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But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
AFTER man had once sinned, and so was for ever disabled to stand before God upon terms of the law, which spoke nothing but irrecoverable death to him who transgressed in the least iota, and so carried more thunder in its curse, than it did in its promulgation; had God continued this inexorable sentence, and held man irreversibly under the doom which he incurred; since there is in every thing by nature an indelible principle of self-preservation, and consequently a love to all things that advance its being and comply with its happiness, and an hatred to whatsoever would destroy it: such a remorseless behaviour in God, meeting with such a principle in man, would of necessity have wrought in him these two things.
1. Horror of despair.
2. Height of malice.
1. For the first of these, it would have reduced him to horror of despair. When a man sees an omnipotence against him, and knows that an unchangeable God has sworn his destruction, nature must needs despond, all the doors of hope, all the avenues of comfort, being stopped; so that his misery admits no possibility of the least relief, no, not so much as of a reprieve.34
The thoughts dwell, and as it were brood upon those sad representations of a punishment not to be borne, and yet not to be avoided. He knows the sin to be committed, and that therefore it cannot be recalled: he also sees God implacable, and that therefore it cannot be forgiven. Hereupon he throws up all, and sinks under the burden.
He is like a man in the midst of the sea: which way soever he looks, he sees nothing but air and water before him, no land upon which to save or repose himself. And in this case we have the verdict of God himself, Isai. lvii. 16, That if he should always be angry, if he should contend for ever, the spirit would fail before him, and the souls which he had made.
Now, in this condition of despair, man would have been utterly unserviceable to God, as being wholly uncapable of those motives by which the creature is drawn to his service.
For every man is brought to duty, either by the engagement of some reward, some good that is to follow his performance; but this has no influence upon him, who believes that his condition shall never be better: or he must be moved to duty by the fear of some evil, that will pursue the omission of it; but neither can this work any thing upon him who knows his condition can never be worse.
Hereupon he is utterly careless, obstinately regard less of his happiness or salvation; inasmuch as no man either does or can seriously intend or endeavour what he apprehends an impossibility.
2. Together with this horror of despair succeeds also height of malice. God indeed is infinitely amiable in himself, made up of a confluence of the most 35endearing perfections; there is nothing in him but what is the object of love and the allurement of desire.
But inasmuch as we cannot view him here by an immediate inspection of his nature, but as he readies us by his works and effects; which as they either gratify or afflict us, do accordingly move in us suitable affections: it is impossible for any man to apprehend God his irreconcileable enemy, and at the same time not to hate him. Whatsoever is destructive is also odious. What makes the devils prosecute God with a direct hatred, but that they apprehend their destruction remediless? And put man in the same condition with them, and his malice will be the same with theirs.
For this is not an affection that depends upon the freedom of man’s will, but it streams from him by a necessary egress of nature; it is as unconquerable as antipathy. When a man sees a thing evil and hurtful to his being, he hates it not by choice, but by the constraint of his first inclinations. As it is impossible for a man not to disbelieve what he knows to be false, so it is equally impossible for him not to hate and abhor what he apprehends to be hurtful. Thou shalt love thy friend, and hate thy enemy, is a principle writ and engraven in every heart by the finger of nature. And God, as a Creator, has put that into the heart of man which will force him to hate God himself as an enemy.
Clothe God with vengeance, arm him with terror, and represent him implacable, and at the same time shut all the passages of escape, by which a guilty person may run from him, and secure himself; and you shall see, that, with the forced fortitude of despair, 36he will defy him, curse him, and fly in his face, and proportion his hatred, not to the finiteness of his own nature, but enlarge it to the infinity of God’s, whom he hates. In Revel. xvi. 11, we read of those who blasphemed God, because of their pains and their sores.
That God is to be served, and virtue to be loved for themselves, sequestered from all consideration of advantage to the persons that do so, is a maxim, I am afraid, more glorious in the notion, than true in the experiment. For it is the voice of human nature in all man’s actions, Who will shew us any good?
And if a man finds himself ruined or tormented, he considers only the evil that he feels, and not the hand from which it comes. And he hates as heartily for the execution, whether his father or the hangman be the executioner.
Now the case standing thus, that God might not eternally lop off so great and so worthy a part of the creation, nor for ever bereave himself of the service of mankind, by keeping them, like the devils, in eternal defiance of himself, and under a necessity of abusing an immortal soul and an excellent nature, to the dishonours of sin and the certainty of damnation:
He was pleased to relax the rigours of justice, and, after the terror of the sentence, to issue out the promulgation of pardon; not only amiable in itself, but made so much more, by the vicinity of destruction.
Thus the darkness not only gives place, but also commendation to the day; the horrors of the night setting off the returns of the morning; and despair 37itself quickens the relish and heightens the fruition of an after-deliverance.
Here therefore, in these words, we have God assuming to himself the most endearing description, arrayed with the robes of mercy, and holding forth the golden sceptre of pardon; the terrors of majesty being swallowed up in the sweetness of mercy, and justice disappearing in the abyss of compassion.
The words consist of these two parts.
I. A declaration of mercy in these words, There is forgiveness with thee.
II. The end of such a declaration, which is fear and obedience; There is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
I. We shall begin with the former of these, God’s forgiveness; which being here so signally attributed to God, certainly must needs carry in it something very great and notable. And the greatness of it we shall display in the consideration of these three things.
(1.) The principle from which it flows.
(2.) The sins that are the subject-matter of it.
(3.) The persons upon whom it shews and lays out itself.
(1.) For the first of these, the cause and principle from which this forgiveness proceeds. It is from God’s εὐδοκία, from the free, spontaneous motion of his good pleasure. Which that we may make out the more clearly, it will require something a larger discussion.
We must here observe in the words of the text, that though some read it condonatio, forgiveness, yet others read it propitiatio, which signifies atonement; and indeed the Greek is ἱλασμὸς, which signifies 38properly propitiatio aut placatio. And so the word imports both forgiveness itself, and the cause of it; which is an atonement through the satisfaction of a mediator.
It has been much disputed, whether God punishes sin freely, or by the necessity of his nature; so that he cannot, by a free act of pardon, pass it over with out satisfaction.
And here the question is not concerning God as he lies under the present obligation of his own decree and word, by which he has positively declared that he will not acquit the guilty without satisfaction; for this engages him to do so upon the score of his veracity. But the question is, whether God, considered barely in his nature, without any engagement from his own word or decree, but merely by virtue of his justice, be so forced to punish sin, that, without the interposal of a satisfaction, he cannot pardon it; or whether the exercise of his justice be so free, that, by his absolute prerogative, he may pardon it without any atonement.
There are arguments on both sides: but the best of the school-divines, and the greatest masters of controversy, so assert God’s justice, as also to maintain his prerogative, by which he may at his pleasure either punish, or, without satisfaction, pardon the sinner.
And for this, amongst many other reasons, these may be given.
1. If it be free to God to remit the degrees of punishment, then it must be free for him also to remit the whole punishment. But the former all grant, and the consequence is evident, because every degree is of the same nature with the whole; and justice 39not only exacts punishment, but exacts it also in the very utmost degree: so that if God may dispense with one, he may by the same reason dispense with the other.
2. If God could shew the highest act of mercy to the sinner, before any satisfaction was given him, then he might also pardon sin without it. The consequence is clear, because the highest act of mercy (if any thing) is sufficient for the pardon of sin: and that he could do the former is evident from this, that God first found out and provided a satisfaction for the sin of man, than which there could not be an higher instance of his love and mercy. Nay, it is greater goodness, upon his own free motion to provide the sinner with a satisfaction, than to pardon his sins, that satisfaction being made.
3. If God punished sin by a necessary egress of his justice, then he must punish it to the utmost that justice requires, and the utmost that the sin deserves. But this is evidently false; for so every man, upon the commission of his sin. without any delay or respite, must immediately be damned. The reason is, because sin deserves, that immediately, and upon the very first moment after its commission, execution be done upon the sinner.
4. Add to this, in the fourth place, that our sins are debts; but every creditor has absolute and free power, without any payment being made, to remit the debt, and discharge the debtor.
Besides, God being absolute sovereign, has power over his own law, to pardon any breach or violation of it. Neither as a governor is he bound to see the injury done to the community by the sin revenged by the punishment. For though earthly governors 40are obliged to this, yet God is not, because he is not, as they are, only a trustee, but also the proprietor of all things under his government; so that there is no right of community distinct from his own. For, as both the schoolmen and civilians most truly affirm, in Deo sunt jura omnia. And then nature asserts this freedom to every one, that he may quit and recede from his own right: for indeed he is sole and absolute lord and owner of it.
And thus I have proved God’s natural freedom, either in punishing or forgiving sin; but yet, as to the economy of God’s present proceedings, we must know, that God, by his own word and decree, having tied up his liberty, he cannot now forgive sin with out a satisfaction. And therefore, according to the various readings of the text, propitiatio must go before condonatio; and there must be atonement before there can be forgiveness.
But now there is a sect of men who peremptorily deny, that Christ satisfied God’s justice for the sins of men: and, amongst other arguments, much insist upon this, that God is said freely to have forgave us our sins. And they say, that a free forgiveness of sin, and a satisfaction for sin, are inconsistent, inasmuch as one excludes the other; for no man can be said freely to remit, or pardon a debt, when the debtor, either by himself or his surety, has made him full payment.
In answer to this, it must be confessed, that the reconcilement of these two is not so easy as some may imagine. But all that either is or can be said in this matter amounts to this:
That the forgiveness of our sins is not totally and in every respect a free pardon and remission. But 41only in respect of those from whom this satisfaction is not in their own persons exacted: now, inasmuch as they pay nothing to God’s justice for their discharge, it is a free remission to them.
If it be replied, that it cannot be called a free remission, since, as to the nature of a payment, it is all one, whether it be made by a man in his own person, or in the person of his surety: to this I answer, that it is so, when a man provides himself of a surety, and by his own means procures the payment. But here, since God freely of himself, and by his own contrivance, provides a surety for man, all that is done or paid by that surety is in respect of man a free remission. In short, when the creditor provides himself of a payment, without the least recourse or trouble to the debtor; it is as to the debtor a free absolution, at least equivalent to it.
And therefore, though God, in the pardon of sin, would so fairly comport with all his attributes, as to do it without injury or detriment to his justice; yet even in the satisfaction of that, he shews forth the glory of his other attribute, his mercy, in these two respects.
First, in the relaxation of the law, which required of every sinner a satisfaction in his own person. It did not only denounce death to sin, but it ran thus: The soul that sinneth shall die, and every man shall bear his own sin. But then God, by the prerogative of his mercy, was pleased to transfer the obligation, and to receive satisfaction from a surety. This was the first great instance of mercy.
The second was, that as he was pleased to be satisfied by a surety, so (as I have already shewn) he himself found and provided this surety.42
And certainly this was a glorious and unspeakable piece of mercy, a thing beseeming an infinite goodness.
For put the case; When man had sinned, and upon that sin stood obnoxious to the sentence of the law, and the fatal stroke of God’s vindictive justice; had God stood forth, and according to the first degree of mercy made this agreement and capitulation with the sinner; and told him, that notwithstanding he had broke the law, affronted his justice, and so became liable to death, the punishment that the law awards to all transgressors, and that in their own persons: yet out of his free goodness he would recede from the rigour of that law, and accept of a satisfaction from the hands of a surety. And therefore, if he should provide such an one, he should be discharged; otherwise he must expect to lie under the execution of that inexorable sentence.
What would man have done in this case? Here was mercy indeed, but infinitely short of his necessity. What should he do, whither should he go for some to bail him, much more to rescue and save him from the curse of the law, and the severity of his judge?
As for any thing that he could do himself, he could never be able to bribe or buy off an infinite justice. Should he come before God with burnt-offerings., with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Should he give his first-born for his transgression, the fruit of his body for the sin of his soul? Why yet all this would be as short of satisfaction, as it is of infinity.
He must therefore be forced to look abroad, and 43 implore aid from some others; but from men he could have none: for as it is in Psalm xlix. None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him.
No creature had such an overplus of righteousness, as to lay it out for another, lest, as the wise virgins said to the foolish, in Matth. xxv. 9, they have not enough for themselves. For all that they have is required of them; and so being due from themselves, they could not produce it to merit for another.
It would have passed the wisdom of men and angels, to have found out a mediator that might have paid the full debt to God’s justice. For could any created invention have ascended up to heaven, and fetched the only begotten Son of God out of his lather’s bosom?
Could a finite understanding have contrived, much less brought about the incarnation of a Deity? clothed the Almighty with flesh and blood? and abased the King of kings to the form of a servant?
Could we ever have thought of such a mediator, as might be both man, to enable him to suffer for us, and also God, to give an infinite value to his sufferings? as might have an human nature to undergo God’s wrath, and also a divine, to keep him from sinking under it. Such an one as might not only by his passive obedience loose the bands of death, and rescue us from hell, but also by his active righteousness entitle us to the joys of heaven.
Assuredly none but God, whose wisdom was as immense as his mercy, could have found out such a miraculous, stupendous means of our redemption.
But now, since God has been pleased to satisfy 44his injured justice, shall we therefore upbraid and detract from the freedom of his mercy? Cannot he vindicate one attribute, without eclipsing the glory of another?
See how the whole scripture almost sets forth and commends to us God’s mercy and forgiveness, under this one endearing property of its freedom. In Rom. iii. 24, we are said to be justified freely by his grace. Ephes, i. 7, we are said to have received forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace. And in Matthew xviii. in the parable where the servant is brought in unable to pay a vast sum, in which he was indebted to his lord, it is said in the 27th verse, that his lord, being moved with mere compassion, loosed him, and forgave him the debt.
And in Isaiah Iv. 1, where the graces and spiritual benefits which God confers upon his saints are set forth by wine and milk, and men are called upon to buy them, yet it is by a strange and a new way of purchase; Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Now if his very selling be so free, what then must be his gift?
And thus much for the first thing, in which the greatness of God’s mercy in the forgiveness of sin shines forth; that the principle of it is his own free inclination; that no impulsive cause from without engages and induces him to it by any external impression. There can be no other reason assigned why God is merciful, but because he will be merciful. His mercy is like a fountain, which, though it flows freely and continually, yet there is no other cause of its flowing but its own fulness.
(2.) The second thing from which we are to take 45an estimate of the greatness of this forgiveness, is the sins that are remitted.
Now the greatness of a pardon, as it relates to the sins and offences that are forgiven by it, is advanced according as they are heightened by these two properties:
1. For the first of these, they so far partake of this property of number, till they even contradict it, and become numberless. David, who was none of the greatest sinners, yet finds the account of his sin in Psalm xl. 12, to amount to more than the hairs of his head; and certainly that is more than the head itself can number.
In Matthew xviii. 22, we shall find our Saviour stretching an human forgiveness to an offence seventy-seven times repeated. And certainly then the pardons that issue from an infinite mercy must needs keep the distance of a suitable proportion.
And truly, if we come to compute the number and to audit the account of our sins, from Gen. vi. 5, where the thoughts of man’s heart are avouched to be evil, and only evil, and that continually; the sum total must swell to such a vast, enormous multitude, that none can number them, but the same in finite God that forgives them.
In Proverbs xxiv. 16, the justest man living falls seven times a day, a small proportion compared to the licentiousness of some sinners, who lash forth into criminal acts every moment. Yet to what an high reckoning will even this small proportion grow in the space of threescore years and ten, the common period of man’s life!46
Yet when God comes to forgive, he cancels the entire bill, and by one act of grace dashes the whole handwriting that is against us.
The soul of man is naturally restless, always doing something, whether in the retirements of thought and desire, or upon the open stage of practice; and where the heart is unsanctified, unrenewed by grace, (as in most men in the world it is, for some considerable part of their lives,) there, so long as the soul is doing, it is doing evil: and that natural activity of the mind is as sinful as it is restless.
There is a tinder of concupiscence in all our natures, apt to catch at every spark that is struck from sinful objects. And we are surrounded with these, so that the constant emissions of the one, falling upon the ready receptions of the other, must needs make the flame continual.
Now where the faculty of sinning is restless, the opportunities to draw it forth perpetual, must not the sinful actions flowing from that faculty needs be innumerable? If there be a fire burning, and a bellows always blowing, certainly the sparks flying from it will be numberless.
We may be able to number our days, but not the sins committed in those days. This would baffle all our arithmetic, all our ciphers, and arts of computation. And I am afraid that we should stand at an infinite, eternal distance from forgiveness, if God should promise to forgive us our sins only upon this condition, that we should first reckon them.
But now must not that forgiveness needs be glorious, which rises not only to the remission of talents, but of ten thousand talents? that multiplies 47itself beyond what is numberless? that even out does our thoughts and outruns our desires?
We may well fail in our expressions of it. But surely, when our sins are for number like the sands of the sea or the stars of heaven; the mercy that forgives them must needs be deeper than the one, and higher than the other.
2. The second property of sins that heightens their forgiveness is their greatness. We have compared them to stars for number, and they may equal them also for magnitude.
We have them painted out to us in their colours, Isaiah i. 18, with a crimson tincture and a scarlet dye; with a redness and a blushing; sin thus wearing the colour of shame. Yet in the same verse we have forgiveness, changing their hue to the whiteness of snow and the innocence of wool.
There is not usually any thing more provoking, or so hardly pardoned, as the contumely of words, and reviling language; and yet we have the divine mercy enlarging itself, even to a total remission of this in Matthew xii. 31; All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men, except the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. Now blasphemy touches God in his honour, that is, in the apple of his eye, in that of which he is jealous, and in which he admits of no rival. And when God will put up such blows at our hands, such affronts, and such wounds inflicted upon his good name; it is a pardon peculiar to a divine nature, and which men may enjoy indeed, but seldom imitate.
Again, in 1 Corinth. vi. 9, 10, we have a muster-roll of as vile sinners as sin could make, or hell receive; Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, 48covetous, drunkards, extortioners. And yet the rear of all brought up with this in the 11th verse, And such were some of you; but ye are washed., but ye are sanctified.
And if so, you may be sure that they are also pardoned; for grace never purifies, but where it also pardons. Sanctification and justification are inseparable.
Now one would think that a milder punishment were a sufficient act of favour to such notorious criminals; and that a mitigation might pass for a pardon, where the sin seems too great for a total absolution.
Yet, as if God seemed to take advantage from our baseness, and by his providence permitted men to be such wretched sinners, that they might be fit materials for an infinite compassion, he passes over all, receives them into favour, and by his pardon makes them as free as those who never needed pardon: thus considering, not what was fit for them to obtain, but what was glorious for himself to do.
But now further to demonstrate the greatness of the sins which God remits, we must take the dimensions of them from the greatness of their object, which is no less than an infinite majesty, the Lord of the universe, the glorious maker and governor of all things. And every affront to a king greatens and enlarges, according to the condition of the person that is offended; a blow given to majesty, an injury done to the throne, it is presently stampt with a new superscription: every offence is treason, and every stubbornness becomes rebellion.
Take in also the aggravations of the sin, that it was against the endearments of a creature, against 49him that gave the sinner a being, brought him out of nothing, gave him life and reason, a rational soul, and a free will; yea, to whom the sinner is beholden, even for this, that he is able to sin against him.
But this is not all: it is also against the more obliging relation of a preserver; against him, who continued and upheld that being, that he might have took in forfeit for the breach of his law: against him that causes his sun to shine and his rain to fall upon his professed enemies; that sows their fields with plenty, and spreads their table’s with abundance; and returns them one increase for another, the increase of blessing for the increase of sin.
So that now every sin which is committed by man, puts on the nature of that quality which comprehends in it all other instances of baseness, which is ingratitude. And if the sin be so great, the forgiveness must needs be proportionable.
And thus much for the second thing, in which is displayed to us the largeness of God’s pardoning mercy; namely, the number and greatness of the sins pardoned by it.
(3.) The third thing in which it appears is, the persons on whom this pardon is conferred, who are men; that is, very worthless and inconsiderable creatures, in comparison of those to whom the same pardon is denied.
Those excellent and glorious spirits the angels, they fell without recovery: those glistering sons of the morning, those more lively representations of the divine nature, they are set under a perpetual night, never to rise and return again to their former lustre. As it is in the 6th verse of the Epistle of Jude; They are reserved under everlasting chains of 50darkness, to the judgment of the great day. And in Heb. ii. 16, Christ took not upon him the nature of angels, to be a mediator for them; but he took upon him the seed of Abraham.
Now that God should pass over the glory of the creation, and cast the skirt of his pardoning mercy upon poor vile creatures, that lay wallowing in their blood, to the loathing of their persons; that he should prefer dust and ashes before principalities and powers; and choose vessels of honour out of the lowest objects of contempt: this is an act of forgiveness, mixed of mercy and prerogative, and of which no reason can be assigned, but the good pleasure of him who works all things according to the counsel of his own will.
It is as if a man should pass over and trample upon pearls, and in the mean time stoop down to take up pins: for the distance of the angelical and the human nature is as great, and their perfections fall under the same disproportion.
Certainly, God could not intend the advancement of his service in this unequal proceeding; for correspondent to the creature’s abilities, such will be the measure of his service. And could the narrow compass of human wit and power do as much for God as the activity and intellectuals of an angel, who had none of these clogs of flesh and blood to allay their fervours, and to slack their devotions, God would have been served without lassitude or weariness: for, as it is in Psalm civ. 4, he has made those ministering spirits a flaming fire; and therefore they can be no more weary of serving him, than a fire can be weary with burning.
It remains, therefore, that this difference of God’s 51dealing with men and angels is entirely from the differences of his own purposes, by which he was pleased to design mercy for one, and to deny it to the other; and since he was free to have denied it, it enhances the kindness of the gift.
And thus I have done with the first general part of the text, viz. the declaration of the divine forgiveness; the greatness and latitude of which we have laid open, from those three several respects and considerations, by which all pardons are to be measured.
II. Pass we now therefore to the second part of the words, the end and design of this forgiveness, the fear of God: there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
In which we are to do these two things:
1st, To shew what that fear is, which is here intended.
2dly, To shew what there is in this forgiveness, by way of reason or argument, to enforce this fear.
For the first of these, we must distinguish of a double fear.
1. An anxious, distracting, amazing fear; in respect of which, Moses, upon the sight of God, in the terrible and fiery promulgation of the law from mount Sinai, in Heb. xii. 21, said, I exceedingly fear and tremble. In respect of this also, David says, in Psalm cxix. 120, I am afraid of thy judgments. Such an one also was it that possessed Christ in his agony, and in the time of his dereliction, when he cried out upon the cross, Matt. xxvii. 46, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? In short, it is such a kind of fear as possesses those who lie under the tortures of a guilty, troubled 52conscience; such an one into which is infused all the malignity of this afflicting passion. It is the first-fruits of despair, and may, with more significance, be called horror and distraction.
Now this cannot be the fear intended in the words; for the motive of this cannot be forgiveness, but the divine wrath and anger. Besides, the proper effect of this fear is not duty, but despair; not obedience, but affrightment; not an adherence to God, but a flight and a departure from him. But now we shall presently shew, that the fear spoken of in the words, is to be a sovereign means of duty, an argument of piety, and an instrument of obedience.
2. There is a slavish and servile fear; such an one as, Rom. viii. 15, is called the spirit of bondage; and in respect of which, John says, 1 John iv. 18, that he that fears is not perfect: and in the same verse, that love casts out fear. As, on the contrary, where this fear is predominant, it expels and casts out love: for there is so direct a contrariety between these two affections, that the increase of one is always built upon the decrease of the other. And indeed fear, for the most part, is the cause of hatred, but always the concomitant.
Now this cannot be the fear that is meant in the text; for God hates that his service should proceed from this principle. Fear properly, both in a natural and a spiritual sense, contracts the heart: but it must be an enlarged heart, that runs the ways of God’s commandments. Fear ties up the spirits, checks the freedom, and dulls the motion of a more active devotion.
3. And lastly; therefore there is a filial, reverential fear, such an one as is enlivened with a principle 53of love, quickened and acted with that contrary affection, that is in Romans viii. 15 styled the spirit of adoption.
Now there is this difference between these three sorts of fear; that the first is properly the tear of a malefactor, the second of a slave, and this last of a son.
Which is that alone that is designed in these words; and indeed there is good reason that God should require it, since he intends to turn all his servants into sons. And is it not equal to require a son’s affection, where he resolves to bestow a son’s inheritance?
Besides, this affection is of all others the most sedulous, diligent, and serviceable, and therefore there is a more than ordinary significance in those words, Mal. iii. 17, where God is said to spare and pity those that fear him, as a man spareth his son that serveth him. There is a great deal of difference between the service of a son, and of a slave or hireling; it is done with more accurateness, more concernment and activity.
And if we consider well the scope of the words, we must acknowledge that the word fear is used here by a metonymy of the cause for the effect, and signifies rather that obedience which is the effect and product of this fear; God therefore manifesting his forgiveness, that he may gain the creature’s ser vice and obedience.
For it is this only that God regards, this alone, by which the creature owns and confesses his ho mage and subjection to his Maker. All other pretences vanish into air and nothing, as being neither available to God’s glory nor man’s salvation.54
And thus I have shewn of what stamp, what kind, that fear is, which is intended in the words. It is such an one as is qualified with a prevailing mixture of love; such an one as does not shake, but settle the soul; not terrify, but compose the mind. And lastly, it is such an one as does not cramp and restrain our operative faculties; but shines in duty, and displays itself in performance.
Having thus shewn what the fear is that stands mentioned in the text;
2dly, I come now to the second thing proposed, which is to shew, how God’s forgiveness may be an argument to enforce this fear. And it does it in these two respects.
(1.) Because the neglect of the fear of God, upon supposal that he has forgiven us our sins, is highly disingenuous.
Forgiveness is an after-game of mercy; a thing that the first rigours of the law neither knew nor admitted. It stood upon the narrow precipice of exact obedience or certain damnation. It was all severity, without the least allay of mercy. It was a thunder without lightning. Mercy was a miracle that Moses never shewed; and pardon, an absurdity in the documents of mount Sinai.
But man not being able to come up to the command, the gentle compliances of mercy were pleased to bring down the command to us, and to allow tabulam post naufragium, repentance and forgiveness to stand in the breach, and to supply the impossibilities of in defective obedience.
But shall we now turn our table into a snare, and offend because we may be forgiven, and so make the sinner’s asylum an argument for the sin? Shall 55we kick at our father’s bowels, only because they can relent?
This is impiety heightened into inhumanity, such a behaviour as even good-nature would detest between man and man, in which we treat our Redeemer below the endearments of a friend.
The sum of all must be this: Had not God been merciful, he had not been dishonoured; and sin had not abounded, but by the antiperistasis of grace. Pardon is made a decoy to the crime, and a possibility to be saved trapans into a certainty of being damned.
(2.) The second reason is, because the neglect of God’s fear upon the account of his forgiveness, besides the disingenuity of it, is also most provoking and dangerous.
There is nothing that any person disgusts with so keen and tender a resentment, as the rejections of his love, and the abuse of his favour.
There is something in God’s greatness, majesty, and justice, that may indeed terrify and command, but it cannot endear: but the caresses of love and pardon should make a closer insinuation, and attract the very heart; whereas the other perhaps only tie the hands.
Justly therefore does God’s jealousy burn where his love is despised; and one flame kindle, to revenge the contempt of another.
Because God has shewn himself so much a father, shall he therefore cease to be a master? Shall his condescensions to us take away our honour to him?
Truly, he that sins against the first Mosaical dispensation of an inflexible law, and he that takes heart to offend because of the gracious allowances of 56forgiveness and restoration, differ as much as he who sins against a prince’s justice, and he who sins against his acts of indemnity.
The economy of God’s attributes is such, that from some of them we may appeal to others; but there are some again, from which there lies no appeal. As when the divine power and justice threatens us, there is yet a refuge in his mercy; but he that is bankrupt upon the score of mercy, has no other relief to rest upon. He has sinned against his last remedy: he has poisoned himself with a cordial: he has stumbled at that stone upon which he should have built. When compassion condemns us, who shall be our advocate?
Now from the words hitherto discussed, we may make these two deductions.
1. We may learn hence the different nature of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, from all other kingdoms in the world; and that not only in respect of the external administration of it, that it is not bolstered out with pomp and shew, and other little assistances of grandeur and secular artifice; but chiefly in respect of that which is the main instrument and hinge of government and subjection, the fear of the subject.
Where there is no fear, there can be no government, that is certain. But how does Christ work this? Why, not by the rack, the prison, or the sword of justice, but by new, strange, and supernatural methods of pardon and compassion. His goodness shall bind our hands; and his very forgivenesses shall make us fearful to offend.
But how incongruous an argument would this be to an earthly potentate. There is forgiveness with 57thee, that thou mayest be feared? Who ever was formidable for his pardons? And who ever was great and secure, that was not formidable?
Such is the baseness of men, that from impunity they take occasion rather to insult than to obey; and being forgiven, look upon their prince’s forgiveness rather as a spoil extorted from his fear, than as a favour issuing from his goodness.
Guilt is eternally suspicious; and suspicion, even after a pardon, will be still standing upon its guard, still in a posture of defence; neither will it ever think itself sufficiently defended, till it has ruined and removed the injured person, whom its own unworthiness makes it fear. he that receives an in jury may pardon it; but he that first does the in jury is irreconcileable.
But how comes Christ then to state so sure a subjection upon so different a ground? And why do not men, when they have offended him, for ever after hate him; and having once presumed, for the future despair? Why, it is because he is God, the great Creator of the heart, and so at his pleasure can change it: and by the secret energy of his Spirit, conquer it in its strongest notions and inclinations. This is the only way by which he reconciles the sinner to himself. And so may any earthly prince make his enemies become his friends, when he can get the power of changing man’s nature, but hardly before.
2. We may learn from hence, upon what ground every man is to build the persuasion of the pardon of his sins. It is the temper of most persons, to be more busy about their assurance than their obedience; 58and to be confident of their reward, while they should be solicitous about their duty.
But now to discover whether such men’s confidence be sound and rational, or vain and fallacious, I should recommend to them this one criterion and mark of trial; namely, to reflect upon and consider what effects this persuasion of God’s mercy works upon their spirits.
Do they find that it begets in them a greater tenderness to displease God, a greater caution and circumspection in their behaviour? a greater abhorrency of sin, and a more ardent inclination to virtue? Do they find that the more confident they are of God’s mercy, the more fearful they are to offend the pure eyes of his holiness?
If so, they have great cause to conclude, that these persuasions are not mere delusions, but the attestation of God’s Spirit to their spirits, transcribing the decree of Heaven upon their hearts in the great designs of their salvation.
But if men, from the persuasions of mercy, grow impudent and bold in sin, presume upon God’s patience, and venture far upon the stock of a supposed forgiveness, they must know that they are under the power of a destructive infatuation.
Mercy was never intended to serve any man in his vice, to smooth him in his sin, and, by abused hopes of pardon, to strengthen the hands of his corruption. And therefore he that from God’s mercy gathers no argument for his fear, may conclude thus much, that there is indeed forgiveness with God, but no forgiveness for him.59
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