The Sword That Cuts Both Ways – Louis Albert Banks (historic sermon 1855-1933)
“For the word of God is quick and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword…” —Heb. 4:13
The illustrations that are used to describe the Word of God throughout the Bible suggest its energy and power. It is compared in the Psalms to a lamp, a light to guide the feet. Light is positive; darkness is negative. Light dispels darkness. The rays of the sun flash from world to world across millions of miles of space in time measured by seconds, and that is only a faint type of the flashing of spiritual light. Again, the Word of God is compared to a hammer to break the rock in pieces, so that no opposition can withstand it. In Jeremiah it is said, “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord.” Nothing is more active, more vital with life, than fire. It is at once heat and light. It melts and consumes. It either warms into life, or it annihilates. It is also compared to a seed, an incorruptible seed which supplies the moral harvests of the world. A seed is full of life; one can easily imagine a giant oak-tree, whose shadows fall for a hundred feet bound up in an acorn. One looks at the heap of wheat on the granary floor and beholds a wide-reaching field of waving grain shimmering in the sun. A seed is the most powerful thing in nature. No giant that ever lived could lift such loads as a seed that a sparrow could swallow. Wooed by the sunshine and the shower, nerved by the omnipotent life which God has given it, it can tear a stone wall to pieces, lift a weight of many tons, and push anything aside which stands between it and the light.
We are therefore not surprised to find the Word of God compared in this text to a sword and not only to a sword, but one sharper than “any two-edged sword.” There have been many sharp two-edged swords in the earth, subjected, like the far-famed Damascus blades, to the most ingenious temperings of the sword maker’s art; but Paul declares that the Word of God is sharper than any of them. Shakespeare must have had this text in his mind where he speaks of “the mind’s eye” which flashes through all the sensations and actions of the soul like lightning, and lays bare to a man’s consciousness all that God has detected within him. There is life in the Word of God. It is living and active to awaken the slumberer, to cut deep beneath the surface and make man know himself.
Dr. Thomas Armitage says that certain historic things need corroborating evidence outside of themselves, but some things are self-evident. The sun tells of its own light, and you can not well prove it; your pulse tells of your own life, and you can not demonstrate it by reasoning. So the sharp, keen sword of the Word of God shows a man’s inner heart to himself. Jesus Christ talked only for a little while with the woman at the well of Samaria, but his conversation served to open every dark comer of her heart and let the light in upon every sin; and wicked deeds that she had forgotten came out from their moldy meeting-places where they had been slumbering for years and shook themselves into horrid life again. So deeply and keenly did the word from Christ cleave into the soul of that woman that it opened to her her whole history at one gash, and when she went into the town to tell her acquaintances about it she declared he must indeed be the Messiah, for, says she, “He told me all things that ever I did.”
God’s Word has not lost its power to cut sharp between the lower and the higher life, or to discern the secret things of the heart. It is the heart that must be opened to the light if we are to be saved, for it is the heart that has gone astray. It is in the heart that evil imaginations are born, and where unholy thoughts are hatched out into wicked purposes. The wise man of old did well to urge the guarding of the heart with all diligence, declaring that out of it are the issues of life. Christ says that out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, which manifest themselves in every wicked way. It is the infinite love of God that leads him to use the sharp sword of his Word in opening up to our gaze the wickedness of our hearts. It has been well said that perhaps no sight on earth is so painful as that of a skillful surgeon whose mind is keyed to the highest tension, till his nerve is as steady as the magnetic needle, and his judgment is cool as the north star to which it points, and in this frame of mind is operating upon a suffering patient. It appears to an unthinking mind like the height of cold-blooded heartlessness for him to be able to grasp the knife so firmly and, without a twinge or wince, almost at one stroke, sever the joint at the socket, or lay bare the bone and pierce to the marrow. Yet perhaps there is no more benevolent deed performed on earth than that of the skillful surgeon who, when it is necessary, does not hesitate to cut off the right hand, or pluck out the right eye, or to remove the deadly tumor. And the more thoroughly self-possessed, accurate, and cool the act on his part, the better for the sufferer, the lighter his torture, and the surer his cure. When gangrene threatens a wound, it is better that a part of the body should be promptly removed than that the whole body should perish. The skillful surgeon does not give pain for his own pleasure, but for the profit and salvation of his patient.
Neither does God pierce our hearts with the sharp two-edged sword of his Word until strong men cry out in agony because of their sin, but that we may be aroused to our peril, that our souls may be saved. See Peter at Pentecost tracing the coming of Jesus Christ through the prophecies, until he reaches the birth of Jesus, then following him on through his ministry, showing that all the prophecies concerning the Messiah were fulfilled in Jesus, and that he indeed was the Savior for whom they had been looking. Then with flashing eyes he turns on them, and the Holy Spirit gives power to the Word as he charges it straight home to the men standing before him, and declares that they themselves had taken Christ with cruel hands and murdered him on the cross, and that God had raised him from the dead. In Peter’s hand the sharp sword of God’s Word pierced these men to their hearts, and instead of being angry with the messenger, or seeking to harm him for his faithfulness, the sword of God so showed them their own wickedness that they cried aloud: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” But God had not been piercing their hearts with a sword simply to torment them. He did it to show them the deadly gangrene of sin in their hearts, so that they might be healed and saved, and that very day three thousand of those haters of Jesus Christ were happily converted and added to the infant church.
God’s Word has not lost its power. We have seen men and women pierced to the heart by the simple Word of God, and beheld them turning to Christ and finding in him the joy of salvation. God’s Word is cutting like a sword in some of your consciences now. Some of you were here last evening, when so many were convicted, and the two-edged sword of the Spirit thrust through all the armor of your self-complacency, and out deep down into your heart, and made you confess to your inner self that you were a poor wretched sinner. But startled as you were, and condemned as you felt, you tried to hush your conscience, and thrust your sins back into the darkness. All night, and all day long, you have been trying to patch up your armor so that you might parry or turn aside the sharp thrusts of God’s Word. But how unwise it is thus to attempt to blind yourself to your own condition. Would any wise man desire to be in ignorance of the deadly cancer that every day was getting a stronger hold on the vital forces of his life? Would he not rather welcome the skill of the physician that would show him his true condition and give him a chance to be healed? That is the voice of a wise man that invites the sword of God’s Word to cut to the very quickly that he may escape from the terrible danger of eternal despair. So if yon are wise, instead of trying to silence your conscience, instead of shutting your ears to God’s Word which reveals to you the blackness of the sin which is poisoning your life and separating between you and the peace of God, you will cry out to God in the language of David: “Search me, O God! and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me.”
Nothing is ever settled in this world until it is settled right. History is full of illustrations. Men tried to patch up compromises to keep peace in our great republic and leave human slavery in it, and the best brains of the country were given over to that work for a whole generation; but the two-edged sword of God’s Word kept ever laying bare the cancer spot of wickedness, and at last it took the surgeon’s knife and cost a half million of lives and a billion of gold, with indescribable sorrow and suffering, but it saved the life of the nation and gave us peace.
But what is true of nations, is true of men and women, is true of you. Nothing is ever settled with you until it is settled right. You may go on covering up your sins, but you will not prosper. You may go on patching up miserable compromises with your conscience, but ever and anon God’s Word will lay it bare, and show you the iniquity of your conduct, the certainty of your condemnation.
But, thank God, the Great Physician is here to save. Not only is God’s Word in the world living and active to probe your sins, but Jesus ever lives to make intercession for sinners, and he is here to save you now. I come to call aloud in your ears the good news of his presence and his willingness to save. If you have read John Lothrop Motley’s “Rise of the Dutch Republic,” you will probably remember how he describes an incident in the imprisonment of Montigny. For a long time he had been shut up in the castle at Segovia. He was in despair and waited hopelessly for death. But one day there passed through the streets of the little town a band of Flemish pilgrims chanting, as was the custom in those times, a low, monotonous song. Theirs was a strange tongue, and they were not understood by those about them. But the prisoner, as he listened, found they were singing the language of his own country, and singing for him. And so their real message, all unsuspected by the passing crowds, they sang to him, as of hope, and a way of escape.
Some of you, it may be, are in discouragement and despair as the Word of God shows you the sinfulness of your own heart.You feel as if you were imprisoned by wicked habits, and as tho the key were held by your enemy. If such is your case, I come to you as a messenger of God’s love to stand beneath your prison window and sing the song of redeeming mercy. Whoever else passes on without heeding it, you who know your sin and your bondage ought to listen; for I sing you a song of liberty, of sunny skies, of peace, and God. I sing you the song of him who has declared: “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out,” and who is able to save “unto the uttermost.” For this sword of God is a two-edged sword as the edge that cuts sharp and keen into your consciences, revealing your sins, is not keener than the edge of love that seeks to save you.
The warden of an Eastern state prison tells this wonderful story of the power of love: He was passing out of the prison yard one bitterly cold Christmas morning. Just outside the gate, and crouching close to the high stone wall, he saw a thinly clad little girl of about twelve years, her face and hands blue with cold. She put out one of her thin hands to detain him as he passed.
“If you please, sir,” she said, and stopped, fingering nervously at the fringe of her old shawl, and timidly glancing down.
“What is it?” he asked.
“If you please, sir, I’d like to know if I can go inside and see my father. He’s in there, and I’ve brung him something for Christmas. It ain’t much, and I didn’t spose you’d mind any if he had it. His name is John.”
He recognized the name as that of a life convict and a man notoriously bad. He went back into the prison grounds, the child following him eagerly. Going to his office, the warden sent for the convict. He came, sullen and dejected; in his face was the look of utter hopelessness which the faces of the life prisoners so often wear. The child sprang forward to meet him, the hot tears streaming over her white face. He stepped back, sullen and seemingly angry. No word of welcome came from his lips for the ragged, trembling little creature who stood crying before him, with something clasped in her hands.
“I just came to say, ‘Merry Christmas,’ father,” she faltered. “I thought maybe you’d be glad to see me. Ain’t you any glad, father?”
Christmas! What would that man not have given for freedom of body and soul! His head drooped. The hard look was going out of his face, his eyes were moistening. His little girl went on, trembling, and tearfully: “I brung you something, father. It was all I could think of, and all I could get. I live at the poor-house now.”
Her trembling fingers began unwrapping the bit of soft white paper in her hand, and she held out a short, shining curl of yellow hair, carefully tied with a bit of old ribbon. “I wouldn’t give this to anybody on earth but you, father. You used to truly, really love little Johnny. Mother said you did.”
The man fell on his knees with both hands clasped over his face. “I did love him,” he said, hoarsely. “I love him still; bad as I am, I love him still!”
“I know it,” said the child, going closer, “and I knowed you’d like this, now that Johnny’s dead.”
“Dead! dead!” wailed the broken-hearted man, rocking to and fro still on his knees with his hands over his face. “My little boy?”
“Yes,” said the child, “he died in the poor-house only last week, and there’s no one left but me now. But I ain’t going to forget you, father. I’m going to stick right by you, ‘spite of what folks say, and some day maybe I can get you out of here. I’m going to try. I don’t never forget that you are my father.”
But sin and hate and anger and sullenness were no match for a love like that, and the man threw out his arms and gathered the little one to his breast and kissed her again and again as tho his lips were hungry for love. All the sullenness of his heart gave way, and with it seemed to go the hopelessness and the awful bitterness, and the two, clasped in each other’s arms, wept and prayed together. When they separated an hour later there were tears on both faces, but love smiled back through the tears from the face of the wicked man as surely as from the face of the little girl.
If the love of a little child could do that, what shall not the all-encompassing love of Jesus Christ perform? He not only came down from heaven to suffer shame and poverty and ignominy and death for you, but through all the years of your wandering has watched over you with patient love, even when you have slighted him and grieved his tender heart and rejected his offers of mercy. Still he comes back to you again and again, and says with yearning love: “I haven’t forgotten yon, no matter who else has forgotten you, nor how your sin has disgraced you. I am still seeking to save you.”
Will you not cry out in the language of the old hymn?
“Just as I am, thy love unknown
Hath broken every barrier down;
Now, to be thine, yea, thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!”