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LUKE XV. 7. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven
over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
IN contemplating the characteristic features of the Christian religion, it is difficult to say which is more conspicuous, the perfect purity of its precepts, or the merciful provision that it makes for those by whom they are transgressed. In both respects, it as far transcends every other religion that can be put in competition with it, as infinite wisdom or goodness transcends that which is the result of only human powers. And the union of these excellencies is the more worthy of our admiration, since in our own endeavours after perfection, nothing is more embarrassing than to know how to reconcile the moral purity of any system, with the exercise of lenity towards those who offend against its laws; or how to give full extent to claims of mercy and forbearance, without detracting from the spotless character of perfect virtue.
Such, however, is the perverseness or the infirmity of our nature, that too often these very perfections and excellencies of the Christian system are made the occasion of dangerous errors. Partial views are taken of it, according to the different habits and sentiments of those by whom it is examined. Expedients are devised for adapting it to acquired prejudices, to corrupt affections, or to fanciful theories. Nor have such perversions been confined to secondary and subordinate points only, but even to such as vitally affect the fundamental principles of the faith we profess.
This is strikingly exemplified in the different representations which have been given of the terms and conditions of our acceptance, under the Christian dispensation. Faith and works have been set at variance with each other. Sinless perfection has by some been regarded as necessary to salvation ; while others seem to think that no moral attainments whatever can avail any thing; that provided there be a strong and undoubting reliance upon the merits of the Redeemer,
the salvation of the most profligate sinner is no less secure than that of him who is constantly solicitous to make his ways and his doings good. Others rely so entirely upon themselves for their sufficiency to perform their duty, as hardly to suspect that they are in any degree sinners before God, or stand in need of repentance and forgiveness.
This last persuasion appears to have been strongly rooted in the minds of the Jewish Pharisees. Entirely devoted to the forms and ordinances of religion, and punctilious in their observance of whatever could give them a reputation of sanctity among the people; they seem to have conceived opinions of themselves correspondent with that blind veneration in which they were held by the multitude. Their haughty deportment, and the very name they assumed to distinguish them from the general mass of Jewish believers, betrayed a spirit very repugnant to that of the Gospel. Hence they cast it as a reproach upon the purity of our Lord's character, that he conversed with publicans and sinners; and they treated him with rage
when he preached remission of sins, and encouraged the penitent with an assurance of pardon and peace. According to their conceptions of religion, it
might be supposed that mankind were divisible into two classes only; the righteous, who needed no repentance, and sinners, to whom repentance could be of no avail. To themselves they applied the former character ; and in the other they appear to have included all who did not lay claim to such an imaginary perfection. “ They trusted in “ themselves that they were righteous, and
despised others.” Many of our Lord's discourses were directed to the reproof of this powerful sect; nor did he fail to take every opportunity of repelling their uncharitable censures, when they presumed to cavil at that dispensation of grace and mercy which he came to proclaim to a sinful world.
The parable of the lost sheep was delivered on an occasion of this kind. “ Then drew “ near unto him," says the Evangelist, “ the publicans and sinners for to hear him. “ And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured,
saying, This man receiveth sinners, and “ eateth with them. And he spake this pa“ rable unto them, saying, What man of you,
having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of
them, doth not leave the ninety and nine “ in the wilderness, and go after that which “ is lost, until he find it? And when he hath
a Luke xviii. 9.
“ found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, re* joicing. And when he cometh home, he “ calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I “ have found my sheep which was lost. I
say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in “ heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more “ than over ninety and nine just persons “ which need no repentance.” To this parable is subjoined the similar one of the lost piece of money : and this again is followed by that of the prodigal son. The tendency of all the three is to encourage sinners to repentance, and to shew that the great design of our Lord's coming into the world was
to 6 seek and to save that which was lost.”
In that which is now to be considered, there are some points, however, which require caution in the application of them ; lest we fall into errors different, perhaps, from those of the Pharisees, but no less irreconcilable with the pure system of the Gospel.
These points may be reduced to three questions:-1st, Who are to be understood by the “ ninety and nine just persons who need “ no repentance 2” 2dly, What is meant by the owner of the sheep “ going after that “ which is lost, till he find it?” 3dly, What are we to understand by there being more joy over