by Mike McHugh
At this low point in Alonzo’s spiritual journey, he became tired of trying to strive for peace with God, and began to entertain thoughts of giving up on the whole effort. Before taking this desperate course, however, he determined to talk the whole thing over with his pastor. The following day, therefore, he had a private meeting with his friend and spiritual guide.
The discussion between these two men took place in the pastor’s study, late in the afternoon. Alonzo opened by thanking the pastor for his time on such short notice, and then proceeded to tell this gentleman his primary concern. His remarks were more of a confession, as he stated, “Sir, I do feel that I am a most miserable sinner, but I do not know what to do. I have been seeking religion for many years, and the more I seek it the further I seem to be from it.”
“What more then, can you do?” said the pastor.
“I am sure I do not know,” responded Alonzo.
“Then why does your heart fail to rest quietly in the fact that you have been faithful to the utmost in duty? God can surely require nothing more of someone like you.”
Alonzo hung his head. He perceived the absurdity of his excuse.
“No,” insisted the pastor, “you show by that remark how easily and completely the heart deceives itself. Burdened as you are by a weight of guilt and sin for disliking God, you yet feel that it is permissible for you to imply that you have done all that God requires.”
Alonzo sighed. The rebuke of his pastor was all too true. “I know it,” he said. “It is just as you say. I have no business pretending that my problem has any other source than my foolish heart. I want my heart to be at peace with the Lord, but it seems as if I cannot change it’s desires.”
“You speak as if your heart were one party, and you another; and as if you were right, and all the blame rested upon your heart, as an enemy that had planted itself by some means into your bosom. Now, what is your heart? It is simply the central point for all that you are as a moral being created in the image of God. To talk of a contention between yourself and your heart is a complete absurdity, for the parties in the contest, are one and the same thing. The struggle, if there is any, is between the claims of God’s Law urged by his Spirit on one side, and on you or your heart resisting on the other. The same God who made you, commands that you give him your heart --- that is, yourself, your affections, and your love. The only real question is: When will you do what God requires?”
“I know it, but it is also just as clear that I lack the power to change my ways. I am conscious that my affections are not given to my Maker, yet I cannot help but center my affections upon the things of this world,” cried Alonzo.
“You do, however, admit that the worldly or carnal heart that you cannot help but manifest is, nevertheless, wrong,” said the minister.
“Yes, sir, I feel and know they are wrong, and that is what makes me miserable.”
“Then you are more guilty than I supposed. What would you say if you knew of a man who said that he had such an uncontrollable desire to steal or to kill that he could not help but continually commit these crimes? Would you think that he was worse or better than someone who sinned occasionally under strong temptation?”
“I do struggle against the sinful tendencies of my heart,” replied Alonzo, “yet I cannot conquer them.”
“And suppose such a man as I have just described should meet you in a lonely place, and should tell you that he must rob and murder you. Would you be inclined to think more highly of this person if it came to your attention that he was struggling against the urge to kill you, but that it was too strong for him? Obviously not! You would most certainly conclude that he was a man of extraordinary depravity. The greater the struggle, the greater the evidence of the wickedness which could not be overcome. Our duty is to love and serve God with our whole heart, not to spend our lives struggling with wrong sinful lusts,” responded the pastor.
“I know that my life is going in the wrong direction,” admitted Alonzo, “but what can a weak character like me do to change. It does seem to me that I want to repent and change my way…but…but…”
“But you do not, and therefore, it is impossible that you should truly want to repent. There is no force applied to you to make you continue in sin. If there was, your conduct would not be sin. To wish to repent, without repenting, is as impossible and absurd as to wish to be sorry for some thing for which you are really glad. I have no doubt you really think you wish to repent, but I think you deceive yourself. What you wish for is some of the results that you suppose would follow from repentance, in particular, peace of mind. This is the true motivation for your efforts; but you are troubled because you cannot figure out how to gain what you desire apart from the repulsive act of repentance.”
Alonzo saw at once by a glance within that this was true. He longed for peace of mind, relief from the reproaches of conscience, the reputation of being a fine religious man, and the assurance of a blissful eternal state; but he had no heart for the work of repentance. It was a disagreeable means to obtain a desirable end.
The lost sinner named Alonzo was silent for several moments, and then he said with a sigh, “Oh, how I wish I could begin life anew. I would live in a very different manner from what I have done.”
“That remark shows how little you understand of your own heart, and the way of salvation. It is not by purifying ourselves, and thus making ourselves fit for heaven, or by any other scheme such as beginning life anew, that we obtain a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Like all sinners, you were born dead in trespasses and sins, and therefore, it would be of no benefit if you could begin your life again. If you started your life over, you would undoubtedly be substantially the same as you have been,” said the minister.
Alonzo recognized the folly of his position, and felt ashamed that he had expressed such a wish. After a long pause, he asked the pastor in a despondent tone whether he could say or do anything to help him.
“I do not know that I can,” was the reply. “The difficulty does not stem from a lack of knowledge as much as from the lack of a heart to do God’s will. If you had the right desires, your difficulties would all be over in a moment, but since you are still focused on your own self interest, there is nothing that any man can do. It is God alone who can take away your love of sinning.”
After saying these words, the minister slowly stood up from his seat and began to walk in the direction of the fireplace. A short time later, however, he turned back towards Alonzo with a thoughtful expression on his face. He then said, “I would like to ask you one more question. Do you clearly understand what these words from Romans chapter ten mean: ‘For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God; for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believes.’”
“No sir. I have never thought of it particularly,” said Alonzo.
“You have been brought to the place in the providence of Almighty God, of understanding in some degree, the hopelessness of your position if He should leave you to yourself. You have been close to the kingdom of God all of your life, yet, so very far away. All of your efforts to seek religion as a means of earning the love and favor of God has been a vain show, and you now sit disheartened by this hopeless labor. The farther down the road you have gone on your quest to be self-righteous, and to repair the defects of your character, the more deep and expansive evidence has been uncovered of the inherent corruption that lies within.”
“You are like the man attempting to repair a house gone thoroughly to decay,” continued the minister, and as he said these words he took down from a little set of shelves behind him a small volume from which he read the following passage: ‘The sinner going about to establish a righteousness of his own, is like a man endeavoring to repair his house after it had thoroughly gone to decay. At the beginning of his efforts to restore the structure, it appears as though the exterior is in relatively good condition. From all he can tell, it looks as if it will just need a few nails to tighten what is loose on the siding, a bit of new flooring, and here and there a fresh sill, to make things snug again. These improvements, along with some new paint and wallpaper, and plenty of caulk will be sure to give a pleasing superficial look to the place. At any rate, once the finishing touches are done, it should make the house look at least as good as those in the neighborhood.
When the real work begins, however, he finds that there is a little more to be done than he had expected. The first board that he removes in order to replace it with a better, reveals one in worse condition behind it. He drives a nail to tighten a clapboard, and it slumps into decayed wood behind, taking no hold. The workman removes what he can of the rotten wood, little by little, hoping at every turn that he will come to the end of what is unsound. Alas, he finds that the more he does, the more disheartened and discouraged he feels. His progress in learning the extent of the decay keeps far in advance of his ability to repair it, until at last he finds to his disappointment that every part of the structure is unsound. Every bean and every rafter is, to one degree or another, worm-eaten and unstable. The posts are pulverized by dry rot, and the foundation is cracked and tottering. There is no point to start from for making his repairs, for even the foundation has been corrupted. The restoration of the edifice to its original beauty, or at least to a safe and sound condition, is virtually impossible. Even if the workman could complete the restoration work through some extraordinary means, the expense would far exceed his financial resources. His building, therefore, only looks the worse for his having broken its superficial continuity. He has but revealed the rottenness and corruption of the house he calls home.”
“Now, does this simple story correspond well with your efforts and disappointments during the last few years?” inquired the pastor.
“Yes, very much so,” responded Alonzo. “This is my story exactly.”
“This is the reason, my dear friend, why your efforts will continue to be hopeless if God leaves you to yourself. You cannot obtain a saving relationship with the Lord in your own strength, because it is He alone who is the author and finisher of faith. It is not that you cannot come and be the child of God if you so desire; but you cannot come because you do not possess the will to love Him. The ability, or power of will, to love God is a gift from the Lord that no man can manufacture or merit.
“Alonzo, you are no different than any other human being. You are a ruined sinner who needs a Savior. The good news, is that there is one for you. He is Christ the Lord. If you simply humble yourself, and ask God for the grace to love Him, He will give it to you. Trust the Word of God as it declares in Luke Chapter 11, ‘Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? …If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?’
“The way of salvation, Alonzo, is open to you if you will but call upon the Lord in faith, trusting in His promises, and in the finished work of the Savior who bleed and died to atone for your sins. Give up yourself, your character, and all the hopes you may have founded upon it. Unite yourself with Christ, as the branch is united to the vine, in order that you may be sustained by one all encompassing personal relationship. The responsibility, the liability so to speak, for all of your sins will then be washed away. The burden of guilt that you have carried for so long, hanging like a heavy chain around your neck, will be torn to pieces as you unite yourself to the great burden bearer, Jesus Christ. The Savior assumes all your guilt and shame, and you may go free. By coming and giving yourself up wholly to Him, you bring your past life as it were to a close, and begin a new spiritual life which comes from union with Him. In a word, you find yourself by abandoning your old man of sin, as one would abandon a wreck. As you take refuge in Christ, he will give you the power to receive Him, and will procure for you forgiveness for the past and strength for the future by means of His own righteousness and amazing grace.”
Alonzo had heard the way of salvation in Christ explained a hundred times before, but it always seemed liked a mystery to him, as it always does to those who have never seen their sins and felt the utter hopelessness of their moral condition. As long as a person is deceived about his true character, he will not acknowledge his need for a Savior. When a person’s eyes are opened, however, and his deep seated corruptions are exposed, then he discovers the wisdom of abandoning self in favor of a new spiritual life, a life born and sustained by the Lord’s perfect wisdom and righteousness.
As Alonzo walked home from this meeting, his heart dwelt with delight on the goodness of the Lord in making a way for lost sinners to be restored into loving fellowship with the Savior Jesus Christ. The heart of this wandering sheep was full, and at genuine peace with its Maker for the first time, for he had sought and found the Lord’s forgiveness at the conclusion of his meeting with the pastor. As a result, Alonzo no longer had to struggle to feel love and gratitude toward God. As a new creature in Christ, his heart was now filled with a warm, spontaneous affection that no struggling could have suppressed. Alonzo longed for the opportunity to do something to evidence his gratitude. It was now late in the afternoon, and he looked forward with delight to sharing the message of Christ with his young bride before they had evening prayer together. He almost wished that these activities were twice as embarrassing as they were, for he longed to tell his family about the new spirit of love that burned within him, regardless of the reactions of men.
As he walked along, his heart clung to the Savior with a feeling of joy and deep satisfaction of soul. In the past, he thought he loved the Lord; now he knew that he did. Through the eyes of faith, he saw “God in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself,” and the Savior whom he saw there was all in all.
The next day, as Alonzo resumed his study of the Bible, old familiar passages that had always seemed strange and unintelligible to him, shone with new meaning. As time passed, He also made greater efforts to do his duty, but it was for a different object and in a different way. Before he was saved, Alonzo tried to establish his own righteousness, in order to merit for himself a place in heaven. Now, he abandoned this self-centered approach altogether, and considered all of his good works as trophies to be set at the feet of the King of Glory, Jesus Christ, who was his only hope and Savior. After coming to Christ, Alonzo also made more consistent efforts to grow in the grace of the Lord, and to do good toward others. Previously, he made these efforts as an unpleasant but necessary means to a desired end. Now, however, it was simply because he loved to do it. He was, in fact, a new creature in Christ with a new heart: changed not by his own vain efforts to establish his own righteousness, but by the regenerating influences of the Holy Spirit, altering the fundamental desires and affections of his soul.
And yes, as the readers of this story should already have guessed, Alonzo lived happily ever after; not only in time, but, more importantly, in eternity.
Copyright 2007, Michael J. McHugh
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