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Several ways whereby the bringing forth of conceived sin is obstructed.
Before we proceed to the remaining evidences of the power and efficacy of the law of sin, we shall take occasion from what hath been delivered to divert unto one consideration that offers itself from that Scripture which was made the bottom and foundation of our discourse of the general deceitfulness of sin, namely, James i. 14. The apostle tells us that “lust conceiving bringeth forth sin;” seeming to intimate, that look what sin is conceived, that also is brought forth. Now, placing the conception of sin, as we have done, in the consent of the will unto it, and reckoning, as we ought, the bringing forth of sin to consist of its actual commission, we know that these do not necessarily follow one another. There is a world of sin conceived in the womb of the wills and hearts of men that is never brought forth. Our present business, then, shall be to inquire whence that comes to pass. I answer, then, —
2611. That this is not so, is no thanks unto sin nor the law of it What it conceives, it would bring forth; and that it doth not is for the most part but a small abatement of its guilt. A determinate will of actual sinning is actual sin. There is nothing wanting on sin’s part that every conceived sin is not actually accomplished. The obstacle and prevention lies on another hand.
2. There are two things that are necessary in the creature that hath conceived sin, for the bringing of it forth; — first, Power; secondly, Continuance in the will of sinning until it be perpetrated and committed. Where these two are, actual sin will unavoidably ensue. It is evident, therefore, that that which hinders conceived sin from being brought forth must affect either the power or the will of the sinner. This must be from God. And he hath two ways of doing it: (1.) By his providence, whereby he obstructs the power of sinning. (2.) By his grace, whereby he diverts or changes the will of sinning. I do not mention these ways of God’s dispensations thus distinctly, as though the one of them were always without the other; for there is much of grace in providential administrations, and much of the wisdom of providence seen in the dispensations of grace. But I place them in this distinction, because they appear most eminent therein; — providence, in outward acts respecting the power of the creature; grace, common or special, in internal efficacy respecting his will. And we shall begin with the first:—
(1.) When sin is conceived, the Lord obstructs its production by his providence, in taking away or cutting short that power which is absolutely necessary for its bringing forth or accomplishment; as, —
[1.] Life is the foundation of all power, the principle of operation; when that ceaseth, all power ceaseth with it. Even God himself, to evince the everlasting stability of his own power, gives himself the title of “The living God.” Now, he frequently obviates the power of executing sin actually by cutting short and taking away the lives of them that have conceived it. Thus he dealt with the army of Sennacherib, when, according as he had purposed, so he threatened that “the Lord should not deliver Jerusalem out of his hand,” 2 Kings xviii. 35. God threatens to cut short his power, that he should not execute his intendment, chap. xix. 28; which he performs accordingly, by taking away the lives of his soldiers, verse 35, without whom it was impossible that his conceived sin should be brought forth. This providential dispensation in the obstruction of conceived sin, Moses excellently sets forth in the case of Pharaoh: Exod. xv. 9, 10, “The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them. Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered 262them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters.” Sin’s conception is fully expressed, and as full a prevention is annexed unto it. In like manner he dealt with the companies of fifties and their captains, who came to apprehend Elijah, 2 Kings i. 9–12. Fire came down from heaven and consumed them, when they were ready to have taken him. And sundry other instances of the like nature might be recorded. That which is of universal concernment we have in that great providential alteration which put a period to the lives of men. Men living hundreds of years had a long season to bring forth the sins they had conceived; thereupon the earth was filled with violence, injustice, and rapine, and “all flesh corrupted his way,” Gen. vi. 12, 13. To prevent the like inundation of sin, God shortens the course of the pilgrimage of men in the earth, and reduces their lives to a much shorter measure. Besides this general law, God daily thus cuts off persons who had conceived much mischief and violence in their hearts, and prevents the execution of it: “Blood-thirsty and deceitful men do not live out half their days.” They have yet much work to do, might they have but space given them to execute the bloody and sinful purposes of their minds. The psalmist tells us, Ps. cxlvi. 4, “In the day that the breath of man goeth forth, his thoughts perish:” he had many contrivances about sin, but now they are all cut off. So also, Eccles. viii. 12, 13, “Though a sinner do evil a hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him: but it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he feareth not before God.” How long soever a wicked man lives, yet he dies judicially, and shall not abide to do the evil he had conceived.
But now, seeing we have granted that even believers themselves may conceive sin through the power and the deceitfulness of it, it may be inquired whether God ever thus obviates its production and accomplishment in them, by cutting off and taking away their lives, so as that they shall not be able to perform it. I answer, —
1st. That God doth not judicially cut off and take away the life of any of his for this end and purpose, that he may thereby prevent the execution or bringing forth of any particular sin that he had conceived, and which, without that taking away, he would have perpetrated; for, —
(1st.) This is directly contrary to the very declared end of the patience of God towards them, 2 Pet. iii. 9. This is the very end of the long-suffering of God towards believers, that before they depart hence they may come to the sense, acknowledgment, and repentance of every known sin. This is the constant and unchangeable rule of God’s patience in the covenant of grace; which is so far from being 263in them an encouragement unto sin, that it is a motive to universal watchfulness against it, — of the same nature with all gospel grace, and of mercy in the blood of Christ. Now, this dispensation whereof we speak would lie in a direct contradiction unto it.
(2dly.) This also flows from the former, that whereas conceived sin contains the whole nature of it, as our Saviour at large declares, Matt. v.; and to be cut off under the guilt of it, to prevent its farther progress, argues a continuance in the purpose of it without repentance, it cannot be but they must perish for ever who are so judicially cut off. But God deals not so with his; he casts not off the people whom he did foreknow. And thence David prays for the patience of God before mentioned, that it might not be so with him: Ps. xxxix. 13, “O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more.” But yet, —
2dly. There are some cases wherein God may and doth take away the lives of his own, to prevent the guilt that otherwise they would be involved in; as, —
(1st.) In the coming of some great temptation and trial upon the world. God knowing that such and such of his would not be able to withstand it and hold out against it, but would dishonour him and defile themselves, he may, and doubtless often doth, take them out of the world, to take them out of the way of it: Isa. lvii. 1, “The righteous is taken away from the evil to come;” not only the evil of punishment and judgment, but the evil of temptations and trials, which oftentimes proves much the worse of the two. Thus a captain in war will call off a soldier from his watch and guard, when he knows that he is not able, through some infirmity, to bear the stress and force of the enemy that is coming upon him.
(2dly.) In case of their engagement into any way not acceptable to him, through ignorance or not knowing of his mind and will. This seems to have been the case of Josiah. And, doubtless, the Lord doth oftentimes thus proceed with his. When any of his own are engaged in ways that please him not, through the darkness and ignorance of their minds, that they may not proceed to farther evil or mischief, he calls them off from their station and employment and takes them to himself, where they shall err and mistake no more. But, in ordinary cases, God hath other ways of diverting his own from sin than by killing of them, as we shall see afterward.
[2.] God providentially hinders the bringing forth of conceived sin, by taking away and cutting short the power of them that had conceived it, so that, though their lives continue, they shall not have that power without which it is impossible for them to execute what they had intended, or to bring forth what they had conceived. Hereof also we have sundry instances. This was the case with the builders of 264Babel, Gen. xi. Whatever it were in particular that they aimed at, it was in the pursuit of a design of apostasy from God. One thing requisite to the accomplishing of what they aimed at was the oneness of their language; so God says, verse 6, “They have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, that they have imagined to do.” In an ordinary way they will accomplish their wicked design. What course doth God now take to obviate their conceived sin? Doth he bring a flood upon them to destroy them, as in the old world some time before? Doth he send his angel to cut them off, like the army of Sennacherib afterward? Doth he by any means take away their lives? No; their lives are continued, but he “confounds their language,” so that they cannot go on with their work, verse 7, — takes away that wherein their power consisted. In like manner did he proceed with the Sodomites, Gen. xix. 11. They were engaged in, and set upon the pursuit of, their filthy lusts. God smites them with blindness, so that they could not find the door, where they thought to have used violence for the compassing of their ends. Their lives were continued, and their will of sinning; but their power is cut short and abridged. His dealing with Jeroboam, 1 Kings xiii. 4, was of the same nature. He stretched out his hand to lay hold of the prophet, and it withered and became useless. And this is an eminent way of the effectual acting of God’s providence in the world, for the stopping of that inundation of sin which would overflow all the earth were every womb of it opened. He cuts men short of their moral power, whereby they should effect it. Many a wretch that hath conceived mischief against the church of God hath by this means been divested of his power, whereby he thought to accomplish it. Some have their bodies smitten with diseases, that they can no more serve their lusts, nor accompany them in the perpetrating of folly; some are deprived of the instruments whereby they would work. There hath been, for many days, sin enough conceived to root out the generation of the righteous from the face of the earth, had men strength and ability to their will, did not God cut off and shorten their power and the days of their prevalency. Ps. lxiv. 6, “They search out iniquities; they accomplish a diligent search: both the inward thought of every one of them, and the heart, is deep.” All things are in a readiness; the design is well laid, their counsels are deep and secret; what now shall hinder them from doing whatever they have imagined to do? Verses 7, 8, “But God shall shoot at them with an arrow; suddenly shall they be wounded. So they shall make their own tongue to fall upon themselves.” God meets with them, brings them down, that they shall not be able to accomplish their design. And this way of God’s preventing sin seems to be, at least ordinarily, peculiar to the men of the world; 265God deals thus with them every day, and leaves them to pine away in their sins. They go all their days big with the iniquity they have conceived, and are greatly burdened that they cannot be delivered of it. The prophet tells us that “they practice iniquity that they had conceived, because it is in the power of their hand,” Micah ii. 1. If they have power for it, they will accomplish it: Ezek. xxii. 6, “To their power they shed blood.” This is the measure of their sinning, even their power. They do, many of them, no more evil, they commit no more sin, than they can. Their whole restraint lies in being cut short in power, in one kind or another. Their bodies will not serve them for their contrived uncleannesses, nor their hands for their revenge and rapine, nor their instruments for persecution; but they go burdened with conceived sin, and are disquieted and tortured by it all their days. And hence they become in themselves, as well as unto others, “a troubled sea, that cannot rest,” Isa. lvii. 20.
It may be, also, in some cases, under some violent temptations, or in mistakes, God may thus obviate the accomplishment of conceived sin in his own. And there seems to be an instance of it in his dealing with Jehoshaphat, who had designed, against the mind of God, to join in affinity with Ahab, and to send his ships with him to Tarshish; but God breaks his ships by a wind, that he could not accomplish what he had designed. But in God’s dealing with his in this way, there is a difference from the same dispensation towards others; for, —
1st. It is so only in cases of extraordinary temptation. When, through the violence of temptation and craft of Satan, they are hurried from under the conduct of the law of grace, God one way or other takes away their power, or may do so, that they shall not be able to execute what they had designed. But this is an ordinary way of dealing with wicked men. This hook of God is upon them in the whole course of their lives; and they struggle with it, being “as a wild bull in a net,” Isa. li. 20. God’s net is upon them, and they are filled with fury that they cannot do all the wickedness that they would.
2dly. God doth it not to leave them to wrestle with sin, and to attempt other ways of its accomplishment, upon the failure of that which they were engaged in; but by their disappointment awakens them to think of their condition and what they are doing, and so consumes sin in the womb by the ways that shall afterward be insisted on. Some men’s deprivation of power for the committing of conceived, contrived sin hath been sanctified to the changing of their hearts from all dalliances with that or other sins.
[3.] God providentially hinders the bringing forth of conceived sin by opposing an external hindering power unto sinners. He 266leaves them their lives, and leaves them power to do what they intend; only he raiseth up an opposite power to coerce, forbid, and restrain them. An instance hereof we have, 1 Sam. xiv. 45. Saul had sworn that Jonathan should be put to death; and, as far as appears, went on resolutely to have slain him. God stirs up the spirit of the people; they oppose themselves to the wrath and fury of Saul, and Jonathan is delivered. So also, 2 Chron. xxvi. 16–20, when king Uzziah would have in his own person offered incense, contrary to the law, eighty men of the priests resisted him, and drove him out of the temple. And to this head are to be referred all the assistances which God stirreth up for deliverance of his people against the fury of persecutors. He raiseth up saviours or deliverers on mount Zion, “to judge the mount of Edom.” So, Rev. xii. 16, the dragon, and those acting under him, spirited by him, were in a furious endeavour for the destruction of the church; God stirs up the earth to her assistance, even men of the world not engaged with others in the design of Satan; and by their opposition hinders them from the execution of their designed rage. Of this nature seems to be that dealing of God with his own people, Hos. ii. 6, 7. They were in the pursuit of their iniquities, following after their lovers; God leaves them for a while to act in the folly of their spirits; but he sets a hedge and a wall before them, that they shall not be able to fulfil their designs and lusts.
[4.] God obviates the accomplishment of conceived sin by removing or taking away the objects on whom, or about whom, the sin conceived was to be committed. Acts xii. 1–11 yields us a signal instance of this issue of providence. When the day was coming wherein Herod thought to have slain Peter, who was shut up in prison, God sends and takes him away from their rage and lying in wait. So also was our Saviour himself taken away from the murderous rage of the Jews before his hour was come, John viii. 59, John x. 39. Both primitive and latter times are full of stories to this purpose. Prison doors have been opened, and poor creatures appointed to die have been frequently rescued from the jaws of death. In the world itself, amongst the men thereof, adulterers and adulteresses, the sin of the one is often hindered and stifled by the taking away of the other. So wings were given to the woman to carry her into the wilderness, and to disappoint the world in the execution of their rage, Rev. xii. 14.
[5.] God doth this by some eminent diversions of the thoughts of men who had conceived sin. Gen. xxxvii. 24, the brethren of Joseph cast him into a pit, with an intent to famish him there. Whilst they were, as it seems, pleasing themselves with what they had done, God orders a company of merchants to come by, and diverts their 267thoughts with that new object from the killing to the selling of their brother, verses 25–27; and how far therein they were subservient to the infinitely wise counsel of God we know. Thus, also, when Saul was in the pursuit of David, and was even ready to prevail against him to his destruction, God stirs up the Philistines to invade the land, which both diverted his thoughts and drew the course of his actings another way, 1 Sam. xxiii. 27.
And these are some of the ways whereby God is pleased to hinder the bringing forth of conceived sin, by opposing himself and his providence to the power of the sinning creature. And we may a little, in our passage, take a brief view of the great advantages to faith and the church of God which may be found in this matter; as, —
1st. This may give us a little insight into the ever-to-be-adored providence of God, by these and the like ways in great variety obstructing the breaking forth of sin in the world. It is he who makes those dams, and shuts up those flood-gates of corrupted nature, that it shall not break forth in a deluge of filthy abominations, to overwhelm the creation with confusion and disorder. As it was of old, so it is at this day: “Every thought and imagination of the heart of man is evil, and that continually.” That all the earth is not in all places filled with violence, as it was of old, is merely from the mighty hand of God working effectually for the obstructing of sin. From hence alone it is that the highways, streets, and fields are not all filled with violence, blood, rapine, uncleanness, and every villany that the heart of man can conceive. Oh, the infinite beauty of divine wisdom and providence in the government of the world! for the conservation of it asks daily no less power and wisdom than the first making of it did require.
2dly. If we will look to our own concernments, they will in a special manner enforce us to adore the wisdom and efficacy of the providence of God in stopping the progress of conceived sin. That we are at peace in our houses, at rest in our beds, that we have any quiet in our enjoyments, is from hence alone. Whose person would not be defiled or destroyed, — whose habitation would not be ruined, — whose blood almost would not be shed, — if wicked men had power to perpetrate all their conceived sin? It may be the ruin of some of us hath been conceived a thousand times. We are beholding to this providence of obstructing sin for our lives, our families, our estates, our liberties, for whatsoever is or may be dear unto us; for may we not say sometimes, with the psalmist, Ps. lvii. 4 “My soul is among lions: and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.” And how is the deliverance of men contrived from such persons? Ps. lviii. 6, “God breaks their teeth in their mouths, even the great 268teeth of the young lions.” He keeps this fire from burning, or quencheth it when it is ready to break out into a flame. He breaks their spears and arrows, so that sometimes we are not so much as wounded by them. Some he cuts off and destroys; some he cuts short in their power; some he deprives of the instruments whereby alone they can work; some he prevents of their desired opportunities, or diverts by other objects for their lusts; and oftentimes causeth them to spend them among themselves, one upon another. We may say, therefore, with the psalmist, Ps. civ. 24, “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches;” and with the prophet, Hos. xiv. 9, “Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? prudent, and he shall know them? all the ways of the Lord are right, and the just shall walk in them: but the transgressors shall fall therein.”
3dly. If these and the like are the ways whereby God obviates the bringing forth of conceived sin in wicked men, we may learn hence how miserable their condition is, and in what perpetual torment, for the most part, they spend their days. They “are like a troubled sea,” saith the Lord, “that cannot rest.” As they endeavour that others may have no peace, so it is certain that themselves have not any; the principle of sin is not impaired nor weakened in them, the will of sinning is not taken away. They have a womb of sin, that is able to conceive monsters every moment. Yea, for the most part, they are forging and framing folly all the day long. One lust or other they are contriving how to satisfy. They are either devouring by malice and revenge, or vitiating by uncleanness, or trampling on by ambition, or swallowing down by covetousness, all that stand before them. Many of their follies and mischiefs they bring to the very birth, and are in pain to be delivered; but God every day fills them with disappointment, and shuts up the womb of sin. Some are filled with hatred of God’s people all their days, and never once have an opportunity to exercise it. So David describes them, Ps. lix. 6, “They return at evening: they make a noise like a dog, and go round about the city.” They go up and down and “belch out with their mouth: swords are in their lips,” verse 7, and yet are not able to accomplish their designs. What tortures do such poor creatures live in! Envy, malice, wrath, revenge, devour their hearts by not getting vent. And when God hath exercised the other acts of his wise providence in cutting short their power, or opposing, a greater power to them, when nothing else will do, he cuts them off in their sins, and to the grave they go, full of purposes of iniquity. Others are no less hurried and diverted by the power of other lusts which they are not able to satisfy. This is the sore travail they are exercised with all their days:— If they accomplish their designs they are 269more wicked and hellish than before; and if they do not, they are filled with vexation and discontentment. This is the portion of them who know not the Lord nor the power of his grace. Envy not their condition. Notwithstanding their outward, glittering show, their hearts are full of anxiety, trouble, and sorrow.
4thly. Do we see sometimes the flood-gates of men’s lusts and rage set open against the church and interest of it, and doth prevalency attend them, and power is for a season on their side? Let not the saints of God despond. He hath unspeakably various and effectual ways for the stifling of their conceptions, to give them dry breasts and a miscarrying womb. He can stop their fury when he pleaseth. “Surely,” saith the psalmist, “the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain,” Ps. lxxvi. 10. When so much of their wrath is let out as shall exalt his praise, he can, when he pleaseth, set up a power greater than the combined strength of all sinning creatures, and restrain the remainder of the wrath that they had conceived. “He shall cut off the spirit of princes: he is terrible to the kings of the earth,” verse 12. Some he will cut off and destroy, some he will terrify and affright, and prevent the rage of all. He can knock them on the head, or break out their teeth, or chain up their wrath; and who can oppose him
5thly. Those who have received benefit by any of the ways mentioned may know to whom they owe their preservation, and not look on it as a common thing. When you have conceived sin, hath God weakened your power for sin, or denied you opportunity, or taken away the object of your lusts, or diverted your thoughts by new providences? — know assuredly that you have received mercy thereby. Though God deal not these providences always in a subserviency to the covenant of grace, yet there is always mercy in them, always a call in them to consider the author of them. Had not God thus dealt with you, it may be this day you had been a terror to yourselves, a shame to your relations, and under the punishment due to some notorious sins which you had conceived. Besides, there is commonly an additional guilt in sin brought forth, above what is in the mere conception of it. It may be others would have been ruined by it here, or drawn into a partnership in sin by it, and so have been eternally ruined by it, all which are prevented by these providences; and eternity will witness that there is a singularity of mercy in them. Do not look, then, on any such things as common accidents; the hand of God is in them all, and that a merciful hand if not despised. If it be, yet God doth good to others by it: the world is the better; and you are not so wicked as you would be.
6thly. We may also see hence the great use of magistracy in the world, that great appointment of God. Amongst other things, it is 270peculiarly subservient to this holy providence, in obstructing the bringing forth of conceived sin, — namely, by the terror of him that bears the sword. God fixes that on the hearts of evil men, which he expresseth, Rom. xiii. 4, “If thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath on them that do evil.” God fixes this on the hearts of men, and by the dread and terror of it closeth the womb of sin, that it shall not bring forth. When there was no king in Israel, none to put to rebuke, and none of whom evil men were afraid, there was woful work and havoc amongst the children of men made in the world, as we may see in the last chapters of the book of Judges. The greatest mercies and blessings that in this world we are made partakers of, next to them of the gospel and covenant of grace, come to us through this channel and conduit. And, indeed, this whereof we have been speaking is the proper work of magistracy, — namely, to be subservient to the providence of God in obstructing the bringing forth of conceived sin.
These, then, are some of the ways whereby God providentially prevents the bringing forth of sin, by opposing obstacles to the power of the sinner. And [yet] by them sin is not consumed, but shut up in the womb. Men are not burdened for it, but with it; not laden in their hearts and consciences with its guilt, but perplexed with its power, which they are not able to exert and satisfy.
(2.) The way, that yet remains for consideration, whereby God obviates the production of conceived sin is his working on the will of the sinner, so making sin to consume away in the womb.
There are two ways in general whereby God thus prevents the bringing forth of conceived sin by working on the will of the sinner; and they are, — [1.] By restraining grace; [2.] By renewing grace. He doth it sometimes the one way, sometimes the other. The first of these is common to regenerate and unregenerate persons, the latter peculiar to believers; and God doth it variously as to particulars by them both. We shall begin with the first of them:—
[1.] God doth this, in the way of restraining grace, by some arrow of particular conviction, fixed in the heart and conscience of the sinner, in reference unto the particular sin which he had conceived. This staggers and changes the mind as to the particular intended, causeth the hands to hang down and the weapons of lust to fall out of them. Hereby conceived sin proves abortive. How God doth this work, — by what immediate touches, strokes, blows, rebukes of his Spirit, — by what reasonings, arguments, and commotions of men’s own consciences, — is not for us thoroughly to find out It is done, as was said, in unspeakable variety, and the works of God are past finding out. But as to what light may be given unto it from Scripture 271instances, after we have manifested the general way of God’s procedure, it shall be insisted on.
Thus, then, God dealt in the case of Esau and Jacob. Esau had long conceived his brother’s death; he comforted himself with the thoughts of it, and resolutions about it, Gen. xxvii. 41, as is the manner of profligate sinners. Upon his first opportunity he comes forth to execute his intended rage, and Jacob concludes that he would “smite the mother with the children,” Gen. xxxii. 11. An opportunity is presented unto this wicked and profane person to bring forth that sin that had lain in his heart now twenty years; he hath full power in his hand to perform his purpose. In the midst of this posture of things, God comes in upon his heart with some secret and effectual working of his Spirit and power, changeth him from his purpose, causeth his conceived sin to melt away, that he falls upon the neck of him with embraces whom he thought to have slain.
Of the same nature, though the way of it was peculiar, was his dealing with Laban the Syrian, in reference to the same Jacob, Gen. xxxi. 24. By a dream, a vision in the night, God hinders him from so much as speaking roughly to him. It was with him as in Micah ii. 1:— he had devised evil on his bed; and when he thought to have practiced it in the morning, God interposed in a dream, and hides sin from him, as he speaks, Job xxxiii. 15–17. To the same purpose is that of the psalmist concerning the people of. God: Ps. cvi. 46, “He made them to be pitied of all those that carried them captives.” Men usually deal in rigor with those whom they have taken captive in war. It was the way of old to rule captives with force and cruelty. Here God turns and changes their hearts, not in general unto himself, but to this particular of respect to his people. And this way in general doth God every day prevent the bringing forth of a world of sin. He sharpens arrows of conviction upon the spirits of men as to the particular that they are engaged in. Their hearts are not changed as to sin, but their minds are altered as to this or that sin. They break, it may be, the vessel they had fashioned, and go to work upon some other. Now, that we may a little see into the ways whereby God doth accomplish this work, we must premise the ensuing considerations:—
1st. That the general medium wherein the matter of restraining grace doth consist, whereby God thus prevents the bringing forth of sin, doth lie in certain arguments and reasonings presented to the mind of the sinner, whereby he is induced to desert his purpose, to change and alter his mind, as to the sin he had conceived. Reasons against it are presented unto him, which prevail upon him to relinquish his design and give over his purpose. This is the general way 272of the working of restraining grace, — it is by arguments and reasonings rising up against the perpetration of conceived sin.
2dly. That no arguments or reasonings, as such, materially considered, are sufficient to stop or hinder any purpose of sinning, or to cause conceived sin to prove abortive, if the sinner have power and opportunity to bring it forth. They are not in themselves, and on their own account, restraining grace; for if they were, the administration and communication of grace, as grace, were left unto every man who is able to give advice against sin. Nothing is nor can be called grace, though common, and such as may perish, but with respect unto its peculiar relation to God. God, by the power of his Spirit, making arguments and reasons effectual and prevailing, turns that to be grace (I mean of this kind) which in itself and in its own nature was bare reason. And that efficacy of the Spirit which the Lord puts forth in these persuasions and motives is that which we call restraining grace. These things being premised, we shall now consider some of the arguments which we find that he hath made use of to this end and purpose:—
(1st.) God stops many men in their ways, upon the conception of sin, by an argument taken from the difficulty, if not impossibility, of doing that they aim at. They have a mind unto it, but God sets a hedge and a wall before them, that they shall judge it to be so hard and difficult to accomplish what they intend, that it is better for them to let it alone and give over. Thus Herod would have put John Baptist to death upon the first provocation, but he feared the multitude, because they accounted him as a prophet, Matt. xiv. 5. He had conceived his murder, and was free for the execution of it. God raised this consideration in his heart, “If I kill him, the people will tumultuate; he hath a great party amongst them, and sedition will arise that may cost me my life or kingdom.” He feared the multitude, and durst not execute the wickedness he had conceived, because of the difficulty he foresaw he should be entangled withal. And God made the argument effectual for the season; for otherwise we know that men will venture the utmost hazards for the satisfaction of their lusts, as he also did afterward. The Pharisees were in the very same state and condition. Matt. xxi. 26, they would fain have decried the ministry of John, but durst not for fear of the people; and, verse 46 of the same chapter, by the same argument were they deterred from killing our Saviour, who had highly provoked them by a parable setting out their deserved and approaching destruction. They durst not do it for fear of a tumult among the people, seeing they looked on him as a prophet. Thus God overawes the hearts of innumerable persons in the world every day, and causeth them to desist from attempting to bring forth the sins which they had conceived. Difficulties 273they shall be sure to meet withal, yea, it is likely, if they should attempt it, it would prove impossible for them to accomplish. We owe much of our quiet in this world unto the efficacy given to this consideration in the hearts of men by the Holy Ghost; adulteries, rapines, murders, are obviated and stifled by it. Men would engage into them daily, but that they judge it impossible for them to fulfil what they aim at.
(2dly.) God doth it by an argument taken “ab incommodo,” — from the inconveniences, evils, and troubles that will befall men in the pursuit of sin. If they follow it, this or that inconvenience will ensue, — this trouble, this evil, temporal or eternal. And this argument, as managed by the Spirit of God, is the great engine in his hand whereby he casts up banks and gives bounds to the lusts of men, that they break not out to the confusion of all that order and beauty which yet remains in the works of his hands. Paul gives us the general import of this argument, Rom. ii. 14, 15, “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.” If any men in the world may be thought to be given up to pursue and fulfil all the sins that their lusts can conceive, it is those that have not the law, to whom the written law of God doth not denounce the evil that attends it. “But though they have it not,” saith the apostle, “they show forth the work of it; they do many things which it requireth, and forbear or abstain from many things that it forbiddeth, and so show forth its work and efficacy.” But whence is it that they so do? Why, their thoughts accuse or excuse them. It is from the consideration and arguings that they have within themselves about sin and its consequents, which prevail upon them to abstain from many things that their hearts would carry them out unto; for conscience is a man’s prejudging of himself with respect unto the future judgment of God. Thus Felix was staggered in his pursuit of sin, when he trembled at Paul’s preaching of righteousness and judgment to come, Acts xxiv. 25. So Job tells us that the consideration of punishment from God hath a strong influence on the minds of men to keep them from sin, Job xxxi. 1–3. How the Lord makes use of that consideration, even towards his own, when they have broken the cords of his love and cast off the rule of his grace for a season, I have before declared.
(3dly.) God doth this same work by making effectual an argument “ab inutili,” — from the unprofitableness of the thing that men are engaged in. By this were the brethren of Joseph stayed from slaying him: Gen. xxxvii. 26, 27, “What profit is it,” say they, “if we 274slay our brother, and conceal his blood?” — “We shall get nothing by it; it will bring in no advantage or satisfaction unto us.” And the heads of this way of God’s obstructing conceived sin, or the springs of these kinds of arguments, are so many and various that it is impossible to insist particularly upon them. There is nothing present or to come, nothing belonging to this life or another, nothing desirable or undesirable, nothing good or evil, but, at one time or another, an argument may be taken from it for the obstructing of sin.
(4thly.) God accomplisheth this work by arguments taken “ab honesto,” — from what is good and honest, what is comely, praiseworthy, and acceptable unto himself. This is the great road wherein he walks with the saints under their temptations, or in their conceptions of sin. He recovers effectually upon their minds a consideration of all those springs and motives to obedience which are discovered and proposed in the gospel, some at one time, some at another. He minds them of his own love, mercy, and kindness, — his eternal love, with the fruits of it, whereof themselves have been made partakers; he minds them of the blood of his Son, his cross, sufferings, tremendous undertaking in the work of mediation, and the concernment of his heart, love, honour, name, in their obedience; minds them of the love of the Spirit, with all his consolations, which they have been made partakers of, and privileges wherewith by him they have been intrusted; minds them of the gospel, the glory and beauty of it, as it is revealed unto their souls; minds them of the excellency and comeliness of obedience, — of their performance of that duty they owe to God, — of that peace, quietness, and serenity of mind that they have enjoyed therein. On the other side, he minds them of being a provocation by sin unto the eyes of his glory, saying in their hearts, “Do not that abominable thing which my soul hateth;” minds them of their wounding the Lord Jesus Christ, and putting him to shame, — of their grieving the Holy Spirit, whereby they are sealed to the day of redemption, — of their defiling his dwelling-place; minds them of the reproach, dishonour, scandal, which they bring on the gospel and the profession thereof; minds them of the terrors, darkness, wounds, want of peace, that they may bring upon their own souls. From these and the like considerations doth God put a stop to the law of sin in the heart, that it shall not go on to bring forth the evil which it hath conceived. I could give instances in argument of all these several kinds recorded in the Scripture, but it would be too long a work for us, who are now engaged in a design of another nature; but one or two examples may be mentioned. Joseph resists his first temptation on one of these accounts: Gen. xxxix. 9, “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” The evil of sinning against God, his God, that consideration alone detains him 275from the least inclination to his temptation. “It is sin against God, to whom I owe all obedience, the God of my life and of all my mercies. I will not do it.” The argument wherewith Abigail prevailed on David, 1 Sam. xxv. 31, to withhold him from self-revenge and murder, was of the same nature; and he acknowledgeth that it was from the Lord, verse 32. I shall add no more; for all the Scripture motives which we have to duty, made effectual by grace, are instances of this way of God’s procedure.
Sometimes, I confess, God secretly works the hearts of men by his own finger, without the use and means of such arguments as those insisted on, to stop the progress of sin. So he tells Abimelech, Gen. xx. 6, “I have withheld thee from sinning against me.” Now, this could not be done by any of the arguments which we have insisted on, because Abimelech knew not that the thing he intended was sin; and therefore he pleads, that in the “integrity of his heart and innocency of his hands” he did it, verse 5. God turned about his will and thoughts, that he should not accomplish his intention; but by what ways or means is not revealed. Nor is it evident what course he took in the change of Esau’s heart, when he came out against his brother to destroy him, Gen. xxxiii. 4. Whether he stirred up in him a fresh spring of natural affection, or caused him to consider what grief by this means he should bring to his aged father, who loved him so tenderly; or whether, being now grown great and wealthy, he more and more despised the matter of difference between him and his brother, and so utterly slighted it, is not known. It may be God did it by an immediate, powerful act of his Spirit upon his heart, without any actual intervening of these or any of the like considerations. Now, though the things mentioned are in themselves at other times feeble and weak, yet when they are managed by the Spirit of God to such an end and purpose, they certainly become effectual, and are the matter of his preventing grace.
[2.] God prevents the bringing forth of conceived sin by real spiritual saving grace, and that either in the first conversion of sinners or in the following supplies of it:—
1st. This is one part of the mystery of his grace and love. He meets men sometimes, in their highest resolutions for sin, with the highest efficacy of his grace. Hereby he manifests the power of his own grace, and gives the soul a farther experience of the law of sin, when it takes such a farewell of it as to be changed in the midst of its resolutions to serve the lusts thereof. By this he melts down the lusts of men, causeth them to wither at the root, that they shall no more strive to bring forth what they have conceived, but be filled with shame and sorrow at their conception. An example and instance of this proceeding of God, for the use and instruction of all generations, 276we have in Paul. His heart was full of wickedness, blasphemy, and persecution; his conception of them was come unto rage and madness, and a full purpose of exercising them all to the utmost: so the story relates it, Acts 9; so himself declares the state to have been with him, Acts xxvi. 9–12, 1 Tim. i. 13. In the midst of all this violent pursuit of sin, a voice from heaven shuts up the womb and dries the breasts of it, and he cries, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” Acts ix. 6. The same person seems to intimate that this is the way of God’s procedure with others, even to meet them with his converting grace in the height of their sin and folly, 1 Tim. i. 16: for he himself, he says, was a pattern of God’s dealing with others; as he dealt with him, so also would he do with some such-like sinners: “For this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all long-suffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” And we have not a few examples of it in our own days. Sundry persons on set purpose going to this or that place to deride and scoff at the dispensation of the word, have been met withal in the very place wherein they designed to serve their lusts and Satan, and have been cast down at the foot of God. This way of God’s dealing with sinners is at large set forth, Job xxxiii. 15–18. Dionysius the Areopagite is another instance of this work of God’s grace and love. Paul is dragged either by him or before him, to plead for his life, as “a setter forth of strange gods,” which at Athens was death by the law. In the midst of this frame of spirit God meets with him by converting grace, sin withers in the womb, and he cleaves to Paul and his doctrine, Acts xvii. 18–34. The like dispensation towards Israel we have, Hos. xi. 7–10. But there is no need to insist on more instances of this observation. God is pleased to leave no generation unconvinced of this truth, if they do but attend to their own experiences and the examples of this work of his mercy amongst them. Every day, one or other is taken in the fullness of the purpose of his heart to go on in sin, in this or that sin, and is stopped in his course by the power of converting grace.
2dly. God doth it by the same grace in the renewed communications of it; that is, by special assisting grace. This is the common way of his dealing with believers in this case. That they also, through the deceitfulness of sin, may be carried on to the conceiving of this or that sin, was before declared. God puts a stop to their progress, or rather to the prevalency of the law of sin in them, and that by giving in unto them special assistances needful for their preservation and deliverance. As David says of himself, Ps. lxxiii. 2, “His feet were almost gone, his steps had well-nigh slipped,” — he was at the very brink of unbelieving, despairing thoughts and conclusions about God’s providence in the government of the world, 277from whence he was recovered, as he afterwards declares, — so is it with many a believer; he is oftentimes at the very brink, at the very door of some folly or iniquity, when God puts in by the efficacy of actually assisting grace, and recovers them to an obediential frame of heart again. And this is a peculiar work of Christ, wherein he manifests and exerts his faithfulness towards his own: Heb. ii. 18, “He is able to succour them that are tempted.” It is not an absolute power, but a power clothed with mercy, that is intended, — such a power as is put forth from a sense of the suffering of poor believers under their temptations. And how doth he exercise this merciful ability towards us? Heb. iv. 16, he gives forth, and we find in him, “grace to help in time of need,” — seasonable help and assistance for our deliverance, when we are ready to be overpowered by sin and temptation. When lust hath conceived, and is ready to bring forth, — when the soul lies at the brink of some iniquity, — he gives in seasonable help, relief, deliverance, and safety. Here lies a great part of the care and faithfulness of Christ towards his poor saints. He will not suffer them to be worried with the power of sin, nor to be carried out unto ways that shall dishonour the gospel, or fill them with shame and reproach, and so render them useless in the world; but he steps in with the saving relief and assistance of his grace, stops the course of sin, and makes them in himself more than conquerors. And this assistance lies under the promise, 1 Cor. x. 13, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” Temptation shall try us, — it is for our good; many holy ends doth the Lord compass and bring about by it. But when we are tried to the utmost of our ability, so that one assault more would overbear us, a way of escape is provided. And as this may be done several ways, as I have elsewhere declared, so this we are now upon is one of the most eminent, — namely, by supplies of grace to enable the soul to bear up, resist, and conquer. And when once God begins to deal in this way of love with a soul, he will not cease to add one supply after another, until the whole work of his grace and faithfulness be accomplished; an example hereof we have, Isa. lvii. 17, 18. Poor sinners there are so far captivated to the power of their lusts that the first and second dealings of God with them are not effectual for their delivery, but he will not give them over; he is in the pursuit of a design of love towards them, and so ceaseth not until they are recovered. These are the general heads of the second way whereby God hinders the bringing forth of conceived sin, — namely, by working on the will of the sinner. He doth it either by common convictions or special grace, so that of their own 278accord they shall let go the purpose and will of sinning that they are risen up unto. And this is no mean way of his providing for his own glory and the honour of his gospel in the world, whose professors would stain the whole beauty of it were they left to themselves to bring forth all the evil that is conceived in their hearts.
3dly. Besides these general ways, there is one yet more special, that at once worketh both upon the power and will of the sinner, and this is the way of afflictions, concerning which one word shall close this discourse. Afflictions, I say, work by both these ways in reference unto conceived sin. They work providentially on the power of the creature. When a man hath conceived a sin, and is in full purpose of the pursuit of it, God oftentimes sends a sickness and abates his strength, or a loss cuts him short in his plenty, and so takes him off from the pursuit of his lusts, though it may be his heart is not weaned from them. His power is weakened, and he cannot do the evil he would. In this sense it belongs to the first way of God’s obviating the production of sin Great afflictions work sometimes not from their own nature, immediately and directly, but from the gracious purpose and intendment of him that sends them. He insinuates into the dispensation of them that of grace and power, of love and kindness, which shall effectually take off the heart and mind from sin: Ps. cxix. 67, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now have I kept thy word.” And in this way, because of the predominancy of renewing and assisting grace, they belong unto the latter means, of preventing sin.
And these are some of the ways whereby it pleaseth God to put a stop to the progress of sin, both in believers and unbelievers, which at present we shall instance in; and if we would endeavour farther to search out his ways unto perfection, yet we must still conclude that it is but a little portion which we know of him.
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