BY STANLEY VOKE
“Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy Cross I cling.”
The hardest thing for anyone is to take the sinner’s place. So hard in fact that many never take it at all, while others, having once been brought there, do not care to come there again. None are by nature fond of the sinner’s place. Yet if we do not come there, we cannot really know Christ or taste the sweetness of God’s forgiving grace. If we avoid it, we might as well say “we have no sin” and so deceive ourselves.
TAKING THE SINNER’S PLACE
The sinner’s place is where we accept without excuse that we are sinners. We may admit only one sin such as jealousy or pride; we may be convicted of something that seems small, but in so doing we have come again to the sinner’s place-though we may have been Christians for many years. Behind each sin God may show us things more serious until not one but many things are admitted and we are brought to admit the whole radical evil of our nature. A man once confessed he had stolen a rope. He brought it back. The next day he returned, this time bringing a cow he had been unwilling to admit was on the end of the rope! When we take the sinner’s place, we admit the truth about ourselves-the whole truth.
The sinner’s place is where we take blame. We stop excusing ourselves and saying, “I was not really myself when I did that.” Instead we bow our head saying, “Yes, Lord, that was me; that is what I am really like.” We no longer blame our nerves, our circumstances, or other people. Should someone point out some fault or criticize us, even unkindly, we do not argue and justify ourselves or try to explain things away. We even admit to the critic that if he knew us as we really are he would find much else to criticize. We save endless time and breath when we come quickly to the sinner’s place. Indeed things would be different in many a church if the members met regularly there at the sinner’s place.
This is the place David took as, when Nathan challenged him, he bowed his head saying, “I have sinned.” Here Job stood and cried, “Behold, I am vile,” and Isaiah said, “Woe is me! For I am undone.” Here the publican prayed, “God be merciful to me a sinner”; here Peter fell at the feet of Jesus saying, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man.” In this place, the prodigal son confessed “Father, I have sinned and am no more worthy.” Paul often knelt in the sinner’s place and many a saint has watered it with his tears. If we have not come here, we have not yet begun with God (2Sa 12:13, Ps 51:4, Job 40:4, Isa 6:5, Lk 18:13, Lk 5:8, Lk 15:18).
We do not like the sinner’s place for we are afraid it will hurt our pride. So we fight, argue, put others in the wrong, excuse ourselves, and in fact do anything rather than take the sinner’s place where God awaits to forgive and set us free.
AVOIDING THE SINNER’S PLACE
Often, we avoid this place because we will not call sin, sin. We talk of shortcomings, failures, weaknesses, frailties, faults, disabilities, propensities; anything but sin. A rose by any other name is just as sweet, and sin by any other name is just as evil-to God. The trouble is we make our own definitions instead of accepting God’s. In the Scripture, sin is anything short of the glory of God, anything that misses the mark of moral perfection or crosses the line of God’s will, anything that is twisted from the plumbline of Divine righteousness whether it be in motive, desire, intention, instinct, thought, habit, look, word, deed, reaction or relationship. If done heedlessly or in ignorance, it is still sin and to call it something else needing neither repentance nor forgiveness is to avoid the sinner’s place.
We can refuse to see sin as sin. Maybe we are active people who have no time to bother with such trivialities. We have our positions and programs to maintain. Like Naaman, we are busy winning our laurels while we cover our leprosy. We address meetings, chair committees, take on jobs, give money to this and that-in fact do anything-except confess ourselves spiritual lepers who need to wash and be clean. We are as those in Jeremiah’s day who rushed like horses into battle but never stopped to repent or say, “What have I done?” We are so very busy-too busy ever to stand in the sinner’s place (Jer 8:6).
We may avoid this place by assuming the role of correctors. With our doctrines neatly tied up, we are evangelical experts with a keen sense of theological smell. We love to correct but not to be corrected. Like the Pharisees of old we keep ourselves out of the sinner’s place by putting others in. We are so full of knowledge that we have no room for a broken and contrite heart. Yet even Henry Martyn, great saint as he was, recorded in his diary, “I have resolved never to reprove another except I experience at the same time a peculiar contrition of heart!” He found he needed to live in the sinner’s place.
We may avoid this place by making our security in Christ a pretext for non-repentance. We are assured of our salvation, yet somehow we are no longer convicted of sin. We are like the small boy who, when sent from the table to wash his hands, returned with a big smile and the astonishing remark, “Well, they’ve had such a wash this time they’ll never need to be washed again.”
We are by faith sons of God and citizens of heaven. But we are still sinners as well. We still need to wash at “the fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness ” (Zec 13:1). Grace will never lead us into sin, but it will ever convict us of it, and sin thus revealed will always lead us back to grace. It is possible to avoid the sinner’s place by misapplying the blood of Christ, speaking of it as “covering” or “protecting” as did the blood of the Passover lamb. The sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, however, was for sin.
It is an atoning, not simply a protecting agent. If therefore we need it, we do so as sinners coming for cleansing, not as sinless ones needing only to be secured from evil outside ourselves. When we speak only of the blood protecting us, we are avoiding the sinner’s place. A student of Spurgeon (a well known English preacher) once preached before him on “The Whole Armor of God.” A conceited young man, he dramatized his message, putting on the armor piece by piece, until, having fortified the whole, he waved the sword of the Spirit and cried triumphantly, “And where is the devil now?” Mr. Spurgeon leaned forward and said, “Young man, he’s inside that armor!”
We must watch that we do not let Satan in by forsaking the sinner’s place. Our hearts are deceitful above all things and, like the mythological Proteus, will adopt any guise to hide their true nature. Beneath our spiritual phraseology and church reputation we are but poor sinners, who need to be cleansed every day in the blood of Jesus.
FINDING GRACE IN THE SINNER’S PLACE
Is it not strange that the place we sinners avoid is the very one the sinless Savior took? Surely if He were the Son of God He would have come down from the Cross! Miracles, mighty sermons, even resurrection itself we could expect of such a One, but not a baptism in Jordan with publicans and harlots, or a criminal execution with murderers and thieves! Yet this is where He came, for His face was set towards this place from all eternity.
There on the same level a sinner met Him that day. Unlike his comrade who died blaming others and cursing God, this dying thief admitted guilt and found forgiveness. Peace and paradise came to him as he took the sinner’s place and found Jesus there. This is the paradox of grace. He who insists he is right will be pronounced wrong, while he who admits he is wrong will be declared right. The righteousness of God is only given to those who stand in the sinner’s place. Here and here alone is the place of true peace, for here we cease our strivings and find our God. Here is rest of heart and heaven’s door. Here we cast away our pretense, and admit what we really are. Here we come to Jesus to be cleansed by His precious blood. Here the Holy Spirit fills and holiness is found. Here are the springs of revival. This is where the whole church needs to come again and again. It is the place of truth and grace and freedom-the sinner’s place. When were you last there? In fact, are you there now?