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Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
AS before I enforced the duty of immediate repentance, and disputed against the deferring of it, by arguments drawn from the unreasonableness of such a course; so now I shall further proceed against it, from a consideration of the strong, peculiarly provoking nature of this sin above all others; though indeed, in propriety of speech, impenitence cannot be called a sin, but rather a collection and combination of sins, or a sinful state and condition.
But certain it is, that there is nothing that kindles the divine wrath to such a flame, as the delayed exercise of the great duty of repentance. We find not such fierce expressions of vengeance against any sinner, as the Spirit of God, in Deut. xxix. 20, 21, discharges against him that obstinately delayed his repentance. It is said, “that God will not spare him: that the anger of the Lord, nay, his jealousy, which is the very sting and poison of his anger, shall smoke against that man; that all the curses of the law shall lie upon him; that God shall blot out his name from under heaven; and lastly, that he shall even separate him to evil, according to all the curses of the covenant.”269
Now what could have been said so fully, with such a copiousness of terror? every word almost carrying in it fire and brimstone; every period being as it were pregnant with death, and breathing out destruction: and yet we may be sure that every tittle shall be verified. God rather overdoes his words, than underspeaks his actions: and his performances are always commensurate to his expressions.
But both, we see, light heavy upon the lingering penitent; whose sin, I conceive, is so eminently and signally provoking to God upon these reasons:
1st, Because it is the abuse of a remedy. Since sin entered into the world, there is nothing but repentance can stand between the sinner and certain destruction. It is the only asylum and place of refuge that God has provided for malefactors. If mercy had not found this expedient, every man had been the deplorable object of a remorseless, vindictive justice. Now for a sinner to neglect this, to slight and trample upon the conditions of pardon, what is it else, but as if a man, that lay gasping under a mortal wound, should both throw away the balsam, and defy the physician?
Certainly it cannot but be the highest provocation, to see guilt kick at mercy; and presumption take advantage merely from a redundancy of compassion, he that will fight it out, and not surrender, only because he has articles of peace offered to him, deserves to feel the sword of an unmerciful enemy. A delayed repentance is a downright defiance to mercy. And every moment a man spends under such a delay, he falls under that character of Babylon. Jerem. li. 9, that God would have healed 270him; but yet he was not healed: and that for no other cause, than that he pursues, chooses, and even wooes death, and solicits his own destruction.
2dly, The reason why God is exasperated by our delaying this duty is, because it clearly shews, that a man does not love it as a duty, but only intends to use it for an expedient of escape. It is not because it is pleasing to God, grateful to an offended majesty, or because he apprehends a worth and excellency in the thing itself; for then he would set about it immediately: for love is quick and active; and desire hates all delay.
But a man is enamoured with his sin, and resolves to take his full course in the satisfaction of his lusts, to consult his pleasure, and to sacrifice the vigour of his years to the gratification of his appetite, the lusts of the flesh, and the pride of life, and all those other sinful vanities that are apt to bewitch the heart of man.
This, I say, he resolves; but in regard the rear of such a course is brought up with a sad and fatal account at the last, all ending in eternal wrath and damnation; that he may now escape this, and come off clear, he will repent just at the last; and so, by that means, as this life has given him the pleasures of sin, repentance shall interpose and rescue him from the fruits and effects of sin.
And is not this a neat design, to live with pleasure, and yet die with peace? To provoke God’s justice all the time of one’s life, and then fairly to slip from it, by repenting some minutes before death?
But it is not to be wondered at, if God’s fury rises at such a course; for it evidently turns his grace into wantonness, and makes it drudge and 271subserve to the design of sin. For he that resolves only to secure himself by repenting at the last, at the same time also resolves to continue sinning all the mean while. Which is nothing else but an endeavour to put a trick upon God; to affront him to his face; and yet to despise him under the protections of his own mercy.
Though the allowance of repentance be an in finitely gracious concession, yet we are mistaken, if we think that the entire design of it is only the sinner’s interest, and not God’s glory, as well as his salvation. God intends repentance to be a means to purify the heart from that corruption that renders it utterly unserviceable. Repentance, though it can not deserve, yet it must qualify the soul for heaven. And this penitential cleansing, though it merits nothing, yet it is a necessary condition to fit a man to be a vessel of honour. In short, repentance is chiefly valued by God, because he loves the fruits of repentance.
But now, he that declines the present exercise of it, and throws it back to the future, he evidently shews, that whensoever he takes it up, he does it solely for the interest of his own safety, and not to pay any retribution of honour to God; and that he repents, not to cleanse, but to secure, not to sanctify, but to defend himself.
3dly, A third reason that God’s displeasure so implacably burns against this sin is, because it is evidently a counterplotting of God, and being wise above the prescribed methods of salvation, to which God makes the immediate dereliction of sin necessary.272
But he that defers his repentance makes this his principle, to live a sinner, and to die a penitent.
But to what purpose does God command repentance, if it must be in the power of man to choose the time of it, and so to elude the duty itself, by the circumstance of its performance? It is to no end for God to give a law, if a man may interpret the sense, and so shuffle off the obligation. He that is commanded to repent, and defers it to the future, declares that he will be obliged by that command only when he thinks fit, and not before. He also looks upon it as a refined, subtle piece of policy, to choose such a repentance as has a longer consistency with sinful pleasure, and yet no less efficacy as to the procurement of salvation, than such an one as is present and immediate.
And now may we not imagine that such a course is highly offensive? in which a poor weak man shall endeavour to vie wisdom with his Maker, to outwit and outreach an omniscience?
When he shall thus find a new and a shorter way to heaven, cutting off those austerities of life as superfluous, which God has vouched necessary, and so derogating from God’s knowledge; withal, making those allowances and indulgencies lawful which God has denied as destructive, and so upbraiding his goodness.
Briefly, a deferred repentance is a contradiction to God’s word, and an impudent affront to all his attributes. He that hears God’s counsel but follows his own, that repents at his leisure, and so makes his practice overrule his belief; he has changed his deity, and though he confesses a God, yet he adores himself.273
And thus I have shewn the grounds upon which the delay of this duty is so highly provoking to God; which ought to serve for another invincible argument against it, to all those that value his love, and tremble at his wrath.
But now to descend from the general nature of this subject to a consideration of it in particular. The grand instance of it is a death-bed repentance; concerning the efficacy of which, since there are so many disputes, and since the right stating of it is a matter of so high consequence, we will enter into a more exact and particular discussion of it; which I shall endeavour to manage under these two heads.
I. I shall resolve this great case of conscience, whether a death-bed repentance ever is or can be effectual to salvation.
II. I shall shew, that supposing it may prove effectual, yet for any one to design it, and to build upon it beforehand, is highly dangerous, and therefore absolutely irrational.
And when I shall have despatched these two things, I suppose there can be nothing considerable in this subject that will be left unspoken to.
I. And first for the first of these, whether or no a death-bed repentance may be effectual.
There are some who absolutely deny it, and explode it as the very bane of piety, and utterly destructive of an holy life; and therefore by no means can be brought to open the doors of heaven to such penitents. The reasons why such a repentance can not be effectual are these:
1st, Because a good life is all along the gospel required by Christ, as indispensably necessary to salvation; but a death-bed repentance cannot be productive 274of this, and therefore it cannot save. The first is evident from sundry places of scripture; as in Matth. vii. 21, Not every one that says, Lord, Lord, but he that does the will of my Father shall be blessed; and John xiv. 21, If ye love me, keep my commandments; and Phil. ii. 12, Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; with several other places; which proclaim aloud, that there can be no admission into glory, without the obedience of an holy life.
And the assumption, that a death-bed repentance can produce no such thing, seems no less evident. For is it possible for a man to lead a new life when he is even ceasing to live? Can he work out his salvation when the fatal night of death is seizing upon him, and he cannot work?
Now since this is the condition upon which salvation depends, and since this condition cannot be performed upon a man’s death-bed, it follows that all repentance that is acted there must be utterly ineffectual, as to all purposes of salvation. And thus much for the first argument.
2dly, The second is this, which though it may be brought under the former, yet, for the more perspicuity, I shall propose it distinctly and by itself. You may take it thus:
The only thing within the power of a dying penitent is a sincere purpose of a good life, and a resolution to amend; but this is not sufficient to save, and consequently, being the utmost that he can do, it follows that he can do nothing effectual to salvation. For the clearing of this we must observe, that whatsoever is only purposed, is for that very reason as yet not done, but to be done hereafter, and then 275the argument proceeds in this manner: Either the leading of a new life, here purposed by the death-bed penitent, is necessary actually to be done, or it is not necessary. If it be not necessary to be done, then neither is there any reason why it should he necessary to be purposed; inasmuch as action is both the cause, the end, and also the measure of purpose: but if it be necessary to be done, then it follows, that barely to purpose it cannot be sufficient.
And thus, from these arguments, they infer and conclude the absolute nullity of a death-bed repentance.
But, for my part, I cannot be yet convinced that there is an absolute necessity to reprobate all death-bed penitents, and to exclude them from all possibility of being saved. It is an assertion harsh and inhuman, and at the very first sight seems to carry in it a contrariety to the merciful and tender spirit of the gospel; and therefore ought not to be admitted, but upon most clear and unavoidable reasons, and such as yet I see none to enforce it.
For the first general exception; that it naturally undermines the necessity of a good life, and takes away all strictness and holiness of conversation, and so turns the gospel into a doctrine of licentiousness; making it to warrant and patronize a continuance in sin, from the assurance it gives to men, that upon such a repentance they shall be saved at the very last.
To this I answer, first, by concession; that if we state all a man’s actions in things spiritual, upon a perfect, entire freedom of will, by which it is in his power to repent when he will, after he has persisted in his sin as long as he pleased; so that he is so 276perfect a master of his choice, as to be able to determine it to sin, or to the practice of holiness, at any time whatsoever: I say, upon this principle I confess, that it does in a great measure untie and unravel all obligations to an holy life. And supposing that a man were sure of the time of his life, and that it should not, by any unexpected accident, be snapped off suddenly, the doctrine of the efficacy of a death-bed, or indeed of any future repentance, would in its nature tend to encourage such a man to a presumptuous perseverance in sin. But then, considering that (as I have evinced already) no man has his life leased to him for any set time, nor secured from casual, fatal accidents, but that he may lose it unawares; even this principle itself, of a free, entire power in man to repent when he will, cannot, upon a rational account, warrant any man either in the delay of a pious, or in the pursuit of a virtuous life.
But then I add, that repentance is not to be stated upon the power of man’s will, but upon the special grace and power of God, by which it is wrought upon the heart, whereby the will is advanced to exert those acts of repentance which of itself it is utterly unable to do. Now upon this principle I affirm, that to hold that a death-bed repentance may be effectual, neither cuts off the necessity of a good life, nor indeed encourages any one to defer his repentance till that time.
For, as I shall venture to tell any man, that if in the very last period, the last expiring instant of his life, he shall sincerely repent him of all his past sins, he shall assuredly find mercy; so I shall tell him also, that it is entirely in the pleasure and hand of 277God, whether he shall be able to repent or no; and that he has no certainty in the world that God will vouchsafe him such a measure of grace at that hour; but much, on the contrary, to make him suspect and doubt that he may deny it him, and revenge the provocations of a wicked life with impenitence and obduration at the time of death.
And thus 1 think that the exception against the efficacy of a death-bed repentance is clearly removed, by stating the exercise of it upon this principle. For though 1 say, that a man shall be saved whensoever he repents, yet 1 deny also, that a man can repent whensoever he pleases.
Having thus made our way through this general objection, we are now to look back upon those two arguments that were brought against this doctrine.
1st, The first was; That no repentance can be saving, but such an one as produces an holy life, and is attended with it; but how can a man upon his death-bed begin an holy life, when he is even ceasing to live?
To this 1 answer, that the space between the first act of repentance, by which the soul is turned from sin to God, and between a man’s death, be it never so short, even to but one minute, it is reckoned in the accounts of the gospel for an holy life; that is, any time that a sanctified person lives, is an holy life.
Now that this is so, I thus evince; for either this is sufficient, or there is required some determinate space of time, under the compass of which no man can be said to have lived holily: if this be asserted, let that fixed, determinate compass of time be assigned.278
Either it must be the major part of a man’s life, or a just half of it, or some set number of years or days.
If the first; then he that repents and is converted in the fifteenth year of his age, and dies in the thirtieth, cannot be said to have lived an holy life, and therefore cannot be saved, inasmuch as the major part of his life does not come under the accounts of repentance. In like manner, he that is converted in the twentieth year of his age, and dies before he reaches his fortieth, must come under the same doom, as not being able to bring the just half of his life under this reckoning.
But this is evidently false and absurd; we must therefore seek for this stinted time in some set number of years or days; and here let any one shew me, whether it be twelve, ten, six, or four, or one year; or, to descend to days, whether it be an hundred, sixty, thirty, ten, or seven days, that a man must have completely spent in the practice of holy duties, before he can be said to have lived an holy life; but I believe it would puzzle any one to make such an assignation, or to find warrant for it, either in scripture or reason.
Wherefore we must reckon that time indeterminately which a man spends in this world after he has sincerely repented, be it long or be it short, for an holy life; and consequently I see not why, in those few days, hours, nay minutes, that a sincere death-bed penitent lives, he may not be as truly said to live holily, as he that dates his holy living from twenty years’ continuance; and why the widow’s two mites were not as true, though not as great an offering, as his that consisted perhaps of an hundred or two hundred shekels.279
2dly, To the second argument: That the death-bed penitent can only resolve upon leading an holy life; and that if the actual leading of such a life he necessary, then barely to resolve it cannot be sufficient; as, on the contrary, if to effect it be not necessary, then neither can it be necessary to resolve it.
To this I answer, by an absolute denial of that assertion, that the death-bed penitent can only resolve upon living an holy life. And to make out the reason of this denial. I shall here first lay down what is properly an holy life. In short, it is the doing of all those actions that a man is obliged to do in the condition in which he is; to which 1 add, that a man is obliged to do no more than he is capable of doing in such a condition.
Now a person upon his death-bed is only capable of doing such duties as are wholly transacted in the mind and in the will; as, loving of God, hating of sin, sorrowing for it, forgiving enemies, and the like; and these he is not only able to resolve, but also to perform.
But to go to church, to fast and pray, kneeling, with other such actions of duty, these are naturally not within his power in that state of weakness, and therefore he is not obliged to them. Yet, however, though he cannot perform these, he must not therefore be said not to live holily; forasmuch as he does perform other holy duties, which his condition is capable of doing, and in the doing of which an holy life equally consists.
I answer therefore to the second part of the argument, that an holy life is both necessary to be resolved 280on, and also to be performed, but both still in the same manner.
That is, a penitent, upon his repentance, is to resolve to live holily for that whole course of time that he is to spend in the world, and this resolution he is faithfully to perform. But he is not to resolve upon living an holy life, for such or such a determinate number of years, inasmuch as it is not in his power to dispose of the time of his life so long.
But both resolution and performance as to this particular, is to respect a man’s whole life for the future, whether that life fall out to be long or short. And if it chance, by God’s providence, to last but one hour, yet still it is his whole life from that time, as much as if it were spun out to many years.
From which it follows, that a death-bed penitent may both resolve and perform as much as is required to complete the nature of an effectual repentance.
Having thus answered the arguments brought to disprove the efficacy of a death-bed repentance, it will not be amiss to consider what kind of persons they are that are the authors of such a grim assertion.
Are they of such an unstained, unblameable life? such an angelical piety and perfection? Certainly it were but reason to expect that those that throw such great stones, that give such remorseless stabs to poor dying sinners, should be able to enter heaven themselves, though it were through the eye of a needle; and should be of such a sublime sanctity as to supererogate at the least, and not to need mercy themselves, who so severely deny it to others.281
But I am afraid that, upon inquiry, it will appear, that they are nothing less. 1 should not willingly libel or defame any, especially from the pulpit: but, from the best information I can give my self, either by reading, observation, or report, those that make the way to heaven so narrow, walk in the broad themselves; take a scope and liberty in their lives, and content themselves to be only strict in their doctrine, denying to others a possibility to repent effectually on their death-bed, while they live in that manner themselves, that it seems to be for their interest to hold even a possibility of repenting after death.
In short, they are usually such as prescribe rules and directions for other men to follow; such as, after the practices of uncleanness, tell others that they must become vestals; such as are famous for covetousness, and for preaching against it.
These are those inexorable spiritual Cato’s, those parsimonious dispensers of mercy; perhaps out of a mistaken fear, upon the knowledge of their own wickedness, lest there should not be mercy enough for themselves.
Thus the late casuists of the church of Rome, what great things do they speak of man’s power to merit, to fulfil, and overdo the law, to an higher, uncommanded strain of perfection; and yet what puddles, what sinks of impurity are their books of casuistical divinity; what horrid, loose maxims have they, that not only undermine Christianity, but even extinguish and cut the bands of all morality! Which licentious doctrines have already kindled such a (lame in that church, as, for aught 1 know, may burn to its confusion.282
But to return to our subject: We shall still find, that such as are most merciless to dying sinners, in stopping up the passages of repentance and salvation against them, do yet relax this rigour, and walk by another rule themselves; unless perhaps it may more properly be said, that they walk by no rule at all.
And experience has shewn, that those spiritual guides, who are the most austere in their own lives, the greatest and most rigid exactors of duty from themselves, and of the most improved acquaintance and converse with God; yet when such come to deal with dying sinners, they handle their wounds more gently, treat them with more relentings and compassion, open the treasures of pardoning mercy to them more freely, and are glad to see any glimmerings of sincerity and contrition, that may war rant them to send the repenting sinner out of the world with a full and a free absolution.
And the reason of this is, because such, by a continual strict living up to the precepts of Christ, come at length to partake of the spirit and temper of Christ; who of all men that ever lived, or shall live in the world, was the freest even from the least stain of sin, and yet was the most boundless and enlarged in his compassion to sinners.
And certainly, should he now live and converse with us, he that raised sinners from their graves, would not now condemn them upon their death beds.
And thus, I think, that I have not only answered, but also cleared off all objections against this doctrine, so that it may henceforward pass for a gospel truth; which, that I may yet further confirm, I 283shall produce positive arguments to prove and assert it.
1st, The first shall be taken from this consideration; that such a repentance commenced at the last hour of a man’s life, has de facto proved effectual to salvation; and therefore there is no repugnancy in the nature of the thing itself, but that it may do so again. The consequence is clear; for that which is impossible in itself, can never be verified so much as in any one single instance; and that if it were impossible for any repentance beginning at the latter end of a man’s life, that is, just before his death, to prove saving, no one man whatsoever so repenting could be saved.
But the falsity of this evidently appears from that eminent and known instance of the thief upon the cross; whose repentance began no sooner than his crucifixion, and yet it ended with the rewards of paradise. And who knows, but that God intended this signal instance to remain as a perpetual remedy against despair, to sinners repenting in any part of their lives? And there are some doctrines, that God does not think fit to set down and express in open terms, lest the corruption of our nature might abuse them to presumption; but rather to hint them to us in an example, and to represent them in the person of another: leaving us, by rational discourse, to apply the same to ourselves when we are in the like condition.
As for instance: should God have said in express terms, that though a man murders his neighbour, and commits adultery with his wife, yet, if he repents, such sins should not hinder his salvation: such a declaration as this, given antecedently to 284these villainous actions, would have been apt to have encouraged the wicked hearts of men much more boldly to have ventured upon the commission of them.
But now, should any one chance to be plunged into such enormous sins as these, that he might not here, subsequently to the act, which cannot be recalled, utterly cast off all thoughts of mercy, and consequently of returning to God for the obtaining of mercy, God has discovered so much compassion in the pardon of David, guilty of the same sins, upon his sincere repentance, as to keep such an one from despair, and to warrant him his pardon, if, upon the same sins, he acts the same repentance.
The same very possibly might be the design of the Spirit here, not to make any such declaration of pardon openly and expressly to death-bed penitents, lest by accident it might open a door of licence to sin; but rather to preach it more tacitly to our reasons, in the example of the thief upon the cross; that in case a sinner be overtook, and brought upon his death-bed, he might not yet despair, seeing one before him obtaining pardon in the same condition.
2dly, The second argument is taken from the truth and certainty of that saying, owned and attested by God himself, in 2 Cor. viii. 12, That if there he first a willing mind, it is accepted, according to that a man hath, and not according to that a man hath not. That is, it is accepted instead of the deed, when the deed, through some outward impediment, not within the power of man to remove or remedy, becomes impracticable.
Now, when a penitent upon his death-bed has 285 wrought his repentance to the highest resolutions and most sincere purposes of future obedience, if God immediately put a period to his life, is it any fault of his, if he is took off from so full an execution of those purposes as he intended?
Certainly God, who can pierce into his soul, and view the sincerity of those resolutions, seeing that, in case he should live many years, they would he all performed, and actually drawn forth into so many years obedience, he cannot but rate those intentions according to the utmost effect and issue that they would have had under such opportunities.
And as for the time, so also for the quality of duty: where God has visited a man with such bodily weakness, that he cannot move or stir from his bed, do we not think that God accepts his desire to attend the church, to kneel in prayer, with other acts of devotion to which the body must concur, as truly and really, as if he had strength of body actually to perform all these?
Truly, if we deny that he does, we have strange thoughts of the equity and goodness of his nature; and degrade his mercy to a pitch below the mercies of an earthly father, and the dispensations of a prudent governor.
Indeed, when God is said in such a case to accept of the will, and to dispense with the deed, it is only a further explication of that known, unalterable rule of justice, that God cannot command or require the performance of a thing impossible.
But should he exact the deed, when the weakness of a man’s condition utterly disables him to perform it; should he command a bedrid person to stand or kneel, or require ten years’ practice of holiness 286from him that is to live but an hour, what could this be but to rank his commands amongst those unreasonable, tyrannical injunctions that will and require impossibilities?
3dly, The third argument why a death-bed repentance may prove effectual is, because repentance saves not, as it is a work, or such a number of works; but as it is the effect of a renewed nature and a sanctified heart, from which it flows. But now, the renovation of our nature being the sole immediate work of God’s Spirit, it may be wrought (if it so please him) in the last moment of our lives, as well as in twenty years: for, being a new creation, and the production of a quality in the soul that was not there before, there is nothing hinders, but that by an infinite power it may be transacted in an instant.
Upon which I argue thus: If God can sanctify and renew a man’s nature in the last instant of his life, then a person thus sanctified is either in a state of salvation, or he is not: if not, then a man truly sanctified may be in a damnable condition, which is false and absurd: but if he is, then, inasmuch as a death-bed penitent may be thus sanctified and renewed, he may be also in a state of salvation, which is inseparably annexed to a true sanctification.
But now, on the other hand, if we say that a man cannot be a true penitent, and in a state of salvation, unless he has spent such a considerable number of years or months in the continual exercise of holy duties; what is this, but to ascribe his salvation to such a measure of works? This is evident: for a death-bed penitent may have all other qualifications, 287as a sanctified heart, a sincere resolution, and a direction of it to the glory of God; so that there is nothing wanting but such a number of holy actions. Now if, notwithstanding the former qualities, salvation must be yet denied to such a penitent, is it not most clear that salvation is stated upon the opus operatum of such a parcel of holy performances? So that it is not the sincerity, but the multitude; not the kind, but the number of our actions that must save us. Which assertion if we admit, and improve into its due consequences, I cannot see but that it must needs bring us back to our beads.
4thlv, A fourth argument is this: It to repent sincerely be a thing at the last moment of our lives impossible to be done, then, for that instant, impenitence is not a sin. For it cannot be a sin not to do that which in its nature cannot be done. The reason is, because where there is no obligation, there can be no sin, inasmuch as sin is cither the transgression or omission of something that we stand obliged to do: but I have shewn before, that no man can be obliged to impossibilities. It follows therefore from hence, that not to repent upon one’s death-bed is no sin, because, according to the opinion hitherto maintained, to repent there is impossible. Which argument is of so much quickness and force, that were there no other, this alone were enough both to establish ours, and to overthrow the contrary assertion.
5thly. The fifth argument that I shall produce is this: That to deny that a death-bed repentance can be effectual to salvation, is a clear restraint and 288limitation of the compass and prerogative of God’s mercy.
For since it is a thing that neither involves any contradiction in itself, nor yet to any one of God’s attributes, it is both an impudent and an insolent thing, for any man to deny the possibility of it. For shall we prescribe to omnipotence, or set bounds to an infinite mercy, and say, that this and this it can do; but this it cannot? What, if God, willing to shew the riches of his mercy, calls and accepts of some at the very last hour of the day, and rewards them equally with those that came in at the first; have we any thing to reply against such a proceeding, or to carp at his justice, or to murmur at our brother’s felicity? God expressly says, that his thoughts are not as our thoughts; nor his mercies as our mercies. And indeed, sad and lamentable were the condition of most sinners, if they were. The number of those that should be saved would be much less, and the volume of the book of life contracted to a very small epitome.
I should think it therefore much more agreeable to a pious sobriety, to acquiesce in the method of God’s dealing; and, according to rule of the civil law, rather to amplify, than to limit acts of favour.
If God brings a sinner to himself at the last, and so makes his death-bed a portal and entrance to heaven; if he accepts of the purposes, and crowns the short endeavours of a late repentance with life and glory; I, for my part, have nothing to do here, but to congratulate the person that obtains, and to adore the mercy that gives it.
6thly, The sixth and last argument for the confirmation 289of the same truth is this: That if a death-bed repentance cannot possibly be effectual to salvation, then a sinner upon his death-bed, having not repented before, may lawfully, and without sin, despair. The reason is clear; for where the proper object of hope ceases, which is possibility of pardon, there despair must lawfully succeed: for despair is then only a sin when there is ground of hope, of which here there is none. In short, despair cannot be sinful where it is rational; but it is most rational to despair of salvation, when the only means of attaining it, which is repentance, becomes impossible.
But now, I desire any one to shew me any thing in the gospel that admits of despair in the time of this life; nay, that docs not prescribe and condemn it as utterly sinful: it is proper only to the state of the damned, whose condition God has declared to be remediless. But God has not signified that a sinner, in any part of his life whatsoever, is out of all possibility of mercy and salvation. In deed, as a man dies, so he continues for ever; but while he lives, his condition is alterable.
And therefore that assertion that must engage a man both certainly and lawfully to despair, while he is on this side death, is surely a branch of a new, unheard of gospel and divinity.
And thus I have endeavoured to demonstrate, that it is not impossible for a man effectually to repent upon his death-bed. Which doctrine, if it be true, truth, as such, cannot be hurtful, however by accident and abuse it may.
But I shall now proceed, from these arguments, to such considerations as will be more strong to 290keep off the encroaches of presumption, than these can be to invite them. And so I am come to the second general head, proposed for the management of this subject, viz. that supposing that a death-bed repentance may, in the issue, prove effectual, yet for any one to design and build upon it beforehand is highly dangerous, and therefore absolutely irrational.
The truth of which will be made to appear from these considerations.
1st, The first shall be taken from the exceeding unfitness of a man at this time, above all others, to exercise this duty. Repentance is a work that will take up the whole soul; that will distend every faculty, and fill every part and power of it, even when it is in its most vigorous, fresh, and active condition.
It is transacted by the sublimest and most refined operation of the soul, which is reflection. The soul must retreat into itself, view its accounts, and summon the records of memory, to give in a faithful relation of all a man’s past sins, of all the passages and remarks of his former life. And having done this, the mind must dwell upon a sad and severe consideration of the nature, degrees, and aggravating circumstances of each sin, till thought improves into affection, and opens the penitential sluices, and fills the heart with sorrow, mourning, and weeping for sin; which sorrow for sin rising higher and higher, till at length it ends in detestation of it, and resolutions against it, it becomes the first degree of a true repentance.
But is a man fit to encounter and run through all 291these difficulties, amidst those many impediments, both natural and civil, that clog and hang about him in his death-bed condition?
And first, for natural hinderances: his memory will be weak and treacherous, his judgment infirm, and his apprehension slow and dark. And then, perhaps, all these disabilities may be increased by the accession of bodily distempers: either lethargies may dispirit and benumb him, or some acute, painful disease divert and enrage him. So that the whole man is in a tumult and disorder; within is weakness, without is pain: his intellectuals forsake him, his fever scorches him; life is troublesome, and yet death terrible. In short, the man is very unfit to use his reason, to remember, or contemplate; and being so, how can he be fit to repent? which is a work that includes in it all these operations.
But we will suppose the death-bed penitent, by the mercy of Providence, pretty well freed from these natural impediments, and that he has a good proportion of memory, a good reserve of judgment, with a readiness to apprehend and discern, and to exercise the several functions of a rational nature. Yet then there are civil obstructions, worldly incumbrances, settling the estate, providing for friends, satisfying the craving importunities of relations. And what can a poor, dying man do, when such a swarm of troublesome thoughts are buzzing about him? How can he recollect and compose himself to a meditation of his past actions, when he is busied in settling things for the future?
Repentance is too great a thing to be wielded in such an hurry. No sooner, perhaps, is a man set ting himself to clear old scores between God and his 292soul, but his worldly creditors come bawling upon him for another kind of satisfaction. No sooner does he set himself to mourn and weep for his sins, but he is interrupted with the tears of those that stand weeping for him.
This is his case: and now, can any rational person in the world judge that a death-bed is the proper scene of repentance? that a dying person, racked with pain, choked with phlegm, immersed, and even buried in incumbrances before he is dead, can be fit to manage the spiritual-searching severities of this duty?
The apostle observes well, in 2 Tim. ii. 4, That no man that warreth, entangleth himself with the affairs of this life. And indeed repentance is a kind of spiritual warfare; but certainly none so unfit for a war as a dying person.
There are some duties, whose performance so properly belongs to some certain time, that they can neither with ease nor order be performed out of it. Repentance is the work of life, and the business of health. And truly, that man has mistimed his work, and misplaced his occasions, who, when he comes upon his death-bed, has any thing else to do, than the proper business of that place, which is to die.
2dly, The other reason is taken from this consideration, that there can be no arguments from which either the dying person himself, or others by him, can certainly conclude that his repentance is sound and effectual. I speak of ordinary means of knowledge; for it is confessed, that God, by an extraordinary manner, may reveal it to a man; and as he gave him the grace of true repentance, so he may 293give him an assurance and certain knowledge of the truth of that repentance.
But by the ordinary, usual methods of discourse, the dying penitent cannot infallibly know it: the reason is, because he has no infallible medium to introduce him to such a knowledge.
The mediums by which he must collect it can be no other than these three: 1st, The heartiness of his present resolutions, in relation to a future amendment: or, 2dly, The great expressions of sorrow that he makes for his past sins: or, 3dly, His solicitous concernment for his estate in the next world.
But all these, according to the cognizance that a death-bed penitent can take of them, are very fallible.
For the first, his resolutions, though God, who quenches not the smoking flax, will by no means reject these, if sincere; but will own the work of his grace, though but kindled in the first true intention, as much as if it flamed out in a constant and glorious practice: yet, in regard the opportunities of performing those death-bed resolutions are in a great measure cut off, the death-bed penitent cannot be assured that his resolutions are true. For a man may think that he heartily resolves against a sin, when indeed he does not; his own heart deceiving him. As in a man’s lifetime, he often finds, by experience, that when he has took up firm purposes and resolves against a sinful course, so that, as he thinks, he shall never relapse into it again; yet, notwithstanding, upon the next temptation, all such resolutions disband and vanish, and the proposal is 294complied with; which clearly shews that these purposes and resolutions were indeed false and deceitful.
And now, how does the death-bed penitent know, but the resolutions he makes there may be as weak and unsincere, as those that heretofore he made, and broke in the time of his health? Possibly they may be sincere; but he cannot certainly know it, but God alone, who only can foresee, whether, in case his life should be prolonged, those resolves would be made actuate in performance.
And then, for the other two things, his vehement expressions of sorrow, and his concernment about his salvation, are of as uncertain information as the other. For a man may mourn and weep for those sins, which he yet afterwards returns to, continues in, and perhaps dies under; which shews that tears, and sighs, and complaints, and all other expressions of sorrow whatsoever, are utterly fallacious. But in the state a man now is, all these may very well be presumed to issue from the fear and terror of an approaching damnation. And fear is a kind of constraint and violence upon the will; so that all school men unanimously hold, that actions proceeding from fear are of a mixed nature, and not perfectly voluntary.
Now all fear is from a principle of self-love; and therefore all religious actions, commenced upon this motive, are spurious, and rejected by God.
This supposed, I affirm, that it is more than ten to one but that all the pomp of a death-bed repentance, in its highest and most angelical resolutions, in its most sorrowful, mournful, and affectionate discoveries, moves wholly upon this false spring of fear, 295suggested upon the dismal apparition of the nearness of death, and the frightful thoughts of a miserable eternity.
It is highly probable that there is scarce one of an hundred in this condition, but goes off with the forced sorrows of fear instead of repentance; and so dies rather terrified than sanctified.
And would not any rational man here rather fear and suspect that his lot may fall amongst the hundred, than promise himself that he shall be that one exempted person? Certainly it is ill venturing the salvation of an immortal soul upon such huge unlikelihoods, such vast disparities.
But to conclude, and wrap up all that I have said for and against a death-bed repentance: I aver, that it is not at all in a man’s power, but only in God’s: and that God, being offended with a wicked life, is more likely to deny than to give it at the hour of death: that a man has all the indispositions of body and mind imaginable to unfit and disable him for it: that it is very seldom true, always suspicious; and that when true, yet it is not discernible by any certain, infallible sign to be so: in short, that it is most difficult, doubtful, dangerous, and very improbable.
In fine, I have this alone to say for it, (and to a considering person I need say no more against it,) that it is only not impossible.
To Almighty God be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.296
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