|« Prev||Sermon XXXI. Psalm xcv. 11||Next »|
Unto whom I sware in my wrath, that they should not enter into my rest.
IN these words we have an account of the severest proceeding of an angry God against sinners. What Calvin says of reprobation, that it was decretum horribile, a dreadful, amazing decree, the like may be here said of this sentence pronounced against Israel. For certainly, if such decrees are so terrible in the constitution of them, they cannot but appear much more terrible in the promulgation.
We have, in the precedent verses, a narrative of the Israelites provoking sins, like a black cloud gathering over their heads, and here we have it breaking out into this dreadful thunder; a thunder much more dreadful than all those that sounded in their ears at the promulging of the law from mount Sinai: for if the terror of the Almighty was so great in giving the law, no wonder if it was much greater in pronouncing the curse.
The words in themselves seem very plain and easy; and by this expression, I sware in my wrath, is meant God’s peremptory declaring his resolution to destroy those murmuring and rebellious Jews. The word swearing is very significant, and seems to import these two things.140
First, The certainty of the sentence here pronounced. Every word of God both is and must be truth; but ratified by an oath, it is truth with an advantage. It is signed irrevocable. This fixes it, like the laws of the Medes and Persians, beyond all possibility of alteration, and makes God’s word, like his very nature, unchangeable.
Secondly, It imports the terror of the sentence. If the children of Israel could say, Let not God speak to us, lest we die, what would they have said, had God then sworn against them? It is terrible to hear an oath from the mouth but of a poor mortal; but from the mouth of an omnipotent God, it does not only terrify, but confound. An oath from God is truth delivered in anger; truth (as I may so speak) with a vengeance. When God speaks, it is the creature’s duty to hear; but when he swears, to tremble. As for the next expression, that they should not enter into my rest, we must observe, that the word rest may have a double interpretation.
1st, It may be taken for a temporal rest in Canaan, the promised land; or, 2dly, for an eternal rest in the heavenly Canaan.
Concerning which, some, who interpret spiritual truths according to the model of their own carnal conceptions, will have the whole sense of these words to be no more than God’s excluding that generation of the Jews that murmured from a temporal possession of the land of Canaan, by destroying them in the wilderness. But this does not reach the mat ter. For since the church of the Jews, as to the whole economy and design of it, was in every thing typical; (so that it is observed by all writers, that there was no dispensation that befell them from God, 141in respect of any temporal blessing or curse, but it did signify and couch under it the same in spirituals;) from the warrant of this rule we must admit in this scripture, as well as in many others of the like nature, both of a literal and of a spiritual, or mystical sense. And,
1st, Considered according to the literal meaning of the words, as they are an historical passage relating to God’s cutting oil that murmuring generation of the Jews in the wilderness, set down in Numb. xiv. 21, 22, 23, so questionless they signify only God’s denying them an entrance into the temporal Canaan. For to affirm, that all those that fell in the wilderness were excluded from heaven, would be both an harsh and an unwarrantable interpretation. But then,
2dly, Considered according to the spiritual or mystical sense of the words. So the meaning of them runs thus: as God in his fierce anger destroyed many of the children of Israel for their murmurings in the wilderness, and so denied them an entrance into the promised land of Canaan; so he will eternally destroy all obstinate unbelievers, and for ever exclude them from an enjoyment of a perpetual rest with himself in heaven. This I pitch upon as the prime intendment and sense of the words, though not so as wholly to exclude the other; and I ground it upon the apostle’s own interpretation of these words in Heb. iv. 5, compared with Heb. ix. 11, where he interprets this word rest, of such a rest as a man may fall short of through unbelief. But now unbelief does not so much exclude from a temporal, as from an eternal rest. He applies it also to the Jews his contemporaries, living 142in the same age with himself; and those could not possibly be said to miss or fall short of the earthly Canaan, since they and their ancestors had possessed that long before. It is clear, therefore, that it is to be understood chiefly of the heavenly.
The words thus explained I shall draw into this one proposition, viz.
That God sometimes in this life, upon extraordinary provocations, may and does inevitably design and seal up obstinate sinners to eternal destruction.
The prosecution of which I shall manage under these following particulars.
I. I shall shew how and by what means God seals up a sinner to perdition.
II. What sort of obstinate sinners those are that God deals with in this manner.
III. I shall answer and resolve one or two questions that may arise from the foregoing particulars. And,
IV. and lastly, Draw some uses from the whole.
Of these in their order. And,
I. For the first of these. There are three ways by which God usually prepares and ripens a sinner for certain destruction.
1st, By withholding the virtue and power of his ordinances: and when God seals up the influences of these conduits, no wonder if the soul withers and dies with drought. For, alas! what is a conduit by which nothing is conveyed! The ordinances of themselves can do nothing but as they are actuated and enlivened by a secret, divine energy working in them. Now God, while he freely dispenses them, can suspend the other; and as he can give rain, and yet deny fruitfulness, and even send famine with an 143harvest; so he can fix such a curse upon the means of grace, that a man may really want them, while he enjoys them; that is, he may want them in their force and power, while he enjoys them in the letter: as a man may eat, and yet not be nourished; for it is not the bread that nourishes, but the blessing. Thus the Israelites had leanness in their bones, together with their quails; the hidden, nutritive power of the divine benediction being withheld. So in spirituals, a man may have an unthriving soul in the midst of the greatest evangelical provisions, because unblest; and in the midst of such plenty, suffer a real scarcity and famine.
The truth of this will appear from those different effects that are ascribed to the same word in scripture. For is not that which is a savour of life to some, that is, to those that are within the purpose of God’s love, and whom he intends effectually to call, and to convert to himself; I say, is not the same termed a savour of death to others? that is, to the obstinate and impenitent, and such as God leaves to themselves. That which God uses as an instrument to save, meeting with /the corruption of some obdurate hearts, is made a means to ruin: as it softens some, so it hardens others. The chosen of God are qualified by it for glory; the reprobates prepared for wrath. So contrary are the workings of the same principle upon different subjects. As the same rain, that, falling upon a tree or plant, makes it grow and flourish, falling upon wood cut down and dried, makes it rot and decay. By this means God does very powerfully fit the sons of perdition for their final sentence. For when men grow worse and worse by sermons and sacraments, and under the continual 144droppings of the word preached produce nothing but the cursed fruits of sin, like the earth, that, drinking in the rain that cometh often upon it, beareth nothing but briers and thorns; what can be expected, but that, as they resemble the earth in its barrenness, so they should be like it also in its doom, which is, to be nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burnt, Heb. vi. 8. The apostle draws a peremptory conclusion concerning this, in 2 Cor. iv. 3, If our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost. When the word shall be exhibited to the soul, like a dark lantern, not to display, but to conceal the light, no wonder, if seeing, we do not see, but wander through the darkness of a soul-destroying blindness, to such a darkness as is perpetual. God can order even his word and precepts so, and turn them to the destruction of the unprofitable, unworthy enjoyers of them, that, as it is in Isaiah xxviii. 13, they shall go backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken. And certainly we have cause to conclude him, who receives no benefit at all by the word of life, a lost person. He whom the very means of salvation do not save, must needs perish.
2dly, God seals and prepares a sinner for destruction, by restraining the convincing power of his providences. God’s providences are subservient to his ordinances: they are (as it were) God’s word acted and made visible to the eye. For God speaks, not only in his word, but also in his works. And as Christ says of his miraculous, so we may say also of God’s providential works, that the works that he does, bear witness of him. There are such fresh marks and signatures of the divine will in the many occasional passages of our lives, that such as 145have their senses in any measure spiritually exercised, do not only see the hand, but also hear the voice of him that sent them. And it would not be difficult to draw forth sundry instances from history, shewing how several persons have been converted by a serious reflection upon some strange passages of providence, that have so directly thwarted, and even melted them in their sin, and withal carried with them such undeniable evidence of the divine displeasure, that the persons concerned have been forced to cry out, that it was the apparent finger of God; and so to submit to it by a conscientious reformation of their lives. Now I shall instance in three sorts of providence, in which God often speaks convincingly.
1st, In a general, common calamity. In respect of which it is said, that when God’s judgments are abroad in the land, the inhabitants will learn righteousness, Isaiah xxvi. 9. Now that which concerns all, concerns every particular; as in a general rain every twig, every single spire of grass shares in the influence. Judgments, that are general in the sending, are to be made particular by a distinct application. Thus Ezra and Nehemiah made the common desolation and captivity of the Jews the subject-matter of their personal sorrow. Thus also Jeremy, Lament. iii. 1, considers all the words and griefs that were diffused here and there in a common, universal calamity, and then makes them all concentre in his own breast: I am the man, says he, that have seen affliction. And what is the whole book of the Lamentations, but the doleful expression of the sorrows of one man for the misery of all? The convincing sense of a calamity should spread wider a 146great deal than the actual endurance of it, and the terror proceed further than the smart. As the sun beams, though directly and immediately they may strike only this or that thing, yet they are sure to reach many others in the rebound. But now, when God, as it were, blunts the edge of a common calamity, so that it makes no impression, or hardens the heart, so that it admits none, this is a pregnant sign of a soul fitted and prepared for destruction. See the truth of this exemplified in one or two particulars. And first, could any thing be imagined more impious and absurd, than that which we read in 1 Sam. xv. of Agag king of Amalek; that immediately upon the conquest of his kingdom, the slaughter of his subjects, and the captivity of his own person, like a man wholly unconcerned in all these distresses, he should venture to adorn and trick up himself, and conclude presently, that surely the bitterness of death was past? But behold, even then, in that very moment, sudden destruction rushes in upon him; which (by the way) is then usually nearest to our persons, when furthest from our thoughts. But, to proceed to an higher example of villainy; could there be a more prodigious, horrid instance of incorrigible lewdness, than that in Numb. xxv. 6, of one Zimri, of whom it is said, that in the very midst and height of a plague from heaven, raging over the whole camp of Israel, he brought into his tent a Midianitish strumpet in the sight of Moses, his prince, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who stood weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation? Neither any touch of common humanity, upon the sight of his brethren’s mourning and misery, nor any awe and reverence of that great lawgiver, 147could give check to his fury; but that, in defiance of the plague, and of the wrath that sent it, in spite of all shame and scandal, and in the face of God and of the world, he charges on resolutely and audaciously, to the satisfaction of his impure desires. But wheresoever we meet with such a rate of sinning, we may be sure destruction cannot be far off, but even at the door. And accordingly here, in ver. 8, we find the vengeance of God over taking this vile person, by a sudden and disastrous death; a death that carried away body and soul together. For when men are killed in their sin, flagrante crimine, death temporal is by consequence eternal. But now, had these two daring wretches duly and rightly considered these dreadful, public dispensations of God, they would quickly have reflected upon their own personal danger, and cried out, with surprise and horror, as those sinners of Sion did, upon the sight of God’s judgments round about them, in Isaiah xxxiii. 14, Who among us shall dwell with devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? This, together with the fears of mature repentance, had been the only sure way to have extinguished them. But persons that will not be concerned, nor moved, nor wrought upon by the loud alarms of God’s judgments upon others, are ripening apace for perdition.
2dly, The second sort of convincing providences is by particular, personal, and distinguishing judgments. When a man is singled out for misery, in the midst of a general prosperity, this, surely, cannot be accounted accident. When God hits one in a company, you may very well conclude that he aimed at him. Distinction and discrimination was 148never yet the effect of chance. Now in every such judgment the voice and command of God is, that we should either begin or renew our repentance. And when God speaks with his hand, certainly he speaks most forcibly. But when he binds up, and with holds the healing force of this also, and inflicts the rod, but denies jurisdiction; and uses that to kill, that was first made to correct; this is another speedy and effectual way to destroy.
Those many rubs and crosses that befell Saul, both in his persecution of David, and his other affairs, were certainly the voice of God, audible enough to any spiritual ear: and though God answered him not by Urim and Thummim, yet he spoke aloud to him in vocal blows; which were both reprehensions of what he had done, and admonitions what, for the future, he should do. But we know, none of all these things had any effect upon him, unless only to make him worse. It appeared to be God’s purpose, all along, by a continual increase of guilt and hardness, to train him up for destruction. The event did still demonstrate what God designed him to. The same judgments that in the hand of God are sovereign means to polish and improve a well-disposed mind, are as efficaciously used by him to inflame the accounts of the wicked and the obdurate; who take occasion from thence, to make themselves ten times more the sons of reprobation than they were before. As in bodies, those that are solid and excellent, as gold and silver, the more you beat them, the brighter and better they grow: but in flesh, that is presently subject to corrupt, the more you strike it, the blacker and nearer it is to putrefaction. See the desperate resolve 149that a wretched king of Israel made under a pressing judgment, incumbent upon him from God, in 2 Kings vi. 33, And he said, Behold, this evil is of the Lord; why should I wait for the Lord any longer? When a man, instead of being humbled by an evil, is enraged; and, instead of lying at God’s feet, flies in his face; we may be sure that his final judgment and damnation lingers not. For if such works of God, as have in them naturally a convincing quality, do not actually convince; but that the sinner can account all God’s arrows as stubble, and laugh at the shaking of his spear; we may look upon that man as one that hardens himself against God. And what will prove the issue of such a behaviour is not difficult to conclude, from that in Job. ix. 4, That none ever hardened himself against God, and prospered.
3dly, The third sort of providences, in which God often speaks convincingly, is by signal, unexpected deliverances. These are both the strongest and the sweetest ways of conviction: they are properly God’s drawing us with the cords of a man: all persuasion, without any mixture of terror or compulsion: by these, God does, as it were, allure, and even court us into subjection.
Now all deliverance, in the nature of it, presupposing some evil, from which we are delivered; God first brings us under an evil, that we may see our sin, and then rescues us from perishing by it, that we may repent. He shews us death in the punishment, to affright, and afterwards removes it in the deliverance, to endear the soul. And surely, upon all the accounts of reason and common humanity, it should be natural from hence to draw an argument 150for repentance. For to sin against mercy, shining in a deliverance, is disingenuous; and, since it provokes the judgment to return, equally dangerous. The most proper and genuine deduction that is to be made from God’s mercy, is his fear, in Psalm cxxx. 4, There is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. But now, if any man, from a deliverance from punishment, shall draw a consequence for boldness in sin; and if, from compassion, he shall argue himself into presumption, this is not the discourse of his reason, but the sophistry and baseness of his corruption. And such a way of arguing as God reproached the children of Israel for, as equally wicked and irrational, in Jerem. vii. 10, Will ye stand before me, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations? For can we imagine that the great and just God should concern himself to deliver us, and to knock off our shackles, only that we may sin against him so much the more freely? When God has got the sinner upon the advantage, and is making him feel, in some measure, the evil of his sin, in the smart of his punishment, what is it that makes God, after all this, let him go, and choose rather to release, than to despatch him? Is it because he could not destroy him in justice? or because it would not stand with the reputation of his goodness? No, assuredly; it was wholly out of free, spontaneous, undeserved mercy, to see whether or no he will improve such an act of favour into a motive and occasion of amendment. But if, for all this, the sinner will not hear what God speaks in such a dealing; but shuts his eyes and stops his ears, and, after so many endearments, loves God never the better, nor his sin at all the worse, (as 151this frame of spirit often befalls sturdy, overgrown sinners,) we may assuredly conclude, that God is taking another course with such an one; and fairly fitting him for the final stroke of his revenging justice.
And thus much for the second way, by which I shew, that God seals and prepares a sinner for destruction; namely, by restraining the convincing force of his providences. The
3d and last that I shall mention is, by delivering up the sinner to a stupidity, or searedness of conscience. And here it will be requisite to shew what this searedness of conscience means: which I shall endeavour to explain from that place of scripture in 1 Tim. iv. 2, having their consciences scared with a hot iron;κεκαυστηριασμένων τὴν ἰδίαν συνείδησιν. Where some, by a seared conscience, understand a prostitute, branded, filthy conscience; alluding to such notorious criminals as are branded for their villainies: which, though it be in itself a truth, yet others, I think, more significantly, make it an allusion to the practice of surgeons and physicians, who use cuttings and burnings for the healing of corrupt flesh: which being once thus cauterized, or seared, becomes afterwards insensible. And like such flesh are the consciences of some men; which are, as it were, seared into a kind of insensibility.
Now for the nature of conscience, we must know that it is God’s vicegerent in the soul, placed there by him, as superintendent over all our actions, severely to examine and supervise them, and impartially to excuse or accuse, according to their conformity or inconformity to the rule prescribed by God’s law. And it is, withal, naturally of the tenderest, 152the quickest, and the most exact sense of any of the faculties; impatient of the least irregularity, and not conniving at the smallest deviation from the rule a man ought to act by.
But now, when this becomes gross, stupid, and insensible, the soul may sin on as it pleases: for what can hinder sin from reigning, when conscience is hardened, and cannot so much as check it? If, when the watchman is but asleep, the city or castle committed to him is in danger of a surprise from the enemy, how much more must it needs be so, when he is blind! When there is a benumbedness, or searedness, upon the grand principle of spiritual sense, so that, as it is expressed in Ephes. iv. 19? we come to be past feeling, no wonder then if sin and Satan inflict blow after blow, in the most fatal manner, upon the soul: for this is most certain, that unless we feel the evil of sin, we shall never resist it. Such a conscience will brook and digest the foulest sins. As when a man has lost his taste, any thing will go down with him.
But still we must here note, that it is not at once, but by degrees, that the conscience comes to be trained on to this insensible, obdurate temper. As first, if a man’s conscience will serve him to be worldly, from thence it shall allow him to proceed to ambition and covetousness; and then, following the scent of gain through thick and thin, he shall be able to mould and cast himself into any kind even of the wickedest and the basest compliances; and from thence, at last, if need be, he shall not stick at perjury itself. And now, when conscience, by going this cursed round, is become hardy, and the man made an experienced, thoroughpaced sinner; what 153sin will he not dare to commit? Any lie, any oath, any treachery, shall be readily swallowed and digested by him.
lint how dangerous, and even desperate, is such a frame of mind! and yet God sometimes delivers up sinners to it; as he did Pharaoh, to hardness of heart. But how? not by any positive infusion of such an evil habit into the conscience; but by substracting his grace, as also providentially administering occasions, by which the sinner, thus deprived of grace, is more and more hardened. And further than this, I see not how any evil or sinful disposition in the creature can be said to be from God. It is sufficient that God effectually works his end upon sinners this way. As the sun is the cause of night and darkness, not by any causal influence producing it, but only by withdrawing his light; the corruption of a man’s heart, unrenewed by grace, is the cause of its own hardness: as, when you melt wax, remove but the fire, and the wax will harden itself. But now, there is no way so sure and dreadful, by which God binds over a sinner to death, as this. For thus God dealt with the Jews: He gave them eyes, that seeing, they might not perceive; and ears, that hearing, they might not understand: but made the heart of that people gross, that they might not be converted, and healed; that is, that they might be hardened and ruined; as it is in Isaiah vi. 9, 10.
The same appears also from that opposite way that God takes to save. Because God had thoughts of mercy for king Joshua, therefore he gave him a tender heart, to relent, upon the hearing of the law, 2 Kings xxii. 19, Because thine heart was tender, 154 &c. therefore have I heard thee, saith the Lord. This hardness growing upon the conscience, is like a film growing upon the eyes; it blinds them. And that which makes the conscience blind to discern its duty, makes it bold to venture upon sin. But, whosoever it is that God shuts up under such a frame of spirit, that man carries the mark of death about him, and the wrath of God (in all likelihood) abides upon him.
And thus I have done with the first thing proposed; which was to shew, how, and by what means, God seals up a sinner to perdition. Come we now to the
Second, which is to shew, what sort of obstinate sinners those are, that God deals with in this manner: I shall instance in two.
1st, Such as sin against clear and notable warnings from God. Before a sinner comes to have finished his course, if he can but reflect upon and trace over the several dealings of God’s special providence, he will find that there have been many stops and rubs thrown in his way; which might have given him fair warning to make a stand, at least, if not to retreat. For God sometimes hedges in a sinner’s way, so that it is really very difficult for him to proceed, and not only more safe, but also more easy for him to return. How many men have gone to church, with their hearts fully engaged in a resolution to pursue some secret, beloved sin; and there have been strongly arrested with the convincing force of some word, so seasonably, and, as it were, purposely directed against that sin, that they have thought the preacher to have looked into their very hearts, and to have been as privy to their most inward 155thoughts and designs, as their own consciences! Now this is a manifest admonition and caution, cast in by God himself; which to balk, or break through, greatly enhances the sinner’s guilt. Sometimes God warns a sinner from his course, by making strong impressions upon his mind of its unlawfulness, and contrariety to the divine will: which impressions are so strong and cogent, that they over bear all the shifts and carnal reasonings that the subtilty of a wicked heart can make in the behalf of it. Again, sometimes God meets the sinner with some heavy, threatening sickness, lays him upon the bed of pain and languishing, and scares him with the fears of an approaching death, and the weight of an endless confusion. And then he pleads with him, opens the book of conscience, and sets before him his sins, represented with all their killing circumstances and dismal appearances, together with their hideous, destructive consequences in the ever lasting endurance of an infinite wrath, in which case, as the condition of sickness and danger is usually a relenting condition, so no doubt but at that time glorious designs of repentance are took up by the sinner. But as soon as he is released of his sickness, he quickly grows sick of his repentance; and, as the Roman orator says, Timor non diuturni magister officii: nothing is more common, than for the violences of fear to return to the inclinations of nature. Possibly, after all this, God meets the sinner again, scatters his estate, makes a breach upon his reputation, and so disciplines him with poverty and disgrace, till, at length, he resumes his forgot repentances, and recovers himself into soberer thoughts and severer principles.156
These are the methods that, for the most part, God takes to reduce obstinate sinners. But yet there both have been and still are men in the world deeply engaged, and, as it were, fixed and riveted in their sins, notwithstanding all these and the like admonitions. But whosoever they are that can frustrate and defeat all these arts and attempts of grace for the recalling of sinners, you may write them hopeless: for, where admonition cannot enter, nothing but death and destruction can.
2dly, The other sort of sinners are such as sin against special renewed vows and promises of obedience made to God. This is not only to break God’s bonds, laid upon us in conviction, but also those bonds and ties that we have laid upon ourselves, by our own voluntary protestations. A vow, or promise, is the most binding thing that can limit or restrain a free agent. And from mere natural principles, men generally bear such a reverence to them, that they must be far gone in a contempt of nature, as well as religion, before they can wholly break, or cast them off. For if these cannot bind, corruption must needs be boundless. Solomon gives us an excellent admonition in Eccles. v. 4, When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for God hath no pleasure in fools. Where we may observe, that he supposes that men are not of such prostitute consciences, as wholly to deny the performance of a vow; and therefore he fastens folly and wickedness upon the very delay of it. And if so, what can we think that he would have said to a downright breach of a vow? and that in a matter of such indispensable necessity as obedience? To break it here, is therefore so transcendently wicked, 157because this was due upon the account of God’s law, before, and without our promise. It obliged, of itself, as a duty; but a vow, or solemn promise, superadded, sets home duty with a further obligation.
Moreover, the violation of these is more than ordinary sinful; not only from the necessity of tin 1 matter to which they oblige, but also from the occasion upon which they were made. For men seldom make such vows, but upon extraordinary cases; as upon the receipt of some great endearing mercy, or some notable deliverance; which causes them, by way of gratitude, to bind themselves to God in closer and stricter bonds of obedience. Whereupon, such as make a custom of affronting God, by a frequent and familiar breach of these, are justly very odious to him, and, from odious, quickly become unsupportable.
Where sin is grown inveterate, and the sinner unconquerable, so that he can endure no restraint, nothing can hold him; but, like the man possessed with a legion of devils, he breaks all chains and fetters that have been cast upon him; we may be confident that evil is designed for him: he stands as a condemned person before God already, God has pronounced his doom. And though he has frequently broke promise with God, yet hi this thing he shall find, that God will certainly keep his word with him.
And thus much for the second thing proposed; which was to shew, what sort of obstinate sinners those are that God seals up to destruction. I come now to the
Third, which is to answer and resolve two questions that may arise from the foregoing particulars.158
1st, Whether the purpose of God passed upon an obstinate sinner, (here expressed to us by God’s swearing against him,) be absolutely irrevocable?
2dly, Whether a man may know such a purpose to have passed upon him antecedently to its execution.
For the first of these, I affirm, that the scripture is full and clear for it. As for instance; God unalterably proposed the taking away the kingdom from Saul: of which purpose Samuel speaks thus, in 1 Sam. xv. 29, The Strength of Israel, says he, is not a man, that he should repent: where, by repenting, is meant only God’s altering his counsel, or reversing his purpose.
And now, if God may pass such a purpose upon a man with reference to his temporal estate, why may he not also with reference to his eternal? Since the motive inducing God to one (which is the high malignity of sin) may be advanced to such a degree of provocation, as equally to induce him to the other; especially, since the difference of the subject, viz. that one is about a temporal, the other about an eternal estate, does not at all alter the nature of the action. For is it anyways strange in reason, absurd in divinity, or, indeed, in any respect derogatory even to the divine goodness itself, for God, upon unusual sins, frequently repeated, pertinaciously continued in, and beset with circumstances of the highest aggravation and defiance, to take up a purpose concerning such a person, certainly to exclude him from salvation? This is so suitable, even to the most just and equal transactions between man and man, that I find no paradox to assert it, in respect of God’s dealings, at all.159
But some perhaps will urge; suppose such an one should repent, change his life, and break off his sins by a sincere and constant devoting of himself to the duty of piety and mortification, would the purpose of God stand still in force against such an one?
I answer, no; but I add, withal, that this in the present case is both an improper and an impossible supposition; for supposing that God once commences such a purpose against any sinner, he always with holds and denies that grace which should render the means of repentance effectual, after that: so that it is certain, that such an one will never have a will or an heart to repent and turn from his sins. And therefore in the foregoing discourse, I shew, that God puts this purpose in execution chiefly by with drawing the secret converting energy of his word: for to me it seems clear, that the word does not convert by any mere suasive force naturally inherent in it; but by a divine power concomitant to, and cooperating with it. It being otherwise hard to imagine how a man can be barely persuaded out of his nature, or, at least, out of that which sways him as strongly. I shew also, that God took away the convincing edge and impression of his providences; so that they never became effectual to reduce such an one.
From all which it follows, that upon these grounds the foregoing question is impertinent. For though God promises salvation upon a certain condition; yet if he alone, by his grace, is able to effect that condition, and upon great provocation refuses to effect it; it is evident that he may, upon failure of that condition, irreversibly purpose to condemn a sinner, and yet stand firm to the truth of his former promise.
This is most certain; that both these propositions 160may, and are, and must be unalterably true; namely, That whosoever repents, and leaves his sins, shall be saved; and yet, That he, whosoever God has sworn shall never enter into his rest, can never enter into it: and all pretences to the contrary are but harangue and declamation, and fit to move none, but such as understand not the strength of arguments, or the force of propositions. And thus much in answer to the first question. The second is, whether a man may know such a purpose to have passed upon him antecedently to its execution?
In answer to which, we must observe, that the ordinary ways by which God imparts the knowledge of his will to men are only these two:
1st, God’s declaration of it by his word.
2dly, Men’s collection of it from its effects.
Now, for the first of these, I shall lay down this assertion: That every peremptory and absolute declaration of something to be done by God, does not always infer God’s absolute purpose to do that thing, as to the event of it.
The due consideration of which is of so great moment, that without it we cannot rightly understand many of the promises and threatenings of God, which run in terms absolute and peremptory, and yet never come to be fulfilled. As for instance; in that first great threatening made to Adam in Gen. ii. 17, In the day thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die; we find that the execution did not reach the letter of the denunciation: forasmuch as Adam long survived the violation of that precept to which this threatening was annexed.
And then, in the next place, for promises. Let us take that eminent one made by God to Elijah, in 1611 Sam. ii. 30, where God repeats his own promise in terms very absolute: Wherefore the Lord God of Israel saith, I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy father, should walk before me for ever; yet he adds in the very next words, Far be it from me. Strange! that when God had promised a thing absolutely, he should add afterwards, Far be it from me to perform it. How are these things reconcileable to, and consistent with his immutable truth and veracity? For the explication of which,
1st, We must observe, first particularly, concerning God’s threatenings; that frequently they do not signify the event of the thing threatened, but sometimes declare only the merit of the action and the will of God, that such a punishment should be due to such an offence; not that it should be eventually inflicted for it: so that those words in Genesis signify only thus much, In the day that thou eatest, thou shalt certainly be obnoxious and liable to death: and so Adam really was, and might have been proceeded against according to the tenor of that sentence, had God been pleased to take him upon the advantage.
2dly, We must observe jointly both promises and threatenings, that they often run in absolute terms, when really they imply a condition. So that the promise made to Eli and his family implied the condition of their obedience and pious behaviour towards God; which failing, and the promises thereupon not being performed, it appeared, that however in words it was absolute, yet in sense and design it was but conditional. From all which I affirm, that promises and threatenings, though expressed in never such absolute terms, yet cannot be known to be absolute or conditional, till such time as they are put in execution. 162 And yet therefore upon this ground no sinner can conclude that God has took up such a purpose against him, till he finds it actually fulfilled upon him. To which I add further, that God nowadays makes no such declaration of his purposes to any particular persons.
In the next place then, if any will pretend to gather the knowledge of such a purpose of God against him, it must be from some effects of it. Such, as I shew, were God’s withdrawing his grace, and that secret, convincing power that operates in his word and in his providences: but this cannot immediately be known by any man; since it is (as we here suppose it to be) altogether secret. Or, further, he must gather this knowledge from some qualifications or signs, accompanying those persons that are in such a wretched condition. Such, as I shew, were sinning against particular warnings and admonitions from God; as also against frequently renewed vows and promises of amendment and obedience. But these I mentioned not as certain, infallible marks of such a forlorn estate, but only as shrewd signs of it. For besides that the scripture declares no man absolutely and finally lost, as soon as these qualifications are found upon him, unless they continue so till his death; so it is further manifest, that the grace of God is so strange and various, in its working upon the heart of men, that it sometimes fastens upon and converts old overgrown sinners, such as to the eye of reason were going apace to hell, and al most at their journey’s end.
From all which it follows, that no man, in this life, can pass any certain judgment concerning the will of God in reference to his own final estate; but ought, 163with fear and trembling, to attend God’s precept and revealed will; and so gathering the best evidence he can of his condition from his obedience, with all humility to expect the issue of God’s great counsels and intentions.
But here, to prevent all mistakes about what has been said, you must observe, that there is a wide difference between the purpose of God, that I have been hitherto discoursing of, and that which the schools call God’s decree of reprobation; concerning which I shall only remark this by the way. That there is so much to be argued, both from scripture and reason, grounded upon the actuality and immutability of the divine nature for it; and so much, on the contrary, from the difficulty of its seeming to some to make God the author of sin, and to cross some received principles of morality, to be urged against it, that had not authority most wisely and justly restrained all discourses of it from the pulpit, I think none could shew a better understanding of it, than by not presuming to determine any thing about it. And therefore my business rather is only in a word or two to shew that the purpose of God, that I have been hitherto speaking of, is quite another thing from that decree considered according to the hypothesis of the schools, and that in a double respect.
1st, Because that decree is said to commence entirely upon God’s good pleasure and sovereign will, and not upon any compulsive cause from without him: but this purpose commences upon the provocation of the sinner, as an impulsive cause moving God to make such a determination against him.
2dly, Because that decree is said to be from all 164eternity; but this purpose is actually took up in time; namely, after some signal provocation. And because the schools will not admit of any new immanent acts, new purposes or decrees in God, therefore I call it a purpose only in a large and popular sense: for indeed, in strictness of speech, it is properly but an effect of God’s will, actually disposing the sinner under such circumstances, as, meeting with his corruption, will certainly end in his perdition.
And thus having cleared these two questions, which was the third thing proposed to be handled, I descend now to the fourth and last, which is, to draw some uses from the whole. And the
First shall be of exhortation, to exhort and persuade all such as know how to value the great things that concern their peace, to beware of sinning under sin-aggravating circumstances. What those are, you may know by recollecting, in your meditations, what has been delivered. It is wonderful to consider what weight a bare circumstance gives to sin, and what a vast and wide disparity it makes between actions of the same nature. What is the reason that the same sin does not actually fetch down wrath upon one, when it strikes another with an immediate vengeance, but because in one it is empoisoned with more killing circumstances than in the other? Now we are to know, that the things that chiefly provoke God to swear against men, are judgments, mercies, means of grace, warnings, and convictions; these are the things that, neglected, double and treble the guilt of sins, and of damnable, make them actually condemning. These are the fair days that ripen us apace for the sickle of sin-revenging justice. It is said of 165the times of heathenism, in Acts xvii. 30, that God winked at them: what was the reason? Certainly their sins, as to the nature and kind of them, were as black, hideous, and provoking, and struck as high as the highest improvement of natural corruption could reach. Why then cannot God wink also at the same sins now under the gospel? Why! because, as the gospel offers grace to sinners, so it adds guilt and greatness to sin. A dunghill under the hot sunshine is much more offensive than under the shade.
As men therefore fear falling under that terrible sentence expressed in the words; as they dread a final, unappeasable anger; let them shun these sin-heightening aggravations, and beware of sinning against judgments and deliverances, gospel light, clear warnings, and strong convictions. For can we in reason imagine, that that great and universal Providence, that takes cognizance of every the least accident, and reckons every hair that falls from our head, should not have some great and particular designs upon the souls of men in the several strange and unusual passages of their lives? Neither God’s words nor his works can be frustrate. He neither discourses nor fights with the air. And therefore, in the strength and evidence of what I have laid down, I must affirm, that that person, whosoever he is, whom the continual returns of the word preached does not alter, but that his old sins continue firm, entire, and unbattered; the baseness of his inclinations unchanged; so that after all his attendance upon the word, his tongue and thoughts are as loose to all filthiness, to all levity of discourse and behaviour, as before. He also whose former distresses, hardships, and disasters have not laid him low in the 166valleys of humility, nor circumscribed the lashings out of his luxury, but that his past miseries and restraints give only a relish instead of a check to his present pride and intemperance. And lastly, he whom all the caresses and embraces of Providence have not been able to win upon, so as to endear him to a virtuous strictness, or to deter him from a vicious extravagance; I say, every such person, (unless the great God be trivial and without concern in his grand transactions with our immortal souls,) during this condition, is (so far as we can judge) a fashioning for wrath. He is a probationer for hell, and carries about him the desperate symptoms and plague-tokens of a person likely to be sworn against by God, and hastening apace to a sad eternity.
The other use and improvement of the foregoing particulars shall be, to convince us of the great and fearful danger of a daring continuance in a course of sin. The counsel of Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar carries an equal aspect upon us all, that we break off our sins by righteousness, and change our lives by an immediate repentance: for who knows what dreadful things may be forming in the mind of God against us during our impenitence? Who knows what a day may bring forth, and what may be the danger of one hour’s delay? This is most sure, that every particular, repeated act of sin sets us one advance nearer to hell. And while we are sinning obstinately, and going on audaciously in a rebellious course, how can we tell but God may swear in his wrath against us, and register our names in the black rolls of damnation? And then our condition is sealed and determined for ever.
It is dangerous dallying with and venturing upon 167the Almighty. God is indeed merciful; but we know mercy itself may be angry, and compassion provoked may swear our destruction. Every sinner, upon his return to God, should repent and believe with that confidence, as if God were nothing but mercy; but having once repented, it would be his wisdom to live with that caution and exactness, as if God were nothing but justice. For none certainly can be too exact in acquitting himself to God, or too cautious in the business of eternity. And therefore, when the tempter shall dress up any beloved minion sin, and present it to our eager, inflamed appetites, let us not look upon it as it paints and sparkles in the temptation, but let us rather demur a while, and debate with ourselves, what may be the issue of that sin, if committed by us, in the court of heaven; whether it may not provoke God to protest that we shall never come thither: and then, believe it, God will say, as he does in Isaiah xlv. 2, 3, I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and it shall not return. What God absolutely purposes and declares, God himself cannot (because he will not) disannul. Still, therefore, let us keep this consideration alive upon our spirits, that, before the sentence of death pass upon us, it may fairly be prevented; but when it is once denounced, it can never be recalled. God in mercy give us a right understanding of these things.
To whom be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.168
|« Prev||Sermon XXXI. Psalm xcv. 11||Next »|