The Preservation of Christians in the World
“I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.” — John xvii. 15.
*This date is an approximation of when this sermon was delivered.
THE text, as we observed on a former occasion, contains two prayers, — a negative prayer, and a positive prayer. First, there is the negative prayer: “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world.” “There are wise ends to be observed by their remaining here. It will ultimately increase their happiness in heaven; it will give glory to God; it shall be the means of the conversion of others; therefore, ‘I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world,’ but I do pray” — and here comes the positive prayer, — “that, while they are in it, ‘thou shouldest keep them from the evil.’”
I. Let us first, then, CONSIDER THE EVIL FROM WHICH CHRIST PRAYS THAT HIS PEOPLE MAY BE KEPT.
We have no hesitation in declaring that the only evil here intended is the evil of sin. It may be true that Jesus Christ pleads with his Father to preserve us from some of the direful afflictions which might be too much for our mortal frame to endure. It may be that, sometimes, the blows and attacks of the enemy are warded off by the arm of the intercession of Jesus. It may be that the great aegis of Almighty God is often held over our heads in matters of providence, to keep us from evil when we walk, and to guard us lest we dash our feet against a stone. We feel persuaded, however, that neither of these things is here intended; but that “the evil” so continually spoken of in Scripture, the evil pre-eminently here meant, is sin and nothing else: “I pray that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.”
Afflictions are often beneficial, therefore Christ does not plead that we should be kept entirely from this kind of evil. Trial brings us to his feet, and gives new life to prayer, therefore Christ has not asked that this bitter-sweet might not be given to us Death itself, which seems an evil, is a good thing for believers; so Christ does not ask that we may not die. The petition he here puts up for his people is, “I pray that thou shouldest keep them from the evil,” — the special evil, the particular, the deadly evil of sin.
Let us here remark that sin is an unqualified evil. It is the evil without the mitigation of any good in it. In sin there can be no good; it is evil, only evil, and that continually. The lowest form of sin is “the evil”, the highest is “the evil” more fully developed. Sin in an angel was “the evil”, for it turned him into a devil; sin in Eden was “the evil”, for it plucked up the fair trees by the roots, and blasted all their fruits, and sent Adam out to till the ground whence he was taken. Sin is always an evil; it brings no profit to anyone. It shall not profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul; and in the Christian especially it is evil, nothing but evil; sin can never benefit him, it is an evil, only an evil, a powerful evil, and a dreadful evil; it is unmitigated evil, it is “the evil.”
It is true, out of evil God bringeth. good; sometimes, the very sins of God’s people are overruled so as to preserve them from some greater sin, but that does not destroy “the evil.” If God sends out bears from the wood to execute his commission, and they slay the mocking children, they are bears still; and if sin is sometimes made to be the means of honouring God, yet sin is sin notwithstanding any purpose that God may accomplish by it; and no false preaching can ever make us believe any doctrine which should take away the deadly character which by right belongs to sin. It is always hurtful and dangerous.
The Christian man, who trusts that, by any one sin, he may keep himself out of difficulty, or get himself out of difficulty, makes a terrible mistake. Sin cannot bring you good. “But,” say you, “I am in great difficulties; my creditors are pressing me, what shall I do? If I could draw that accommodation bill, or forge that note, there might be some good in it.” There cannot be any good in it. Sin is evil; it is “the evil”; it is “the evil” without a single particle of goodness; it is “the evil” without any mitigation whatsoever. “Oh!” says another, “if I were to do such-and-such a thing, — it is but a little evil, — I should then prosper in business; then I could dedicate myself to God, and serve him better; and so, out of the evil, I could bring a good. The end would justify the means.” No; if the means be bad, they are bad; if the means be evil, they are evil. Sin is sin, and nothing but sin; and however there may, sometimes, appear to be temporary advantages in it, it is still evil, and only evil. What though the noxious draught may sometimes stimulate the man, and seem to make him mightier, it really weakens him, and it will ultimately destroy him. A man may fancy sin to be good; for a time, it may patch him up in respectability, and make him stand a little more favourably in the eyes of worldlings; but the house repaired with such rotten material as that shall fall, notwithstanding all that is done to prop it up. All sin is unmitigated evil, and the only name we will give to it is “evil.” Let the monster plead as it may, and ask us to call it good, we charge it with having slain our Lord; and we condemn it as an evil to be hated and avoided. A serpent may have beauteous azure hues upon his scales; but he is a deadly thing, and is to be crushed to the earth.
Next, we say that sin is “the evil” because it is an unparalleled evil. You can find nothing in the world so evil as sin. Nothing has so desolated this fair earth of ours as sin has. Tell me that war has slain its tens and hundreds of thousands, that earthquakes have shaken down vast cities, that pestilence has devoured millions; describe to me the concussion of the elements, speak to me of the wild uproar of nature abroad, and remind me of how it smites down man, and destroys his handiwork; but when you have written out the black catalogue of all the terrible things that have happened to man, I shall still tell you that sin stands up as the monster evil, the giant overtopping them all, head and shoulders above them, the most unqualified and unparalleled evil in the world. You ask me whether sin has done much evil, I answer you, — Yes. See Eden’s garden blasted, a whole world drowned with water, even the tops of the mountains covered; see the earth open, and Korah, Dathan, and Abiram go down into the pit; see fire rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah, and see the cities of the plain, with all their inhabitants, destroyed. But sin has done more than that; it has digged a hell somewhere, we know not where, — not in the caverns of the earth. That were a direful thought, that this home of the righteous for a season should become the dwelling of the damned. If there be anything worse than that, sin is guilty of it, for it slaughtered Emmanuel, it slew the Lord of life and glory. Sin betrayed him, scourged him, put a crown of thorns upon his head, spit in his face, crucified him, nailed his hands and his feet to the accursed tree. Sin sat by, and watched him till he died; and that moment, — blessed be his name! — the sins of all his people were finished. Sin is unparalleled; no evil can compare with it. Find what evil you please, sin stands out first and foremost as “the evil.”
Sin also, in some sense, is an evil that has no remedy. You may, perhaps, be somewhat startled by that thought, especially when you have so continually heard me say that the death of Christ takes away from a Christian the very guilt of his sin, so that he is not guilty before God, but stands accepted in Christ, with his Saviour’s righteousness on, so that he can plead that before God, and even claim the merits imputed to him through Jesus. Still, what I have said is true, — that for sin there still remains no remedy, even to the Christian, when he has committed it. There is the remedy of forgiveness, so far as he is concerned; but there is no remedy for the sin itself. Where, for instance, is the remedy for a sinful word that I have spoken? Can my tears bring it back, and stop it from doing an injury to my fellow-creatures? Even though Christ has forgiven me, that will not end the wrong I may have done to others. When I drop a single stone of sin into the ocean of this universe, it will continue to make circle after circle, ever expanding. I may, through my whole life, labour with more than seraphic zeal, and with a Christ-like heart, to undo the evil I have done; but not if I might work throughout eternity could I untie those knots that I have tied, or dash down those mountains that I have piled, or dry up the rivers I have digged. True, the sin is all forgiven, it will never be laid to my charge; but, methinks, though Christ has forgiven me, I shall never forgive myself some things in which I may have disgraced his name, and dishonoured his blessed person. When some of you old blasphemers recollect that some in hell were damned by your means, you may thank God that you are saved, but you cannot undo that ruin to immortal souls. Sin is the evil. Well might Jesus pray for his people, “Father, keep them from the evil,” for an evil it is, which, though it has a remedy as to itself, has no remedy as to its consequences upon others. God grant that any evils, which we may have wrought, may be as much remedied as it is possible they may be by the future holiness of our lives!
Once more, sin is a most pestilent evil, because it brings every other evil with it. Methinks, the worst evil sin has ever done to me is this, it has sometimes robbed me of the presence of my blessed Master. There have been seasons when the Spirit has been withdrawn from me. There have been times when I have sought my Beloved, and have not found him; when I have ardently desired his presence, but could not find it, and my only song was, —
“What peaceful hours I once enjoyed,
How sweet their memory still!
But now I find an aching void
The world can never fill.”
Sin was that veil that came between me and my Lord. Dear old Joseph Irons used to say, “Christ often hides his face behind the clouds of dust his own children kick up.” So we make dust by our sins, and Christ hides behind it; we build a wall by our transgressions, and our Beloved hideth behind that wall. Ah, sin, thou art indeed an evil, for thou hast robbed me of his sweet society, and taken away his blessed company! Thou hast been sitting on the throne of my heart, and he will not abide such an insult; he will not stop where sin is. Thou hast entered into my soul, and Jesus has said, “I will not tarry where there is sin; my presence shall drive out sin, or sin shall drive out my presence.” “O sin, how much misery I experience through thee!” the Christian can say. Ah, sin! how many poor and fettered believers have had their fetters first forged by thee? Sin, thou art the anvil on which our doubts are welded; sin, thou art the fire in which our spirits are often molten down to grief. We could do all things were it not for thee. O sin, thou dost clip the wings of faith, thou dost damp the flame of love, thou dost destroy the energy of zeal; thou art “the evil”; my Master calls thee so, and such thou art. Thou needest not to be renamed; that name once given thou shalt bear for ever, and throughout eternity thou shalt be pointed at, in the pillory of scorn, by all the saints, as “the evil.” Well might Christ ask his Father that, while he did not wish his children to be taken out of the world, he did wish that they might be kept from the evil.
I charge you, ye young converts, who are about to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, recollect that sin is “the evil.” Through all your future lives, you must remember that this is “the evil” you are to shun. Fear not affliction, fear not persecution; rather, rejoice, and be exceeding glad if that should be your lot, for great is your reward in heaven; but, I charge you, fear sin. I commend you to the God of all grace, who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory; but yet I beg you always to recollect that sin itself is “the evil” to you. It will always be so to you so long as you live, and, though forgiven, it is still sin pardoned. Shun it in the least degree, do not give way to little sins, and you will not give way to big ones. Remember the proverb, “Take care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves;” beware of little sins, and you will not commit great ones. I charge you, keep your hearts in the love of God; and may God himself preserve you, according to our Saviour’s prayer, “that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.”
II. We can make only a very few remarks upon the second point; which is, THE DANGER TO WHICH CHRIST’S PEOPLE ARE EXPOSED.
Is there any danger of Christian men running into sin? After they have believed in Jesus, and after they have been pardoned, will they again commit sin? After they have been adopted into God's family, will they sin? Will they, can they, sin after all that? O beloved! I thought once, when my Lord first pardoned me, that I never could sin against him any more. When, black from head to foot, he spake the cleansing word, and made me white; when he took off my rags, and clothed me in royal garments, and kissed me with the kisses of his love, and showed me his deep, affectionate heart, I thought, “O thou blessed Jesus! can I ever again sin against thee? Can it be that I, a pardoned rebel, whom thou hast forgiven so much, could do such a thing?” “No, precious Jesus,” the young convert thinks, “I can come and wash thy feet with my tears, and wipe them with the hairs of my head; but I cannot sin, I will not sin.” Ah! how soon is that beautiful vision taken away! How soon the theory is spoiled by experience!
Beloved, do you not find that you are in danger of sinning now? Those of us who are young, — what danger of sinning we are in! While our passions are strong, and our lusts furious, we have need to be kept of God, or we shall sin against him. And you middle-aged gentlemen, to you also I have a word or two to say. You always pray so particularly for the young, and the young people are very much obliged to you; and they always intend to pray specially for you, because you are in the most dangerous position. I remind you of what I have told you before, that there is in Scripture no instance of a young man falling into sin, but there is more than one such instance of a middle-aged man.
Ye grandsires with snowy heads, whose hairs are whitened with age, know ye not that ye still have need of divine keeping, or ye will fall? O ye veterans in the army of the Lord, do you not acknowledge that, if his grace were withdrawn from you, you have enough tinder in your hearts to catch fire, for your souls are not yet perfectly purified? When I ask my old brethren whether sin is still present with them, each one of them always says, “Well, I thought I had a bad heart once, but I know I have now; I thought I was vile once, but I know I am now. I grow viler and viler as the years roll on, and I see myself to be more and more so every day.” Is it not so with you? Ah! is it not just so with you perpetually? And will you not confess, till your last dying moment, that you will be kept if God keeps you; but that, if he were to leave you, you would be lost? I was pleased to hear some of the good answers the young people gave me when I asked them, “Do you think you will be kept faithful to Christ to the end?” “Yes; by God’s grace,” they said. “But suppose God should leave you?” I next asked, and how exceedingly proper the answer was! “God will not leave me, so I cannot tell anything about that.” That was a sweet way of answering the question. He has promised that he will not leave us, nor forsake us; so, Christian, while we warn you of the danger if God should leave you, we comfort you by telling you that he will not leave you.
Mark the terrible threatening that those poor Arminians have been spoiling so much. Those who know nothing of the doctrines of grace make out that sinners fall, and come in again, and fall again, and come in again; but a more unscriptural doctrine cannot be propounded, for God solemnly declares that, if it were possible for a man, once regenerated and sanctified, to apostatize, he would be lost beyond all remedy, and there would remain no hope for him, “but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation.” I charge you to recollect that, if it were possible for you thus to fall, there is the precipice over which you must drop. There is no ransom for you in such a case as that. If true conversion fails, God will never try twice; if once he puts his hand on you, and fails, he has done with you. But it is not possible, glory be to his name! He has not failed yet, and he never will. Still, we warn you, and Scripture tells us so to do, to remember that we shall be kept only through faith unto salvation, and that our Lord Jesus Christ said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man 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.”
III. This brings us to speak, thirdly, concerning THE KEEPER OF CHRIST S PEOPLE: “I pray that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.”
We often get keeping ourselves, beloved, and a bad job we make of it, when we do that. If a Christian man tries to keep his own heart without asking the help of God, he will be just as good a keeper as those guards whom Herod set to watch the apostle Peter, and who, when they opened the prison doors in the morning, found that the prisoner had escaped. You may stand and watch your heart without God, but you will find that it has escaped, and gone after notwithstanding. The Christian must not trust to his guarding himself, because he will sometimes be asleep, and then the enemy will catch him unawares. People are often ready, as the saying is, to put a lock on the stable door when the horse is gone, and Christians are sometimes very careful after they have sinned. Ah! but the thing is to lock the door while the horse is in the stable, and to take care before you do sin. It is better to keep your house from being on fire, than to get the fire put out ever so quickly.
We all of us have need thus to be kept by God. We think we can keep ourselves, but we cannot, for poor flesh and blood will fail; though the spirit may be willing, the flesh is weak; and if it were possible for us to keep ourselves a little while, we should soon be overcome with spiritual slumber ; and then, you know, the devil would come walking into the camp in the middle of the night, and if he caught us slumbering, and off our guard, he would, if allowed of God, hurry us away to perdition. If you trust yourselves to God, lie will preserve you; but if you try to keep yourselves, you will fail. How many different schemes people have for keeping themselves from sin! Why do they not go and ask God to keep them, instead of binding themselves hand and foot to this thing and the other, and so thinking to avoid sin? Let us give our hearts to God thoroughly, for he will preserve his own people. Oh! what a gracious promise the Lord has given concerning his vineyard: “I the Lord do keep it; I will water it every moment; lest any hurt it, I will keep it night and day.” Is not that a precious expression, “I the Lord do keep it”? The Lord seems to speak in his own defence, “They say I do not keep it, but I do. They say that I let my people fall away, but I do not. Look at my vineyard, ‘I the Lord do keep it,’ whatever they may say; ‘I will water it every moment; lest any hurt it, I will keep it night and day.’” This is the only ground of our confidence, that God keepeth the feet of his saints, and none that trust in him shall be desolate.
We must now conclude, praying on behalf of the Lord’s people that God would keep them. Recollect, believer, that while it says God will keep you, he does it by means. You must look after each other; I like to admonish you to look after your brethren and sisters. Why, there are some of you sitting with only a rail between you, and yet you do not know your next-door neighbours. Some of you, I know, talk too much sometimes; but I would rather you should talk a little too much than not talk at all. Oh, how little like Christians some of you are; sitting down side by side, and yet not knowing one another! The church is meant to be a place where we shall be like children at home. Be sure to look after these young friends who are coming into the church; try and take care of them. We want a few fathers who will lead them in the right way. Poor souls, you cannot expect them to know much; some of them, indeed, may have been long in the service of God, others have just commenced to run the Christian race; you must look after the young ones, and then the prayer of Christ will be fulfilled in their case, “I pray that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.”
Finally, remember that the only Keeper of the saints is God, and put your souls day by day into his hands. I beseech you, by the love of Christ, forget not his holy prayer of which I have been speaking to you. Often meditate upon the grace that put you into the Saviour’s custody. Oh! forget not that you have been his from all eternity, and that it ill becomes you to sin; that you are elect in Christ, and it would be a disgrace to you to transgress. Recollect that you are one of the aristocracy of the universe, you must not mix with vile worldlings. Remember that the blood royal of heaven runs in your veins; therefore, do not disgrace yourselves by acts which might be tolerated in a beggar, but which would demean a prince of the heavenly household. Stand on your dignity, think of your future glory; recollect where you stand, and in whom you stand— in the person of Jesus. Fall at his feet daily; grasp his strength hourly, crying out, —
“Oh, for this no power have I!
My strength is at thy feet to lie.”
O beloved, you who do not love the Lord, I cannot pray that God would keep you from the evil, because you are in it already; but I do pray God to take you out of it. There are some of you who do not feel sin to be an evil; and shall I tell you why? Did you ever try to pull a bucket up a well? You know that, when it is full of water, you can pull it easily so long as the bucket remains in the water; but when it gets above the water, you know how heavy it is. It is just so with you. While you are in sin, you do not feel it to be a burden, it does not seem to be evil; but if the Lord once draws you out of sin, you will find it to be an intolerable, a heinous evil. May the Lord, this night, wind some of you up! Though you are very deep down, may he draw you up out of sin, and give you acceptance in the Beloved! May you have new hearts and right spirits, which are alone the gift of God! Remember the words of the Lord Jesus: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” God give you grace to ask, and seek, and knock, for Jesus’ sake! Amen.