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Why, or whence is it, that many men go so far, as that they come to be almost Christians?
First, It may be to answer the call of conscience. Though few men have grace, yet all men have conscience. Now do but observe, and you shall see how far conscience may go in this work.
1. Conscience owns a God, and that this God must be worshipped and served by the creature Atheists in practice, we have many; such as the apostle speaks of: “They profess to know God, but in works they deny him.” But atheists in judgment none can be. Tully, a heathen, could say, “Nulla gens tam barbara,” &c. Now there being such a light in conscience, as to discover that there is a God, and that he must be worshipped by the help of farther light—the light of 139the word, a man may be enabled to do much in the ways of God, and yet his heart without a dram of grace.
2. Know this, that natural conscience is capable of great improvements from the means of grace. Sitting under the ordinances may exceedingly heighten the endowments of conscience. It may be much regulated, though it be not at all renewed: it may be enlightened, convinced, and yet never savingly converted and changed. You read in Hebrews vi. 4, of some that were “once enlightened, and tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost.” What work shall we call this? It could not be a saving work, a true change and conversion of state; for, notwithstanding this enlightening, and tasting, and partaking, yet they are here said to fall away, verse 6. Had it been a true work of grace, they could never have fallen away from that. A believer may fall, but he cannot fall away; he may fall foully, but he cannot fall finally; for, “underneath are the everlasting arms.” His faith is established in the strength of that prayer of Christ that our faith fail not. Nay, he tells us expressly, that it is eternal life which he gives, from which we shall never perish.
This work, then, here spoken of, cannot be any 140saving work, because it is not an abiding work; for they that are under it, are said to fall away from it. But though it be not a saving grace, yet it is a supernatural work. It is an improvement made by the word upon the consciences of men, through the power of the Spirit; and therefore they are said to “taste the good word of God,” and to be made “partakers of the Holy Ghost.” They have not the Spirit abiding in them savingly, but striving with them, and working upon them convincingly, to the awakening and setting conscience on work. And conscience, thus stirred, may carry a man very far in religion, and in the duties of the gospel, and yet be but a natural conscience.
A common work of the Spirit, may stead a man very much in the duties of religion, though it must be a special work of the Spirit that steads a man to salvation. A man may have the assisting presence of the Spirit, enabling him to preach and pray, and yet he may perish for want of the renewing presence of the Spirit, enabling him to believe. Judas had the former, and yet perished for want of the latter. He had the Spirit assisting him to cast out devils; but yet he had not the Spirit renewing him; for he was cast out himself. Thus a man may have an improved 141conscience, and yet be a stranger to a renewed conscience; and conscience, thus improved, may put a man very much upon duty. I pray God, none of us mistake a conscience, thus improved by the word, for a conscience renewed by the Spirit. The mistake is very easy, especially when a life of duties is the fruit of it.
3. The conscience of a natural man is subject to distress and trouble. Though a natural conscience is not sanctified with grace, yet it is often troubled at sin. Trouble of conscience is not incident to believers only, but sometimes to unbelievers also. A believer’s conscience is sometimes troubled, when his sin is truly pardoned: and a natural man’s conscience is troubled for sin though it is never freed from sin. God sometimes sets the word home upon the sinner’s conscience, and applies the terrors of the law to it; and this fills the soul with fear and horror of death and hell. Now, in this case, the soul usually betakes itself to a life of duties, merely to fence trouble out of conscience.
When Absalom sets on fire Joab’s cornfields, then he runs to him, though he refused before: so when God lets a spark of hell, as it were, fall upon the sinner’s conscience in applying the terrors of the word, this drives the sinner to a life 142of duties which he never minded before. The ground of many a man’s engaging in religion, is the trouble of his conscience; and the end of his continuing in religion, is the quieting of conscience. If conscience would never check him, God should never hear from him.
Natural conscience hath a voice, and speaks aloud many times in the sinner’s ears, and telleth him, This ought not to be done: God must not be forgotten: the commands of God ought not to be slighted; living in sin will be the ruin of the soul. And hence it is that a natural man runs to duties, and takes up a lifeless and graceless profession, that he may thereby silence conscience. As a man sick in his stomach, whatever sweet morsel he hath eaten, he brings up all; and although it was sweet in the eating, yet it is bitter in the rising; so it fareth with the sinner, when he is sermon-sick, or conscience-sick. Though his sin was sweet in the practice, yet the thought of it riseth bitter upon the conscience: and then his profession of religion is the pill he rolleth about in his mouth, to take away the bitterness of sin’s taste.
4. Natural conscience, enlightened by the word, may discover to a man much of the misery of a natural state; though not effectually to bring him 143out of it; yet so as to make him restless and. weary in it. It may show a sinner his nakedness; and hereupon the soul runneth to a life of duties; thinking hereby to stead the misery of his case, and to make a covering for his nakedness. It is said, “that when Adam and Eve saw they were naked, they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves a covering.” So when once the sinner seeth his nakedness and vileness by reason of sin, whereas he should run to Christ, and close with him, and beg his righteousness for a covering, “that the shame of his nakedness doth not appear;” he rather runneth to a life of duties and performances, and thus maketh himself a covering with the fig-leaves of a profession, without Christ truly embraced, and conscience at all renewed. Natural roan would fain be his own Saviour; and supposeth a change of state to be a thing within his own power; and that the true work of grace lieth in leaving off the practice of sin, and taking up a life of duties: and, therefore, upon this principle, doth many a graceless professor outstrip a sound believer; for he resteth on his own performances, and hopeth these will commend him to God.
Question. If a natural conscience may go thus far, then what difference is there between this 144natural conscience in hypocrites and sinners, and a renewed conscience in believers? or, how may I know whether the working of my conscience be the working of nature only, or else of grace wrought in it?
Answer. I grant that it is difficult to distinguish between the one and the other; and the difficulty hath a twofold rise.
1. It ariseth from that hypocrisy that is in the best saints. The weakest believer is no hypocrite, but yet there is some hypocrisy in the strongest believer. Where there is most grace, there is some sin; and where there is most sincerity, yet there is some hypocrisy.
Now it is very incident to a tender conscience to misgive and mistrust its state, upon the sight of any sin. When he sees hypocrisy break out in any duty or performance, then he complains, “Surely my aims are not sincere! my conscience is not renewed! it is but natural conscience enlightened, not by grace purged and changed.”33 Pygmalion made an image so life-like that he deceived himself; and, taking the picture for a person, he fell in love with the picture
2. It ariseth from that resemblance there is between grace and hypocrisy; for hypocrisy is a resemblance of grace, without substance; the 145likeness of grace, without the life of grace. There is no grace but a hypocrite may have somewhat like it; and there is no duty done by a Christian, but a hypocrite may outstrip him in it. Now, when one that hath not true grace shall go further than one that hath, this may well make the believer question whether his grace be true or not; or whether the workings of his conscience be not the workings of nature only, rather than of grace wrought in it.
But to answer the question—You may make a judgment of this in these seven particulars:—
1. If a natural man’s conscience putteth him upon duty, be doth usually bound himself in the work of God. His duties are limited; his obedience is a limited obedience. He doth one duty, and neglecteth another. He picketh and chooseth among the commands of God; obeyeth one, and slighteth another. Thus much is enough; what need any more? If I do thus and thus, I shall go to heaven at last. But now, where conscience is renewed by grace, there it is otherwise. Though there may be many weaknesses which accompany its duties, yet that soul never bounds itself in working after God: it never loves God. so much, but still it would love him more; nor seeks him so much, but still it would seek him 146more; nor doth it serve God so well at any time, but it still makes conscience of serving him better. A renewed conscience is a spring of universal obedience: for it seeth an infinite excellency, and goodness, and holiness in God; and. therefore would fain have its service rise up towards some proportionableness to the object. A God of infinite excellency and goodness, should have infinite love, saith conscience: a holy God should have service from a holy heart, saith conscience.
Now then, if I set bounds to my love to God, or to my service to God; if I limit myself in my obedience to the holy God; love one command, and slight another; obey in one point, and yet lie cross in another; then is all I do but the workings of a natural conscience. But on the other hand, if I love the Lord with my whole heart, and whole soul, and serve him with all my might and strength; if “I esteem all God’s precepts concerning all things to be right, and have respect to all his commands,” then is my love and service from a renewed conscience.
2. If a natural man’s conscience check or accuse for sin, then he seeketh to stop the mouth of it, but not to satisfy it. Most of the natural man’s duties are to still and stifle conscience.147
But now, the believer chooseth rather to let conscience cry, than to stop the mouth of it, until he can do it upon good terms, and till he can fetch in satisfaction to it from the blood of Jesus Christ, by fresh acts of faith apprehended and applied. The natural man seeketh to still the noise of conscience, rather than to remove the guilt. The believer seeketh the removal of guilt by the application of Christ’s blood; and then conscience is quiet of itself. As a foolish man, having a mote fallen into his eye, and making it water, he wipeth away the water, and labors to keep it dry, but never searcheth his eye to get oat the mote; but a wise man mindeth not so much the wiping, as the searching his eye; somewhat is got in, and that causeth the watering, and therefore the cause must be. removed. Now then, if when conscience accuseth for sin, I take up a life of duties, a form of godliness, to stop the mouth of conscience; and if hereupon conscience be still and quiet; then is this but a natural conscience: but if, when conscience checks, it will not be satisfied with anything but the blood of Christ, and therefore I use duties to bring me to Christ; and if I beg the sprinkling of his blood upon conscience, and labor not 148so much to stop the mouth of it, as to remove guilt from it; then is this a renewed conscience.
3. There is no natural man, let him go never so far, let him do never so much in the matters of religion, but still he has his Delilah, his bosom-lust. Judas went far, but he carried his covetousness along with him. Herod went far; he did many things under the force of John’s ministry; but yet there was one thing he did not; he did not put away his brother’s wife—his Herodias lay in his bosom still. Nay, commonly, all the natural man’s duties are to hide some sin; his profession is only made use of for a cover-shame. But now the renewed conscience hateth all sin, as David did: “I hate every false way;”. he regardeth no iniquity in his heart: he useth duties, not to cover sin, but to help work down, and work out sin. Now then, if I profess religion; if I make mention of the name of the Lord, and make my “boast of the law, and yet through breaking the law dishonor God;” if I live. in the love of any sin, and make use of my profession to cover it, then am I a hypocrite, and my duties flow but from a natural conscience: but, on the other hand, if I “name the name of the Lord Jesus, and withal depart from iniquity;” if I use duties, not to cover, but to discover and 149mortify sin; then am I upright before God, and my duties flow from a renewed conscience.
4. A natural man prides himself in his duties. If he be much in duty, then he is much lifted up under duty. So did the Pharisee: “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are;” and why? where lay the difference? why, “I fast twice in the week: I give tithes of all,” &c.
But now take a gracious heart, a renewed conscience, and when his duties are at highest, then is his heart at lowest. Thus it was with the apostle Paul; he was much in service, “in season, and out of season;” preaching up the Lord Jesus with all boldness and earnestness, and yet very humble, in a sense of his own unworthiness, under all: “I am not worthy to be called an apostle. To me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” And again, “Of sinners, I am chief.” Thus a believer, when he is highest in duties, then is he lowest in Humility. Duty puffeth up the hypocrite, but a believer comes away humbled; and why? because the hypocrite hath had no visions of God: he hath seen only his own gifts and parts, and this exalteth him: but the believer hath seen God, and enjoyed communion with 150God, and this humbleth him. Communion with God, though it be very refreshing, yet it is also very abasing and humbling to the creature. Hierome observeth on Zeph. i. 1, where it is said, that “Cushi was the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah;” that “Amariah signifieth, ‘the Word of the Lord;’ Gedaliah signifieth ‘the Greatness of the Lord;’ and Cushi is interpreted ‘Humility,’ or, ‘my Ethiopian.’” “So that,” saith he, “from the Word of the Lord cometh a sight of greatness of the Lord; and from a sight of the greatness of the Lord, cometh humility.”
Now then, if I pride myself in any duty, and am puffed up under my performances; then have I not seen nor met with God in any duty. But on the other hand, if when my gifts are at highest, my heart is at lowest; if when my spirit is most raised, my heart is the most humbled; if, in the midst of all my services, I can maintain a sense of my own unworthiness; if Cushi be the son of Gedaliah, then have I seen and had communion with God in duty, and my performances are from a renewed conscience.
5. Look what that is to which the heart doth secretly render the glory of a duty, and that is the principle of the duty. In Hab. i. 16, we read of them that sacrifice to their net, and burn incense 151to their drag.” Where the glory of an action is rendered to a man’s self, the principle of that action is self. All rivers run into the sea; that is an argument they came from the sea: so when all a man’s duties terminate in self, then is self the principle of all. Now all the natural man’s duties run into himself. He was never, by a thorough work of grace, truly cast out of himself, and brought to deny himself; and therefore he can rise no higher than himself in all he does. He was never ‘brought to be poor in spirit, and so to live upon another; to be carried out of all duties to Jesus Christ. But the believer giveth the glory of all his services to God; whatever strength or life there is in duty, God hath all the glory; for he is by grace outed of himself, and therefore seeth no excellence or worthiness in self.
“I labored more abundantly than they all,” saith the apostle; but to whom doth he ascribe the glory of this? to self? No: “Yet not I,” saith he, “but the grace of God which was with me.” Whenever the grace of Christ is wrought in the heart as a principle of duty, you shall find the soul when it is most carried out, with a Yet not I, in the mouth of it. “I live, yet not I; I labored more abundantly than all, yet not I.” 152Self is disclaimed, and Christ most advanced, when it is from grace that the heart is quickened: the twenty-four elders cast their crowns at Christ’s feet.
There are two things very hard: one is, to take the shame of our sins to ourselves; the other is, to give the glory of our services to Christ. Now then, if I sacrifice to my own net: if I aim at my own credit or profit, and give the glory of all I do to self; then do I “sow to the flesh,” and was never yet cast out of self, but act only from a natural conscience. But if I give the glory of all my strength and life in duty only to God; if I magnify grace in all, and can truly say in all I do, Yet not I; then am I truly cast out of self, and do what I do with a renewed conscience.
6. Though a natural conscience may put a man much upon service, yet it never presses to the attainment of holiness. So that he carrieth an unsanctified heart under all. How long was Judas a professor, and yet not one dram of grace had he. The foolish virgins, you know, “took their lamps, but took no oil in their vessels;” that is, they looked more after a profession, than after a sanctification. But now, when a renewed conscience putteth a man upon duty, it is succeeded with the growth of holiness. As grace 153helpeth to the doing of duty, so duty helpeth to the growing of grace; a believer is the more holy and the more heavenly, by his being much in duties.
Now then, if I am much in a life of duties, and yet a stranger to a life of holiness; if I maintain a high profession, and yet have not a true work of sanctification; if, like children in the rickets, I grow big in the head, but weak in the feet; then have I gifts and parts, but no grace; and though I am much in service, yet have I but a natural conscience. But, on the other band, if the holiness of my conversation carrieth a proportion to my profession; if I am not “a hearer of the word. only, but a doer of it;” if grace groweth in seasons of duty, then do I act in the things of God from a renewed conscience.
7. And lastly, If a natural conscience be the spring of duty, why then this spring runs fastest at first, and so abateth, and at last drieth up. But if a renewed conscience, a sanctified heart, be the spring of duty, then this spring will never dry up. It will run always, from first to last, and run quicker at last than first: “I know thy works, and the last to be more than the first. The righteous shall hold on his way; and he that hath clean hands shall be stronger and stronger.”154
Question. But you will say, Why doth that man abate and languish in his duties, that doth them from a natural conscience, more than he that doth them from a renewed conscience?
Answer. The reason is, because they grow upon a fallible root, a decaying root, and that is nature. Nature is a fading root, and so are all its fruits fading; but the duties done by a renewed conscience, are fruits that grow upon a lasting root; and that is Christ. “Gifts have their root in nature, but grace hath its root in Christ:” and therefore the weakest grace shall outlive the greatest gifts and parts; because there is life in the root of the one, and not in that of the other. Gifts and grace differ like the leather of your shoe, and the skin of your foot. Make a pair of shoes that have the thickest soles, and if you go much in them, the leather weareth out, and in a little time a man’s foot cometh to the ground; but now a man that goeth barefoot all his days, the skin of his feet does not wear out. Why should not the sole of his foot sooner wear out than the sole of his shoe; for the leather is much thicker than the skin? The reason is, because there is life in the one, and not in the other; there is life in the skin of the foot, and therefore that holdeth out, and groweth thicker and thicker, 155harder and harder; but there is no life in the sole of his shoe, and therefore that weareth out, and waxeth thinner and thinner: so it is with gifts and grace. Now then, if I decay and abate, and grow weary of a profession, and fall away at last; if I begin in the spirit, and end in the flesh; then was all I did from a natural conscience: but if I grow and hold out, if I persevere to the end, and my “last works be more than my first,” then I act from a renewed conscience.
And thus I have, in seven things, answered that question, namely, If conscience may go thus far in putting a man upon duties, then what difference is there between this natural conscience in hypocrites and sinners, and renewed conscience in believers?
And that is the first answer to the main query, namely, “Whence is it that many men go so far, as that they come to be almost Christians?” It is to answer the call of conscience.
Secondly, It is from the power of the word under which they live. Though the word doth not work effectually upon all, yet it hath a great power upon the hearts of sinners to reform them, though not to renew them.
1. It hath a discerning, discovering power: 156“The word of God is quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow; and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” This is the glass wherein every one may see what man he is. As the light of the sun discovers the little motes, so the light of the word, shining into conscience, discovers little sins.
2. The word hath the power of a law. It gives law to the whole soul; binds conscience. It is, therefore, frequently called the law in Scripture: “Unless thy law had been my delight, &c.—To the law and to the testimony.” This is spoken of the whole word of God, which is therefore called a law, because of its binding power upon the conscience.
3. It hath a judging power: “The word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him at the last day.” The sentence that God will pass upon sinners hereafter, is no other than what the word passeth upon him here. The judgment of God, is not a day wherein God will pass any new sentence; but it is such a day wherein God will make a solemn, public ratification of the judgment passed by the ministry of the word upon souls here. This I gather clearly from Matthew xviii. 18: “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven:” so that, by bringing a man’s heart to the word, and trying it by that, he may quickly know what that sentence is that God will pass upon his soul in the last day: for as the judgment of the word is now, such will the judgment of God be concerning him in the last day.
Indeed, there is a twofold power, farther than this, in the word. It hath a begetting and saving power: but this is put forth only upon some. But the other is more extensive, and hath a great causality upon a profession of goodness, even among them that have no grace.
A man that is under this threefold power of discerning law and judgment, that hath his heart ransacked and discovered, his conscience bound and awed, his state and sinful condition judged and condemned; may take up a resolution of a new life, and convert himself to great profession of religion.
Thirdly, A man may go far in this course of profession from affectation of applause and credit, and to get a name in the world. As it is said of the Pharisees, they “love to pray in the marketplaces, and in the corners of the streets, to be 158seen of men.” Many are of Machiavel’s principle,—That the appearance of virtue is to be sought; because, though the use of it is a trouble, yet the credit of it is a help. Jerome, in his Epistle to Julian, calls such, “the base bond-slaves of common fame.” Many a man hath that for credit, that he will not do for conscience; and owns religion more for the sake of lust, than for the sake of Christ: thus making God’s stream to turn the devil’s mill.
Fourthly, It is from a desire of salvation. There is in all men a desire of salvation: it is natural to every being to love and seek its own preservation. “Who will show us any good?”—This is the language of nature, seeking happiness to itself.
Many a man may be carried so far out in the desires of salvation, as to do many things to obtain it. So did the young man: “Good Master, what good things shall I do, that I may inherit eternal life?” He went far, and did much, obeying many commands, and all out of a desire of salvation. So, then, put these together, and there is an answer to that question.
“The call of conscience—the power of the word—the affectation of credit—and the desire 159of salvation.” These may carry a man so far as to be almost a Christian.
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