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The strength of sin evidenced from its resistance unto the power of the law.
The measure of the strength of any person or defenced city may be well taken from the opposition that they are able to withstand and not be prevailed against. If we hear of a city that has endured a long siege from a potent enemy, and yet is not taken or conquered, whose walls have endured great batteries and are not demolished, though we have never seen the place, yet we conclude it strong, if not impregnable.
And this consideration will also evidence the power and strength of indwelling sin. It is able to hold out, and not only to live, but also to secure its reign and dominion, against very strong opposition that is made to it.
I shall instance only in the opposition that is made unto it by the law, which is ofttimes great and terrible, always fruitless; all its assaults are borne by it, and it is not prevailed against. There are sundry things wherein the law opposeth itself to sin, and the power of it; as, —
1. It discovers it. Sin in the soul is like a secret hectical distemper in the body, — its being unknown and unperceived is one great means of its prevalency; or as traitors in a civil state, — whilst they lie hid, they vigorously carry on their design. The greatest part of men in the world know nothing of this sickness, yea, death of their souls. Though they have been taught somewhat of the doctrine of it, yet they know nothing of its power. They know it not so as to deal with it as their mortal enemy; as a man, whatever he be told, cannot be said to know that he hath a hectical fever, if he love his life, and set not himself to stop its progress.
This, then, the law doth, — it discovers this enemy; it convinceth the soul that there is such a traitor harbouring in its bosom: Rom. vii. 7, “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known 314lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” “I had not known it;” that is, fully, clearly, distinctly. Conscience will somewhat tumultuate about it; but a man cannot know it clearly and distinctly from thence. It gives a man such a sight of it as the blind man had in the gospel upon the first touch of his eyes: “He saw men like trees walking,” — obscurely, confusedly. But when the law comes, that gives the soul a distinct sight of this indwelling sin. Again, “I had not known it;” that is, the depths of it, the root, the habitual inclination of my nature to sin, which is here called “lust,” as it is in James i. 14. “I had not known it,” or not known it to be sin, “but by the law.” This, then, the law doth, — it draws out this traitor from secret lurking places, the intimate recedes of the soul. A man, when the law comes, is no more ignorant of his enemy. If he will now perish by him, it is openly and knowingly; he cannot but say that the law warned him of him, discovered him unto him, yea, and raised a concourse about him in the soul of various affections, as an officer doth that discovers a thief or robber, calling out for assistance to apprehend him.
2. The law not only discovers sin, but discovers it to be a very bad inmate, dangerous, yea, pernicious to the soul: Rom. vii. 13, “Was then that which is good,” — that is, the law, — “made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.” There are many things in this verse wherein we are not at present concerned: that which I only aim at is the manifestation of sin by the law, — it appears to be sin; and the manifestation of it in its own colours, — it appears to be exceeding sinful. The law gives the soul to know the filth and guilt of this indwelling sin, — how great they are, how vile it is, what an abomination, what an enmity to God, how hated of him. The soul shall never more look upon it as a small matter, what thoughts soever it had of it before, whereby it is greatly surprised.
As a man that finds himself somewhat distempered, sending for a physician of skill, when he comes requires his judgment of his distemper; he, considering his condition, tells him, “Alas! I am sorry for you; the case is far otherwise with you than you imagine: your disease is mortal, and it hath proceeded so far, pressing upon your spirits and infecting the whole mass of your blood, that I doubt, unless most effectual remedies be used, you will live but a very few hours.” So it is in this case. A man may have some trouble in his mind and conscience about indwelling sin; he finds all not so well as it should be with him, more from the effects of sin and its continual eruptions than the nature of it, which he hopes to wrestle withal. But now, when the law comes, that lets the soul know that its disease 315is deadly and mortal, that it is exceeding sinful, as being the root and cause of all his alienation from God; and thus also the law proceeds against it.
3. The law judgeth the person, or lets the sinner plainly know what he is to expect upon the account of this sin. This is the law’s proper work; its discovering property is but preparative to its judging. The law is itself when it is in the throne. Here it minceth not the matter with sinners, as we use to do one with another, but tells him plainly, “ ‘Thou’ art the ‘man’ in whom this exceeding sinful sin doth dwell, and you must answer for the guilt of it.” And this, methinks, if any thing, should rouse up a man to set himself in opposition to it, yea, utterly to destroy it. The law lets him know that upon the account of this sin he is obnoxious to the curse and wrath of the great God against him; yea, pronounceth the sentence of everlasting condemnation upon him upon that account. “Abide in this state and perish,” is its language. It leaves not the soul without this warning in this world, and will leave it without excuse on that account in the world to come.
4. The law so follows on its sentence, that it disquiets and affrights the soul, and suffers it not to enjoy the least rest or quietness in harbouring its sinful inmate. Whenever the soul hath indulged to its commands, made provision for it, immediately the law flies upon it with the wrath and terror of the Lord, makes it quake and tremble. It shall have no rest, but is like a poor beast that hath a deadly arrow sticking in its sides, that makes it restless wherever it is and whatever it doth.
5. The law stays not here, but also it slays the soul, Rom. vii. 9; that is, by its conviction of the nature, power, and desert of this indwelling sin, it deprives him in whom it is of all that life of self-righteousness and hope which formerly he sustained himself withal, — it leaves him as a poor, dead, helpless, hopeless creature; and all this in the pursuit of that opposition that it makes against this sin. May we not now expect that the power of it will be quelled and its strength broken, — that it will die away before these strokes of the law of God? But the truth is, such is its power and strength, that it is quite otherwise. Like him whom the poets feign to be born of the earth, when one thought to slay him by casting him on the ground, by every fall he recovered new strength, and was more vigorous than formerly; so is it with all the falls and repulses that are given to indwelling sin by the law: for, —
(1.) It is not conquered. A conquest infers two things in respect of the conquered, — first, loss of dominion; and, secondly, loss of strength. Whenever any one is conquered he is despoiled of both these; he loses both his authority and his power. So the strong 316man armed, being prevailed against, he is bound and his goods are spoiled. But now neither of these befalls indwelling sin by the assaults of the law. It loseth not one jot of its dominion nor strength by all the blows that are given unto it. The law cannot do this thing, Rom. viii. 3; it cannot deprive sin of its power and dominion, for he that “is under the law is also under sin;” — that is, whatever power the law gets upon the conscience of a man, so that he fear to sin, lest the sentence and curse of it should befall him, yet sin still reigns and rules in his heart. Therefore saith the apostle, Rom. vi. 14, “Sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace;” intimating plainly, that though a person be in never so much subjection to the authority of the law, yet that will not exempt and acquit him from the dominion of sin. Yea, the law, by all its work upon the soul, instead of freeing and acquitting it from the reign of sin and bondage unto it, doth accidentally greatly increase its misery and bondage, as the sentence of the judge on the bench against a malefactor adds to his misery. The soul is under the dominion of sin, and, it may be, abides in its woful condition in much security, fearing neither sin nor judgment. The law setting upon him in this condition, by all the ways fore mentioned, brings him into great trouble and perplexity, fear and terror, but delivers him not at all. So that it is with the soul as it was with the Israelites when Moses had delivered his message unto Pharaoh; they were so far from getting liberty by it that their bondage was increased, and “they found that they were in a very evil case,” Exod. v. 19. Yea, and we shall see that sin doth like Pharaoh; finding its rule disturbed, it grows more outrageously oppressive, and doubles the bondage of their souls. This is not, then, the work of the law, to destroy sin, or deprive it of that dominion which it hath by nature. Nor doth it, by all these strokes of the law, lose any thing of its strength; it continues both its authority and its force; it is neither destroyed nor weakened; yea, —
(2.) It is so far from being conquered that it is only enraged. The whole work of the law doth only provoke and enrage sin, and cause it, as it hath opportunity, to put out its strength with more power, and vigour, and force than formerly. This the apostle shows at large, Rom. vii. 9–13.
But you will say, “Do we not see it by experience, that many are wrought upon by the preaching of the law to a relinquishment of many sins and amendment of their lives, and to a great contending against the eruptions of those other corruptions which they cannot yet mortify? And it cannot be denied but that great is the power and efficacy of the law when preached and applied to the conscience in a due manner.” I answer, —
317[1.] It is acknowledged that very great and effectual is the power of the law of God. Great are the effects that are wrought by it, and it shall surely accomplish every end for which of God it is appointed. But yet the subduing of sin is none of its work, — it is not designed of God unto that purpose; and therefore it is no dishonour if it cannot do that which is not its proper work, Rom. viii. 3.
[2.] Whatever effects it have upon some yet we see that in the most, such is the power and prevalency of sin, that it takes no impression at all upon them. May you not see everywhere men living many years in congregations where the law is powerfully preached, and applied unto the consciences as to all the ends and purposes for which the Lord is pleased to make use of it, and not once be moved by it, — that receive no more impression from the stroke of it than blows with a straw would give to an adamant? They are neither convinced by it, nor terrified, nor awed, nor instructed; but continue deaf, ignorant, senseless, secure, as if they had never been told of the guilt of sin or terror of the Lord. Such as these are congregations full of, who proclaim the triumphing power of sin over the dispensation of the law.
[3.] When any of the effects mentioned are wrought, it is not from the power of the letter of the law, but from the actual efficacy of the Spirit of God putting forth his virtue and power for that end and purpose; and we deny not but that the Spirit of the Lord is able to restrain and quell the power of lust when he pleaseth, and some ways whereby he is pleased so to do we have formerly considered. But, —
[4.] Notwithstanding all that may be observed of the power of the law upon the souls of men, yet it is most evident that lust is not conquered, not subdued, nor mortified by it; for, —
1st. Though the course of sin may be repelled for a season by the dispensation of the law, yet the spring and fountain of it is not dried up thereby. Though it withdraws and hides itself for a season, it is, as I have elsewhere showed, but to shift out of a storm, and then to return again. As a traveller, in his way meeting with a violent storm of thunder and rain, immediately turns out of his way to some house or tree for his shelter, but yet this causeth him not to give over his journey, — so soon as the storm is over he returns to his way and progress again; so it is with men in bondage unto sin. They are in a course of pursuing their lusts; the law meets with them in a storm of thunder and lightning from heaven, terrifies and hinders them in their way. This turns them for a season out of their course; they will run to prayer or amendment of life, for some shelter from the storm of wrath which is feared coming upon their consciences. But is their course stopped? are their principles altered? Not at all; so soon as the storm is over, [so] that they begin to wear 318out that sense and the terror that was upon them, they return to their former course in the service of sin again. This was the state with Pharaoh once and again.
2dly. In such seasons sin is not conquered, but diverted. When it seems to fall under the power of the law, indeed it is only turned into a new channel; it is not dried up. If you go and set a dam against the streams of a river, so that you suffer no water to pass in the old course and channel, but it breaks out another way, and turns all its streams in a new course, you will not say you have dried up that river, though some that come and look into the old channel may think, perhaps, that the waters are utterly gone. So is it in this case. The streams of sin, it may be, run in open sensuality and profaneness, in drunkenness and viciousness; the preaching of the law sets a dam against these courses, — conscience is terrified, and the man dares not walk in the ways wherein he hath been formerly engaged. His companions in sin, not finding him in his old ways, begin to laugh at him, as one that is converted and growing precise; professors themselves begin to be persuaded that the work of God is upon his heart, because they see his old streams dried up: but if there have been only a work of the law upon him, there is a dam put to his course, but the spring of sin is not dried up, only the streams of it are turned another way. It may be the man is fallen upon other more secret or more spiritual sins; or if he be beat from them also, the whole strength of lust and sin will take up its residence in self-righteousness, and pour out thereby as filthy streams as in any other way whatever. So that notwithstanding the whole work of the law upon the souls of men, indwelling sin will keep alive in them still: which is another evidence of its great power and strength.
I shall yet touch upon some other evidences of the same truth that I have under consideration; but I shall be brief in them.
1. In the next place, then, the great endeavours of men ignorant of the righteousness of Christ, for the subduing and mortifying of sin, which are all fruitless, do evidence the great strength and power of it.
Men who have no strength against sin may yet be made sensible of the strength of sin. The way whereby, for the most part, they come to that knowledge is by some previous sense that they have of the guilt of sin. This men have by the light of their consciences; they cannot avoid it. This is not a thing in their choice; whether they will or no, they cannot but know sin to be evil, and that such an evil that renders them obnoxious to the judgment of God. This galls the minds and consciences of some so far as that they are kept in awe, and dare not sin as they would. Being awed with a sense of 319the guilt of sin and the terror of the Lord, men begin to endeavour to abstain from sin, at least from such sins as they have been most terrified about. Whilst they have this design in hand, the strength and power of sin begins to discover itself unto them. They begin to find that there is something in them that is not in their own power; for, notwithstanding their resolutions and purposes, they sin still, and that so, or in such a manner, as that their consciences inform them that they must therefore perish eternally. This puts them on self-endeavours to suppress the eruption of sin, because they cannot be quiet unless so they do, nor have any rest or peace within. Now, being ignorant of that only way whereby sin is to be mortified, — that is, by the Spirit of Christ, — they fix on many ways in their own strength to suppress it, if not to slay it; as being ignorant of that only way whereby consciences burdened with the guilt of sin may be pacified, — that is, by the blood of Christ, — they endeavour, by many other ways, to accomplish that end in vain: for no man, by any self-endeavours, can obtain peace with God.
Some of the ways whereby they endeavour to suppress the power of sin, which casts them into an unquiet condition, and their insufficiency for that end, we must look into:—
(1.) They will promise and bind themselves by vows from those sins which they have been most liable unto, and so have been most perplexed withal. The psalmist shows this to be one great engine whereby false and hypocritical persons do endeavour to extricate and deliver themselves out of trouble and perplexity. They make promises to God, which he calls flattering him with the mouth, Ps. lxxviii. 36. So is it in this case. Being freshly galled with the guilt of any sin, that, by the power of their temptations, they, it may be, have frequently been overtaken in, they vow and promise that, at least for some such space of time as they will limit, they will not commit that sin again; and this course of proceeding is prescribed unto them by some who pretend to direct their consciences in this duty. Conscience of this now makes them watch over themselves as to the outward act of the sin that they are galled with; and so it hath one of these two effects, — for either they do abstain from it for the time they have prefixed, or they do not. If they do not, as seldom they do, especially if it be a sin that hath a peculiar root in their nature and constitution, and is improved by custom into a habit, if any suitable temptation be presented unto them, their sin is increased, and therewith their terror, and they are wofully discouraged in making any opposition to sin; and therefore, for the most part, after one or two vain attempts, or more, it may be, knowing no other way to mortify sin but this of vowing against it, and keeping of that vow in their own strength, they give over all contests, and become wholly the servants 320of sin, being bounded only by outward considerations, without any serious endeavours for a recovery. Or, secondly, suppose that they have success in their resolutions, and do abstain from actual sins their appointed season, commonly one of these two things ensues, — either they think that they have well discharged their duty, and so may a little now, at least for a season, indulge to their corruptions and lusts, and so are entangled again in the same snares of sin as formerly; or else they reckon that their vow and promise hath preserved them, and so sacrifice to their own net and drag, setting up a righteousness of their own against the grace of God, — which is so far from weakening indwelling sin, that it strengthens it in the root and principle, that it may hereafter reign in the soul in security. Or, at the most, the best success that can be imagined unto this way of dealing with sin is but the restraining of some outward eruptions of it, which tends nothing to the weakening of its power; and therefore such persons, by all their endeavours, are very far from being freed from the inward toiling, burning, disquieting, perplexing power of sin. And this is the state of most men that are kept in bondage under the power of conviction. Hell, death, and the wrath of God, are continually presented unto their consciences; this makes them labour with all their strength against that in sin which most enrageth their consciences and most increaseth their fears, — that is, the actual eruption of it: for, for the most part, while they are freed from that they are safe, though, in the meantime, sin lie tumultuating in and defiling of the heart continually. As with running sores, outward repelling medicines may skin them over, and hinder their corruption from coming forth, but the issue of them is, that they cause them to fester inwardly, and so prove, though it may be not so noisome and offensive as they were before, yet far more dangerous: so is it with this repelling of the power of corruption by men’s vows and promises against it, — external eruptions are, it may be, restrained for a season, but the inward root and principle is not weakened in the least. And most commonly this is the issue of this way:— that sin, having gotten more strength, and being enraged by its restraint, breaks all its bounds, and captivates the soul unto all filthy abominations; which is the principle, as was before observed, of most of the visible apostasies which we have in the world, 2 Pet. ii. 19, 20.
The Holy Ghost compares sinners, because of the odious, fierce, poisonous nature of this indwelling sin, unto lions, bears, and asps, Isa. xi. 6–9. Now, this is the excellency of gospel grace, that it changes the nature and inward principles of these otherwise passionate and untamed beasts, making the wolf as the kid, the lion as the lamb, and the bear as the cow. When this is effected, they may safely be trusted in, — “a little child may lead them.” But these self-endeavours 321do not at all change the nature, but restrain their outward violence. He that takes a lion or a wolf and shuts him up from ravening, whilst yet his inward violence remains, may well expect that at one time or other they will break their bonds, and fall to their former ways of rapine and violence. However, shutting them up doth not, as we see, change their natures, but only restrain their rage from doing open spoil. So it is in this case: it is grace alone that changeth the heart and takes away that poison and fierceness that is in them by nature; men’s self-endeavours do but coerce them as to some outward eruptions But, —
(2.) Beyond bare vows and promises, with some watchfulness to observe them in a rational use of ordinary means, men have put, and some do yet put, themselves on extraordinary ways of mortifying sin. This is the foundation of all that hath a show of wisdom and religion in the Papacy: their hours of prayer, lastings; their immuring and cloistering themselves; their pilgrimages, penances, and self-torturing discipline, — spring all from this root. I shall not speak of the innumerable evils that have attended these self-invented ways of mortification, and how they all of them have been turned into means, occasions, and advantages of sinning; nor of the horrible hypocrisy which evidently cleaves unto the most of their observers; nor of that superstition which gives life to them all, being a thing riveted in the natures of some and their constitutions, fixed on others by inveterate prejudices, and the same by others taken up for secular advantages. But I will suppose the best that can be made of it, and it will be found to be a self-invented design of men ignorant of the righteousness of God, to give a check to this power of indwelling sin whereof we speak. And it is almost incredible what fearful self-macerations and horrible sufferings this design hath carried men out unto; and, undoubtedly, their blind zeal and superstition will rise in judgment and condemn the horrible sloth and negligence of the most of them to whom the Lord hath granted the saving light of the gospel. But what is the end of these things? The apostle, in brief, gives us an account, Rom. ix. 31, 32. They attain not the righteousness aimed at; they come not up unto a conformity to the law: sin is not mortified, no, nor the power of it weakened; but what it loses in sensual, in carnal pleasures, it takes up with great advantage in blindness, darkness, superstition, self-righteousness, and soul-pride, contempt of the gospel and the righteousness of it, and reigns no less than in the most profligate sinners in the world.
2. The strength, efficacy, and power of this law of sin may be farther evidenced from its life and in-being in the soul, notwithstanding the wound that is given unto it in the first conversion of the soul to God; and in the continual opposition that is made unto 322it by grace. But this is the subject and design of another endeavour.
It may now be expected that we should here add the especial uses of all this discovery that hath been made of the power, deceit, prevalency, and success of this great adversary of our souls. But as for what concerns that humility, self-abasement, watchfulness, diligence, and application unto the Lord Christ for relief, which will become those who find in themselves, by experience, the power of this law of sin, [these] have been occasionally mentioned and inculcated through the whole preceding discourse; so, for what concerns the actual mortification of it, I shall only recommend unto the reader, for his direction, another small treatise, written long since, unto that purpose, which I suppose he may do well to consider together with this, if he find these things to be his concernment.
“To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.”
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