[K:NWTS 7/1 (May 1992) 1-19]

Seeking and Saving the Lost

Luke 19:10

Geerhardus Vos

The words of our text are Jesus' own commentary on the event described in the preceding verses. His meeting with Zacchaeus and, as a result of this, the publican's salvation, were in the last analysis due to the fact that the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost. And in the light of this interpretation the event itself in turn becomes a commentary upon the Savior's ministry in the largest sense, both upon that which he now fulfills, walking through the lands and the ages as he once walked through the fields and cities of Palestine.

Neither this nor any other occurrence in the gospel history was a casual thing. It is true, these days of our Lord's flesh which he lived among his countrymen, acting and acted upon, were a real concrete piece of life interwoven with the life of Israel. They belong to that age and generation as truly as any section of human history can be said to belong to the times in which it happened. But it is also true that this is not common history, but sacred, redemptive history, which means that there runs through it, from beginning to end, a special design, ordering its course, shaping its frame, and fixing its issues, so as to make of it a proper stage for the enactment of the great mystery of redemption, whose spectators and participants were not merely the Jews of that age but the inhabitants of all subsequent ages.

Nothing is casual here; every moment, every circumstance, every person that our Lord touched became fraught by that touch with a profound actuality and an eternal significance. How marvelously adapted was the setting of these scenes to serve their unique purpose! What sharp contrasts of human state and condition were here brought together! What pronounced types of sin, exhibiting in their development the root-principles of all evil, appear side by side! The Pharisee and the Publican come together to the temple of God! Truly, in this world of the Jewish land a microcosmic picture was presented of the realms of sin and suffering and sorrow and death. And because this is so, you and I can come to the story of two thousand years ago and find a present salvation there, an ever open door to the house of peace and hope. These are not strange, outlandish scenes and surroundings we are invited to; it is the familiar ground of sin and salvation; those who people it are flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, and the Savior, who comes to meet them in their persons meets us and transacts his business with us individually about matters of eternal importance.

Jesus Seeks Zacchaeus

For a few moments with the statement of our text in mind let us look at what passed between Zacchaeus and the Savior. The time is that of Jesus' last journey to Jerusalem shortly before the great Passover in which all things were to be fulfilled. These were the last hours of the day during which it is possible to work; closer and closer drew near for him that night of suffering and death in which it is not given to any man to work. Could one have wondered, if in this critical hour our Lord's thoughts had been wholly turned forward and inward; if, oblivious to his surroundings, he had been intent upon the tremendous experience of his passion with which he was now almost face to face? We do find him faithful and busy in the outward duty until the last moment. As he loved his own until the end, so it may be said that he sought his own until the darkness of death closed in upon him.

But a moment ago he had helped the blind beggar at the entrance to Jericho, and, scarcely within the city, a publican becomes the object of his quest. Notice how vividly the sense of a specific duty, here and now to be performed, is present to the Savior's mind, for he announces to Zacchaeus: "Today I must abide at thine house." His times and ways and works were not his own but the Father's who had sent him. But let us further notice the precise expression that principle receives in the statement: "The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost." There is no need of asking for the moment whence he came; the fact of his coming in itself sufficiently claims our attention. For this "coming" means his coming into the world; it covers his entire earthly life; he was born for this purpose, and this purpose only, to seek and save the lost.

Never in all human history was there such an absolute concentration of life upon a single specific task as that which our Lord here affirms of himself. Every man comes into the world to work out a design of God in his existence. But in the case of each one of us this design embraces a number of various ends, all of which we legitimately pursue, and in all of which we serve the will of God. Our Lord's life was a human life which derived its meaning from beginning to end from his vocation as a Savior; in seeking and saving, its significance exhausted itself. To that even the most sacred and private concerns of his soul with God, his prayer, his trust, all his intercourse with the Father, were wholly subservient. The personal was swallowed up in the one great devotion to the work of God. Into this the full stream of his strength flowed, from this its hidden sources were nourished: he made it his meat and his drink to do the will of his Father in heaven. He lived for this will and he lived on it. Thus only can we explain to ourselves the sensitiveness of our Lord, where his right to prosecute this task was called into question, for then he felt himself assailed in the center and sanctuary of his being.

Hence on this very occasion, when after his entrance of the house of Zacchaeus the people murmured, saying, "He is gone in to lodge with a man that is a sinner," our Lord did not content himself with pointing out the propriety and beneficence of the act, but vindicated his conduct by an appeal to the supreme law of life under which he stood and from which he could not free himself without ceasing to be what he was. With what sublime simplicity he takes for granted that his entering into a house could be for no other purpose than to introduce salvation there! Of course, there is in this something unique, incapable of reproduction in precisely that sense by even the most consecrated servant of God. He was made incarnate for the work of salvation, and we are dedicated to our ministry on the basis of a natural life we already possess. Paul perhaps in this respect approached nearest to the example of the Lord, having been separated from his mother's womb for the apostleship. In his words, "Woe is me, if I preach not the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:16)," we imagine to hear an echo of our text and other similar declarations of our Lord. But surely, though with an almost equal distance between, we likewise ought to possess some reproduction of this mind of Christ within us. Pitiable indeed is the plight of the steward of Christ who cannot say from a conviction as profound as the roots of his spiritual life itself, that he came into the kingdom for the very purpose of seeking and of saving that which was lost.

Advent of the Son of Man

The Lord's statement, however, obtains a still richer and more forceful meaning by our enquiring hence and out of what state he came to enter upon this life-task. It may be in a certain sense true that in the synoptic gospels there is not that emphatic expression of his eternal pre-existence in the world of heaven, not that sublime consciousness of transcending the sphere of time, as are met with in the discourses recorded by John. But, surely, if we will only come to them with believing minds, we shall not fail to find even in these simpler narratives indications of the great mystery of godliness sufficiently clear to satisfy us, when in the helplessness of our sins we cry out for a divine, an eternal Savior.

Such a message our text brings us, when it declares that "The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost." The word "came" is in itself suggestive of a previous sphere and state which he exchanged for our world, a sphere and state wherein no seeking nor saving was required, because there all live secure and blessed in God. But much more suggestive is this word when coupled with the name "Son of Man." It is not accidental that our Lord makes use of this self-designation in a connection like this. Elsewhere also we read that "The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto but to minister and to give his life a ransom" (Mt. 20:28). And in a number of other passages the title is associated with his abode in the world of heaven, whence he descended to these lower regions of ours. In the prophecy of Daniel, where first the phrase "Son of Man" is used to describe the Messiah, twice a "coming" is affirmed of the Person so designated: "There came with the clouds of heaven One like unto a son of man, and He came even to the Ancient of Days" (Dan. 7:13). Now, while our Lord often identifies the "coming" thus described with his return to judgment, yet he likewise once and again retrospectively associates it with his first advent, when he came out of the glory he had with the Father before the world was.

Being told, therefore, that it was the "Son of Man," who came to seek and to save, our first thought surely should be of that unspeakable grace of our Lord, who, being rich as God alone can be rich, yet for our sake became poor as sinful man only can be poor, that by his poverty we might be made rich. The depth to which this seeking and saving brings him down should be measured by the distance there is between the highest in God and the lowest in man. To lodge with publicans and sinners might be condescension for a high-placed personage—what language will express its meaning in the case of the infinite God? The "Son of Man," who unites in himself all that Deity and humanity together can lend of glory to the Messianic state, he it is who came to seek and to save the lost. It was such a glorious life that was wholly given up to its very last thought, poured out to the very last residue of its strength, and that for the task of helping us, the lowest of us, who would have turned away from one another, because the sinful felt it a degradation to stoop to such as were a degree more sinful than they acknowledged themselves to be. When we combine this consciousness of ineffable glory sacrificed with the consciousness of absolute surrender to the service of the most despised, then, and only then, do we begin to understand somewhat of the indignation with which Jesus repudiated the charge, brought by sinful men, that it was unworthy of him to associate with publicans and sinners. With superhuman dignity the one word "Son of Man" silences that voice of murmuring in the streets of Jericho, and every echo, we may add, of that same voice from any quarter, or any age, when it presumes to criticize the gospel of Christ on the ground that it speaks in accents of the sovereign grace of God.

Son of Man in His Advent

But the fact that he came as the "Son of Man" is important for our Lord's seeking and saving of the lost in still another respect. By reason of it, he retains even on earth the exercise of that divine knowledge and power which such a task calls into requisition. Love is farsighted and wields great influence, but love alone, even divine love alone, would not be sufficient to find and save the sinner. Seeking and saving are acts in which God puts forth his omniscience and omnipotence, as the searcher of hearts and the Lord of spirits. To these divine prerogatives the "Son of Man" lays claim in the pursuit of his task. He brings to it all the qualifications which its character as a strictly divine work requires. When making to Nathanael the marvelous disclosure of his supernatural knowledge, he declares, "Ye shall see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (Jn. 1:51).

It is in the "Son of Man" that the mystic ladder, which Jacob saw at Bethel, has been truly set up, so that God visits man, and man is made aware of the saving presence of God. In healing the sick of the palsy, he demonstrated the authority of the "Son of Man" to forgive sins on earth by bidding him arise, take up his bed and go to his house. Here the very point in question was, whether during his sojourn on earth such power belonged to the "Son of Man." That he possessed it in his heavenly state even the Scribes would scarcely have doubted; what they disputed was that any person on earth should pretend to share this right with God. But Jesus claims, and by the miracle proves his claim, that he is on earth invested with the power of saying to a guilty soul, "Thy sins are forgiven thee," and to say it so that the conscience, which obeys no other voice than the voice of God himself, will acknowledge him as its Sovereign and be silent at his behest.

But what need to look for illustrations elsewhere, when the connection of our text itself gives the most striking example of how our Lord places these divine attributes in the service of his seeking and saving love? When Jesus came to the spot where Zacchaeus had stationed himself for observation, it was surely not by accident that his eye discovered the publican amidst the branches of the tree. His looking up precisely at that point may convince us that he acted deliberately; it was a step in that process of seeking for which he had come. He calls the publican by name, though to all appearance the two had never met before. Yea before that spot on the roadside was reached, he had not only discovered his person, but had read with omniscience the innermost thoughts of his heart. He who could say, "Before Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee" (Jn. 1:48), he had likewise seen Zacchaeus in advance of the latter's seeing him. Here is a look from which no man can hide himself, the same that saw our first parents behind the branches of the fateful trees, and has since that hour, wherever sinners seek to conceal themselves, penetrated into the recesses of their guilt and shame, called them up from their depths of despair and brought them down from their heights of pride, a look from the eyes of the Lord which are in all places and see the small no less than the great.

More than this, we need not hesitate to affirm that the publican, though unaware of the fact, was there at his station by the appointment of Jesus. In all probability Zacchaeus in his desire to see Jesus, who he was, was not so exclusively actuated by curiosity as is usually assumed. But suppose it to have been curiosity and nothing more, even that was in no wise exempt from the Lord's control. Open to him are a thousand ways to bring you and me to the very place and point where he desires to meet us. How many of us would have been saved, if the Lord had waited till we sought him out? Thanks be to God, he is a Savior who seeks the lost, who with eyes supernaturally farsighted discerns us a long way off, and draws our interest to himself by the sweet constraint of his grace, till we are face to face with him and our soul is saved. As once, in the incarnation, he came down from heaven to seek mankind, so he still comes down silently from heaven in the case of each sinner, and pursues his search for that individual soul, following it through all the mazes of its waywardness and the devious paths of its folly, sometimes unto the very brink of destruction, till at last his grace overtakes it and says, "I must lodge at thy house."

The Effectual Call

For, besides the divine omniscience here manifested, we are made witnesses of the Lord's sovereign and almighty power. Having found Zacchaeus, he addresses to him that call which makes the lame to leap, the blind to see, the deaf to hear, nay the dead to arise, a call like the voice of God at the first creation, "Let there be light, and there was light" (Gen. 1:3). "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must abide at thine house." Note the instantaneous effect. Behold here Zacchaeus, who perhaps never before had encountered the Savior, who would have hardly ventured to approach Jesus, behold him at a single word transformed into a disciple of the Lord. He knows the voice of the Shepherd immediately, makes haste to come down and receives him with joy. This is that wonderful effectual calling by name which takes place wherever a sinner is saved, and which, while it may not always take place with such suddenness and under such striking circumstances as happened here, yet is in substance everywhere equally supernatural and immediate.

The use of the divine word, not only does not detract from its immediacy, but serves the very purpose of expressing the fact that nothing but the omnipotent volition of God is at work in it. For it is characteristic of God, and of God alone, thus to produce effects by a mere word. He gives life to the dead and calls the things that are not, as though they were. Thus Lazarus was summoned from the grave, and thus Zacchaeus was brought into the Shepherd's fold. Of course, there is no cause for denying that as the result of, and simultaneously with, this call, many thoughts and convictions may be released and spring into action that were previously latent. Images may have floated before Zacchaeus' mind picturing Jesus in his ways and works. The gospel summons may have come to him through rumor or report of the Savior's life, for even in regard to these outward instrumentalities for conveying the knowledge of Christ, it is sometimes true which is written elsewhere concerning the inward birth itself, "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh, and whither it goeth" (Jn. 3:8). The Spirit of God which makes all things new, can so baptize an ancient fragment of truth, a dimly remembered shadow of knowledge, as to give it in our apperception all the radiant newness of a flash of light fresh from the womb of revelation. But, while all these old elements of consciousness may work, as out of the past, they are in no case the actual producers of the new creature. On the contrary it is only through the immediate impartation of the higher life that they can be roused from their dormant state to the active vitality of a heartfelt experience. Whatever antecedently dwells in our souls of religious knowledge, of reasonable persuasion of the truth, of recognition of God's claim upon us, of stirrings of conscience—it all needs to be regenerated and quickened by the touch of Christ before it can blossom into saving faith.

We speak of our saving men, but this, while conveying a legitimate idea, is a metaphor. At bottom it signifies no more than that through the means of grace we arrange and prepare the situation in which it pleases God to perform the unique saving act. It is ours to let in the light and lay ready the garments which afterwards Lazarus will need, but we cannot wake the sleeper under the stone. Let us rejoice that this is so. Precisely that at the center there lies something that we cannot do constitutes the glory of our message. If the gospel-dispensation were a matter of mere intellectual enlightenment and moral suasion, such as fall within the limits of human power to produce, then indeed it might be urged that what is reserved for the divine action is subtracted from the scope of human opportunity, the intrusion of God, as it were, diminishing our glory. But on such a view of the gospel ministry its distinction is reduced to a level where it matters little whether the minister accomplishes more or less of it.

If, on the other hand, the gospel service is incorporated in a creative movement of supernatural character, involving at its core what lies absolutely beyond human power, then to feel this inevitable limitation as a drawback would evince a strange blindness to the most glorious aspect of the preacher's office. To move on the outermost fringe of a process of that kind, to have even the slightest connection with it, confers an unspeakable distinction, because it associates one with what is specifically divine. How much greater still is the grace, if we are permitted not a minimum but the highest conceivable degree of proximity to the wonder-world of God! Is not the underlying cause of the failure to perceive this, that we too much individualize and isolate ourselves, instead of feeling strongly our organic appurtenance to the mighty, supernaturalizing movement introduced by God into this world? If we could only more adequately realize the irresistible omnipotence of its momentum and the robe of splendor it casts around the smallest of its servants, we would exult with Paul and give thanks to God "who always leadeth us in triumph in Christ" (2 Cor. 2:14).

The Lost Sought

But let us return to Zacchaeus and note how our Lord further illustrates the nature of the saving act for which as "Son of Man" he claims to possess the full qualifications. It is an act of seeking and saving the "lost." What it implies can be ascertained from the state affirmed of its objects. There is a sure correlation between these two, and, if at any time we are apt to lose the proper perspective in regard to either of them, we should immediately rectify our view by reflecting upon the inherent significance of the other term. The "lost" are such as require a "Seeker" and "Savior"; when tempted to dilute or tone down the meaning of this word, it should suffice to remember that in the same proportion as this is done we also detract from the Savior-title of our Lord a substantial part of its significance. And conversely, if we allow ourselves to lose sight of even the smallest part of what the words "to save" and "Savior" connote, it necessarily modifies the sound which the word "lost" carries to our ear. There is no escape from this; it is the inherent logic of the structure of the gospel. To refuse to be bound by it puts one beyond the pale of consistent Christianity. It will therefore well repay us to scan most closely the exact correspondence of these two ideas in our text. There is perhaps no passage that enables us to do so to the same degree of definiteness and clearness as this saying of our Lord's. The reason is that here he has, in response to the peculiar situation of Zacchaeus, taken pains to resolve the Savior-function in its two component parts, so as to give us a double light for the purpose. The "Son of Man" came not merely to seek, but "to seek and to save." Nor is this in the nature of a mere addition of a second thing to a first: these two likewise mutually illumine each other; the seeking determines the saving, and the saving in turn the seeking, and both as thus joined together receive their interwoven significance from the "being lost."

Now it is not difficult to ascertain what the word "lost" expresses in the vocabulary of Jesus. "To be lost" in its simple, primary sense, which it scarcely needs knowledge of the original to understand, is "to be missing," to have passed out of the active possession and use of one's owner. The word, of course, in order to be intelligible, requires the supplementary thought of a definite possessor. It is not the vague general notion of forsakenness and misery Jesus has in mind when using it, but very particularly the fact of the sinner's being missing to God, i.e., missing to the normal relations man sustains to God. Because these relations to God constitute in our Lord's opinion the fundamental thing in human life, the state of "being lost" acquires that sad connotation of total derangement and dissolution of all the factors and forces of spiritual existence; the word has about it the solemn, ominous sound of darkness and chaos. The light and health of life, which are religion, have departed with the departure from him who is the one source of both. The lost sinner is swung out of the orbit appointed for him by the central position of God, deprived of all the attractions of fellowship and trust and obedience and blessedness that were his birthright ever since God in infinite grace constructed the circle of religion around himself. 

Furthermore, being out of harmony with God, man, as a sinner, has lost the rhythm of his own spiritual life; he is full of discords and inner conflicts, law clashing with law and in consequence the deepest self falling a prey to these disruptive forces which attack it at its core. The very moment the prodigal leaves the Father's house he carries this fatal disorder within him, he is beside himself in principle, so that, when in bitter repentance he begins to realize his desperate condition, this is described as a "coming to himself."

The Lost Brought

This, then, in the first place is "being lost," and to this in the first place addresses itself the task of the Son of Man. Hence its first part must of necessity be a "seeking" of the sinner. And the "seeking" must be such an act as will be able to undo the "being lost." We should, therefore, take a far too superficial view of it, were we to confine it to the bare effort at approach, or perhaps even to the search for locating the sinner, as the figure, taken by itself, might tempt us to do. No, the finding is not the mere discovery, it is the actual bringing back to God, something by which the sinner is restored to the blessed reality of what God is to him and he is to God: "And when he came to himself he said, I will arise and go to my Father" (Lk. 15:18).

Are we not made to feel by this, that not first in the saving but already in the finding begins the uniqueness of the Savior's work, that which differentiates it from any finding that we can do, however glorious the latter may be in itself. For, after all, our finding of a man can be only preparatory to his becoming partaker of salvation. In the case of Christ it is identical with the saving act itself. Yea already the seeking is a part of the finding, because with unfailing certainty and directness the feet and the arms of the Savior move to the point where the saving embrace is accomplished. In the last analysis the difference between this and our part appears due to the difference between Christ as God and ourselves as mere human instrumentalities. To be found by Jesus is to be saved for the simple reason that in his Person God himself restores the lost contact, gathers up the cords of life into his own bosom, and throws about us the circle of his divine beatitude, so that our soul, like a star in its native course, once more moves around him, and knows no other law or center. So far as Christ was a preacher he preached with the voice of God, and in his message salvation was not merely potential but incarnate. He silently takes this for granted in his whole treatment of sinners, when he deals with them sovereignly in the supreme issues of life and death. In a word he saves as God saves.

On this ground, and on this ground only, can we understand why so seldom in the matter of salvation he points beyond himself to God, but constantly places his own Person in the center of the sinner's field of vision, so as to focus belief and trust and hope and surrender and attachment in himself. Consequently it is true not only in the abstractly logical, but in the most realistic, one might almost say in the local sense, that where Jesus is, there is salvation, and away from him there is none. As he rebuked the disciples in the storm because they forgot this fact, and feared that with him on board they still might perish, even so he requires of us that in every tempest of life we shall be tranquil because our ship carries him. Was it not so in this very case of Zacchaeus? Because he had entered, salvation in him and through him had entered into the publican's house.

Lost—Given Over to Destruction

Salvation, however, according to our Lord's teaching, is not exhausted by restoring the sinner to a sense of the realities of his appurtenance to God. There is another equally indispensable side to it. What this is we may learn by considering the second element that enters into the state of "being lost." "To be lost" is more than to be missing to God. It has also the passive, even more terrible sense of "being ruined," "given up to destruction." The former sense remains within the sphere of the negative; it describes what is absent from the sinner's state; this other sense is positive, denoting the presence of something dreadful there. 

If our Lord's discourse dwells chiefly, and with a noticeable predilection, on the first aspect of the matter, this is perhaps due to the vividness with which by very reason of the concrete, detailed picture of what is wanting, the glorious realities of religion are brought out. The rule that we do not clearly visualize a thing until through its departure and its consequent failure to function it recalls its image to our mind, is here put to practical use. Strange to say, the face of religion appears in our Lord's teaching most clearly in the form of a description of its opposite. "In my father's house there is bread enough and to spare, while I perish with hunger" (Lk. 15:17)—what glowing words could have more powerfully expressed the blessedness of spiritual satisfaction near the heart of God than this pitiful cry of want! 

There is a lesson for us in this. We shall never succeed in impressing men, untouched by grace, with the riches and glory of religion, until we learn from Jesus to hold up to them the mirror of their sin and destitution. To say that there is no experience of redemption without the knowledge of sin sounds like a truism; perhaps it will appear less so if we go one step farther and add, that there is, as things are, no proper, no deep knowledge either of religion or of redemption than through the sorrowful journey into the far country of famine and husks.

But, while for this obvious reason the greater part of Jesus' teaching on the lost is concerned with the first aspect of their state, it would be wrong to infer that the other side only slightly or perfunctorily figured in his mind. The contrary is true. The subject possessed for him such a fearful reality, that, except on the most solemn and imperative occasions, he hesitated to contemplate or draw it into the glare of open speech. It is nonetheless there with the ominous darkness of untold, nay unspeakable things spread over it like a semi-opaque curtain. To be sure, it is something future, but this only deepens the gloom that covers it. It is born of the womb of the judgment. "Broad is the way that leads to perdition" and the lost are those walking on it. Only this should not be taken to mean that the loss contemplated is purely future. It overhangs and envelops the sinner even in this life. As the narrow path to the city of God, notwithstanding its straightness, is already bordered with some of the flowers and fruits of paradise, so the highway to the land of destruction, in spite of its seeming delights, has long stretches of shadow from the storm-cloud that is seen to thicken at the end. Even in this ultimate, more perilous, sense it is not sufficient to say that the sinner will suffer loss in the last day; according to the conception of Jesus he in principle is already lost. We feel something of the awful import conveyed, when in his high-priestly prayer the Savior declares: "Holy Father, I kept them in thy name which Thou hast given me; and I guarded them, and none of them was lost except the son of perdition" (Jn. 17:11,12). For, although Judas' sin in degree was altogether beyond comparison, it was not in substance different from each sin of every one of us. Except for the intervention of God no one has ever turned back on the broad way to perdition. Herein verily is seen the uttermost divine grace, that Christ seeks and saves from the plight of that despair. If our eyes delight to see him as the friendly Shepherd on the trail of the lost sheep, let us not turn our looks away from him in this more solemn occupation of rescuing the lost from the judgment. Yea, let us see him in the darkness of the cross. For this part of the saving also takes place in no other way than the more gentle one we have already considered. Here too he not merely announces or promises the salvation, but carries it in his own Person. He is the impersonation of the God who pronounces the judgment and of the God who sovereignly takes it away, the one who bears our curse, and, while bearing it, speaks peace to our souls. For this cause he came to the cross that he might be able to act for God in this solemn, anticipated judgment through which every sinner passes. When he speaks of sin and pardon and escape, the voice is the voice of God and the arms stretched underneath us are the everlasting arms of the Almighty himself.

That Which Was Lost

There is one other point on which we must briefly touch before closing. The text represents the object of the saving in the impersonal form as "that which was lost." The impersonal form of expression carries with it a generalizing effect. It amounts practically to "whatsoever is lost." The motive in our Lord's mind for this is not difficult to discover. A murmuring populace had excluded the class of publicans from the sphere that was worthy of his attention. To this Jesus replies with the emphatic declaration that all that is lost falls under the legitimate scope of his task, that, since the very fact of salvation is evoked by there being lost ones, no exception can be allowed from its grace on the mere ground that the object appears lost. Within the realm of sin distinctions between class and class or degree and degree of sinners become obliterated. In comparison with the one tremendous fact of sin as such they dwindle into insignificance, or if there is any differentiation observable it assumes rather the opposite, paradoxical form of those taking the precedence, in whom, by reason of excessive sinfulness and most poignant sense of guilt, salvation's opportunity for magnifying itself is increased. The harlots and publicans enter first into the kingdom of God. But we should surely misinterpret this if we took it to mean that Jesus, after precisely the same fashion, seeks and saves each single one that is lost. Grace knows no jealousy except for the honor of God. With wide generousness, such as only a renewal of heart can give, it yearns and prays for the ingathering of many. Nonetheless, when as saved sinners we place ourselves individually before God, who would not feel it as a denial of salvation itself to forget that pointedly and with a special mysterious determination the search, which in its issue placed him among the saved, was instituted and pursued for him on the part of God and Christ?

Let us not from hyper-altruistic squeamishness allow ourselves to gloss this over, for, besides withholding from God the glory which is his due in it, we should lose for ourselves the most precious portion of God's saving grace. It is not as if Christ at random wandered through this world on the chance of finding some one upon whom to exercise his power of salvation. With reference to each one of the children of God there was with him from the beginning a unique compassion, a personalized love, and in result of this a singleness and determination of purpose that imparted to his seeking of the least one of us the glory of a private inclusion in the intimate circle of God's saved ones. Of such seeking Jesus was conscious, and with all the wideness of his compassionate heart, which no world of sinners could overcrowd, he was not ashamed to acknowledge the gracious privileges and distinctions that pertained to the Lord's people or to any individual child of God. On this very occasion, he gave expression to them in the words: "Inasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham," words which trace back the blessed issue of Zacchaeus' encounter with Jesus to the covenantal promise made ages before to the patriarch, and ultimately to the sovereign election of which this promise was the outcome. It is with this as it is with the Pauline statement: no more than one can say, "Who loved me and gave himself for me," is it possible to say, Who sought me and saved me, except by a profound faith in the elective purpose as the ultimate cause of the personal inheritance of salvation.


Now what in conclusion are the lessons that we, seekers of the salvation of others, ought to draw from this episode in our Lord's life? They are chiefly two, and I shall indicate them with the briefest of words. The first relates to the specialized character we as servants of Christ ought to make our work to bear. If his procedure is normative for us—and who would deny this?—then all our seeking and saving, that is, all our religious endeavor, ought to carry the image and superscription of Christ's. And here the salient point is undoubtedly this, that the purpose, the goal of seeking and saving were for our Lord pronouncedly religious. Seeking and saving meant for him, before aught else, seeking and saving for God. It had no humanitarian or world-improving purpose apart from this. It began with the thought of God and ended there. For that he came. And at that we should aim. This conception will not narrow our work any more than it did his; it will only centralize it. Beginning there we shall find that everything else will follow that ought to follow. 

Was it not so in the case of Zacchaeus? Once Jesus had entered his house with salvation, he could not help taking his stand as one morally and socially reconstructed before the crowd of detractors: "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have wrongfully exacted aught of any man, I restore fourfold." Provided the precious nard of religion be poured into it, no vessel is unworthy. But, on the other hand, the finest flagon of the world, when bearing a false trademark, and under the guise of religion offering some inferior substitute, has no proper place in the service of Christ. It belongs to the hidden things of shame which Paul had discarded. No servant of Christ should touch it. And even though other things be not positively deceitful or harmful in themselves, our duty of bringing salvation is so transcendently important and exacting that the Christian minister cannot afford to lose time or energy over them. 

The second lesson relates to what our specifically religious task of saving should centrally consist in. It may all be summed up in the simple formula, to bring Christ to men and men to Christ. It sounds simple, but is in reality a most difficult and most delicate task. No painter portraying face upon canvass ever used more exquisite art than is his who in preaching the gospel succeeds in so delineating the face of Christ as to make him look out with his immortal Savior-eyes straight and deep into the hearts of sinners. Let your one concern be to bring the two together in the house where salvation is needed, and having led the Savior in, go thou out and shut the door silently behind thee. I tell you they shall not come out thence until salvation has done its perfect work.

Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, New Jersey