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What first presents itself to a soul in distress on the account of sin — This opened in four propositions — Thoughts of God’s marking sin according to the tenor of the law full of dread and terror.
What depths the psalmist was in hath been declared; in them what resolution he takes upon himself to seek God alone for relief and recovery hath been also showed; and what earnestness in general he useth therein. Addressing himself unto God in that frame, with that purpose and resolution, the first thing he fixeth on in particular is the greatness of his sin and guilt, according to the tenor of the law. It appears, then, that, —
First, In a sin-perplexed soul’s addresses unto God, the first thing that presents itself unto him is God’s marking sin according to the tenor of the law. The case is the same in this matter with all sorts of sinners, whether before conversion or in relapses and entanglements after conversion. There is a proportion between conversion and recoveries. They are both wrought by the same means and ways, and have both the same effects upon the souls of sinners, although in sundry things they differ, not now to be spoken unto. What, then, is spoken on this head may be applied unto both sorts, — to them that are yet unconverted, and to them who are really delivered from their state and condition; but especially unto those who know not whether state they belong unto, that is, to all guilty souls. The law will put in its claim to all. It will condemn the 362sin, and try what it can do against the sinner. There is no shaking of it off; it must be fairly answered, or it will prevail. The law issues out an arrest for the debt; and it is to no purpose to bid the sergeant be gone, or to entreat him to spare. If payment be not procured, and an acquaintance produced, the soul must to prison.” I am going unto God,” saith the soul; “he is great and terrible, a marker of sin, and what shall I say unto him?” This makes him tremble, and cry out, “O Lord, who shall stand?” So that it appears hence that, —
Secondly, Serious thoughts of God’s marking sin according to the tenor of the law is a thing full of dread and terror to the soul of a sinner. But this is not all; he is not swallowed up in this amazement, crying out only, “Who can stand?” There is included in the words a thorough, sincere acknowledgment of his own sin and the guilt thereof. Mentioning the desert of sin, in his own case, he acknowledgeth his own. So that, —
Thirdly, Sincere sense and acknowledgment for sin, with self-condemnation in the justification of God, is the first peculiar, especial working of a gracious soul rising out of its entanglements. All this is included in these words. He acknowledgeth both his own guilt and the righteousness of God if he should deal with him according to the demerit of sin.
And these things lie in the words absolutely considered. But the state of the soul here represented carries us on farther. He rests not here, as we shall see in the opening of the next verse, the chief thing aimed at in the whole. And as a transition from the one to the other, that we may still carry on the general design at the entrance laid down, we must take along with us this farther observation:—
Fourthly, Though self-condemnation be an eminent preparation for the discovery of forgiveness in God, yet a poor distressed soul is not to rest in it, nor to rest upon it, but to pass on to the embracing of forgiveness itself.
There is yet a general proposition lying in the words that we may make use of in our passage, and it is this:— God’s marking of iniquities and man’s salvation are everlastingly inconsistent. I mean his marking them in the persons of sinners for the ends before mentioned.
Of some of these I shall farther treat, according as the handling of them conduceth to the purpose in hand.
That which I shall begin withal is that which was first laid down, about the effects of serious thoughts concerning God’s marking sin according to the tenor of the law; which, as I said, is the first thing that presents itself unto a sin-entangled soul in its addresses unto God.
363But this shall not pass alone. I shall draw the two first observations into one, and make use of the first only in the confirmation of the other; which will express the sense of the words absolutely considered. The third and fourth will lead us on in the progress of the soul towards the relief sought after and proposed. That, therefore, which is to be first insisted on comes up to this proposition:—
In a sin-perplexed soul’s addresses unto God, the first thing that presents itself unto him is God’s marking of sin according to the tenor of the law; which of itself is apt to fill the soul with dread and terror.
I shall first somewhat speak unto it in this, as considered in itself, and then inquire into the concernment of the soul in it, whose condition is here described.
The Lord speaks of some who, when they hear the word of the curse, yet “bless themselves,” and say they shall have “peace,” Deut. xxix. 19. Let men preach and say what they will of the terror of the Lord, they will despise it; which God threatens with utter extermination. And he notes it again as an amazing wickedness, and the height of obdurateness, Jer. xxxvi. 24. Generally it is with sinners as it was with Gaal the son of Ebed, Judges ix., when he was fortifying of Sichem against Abimelech. Zebul tells him that Abimelech will come and destroy him.” Let him come,” saith Gaal, “I shall deal well enough with him. Let him bring forth his army; I fear him not.” But upon the very first appearance of Abimelech’s army he trembled for fear, verse 36. Tell obdurate sinners of the wrath of God, and that he will come to plead his cause against them; for the most part they take no notice of what you say, nor have any serious thoughts about it, but go on as if they were resolved they should deal well enough with him. Notwithstanding all their stoutness, a day is coming wherein fearfulness shall surprise them, and make them cry out, “Who among us shall dwell with devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?” Yea, if the Lord be pleased in this life, in an especial manner, to draw nigh to any of them, they quickly see that their “hearts cannot endure, nor can their hands be strong,” Ezek. xxii. 14. Their hands hang down, and their stout hearts tremble like an aspen leaf.
He who first sinned, and had first occasion to have serious thoughts about God’s marking of sin, gives us a notable instance of what we have affirmed; and the first in every kind is the measure of all that follows in the same kind. Gen. iii. 8, “He heard the voice of the Lord God;” so he had done before without the least trouble or consternation of spirit. He was made for communion with God; and that he might hear his voice was part of his blessedness. But now saith he, “I heard 364thy voice and was afraid, and hid myself.” He knew that God was coming on the inquest of sin, and he was not able to bear the thoughts of meeting him. Could he have gone into the bowels of the earth from whence he was taken, and have been there hid from God, he would not have failed to have attempted it. Things are now altered with him. In that God whom he loved before as a good, holy, powerful, righteous Creator, Preserver, Benefactor, and Rewarder, he saw nothing now but wrath, indignation, vengeance, and terror. This makes him tremble out those dreadful words, “I heard thy voice and was afraid, and hid myself.”
The giving out of the law afterwards evinces what effects the consideration of God’s proceeding with sinners according to the tenor of it must needs produce: Exod. xx. 18, 19, “All the people saw the thunderings and the lightnings, and the voice of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking;” as the apostle also describes it, Heb. xii. 18. In this manner came forth from the Lord that “fiery law,” Deut. xxxiii. 2; so that all who are concerned in it “did exceedingly quake and tremble.” And yet all this respects but the severity of the law in general, without the application of it unto any soul in particular. There is a solemnity that carrieth an awe with it in the preparation of an assize to be kept and held by poor worms like ourselves; but the dread of it is peculiar to the malefactors for whose trial and execution all this preparation is made. When a soul comes to think that all this dreadful preparation, this appearance of terrible majesty, these streams of the fiery law, are all pointed towards him, it will make him cry out, “Lord, who can stand?” And this law is still in force towards sinners, even as it was on the day wherein it was given on mount Sinai. Though Moses grew old, yet his strength never failed; nor hath his law, the law given by him, lost any thing of its strength, power, or authority towards sinners. It is still accompanied with thunderings and lightnings, as of old; and it will not fall to represent the terror of the Lord to a guilty soul.
Among the saints themselves I could produce instances to manifest that they have found it to be thus. The cases of Job, David, Heman are known. I shall only consider it in Christ himself. From himself he had no occasion of any discouraging thought, being holy, harmless, undefiled. He fulfilled all righteousness, did his Father’s will in all things, and abode in his love. This must needs be attended with the highest peace and most blessed joy. In the very entrance of his trials, he had a full persuasion of a comfortable issue and success; as we may see, Isa. i. 7–9. But yet when his soul was exercised with thoughts of God’s marking our iniquities upon him, it was “sorrowful unto death.” He was “sore amazed, and very heavy,” Mark xiv. 33, 34. His agony; his blood-sweat; his strong cries and 365supplications; his reiterated prayers, “If it be possible let this cup pass from me;” his last and dreadful cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” — all manifest what apprehensions he had of what it was for God to mark iniquities. Well may poor sinners cry out, “Lord, who shall stand?” when the Son of God himself so trembled under the weight of it.
In serious thoughts of God’s marking sin, he is represented unto the soul under all those glorious, terrible attributes and excellencies which axe apt to beget a dread and terror in the hearts of sinners, when they have no relief from any covenant engagements in Christ. The soul looks upon him as the great lawgiver, James iv. 12, — able to revenge the breach of it, by destroying body and soul in hell fire; as one terrible in holiness, of purer eyes than to behold iniquity; so also in greatness and in power; the living God, into whose hands it is a fearful thing to fall; as attended with vindictive justice, saying, “Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense,” Heb. x. 30. Now, for a soul to consider God, clothed with all these dreadful and terrible excellencies, coming to deal with sinners according to the tenor of his fiery law, it cannot but make him cry out, with Moses, “I exceedingly fear and quake.”
These things work on their minds the conclusion mentioned before, as asserted in these words, — namely, that God’s marking of sin according to the tenor of the law, and man’s salvation, are utterly inconsistent; a conclusion that must needs shake a soul when pressed under a sense of its own guilt.
When a person who is really guilty, and knows himself to be guilty, is brought unto his trial, he hath but these four grounds of hope that his safety and his trial may be consistent. He may think that either, — 1. The judge will not be able to find out or discover his crimes; or, 2. That some one will powerfully intercede for him with the judge; or, 3. That the rule of the law is not so strict as to take notice of his miscarriages; or, 4. That the penalty of it is not so severe but that there may be a way of escape. Cut him short of his expectations from some, one, or all of these, and all his hopes must of necessity perish. And how is it in this case?
1. Of the Judge we have spoken somewhat already. The present inquiry is, Whether any thing may be hid from him or no, and so a door of escape be opened to a sinner? The apostle tells us that “all things are naked and open unto him,” Heb. iv. 13; and the psalmist, that “there is not a thought in our hearts, nor a word in our tongue, but he understandeth it afar off, and knoweth it altogether,” Ps. cxxxix. 2–4. What the sinner knows of himself that may cause him to fear, that God knows; and what he knows not of himself that deserves his fear, that God knows also: “He is greater than our hearts, and 366knoweth all things,” 1 John iii. 20. When God shall not only set in order before the sinner the secret sins which he retains some remembrance of, but also brings to mind and represents unto him that world of filth and folly which either he never took any real notice of or hath utterly forgotten, it will trouble him, yea, confound him.
2. But may not this Judge be entreated to pass by what he knows, and to deal favourably with the sinner? May not an intercessor be obtained to plead in the behalf of the guilty soul? Eli determines this matter, 1 Sam. ii. 25, “If one man sin against smother, the judge shall judge him; but if a man sin against the Lord, who shall intreat for him?” “There is not,” saith Job, “between us מוֹכִיחַ, one that might argue the case, in pleading for me, and so make up the matter, ‘laying his hand upon us both,’ ” chap. ix. 33. We now consider a sinner purely under the administration of the law, which knows nothing of a mediator. In that case, who shall take upon him to intercede for the sinner? Besides that all creatures in heaven and earth are engaged in the quarrel of God against sinners, and besides the greatness and terror of his majesty, that will certainly deter all or any of them from undertaking any such work, what is the request that in this case must be put up unto God? Is it not that he would cease to be holy, leave off from being righteous, relinquish his throne, deny himself and his sovereignty, that a rebel, a traitor, his cursed enemy, may live and escape his justice? Is this request reasonable? Is he fit to intercede for sinners that make it? Would he not by so doing prove himself to be the greatest of them? The sinner cannot, then, expect any door of escape to be opened unto him; all the world is against him; and the case must be tried out nakedly between God and him. But, —
3. It may be the rule of the law whereby the sinner is to be tried is not so strict, but that, in the case of such sins as he is guilty of, it may admit of a favourable interpretation; or that the good that he hath done may be laid in the balance against his evil, and so some relief be obtained that way. But the matter is quite otherwise. There is no good action of a sinner, though it were perfectly good, that can lie in the balance with, or compensate the evil of, the least sin committed; for all good is due on another account, though no guilt were incurred. And the payment of money that a man ewes, that he hath borrowed, makes no satisfaction for what he hath stole; no more will our duties compensate for our sins. Nor is there any good action of a sinner but it hath evil and guilt enough attending it to render itself unacceptable; so that men may well cease from thoughts of their supererogation. Besides, where there is any one sin, if all the good in the world might be supposed to be in the same person, yet, in the indispensable order of our dependence on God, nothing 367of that good could come into consideration until the guilt of that sin were answered for unto the utmost. Now, the penalty of every sin being the eternal ruin of the sinner, all his supposed good can stand him in little stead. And for the law itself, it is an issue of the holiness, righteousness, and wisdom of God; so that there is not any evil so great or small but is forbidden in it, and condemned by it. Hereupon David so states this whole matter, Ps. cxliii. 2, “Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for in thy sight shall no man living be justified;” — that is, if things are to be tried out and determined by the law, no sinner can obtain acquitment; as Paul declares the sense of that place to be, Rom. iii. 20, Gal. ii. 16. But yet, —
4. It may be the sentence of the law is not so fierce and dreadful, but that, though guilt be found, there may be yet a way of escape. But the law speaks not one word on this side death to an offender. There is a greatness and an eternity of wrath in the sentence of it; and it is God himself who hath undertaken to see the vengeance of it executed. So that, on all these accounts, the conclusion mentioned must needs be fixed in the soul of a sinner that entertains thoughts of drawing nigh to God.
Though what hath been spoken may be of general use unto sinners of all sorts, whether called home to God or yet strangers to him, yet I shall not insist upon any general improvement of it, because it is intended only for one special end or purpose. That which is aimed at is, to show what are the first thoughts that arise in the heart of a poor entangled soul, when first he begins to endeavour a recovery in a returnal unto God. The law immediately puts in its claim unto him and against him; — God is represented unto him as angry, displeased, provoked; and his terror more or less besets him round about. This fills him with fear, shame, and confusion of face; so that he knows not what to do. These troubles are greater or lesser, according as God seeth it best for the poor creature’s present humiliation and future safety. What, then, doth the sinner? what are his thoughts hereupon? Doth he think to fly from God, and to give over all endeavours of recovery? Doth he say, “This God is a holy and terrible God; I cannot serve him; it is to no purpose for me to look for any thing but fury and destruction from him: and therefore I had as good give over as persist in my design of drawing nigh to him?” It cannot be denied but that in this case thoughts of this nature will be suggested by unbelief, and that sometimes great perplexities arise to the soul by them: but this is not the issue and final product of this exercise of the soul; it produceth another effect; it calls for that which is the first particular working of a gracious soul arising out of its sin-entanglements. This is, as was declared, a sincere sense of sin, and acknowledgment of it, with self-condemnation 368in the justification of God; this is the first thing that a soul endeavouring a recovery from its depths is brought and wrought unto. His general resolution, to make serious and thorough work with what he hath in hand, was before unfolded. That which, in the next place, we are directed unto in these words is, the reflection on itself, upon the consideration of God’s marking iniquity, now mentioned. This is faith’s great and proper use of the law; the nature whereof shall be farther opened in the next discourse.
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