By Andrew Lee
Revelation xxi. 8.
"The fearful--shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone; which is the second death."
The terms on which only we can be Christ's disciples are laid before us in the Scriptures, and we are counselled to consider them before we engage to be his.
Though Christ was born to be a king, his kingdom is not of this world. He doth not persuade men with the prospect of great things here; but on the contrary warns his followers, that "in this world they shall have tribulation;" pointing them to another, as the place of their rest, and teaching them there to expect the reward of their labors and suffering here. And here the saints in every age, have groaned, being burdened. Had God provided nothing better for them, he would be ashamed to be called their God.
The primitive Christians drank largely of the bitter cup. All the apostles, except John, are said to have sealed their testimony with their blood. John at an advanced age, died peaceably in his bed at Ephesus. But he did not escape persecution here. When the revelation was made to him, he was in exile for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus. For his consolation, and for the edification of the church, he was visited in his lonely state, by the exalted Redeemer, who unveiled futurity before him, briefly sketching the changes which were to pass over his people till the consummation of all things. The vision closed with the solemn, dreadful process of the great day, and its consequences to the righteous and to the wicked.
The divine visitant enlarged on the glories of the heavenly state beyond any of the prophets who had gone before. The description is clothed in figurative language, affording only a partial view of "the glory which is to be revealed;" sufficient however to convince us, that "eye hath not seen, ear heard, or the heart of man conceived the things which God hath prepared for those who love him."
But who will be made to possess these glorious things? They are offered to all who hear the sound of the gospel; but conquering believers will only attain them. Their contrast will be the portion of others.
This life is a warfare, in which we are called to contend with our own corruptions and with the powers of darkness--"He that overcometh shall inherit all things:" But those who are overcome, 'will have their part in the lake of fire--which is the second death'.
To understand the grounds of this context is highly important. Mistakes here may be fatal. To assist the inquirer, the characters of conquerors and captives are drawn in the scriptures. The verse of which the text is a part, mentions several general characters of the latter kind, and determines their future portion--'The fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone; which is the second death'.
In the prosecution of our subject, only one of these general characters will be considered--'the fearful'.
Who then are intended by 'the fearful'? And what is the fear which leads to destruction?
Fearful, is a term seldom used to describe sinners. It occurs, we believe, in no other scripture. Every kind of fear is not sinful; much less inconsistent with a state of grace. "The fear of Lord is the beginning of wisdom"--it disposes the subject of it to mind the things which belong to peace, and flee to the hope set before him in gospel. The fear of God is often used to describe the good man, and given as a leading trait in his character. It is noted in favor of Obadiah, the servant of Ahab, that he "feared the Lord greatly."
To have no fear of God before one's eyes, is expressive of great obduracy in sin; of the last grade of depravity. Yet in the text, the fearful, are mentioned as the first rank of those who will have their part in the burning lake! What then is this fear?
It may be of several kinds; particularly--that to which precludes trust in God, and reliance on his grace in Christ--that which operates to explain away the law of God--that which puts men upon duty in order to atone for sin--and that which shrinks from the hardships of religion.
I. The fear which leads down to the lake of fire, may be that which precludes trust in God and reliance on his grace in Christ.
Faith in Christ, and reliance on divine grace in him, are conditions of salvation. Where these are wanting Christ will not profit. Faith and reliance are united. The latter is dependant on the former, and riseth out of it. "He that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him."
The fearful and unbelieving are here set together--the fearful and unbelieving shall have their part--Perhaps they are thus joined to intimate that the fear intended precludes the faith to which the promises are made.
The sinner who is the subject of this fear hath so deep a sense of the sinfulness of sin, especially of his own, that he is afraid to make God his hope--afraid to look up to the throne of grace, or to ask mercy of God. He would gladly flee the divine presence, like the first guilty pair, when they heard the voice of God walking in the garden after their fall. When fear hath this effect, it drives the sinner from the mercy which alone can save him.
"Christ came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. He came to seek and save that which was lost." To sinners, mercy is offered in him. Were we without sin, we should have no need of mercy. If we flee from Christ because we are sinners, we flee the mercy which alone can save us, and put offered salvation from us; for it is offered us only in him. To drive sinners away from the Savior by fear, when he can hold them no longer secure in sin, is an old device of the deceiver, which hath probably often succeeded.
On secure and awakened sinners, different delusive arts are practised. The former are persuaded that sin is a trivial evil, far from meriting eternal punishment; that God is not greatly offended at it; that it is easy to obtain forgiveness; that as we are required to forgive every offender who saith, I repent, God will do the same; that it is only to ask mercy, when we can sin no longer, and it will be immediately granted; so that there is very little danger in sin. But those who are awakened--who see the evil of sin, and tremble for fear of God's judgments, are tempted to believe that divine justice will only be exercised, especially to them--that their sins are unpardonable; their day of grace ended, and that they have nothing before them but "a certain fearful looking for of judgment." In such suggestion, the design of the tempter is to drive sinners to despair, and thus drive them away from Christ. If he avails to effect it, his end is gained; for there is salvation in no other.
It is emphatically true of the despairing sinner, that he "cannot go to Christ for life." All who go to him, believe him able and willing to save. Devoid of this faith none can go to him. Therefore doth the fear which precludes faith lead down to ruin.
II. Fear 'which operates to explain away the law of God, hath the same effect'.
This is sometimes the effect of fear. Those who believe that there is a God, and that the holy scriptures are his word, cannot feel secure while they consider themselves condemned by his law, and view themselves as the objects of his wrath.
Therefore do the slaves of depravity endeavor to explain away God's law--therefore to persuade themselves that certain duties are not required--that certain self denials are not enjoined; or that there is something in their particular case which exempts them from 'this or that', which is required of others.
The cunning which some discover in finding out excuses and evasions, by which to cheat themselves and silence their consciences, is affecting. It shews them to be the slaves of Satan, and servants of corruption, and that they love their masters, and refuse to go out free, when liberty is offered.
When people of this description pretend to inquire what is their duty, their real design is to evade the obligations of it. And they often succeed to persuade themselves that they are free from the obligations of it. But few others are deceived. The veil of the covering spread over their designs and views, is opaque only to themselves; to others it is transparent, and leaves them without excuse.
Frequent instances of this unfairness are visible in the world. When people make themselves easy and secure, without faith which works by love and purifies the heart--without repentance which mourns for sin as dishonorable to God, and in itself an evil thing, and a bitter, and without devotedness to the service of God, as well as a reliance on his grace in Christ, no matter what they substitute in the place of these graces, all is of no avail; hope is built on the sand. That many of these vain substitutes are to be found among men, Who is insensible? When fear hath this effect, it leads down to the fiery lake.
III. Sometimes 'fear puts men upon duty in order to atone for sin and merit the divine favor'. Afraid of God's judgments, they set themselves to do commanded duties, and place their dependence on these doings of their own.
Duties done by men have nothing meritorious in them. The design of many things which God hath enjoined is to serve as a schoolmaster to bring men to Christ. None are intended to save by any virtue in them. By nothing which man can do is God made his debtor. Neither doth ought done by man recommend to the divine favor if perverted and made the ground of hope toward God.
The sinner's best recommendation to the divine favor is a sense of his own demerit, which leads him humble and self abased to cast himself on grace in a mediator. His most prevalent prayer is that made by the publican--"God be merciful to me a sinner." Sinners are invited to the Savior, and encouraged to hope in him--"Look unto me and be ye saved all the ends of the earth. It is a faithful saying, that Christ came into the world to save sinners." But he saves only those who receive and trust in him. If we go about to establish our own righteousness, relying on our own doings as the ground of our acceptance with God, he will give to us according to our works --"Behold all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks; walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled: This shall ye have from mine hand, ye shall lie down in sorrow." *
*Isaiah l. 11.
Not that sinners are to neglect the means of grace, or indulge in sin. When God promised his church to give them a new heart, and cause them to walk in his statutes, he declared that those blessings should be given in answer to prayer--"Yet for this will I be inquired of by the house of Israel to do it for them." And when the apostle teaches how to seek renewing grace, he directs to "lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness and receive with meekness, the ingrafted word."
Saving grace is perhaps, never given till it is asked of God. Sinners are made to see their need of this divine gift and led to cry to God for it. It is then when they ask that they receive. That they shall not ask in vain, is intimated with sufficient clearness in the word of truth. "Whosoever shalt call on the name of the Lord, shall be saved. If thou knewest the gift of God--'thou wouldest have asked of him', and he would have given thee living water."
Yet the sinner merits nothing by any doings of his. The true penitent is sensible of it. He relies on grace alone; and asks mercy of God for the sake of him "who died for his offences, and rose again for his justification." He seeks in the use of appointed means because it is the way of duty, and the way in which God is wont "to have mercy, on whom he will have mercy;" who are commonly chosen from among those who seek his face.
As fear puts some on duty, it excites others to that which is not duty--puts them on doing things which are not required. Such are the pilgrimages and penances of the Romanists; and such the severities which some others have practised on themselves with a view to atone for sin and render Deity propitious.
These have no tendency to conciliate heaven. A curse is more likely to follow them than a blessing; yet in this way some have thought to atone for sin and make peace with an offended God!*
* Vide Sermon on Colossians ii. 8.
IV. There is yet one other kind of fear which leads to destruction --that 'which causes men to shrink from the hardships of religion'; and decline the difficulties which lie in the way of duty.
Difficulties and temptations were not peculiar to the first ages of Christianity. St. Paul, after mentioning his own, declares them, in a measure, common to all Christ's followers--"Yea, and all who will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution."
The trials and difficulties of the righteous are divers, but none escape them. Many arise from indwelling corruption--many from an insnaring world--many from Satan's malice and devices.
In fallen man there is a bias to error and wickedness. Not to suffer his own lusts to draw him away, and entice him to sin, requires great self denial.
From a wicked world temptations also arise and difficulties spring up. In this land, the enemies of religion, have not power to kill and destroy the faithful; but they have power to pour contempt upon them. Cruel mockings may severely try those who fear neither the gibbet, nor the stake. These do try the people of God at this day.
Neither do the powers of darkness cease to trouble and afflict--to assault the faithful with their temptations, and to lay snares to entangle them.
"Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour." Satan's devices are without number--his attacks are made from every quarter; and he is often so hidden that it is difficult to discover him. Sometimes he assumes the mark of religion --is "transformed into an angel of light," the more effectually to cover his dark designs. Such is his enmity that he is indefatigable in his endeavors to seduce and to destroy--such his craft and experience, that he is wise to accomplish his nefarious designs: And against the saints his rage is the greater, because he knoweth that his time is short.
Here the people of God live in a state of warfare--conflict with many enemies and suffer many sorrows. Often they are called to suffer for Christ--because they are numbered among his followers and wear his livery.
If any of these things move us, if we are afraid to encounter these hardships, are discouraged in our Christian course and induced to turn back from after Christ, our fear will destroy us--it will cause us 'to have our part in the lake of fire--which is the second death'.
This hath happened to some who have assumed the Christian name, and for a time appeared among Christ's disciples! They have forsaken him.
There is an hour of temptation, which trieth those who dwell on the earth; many fail in the trying hour. Attacked by enemies and assaulted by temptations, they yield themselves captives to their spiritual enemies. This happens to some who had "heard the word and received it with joy--in the time of temptation, they are offended and fall away." Wanting courage to stand on the Lord's side, when it exposes them to reproach and sufferings, they suffer themselves to be overcome of evil, and fall from their stedfastness. These are Christians only in name. The real Christian possesseth a noble courage which raiseth him superior to every trial, and enableth him to subdue every enemy. The storms of temptation beat upon him; but he stands firm--resists the powers of darkness and his own corruptions--is moved neither by the frowns, nor flatteries of the world. Like an eminent saint of old, he "hath respect to the recompence of reward," keeps heaven in his eye, and presseth on in his way thither. "Through Christ strengthening him, he doth all things and abounds--holds out to the end and is made more than a conqueror."
To such "pertain the promises--they overcome--will inherit all things. God will be their God, and they will be his children."
But those who cannot, "endure hardness as good soldiers"--who faint, and fail in the day of trial, suffering the enemy to prevail, and themselves to be overcome, "will lose that which they have wrought-- others will take their crowns, 'and they will have their part in the lake of fire and brimstone: Which is the second death'."
Thus we have seen who are intended by the fearful, and their sad state. Influenced by fear which drives them from the Savior; or leads them to explain away God's law; or drive them to duty in order to atone for sin; or too timid to take up the cross and follow Christ, they have no part in him. They are afraid of misery; and their fear indulged, will bring misery upon them far beyond their fear! For "who knows the power of God's anger."
Before us the door of mercy is yet open. We are invited to Christ for life. God hath no pleasure in the death of sinners. He is ready to receive the returning prodigal. His arm is not shortened that it cannot save. He offers pardon and peace to the chief of sinners. The deeper sense we have of sin, the more we abhor ourselves for sin, the more welcome to his grace.
Weary and heavy laden sinners are particularly invited to the Savior. He will not send them empty away. As the returning prodigal was received by his father, so is every repenting sinner, by his Father in heaven. When the prodigal resolved to return with, a "Father I have sinned--the father saw him a great way off," and all his bowels yearned over him--"he had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck, and killed him"--bid him a hearty welcome--lavished the richest favors on him, and called all to rejoice at his return. In like manner our heavenly Father receives the returning penitent. This is the spirit of the parable.
Fear not then, ye who mourn in Zion. Come empty and naked as ye are, and fall down before an offended God, with, "Father I have sinned. --God be merciful to me a sinner." Come thus to God, and cast yourselves on his grace in Christ, and his grace will be sufficient for you. We are warranted to promise you a kind reception.
Let none think to hide their sins by excuses or palliations. They are all open to the divine eye. "There is no darkness, nor shadow of death where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves." Neither let any think to atone for their sins by doings of their own. The blood of Christ is the only atonement. Our best services are polluted with sin. Let us endeavor to see our sins as they are, renounce them all, and repair to the mercy of God in Christ. There is a fulness of merit in Christ, and a fulness of mercy in God. There we may trust and not be ashamed.
Let none be discouraged by the difficulties which lie in their way, or faint under the hardships of the cross. If God calls us to trials he will support us under them--yea, if we make him our hope, and are not needlessly wanting to ourselves, he will make us more than conquerors; he will make us triumphers in Christ. But if we fear to enter the lists against our spiritual enemies or to endure ought to which we are called in the way of duty, whether it be contempt, sufferings, or loss, we shall bring greater sorrows on ourselves by shrinking back in the day of trial, than by pressing forward, and bearing all which duty requires.
Our sorrows, if we abide faithful, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel, will be only temporary; and under the pressure of them, we shall be supported by Omnipotence; but if we draw back, and refuse to deny ourselves, fainting in the day of trial, our sorrows and sufferings will be eternal, and as such as Omnipotence can only inflict!