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ing publicans and sinners. You do not conceive yourselves as needing any of my offices. If you would rejoice in finding a lost sheep, a lost piece of silver, or at the restoration of a profligate son, I am surely justified in calling these to repentance; and as you will not allow that you need repentance; as you arrogate to yourselves the meed of never having left your father's house; precisely on principles assumed by yourselves, I am in the way of duty by seeking those who know and feel and confess that they need my services, and surely it ought to be a matter of rejoicing when the lost are reclaimed.
These three parables were plainly understood by the hearers of our Lord, for they silenced all objections.
Now, my friends, I have run the risk of being prolix on this subject, in order that the parable might be understood. It is a simple illustration used by our Saviour to justify the course he pursued, and to silence objectors, by an answer on their own assumptions.
There are two methods in which this parable may be used to beneficial practical results by us. One of these is, by drawing from it legitimate inferences. Second, by making it the basis of a series of practical reflections, which, though not legitimately connected with it, may, without injury, be grafted on it. In the present discourse I shall adopt the first of these, and on some subsequent occasion, the second.
Let us then see the legitimate inferences.
1. It is possible for persons to maintain an out. wardly decorous religious character, and even de. ceive themselves in the supposition that they are religious, while they have no part or lot in the matter, but are in the “gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity."
This was the character of the Scribes and Pharisees as represented by the elder son; and it is the characteristic of all, no matter when or where they may live, whose religion is in form, but not in power and in substance. And just see for a moment how much a great deal of nominal religion corresponds with the character of the Scribes as shadowed out in the conduct of the eldest son. It is characteristic of a mere formalist to be zealously attached to the mere ceremonial observances of religion ; and how many are
. there who have no more religion than that which consists in having been baptized ? Perhaps some have gone further, and become communicants. The Church, the Church, is all with them. Some of them will defend the Church, while they abuse vital religion. Take the very illustration which the parable affords us. “ A really pious man,” says Faber, “would rejoice to behold a sinner reclaimed to the path of righteousness; nor would he grudge that such an one should be received into the household of faith." But they who rest placidly satisfied with the decent pharisaism of their imagined meritorious rectitude, usually look with an evil eye upon the decided, and zealous, and active religion of a truly converted prodigal. It is not but that they would be ready to applaud a mere moral reformation; they would praise the man if he forsook an openly irreligious life, provided the change went no further than an outward propriety of conduct, united with a semblance of regard for the external decencies of religion. But if the change be radical and entire; if the reality be shown by those peculiar fruits which vital religion alone is capable of producing, and which evince the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, the disciples of the Pharisee school, whose boast is, that they have never left his ways, nor transgressed his commandments, will be foremost to express their dislike of the recent convert, by charging him with over-zealous enthusiasm, and by ridiculing his humble trust in Christ. This envious temper is that censured in the conduct of the eldest son; and this the grand lesson. No outward privileges, no mere formality, no zealous adherence to mere externals, no mere Church membership, will entitle any individual to the favour of God. Nothing can be a substitute for repentance. Like the Scribes and Pharisees, there may be every thing which would pass in the world for religion, and yet if there had been no true repentance, no such disposition as is manifest in the confession—"I will arise and go to my Father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants”-it is all good for nothing. There may be high pretensions to love of the Church and love of religion. It may be we are the children of Abraham. But if without true repentance, it is said—“Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father : for I say unto you, That God is able of these
: stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees : therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”
And this leads to another legitimate inference. The estimate in which God holds men is regulated
decidedly by the state of their hearts. We judge, and we judge correctly too, of men by their conduct, for we have no other data. It is the imperfection of our nature that we have no other data; but conduct is not a decided criterion of the heart, inasmuch as a man of no religion may be outwardly moral, and punctiliously ceremonious, while God sees at the bottom no right principles. It may be supposed, a singular sentiment, that conduct is not a decided criterion of the character. But it is true nevertheless, for though we have no other criterion, God has a far more certain one. He sees the heart, and knows its principles. Now a man whose heart is right, will, by a necessary process, have his conduct right; but his conduct will be right on right principles. Let me clearly tell you, my friends, the will of God as revealed. A moral and even apparently religious conduct which arises not from a changed and converted heart, is a very different thing in the eye of God, from that which does arise from a heart thus changed. We may discover no difference, but God does. Therefore look ye to it, that whatever conduct you pursue, arises from principles planted on the heart by the Holy Ghost, otherwise you are unsafe and near to ruin. Thus saith God—“Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him : for the Lord seeth
; not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”
Another legitimate inference from this parable is, that in order to be restored to the favour of God, all must come before him in the humble equality of sinners. All idea of needing no repentance, of hav
ing never left the Father's house, is self-justifying pride and ruinous assumption. Ye men of lofty imaginings, ye must come down to the humility of repentance, or Jesus Christ is of no avail to you. If, with the Scribes and Pharisees, you can stand on your lofty eminence of imagined safety, so be it; go on and prosper; but permit me to say to you, what our Saviour himself said to your types in his time“ The publicans and barlots go into the kingdom of heaven before you.” If you have no need of repentance, you have no need of Christ; and if you have no need of either, then you must get to heaven as you can: for God has provided no method to suit your anomalous case. You are exceptions in the mighty plan of redemption, and the heaven you may secure will be one suited to the pride of your hearts. There there will be none redeemed by the blood of Christ, or changed by his grace—a heaven without God, and a heaven without peace, and a heaven without purity. Poor, proud man, come down, repent, lie at the foot of the cross. Take the Gospel's free offer to you as a sinner, and be not too proud to go to heaven on Gospel terms. In hell it will be poor consolation, that you have maintained your fancied elevation, and at least been consistent, though you lost your souls.
The last legitimate inference is the marvellous condescension and love of Jesus Christ. As there are none too high to need his pardoning mercy and sanctifying grace, there are none too low to despair of his mercy when they come to him in the broken and contrite heart of true repentance. I call upon the moral and decent who are yet unhumbled and unconcerned to repent, because they are sinners in