God’s long forbearance with sinners; or how grace came to Luke Short

It took 85 years for a sermon by this Puritan minister, John Flavel, to convict a listener of his sin.

By David Tulis

Consider the providence of God in saving a man in his 103rd year. Why would the Lord bring repentance to a man that old when He might have chosen instead to convert him at age 15 or at 30?

The question arises from a sermon illustration this Lord’s Day on a passage in St. Paul. Galatians 6 raises the question of fruitfulness in the Christian life. “And let us not grow weary of doing good for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart,” at verse 9.

Missionary William Carey knew well about waiting long to reap. He had no convert in India until he labored in the Word  for seven years.

The minister also told us about Luke Short, a Virginia colonist who one day in his 103rd year thought about a sermon he had heard 85 years earlier — a sermon by Puritan pastor John Flavel (1630-1691). The memory of that sermon as a 17-year-old so stirred Mr. Short that he repented of his sins and became a communing and joyful member of the local church. His tombstone declared: “Here lies a babe in grace, aged 3 years, who died according to nature, aged 106.”

The story of Mr. Short touched on the reward the Rev. Flavel desired for each of his listeners. Flavel had no idea when fruit might spring from the ground of his pulpit. A man lounging in the pew four score years later remembers one of his untold hundreds of sermons, reflects upon it to the saving of his soul, a joyous event occurring after the Rev. Flavel’s death.

But another important point is visible in this story. And that is the wooing of God of his church, and the persistence of God in wooing each soul, and bringing occasion for each of His children — whether in old Israel or new (the church) — to be born again, to be converted.

GOD OFTEN USES SERMONS for immediate use among His people. Later in the day I had a long conversation with a friend who is enduring a heart-wrenching family struggle. The account of Mr. Short helped me encourage the man to woo his estranged wife. You need to court her and use every means to win her, no matter how badly you are being portrayed by others and no matter how badly her friends and advisers are framing the argument against you, I insisted.

The conversation turned to the wonderful way in which God sues for peace. He treats for peace, as the Puritans would say (treat, as in forging a treaty). The story of Mr. Short is a picture of God’s great patience with those He intends to save.

In my little church’s afternoon service we read aloud from the Westminster Larger Catechism, one new question and answer each Lord’s Day. This week the question is No. 76, “What is repentance unto life?”

Repentance is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and the Word of God, whereby, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, he so grieves for and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavoring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience.

This answer about sorrow for sin, like the whole of Westminster’s majestic summary of biblical teaching, is permeated with God’s grace and forbearance. Sorrow for sin is a “saving grace” given by God. Repentance is wrought by the Spirit of God in a man’s heart. God’s holiness and purity put into a man’s mind the “filthiness and odiousness of his sins.” This terror of one’s evil nature makes one sense God’s mercy and makes him penitent. The sinner “grieves for and hates his sins” and turns to a new life full of holy purpose. How wonderful. How terrifying.

A faithful worship service reminds the Christian of compelling truths. Mr. Short was mentioned to make a point about long-term results, fruit that appears outside of our knowledge. God didn’t let the Rev. Flavel see any fruit in the life of his young listener.

TO MY BEREAVED Tennessee friend, the Luke Short story is a picture of persistence on the part of the Creator. A day to God is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as is a day. But, in earthly terms, God endured Mr. Short’s century of selfish living until he used a very slight thing to convert him. That very slight thing was the faithful preaching of the Word by a man standing in a pulpit, that most singular engine of reformation. Some occasion in Mr. Short’s life — a stray phrase, a particular odor, a dream, perhaps — brought the memory of that sermon of Rev. Flavel to Mr. Short, and haunted him until he broke down in tears before his savior.

Source: Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians[;] Reformed Expository Commentary (Philipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2005), pp 265, 266