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Properties of forgiveness — The greatness and freedom of it.
The arguments and demonstrations foregoing have, we hope, undeniably evinced the great truth we have insisted on; which is the life and soul of all our hope, profession, religion, and worship. The end of all this discourse is to lay a firm foundation for faith to rest upon in its addresses unto God for the forgiveness of sins, as also to give encouragements unto all sorts of persons so to do. This end remains now to be explained and pressed; which work yet before we directly close withal, two things are farther to be premised. And the first is, to propose some of those adjuncts of, and considerations about, this forgiveness, as may both encourage and necessitate us to seek out after it; and to mix the testimonies given unto it and the promises of it with faith, unto our benefit and advantage. 499The other is, to show how needful all this endeavour is, upon the account of that great unbelief which is in the most in this matter. As to the first of these, then, we may consider, —
First, That this forgiveness that is with God is such as becomes him; such as is suitable to his greatness, goodness, and all other excellencies of his nature; such as that therein he will be known to be God. What he says concerning some of the works of his providence, “Be still, and know that I am God,” may be much more said concerning this great effect of his grace. Still your souls, and know that he is God. It is not like that narrow, difficult, halving, and manacled forgiveness that is found amongst men, when any such thing is found amongst them; but it is full, free, boundless, bottomless, absolute, such as becomes his nature and excellencies. It is, in a word, forgiveness that is with God, and by the exercise whereof he will be known so to be. And hence, —
1. God himself doth really separate and distinguish his forgiveness from any thing that our thoughts and imaginations can reach unto; and that because it is his, and like himself. It is an object for faith alone, which can rest in that which it cannot comprehend. It is never safer than when it is, as it were, overwhelmed with infiniteness. But set mere rational thoughts or the imaginations of our minds at work about such things, and they fall inconceivably short of them. They can neither conceive of them aright nor use them unto their proper end and purpose. Were not forgiveness in God somewhat beyond what men could imagine, no flesh could be saved. This himself expresseth: Isa. lv. 7–9, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” They are, as is plain in the context, thoughts of forgiveness and ways of pardon whereof he speaks. These our apprehensions come short of; we know little or nothing of the infinite largeness of his heart in this matter. He that he speaks of is רָשָׁע, “an impiously wicked man,” and אִישׁ אָוֶן, “a man of deceit and perverse wickedness;” he whose design and course is nothing but a lie, sin, and iniquity; such a one as we would have little or no hopes of, — that we would scarce think it worth our while to deal withal about, — a hopeless conversion; or can scarce find in our hearts to pray for him, but are ready to give him up as one profligate and desperate. But let him turn to the Lord, and he shall obtain forgiveness. But how can this be? is it possible there should be mercy for such a one? Yes; for the Lord 500יַרְבֶּה לִסְלוֹחַ, “will multiply to pardon.” He hath forgiveness with him to outdo all the multiplied sins of any that turn unto him and seek for it. But this is very hard, very difficult for us to apprehend. This is not the way and manner of men. We deal not thus with profligate offenders against us. “True,” saith God; “but ‘your ways are not my ways.’ I do not act in this matter like unto you, nor as you are accustomed to do.” How then shall we apprehend it? how shall we conceive of it? “You can never do it by your reason or imaginations; ‘for as the heavens are above the earth, so are my thoughts,’ in this matter, ‘above your thoughts.’ ” This is an expression to set out the largest and most inconceivable distance that may be. The creation will afford no more significant expression or representation of it. The heavens are inconceivably distant from the earth, and inconceivably glorious above it. So are the thoughts of God: they are not only distant from ours, but have a glory in them also that we cannot rise up unto. For the most part, when we come to deal with God about forgiveness, we hang in every brier of disputing, quarrelsome unbelief. This or that circumstance or aggravation, this or that unparalleled particular, bereaves us of our confidence. Want of a due consideration of him with whom we have to do, measuring him by that line of our own imaginations, bringing him down unto our thoughts and our ways, is the cause of all our disquietments. Because we find it hard to forgive our pence, we think he cannot forgive talents. But he hath provided to obviate such thoughts in us: Hos. xi. 9, “I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim: for I am God, and not man.” Our satisfaction in this matter is to be taken from his nature. Were he a man, or as the sons of men, it were impossible that, upon such and so many provocations, he should turn away from the fierceness of his anger. But he is God. This gives an infiniteness and an inconceivable boundlessness to the forgiveness that is with him, and exalts it above all our thoughts and ways. This is to be lamented, — presumption, which turns God into an idol, ascribes unto that idol a greater largeness in forgiveness than faith is able to rise up unto when it deals with him as a God of infinite excellencies and perfections. The reasons of it, I confess, are obvious. But this is certain, no presumption can falsely imagine that forgiveness to itself from the idol of its heart, as faith may in the way of God find in him and obtain from him; for, —
2. God engageth his infinite excellencies to demonstrate the greatness and boundlessness of his forgiveness. He proposeth them unto our consideration to convince us that we shall find pardon with him suitable and answerable unto them. See Isa. xl. 27–31, “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid 501from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from my God? Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” The matter in question is, whether acceptance with God, which is only by forgiveness, is to be obtained or no. This, sinful Jacob either despairs of, or at least desponds about. But saith God, “My thoughts are not as your thoughts” in this matter. And what course doth he take to convince them of their mistake therein? what argument doth he make use of to free them from their unbelief, and to rebuke their fears? Plainly, he calls them to the consideration of himself, both who and what he is with whom they had to do, that they might expect acceptance and forgiveness such as did become him. Minding them of his power, his immensity, his infinite wisdom, his unchangeableness, all the excellencies and properties of his nature, he demands of them whether they have not just ground to expect forgiveness and grace above all their thoughts and apprehensions, because answering the infinite largeness of his heart, from whence it doth proceed.
And Moses manageth this plea for the forgiveness of that people under a high provocation, and a most severe threatening of their destruction thereon, Numb. xiv. 17, 18. He pleads for pardon in such a way and manner as may answer the great and glorious properties of the nature of God, and which would manifest an infiniteness of power and all-sufficiency to be in him.
This, I say, is an encouragement in general unto believers. We have, as I hope, upon unquestionable grounds, evinced that there is forgiveness with God; which is the hinge on which turneth the issue of our eternal condition. Now this is like himself; such as becomes him; that answers the infinite perfections of his nature; that is exercised and given forth by him as God. We are apt to narrow and straiten it by our unbelief, and to render it unbecoming of him. He less dishonours God (or as little), who, being wholly under the power of the law, believes that there is no forgiveness with him, none to be obtained from him, or doth not believe it that so it is, or is so to be obtained, — for which he hath the voice and sentence of the law to countenance him, — than those who, being convinced of the principles and grounds of it before mentioned, and of the truth of the testimony given unto it, do yet, by straitening and narrowing 502of it, render it unworthy of him whose excellencies are all infinite, and whose ways on that account are incomprehensible. If, then, we resolve to treat with God about this matter (which is the business now in hand), let us do it as it becomes his greatness; that is, indeed, as the wants of our souls do require. Let us not entangle our own spirits by limiting his grace. The father of the child possessed with a devil, being in a great agony when he came to our Saviour, cries out, “If thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us,” Mark ix. 22. He would fain be delivered, but the matter was so great that he questioned whether the Lord Christ had either compassion or power enough for his relief. And what did he obtain hereby? Nothing but the retarding of the cure of his child for a season; for our Saviour holds him off until he had instructed him in this matter. Saith he, verse 23, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth;” — “Mistake not; if thy child be not cured, it is not for want of power or pity in me, but of faith in thee. My power is such as renders all things possible, so that they be believed.” So it is with many who would desirously be made partakers of forgiveness. If it be possible, they would be pardoned; but they do not see it possible. Why, where is the defect? God hath no pardon for them, or such as they are; and so it may be they come finally short of pardon. What! because God cannot pardon them? — it is not possible with him? Not at all; but because they cannot, they will not believe, that the forgiveness that is with him is such as that it would answer all the wants of their souls, because it answers the infinite largeness of his heart. And if this doth not wholly deprive them of pardon, yet it greatly retards their peace and comfort. God doth not take it well to be limited by us in any thing, least of all in his grace. This he calls a tempting of him, a provoking temptation: Ps. lxxviii. 41, “They turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel.” This he could not bear with. If there be any pardon with God, it is such as becomes him to give. When he pardons, he will “abundantly pardon.” Go with your half-forgiveness, limited, conditional pardons, with reserves and limitations, unto the sons of men; it may be it may become them, it is like themselves; — that of God is absolute and perfect, before which our sins are as a cloud before the east wind and the rising sun. Hence he is said to do this work with his whole heart and his whole soul, χαρίζεσθαι, “freely,” bountifully, largely to indulge and forgive unto us our sins, and “to cast them into the depths of the sea,” Micah vii. 19, into a bottomless ocean, — an emblem of infinite mercy. Remember this, poor souls, when you are to deal with God in this matter: “All things are possible unto them that do believe.”
503Secondly, This forgiveness is in or with God, not only so as that we may apply ourselves unto it if we will, for which he will not be offended with us, but so also as that he hath placed his great glory in the declaration and communication of it; nor can we honour him more than by coming to him to be made partakers of it, and so to receive it from him. For the most part, we are, as it were, ready rather to steal forgiveness from God, than to receive from him as one that gives it freely and largely. We take it up and lay it down as though we would be glad to have it, so God did not, as it were, see us take it; for we are afraid he is not willing we should have it indeed. We would steal this fire from heaven, and have a share in God’s treasures and riches almost without his consent: at least, we think that we have it from him “ægrè,” with much difficulty; that it is rarely given, and scarcely obtained; that he gives it out ἑκὼν ἀέκοντί γε θύμῳ, with a kind of unwilling willingness, — as we sometimes give alms without cheerfulness; and that he loseth so much by us as he giveth out in pardon. We are apt to think that we are very willing to have forgiveness, but that God is unwilling to bestow it, and that because he seems to be a loser by it, and to forego the glory of inflicting punishment for our sins; which of all things we suppose he is most loath to part withal. And this is the very nature of unbelief. But indeed things are quite otherwise. He hath in this matter, through the Lord Christ, ordered all things in his dealings with sinners, “to the praise of the glory of his grace,” Eph. i. 6. His design in the whole mystery of the gospel is to make his grace glorious, or to exalt pardoning mercy. The great fruit and product of his grace is forgiveness of sinners. This God will render himself glorious in and by. All the praise, glory, and worship that he designs from any in this world is to redound unto him by the way of this grace, as we have proved at large before. For this cause spared he the world when sin first entered into it; for this cause did he provide a new covenant when the old was become unprofitable; for this cause did he send his Son into the world. This hath he testified by all the evidences insisted on. Would he have lost the praise of his grace, nothing hereof would have been done or brought about.
We can, then, no way so eminently bring or ascribe glory unto God as by our receiving forgiveness from him, he being willing thereunto upon the account of its tendency unto his own glory, in that way which he hath peculiarly fixed on for its manifestation. Hence the apostle exhorts us to “come boldly unto the throne of grace,” Heb. iv. 16; that is, with the confidence of faith, as he expounds “boldness,” chap. x. 19–22. We come about a business wherewith he is well pleased; such as he delights in the doing of, 504as he expresseth himself, Zeph. iii. 17, “The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.” This is the way of God’s pardoning; he doth it in a rejoicing, triumphant manner, satisfying abundantly his own holy soul therein, and resting in his love. We have, then, abundant encouragement to draw nigh to the throne of grace, to be made partakers of what God is so willing to give out unto us.
And to this end serves also the oath of God, before insisted on, — namely, to root out all the secret reserves of unbelief concerning God’s unwillingness to give mercy, grace, and pardon unto sinners. See Heb. vi. 17, 18, where it is expressed. Therefore, the tendency of our former argument is, not merely to prove that there is forgiveness with God, which we may believe and not be mistaken, but which we ought to believe; it is our duty so to do. We think it our duty to pray, to hear the word, to give alms, to love the brethren, and to abstain from sin; and if we fall in any of these, we find the guilt of them reflected upon our conscience, unto our disquietment: but we scarce think it our duty to believe the forgiveness of our sins. It is well, it may be, we think, with them that can do it; but we think it not their fault who do not. Such persons may be pitied, but, as we suppose, not justly blamed, no, not by God himself. Whose conscience almost is burdened with this as a sin, that he doth not, as he ought, believe the forgiveness of his sins? And this is merely because men judge it not their duty so to do; for a non-performance of a duty, apprehended to be such, will reflect on the conscience a sense of the guilt of sin. But now what can be required to make any thing a duty unto us that is wanting in this matter? for, —
1. There is forgiveness with God, and this manifested, revealed, declared. This manifestation of it is that which makes it the object of our faith. We believe things to be in God and with him, not merely and formally because they are so, but because he hath manifested and revealed them so to be, 1 John i. 2. What he so declares it is our duty to believe, or we frustrate the end of his revelation.
2. We are expressly commanded to believe, and that upon the highest promises and under the greatest penalties. This command is that which makes believing formally a duty. Faith is a grace, as it is freely wrought in us by the Holy Ghost; the root of all obedience and duties, as it is radically fixed in the heart; but as it is commanded, it is a duty. And these commands, you know, are several ways expressed, by invitations, exhortations, propositions; which all have in them the nature of commands, which take up a great part of the books of the New Testament.
5053. It is a duty, as we have showed, of the greatest concernment unto the glory of God.
4. Of the greatest importance unto our souls here and hereafter. And these things were necessary to be added, to bottom our ensuing exhortations upon.
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