CAN THE ETHIOPIAN CHANGE HIS SKIN?
“Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil”! [Jer 13:23]
Let us go at once to our text and notice that it contains a question which admits of only one answer— “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” Of course he cannot! And this fact suggests to us a spiritual question—Can a man who is accustomed to do evil, so change himself as to do good? Of course he cannot, any more than the Ethiopian can change his skin! When we have talked over that question which admits of only one answer, I shall put another question which admits of the opposite reply. In that latter part of our subject may the Lord be pleased to send comfort to those who are despairing and who know that they can no more change their own nature than the Ethiopian can change his skin, or the leopard his spots!
There are some things that men can do. A white man may be made almost black, as far as his skin is concerned. There are certain medicines that operate upon the skin and give it a very strange color— you may have seen a few such cases in your lifetime. But, though you can put the color in, you cannot take it out. The man who is white, or the woman who is very fair, may, either of them, sit in the sun till they become browned so that they might almost say with the spouse in the Song of Solomon, “I am black because the sun has looked upon me.” But you could not turn a black man, white, though you can turn a white man black. You can do what you please by way of spoiling, but you can do nothing by way of mending.
You can make yourself filthy by sin, but you cannot make yourself spiritually clean, do what you will! There is an ease about going down—you can jump down a precipice quickly enough, but who could stand at the bottom of a high cliff and leap to the top at one bound? Man can come down against his will, but he cannot go up even with his will. You can do evil all too readily—you can do it with both hands, greedily, and do it again and again and not grow weary of it—but to return to the right path, this is the difficulty!
But remember, dear Friends, that, even if an Ethiopian could change his skin, that would be a far smaller difficulty than the one with which a sinner has to deal, FOR IT IS NOT HIS SKIN, BUT HIS HEART WHICH HAS TO BE CHANGED. There are some creatures in which, if they lose a limb, it will grow again, or another will come in its place, but there is no creature living that could lose its heart and then grow another. There is a tree of a certain sort and you can, if you please, graft upon it and it will produce a different kind of fruit. Or you can take off one limb of a tree and another branch may grow—but you cannot change the tree’s heart.
Even if it were possible for the Ethiopian to change his skin, that would be a change, as we say, only skin-deep, and that is no parallel to the sinner and his sin—the leprosy lies deep within. It is the heart that is “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” It is the center and source of thought and action which is polluted and a change must be worked there. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” No, but if he could do so, could a sinner change his heart? ASSUREDLY NOT!
Let me try to set forth, in some small measure, the difficulty of this business. The first difficulty is because the evil that man has is in his nature. If sin were merely an accident, then it might be prevented. But it is not so. If sheep were to fall down into the mud, they might soon be up again, and it would be possible to keep them from falling. But when the swine go down into the mud, they roll in it because they delight in wallowing! As long as there is any mire about and the sow can get there, she will return to her wallowing as long as she remains a sow, for the filthiness is in her nature as well as in that which surrounds her! And it is so with us so far as sin is concerned.
The Ethiopian could wash himself clean, but the blackness of his skin is a part of his Ethiopian nature and he cannot get rid of that. The leopard’s spots are not accidental to it, but it has spots BECAUSE IT IS A LEOPARD.
So, sin is not accidental to human nature, but it is part and parcel of ourselves. When you see a man, you see a sinner! And if you could look into his heart, you would see the seed-plot of all manner of mischief which only needs congenial surroundings to fully develop itself. How can a man change his own nature? I do not suppose that, by any possibility, I could ever become an Ethiopian. I do not think that if I were to set my mind to the task, I could ever, by any possibility, turn into a Dutchman because I was not born so—it is not according to my nature. I must remain an Englishman, Essex-born, as long as I live. Only a miracle could make me anything different from that!
And the sinner is a sinner right through. Wherever you look at him, he is a sinner, and so he always will be UNLESS A SUPERIOR POWER SHALL INTERVENE TO CHANGE HIM.
Alas also, this evil nature of man brings with it the fact that his will is altogether perverted. A man will not cease to do evil and learn to do well because he has no heart to do it. Sinners do not want to be saved. “Oh,” says one, “I do!” But do you understand what it is to be saved?
EVERY SINNER WOULD LIKE TO ESCAPE FROM GOING TO HELL, BUT THAT IS NOT WHAT IS MEANT BY SALVATION.
To be saved means to be saved from loving evil, from seeking after it and living in it. Do you want to be saved from that? Do you want to be saved from falsehood, saved from the indulgence of your passions, saved from strong drink, saved from pride, saved from covetousness? The most of men have not a heart inclined to that—there is some sweet sin of theirs which they would like to sip, at least now and then upon the sly. That is to say, evil, as evil, is not abhorrent to the natural will, but the natural will of man goes after that which is evil as surely as ever children seek after that which is sweet!
Sin is sweet to man and he will have it if he can. How, then, can his nature be changed while he has no will to it? The will is, as it were, the rudder of the ship. My Lord Will-be-Will, according to John Bunyan, is the Lord Mayor of the town of Mansoul. And so he is, and he carries it in a very lordly way. He will have this and he will have that—and he will not have the other—and he is the master of the man.
Till the will is changed, till what is called, “free will,” is made, in truth, to be free will—free from the chains of evil and the love of sin—the man cannot rise to happiness and God any more than the Ethiopian can change his skin!
What is to be done with a man like that? He is determined to go over hedge and ditch to Hell. His father, a dear gray-headed old saint, has blocked the way, but he has pushed him aside. His mother has come and said, “My Boy, do not ruin yourself,” and she has hung about his neck and tried to keep him from sin. But he has shaken her off. In spite of wife, child, and friends, he is determined to destroy himself! And do you tell me that such a man is able to change himself? Yes, when Ethiopians change their skins and when leopards change their own spots, then will it be done, but not till then! THE CASE IS HOPELESS IF IT REMAINS WITH THE MAN, HIMSELF—THE WORK CANNOT BE ACCOMPLISHED.
What can he do by which he can change his nature and make a new man of himself? All outward means are unavailing. He may go and hear sermons. Well, I know that sermons of my preaching will never turn a heart of stone into flesh. Without the Spirit of God there will be no result whatever produced! The man may be christened, or he may be baptized, but what is there in water drops or water floods that can alter his sinful nature? Why, there have been villains upon earth who have gone through every religious ceremony and yet have ended at the gallows!
You may scrub an Ethiopian till you scrub his skin away, but he will be as black as ever when you have done with him. So is it with the sinner. You may put him through every form and ceremony of the church—and you may make him think that he has accepted the orthodox creed and you may even alter his outward life to a considerable extent—yet, WHEN IT IS ALL DONE, NOTHING AT ALL WILL REALLY HAVE BEEN DONE TOWARDS HIS SOUL’S SALVATION!
Somebody, perhaps, asks, “Why, then, do you preach to these people?”
Well, I do it principally because I am sent to do it. You see, if God were to send me to preach to the mountains and to bid them move, I would go and do it—and expect to see them move! If He were to bid me go and stand on the shore, and say to the salt sea waves, “Turn into fresh water,” I would do it, not because I think the sea, which is salt, can make itself fresh, but because my Lord never sent me on a fool’s errand and He will honor the message He tells me to deliver!
I heard somebody say that to tell a dead sinner to live was as if you were to stand at a grave and bid a dead body live. That is exactly it, my dear Friends, and you say it is ridiculous. Yes, it is very ridiculous if you leave God out of it, but as we are told to do it, we leave the responsibility of it with the Lord—and we intend to go on with this thing which men call ridiculous! Like Ezekiel, we are commanded to say, “O you dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord.” Somebody objects that dry bones cannot hear—that does not matter to us—we are bid to tell them to hear and WE EXPECT THAT THE LORD WILL ENABLE THEM TO HEAR WHAT HE HAS COMMANDED US TO SAY TO THEM!