3. Jesus regards the crisis about to be gone through by His disciples as one which shall not only end happily, but result in spiritual benefit to themselves, and qualify them for being helpful to others. This appears from the injunction He lays on Peter: "When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren." Jesus expects the frail disciple to become strong in grace, and so able and willing to help the weak. He cherishes this expectation with respect to all, but specially in regard to Peter, assuming that the weakest might and ought eventually to become the strongest; the last first, the greatest sinner the greatest saint; the most foolish the wisest, most benignant, and sympathetic of men.
How encouraging this genial, kindly view of moral shortcoming to such as have erred! The Saviour says to them in effect, There is no cause for despair: sin cannot only be forgiven, but it can even be turned to good account both for yourselves and for others. Falls, rightly improved, may become stepping-stones to Christian virtue, and a training for the office of a comforter and guide. How healing such a view to the troubled conscience! Men who have erred, and who take a serious thought of their sin, are apt to consume their hearts and waste their time in bitter reflections on their past misconduct. Christ gives them more profitable work to do. "When thou art converted," He says to them, "strengthen thy brethren:" cease from idle regrets over the irrevocable past, and devote thyself heart and soul to labors of love; and let it help thee to forgive thyself, that from thy very faults and follies thou mayest learn the meekness, patience, compassion, and wisdom necessary for carrying on such labors with success.
But while very encouraging to those who have sinned, Christ's words to Simon contain no encouragement to sin. It is a favorite doctrine with some, — that we may do evil that good may come; that we must be prodigals in order to be good Christians; that a mud bath must precede the washing of regeneration and the baptism of the soul in the Redeemer's blood. This is a false, pernicious doctrine, of which the Holy One could not be the patron. Do evil that good may come, say you? And what if the good come not? It does not come, as we have seen, as a matter of course; nor is it the likelier to come that you make the hope of its coming the pretext for sinning. If the good ever come, it will come through the strait gate of repentance. You can become wise, gracious, meek, sympathetic, a burden-bearer to the weak, only by going out first and weeping bitterly. But what chance is there of such a penitential melting of heart appearing in one who adopts and acts on the principle that a curriculum of sin is necessary to the attainment of insight, self-knowledge, compassion, and all the humane virtues? The probable issue of such a training is a hardened heart, a seared conscience, a perverted moral judgment, the extirpation of all earnest convictions respecting the difference between right and wrong; the opinion that evil leads to good insensibly transforming itself into the idea that evil is good, and fitting its advocate for committing sin without shame or compunction.
"And dare we to this fancy give,
That had the wild-oat not been sown,
The soil, left barren, scarce had grown
The grain by which a man may live?
Oh, if we held the doctrine sound,
For life outliving heats of youth;
Yet who would preach it as a truth
To those that eddy round and round?
Hold thou the good: define it well:
For fear divine Philosophy
Should push beyond her mark, and be
Procuress to the lords of hell."[27.9
In Peter's case good did come out of evil. The sifting time formed a turning-point in his spiritual history: the sifting process had for its result a second conversion more thorough than the first, — a turning from sin, not merely in general, but in detail; from besetting sins, in better informed if not more fervent repentance, and with a purpose of new obedience less self-reliant, but just on that account more reliable. A child hitherto, — a child of God, indeed, yet only a child, — Peter became a man strong in grace, and fit to bear the burden of the weak. Yet it is worthy of notice, as showing how little sympathy the Author of our faith had with the doctrine that evil may be done for the sake of good, that Jesus, while aware how Peter's fall would end, did not on that account regard it as desirable. He said not, "I have desired to sift thee," but assigns the task of sifting the disciple to the evil spirit who in the beginning tempted our first parent to sin by the specious argument, "Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil," reserving to Himself the part of an intercessor, who prays that the evil permitted may be overruled for good. "Satan hath desired to have you:" "I have prayed for thee." What words could more strongly convey the idea of guilt and peril than these, which intimate that Simon is about to do a deed which is an object of desire to the evil one, and which makes it necessary that he should be specially prayed for by the Saviour of souls? Men must go elsewhere in quest of support for apologetic or pantheistic views of sin.
But it may be thought that the reference to Satan tends in another way to weaken moral earnestness, by encouraging men to throw the blame of their falls