A young man somewhere in Europe was heard to preach the Gospel to a bookseller so clearly and so earnestly that he followed him out and asked him where he had learned the Gospel so fully and plainly. "I learnt it", answered the young man "just in the very last place in the world where you would have expected me to have heard it", and then he told his story.
Though he would always call himself a Catholic, he really had no religion at all. Accordingly he spent his time in pleasing himself and became so notoriously wicked that none amongst his wicked companions would have dared to have sinned so boldly as he; yet, strange to say, it was this extraordinary wickedness which was used of God to awaken his conscience.
It struck him one day, "It may be true after all that there is an eternal punishment for sinners." He had heard of the Judgment and the Lake of Fire and he thought, "If anyone is ever to be there, it must be myself; for I have never seen or heard anyone who has sinned as I have done." He was still quite young and had delighted in his sinful companions and gave himself to despair. Sometimes he thought of how sinners might be saved by entering a monastery, and doing penance, and a faint hope rose within him that by that means it might be just possible to escape eternal punishment, and have in exchange, perhaps, some thousands or millions of years in purgatory; but to gain favor with God, it would be necessary to do more penance than anyone had ever done before.
He had heard of the LaTrappe Monastery in Sicily, which was said to have rules more severe than any other in the world. The monks got up at a quarter to two or even midnight, for services in the chapel, and after a frugal meal they went forth to hard work in the field, there to endure heat and cold and storms, and never to change their clothes to suit the weather. They slept on knotted ropes which were called a bed. There were many other hardships undertaken, but when the young man heard of such a cloister he was filled with joy and determined to go at once and offer himself to the monks. He was very poor, so he determined to travel the hundreds of miles on foot.
He found himself at last across the Straights of Messina, and a little more weary walking brought him to the old monastery with its gloomy walls. He was very tired and worn out by the time he stood at the rear gate and rang the bell. The gate was opened slowly by an old monk who seemed scarcely able to move. The old man asked him what he wanted. "I want to be saved", was the reply. The old monk looked kindly at him and led him into a little room near the gate, where they were alone together.
"Now tell me what you mean", said the old man, "I should like to hear your history."
The young German told his sad story. He continued, "I have been a far greater sinner than anyone I have ever heard of. I do not think it possible that I can be saved. But anything that can be done I am willing to do, if only I may have a faint hope at last that I may, perhaps, escape eternal punishment; but it must be by spending all the rest of my life in penance, and the harder it is the more I shall be thankful if I may do it. Only tell me what I am to do, and I will do it gladly."
"If you will do what I tell you," replied the old monk, "You will go back to Germany, for there has been One down here Who has done the whole work in your place before you came, and He has finished it. He did it instead of you, so there is nothing left for you to do. It is all done."
The young German knew not what to make of these wonderful words. "Who has done it?" he asked.
"Did you ever hear of the Lord Jesus Christ?" asked the old man.
"Yes, of course I have heard of Him."
"Do you know where He is?" continued the aged man.
"Yes, of course, I know. He is in heaven", replied the German.
"But tell me," said the old monk, looking earnestly into his face, "Do you know why He is in Heaven?"
"No, except that He is always in Heaven."
"He was not always in Heaven," said the old man. "He came down here to do the work that you want to do yourself; He came down here to bear the punishment of your sin. He is in Heaven now because the work is done. If it were not so He would still be here, for He came down to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself; and if anything remained to be done, He would still be here, for He undertook to do the whole work Himself, and He has gone back to Heaven because He has done it. Do you know what He said upon the Cross, 'It is finished.'"
The young man asked, "What is finished?"
The reply came, "It is the work you want to begin; and now, if you want to add the crowning sin to your wicked life, and do something worse than you have done before, you may stay here and cast contempt upon the blessed, perfect work of the Son of God, and take upon yourself to do what He only could do, and what He has done and finished. It will be as much as saying, Christ has not done enough and I must add to the work that He declared to be finished. It may seem strange to you that I stay here where Christ is insulted, but I am very old and I can only walk to the gate, I cannot get away, so I must stay here until the Lord calls me hence, But you can go, and I entreat you to go back at once to your friends, and tell them all that the Lord has done for you. You may stay here three days, and I will tell you all I can during that time about the Lord Jesus Christ, and then you must go."
"And so," said the German, when he finished his strange story, "I did remain there three days, and the old man told me much more of the work of the Lord Jesus. He told me not only what His death had done for me, but how that He had risen again to give me eternal life, and how that He had won for me a place in heaven above the angels, where He is waiting for me and all who believe in Him. And so I came back to Germany, and from that day to this, I have told to anyone who will listen the blessed news of the perfect work of Christ."
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