, sung forth so often and so devoutly by David, and gloried in by Paul, had there been any uncertainty as to their holding out to the end. No living man can know that he will not at last lie down in hell, if he once admits the hypothesis that he may fall away. The assurance and certainty of salvation, so often enjoyed, and so uniformly required in the Scriptures, were a state of mind absolutely impossible, were not the attraction of the cross powerful enough to keep all whom it once attracts.
Let this great doctrine of the cross, then be, as it was designed to be by its Author, for the comfort and edification of all who truly fear God and love his Son. Here, Christian, is the pledge of your security. "Cursed be the man that trusts in man—and whose heart departs from the Lord!"Go on your way, and rejoice as you go. The cross of your Redeemer is not so powerless as to be unable to keep you from falling, and present you faultless before the presence of his glory, with exceeding joy. The feeblest lamb is safe, once housed within the fold of the great Shepherd. There is no uncertainty as to the issue of this spiritual conflict, though it be sharp and long. Despondency is not one of the elements of advancement. Christ received is heaven begun. He who is the Author is also the Finisher of your faith. Away with your discouragements, and look to Jesus. Away with your weakness, and look to Jesus. Away with your darkness, and look to Jesus as the light of life. Look back to him on the cross; look up to him on the throne; look forward to him at his second coming. Your Savior, your Counselor, your Righteousness, your strength, the Captain of your salvation, your portion hung on that cross, is now on that throne, and will soon come to judge the world in righteousness. If you have Christ, you have all. Heaven itself is not so great a gift as God’s own Son. "What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?"
Nor is it less in keeping with the whole design and spirit of the truth here presented, that we say to you that there is no well-grounded hope in Christ, without perseverance in holiness. I entreat you to give this thought that place in your hearts which it deserves. Past efforts, past hopes, past experience, will be of little avail, if you now become weary, or ever cease to remember that "he that endures to the end, shall be saved." In retirement and in the world, therefore, in prosperity and in adversity, on the mount and in the valley, "watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation." You will have "manifold temptations," and trials of your faith; "therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into that rest, any of you should seem to come short of it."
Nor may I conclude this chapter, without a word of affectionate admonition to those who are still out of Christ. My beloved friends, if all true believers must and will endure to the end, in order to be saved, what will become of you? If "the righteous," though saved, saved infallibly and forever, are saved with so much effort, "where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?" You have come in sight of the cross, and have turned from it. You have to begin and persevere to the last, and you have not yet entered upon the path that leads to life. You have to fight the good fight of faith, and you are not only without your armor, but asleep on the field. And can you hope to reach the goal, to gain the victory, and wear the crown? When so much is to be done, can you be safe in doing nothing? Oh, when will you receive Christ Jesus the Lord, and enter upon that course in which you have something more than human assurance, that you shall hold on to the end? Once in Christ, always in Christ—what a motive is this to seek an interest in him! No falling away from the cross—what a motive is this to flee to the stronghold, as prisoners of hope!
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