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Shamelessness in sin, the certain forerunner of destruction:
Be sure your sin will find you out.
OF all the ways to be taken for the prevention of that great plague of mankind, sin, there is none so rational and efficacious, as to confute and baffle those motives, by which men are induced to venture upon it; and amongst all such motives, the heart of man seems chiefly to be overpowered and prevailed upon by two; to wit, secrecy in committing sin, and impunity consequent upon it.
Accordingly, Moses, in this chapter, having to deal with a company of men suspected guilty of a base and fraudulent design, though couched under a very fair pretence, (as most such designs use to be;) he endeavours to dash it in its very conception, by particularly applying himself to encounter those secret ratiocinations and arguments, which he knew were the most likely to encourage them in it; and this he does very briefly, but effectually, by assuring them, that how covertly and artificially soever they might carry on their dark project, yet their sin should infallibly find them out.
The subject and occasion of the words is indeed particular, but the design of them is manifestly of 98an universal import; as reaching the case of all sinners in the world, in their first entrance upon any sinful act or course. And therefore, I shall consider them according to this latter and more enlarged sense; casting the prosecution of them under these three following heads: as,
First, I shall shew, that men generally, if not always, proceed to the commission of sin, upon a secret confidence of concealment or impunity.
Secondly, I shall shew the grounds and reasons upon which men take up such a confidence. And
Thirdly and lastly, I shall shew the vanity of this confidence, by declaring those several ways, by which, in the issue, it comes certainly to be defeated.
Of each of which in their order.
First. And first for the first of them; to wit, that men generally, if not always, proceed to the commission of sin, upon a secret confidence of concealment or impunity.
For the better handling of which proposition, I shall lay down these two assertions.
1. That no man is induced to sin, considered in itself, as a thing absolutely or merely evil, but as it bears some resemblance or appearance of good, in the apprehensions of him who commits it. Certain it is, that there can be no real good in sin; but if it had no shadow, no shew of good, it could not possibly be made the object of an human choice; the will of man never choosing or embracing any thing under the proper notion of evil. But then, as to the kind of this good; if we would know what that is, it is also as certain, that no man can be so far deluded, or rather besotted in his judgment, as to 99imagine that sin can have any thing of moral good in it; forasmuch as that imports a direct contradiction to the very nature, notion, and definition of sin; and therefore besides that, philosophy, we know, owns and asserts two other sorts of good, to wit, pleasing and profitable; good being properly the denomination of a thing, as it suits with our desires or inclinations. According to which acception of the word, whatsoever pleases or profits us, may, upon that general account, be called good; though otherwise it swerves from the stated rules and laws of honesty and morality. And upon the same ground, sin itself, so far as it carries either pleasure or profit with it, is capable of being apprehended by the mind of man as good; and consequently of being chosen or embraced by the will as such.
2. The other assertion to be laid down is, that God has annexed two great evils to every sin, in opposition to the pleasure and profit of it; to wit, shame and pain. He has by an eternal and most righteous decree, made these two the inseparable effects and consequents of sin. They are the wages assigned it by the laws of Heaven; so that whosoever commits it, ought to account shame and punishment to belong to him, as his rightful inheritance. For it is God who has joined them together by an irreversible sentence; and it is not in the power or art of man to put them asunder. And now, as God has made these two evils the sure consequents of sin, so there is nothing which the nature of man does so peculiarly dread and abhor as these; they being indeed the most directly and absolutely destructive of all its enjoyments; forasmuch as they reach and confound it in the adequate subject 100of enjoyment, the soul and body; shame being properly the torment of the one, and pain of the other. For the mind of man can have no taste or relish of any pleasure in the world, while it is actually oppressed and overwhelmed with shame; no thing does so keenly and intolerably affect the soul, as infamy: it drinks up and consumes the quickness, the gayety, and activity of the spirits: it dejects the countenance, made by God himself to look upwards; so that this noble creature, the master piece of the creation, dares not so much as lift up either his head or his thoughts, but it is a vexation to him even to look upon others, and yet a greater to be looked upon by them. And as shame thus mortifies the soul, so pain or punishment (the other twin-effect of sin) equally harasses the body. We know how much misery pain is able to bring upon the body in this life; (in which our pains and pleasures, as well as other things, are but imperfect;) there being never a limb or part, never a vein or artery of the body, but it is the scene and receptacle of pain, whensoever it shall please God to unfence it, and let in some sharp disease or distemper upon it. And so exceedingly afflictive are these bodily griefs, that there is nothing which affects the body in the way of pleasure, in any degree comparable to that which affects it in the way of pain. For is there any pleasure in nature, which equals the impressions of the gout, the stone, or even of the toothach itself? But then further, when we shall consider, that the pains which we have here mentioned, and a great many more, are but the preludiums, the first-fruits, and beginnings of that pain which shall be infinitely advanced, and finally completed in the 101torments of another world, when the body shall descend into a bed of fire and brimstone, and be lodged for ever in the burning furnace of an al mighty wrath; this consideration surely will or ought to satisfy us, that God will not be behind hand with the sinner in point of punishment, whatsoever promises his sin may have made him in point of pleasure.
And now, if we put these two assertions, laid down by us, together; as first, That no man ever engages in sin, but as he apprehends in it some thing of pleasure or advantage; and secondly, That shame and pain are by God himself made the assured consequents of sin; which are utterly inconsistent with and destructive of all such pleasure or advantage: it must needs follow from hence, that the will cannot possibly choose sin, so long as the understanding is under a full conviction or persuasion, that shame and punishment shall certainly follow the commission of it. For no man, doubtless, is so furiously bent upon his lust, or any other infamous passion, as to attempt the satisfaction of it in the marketplace, or in the face of the sun and of the world, or with the sword of the avenger applied to his heart.
Covetousness, we all know, is a blinding, as well as a pressing and a bold vice; yet certainly it could never blind nor infatuate any one to that degree, as to make a judge take a bribe upon the bench, or in the open sight of the court. No; no man is so far able to conquer and cast off those innate fears, which nature has thought fit to bridle and govern the fury of his affections by, as to bid defiance to an evil which his best and strongest reasonings assure 102him to be unsupportable; and therefore his apprehensions must be, some way or other, first unshackled from a belief of these evils, before his will and his choice can be let loose to the practice of sin. And does not this give us a most philosophical, as well as true account of the infinite reasonableness of the scripture’s charging all sin upon unbelief, as the first root and source of men’s apostasy from God? For let men think and say what they will, yet when they venture upon sin, they do not really believe that God will ever revenge it upon them: they may indeed have some general, faint, speculative belief of hell and damnation; but such a belief as is particular and practical, and personally applies and brings it home to their own condition, this they are void of; and it is against the methods of reason and nature, for any man to commit sin with such a belief full and fresh upon his spirit: and consequently, the heart must prevaricate, and shift off these persuasions the best it can, in order to its free passage to sin; and this can by no other means be so effectually done, as by promising itself secrecy in sin, and impunity or escape after it. For these two reach and remove all a man’s fears, by giving him security against those two grand terrifying effects of sin, shame and pain. Assure but the sinner, that he shall neither be discovered nor punished, and presently the reins lie loose upon all his appetites; and they are free to take their full swing in all enormities whatsoever. But yet, since this is not to be effected without the help of some arguments and considerations, which may have something of shew, at least, to delude, though nothing of strength to convince the reason; therefore,103
Secondly, We shall now, under our next head, endeavour to give some account of those fallacious grounds, upon which the sinner is apt to take up such a confidence, as to believe that he shall be able to carry off his sin clear, without either discovery or retribution. And, no doubt, weak and shallow enough we shall find them all; and such as could never persuade any man to sin, did not his own love to sin persuade him much more forcibly than all such considerations; some of which are these that follow. As,
1. First, men consider the success which they have actually had in the commission of many sins; and this proves an encouraging argument to them to commit the same for the future; as naturally suggesting this to their thoughts, that what they have done so often, without either discovery or punishment, may be so done by them again. For nothing does so much confirm a man in the continuance of any practice, as frequent experience of success in what he does; the proper genuine result of this being confidence.
Some men indeed stumble in their very first entrance upon a sinful course; and this their disappointment frequently proves their cure, by making them to retreat and draw off timely, as being disheartened with so unfortunate a beginning. And it is, no doubt, the singular mercy and indulgence of God to such, thus to cross and turn them out of the paths of destruction; which had they found smooth, safe, and pleasurable, the corruption of their hearts would have infallibly engaged them in them to their lives end. That traveller, surely, has but little cause to complain, who by breaking a leg or 104an arm at his first setting out upon an unfortunate journey, prevents the losing of his head at his journey’s end; it being but a very uncomfortable way of travelling, to finish one’s journey and one’s life together. Great reason, therefore, have they to own themselves particularly favoured by Providence, who have been stopped and withstood by it, in the very first attempts of any sin, and thereby snatched, as it were a brand, out of the fire, or, which is yet better, have been kept from ever falling into it: their being scorched has prevented their being burnt; while the fright, caused by the danger they so narrowly escaped, has been always fresh upon their memories; and such as come to be thus happily frighted into their wits, are not so easily fooled out of them again. In short, all frustration in the first essays of a vicious course, is a balk to the confidence of the bold undertaker. And therefore, on the contrary, when God is pleased to leave a man under the full sway and power of any vice, he does not concern his providence to lay any block or impediment in such an one’s way, but suffers him to go on and succeed in his villainy, to effect all his projects, and compass the full satisfaction of his lewd desires. And this flushes him up, and makes him hard and insensible; and that makes him venturous and daring; and so locks him fast in the embraces of his sin, while he has not the least surmise of the sadness of the issue, and that the present sweets of sin will and must be bitterness in the end; but, like a sot in a tavern, first drinks himself drunk, and then forgets that there is a reckoning to be paid.
Such an one the Devil accounts he has fast enough; and for that cause, none shall so studiously 105endeavour to promote a man’s quiet and success in sin, as he, who at present tempts him to it, and will hereafter torment him for it. For the Devil desires not that the sinner should feel any trouble for sin, till he comes to feel it for good and all in that place which is designed only for payment, and not amendment; and where all that he can do or suffer to eternal ages can contribute nothing to his release. And therefore, that the sinner may sleep on soundly in his sin, the Devil will be sure to make his bed soft enough. It is said of the Spaniard, that there are two things much accounted of, and desired by many in the world, which yet he heartily wishes his enemy; one is, that if he be a gamester, he may win; the other, that if he be a courter of women, he may obtain his desires; for that he knows well enough, that either of these courses will, in all likelihood, prove his undoing at long run. In like manner, when the Devil has the management of a sinner, he will spread his wing over him so, that he shall never be alarmed with dangers, disgraces, and other calamitous effects of sin, (if the officious tempter can ward them off,) but shall pursue his vice with ease, safety, and reputation.
And while the sinner can do so, such is the proneness of man by nature to deceive himself in a thing which he passionately desires, that having thus acquitted himself to himself, he takes it for granted, that God will acquit him too; and like our late sanctified, and since justified rebels, concludes, that God and he, forsooth, are still of a mind: in Eccles. viii. 11. Because, says the Wise Man, sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set 106in them to do evil. Here he gives us an account of the secret reasoning of most sinners hearts; namely, that because God does not confound them in the very act of sin, by some immediate judgment, therefore they resolve upon a more audacious progress in it; and so sing Agag’s requiem to themselves, that surely the bitterness of death is past: but much surer will such find it, that no man’s being past fear makes him past feeling too; nor that the distance of an evil abates the certainty of it. And yet, the great knower of hearts ascribes men’s resolution to sin to such reasonings as these, (as sottish and ab surd as they are;) so that in Psalm 1. having reckoned up several flagitious practices, he adds, in ver. 21. These things hast thou done, and I kept silence, and thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself. God’s silence, it seems, passes with such for his consent, and his not attacking the guilty wretch by a present execution, makes him conclude, that Heaven has passed an act of oblivion upon all his rogueries, so that henceforth he shall live and die a prosperous, indemnified villain, and his sin never find him out. In which case, certainly, for a sinner thus to presume to absolve himself from his own sins, is itself a greater sin than any of those which he can pretend to absolve himself from. But,
2. A second ground upon which men are apt to persuade themselves, that they shall escape the stroke of divine justice for their sins, is their observation of the great and flourishing condition of some of the topping sinners of the world. They have seen perjury and murder nestle themselves into a throne, live triumphant, and die peaceably; and this 107makes them question whether God will ever concern himself to revenge that hereafter which he seems so much to connive at and countenance here; especially, since men are so generally apt to judge of things and persons according to the present face and appearance of them; that they make the present the sole measure of the future, guide their hopes and their fears by what they actually see and feel; and in a word, make their outward senses the rule and ground of their inmost ratiocinations.
For could we hear the secret language of most men’s thoughts, we should hear them making such kind of answers and replies to the checks of conscience dissuading them from sin, and laying the danger of it before them, as these: Pray, what mischief befell such an oppressor, such a tyrant, or such a rebel? And who passed his life with more affluence and jollity, than such an epicure, such a money-monger, such a tally-broker, and cheater of the public? And have not some dexterous accomptants got estates, and made their fortunes, by a clever stroke or two of their pen? and by a skilful mistake, wrote themselves forty or fifty thousand pounds richer than they were before, in a trice? And did not that discreet Roman, Verres, lighting into a wealthy province, plunder and carry off from thence enough to serve himself, his friends, and his judges too? And why may not others, whose parts lie the same way, follow such lucky examples? and the thriving hypocrites of the present age find as fair quarter from God and man, as any of the former? With such considerations as these, (if they may be called so,) men commonly arm themselves against all the threatenings of the divine judgments; and think 108that, in the strength of them, they can warrant the most resolute pursuit of their vices for safe and rational. They see not the smoke of the bottomless pit, and so dread not the fire.
Flourishing sinners are indeed plausible arguments to induce men to sin: but, thanks be to God, that for a sinner to spend and end his days flourishing, is a privilege allowed by him to very few; and those only such, as are likely to be much lower in the other world, than ever they were high in this. But,
3. As we have shewn how mightily men are heartened on to their sins by the successful examples of others, as bad as themselves, or perhaps worse; so the next ground, upon which such are wont to promise themselves security, both from the discovery and punishment of their sins, is the opinion which they have of their own singular art and cunning to conceal them from the knowledge, or, at least; of their power to rescue them from the jurisdiction of any earthly judge. The eye of man, they know, is but of a weak sight and a short reach; so that he neither sees in the dark, nor pierces into the cabinet-council and corner-practices of his neighbours; and therefore these sons of darkness, who love to work as well as walk in the dark, doubt not, but to contrive and cast the commission of their villainies under such sure coverts of secrecy, that they shall be able to laugh at all judges and witnesses, and defy the inspection of the most curious and exact inquirers. And this makes them proceed to sin with such bravadoes in their hearts as these: Who shall ever see, or hear, or know what I do? The sun itself, the eye of the world, shall never be conscious to my actions; even the light and the day shall be 109strangers to my retirements. So that, unless the stones I tread upon cry out against me, and the beam out of the wall accuse, and my own clothes arraign me, I fear no discovery. This is the language, these the inward boasts of secret, or rather self-be fooled sinners.
But now, what if such strange things as these should sometimes come to pass? And it should so fall out, (as it will appear by and by,) that even these dumb, inanimate things are sometimes unaccountably enabled to clamour and depose against the guilty wretch; so that, to the amazement of the world, he is drawn forth into public view, out of all his lurking holes and pavilions of darkness? Why then, upon such surprising accidents as these, some have yet a further asylum to fly to, and reckon that their power and interest shall protect them; and so secure the sinner, notwithstanding the discovery of the sin. And the truth is, if matters stand so with them, that the height of their condition equals the height of their crimes, what care such ungodly great ones, whether or no their sins are known, so long as their persons must not be touched? No, so far are such from excusing or covering their lawless practices, that they choose rather to own and wear them in the eye of the world, as badges of their power, and marks of such a greatness, as has set itself above the reach of either shame or fear: even treason itself dreads not a discovery, if the overgrown traitor be but mighty enough to bear it out; but it shall walk abroad openly, and look the world in the face undauntedly, with all the consciousness of a clamourous guilt, and yet with the confidence of innocence itself. For we must know, that it is not mere guilt, 110but guilt weak and disarmed, which exposes an offender to the merits of his offence; they are only the minorum gentium malefici, malefactors of a lower form, who break the law, and are hanged for it. Whereas, let a crime be never so foul and so notorious, yet if the wary criminal has so armed and encompassed himself with friends and money, as to stave off all approaches of justice, howsoever his sin may find him out, yet he persuades himself that his punishment cannot; and that is as much as he cares for. For a man’s debts will never fright him, if the officer dares not arrest him; and he will hardly fear breaking the law, who knows that he can trample upon it too. But,
4. The fourth and last ground (which I shall mention) of men’s promising themselves security from the punishment of their sins, is a strong presumption, that they shall be able to repent, and make their peace with God when they please; and this, they fully reckon, will keep them safe, and effectually shut the door against their utmost fears, as being a reach beyond them all. For let a man be never so deeply possessed with a belief of God’s sin-revenging justice, never so much persuaded, that all the wrath which the curse of the law can threaten or inflict, is most certainly entailed, not upon sin only in general, but also upon his own sin in particular; nay, let damnation be always present to his thoughts, and the fire of hell continually flaming in his apprehensions; yet all this shall not be able to take him off from his resolution to sin, and his confidence of escape, because he has an argument in reserve, which he thinks will answer all, to wit, an after-repentance. For if this shall interpose between 111the commission of sin and the punishment of it, he concludes, upon the stock of all God’s promises to the penitent, that he is past danger; and consequently has outwitted the law and the curse, and so stands rectus in curia, in spite of all the threatenings of death and damnation.
And as he thus reckons that repentance will se cure him, so he doubts not but he can command that when he will; as, according to the doctrine of Pelagius, and his modern admired followers, he certainly may; repentance, in their divinity, being a work entirely in the power of the sinner’s will. So that now the sinner’s main business must be to time his repentance artificially, and to retreat opportunely, before the hand of vengeance be actually upon him: and if he can but prevent, and be too nimble for that; why then, he comes off clear and successful, with flying colours, having enjoyed the pleasures and advantages of his sin, without enduring any thing of the smart or sad consequences of the same.
But now, how wretched an inference this is, for any man to form to himself, and thereby to mock and defy Heaven! and yet how deep it lies in the hearts of most sinners, may easily be observed by men of sense; and will be sadly rued by such as are not so, when it is too late. For this is manifestly the great fort and castle, the citadel and strong tower, which the soul has built to itself, to repair to, whensoever it has a mind to sin both with delight and security too. And were it not for this, it would be impossible for any considering man to satisfy himself in his continuance in any known sin for one moment. For he could not, with any consistence with 112that mighty overruling principle of self-preservation, commit a sin, if he assuredly knew or believed that he should be damned for it; which yet, since the in finitely just and true God has most peremptorily decreed and threatened, unless repentance shall intervene, it is evident, that his whole refuge must He in the intervention of that; which also, he persuades himself, shall, in due time, step in between him and the fatal blow. And this very consideration utterly evacuates the terrifying force of the divine threatening; and by promising the sinner a fair issue of things, both here and hereafter, makes the poor self-deluding and deluded creature conclude, that his sin shall never find him out.
And thus having shewn some of those fallacious grounds, upon which men use to build their confidence of the concealment, or at least of the impunity of their sins, I proceed now to the
Third and last general head, at first proposed by us: which was, to shew the vanity of such a confidence, by declaring those several ways, by which, in the issue, it comes certainly to be defeated; and that both with reference to this world and the next.
And first for this world; there are various ways by which it comes to be disappointed here: as,
1. The very confidence itself of secrecy is a direct and natural cause of the sinner’s discovery. For confidence in such cases causes a frequent repetition of the same action; and if a man does a thing frequently, it is odds, but some time or other he is discovered: for by this he subjects himself to so many more accidents, every one of which may possibly betray him. He who has escaped in many battles, has yet been killed in the issue; and by 113playing too often at the mouth of death, has been snapped by it at last.
Add to this, that confidence makes a man venturous, and venturousness casts him into the high road of danger, and the very arms of destruction. For while a man ventures, he properly shuts the eyes of his reason. And he who shuts his own eyes, lies so much the more open to those of other men.
2. There is sometimes a strange, providential concurrence of unusual, unlikely accidents, for the discovery of great sins; a villainy committed perhaps but once in an age, comes sometimes to be found out also by such an accident, as scarce happens above once in an age. For there are some sins more immediately invading the great interests of society, government, and religion; which Providence sets itself in a more peculiar manner to detect and bring to light, in spite of all the coverings which art or power can cast over them: such as are murder, perjury, and sacrilege, (all of them accounted sins of the foulest guilt before forty-one, but marks of regeneration with many ever since:) and more particularly for murder; in what a strange, stupendous manner does Providence oftentimes trace it out, though concealed with all the closeness which guilt and skill, and the legerdemain of a well packed and paid jury can secure it by!
Such small, such contemptible, and almost unobservable hints have sometimes unravelled and thrown open the mysterious contexture of the deepest laid villainies, and delivered the murderer into the hands of justice, by means which seemed almost as much above nature, as the sin committed was against it.
And the like instances might be given in many 114other crying sins, which sometimes cry so long and so loud too, that they come at length to be seen as well as heard, and to alarm the earth as well as pierce heaven. Curse not the king, no not in thy heart, (says the Wise Man, in Eccles. x. 20,) for a bird in the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter: though some, I confess, are of opinion, that such as have no wings are much nimbler and quicker in carrying and telling these matters, than such as have. But to keep to these remarkable words now before us; if the bird upon the house-top (as the text seems to intimate) shall be able (in such a case as this) to tell what is done or whispered within the house; and these inhabitants of the air shall have keys to our chambers and our closets, nay, and to our very hearts too; how can there be such a thing in the world as secrecy? (as the truth is, setting aside all tropes and hyperboles, there is but very little:) and then, if such informers as these find out the treason, we may be sure, that the treason itself will not fail to find out the traitor.
For let a criminal seem never so safe in his own thoughts, and in the thoughts of all about him, yet still he must know, that the justice of God has him in chace, and will one day shew, that it never hunts surer, than when the politicians of the world think it upon a cold scent. For how many strange, intricate, and perplexed villainies have been ript up, and spread far and near, which the subtle actors of them, both before, and in, and after the commission, fully believed could not possibly be discovered? Whereas, on the contrary, it is most certain, that no man, though never so crafty and sagacious, can propose 115to himself such great unlikelihoods for the discovery of any action, but others, altogether as crafty, have actually failed, and miscarried under the very same, or greater.
And therefore the psalmist, most appositely to our present purpose, observes, Psalm xxxvi. 2, that the sinner flatters himself in his own eyes, till his iniquity be found out: that is the issue; and no wonder, if such a practice comes to such an end.
For whosoever flatters himself, cheats and be trays himself by false reasonings; and by not dealing clearly and impartially with himself, but grounding his presumption of secrecy upon arguments represented to him much firmer and stronger, than his own experience, severely judging, would allow them to be. For, if such an one finds an accident highly improbable, he will presently screw it up, from thence, to impossible, and then conclude, that in so vast a number of contingencies, one of a million shall never hit his case. And very probably it may not. But what if it should? why then, one such unlucky event will fully pay the reckoning for all former escapes; and one treason or felony discovered, will as certainly bring his neck to the block or the halter, as a thousand, were they all of them crowded together into one and the same indictment against him.
3. God sometimes makes one sin the means of discovering another: it often falling out with two vices, as with two thieves or rogues; of whom it is hard to say which is worse, and yet one of them may serve well enough to betray and find out the other. How many have by their drunkenness disclosed their thefts, their lusts, and murders, which 116might have been buried in perpetual silence, had not the sottish committers of them buried their reason in their cups? for the tongue is then got loose from its obedience to reason, and commanded at all adventures by the fumes of a distempered brain and a roving imagination; and so presently pours forth whatsoever they shall suggest to it, sometimes casting away life, fortune, reputation, and all in a breath.
And how does the confident sinner know, but the grace of God, which he has so often affronted and abused, may some time or other desert, and give him up to the sordid temptations of the jug and the bottle, which shall make the doors of his heart fly open, and cause his own tongue to give in evidence against him, for all the villainies which had lain so long heaped up and concealed in his guilty breast? For let no man think that he has the secrets of his own mind in his own power, while he has not himself so; as it is most certain that he has not who is actually under a debauch: for this confounds, and turns all the faculties of the soul topsy-turvy; like a storm tossing and troubling the sea, till it makes all the foul, black stuff, which lay at the bottom, to swim, and roll upon the top.
In like manner, the drunken man’s heart floats upon his lips, and his inmost thoughts proclaim and write themselves upon his forehead; and therefore, as it is an usual, and indeed a very rational saying, that a liar ought to have a good memory; so upon the like account, a person of great guilt ought to be also a person of great sobriety; lest otherwise his very soul should, some time or other, chance to be poured out with his liquor: for commonly 117the same hand which pierces the vessel, broaches the heart also, and it is no strange nor unusual passage from the tavern to the gaol.
4. God sometimes infatuates, and strikes the sinner with phrensy, and such a distraction, as causes him to reveal all his hidden baseness, and to blab out such truths, as will be sure to be revenged upon him who speaks them. In a word, God blasts and takes away his understanding, for having used it so much to the dishonour of him who gave it; and delivers him over to a sort of madness, too black and criminal to be allowed any refuge in bedlam. And for this, there have been several fearful instances of such wretched contemners of Heaven, as having, for many years, outfaced all the world, both about them and above them too, with a solemn look and a demure countenance, have yet, at length, had their loathsome inside turned outwards, and been made an abhorred spectacle to men and angels. For it is but just with God, when men have debauched their consciences, to bereave them of their senses also; and to disturb and disarm their reason, so as to disable it from standing upon its guard, even by that last and lowest sort of self-defence, the keeping of its own counsel; for no chains will hold a madman’s tongue, no fetters can restrain the ramble of his discourse, nor bind any one faculty of his soul or body to its good behaviour: but all that is within him is promiscuously thrown out; and his credit, with all that is dear to him, is at the mercy of this unruly member, as St. James calls it, which, in the present case, has no mercy upon him whom it belongs to; nor any thing to govern it, but a 118violent, frantic humour, wholly unable to govern itself.
5. God sometimes lets loose the sinner’s conscience upon him, filling it with such horror for sin, as renders it utterly unable to bear the burden it labours under, without publishing, or rather proclaiming it to the world.
For some sorts of sin there are, which will lie burning and boiling in the sinner’s breast, like a kind of Vesuvius, or fire pent up in the bowels of the earth; which yet must, and will, in spite of all obstacles, force its way out of it at length; and thus, in some cases of sin, the anguish of the mind grows so exceeding fierce and intolerable, that it finds no rest within itself, but is even ready to burst, till it is delivered of the swelling secret it labours with: such kind of guilt being to the conscience, like some offensive meats to the stomach, which no sooner takes them in, but it is in pain and travail, till it throws them out again.
Who knows the force, the power, and the remorseless rage of conscience, when God commissions it to call the sinner to an account? how strangely it will sift and winnow all his retirements? how terribly it will wring and torture him, till it has bolted out the hidden guilt which it was in search of? All which is so mighty an argument of the prerogative of God over men’s hearts, that no malefactor can be accounted free, though in his own keeping, nor any one concealed, though never so much out of sight; for still God has his sergeant or officer in the sinner’s breast; who will be sure to attack him, as soon as ever the great Judge shall but give the 119word: an officer so strictly true to his trust, that he is neither to be softened nor sweetened; neither to be begged nor bought off; nor consequently, in a word, fit to be of the jury, when a rich or potent malefactor comes to be tried, in hopes to be brought off.
And this also shews the great importance and wisdom of that advice of Pythagoras, namely, that every man, when he is about to do a wicked action, should, above all things in the world, stand in awe of himself, and dread the witness within him: who sits there as a spy over all his actions; and will be sure, one day or other, to accuse him to himself, and perhaps put him upon such a rack, as shall make him accuse himself to others too.
For this is no new thing, but an old experimented case; there having been several in the world, whose conscience has been so much too hard for them, that it has compelled them to disclose a villainous fact, even with the gibbet and the halter set before their eyes; and to confess their guilt, though they saw certain and immediate death the reward of that confession.
But most commonly has conscience this dismal effect upon great sinners, at their departure out of this world; at which time some feel themselves so horribly stung with the guilty sense of some frightful sin, that they cannot die with any tolerable peace till they have revealed it; finding it some small relief, it seems, and easement of their load, to leave the knowledge of their sin behind them, though they carry the guilt of it along with them.
6. And lastly, God sometimes takes the work of vengeance upon himself, and immediately, with his 120own arm, repays the sinner by some notable judgment from heaven: sometimes, perhaps, he strikes him dead suddenly; and sometimes he smites him with some loathsome disease, (which will hardly be thought the gout, whatsoever it may be called,) and sometimes again he strangely blasts him in his name, family, or estate, so that all about him stand amazed at the blow; but God and the sinner himself know well enough the reason and the meaning of it too.
Justice, we know, uses to be pictured blind, and therefore it finds out the sinner, not with its eyes, but with its hands; not by seeing, but by striking: and it is the honour of the great attribute of God’s justice, which he thinks so much concerned, to give some pledge or specimen of itself upon bold sinners in this world; and so to assure them of a full payment hereafter, by paying them something in the way of earnest here.
And the truth is, many and marvellous have been the instances of God’s dealing in this manner, both with cities and whole nations. For when a guilt has spread itself so far as to become national, and grown to such a bulk as to be too big for all control of law, so that there seems to be a dispute whether God or sin governs the world; surely it is then high time for God to do his own work with his own hand, and to assert his prerogative against the impudent defiers of it, by something every whit as signal and national as the provocation given; whether it be by war, plague, or fire, (all which we have been visited with, though neither corrected nor changed by;) and to let the common nuisances of the age, the professed enemies of virtue and religion, and the very 121blots and scandal of human nature itself, know, that there still remains upon them a flaming guilt to account for, and a dreadful Judge to account to.
And thus I have gone over several of those ways by which a man’s sin overtakes and finds him out in this world. As, first, the very confidence itself of secrecy is a direct and natural cause of the sinner’s discovery. Secondly, there is sometimes a strange, providential concurrence of unusual, unlikely accidents, for the bringing to light great villainies. Thirdly, God sometimes makes one great sin a means to detect and lay open another. Fourthly, God sometimes infatuates and strikes the sinner with phrensy, and such a distraction, as makes him reveal all his hidden guilt. Fifthly, God sometimes lets loose the sinner’s conscience upon him, so that he can find no rest within himself, till he has confessed and declared his sin. Sixthly and lastly, God sometimes smites and confounds him by some notable, immediate judgment from heaven.
These, I say, are some of the chief ways by which God finds out the sinner in this life. But what now, if none of all these should reach his case, but that he carries his crimes all his life closely, and ends that quietly, and, perhaps, in the eye of the world, honourably too; and so has the good luck to have his shame cast into and covered under the same ground with his carcass? Why yet, for all this, the man has not escaped; but his guilt still haunts and follows him into the other world, where there can be no longer a concealment of it, but it must inevitably find him out: for, as it is in Daniel vii. 10, when the judgment shall be set, the looks shall be also opened; even those doomsday books, (as I may so 122call them,) wherein God has kept a complete register of all the villainies that were ever committed against him, which then shall be displayed, and read aloud in the audience of that great and terrible court. The consideration of which, surely, may well put those excellent words of the apostle, in Rom. vi. 21, with this little alteration of them, into our mouths. What fruit can we [now] have of those things, whereof we shall [then] be ashamed? So, what advantage of pleasure, profit, or honour, can the sinner promise to himself from any sin which may be laid in the balance against that infinite and incredible weight of reproach, with which it will certainly pay him home at that day?
For could he persuade the mountains to cover him, or could he hide himself in the bosom of the great deep, or could he wrap himself in the very darkness of hell; yet still his sin would fetch him out of all, and present him naked, open, and defenceless before that fiery tribunal, where he must receive the sentence of everlasting confusion, and where the Devil himself will be sure to do him justice, as never failing to be a most liberal rewarder of all his pimps and vassals, for the secret service done him in this world.
And now, what is the whole foregoing discourse, but a kind of panegyric (such a mean one as it is) upon that glorious thing innocence? I say innocence, which makes that man’s face shine in public, whose actions and behaviour it governs in private. For the innocent person lives not under the continual torment of doubts and fears, lest he should be discovered; for the light is his friend, and to be seen and looked upon is his advantage: the most retired 123parts of his life being like jewels, which, though indeed most commonly kept locked up in the cabinet, yet are then most admired and valued, when shewn and set forth by the brightness of the sun, as well as by their own.
How poor a thing secrecy is to corrupt a rational man’s behaviour, has been sufficiently declared already, by the survey which we have taken of those several ways whereby the most wise and just Governor of the world is pleased to defeat and befool the confidence of the subtilest and the slyest sinners. We have seen also what paper walls such persons are apt to inclose themselves with; and how slight, thin, and transparent all their finest contrivances of secrecy are; while, notwithstanding all the private recesses and dark closets, which they so much trust in, the windows of heaven are still open over their heads: and now, what should the consideration of all this do, but every minute of our lives remind us so to behave ourselves as under the eye of that God, who sees in secret, and will reward us openly?
To whom be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.124
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