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Prevention of Sin an unvaluable Mercy:
PREACHED UPON THAT SUBJECT
AT CHRIST-CHURCH, OXON. NOVEMBER 10, 1678.
And David said to Abigail, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, which sent thee this day to meet me:
And blessed be thy advice, and blessed be thou, which hast kept me this day from coming to shed blood, and from avenging myself with mine own hand.
THESE words are David’s retractation, or laying down of a bloody and revengeful resolution; which, for a while, his heart had swelled with, and carried him on with the highest transport of rage to prose cute. A resolution took up from the sense of a gross indignity and affront passed upon him, in recompence of a signal favour and kindness received from him. For during his exile and flight before Saul, in which he was frequently put to all the hardships which usually befall the weak flying before the strong; there happening a great and solemn festivity, such as the sheep-shearings used to be in those eastern countries, he condescends, by an honourable and kind message, to beg of a rich and great man 140some small repast and supply for himself and his poor harassed companions, at that notable time of joy and feasting: a time that might make any thing that looked like want or hunger, no less an absurdity than a misery to all that were round about him. And, as if the greatness of the asker, and the smallness of the thing asked, had not been sufficient to enforce his request, he adds a commemoration of his own generous and noble usage of the person whom he thus addressed to; shewing how that he had been a wall and a bulwark to all that belonged to him, a safeguard to his estate, and a keeper of his flocks; and that both from the violence of robbers, and the licence of his own soldiers; who could much more easily have carved themselves their own provisions, than so great a spirit stoop so low as to ask them.
But in answer to this, (as nothing is so rude and insolent as a wealthy rustic,) all this his kindness is overlooked, his request rejected, and his person most unworthily railed at. Such being the nature of some base minds, that they can never do ill turns but they must double them with ill words too. And thus David’s messengers are sent back to him like so many sharks and runagates, only for endeavouring to compliment an ill nature out of itself; and seeking that by petition, which they might have commanded by their sword.
And now, who would not but think, that such ungrateful usage, heightened with such reproachful language, might warrant the justice of the sharpest revenge; even of such a revenge as now began to boil and burn in the breast of this great warrior? For surely, if any thing may justly call up the utmost 141of a man’s rage, it should be bitter and contumelious words from an unprovoked inferior; and if any thing can legalize revenge, it should be injuries from an extremely obliged person. But for all this, revenge, we see, is so much the prerogative of the Almighty, so absolutely the peculiar of Heaven, that no consideration whatsoever can empower even the best men to assume the execution of it in their own case. And therefore David, by an happy and seasonable pacification, being took off from acting that bloody tragedy which he was just now entering upon, and so turning his eyes from the baseness of him who had stirred up his revenge, to the goodness of that God who had prevented it; he breaks forth into these triumphant praises and doxologies expressed in the text: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, who has kept me this day from shedding blood, and from avenging myself with my own hand.
Which words, together with those going before in the same verse, naturally afford us this doctrinal proposition, which shall be the subject of the following discourse: namely, That prevention of sin is one of the greatest mercies that God can vouchsafe a man in this world.
The prosecution of which shall lie in these two things: first, to prove the proposition; secondly, to apply it.
And first, for the proof of it: the transcendent greatness of this sin-preventing mercy is demonstrable from these four following considerations.
1. Of the condition which the sinner is in, when this mercy is vouchsafed him.
2. Of the principle or fountain from whence this prevention of sin does proceed.142
3. Of the hazard a man runs, if the commission of sin be not prevented, whether ever it will come to be pardoned: and,
4thly and lastly, Of the advantages accruing to the soul from the prevention of sin, above what can be had from the bare pardon of it, in case it comes to be pardoned.
Of these in their order: and first, we are to take an estimate of the greatness of this mercy, from the condition it finds the sinner in, when God is pleased to vouchsafe it to him. It finds him in the direct way to death and destruction; and, which is worse, wholly unable to help himself. For he is actually under the power of a temptation, and the sway of an impetuous lust; both hurrying him on to satisfy the cravings of it by some wicked action. He is possessed and acted by a passion, which, for the present, absolutely overrules him; and so can no more recover himself, than a bowl rolling down a hill stop itself in the midst of its career. It is a maxim in the philosophy of some, that whatsoever is once in actual motion, will move for ever, if it be not hindered.
So a man, being under the drift of any passion, will still follow the impulse of it, till something interpose, and by a stronger impulse turn him another way: but in this case we can find no principle within him strong enough to counteract that principle, and to relieve him. For if it be any, it must be either, first, the judgment of his reason; or, secondly, the free choice of his will.
But from the first of these there can be no help for him in his present condition. For while a man is engaged in any sinful purpose, through the prevalence 143of any passion, during the continuance of that passion, he fully approves of whatsoever he is carried on to do in the strength of it; and judges it, under his present circumstances, the best and most rational course that he can take. Thus we see when Jonas was under the passion of anger, and God asked him, Whether he did well to be angry? He answered, I do well to be angry, even unto death, Jonas iv. 9. And when Saul was under his persecuting fit, what he did appeared to him good and necessary, Acts xxvi. 9. I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus. But to go no further than the text; do we not think, that while David’s heart was full of his revengeful design, it had blinded and perverted his reason so far, that it struck in wholly with his passion, and told him, that the bloody purpose he was going to execute, was just, magnanimous, and most becoming such a person, and so dealt with, as he was? This being so, how is it possible for a man under a passion to receive any succour from his judgment or reason, which is made a party in the whole action, and influenced to a present approbation of all the ill things which his passion can suggest? This is most certain; and every man may find it by experience, (if he will but impartially reflect upon the method of his own actings, and the motions of his own mind,) that while he is under any passion, he thinks and judges quite otherwise of the proper objects of that passion, from what he does when he is out of it. Take a man under the transports of a vehement rage or revenge, and he passes a very different judgment upon murder and bloodshed, from what he does when his revenge 144is over, and the flame of his fury spent. Take a man possessed with a strong and immoderate desire of any thing, and you shall find, that the worth and excellency of that thing appears much greater and more dazzling to the eye of his mind, than it does when that desire, either by satisfaction or otherwise, is quite extinguished. So that while passion is upon the wing, and the man fully engaged in the prosecution of some unlawful object, no remedy or control is to be expected from his reason, which is wholly gained over to judge in favour of it. The fumes of his passion do as really intoxicate and confound his judging and discerning faculty, as the fumes of drink discompose and stupify the brain of a man overcharged with it. When his drink indeed is over, he sees the folly and the absurdity, the madness and the vileness of those things, which before he acted with full complacency and approbation. Passion is the drunkenness of the mind; and therefore, in its present workings, not controllable by reason; forasmuch as the proper effect of it is, for the time, to supersede the workings of reason. This principle therefore being able to do nothing to the stopping of a man in the eager pursuit of his sin; there remains no other, that can be supposed able to do any thing upon the soul, but that second mentioned, to wit, the choice of his will. But this also is as much disabled from recovering a man fully intent upon the prosecution of any of his lusts, as the former. For all the time that a man is so, he absolutely wills, and is fully pleased with what he is designing or going about. And whatsoever perfectly pleases the will, overpowers it; for it fixes and determines the inclination of it to that one 145thing which is before it; and so fills up all its possibilities of indifference, that there is actually no room for choice. He who is under the power of melancholy, is pleased with his being so. He who is angry, delights in nothing so much as in the venting of his rage. And he who is lustful, places his greatest satisfaction in a slavish following of the dictates of his lust. And so long as the will and the affections are pleased, and exceedingly gratified in any course of acting, it is impossible for a man, so far as he is at his own disposal, not to continue in it; or, by any principle within him, to be diverted or took off from it.
From all which we see, that when a man has took up a full purpose of sinning, he is hurried on to it in the strength of all those principles which nature has given him to act by: for sin having depraved his judgment, and got possession of his will, there is no other principle left him naturally, by which he can make head against it. Nor is this all; but to these internal dispositions to sin, add the external opportunities and occasions concurring with them, and removing all lets and rubs out of the way, and, as it were, making the path of destruction plain before the sinner’s face; so that he may run his course freely, and without interruption. Nay, when opportunities shall He so fair, as not only to permit, but even to invite, and further a progress in sin; so that the sinner shall set forth, like a ship launched into the wide sea; not only well built and rigged, but also carried on with full wind and tide, to the port or place it is bound for: surely, in this case, nothing under heaven can be imagined able to stop or countermand a sinner, 146amidst all these circumstances promoting and pushing on his sinful design. For all that can give force and fury to motion, both from within and from without, jointly meet to bear him forward in his present attempt. He presses on like an horse rushing into the battle, and all that should withstand him giving way before him.
Now under this deplorable necessity of ruin and destruction does God’s preventing grace find every sinner, when it snatches him like a brand out of the fire, and steps in between the purpose and the commission of his sin. It finds him going on resolutely in the high and broad way to perdition; which yet his perverted reason tells him is right, and his will, pleasant. And therefore he has no power of himself to leave, or turn out of it; but he is ruined jocundly and pleasantly, and damned according to his heart’s desire. And can there be a more wretched and woful spectacle of misery, than a man in such a condition? a man pleasing and destroying himself together? a man, as it were, doing violence to damnation, and taking hell by force? So that when the preventing goodness of God reaches out its arm, and pulls him out of this fatal path, it does by main force even wrest him from himself, and save him, as it were, against his will.
But neither is this his total inability to recover or relieve himself the worst of his condition; but, which is yet much worse, it puts him into a state of actual hostility against, and defiance of, that al mighty God, from whom alone, in this helpless and forlorn condition, he is capable of receiving help. For surely, while a man is going on in a full purpose of sin, he is trampling upon all law, spitting in the 147face of Heaven, and provoking his Maker in the highest manner; so that none is or can be so much concerned as God himself, to destroy and cut off such an one, and to vindicate the honour of his great name, by striking him dead in his rebellion. And this brings us to the
Second thing proposed; which was to shew, What is the fountain or impulsive cause of this prevention of sin. It is perfectly free grace. A man at best, upon all principles of divinity and sound philosophy, is uncapable of meriting any thing from God. But surely, while he is under the dominion of sin, and engaged in full design and purpose to commit it, it is not imaginable what can be found in him to oblige the divine grace in his behalf. For he is in high and actual rebellion against the only giver of such grace. And therefore it must needs flow from a redundant, unaccountable fulness of compassion; shewing mercy, because it will shew mercy; from a compassion, which is and must be its own reason, and can have no argument for its exercise, but it self. No man in the strength of the first grace can merit the second, (as some fondly speak, for reason they do not,) unless a beggar, by receiving one alms, can be said to merit another. It is not from what a man is, or what he has done; from any virtue or excellency, any preceding worth or desert in him, that God is induced thus to interpose between him and ruin, and so stop him in his full career to damnation. No, says God, in Ezek. xvi. 6. When I passed by, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee, Live; yea, I said unto thee, when thou wast in thy blood, Live. The Spirit of God speaks this great truth to the hearts of men 148with emphasis and repetition, knowing what an aptness there is in them to oppose it. God sees a man wallowing in his native filth and impurity, delivered over as an absolute captive to sin, polluted with its guilt, and enslaved by its power; and in this most loathsome condition fixes upon him as an object of his distinguishing mercy. And to shew yet further, that the actings of this mercy in the work of prevention are entirely free,, do we not sometimes see, in persons of equal guilt and demerit, and of equal progress and advance in the ways of sin, some of them maturely diverted and took off, and others permitted to go on without check or control, till they finish a sinful course in final perdition? So true is it, that if things were cast upon this issue, that God should never prevent sin till something in man deserved it, the best of men would fall into sin, continue in sin, and sin on for ever.
And thus much for the second thing proposed; which was to shew, What was the principle, or fountain, from whence this prevention of sin does proceed. Come we now to the
Third demonstration or proof of the greatness of this preventing mercy, taken from the hazard a man runs, if the commission of sin be not prevented, whether ever it will come to be pardoned.
In order to the clearing of which, I shall lay down these two considerations.
1. That if sin be not thus prevented, it will certainly be committed; and the reason is, because on the sinner’s part there will be always a strong inclination to sin. So that, if other things concur, and Providence cuts not off the opportunity, the act of sin must needs follow. For an active principle, 149seconded with the opportunities of action, will infallibly exert itself.
2dly, The other consideration is, That in every sin deliberately committed, there are (generally speaking) many more degrees of probability, that that sin will never come to be pardoned, than that it will.
And this shall be made appear upon these three following accounts.
1. Because every commission of sin introduces into the soul a certain degree of hardness, and an aptness to continue in that sin. It is a known maxim, that it is much more difficult to throw out, than not to let in. Every degree of entrance is a degree of possession. Sin taken into the soul is like a liquor poured into a vessel; so much of it as it fills, it also seasons. The touch and tincture go together. So that although the body of the liquor should be poured out again, yet still it leaves that tang behind it, which makes the vessel fitter for that, than for any other. In like manner, every act of sin strangely transforms and works over the soul to its own likeness. Sin in this being to the soul like fire to combustible matter; it assimilates, before it destroys it.
2dly, A second reason is, because every commission of sin imprints upon the soul a further disposition and proneness to sin. As the second, third, and fourth degrees of heat are more easily introduced, than the first. Every one is both a preparative and a step to the next. Drinking both quenches the present thirst, and provokes it for the future. When the soul is beaten from its first station, and the mounds and outworks of virtue are once broken 150down, it becomes quite another thing from what it was before. In one single eating of the forbidden fruit, when the act is over, yet the relish remains; and the remembrance of the first repast is an easy allurement to the second. One visit is enough to begin an acquaintance; and this point is gained by it, that when the visitant comes again, he is no more a stranger.
3dly, The third and grand reason is, because the only thing that can entitle the sinner to pardon, which is repentance, is not in the sinner’s power: and he who goes about the work will find it so. It is the gift of God: and though God has certainly promised forgiveness of sin to every one who repents, yet he has not promised to any one to give him grace to repent. This is the sinner’s hard lot, that the same thing which makes him need repentance, makes him also in danger of not obtaining it. For it provokes and offends that holy Spirit which alone can bestow this grace: as the same treason which puts a traitor in need of his prince’s mercy, is a great and a just provocation to his prince to deny it him.
Now, let these three things be put together: First, That every commission of sin, in some degree, hardens the soul in that sin. Secondly, That every commission of sin disposes the soul to proceed further in sin. And, thirdly, That to repent, and turn from sin, (without which all pardon is impossible,) is not in the sinner’s power; and then, I suppose, there can not but appear a greater likelihood, that a sin once committed will in the issue not be pardoned, than that it will. To all which, add the confirmation of general experience, and the real event of things, that where one man ever comes to repent, an hundred, I 151might say a thousand at least, end their days in final impenitence.
All which considered, surely there cannot need a more pregnant argument of the greatness of this preventing mercy, if it did no more for a man than this; that his grand, immortal concern, more valuable to him than ten thousand worlds, is not thrown upon a critical point; that he is not brought to his last stake; that he is rescued from the first descents into hell, and the high probabilities of damnation.
For whatsoever the issue proves, it is certainly a miserable thing to be forced to cast lots for one’s life; yet in every sin, a man does the same for eternity. And therefore let the boldest sinner take this one consideration along with him, when he is going to sin, that, whether the sin he is about to act ever comes to be pardoned or no, yet, as soon as it is acted, it quite turns the balance, puts his salvation upon the venture, leaves him but one cast for all; and, which is yet much more dreadful, makes it ten to one odds against him.
But let us now alter the state of the matter, so as to leave no doubt in the case: but suppose, that the sin, which, upon non-prevention, comes to be committed, comes also to be repented of, and consequently to be pardoned. Yet, in the
Fourth and last place, The greatness of this preventing mercy is eminently proved from those ad vantages accruing to the soul from the prevention of sin, above what can be had from the bare pardon of it: and that, in these two great respects.
1. Of the clearness of a man’s condition.
2. Of the satisfaction of his mind. And,
First, For the clearness of his condition. If innocence 152be preferable to repentance, and to be clean be more desirable than to be cleansed; then surely prevention of sin ought to have the precedence of its pardon. For so much of prevention, so much of innocence. There are indeed various degrees of it; and God, in his infinite wisdom, does not deal forth the same measure of his preventing grace to all. Some times he may suffer the soul but just to begin the sinful production, in reflecting upon a sin, suggested by the imagination, with some complacency and delight; which, in the apostle’s phrase, is to conceive sin; and then, in these early, imperfect beginnings, God perhaps may presently dash and extinguish it. Or possibly he may permit the sinful conception to receive life and form, by passing into a purpose of committing it; and then he may make it prove abortive, by stifling it before ever it comes to the birth. Or perhaps God may think fit to let it come even to the birth, by some strong endeavours to commit it, and yet then deny it strength to bring forth; so that it never comes into actual commission. Or, lastly, God may suffer it to be born, and see the world, by permitting the endeavour of sin to pass into the commission of it. And this is the last fatal step but one; which is, by frequent repetition of the sinful act, to continue and persist in it, till at length it settles into a fixed, confirmed habit of sin; which, being properly that which the apostle calls the finishing of sin, ends certainly in death; death, not only as to merit, but also as to actual infliction.
Now peradventure in this whole progress, preventing grace may sometimes come in to the poor sinner’s help, but at the last hour of the day; and having suffered him to run all the former risk and 153maze of sin, and to descend so many steps down wards to the black regions of death: as first, from the bare thought and imagination of sin, to look up on it with some beginnings of appetite and delight; from thence, to purpose and intend it; and from in tending, to endeavour it; and from endeavouring, actually to commit it; and, having committed it, perhaps for some time to continue in it: and then, I say, after all this, God may turn the fatal stream, and by a mighty grace interrupt its course, and keep it from passing into a settled habit, and so hinder the absolute completion of sin in final obduracy.
Certain it is, that wheresoever it pleases God to stop the sinner on this side hell, how far soever he has been advanced in his way towards it, it is a vast, ineffable mercy; a mercy as great as life from the dead, and salvation to a man tottering with horror upon the very edge and brink of destruction. But if, more than all this, God shall be pleased by an early grace to prevent sin so soon, as to keep the soul in the virginity of its first innocence, not tainted with the desires, and much less defloured with the formed purpose of any thing vile and sinful; what an infinite goodness is this! It is not a converting, but a crowning grace; such an one as irradiates, and puts a circle of glory about the head of him upon whom it descends; it is the Holy Ghost coming down upon him in the form of a dove, and setting him triumphant above the necessity of tears and sorrow, mourning and repentance, the sad after-games of a lost innocence. And this brings in the consideration of that other great advantage accruing to the soul from the prevention of sin, above what can be had from the bare pardon of it; namely,154
2. The satisfaction of a man’s mind. There is that true joy, that solid and substantial comfort, conveyed to the heart by preventing grace, which pardoning grace, at the best, very seldom, and, for the most part, never gives. For since all joy passes into the heart through the understanding, the object of it must be known by one, before it can affect the other. Now, when grace keeps a man so within his bounds, that sin is prevented, he certainly knows it to be so; and so rejoices upon the firm, infallible ground of sense and assurance. But, on the other side, though grace may have reversed the condemning sentence, and sealed the sinner’s pardon before God, yet it may have left no transcript of that pardon in the sinner’s breast. The hand-writing against him may be cancelled in the court of heaven, and yet the indictment run on in the court of conscience. So that a man may be safe as to his condition, but in the mean time dark and doubtful as to his apprehensions; secure in his pardon, but miserable in the ignorance of it; and so, passing all his days in the disconsolate, uneasy vicissitudes of hopes and fears, at length go out of the world, not knowing whither he goes. And what is this, but a black cloud drawn over all a man’s comforts? a cloud, which, though it cannot hinder the supporting influence of heaven, yet will be sure to intercept the refreshing light of it. The pardoned person must not think to stand upon the same vantage ground with the innocent. It is enough that they are both equally safe; but it cannot be thought, that, without a rare privilege, both can be equally cheerful. And thus much for the advantageous effects of preventing, above those of pardoning grace; which was the fourth and last argument brought for the 155proof of the proposition. Pass we now to the next general thing proposed for the prosecution of it; namely,
2. Its application. Which, from the foregoing discourse, may afford us several useful deductions; but chiefly by way of information, in these three following particulars. As,
First, This may inform and convince us how vastly greater a pleasure is consequent upon the forbearance of sin, than can possibly accompany the commission of it; and how much higher a satisfaction is to be found from a conquered, than from a conquering passion. For the proof of which, we need look no further than the great example here before us. Revenge is certainly the most luscious morsel that the devil can put into the sinner’s mouth. But do we think that David could have found half that pleasure in the execution of his revenge, that he expresses here upon the disappointment of it? Possibly it might have pleased him in the present heat and hurry of his rage, but must have displeased him infinitely more in the cool, sedate reflections of his mind. For sin can please no longer, than for that pitiful space of time while it is committing; and surely the present pleasure of a sinful act is a poor countervail for the bitterness of the review, which begins where the action ends, and lasts for ever. There is no ill thing which a man does in his passion, but his memory will be revenged on him for it afterwards.
All pleasure springing from a gratified passion (as most of the pleasure of sin does) must needs determine with that passion. It is short, violent, and fallacious; and as soon as the imagination is disabused, 156will certainly be at an end. And therefore Des Cartes prescribes excellently well for the regulation of the passions; viz. That a man should fix and fore-arm his mind with this settled persuasion, that, during that commotion of his blood and spirits, in which passion properly consists, whatsoever is offered to his imagination in favour of it, tends only to deceive his reason. It is indeed a real trepan upon it; feeding it with colours and appearances, instead of arguments; and driving the very same bargain, which Jacob did with Esau, a mess of pottage for a birthright, a present repast for a perpetuity.
Secondly, We have here a sure, unfailing criterion, by which every man may discover and find out the gracious or ungracious disposition of his own heart. The temper of every man is to be judged of from the thing he most esteems; and the object of his esteem may be measured by the prime object of his thanks. What is it that opens thy mouth in praises, that fills thy heart, and lifts up thy hands in grateful acknowledgments to thy great Creator and Preserver? Is it that thy bags and thy barns are full, that thou hast escaped this sickness, or that danger? Alas, God may have done all this for thee in anger! All this fair sunshine may have been only to harden thee in thy sins. He may have given thee riches and honour, health and power with a curse; and if so, it will be found but a poor comfort, to have had never so great a share of God’s bounty without his blessing.
But has he at any time kept thee from thy sin? stopped thee in the prosecution of thy lust? defeated the malicious arts and stratagems of thy mortal enemy the tempter? And does not the sense of 157this move and affect thy heart more than all the former instances of temporal prosperity, which are but, as it were, the promiscuous scatterings of his common providence, while these are the distinguishing kindnesses of his special grace?
A truly pious mind has certainly another kind of relish and taste of these things; and if it receives a temporal blessing with gratitude, it receives a spiritual one with ecstasy and transport. David, an heroic instance of such a temper, overlooks the rich and seasonable present of Abigail, though pressed with hunger and travel; but her advice, which disarmed his rage, and calmed his revenge, draws forth those high and affectionate gratulations from him: Blessed be thy advice, and blessed be thou, who hast kept me this day from shedding blood, and avenging myself with mine own hand. These were his joyful and glorious trophies; not that he triumphed over his enemy, but that he insulted over his revenge; that he escaped from himself, and was delivered from his own fury. And whosoever has any thing of David’s piety, will be perpetually plying the throne of grace with such like acknowledgments; as, “Blessed be that Providence, which delivered me from such a lewd company, and such a vicious acquaintance, which was the bane of such and such a person. And, Blessed be that God who cast rubs, and stops, and hinderances in my way, when I was attempting the commission of such or such a sin; who took me out of such a course of life, such a place, or such an employment, which was a continual snare and temptation to “me. And, Blessed be such a preacher, and such a friend, whom God made use of to speak a word in 158season to my wicked heart, and so turned me out of the paths of death and destruction, and saved me in spite of the world, the devil, and myself.”
These are such things as a man shall remember with joy upon his deathbed; such as shall cheer and warm his heart even in that last and bitter agony, when many, from the very bottom of their souls, shall wish that they had never been rich, or great, or powerful; and reflect with anguish and remorse upon those splendid occasions of sin, which served them for little but to heighten their guilt, and at best to inflame their accounts, at that great tribunal which they are going to appear before.
In the third and last place. We learn from hence the great reasonableness of, not only a contented, but also a thankful acquiescence in any condition, and under the Grossest and severest passages of Providence which can possibly befall us: since there is none of all these but may be the instrument of preventing grace in the hands of a merciful God, to keep us from those courses which would otherwise assuredly end in our confusion. This is most certain, that there is no enjoyment which the nature of man is either desirous or capable of? but may be to him a direct inducement to sin, and consequently is big with mischief, and carries death in the bowels of it. But to make the assertion more particular, and thereby more convincing, let us take an account of it with reference to the three greatest and deservedly most valued enjoyments of this life.
1. Health; 2dly, Reputation; and 3dly, Wealth.
First, And first for health. Has God made a breach upon that? Perhaps he is building up thy soul upon the ruins of thy body. Has he bereaved 159thee of the use and vigour of thy limbs? Possibly he saw that otherwise they would have been the instruments of thy lusts, and the active ministers of thy debaucheries. Perhaps thy languishing upon thy bed has kept thee from rotting in a gaol, or in a worse place. God saw it necessary by such mortifications to quench the boilings of a furious, overflowing appetite, and the boundless rage of an insatiable intemperance; to make the weakness of the flesh, the physic and restaurative of the spirit; and in a word, rather to save thee diseased, sickly, and deformed, than to let strength, health, and beauty, drive thee headlong (as they have done many thousands) into eternal destruction.
Secondly, Has God in his providence thought fit to drop a blot upon thy name, and to blast thy reputation? He saw perhaps that the breath of popular air was grown infectious, and would have derived a contagion upon thy better part. Pride and vain glory had mounted thee too high, and therefore it was necessary for mercy to take thee down, to prevent a greater fall. A good name is, indeed, better than life; but a sound mind is better than both. Praise and applause had swelled thee to a proportion ready to burst; it had vitiated all thy spiritual ap petites, and brought thee to feed upon the air, and to surfeit upon the wind, and, in a word, to starve thy soul, only to pamper thy imagination.
And now if God makes use of some poignant disgrace to prick this enormous bladder, and to let out the poisonous vapour, is not the mercy greater than the severity of the cure? Cover them with shame, says the psalmist, that they may seek thy name. Fame and glory transports a man out of himself; 160and, like a violent wind, though it may bear him up for a while, yet it will be sure to let him fall at last. It makes the mind loose and garish, scatters the spirits, and leaves a kind of dissolution upon all the faculties. Whereas shame, on the contrary, as all grief does, naturally contracts and unites, and thereby fortifies the spirits, fixes the ramblings of fancy, and so reduces and gathers the man into himself. This is the sovereign effect of a bitter potion, administered by a wise and merciful hand: and what hurt can there be in all the slanders, obloquies, and disgraces of this world, if they are but the arts and methods of Providence to shame us into the glories of the next. But then,
Thirdly and lastly, Has God thought fit to cast thy lot amongst the poor of this world, and that either by denying thee any share of the plenties of this life, which is something grievous; or by taking them away, which is much more so? Yet still all this may be but the effect of preventing mercy. For so much mischief as riches have done and may do to the souls of men, so much mercy may there be in taking them away. For does not the wisest of men, next our Saviour, tell us of riches kept to the hurt of the owners of them? Eccles. v. 13. And does not our Saviour himself speak of the intolerable difficulty which they cause in men’s passage to heaven? Do they not make the narrow way much narrower, and contract the gate which leads to life to the straitness of a needle’s eye?
And now, if God will fit thee for this passage, by taking off thy load, and emptying thy bags, and so suit the narrowness of thy fortune to the narrowness of the way thou art to pass, is there any thing but 161mercy in all this? Nay, are not the riches of his mercy conspicuous in the poverty of thy condition?
Thou who repinest at the plenty and splendour of thy neighbour, at the greatness of his incomes, and the magnificence of his retinue; consider what are frequently the dismal, wretched consequences of all this, and thou wilt have little cause to envy this gaudy great one, or to wish thyself in his room.
For do we not often hear of this or that young heir newly come to his father’s vast estate? An happy man, no doubt! But does not the town presently ring of his debaucheries, his blasphemies, and his murders? Are not his riches and his lewdnesses talked of together? and the odiousness of one heightened and set off by the greatness of the other? Are not his oaths, his riots, and other villainies reckoned by as many thousands as his estate?
Now consider, had this grand debauchee, this glistering monster, been born to thy poverty and mean circumstances, he could not have contracted such a clamorous guilt, he could not have been so bad: nor, perhaps, had thy birth instated thee in the same wealth and greatness, wouldest thou have been at all better.
This God foresaw and knew, in the ordering both of his and thy condition: and which of the two now, can we think, is the greater debtor to his preventing mercy? Lordly sins require lordly estates to support them: and where Providence denies the latter, it cuts off all temptation to the former.
And thus I have shewn by particular instances, what cause men have to acquiesce in and submit to the harshest dispensations that Providence can mea sure out to them in this life; and with what satisfaction, 162or rather gratitude, that ought to be endured, by which the greatest of mischiefs is prevented. The great physician of souls sometimes cannot cure without cutting us. Sin has festered inwardly, and he must lance the imposthume, to let out death with the suppuration. He who ties a madman’s hands, or takes away his sword, loves his person, while he disarms his phrensy. And whether by health or sickness, honour or disgrace, wealth or poverty, life or death, mercy is still contriving, acting, and carrying on the spiritual good of all those who love God, and are loved by him.
To whom, therefore, be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.163
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