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The inquiries for understanding the text proposed — The first spoken to, namely, What is the dominion of sin, which we are freed from and discharged of by grace.
We shall inquire into three things from the words of this text:— I. What is that dominion of sin which we are freed from and discharged of by grace. II. How we may know whether sin hath the dominion in us or not. III. What is the reason and evidence of the assurance here given us that sin shall not have dominion over us, — namely, because we are “not under the law, but under grace.”
I. As unto the first of these, I shall only recount some such properties of it as will discover its nature in general; the particulars wherein it doth consist will be considered afterward.
509First, The dominion of sin is perverse and evil, and that on both the accounts which render any rule or dominion so to be; for, —
1. It is usurped. Sin hath no right to rule in the souls of men. Men have no power to give sin a right to rule over them. They may voluntarily enslave themselves unto it; but this gives sin no right or title. All men have originally another lord, unto whom they owe all obedience, nor can any thing discharge them from their allegiance thereunto; and this is the law of God. The apostle saith, indeed, that “to whom men yield themselves servants to obey, his servants they are to whom they obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness,” Rom. vi. 16. And so it is. Men are thereby the proper servants of sin; they become so by their own voluntary subjection unto it. But this gives sin no title against the law of God, whose right alone it is to bear sway in the souls of men; for all that give up themselves to the service of sin do live in actual rebellion against their natural liege Lord: Hence sundry things do follow:—
(1.) The great aggravation of the evil of a state of sin. Men who live therein do voluntarily wrest themselves, what lieth in them, from under the rule of the law of God, and give up themselves to be slaves unto this tyrant. Could it lay any claim to this dominion, had it any title to plead, it were some alleviation of guilt in them that give up themselves unto it. But men “yield themselves” to the slavery of sin, as the apostle speaks; they reject the rule of God’s law, and choose this foreign yoke; which cannot but be an aggravation of their sin and misery. Yet so it is, that the greatest part of men do visibly and openly profess themselves the servants and slaves of sin. They wear its livery and do all its drudgery; yea, they boast themselves in their bondage, and never think themselves so brave and gallant as when, by profane swearing, drunkenness, uncleanness, covetousness, and scoffing at religion, they openly avow the lord whom they serve, the master to whom they do belong. But their “damnation slumbereth not,” whatever they may dream in the meantime.
(2.) Hence it follows that ordinarily all men have a right in themselves to cast off the rule of sin, and to vindicate themselves into liberty. They may, when they will, plead the right and title of the law of God unto the rule of their souls, to the utter exclusion of all pleas and pretences of sin for its power. They have right to say unto it, “Get thee hence; what have I to do any more with idols?”
All men, I say, have this right in themselves, because of the natural allegiance they owe to the law of God; but they have not power of themselves to execute this right, and actually to cast off the yoke of sin: but this is the work of grace. Sin’s dominion is broken only by grace.
510But you will say then, “Unto what end serves this right, if they have not power in themselves to put it in execution? and how can it be charged as an aggravation of their sin that they do not use the right which they have, seeing they have no power so to do? Will you blame a man that hath a right to an estate if he do not recover it, when he hath no means so to do?”
I answer briefly three things:—
[1.] No man living neglects the use of this right to cast off the yoke and dominion of sin because he cannot of himself make use of it, but merely because he will not. He doth voluntarily choose to continue under the power of sin, and looks on every thing as his enemy that would deliver him: “The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject unto the law of God, neither indeed can be,” Rom. viii. 7. When the law comes at any time to claim its right and rule over the soul, a man under the power of sin looks on it as his enemy, that comes to disturb his peace, and fortifies his mind against it; and when the gospel comes and tenders the way and means for the soul’s delivery, offering its aid and assistance unto that end, this also is looked on as an enemy, and is rejected, and all its offers unto that end. See Prov. i. 24–31; John iii. 19. This, then, is the condition of every one that abides under the dominion of sin: he chooses so to do; he continues in that state by an act of his own will; he avows an enmity unto every thing which would give him deliverance; — which will be a sore aggravation of his condemnation at the last day.
[2.] God may justly require that of any which it is in the power of the grace of the gospel to enable them to perform and comply withal; for this is tendered unto them in the preaching of it every day. And although we know not the ways and means of the effectual communication of grace unto the souls of men, yet this is certain, that grace is so tendered in the preaching of the gospel, that none go without it, none are destitute of its aids and assistances, but those alone who, by a free act of their own wills, do refuse and reject it. This is that which the whole cause depends on, “Ye will not come to me that ye might have life;” and this all unbelievers have, or may have, experience of in themselves. They may know, on a due examination of themselves, that they do voluntarily refuse the assistance of grace which is offered for their deliverance: therefore is their destruction of themselves. But, —
[3.] There is a time when men lose even the right also. He who gave up himself to have his ear bored lost all his claim unto future liberty; he was not to go out at the year of jubilee: so there is a time when God judicially gives up men to the rule of sin, to abide under it forever, so as that they lose all right unto liberty. So he dealt with many of the idolatrous Gentiles of old, Rom. i. 24, 26, 28, 511and so he continues to deal with the like profligate sinners; so he acts towards the generality of the antichristian world, 2 Thess. ii. 11, 12, and with many despisers of the gospel, Isa. vi. 9, 10. When it is come to this, men are cast at law, and have lost all right and title unto liberty from the dominion of sin. They may repine sometimes at the service of sin, or the consequence of it, in shame and pain, in the shameful distempers that will pursue many in their uncleanness; yet God having given them up judicially unto sin, they have not so much as a right to put up one prayer or petition for deliverance, nor will they do so, but are bound in the fetters of cursed presumption or despair. See their work and wages, Rom. ii. 5, 6. This is the most woful state and condition of sinners in this world, — an unavoidable entrance into the chambers of death. You that have lived long under the power of sin, beware lest that come upon you which is spoken of in these scriptures! You have as yet a right unto deliverance from that bondage and servitude wherein you are, if you put in your claim in the court of heaven. You know not how soon you may be deprived of this also, by God’s giving you up judicially unto sin and Satan. Then all complaints will be too late, and all springs of endeavours for relief be utterly dried up. All your reserves for a future repentance shall be cut off, and all your cries shall be despised, Prov. i. 24–31. Whilst it is yet called To-day, harden not your hearts, lest God swear in his wrath that you shall never enter into his rest.
That you may be warned, take notice that the signs or symptoms of the approach of such a season, of such an irrecoverable condition, are, — (1.) A long continuance in the practice of any known sin. There are bounds to divine patience. The long-suffering of God for a time waits for repentance, 1 Pet. iii. 20; 2 Pet. iii. 9: but there is a time when it doth only “endure vessels of wrath fitted to destruction,” Rom. ix. 22, which is commonly after a long continuance in known sin. (2.) When convictions have been digested, and warnings despised. God doth not usually deal thus with men until they have rejected the means of their deliverance. There is a generation, indeed, who, from their youth up, do live in a contempt of God. Such are those proud sinners whom the psalmist describes, Ps. x. 2–7, etc. There are seldom any tokens of the going forth of the decree against this sort of men. The appearing evidences of it are their “adding drunkenness to thirst,” one kind of sin unto another, making a visible progress in sinning, adding boasting and a profane contempt of all things sacred unto their course in sin. But, ordinarily, those that are in danger of this judicial hardness have had warnings and convictions, which made some impression on them; but are now left without any calls and rebukes, or at least any sense 512of them. (3.) When men contract the guilt of such sins as seem to intrench on the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost; such as proud, contemptuous, malicious reproaches of the ways of God, of holiness, of the Spirit of Christ and his gospel. This sort of persons are frequently marked in the Scripture as those who at least are nigh unto a final and fatal rejection. (4.) A voluntary relinquishment of the means of grace and of conversion unto God which men have enjoyed; and this is commonly accompanied with a hatred of the word and those by whom it is dispensed. Such persons God frequently, and that visibly, gives up in an irrecoverable way unto the dominion of sin; he declares that he will have no more to do with them. (5.) The resolved choice of wicked, profane, unclean, scoffing society. It is very rare that any are recovered from that snare. And many other signs there are of the near approach of such a hardening judgment as shall give up men everlastingly to the service of sin. O that poor sinners would awake before it be too late!
2. This dominion of sin is evil and perverse, not only because it is unjust and usurped, but because it is always used and exercised unto ill ends, unto the hurt and ruin of them over whom it is. A tyrant, a usurper, may make use of his power and rule for good ends, for the good of them over whom he rules; but all the ends of the dominion of sin are evil unto sinners. Sin in its rule will pretend fair, offer sundry advantages and satisfactions unto their minds. They shall have wages for their work, pleasure and profit shall come in by it; yea, on divers pretences, it will promise them eternal rest at the close of all, at least, that they shall not fail of it by any thing they do in its service. And by such means it keeps them in security. But the whole real design of it, that which in all its power it operates towards, is the eternal ruin of their souls; and this sinners will understand when it is too late, Jer. ii. 13, 19.
Secondly, This dominion of sin is not a mere force against the will and endeavours of them that are under it. Where all the power and interest of sin consist in putting a force on the mind and soul by its temptations, there it hath no dominion. It may perplex them, it doth not rule over them. Where it hath dominion, it hath the force and power of a law in the wills and minds of them in whom it is. Hereby it requires obedience of them, and they “yield themselves servants to obey it,” Rom. vi. 16.
Wherefore, unto this dominion of sin there is required a consent of the will in some measure and degree. The constant reluctancy and conquering prevalency of the will against it defeats its title unto rule and dominion, as the apostle declares at large in the next chapter. The will is the sovereign faculty and power of the soul; whatever principle acts in it and determines it, that hath the rule. Notwithstanding 513light and conviction, the determination of the whole, as unto duty and sin, is in the power of the will. If the will of sinning be taken away, sin cannot have dominion. Here is wisdom: he that can distinguish between the impressions of sin upon him and the rule of sin in him is in the way of peace. But this ofttimes, — as we shall farther see, with the reason of it, — is not easily to be attained unto. Convictions, on the one hand, will make a great pretence and appearance of an opposition in the will unto sin, by their unavoidable impressions on it, when it is not so; and disturbed affections, under temptations, will plead that the will itself is given up unto the choice and service of sin, when it is not so. The will in this matter is like the Thebans’ shield; whilst that was safe, they conceited themselves victorious even in death. However, this case is determined by the light of Scripture and experience, and it is here proposed unto a determination.
Thirdly, It is required unto this dominion of sin that the soul be not under any other supreme conduct, — that is, of the Spirit of God and of his grace, — by the law. This is that which really hath the sovereign rule in all believers. They are led by the Spirit, guided by the Spirit, acted and ruled by him, and are thereby under the government of God and Christ, and no other. With this the rule of sin is absolutely inconsistent. No man can at once serve these two masters. Grace and sin may be in the same soul at the same time, but they cannot bear rule in the same soul at the same time. The throne is singular, and will admit but of one ruler. Every evidence we have of being under the rule of grace is so that we are not under the dominion of sin.
This, therefore, is the principal way and means which we have to secure our peace and comfort against the pretences of sin unto the disquietment of our consciences. Let us endeavour to preserve an experience of the rule of grace in our hearts, Col. iii. 15. Under a conduct and rule, whence our state is denominated, we are and must be. This is either of sin or grace. There is no composition nor copartnership between them as to rule: as to residence there is, but not as unto rule. If we can assure ourselves of the one, we secure ourselves from the other. It is therefore our wisdom, and lies at the foundation of all our comforts, that we get evidences and experience of our being under the rule of grace; and it will evidence itself, if we are not wanting unto a due observation of its acting and operation in us. And it will do it, among others, these two ways:—
1. By keeping up a constancy of design in living to God and after conformity unto Christ, notwithstanding the interposition of surprisals by temptations and the most urgent solicitations of sin. This is called “cleaving unto God with purpose of heart,” Acts xi. 23. 514This will be wherever grace hath the rule. As a man that goeth to sea designs some certain place and port, whither he guides his course; in his way he meets, it may be, with storms and cross winds that drive him out of his course, and sometimes directly backward towards the place whence he set forth; but his design still holds, and in the pursuit thereof he applies his skill and industry to retrieve and recover all his losses and back-drivings by cross winds and storms. So is it with a soul under the conduct of grace. Its fixed design is to live unto God, but in its course it meets with storms and cross winds of temptations, and various artifices of sin. These disturb him, disorder him, drive him backwards sometimes, as if it would take a contrary course, and return unto the coast of sin from whence it set out. But where grace hath the rule and conduct, it will weather all these oppositions and obstructions; it will “restore the soul,” bring it again into order, recover it from the confusions and evil frames that it was drawn into. It will give a fresh predominancy unto its prevalent design of living unto God in all things. It will do this constantly, as often as the soul meets with such ruffles from the power of sin. When there is a radical firmitude and strength in a cause or design, it will work itself out through all changes and variations; but when the strength of any cause is but occasion, the first opposition and disorder will ruin us. So if men’s purpose of living unto God be only occasional, from present convictions, the first vigorous opposition or temptation will disorder it and overthrow it; but where this is the radical design of the soul, from the power of grace, it will break through all such oppositions, and recover its prevalency in the mind and affections, Hereby doth it evidence its rule, and that the whole interest of sin in the soul is by rebellion, and not by virtue of dominion.
2. It doth so by keeping up a constant exercise of grace in all religious duties, or at least a sincere endeavour that so it may be. Where sin hath the dominion, it can allow the soul to perform religious duties, yea, in some cases to abound in them; but it will take care that divine grace be not exercised in them. Whatever there may be of delight in duties, or other motions of affection, which light, and gifts, and afflictions, and superstition, will occasion, there is no exercise of faith and love in them; this belongs essentially and inseparably unto the rule of grace. Wherever that bears away, the soul will endeavour the constant exercise of grace in all its duties, and never be satisfied in the work done without some sense of it. Where it fails therein, it will judge itself, and watch against the like surprisals; yea, unless it be in case of some great temptation, the present sense of the guilt of sin, which is the highest obstruction against that spiritual boldness which is required unto the due exercise 515of grace, — that is, of faith and love in holy duties, — shall not hinder the soul from endeavouring after it or the use of it.
If by these means, and the like inseparable operations of grace, we can have an assuring experience that we are under the rule and conduct of it, we may be free in our minds from disturbing apprehensions of the dominion of sin; for both cannot bear sway in the same soul.
Fourthly, It is required hereunto that sin make the soul sensible of its power and rule, at least do that which may do so, unless conscience be utterly seared and hardened, and so “past feeling.” There is no rule or dominion but they are or may be sensible of it who are subject thereunto. And there are two ways whereby sin in its dominion will make them sensible of it in whom it rules:—
1. In repressing and overcoming the efficacy of the convictions of the mind. Those who are under the dominion of sin (as we shall see more immediately) may have light into and conviction of their duty in many things, and this light and conviction they may follow ordinarily, notwithstanding the dominion of sin. As a tyrant will permit his slaves and subjects ordinarily to follow their own occasions, but if what they would do come, either in matter or manner, to interfere with or oppose his interest, he will make them sensible of his power: so sin, where it hath the dominion, if men have light and conviction, will allow them ordinarily and in many things to comply therewithal; it will allow them to pray, to hear the word, to abstain from sundry sins, to perform many duties, as is expressly affirmed in the Scripture of many that were under the power of sin, and we see it in experience. How much work do we see about religion and religious duties, what constant observation of the times and seasons of them, how many duties performed morally good in themselves and useful, by them who on many other accounts do proclaim themselves to be under the dominion of sin! But if the light and conviction of this sort of persons do rise up in opposition unto the principal interest of sin in those lusts and ways wherein it exerciseth its rule, it will make them in whom they are sensible of its power. They that stifle, or shut their eyes against, or cast out of mind, or go directly contrary unto, their convictions, light in such cases will first repine, and then relieve itself with resolutions for other times and seasons; but sin will carry the cause by virtue of its dominion.
Hence two things do follow:—
(1.) A constant repugnancy against sin, from light in the mind and conviction in the conscience, doth not prove that those in whom it is are not under the dominion of sin; for until blindness and hardness do come on men to the uttermost, there will be in them a 516judging of what is good and evil, with a self-judging with respect thereunto, as the apostle declares, Rom. ii. 15. And herein many do satisfy themselves. When their light condemns sin, they suppose they hate it; but they do not: when convictions call for duties, they suppose they love them; but they do not. That which they look on as the rule of light in them, in opposition unto sin, is but the rebellion of a natural enlightened conscience against the dominion of it in the heart. In brief, light may condemn every known sin, keep from many, press for every known duty, lead to the performance of many, yet sin have a full dominion in the soul; and this it will evidence when it comes to the trial in those instances where it exercises its ruling power.
(2.) That miserable is their condition whose minds are ground continually between the conduct of their light with the urgency of conviction on the one hand, and the rule or dominion of sin on the other. Wherever light is, it is its due to have the rule and conduct. It is that art whereby the mind leads itself. For men to be forced, by the power of their lusts, to act for the most part against their light, as they do where sin hath the dominion, it is a sad and deplorable condition. Such persons are said to “rebel against the light,” Job xxiv. 13, because of its right to rule in them, where it is deposed by sin. This makes most men but a “troubled sea, that cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.”
2. Sin will make those in whom it hath dominion sensible of its power, by its continual solicitation of the mind and affections with respect unto that sin or those sins wherein it principally exerciseth its rule. Having possessed the will and inclinations of the mind with the affections, — as it doth wherever its dominion is absolute, — it continually disposeth, inclineth, and stirreth up the mind towards those sins. It will level the bent of the whole soul towards such sins, or the circumstances of them. Nor is there a more pregnant discovery of the rule of sin in any than this, that it habitually engageth the mind and affections unto a constant exercise of themselves about this or that, some sin and evil way or other.
But yet we must add, that notwithstanding these indications of the ruling power of sin, they are but few in whom it hath this dominion that are convinced of their state and condition. Many are so under the power of darkness, of supine sloth and negligence, and are so desperately wicked, as that they have no sense of this rule of sin. Such are those described by the apostle, Eph. iv. 18, 19. And whereas they are the vilest slaves that live on the earth, they judge none to be free but themselves; they look on others as in bondage to foolish and superstitious fears, whilst they are at liberty to drink, swear, scoff at religion, whore, and defile themselves without control. 517This is their liberty, and they may have that which is as good in hell, — a liberty to curse and blaspheme God, and to fly with revengeful thoughts on themselves and the whole creation. The light in such persons is darkness itself, so be that they have nothing to rise up in opposition unto the rule of sin, whence alone a sense of its power doth arise. Others, as we observed before, living in some compliance with their light and convictions, abstaining from many sins and performing many duties, though they live in some known sin or other, and allow themselves in it, yet will not allow that sin hath the dominion in them.
Wherefore, there are two things hard and difficult in this case:—
1. To convince those in whom sin evidently hath the dominion that such indeed is their state and condition. They will with their utmost endeavour keep off the conviction hereof. Some justify themselves, some excuse themselves, and some will make no inquiry into this matter. It is a rare thing, especially of late, to have any brought under this conviction by the preaching of the word, though it be the case of multitudes that attend unto it.
2. To satisfy some that sin hath not the dominion over them, notwithstanding its restless acting itself in them and warring against their souls; yet unless this can be done, it is impossible they should enjoy solid peace and comfort in this life. And the concernment of the best of believers, whilst they are in this world, doth lie herein; for as they grow in light, spirituality, experience, freedom of mind and humility, the more they love to know of the deceit, activity, and power of the remainders of sin. And although it works not at all, at least not sensibly, in them, towards those sins wherein it reigneth and rageth in others, yet they are able to discern its more subtile, inward, and spiritual actings in the mind and heart, to the weakening of grace, the obstructing of its effectual operations in holy duties, with many indispositions unto stability in the life of God; which fills them with trouble.
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