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Repent; or I will come unto thee quickly, and fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
REFLECTING upon these many and strange methods by which sin prevails upon man’s will, collected from an ordinary experience and survey of the practices of the world, compared with the infallible verdict of the scriptures; and amongst the rest, of that signal place in Deut. xxix. 19, which presents to us one blessing himself, and saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imaginations of my heart, to add drunkenness to thirst: I have, upon such reflections, not without some amazement, considered what should be the ground upon which rational, discerning men can satisfy and speak peace to their consciences in the very career of those sins, the commission of which, even by the confession of those that commit them, leads to assured perdition.
As for that peace that springs from a refined, well-contrived hypocrisy, that is wholly of another nature; for where there is some restraint of sin coloured over with some superficial varnish of duty, considering the weakness of man’s understanding, and the treachery of his will, it is no wonder that such a peace is easily attainable; nay, that it is very hardly avoidable. But here, where sin is let loose 238to its full, uncontrolled course, so that men lie and wallow in a free and palpable perpetration of it, even arising to the height of this expression, to add drunkenness to thirst; that is, as some expound it, the outward commission of sin to the inward desire; or as others, a perpetual, continued glut and surfeit in sin. As the abused satisfaction of thirst causes drunkenness, and drunkenness again provokes thirst, men never more liberally call for their cups, than when they have too liberally taken them already.
I say, that any one should find peace in such a course, this seems prodigious, and, did not scripture and experience overrule the disputes of reason, almost incredible. But since there is no human action or course without some cause, it will be expedient to inquire what may be the cause of this. And one would think, that the cause that any man can be jocund and fully satisfied in the eager pursuit of known sins, must of necessity be one of these three.
1st, That he is ignorant of the curse that attends his sin; and so no wonder, if blindness produces boldness: for he that is blind may not only accidentally fall, but soberly go into the ditch. But this cannot be here the cause; for he that thus blesses himself, is said in the former part of the verse to do so, after he had heard the words of this curse. A curse plain enough and large enough, filling all the foregoing chapter, one of the longest in the Bible. So that if terror set home with evidence, or evidence edged with terror, could convince, ignorance was here unpleadable. The broad light of the word beat full in his face, the discovery was clear, and the conviction unavoidable; and therefore ignorance could not be the cause.239
2dly, A second cause might be unbelief: lie might know the curse, and yet not believe it; and so, not being believed, it could not control his comforts. For though apprehension brings the object to the mind, yet it is belief only that lets it in. But neither can this be always the cause: for certainly, no man is so improved in sin, as to transcend the Devil, who, as the schoolmen say, stands confirmatus in summa malitia: and yet he believes, and that even to trembling. He knows and believes that he shall be tormented to the utmost extent of the very least tittle and jot of all God’s threatenings, and yet he sins with a most resolved, implacable purpose; nay, he therefore sins, because he knows and believes it. Wherefore audacious sinning is not always founded upon infidelity.
3dly. But thirdly, though he knows and believes the curse, yet, perhaps, he relaxes nothing of his sin, because he resolves to bear it; and has wrought himself into that hardiness and courage, as to think that he can weather out the storms of God’s wrath, and stand the shock of eternal vengeance; and, like Scaevola, with the same hand and sturdiness endure the flame with which he committed the sin.
But, alas! where lives that man that can thus reason, either sober or in his wits? The principles of our nature will not bear it. Belshazzar had as much of power, and of drink withal, to raise him to bid defiance to God, as any ruffian under heaven; and yet when God, as it were, lift but up his finger against him, how poorly did he crouch and shiver! how did his joints loose, and his knees knock together! So that if he felt God’s hand so intolerable when it did but write, what would he find it when 240it should inflict the sentence! And therefore neither can this be the reason.
But now, if men both apprehend the curse, and believe the truth of it, and withal confess their utter inability to contest with it; what can be the reason that any man can, with a contented mind and a daring hand, proceed in such a strain of rebellion; believing, and yet despising the curse, fearing its weight, and yet defying the event? Why, the reason, I conceive, in short, is a presuming confidence of a future repentance.
This is the great mysterious engine of sin, that turns about the world, that reconciles all the contra dictions of interest and religion, that solves all doubts, cuts off all demurs, that can assure a Balaam he shall die the death of the righteous, though he lives upon the wages of iniquity. It is this only that presents sin in some respect rational; that can make even conscience itself sign and seal the petitions of the basest appetite. In short, it works wonders: it unites the joys of heaven and the pleasures of sin; the promises of God and the precepts of the Devil.
I shall not enforce this by any other probation, but by appealing to every man’s own conscience; sending him to reflect upon himself, and to consider the temper of his spirit, the inward reasonings and debates of his mind, when he is allured to do any thing, of the unlawfulness of which he stands clearly convinced, whether he is not drawn forth to the actual commission of it by presuming upon impunity, through the interposals of an after repentance.
For if conscience startles and flies back, and dreads the apple of the temptation, because God’s 241word is peremptory, He that eats shall die; future repentance stands forth and supplies the room, and retorts the answer of the Devil, Thou shalt not surely die; nay, thou mayest repent, and surely live. So that repentance being now stamped as cur rent as perfect obedience, this argument is heightened much beyond what that of the Devil was then capable of; because indefinitely, without any restriction of time or person, God’s promise of life to the penitent stands clear and irreversible.
Now what can speak more home and full to a man’s desires, and, in a great measure, to his reason, than that which encourages him to crop the present sweets of sin, by giving him security against the future smart? Let the wine be never so poisonous, a man may safely drink it, when he has not only an appetite for its sweetness, but also an antidote against its poison.
This, this therefore is the very hinge upon which the whole persuasive force of sin turns and depends; the only temptation that seems unanswerable. Others indeed may allure; this alone argues a man into sin. And I desire to leave this with you, as an observation infallibly true, that were it not for the persuasions of a future repentance, a knowing man could scarce ever be brought to sin against his conscience.
But now if this be overthrown, and proved to be both absurd and dangerous, as I hope some part of the ensuing discourse shall do, with dear, undeniable evidence, then all other temptations, that are but the mere appendices of this, will fall and vanish of themselves: as by confuting the main hypothesis of an opinion, all other arguments by consequence 242drawn from thence, are also by consequence confuted.
Now the face of these words is directly set against this soul-devouring imposture of a deferred repentance. The words are short and cutting, full of a smart and reprehensive vehemency; the word and the blow seems to go together.
In the prosecution of them, for a more methodical proceeding, it will be convenient to inquire into their occasion. For since they are a command, and every command respects some person to whom it is directed; and since this command is of repentance, which always relates to some sin to be repented of; this inquiry will give us a fair insight and introduction into both.
First of all then, for the occasion of these words: if we have recourse to the 12th verse, we shall find that they are part of a letter to the church of Pergamos, indited by the Spirit of God, and directed to the angel of that church.
And here it will not be amiss briefly to consider what the angel of that church was. It is evident, that the church of Pergamos must be taken collectively, for many particular churches included in it; for that it should be but one particular church, considering the number of the persons, and the extent of the place, cannot with any colour of sense or reason be affirmed. By angel therefore must be understood that chief pastor, who had the supervisal and government of those particular churches, and the pastors of them contained within the compass of Pergamos; correspondent to a bishop among us, ruling over the particular churches and ministers of his diocese.243
And the denomination of angel shews the divine justification of the office, it being in Eccles. v. 6 given to the priest, the chief ruler of the Jewish church. Neither can any instance be given of the name of angel ascribed to any person employed about the church; but it imports a messenger from God. So that, I say, it is probable, that the word carries in it divine institution. But, however, both the word and the usage of it here imports Christ’s owning and approbation of the office: and confirmation is a kind of after-insinuation; at least, it is no less authentic, lint some reply, that the word angel may be applied here to some one pastor or presbyter, equal to the rest. To which I answer, that it is highly improbable that the Spirit should address a message to one minister, who was but equal to the rest, and no more concerned in it than the rest, and that about a matter relating to all their churches.
But I add further, that this could not be; for one pastor over a particular church has nothing to do to interpose and correct the abuses of other particular churches, which are severally under their own pastors and governors.
But now the minister here spoke of is blamed for the abuses of all the churches in Pergamos, and charged to rectify them; which clearly imports, that he stood invested with a more general and extended jurisdiction. And this by the way, though yet it is no digression.
Having thus shewn who the person was to whom this letter was directed; in the next place, we are to consider the subject-matter of the letter itself; which contains in it these three things: 1st, Commemoration of the virtues and graces that were eminent 244and resplendent in this church, in ver. 13. 2dly, A charge for some sinful abuse that had crept in, and was connived at, in ver. 14. 3dly, An advice upon the whole matter, which was speedy and immediate repentance.
In our present discourse we shall only be concerned in the two latter of these: and first, for the sinful abuse or scandal here charged upon this church; it was its toleration of that vile and impure sect of the Nicolaitans. These Nicolaitans, as their name imports, took their rise and denomination from one Nicholas, one of those seven deacons who were first ordained by the apostles, Acts vi. 5. Now their heresy consisted of these two branches: 1st, That they did assert the eating of sacrifices offered to idols, and that even in honour to those idols, to be lawful: 2dly, That they held and abetted the lawfulness of fornication. So that their heresy was a complete system of all impiety; the first part containing the greatest spiritual, the latter the greatest carnal pollution.
In the 14th verse of this chapter, the Spirit calls this heresy the way of Balaam; who, when he could not curse, fell to counsel; that is, to do a greater mischief; and advised Balak to cause the women of the Moabites to entice the children of Israel to the feasts of Priapus; in which the people sat down to eat and drink, and afterwards rose up to play; that is, they first feasted upon the idol-sacrifices, and then finished the solemnity with the impurities of lust. It seems something of this nature was revived and practised by these impure here tics; a strange thing, one would think, that so filthy an heresy should get ground in the very beginnings 245and first dawnings of the church, and in the purest times of Christianity!
Yet thus it was. The brightest day may begin with a mist; and the best of churches is not privileged from corruptions: but it was not so much the churches having, as not animadverting upon these pests, that is here reprehended. They had their meetings by public toleration and connivance: and this is that for which the Spirit rounds them up with this short advice, armed and seconded with a severe commination.
Come we now to the next thing; which is, the counsel of speedy repentance, given upon this scandal, and contained in the words of the text; in which are these two parts.
1st, The first stands directed to the church itself: Repent, or I will come unto thee quickly. By God’s coming, is meant his approach in the way of judgment; for so the word coming frequently signifies, both in the Old and New Testament. Isaiah xxx. 27, The name of the Lord cometh from far, burning with his anger. And in Psalm l. 8, Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence; that is, he shall come to judge and punish; or, as the usual phrase is, he shall come with a vengeance: for so the following words explain these; A fire shall devour before him.
In the same sense also is the word coming frequently used in the New Testament; which is well worth our observation, as being of signal use to rescue sundry places of scripture, that have been hitherto held under false and perverse interpretations.
In this sense is it taken in Matth. xvi. 27, where 246it is said, that the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his holy angels, to reward every man according to his works; which place though many understand of Christ’s coming in his own person to judge all men at the end of the world, yet indeed it only signifies his coming in the ministers of his wrath, to take vengeance of the Jews in the destruction of Jerusalem.
That this is so, I evince by another parallel place, in Matthew xxvi. 64, where Christ, speaking of his coming, says, ἀπ᾽ ἄρτι ὄψεσθε τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐρχόμενον ἐπὶ τῶν νεφελῶν τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, which word ἀπ᾽ ἄρτι, though we translate hereafter, yet it properly signifies from now; that is, within a very short time.
But yet more fully from that forementioned place in Matth. xvi. whereas in verse 27, he had said, You shall see the Son of man come with the glory of his Father, and the holy angels, he subjoins in the very next verse, And verily there are some standing here, that shall not taste death till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.
What! did he mean that they should not die till the day of judgment? No; this was evidently false and impossible: but his meaning was, that some of the younger sort of his auditors should live to see the execution of his wrath upon the Jews, in the destruction of Jerusalem.
And this seems excellently to interpret a place that will hardly be understood without it, in John xxi. 22, where Christ says to Peter, concerning John, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Here now the apostles’ minds running upon the last judgment, presently concluded that John should not die. But now take the word coming in 247this sense, and it gives a clear and apposite interpretation to the place; John being the only disciple who both saw and survived the destruction of Jerusalem.
But the only doubt that may occur here is this: how Christ could be said to come in the destruction of Jerusalem, which was effected by the Roman armies, lint the solution is easy. For when God, by his peculiar providence, raises up any instruments to execute his decrees or purposes upon any people or place, the actions of those persons are both usually and properly applied to God, as if he had done them immediately himself.
And for his coming with his holy angels, it is very probable, that when God brings a public ruin and destruction upon a nation, he uses the ministry of angels, as well as the weapons of men. This seems clear to me from that place in Dan. x. 20, where the angel says to him, Now will I return to fight with the prince of Persia: and when I am gone forth, lo, the prince of Grecia shall come. In like manner Christ might send his angels out to fight against Judea, before the coming of Vespasian’s army.
And lastly, for his coming in the clouds; he that shall read Josephus and others concerning the Jewish history, will find what strange, prodigious appearances there were in the sky, of armies fighting, and a flaming sword hanging over Jerusalem, a little before the Romans sacked and ruined that city. So that, all things being laid together, I cannot but conclude it more than probable that this is the sense of the place.
A learned author, considering this sense of Christ’s coming, judges that the whole book of the Revelations, 248in which that is so often spoke of, relates to things immediately to happen after the delivery of that prophecy; and consequently, that it had its completion within two hundred years. And certain it is, that the very beginning of the book says, that it was to deliver things shortly to come to pass; and the last concluding chapter emphatically repeats this three times, Behold, I come quickly.
Now if the judgment of this learned man stands, as it hath both the countenance of reason and of the express words of the text, then what must become of the bloody tenets of those desperate wretches, who for these many years have been hammering of blood, confusion, and rebellion out of this book, from a new fancy that they have of Christ’s coming. Thus ruling their lives, not by precepts, but prophecies; and not being able to find any warrant for their actions in the clear and express word of law or gospel, they endeavour to shelter their villainies in the obscurities and shades of the Revelation; a book intricate and involved, and for the most part never to be under stood; and upon which, when wit and industry has done its utmost, the best comment is but conjecture. And thus much for the first part of the words that stands directed by the church, Repent, or I will come unto thee quickly.
2dly, The other part of the words relates to those heretics; And I will fight against them with the sword of my mouth; that is, with the reprehending, discovering force of the word, and the censures of the church; where, for the credit and divine authority of the ministry, Christ owns that for the sword of his own mouth, which was only delivered by theirs.249
Now we must observe, that as the Spirit had called this heresy the way of Balaam, so the judgment here pronounced is still with allusion to that of Balaam; whom as the angel of God met with a drawn sword, to divert him from his course, so God here threatens to meet these heretics with the curse and terrors of the law, and the spiritual sword of his word.
And every obstinate sinner must know, that it is God that meets him face to face; that withstands and pleads with him in the word, as with a drawn sword; and therefore, if he is resolved to persist and hold on his course, he must of necessity run upon the sword’s point, the very pike of divine vengeance, and resolve to fight it out with God and all his judgments, or, by a penitential prudence, fairly consult his safety in his duty, and retreat.
Now, from this expression here used, I will fight against them with the sword of my mouth, I collect these two occasional observations.
1st, That the word of God, powerfully dispensed, has the force and efficacy of a spiritual sword. For as a sword has both a glittering radiance and brightness to strike and terrify the eye, and also an edge to pierce the flesh; so the word, being drawn forth and brandished by a skilful hand, darts a convincing light into the understanding, and with an irresistible edge enters the heart and the affections.
It is not like the song of one that has a pleasant voice, that only strikes the ear, gratifies the fancy, and courts those affections which it should command. But when the word comes from God, it comes with such a searching, invincible quickness, such a spiritual keenness, that it shall cut and make its way through the hardest heart, and not find admittance 250by mere petition or precarious suasion; for a sword never enters by entreaty.
And for men’s encouragement to attend upon this ordinance, take the proudest and the stoutest sinner upon earth, and God is able, with his word alone, to fetch him upon his knees, and to lay him in the dust. Take the stubbornest and the knottiest corruption of the most depraved heart, and God is able, with the sword of his mouth, to hew it asunder. And when Providence shall place a man under the dint of such a ministry, he will find the work short and speedy; it will quickly send him away converted or inexcusable.
2dly, From hence I observe, when God undertakes the purging of a church, or the reformation of religion, he does it with the weapons of religion, with the sword of his mouth. Shew me any one text in the whole book of God, especially since the spirit of meekness took place in the introduction of Christianity, where God commissions any man, at least any subject, to correct the abuses of religion with fire and sword, and to dispute the articles of his faith in the high places of the field. For in such cases, if his conscience will not suffer him to obey, the same conscience will as strongly oblige him to suffer. And therefore, though the truths, the worship, nay, the person itself of Christ should be invaded, yet let Peter put up his sword, and let Christ employ his own, even this sword of his mouth, which is sharper and better, and able much more powerfully to reach and affect the ear, without cutting it off.
And I am persuaded that the great reformation that God intends to bring over the Christian world in the last and best days of the church, shall not be 251effected with confused noise and garments rolled in blood, with fire and fagot, but Christ shall do it silently, yet powerfully, by the brightness of his coming. As the rising sun chases away the darkness without noise indeed, but yet without resistance.
So that whatsoever trash or stubble shall be built upon the foundation of the eternal word of God, swords and spears, weapons heterogeneous to these things, shall not be employed for their removal, but they shall insensibly vanish and moulder away before the prevailing efficacy of the everlasting gospel. As a skilful disputant does not cut off the fallacious argument of his opponent by fretting and fuming, and speaking loud, but by a calm, sedate reducing it to the rules of argumentation, just so it is here, where Christ shall subdue his enemies, not by combat but discovery. And then, the promises being fulfilled, in the universal propagation of the gospel, Jesus Christ shall reign as King of kings, and Lord of lords, and that without deposing of other princes. And if God be true, and Christianity no imposture, whensoever this is brought about, it will be in this manner; for the whole dispensation of the gospel, whether offensive or defensive, must needs be entirely spiritual.
And thus having finished the general explication of the words, I shall now descend to a more particular prosecution of the principal design of them, which is, to enforce the duty of immediate repentance; and this I shall do in these two things.
1st, I shall shew what that repentance is that is here enjoined.252
2dly, I shall produce arguments to enforce the necessity of its immediate exercise.
1st, For the first of these: since divinity has been so much spun into disputation, repentance is a thing almost as difficult in the notion as it is in the practice. There are three words in scripture to express it by, μεταμέλεια, μετάνοια, and ἐπιστροφὴ; though this last rather signifies conversion. The first, which is μεταμέλεια, denotes an anxiety or displeasure of mind upon something done amiss, to which answers the Latin poenitentia; the second, which is μετάνοια, signifies a total change or transmutation of the mind, to which answers resipiscentia.
Now between these two, some make this difference; that the former signifies either the whole of an ineffectual repentance, or only the beginning of such an one as, in the issue, proves saving and effectual; and that the latter signifies the whole work of such an one as is sound, and effectual to salvation.
It must be here confessed, that, according to the strict and rigid acceptation of the word, μεταμέλεια is only that trouble, regret, or anxiety of mind for the evil of past actions, which is rather a preparative to repentance than the work itself, and consequently, being rested in, cannot save; and on the other side, μετάνοια signifies strictly a change of mind, which, in the matter of sin, proves to be saving.
This, I say, is the proper and strict signification of the words; but since we can determine nothing of them in a scripture way from their literal meaning, but only from their use and acceptation there, which in several instances may be easily shewn to be promiscuous, we cannot make their native, literal force 253any solid ground for such a distinction. Wherefore, leaving all weak and unwarrantable deductions from the first signification of the Latin or Greek words, you may observe, that repentance, in scripture, has a threefold acceptation.
1st, It is taken for the first act by which the soul turns from sin to God; the first dividing stroke that separates between sin and the heart; the first step and advance that a sinner makes to holiness; the first endeavours and throes of a new birth.
2dly, It is taken for the whole course of a pious life, comprising the whole actions a man performs from first to last inclusively; from his first turning from a wicked life to the last period of a godly. This is the only repentance that Socinus will admit; and some others, who would pretend to bring something new, but only transcribe from him in this particular.
Now such as own this assertion find themselves under a necessity to assert also, that faith and repentance are the same things, and differ only in the manner of our conception.
So that the whole obedience of our lives, as it is a turning from sin to God, properly bears the name of repentance; but then, as this obedience and turning to God proceeds from a belief of the promises and precepts of Christ, so they say, it is properly styled faith. Whence repentance and faith, according to them, are only two different denominations fixed upon the same thing, as it sustains different respects.
But that this is not the proper notion of repentance is clear from these reasons:
1st, Because, if repentance be properly the whole entire course of gospel-obedience, from the first to 254the last of a man’s life, then no man could properly be said to have repented, till such time as he had actually finished such a course of obedience; that is, not till his death; which to assert, is a strange paradox, and contrary to the general apprehensions of men upon this subject.
2dly, The scripture, no less than the natural reason of the thing itself, places repentance before faith, Matt. xxi. 32, And ye, when ye had seen it, repented not, that ye might afterwards believe in him. Here we see repentance is made the antecedent condition of faith: but now, should repentance grasp in the whole series and course of gospel obedience, to the last period of our lives, how were it possible for faith to follow repentance, unless we should begin to believe in another world?
3dly, The scripture makes all those subsequent acts of new obedience after our first turning to God, not to be the integral constituent parts, but the effects, fruits, and consequents of repentance. Matt. iii. 8, Bring forth fruits meet for repentance. But to make the fruit part of the tree itself is certainly a thing very preposterous.
I conclude therefore, that repentance is not formally the whole course of new obedience, but that first act by which a man turns from sin to God. But then this I also add, that though it is not formally, yet it is virtually and consequentially so. That is in plain terms; repentance is not itself this course of new obedience, but it does infer and produce it, and that as its inseparable effect or consequent: so that if this new obedience does not follow in the course of a man’s whole conversation, after his first turning to God, he must conclude that that 255act was spurious and unsound; and that indeed it never truly and thoroughly brought him oil from sin, whatsoever solemnity of sorrow, tears, and confession it might be attended with.
Let him fast, and whip himself, and run barefoot, and mumble out a thousand miserere mei’s, like some ignorant formalists, who, the truth is, know not what repentance means, as being utterly strangers to the spirit of the gospel; or let him pray and weep, and hang down his head like a bulrush, go softly, and look sourly; yet if a change pass not upon his life and actions, so that instead of his accustomed wickedness, the whole tract of his conversation is drawn forth in a constant, equable practice of the contrary virtues, that man must know that he has not repented. He has perhaps deluded himself, and deceived others, stopped the cries of conscience and the clamours of men; but repented he has not; and fearful were his case, should God snatch him out of the world in that condition.
3dly, Repentance is taken for a man’s turning to God after the guilt of some particular sin. It differs from the. former thus; that the former is from a state of sin; this latter only from a sinful act. No repentance precedes the former, but this supposes a true repentance to have gone before. Thus Peter is said, after his denial of Christ, to have been converted, Luke xxii. that is, to have repented; not but that Peter was a true penitent and convert before: but upon so sad and notorious a fall, he was, by a renewed exercise of repentance, to disentangle himself from the guilt of that particular sin of denying his master.
This repentance therefore builds upon the former; 256and it is that which is here intended in the words. For the church of Pergamos was in favour with God, and consequently must needs have repented before, as is clearly collected from that elogy the Spirit gives it in Luke xxii. 13, Thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith. But by reason of this scandal permitted and connived at, it was to cleanse itself from this stain by a renewed fresh act of humiliation.
The distinction, therefore, between these two kinds of repentance is carefully to be observed. The first passes but once upon the soul, the latter is to be frequent, indeed continual. Naaman washed off the leprosy of his body but once, but the soil of his hands every day.
And thus much concerning the nature of the repentance here spoke of; which being enjoined under pain of a speedy judgment, in case of omission it follows, that the command was not indefinitely of any kind of repentance, but only of such an one as was present and immediate.
Come we therefore to the second thing proposed, which is to produce arguments to engage us in the speedy and immediate exercise of this duty.
1st, The first argument against a deferred repentance shall be taken from this consideration, that no man can be secure of the future. Neither, indeed, will men act as if they were in things that concern this life; for no man willingly defers his pleasures.
And did men here well compute the many frailties of nature, and further add the contingencies of chance, how quickly a disease from within, or a blow from without, may tear down the strongest constitution, 257certainly they would ensure eternity upon something else than a life as uncertain as the air that feeds it. Do you not think, that that young man that brought David that feigned traitorous message, did not set forth in good hearty plight in the morning? and yet before sunset the vengeance of God overtook, and slew him in his sin.
God tells the sinner, he must repent to-day; he now thinks with himself, that he can contrive the matter more wisely, and defer his repentance to some of those years into which his present health seems to give him a long prospect.
And now is it not just with God to smite such an one in the infatuation of such counsels, and to convince him, that God spoke good reason when he told him, that immediate repentance was necessary?
And indeed the providence of God, for the most part, orders the matter so, that such are snatched and hurried away to judgment on a sudden, when they have power to repent of nothing but this, that they had not repented before. See how God deals with that servant, that deferred his repentance upon a supposed delay of his master’s coming. Matt. xxiv. 50, 51, The lord of tit at servant shall come hi an hour that he looked not for him, and cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with hypocrites. God’s grace will not always dance attendance upon obstinate, resolved hypocrites; for this were, as if the sun of mercy should stand still over their heads, at their beck and command, while they are fighting against heaven.
Should God open the book of his decrees, and give a man a prospect into the secrets of futurity, 258and shew him his death sealed and appointed at such a day and such an hour, he might then indeed, with some more reason, enjoy the present, and set apart some few days to make his peace with God, and set his soul in order before he died. But this is a privilege that God vouchsafes to none, and that upon the highest reason; for if he should, it would destroy religion.
Wherefore, since this is a secret, like God’s dearest attributes incommunicable, locked up from the curious, prying inspection of all created knowledge, with what reason can any man build his life, his happiness, his eternity upon such a repentance, as hovers upon the uncertain, slippery conjectures of a supposed futurity?
Ordinary experience observed would unbewitch men as to these delusions. Did you ever see any man arrested, but it was before he was aware? A man would not willingly have his friend take him in a surprise, much less then his greatest enemy, death and judgment. Possibly God may strike him in the very eagerness and perpetration of his sin. Thus he sent Corah, Dathan, and Abiram, in the heat of their schism and rebellion, quick into hell. Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead with a lie in their mouths. Zimri and Cosbi, in the very act of uncleanness, were despatched into another world.
And let that man, who promises to himself a future repentance, and upon that confidence proceeds to sin, shew me any solid satisfactory reason, why God may not, in the same manner, cashier him in the very commission of that sin that he is designing. And then, whether it would not be the grimmest dispensation that ever befell him, to be thrust out of 259the world with his sins about his ears; and so to be brought, as it were, in the very heat and steam of his offence, to render up an account for it at God’s tribunal, before he had scarce finished the commission.
The events of to-morrow are neither within the compass of our understanding to know, or of our power to dispose of: wherefore the advice of the Spirit, concerning the time of our repentance, is the same with that of St. Austin, who counselled his friend to repent a day before he died; which, proceeding upon terms of rational certainty, is to repent to-day.
2dly, The second argument shall be taken from this consideration, that supposing the allowance of time, yet we cannot be sure of power to repent. It is very possible, that by the insensible encroaches of sin a man’s heart may be so hardened, as to have neither power nor will to repent, though he has time and opportunity. He that is unwilling to-day, will undoubtedly be more 1 unwilling to-morrow. And the reason is evident, because his present unwillingness proceeds from that hold that sin has got upon his will already: but this every hour increases, and gets further ground upon it; so that sin being increased, unwillingness to repent, the proper effect and consequent of sin, must needs be increased in an equal proportion.
The longer the heart and sin converse together, the more familiar they will grow; and then, the stronger the familiarity, the harder the separation. Docs any one think he has his heart so in his hand as to say, Thus far will I sin, and there will I leave 260off? Such an one shews indeed that he neither understands the nature of sin nor of his heart.
How that that which now creeps and begs for entrance, having once got admission, will command and domineer; and like that emperor, though it gets into power like a fox, yet it will manage it, and reign like a lion. Neither does he know those many windings and turnings, the sly excuses and glossing apologies, that the heart will suggest to rescue its sin from the summons of repentance, being once endeared and bound fast to it by inveterate continuance.
The commission of sin is like the effusion of water, easily contained in its bounds, but uncontrollable in its course. We indeed may give it vent, but God alone knows where it will stop. Is not that man therefore stupidly ignorant, who chooses to encounter his sin by a future repentance? Reason would argue and discourse thus: If I find that I have scarce power enough to resist my sin at present, shall I not have much less when time shall give it growth and strength, and as it were knit its joints, and render it unconquerable?
It is here as with a man in a combat; every blow his adversary gives him, disables him for the very next resistance. A man at first finds the beginnings and little inconveniences of a disease, but physic is unpleasant; and withal he finds himself in a good competence of strength at present, and therefore he resolves to wear it out; but in the mean time his distemper eats on its way, and grows upon him, till at length he has not so much as strength to bear physic, but his disease quickly runs him down, and becomes incurable.261
A man at first is strong, and his sin is weak, and he may easily break the neck of it by a mature repentance; but his own deluding heart tells him, that he had better repent hereafter; that is, when, on the contrary, he himself is deplorably weak, and his sin invincibly strong.
Commission of sin may indeed wound, but it is continuance of sin that kills. A man by falling to the ground may perhaps get a bruise or a knock; but by lying upon the ground after he is fallen, he may chance to catch his death.
And now does not that man’s heart give him wise and wholesome counsel, that bids him balk the present, and fix upon the future? But still, as the desires of sin are impious, so its discourses are irrational. And what a dreadful thing is it for a man, in the grand concernment of his repentance, in the great deciding cast for eternity, to relinquish the word, and to consult his heart? whereas the word cannot, and his heart cannot but deceive him.
The prophet Elisha, 2 Kings viii. 12, told Hazael, knowing his design to murder his prince, that his villainy would not stop there, but that he would proceed so far as to wreak his fury upon sucking infants, and to rip up women with child. But his heart in the mean while, which possibly at that very time, together with the sin, had designed its repentance, that persuaded him another thing, and makes him reply with resent and wonder, What! am I a dog, that I should do these things? And questionless, at that time, he little believed that he could be so wicked; but we know that the event shews whether Elisha or his heart were the truer prophet. For as soon as he had committed his first great leading 262sin, and his hand was well in, and hot in the work, his corruption rages and swells higher and higher, and his heart serves him for the utmost execution of all those villainies that at a distance he himself abhorred, and judged incredible.
And how does that man know, that has built all upon his resolves of repentance hereafter, but that he, who now trembles at the first approach of a temptation, and can discern the insensible progress of his corruption, so that, upon the very first rising and moving of the heart to sin, his conscience smites him, remorse pursues, troubles, and disquiets him; the same, within a while after his conscience has worn off those restrictions, and becomes hardened and steeled with custom in sinning, may lash on furiously and audaciously, with an high hand and bare face, against the grudges of conscience, the terrors of God, and the shame of the world; till at length he ends a wretched course in irrecoverable perdition; unless God in mercy steps in, and by a potent overruling hand of conviction rebukes the rage of his corruption, and says, thus far it shall come, and no further.
But now, as in the very course of a natural cause, continuance in sin hardens against repentance; as a man that is out of his way, if he be far gone, will be hardly brought to return, but will venture over hedge and ditch, and wade through any difficulty rather than endure the irksome, ingrateful trouble of a retreat; so we must further know,
That repentance is entirely in God’s disposal. This grace is in the soul from God, as light is in the air from the sun, by continual emanation; so that God may shut or open his hand, contract or diffuse, 263set forth or suspend the influence of it as he pleases. And if God gives not repenting grace, there will be an hard heart and a dry eye, maugre all the poor frustraneous endeavours of nature. A piece of brass may as easily melt, or a flint be water itself, as the heart of man, by any innate power of its own, resolve itself into a penitential humiliation. If God does not, by an immediate blow of his omnipotence, strike the rock, these waters will never gush out. The Spirit blows where it listeth, and if that blows not, these showers can never fall.
And now, if the matter stands so, how does the impenitent sinner know but that God, being provoked by his present impenitence, may irreversibly propose within himself to seal up these fountains, and shut him up under hardness of heart and reprobation of sense? And then farewell all thoughts of repentance for ever. See this sadly exemplified in Pharaoh. He had time enough to repent, day after day; but yet he never did repent: for it is expressly said, that God hardened his heart; that is, he with held his grace. See the children of Israel in the same case, in Psalm lxxxi. 11, My people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would none of me; that is, they peremptorily refused God’s present call to repentance. What follows? Why in the next verse, So I gave them up to their own hearts’ lusts; and they walked in their own hearts: that is, they would not repent, and therefore God in effect tells them, that they should not repent; but leaves them to the delusions of a besotted mind, and the desperate, incorrigible estate of a final impenitence.
3dly, In the third and last place, the duty of immediate 264repentance may be enforced upon this reason; that admitting a man has both time and grace to repent, yet by such delay the work will be in credibly more difficult. The longer a debt lies unpaid, the greater it grows; and not discharged, is quickly multiplied. The sin to be repented of will be the greater, and power and strength to repent by, will be less. And though a man escapes death, the utmost effect of his distemper, yet certainly he will find it something to be cut, and scarified, and lanced, and to endure all the tortures of a deferred cure.
And is it not better for a man, in the business of repentance, to rise up early, and take the morning of his years before him, while these heavenly penitential dews fall kindly and naturally, than when his day is far spent, and the heat of temptation has scorched them off from his heart, and they are gone; and he must be forced to struggle for every tear, to pump for every drop, to recover and refresh his languishing, and otherwise dying soul? I say, is it not much better, while his conscience is tender, and apt to relent under every motion and impression of the word, while his wound is green, and his heart bleeds yet afresh, to stop the bloody issue of sin with the healing balsam of a bleeding Saviour, applied quick and warm, by a speedy humiliation?
By a single commission of sin, a blot falls upon the soul; but by continuance, it soaks into it. And when once sin comes to have that desperate symptom of being inveterate, an ordinary repentance will not serve turn. The stain must lie and steep a great while longer; the brine must be sharper, and the 265repentance severer, before the soul can be recovered to its first whiteness and integrity.
God, who at first might have been won by entreaties, must now be wrestled with; and a man suffer many foils and repulses in his spiritual conflict, endure many bitter agonies, pass under much darkness and doubt, as to the whole matter of his eternal condition, before he can recover upon his heart a sense of God’s lost favour. And perhaps when at length it does return, it is but weak and imperfect, mingled with much fear and spiritual dissatisfaction. As when the clouds have spread themselves thick and dark over the face of the whole heavens, the showers must fall, and it may continue raining for many days before you can so much as see the sun; and when at length he shines forth, yet it is but waterishly, and through the cloud, with a dim, uncomfortable brightness: just so is it with a sinner in his deferred repentance.
O remember David, his roarings and cryings, his broken bones, his mournful days, and his sleepless nights. Why, what was the cause of all this? In Psalm xxxviii. My wounds stink and are corrupt, because of my foolishness. They festered and grew noisome, only by his foolish deferring of the cure. For all agree, that it was near a year, that David lay in his two great sins, before he repented.
But on the contrary, in Peter, who followed his sin close at the heels, who rose betimes to his work; as soon as ever the cock crew, and the alarm was given, we find that the matter of controversy was quickly taken up between Christ and him: and being thus converted, he had the honour to strengthen 266his brethren, and to be the great leading man and captain of the apostles.
Consider therefore, that the speedy penitent has a much fairer reception and easier discharge from God, than he that lingers; whose repentance, though it may prove sincere, yet it still comes with this degrading circumstance, that a delayed courtesy does, diu noluit.
We know, he that brings ready money has a thing much cheaper than another, together with an overplus of more credit and esteem into the bargain. In like manner the late penitent, like the late paymaster, though by such a repentance he may secure himself from the final arrests of damnation, yet still it is something sordid and degenerous.
Consider also, that God is so much pleased with an early penitence, that he is ready to accept that which is in itself a duty, as a gift; at least, to reward it for such. Besides, he that is slow to attempt this great work, though his repentance may be real and sincere, yet he will scarce be able to know that it is so; and then, though his condition may be sure, yet his comfort cannot be entire; but though he is at peace with God, yet he will hardly be at peace with himself: in the mean time the early penitent has repentance, with these two in credible advantages, he repents with facility and with certainty. I have now done: you have heard the duty, and the arguments to enforce it; how that the neglect of it is a bold venture upon God’s justice: and that no man can be sure of time and opportunity to repent; nor, admitting this, can he promise himself grace and ability to execute this 267work: and lastly, supposing that he has both, yet the work will be trebly more difficult and laborious, and at the best uncomfortable and dubious. Add to this, that God may thunder out his judgments; which will overtake and force us to mend our pace: and, because we would not repent upon a fairer in vitation, force us to lie down and repent in shame, poverty, and sickness; and to heighten spiritual desertions with temporal afflictions.
Since this is so, I shall wrap up all in that advice of the prophet Amos to Israel, in the fourth chapter, verse 12, Thus will I do unto thee, O Israel: and because I will do this unto thee, therefore prepare to meet thy God, O Israel. As for any other application, since deductions from the words are natural and easy, I shall leave it to your own thoughts; and indeed these truths are of that nature, that he that really believes them cannot but apply them.268
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