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which was lost. Then are introduced the words of our text: I say
that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. The doctrine of the text is further illustrated, in a subsequent part of the chapter, under the familiar and domestic image of a woman, who had lost a piece of money; and who, on its recovery, calls on her friends to rejoice with her, that she had found that which had been lost. Both of these parables are intended to show, in all its force, the value of repentance. This was the great object of the Saviour's ministry, and these expressive discourses all had in view the production of this important effect.
I. In considering the subject before us, we shall, in the first place, inquire who the just persons are, that need no repentance. Our Saviour declares that there is no alternative but perdition and repentance; and the universal necessity of repentance is one of the most prominent positions in the whole of his divine ministrations. Who. ihen, are those that need no repentance? There are two modes of solving this difficulty, so as to harmonize the doctrine of the text with the general system of divine truth.
In the first place, there are those who have repented, and are no longer denominated penitents. In the next place, there is no necessity for taking the words in their absolute sense. Our Lord frequently speaks in a hypothetical or suppositious manner. Such was the case in the parable of the prodigal son. The elder brother witnesses the joy which is demonstrated on the return of the ruined spendthrift, and he remonstrates with his father. He points out the rectitude of his own conduct; he contrasts it with his dissolute brother's; and he then upbraids his father: Thou never gavest me a kid to make merry with my friends. Now, the father does not deny the dutiful behavior of his son, nor his claims to consideration; but gives this very good reason for his conduct : Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad; for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again, and was lost and is found. Some have supposed that the Jews were exhibited under the character of the elder brother; but this is, in no degree, confirmed by their conduct. Indeed, they are most pointedly condemned by the Saviour, whom they rejected. Much less can it be supposed, that this character is descriptive of those who are matured in the Christian graces and virtues. No; those who most fully exemplify the practical effects of the Christain character, are the most disposed to encourage and foster repentance. We may, therefore, safely conclude, that the elder brother is altogether a hypothetical character. It is not that there are those who need no repentance; but that, if there were, still there would be more joy over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety-nine just persons.
II. But let us consider, in the second place, why it is that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner thai repenteth, than over nine
ty-nine just persons that need no repentance. In the tenth verse of this chapter, the expression is somewhat different: Likewise, I say
there is joy among the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. The doctrine implied is, that the blessed spirits of heaven take a lively interest in the affairs of mankind. It is one of the blessed results of the gospel dispensation, that angels stand in a nearer relation to the church of Christ, who reconciled not only the things on earth, but also the things in heaven. They are now sent to the earth on messages of benevolence, and we are led to believe that there are multitudes of them in the assembly of the saints; that they are continually the observers of the thoughts and actions of the human race; that they witness the effects of the gospel upon the hearts of sinners ; that they notice and rejoice at the success of that process upon the character, which conforms every true believer to the image of Jesus Christ; and that they are the joyful heralds of the good news of repentance to their fellow-spirits in the celestial world.
If we consider that the angels are the friends and lovers of mankind; that they take pleasure in all that advances our happiness; that they stand diametrically opposed to our great adversary, the devil, who goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may destroy—their very antipathy to evil must serve to augment their joy, when malignity is defeated, and the objects of their benevolence are made happy.
Angels are the subjects of Immanuel ; they belong to his blessed government. They owe and pay to him an unlimited love and allegiance. Now, their loyalty to the King of kings must inspire joy in their minds, when they witness the translation of one of the subjects of Satan into the kingdom of heaven, and brought under the government of the Saviour. And repentance is the first act of allegiance. They must rejoice when they see their own happy character, their own benevolence, their own felicity, all the benefits of their own laws, extended to the human race. Angels dwell in the immediate presence of God; they drink pleasure at the fountain head. They, therefore, can form a more sublime conception of the loss which is sustained by the impenitent; and they know what are the boundless blessings which result to sinners, from the conforming influence of repentance.
The text clearly intimates, that the repentance of a sinner is the peculiar cause of joy to the angels; that it is the cause of joy superior to all others. Who can conceive the happiness of angels? Who can measure its magnitude? Their past knowledge, their exalted virtues, their celestial refinement, the infinite variety of the causes of joy, all adapted to their nature and character, and corresponding with the magnificence of their capacity; these would seem to render their happiness beyond augmentation ; and still there is more joy--there is an increase even of their blessedness, when they witness the delightful effect of repentance.
They have long basked in the effulgence of the beatic vision. Their views are more extensive; they look further into the vast prospect of eternity; their searchabilities are infinitely more exquisite, and their hearts glow with infinitely more fervor, and still their joy is increased, when they behold repentance springing up in the hearts of sinners.
It may, however, be observed, that a state of confirmed Christian character undoubtedly must be more perfect, and, therefore, a more desirable state than that of repentance, which is but the first step in the process. It might, therefore, be supposed, that angels would feel more joy at the maturity, than the germination of Christian character. Whether we can fully understand the cause of their joy, is uncertain. There may be certain relations in which they exist, that our more limited nature cannot comprehend, and which powerfully affect their minds with impressions of joy. We are a great deal more affected by recent, than by remote
Now, it is probable that all beings have a great similarity in this respect; and as repentance is a thing of recent occurrence, as it is the essential fact in the history of man's felicity, as it is the very gate to the celestial country, angels may feel a peculiar delight in an event so singular, and connected with infinite results. Although it is more blessed for the saints of God to be confirmed in their faith, and perfected in their character, than that they should continue in the infancy of their nature, still there is a uniformity in their experience, and they are daily producing the same natural fruits of holiness, and enjoying the same fruits of happiness and glory.
It is probable that, like ourselves, angels are affected by contrast ; and what contrast can be more striking than that exhibited by the impenitent and penitent? Heretofore, man's face was directed towards the regions of perdition: now, he is earnestly strugglinghe is agonizing to enter in at the straight gate. Heretofore, sin was his element, and his soul was bent to work iniquity: now, the unwavering bias of his thoughts and feelings, the constant tendency of his actions, and the operations of the general system of his mind and of his heart, are brought under the sanctifying control—the sacred dominion of the divine Spirit
. So entirely are his ruling principles and passions changed, that he may be said to have participated in the divine nature ; thus old things are passed away, and behold all things are become new. Is it wonderful, then, that angels should joyfully sympathize in such a purification of character, in such a transformation of the will, in such a splendid instance of the divine grace and goodness? How intense must be their. pleasure, how glowing their joy, when they see those who were in the wicked one, changed into the image of Christ, assimilating to their own celestial nature, and destined ultimately to rival themselves in the ardor of their love and devotion. The same is equally true in the ministers of Jesus Christ-their joy is augment
ed in proportion as their spirituality is increased ; and the nearer they approach to heaven, the more their minds approximate to their celestial character—the more they know and feel the value of repentance.
III. In the third and last place, we shall suggest a few reflections which seem naturally to arise out of the subject. And, in the first place, what an infinite value is stamped upon this transformation of the heart--repentance. The penitent becomes entitled to all the benefits which are comprehended in the enjoyment of the presence and blessing of God. In the present stage of existence, we are apt to promise ourselves much future prosperity; we picture to ourselves a scene of future felicity, founded on the possession of riches, the elevation of power and greatness, or some change in our condition: but all things deceive our hopes; and when these hopes are the most realized, we have to suffer the anguish which results from reflections on their evanescent state. Now, we cannot assign too much importance to conversion. Its benefits are not only infinitely valuable, but imperishable ; not only imperishable, but progressively augmenting. I do not inquire whether you are living a life of celibacy, or enjoying the felicity of conjugal union. I ask not whether you are rich or poor, whether you are in possession of rank or power, but whether you have repented; whether you have been made the subject of that divine process, which gives the heavenly host more joy than all the other causes which conspire to scatter blessedness over the celestial plains ? O, earnestly desire this great change! O, earnestly pray that God would give repentance unto salvation, that need not to be repented of.
We see, in the second place, the importance of the gospel. This is the great instrument for producing repentance. The sacred principles of divine truth are conveyed to the soul by the preaching of the word of God. It is by these means that all the graces and virtues of the Christian character are induced, which create that sweet fruit of repentance, whose fragrance diffuseth itself to the very gates of heaven, and gives new joy to the celestial throng of angels.
The subject affords, in the third place, the most delightful encouragement for sinners to repent. The bare promise of pardon is calculated to excite in the bosom gratitude and love; but as if it were not sufficient to operate upon the minds of men, by assuring them of happiness on repentance, the text is calculated to move them on in a still more alluring manner, by pointing out to them the happiness which thereby results to others. The very angels rejoice. Penitents are not received with reluctance, but the celestial bands are ready to celebrate their conversion, with all the benevolence of congratulation and joy. And shall all these heavenly motives to repentance be rendered ineffectual by the rebellion and obstinacy of the sinner? Ah, fellow-sinner, will you continue, by the indulgence of vicious passions and irregular appetites, to fur
nish fresh occasions for the celestial spirits to mourn over your folly and wickedness, while the devil and his angels are rejoicing in the possession of his prey ? God, this day, makes new offers to you of pardon and salvation, he furnishes new motives and incitements to repentance; and shall these, like all others, be slighted and neg. lected ? Let me urge upon you the importance of immediately entering upon the great work of repentance, by all the considerations of eternity. Let me excite you to engage in it, by all the hopes of heavenly bliss, which await the righteous. And, as we are about to draw our exercises to a close, permit me to inquire, whether the glad news shall be borne up to the skies that another sinner has yielded to the holy impressions of the gospel, and thus diffuse joy ihroughout the heavenly host? or shall the news be borne hence, that another gospel sermon has been preached in vain, and thus spread a mournful gloom over the tenants of the celestial world ?
Finally, we observe that this subject is full of encouragement for the ministers of the gospel. What an infinite value the heavenly host put upon the smallest success attending the labors of a minister of the gospel ! If the single event of the conversion of one sinner is an occasion of such inexpressible joy to the angels of God, surely it must be a source of encouragement for every minister of the gospel to prosecute his labors with increasing fidelity. Ministers are too much in the habit of desponding at the recollection of the small success of their labors, not reflecting that one soul is of infinite value. The great apostle of the Gentiles, in the midst of the most splendid and effectual efforts to convince sinners, rejoiced over Onesiphorus as though he had been the only fruit of his ministrations as though there had been no other penitent in the world. And, indeed, as every man must give an account for himself, his personal and individual salvation is of the same importance to him, as though he were the only sinner to be saved. Hence, ministers of the gospel have encouragement to labor for each and every individual soul, as though he were the only one to be brought to repentance. And, surely, this thought should inspire in the bosom of every minister of the gospel fresh zeal in the delightful work of saving souls, and should induce them to make more active and vigorous efforts to bring sinners to repentance. And now, may Almighty God animate and encourage the hearts of all his faithful servants, to prosecute the important and delightful work of preaching the gospel with increased zeal and energy, and may he render their efforts successful in bringing sinners to the saving knowledge of truth.