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II. The gospel answer returned, the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved."
I. The question. It is comprised in a few words; but they are words of great weight. Let us examine them carefully, and we shall find that they speak the language of Conviction, of Fear, of Desire, of Hope, of Ignorance, of Legality, and of Submission.
This question is the language of Conviction. By conviction, I mean that work of the Holy Spirit on the mind of a sinner, whereby he is convinced that he is a sinner, and is properly affected with it. Without this, people try to excuse or lessen their sins. Some lay the blame of their sin upon others, as Adam did upon Eve, and as Eve did upon the serpent. People in general think very little, and very slightly, of their sin. Some even make a mock at sin, and glory in it. This is a sad state to be in. Such persons are very far from God, and have no religion at all, whatever they may pretend to have. Such were the Pharisees, who were thought by their neighbours to be very religious; but they generally despised and opposed Jesus Christ; for, as he told them, "the whole need not a physician, but those who are sick." But it is a good thing to be sensible of our sin. It is the first work of God upon the soul to make us so. For this purpose we must consider the holy law of God, contained in the Ten Commandments. "By the law is the knowledge of sin ;" and "Sin is the transgression of the law." Thus St. Paul himself came to see he was a sinner, as he tells us, Rom. vii. 9. "I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died." If ever we have broken the law, even once in our lives, we are sinners; for as it is written, Gal. iii. 10, "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law, to do
them." Now, who is there that can pretend to say, he never sinned in all his life? Do you not often, at public prayers, say, you are miserable sinners? But it is one thing to say so, merely in a customary way, and another to be seriously convinced of it, and deeply affected with it.
The Holy Spirit not only brings us to admit, what, indeed, we can hardly deny, that we are sinners; but he also convinces us that we are great sinners-that we have sinned very much, and very often-that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed; particularly, that we have sinned secretly in our hearts, thousands and thousands of times, even when we have not seemed to our fellow creatures to have sinned at all.
He also shows us the very great evil there is in sin. He shows us what abominable ingratitude there is in it; for "God has nourished us, and brought us up as children, and we have rebelled against him." He shows what a base and filthy thing sin is, that it makes us hateful and abominable in his sight, viler than the brutes that perish. And he also shows us the danger there is in sin, for "The wages of sin is death." Sin brought all our miseries into the world. It is owing to sin that we must all die, and return to dust; and what is worse, sin exposes us to the wrath of God and the pains of hell for ever. Now the jailer saw all this, and therefore cried out, "What must I do to be saved?" And this leads me next to observe, that,
This question bespeaks Fear. Yes, my brethren, it is the language of fear: it is the language of terror and consternation. Whenever we are alarmed at the approach of some dreadful evil, it is natural to cry, What shall I do? And have not sinners much to fear? Is it not "a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God?" Oh! consider wHо he is, that we have provoked by our sins. It is the
great, the Almighty God; he who made the world with a word, and can crush it in a moment. It is "the Lord, who hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storms, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned, at his presence. Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger?" Nahum i. 3-6. This is that dreadful God, who has said, "that the wicked shall be turned into hell," with all who forget him. Shall we not fear him then? shall we not tremble at his presence? "Yea, saith the Lord, I say unto you, fear him who can not only kill the body, but cast both body and soul into hell.' O! how would you shudder to see a fellow-creature burning at a stake; how would you wish that death would speedily end his pain! But how would you feel to see him burning a whole hour, a whole day, a whole week, and all the time filling the air with horrid shrieks, and crying in vain for ease or death? Horrid as this would be, it would afford but a very faint idea of hell; that dreadful place of torment, "where the worm dieth not, and where the fire is not quenched." It was the dread of this that made the jailer cry, "What must I do to be saved?" And it was well for him that he foresaw the evil and found a refuge from it. God grant we may all do the same! But there is more in the question.
It is also the language of Desire; earnest, ardent, impassioned desire. The natural man desires only carnal things. What shall I eat, what shall I drink, what shall I wear? How may I be rich, and happy, and respected? or, as the Psalmist expresses it, "Who will show me any good?" any worldly good, any temporal good: but "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." The awakened soul has new desires; or rather, all his desires are brought into one, and that one is salvation: "What shall I do to be
saved?-to be delivered from the wrath to cometo have my sins pardoned-to be restored to the divine favour? This is now " the one thing needful." Without this, all other things are of no value; they are less than nothing, and vanity, compared with salvation. This earnest desire will soon be expressed in prayer. For the sinner knows that salvation can come only from God; and as it was remarked by Christ himself, concerning Saul when converted, "Behold he prayeth !" so it will always be found, that the desire of the new-born soul will vent itself in prayer. Those who live without prayer, are strangers to this desire, and are totally destitute of religion.
The question in our text is likewise the language of Hope. I do not mean a lively and believing hope, founded upon the gospel; but a feeble, wavering, doubtful hope, arising from a general notion of the mercy of God. For there is in the minds of all mankind, some general notion that God is merciful, and may possibly pardon; and though this is too often abused, and people encourage themselves by it to go on in sin, yet it is of great service to convinced sinners, and keeps them from despair, till the Spirit of God leads them, by the gospel, to know that there is indeed forgiveness with him, and that the blood of Jesus cleanseth from all sin. Therefore the poor jailer, though a blind heathen, does not say, "There is no mercy for me, I am such a sinner, I never can be saved." But this question seems to say, as the repenting Ninevites said, on the preaching of Jonah, "Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?" Jonah iii. 9.
Once more, we may observe, that the jailer's question includes a Confession of his Ignorance. He wanted to be saved, but he knew not how
can any man know this aright till he is taught of God. It is the true character of natural men, as mentioned Rom. iii. 17, that "the way of peace they have not known." By the fall of man in Adam, darkness has covered the earth, and gross darkness the people." And this is the state, not only of the blind heathens, who have not the Bible, but of a great many called Christians. How many are there among us, who are entirely ignorant of the way in which poor sinners are saved by Jesus Christ? But to remove this fatal darkness, Christ, the sun of righteousness, hath arisen upon the earth. He is the light of the world; and he has commanded his ministers to "preach the gospel to every creature." Paul and Silas were so employed before they were cast into prison. It had been
declared in the city concerning them-" These men are the servants of the most high God, which show unto us the way of salvation," Acts xvi. 17. As soon, therefore, as the jailer was convinced of his need of salvation, and of his ignorance, he earnestly desires to be taught by them. He no longer reviles and abuses these ministers of Christ, but applies to them for instruction. And thus it will be with all who are truly serious. They will not mock at the preachers of the gospel, but rather "stand in the way, and see, and ask for the old paths; where is the good way that they may walk therein, and find rest for their souls." Jerem. vi. 16. And now say, my friends, whether you have ever felt in your minds this earnest desire to know the way of God more perfectly? For this end do you bow your knees to God in prayer? Do you read your Bible for this purpose? And with this view do you go to hear the ministers of Christ? Be assured, this is the practice of all who are under divine influence.
This question is also the language of Legality.