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The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations.
I DO not know a greater and a juster ground of discouragement to wise and thinking men, with reference to the high concerns of their immortal souls, than to consider, that, over and above that innate corruption brought with them into the world, and so mightily strengthened and improved by the continual restless working of the same in the actual commission of sin ever since, that there should, I say, besides this, be an external agent and evil spirit incessantly blowing up this fire within us, exasperating, stirring up, and drawing forth this active quality in the several mischievous actings thereof: and this evil spirit, withal, of such force, such sagacity, and such unspeakable vigilance for the compassing of men’s destruction, as far surpass all that men themselves can be brought to do even for their own salvation. A sad case certainly, and such as must needs cast the issue of the war between them upon very unequal terms; where the superior in malice is as much the superior in strength too; and where (to make the odds yet greater) man on the 290 one side must venture all, and the tempter on the other has nothing to lose.
It is true indeed, that the will of man can never be forced by any created or finite spirit, good or bad, but may still stand its ground against all attacks from without. Nevertheless, there are so many ways to allure, inveigle, and persuade it, by ill, but suitable objects from abroad, that this bare natural power, or rather possibility, of resisting them, in the issue of the matter, proves but a very poor security to it, being so often urged and overborne (as it is) by the powerful impressions which such objects are almost continually, and with so much success, still making upon it.
Nor is it only the present state of corrupt nature which gives force and efficacy to these importunate assaults; but it is altogether as manifest, that the forementioned qualifications of this subtle agent, even in the state of innocence itself, made him so much too hard for our first parents, that, under all the advantages of that blessed estate, he got ground of them so speedily and so effectually, that he made a shift to out them of paradise and their innocence too, before they had passed one whole day in either.
Whereupon an universal contagion seizing the whole mass of human nature, and all mankind (the second Adam only, by his miraculous conception, excepted) being ever since born in sin, and not only born, but fatally grown up in it, and made slaves to it too; how almost could it be imagined, that there should be so much as room for any further addition to the forlorn and miserable estate of a creature so weak, so wretched, and so wholly biased to his own ruin, as man, upon this account, undeniably is? Indeed, 291with so mighty a bias is he now earned on to wards it, that (one would have thought) it might have given even this restless and malicious spirit himself (were he capable of it) his quietus est: it being hard to judge, to what purpose so skilful an artist (and so perfectly acquainted with his business) should employ himself in planting engines and laying trains to blow up one, who, by the freest choice of his own will, and in spite of all the principles of self-preservation, is upon every turn so ready to destroy himself. He who will needs venture into the deep, with neither strength nor skill to encounter the boisterous element, will quickly find the stream alone more than sufficient to bear him down and sink him, without the concurrence of either wind or tide to speed his destruction.
And this, God knows, is but too much our case. Every one of us, from the bare sway of his own inherent corruption, carrying enough and enough about him to assure his final doom, without any further impulse from without, to push home and finish the killing stroke. He who is ready to breathe his last by a fever, surely needs not to be despatched with a sword.
But this is not the worst nor saddest of a man’s condition, with reference to temptation, neither: for though it be too certain, that the corruption of man’s nature is such, that it is sufficient to destroy him without the tempter’s doing any thing towards it, yet it is as certain also, that it never actually destroys him, but the tempter has an hand in that fatal work. Such an adversary have we, the sons of Adam, to contend with; an adversary, who, in conjunction with his two grand allies, the world and the flesh, 292 will be always carrying on an implacable war against souls. For God has declared so much, and men have found and felt it; and (whatsoever atheism or infidelity may object) neither must the justice of the one be disputed, nor the experience of the other be denied. Nevertheless, from what has been said, this, I think, may very rationally be inferred, that there cannot be a stronger argument to evince the necessity of a superior good spirit to assist and bear men through the difficulties of a Christian course, than this one consideration, that, besides a man’s own natural corruption, there is an evil spirit continually active and intent to seduce and draw him from it. Upon which account most certainly it is, that the heart of man, so weak in itself within, and so assaulted from without, if not borne up and assisted by something mightier than itself, is by no means an equal match for the tempter.
In the prosecution of the words, I shall consider these two things.
1st, Who are here to be understood by the godly. And,
2dly, What is here meant by temptation.
First, for the first of these: we may take this for a certain, though perhaps an obvious direction of our inquiries in this matter, viz. that we are not to look or seek for the godly, here spoken of by the apostle, where we may be sure beforehand not to find them; that is to say, amongst such as, with the highest confidence, or rather impudence, not only arrogate, but engross this great character to themselves; such as measure their godliness by looks, postures, and phrases, by a jargon of scriptural cant, and a flow of 293some warm, rapturous, and fantastic expressions; all according to the sanctified whine and peculiar dialect of those times of infatuation, when noise and nonsense so mightily bore down sense and reason, and the godliness then in vogue turned religion quite out of doors. It was the very shibboleth of the party; nothing being so much in fashion with them as the name, nor more out of fashion, and out of sight too, than the thing itself.
But godliness (blessed be God) is not a mere word or pretence, a trick of state, or political engine to support a party or serve a turn, and much less an occasional cover for a stated hypocrisy. No, it springs from a nobler soil and a deeper root, and, like the great object of it, God himself, is the same yester-day, to-day, and for ever; in its original, divine; in its rule, unchangeable.
And therefore, since bare negatives are not to be rested in, where so high a perfection is to be accounted for, (a perfection comprehending in it all the graces of a Christian, and no less than the image of God himself new stamped upon the soul,) he and he only can lay claim to so glorious a qualification, who is actually in covenant with God, and that not only by external profession, but by real relation; a relation entitling him to all the benefits of a federal estate, by coming up to the conditions of it; or, to be yet more particular, he who with a full and fixed resolution of heart has took the whole law of Christ in the several precepts of it, with the utmost hardships attending them, for his portion in this world, and the promises of it for his inheritance in the next: he who rules his appetites by his reason, and both by his religion: he who makes his duty his 294 business, till at length he comes to make it his delight too: he whose sole design is to be pious, without affecting to be thought so: he who lives and acts by a mighty principle within, which the world about him neither sees nor understands; a principle respecting all God’s commands without reserve; a principle carrying a man out to a course of obedience, for the duration of it constant, and for the extent of it universal: and lastly, in a word, he and he only ought to pass for godly, according to the stated, unalterable rules and measures of Christianity, who allows not himself in the omission of any known duty, or the commission of the least known sin. And this certainly will, and nothing less, that I know of, can, either secure a man from falling into temptation, or (which is yet a greater happiness) from falling by it. All other measures not coming up to this standard are vain, trifling, and fallacious, and to all the real purposes of religion wholly ineffectual. They give us but a godliness of a man’s own making, and consequently of his own rewarding too, if ever it be rewarded at all. And thus much for the explication of the first thing; namely, who and what the godly are, to whom the text promises so great a privilege, as to be delivered from temptation.
2dly, The other thing to be inquired into and explained by us is, what is here meant by temptation; a thing better known by its ill effects, than by the best description. The Greek word is πειρασμὸς, which signifies trial, and so imports not so much the matter, as the end of the dispensation. So that any thing whatsoever which tends to try and discover what is in the heart or will of man, is 295and may be (in one respect or other) called a temptation. In which sense, outward crosses and afflictions are so called, and the people of God are bidden by the apostle to rejoice, when they fall into divers temptations, James i. 2. And according to the several ways and methods, whereby God draws forth and discovers what is lodged in the hearts of men, good or bad, God himself is said to tempt them, that is, to try or prove them. In which respect he was said to have tempted Abraham, in Gen. xxii. 1. But (the common and most received use of the word having added something of malignity to its first and native signification) generally in scripture it denotes not only a bare trial, but such an one as is attended with a design to hurt or mischieve the people so tried. In which sense the scribes and pharisees are so often brought in by the evangelists tempting our Saviour; that is, they were still trying him with captious, ensnaring questions, as we find in Luke xi. 54, and elsewhere, to get something out of his mouth to accuse and destroy him. But chiefly and most frequently the scripture means by it such a trial, as is intended to supplant and ruin a man in his spiritual concerns, by inducing him to sin, and so subjecting him to the fatal effects and consequents thereof. And thus, on the contrary, it is said of God, that he tempts no man, in James i. 13. This sort of temptation always proceeding from a man’s own inherent corruption and concupiscence, set on work by their trusty confederate and co-worker the Devil, whose peculiar province and perpetual business being to tempt men this way, he has accordingly, by way of eminence, appropriated the odious name of tempter to himself. 296 And therefore, to give a full account of this whole matter in short; any thing or object whatsoever, whereby a man, either through the instigation of the Devil or his agents, or the corruption of his own heart, or the particular circumstances of his condition, or all of them together, is apt to be drawn or disposed to some sinful action or omission, is that which the scripture principally and most properly calls a temptation.
And this, I conceive, gives us so true and full an account of the general nature of temptation, that no particular sort of it can be assigned, but what is directly comprehended in it, or fairly reducible to it.
As for the sense in which the word ought to be taken here, it may be, and no doubt with great truth is, in the full latitude of it, applicable to both sorts of temptation: it being no less the prerogative of God’s goodness and power to deliver men from such trials as afflict them, than from such as are designed to corrupt them. Nevertheless, I think it also as little to be doubted, that the text chiefly respects this latter signification, and accordingly speaks here most designedly of such a deliverance as breaks the snares, and defeats the stratagems, by which the great and mortal enemy of mankind is so infinitely busy, first to debauch, and then to destroy souls.
Nor can the very reason of the words (so far as I can judge) infer any thing else; forasmuch as all the instances here given by the apostle in the fore going part of this chapter, as first, of persons seduced and drawn aside by false prophets and teachers, bringing in damnable doctrines amongst 297them, in the first verse; and then of Noah delivered from that general inundation of sin, by which, one deluge (as I may so express it) brought upon the world another, in the fifth verse; and lastly, of righteous Lot’s deliverance from the filthy conversation of the Sodomites, in the seventh verse, are all of them but so many notable examples of several persons, some delivered to, and others delivered from, such a sort of temptation, as, without affecting the outward man, were to shoot their poison and pollution only into the inmost powers of the soul or spirit, wounding and working upon that by secret and more killing impressions.
Add to this, that the deliverance from temptation here insisted upon, is set forth as a singular privilege and special act of favour vouchsafed by God to the righteous, and that in a very distinguishing way, (as shall be shewn presently;) whereas a deliverance from temporal crosses and calamities can hardly, with any congruity to other places and pas sages of scripture, be termed so; since such crosses, for the most part, are there declared to be the lot and portion of the godly in this world, the known mark of their calling, a proof of their saintship, and the very badge of their profession.
Nevertheless, allowing this sense of the word not to be wholly excluded here, the argument we may draw from thence, for our present assertion, will run, a fortiore, thus: That if it be so signal a mercy for God to deliver the saints from the mere outside and surface of misery, in those temporal pressures and adversities, which, though possibly they may sometimes incommode the man, yet can never reach the saint, and though they break the casket, can 298 never come at the jewel, certainly it must needs be a mercy of a much higher rate, to deliver them from such temptations as carry nothing but hell and death along with them, and are of so strong, so malign, and so fatal an influence upon the soul, as to drive at nothing less than its utter ruin and damnation.
And now, if upon what has been said it be here inquired, whether they are the righteous only whom God delivers from temptation, and that no such deliverances are ever vouchsafed by him to any of the contrary character?
I answer, that I can find nothing in scripture or reason to found such a doctrine upon; but that such deliverances both may be and sometimes are vouchsafed to persons, far enough from being reckoned godly, either in the accounts of God or man. And first, that they may be so, we need no other reason to evince it than this, that God, in these cases, may very well restrain the actions, without working any change upon the will or affections. And this, both with reference to the evil spirit himself, whom he may control, and keep from tempting; as likewise with reference to wicked men, from whom he may, in several instances, cut off the opportunities of sinning, or complying with the tempter, and yet leave them as habitually wicked as they were before: God’s restraining grace often extending itself to such as his sanctifying grace never reaches. And in the next place, that such deliverances not only may be, but sometimes actually are afforded to persons represented under no note of piety or virtue, but much otherwise, those three memorable examples of Abimelech, Esau, and Balaam, the first in the 20th of Genesis, the second in the 33d of Genesis, 299and the other in the 22d of Numbers, sufficiently demonstrate.
So that we may rationally conclude, that even wicked persons also are sometimes sharers in such deliverances; but still so, that this by all means ought to be observed withal, that the said deliverances are dealt forth to these two different sorts of men upon very different grounds; viz. to the former upon the stock of covenant or promises; to the latter upon the stock of uncovenanted mercy, and the free, overflowing egress of the divine benignity, often exerting itself upon such as have no claim to it at all. The sovereign Author of all good, in this, as in innumerable other cases, scattering some of the bounties of his common grace, as well as those of nature, amongst the sons of men, for the wise and just ends of his providence in the government of the world; which would quickly dissolve and sink into confusion, should even the wickedest of men be always as wicked as the tempter (if he had his will) would assuredly make them.
Now this exposition of the words thus premised, I shall cast the prosecution of them under these three particulars.
1st, To shew how far God delivers persons truly pious out of temptation.
2dly, To shew what is the grand motive or impulsive cause inducing God thus to deliver them. And,
3dly and lastly, To shew why and upon what grounds this is to be reputed so great a mercy and so transcendent a privilege.
And first for the first of these, namely, how far God delivers persons truly pious from temptation. 300 This I shall endeavour to shew, by considering them with reference to temptation these three ways.
1st, As before they enter into it.
2dly, As they are actually entered into it. And,
3dly and lastly, As they are in some degree prevailed upon by it.
All ways of deliverance from it being accordingly reducible to, and comprehensive within the compass of these three, viz.
1st, Of being kept from it; as the church of Philadelphia was, in the third of Revel, ver. 10.
3dly and lastly, Of being brought out of it, as in Luke xxii. 31 we find St. Peter to have been, and as all true penitents and sincere converts never fail to be.
Each of which particular heads shall be distinctly considered by us. And,
First of all; God delivers by way of prevention, or keeping off the temptation; which of all other ways is doubtless the surest, as the surest is unquestionably the best. For by this is set a mighty barrier between the soul and the earliest approaches of its mortal enemy. Whereas, on the contrary, the first step in any destructive course still prepares for the second, and the second for the third; after which there is no stop, but the progress is infinite; forasmuch as the third more powerfully disposes to the fourth, than the first to the second; and so the advance proportionably goes on.
Which being so, and the soul no less than the 301body, being subject to so many distempers, too likely to prove fatal to it, must not preventing remedies in all reason be both the gentlest and the safest for it too? Distance from danger is the strongest fence against it: and that man needs not fear burning, (be the fire never so fierce,) who keeps himself from being so much as scorched.
If we consider the sin of the fallen angels themselves, there might, without dispute, have been a prevention of it, though no recovery after it; and a keeping of their first station, (as the apostle expresses it,) though, when once quitted, no postliminious return to it, no retrieving of a lost innocence or a forfeited felicity.
For which causes the preventing methods of grace may deservedly pass for some of the prime instances of the divine mercy to men in this world. For though it ought to be owned for an eminent act of grace to restore one actually fallen, yet there are not wanting arguments to persuade, that it is a greater to keep one from falling. Not to break a limb is more desirable, than to have it set and healed, though never so skilfully and well. Preservation in this, as in many other cases, being better a great deal than restoration; since, after all is done, it is odds but the scar will remain when the wound is cured, and the danger over.1313 See the sermon in vol. ii. p. 139-162, concerning prevention of sin, upon 1 Sam. xxv. 32, 33.
And therefore happy, no doubt, by a distinguished sort of happiness, are those favourites of Heaven, who have both omnipotence and omniscience, infinite power and infinite wisdom, jointly engaged by infinite 302 mercy, so to guard and wake over them through all the various turns and hazardous encounters in their Christian course, as to bring them off from the enemy safe and untouched, and to work their deliverance rather by rescue than recovery. It is a work in which God, as I may so speak, shews his art and skill. God knows how to deliver the godly, says the text. The whole action is carried on by preventing grace, under the conduct of that high attribute of God’s knowledge; and especially that noble branch of it, his foreknowledge, by which he has the remotest futurities and the loosest contingencies under a certain and exact view. For though indeed the divine knowledge (as all other knowledge) be of itself unoperative; (the proper nature of knowledge being only to apprehend and judge of what comes before it, and rather to suppose than to work upon its object;) yet if the divine knowledge did not certainly and infallibly foresee and comprehend every turn, motion, and foredetermination of man’s will, with reference to every object or motive that can possibly be presented to it, how could God so steadily and effectually ward off all those evils and temptations, which the several events, accidents, and occasions of our lives (all of them variously affecting our wills) would from time to time expose us to? Omnipotence itself could not certainly prevent a danger, if omniscience did not foresee it. For where there is no prescience there can be no prevention. And this is a demonstration that all such preventive deliverances are so peculiarly and wholly from God, that, for want of this perfection, no man living can possibly thus deliver himself. I will guide thee with mine eye, 303says God, Psalm xxxii. 8. Next to the protecting shelter of God’s wing is the securing prospect of his eye.
Numerous are the deliverances that God works for us, which we see, but infinitely more those which we do not see, but he does. For how often is the scene of our destruction contrived and laid by the tempter! how often are his nets spread for us, and those of too curious and fine a thread to be discernible by our eye, and we go securely treading on to our own ruin, when suddenly the mercy of a preventing Providence stops us in our walk, and pulls back our foot from the fatal snare!
Unspeakable are the advantages vouchsafed to mankind by God’s preventing grace; if we consider how apt a temptation is to diffuse, and how prone our nature is to receive an infection. It is dangerous dwelling even in the suburbs of an infected city. Not only the touches, but also the very breath of a temptation is poisonous; and there is sometimes (if I may so express it) a contagion even without a contact.
And if the conscience has not wholly lost its native tenderness, it will not only dread the infection of a wound, but also the aspersion of a blot. For though the soul be not actually corrupted and debauched by a temptation, yet it is something to be sullied and blown upon by it, to have been in the dangerous familiarities of sin, and in the next approach and neighbourhood of destruction. Such being the nature of man, that it is hardly possible for him to be near an ill thing, and not the worse for it.
For if we accurately observe the inward movings 304 and actions of the heart, we shall find that temptation wins upon it by very small, secret, and almost insensible gradations. Perhaps in its first converse with a tempting object, it is not presently surprised with a desire of it; but does it not hereby come to lose some of its former averseness to it? Possibly, at first view, it may not esteem it amiable, but does it not begin to think it less ugly? Its love may not be yet kindled, but is not its former loathing some thing abated? The encroaches of a temptation are so strangely insinuating, that no security under it can be comparable to a being remote from it: and therefore, if we hate its friendship, let us dread its acquaintance, shun its converse, and keep aloof off from its company. For he who would gain a complete triumph over it, must know, that to grapple with it is at best a venture, but to fly from it is certain victory.
And if so, where can a man be so safe as in the arms of sin-preventing grace? the sovereign influence of which will appear, not only from those peculiar effects of it upon the pious and the virtuous, but also from those great things done by it even for the worst and wickedest part of mankind, (as we hinted before,) and those indeed so great, (how little soever taken notice of,) that without them common society could not possibly subsist; but the moral and political frame of the world would fall back into a fouler and more deformed chaos than that out of which this material one was first produced. For how come men generally, and that so extremely against the bent of nature, to submit to laws; laws which for the most part lay a restraint upon their strongest appetites, and which, if they would but generally 305agree to break and to throw off, could signify no thing? How comes the multitude to have such an awe upon their spirits for governors and magistrates, though they know themselves so vastly superior in strength to those who govern them? And why rather is not all order and government upon these terms utterly confounded and turned topsyturvy, by thefts, rapes, incests, perjuries, and murders, and irresistibly borne down by an overflowing torrent of all kinds of villainy, forcing its way through the very bowels of it? Is it because there is not corruption enough in man’s nature to prompt and carry him out to all these enormities? or because there are not sinful objects enough to inflame and draw forth this corruption? No, it is but too sadly manifest that there is too plentiful a stock of both to suffer the world to be quiet one moment, if they could but once, like two mighty seas, meet and join, and flow in together.
But all the stop is from an infinitely wise, preventing power, which keeps all in order here below, by separating between ill objects and worse appetites, by cutting off the opportunities of sin, and so both diverting and defeating the temptation. For how many might, and without doubt would have stolen, as Achan did, had the same allurement been played before them! How many might have committed David’s murder and adultery, had they been under David’s circumstances! How many might have denied and forsworn Christ with St. Peter, had they been surprised with the same danger! How great a part of the innocence of the world is nothing else but want of opportunity to do the wickedness they have a mind to! And how many forbear sinning, 306 not because God’s grace has wrought upon their wills, but because a merciful Providence has kept off the occasion.
And thus much for the first degree of God’s delivering men from temptation; a benefit, which, for the common ends of his providence, he sometimes vouchsafes to all sorts of men promiscuously, but most eminently and frequently to the good and pious, whom for higher and better ends he often rescues and preserves from the first offers and approaches of sinful objects and occasions, and thereby gives his first answer to that most important and divine petition in the Lord’s prayer; Lead us not into temptation.
2dly, We are now in the next place to consider such persons as advanced a step further, and as they are actually entered into temptation; and so also God is at hand for their deliverance. But here we must first premise, what it is to enter into temptation. And that in one word is, for a man to meet with such objects, to converse with such occasions, and to be brought under such circumstances of life, as have in them a peculiar fitness to provoke and draw forth the working of his corruption, whatsoever it be; but especially of that particular corruption which is strongest and most predominant in him. So that a man finds something ready to take hold of his heart and affections, which he cannot easily keep off, or disengage himself from. Thus when a covetous man meets with opportunities of gain, fit to feed and gratify his covetousness; or a proud aspiring man with honours and preferments, suited to his pride and ambition; or lastly, a lustful man with objects or incentives apt to kindle and inflame his 307lust, with other the like provisions for the several sinful appetites of man’s corrupt nature, such an one must know that he is entered into temptation; his standing is slippery, and his retreat doubtful, and what the issue will be in his final coming off, God alone knows, in whose sole power it is to fetch him out of the jaws of death, and to work his deliverance.
It is possible indeed, that, by the peculiar and extraordinary favours of divine mercy, a person so engaged may come off clear and entire, so that the temptation shall not be able so much as to fasten, or make the least impression upon him; but then this is very rare, and no more than possible, and not to be effected but by a power infinite and divine. For as it was God who suspended the natural force of that material fire from acting upon the bodies of the three children mentioned in Daniel iii. so it is God alone who must control the fury of this spiritual flame from seizing upon the soul, having always so much fuel and fit matter there for it to prey upon.
And for an eternal monument of his goodness, he has not left us without some such heroic instances as these upon record in his word, that so the saints may receive double courage and confidence, having their deliverance not only sealed and secured to them by promise, but also that promise ratified and made good to them by precedents and examples, like so many stars appearing, both to direct and to comfort the benighted traveller.
And here, first of all, we have Joseph brought under as fierce a trial as the wit and malice of hell could contrive, being tempted to a vile action by two of the most staggering inducements that could well 308 work upon the mind of man, to wit, power and favour in his lord’s family, if he complied with the temptation; and the shame, infamy, and reproach of the very villainy he was tempted to, in case he refused it. And no doubt so long as the slander was believed of him, he lay in prison under as black a note of ingratitude and baseness, and with as great an abhorrence of all good men, as the charge of so foul a crime, if true, must deservedly have branded him with. And now, could any thing be imagined so grievous and intolerable to a virtuous mind, as to bear the infamy of a lewd and base act, only for refusing to commit it? Yet this was the plunge and temptation which he was brought into, but God brought him out of it, and that without the least spot or sully, but with a mind as clear, and a conscience as unblemished, as the reputation it has given his immortal name to all posterity.
In the next place let us cast our eye upon Moses in the court of Pharaoh, that is, in the shop of the Devil, the school of vice, the scene and sink of all lust and impurity, and the very high road to perdition; so that perhaps the court of Egypt was a greater plague than any that afterwards befell Egypt; a place in which he was to converse with all sorts of allurement, to walk upon traps and snares, to have all his senses accosted with continual messages from the Devil; and in a word, to see, hear, and taste nothing but the pleasures of sin, and scarce to be able to look off from a temptation. This was his condition, and thus was he bred and trained up, as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, a candidate for hell, and a probationer for damnation. And yet even here, as it were, in the very bosom of sin and 309death, God preserved him innocent and untouched, and, like Gideon’s fleece, clean and dry, while all was drenched with a foul and a killing dew round about him. Nor did God preserve him only from ill things, but prepared him also for great, and perhaps the greatest that Providence ever thought fit to achieve by the hand of a mere man.
Again, Such another instance have we in David, encountered with a temptation which seldom hap pens, and is seldomer resisted; to wit, an offer to make his way to a promised throne and sceptre by the blood of his bitter and avowed enemy, then perfectly at his mercy; and a greater temptation certainly could hardly befall a man, than that which should promise him with one stroke both to gratify his ambition, and to satisfy his revenge; to put a crown upon his head, and his mortal enemy under his feet. And yet, as dazzling and alluring as this offer was, David had something within him stronger than the strongest assaults of those two violent and transporting affections; something that would not suffer him to be disloyal to gain a crown, nor receive possession of that kingdom from the Devil, of which God himself had given him the reversion. No temptation could make him snatch God’s work out of his own hands, whose sole prerogative it is to dispose of crowns and kingdoms, to appoint, and to exclude, and to hasten as well as alter successions.
But now, may there not be yet a greater temptation than either of these? something more glistering than a crown? and more luscious than revenge? If there may, surely it was that which St. Paul and Barnabas met with in Acts xiv. the offer of divine worship and adoration. For to be like God was 310 the first temptation, which robbed man of his innocence; and so pertinaciously was this urged upon these two apostles by the men of Lystra, that it is said, verse 18, that Paul and Barnabas could hardly restrain them from doing sacrifice to them; for the oxen, the garlands, and the priest of Jupiter, were all ready for that purpose. But now, how did this strange ἀποθέωσις, think we, affect and work upon these holy men? Why, to be sure, not as it would have worked upon a Simon Magus, whose whole heart, soul, and study, was set upon being canonized and worshipped by the sottish Samaritans for a kind of demi-god, Acts viii. 10; nor yet as it would have affected an Herod, who would needs be a god too, though of the rabble’s and the Devil’s making, Acts xii. 22. But these men, whose hearts God had touched with a true and tender sense of religion, were so far from being exalted, that they were cast down, humbled, and astonished at such impious and extravagant honours; and no doubt rejected them with so great an horror and detestation, that they would much rather have been sacrificed themselves, than have endured any to sacrifice to them.
Now in all these notable instances of success against temptation we must observe this; that the tempting object was brought home and close to them, and laid directly before them, and that with all imaginable advantages of allurement, together with full opportunity and power to commit the sin which they were tempted to; and yet the persons so tempted came off (as we have shewn) not in the least tainted or prevailed upon. From all which it is evident, that God secures his saints against temptation, 311not only by antecedent preventions keeping them from it, but also by his subsequent grace supporting them under it, and bringing them victorious out of it; which is the second degree of deliverance.
3dly and lastly, We are to consider the persons hitherto spoken of, as not only entered into temptation, but also as in some measure prevailed upon by it. For that a person truly pious, sincere, and sound at the heart towards God, may through the inveiglements of the world, and the frailty of his own nature, be sometimes surprised, and for a while drawn into the ways of sin, I do no more doubt or question, than that a sound and healthful constitution may some times be disordered with heats and colds, battered with wounds and bruises, and indisposed by swellings and breakings-out; and yet all this without destroying the main, substantial health and habit of the body. And he who asserts the contrary, and acknowledges no holiness but what is perfection, will upon trial find it a much easier matter, by the faulty passages of his life, to prove himself sinful and unholy, than by the very best and holiest of them to prove himself perfect.
But that I may give some light and resolution to this great and weighty case of conscience, how far a person truly godly and regenerate may, without ceasing to be so, be prevailed upon by temptation, I will here set down the several degrees, steps, and advances, by which a temptation or sinful proposal gradually wins and gains upon the soul, and those all of them comprised in St. James i. 14, 15. Every man, says the apostle, is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath 312 conceived, if bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. I say, in these words we have a full and distinct account of five several steps or gradations, by which a temptation grows upon, and at length prevails over, the souls of men.
1st, The first of which we may call seduction. As when the mind, being surprised, or suddenly struck with the taking representation of some sinful act or object, begins to think of it, so as by such thoughts to be for the present drawn aside from its duty. For seduction literally and properly signifies a man’s being drawn away, or drawn aside. As the Greek word here has it. He is ὑπὸ τῆς ἐπιθυμίας ἐξελκόμενος, drawn off, or drawn away by his concupiscence. As for instance; when a man is intent upon the honest works of his calling, and two or three lewd companions come, and desire his company to a debauch; here he first begins to hearken to the proposal, and to think with himself of the pleasure and satisfaction which he might find by complying with it. During which thought he ceases for that time to intend the business he was upon before, or to employ his mind about it. And this is seduction, the first invading step of a temptation, whereby it seizes a man’s thoughts, and actually draws him off from his duty, by diverting the intention of his mind from that to something else; much like the first unbending of a bow, which though it does not spoil it, yet for the present renders it unserviceable.
2dly, The second degree of temptation may be called enticement or allurement. As when a man does not only think upon a sinful object or proposal, but also suffers his thoughts to dwell, and, as it were, to brood upon it with delight, pleasing his imagination 313by frequent reflections upon it, and representing it to himself under its most advantageous colours and circumstances, while he thus turns and rolls it about in his fancy. And this is expressed here by the next Greek word, δελεαζόμενος, which the translation renders enticed, and imports in it a metaphor taken from the practice of such as cast or lay some bait before any fish or fowl; which, as soon as they spy it, do for a while view and look upon it with appetite and pleasure, before they are brought to take it in, or swallow it. Now if a temptation chance to be stopped here, the main and principal drift of it is defeated: nevertheless this is a great and a dangerous step; for when it comes so far, it rarely happens but it proceeds farther. And therefore,
3dly, The third degree is, when, after such possession had of the thoughts and fancy, the temptation comes to make its way into the consent of the will, and to gain that great fort also; so that the mind begins to purpose, and accordingly to contrive the commission of the sin proposed to it; and this the Greek text here calls συλλαμβάνειν, to conceive; εἶτα δὲ ἡ ἐπιθυμία συλλαβοῦσα, when lust, or concupiscence, has conceived; so that the soul hereby grows, as it were, big and impregnate with a temptation. In which case, as all immoderate fulness naturally endeavours after evacuation and vent; so the soul now becomes restless, and, as it were, in labour, till it disburdens itself, and discharges what it has thus conceived, by some sinful act or commission. And this directly introduces and brings in,
4thly, The fourth degree of prevalence which a temptation gets over the soul; and that is, the actual 314 eruption of it in the perpetration or commission of the sin suggested to it; and this in the forementioned place of St. James is called τίκτει ἁμαρτίαν, to bring forth sin; when lust or concupiscence in the heart sends forth a cursed brood or litter in the actions: like a fountain, which having been for some time imprisoned and pent up in the bowels of the earth, at length forces its way through, and casts forth its streams with a violent, uncontrolled effusion.
5thly, The fifth and last degree, completing the victory which temptation obtains over a man, is, when sin comes to that pitch, as to reign, and, by a frequent habitual commission of it, to domineer and lord it in a man’s conversation; in respect of which we are said, Rom. vi. 17, to be the servants of sin, as not being in our own power, nor having the disposal and command of our own faculties, but upon all occasions being turned and carried about by the tyrannical impure dictates of an overruling corruption; in which respect also we are said, Rom. vii. 23, to be led captive by sin, as being conquered and over-mastered by the violent assaults of it, and then, as it were, pinioned and fettered, (as slaves and conquered persons use to be,) and so by consequence put out of all possibility either of resistance or escape.
And this the apostle St. James in the forecited place calls τελεῖν ἁμαρτίαν, the finishing of sin; ἡ δὲ ἁμαρτία ἀποτελεσθεῖσα ἀποκύει θάνατον, when sin is finished, it brings forth death. And it is frequency and continuance in sin which properly finishes it; for it is this which gives it its full maturity and utmost perfection, which habituates, and even turns it into another nature, which a single act or commission of 315sin cannot do. And when a man comes once in this manner, not only to act sin, but even to be acted and possessed by it, as an absolute slave to all its commands, he is then ripe for hell and perdition, and fit only to be sent thither by the next destroying providence.
These are the several degrees by which a temptation grows and prevails upon the hearts of men; which that I may the better represent and set before you at one view, I shall gather and sum them up all into one instance; and it shall be that of Demas, mentioned by the apostle, 2 Tim. iv. 10, Demas hath forsaken us, having loved this present world.
Here we will first consider Demas in full communion with the church, and a zealous professor of Christianity; during which strict and self-denying profession it is suggested to his mind (by the Devil, we may be sure) what profit and advantage he might reap by relinquishing this severe course, and swimming with the common stream of the world. And this thought prevails so far with him, as to take him off from his accustomed strictness in the actual pursuit of his duty. And this is the first degree of temptation, which is called seduction. From this he proceeds to entertain and feed his mind with frequent thoughts of those worldly gains and emoluments, reflecting upon them with much pleasure and complacency. And this is the second degree of temptation, which the scripture calls a being enticed or beguiled. From this he goes on, and, from the pleasure of these thoughts, begins to purpose and intend to put them in execution. And this is that third degree of temptation, by which sin is said to conceive. From hence he makes a step further, 316 and actually lays down the profession of Christianity, and so, striking off to the world, fully executes those purposes and intentions. Which is the fourth degree of temptation, by which sin is said to bring forth. And lastly, having come so far, he adds the concluding cast, and continues and perseveres in the sinful pursuit of his worldly advantages, never returning, nor recovering himself by repentance, to his former profession. And thus at length we see him got to the top of his sin, which, by this perseverance in it, he properly finishes and completes, and so stands registered in the black roll of final apostates.
Having thus reckoned up the several degrees of temptation, and set before you the fatal round and series of the Devil’s methods for destroying souls, let us now in the next place inquire, how far God vouchsafes to deliver the pious and sincere out of them.
In answer to which I first of all affirm, that God’s methods in this case are very various, and not to be determined or declared by any one standing or universal assertion.
Sometimes, by a total and entire deliverance, he delivers them from every degree and encroach of a temptation.
Sometimes he lets them fall into the first degree of it, and receive it into their thoughts; but then delivers them from the second, which is, to cherish and continue it there by frequent pleasing reflections upon it.
Sometimes he gives way to this too, but then hinders it from coming to a full purpose and consent of will.
Sometimes he lets it go thus far also, and suffers 317sin to conceive by such a purpose or consent; but then, by a kind of spiritual abortion, stifles it in the very birth, and so keeps it from breaking forth into actual commission.
And fourthly, for reasons best known to his most wise providence, he sometimes permits a temptation to grow so powerful, as to have strength to bring forth, and to defile the soul with one or more gross actual eruptions.
But then, in the last place, by a mighty, over powering grace, he very often (as some assert) or always (as others affirm) keeps it from an absolute, entire, and final conquest. So that sin never comes to that height, as to reign in the godly, to bear sway, and become habitual. But though its endeavours are not always extinguished, nor its sallyings out wholly stopped, yet its dominion is broke. It may sometimes bruise and wound, but it shall never kill. It may possibly be committed, but it shall never come so far as to be finished. But the Spirit of God will interpose, and cut it short in its progress.1414 Memorand. That there are some remarks of the same nature, concerning the steps and progress of sin, in vol. ii. p. 146, 147, 148. This, I say, is the judgment of some in this great and arduous point; who accordingly apply that glorious supporting promise made in Rom. vi. 14, to all who are actually in a state of grace, that sin shall not have dominion over them.
Now the foregoing particulars, upon a due improvement of them, will naturally teach us these two great and important lessons.
1st, Concerning the singular goodness as well as 318 wisdom of our great Lawgiver, even in the strictest and severest precepts of our religion.
2dly, The other concerning the best and surest method of dealing with the tempter and his temptations.
Of each of which very briefly.
And first for the first of them. The severest precepts of Christianity seem to be those which abridge men in the very first motions and desires of their corrupt affections; such as are delivered in the fifth chapter of St. Matthew. According to which, anger passes, in the gospel account, for murder; and looking and lusting, for adultery. Which are hard lessons, you will say; and indeed, considered barely in themselves, cannot well appear otherwise. But then, if you consider withal, that the just reward of murder and adultery, without repentance, (which is not so easy a work as some imagine,) is certain and eternal damnation, and that lust and anger directly lead to them; is it not the height of wisdom and goodness too, to hinder the consummation of those soul-wasting sins, by obliging us to withstand them in their first infancy and beginnings? For then it is certain that they may be dealt with and suppressed with much more ease, than when, by several degrees of lust and desire cherished and allowed, they are ready to break forth, and, as it were, even force their way into actual commission. Is it not a much safer and surer way to victory, to attack an enemy in his weakness, than in his full strength; while he is yet levying his forces, than when he has actually taken the field? to crush the cockatrice in the egg, than 319to grapple with it when it is grown a serpent? Is it not much easier to prevent the conception of sin, than to suffer it to conceive, and then to forbid it to bring forth? to suffer lust and anger to boil, and rage, and ferment in a man’s breast without control, and then to damn him for a lustful or revengeful act, which perhaps, after such a progress made by those sins in his desires, it is scarce morally in his power to forbear?
Certainly it is a much greater mercy and tenderness to the souls of men, to represent the first movings of the heart towards any forbidden object as unlawful in themselves, and destructive in their consequence, and thereby to incite the soul to a vigorous resistance of them while they may be mastered, and with ten times less trouble extinguished, than, after they are once actually committed, they can be repented of? No doubt sin is both more easily and effectually kept from beginning, than, being once begun, it can be stopped from going on. For every, even the least motion towards sin, not immediately checked, (though it be but in the thoughts,) is a certain step to a further degree, and consequently a dangerous preparative to the very last completion of it. And therefore all those precepts of Christ, which seem at first view to carry with them so much of rigour and severity, are indeed quite contrary, and nothing else but the gracious and benign contrivances of a superlative wisdom and mercy combining to do us good; of wisdom, as suggesting the best course to prevent sin; and of mercy, as prescribing the surest way to save the soul.
2dly, The other great lesson which we may learn from the foregoing particulars is, concerning the 320 most effectual method of dealing with the tempter and his temptations; and that is, to follow the method of their dealing with us. A temptation never begins where it intends to make an end.
Would the Devil tempt a man to rebellion? He will not persuade him to set up his standard, to take up arms, and declare himself immediately, unless he have to deal with one who is as much fool as knave, (a very unfit composition to make a rebel of;) but he will first tempt him to ambition, then to discontent, then to murmuring or libeling against his superiors, and from that to caballing with factious and seditious malecontents like himself, and by these several ascents and degrees the tempter will effectually form and fashion him into a perfect Absalom, a Catiline, or a Cromwell, in time.
Or would he work a man up to the height of debauchery or uncleanness? Why, in such a case it would be too black and impudent a proposal to bid him leap into his neighbour’s bed presently. And therefore he will make his approaches like a more experienced artist, first inveigling him with loose thoughts; from thence leading him to impure desires; and from such desires to the further incentives of lewd, lustful, and licentious conversation: and by these several stages of filth and folly he shall at length arrive at such a pitch of guilt and infamy, as shall render him a public nuisance, a very pest and infection, and able to give the very air he breathes in the plague, or something worse.
These are some of the Devil’s methods by which he tempts and destroys souls; and such as are spiritually wise will take the very same course to preserve them. So that, would a man keep the Devil 321out of his life and actions? let him keep him out of his thoughts and desires. And so long as he observes this way of dealing with him, that man surely can be in no danger of the guilt of murder, who makes a conscience of the first sallies of an angry thought or an abusive word; nor is he under any likelihood of being ever brought to defile his neighbour’s bed, who dares not allow himself in a wanton look or a lewd desire.
But on the contrary, can any one in his wits think to secure himself from the practice of any vice, after he has suffered it to fix and seat itself in his affections? Will he let the Devil (the most expert of wrestlers) get within him, and then expect that he should not throw him? The divine wisdom, I am sure, prescribes us quite other methods for our spiritual security, even the sure and sovereign methods of prevention. God’s prescription is, that we bestir ourselves betimes; that we nip sin when it begins to bud in the thoughts, and crop it off as soon as it shoots forth in the desires. And though possibly such severe disciplines and restraints of our selves may look but like chimeras or romances to persons immersed in their sensuality, and enslaved to their vice, yet they are really great and necessary duties, and such as must be practised, and therefore certainly may.
And the better to convince us that they are so, let this one consideration always dwell upon our minds; that there is no man so far hardened by and over grown with sin at present, but there was a time of his life once, in which his heart could have served him to have done all this. And if, by a long, inveterate course of sinning, he has since (in effect) sinned 322 away his liberty and his conscience so far, as to become insensible and inflexible, and unable to be wrought upon by that which would both have wrought and prevailed upon him heretofore, such a moral, acquired impotence ought, in all reason, to lie at his own door; for it is certain that he can not charge it upon God, whose wisdom, justice, and goodness is such, that he never fails those, who are not first failing to themselves.
To whom therefore be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.323
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