Guest Writer Sabine Baring-Gould
“I have compassion on the multitude” (Mark 8:2).
In today’s Gospel we see the tender compassion of our Lord for those who came to the wilderness to hear Him. This is only one example out of many of His great love and mercy: and indeed “His tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalm 145:9). “You, O Lord,” says David, “are a God full of compassion, and gracious, long-suffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth” (86:15).
This is a verity of which we are so convinced that it is quite possible we may overlook the other truth, that His mercy, though unlimited in extent, is limited in its application. His mercy is extended for a definite purpose; and when it ceases to avail for this purpose, then it ceases to flow.
What that purpose is, Paul tells us. “Know you not,” he says, “that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). That is, God is merciful that we may amend, not in order that we may continue in sin.
Now, if men thought that when they had fallen into grievous sin there was no more a hope of recovery, then they would sink into despair, and become hard and impenitent. But that this may not be the case, God assures us of His mercy; but He assures us of His mercy only to insure our amendment.
It seems plain from Holy Scripture that to each man there is a fixed measure of sin, and that if he fills that measure, after that there is no place for repentance, and no more pardon. This is a terrible truth—but a truth it is, as I shall show you.
There was a nation of Canaan called the Amorites, and God promised to Abraham that He would give their land to his descendants, but that He could not give it yet without injustice. The land was in the possession of the Amorites, a people on their trial, and till the day of their probation was expired, their kingdom could not be taken from them. “In the fourth generation,” God said, “your seed will come here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full” (Genesis 15:16).
Now, actually, it was not till four hundred and seventy years later that the destruction of the Amorites was accomplished. Four generations after Abraham, that is some two hundred and forty years after, the measure of their iniquities was full; and yet they existed on till Joshua crossed Jordan with the Israelites, and then they were all put to the sword (Judges 11:19-22).
In the New Testament we hear the Jews addressed as though they also had a measure of sin they must fill up before God would forsake them. Our Lord says to them, “You are the children of them who killed the prophets. Fill you up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you generation of vipers, how can you escape the damnation of Hell? Behold, I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them you will kill and crucify: and persecute them from city to city: that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zacharias, son of Barachias, whom you slew between the temple and the altar” (Matthew 23:31-35). The Jewish nation had done great wickedness, but the measure of their iniquities was not full till they had rejected Christ, and had refused to listen to His apostles, and the Holy Spirit speaking through their mouths. Till then He would not cast them off entirely.
The Psalmist prays to God, “Lord, let me know the number of my days, that I may be certified how long I have to live” (Psalm 39:5, Book of Common Prayer). No doubt, God has fixed for all men a certain length of life. No doubt, also He has set for each a certain limit of forbearance; a line, an invisible line drawn somewhere, and He says to man, “Thus far you may go, and I will still be merciful and pardon, but no further. Transgress that line, and I forgive no more. My Spirit will not always strive with man” (cf Job 38:11; Genesis 6:3).
In those cases which I have quoted to you, God is dealing with nations, but He deals with individuals in the same way. His laws are uniform; as He deals with an assemblage of people, so He deals with single individuals. If He fixes a bound to nations, beyond which they cannot go without His forsaking them, it is because there is the law, which is of general application to all human beings; a law applying to single persons, and to persons in the aggregate.
In the Prophet Amos we read a message from God to Judah, “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment of it” (Amos 2:4). This means, if I mistake not, Judah had committed two or three gross sins, and God was ready to turn away the punishment, if there had been a sign of repentance; but when to the three, Judah added a fourth, then it was too late. The time of repentance was past, and the punishment threatened must fall.
And now perhaps you can understand a saying of the Apostle John in his first Epistle. He says, “If any man see his brother sin a sin that is not to death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not to death. There is a sin to death, I do not say that he shall pray for it” (1 John 5:16). John is not speaking here of what we call mortal sins [cardinal sins], but of mortal sins continued till the measure is filled up; and when the last sin has been added that completes the measure, that is the sin to death, for which it avails nothing to pray, for that sin ends in death. Before, there was life, spiritual life, perhaps flickering, but extant, then comes the last sin, and the life is gone out, all is dark, and dead, and cold, no more fanning of the black ashes is of any avail, the fire is out and cannot be revived.
How does God deal with those who have gone beyond this measure? In one of two ways. Either (1) there comes a sudden call,—a sudden death-sickness or accident cuts them off. Or (2) dead impenitence settles over the soul, so that it no longer wishes for anything better nor feels a desire for pardon.
Of the first case, we have instances in Scripture. King Belshazzar had committed many transgressions, he was weighed in the balances, but still found wanting in the final and irreversible act of wickedness, till that night when he brought out the sacred vessels used in the temple to drink out of them at his riotous banquet in his palace. That act of sacrilege was the one sin that weighed down the balance. What says the sacred text? “In that night was Belshazzar the King of the Chaldeans slain” (Daniel 5:30).
I may instance also Judas, who having for long been a thief (John 12:6), added to his former sins the one last and terrible sin of selling his Master (Matthew 26:14-16), and then a fit of madness came over him in which he hung himself (27:3-8; Acts 1:16-18).
But sometimes hardness and impenitence is the result. The conscience is dead, and, to use Paul’s words, “there remains no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:26, 27).
Let us, therefore, be very cautious of adding sin to sin, “that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1), but rather fly from it as from the face of a serpent. We know not what is the number of our days determined by God, and we know not what is the number of our sins beyond which there is no forgiveness.
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Anvil Point Light, Durlston, Dorset, England
*Adapted from Sabine Baring-Gould [1834-1924], The Village Pulpit, Volume II. Trinity to Advent / A Complete Course of 66 Short Sermons, or Full Sermon Outlines for Each Sunday, and Some Chief Holy Days of the Christian Year (London: Skeffington & Son, 1886), sermon 44. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.