This Week's Focus Passage

‘Ninety and nine righteous persons, who need no repentance.’

Focus Passage: Luke 15:7

‘Ninety and nine righteous persons, who need no repentance.’

“There were ninety and nine that safely lay in the shelter of the fold—or at least so they imagined—but one was out on the hills away, far off from the gates of gold.” So goes the gospel song written in 1868 by Elizabeth Clephane. The story of this hymn is most interesting; interesting enough to be repeated. Such an account may be found in Kenneth Osbeck’s 101 Hymn Stories. According to this sketch;

‘Miss Clephane wrote the text for “The Ninety and Nine” especially for children a short time before her death. It was published in a magazine called The Children’s Hour. Five years later the American evangelists, D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey, were in Great Britain for one of their noted revival campaigns. The story is told of Moody and Sankey riding a train one morning from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Sankey stopped to purchase a newspaper in the train depot, hoping to get news from America. As he idly turned over the pages of the paper during the ride, he discovered Elizabeth Clephane’s poem. He tried to interest Moody in its contents, but the evangelist was too busy preparing his sermon. Finally, Sankey simply cut out the poem and placed it in his pocket.

At the meeting that afternoon in Edinburgh, the subject of Moody’s message was “The Good Shepherd,” based on Luke 15:3-7. Finishing his address, Moody turned to Sankey and asked him to sing some fitting solo. Sankey could think of nothing that was appropriate. Then suddenly he recalled the little poem he had put into his vest pocket. Placing his newspaper clipping on the folding organ before him and breathing a prayer for divine help, he struck the chord of A flat and began to sing. Note by note the tune was given, and that same tune has remained unchanged to the present time. Sankey declared that it was one of the most intense moments of his life. He said that he could sense immediately that the song had reached the hearts of the Scottish audience. “When I reached the end of the song,” reported Sankey, “Mr. Moody was in tears and so was I.” When Moody arose to give the invitation for salvation, many “lost sheep” responded to the call of Christ.’

Sadly, here is an example of an equation being made between a song sung by a soloist and “the call of Christ.” Let us compare the words of Jesus in the gospel of Luke with those of Elizabeth Clephane from her popular song, The Ninety and Nine. While the words of the song are certainly full of the biblical concepts of the compassion, love and faithfulness of our Savior in seeking and saving the lost, Jesus was using these parables to teach the necessity of repentance. His audience is well-defined by Luke in the beginning of this chapter 15:

Now all the publicans and sinners were drawing near unto him to hear him. And both the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, this man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.

We are reminded of the words of Matthew 21:45, “And when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them.” Yes, this poem is indeed about the sacrificial labor of the God-man for ‘His own,’ yet, contrary perhaps to popular opinion and the burden of this hymn writer in this very moving song, those that comprise the ninety and nine are not necessarily followers of Christ. In fact, Elizabeth Clephane has said, ‘Lord, thou hast here thy ninety and nine, are they not enough for thee?’ Check the language on to confirm the words used. Or check #137 of the Trinity Hymnal, Baptist Edition. Contrariwise, the reference of Jesus in Luke 15 to these individuals is hardly in keeping with such a sentiment. Rather, Jesus has concluded with these words:

I say unto you, that even so there shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine righteous persons, who need no repentance.

Of whom among the sons of Adam may it ever be said that they need no repentance? To assert an absence of such repentance is to assert the absence of sin, is it not? What do the Scriptures tell us over and over again in response to any such assertion? There is none righteous, no, not even one, is the declaration from the Word of God. So then who are these ninety and nine righteous persons of whom Jesus has spoken? We need only resort back to the beginning of this chapter to witness that it was to the Pharisees and the scribes that were murmuring. And what was it that they saying? This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them. The ‘publicans and sinners’ were not among the ninety and nine righteous persons. It was to the Pharisees and the scribes that Jesus was making this reference. And how is it that they needed no repentance? It was surely in their own eyes that they needed no repentance. They were righteous in their own estimation of themselves. In other words, they were self-righteous. And because they had their own righteousness, they did not need the righteousness of any other; that righteousness which is granted to those unrighteous persons that are willing to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as the only Savior of sinners.

This otherwise moving hymn of Elizabeth Clephane is lacking this need of repentance. It is likely that Mr. Moody’s message may have contained the same lack.

It is not supported by that portion of scripture from which it has been drawn, because it only speaks of the Shepherd seeking the lost sheep, while it fails to put forth the reality that the sheep will be drawn irresistibly to the Shepherd. They will certainly repent and believe because they are His sheep. Salvation is a gift; Christ is a gift; faith is a gift; repentance is a gift. These gifts are all given to the sheep that were given to the Good Shepherd from before the foundation of the world. They will hear His voice because they know Him. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

David Farmer, elder

Fellowship Bible Church

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