Rev. John Kennedy
Preached at Dingwall
This message from God contains, in the form of an oath, a declaration regarding Himself, and, with earnestness most intense, conveys a call to the house of Israel. The declaration and the call are therefore the two things to which the text demands our attention.
I. In considering the declaration, we must first attend to the import and then to the form of it — to what God tells us, and to how He tells it.
1. The import of the declaration. It contains two statements. The first tells, in what He hath not, and the second, in what He hath, pleasure. Let us consider each of these separately.
“I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” And yet the wicked dies. He who saith, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” is He from whom came the message, “O wicked man, thou shalt surely die.” The death of the finally impenitent is taken for granted. It is the mind of God regarding that certain event which the text calls us to consider. This passage gives no countenance to the idea that the death of the wicked is inconsistent with the mercy of God; for we have divine mercy proclaimed right over it. In full view of this awful fact, Jehovah asserts His benevolence. Nor is it required, in order that we may reconcile it with the character of God as He is good, that we think of the death of the wicked as something less calamitous than eternal misery. Surely it is not mere temporary suffering, nor annihilation, over which Jehovah is exhibiting earnestness so intense. Only those who know not sin can be disposed to modify the retribution.
If a stranger, visiting this country, looked in on the homes made wretched by vice, some of which are not very far removed from the palace; or into the cells of our prisons, which are so prominent and so costly as government institutions, throughout our land; or on the sad scene of an execution, at which agents of the crown were present: — would he be justified in coming to the conclusion that our Sovereign was not benevolent — that such a state of things under her government was an evidence of our Queen’s lack of clemency? If the crime, on account of which the wretchedness, the bondage, and the execution were elements in the condition of the kingdom, was ignored, it would be no wonder if a conclusion, adverse to the character of our Queen, were drawn from these facts. But let the crime be taken into account — trace to crime these instances of misery, and then not a shadow of suspicion appears to rest on the throne of our kingdom, nor on the name of our Sovereign. A ruler that would forbid the exact exercise of justice in dealing with crime, would, in effect, be quite as oppressive as the most cruel of all despots. The mercy that winked at crime would produce more calamitous results than the sternest tyranny. Even goodness demands a restraint on crime, and punishment for the convicted criminal.
And let it never be forgotten that the death we are now considering, in relation to the government and character of God, is “the death of the wicked.” We must think of his crime when we think of his death — of his having resisted the will, disowned the authority, dishonoured the name, hated the being, and defied the power of God. Can we think of God as infinite in His being, glory, and goodness, without being constrained to conclude that eternal death is the wages due to all who thus sin against Him? Could we worship a God who, in the full knowledge of what He was, would award a punishment less than this? A God not necessarily to this extent just to Himself, could not be infinite, and could not be worshipped. Such awful justice as finds expression in the eternal death of the wicked, you must discover in the divine mode of government, ere you can either revere or love Him who is “over all.” If you accept in faith the truth of God’s infinity, you must accept as true the awful fact of the eternal death of all the wicked who remain unsaved.
The one pregnant difficulty is the existence of wickedness. While this fact must be assumed, it points to what must, to us, for ever remain an insoluble mystery in its relation to the will of God. But it is due to God, because of His infinite love of righteousness, that His relation to the origin of sin should be regarded without any suspicion; and it is also due to Him, as Supreme Governor, that to His mind alone the perfect rectitude of this relation should appear. It should be deemed enough by us, if to Him the existence of sin appears to be perfectly consistent with all the glory of His holiness and goodness. Into what awful darkness your mind must enter if you presume to attempt to occupy, in relation to this, any position except that of adoring silence! Do not venture, with your imperfect conceptions of the Most High, to imagine that His way of dealing with sin cannot be right, because it appears not so to you. Ignorant of God and, therefore, ignorant of sin, men often venture to pass judgment on the moral government of God, as if they had before them a finite being, dealing with some trivial offence. All error has its root in ignorance of God; all ignorance of what may and should be known of God, in hatred of the light; and all painful difficulty — all feelings that interfere with our adoration of God and our admiration of His ways — in the pride which thrusts us beyond our place as creatures in considering the ways of God. At any rate, the existence of sin furnishes an occasion for the infinite display of the very attributes of God on which it seems to cast a shadow — His holiness and His goodness — and a proof that God alone is necessarily infallible; for it appears that no creature can become so, either in heaven or on earth, except when, by a sovereign exercise of His goodness or of His grace, He involves their life in His own unchangeableness. If the existence of sin forms a dark background before which the glory of Him who alone is immutable all the more brightly appears, let our thoughts regarding its relation to Jehovah’s sovereign will produce the calmness of adoring silence behind the awe which overwhelms us as we think of its moral hideousness and of its everlasting results.
There is no malevolence in God which could be gratified in the death of the creature of His hands. It is not because He delights not in mercy that sin has been permitted to exist, and death has been awarded as its wages. This is sufficiently proved by His providence and by His gospel. Does He not cause His goodness to abound even to the evil and unthankful? Is not the earth, at any rate, a scene on which He makes manifest in His providential dealings with sinful men that He is “long-suffering and slow to wrath?” Each moment between birth and death is a fresh proof of this. And if, after a life made up of moments, each of them brightened by the goodness of God, the wicked dies at last, this calamity must be traced, not to lack of benevolence in God, but to impartial justice. And how ample the proof given in the cross that God hath no pleasure in the death of the wicked! There, the death of wicked persons is seen dissociated from them, and endured by a person who is the only begotten Son of God. There are the deaths of a countless multitude of wicked persons in one great retribution; and in the light of that awful fire, in which the wrath of God is exhaustively expressed, you may read the lesson of this text. They must die, but they so die in Christ that they shall surely live. Their deaths are swallowed up in the death of Him who is their Substitute; and because He alone is crucified they shall live. Here we see God dealing with sin apart from the person of the transgressor; and instead of the guilty criminal there stands at His bar a person who is his only begotten Son. O, how infinitely strong is the proof this affords that it is from impartial justice, and not from malevolence towards the persons of the guilty, that the sentence comes forth which awards death to the wicked!
But there is more than this in the first statement, in God’s declaration regarding Himself, which we have in the text. It tells us that such is the character of God, as revealed in the gospel, that it is impossible for Him to find pleasure in the death of the wicked.
Now, it is not by ignoring the stern aspect of His character presented by the law that you can be enabled to have before your mind the view of His character given in the text. Whatever was, is, and must for ever be, the character of God. He can never cease to be all He was revealed as being in the days of old. And by the law He reveals Himself now, just as He did then. You, as a sinner, have to do with Him under the same aspect of His character, and in the same relation, as Lawgiver and judge, as they who were under the former dispensation. And only in a way which was quite consistent with all He was, and with all He claimed, and with all He threatened, as the God of Sinai — only when His name is so before you, that you can recognise Him by the same glory which made awful the place of His presence on “the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire” — can you possibly attain to hope in His mercy.
Nor is it by concluding that because God is love, therefore He loveth all, that you can have before you the view of His character presented in the text. Beware of being content with a hope that springs from believing in a love of God apart from His Christ, and outside of the shelter of the cross. It may relieve you of a superficial fear. It may excite a feeling of joy and gratitude in your heart. It may beget in you what you may regard as love to God. This love, too, may be the mainspring of very active movements in the bustle of external service; but it leaves you, after all, away from God, ignoring His majesty and holiness, dispensing with His Christ, and enjoying a peace that has been secured by a cheating, instead of a purging, of your conscience. The time was when men openly preached an uncovenanted mercy as the resort of sinners, and laid the smoothness of that doctrine on the sores of the anxious. “Universal love,” in these days in which evangelism is in fashion, is but another form in which the same “deceit” is presented to the awakened. This is something from which an unrenewed man can take comfort. It is a pillow on which an alien can lay his head, and be at peace far off from God. It keeps out of view the necessity of vital union to Christ, and of turning unto God; and the hope which it inspires can be attained without felt dependence on the sovereign grace, and without submitting to the renewing work of God the Holy Ghost.
“God is love;” but when you hear this you are not told what must imply the declaration that He loves all, and that, therefore, He loves you. This tells us what He is, as revealed to us in the cross, and what all who come to Him through Christ will find Him to be. It is on this that faith has to operate. You have no right to regard that love, which is commended in the death of His Son, as embracing you if you have not yet believed. It is only with the character, not at all with the purpose, of God that you have in the first instance to do. What right have you to say that He loves all? Have you seen into the heart of God that you should say He loves you, until you have reached, as a sinner, through faith, the bosom of His love in Christ? “But may I not think of God loving sinners without ascribing to Him any purpose to save?” God loving a sinner without a purpose to save him! The thing is inconceivable. I would reproach a fellow-sinner if I so conceived of his love. Love to one utterly ruined, and that love commanding resources that are sufficient for salvation, and yet no purpose to use them! Let not men so blaspheme the love of God. “But may I not conceive of God as loving men to the effect of providing salvation, and to the effect of purchasing redemption for them, without this being followed out to the result of His purpose taking actual effect in their salvation?” No, verily. For the love of God is one, as the love of the Three in One. The one love of the One God is the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. If that love generated in the person of the Father a purpose to provide, and in the person of the Son a pupose to redeem, it must have generated in the person of the Holy Ghost a purpose to apply. You cannot assign one set of objects to it, as the love of the Father, and a different set of objects to it, as “the love of the Spirit.” And there can be no unaccomplished purpose of Jehovah. “My counsel shall stand,” saith the Lord, “and I will do all my pleasure.” “The world,” which the Father loved and the Son redeemed, shall by the Spirit be convinced “of sin, righteousness, and judgment,” and thus the Father’s pleasure shall prosper, and the Son’s “travail” be rewarded, through the efficient grace of God the Holy Ghost.
You have no right to attempt to look in on the relation of Divine love to individuals till first you attain, through faith, to a place among His children. “Secret things belong unto the Lord;” do not, then, try to share them with Him. In considering the doctrine of the text you have nothing to do with the question — “Does God love the wicked?” It is on the character of God that you are called to look, as He hath revealed this in the cross of His dear Son. You have no right to be influenced in judging of Divine procedure by preconceived ideas of Divine counsels, or of God Himself, but by the glory of His name, as He hath been pleased to reveal it. He does not tell me that He loves the wicked; but I am assured, when I look on Him as “He is love,” that He hath no pleasure in his death. The fullest exhibition of His character, and the overwhelming proof of His having no pleasure in the death of the wicked, are given to us in the cross of Jesus Christ. “Yes,” you say, “but it is in fulfilling a sovereign purpose of grace that He has revealed Himself there.” True, but it is infinite love which He has revealed. It is by this display of His love that you are to judge of the way in which it shall fare with you, if you come to Him in response to His call. Faith has infinite love on which to operate, in order to your encouragement. For, whatever be His purpose, it is abundantly evident that “God is love.” That is the character of Him to whom you are called to return. That is the view presented to you of Him to whom you are called to return, and it is with this that you have to do. And when you think of the special purpose in fulfilling which He has so revealed Himself, you may be all the more encouraged to return; for it is this which assures you that a salvation both free and sure awaits you when you come. The “purpose according to election,” while casting no shade on the infinity of the love, is a guarantee for the certainty of the salvation which you are called to accept. For a people, whom, in providing salvation for them, He accounted worthy of death, He gave His only begotten Son, that, buying them by His blood, He might save them by His power. You are called to meet that love in the Son as Jesus the Christ, and to present yourself on His blood as a suppliant for all the blessings of the covenant of grace. What more can you desiderate? What element of encouragement is wanting, in this form of doctrine, which any of the systems of evangelical theology, or all of them together, can supply?
But, He tells us in what He hath pleasure — “that the wicked turn from his way and live.” The repentance of the wicked is an occasion of delight to God; for it is the first acknowledgment of His being “the true God;” the first tribute to His godhead from the creature of His hand; the first movement of a lost one from “the wrath to come;” the first rupture between him and that abominable thing which God hateth; the first act of homage to His Anointed, who is also His Son; the first fruit of the Spirit’s work of grace — it is grace returning to the fountain whence it came, and bringing a “wretched and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” sinner back to be “filled” with “all the fulness of God.”
Repentance is the turning of the wicked “from his way.” To this he was attached before, for in this he gratified the evil desires of his heart. But from “his own way,” as well as from all besides that is sinful, the true penitent turns to God. But he cannot do so without bringing the guilt and the source of his wandering with him when he comes. And he turns to God. To Him he desires to come, to be a debtor for forgiveness to his mercy, and for salvation to His grace, and to consecrate himself without reserve to His service. And he comes through Christ to God, for He is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” and “no man cometh to the Father but by Him.” He, as “the way,” is all that God, in the interest of His glory, can desiderate, and that is required to make him perfectly suited to the sinner’s case. He who is “the way” is “the Word” “made flesh,” made sin, and made a curse. Through His flesh, rent because of sin and by the execution of the curse, “a new and living way” was opened unto “the holiest.” The entrance of this way is near to sinners in the Gospel — so near, that though the sinner can be brought near to it, it cannot be brought nearer to him. This way, no one but a sinner of our race may enter. It suits none else, and none besides is called. And his being a sinner is all regarding himself that is known to him who returns to God. It is not as a penitent, it is not as a loved one, it is as a “wicked” one, with all the guilt of his evil ways, and with all the corruption of the old heart, that he comes. And when, as such, he comes to God through Christ for salvation from all sin, “there is joy in heaven over” him.
And it is pleasant to God that the penitent should “live;” and He secures that live he shall, and live for ever. Finding the Son, he finds life, for he finds in Him a righteousness in which he is set free from condemnation, and has a right to all the bliss that flows from the favour of God. He has now a principle of spiritual life in him, and the Spirit of life Himself to preserve and perfect it; and even now, foretastes of life may be his through faith; while beyond, in the full view of God, and before the wistful gaze of his own dimmed eye, are the rest and bliss, and glory of the perfect life in heaven.
There are three reasons, each infinitely strong, why this should be pleasing to God. As our greatest pains and pleasures reach our hearts through their love, the measure of love must indicate the capacity for joy. But who can conceive what must be the gladness, resulting from the gratification of infinite love! And there is a threefold love of God, through the gratification of which He receives pleasure from the penitence and life of God.
(1.) His infinite love to His people. He embraces one whom He infinitely loves, when the repenting sinner reaches the bosom of His mercy. The loved one was lost, and the loved one was dead; and now the loved lost is found, and the loved dead is alive. It was only because this was ever present to His eternal mind, that Jehovah could have rested in His love to His chosen. But now the event is actual, and the divine joy is made known throughout all heaven. O, think of joy in heaven over one whose sins made the Son of God “a man of sorrows!”
(2.) His infinite love to His Anointed One. Each case of conversion is an instalment of reward to Him for doing the will, and glorifying the name, of Him who sent Him. The Father loveth Him because He laid down His life that He might take it again; and this love he expresses in fulfilling the promise, “He shall see of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied.” This He sees when He sees “His seed” — when the Father draws sinners unto Him, and follows this up by giving them, in Him, “all spiritual blessings” according to His intercession. The bestowal of such a reward, on such a One, must, to God, be the occasion of infinite delight.
(3.) His infinite love to Himself, and to righteousness. “God is love.” He is so when contemplated in the unity of the eternal Godhead. But love requires an object; and He Himself who is love is the first object of the love He is. It is because His own infinite moral glory is ever present to His conscience, that, through His love, it yields to Him who is “over all” such delight that He is “blessed for ever.” And “God is love” as subsisting in a Trinity of Persons. “The Father loveth the Son,” and that Son is, and ever was, “daily His delight.” “I love the Father,” saith the Son, and I was “rejoicing always before Him.” And the Holy Spirit, who “proceedeth from the Father” and from the Son, lovingly fulfils the purpose of the Father through the Son. O, infinitely holy sphere! O, sphere of infinite loving — the unapproachable sphere of the interrelations and fellowship of the Father Son, and Holy Ghost! And “God is love” to righteousness in His relation to His moral government. And when He makes manifest that He is love to His people, He does so in such a way as to secure that in their salvation there shall appear to His view, to His infinite delight, all to which He is love — as to afford an opportunity of expressing what He is as love to Himself, what the mutual love of the Trinity is, and how He loveth righteousness.
How the beauty of His holiness, to which He is love, appears in its having pleased Him to bruise His well Beloved, that there might be healing to diseased, and peace to guilty sinners! How infinite must be His delight in this display of His glory, and how intent He must be on the salvation in securing which this joy was occasioned! Never did so much of His glorious character appear in any of His works as in the cross of Christ; but all this came forth in the prosecution of a scheme which bore on the salvation of sinners. True, all redemption work is before us on the cross. But the ulterior bearings of that work must be considered. Actual salvation is the terminating part of the divine scheme of grace, and each step of it must be brightened with the glory that shone forth in the course which led to it. If “truth met with mercy” in the cross, it was with a view to their coming forth together, from the presence of God on His throne, in the glad-tidings of the Gospel, to guide a sinner unto “the holiest,” where alone He can obtain the blessing. If “righteousness and peace embraced each other,” it was with a view to His being righteous to Christ, in giving peace, for His sake, to those who deserved to die. The infinite display, already given, finds its complement in a work of grace. To this new occasion of expressing Himself, He comes in all the glorious brightness of His name, as revealed in the cross. And in how many ways, in His work of grace, resulting in the penitence and life of the wicked, He manifests the glory of His power, wisdom, faithfulness, holiness, and love!
And how salvation furnishes an opportunity of exhibiting the mutual love of the Persons of the Godhead! The Father’s love to the Son appears in His having delivered all things into His hand; and you are called to look, in the light of the Gospel, on this demonstration of that wondrous love. And the Son desired that the world should know how He loved the Father, by His obedience unto death, even the death of the cross. O, infinite wonder, that the blood which tells you there is peace for a sinner, is the demonstration which the Son has given to the universe of His love to the Father! And the Spirit, as the Comforter, takes the things of Christ, and of the Father, and, in fulfilment of the Father’s purpose, and of the design of the Son’s death, shows them to the sinners who are made heirs of salvation!
And how exhaustive, even as a revelation of divine glory, is the expression of His love of righteousness given in the death of His Son! The sins of a people eternally beloved, are imputed to Him who is His only-begotten Son; and for those sins, even He dies the death of the cross! O, how could any other exercise of justice, or all acts of justice that can occur in the course of His moral government together, express His love of righteousness as the atoning death of His dear Son hath done? Only once did He, in the exercise of retributive justice, deal with one who was His fellow,” and only then could He, in one final transaction, give an exhaustive display of His righteousness. O sinner, all that God is, as He “is love,” takes side with His mercy, when He receives and blesses him who, at His call, comes to Him through Christ crucified!
2. The declaration is in the form of an oath — “As I live, saith the Lord.” It is meet that such a declaration should have such a form, for thus only could earnestness, springing from infinite love, express itself fitly in words. What a proof this gives you of God’s intense desire that you should believe what He declares! He swears by Himself in declaring to you that He hath no pleasure in your death, but that He hath pleasure in the repentance and life of all who turn to Him. Ought you not to fear remaining an unbeliever after all? Is this divine earnestness to be met by indifference? Does this wave, coming from the divine sphere, in the eager movement of a solemn oath, strike on adamant when it reaches you? Can you dare to dash it back by presenting to it a heart of stone? Are you to be unmoved and callous before this display of divine earnestness infinitely intense? Are you to sleep on while this oath from heaven, uttered by the voice of God, strikes on your ear? For, does He not give Himself, in all the reality of His being and glory and blessedness, as security for the truth of His declaration? How real to God He Himself is! But as He consciously lives in what He is, as infinite, glorious, and blessed, so is He true in the declaration of the text. What higher, firmer ground of assurance can even God give you than this? O sinner, it is enough! You might suspend on this ten thousand times ten thousand souls, each one as lost as the one soul you have, and you would run no risk. O, yield not to the unbelief that would dare to prefer a charge of perjury against Him for whom it is impossible to lie!
And does He not give Himself, in all the infinite resources that are His as God, in pledge of action, according to the declaration of the text? Does not this suffice? Can more be asked? He shall cease to have, He shall cease to be, ere He can fail to be the God of salvation to you, if you return to Him at His call. O, what condescension is here! O, how can you be at ease while the infinite Jehovah is thus in intensest earnestness bending over you? O, lie in the dust before Him, as He approaches you in this marvellous act of condescension, and allow Him to lay the weight of His oath on your heart, to press out of it all its doubts regarding His truth and grace!
II. The Call.
From out of the midst of divine glory, from off the divine throne of grace, and intense with divine earnestness, comes the call to the house of Israel — “Turn ye, turn ye, from your evil ways.” Whence, whether, how to turn, are the questions which these words require us to consider.
1. Whence? “From your evil ways.” Every way in which you depart from the fellowship and service of God is “evil.” Forsaking God is the great evil. It appears so to God as He looks on His own infinite glory, and on the provision of His everlasting love. How — because of His love to Himself and of His zeal for His own glory — His holy indignation must rise into infinite flame against that sin on the part of the creature of His hand! And how wonderful it is that, in the full view of all that evil, and in His immovable resolution to deal out to all sin a full retribution according to justice, He should call the sinner from his evil ways, to be embraced on the bosom of His mercy! But the call is issued through the rent flesh of His own dear Son. The precious blood of His Lamb is before Him, as He calls the sinner from his evil ways; and to the praise of all His name, He can call the sinner to His mercy-seat. What the great High Priest presents meets all His holy indignation as it demanded expression in the infliction of the curse; and in gracious dealing for His sake with the wicked it can be brought to bear, as consuming fire, on the sin whence sprang the guilt which atoning blood removed.
“From” all “your evil ways” you are called to turn; for there can be no turning unto God if there is any reserve of sin. Each evil way is opposed, by an infinite contrariety, to the will of God. Sometimes, the conscious reserve is reduced, under the pressure of conscience, to one evil way. What eager cries come from the flesh for that one, and only that one, reserve! And what attempts will be made to come to terms with God while still cleaving to some darling sin? But it may not be. All sin must be forsaken by the will that inclineth Godwards. How can divine holiness admit of any reserve? To cover any sin with your embrace is to place yourself naked before the sword of God. He must strike at sin. O, beware lest He strike at sin through you! Come forth in your desire, away from, quite out of, all sin, to God. “Cut off your right hand,” “pluck out the right eye,” rather than pass on to the fire that never shall be quenched. And how can divine grace admit of a reserve? Salvation from all sin is the boon which grace confers. Nought less than this can express its bounty, and nought less than this can suffice for you. Less than this you cannot have from the hand of God. He cannot give you salvation to the dishonour of the law of Christ, as the one authoritative rule of life. His holy grace undertakes yet to give to the law, even in that form, its claims in full; and it begins to do so by bringing a sinner with a heart broken from all sin under its holy yoke.
“But must I rid myself of my guilt and of my evil heart before I come back to God?” Verily not. You are called to come as you are, in the midst of your evil ways, with all the guilt that lieth on you and with all the fountain of evil in you. Burdened and filled with sin, having no righteousness to cover your persons, and no excuse to hide your guilt; and while there is nothing in all your consciousness but sin, all over and all through — with no ability yours but the full power to transgress — you are called to receive all the pardoning mercy and all the saving grace you need.
2. Whither? To Himself God calls you. To Himself as revealed in the declaration going before — to Himself as on His throne of grace — to Himself through Jesus Christ. Beware of a Godless Christianity as well as of a Christless religion. Souls, having only the uneasiness caused by the fear of death, are anxious only for something that will take their blind dread away. They have not known God in His awful glory as Lawgiver and judge, and they care not to realise Him in the person of the Saviour. They feel not their need of a divine Saviour to remove the guilt, and to subdue the power, of sin. And they ask not to be admitted, under the Spirit’s teaching, into the mystery of the cross, to see a way for sinners unto God. The glory shining from the face of Jesus draws them not through the Mediator unto God. And they shrink from the pressure of divine authority on their conscience. But “he that believeth on me,” saith Christ, “believeth not on me but on him that sent me.” By Christ you must “believe in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, that your faith and hope might be in God.” “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Believing thus, God shall be before you in such an aspect of His character and in such a relation to sinners through Christ — in such marvellous love and in such readiness to bless you when you come — that you will be sweetly subdued into compliance with His call, and you cannot choose but to come. Divine glory, shining from the face of Jesus on a quickened soul, melts the heart, and causes it to flow down to the footstool of the throne of mercy. And the very view of God which wins his confidence secures the homage of the penitent. He must appreciate His awful righteousness, as displayed in the cross, as well as realise His majesty, ere he can have hope. And what he requires to encourage him suffices to subdue him into an unreserved surrender of his whole being to God. The life that moves toward Him in hope bows to His sovereign will and lies in adoring worship at His footstool.
3. How? In willingness to accept the terms proposed by God as terms of salvation and of service. Even if you feel that you cannot come back to God — that unless He, in His almighty grace, comes for you, you cannot come to Him — yea, even if you should shrink from asking Him to come — if you only turn in the distant darkness to Him who is the way, and to God through Him, willing to owe Him the turning and drawing that you may come, as well as the blessing when you have come — He “will pour out” His “Spirit unto you, and make known” His “words unto you.” Turning thus, you will verily be debtors to His grace for all you need. And you may be hoping debtors, for He raiseth the poor from the dust, He bringeth the fallen from out of the horrible pit, and He gathereth, as He calleth, outcasts from the very ends of the earth.
Surely, then, God may ask the question, “Why will ye die?” You have this question to answer. The reason for your dying is not on God’s side. He has abundantly shown this. And on your side it is not found in your fall in Adam nor in the ruin resulting from that fall. It is not in your helplessness, for you are called to lie under the gracious power of God to be saved by Him. It is not in the influence of the world, insidious and mighty though that be, for it cannot constrain you to be aliens from God. It is not in the might of the great enemy, nor in the multitude of his hosts, nor in the depth of his cunning, nor in the greatness of his cruelty; for, “strong man” and “murderer” though he be, he cannot for one moment keep you away from Him who calleth you, if you are disposed to come.
“Then why will ye die?” God meets you in the face, where you are, and as you are, with this question. You are bound to give an answer, for only your unwillingness to return can slay you. And are you to remain unwilling? If so, how can you justify yourself? “My unwillingness,” you say, “is just the lack of something which I can only have from God, and if He does not bestow it, then what can I do?” But, friend, do not think of your unwillingness as a mere negation — a blank for God to fill up. It is positive wickedness: it is sinful madness. It is an insult to God, implying contempt of His love, of His Son’s precious blood, of His great salvation, and of His glorious name. To remain unwilling is to remain a rebel, disowning Divine authority, and bidding defiance to Divine power. And are you to choose this, rather than submit to be saved, ruled, and filled by God? “Oh, but my unwillingness is the result of my being in a state of death as an alien from God, under the guilt and power of sin; how, then, can I help myself?” But, friend, the question is not, how can you help yourself, but, will you be indebted for all help to God? Will you die in your pride, even when confessedly helpless, rather than let Christ be “all in all” to you — rather than let the grace of God do all for you? To this point you are shut up, and this leaves your unwillingness exposed in all the nakedness of excuseless rebellion.
“Why will ye die?” Whatever may befall those who never heard the call to return to God, “why will ye die, O house of Israel?” “Line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little,” have been given you, and is death to be your end? But the Gospel has been preached to the Gentiles, and to Gentiles also God hath granted repentance unto life. To each Gospel-hearer, therefore, this question is addressed by God. “The Son of man,” who came “to seek and save that which is lost,” has come to you in your sinful helplessness, offering Himself to be to you all that you need, in order to your everlasting salvation; and, after all, will ye die?
And “why will ye die?” What is there in death that you should choose it rather than life? And yet every sinner who remains impenitent is charged with choosing death. God charges you with this when He addresses to you this question. And you are charged with choosing death because you love it, for He saith “he that sinneth against Me wrongeth his own soul; all they that hate Me love death.” Rejecting the Gospel is sinning against Christ. You cannot do so without wronging your own soul. And this you do because you hate Christ. Not because you are merely indifferent. You would not sin against Him as you do if you were merely indifferent. A consideration of your own interest would turn the scale if there was an even balance. But it is not indifference, but hatred, that is your state of feeling towards Christ. And you cannot hate Him without loving death. “O no,” you say, “I cannot love death — I shrink from shame and agony, and both are implied in death.” True, what you regard as death you would fain escape from. But, in the view of Christ, it is death to be away from God. And you do love to be away from Him. And in loving this, you love death. And such is your love of this that you will not abandon it, though God tells you, and your conscience whispers to you that if you abide an alien you must perish for ever. You know that the death you love is linked to the death of woe from which your conscience makes you shrink, and that you cannot cleave to the former without holding both in your grasp. And you never have at once any portion of time but the passing moment; and on that narrow foothold you always stand at the brink of hell. What you do there is always finally done, for it is done by you on all you have of time. And there you keep fast your hold of that which must bring you down. Even now and there you do so. O “why will ye die?” Is there aught in “outer darkness” to commend it to you, so that you would choose to pass into the midst of it? Or is there aught in the “devouring fire” and the “everlasting burnings” to induce you to “dwell” with them for ever? Care ye to be in the bonds of despair and under the fang of the “worm” that “dieth not.” O, “why will ye” thus “die?” To God, who puts the question, give, if you can dare, the answer. And if you have no answer to give, fall silenced before the footstool of Him who calleth you. But break the silence of excuselessness by a prayer for mercy, and continue to cry till an answer cometh from the mercy-seat, “Turn me, and I shall be turned.”
John Kennedy was born in 1813. He served a charge as a minister of the gospel in the one church he pastored at Dingwall, Scotland from 1844 until his death at the age of 65 in 1884. He was of the true Puritan tradition in that he faithfully preached Christ and Him crucified and the necessity of the grace of God to make a sinner willing to repent of his sins and believe upon the Saviour. The majority of his writings are of his sermons, most of which were written down during the last year of his life. However, he was also an out-spoken critic of the methods of evangelism taught and practiced by D.L. Moody. The heavy emphasis upon the need of a sinner to "make a decision" and the use of the novel “inquiry room” and other novel tactics to gain conversions drew no little attention and objection from Kennedy and others. Thus he stood among his forebearers who rather saw the necessity to speak of the sinner's need of regeneration; a new nature, thus focusing upon the need of divine intervention and grace if one is to be saved.