The Passing of Religious Opportunity – George W. Truett (historic sermon 1867-1944)
“And when He was come near, He beheld the city, and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.” -Luke 19:41,42
And now, as I come to the message of this evening, and look over this vast throng, I find my heart touched with the most compassionate interest for the people. There is nothing in the world that so appeals to me as a human face. And what a vast press of faces look up into my face in this gathering of thousands of people. Oh, how I covet you every one for Christ Jesus! What tragedy is comparable to the tragedy of a wasted life! Jesus not only would save the soul, bringing you home to heaven at last, Jesus would save your life here and now, in the flesh, in the earth, and have you positioned properly now. I lift up my voice to beg you, for your own sake, oh, soul, not yet openly positioned for Christ, and then for the sake of lives you shall daily touch, to give heed and face faithfully this biggest question of all…your own right relation to Christ Jesus. I would speak this evening on this exceedingly solemn theme: “The Passing of Religious Opportunity.” It is suggested by this solemn text, from the nineteenth chapter of Luke: “And when He was come near, He beheld the city…” the city of Jerusalem… “and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known…” or if thou hadst recognized… “the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.”
The text suggests the solemn word that I am to leave with you…the passing of religious opportunity. Tears are always touching…genuine and sincere tears. You are of a strange make-up if you should see the genuine tears of a little child, and not be moved by that sight. And how moving is the sight of the tears of a strong man, no matter what the emotion that grips the heart! Here in our text we have a picture of the Savior, our Divine Lord, sobbing out His great heart, as He looks over the city, His own country’s fair city, the city of Jerusalem. There must have been a compelling reason why Jesus thus wept, as He looked over the city. There was such a reason, and the text, with its context, faithfully indicates what that reason was! The reason was that many of the people in that city of Jerusalem had allowed their religious opportunity to go by unimproved. They had neglected it. The things of light and leading and love from God had all been overlooked. Jesus had taught and had called, but they had gone on unheeding, and so His compassionate heart overflowed through His eyes, and we have here the picture of Him sobbing over the fact of the passing of religious opportunity. Isn’t that a fearful possibility in a human life, that religious opportunity, gracious and precious, may come and may go by, and may be returnless forevermore? Satan does not care if men and women come to the house of God, and to public services such as these, and are attentive and serious and deeply moved, if only they will let the religious opportunity pass, and be unimproved. Oh, dreadful possibility, that religious opportunity may come and pass by, and the highest things of the soul be lost and forfeited forever!
Jesus, who visited the earth once in the flesh, visits men and women yet, not in His flesh, as of old, but in the person and by the power of His own Divine Spirit. He himself told us that when He went away He would send that Spirit, to teach of the things that He said and says, and show them to the children of men. Jesus says: “It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you. And when He is come, He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” The great work of God the Holy Spirit in the world is to comfort and counsel God’s people, and to bring to bear conviction upon the human judgment and conscience, that by such light and conviction sinners may be turned into the upper and better way.
Mark you this, my men and women! Every inclination that the soul has to come to God, every longing in your spirit to be right with God, and to be forgiven of Him, and to be saved by Him, is the direct drawing, the direct work, of God’s good Spirit on the human heart. The desire to be right with God does not come from the human flesh. The desire to be right with God, to have one’s sins forgiven, to be saved, is the direct drawing of the good Spirit of God himself. And remember this, I pray you, that no rational soul shall ever come to God unless the Divine Spirit shall draw him, shall counsel him, shall convict him of need, and shall himself work that desire to come in the human heart. Jesus yet visits men in the person and power of His Spirit. How does He visit them?
He comes in early life probably to most people, with the call of heaven, the call of grace, the call of salvation. One of the serious questions for parents and teachers is. How early do our children reach the age of personal accountability, and when do they reach the line of accountability, so that they must personally pass on these questions of right and wrong, of God’s light and counsel? Where and when do they reach that line? Blessed is the teaching that our little ones, dying before they reach that line of personal accountability to God, are taken to His home above, through the riches of His own mercy and grace. We are not anxious about our little ones who die before they can personally pass on these big questions of repentance and faith and coming to God. All is well with them. Ye parents, be not disturbed at that point. Our concern is, How old are children when they reach the line of personal accountability, where, if they die unrepentant and unbelieving, they shall die like the adult who dies unrepentant and unbelieving? Very early in life, evidently, God’s Spirit comes to many of our children, counseling and calling them in the better and upper way.
And then very many are the ways which God employs to counsel and call men and women into the upward way. One of God’s mightiest ways is to call the people by the right kind of preaching. There can be no substitutes for the right kind of preaching. The Bible tells us so. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. How shall the people hear without a preacher?” The Bible tells us that “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” He did not say “by foolish preaching.” There is untold harm done by foolish preaching. He said: “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching,” by as simple a thing as preaching, by the method of preaching, by a man saved by grace as I am saved, and as these honored men about me are saved, and called by God’s Spirit thus to witness for Christ. It pleased
God by as simple a thing as this, for a man saved by God’s grace and set apart by His Spirit to be a preacher, to stand up and call to his fellow-men: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” How marvelous is God’s way of turning men and women into the upward way, by preaching!
But preaching is not His only method. God has many methods to call the people into the upward way! How great is the message and the blessing of the right kind of a teacher, and the right kind of a writer! How much God employs such to bless the world! And how marvelous is God’s employment of the modest mother, shrinking and timid, but who puts the serious things of God and His truth into the deepest hearts of her little ones who rest on her breast, and who kneel beside her, as she teaches them to lisp the name of Jesus! How marvelous that instrumentality, the instrumentality of the parent, to bring people in the right way! How marvelous the instrumentality of the friend, who goes out in the right spirit and seeks to turn his friend into the upward way! How God blesses a simple thing like that! How marvelous are God’s providences, some of them white-robed, and some of them veiled in black, to turn us and bestir us, and give us to think, and, thinking, to turn to the upward way! And above all and through all, how wonderful is the work of Christ’s great witness in the world, namely, the Holy Spirit, as this Holy Spirit takes of the things of Christ, and brings them to bear on men’s minds, and consciences. Many are God’s messengers for the calling of the people unto himself.
Now, our text points for us, to-night, the exceedingly solemn truth that the visits of God, in the person of the Divine Spirit, may be resisted. In the case of these men and women of old, in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus lived and loved, where He preached and prayed, where He wept and died, there many resisted His heavenly influences, and put them all away, and went the downward way. So we are confronted to-night with that awful possibility in human life, that a rational, responsible, human being can say yes or say no to the call of God. The highest dignity of human life is that human life must choose whether you will be for God or against Him. Along with that highest dignity of human life, in which you are allowed to say yes or no to God, and consequent upon it at the same time is the very gravest danger. While you and I may say yes or say no to Jesus, the awful peril is that, though He brings to bear in His own form and wonderful way His light and love. His counsel and goodness, summoning us to come the right road, the fearful possibility is that we will rise up and resist it all, and miss the upward way. One thing is sure: God the loving Father is never at fault that a sinner is lost. Listen to His solemn appeal: “As I live,” and He swears by himself, for He can swear by no higher, “as I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” And then God himself exhorts: “Turn ye! Turn ye! Why will ye die?”
It is, indeed, inflexibly certain that Jesus is never at fault that a sinner is lost. See Him here in our text, as He stands weeping over the city of Jerusalem, in which were many people who had turned aside His counsel and missed the road to heaven, and listen to Him as He says: “Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.” Jesus is never at fault that a soul rational and responsible misses the way of light and life and salvation.
But our text brings us on to a still more serious truth, and that truth is that there is an end to God’s visits to rational, accountable human beings. When does such end come? I shall make answer to that in two remarks. Mark it, I pray you, oh, my fellow-men and my gentle sisters, listening so deferentially to what the minister says…mark it well. If you should go down into your grave, unrepentant and unbelieving, the battle for your soul is forever lost. Destiny eternal is settled this side of death. “As the tree falls, so shall it lie.” Jesus finally turned upon some men who carped and caviled at His words, and said: “Ye shall die in your sins.” That will be the outcome of it all. And then He added: “Whither I go, ye cannot come.” Destiny for the soul is determined this side the grave. Christ’s words have no meaning, if that is not correct, and the man is a trifler, a trickster with words, if he should essay to offer a rational human soul hope beyond the grave, if such man shall die in his sins. This side the grave is determined the big question of whether heaven is to be your home, or whether it is to be the dark world of waste and night, the name of which is hell. Your destiny for the one or the other place will be decided before you reach death and are laid in the grave. Oh, how serious is that! And since death comes with unexpectedness, times without count, and since there are ten thousand gates to death, and since the easiest thing in all the world is just to die, and since the coming of death is more uncertain than the morning cloud, and since death is transitory and illusory, and the time of its coming is known only to God, how speedily should every rational human being say: “While I have my wits about me, while my mind is clear, while duty comes knocking at the door of my heart, while need is urgent, while danger is consciously imminent and apparent, now I will decide the biggest question of all, calmly and gloriously, by making my surrender to Christ.”
I was preaching in a distant community some months ago, to a throng of thousands, like these thousands here to-night, and one man was seen to be greatly interested, and an earnest Christian standing near him went over to him, and ventured to whisper a word to him, while the last song was being sung. Men and women and children came down the aisles, saying: “The battle is decided. We will surrender to Christ.” This Christian man said to the interested man: “You are interested and serious now; you should now end all delay, and publicly make known your surrender to Christ.” He said: “No, I will see that man tomorrow. I will talk with him tomorrow. I will find him at his room in the hotel tomorrow, and I will have it out with him. I will not settle it tonight.” But when the morning came, in one sharp stroke, with a strange turning that often comes to human life, he was plunged into unconsciousness, and before noonday went away into eternity. Oh, rational, responsible human beings, I summon you, I charge you, I pray you, settle first things first, the supreme things, the one supreme thing, in the day of your health, with your wits about you, calmly, quietly, thoughtfully, grandly, settle this supreme matter while you may.
There is the other answer to be given to the fact that there is an end to God’s visits to men. Jesus was looking over a city which He had sought to help, but many had failed of His help, and Jesus was sobbing out His heart, as in effect He said: “Light is gone and opportunity has passed.” They were yet alive, and were yet in health. They went about their tasks. But Jesus said: “Religious opportunity, that came, and was clear and strong, has been refused, and now it passes.” Opportunity of any sort pauses at one’s door, but if that opportunity be not taken hold of, it passes and is returnless. “The mill will never grind again with water that has passed.” These men and women had heard and had seen and had felt and had known, and they put away the great claims and counsels of Jesus; which leads me to say that my judgment is fixed deeply from an experience of twenty-odd years in dealing with men and in studying the Word of God, that there is no peril comparable to the peril of resisting religious light and opportunity when they come to the human soul.
And when opportunity passes, how fearful is the fate of such a soul! And when it does pass, how is that fearful tragedy brought about? The trouble about dealing lightly with religious opportunity and religious light and religious privilege is that men and women in thus dealing lightly, sin against knowledge. If the religion of Jesus Christ be worth a straw, it is worth more than the material world. One soul outranks in value the material universe. Now, to deal lightly with the call of Jesus and the death of Jesus for such soul, is to sin after a most terrible fashion. Men hear and feel and intend and know, and yet put religious calls away, and consequently go the downward way.
Nor is that all. Men who resist God’s call and counsel, sin presumptuously. When they are spoken with candidly and faithfully about the great claims of Christ, they make answer: “Yes, I grant it all, but I will risk it. I will presume. I will wait. I will defer. I will delay.” And they loiter on until the little boat takes the fateful plunge over the rapids, and opportunity is forfeited forever.
Moreover, when men thus sin against light, they sin with the will. The human will is the initial spring of action. Men hear and know and feel and intend and desire, and yet they delay. They sin against the will, and that involves premeditation and decision. Men hear Christ’s call, and their judgments and consciences and moral natures say yes. But they go on and say: “Not yet. I will not have Christ to reign over me yet.” They go on and say, like one of old said: “Go thy way for this time. When I have a convenient season I will call for thee.” And in that way light darkens, and convictions fade, and religious opportunity passes.
Still again, when men sin against God’s clear call to repentance and faith, they sin against God’s Spirit, who takes of these great truths and binds them on men’s judgments and consciences. When men rise up and say: “Though I know it is right, and though I feel its weight and power, yet I will put it all away,” men are sinning against God’s great messenger, even God’s Holy Spirit, who is wooing and counseling and convicting and drawing, that the people may come to Christ and be saved. And this Divine Spirit, in His wooing power, is God’s first, last and supreme messenger to turn the world to Christ Jesus. If men sin against God the loving Father, as they do, there is Jesus, the offered Savior, who is men’s proffered helper, if they will only have Him. If men put Jesus away, the Holy Spirit patiently calls and counsels and woos, and they feel it and know it, that God is striving with them. If men put this Holy Spirit away…There is no peril so serious as that.
Years ago I was preaching in one of our cities on that solemn text: “Ye do always resist the Holy Spirit,” and I was making the point that a man may so resist light and counsel from God, that light will at last turn to darkness; that a man may so trifle with conviction of a course that he ought to take, until the conviction gets fainter and feebler, and at last he seems to have no conviction at all. I was making the point that somewhere in its fight against God, the human soul may put away these highest matters, until at last they seem to have no weight, no meaning, no appeal at all. And no sooner had I said that, than a man in the audience, perhaps forty-five years of age, with the gray beginning to tinge his hair, stood in the audience and said: “Preacher man, you are describing my case.” I said: “Not consciously; I do not even know you; I am discussing the Word of God.” “Very well,” he said, “but that is my case; you are describing my case, and if you do not mind,” he said, “I will tell you a little about it.” I said: “I will be pleased to let you tell us. Maybe we can help you. I want to, if I can.” He said: “Years ago, when I was a young man, I had often heard and felt, concerning religion; I had often been counseled and called, I had often trembled and resolved, but I kept putting the matter off. And at last, there came a powerful appeal from God’s man one day, where all of my mind and conscience and heart and will were aroused beyond words, and I felt: *This is the supreme crisis. This is the hour epochal for my soul.” Other men went down the aisles to make known their surrender to Christ, but I held out against it all.” And then he looked at me sadly a moment or two and said: “Preacher man, that day I went over the line. That day I passed the day of grace. That day my soul died, and your teaching as to the peril there is in resisting God’s Spirit applies, sir, to my own poor case.” Quickly did I adjourn the service, and then I sought him out, and for two long hours I brought to bear, as best I could, the glorious invitations of Jesus to sinful men, no matter what their sin or doubt or fear or difficulty. For two hours, I brought to bear these promises and calls of Jesus on this man, and yet he heard me through it all, and said: “Sir, I have had no response at all for years. I have crossed the line, and I know that I have crossed it.”
I cannot discuss the philosophy, the psychology, the deep meaning of this case. I do not know it. I am simply making the point that somewhere the human soul may resist God and His love and light and heavenly leading, so late, so far, so long, that light turns into darkness, and convictions fade, and the highest things are missed and lost. There comes again the old-time hymn, emphasizing this same point of the danger of putting away religious light, religious calls for the human soul, the danger of putting them off until to-morrow.
My fellow-men, if there be interest, if there be an awakening, if there be concern, if there be a wish, however faint, if there be a longing, however feeble and fluttering, it makes its cry in your heart, if it be there, to be right with God, to have your sins forgiven, to be saved, if I were in your place I would tonight make my surrender to Christ, if I had to go through fire and through flame to make that surrender; for if a man passes his day of grace, and when the battle for the soul is finally lost, then spiritual things, this text tells us, are hidden from the eyes of such soul and life. Jesus said: “Oh, men of Jerusalem, who have let your religious opportunity be forfeited and lost, now these religious truths and matters are hidden from your eyes.” Hidden! No light now!
Have you ever been through Mammoth Cave, that wonderful, subterranean cavern yonder in Kentucky? If you have been through there, the guide has shown you fish in those subterranean waters whose eyes look like other eyes in other fish, and yet the guide goes on to tell you that these fish have been so long in the darkness of those underground waters that they cannot see at all. One awful truth stands out from the teaching of this text and many other teachings of Jesus elsewhere in the Bible -that a man can put away religious light so long, so late, so far, so terribly, that at last he may not see at all.
As men fight the call and counsels and pleadings of God for their souls, they come to the place where feeling grows less and less with every appeal that is made. Less and less does the heart respond, if truth is heard and felt and granted, and yet set aside and put away. It is an awful sentence, there in the Bible, about the conscience being seared as with a hot iron, so that at last the human soul reaches the place, in its conscience, where it is past feeling. If the doctor is summoned to his patient, and the family and the patient explain to the doctor when he comes that the patient has no feeling in part of the body, that part of the body being utterly unresponsive, the doctor shakes his head ominously, for that sign –no feeling– is the precursor of serious trouble.
It follows, my fellow-men, that the most serious thing in this world is the resistance of the religious light that comes to you. The most serious thing in the world is the putting away of light and feeling when God’s gospel is preached, and the soul is sought after, and the soul hears and trembles and feels, and yet puts it all away. That is the most serious and presumptuous risk ever taken by the human soul. I am coming to say a most serious closing word, namely: There comes a last visit from God for the human soul. When is that visit? Certainly, no man is wise enough to know. But there comes a last visit from God, seeking for a rational human soul. When is that visit? Will it be this year? Will it be this month? Will it be this week? Will God’s last visit for an intelligent, an awakened, responsive soul to come to Him, be to-night? God alone knows. No man can tell. But when we consider the possibilities of such startling fact, then we may well long to be in prayer to God, that no rational human soul in this place tonight shall be willing to go on, when everything is at stake, and put God’s call away into some vague, indefinite hour of the indeterminate future!
Oh, man or woman or child, in this vast assemblage tonight, wrong with God, I summon you, if you have any degree of desire to be saved, I summon you, act on that desire, act on that light, and make your surrender to Christ. Mark it! Mark it! The great issue confronts you, and what is that issue? You have to make a choice between Jesus and Satan. One or the other is the master of every rational human soul. Which shall your choice be?
And, remember, whatever may be your difficulties, Jesus is master of any case. Do you tell me: “Sir, my difficulties are terrible, beyond human speech?” I do not mind that. I am not given pause by that. Though your sins be as scarlet, if you will surrender to Christ, He will save you. Though your doubts are like the stars for number, if you will surrender to Christ, He will save you. Though your temptations are fiery with the hot breath from the pit below, if you will surrender to Christ, He will save you.
As I was leaving Washington City, some time ago, I stood in one of the depots there, and saw a strange mark on the wall, and I asked a policeman what it meant, and he said at once: “You are a stranger?” “Yes.” “That is the death mark for President Garfield, who was standing right here when he received the bullet from the man who took his life, and this singular mark is put here on the wall to indicate the place where he met his death.” Oh, tonight, I wonder if, standing under the sound of my voice, I wonder if some hesitating soul could know that this shall be the place and the time of the death mark for your human spirit. God forbid, and I pray it from my deepest heart!
Yonder on the battlefield at Gettysburg, when the awful conflict had passed, an army surgeon came back, looking for the wounded and suffering, if haply he might help them, and he saw the dead on every side. As he rode along he saw a poor fellow lying in a trench. The surgeon reined up his horse, but thought: “I need not dismount; this poor fellow is gone.” And then he saw a smile play about the man’s face as he lay there in the trench. The surgeon then dismounted and got down in the trench beside the dying man, and every minute or two, he said that smile would play about the dying soldier’s face, and he would whisper one little word. The word was, “Here!” Presently, the army surgeon shook the man and rallied him back from the gates of death for a minute, and said: “Comrade, what do you mean by saying, ‘Here?'” And the dying fellow answered: “Oh, Doctor, they are calling the roll up in heaven, and I was just answering to my name, “Here!”
Oh, men and women and children, with my last sentence, I beseech you, as this call comes tonight from the great Savior to you, answer Him, and say: “Lord Jesus, I decide, and receive thee as my personal Savior and Master, and by thy grace I am going from this Sunday night with thee, forever!”