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Phil. ii. 12, 13. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling: for it is God which worketh in you, both to will and to do, of his good pleasure.
HAVING considered three objections to the text, as it has been explained in the preceding discourse, it is proposed in this to answer several more.
4. It is objected, that if men are not and cannot be willing to work out their own salvation, unless God first work in them to will and to do, then they cannot be blamable for not willing and doing.
To this objection there is a full solution and answer in the words to which it is made. If none do any thing towards working out their own salvation, till God worketh in them to will and to do, this supposes that previous to this they are unwilling; and that this unwillingness, or opposition of will to this work, is the only difficulty in the way of their willing and doing that by which they would be saved; and were it not for this opposition of heart or will to do that by which they would be saved, there would be no need that God should thus work in them to will and to do, which otherwise they voluntarily refuse to do. It is therefore supposed that they act freely in willing and doing that which is contrary to working put their salvation, and consequently that they are wholly blamable for voluntarily opposing that by which they might be saved, if they were willing to comply with it. For we have no other idea of blame or crime, but that which consists in willing and doing that which is contrary to reason and truth, and the command of God, when nothing is in the way of willing and doing that which is right and wise, but their unwillingness or opposition of heart or will to that which is required. And the greater 211 the degree of opposition of will there is to that which is right and good, and the stronger the propensity and inclination is to the contrary, the more blameable and guilty such persons appear to be to all who exercise reason or common sense. And the more fixed in the strong and constant opposition of their hearts they are to that which is wise and good, and propensity to do evil, so that they are perfectly deaf to all warnings and counsels and motives which can be set before them to choose and do that which is right, and would make them happy, and they cannot be reclaimed by any means whatsoever that can be used with them; the more odious and blameworthy they are, according to the feelings, judgment and consent of all.
If a child be disobedient to his parents, and wholly refuses to pay any respect to them and regard their dictates, the more obstinate he appears to be, and fixed in his rebellion, under all possible means used with him to reclaim him, this is so far from being any excuse, or extenuation of his blame or guilt, that, it is considered by all, unless it be those who are joined with him in the same disobedience, as an aggravation of his guilt. Whoever thought of excusing a murderer or thief, and could think him blameless or the less guilty, because he had long persisted in his evil practices, and could not be reclaimed by all the persuasions, threats and severe corrections which could be administered or devised? Can any one avoid thinking him the worse, and more odious and blameable, the more his inclination to murder or steal is proved to be fixed and incurable? It is possible the person himself might plead this as an excuse; and his companions in the same wickedness might join with him in exculpating him and themselves, because they had such a strong inclination to persist in their practices, and were so utterly averse from a reformation, and so far from having the least disposition to any thing of the kind, that they could not be willing to hearken to advice, and reform. But all who are not murderers nor thieves would consider their attempting 212 to make such an excuse as an aggravation of their crimes, and an increase of their blameworthiness.
This is applicable to the case before us, and may serve to illustrate it. Mankind are all rebels against God, and are sunk into total moral depravity, in which they have a strong, fixed and incurable propensity to rebellion, and a proportionable aversion from God and holiness, and will not come to Christ that they might be saved. This depravity and obstinacy is incurable, that is, by any thing in themselves; for their whole inclination, and all their exertions, are an opposition to turning to God, or a willingness to embrace the gospel; it is incurable by any means that can be used with them, or by any thing that can be done for them by any creature. The removal of this rebellious disposition is infinitely out of the reach of the power of men or angels. He only can do it who created all things, and is able to take away the hard, obstinate heart, and give an obedient one, and work in men to will and to do that to which they are naturally totally averse. Nothing is or can be in the way to prevent any persons being willing to embrace the gospel, but a contrary will and choice, and aversion of heart from Jesus Christ and the gospel. And if this be not in the nature of it criminal, and blameable in every degree of it, then there can be no such thing as blame or crime in nature. And if the strong degree of opposition to that which is right and wise, and inclination to the contrary so as to render it incurable, in the sense explained, does render the person innocent; then every the least degree of such inclination is not criminal, so there can be no such thing as sin; unless men can sin without any inclination to sin, and may incur blame when they exercise no choice.
All this is supposed and really asserted in our text: That mankind are wholly and obstinately opposed in their will and affections to that which is right and wise, and necessary to be chosen, in order to their salvation; that this is the only and all the difficulty in the way of their salvation, and is the only thing which renders it 213necessary that God should powerfully work in them to make them willing to embrace the way of salvation. The objection is therefore contrary to the passage objected to, which when considered contains a full answer to it, and the objection appears not to have the lead foundation, if all blame consists wholly in having no inclination to that which is right and wise, and in an inclination and choice which is directly contrary: and nothing can be blameable but this: and the stronger this inclination is, and the more there is of it, the more and greater is the guilt; which no man can deny without contradicting the plainest dictates of reason and common sense.
When it is said in the objection, that if men cannot embrace the gospel unless God work in them to will and do it, this must render them blameless, if by this any difficulty is designed to be expressed which does not wholly consist in their unwillingness to this, and is not the same with their will not, it is not true that they cannot; for, as has been observed, there can be no other bar in the way of their embracing the gospel, but a fixed opposition of will to it; and this is supposed and even asserted in the text, as nothing else or more is necessary to work out their salvation but a will to do it. And when it is said they cannot be willing, the meaning is, that they are wholly destitute of the least inclination or real desire to comply, and have such a strong, fixed opposition of will to it, that they cannot be willing to embrace the gospel, such opposition of will being entirely inconsistent with it, so long as it continues; and they being without the least inclination or desire to remove this opposition, but acquiesce in it with all their hearts, it cannot be removed by any thing short of the power of God working in them to will and to do. But if this be all that the objector means by his cannot, this is so far from being any excuse for not being willing to embrace the gospel, that it is the very thing in which all blame consists; and the more there is of this will not, and the stronger the inclination is to oppose and reject the 214gospel, the greater is the guilt and blameworthiness, as has been before observed, and cannot be denied by any who will allow that there is any such thing as guilt and blame in nature. In this sense the words of Christ are to be understood, when he says, “No man can come to me, except the Father who hath sent me draw him:” [John. vi. 44.] The Saviour of the world does not say this to excuse men as blameless in not coming to him, but rather to express their total depravity and the greatness of their guilt, asserting that there is such opposition of the will or heart of all men naturally to him, that they are disposed to reject the gospel, and, while this is the case, no man can with such an heart come to Christ, as this implies a contradiction. And this depravity and opposition of heart is so great and fixed, that no man will come to him, unless it be removed by the power of God working in him to will and do that which he would otherwise continue utterly to refuse. That these words are thus to be understood is certain from what Christ faith elsewhere on this subject. He said to the Jews, “Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life. How can ye believe, who receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?” In which words he asserts, that the only thing in the way of their coming to him was, that it was contrary to their inclination or will; and that their inability to believe on him, which is the same with coming to him, or the only reason why they could not believe, was nothing but an opposite inclination to desire and seek that which was contrary to believing on him and coming to him. We are certain that Jesus Christ did consider this inability to come to him, though so fixed and great that it could not be removed by any power short of that Divine Energy which can give a new heart, as any excuse for not coming to him; for he asserts their not believing on him and refusing to come to him to be the greatest crime, for which they might justly be condemned to perish forever. Hear his words. “He that believeth not, is condemned already, because he hath not believed 215 on the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. And when he (the Spirit) is come, he will reprove the world of sin, because they believe not on me.”
If they who make the objection under consideration would attend to all this, and consider it well, they would know that they were as really objecting against Jesus Christ himself, as against our text, as it has been explained; for he saith the same things in the words which have been cited. And they would at the same time be convinced that the objection is contrary to all reason and the common sense of mankind, and implies the greatest absurdity, and contradiction to all moral truth.
Many bewilder themselves, and put a stumbling block before their faces, and make great and hurtful mistakes, by using the words cannot and inability in a sense which is inconsistent with blame, and wholly excuses for not doing what a person cannot do. That which a person cannot do, though ever so much inclined to do it, and however willing he is to do it, were it in his power, he cannot be blamed for not doing. And this is the sense in which mankind commonly use the words cannot and inability. But when these words are used in a moral sense, so as to imply no difficulty in complying with what is required, but want of an inclination and desire to do it, or an actual opposition of will to it, which is quite a different and opposite sense from the other; such a want of ability or power to comply with that which is reasonable and right, does not excuse a refusal to comply, but necessarily implies blame, and the person is criminal in proportion to the degree of his inability to comply, or the strength and fixedness of the opposition of his heart to that which is required, in which all the difficulty of this compliance consists.
This may be illustrated by the following instance: A poor man, a real object of charity, suffering for want of 216the necessaries of life, who must perish soon if he had not speedy relief, begged the compassion and help of two neighbours who then were together. One of them was a kind, benevolent man, and felt for the sufferer, and ardently wished it were in his power to relieve him; but he was poor himself, and had nothing to give to his distressed brother. The other was rich, and able immediately to help the suffering, perishing man, if he had been willing to do it; but he was a stranger to benevolence, and had the greatest aversion from giving or doing any thing for the relief of any of his fellow-men, and never had felt the least compassion to the distressed, or given so much as a penny for the relief of any, though he had many opportunities to do it, and not a few had perished by his refusing to afford them any help. He therefore in this instance hardened his heart, and felt not the least compassion for the perishing man, and refused to save this beggar from death, which was in his power, had he been willing to give him what he could easily spare.
Who can avoid pronouncing the former blameless, or considering the latter as very criminal and blameworthy? And the farther he was from any inclination . to help the distressed, and the more fixed and obstinately set he was against giving any thing to the poor, the more vile and criminal he must appear to all. The latter cannot be liberal, and delight in distributing what he possesses, until he has a new heart, and is possessed with a disposition directly contrary to that which now governs him in all his thoughts and desires. And his heart is wholly and with all its strength opposed to a benevolent, generous heart, and therefore he cannot have the least inclination and desire to have such a heart, but is entirely satisfied and pleased with his present selfish disposition. And if he should pretend to desire and attempt to obtain a good, benevolent heart, all his desires and attempts would really be nothing but the exercise of his selfishness, and the gratification of his evil, covetous disposition; and therefore would be nothing but real opposition 217 to a good heart. So that it may be truly said of him, he is utterly unable to change his own heart from a selfish to a benevolent one. Yet who can think him the less criminal and blameable on this account? Must not all look upon him as guilty and odious in proportion to the fixed strength of his selfish, cruel disposition, and his inability by this to become benevolent and kind?
The difficulty which is in the way of his helping the poor man may be as great, and his inability to do a generous action as real and as much insurmountable and immoveable by him, for the reason which has been mentioned, as the inability of the former to relieve him. It may be said, agreeable to truth, of both of them, that they cannot relieve the distressed sufferer. But their inability is so entirely different, and of so opposite a nature and kind, that the inability of the former excuses, and that of the latter is so far from excusing, that it is the very thing in which his crime and blame consists. And they who attend to all that has been offered or can be said on this point, and yet will not see the difference and opposition between these two kinds of inability, but persist in asserting that there is no difference, and that they equally render a man blameless for not doing what he is unable to do; that the inability of the latter of these two men to relieve a distressed person is as blameless and excuseable, as that of the former; are not capable of being reasoned with or of making any proper use of common sense, which cannot be accounted for but by supposing that their inability to see and make this distinction, and reason properly upon it, is not owing to any defect in their natural capacity and reasoning powers, but to an inclination of heart, or propensity of will, which perverts their reason, and shuts their eyes against the light of truth, so that they cannot see it, however clearly it shines; which is the criminal inability that has been described.
Every degree of inclination to sin is opposition to the contrary, and is a difficulty in the way of a holy inclination 218and choice; and the former necessarily weakens the latter in proportion to the degree of it, so that perfect holiness cannot be exercised, so long as any degree of the opposite inclination exists. And the difficulty or inability to be perfectly holy is greater or less in proportion to the greater or less degree of the opposite inclination to sin. This, the apostle Paul says, is the case with Christians in this world: “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would:” [Gal. v. 17.] None will suppose, it is presumed, that the Apostle said this to excuse Christians for not being perfectly holy, or designed to represent the lusting of the flesh, or inclination to sin, as blameless, by saying that they could not do the things that they would; for if the lusting of the flesh be not sinful and blameable, then there cannot be any such thing as sin or blame. When the Apostle says, “Ye cannot do the things that ye would,” he does not offer this as an excuse for their not doing them; since all the difficulty in the way of their doing them was their sin: it was therefore a wholly blameable, sinful cannot: it was a difficulty and inability to be perfectly holy which was criminal and wholly blameable in every degree of it, and that too in proportion to the strength and degree. Christians had a degree of holiness which was exercised in opposing all sinful inclination, and desiring to be perfectly holy. They would be, they had a desire to be, ib holy as to do all the things which were required of them in a perfect manner and degree; but a contrary propensity to sin still worked in them, and rendered them unable to do what they would, so that in every exertion they fell short. This therefore was a sinful inability, a cannot wholly blameable; for it consisted in their inclination to sin.
The unregenerate sinner is nothing but flesh, in the Apostle’s sense of the word here, and in many other places, that is, corrupt human nature. All his inclinations and desires are lusts of the flesh, in which there is 219 no good thing. This his carnal mind is enmity against God, is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. He has no inclination or desire to be holy, to oppose the carnal mind, which therefore has the whole dominion in his heart, and reigns there without controul. The difficulty and inability he is under to will and to do that which is good is total and complete: and as the Christian cannot do the things that he would, cannot be perfectly holy, the sinner cannot have the least inclination or desire to be holy, or will and do any thing towards his salvation. And as the partial inability in the Christian to be perfectly holy is altogether his sin, and consists in it; so the total inability to will and to do that which is holy in the sinner is all of it his sin, and therefore consists wholly in that which is blameworthy. His inability, his cannot, is all sin and nothing else. And to offer this as an excuse, as rendering the sinner wholly blameless, is so unreasonable, absurd and perverse, that it cannot be done by an honest, discerning mind.
So much has been said in answer to this objection, perhaps too much, and some repetitions have been made, it may be too many, because it is so much in the mouths of many, originates from delusion, and has a most pernicious tendency.
5. The objection which is often made, that it is unreasonable to command or exhort sinners to do that which they have no power to do, and cannot do unless assisted and enabled to do it by the Spirit of God, appears to be groundless, from our text itself, when rightly understood; and is fully refuted in the answer to the last objection. When it is well understood what is meant by want of, power to obey what is commanded, and comply with the exhortation; that it means nothing but want of will, and an opposite inclination; the objection vanishes, as nothing to the purpose. It means a want of ability to obey, which is itself sin, and that in which blameableness consists, and therefore cannot be an excuse for not obeying. Therefore, 220as this kind of inability is only a sinful opposition of heart to that which is right and duty, it does not remove or lessen the obligation to obedience and to comply with duty. Surely none can think that a person may not with reason and propriety be exhorted and commanded to do that which is right and his duty, and for his interest to do, merely because he is not willing to do it. For if so, then no man may be commanded or exhorted to that which he is not inclined or willing to do; which denies the existence of any law, except it be a man’s own inclination and will. If God may not command a creature to do what he is not willing to do, there is an end to all divine laws, and moral government, and a man’s own inclination and will is his only law or rule of conduct; consequently there can be no sin, unless it be doing that which is contrary to a person’s will and choice, which is impossible.
But it may be asked, Where is the propriety of commanding or exhorting sinners to do that which they never will do, unless they have a new heart given to them by God, and he work in them to will and do it; or what end will this answer?
Reply. The reason and propriety of this has been already shown; and that if this were not reasonable and proper, there can be no such thing as law and moral government. And this is suited, and even necessary, to answer the following ends.
First. If there were no law and commands, and these were not set before sinners, pointing out their duty, and urging them to do what is necessary to their salvation, they could not know what the law is, and what is their duty, and what is necessary to be done by them in order to be saved; which is important and necessary. Without this they would not be under advantage to know the character of God, of Jesus Christ, nor their own character, nor what they must be and do to be saved. “For how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?”221
Second. If commands and exhortations to obedience were not applied to sinners, they would not know that they are sinners, and how depraved and corrupt they are, and how opposite their hearts are to the gospel, and that they are undone forever, unless sovereign grace give them a new heart, and make them willing in the day of divine power; all which it is important and even necessary the sinner should know, in order to his being saved. The apostle Paul said, “I had not known sin, but by the law:” and this is true of every one; for by the law is the knowledge of sin. And they cannot know that their hearts are strongly opposed to the gospel, the way of salvation by Jesus Christ, until they have the offer, and are invited and exhorted to believe on him.
Third. Therefore the gospel is to be preached to all men, and every man is to be instructed, warned and exhorted to believe, that he may escape the wrath to come, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, or refuse to hear. This is the way which God takes to answer his wise, benevolent purposes. They to whom he in his wisdom is pleased to give a heart to believe, will embrace the gospel, and be saved; and under a conviction of their guilty, lost state by nature, and that they should have justly perished, had not God given them a heart to believe, they will ascribe the whole of their salvation to sovereign grace, and give all the glory of it to God forever. They who do not hear and embrace the gospel, but, according to the criminal choice of their own hearts, reject the great salvation, will perish, under the aggravated guilt of slighting Jesus Christ, and abusing his grace and love, and will exhibit a striking manifestation of the exceeding, amazing depravity and wickedness of the human heart, and of the justice of God in their eternal destruction.
It has been observed, that the text contains an answer to the objection now under consideration, and it has been shewn how it is answered. But an answer is found in it, in another view of it. The Apostle tells Christians that if God did not work in them to will and to do, 222they would not will and do any thing towards their own salvation; and at the same time exhorts both to will and to do, and work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. This is directly in the face of the objection. For though they could have no will to work, unless God gave it to them; yet they are exhorted and commanded to be willing and to work out their own salvation. Why then may not the sinner, who can have no will to do any thing towards his salvation, unless God work it in him, be exhorted and commanded to will and to do? Is it possible to make any objection to this, which is not really against the exhortation in the text?
6. It may be further objected, that the text, as it has been explained, implies the doctrine of the certain perseverance of all true Christians, unto eternal life; which doctrine tends to make them who think themselves Christians careless about their salvation, and leads them to indulge themselves in sin, since, having once believed, they shall be saved, whatever life they live.
Answer. The text, as it has been understood, it is granted, does imply the do6lrine of the perseverance of all real Christians: for if they depend wholly on God to renew their will to holy exercises, by which they are born again, made new creatures, and created in Christ Jesus unto good works, there is no reason to think he will forsake such a work, and suffer it to come to nothing; as there is an apparent inconsistency in this: it may therefore be relied upon as certain, that Infinite Wisdom and Unchangeable Power and Goodness never begins this great and good work, by which men are brought into a state of salvation, and become real friends to God, and are pardoned and have his favour, without a design to carry it on till it is completed in their perfect holiness and endless happiness, as this work from beginning to end depends wholly on him. The contrary supposition appears most unreasonable, and unworthy of God, and dishonourable to him. Moreover, the expression itself denotes a constant work which God is carrying on in Christians, without ceasing or relinquishing it. “It 223is God who worketh in you to will and to do,” that is, continually, not at one time only, but always, to the end of life. It is not said, God did once work in them, or that he did work in them sometimes, but not always; but he worketh in you, as being common to all Christians, and at all times. And in this view only it can be a reason and encouragement to work out their own salvation. with fear and trembling, as it has been explained.
But if the doctrine of the certain perseverance of all true Christians to final salvation were not implied in the words of the text, when considered alone, yet it is established with the utmost certainty when they are viewed in connection with what the Apostle had before said to these Christians in this epistle. His words are, “Being confident of this very thing, that he who hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:” [chap. i. 5, 6.] The good work is that spoken of in the text, by which God was working in them both to will and to do. The Apostle, under inspiration, was confident, which amounts to a certainty, that wherever he begins this work, he will carry it on to perfection, “We therefore may be confident, and certain, that wherever God begins to work in men to will and to do that which is good and holy, he designs to carry this work en to perfection; that he will completely finish what he once begins. And this same truth is abundantly asserted, many ways, in the Bible, to which it is needless now particularly to attend.
. It is objected to this doctrine, that it tends to make Christians careless, and is a temptation to indulge to sin, seeing, according to this doctrine, their salvation is secured to them, let them live as they will. An answer to this is found in the words of the text, in which this doctrine is contained, as has been shewn: for at the same time Christians are told that God had begun a good work in them, which he would finish, carrying it on to perfection, they are exhorted to work out their salvation with fear and trembling; and that too for this very reason, that God was working in them so as effectually 224to secure salvation to them. They are informed that their working out their own salvation in this particular manner was as necessary to their salvation, as if God did not intend their salvation; that there was no other way to be saved; and that God thus working in them both to will and to do, with an intention to go on and perfect it, was the only encouragement, and a strong and cogent motive, thus to work out their own salvation.
The objection before us is therefore made in direct opposition to the words of the text, in which the doctrine of the saints’ perseverance is improved as a motive to every Christian duty in the practice of real holiness: it is therefore impossible to encourage the contrary. This apostle always speaks in the same strain. He says of himself, in this same epistle, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect; but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which I am also apprehended of Christ Jesus. Reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark, for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” The Apostle considered himself as apprehended, or laid hold of, by Jesus Christ, when he was converted and became a Christian, with intent to keep his hold of him till he had brought him to possess the prize of eternal life. This was so far from making him careless and inactive in the duties of the Christian life, that he improved it as an encouragement and motive to activity, zeal and engagedness in running the Christian race, that he might obtain perfect holiness, and the prize which his Saviour intended for him, and so work out his own salvation, of which he was assured, by what Jesus Christ had already done for him by working in him both to will and to do those things which accompany salvation, being infallibly connected with it. In the same view he writes to the Christians at Thessalonica: “Let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and for an helmet the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here he writes in 225 the same manner as in our text. He urges them to the practice of Christian holiness, from the encouragement and motive that God had designed them for salvation, giving them the character of his children, by which they were interested in the everlasting covenant of grace, by which salvation was insured to them.
This objection not only has an answer in these, and innumerable other passages of scripture, but it is also confuted by the inconsistency and unreasonableness of it. It carries this inconsistency in it, that if the perseverance of Christians in holiness is made certain by God, on whom they depend for it, and he has determined they shall work out their own salvation; then it is not necessary that they should live a holy life, and work oat their salvation, and they may be saved without all this, and however much they neglect their own salvation, and indulge themselves in all manner of iniquity: or, if it be made certain that they shall persevere in a holy life, that they may be saved, then they may as well and certainly be saved without persevering in a holy life, and though they fall away into sin: and this will encourage Christians not to attempt or desire to persevere in obedience, and to live in sin. They who can argue thus have given up the use of reason, to embrace the most palpable absurdity.
The objector also falls into another inconsistency, by supposing that a Christian may have assurance that he is a real Christian, and therefore shall be saved, when he is so inclined to sin as to prefer living in sin and the indulgence of his lusts to a holy life; and that he may maintain his assurance, while he neglects religion as a task, and lives a careless, wicked life; which is contrary to truth, to scripture, and the reason and nature of things. If it were possible that a real Christian could be in such a frame, and have such a prevailing disposition, and continue in it, it would be impossible that he should have any just and well grounded assurance of his being a Christian; for he can have no evidence of this, but from a disposition and exercises directly contrary to a preference 226of a life of sin, viz. exercises of real holiness, disposing to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling. The hypocrite, who has no true grace, may be so deluded as to think and presume he is a real Christian, and abuse the doctrine of the certain salvation of all who Ire once Christians, to indulge in sin, because he has really no love to holiness, and prefers a life of sin to the life of a Christian. But it is inconsistent to suppose that a real Christian should have or think he has evidence that he is a Christian, while he is in a careless frame, and loves the pleasure of sin rather than God and holiness.
The scripture asserts that assurance of being a Christian, and of salvation, is to be attained and maintained in no other way but the exercise of holiness, and great care and diligence in living a holy life. The apostle John says, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall allure our hearts before him:” [1 John, iii. 18, 19.] The apostle Peter exhorts professing Christians to take care to live and abound in the exercise of every Christian grace, in order to have and maintain an assurance of their real Christianity; and concludes with these words: “Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure; for if ye do these things ye shall never fall:” [2 Pet. i. 5-10.] This is the scriptural way of assurance; and they who think they have an assurance that they are Christians in any other way, and from some other proposed evidence, are presuming, and deceiving themselves to their own destruction.
And it must be further observed, that it is not only inconsistent with the character of a true Christian at any time to prefer a neglect of religion and a living in allowed sin, to a holy life, if the former were as sure a way to salvation as the latter; so that an assurance that he shall be saved will be no inducement to him to live a careless, sinful life: but it is yet a greater inconsistency and contradiction to suppose a Christian, in that 227strong and lively exercise of grace, and love of holiness, which always attends a true assurance that he is a Christian, and shall be saved, should then and for that reason prefer a life of sin to a holy life, and from this assurance be led into sin. This is impossible; and directly the reverse is certain, viz. that such an assurance is not only accompanied by a strong desire and engagedness to live a holy life, as without this there can be no real assurance, as has been shown; but the assurance itself will greatly add to the strength of desire and engagedness to live a holy life, to the honour of God, and for his own comfort, were it not necessary in order to be saved.
There are not only these inconsistencies in the objection, but the objector supposes that the true Christian is wholly selfish and mercenary in all he does, and is all ways disposed to. prefer a life in sin to a holy life, if he may be as sure of his own salvation by living in sin, as by the contrary. Therefore, having no true love to God and regard for his honour, nor any delight in the law of God, or love of holiness for its own sake; if he can obtain a promise that he shall be saved, he will have no motive to serve God, or have any concern for his character and glory; but will choose to live a life of enmity to God, by serving himself and his own lusts. It is certain there never was, and never will be, such a real Christian, though thousands have with the objector supposed it, and are hoping for heaven by living in the exercise of a selfish religion, which is abomination in the sight of God, and will certainly lead them to destruction.
The doctrine of the certain perseverance of all real Christians in a life of holiness to salvation, secured to them in the covenant of grace, is a comfortable and pleasing doctrine to the true Christian. He knows his own insufficiency, and absolute and constant dependence on God for all holy exercises and conduct: and. that if God should leave him to himself, he should fall into sin and ruin. And when he finds a promise in the covenant of grace, that all true Christians shall be kept by the 228power of God, through faith, unto salvation, and that where he has begun a good work in men he will carry it on to the day of complete redemption, he lays fast hold of it, as the only ground of hope that he shall persevere unto salvation, and would not be without it for a thousand worlds. But the self-confident hypocrite, who never knew his own heart, but thinks he can stand in his own strength, and distinguish himself from others who have the same assistance which he has, and by his own exertions embrace the gospel and live a holy life, in which he himself, not God, determines whether he shall be saved or not, by his own independent obedience, or by the abuse of the assistance he has; to such this doctrine is most displeasing, and they will oppose it with all their might; because it takes away their god in which they trust, their own selves, and makes their salvation altogether dependent on God, from first to last. For the same reason they oppose the doctrines of the divine decrees and of election, as these represent men as wholly dependent on God, especially for salvation, as according to this he determines who shall be saved, and who shall not, independent of man, according to his own pleasure. This is the only reason that can be justly assigned for their displeasure at these doctrines, and their opposition to them. And if persons of this character do not trust in man, and rely on an arm of flesh, even themselves, and that in a matter of the greatest importance and magnitude, infinitely more so than their own existence, or any other of their concerns, it will be difficult, yea, impossible, to conceive what is meant by trusting in man. How is it possible then that they should escape the awful curse pronounced by God? “Thus faith the Lord, cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm:” [Jer. xvii. 5.]
7. It is objected, that these doctrines, of man’s entire dependence on God in doing any thing towards his own salvation, of election, and the certain perseverance of all true Christians, if they be true, had better not be preached, since they will not be understood by people 229in general, and are very offensive to many, by which they are prejudiced against religion; and by many who believe them, are abused to very bad purposes; and, on the whole, do much more hurt than good.
Answer. This objection is really against the Bible itself; and particularly against the text we are considering, in which these doctrines are all either expressed or implied, as has been shown. Therefore the whole Bible, and more especially our text, are to be adduced as containing a complete answer.
If these doctrines are not to be preached, inculcated or mentioned, why are they contained in the Bible? Why has God published them to the world? If the preaching of these doctrines tends to do hurt, then their being published in the Bible, which is to be read by all, has an evil tendency. They who make this objection, who are not a few, would drop it immediately, if they have any proper regard for the Bible, as it is levelled against divine revelation, and the Author of it.
If these doctrines be not understood by any preachers or hearers, this must be their own fault; for nothing is revealed which may not be understood, so far as it is revealed, by the honest, attentive reader of the Bible, in the assiduous use of all the helps in his reach. And if they be not understood, the fault must be in the hearer or the preacher, or perhaps in both.
That these doctrines are improved to increase the prejudices of many against religion, and are abused by others to evil purposes, is no reason why they should not be taught, explained and vindicated; since this is an equal reason why none of the important truths of the Bible should be taught; for there is no truth in divine revelation which is not liable to abuse, and has not been abused by men, to their own hurt. It is no new thing for men to pervert the writings of inspiration to their own destruction. Shall they therefore be laid aside, and not studied and inculcated? Let the objector judge.230
Let who will think these truths to be of little consequence, and not suitable to be maintained and preached, or doubt or disbelieve them, or abuse them to the worst purposes: yet they remain highly important and useful. They have been found to be so, by thousands and millions. And the heart of every true Christian is formed upon them, or agreeable to them, whatever his speculations may be. And there is no other way to heaven than that which is marked out in our text. This leads to the next head of improvement.
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