“And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?”
It should be evident to the most casual reader of this text that the apostle has said more, to which these words are most intimately connected, and without reference to which the above text cannot be properly understood.
The text is closely connected to the preceding verse and is a further explanation of it. There the apostle writes: “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?”
Here the apostle emphasizes three things: first, the time of the coming judgment is at hand. The judgment that is imminent is not the judgment we expect at the end of this age, but it undoubtedly refers to a time of intense persecution which was about to break over the church, and which would try men’s hearts and test the faith of the members of the church. Of this the apostle speaks in verses 12 and 13, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, that when his glory shall be revealed ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.” And, again, in verse 16, “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.” Secondly, it is also to be noticed, that the apostle stresses the point that the judgment begins at the house of God. This is the church of God in the world. It is quite natural that the judgment of persecution should begin with the followers of Christ. Historically the church of Christ has always borne the brunt of persecution; for the church is the manifestation of light in the midst of darkness, and darkness always militates against the light. Thirdly, the apostle emphasizes that the unbelievers shall melt away in this judgment. There is also a judgment for them that has its end in the destruction of the unrepentant and unbelieving.
Indeed, if the righteous scarcely be saved, there is no hope for the ungodly and sinner!
Perhaps the apostle had in mind the Word of God inProverbs 11:31 when he penned our text: “Behold, the righteous shall be recompensed in the earth: much more the wicked and the sinner.” Here also the righteous go not unnoticed in this life. They have their reward. But it is just as true that the ungodly shall swiftly be recompensed.
The righteous scarcely saved!
Notice, first of all, that though the righteous are scarcely saved, they nevertheless are surely saved!
We must not be misled by the interpretation of some who would find in our text a ground for their contention that it is possible for the righteous to be lost. They explain our passage in such a way that God is said to provide the prize for all. Accordingly, there are many who set their feet on the path to run for the prize. But alas, the majority fail ultimately to reach the crown. God, as it were, opens wide the gate of the eternal city for all to enter. He stands with open arms beckoning all to choose the divinely prescribed way to righteousness and life. O, it is admitted that you will always find some who utterly disdain this glorious way, and who despise these eternal values to their own destruction. But in spite of this there are many who strive earnestly for the goal and the prize. But through temptation by the devil and the world, they are side-tracked, and fail to reach the proffered prize. Again, there are others who do not possess enough of the grace of patience, who, when trials and troubles arise, lose heart and fall by the wayside. So the righteous are scarcely saved, which means that only few there are who ever obtain eternal salvation.
If this were true, salvation would indeed be a precarious thing. No one, not even the righteous can with certainty know whether he will be finally saved. It is much like the hymn goes: Almost—but lost!
Such an interpretation militates against all that Scripture teaches, and contradicts the experience of every sincere child of God. If this interpretation were true, then all true believers in our Lord Jesus Christ would have to conclude that they are yet in their sins, and of all men most miserable.
Nay, all Scripture declares in no uncertain terms that the salvation of the righteous is very sure. It is as sure as God is the living God. Listen to Paul in Romans 8; “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And hear what Peter says in I Peter 1, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” According to this, not only is our salvation sure, but we may also be sure of our salvation. This is the tone of all Scripture, not only in the New Testament, but also in the Old. The psalmist in Psalm 73 found it hard to understand this, until he went into the house of God. Then his eyes were opened, and he saw not only the end of the wicked, but also his own end. The Lord would guide him now by his counsel, and afterwards take him to glory.
The surety of the salvation of the righteous rests also upon other considerations, based upon the Word of God. Upon the basic truth of eternal and sovereign election. Concerning this truth Jesus said, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out,” John 6:37. Again He said, “My sheep hear my voice; and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of hand . . .” John 10:27-30. Moreover, with this basic truth which certifies the salvation of the righteous and is a fruit of it, we have the fact that we have been purchased by the blood of Christ. He laid down His life for His sheep, not for goats. Through that blood the elect become righteous. It is atoning blood. It delivers us from the wrath of God. It gives us the right to eternal life. For His people Jesus is Jehovah, Who saves. With their righteousness they have the adoption unto sons, and the right to an inheritance, incorruptible and undefiled, that fadeth not away. And for that inheritance they are kept by the power of God through faith.
Indeed, the righteous are surely saved!
Yet the text says, they are scarcely saved! What does the Word of God here mean by the righteous? And what is to be understood by the fact that they are scarcely saved?
The righteous are they who are upright in life and walk. They conform to the perfect will of God which always judges them. Righteousness is that grace of God in them according to which they are in harmony with His holy will in all their thinking, willing, and acting, and that, not according to their own judgment, but according to God’s judgment which is constantly over them.
You ask: Where shall they be found who possess this righteousness? Do not the Scriptures declare there is none righteous, no, not one? Is it not rather true that all men are totally depraved, and altogether filthy and corrupt?
And the Word of God answers, indeed, in all the race of Adam there can be found no one who is righteous in himself, except One, our Lord Jesus Christ. He conformed perfectly to the will of God. He declared it was His meat and drink to do the will of God. And this holy and righteous Child Jesus God sent into the world to make all whom the Father had given Him righteous as He is righteous. He Who knew no sin was made sin for us, in order that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. He was delivered for our offenses and raised because of our justification.
So, and not otherwise, there are righteous! Surely, they are never righteous because of any work which they accomplish. In themselves they are hopelessly lost and unrighteous. But in and through Christ they are made righteous. The cross of Calvary is witness to the fact that God dipped the pen of His good pleasure in the fountain of Jesus’ blood, and cancelled all our debt, and writes the sentence of our perfect righteousness in Him. The opened grave in Joseph’s garden is God’s testimony to us that our sin and guilt is vanquished, and the seal of our righteousness before God. All our righteousness is in Christ. Those in Christ are the righteous indeed!
Who are scarcely saved!
That the righteous are scarcely saved means that they are saved with great difficulty. The road to their perfect salvation is narrow, and beset with much tribulation. They are surrounded constantly by many enemies, the greatest of whom they carry under their own waist-coat, their own sinful flesh, their old man of sin within them. The good they would do, they do not do; and the evil they would not, they do. Their flesh wars against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh. Because of this they often must cry out with the apostle: “O, wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from this flesh?” They are righteous only in principle. Then, too, along the way to salvation they meet many enemies that seek to pull them back and make it difficult for them to attain to their final salvation. The devil battles hard against them. The world tries to engulf them, and ensnare them to destruction.
Would you see clearly how the righteous are scarcely saved, you need only to look to our Saviour, the Captain of our salvation. O, how He battled His, way to salvation! In His human nature He nearly succumbed in the garden of Gethsemane, where His soul was exceeding sorrowful even unto death. On the cross of Calvary He exclaims: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Think also of the persecution and trial He endured at the hands of wicked men. There on the cross it appeared that not He, but the devil and the world of darkness was victor. Yet He knew that He, the Righteous, was saved. On the third day He arose, victor over sin, death, and grace. And in His ascension He entered into the glory of perfect salvation.
As He was, so are the righteous in this world, only with this difference: while He, the righteous, was the sinless One made sinner; they, the righteous, are sinners who become righteous through His grace.
Indeed, the righteous are scarcely saved; yet by grace, they overcome, and at last enter into the glory of their salvation. They are saved in glory!
This is implied also in the rest of the text!
There the question is asked: “Where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?”
The ungodly are the impious, wholly destitute of reverential awe towards God and things holy. Thesinner is the same impious one who always misses the mark of God’s law. Together they are the impenitent wicked who go on in their way of sin and rebellion to destruction. It is not, nor shall it ever be well with them. Let them know that their day cometh, when they shall be consumed as in an oven. The wrath of God abideth upon them, even though they appear to prosper in the world. The children of darkness who persecute the righteous shall surely fall into the pit they have digged.
But the righteous, who are saved with great difficulty, shall enter at last into heavenly glory!
They that touch the righteous to hurt them, touch the apple of God’s eye. The righteous Lord Who delivers the righteous, will destroy all their adversaries, while He saves His people through the way of difficulty.
Here is the unspeakable wisdom and grace of God!