Secret Service Theologian



"TRAIN up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will be converted." This strange perversion of Scripture represents the settled belief of multitudes. "Being converted" is a cumbersome synonym for "being turned"; and the Revisers have done well in adopting the simpler phrase. If one is walking in the right way, from what is he to be turned? That conversion is essential to salvation is indeed a popular belief. And it is a belief that is the bane of many a Christian home. Christians who in early childhood were "nurtured in the chastening and admonition of the Lord" may be able to specify a time when first they intelligently grasped "the word of the truth of the Gospel." But that is not what Scripture means by conversion. And in the case of many the dawning of the light was so gradual that they are unable to say when the sun actually appeared above the horizon. But they know with certainty that it has risen, and that it is shining on them. And that is the essential thing.

But does not the Lord Himself declare that conversion is essential to salvation ? The question is based on a misreading of a gospel narrative already noticed on a preceding page.1 On His way to Capernaum, after His rejection by the Jewish authorities, He said to His disciples, "The Son of Man is delivered up into the hands of men, and they shall kill Him." And with these tragically solemn words still ringing in their ears, they fell to disputing which of them would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And to them it was, and in these circumstances, He said, pointing to a little child who was standing in their midst, " Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven "— that earthly Messianic kingdom upon which, at that time, their hopes were set. And on the only other occasion on which the Lord is reported to have used the word, He said to Peter, " When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren."
1 P. 29, ante.

But the Apostles were not unregenerate sinners in need of eternal life : they were unfaithful disciples who had fallen out of communion with the Lord. What a lesson is here for the Christian ! For we are ever prone to stray into some wrong path ; and when we wander thus, and cease to follow Him, we need to be "turned round about." For this is what being converted signifies in Scripture.1 Indeed the technical theological term, as popularly used, has no counterpart in the language of the New Testament. Therefore is it that in the Revised Version it has disappeared, save in James v. 19, 20, where its meaning is unequivocal; for it is certain that, in the theological sense, no man can "convert" his fellow.
1 See ex. gr. Matt. ix. 22. " Jesus turned Him about" (Luke vii. 9). In every one of the seven occurrences of the word strepho in Luke's gospel, it is used of the Lord Himself. In Matt. ix. 22 the word is epistrepho.

It is important to keep in view the distinction between the saved and the unsaved in their relations with God; we must not shut off Divine truths in water-tight compartments. For the saved are apt to go astray " like lost sheep " ; and on the other hand, some who are really lost may be seeking the Lord, " if haply they might feel after Him and find Him." And He is not far from such. But though the prodigal was turned about while in the far country amid the swine troughs, he was not saved till he reached his father's house. It is the walls of the City of God, not the roads which lead to it, that typify salvation.1
1 Isa. Ix. 18. 2 See ex. gr. Matt. iv. 23-25. 3 Matt. xii. 14.

There is one Scripture which ought to make an end of controversy here. And it is a passage not only of principal importance, but of extreme solemnity. In the earlier period of the Lord's ministry there was no element whatever of reserve. His teaching was plain and clear, and His mighty deeds of mercy were as free to all as were His words of grace.2 But what was the response of that impenitent and guilty people ? The Hebrew Gospel records the terrible and shameful story: His destruction was decreed by the great Council of the nation.3 From that time His ministry assumed a new phase. He charged the disciples to tell no one that He was the Christ.1 His beneficent acts of mercy became less frequent, and He desired to conceal them from the Jewish leaders; and His teaching became veiled in parables.

And when the disciples sought an explanation of the change, Isaiah's prophetic word supplied the answer. Those evil men had had their day of visitation. But they had wilfully closed their eyes to His works of power, and dulled their ears against His words of grace. And now a sentence of judicial blindness and deafness had been Divinely passed upon them. In future they were to see without perceiving, and to hear without understanding - mark the Saviour's words -"lest they should be converted (lest they should turn again) and I should heal them."2 For He could neither hide Himself, nor yet be silent. And to refuse a sinner who turned to Him was impossible, for that would be to deny Himself.
1 Matt, xvi. 20 (R.V.). 2 Matt. xiii. 15.

These awfully solemn words are entirely in keeping with the great principle enunciated in the preceding verse. It is a principle which Bible story abundantly exemplifies; a principle moreover which explains the mystery of many a life. Appeals that used to move the heart no longer reach it: appeals that used to rouse the conscience now fall upon the ear unheeded. It is not that God is changed. He is the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness. But " God is not mocked " : and no one may treat Him as he would not dare to treat a fellow-man. For

" There is a time, we know not when,
A point, we know not where,
That marks the destiny of men
To glory or despair. "

There is a line, by us unseen,
That crosses every path,
The hidden boundary between
God's patience and His wrath.

"Oh, where is that mysterious bourne,
By which man's path is crossed,
Beyond which God Himself hath sworn
That he who goes is lost?

"How long may I go on in sin?
How long will God forbear?
Where does hope end, and where begin
The confines of despair ?

'An answer from the skies is sent -

Ye who from God depart, While it is called to-day, repent And harden not your heart." To these same proud religious Jews it was that the Lord addressed the words, "No man can come to me except the Father which hath sent me draw him." We miss their significance because we have forgotten that it is in the spiritual sphere that the ruin of our race is absolute and hopeless. Therefore is it that religion blinds men to the truth of God, and shuts them out from Christ. Therefore was it that publicans and harlots entered the Kingdom, and men of blameless life, like Saul the Pharisee, became persecutors and blasphemers. "The common people heard Him gladly," because they knew that they were 'blind, and therefore they welcomed the light; but to Priests and Pharisees the light was an offence. So the blind received their sight, and those that claimed to see were blinded.1 How different His words to the abandoned Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar! " If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink, thou wouldest have asked of Him, and He would have given thee living water." Thou wouldest have asked, and He would have given. Is it possible that blessing could be made more free ? Yes, indeed, for Divine grace is infinite ; and on the very last page of Holy Writ we have a final proclamation : " Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely." And entirely in keeping with this are the charter words He uttered upon the eve of His passion: "I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me." For " before the glorification of Christ, the Father drew men to the Son ; but now the Son Himself draws all to Himself."2
1 John ix. 39. It was not merely that they remained blind, but that, as the result of a judicial sentence, they were blinded.
2 Dean Alford's Commentary ; John xii. 32.

Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Therefore the new birth is as essential for the infant as for the adult. If then it depends on an intelligent receiving of Christ, no infant can possibly be saved. But the new birth must not be confounded with conversion, which, being a conscious turning to God, is experienced only by those who have reached an age at which they can realise the need of it. And, as already noticed, there are many Christians who have known and loved the Lord from such a tender age, that they cannot recollect passing through any such experience as conviction of sin and subsequent conversion. But all who are born of the Spirit are children of God. Such is the subtilty of error in these days that this seemingly obvious truth needs to be plainly stated. Looking back for tokens or proofs that we have been born of God, or converted, may take our eyes off the Lord Jesus Christ and plunge us into darkness. Moreover the remembrance of a change experienced at some past epoch of life is no safe anchorage for faith. Indeed it may prove as perilous and false as would dependence on the fact of having been subjected to a religious ordinance or rite in infancy. The Christian is one who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. He has a present faith in Christ, and not in Christ as Saviour only, but as Saviour and Lord.1

"The Shepherd found me in His boundless grace
Before I even knew that I was lost;
My tiny footsteps scarcely had begun
To tread the path of danger ere I saw
The Shepherd close beside me. 'Twas enough!

No sense of danger made me seek His arms,
I did but catch a glimpse of His dear Face,
Then gladly let Him lift me to His breast.
And only after that, when I was safe,
And felt His arms encircling me with love

Did He Himself point out the road beneath,
And make me see the precipice below.
I saw His love before I saw my need,
I knew my safety long before I knew
The awful death from which He rescued me ;

And though I cannot tell when this took place,
Or when I first was clasped in His embrace,
I only know He found me—I am His."

* These last two paragraphs are taken from a paper written some years ago for a symposium which has since been published under the title How and When ? The Editors begged me to omit them, but I could not comply, nor could I identify myself with a publication which rejected " seemingly obvious truth " of such great practical importance.
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