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Evidences of forgiveness in God — No inbred notions of any free acts of God’s will — Forgiveness not revealed by the works of nature nor the law.
First, The things that are spoken or to be known of God are of two sorts:—
1. Natural and necessary; such as are his essential properties, or the attributes of his nature, his goodness, holiness, righteousness, omnipotency, eternity, and the like. These are called, Τὸ γνωστὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ, Rom. i 19, — “That which may be known of God.” And there are two ways, as the apostle there declares, whereby that which he there intimates of God may be known, — (1.) By the inbred light of nature: Φανερόν ἐστιν ἐν αὐτοῖς, verse 19, — “It is manifest in themselves,” in their own hearts; they are taught it by the common conceptions and presumptions which they have of God by the light of nature. From hence do all mankind know concerning 428God that he is, that he is eternal, infinitely powerful, good, righteous, holy, omnipotent. There needs no special revelation of these things, that men may know them. That, indeed, they may be known savingly, there is; and, therefore, they that know these things by nature do also believe them on revelation: Heb. xi. 6, “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder.” Though men know God by the light of nature, yet they cannot come to God by that knowledge. (2.) These essential properties of the nature of God are revealed by his works. So the apostle in the same place, Rom. i. 20, “The invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.” See also Ps. xix. 1–3. And this is the first sort of things that may be known of God.
2. There are the free acts of his will and power, or his free, eternal purposes, with the temporal dispensations that flow from them. Now, of this sort is the forgiveness that we are inquiring after. It is not a property of the nature of God, but an act of his will and a work of his grace. Although it hath its rise and spring in the infinite goodness of his nature, yet it proceeds from him, and is not exercised but by an absolute, free, and sovereign act of his will. Now, there is nothing of God or with him of this sort that can be any ways known but only by especial revelation; for, —
(1.) There is no inbred notion of the acts of God’s will in the heart of man; which is the first way whereby we come to the knowledge of any thing of God. Forgiveness is not revealed by the light of nature. Flesh and blood, which nature is, declares it not; by that means “no man hath seen God at any time,” John i. 18, — that is, as a God of mercy and pardon, as the Son reveals him. Adam had an intimate acquaintance, according to the limited capacity of a creature, with the properties and excellencies of the nature of God. It was implanted in his heart, as indispensably necessary unto that natural worship which, by the law of his creation, he was to perform. But when he had sinned, it is evident that he had not the least apprehension that there was forgiveness with God. Such a thought would have laid a foundation of some farther treaty with God about his condition. But he had no other design but of flying and hiding himself, Gen. iii. 10; so declaring that he was utterly ignorant of any such thing as pardoning mercy. Such, and no other, are all the first or purely natural conceptions of sinners, — namely, that it is δικαίωμα τοῦ Θεοῦ, “the judgment of God,” Rom. i. 32, that sin is to be punished with death. It is true, these conceptions in many are stifled by rumours, reports, traditions, that it may be otherwise; But all these are far enough from that revelation of forgiveness which we are inquiring after.
429(2.) The consideration of the works of God’s creation will not help a man to this knowledge, that there is forgiveness with God. The apostle tells us, Rom. i. 20, what it is of God that his works reveal, “even his eternal power and Godhead,” or the essential properties of his nature, but no more; not any of the purposes of his grace, not any of the free acts of his will, not pardon and forgiveness. Besides, God made all things in such an estate and condition, — namely, of rectitude, integrity, and uprightness, Eccles. vii. 29, — that it was impossible they should have any respect unto sin, which is the corruption of all, or to the pardon of it, which is their restitution, whereof they stood in no need. There being no such thing in the world as a sin, nor any such thing supposed to be, when all things were made of nothing, how could any thing declare or reveal the forgiveness of it?
(3.) No works of God’s providence can make this discovery. God hath, indeed, borne testimony to himself and his goodness in all ages, from the foundation of the world, in the works of his providence: so Acts xiv. 15–17, “We preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein: who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” Οὐκ ἀμάρτυρον ἑαυτὸν ἀφῆκε — “He left not himself without witness;” that is, by the works of his providence, there recounted, he thus far bare testimony to himself, that he is, and is good, and doth good, and ruleth the world; so that they were utterly inexcusable, who, taking no notice of these works of his, nor the fruits of his goodness, which they lived upon, turned away after τὰ μάταια, “vain things,” as the apostle there calls the idols of the Gentiles. But yet these things did not discover pardon and forgiveness; for still God suffered them to go on in their own ways, and winked at their ignorance. So again, Acts xvii. 23–27, “Whom ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (where, by the way, there is an allusion to that of Gen. xi. 8, “The Lord scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth”), “and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us.” By arguments taken from the works of God, both of creation and providence, 430the apostle proves the being and the properties of God; yea, he lets them know with whom he had to do, that God designed by his works so far to reveal himself unto them as the true and living God, the maker and governor of all things, as that they ought to have inquired more diligently after him, and not to look on him alone as the “unknown God” who alone might be known, all their idols being vain and nothing. But of the discovery of pardon and forgiveness in God by these ways and means he speaks not; yea, he plainly shows that this was not done thereby: for the great call to saving repentance is by the revelation of forgiveness. But now, by these works of his providence, God called not the Gentiles to saving repentance. No; saith he, “He suffered them to walk still in their own ways,” Acts xiv. 16, “and winked at the times of their ignorance; but now,” — that is, by the word of the gospel, — “commandeth them to repent,” chap. xvii. 30.
Secondly, Whereas there had been one signal act of God’s providence about sin, when man first fell into the snares of it, it was so far from the revealing forgiveness in God, that it rather severely intimated the contrary. This was God’s dealing with sinning angels. The angels were the first sinners, and God dealt first with them about sin. And what was his dealing with them the Holy Ghost tell us, 2 Pet. ii. 4, Ἀγγέλων ἁμαρτησάντων οὐκ ἐφείσατο· — “He spared not the sinning angels.” “He spared them not;” it is the same word which he useth where he speaks of laying all our iniquities on Christ, he undergoing the punishment due unto them: Rom. viii. 32, Οὐκ ἐφείσατο, — “He spared him not;” that is, he laid on him the full punishment that by the curse and sanction of the law was due unto sin. So he dealt with the angels that sinned: “He spared them not,” but inflicted on them the punishment due unto sin, shutting them up under chains of darkness for the judgment of the great day. Hitherto, then, God keeps all thoughts of forgiveness in his own eternal bosom; there is not so much as the least dawning of it upon the world. And this was at first no small prejudice against any thoughts of forgiveness. The world is made; sin enters by the most glorious part of the creation, whose recovery by pardon might seem to be more desirable, but not the least appearance of it is discovered. Thus it was “from the beginning of the world hid in God,” Eph. iii. 9.
Thirdly, God gave unto man a law of obedience immediately upon his creation; yea, for the main of it, he implanted it in him by and in his creation. This law it was supposed that man might transgress. The very nature of a law prescribed unto free agents, attended with threatenings and promises of reward, requires that supposition. Blow, there was not annexed unto this law, or revealed with it, the 431least intimation of pardon to be obtained if transgression should ensue. Gen. ii. 17, we have this law, “In the day thou eatest thou shalt surely die;” — “Dying thou shalt die;” or “bring upon thyself assuredly the guilt of death temporal and eternal.” There God leaves the sinner, under the power of that commination. Of forgiveness or pardoning mercy there is not the least intimation. To this very day that law, which was then the whole rule of life and acceptance with God, knows no such thing. “Dying thou shalt die, O sinner,” is the precise and final voice of it.
From these previous considerations, added to what was formerly spoken, some things preparatory to the ensuing discourse may be inferred; as, —
1. That it is a great and rare thing to have forgiveness in God discovered unto a sinful soul. A thing it is that, as hath been showed, conscience and law, with the inbred notions that are in the heart of man about God’s holiness and vindictive justice, do lie against; a matter whereof we have no natural presumption, whereof there is no common notion in the mind of man; a thing which no consideration of the works of God, either of creation or providence, will reveal, and which the great instance of God’s dealing with sinning angels renders deep, admirable, and mysterious. Men who have common and slight thoughts of God, of themselves, of sin, of obedience, of the judgment to come, of eternity, — that feed upon the ashes of rumours, reports, hearsays, traditions, without looking into the reality of things, — may and do take this to be an ordinary and acknowledged truth, easy to be entertained, which upon the matter no man disbelieves. But convinced sinners, who make a trial of these things as running into eternity, have other thoughts of them. And as to that which, it is pretended, every one believes, we have great cause to cry out, “Lord, who hath believed our report? to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed,”
2. That the discovery of forgiveness in God, being a matter of so great difficulty, is a thing precious and excellent, as being the foundation of all our communion with God here, and of all undeceiving expectation of our enjoyment of him hereafter. It is a pure gospel truth, that hath neither shadow, footstep, nor intimation elsewhere. The whole creation hath not the least obscure impression of it left thereon. So that, —
3. It is undoubtedly greatly incumbent on us to inquire diligently, as the prophets did of old, into this salvation; to consider what sure evidences faith hath of it, such as will not, as cannot fail us. To be slight and common in this matter, to take it up at random, is an argument of an unsound, rotten heart. He that is not serious in his inquiry into the revelation of this matter, is serious in nothing 432wherein God or his soul is concerned. The Holy Ghost knows what our frame of heart is, and how slow we are to receive this blessed truth in a gracious, saving manner. Therefore doth he confirm it unto us with such weighty considerations as, Heb. vi. 17, 18, “God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation.” It is of forgiveness of sin that the apostle treats; as hath been made evident by the description of it before given. Now, to give evidence hereunto, and to beget a belief of it in us, he first engages a property of God’s nature in that business. He with whom we deal is ἀψευδής· as Tit. i. 2, the God that cannot lie, that cannot deceive or be deceived: it is impossible it should be so with him. Now, as this extends itself in general to all the words and works of God, so there is peculiarly in this, whereof he treats, τὸ ἀμετάθετον τῆς βουλῆς, — an especial “immutability of his counsel.” [Heb. vi. 17.] Men may think that although there be words spoken about forgiveness, yet it is possible it may be otherwise.” “No,” saith the apostle; “it is spoken by God, and it is impossible he should lie.” Yea, but upon the manifold provocations of sinners, he may change his mind and thoughts therein. “No,” saith the apostle; “there is a peculiar immutability in his counsel concerning the execution of this thing: there can be no change in it.” But how doth this appear, that indeed this is the counsel of his will? “Why,” saith he, “he hath declared it by his word, and that given in a way of promise: which, as in its own nature it is suited to raise an expectation in him or them to whom it is made or given, so it requires exact faithfulness in the discharge and performance of it which God on his part will assuredly answer. But neither is this all; but that no place might be left for any cavilling objection in this matter, ἐμεσίτευσεν ὅρκῳ. ‘he interposed himself by an oath.’ ” Thus we have this truth deduced from the veracity of God’s nature, one of his essential excellencies; established in the immutable purpose of his will; brought forth by a word of promise; and confirmed by God’s interposing himself against all occasions of exception (so to put an end unto all strife about it) by an oath, swearing by himself that so it should be. I have mentioned this only to show what weight the Holy Ghost lays upon the delivery of this great truth, and thence how deeply it concerns us to inquire diligently into it and after the grounds and evidences which may be tendered of it; which, among others, are these that follow:—
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