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False presumptions of forgiveness discovered — Differences between them and faith evangelical.
Before I proceed to produce and manage the remaining evidences of this truth, because what hath been spoken lies obnoxious and open to an objection, which must needs rise in the minds of many, that it may not thereby be rendered useless unto them, I shall remove it out of the way, that we may pass on to what remains.
It will, then, be said, “Doth not all this lie directly contrary to our daily experience? Do ye not find all men full enough, most too full, of apprehensions of forgiveness with God? What so common as ‘God is merciful?’ Are not the consciences and convictions of the most stifled by this apprehension? Can you find a man that is otherwise minded? Is it not a common complaint, that men presume on it unto their eternal ruin? Certainly, then, that which all men do, which every man can so easily do, and which you cannot keep men off from doing, though it be to their hurt, hath no such difficulty in it as is pretended.” And on this very account hath this weak endeavour to demonstrate this truth been by some laughed to scorn; men who have taken upon them the teaching of others, but, as it seems, had need be taught themselves the very “first principles of the oracles of God.”
Ans. All this, then, I say, is so, and much more to this purpose may be spoken. The folly and presumption of poor souls herein can never be enough lamented. But it is one thing to embrace a cloud, a shadow, another to have the truth in reality. I shall hereafter show the true nature of forgiveness and wherein it doth consist, whereby the vanity of this self-deceiving will be discovered and laid open. It will appear in the issue, that, notwithstanding all their pretensions, the most of men know nothing at all, or not any thing to the purpose, of that which is under consideration. I shall, therefore, for the present, in some few observations, show how far this delusion of many differs from a true gospel discovery of forgiveness, such as that we are inquiring after.
First, The common notion of forgiveness that men have in the world is twofold — 1. An atheistical presumption on God, that he is not so just and holy, or not just and holy in such a way and manner, as he is by some represented, is the ground of their persuasion of forgiveness. Men think that some declarations of God are fitted only to make them mad; that he takes little notice of these things; and that what he doth he will easily pass by, as, they suppose, better becomes him. “Come, ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die.’ ” This is their inward thought, “The Lord will not do good, 394neither will he do evil;” which, says the psalmist, is men’s thinking that God is such a one as themselves, Ps. l. 21. They have no deep nor serious thoughts of his greatness, holiness, purity, severity, but think that he is like themselves, so far as not to be much moved with what they do. What thoughts they have of sin, the same they think God hath. If with them a slight ejaculation be enough to expiate sin, that their consciences be no more troubled, they think it is enough with God that it be not punished. The generality of men make light work of sin; and yet in nothing doth it more appear what thoughts they have of God. He that hath slight thoughts of sin had never great thoughts of God. Indeed, men’s undervaluing of sin ariseth merely from their contempt of God. All sin’s concernments flow from its relation unto God; and as men’s apprehensions are of God, so will they be of sin, which is an opposition to him. This is the frame of the most of men, — they know little of God, and are little troubled about any thing that relates unto him. God is not reverenced, sin is but a trifle, forgiveness a matter of nothing; whoso will may have it for asking. But shall this atheistical wickedness of the heart of man be called a discovery of forgiveness? Is not this to make God an idol? He who is not acquainted with God’s holiness and purity, who knows not sin’s desert and sinfulness, knows nothing of forgiveness.
2. From the doctrine of the gospel commonly preached and made known, there is a general notion begotten in the minds of men that God is ready to forgive. Men, I say, from hence have a doctrinal apprehension of this truth, without any real, satisfactory foundation of that apprehension as to themselves. This they have heard, this they have been often told; so they think, and so they resolved to do. A general persuasion hereof spreads itself over all to whom the sound of the gospel doth come. It is not fiducially resolved into the gospel, but is an opinion growing out of the report of it.
Some relief men find by it in the common course of their conversation, in the duties of worship which they do perform, as also in their troubles and distresses, whether internal and of conscience, or external and of providence, so that they resolve to retain it.
And this is that which I shall briefly speak unto, and therein manifest the differences between this common prevailing apprehension of forgiveness, and faith’s discovery of it to the soul in its power.
(1.) That which we reject is loose and general; not fixed, ingrafted, or planted on the mind. So is it always where the minds of men receive things only in their notion and not in their power. It wants fixedness and foundation; which defects accompany all notions of the mind that are only retained in the memory, not implanted in the judgment. They have general thoughts of it, which they use as 395occasion serves. They hear that God is a merciful God, and as such they intend to deal with him. For the true bottom, rise, and foundation of it, — whence or on what account the pure and holy God, who will do no iniquity, the righteous God, whose judgment it is that they that commit sin are worthy of death, should yet pardon iniquity, transgression, and sin, — they weigh it not, they consider it not; or, if they do, it is in a slight and notional way, as they consider the thing itself. They take it for granted so it is, and are never put seriously upon the inquiry how it comes to be so; and that because indeed they have no real concernment in it. How many thousands may we meet withal who take it for granted that forgiveness is to be had with God, that never yet had any serious exercise in their souls about the grounds of it, and its consistency with his holiness and justice! But those that know it by faith have a sense of it fixed particularly and distinctly on their minds. They have been put upon an inquiry into the rise and grounds of it in Christ; so that on a good and unquestionable foundation they can go to God and say, “There is forgiveness with thee.” They see how and by what means more glory comes unto God by forgiveness than by punishing of sin; which is a matter that the other sort of men are not at all solicitous about. If they may escape punishment, whether God have any glory or no, for the most part they are indifferent.
(2.) The first apprehension ariseth without any trial upon inquiry in the consciences of them in whom it is. They have not, by the power of their convictions and distresses of conscience, been put to make inquiry whether this thing be so or no. It is not a persuasion that they have arrived unto in a way of seeking satisfaction to their own souls. It is not the result of a deep inquiry after peace and rest. It is antecedent unto trial and experience, and so is not faith, but opinion; for although faith be not experience, yet it is inseparable from it, as is every practical habit. Distresses in their consciences have been prevented by this opinion, not removed. The reason why the most of men are not troubled about their sins to any purpose, is from a persuasion that God is merciful and will pardon; when indeed none can really, on a gospel account, ordinarily, have that persuasion, but those who have been troubled for sin, and that to the purpose. So is it with them that make this discovery by faith. They have had conflicts in their own spirits, and, being deprived of peace, have accomplished a diligent search whether forgiveness were to he obtained or no. The persuasion they have of it, be it more or less, is the issue of a trial they have had in their own souls, of an inquiry how things stood between God and them as to peace and acceptation of their persons. This is a vast difference. The one sort might possibly have had trouble in their 396consciences about sin, had it not been for their opinion of forgiveness. This hath prevented or stifled their convictions; — not healed their wounds, which is the work of the gospel; but kept them from being wounded, which is the work of security. Yea, here lies the ruin of the most of them who perish under the preaching of the gospel. They have received the general notion of pardon; it floats in their minds, and presently presents itself to their relief on all occasions. Doth God at any time, in the dispensation of the word, under an affliction, upon some great sin against their ruling light, begin to deal with their consciences? — before their conviction can ripen or come to any perfection, before it draw nigh to its perfect work, they choke it, and heal their consciences with this notion of pardon. Many a man, between the assembly and his dwelling-house, is thus cured. You may see them go away shaking their heads, and striking on their breasts, and before they come home be as whole as ever. “Well, God is merciful, there is pardon,” hath wrought the cure. The other sort have obtained their persuasion as a result of the discovery of Christ in the gospel, upon a full conviction. Trials they have had, and this is the issue.
(3.) The one which we reject worketh no love to God, no delight in him, no reverence of him, but rather a contempt and commonness of spirit in dealing with him. There are none in the world that deal worse with God than those who have an ungrounded persuasion of forgiveness. And if they do fear him, or love him, or obey him in any thing, more or less, it is on other motives and considerations, which will not render any thing they do acceptable, and not at all on this. As he is good to the creation, they may love, as he is great and powerful, they may fear him; but sense of pardon, as to any such ends or purposes, hath no power upon them. Carnal boldness, formality, and despising of God, are the common issues of such a notion and persuasion. Indeed, this is the generation of great sinners in the world; men who have a general apprehension, but not a sense of the special power of pardon, openly or secretly, in fleshly or spiritual sins, are the great sinners among men. Where faith makes a discovery of forgiveness, all things are otherwise. Great love, fear, and reverence of God, are its attendants. Mary Magdalene loved much, because much was forgiven. Great love will spring out of great forgiveness. “There is forgiveness with thee,” saith the psalmist, “that thou mayest be feared.” No unbeliever doth truly and experimentally know the truth of this inference. But so it is when men “fear the Lord, and his goodness,” Hos. iii. 5. I say, then, where pardoning mercy is truly apprehended, where faith makes a discovery of it to the soul, it is endeared unto God, and possessed of the great springs of love, delight, fear, and reverence, Ps. cxvi. 1, 5–7.
397(4.) This notional apprehension of the pardon of sin begets no serious, thorough hatred and detestation of sin, nor is prevalent to a relinquishment of it; nay, it rather secretly insinuates into the soul encouragements unto a continuance in it. It is the nature of it to lessen and extenuate sin, and to support the soul against its convictions. So Jude tells us, that some “turn the grace of God into lasciviousness,” verse 4; and says he, “They are ‘ungodly men;’ let them profess what they will, they are ungodly men.” But how can they turn the grace of our God into lasciviousness? Is grace capable of a conversion into lust or sin? Will what was once grace ever become wantonness? It is objective, not subjective grace, the doctrine, not the real substance of grace, that is intended. The doctrine of forgiveness is this grace of God, which may be thus abused. From hence do men who have only a general notion of it habitually draw secret encouragements to sin and folly. Paul also lets us know that carnal men, coming to a doctrinal acquaintance with gospel grace, are very apt to make such conclusions, Rom. vi. 1. And it will appear at the last day how unspeakably this glorious grace hath been perverted in the world. It would be well for many if they had never heard the name of forgiveness. It is otherwise where this revelation is received indeed in the soul by believing, Rom. vi. 14. Our being under grace, under the power of the belief of forgiveness, is our great preservative from our being under the power of sin. Faith of forgiveness is the principle of gospel obedience, Tit. ii. 11, 12.
(5.) The general notion of forgiveness brings with it no sweetness, no rest to the soul. Flashes of joy it may, abiding rest it doth not. The truth of the doctrine fluctuates to and fro in the minds of those that have it, but their wills and affections have no solid delight nor rest by it. Hence, notwithstanding all that profession that is made in the world of forgiveness, the most of men ultimately resolve their peace and comfort unto themselves. As their apprehensions are of their own doing, good or evil, according to their ruling light, whatever it be, so as to peace and rest are they secretly tossed up and down. Every one in his several way pleaseth himself with what he doth in answer unto his own convictions, and is disquieted as to his state and condition, according as he seems to himself to come short thereof To make a full life of contentation upon pardon, they know not how to do it. One duty yields them more true repose than many thoughts of forgiveness. But faith finds sweetness and rest in it; being thereby apprehended, it is the only harbour of the soul. It leads a man to God as good, to Christ as rest. Fading evanid joys do ofttimes attend the one; but solid delight, with constant obedience, are the fruits only of the other.
(6.) Those who have the former only take up their persuasion on 398false grounds, though the thing itself be true; and they cannot but use it unto false ends and purposes, besides its natural and genuine tendency. For their grounds, they will be discovered when I come to treat of the true nature of gospel forgiveness. For the end, it is used generally only to fill up what is wanting. Self-righteousness is their bottom; and when that is too short or narrow to cover them, they piece it out by forgiveness. Where conscience accuses, this must supply the defect. Faith lays it on its proper foundation, of which afterwards also; and it useth it to its proper end, — namely, to be the sole and only ground of our acceptation with God. That is the proper use of forgiveness, that all may be of grace; for when the foundation is pardon, the whole superstructure must needs be grace. From what hath been spoken it is evident that, notwithstanding the pretences to the contrary, insinuated in the objection now removed, it is a great thing to have gospel forgiveness discovered unto a soul in a saving manner.
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