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False Foundations removed, and true ones laid for such wise Builders as design to build for Eternity:
PREACHED AT ST. MARY’S IN OXFORD,
BEFORE THE UNIVERSITY,
DECEMBER 10, 1661.
And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
IT seems to have been all along the prime art and method of the great enemy of souls, not being able to root the sense of religion out of men’s hearts, yet by his sophistries and delusions to defeat the design of it upon their lives; and, either by empty notions or false persuasions, to take them off from the main business of religion, which is duty and obedience, by bribing the conscience to rest satisfied with something less. A project extremely suitable to the corrupt nature of man; whose chief, or rather sole quarrel to religion, is the severity of its precepts, and the difficulty of their practice. So that, although it is as natural 325for him to desire to be happy as to breathe, yet he had rather lose and miss of happiness, than seek it in the way of holiness. Upon which account, nothing speaks so full and home to the very inmost desires of his soul, as those doctrines and opinions, which would persuade him, that it may and shall be well with him hereafter, without any necessity of his living well here. Which great mystery of iniquity being carefully managed by the utmost skill of the tempter, and greedily embraced by a man’s own treacherous affections, lies at the bottom of all false religions, and eats out the very heart and vitals of the true. For in the strength of this, some hope to be saved by believing well; some by meaning well; some by paying well; and some by shedding a few insipid tears, and uttering a few hard words against those sins which they have no other controversy with, but that they were so unkind as to leave the sinner before he was willing to leave them. For all this men can well enough submit to, as not forcing them to abandon any one of their beloved lusts. And therefore they will not think themselves hardly dealt with, though you require faith of them, if you will but dispense with good works. They will abound, and even overflow with good intentions, if you will allow them in quite contrary actions. And you shall not want for sacrifice, if that may compound for obedience; nor lastly, will they grudge to find money, if somebody else will find merit. But to live well, and to do well, are things of too hard a digestion.
Accordingly our Saviour, who well knew all these false hopes and fallacious reasonings of the heart of man, (which is never so subtile as when it would deceive 326itself,) tells his hearers, that all these little trifling inventions will avail them nothing, and that in the business of religion, and the great concern of souls, all that is short of obedience and a good life, is nothing but trick and evasion, froth and folly; and consequently, that if they build upon such deceitful grounds, and with such slight materials, they must and can expect no other, than, after all their cost and pains, to have their house fall upon their heads, and so perish in the ruin. And with this terrible application in these two last verses, which I have pitched upon for my text, he concludes his divine sermon and discourse from the mount.
The words of the text being too plain and easy to need any nice or large explication, I shall manage the discussion of them in these four particulars.
First, In shewing the reasons upon which I conclude practice or obedience, in the great business of a man’s eternal happiness, to be the best and surest foundation for him to build upon.
Secondly, In shewing the false foundations upon which many build, and accordingly in time of trial miscarry.
Thirdly, In shewing the causes why such miscarry and fall away in time of trial or temptation.
Fourthly and lastly, In shewing wherein the fatal greatness of their fall consists.
And first, for the first of these, viz. to shew the reasons why practice or obedience is the best and surest foundation (still supposing it bottomed upon the merits of Christ) for a man to build his designs for heaven and the hopes of his salvation upon, I shall mention three.
First, Because, according to the ordinary way 327and economy of God’s working upon the hearts of men, nothing but practice can change our corrupt nature; and practice continued and persevered in, by the grace of God, will. We all acknowledge, (that is, all who are not wise above the articles of our Church,) that there is an universal stain and depravation upon man’s nature, that does incapacitate him for the fruition and infinitely pure converse of God. The removal of which cannot be effected but by introducing the contrary habit of holiness, which shall by degrees expel and purge out the other. And the only way to produce an habit, is by the frequent repetition of congenial actions. Every pious action leaves a certain tincture or disposition upon the soul, which being seconded by actions of the same nature, whether by the superaddition of new degrees, or a more radicate fixation of the same, grows at length into an habit or quality, of the force and energy of a second nature.
I confess, the habit of holiness, finding no principle of production in a nature wholly corrupt, must needs be produced by supernatural infusion, and consequently proceed, not from acquisition, but gift. It must be brought into the soul, it cannot grow or spring out of it. But then we must remember that most excellent and true rule of the schools, that habitus infusi obtinentur per modum acquisitorum. It is indeed a supernatural effect, but, as I may so speak, wrought in a natural way. The Spirit of God imitating the course of nature, even then when it works something above it.
A person in the state of nature, or unregeneracy, cannot, by the sole strength of his most improved performances, acquire an habit of true grace or holiness. 328But, as in the rain, it is not the bare water that fructifies, but a secret spirit or nitre descending with it, and joined to it, that has this virtue, and produces this effect; so in the duties of a mere natural man, there is sometimes an hidden, divine influence, that keeps pace with those actions, and, together with each performance, imprints a holy disposition upon the soul; which, after a long series of the like actions, influenced by the same divine principle, comes at length to be of that force and firmness as to outgrow and work out the contrary qualities of inherent corruption.
We have an illustration of this, though not a parallel instance, in natural actions, which by frequency imprint an habit or permanent facility of acting, upon the agent. Godliness is in some sense an art or mystery, and we all know that it is practice chiefly that makes the artist.
Secondly, A second reason for our assertion is, because action is the highest perfection and drawing forth of the utmost power, vigour, and activity of man’s nature. God is pleased to vouchsafe the best that he can give, only to the best that we can do. And action is undoubtedly our best, because the most difficult; for in such cases, worth and difficulty are inseparable companions. The properest and most raised conception that we have of God is, that he is a pure act, a perpetual, incessant motion. And next to him, in the rank of beings, are the angels, as approaching nearest to him in this perfection; being all flame and agility, ministering spirits, always busy and upon the wing, for the execution of his great commands about the government of the world. And indeed doing is nothing else but the noblest 329improvement of being. It is not (as some nice speculators make it) an airy, diminutive entity, or accident, distinct from the substance of the soul; but, to define it more suitably to itself, and to the soul too, action is properly the soul in its best posture.
Thirdly, A third reason is, because the main end, drift, and design of religion is the active part of it. Profession is only the badge of a Christian, belief the beginning, but practice is the nature, and custom the perfection. For it is this which translates Christianity from a bare notion into a real business; from useless speculations into substantial duties; and from an idea in the brain into an existence in the life. An upright conversation is the bringing of the general theorems of religion into the particular instances of solid experience; and if it were not for this, religion would exist nowhere but in the Bible. The grand deciding question at the last day will be, not, What have you said? or, What have you believed? but, What have you done more than others?
But that the very life of religion consists in practice, will appear yet further from those subordinate ends to which it is designed in this world, and which are as really, though not as principally, the purpose of it, as the utmost attainment of the beatific vision, and the very last period of our salvation; and these are two.
First, The honouring of God before the world. God will not have his worship, like his nature, invisible. Next to authority itself, is the pomp and manifestation of it; and to be acknowledged is some thing more than to be obeyed. For what is sovereignty unknown, or majesty unobserved? What glory were it for the sun to direct the affairs, if he 330did not also attract the eyes of the world? It is his open and universal light, more than his occult influence, that we love and admire him for. Religion, if confined to the heart, is not so much entertained, as imprisoned: that indeed is to be its fountain, but not its channel. The water arises in one place, but it streams in another; and fountains would not be so much valued, if they did not produce rivers.
One great end of religion is to proclaim and publish God’s sovereignty; and there is no such way to cause men to glorify our heavenly Father, as by causing our light to shine before them; which I am sure it cannot do, but as it beams through our good works. When a man leads a pious and good life, every hour he lives is virtually an act of worship. But if inward grace is not exerted and drawn forth into outward practice, men have no inspection into our hearts, to discern it there. And let this be fixed upon as a standing principle, that it is not possible for us to honour God before men, but only by those acts of worship that are observable by men. It is our faith indeed that recognises him for our God, but it is our obedience only that declares him to be our Lord.
Secondly, The other end of religion in this world is, the good and mutual advantage of mankind in the way of society. And herein did the admirable wisdom and goodness of God appear, that he was pleased to calculate and contrive such an instrument to govern, as might also benefit the world. God planted religion amongst men as a tree of life; which, though it was to spring upwards directly to himself, yet it was to spread its branches to the benefit of all below.331
There is hardly any necessity or convenience of mankind, but what is in a large measure served and provided for by this great blessing (as well as business) of the world, religion. And he who is a Christian, is not only a better man, but also a better neighbour, a better subject, and a truer friend, than he that is not so. For was ever any thing more for the good of mankind, than to forgive injuries, to love and caress our mortal adversaries, and, instead of our enemy, to hate only our revenge?
Of such a double yet benign aspect is Christianity both to God and man; like incense, while it ascends to heaven, it perfumes all about it; at the same time both instrumental to God’s worship, and the worshipper’s refreshment: as it holds up one hand in supplication, so it reaches forth the other in benefaction.
But now, if it be one great end of religion, thus to contribute to the support and benefit of society, surely it must needs consist in the active piety of our lives, not in empty thoughts and fruitless persuasions. For what can one man be the better for what another thinks or believes? When a poor man begs an alms of me, can I believe my bread into his mouth, or my money into his hand? Believing with out doing is a very cheap and easy, but withal a very worthless way of being religious.
And thus having given the reasons, why the active part of religion is the only sure bottom for us to build upon, I now proceed to the second thing proposed, namely, to shew those false and sandy foundations which many venture to build upon, and are accordingly deceived by; which though they are exceedingly various, and according to the 332multiplicity of men’s tempers, businesses, and occasions, almost infinite, and like the sand mentioned in my text, not only infirm, but numberless also, yet, according to the best of my poor judgment and observation, I shall reduce them to these three heads. The
First of which is a naked, unoperative faith. Ask but some upon what grounds they look to be saved, and they will answer, “Because they firmly believe that through the merits of Christ their sins are forgiven them.” But since it is hard for a man in his right wits to be confident of a thing which he does not at all know; such as are more cautious will tell you further, “That to desire to believe is to believe, and to desire to repent is to repent.” But as this is absurd and impossible, since no act can be its own object without being not itself; forasmuch as the act and the object are distinct things; and consequently a desire to believe can no more be belief, than a desire to be saved can be salvation; so it is further intolerable upon this account, that it quite dispirits religion, by placing it in languid, abortive velleities, and so cuts the nerves of all endeavour, by rating glory at a bare desire, and eternity at a wish.
But because the poison of this opinion does so easily enter, and so strangely intoxicate, I shall presume to give an antidote against it in this one observation, namely, that all along the scripture, where justification is ascribed to faith alone, there the word faith is still used by a metonymy of the antecedent for the consequent, and does not signify abstractedly a mere persuasion, but the obedience of an holy life performed in the strength and virtue of such a persuasion. 333Not that this justifies meritoriously by any inherent worth or value in itself, but instrumentally as a condition appointed by God, upon the performance of which, he freely imputes to us Christ’s righteousness, which is the sole, proper, and formal cause of our justification. So that that instrumentality, which some in the business of justification attribute to one single act of credence, is by this ascribed to the whole aggregate series of gospel obedience, as being that which gives us a title to a perfect righteousness without us, by which alone we stand justified before God. And this seems with full accord both to scripture and reason to state the business of justification by an equal poise both against the arrogant assertions of self-justiciaries on the one hand, and the wild opinions of the Antinomians on the other.
But whether the obedience of a pious life, performed out of a belief or persuasion of the truth of the gospel, ought to pass for that faith which justifies, or only for the effect or consequent of it, yet certainly it is such an effect as issues by a kind of connatural, constant efficiency and result from it. So that how much soever they are distinguishable by their respective actions from one another, they are absolutely inseparable by a mutual and a necessary connection: it belonging no less to the faith which justifies to be operative, than to justify: indeed, upon an essential account, more; forasmuch as it is operative by its nature, but justifies only by institution.
Secondly, The second false ground which some build upon, is a fond reliance upon the goodness of their heart, and the honesty of their intention. A profitable, and therefore a very prevailing fallacy; 334and such an one as the devil seldom uses, but with success; it being one of his old and long experimented fetches, by the pretences of a good heart, to supplant the necessity of a good life. But to allege the honesty of the mind against the charge of an evil course, is a protestation against the fact, which does not excuse, but enhance its guilt. As it would look like a very strange and odd commendation of a tree, to apologise for the sourness of its fruit, by pleading that all its goodness lay in the root.
But in the discourses of reason, such is the weakness and shortness of its reach, that it seldom suggests arguments a priori for any thing, but by a low and humble gradation creeps from the effects up to the cause, because these first strike and alarm the senses; and therefore St. James speaks as good philosophy as divinity, when he says, James ii. 18, Shew me thy faith by thy works. Every action being the most lively portraiture and impartial expression of its efficient principle, as the complexion is the best comment upon the constitution: for in natural productions there is no hypocrisy.
Only we must observe here, that good and evil actions bear a very different relation to their respective principles. As it is between truth and falsehood in argumentation, so it is between good and evil in matters of practice. For though from an artificial contrivance of false principles or premises may emerge a true conclusion, yet from true premises cannot ensue a false: so, though an evil heart may frame itself to the doing of an action in its kind or nature good, yet a renewed, sanctified principle cannot of itself design actions really vicious. The reason of which is, because the former in such a case acts upon a 335principle of dissimulation; and no man by dissembling affects to appear worse than he is, but better. But all this while, I speak not of a single action, but of a conversation or course of acting: for a pious man may do an evil action upon temptation or surprise, but not by the tenor of his standing principles and resolutions. But when a man’s sin is his business and the formed purpose of his life; and his piety shrinks only into meaning and intention; when he tells me his heart is right with God, while his hand is in my pocket, he upbraids my reason, and outfaces the common principles of natural discourse with an impudence equal to the absurdity.
This therefore I affirm, that he who places his Christianity only in his heart, and his religion in his meaning, has fairly secured himself against a disco very in case he should have none; but yet, for all that, shall at the last find his portion with those who indeed have none. And the truth is, those who are thus intentionally pious, do in a very ill and untoward sense verify that philosophical maxim, that what they so much pretend to be chief and first in their intention, is always last, if at all, in the execution.
Thirdly, The third and last false ground that I shall mention, upon which some men build to their confusion, is party and singularity. If an implicit faith be, as some say, the property of a Roman Catholic, then I am sure popery may be found where the name of papist is abhorred. For what account can some give of their religion, or of that assurance of their salvation, (which they so much boast of,) but that they have wholly resigned themselves up to the guidance and dictates of those who have the 336front and boldness to usurp the title of the godly. To be of such a party, of such a name, nay, of such a sneaking look, is to some the very spirit and characteristic mark of Christianity.
See what St. Paul himself built upon before his conversion to Christ, Acts xxvi. 5. I was, says he, after the strictest sect of our religion a Pharisee. So that it was the reputation of the sect upon which St. Paul then embarked his salvation. Now the nature of this fraternity or sect we may learn from the origination of their name Pharisee; it being derived from פָרַש parasch, separavit, discrevit, whence in Greek they were called ἀφωπισμένοι,88 Φαρισαῖοι οἱ ἑρμηνευόμενοι ἀφωρισμένοι, παρὰ τὸ μερίζειν καὶ ἀφορίζειν ἑαυτοὺ τῶν ἄλλων ἁπάντων. Suidas. Again, Φαροσαῖος ἀφωρισμένος, μεμερισμένος, καθαρός. Hesych. So that the Pharisees properly were, and might be called the Jewish Cathari, or Puritans.separati. So that the words amount to this, that St. Paul, before he was a Christian, was a rigid separatist.
But singularity is not sincerity, though too often and mischievously mistaken for it; and as an house built upon the sand is likely to be ruined by storms, so an house built out of the road is exposed to the invasion of robbers, and wants both the convenience and assistance of society: Christ is not therefore called the corner stone in the spiritual building, as if he intended that his church should consist only of corners, or be driven into them. There is a by-path, as well as a broad-way, to destruction. And it both argues the nature, and portends the doom of chaff, upon agitation to separate and divide from the wheat. But to such as venture their eternal interest upon such a bottom, I shall only suggest these two words.
First, That admitting, but not granting, that the 337party which they adhere to may be truly pious, yet the piety of the party cannot sanctify its proselytes. A church may be properly called holy, when yet that holiness does not diffuse itself to each particular member: the reason of which is, because the whole may receive denomination from a quality inherent only in some of its parts. Company may occasion, but it cannot transfuse holiness.
No man’s righteousness but Christ’s alone can be imputed to another. To rate a man by the nature of his companions, is a rule frequent indeed, but not infallible. Judas was as much a wretch amongst the apostles, as amongst the priests: and therefore it is but a poor argument for a man to derive his saintship from the virtues of the society he belongs to, and to conclude himself no weed, only because he grows amongst the corn.
Secondly, Such an adhesion to a party carries in it a strong suspicion and tang of the rankest of all ill qualities, spiritual pride. There are two things natural almost to all men:
First, A desire of preeminence in any perfection, but especially religious. Secondly, A spirit of opposition or contradiction to such as are not of their own mind or way. Now both these are eminently gratified by a man’s listing himself of a party in religion. And I doubt not but some are more really proud of the affected sordidness of a pretended mortification, than others are of the greatest affluence and splendour of life: and that many who call the execution of law and justice persecution, do yet suffer it with an higher and more pleasing relish of pride than others can inflict it. For it is not true zeal rising from an hearty concernment for religion, 338but an ill, restless, cross humour, which is provoked with smart, and quickened with opposition. The godly party is little better than a contradiction in the adjunct; for he who is truly godly, is humble and peaceable, and will neither make nor be of a party, according to the common sense of that word. Let such pretenders therefore suspect the sandiness and hollowness of their foundation; and know, that such imitators of Corah, Dathan, and Abiram, build upon the same ground upon which they stood, and into which they sunk. And certainly that man’s condition is very unsafe, who accounts his sin his perfection, and so makes the object of his repentance the ground of his salvation.
And thus I have discovered some of those false and deceiving grounds upon which many bottom their eternal state, and by which they think themselves in the direct way to life and happiness, while, God knows, they are in the high and broad road to perdition.
Pass we now to the third thing proposed, which is, to shew whence it is that such ill-founded structures are upon trial sure to fall. For the demonstration of which we must observe, that to the violent dissolution of any thing two things concur: first, an assault or impression from without; secondly, an inherent weakness within. One is the active, the other the passive principle of every change. For so much as there is of weakness, there is of nonresistance, and so far as any thing yields or not resists, the contrary impression enters, and by degrees weakens, and at length destroys the subsistence of the thing opposed.
As for the first of these, the force and opposition 339from without: it comes from the ὁ ποωηρὸς the true common enemy, the implacable, insatiable devourer of souls, the devil; who will be sure to plant his engines of battery against every spiritual building which does but look towards heaven. The opposition he makes, our Saviour here emphatically describes by the winds blowing, the rain descending, and the floods coming, which is not an insignificant rhetorication of the same thing by several expressions, (like some pulpit bombast, made only to measure an hour glass,) but an exact description of those three methods by which this assault of the devil prevails and becomes victorious.
First, The first is, that it is sudden and unexpected. The devil usually comes upon the soul as he fell from heaven, like lightning. And he shews no small art and policy by his so doing: for quickness prevents preparation, and so enervates opposition. It is observed of Caesar, that he did plurima et maxima bella sola celeritate conficere: so that almost in all his expeditions he seldom came to any place, but his coming was before the report of it. And we shall find, that the Roman eagles owed most of their great conquests as much to their swiftness as to their force. And the same is here the devil’s method in his warfare against souls. Upon which account also the same character that Tully gave the forementioned Caesar in his Epistles to Atticus, may much more fitly agree to him, that he is monstrum horribile celeritatis et vigilantiae. He flies to his prey, he fetches his blow quick and sure; he can shoot a temptation in a glance, and convey the poison of his suggestions quicker than the agitation of thought, or 340the strictures of fancy. It is the sudden trip in wrest ling that fetches a man to the ground.
Thus St. Peter, that giant in faith, was shamefully foiled by a sudden though weak assault. While he sits in the high priest’s hall, warming himself and thinking nothing, one confounds him with this quick unexpected charge, Matth. xxvi. 69, Thou also wast with Jesus of Galilee. The surprise of the onset prevented his deliberating powers from rallying together those succours of habitual grace, which, being alarmed by a more gradual approach of the temptation, would have easily repulsed it. But the devil will never caution the soul into a posture of defence by presenting the temptation at a distance. He bites and shews his teeth at the same instant; and so prevents the foresight of the eye, by exceeding it in quickness.
Secondly, His assaults are furious and impetuous. Temptations come very often, as the devil himself is said to do, in a storm. And a gust of wind, as it rises on a sudden, so it rushes with vehemence. And if the similitude does not yet speak high enough; to the violence of a storm, the text adds the prevailing rage of a flood. And we know the tyranny of this element when it once embodies into a torrent, and runs with the united force of many waters; it scorns all confinement, and tears down the proudest opposition, as Virgil fully describes it:
“—rapidus montano flumine torrens
Sternit agros, sternit sata laeta, boumque labores,
Praecipitesque trahit silvas—”
With a parallel encounter does the devil draw upon the poor fortifications of outward civility, good 341desires, imperfect resolutions, and the like, which are no more able to abide the shock of such batteries, than a morning dew is able to bear the scorching fury of the sun; or than such little banks as children use to raise in sport, are able to stem or stand against the outrageous breaking in of the sea. Every temptation has this property of water, either to insinuate or to force its way.
Thirdly, The devil in his assaults is restless and importunate. The wind is here said not only to blow, but emphatically to beat upon the house. And as in a tempest the blasts are both sudden and violent in their onset, so they are frequent in their returns. Importunity is the only coaction that the will knows. Where the devil cannot persuade, he will, if he can, even weary into a consent. It is often charging that wins the field. The tempter, if he is repulsed in a battle, will lengthen his assault into a siege. For the mind may have often a sudden heat of valour to repel the one, and yet not constancy to endure the other. A rejected proposal shall be reinforced with continual fresh supplies of more urgent and repeated persuasions.
See him thrice renewing the combat with our Saviour; and indeed after he has had the impudence to begin a temptation, it is always his prudence to pursue it. Otherwise, opposition only attempted, serves not for conquest, but admonition. His assaults are here said to come like the rain, and the rain never falls in one single drop; and yet if it did, even a drop would hollow and dig its way by frequency and assiduity.
It is observed by the learned Verulam, what advantage bold and importunate men have over others, 342nay, even so as to prevail upon men of wisdom and resolution, because, as he excellently notes, “the wisest men have their weak times:” and then I infer, that he who is importunate at all times, must needs catch them at those.
So when the tempter continues his importunity and siege about a soul, he has all these advantages over it: as, to view its strong holds, and to spy where they are least fortified; to observe the intervals and cessations of duty; when devotion ebbs, and the spiritual guards draw off; when the affections revel, and slide into a posture of security; and then to renew and bring on the assault afresh, and so to force a victorious entrance for his temptations.
It is here, as with the Greeks before Troy; it was not their armies, nor their Achilles, but their ten years siege that got the conquest. What a violent flame cannot presently melt down, a constant, though a gentle heat will at length exhale. It is our known duty to fight and resist the devil; and we shall find that scarce any temptation ever encounters the soul without its second.
So then, you see here the first cause of this great overthrow, namely, the assault and impression made from without by the tempter; which in the next place is rendered effectual by the impotence and nonresistance of the soul that is so opposed; which peculiarly answers his threefold opposition with three contrary qualifications.
First, As first, that it is frequently unprepared. The soul, God knows, is but seldom upon the watch; its spiritual armour is seldom buckled on. The business, the cares, and the pleasures of the world, draw it off from its own defence: business employs, care 343distracts, and pleasure lulls it asleep. And is this a posture to receive an enemy in? an enemy cunning, watchful, and malicious? an enemy who never sleeps, nor loiters, nor overlooks an advantage?
Secondly, As it is unprepared, so it is also weak and feeble. The spirit, says our Saviour, is willing, but the flesh is weak. And such is the condition of man in this world, that much more of flesh than spirit goes to his constitution. Nay, is not grace itself described under the weakness of smoking flax, or a bruised reed? Of which how quickly is one extinguished, and how easily is the other broke!
Thirdly, As it is both unprepared and weak, so it is also inconstant. Peter will die for his Master at one time, and not many hours after deny and for swear him. Steadfastness is the result of strength, and how then can constancy dwell with weakness? The greatest strength of the mind is in its resolutions, and yet how often do they change! Even in the weightiest concerns men too frequently put them on and off with their clothes. They deceive when they are most trusted: suddenly starting and flying in pieces like a broken bow; and, like a bow again, even when strongest they can hardly be kept always bent. We see what fair and promising beginnings some made, Luke viii. 13. They heard the word, they received it with joy, but having not root, they believed only for a while, and so in time of temptation fell away.
Constancy is the crowning virtue. Matth. x. 22. He who endureth to the end shall be saved. But then constancy and perseverance are the gift of God, and above the production of mere nature; it being 344no small paradox to imagine, that where the stock itself is slight and infirm, any thing which grows out of it should be strong.
And thus having shewn the threefold impotence of the soul, answerable to the threefold opposition made against it by the devil, what can we conclude, but that where unpreparedness is encountered with unexpected force, weakness with violence, inconstancy with importunity, there destruction must needs be, not the effect of chance, but nature, and, by the closest connection of causes, unavoidable?
It now remains that in the last place we shew wherein the greatness of this fall consists. The house fell, and great was the fall thereof. In short, it may appear upon these two accounts.
First, That it is scandalous, and diffuses a contagion to others, and a blot upon religion. A falling house is a bad neighbour. It is the property of evil as well as of good to be communicative. We still suppose the building here mentioned in the text to have had all the advantages of visible representment, all the pomp and flourish of external ornament, a stately superstructure, and a beautiful appearance; and therefore such an one must needs perish as remarkably as it stood. That which is seen afar off while it stands, is heard of much further when it falls.
An eminent professor is the concern of a whole profession; as to nonplus an Aristotle would look, not only like a slur to a particular philosopher, but like a baffle to philosophy itself.
The devil will let a man build and practise high, that he may at length fetch him down with the greater shame, and so make even a Christian an argument against Christianity. The subduing of any 345soul is a conquest, but of such an one a triumph. A signal professor cannot perish without a train, and in his very destruction his example is authentic.
Secondly, The greatness of the fall here spoken of appears also in this, that such an one is hardly and very rarely recovered. He whose house falls, has not usually either riches or heart to build another. It is the business of a life once to build.
God indeed can cement the ruins, and heal the breaches of an apostate soul, but usually a ship wrecked faith and a defloured conscience admit of no repair. Like the present time, which when once gone never returns.
What may be within the compass of omnipotence, the secret of a decree, or the unlimited strains of extraordinary grace, is not here disputed: but, as it would be arrogance for us men to define the power of grace, so it is the height of spiritual prudence to observe its methods. And upon such observation we shall find, that the recovery of such apostates is not the custom, but the prerogative of mercy.
A man is ruined but once. A miscarriage in the new birth is dangerous; and very fatal it generally proves to pass the critical seasons of a defeated conversion.
And thus I have at length despatched what I at first proposed. Now the words themselves being, as I said before, Christ’s application of his own sermon, cannot be improved into a better, and consequently need not into another, except what their own natural consequence does suggest; and that is, what our Saviour himself intimates else where, namely, that he who is about to build, would first sit down and consider what it is like to cost 349him. For building is chargeable, especially if a man lays out his money like a fool. Would a man build for eternity, that is, in other words, would he be saved? let him consider with himself, what charges he is willing to be at, that he may be so. Nothing under an universal, sincere obedience to all the precepts of the gospel can entitle him to the benefits of it; and thus far and deep he must go, if he will lay his foundation true. It is an hard and a rocky work, I confess, but the difficulty of laying it will be abundantly recompensed by the firmness of it when it is laid.
But it is a sad and mortifying consideration to think upon what false and sinking grounds, or rather upon what whirlpools and quicksands, many venture to build. Some you shall have amusing their consciences with a set of fantastical new-coined phrases, such as laying hold on Christ, getting into Christ, and rolling themselves upon Christ, and the like; by which, if they mean any thing else but obeying the precepts of Christ, and a rational hope of salvation thereupon, (which it is certain that generally they do not mean,) it is all but a jargon of empty, sense less metaphors; and though many venture their souls upon them, despising good works and strict living, as mere morality, and perhaps as popery, yet being throughly looked into and examined, after all their noise, they are really nothing but words and wind.
Another flatters himself that he has lived in full assurance of his salvation for ten, or twenty, or perhaps thirty years; that is, in other words, the man has been ignorant and confident very long.
Aye, but says another, I am a great hearer and 347lover of sermons, (especially of lectures;) and it is this which is the very delight of my righteous soul, and the main business of my life; and though indeed, according to the good old puritan custom, I use to walk and talk out the prayers before the church door, or without the choir, yet I am sure to be always in at sermon. Nay, I have so entirely devoted my whole time to the hearing of sermons, that, I must confess, I have hardly any left to practise them. And will not all this set me right for heaven? Yes, no doubt, if a man were to be pulled up to heaven by the ears; or the gospel would but reverse its rule, and declare, that not the doers of the word, but the hearers only should be justified.
But then in comes a fourth, and tells us, that he is a saint of yet an higher class, as having got far above all their mean, beggarly, steeple-house dispensations, by an happy exchange of them for the purer and more refined ordinances of the conventicle; where he is sure to meet with powerful teaching indeed, and to hear will-worship and superstition run down, and the priests of Baal paid off, and the follies and fopperies of their great idol the Common Prayer laid open with a witness, (not without some edifying flings at the king and court too, some times,) by all which his faith is now grown so strong, that he can no more doubt of his going to heaven, than that there is such a place as heaven to go to.
So that if the conscience of such an one should at any time offer to grumble at him, he would presently stop its mouth with this, “that he is of such an one’s congregation;” and then, “conscience say thy worst:” or if the guilt of some old perjuries or extortions should begin to look stern upon him, why 348then all those old scores shall be cleared off with a comfortable persuasion, “that such as he cannot fall from grace,” though it is shrewdly to be feared, that his only way of proving this must be, “that there can be no losing or falling from that which a man never had.”
But ah! thou poor, blind, self-deluding, and deluded soul! are these the best evidences thou hast for heaven? these the grounds upon which thou hopest for salvation? Assure thyself that God will deal with thee upon very different terms.
For he absolutely enjoins thee to do whatsoever Christ has commanded; and to avoid whatsoever he has forbidden. And Christ has commanded thee to be poor in spirit, and pure in heart; to subdue thy unruly appetites, to curb thy lust, to restrain thy anger, and to suppress thy revenge. And if any thing proves an hinderance to thee in thy duty, though it be as dear to thee as thy right eye, to pluck it out; and as useful to thee as thy right hand, to cut it off and cast it from thee. He will have thee ready to endure persecutions, revilings, and all manner of slanders, not only patiently, but also cheerfully for the truth’s sake. He calls upon thee to love thine enemies, and to do good for evil: to bless those that curse thee, and to pray for those that despitefully use thee. He commands thee in all things, strictly to do as thou wouldest he done by; and not to cheat, lie, or overreach thy neighbour, and then call it, “a fetching over the wicked, the better to enable thee to relieve the godly.” He will not allow thee to resist evil, and much less to resist thy governor. He commands thee to be charitable without vain-glory, and devout without 349ostentation. In short, he requires thee to be meek and lowly, chaste and temperate, just and merciful; and, in a word, (so far as the poor measures of humanity will reach,) perfect as thy heavenly Father is perfect.
This is the sum of those divine sayings of our Saviour, which he himself refers to in my text, and which if a man hears and does, all the powers of hell shall never shake him. And nothing but a constant, impartial, universal practice of these will or can speak peace to thy conscience here, and stand between thee and the wrath of God hereafter. As for all other pretences, they are nothing but death and damnation dressed up in fair words and false shews; nothing but gins, and snares, and trapans for souls, contrived by the devil, and managed by such as the devil sets on work.
But I have done, and the result of all that I have said or can say, is, that every spiritual builder would be persuaded to translate his foundation from the sand to the rock: and not presume upon Christ as his Saviour, till by a full obedience to his laws he has owned him for his sovereign. And this is properly to believe in him: this is truly to build upon a rock; even that rock of ages, upon which every one that wears the name of Christ must by an in evitable dilemma either build or split.
Now to God, who is able to build us up in our most holy faith, to establish us here, and to save us hereafter, be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.350
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