“They shall he as though I had not cast them off.” — Zechariah x. 6.
You all know how God did, for a time, cast off his ancient people. Both Israel and Judah, after long provocation of Jehovah, were carried away captive into the land of their enemies. God forsook his temple, and that glorious sanctuary was laid in ruins. The whole land was given up to be the prey of the cruel foe, and the inhabitants themselves were carried into captivity beyond the rivers of Babylon, and sorely were they afflicted. They had greatly sinned, and heavy was their punishment. But now, by the mouth of the prophet Zechariah, God talks to them of mercy; and, as a choice note in the message of mercy, he says that he will restore them to their old estate, and they shall be as though he had never cast them off. It is a wonderful promise; I pray that it may sound like heavenly music in the ear of many a backslider.
In commencing my sermon, I draw your attention to the preceding clause of the verse: “I have mercy upon them.” Learn from this that the only terms upon which God can deal with guilty men are terms of mercy: “I have mercy upon them.” Therefore, my friend, if you would be saved, do not try to deal with God upon the footing of justice. If you do, you will have first to say that you have never sinned, and that will be a lie. You will not be able to prove that assertion; your lips, your eyes, your heart, your hands, your whole conduct, will all be witnesses against you, and you must admit that you have sinned. It may be that you will then try to find some excuse for your sin. You say, perhaps, that you could not help it. But you might have helped it; you ought to have helped it. Or, possibly, you will try to make out that your sin is very little. But your conscience knows that it is not little; if any one sin has been little, — and I do not think that is possible, — you have added so many other evils to these grains of sin that you cannot count them, and your transgressions are multiplied upon you. No, you will never make out a good case if you appeal to God’s justice; for justice will try you, and condemn you, and cast you off. God will not deal with you on those terms. Confess that you are guilty; ask him for his mercy’s sake to pass over your guilt, plead with him for his dear Son’s sake to blot it out, and he will yield to such pleading as that, and he will deal with you in the way of mercy.
From the clause which follows my text I learn another lesson. The Lord says: “They shall be as though I had not cast them oh: for I am the Lord their God, and will hear them.” From these words I gather that one of the surest tokens that mercy is about to be received is prayer: “I am the Lord their God, and will hear them.” But God would not hear them if they did not pray; so, if you wish to know whether God is about to bless you, answer this question, — Do you feel that you want to pray? Is your heart beginning to cry to God even now? Then he will hear you, and, hearing you, he will have mercy upon you. I care not what else there is about you that seems hopeful, if it cannot be said of you, “Behold, he prayeth,” there is no solid ground for hope. But if, bowing your head in the pew at this moment, or even sitting still just as you are, you are saying in your heart, “Lord, have mercy upon me! Lord, save me!” this is a blessed token that the angel of mercy is close at hand. I trust, ere this service is over, you will be saved, and have cause to praise and magnify the Lord for his great mercy toward you.
Now to come to the text itself, if we are dealing with God upon the footing of mercy, and if we have begun to pray, then this is what we may expect at his hands, for he has given the promise, “They shall be as though I had not cast them off.” I am going to take the text, first, in its general application to all repentant sinners, and then, secondly, in its special application to all backsliders. I have many things to say, and therefore I must speak but briefly upon each point.
I. First, then, applying the text, IN GENERAL, TO ALL REPENTANT SINNERS. I say to every unsaved man and woman in this great assembly, if you will come to God by prayer, with faith in Jesus Christ, God will receive you, and you shall be as though you had never fallen through your sin, and had never been cast off by God. At the present moment, as an unconverted sinner, you are far off from God by wicked works, and his Word declares that you are “condemned already;” but he is prepared to restore you to all the dignity which manhood had before the Fall. He is prepared to give back that which he took not away, and to make you even as unfallen man was and would have been now; ay, and to give you something even more noble and glorious than Adam ever possessed.
For, first, he is prepared to make a clean sweep of all your sins. In virtue of the sacrifice of Christ, God stands ready now to take the pen, and strike out the record of all your transgressions. If thou believest in Jesus, thou shalt be as though thou hadst never sinned. When the prodigal son came back, and his father had kissed him, he was to his father as if he had never gone away, as if he had never wasted his substance in riotous living. His father had him once more at home, and he loved him as much as he loved the elder brother, loved him as much as if he had never grieved him in all his life. What say you to this? This privilege is proffered to you also in the gospel of God; if you believe in Christ Jesus, your sins shall be as though they had never been committed, and you yourself shall be as dear to God as if you had always kept his law perfectly.
That is good news for guilty sinners, but there is more to follow, for God is both able and willing also to renew your nature. He will make you as though he had not cast you off. He will come and take away that heart of stone out of your flesh, and then on that heart of flesh he will write his law, and he will put his fear in your heart so that you shall eventually be as though he had never cast you off. I mean, that the blessed processes of regeneration and sanctification shall begin in your heart, if you believe in Christ, and the Holy Spirit shall go on working in your heart, and you shall advance in the spiritual life from glory unto glory till, one of these days, you shall be as pure as an angel, as holy as God himself, and you shall open your eyes, and see God; and in heaven itself you shall understand the words of the Lord Jesus, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” Sinner, you are lost, and you are sinking down, down, down, through the defilement of your nature; but the Holy Spirit can come and change that nature, so that you shall rise, and rise, and rise, till, when Christ appears, you shall be like him, for you shall see him as lie is. Is not this a glorious gospel that we have to preach to every soul that will repent of sin, and believe in Christ? To penitent sinners, God gives the blotting out of their sin and the renewal of their nature.
This is not enough, however, if we are to regain all we have lost. When Adam sinned, he lost paradise; but God will give a better paradise to sinners who repent. Shall it be with you as though God had not cast you off? Oh, yes; there is another paradise into which Christ will introduce you in due time; and you shall have a foretaste of it, even while you are here, in the perfect peace and rest which he will give to your heart, for—
“The men of grace have found
Glory begun below;
Celestial fruits on earthly ground
From faith and hope may grow.”
But, by-and-by, you shall be taken up, as was the penitent thief to whom Christ said, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise;” only it shall be a better paradise than that primitive Eden, it shall be a garden where flowers shall never wither and leaves shall never fall. There, dwelling with God in glory, it shall be with you as though he had never cast you off.
Nor is this all, for, before Adam fell, there was no curse upon the world, and no curse upon Adam; the earth did not bring forth thorns and thistles; and with no sweat of his face was man compelled to eat his hard-earned bread. And can God ever make it so with us again? Yes, brother, for Christ hath redeemed us from the curse. If we are believers in Jesus, we may have, for a little while, to bear with this world’s griefs, groaning as the whole creation does in travail for a better birth; but, as surely as we have been born again, so the day will come when there shall be new heavens and a new earth, and God will strike out thorns and thistles from among the world’s products. “Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” I expect to see this world, in the millennial age, restored to all the brightness with which God swathed it when first he sent it rolling from his great hands of power. It was a bright star then; but sin has befogged and bemisted it. But Christ will take away all the mists; and “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” shall yet ascend from this poor planet, for then shall be realized the vision that John saw in the isle called Patmos: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” Now we are getting on — are we not? — towards the complete coming back to God, so that we shall be as though he had never cast us off.
But even this is not all that the text means. Before Adam fell, he was engaged in God’s service, he was head gardener in paradise. God put him in the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. Well, brothers and sisters, however sinful you may have been, if you go to the Lord Jesus Christ, he will give you employment while you are here. He will set you in his vineyard, to render him some service. Perhaps he will choose you to look after the little children in the Sunday-school; peradventure he will call you out to preach for him, certainly he will want you to work for him in some way or other. What a blessing it will be to be one of the servants of God! Will God ever employ us who once were so far from him? Yes; it shall be with you as though he had never cast you off.
But, then, God not only employed Adam to work for him, but he walked with Adam in the garden. The Lord God was accustomed, in the cool of the day, to have fellowship with unfallen man; but will he confer such a favour as that upon us? Oh, yes! if we come to him in Christ Jesus, God will come and speak with us, and commune with us from off the mercy-seat, and even in this life he will be our constant Companion and our ever-present Friend. And when we have done communing with him here, he will take us up to that blessed place of which it is written, “His servants shall serve him: and they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.” Ah, beloved! when we once get to our God in heaven, then shall we find these words literally true, “They shall be as though I had not cast them off.”
O brothers and sisters, if we will but believe in Jesus Christ, there awaits us an eternal destiny of unspeakable honour and delight. If we will but believe in Christ, we need hardly regret that we have fallen, for he will so effectually restore us that all trace of sin shall be for ever removed. Sin has defaced the image of God, but the grace of God will renew it. By our transgression, we have lost everything that was worth having; but if we will but believe in him, Christ will bring back everything through his blood and righteousness. Oh, cast not away the blessed alternative that lies before you! Choose not to be ruined; choose not to continue in spiritual death. You are immortal; make not your immortality the most tremendous of curses. Come and believe in Jesus, that your immortality may become an attribute that shall make you like God, immortal in glory. I do think that this matter is so clear and simple, that, if men were not maddened by sin, they would not delay a minute, but they would give up everything else, and say, “The all-important thing is for me to get my eternal destiny secured; I must go and believe in Christ; I must got to my God; I must obtain forgiveness of my sins.” Oh, that you might be allured to Christ by this sweet, sweet text, which is so musical to me that I wish to ring it again and again in every ear, “They shall be as though I had not cast them off.” I leave it with you; God bless it to every one of you!
II. But now I have to speak, IN PARTICULAR, TO PENITENT BACKSLIDERS.
I have no doubt that there are some such persons in this congregation, and I want to say to them, “The Lord addresses you, — you wanderers, — you turncoats, — you who have been faithless, you who have turned aside, — you who have started aside like a broken arrow or a deceitful bow, — and he invites you to return to him, and he says of you, “They shall be as though I had not cast them off.” I know you, and I pray you now to listen to me very earnestly. You have fallen into a sad state of heart and life. You used to be, perhaps; a member of this church or of some other; but you are not fit to be a member of any church just now, you know that you are not. You are living a very evil life, and conscience tells you how wrong you are, and all the while you know better. You would not like me to tell your history since last you went to the house of God, or since you were numbered with God’s people, would you? No; but at this moment the Lord says to you, “Return unto me, and it shall be with you as though I had not cast you off.”
Come unto him, for he is prepared to cast your sins behind his back, into the depths of the sea, and to make an end of your transgression for ever. What do you say to this wondrous mercy on his part? Oh, boy! if you had provoked your father, and had gone away and left your dear old home, if he wrote you a loving letter, and said, “Jack, my son, come back to me, and I will freely forgive you; you have behaved very shamefully to me, but if you will come home, there shall be an end of it all;” oh, would you not make haste back? So I say to you, backsliders, will you not come home when our Father in heaven sends to you such a message as this, “They shall be as though I had not cast them off”?
Perhaps you say, “Well, but, if I should ever become a Christian again, as I hope I once was, yet I should never get my joy back again. God might forgive me, but I never could forgive myself. Sir, you do not know to whom you are talking; you cannot imagine how far I have gone into sin. I was a woman who came to the communion table amongst the pure and godly, but, oh! now I am one of the cast-offs.” Yes, I know; I know; but God says even to you, “Come back, come back, though thou hast unchastely left the Husband of thy soul, yet is he prepared to receive thee again, and it shall be unto thee as though he had not cast thee oft.” Yes, brother, you may pray that prayer of penitent David, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.” You professors know that you cannot go into sin without getting your bones broken, if you are truly God’s people. If you are not his chosen ones, you may go and live in sin, and riot in it, and he will let you alone till the last great judgment day; but if you are his people, he will beat you till your very bones cry out. Yet, if you are prepared to come back to him, just as you came at first, crying, —
“Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;” —
he is ready to end it all, and give you back your joy. Did not the father give joy to the returned prodigal? There was music and dancing, and “they began to be merry;” and God will rejoice over a poor soul that has wandered far from him, but at last returns; and the poor soul shall be happy, too. Yes, my dear sister, my dear brother, you can have back your early joy, you may yet sing with gladness of heart, —
“I will praise thee every day!
Now thine anger’s turned away,
Comfortable thoughts arise
From the bleeding sacrifice.”
“Ah!” I hear one say, “I might have my sin pardoned, and I might get back my joy, but can I ever have my purity restored? I have defiled myself; my very thoughts are impure. I have mixed with company that has depraved me. I feel that my garments may be washed, but they will always smell of the loathsome place where I have been. I am afraid that, if the wounds that sin has made be all healed, the scars will always show. I have blackened myself so that I fear I can never be white again.” Well, yours is an evil case, indeed. It is a hard task to get the stench of sin out of a garment spotted with the flesh. The Lord will have to pull you out of the fire; but yet, when he undertakes that task, he can strip you of that filthy garment, and he can cause you to hate the sin that you have loved, he can make it so loathsome to you that the very thought of it shall turn you sick. I have known the drunkard hate the very house where he used to get his drink, and go on the other side of the street. I have known a swearer cured of his blasphemy in a minute. I have known the backslider, who has indulged some lust of the flesh, chasten his soul after it, so that the very mention of it has brought the tears into his eyes he could not bear even to think of it. Yes, the Holy Ghost can give you back more than your former purity. He can create in you a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within you. Truly, I have to preach a blessed gospel to you, poor backslider! Are you behind the pillar there? If so, may the arrow glance right round it, and find you out, and reach your soul!
“Oh!” says one, “but if I get back my purity, do you think that God will ever love me again, and dwell with me, and guide and bless me?” Well, he taught backsliding and repenting David to pray, “Take not thy Holy Spirit from me;” and when God put that prayer into David’s mouth, it was because he meant to answer it. Yes; and he can come to you, even to you, and though it is now months ago since you had the light of God’s countenance, and felt happy and restful in Christ, you shall have it all back again. Oh, have we not had joyous Sabbaths here, sometimes, when the Word of the Lord seemed to ravish our very hearts with delight; and when we have gone downstairs to the communion table, I know that some of you have felt as though heaven itself had come into your spirit. Well, you shall have those old Sabbaths over again; or rather, you shall have new communion with your Lord which shall be even more blessed. I know your private prayers used to be very precious; they shall be so again. You used to walk: down a quiet street, that you might talk with God alone; you shall do it again. Poor soul, you who have gone so far away from God, come back to him. “True, O backsliding children, saith the Lord; for I am married unto you.” Therefore, return unto him, and you shall behold his face again, and in his presence you shall once more sun your soul with exceeding joy.
“Ah!” says one, “but I should like to get back again among God’s people.” Yes, that restored communion is a secondary matter in comparison with returning to the Lord, yet it is, in itself, a very valuable thing which ought to be highly prized. I am sure I can speak for all God’s servants here; if this is the church that you have dishonoured, if this is the church that you have grieved, none could be more willing to receive you back again than we are. I have felt a joy akin to that of heaven, sometimes, when I have once more received into church-fellowship some who have sinned very grossly. I know that, when they come back, they will love Christ better than ever, for they have had much forgiven. These are they who break the alabaster boxes, and pour the precious ointment on their Saviours head. I know that Peters, — who have denied their Lord, — when they do come back, and weep bitterly over their sin, are the very men who will feed Christ’s lambs and be shepherds to his sheep. I have sometimes heard of a bone, that has been broken, and has become stronger after the fracture than it was before; indeed, I once saw such a bone that was taken out of a grave; it belonged to a leg that had been broken. How did we know that? Why because it was thicker in that part than anywhere else; and, sometimes, it does happen that grace overrules the fall so that a man becomes stronger at that point where he fell, and he is more watchful than ever he was before. Is not that a wonderful thing? I hardly like to say it, for fear that some hypocrite may go and turn it into mischief, for there is always some child of the devil who will be ready to say, “Let us sin that grace may abound.” If you do say so, your damnation will be just, and it will be most terrible; but, to the child of God, we do say, in a whisper, that it has sometimes happened that the very falling into sin of the backslider has been blessed of God to make him more careful in the future, and he has been a better man ever afterwards. Come along, you who have turned aside, but are now truly penitent, the church will gladly take you back; why should we not, remembering how liable we ourselves also are to be tempted as you were? I give a hearty and loving invitation to you, backsliders; it comes out of my very heart. If Christ, who is perfect, will receive you, much more will we, who are ourselves so imperfect, receive you.
“Oh, but!” I hear one say, “that would not make me quite as I used to be. The text says, ‘They shall be as though I had not cast them off,’ but I used to have a class in the Sunday-school, I used sometimes to go out and preach.” Brother, why should you not go out to preach again? Sister, why should you not again take a class in the Sunday-school? Our dear Lord, when he pardons you, will give you something to do just as he did with Peter. I am sure that he will not say to you, “There, I have forgiven you, but you are of no further use to me; go and sit in the back seat, for I shall never need your services again.” Perhaps you may never be quite fit for what you were before, and the Lord will not put you where you are not fit to be; but yet there will be some place where you will be more qualified to serve him than ever you were before; — for instance, in looking after backsliders. If a backslider says to you, “I cannot come back,” you will be able to say to him, “Why not? I did, and so can you.” Did not the Master say to Peter, “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren”? You will be able to do that kind of work even better than others could; and whenever anybody is inclined to be hard and harsh upon the wanderers, you will say, “Oh, do not speak so! I know the heart of a wanderer, for I was one myself. I know how, when they do repent, they are very tender and sensitive; and, often, a little touch may open their wounds, and make them bleed again.” You will speak so softly, and with the tears in your eyes, that the penitent souls will look to you as a kind of father, and you will be a helper unto many. I do hope it is so with you who have returned unto the Lord. I am so sorry, brother, I am so sorry, sister, that you have so spoiled and marred your life, for it would have been an infinitely better thing to have held on your way, and gone from strength to strength, glorifying God by a consistent life; but, as you have made this great and grievous error, I pray you do not despair. Believe in the mercy of God. He has forgiven the sin of his backsliding people, and he can forgive yours. There is not only a bath in which to wash the sinner; but there is a fountain opened for the house of David, and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, — that is, for God’s own people, — that they may wash and be clean. The other Thursday night, when some of you were not here, I preached on this wise about the brazen serpent. You know how there came to be a brazen serpent at all; was it set up for outsiders? No, it was in consequence of the sin of God’s own people, for they were “much discouraged because of the way,” and they “spake against God, and against Moses.” “Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among them, so that they were bitten, and many died;” and when they repented, the brazen serpent was lifted up, that those who were bitten might look and live. They were not far from Canaan then, yet they needed the brazen serpent; and you old Christians, you aged believers, if you have been doing wrong, what a mercy it is for you that there is something Letter than a brazen serpent in the last day’s march to heaven, and that, as you look to him, you shall live. So, if you have been numbered amongst the people of God, and yet have transgressed against him, and have lost the joy of salvation, come back to him, for the Saviour’s sacrifice is available for you, and God says concerning you, “They shall be as though I had not cast them off.”
When I get home at night, I never feel satisfied with any sermon that I have preached; — in fact, I have long ago given up all idea of preaching according to my own ideal of how it ought to be done; — and when I get home, I shall say to myself, “You did not speak lovingly enough, you were not tender enough, you were not earnest enough;” and when I get to bed, I shall lie and toss about, and wish that I could get up and preach again. I daresay I should do it worse the second time; but, oh! I do wish I knew how to get at backsliders, or, indeed, at the heart of any man who has not yet come to the Saviour. What better promise do you over expect to have than this of my text? “They shall be as though I had not cast them off.” Could God say anything more gracious than that to you? If you do not accept his mercy, it will look as if you were desperately set on being God’s enemy, let him do what he likes. I, for my part, cannot see what more God can say.
Now, supposing you refuse him, then it shall be harder with you as you go on in sin. You are not very comfortable in your mind even now. When you are obliged to be alone, you feel very miserable. When that dear child of yours was lately carried to the grave, you began to think, and you cannot bear to see yourself as you really are. You know that you have to hurry from one amusement to another, and got into company so as to try to silence the voice of conscience. Now that you are not living near to God, and are not seeking Christ, you are unhappy; but you will be more unhappy after this time than you are at present. If you reject such terms as these, the guilt of your refusal will lie on your conscience, and it will worry you more and more; and it ought to do so.
And then, what is worse, it may happen to you that, some future day when you come to die, this service, and even my poor feeble attempt to bring my Master’s message to you, will come up before your mind’s eye, and you will say, “I was fairly bidden to come, and grand stipulations were made that it should be unto me as though God had never cast me off; yet I would not come.” Oh, such a reflection as that will make your death-pillow very hard!
And when you lift up your eyes, in the day of judgment, and find yourself about to be condemned by Christ, it will put a terrible sting into that just sentence as you think, “There was a time when mercy was within my reach; there was an hour when I stood on praying ground and pleading terms with God, and when the preacher, as best he could, pleaded with me, in God’s name, and said that, if I would repent, and return unto the Lord, it should be as though I had never been cast off because of my sin. Yet I would not have the mercy of God, and I have perished by my own hands.” Let it not be so, I do implore you.
There are those here whom I have looked for with eager heart; I have pleaded with them; and I know that they are within an inch of decision, but that last inch is damning them. If they do not yield to Christ soon, they will perish. May God awaken them from their fatal slumber even now, and unto his name shall be praise for ever and ever! Amen.