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And his disciples asked him, saying; Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.
THE evangelist here presents us with a signal miracle, done by Christ upon a blind man. To advance which in the esteem of believers, and to confirm it against the cavils of atheists, he remarkably sets down that he was blind from his birth: so setting forth the greatness of the cure, from the circumstance of the malady.
A blindness accidentally contracted, as by over much watching, excessive rheums, or a film growing over the eyes, or the like, may sometimes find a remedy from art; but to cure such a blindness as is born with a man, (as one well observes, and as properly expresses it,) non artis, sed potestatis est; it is not a work of skill, but an effect of power; not so much the removing of blindness, as the creating of sight. Which did not, as some may atheistically imagine, shew Christ’s knowledge in physic, but prove the divinity of his call.
For as it is in the 32d verse, Since the world begun was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. And, I think, that may be pronounced naturally impossible to be 2 done, of the doing of which, from the very first beginning of nature, there has been no instance.
Now the circumstance of this blindness, thus expressed in the words of the first verse, was the occasion of these words that follow in the two next: in which we have,
1. A question of Christ’s disciples.
2. The answer, or rejoinder of Christ.
The disciples’ question is contained in these words, Did this man sin, or his parents, that he was born blind? The scope and intent of which interrogatory is not agreed upon by all; but the design of the proposal of it may be twofold.
(1.) That they simply and positively proposed it as their opinion, really judging all maladies of the body to come from the antecedent demerit of sin: according to which supposition, looking upon all men’s sufferings as the effects of their personal sins; and seeing here, in this man, the evil inflicted before the sin could be committed; they were much gravelled in resolving how this man’s blindness could relate to sin as the meritorious cause. Hereupon they asked, whether God inflicted it for his own sin, or for the sin of his parents? which words may be understood two ways.
First, Of sin considered by God as past, and actually committed: and so if we understand it of the parents sin, we know that God sometimes avenges the sin of the parent upon the child; as we find in David, and his child, who died for his murder and adultery.
But if we understand it of sin already committed in his own person, so it savours of the opinion of Pythagoras, then common amongst the Jews, as also 3at this day, that there is a metempsychosis, or trans migration of souls from one body to another successively; and accordingly as the soul had behaved itself in one body, after the death of it, it was disposed of into another, suitably to its former behaviour: that is, if it had done virtuously, into a body fair and healthful; if viciously, into a body maimed and deformed, as here. So that the soul of this man, for some fault done in that body in which it was before, might be condemned to such a blind habitation as it enjoyed at present.
Secondly, It may be understood of his sin, not as past and committed, but as future and foreknown by God: so that the sense of their question would be, Whether God inflicted this blindness upon him for some offence of his parents, or for some sin of his own, which, while he was yet unborn, God foresaw he would afterwards commit; and for the merit of which foreseen sin he inflicted this severe judgment upon him, as to send him blind into the world, even from his nativity? If they proposed this question as their opinion, it might indifferently be grounded upon either of these acceptations.
(2.) Some think that they did not propose this as their opinion, but only for argument sake; and that, occasioned by a former passage recorded in John v. where Christ, having healed a man, bid him go and sin no more, lent a worse evil befell him. Where upon they collected, that it was Christ’s judgment, that every such evil or distemper befell men meritoriously for their sin; but not being able to reconcile this instance with the reason of that opinion, they argued the case with Christ in this dilemma: If every evil befalls men for their sin, then how could 4 this man be blind? for if it were for sin, it must be either for his own sin, or for the sin of his parents: but not for his own sin, because it befell him before his birth, and consequently before he could commit sin; nor yet for his parents’ sin, because God had said that the child should not suffer for his father’s sin, but the soul that sinned should die. Therefore certainly sin is not always the cause why men are sick, afflicted, or unfortunate; but there must be some other cause to which these evils ought to be ascribed, as appears from the example of this man.
Now this sense is also probable, were it not for this, that the argument is founded upon the impossibility of God’s punishing the children for the parents; the contrary of which is positively asserted in scripture, as in Exod. xx. 5; where God says, that he would visit the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation. Besides that this way of arguing seems but little agreeable to the modesty and distance becoming disciples, thus to dispute with their master upon the catch; as also too artificial for their abilities, it being well known that they were never bred to the niceties of logic, either in making syllogisms or dilemmas.
The next thing to be considered is Christ’s rejoinder, in these words, Neither did this man sin, nor his parents: which words must needs be elliptical; and therefore the foregoing sentence is to be repeated with it, Neither did this man nor his parents sin, that he was born blind. Otherwise the words, barely considered, would contradict those scriptures that affirm all men to be sinners. But howsoever words may appear, it is certain that the sense of one scripture cannot contradict the sense of another: besides, 5the words, neither did he sin, nor his parents, can not be understood simply, that he did not sin, but that sin was not the cause of his blindness. Otherwise the answer does not reach the scope of the question, which inquires, not barely whether he sinned, but whether his sin procured him this malady; which Christ, in this answer, appositely denies.
But you will say, Is not the fall of Adam, and our original sin emerging from thence, the cause of all the miseries and diseases that are incident to man kind?
I answer, It is indeed the remote and general cause, or rather the causa sine qua non; for were it not for Adam’s fall, and for original sin, there would be no such maladies or distempers. But the question here is not of the remote and general cause, but of the proper, particular, and immediate cause of this blindness. And this cannot be original sin; for so, wheresoever it was, it would have this effect; and consequently all men would be born blind, inasmuch as all have original sin; which is absurd, and contrary to experience.
Christ, therefore, having removed the false cause, subjoins the true, that the works of God should be wade manifest in him. Some lay an emphasis upon the plural word, that it is not said, work, but works: for first, in his blindness, God had manifested a work of absolute power; and then, in his restitution, a work of mercy. Some also from hence draw an argument for Christ’s divinity, that his work is called the work of God. But I shall not insist upon these, as neither being very firm in themselves, nor relating to my purpose.
But it may be of some concernment to state the 6 import of the particle that, in the Greek ἵνα; whether it denotes the cause, or only the event and consequence of the thing, as in the 39th verse of this chapter, I came into the world, that seeing they might not see. Where we cannot say, that the hardening of any was the cause or end why Christ came into the world; but an event or consequence, that, through the pravity of their hearts, happened upon his coining. So the manifesting the works of God might not be the cause why this man was born blind, but a thing that occasionally fell out upon his being so.
But still, the common reason of discourse does compel us to measure the sense of the answer by the nature of the question. Now the disciples’ question was about the cause of this man’s blindness, and therefore Christ’s answer must be so too; and not, when they asked him about the cause, to answer them about the consequent of it. This would have been to make them ask Christ one thing, and Christ to resolve them in another: which if he had, though what he said might have been a truth, yet it could not have been an answer. I conclude, therefore, that Christ means, that the manifesting of God’s power in this miraculous cure, was the final cause moving God to inflict this blindness upon him from his birth.
And thus there is a way cleared through the exposition of the words, which briefly exhibit to us the erroneous curiosity of the disciples in their pragmatical inquiry into the reason of God’s judgments, and the state of another man’s soul. And on the other hand, they shew both the divine knowledge and excellent strain of charity that shined in 7Christ’s reply; in which, by a reprehensive shortness, he both clears the man’s innocence, and vindicates God’s proceedings, and so states them both upon a right foundation.
I shall now draw forth and prosecute the design of the words in these three propositions.
I. That men are prone to charge God’s judgments upon false causes.
II. That not always the sin or merit of the person afflicted, but sometimes the will of God, who afflicts, is the sole and sufficient reason of the affliction.
III. Though God’s will and power be a sufficient reason of any evil inflicted upon man, yet he never inflicts it, but for the great end of advancing his own glory; and that usually in the way of their good.
In the prosecution of these it will appear, how each of them is deduced from the text.
I. For the first of these, though it be an universal, drawn from a particular instance of the disciples, yet the reason and principles inducing them thus to judge being common to all, I think the case, though particular, may not illogically yield an universal deduction. Besides, it amounts to an argument drawn a fortiore, that if the disciples, who were continually under the nurture and instruction of Christ himself, were yet apt to lash out into such extravagant censures, then certainly other men will be so much more, who have not the advantage of so near an access to his person, nor of such familiar acquaintance with his precepts.
In the handling of this proposition, I shall shew,
1. The false causes to which men are apt to refer God’s judgments.8
2. The principles inducing them to make such false references.
The causes, in short, are these two.
(1.) Sin on his part that suffers. There is a generation of men who have built their faith upon the ruins of charity, and wholly cried up one, while they sufficiently acted down the other. These, upon the hearing of any judgment or disaster fallen upon any man, immediately second it with these censures; As for this man, we know that he is a sinner: for does not God single him out, and expose him as a spectacle to men and angels? Does he not punish him as he did Cain, so as to mark his sin in his very forehead?
As soon as ever the blow is given, then they fall to judge and guess at the cause: first they kill, and then condemn; first do execution, and then pass sentence. Certainly such a man is rotten at the heart; otherwise do you think that God would have thus thrown him away? He has not the power of godliness; for if he had, would God have seen him stript, plundered, and imprisoned?
And if, perhaps, such an one had been severe to advance discipline and suppress the factious, then, to be sure, they worry him home. Do you not remember how he persecuted such and such a precious man, such a saint, such a gospel-preaching minister? Now, I think, the vengeance of God has overtook him. Thus, when Cicero, the preserver of his country, was banished by a prevailing faction, then the rabble and rascality of Rome cried out, that the gods revenged his cruelty to Catiline and his companions.
And moreover, according to the example in the 9text, they will arraign even the dead also, and charge upon a man the sins of his ancestors. Thus the curse must lineally descend from the father to the son, as part of the inheritance: one must he condemned in the other: if the son is miserable, the father, no doubt, was very sinful. Does his estate perish and moulder away? Questionless it is because his father got it by bribery, or extortion, or the like.
Thus the name of the dead, which should be sacred and reverenced, but always spared, is unchristianly, inhumanly torn and traduced: the poor father, in the mean time, as it were, suffering in his son, and in a manner being executed in effigie; and the afflicted son having this further load added to his affliction, to hear the defaming of his deceased father.
But then, when they come also to charge a man’s miseries upon his personal sins, how many surmises, presumptions, and whispers, shall there be of his supposed guilt! charging him with such and such secret sins; and those indeed oftentimes so secret, that God himself knows not of them. In short, they do the most unjust thing in the world; they argue what a man has done, by what he suffers.
(2.) The second false cause, on which men charge God’s judgments, is hatred on God’s part. They argue as Gideon to the angel. If God loved them, how could it be thus with them? For can God torment in love? can he kill with kindness? does the noise of his strokes and the sounding of his bowels speak the same thing? Certainly an enemy’s behaviour must needs import an enemy’s heart; and the violence of his own actions are caused and influenced by the hatred of his affections.10
But such disputers should know, how remote their argument is from the truth: for God may strike, and yet not be angry; and further, he may be angry, and yet not hate. The hand of a father may do the one, and his heart may entertain the other; but to hate a son consists not with that relation. God may smite his creature, and yet tenderly love him at the same time. The air may be clear and wholesome, and yet very sharp. God may register the same name in the book of his eternal election, which he suffers to be proscribed here in the course of his providence: and eternal salvation in another world is very fairly consistent with certain destruction in this. While nothing but storms and tempests encounter a man in these lower regions, there may be a perfect calm and serenity in the mansions above.
But let us sift this argument a little further: we will not from God’s outward, earthly favours collect his love, and from the mercies of the left hand argue a title to those of the right. Why then, on the contrary, do we not use the same argument where there is the same reason; and from the severity of God’s outward dealings, not conclude the certainty of his hatred? Solomon argues equally on both sides, Ecclesiastes ix. 1; No man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before him. And he that shall make God’s outward, promiscuous providences the marks of his inward affections, will spell that meaning out of them, that neither they signify, nor God intends.
This therefore is the second mistaken cause upon which men are apt to charge the divine judgments; namely, God’s hatred of the person whom he so afflicts. If a man is signally brought low, he is presently 11a reprobate and a castaway, an abomination to the Lord, one whom God has laid aside, and will never use more; which were the terms and language by which many excellent persons were not long since treated by a generation of men, who, by rapine and reformation being possessed of their places and estates, were as bold to promise themselves as sure a perseverance in temporals, as they did in spirituals.
Such persons, when God has done execution upon any, then in a preposterous way they pronounce the sentence, and after he is executed, then set upon him, and condemn him. But blessed be God that he is not forced to write after their dictates, and that man’s hatred is not God’s. Wherefore we may take shelter in the word of truth, from all such wandering, roving, and impertinent censures. Prov. xxvi. 2, As the bird by wandering, as the swallow by flying, and I may add, as such men by judging; so the curse causeless shall not come, unless perhaps upon the head of those who thus pronounce it; but then it ceases to be causeless.
2. The second thing is, to shew the principles inducing men thus to charge God’s judgments upon false causes; and these are three.
(1.) The fallibility of the rule, and the falseness of the opinion by which they judge. The rule is providence, and the opinion is, that God’s providence is an evidence of his love. For the first, in this they lay the ground of necessary error: for he must equally err who follows a false rule, and who follows none. Now a rule, in the nature of it, implies certainty; and certainty in actions consists in a perpetual infallible repetition of the same instance, at least supposing the same circumstances.12
But now God’s providence, though it is certain to him, all the windings and varieties of it being clearly and infallibly represented to his omniscience, yet to us it is uncertain, as not always producing the same instances in the same cases. Such an one is in a strait, and prays, and is delivered: but is this a rule for me to judge, that whosoever is in the same strait, and prays, shall meet with the same deliverance? Experience shews the contrary, and there is no confuting of experience. In short, providences cannot be brought under any general rule, except only this, that they are according to God’s will; which will is not revealed, and therefore cannot be known till the event declares it.
And as for the opinion that is founded upon this rule, that God’s love and hatred are writ upon his providential dealings; it is not only to be denied as false, but to be detested as impious and uncharitable, as that which tends to extirpate brotherly love and civil converse out of the world.
For since even nature will convince us, that our love ought to follow God’s love, and our hatred to second his, wheresoever he is pleased to fix it; then collecting God’s love where I see a man prosper, I must love him too, which indeed is profitable; and on the other side, concluding his hatred where I see any low and afflicted, I am engaged to hate him too, which indeed is safe; but neither of them is Christian, humane, or indeed tolerable.
Besides, those that are the most liberal in judging by this rule, when the instance comes to be made in themselves, they will admit it only by halves, and cut off one half by exception. For if they prosper, then it is an argument of God’s love; but if those whom 13they hate prosper, they will ascribe that to chance. If their enemies are afflicted, then God’s judgments argue his hatred; but if themselves are brought low, judgments then are but only chastisements, or at the most casual contingents.
Nay, by this prevarication with their own opinion, they will elude and slip out of any argument that can be brought against them from providence. For when they flourish in the world, they say, this is the witness of providence sealing to their saintship and the justness of their doings: but if things go cross, why then they say, it is the lot of the saints to suffer affliction. So that you see it is impossible to lay hold of them either way.
There is no reason therefore, if they cannot bear the inconvenience of the utmost latitude of their own rule retorted upon themselves, that it should be admitted to bind others. For if it do not hold in all, the obligation cannot reasonably be forced upon any. But besides the apparent folly of it, if the external procedures of God’s providence be the rule to measure his love or hatred by, then it cannot be avoided but that the rich and powerful have the fairest plea for heaven, and the martyrs the shrewdest marks of reprobation.
(2.) The second principle, inducing men thus to misplace God’s judgments, is their inability in discerning, joined with their confidence in pronouncing. For can those that are slow to apprehend, and hasty to give sentence, be imagined likely to pass a right judgment? But the latter temper is usually at tended with the former; forwardness to speak, with slowness to apprehend: for indeed it is not only attended 14with, but caused by it; rashness being the effect of shallowness; and because men understand not the intricacies of a providence, they are bold and sudden in their sentence. Qui ad pauca respicit, de facili pronunciat. Where they cannot untie the knot by severe scrutiny, they presently cut it asunder by a sharp censure.
Men who arrogate to themselves an apostolic spirit, and look upon themselves as dictators in religion, and think they see through all God’s dealings, whereas they have the same infirmities and weakness of understanding with other men, and have no greater supernatural helps and revelations; yet joining the former confidence with this weakness, no wonder if they mangle God’s dealings, and fling about blessings and curses at random; often blessing where God curses, and cursing where he blesses.
But let us see into what ridiculous censures ignorance acted with rashness betrays men. In Acts xxviii. 3, the barbarians, who doubtless looked upon themselves as no ordinary persons in judging of such things, when they saw the viper fastening on Paul’s hand, after that he had escaped shipwreck in the fourth verse, see how judiciously they interpret that strange accident! They said amongst themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. Here they quickly found out the matter; Paul was a murderer; the case is clear, for the viper fastened upon his hand; and it seems all that are seized upon by vipers must of necessity be murderers. But now, what if Paul shakes off the viper without any harm, as it fell out that he did, why 15then in the sixth verse, when they saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god. And this as wisely as the other.
A strange turn, you will say, both of their opinion and of Paul’s condition; from one that deserved not to live, to one that could not die. This is like the heathens deifying of Mars, from a murderer to make him a god. Thus we see how they interpreted providences; and the truth is, those that interpret them alike, will also judge like barbarians, not like Christians, but make a man a god and a murderer the same hour; a saint to-day, and a reprobate to-morrow. We see, therefore, that this proceeding is both impious and ridiculous; and those who take this course, do not so much interpret God’s judgments, as shew the defect of their own.
(3.) The third principle, inducing men to misplace God’s judgments, is the inbred malice of our nature. There is a spice of brutish envy in most, and a sordid jealousy for their own good upon the sight of another man’s, which causes them to make morose, unpleasing reflections upon all events, and even to lose truth while they pursue their humour. This temper, mixed of jealousy and malice, is that which makes these two odious actions so familiar to men, to suspect and misjudge.
Now what an unhandsome face must be set upon God’s providences, measured by an understanding so weak, that it cannot, and a temper so partial, that it will not judge rightly, is apparent. It bends them to its own obliquity; and that which passes through a crooked thing, must needs contract a crookedness in the passage. This temper of mind causes men, in all their censures of providence, not to speak God’s 16actions, but their own wishes. They desire, that every affliction of their adversary were sent by God in hatred, and therefore they will vote it so in their apprehensions. When a man’s professed enemy is his judge, whatsoever his cause is, you may foresee the sentence.
The will has prejudged the case, before ever it comes to the understanding; and when there is any malicious averseness in that, as it is seldom but there is, judgment cannot be committed to a worse hand. For the will is both a blind and a commanding faculty, and therefore has the two worst of qualities in conjunction, not to discern, and yet to domineer. And certainly, when this interprets providences, they cannot but be direful; and he who is censured, very unhappy, when God must be angry with him as often as his adversary is pleased to be malicious.
There is scarce any thing in the world so entirely bad, but may be much qualified by a fair acceptance; and nothing so absolutely good, but may be detorted and soiled at least by a malign interpreter. What can be more beautiful, perfect, and equal, than the ways and works of the omnipotent, all-wise God? And yet what more harsh, unequal, and destructive, when they are in the dispensing of men, and distributed to each man by his enemy! They are like the rain, which falls pure from heaven, but arriving to the earth, turns into mud. Even the divine dealings are not privileged from the prejudices of malice; but God’s works are like his words, liable to be wrested: malice is the bias of the soul, that sways it in all its operations.
To judge properly is to apply a rule, and a mind possessed with malice is under great disturbances;17so that a malicious person is as fit and able to make a right judgment of things, as a shaking hand to take exact measures; or a person that is drunk, to study the mathematics, and to resolve problems.
And when the decrees of Heaven shall he examined by the partiality of perverse, malicious, and discontented persons, we must expect nothing else, but the ugly issues of passion, darkness, and confusion.
And thus I have shewn the principles inducing men to pass false and uncomely sentences upon God’s judgments. For the first inevitable foundation of this erroneous judging, is the uncertainty of the rule by which they judge: but supposing the rule were certain, yet there follows weakness in the. under standing attended with rashness, that makes it unable to apply the rule. And lastly, though both the rule were certain, and the understanding apprehensive and steady; yet there being malice in the will to pervert the intellect in its sentencing God’s judgments, it follows, that we have always almost false and deformed reports made concerning God’s dealings with men. Whence it is, that there never happens any calamity, but the suffering is by this redoubled; men suffering by the uncharitableness, God by the falseness of the censure.
And thus much for the first proposition.
II. I proceed now to the second, viz. That not always the sin or merit of the person afflicted, but the will of God that afflicts, is sometimes the sole, but always the sufficient reason of the affliction.
That this is so, is apparent from several scriptures; and to produce one instead of all, see the whole series of Job’s sufferings resolved into this, 18and that by the impartial determination of God himself. His friends charged him sometimes with the sins of his life, sometimes with the hypocrisy of his heart; but still they rested upon this as a certain maxim, that God never smites, but for sin; which was the sum of all their discourses. But God confutes this strange divinity, declaring withal his severe anger against them, Job xlii. 7, because they had not said that which was right of him, as his servant Job had. So that we have the testimony of the Father in the Old Testament, ratified by the testimony of the Son in the New, that God does not always afflict for sin.
And here we must observe a necessary distinction between punishments and afflictions. Punishment is properly the evil of sufferance for the evil of sin: and therefore is always founded in the merit of some precedent sin, inherent or imputed. But affliction is only God’s bringing the evil of pain upon the creature, whatsoever the cause may be for which he does it. So that we see, though every punishment include in it affliction, yet every affliction is not convertibly a punishment.
Now, since this may seem to grate hard upon human nature, which cannot but love itself; I shall clear this proceeding of God from injustice, upon these reasons.
1. The first shall be drawn from his absolute, unaccountable dominion and sovereignty over the creature. God is an absolute lord over all things: and we know, even in earthly kingdoms, as here in ours, it is a received maxim in the law, regem nec errare posse, nec cuiquam injuriam facere. God has as much power over his laws, as over his subjects; and 19he that has a right over all things can do no injury: and he that cannot go against a law, can do no wrong; as he that cannot tread out of his own land, can commit no trespass. So that the creature, upon no suffering whatsoever, can implead his Maker. He that can do what he will, may do what he will: for the supreme law is the will of the supreme power.
Let not therefore any think, that God must fetch a licence for his actings from our merit or demerit. Sic rolo, sic jnbeo, howsoever tyrannical and intolerable from men, yet, uttered by God, is the greatest reason in the world. As God’s truth is the reason of our faith, so his will is the reason into which we must resolve our obedience. Those, who can stand upon terms with God, and question and arraign his proceedings, manifest but low and unworthy thoughts of the infinite, essential majesty of his nature, and too arrogant apprehensions of their own.
Do we not see, amongst ourselves, the owner use his cattle as he pleases, employ them as he thinks fit, keep what he will alive, kill what he will, and in what manner he will; and all this without any in jury to them, only by virtue of a grant and charter from both his and their Maker? And yet they are his fellow-creatures, and the distance between them is not considerable; neither is the good of man the utmost end of these creatures, which he makes such a free use of. What shall we then say of the power of God himself to dispose of men? little, finite, obnoxious things of his own making? Is not his right over them inconceivably greater? May he not, as an absolute monarch, pull down whom he pleases, and whom he pleases set up? And who can tax the reason of his proceeding in all this?20
That which has its being only for another, may be used, preserved, destroyed, as may best advance that thing, to which, both in being and well-being, it is subservient. Were I as free from sin as Adam in his innocence, and had never in the least provoked the curse of the law, and God should be pleased to smite me with all the pains and plagues that torture the body, and should divest me of all livelihood, and reduce me to hunger, nakedness, and the rage and scorn of my enemies, and fill my mind with as much horror and despair as could consist with a being, and after that throw me into eternal flames; I might say indeed, I was ruined, but not injured: neither could I therefore be charged as sinful, because God is pleased to deal with me as if I were. And these dealings of God, if you would give them their right and proper name, cannot be called cruel, but strange; unusual indeed, but not unrighteous. Now this consideration may regulate the behaviour of one man to another, and of all towards God: for if the dealings of God do not presuppose the merit of our sin, then we cannot charge any man as sinful, because he suffers. And then also, since God has an absolute do minion, he, who suffers, cannot charge God, who afflicts, as unjust; for God’s laws are intended for the rule of our actions, not his own.
2. The second reason may be drawn from the essential equity of God’s nature. The practice of justice, on man’s part, is indeed at the free choice of his will; but God’s is fixed in the necessity of his being. And though God cannot be subject to any positive law, as springing from the sole determination of his own will, yet his nature is to him instead of a law: that is to say, as the creature is, by a law, 21both obliged and directed to do well; so the native rectitude of the divine will necessarily determines him to the exactest proportions of justice in all his actions.
An absolute power in men is, for the most part, sinful and injurious; because of the imperfection of their will, which is not able to bound the exorbitances of that power: and if it does not prove actually the cause of sin, yet it is always a temptation to it. But God’s dominion is so absolute, as to be also infinite; and to be infinite in one perfection, of necessity draws after it an infinity in all others. And therefore, having proved an infinite power, by that very thing we prove an infinite justice: wherefore we are not necessarily to seek for the reasonableness of God’s transacting with man, from any thing that man has done well or ill; but to place the ground of his actions within himself.
It is confessed there are some astonishing pas sages in Providence, and such as are above the weak logic and narrow maxims of the creature; so that to reconcile them to justice has nonplused the wisest and most sanctified persons. Jeremiah xii. 1, Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I plead with thee: yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? &c. And David, we read, stumbled against the same stone; his foot had well nigh slipped, Psalm lxxiii. 2, 3. And parallel to the prosperity of the wicked has been the affliction of the righteous, which has always been a problem of as hard resolution as the other.
This is certain, that God is infinitely just, whether or no we apprehend how he is so. It is impossible 22for God to do any thing but what is right; but it is very possible for us, who are weak and fallible at the best, not always to discern it. When we think his ways are imperfect, we should remember, that the imperfection is only in our understanding. It is not the ground or the trees that turn round; but the truth is, we are giddy, and think so.
For us, in all God’s dealings, to acknowledge the undoubted equity of his principles, and our ignorance of his methods, is not only humility, but philosophy; for it shews that we have arrived to the top of knowledge, even to understand both God and ourselves. Much to contemplate in God, frequently to consider him, and study his nature, though we do it but as philosophers, is a sovereign way to be satisfied and resolved about the reason of all his actions. Because I cannot see the light, shall I say, that the sun does not shine? There may be many reasons that may hinder me. Something may cover the eye, or the clouds may cover the sun, or it may be in another horizon, as in the night; but it is impossible for the sun, as long as it is a sun, not to shine.
Now this tends to compose men’s doubts, and to confute their murmurings, and to set God clear in their esteem, upon supposition of any of his dealings whatsoever. For although God’s ways are intricate and unsearchable, yet we may undertake to give a reason of them so far, as to take off the cavil and the reprehension, though not the wonder.
Wherefore, when such difficulties occur, we should remember to cast one eye upon God’s absolute power, and the other upon his essential righteousness; 23through the former of which, he may do what he will, through the latter he cannot will any thing but what is just.
3. The third reason is from the unerring, all-disposing wisdom of God. Though God’s actings may seem confused, and his judgments misplaced; yet they are managed by such an infinitely wise contrivance, that, could we take a view of them as they lay disposed in God’s counsel, and compare the design with the proceeding, we should confess, that they were put into the most beautiful, exact, and orderly frame that could be. Sometimes the destruction of particular natures tends to preserve and advance the universal. As a monstrous, misshapen thing is, in itself, most deformed; but could we have a sight of the whole universe, and see how this ugly thing stood related to -those which were perfect and comely, we should acknowledge, that how soever it did misbecome itself, yet it did adorn the world.
We see God’s judgments pursuing and overtaking a man in his righteousness: let us not now murmur, and say, How can God justly afflict the up right? lint let us acquiesce in the rational acknowledgment of this, that God’s wisdom may outreach ours. We see the dispensation, but we do not see the design of it; and therefore let us suspend our censure.
If we should see a goldsmith cutting, breaking, or filing a piece of gold, and come and say to him, Friend, what do you mean to spoil your gold? Do you not know the value of what you thus cut and file away? What a ridiculous question would this be to him, who knows that in what we call spoil, he 24pursues the rational purposes of his own art; that to the excellence of the metal, he may also add the curiousness of the figure? But now is it not, think you, much more ridiculous for such blind, silly worms as we, to call God’s works to an account? and to censure whatsoever thwarts our humour, or transcends our apprehensions?
God has put darkness under his feet, that we can not spy out his ways; but his wisdom gives us good security for their reasonableness. The greatest artificers, we know, will often, even in the day-time, immure themselves in a dark room, and work by a candle: and what wonder is it, if God is more careful to conceal the arts and mysteries of his providence from the inquisitive eye of those, whose duty is to admire, rather than to understand them? It is one great piece of art, to conceal art.
God delights to pose and baffle the bold reasons of men with the riddles of his actions; to try their humility, where their discernment fails; and to lead them, by an implicit faith in the wisdom of the doer, where they see not the reason of the work. Let therefore the consideration of the divine wisdom be a third ground to warrant the righteousness of God’s strangest actions, beyond all human exception. And this naturally introduces the third proposition, viz.
III. Though God’s will and power be a sufficient reason of any evil inflicted upon men, yet he never inflicts it, but for the great end of advancing his glory, and that usually in the way of their good.
This is sufficiently clear in the present instance: for God inflicted a native blindness upon this poor man, not only because he might, and because he 25would, but that afterwards, by this wonderful removal of it, both the Messiah should be discovered, and himself and others should have a pregnant occasion of being converted to him, the advantage of which was infinite. And questionless, the man had cause to congratulate himself this fortunate affliction: for had it not been for this blindness, he might have been like the rest of the Jews, having eyes, but not seeing nor perceiving, but remaining spiritually blind and obstinate. And to have open eyes, but a sealed heart, would have been like a window opened in the night-time, which, however it was open, would have let in no light. But by this unusual providence, Christ takes occasion to dart a beam of saving light into his understanding, and so gave him cause of ever blessing God for that bodily affliction, which was the happy occasion of such a spiritual deliverance.
Now this glorious design of God, in bringing these calamities on men, is expressed in those words of the text, that the works of God might he made manifest in him. And the works that God intends thus to glorify are usually these.
1. The miraculous works of his power. Had not God suffered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego to be cast into the furnace, he had not had that opportunity to have convinced the heathen of that power, which was able to overrule and control natural agents in their most necessary operations; to countermand the burning in the midst of the flame; and when the furnace was seven degrees hotter, to cause it to operate below the degree of four. God sometimes by his power inflicts a sickness, that he may shew a miracle in the cure. That God decreed so 26many years cruel bondage to the Israelites, it was the absolute, entire resolve of his own will, not their merit: for it was foretold by God to Abraham, long before they had any being, and therefore before they could merit any such doom by their sin. But then it was to usher in those stupendous miracles, by which God professed to get himself a name, and transmit a never-dying awe and renown of his power to all posterity. He was (as I may so say) now building himself a pyramid in the midst of Egypt: and what if he was so long afflicting his people, and took so great a compass of time to prepare himself a name, that was to last to eternity!
Now what man is there, that can arm himself with reason and submission, who would refuse to be miserable, when his misery is matter of God’s glory? He is made by this a kind of sharer with God; for as long as God’s action shall be spoke of, he also shall be mentioned as the subject of it. For in all curious works, the matter upon which they are wrought wears some of the glory of the artificer; and there is no admiring the image, but you must also see the wood, stone, or metal upon which it is carved.
Besides, in the things that we are discoursing of, it is not pain that is misery, but the sting of sin that envenoms it; for sin is not only the sting of death, but also of every affliction; and take but away this sting, the serpent may bite, but he cannot poison us. It is rare to see the notions of the very heathen about this. Cicero, speaking of Regulus, who, I think, suffered as much as man could well suffer, says, that in the midst of all those torments, Regulus could not properly be called miserable; because he 27neither procured nor bore them sinfully. Hence brutes are not properly capable of misery, because not of sin. The poor beast or fowl that is torn, hunted, and slaughtered, is not miserable; but he that slaughters and devours him for his luxury and his sin, he is properly and truly miserable: he has the misery, though the other has the pain.
And there is as much difference between a man’s suffering for God’s pleasure, and for his own sin, as there is between burning upon the altar, and burning in hell. So long therefore as the creature suffers barely from God’s will and for his glory, he is only made to quit his own pleasure, to serve a greater and a better; and this is not his misery, but his privilege.
2. The other works that God manifests are the works of his grace. The word ἐν signifies not only in, but upon, or about. And I have thought good to husband the sense so, as to take in both acceptations. In the former I shewed, that God took such strange courses, to glorify his miraculous works upon men. I shall now shew, that he takes these ways sometimes to glorify his gracious works within them. We know the bowels of the earth are rent and torn, before the riches of the earth can be discovered.
Grace would lie dormant and concealed, did not God sometimes employ as strange a power to discover, as he does to infuse it. How could that excellent spirit and ruling wisdom, that Joseph was endued with, have shined forth to the world, had he not been led through such a maze and compass of troubles and distracting afflictions by the special disposal of Providence? God’s power might have war ranted the whole proceeding; for when he sold him 28to the Egyptians, he only sold what, upon the best terms of propriety in the world, was his own. When he put him into prison, and the dungeon, we know, that even the supreme power amongst men may, for some causes, imprison those that are not guilty: and who knows but this imprisonment of Joseph was not so much intended for a punishment as a preservative; for a temptation may be repulsed once and again, and yet rally and return, and prevail at last.
But God, in all this, drove at a divine purpose. He had conferred great gifts, illustrious faculties upon Joseph, and therefore was resolved not to lose the glory of their discovery. And was it not worthy his being hated of his brethren, and being sold out of his country, to give such a noble example of fidelity and chastity, as to stand a monument of it in holy writ, for the admiration and imitation of all following ages? Was not the iron and the dungeon tolerable, when it was a means to shew forth that spirit to the world, which made Joseph the possessor of it, next to Pharaoh; and declared the God of Joseph, the giver of it, to be above him? The truth is, neither those that sold, nor those to whom they did sell him, but Joseph who was sold, had the best bargain.
We have shewn, that it was not for Job’s sin that God afflicted him; but because he was freely pleased to do so: yet there was a reason of this pleasure, which was, to discover that grace of patience, given him by God, to the astonishment of the world, and the confutation of the Devil; whom we find so impudent as to bear God down to his face, that he had never a servant in the world who would suffer such things from him, without sinning against him. And 29was it not worth the sitting upon a dunghill, and seeing his substance scattered, his children struck dead, and himself mocked in his misery, to vindicate the honour of that God, who gave him all these things, from the Devil, the true common enemy? and to be recorded as a mirror of patience to all posterity? and to convince the world that there is something in virtue better than possessions, truer than friends, and stronger than Satan? Though this dealing was not an effect of God’s vindictive justice, but of his absolute power; yet it equally served both God’s glory and Job’s advantage.
For had it not been for this, he had lost that experience of his own temper, and of the malice of the Devil, and the baseness of his friends, and of the goodness of God, and the uncertainty of the world: he had lost also that overplus of wealth that he had in the end: and lastly, if nothing else, he had lost the pleasure of being freed from such sorrows.
Thus God suffered Moses to be unworthily dealt with by his brethren, and oftentimes afflicted by the unruly rebellions of the Israelites; not to punish his sin, but to manifest his meekness, and consequently to glorify the power that gave it. For we must know that there are some graces which cannot be exercised, at least not manifested, but in calamities: as we cannot see a man’s patience, unless he is afflicted; nor his meekness, unless he is affronted.
No wonder therefore, if every afflicting dispensation cannot Ix? ascribed to sin; for sometimes it is so far from this, that it comes from the contrary. And I think I have made it appear, that though sin only can be the cause of punishment, yet even grace itself may be the occasion of an affliction.30
The use and improvement of the doctrine hither to discussed, shall be a confutation and reproof of the bold, uncharitable interpreters of God’s providences. A reproof cannot be better bestowed than upon an unjust reprover, nor charity more shewn, than in a just reprehension of those who have none.
What strange reports have we had in these late times about prodigies, in which indeed nothing was so prodigious as the falseness of the report! What monstrous births has the world lately seen, begot by discontent, brought forth by malice, and fostered by credulity! What unreasonable, unchristian censures! Such an one for being of such a way, that is, perhaps, for following his conscience and the church, is fallen sick, another dead, another struck suddenly; in most of which, the very matter of the report has been contrary. And if people talk of judgments, I think it is a great judgment to be delivered over to report lies, and yet a greater to believe them.
But suppose things were really so, and that the very curse of Egypt were come upon us, even so far as to have one struck dead in every family; yet who art thou, O man, that durst to pry into the secrecies of thy Maker’s proceedings? or condemn another’s servant, who stands or falls to his own master? How dares any man put his own sense upon God’s actions? which, though it may happen to be true in itself, yet is certainly uncharitable in him; and that man will one day find it but a poor gain, who hits upon truth, with the loss of charity.
Let us rather apply this resolve of Christ, in the words of the text, to all the rugged instances of Providence. Does God think fit to banish and afflict a Joseph? and yet it is not for his own or his 31father’s sin, but for his own honour, and his father’s sustenance, and to fit him to rule, and to save a kingdom. Do we see Providence send a blast upon our neighbour’s estate, or a fire upon his house? Perhaps that fire is not so much to consume the house, as to try the man; to destroy the possession, as to refine the owner.
God, peradventure, thinks fit to afflict a Job, and to exalt a dunghill; but what reason have I to descant upon the action, when I am ignorant of the purpose which directed it? Let us leave God to himself. It is possible that, though we judge never so right, God may not approve our judgments; and it is certain that he cannot need them. Or shall we confess God’s ways to be unsearchable and past finding out; and yet, at the same time, attempt to give a reason of them, and so to the arrogance add a contradiction?
Cur bonus male, et malis bene, was the grand old difficulty that has exercised the learned men and philosophers of all ages; and if experience or reason could have decided it, they had as great a share of both, as we can pretend to. But now we, having the superadded light of God’s word, cannot excuse ourselves, if we inherit their doubts, and seek for any other reason of the dispensation besides the will of the dispenser.
But that I may reduce a general reason to a particular instance, I would have those seraphic masters of reason, who think themselves able to bring all God’s providences even under demonstration, clear up and demonstrate to me this one passage of it, viz. Why the best of kings, and the most innocent, virtuous, and truly religious, that we find in history 32ever sat upon a throne, was yet rebelled against, imprisoned, mocked, tried, and condemned, and at last cut off by his own subjects before his own palace: and his murderer, who had violated all laws human and divine, broke all oaths, oppressed the state, torn in pieces the church, defied God and disturbed his neighbours, should reign in his stead peaceably and successfully, and at length die in his bed; and, for a conclusion of all, be magnificently interred. Let them, I say, give a competent reason for all this, and if they cannot, let them stand and adore, and not pretend to interpret.
In the mean time this peremptory way of judging, as it is highly odious to God upon many accounts, so more peculiarly is it so for the cursed cause of it, curiosity; for it is this which, above all other qualities, makes men presume to look into the ark, and therefore will be sure to provoke God to strike. Curiosity, in the true nature of it, is and may be properly accounted the incontinence of the mind, and but one remove from the rebellion of it; as breaking through all the bounds God has set about the secrets of his counsel. So that, next to the disputing of God’s revealed will, the greatest invasion, doubtless, that can be made upon his royal prerogative, is to intrude into his secret.
To whom be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, &c. Amen.33
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