Date: June 11, 1931?
Now are ye clean through the Word which I have spoken unto you. – John 15:3
ONE of the most noteworthy distinctions of this remarkable age and of this remarkable country is the unparalleled development of cleanliness and sanitation. This is the cleanest age in history, and the United States is the cleanest nation in the world. With all the cleaning devices, unknown a generation ago, that are employed today in our American homes, with our antidirt campaigns in modern industry and our clean-up and paint-up movements in our residential communities, America is riding on the crest of a great wave of purity propaganda that involves the annual use of three billion pounds of soap and accounts for ten cents of every dollar spent by our average family.
Surely one would be entitled to conclude that, if there is any truth in the old maxim about the proximity of cleanliness and godliness, this outward purity must have produced a corresponding spotlessness of the heart and stainlessness of the soul. With all our abhorrence of dirt, with the nation-wide battle against germs and infection, we might suppose that proportionate attention would be paid to guarding our inner life against the contamination of sin and the filth of immorality.
But what are the actual facts? Merely these: Today some of the foulest forces that have ever threatened the moral life of the American people are feverishly at work. While we have always had garbage literature, it has never been as cheap and as attractively garnished as now. When could you go into the five-and-ten-cent stores and purchase a special “love” magazine with all the cheap display in word and pictures that chokes off the clean aspirations for which Jesus Christ stands? In Theodore Roosevelt’s administration an exponent of the cult of physical culture was arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced for disseminating lascivious literature. Today that man’s name is found on the cover of a group of magazines which distribute their destructive influence in millions of copies every month. Our parents and grandparents deplored the influences of the theater in their day, twenty-five and fifty years ago; but when was the whole gamut of passions presented with such seductive allurement, on so colossal a scale and relatively at such small cost as in our age, which so often has employed the fine invention of the motion-picture, the most popular form of amusement the world has ever known, to blast away every vestige of personal purity? I hold no brief for the past; but where, in the decades that have preceded us, has any generation been confronted with a moral blight such as meets us on all sides in the sophistication of our age, when a premium is placed on impurity? A quarter of a century ago men who dared to teach that man is a glorified animal and that the concessions to his animal passions are unavoidable and not of serious consequence, aired their blasphemies largely before atheistic societies and organizations which the average man regarded as rather disreputable. Today teachers’ conventions greet these self-styled apostles of enlightenment with a salvo of applause, and ministerial groups invite them to explain their theories in clerical atmosphere.
You can understand from this and from the deluge of other depressing facts which confront every thinking observer that in this age of outward cleanliness, but of inner decay, what we need above all is the consciousness of the present low ebb of morality and the confidence in Christ’s promise of tonight, “Now are ye clean through the Word which I have spoken unto you.”
“NOW ARE YE CLEAN.”
When I repeat that our present age needs the happy transformation implied in our Lord’s declaration to His disciples and to us who believe in Him, “Now are ye clean,” I know, of course, that my words are diametrically opposed to the lines drawn by the apostles of optimism, who think that human progress can be measured by modern plumbing, by university degrees, and by bank accounts. I know, too, that people today are not attracted by the emphasis on sin, that is, their own sin. They are quite ready to admit the gross and open forms of sin—in others. They are willing to discuss narcotic traffic and racketeering and the gruesomeness of the latest murder; but when you mention their own sins, the thinking of impure and covetous thoughts, the speaking of unholy and damaging words, the performance of selfish and injurious acts, you will find that the short, three-letter word sin has been deleted from many modern vocabularies and that the short, three-word sentence “I have sinned” is one of the hardest confessions to wring from proud human lips. With social service substituting for Christ’s service, with preachers rising up in their pulpits to tell their congregations (and I am now quoting verbatim from a recent sermon) , “All talk of man’s needing an atonement is an insult to God,” you can understand why there are so many modern Pharisees who thank God that they are not like the common herd, who are satisfied with cleaning the outside of the cup and the platter,—“whited sepulchers,” outwardly beautiful, but inwardly “full of dead men’s bones.”
But who is there in this audience tonight who, knowing the all-seeing eye of God, which penetrates even into the deepest recesses of a hidden heart; who is there who, hearing the scathing indictment of this sweeping word of Scripture, “We are all as an unclean thing”; who is there who, hearkening to the accusing voice of conscience, can still insist upon his own purity and the stainlessness of his own character? Who is there indeed who can take a true inventory of his life without admitting with Isaiah, the greatest preacher of Christ in the Old Testament, that his lips are unclean; without craving for purity of soul with penitent David and praying, “Create in me a clean heart, O God!”?
But remember tonight that our Lord, who transformed His disciples and told them, “Now are ye clean,” will answer our prayers for clean hearts. You who are living on in the sordid smirch of sin; you who are suffering from the consequences of secret iniquity; you who are leading double lives; you young people who think that purity is out of date and out of place in our modern advancement; you elders whose souls are shrinking under the withering touch of the sins of unfaithfulness, of grasping greed, of hypocrisy and lies, of hatred and envy;—when you find, as you must find, that sin is the hardest of all hard masters; when you learn from bitter experience, as you will learn, that the worst delusion on earth is this, that sin can make you happy; when you cry out from the depths of your soul for something to clean and purify you, knowing only too well that no sinner can stand in the sight of the holy God,—here is the promise, not my fallible opinion or the faltering conjecture of any other human being, but the divine and unalterable pledge of Him whose truth is higher than the heavens: “Now are ye clean”—
“THROUGH THE WORD WHICH I HAVE SPOKEN UNTO YOU.”
Do not delude yourself into believing that you can cleanse yourself; for as God told Jeremiah: “Though thou wash thee with niter and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before Me.” Do not think that you can remove the stains of sin by the application of the score of theories through which men have tried to improve human character and minimize sin. They have used reason and argument; they have employed education and training; they have tried punishment and prison; they have taken recourse to psychology and surgery; they have experimented with changed environment and changed diet; but all this, at best, has proved as inadequate as an attempt to empty the Atlantic with buckets. For though men may alter the course of rivers, move mountains, and separate continents, this change from impurity to purity is too subtle to be graphed or charted and too elusive to be recorded by the seismograph which catches the convulsive tremors of a shaking world; too soul-deep to be sounded by endless fathoms, too exalted to be touched by earth’s highest reaches.
But thank God that you have the promise of the text, “Now are ye clean.” How? “Through the Word which I have spoken unto you.” That Word of Jesus, these purifying, restoring promises of the Scripture, and these alone, offer to all, however disfigured and discolored they may be with sins that shriek unto the highest heaven, this precious, priceless promise of purity, “The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin.” That Word which calls out tonight to all the sin-laden who sincerely and unreservedly repent of all their sins, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool”; that Word offers to all who trustingly accept its truth and believe its promises the purging power of Christ’s precious blood, so potent that it can do what the strongest chemical can never do, cleanse the human heart forever of the stains of sin, yes, of the sins themselves.
Have not the centuries borne out the stupendous truth of this promise of Christ? While He has exposed as no other the defiling sin of the human heart, His pierced hand has directed the life path of His children from the quicksands of sin to Himself, the solid Rock of Ages. Think of the molding influence of His Word in history. A hundred years ago the London Missionary Society sent its first workers to Madagascar, where polygamy, unspeakable vice, the sacrifice of human beings, in fact, all the corrupt practises of heathendom and none of the alleged virtues (of which the opponents of mission-work speak so glibly) reigned in unchecked sway. As soon as the Word of God was translated into the language of the island, the purification which Jesus promises, began its miraculous work, and the natives were transformed in soul and changed in their lives. Then came a period of bloody persecution, in which their faith and Christlike life was to be tried by death and torture. The converts to Christianity were stoned, beaten, speared, poisoned, hurled over precipices, persecuted by a thousand fiendish inventions; but that Word of Christ, the Savior, which had been preached to them had so thoroughly cleansed their hearts that amid the agonies of the greedy flames more than one of these martyrs cried out, as faithful witnesses have recorded, “O Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
This transformation to purity of heart and life which Christ’s Word has effected has left the monuments to its power all over the globe and throughout history in the lives of millions of twice-born men and women. Christ speaks to persecuting Saul, and he becomes persecuted Paul. Augustine, the son of a heathen father and a saintly mother, hears the Word, comes under the conviction of sin, takes the Bible, and is changed from a sensualist to a saint. Luther, collapsing under the crushing weight of unforgiven sins, pages a Bible, and his astonished eyes read, “The just shall live,”—not by their own virtues or the accomplishment of others, but “by faith,” and that promise turns him from despair to the indomitable confidence that marked his gigantic faith.
Today that Word has not lost its power; it still purges and purifies. Show me a sweet, unselfish girl who takes an interest in her home, extends a helping hand to others, leads a clean and cheerful life, and is able to meet temptations fairly and squarely, and I will show you that that girl has a Bible in her room, that she is a faithful attendant at church, and that her prayers mean something to her. And conversely, show me a young man who has sowed his wild oats, who spends his evenings away from home, whose conversation is sprinkled with profanity, whose associates are discreditable, and who has lost a real interest in the finer and nobler things of life, and I will show you that that young man never thinks of the Bible, that he is through with Christ’s religion. For, as true as is the happy promise of the apostle, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature,” just so true, conversely, is the Savior’s declaration, “Without Me ye can do nothing.”
I pray to God that there may be no one within the range of my voice who is engaged in the disastrous tragedy of living without Christ and His saving and renewing Word. For the yesterday of your life, with its sins and weaknesses that a thousand years of human regrets can never remove, you need the forgiveness promised in His Word; for your today with its temptations and disappointments you need the strengthening that the Spirit gives you through the Word; for your tomorrow with all of its vague uncertainties you need the hope that your Bible contains in exhaustless measure. If you are not baptized, as His Word requires, you must have that washing of regeneration. If you have turned your hack on Christ, you must have this Word to show you the folly of sin and the power of Christ’s love, who as the great Good Shepherd leaves the flock of nine and ninety in the wilderness to go and seek that one stray lamb until He finds it. If the grace of God has preserved you in faith, you must have His Word and employ it as your Savior employed it in His temptations to meet the defiling allurements of a sin-soaked world. Without this Word you stand hopeless and helpless, separated from God by sordid sin; but with this Word, looking “unto Him that loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood,” you—whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever you are—have the purity of Heaven’s truth to answer every question, to solve every problem, to lighten every burden that may trouble your soul. Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.