By F.W. Grant
We have in the verses before us, no doubt, a typical case of how the Lord makes sin to serve Him. God has His hand upon all, and God makes all things serve Him. “He makes the wrath of man to praise Him, and the remainder of wrath He restrains” (Ps. 76:10). He does not permit one particle of the wrath of man anywhere which He cannot make to praise Him. That is, He makes sin serve Him. It does not, in the least, alter the nature of sin – it does not make it less hateful; but it makes God what He surely is – the perfect Master of everything, and it gives us the only comfort that we can possibly get as we look at evil, as we realize its terrible prevalence in human history. What comfort would there be for us, if we were not able to look at it and say, God can get glory out of all this? In a true sense, therefore, God has ordained it to His glory.
Here, in Peter, you get an instance of this – a sample of the principle of which I have been speaking. Here is a sin on Peter’s part that the Lord foretells to him: he is going to deny Him thrice. Satan has asked to have this disciple of His, as the trier of God’s wheat. He has asked to have him in his sieve that he may sift him; and the Lord has not prayed that he might not be sifted. That was necessary in a certain sense. Satan claims to be the trier of God’s wheat, and the words express that, much more than appears in our version. It is not exactly, “Satan has desired to have you.” It is much more than that. It is, “Satan has demanded to have you,” – “Satan has demanded to have you, that he may sift you as wheat.” But how can that be? What does it mean? Why, it means that Satan is the one who is the accuser of the brethren and who, if he accuse them day and night before God, must of necessity accuse them on the only possible plea which could avail him there – the plea of righteousness.
Thus, when he accuses Job, even when God puts him before him and says, “Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth?”, he says, “Does Job serve God for naught? Hast Thou not made a hedge about him?” And he gets Job into his hands upon the plea that Job is professedly God’s wheat; so let it be tried if he is really this. He does not believe that Job is just all that he seems to be. Job is in very good circumstances. Everything goes fair with him, and how can he be tested in fair weather like that? Very easy for a man to be good when all circumstances are in his favour! In opposite circumstances, let us see, he says, what sort of a man Job will appear. It is all right, take Job into your hand and do so and so, is the divine answer.
What we have here in Luke is only a sample of the way in which Satan is busy. And I believe we all of us have personal interest in it; for I believe there is not one of us that Satan has not accused, and is not accusing, before God, and I tell you what, beloved, we give him plenty of opportunity to say of us, “These people are not all they profess to be.” The moment you take your place as wheat with God, you take your place, as it were, in Satan’s sieve for him to sift, according as God may permit it, and see if you are what you profess to be.
What is the effect of it for Peter? He is terribly bruised in the sieve. The Lord has prayed, not that he may not be sifted, but that his faith might not fail. He does not pray that he may not break down, or that he may not sin; He predicts the sin. He says, “Peter, you are going to deny Me thrice.”
What does He say in connection with that? “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” What does that mean? Of course, conversion here does not mean that which we generally call by that name: that is, the great primary turning to God from sin, from the world. It speaks of the turning of a saint, the “conversion” if you like, of a saint, and not the conversion of a sinner. That is plain; but then, how is he converted? Converted from his sins? No, we might imagine that. He has to be converted by his sin, and from his self-righteousness. The Lord has ordained the breaking down of a self-righteous man.
Peter answers, “Nay, Lord, I am ready to go with Thee to prison and to death.” That is the point: that is the very thing he needed to realize he was not ready to do. That is the very thing he needed to be converted out of – the self-confidence which is the ruin of man wherever they have it.
Therefore it is that the very sin into which the Lord allows Peter to fall is to be the means of ruining that self-confidence in him and so of turning him to another mind. We make great mistakes in regard to those things. We are apt to look upon some outward evil, some sin that a man has committed, perhaps a gross one, as if it were the whole matter, or at any rate the great thing; that which is only the fruit of the tree we look at as if it were the tree itself, and we say, why did God permit it, when that really means why did God permit the tree to show its fruit? Well, why did God permit the tree to show its fruit? Because the fruit makes manifest the tree, and men need, beloved, to be made manifest in that way. They need to realize what they are.
If a man does not realize what he is, he may be going on apparently just as Peter was, full of love to the Lord, right in conduct and all that, and you think of the man as going on well. Suddenly he falls, and you look at that as the departure, when the fall is only the fruit of the departure which has been going on long before; and then the fall is the very thing which may be used to make the man conscious of his weakness and. nothingness – therefore to bring him back; to make him humble that he may now really be strong, that he may find his strength in Another, and that he may perhaps be even the means of strengthening his brethren.
God must break down before He can build up; in order that He may deliver us from sin, He must deliver us first from righteousness, and that is a great principle in God’s ways. It is a sample of how He uses sin. Sin, of course, is the abominable thing He hates, but while it is that, there is not an atom of it God permits on the face of the earth but that He can make it serve His purpose and glorify Him; otherwise, He would not permit it. What a comfort it is to realize that God’s strong hand is upon things and upon people after that manner. What a comfort it is that we can look into the most awful pit of darkness that can anywhere be, and see there the glory of God! What a blessed thing to know that there is not a corner of God’s earth that is out of God’s reach; and, beloved, He makes the thing He hates to serve Him, but that does not show that He loves it, or that He is indifferent about it. We make our criminals serve in jail, and God makes His criminals as all else, serve Him, whether good or bad.
I would like to apply that now a little. If we look at man away as he is from God, we see not in him how sin began. In him, the stream is far on its course; before men fell, there was a host of beings above them that had fallen. Satan, the devil, was in existence then. We know that, of course, because he was the tempter of man at the beginning. What a question it is, and how naturally we ask it: how ever did sin come in? For man, of course, it came in through Satan: man listened to Satan. But to whom or what did Satan listen? Who tempted Satan? Who made Satan Satan? Why, there was no one at all to do it outside of himself; and how could he have made himself that? How could an angel become a devil?
Scripture tells us in that remarkable way in which we have many other of the most important truths brought in, quite incidentally, as it might seem, that Satan fell through pride. You have, I don’t doubt, the description of him in the king of Tyrus in the 28th chapter of Ezekiel, and there you find it in detail. The picture can hardly be mistaken: “Thou sealest up the sum, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty: thou hast been in Eden the garden of God . . . thou art the anointed cherub that covereth . . . thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day thou wast created till iniquity was found in thee . . . . thy heart was lifted up because of thy beauty; thou has corrupted thy wisdom by reason of thy brightness;” – thus we see the very process of such a perversion as has taken place in the fallen angel – Satan becoming the awful creature that he is now. And how? By self- occupation, self-admiration – pride. The text we have in Timothy, where in his direction in regard to bishops, the apostle tells him that a bishop must not be a novice, “lest being lifted up with pride, he fall into the condemnation of the devil;” that is, fall into that for which the devil was condemned.
That is how all the sin in the world came in. “Being lifted up with pride” – that was Satan’s snare, the only possible thing, we may well think, by which a being created in perfect uprightness and apart from any temptation, or from any circumstances of evil, could become evil; at least, it was the original departure from truth and uprightness. There was no evil around to solicit him. There was no evil self in him for him to be taken up with, but there was a good self; and the being taken up with that good self made him the horrible creature that he is! I wish I could ring out that lesson far and wide among men. I wish one could make the people of God learn that lesson by heart. For I tell you what – it is one of the most necessary lessons to learn that possibly can be.
When God creates man and puts him upon the earth after this fall of Satan, you can see that it is constantly in His mind: He alters His methods in order to avoid, if possible, so great a collapse. Satan had been, just as the angels are, one that excelled in strength. Measurably, he was a being so far complete in himself, and independent of others. He was thus a being who could look at himself with admiration, for beauty and strength; and now the problem is (if from our human side we may call it so), how could God make another creature who should be free from the snare of self, and yet be a good and a reasonable creature?
God could not make anything but a good being; He must make him reasonable, worthy to be a creature of His hand. He must be tested also; at least, he is to be. All this meets in Adam in a way which should have deepest interest for us, and which shows the divine care and love, in a way to call out our answering adoration.
First of all, He does not make him a creature to excel in strength. He puts him upon the earth in the midst of numerous creatures stronger than himself, a naked defenceless being. He puts him upon earth in such a condition as to mark his dependence very strongly. His life is to be continued by his eating of the tree of life. Life is not in himself; life is in the tree of life for him; he is warned in the most distinct way of his dependence and put straitly under condition. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is placed in the garden, and that which we are accustomed to think of as the very thing which helped his fall, is that which in fact should have helped him to remain upright, for it was the constant warning of the danger of forgetting his dependence. Yet, it was a very small thing to be forbidden. What was it for one who had all the trees in the garden to eat of besides, to refrain from just one tree?
Again, if he looked at himself, he found himself, as to his body, linked with the animal creation; in a certain sense, I may say, less perfect as far as strength goes than many others. He finds himself thus in every direction encompassed with the witness of his infirmity as a creature. God would “hide pride from man.” The angel’s snare he must, as far as possible, be shielded from. Beautiful it is to see the tenderness of God in this respect.
You would think He had fenced him around so that it was impossible for him to be touched. Not only so, but when temptation comes to him, God ordains that it shall only come to him from below, not from above. He shall not be tempted by a being manifestly above himself. Temptation shall not come in the form of an angel of light, but in the form of a beast of the field, one of those that Adam had looked at and seen that there was not amongst them all a help meet for him. How carefully God had provided for the creature of His love!
With it all, what you find is that the devil tried upon man the very method by which he had been ensnared himself. He turns his heart away from God by putting his very dependence and deficiency before him, instead of the strength he has not; yet still to lift him up with pride in the insinuation of what he may be – of the capacity he has. That it is a deficiency that he has not the knowledge of good and evil. If he eats of this forbidden tree, he shall be as God, knowing good and evil. Alas, Satan had aspired to be as God, and he knew well what had come of that.
Awful it is to see him practicing the devilish art, which he had learned in that way, upon another. “Ye shall be as God,” he says, “knowing good and evil.” Thus, man falls; but how carefully God had guarded him so that he should not!
After the fall, he is still more compassed about with the witness of what he is. Men are continued upon the earth by means of the woman. Eve becomes “the mother of all living.” But how are men brought into the world? In the utmost feebleness indeed. An adult man is a feeble creature after all. Put him outside among the beasts without any of the things which he has slowly accumulated about him, out among the beasts of the field; and see how he will fare. But feeble as he may be in his full-grown strength, how feeble is he as he comes into the world, dandled in his mother’s arms, slowly and painfully acquiring the wisdom of which he is so proud, learning through years of feebleness to submit himself to the will and care of others. Debtor to the love of others for all that he is, he could not possibly live, if he were put out to live as others, not so far from kin. How God has borne witness to him of his nothingness; how God would abase him in his own eyes, and hide pride from him!
Yet, after all, man’s constant snare is still himself. When a man turns to God, what do we find? He has to be brought down from this, down into the dust, down to learn not only that he is a sinner, but that he is an impotent sinner too, a sinner and without strength. How do men find that out?
Constantly by struggling to deny it; constantly by fighting with it, as hard as ever they can; fighting until they have to surrender. How does God help us to this end? By allowing sin in man, just when he wants to be very righteous and very good; just when he wants to come to God, and say, “God, I thank Thee I am not as other men,” God has to humble him and smite him into the dust (Job’s history over again); and when he comes up again, and washes himself and thinks he is ever so clean, God plunges him – so Job has it – into the ditch again, and his very clothes abhor him. God is using sin against sin, using sin to defeat itself. If in the devil it might seem as if goodness was its own snare, God says, now sin shall be its own destruction. He lets the man sin. He tumbles him into the ditch; and when he finds at last that he is without strength, then he finds, blessed be God, that “when we were yet without strength, in due time, Christ died for the ungodly.” What a long while it took for that due time to come! What a long history of man in the Old Testament, and what comfort do we get from it? Not much I fear; and in truth, the comfort comes out of discomfort; what carefulness there is through all God’s history of man to show the poor creature what at best he is! God’s righteous men are still sinners; none of them without some flaw, in which they become warnings, and not for imitation. It seems as if a painter were at work to make a beautiful painting and then some other hand had splashed the colour over it. Scripture biographies are unlike all mere human ones; but they are written in divine wisdom – to prevent man from glorifying man, to prevent man’s goodness ministering to man’s besetting sin.
God seems often afraid of man’s goodness, as He is not of his sin. For man’s sin Christ died, and not for his goodness. In God’s wonderful grace, man can come to God and say, “O God, I am a sinner and Christ died for sinners,” and find his resting place there upon the solid, immovable rock. Thus, the same method prevails – God is using sin itself against sin, in His grace to man.
The lesson is thus learned as to righteousness: it is found in Another – in Christ. And he who has learned it says, “Thank God, I know my righteousness to be in Christ; God has taught me wisdom.” All well, and so it is indeed. But the same man starts now on a fresh quest; and here his old lessons seem to avail him nothing. He is now after holiness; and if righteousness is in Another, holiness at least must be in himself; true, but not all the truth. But with that word, up comes afresh a busy, earnest self, attractive in its search for holiness – alas, too attractive – once more the good self, fatal to an angel once. Holiness is to be realized in a self- conscious way; and in this self-consciousness lies the evil and the snare. He wants to be able to look at himself, and realize himself to be just the thing for God. God’s grace ought to be fruitful in him; he ought to find power in it against evil and for good; all true, surely, but with so much true, he cannot see the deception that yet lurks in it – the potent Pharisaic spell under which he is.
So, the old remedy is ordained for him – the stain upon all human glory. Job’s ditch is ordained to save him from the greater precipice; and once again, God makes the sin He hates to serve Him. The law of sin is in his nature. Nor can he in this way find deliverance from it. When he would do good, evil is present with him; and how to perform that which is good he finds not (Romans 7).
There is no hope in this direction. The cry can only be, “Oh wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me?” And now, in the infinite grace of God, he finds, not deliverance merely, but a Deliverer. Sanctification is, after all, in Christ; if the holiness resultant is yet to be in us – just as surely as the sunshine is in the sun, by which we are brightened. So the soul is turned from the impracticable self of experience, to find for faith the true self in which we abide before God. Here is the satisfaction for our hearts as for the heart of God. Here is communion with Him fully attained. Here is a heavenly Object to draw off the heart from the world and from the snare of self together. Here holiness is found, found in self forgetfulness; or, if self be revealed in connection with it, it is for the Spirit of God to show us by contrast with the true Man for God, our own mere unlikeness and evil. We learn to “rejoice in Christ Jesus” and to “have no confidence in the flesh.”
There is not a truer sign of a man walking with God than this utter self-forgetfulness. God has provided for it in His grace, when man turns in upon himself again, and sees this horrible thing within him. How can God go on with that? But, says the Word of God again, God has not gone on with that. He has put that away by the cross of His own Son. God has put away sin altogether from before Him, root and fruit, in the cross of His own Son; and now then you are in Christ before Him. Look up there. You can never see yourself aright except as you look out of yourself; and if you do that, you shall find the most attractive self you could possibly have. You shall find a self that you can glory in. So says the apostle, “I knew a man in Christ, of such an one I will glory.” Yet it is himself, it is the man in Christ. It is himself in Another, in the Christ before God for him; and finding himself there, he can fall in love with himself as much as ever he likes; but the self he falls in love with is that OTHER self who draws him out of himself.
How perfect is God’s wisdom! How beautiful it is to see that He has ordained by the very evil in man to antagonize the evil in man. No wonder we ask, how is it possible? A great many Christians think it is not possible. Why should it be that it is impossible for me to get rid of this sin within me? How is it, I have got a nature that I cannot get rid of, like a dead carcass strapped to me, a “body of sin”? If it be really so, there must be some way of justifying it. There must be some good in it after all. The very evil must be good in some way. God could not allow it, unless it was good for us; good to carry about with us the thing we hate; good that we should get exercised about it, have to look at it, and see what a horrible thing it is. Thank God, as I have said, in this way we learn to turn from ourselves because whenever we don’t turn from ourselves, we find it there. It confronts us; it frightens us from ourselves.
I have often said that a man taken up with the kind of self-cultivation so natural to us is just like a man who is cultivating his garden in the crater of a volcano; and it may be very productive soil for awhile, so long as the mountain will keep quiet. But when the mountain will not keep quiet, a little shake, a rumble of the mountain – the evil hidden within bursts out, and the garden is spoiled. That which seems but evil is God’s way; it is God’s own remedy; it is God’s own way of victory over evil; just because it is God’s own way of turning the creature away from himself forever, and giving us lessons which shall last through all eternity. It is a lesson which we learn here upon earth and which we could not learn anywhere else, which we learn as sinners – learn from the very sin itself – and which lesson we will carry with us through eternity to His praise and for our own sake.
God is not working merely for time, and it is not merely a question of how He will keep us clean for the few years we are here. I do not want to make light of that, not at all; but yet there are worse things than even the outward sins which soil our lives, alas so much. He who can make light of sin makes doubtful the truth of his own conversion; for the man in the experience of the 7th of Romans, though he has not power over it, hates the sin he does. He may be sin’s slave, but not its free man. He who serves it freely will get its wages. And “the wages of sin is death.”
But yet a worse thing than the outward sin is that pride of heart which by making us something puts us in the way of repeating the awful history of the first sinner, Satan.
That is something worse, and in a Christian is what necessitates the other. The spirit which was in Peter here could only be got out of Peter by that awful fall in the High Priest’s palace; the awful sin of denying his own Lord with curses – that was to teach him what Peter the SAINT was; what Peter who loved his Lord was, and in spite of his true love for Him. It was to destroy in him his self-confidence and self-righteousness; it was to manifest his weakness, but to reveal to him His strength; to make him utterly weak, and then to lift him up in the arms of Eternal Might and enable him to go forth to strengthen others.
Blessed be God, if we are losing confidence in ourselves altogether!
Well we may; we have had superabundant proof of what we are. Had we thoroughly learned to “have no confidence in the flesh,” we should be learning indeed the corresponding joy of “worshipping God in spirit” and “exulting in Christ Jesus” and should take a new start in divine things. God grant that we may do so! As man counts for much, God counts for little. As man descends in the scale of our estimation, God proportionately acquires the glory that is His own.
In the knowledge of the new man, as we find it in Colossians, “Christ is all;” and the sum of wisdom is to maintain this. That “God shall be all in all” is the expression of the glory of the eternal state, and of its stability as well. The creature can no more come into competition with Him – the necessary end of which is the darkness of hell, as the opposite pole is the glory of heaven.