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Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
IT is doubtless a great paradox in the general judgment and opinion of the world, that any poverty, of what sort soever, should be desirable: forasmuch as every one desires to enjoy the good things of the world, and thereby to enjoy himself; to the attainment of which, riches are the most acknowledged means. And if these are the prime instrument of enjoyment, poverty surely must be the main opposite to it. But the gospel, we confess, is a system of paradoxes and absurdities to the maxims of the world; the grand rule which the generality of mankind both live and judge by, being to follow the full bent of their sensuality. And therefore our Saviour begins this his notable and great sermon in the mount, with seven or eight such propositions, as directly oppose and bid defiance to the opinions and practices of the carnal world: and these he ushers in with the commendation of that so much abhorred thing called poverty. And that also such a poverty, as rests not only in the surface of the body, clothing that with rags, or (which is worse) with nothing; but such an one as enters into the very soul, and strips the spirit, leaving that naked, destitute, and forlorn.412
In the words we have these two things considerable.
1st, A quality or disposition recommended by our Saviour, which is poverty of spirit.
2dly, The ground and argument upon which it is recommended, namely, that it entitles him who has it to the kingdom of heaven.
And first for the first of these, the thing recommended by our Saviour, viz. poverty in spirit. In the treating of which, I shall,
I. Declare the nature of this poverty of spirit; and,
II. Shew the means by which it is to be obtained. As for the nature of it, I shall give an account of this,
(1.) Negatively, by shewing what it is not.
(2.) Positively, by shewing what it is, and where in it does consist.
First of all then, that excellent thing here recommended by our Saviour, is not,
1. A mere outward indigence, and want of all the accommodations of common life. For certain it is, all want, considered merely in itself, and not as sanctified by the Spirit of God to some further use, is a curse, and consequently can of itself make no man blessed; as the poor, here spoken of, are pronounced to be. It is possible that a man may be poor, in point of wealth, but yet abound in sin and vice; and experience shews, that there is not a more unsanctified, wretched, and profane sort of men under heaven, than beggars commonly are; whose manners entitle them to a less portion of happiness in the other world, than they can have in this. Many beg of us for Christ’s sake, whom Christ will 413never own; as I icing the very shame and spots of Christianity; persons void of all sense of virtue, all conscience of duty, either to God or man; swearers, railers, idle, useless drones, and intolerable burdens to society. Nay, and we shall sometimes find poverty in conjunction with such vices as seem to be directly crossed and took away by poverty. For how poor are some, and yet how insolent! what pride lurks under their rags, like a snake under the leaves! Yea, and how luxurious are many! for there is scarce any man in the world, be he never so poor, but some time or other chances upon opportunities of luxury: so that those common expressions, as proud as a beggar, and as drunk as a beggar, are so far from being either false or improper, that they are the most full and significant descriptions of a person possessed with these vices, to the utmost height of them, that can be found out. Many there are who embrace dunghills, the filth and offensiveness of whose lives does exceed them; and who are sordidly and nastily habited, whose clothes are but an emblem of their hearts, and a lively picture of their manners.
Poverty is not always the lot of the righteous, and the true servants of God, who make a conscience of their ways; but sometimes, by the just disposal of Providence, comes to be the inheritance also of the wicked, the unconscionable, and such as would be rich, if they could, upon any terms whatsoever: but the curse of God has been too hard for them, and put them behindhand in spite of all their gains; so that whatsoever they have got, has in sensibly melted, and mouldered to nothing. Their riches have never stayed with them, but made themselves 414wings, and flown away; and thereby taught the world, that to get and to thrive are not always the same thing.
Besides, that poverty very frequently is the direct effect and consequent of sin and vice. The drunkard drinks off his estate, like his cups, to the very bottom, and leaves nothing behind. The vain glorious man wears his fortunes upon his back, till at length he has worn them out. The contentious man follows the law against his neighbour, for the gratification of his revengeful humour, so long, that in the end the very obtaining of the cause does not defray the charges, or remove the poverty contracted by its prosecution.
But now, certainly, such a poverty can be no more recommended by our Saviour than the sinful causes of it. For Christ commands no man to be luxurious, ambitious, or revengeful, in order to his making of himself poor. He who is the one will undoubtedly be the other. But the interest of religion and virtue is not concerned, that a man should be either.
In a word, poverty is usually the effect of sin, but always a temptation to it. For it provokes the corrupt heart of man to discontents, murmurings, and repinings, to sinister and base courses for his relief, unless there be a predominant principle of grace, to compose and quiet the dissatisfactions of nature. This therefore cannot be the thing to which Christ pronounces a blessing. For whatsoever renders a man blest may be the proper object of his prayers: but none surely ought to pray for a temptation, or to petition Heaven for a great calamity. But,
2. The poverty of spirit here spoken of is not a 415sneaking fearfulness and want of courage; for there is nothing base in nature that can be noble in religion. Cowardice is neither acceptable to God nor man; it neither promotes the honour of one, nor the good of the other: it being indeed the portal and broad gate through which most of the unworthy and vile practices that are seen in the world enter upon, and rifle the consciences of men. So that in the Revelation, ch. xxi. 8, St. John, reckoning what kind of persons shall be cast into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, amongst murderers, whoremongers, sorcerers, and idolaters, ranks the fearful. And why? Because fearfulness betrays a man almost to all other sins. So that the fearful person is uncapable of making good any relation of common life, whether in the capacity of a subject, a friend, or a servant; for a man’s fear will make him speak, swear, or do any thing, to rescue himself from an impendent danger.
And if this had been the proper virtue and qualification of a Christian, there would never have been any such thing in the world as martyrdom; as owning of Christ in the face of tyranny and torment, and holding fast the Christian faith upon the rack and in the flames. And therefore it is the righteous man only, who, Solomon tells us, is as bold as a lion; and who carries in his breast an heart too big to fear those who can only kill the body. In many passages and circumstances of life, it requires no ordinary pitch of courage for a man to dare to be good: and he must be a valiant as well as a conscientious man, who can and will choose duty, when it is beset with the greatest danger, and can defy the powers of darkness, as well as abhor the works of it.416
Wherefore, since the poorness in spirit here spoken of by our Saviour is neither to be under stood of meanness or timorousness of spirit; it is much that some should make the badges and characters of such a pitiful temper the proper indications of piety, and the marks of a more improved Christianity. For do not many, by a sneaking look and a whining voice, affect the reputation of pious and devout persons? Do not many behave themselves so, as if there were no going to heaven but by creeping, no passing through the strait gate but upon all four? But such persons understand not the nature of the Christian religion, if they think that such ignoble qualities can be any parts of it. Christianity is a superstructure upon, and an addition to the excellencies of nature: and therefore, if a pusillanimous spirit debases and degrades a man, considered but as a man, it can neither adorn or improve him in the capacity of a Christian.
Having thus, by a negative consideration, shewn what this poverty of spirit is not, I come now, in the next place, to shew positively what it is, and wherein it does consist. In order to which, we are to observe, that poverty, or want, is properly a privation of fulness, or abundance, and consequently opposed to it. Now a man may be said to be spiritually full, when he abounds in a confident opinion, both of his own righteousness, and his happiness thereupon: and therefore poverty of spirit, which is its direct opposite, may be said properly to consist in these two things:
1. An inward sense and feeling of our spiritual wants and defects; and,417
2. A sense of our wretched and forlorn condition by reason of those wants.
1. And first, it consists in an inward sense of that deplorable want of holiness, which we are in by nature. We are horn into the world destitute, and surrounded with innumerable infirmities; and, in the phrase of the apostle, in the Revelation, chap. iii. 17, poor, miserable, blind, and naked. All the powers of our souls are crippled and disordered, and rendered strangely impotent to the prosecution of good. Our judgments are perverted, our wills depraved, and our affections misinclined, and set upon vile and unworthy objects. This is the portion and inheritance which we derive from our first parents: these are the weaknesses and evils we labour under; and the first step to a deliverance from them, is to be sensible of them: for we shall never attempt to be what we are not, till we come to dislike what we are.
Self-opinion and self-love are the great strong holds which the gospel sets itself to beat down; for by nature we are as prone to overvalue as to overlove ourselves; but in both of them there is a kind of spiritual fulness and repletion, which must be removed and carried off, before the gospel can have its effect upon us. For Christ comes with a design to infuse his gifts and graces into the soul; but there is no pouring of any thing into a vessel which is full already. And therefore a man must be emptied of all his vain and fond conceptions and principles, and, in a word, of himself too, before he can be prepared and qualified for the infusions of the Spirit.
He who thinks himself holy and righteous enough, is a most unfit subject for the gospel to work upon: 418indeed he is scarce fit for repentance; for Christ came not to call the righteous, that is, those who thought themselves so, but sinners to repentance: sinners, who in their consciences stood convict of their sinful estate, who beheld the plague of their own hearts, the sores and leprosy of their souls; these were the men who stood in the next disposition for the reception of mercy, for the alms of heaven, and the compassions of a Saviour: for these are such as Christ properly calls the heavy laden, and upon that account invites to himself. As for the Pharisees, and the opinionators of their own holiness, the spiritually proud, confident, and disdainful, they were men of another dispensation: the gospel knows them not, nor justifies any such; it finds them standing upon their own bottom, and so also leaves them to fall.
That soul, upon which the spirit of regeneration has truly passed, is utterly of another temper; it is still apt to bemoan, and to condemn itself; it sees its own scars and deformities, and upon the sight of them falls down, and wallows in the dust before the pure eyes of God. The true Christian temper shews not itself upon the mountains of pride and self-opinion, but dwells low in the valleys of humility, self-denial, and spiritual dejection.
And as it behaves itself thus towards God, so it demeans itself with a proportionable condescension to men too. He who has this evangelical poorness of spirit, is still apt to think others better and holier than himself; for his conscience teaches him to think the worst of his own heart, and his charity prompts him to judge the best of his neighbours.
Upon a due consideration of which, I have often 419wondered, and indeed think it a just matter of wonder, how some persons are able to reconcile their high and loud pretences of piety, and a more than ordinary purity, with that insolence and spiritual pride, which breaks forth in every part of their conversation. For how do some, as it were, monopolize the covenant of grace wholly to themselves, calling themselves the only people of God, the saints, the godly; looking upon all round about them as heathens and reprobates; and upon that account separating themselves into little companies and congregations, as not being willing to join (forsooth) in a less refined way of God’s worship. Which persons, though they have the good fortune to find friends to countenance them upon a supposed political account, such as call compliance prudence, and cowardice moderation; yet upon what grounds of true piety and religion can these pharisaical separatists acquit themselves? I am sure not upon this, which recommends poorness in spirit: for did ever anyone yet, endued with this excellent grace, say to his brother, Stand off, for I am holier than thou? or bid defiance to a whole church, and spit in the face of all church-governors, as every conventicler certainly does, upon a supposal of his own transcendent purity and perfection; which neither upon clear evidence of scripture, the practice of former ages, nor the judgment of many thousands more knowing than himself, (as they may very easily be,) he is at all able to make out or demonstrate? Such persons may (latter themselves as they please; but the gospel must alter its voice, and say, Blessed are the proud in spirit, the censorious, the insolent, and self-opinioned, before they can either have 420any solid ground of comfort, or real title to a blessing.
Where true poverty of spirit dwells, a man thinks of nothing less than his own perfection, which he utterly disowns. There is no beggar and forlorn, distressed person that more keenly feels the afflicting hardships of hunger, cold, and nakedness, than such an one feels and groans under his spiritual wants: he laments the hardness of his heart, his want of life and activity in the performance of duty; he complains of the weakness of his faith, the in stability of his hope, the dispersion and wanderings of his affections; he cannot pray with that fervour, hear with that attention, and practise with that steadiness and perseverance, which, he is sensible, becomes the excellent and exact measures of Christianity.
These blots and flaws in his Christian course his eye is constantly upon: and as they are the objects of his thoughts, so they are the continual matter of his sorrow. Let this therefore be the first thing, in which consists this poorness in spirit here recommended by our Saviour in the text; namely, a sense of that deplorable want of holiness, which we are in by nature.
2. The second thing in which it consists, is a sense of our wretched and miserable condition by reason of such want; the wretchedness of which appears from these two considerations.
(1.) That we are utterly unable, by any natural strength of our own, to recover and bring ourselves out of this condition.
(2.) That during our continuance under it, we are exposed and stand obnoxious to all the curses of the law.421
1. And first of all, this evangelical poverty of spirit makes a man sensible in how wretched a condition he is, by reason of his own utter inability to redeem himself from it. he finds his understanding much darkened, so that he cannot perceive and judge of the things of God; and his will full of weakness and impotence, as to its choosing of them: it sees no beauty in holiness, why it should desire it; but the stream of all its appetites and inclinations wholly runs out after other things, things evil and pernicious, and tending to the. direct ruin of him that does embrace them. All this does a person so qualified find and feel in himself; but, for all this, is still unable to enlighten his own understanding, to sanctify his will, or correct his inclinations: but, like a man bound hand and foot, and thrown into a quagmire, there is he like to lie and sink, for any succour that he can give himself, unless such as pass by have compassion on him, and relieve him.
And therefore, as the assertion of Pelagius of the freedom of the will, and its full power to choose things spiritually good, even since the fall, is indeed a great piece of nonsense in itself; so those that maintain and insist upon it sufficiently declare themselves to have little or no experience of their own hearts: nor can all the rhetoric of men and angels persuade a person truly poor in spirit, and fully studied in his own spiritual wants and defects, that he is able to repent when he pleases, to believe when he pleases, and to perform all the divine commands. For he looks upon it as a contradiction, and a defiance to his experience, which he will believe and subscribe to, in spite of all the world, as he has good reason.422
And therefore, in his use of all the outward means of grace, he depends upon them no more than if he used them not; but upon the Spirit of God only working in them: for he knows it is he alone that can change his heart; and that must be changed, or a man cannot be saved. It is in his power indeed to hear and read the word, and to say his prayers, but this will not do his work; and for this cause it is, that God often suffers a man to wait upon him for many years in the use of these duties, and yet gives him not his desired success, in the change of his heart, and the conquest of his corruptions, merely to convince him of the emptiness and inefficacy of all means considered in themselves; and to shew him, that when these great things come to be wrought for him, it is the sole grace of God to which he is a debtor for all.
It would be long enough before we should hear a person, endued with this evangelical quality, to talk of his merits and his supererogations, of his fulfilling and even outdoing the law: for these are whimsies, framed and minted in the heads of those, whose hearts never served them to be experimentally pious. That poverty of spirit that has a claim to the kingdom of heaven, neither discourses nor thinks after this manner; but vents itself in that doleful, passionate exclamation of St. Paul, Who shall deliver me from this body of death? It convinces a man that he is carnal and, sold under sin, and sold to a more than Egyptian bondage, to the yoke of Satan, and the tyranny of his own base, domineering affections.
But surely none is ever heard to cry out with so much vehemence, Who shall deliver me? who 423thinks that he is able to deliver himself. None calls in for auxiliaries from abroad, who finds a sufficiency of strength to secure him at home. Let this therefore be one part of the misery of that wretched condition that this poorness in spirit makes a man sensible of, namely, that he is utterly unable by any strength of his own to get out of this condition.
2. The other part of its misery, which this evangelical poorness makes a man also sensible of, is, that during his continuance under this woful condition, he stands liable and obnoxious to all the curses of the law. A sad consideration certainly, that a man should be in a condition, from which he is not able to rid himself, and in which, if he remains, he is infallibly ruined. Yet this is the state of every man by nature. He is born in sin, and the wages of sin is death; death in its utmost compass and latitude, considered with all its retinue of miseries and calamities, which, as its harbingers, make way for it, and by degrees usher on the last and fatal blow, which from temporal sufferings translates a man to eternal.
Whosoever has a right spiritual sense of sin, knows the terror of the law, and the dreadfulness of the curse; what it is to live under the sentence of damnation; every day, every hour, every minute expecting its fearful execution. And he knows also, that till the Spirit of regeneration puts him within the verge of the second covenant, he is responsible for the breach of the first, which makes all that his portion, that the law awards, and the wrath of God inflicts upon transgressors.
Now surely he that lives with these apprehensions 424quick upon his mind, with the terrors of the Al mighty fresh upon his conscience, must needs carry about him all the dejection, poorness, and lowness of spirit before God, that we can imagine in a male factor convict, and ready to suffer before men. His heart fails and sinks, and is utterly at a loss where and upon what bottom to fix. Only he knows that the hands of mercy are not tied, nor the bowels of divine goodness wholly shut up against sinners; and that, as it is enough to rescue him from despair, so on the other side it is far from ministering to confidence and ostentation.
This is properly the person who works out his salvation with trembling and continual fears; as knowing that corrupt nature has treasured up fuel enough in his breast for the wrath of God to feed upon for ever: between which and himself nothing can interpose, but the free, unmerited relentings of the divine compassion; which like the wind blows where it lists, and lays itself out upon whom it will, as being above the claim and challenge of any sinner under heaven, whose title lies clear and questionless to nothing but the curse. Now the sense of a great misery impendent upon a man, naturally casts his mind into a depressed and an abject posture. For what person living can be bold, free, and cheerful, who knows that he lives every minute upon courtesy, that he breathes by the connivance of his great Judge, and a suspension of that sentence that the law has already pronounced, and justice may exe cute when it pleases. Such must needs look upon themselves as lost and undone by nature: and those, whose eyes God has never yet opened to see themselves in such a woful, forlorn estate, but have passed 425their days with a blind assurance, void of the least grudging, doubtful, or suspicious thought about the safety of their spiritual condition, are not yet arrived to that poorness in spirit that all must come to, before they arrive to heaven.
For indeed it would be but salvation and redemption thrown away, for Christ to save any, who are not convinced that they are ruined without Christ. None shall enter the gates of heaven, whose fears and apprehensions have not sometimes placed them upon the brink of hell. For the vastness of such a change is that which sets a price and a crown upon mercy; and the apprehended nearness of utter perdition, that which enhances and endears salvation.
Having thus shewn the nature of this poverty of spirit, and that both negatively, by distinguishing it from what it is not, as also positively, by declaring wherein it does consist; I proceed now to the next thing, which is to shew, by what means this frame of spirit is to be obtained.
As for the cause from whence it must flow, that is evident without inquiry. For being a supernatural grace, it springs not from the stock of nature, but descends from above, from that eternal Spirit, that is the author and giver of every good and perfect gift. Reason is too weak a principle to discourse a man into so excellent a disposition. A disposition that holds no intercourse with the flesh and the world, but raises the mind to such desires, such ways and courses of acting, as not only transcend, but also thwart and oppose all his earthly affections. But still, though the Spirit be the only productive cause of this evangelical virtue, yet there are certain means to be used by us, with the use of which he 426concurs in the production of it; for God will treat us like rational agents, and not like senseless logs, requiring us to bear an active share in the promoting and carrying on of that great affair of our eternal happiness. Now there are three ways, by which, through the concurrence of the Holy Ghost with our endeavours, we may at length bring ourselves to this blessed poorness of spirit, a quality of so much value in the eyes of our Saviour, of so much worth and weight in the balance of the sanctuary.
1. The first is a frequent, deep, and serious considering of the relation we stand in towards God. The contemplation of which will shew us that unmeasurable distance that is between him and us. It will convince us what nothings we are in comparison of him, that first raised us out of nothing. When we consider the unlimited perfections of his nature, we shall find our thoughts even swallowed up, and our understandings dazzled, as not being able to fathom so great an abyss, or to behold so radiant a brightness. And this must needs dash all esteem of ourselves, and bring us out of love with our own little supposed excellencies. He that accustoms himself to meditate upon the greatness of God, finds those questions continually rising and stirring in his heart, How shall dust and ashes ever be able to stand before him? how shall weakness and imperfection enjoy that nature that it is at a loss even to think of, and never contemplates upon, without amazement? The creature never appears so pitiful and inconsiderable, as when it views itself with one eye, and its Creator with the other.
Every thing is more apparent as it stands compared 427with its opposite. Man is but a weak and a contemptible thing at the best; but much more contemptible, if compared to an angel, and yet infinitely and inconceivably more despicable must he be, if compared to God. A glowworm signifies little if compared but to a candle; but set it before the stars, consider it in emulation with the sun, and the ruling lights of heaven, and what a silly, ridiculous thing must it appear!
While men consider nothing but themselves, they may grow proud and conceited: for little things may be valued by those who never saw greater. He that never saw the day, may admire and dote upon his lamp. But consideration and experience of great things reduces and degrades little petit matters to their own proper dimensions. Those that measure themselves by themselves (says the apostle) are not wise. For when we make a thing its own measure, it is impossible to discover any defect in it. But bring it to another thing that excels and outshines it, and then we shall quickly see how much a tree is taller than a shrub, and a royal palace greater and nobler than a country cottage.
Men are enamoured with their own reason; but let them compare it with omniscience, and it is no thing. They perhaps value themselves upon their dominion over these inferior things; but what is all their grandeur to the royalty and universal empire of Providence? what is their policy to the wisdom of him that governs the world, and charges the very angels with folly? It is impossible for a man that frequently and seriously thinks of God, to value himself.
Now to these considerations we may add that also 428of our unprofitableness to God. For by all that we either are or do, we can contribute nothing to that immense fulness that is in him. And if it were possible that some emolument might rise to him from our services, yet it were infinitely needless; for what want could there be in all-sufficiency? what need could his ocean have of the drops of our bucket? Thou desirest not sacrifice, says David. And God himself gives the reason why he does not, in Psal. 1. 9, 10, 12, I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he goats out of thy folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills. If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fulness thereof. We need not ply his altar with sacrifices, or spread a table before the Almighty, as if he ate the flesh of bulls, or drank the blood of goats. It is like that in the Jewish economy many were so stupid and gross in their opinions of God, as to think that they gave him a repast, and a large meal in all their burnt-offerings: for certain it is that many of the heathens thought so. And therefore God upbraids them with those absurd discourses, by vouching his dominion over all the stores of nature, by which, if he had thought fit, he could easily have supplied himself, without the ministry of any of the sons of men. Now what those absurd persons thought of their sacrifices in relation to God, the same nowadays think many of the Christians of their prayers, their services and religious works, that from these is imported so large a revenue to the divine honour, that God is much the better and the richer for them, and could not maintain his glory to the same height in the want of them. This is the philosophy of the 429popish operators in all their religious performances. But may not God answer these men, about their so much valued services, as he did the Jews about their sacrifices? I need none of your prayers, none of your humiliations; my glory is above them, and entire without them. But if the service of any of my creatures might be of advantage to me, is not the whole host of heaven mine? Have I not thousands and ten thousands of angels, ready at a word to fulfil my will, to execute my commands, and to speak my praises?
Surely if these men dwelt much upon the contemplation of God’s glorious nature, they could never esteem themselves for paying God those ser vices, of which he stands in no need, and by which the substantial greatness of his honour is not at all increased. For most true it is, that there is no accession to the divine perfections, by the very best and utmost that the holiest person in the world can do. And if there was no other rational end and use of our obedience than this, God would never exact it. For the ends why he exacts and requires it of us are, that it may be both a testification of our ho mage to him, and an instrument of good to ourselves. That is all, for there is no end of profit or advantage on our Creator’s part served by it, who is neither a greater God or a mightier Lord, because we serve him, or pray unto him. Since, if we did not, he could equally make good his honour upon us, and fetch his pennyworths out of us by damning us for our disobedience.
Let a man think much of this, and make God the measure of his perfections and his services; and he cannot but see cause to bring down his spirit, and 430to make it poor, and humble, and base, in all his reflections upon himself: it will shew him how mean and useless a thing he is, as to the compassing of the great ends and designs of Heaven; how easily Providence can be without him, without any straitening of itself; and how far he is from being necessary to the setting forth of the glory of his Maker. We know how high Job bore himself, in the apprehension of his own integrity, which he thought gave him the vantage-ground so far, as to be able to expostulate and to reason it out with the Almighty; nor could all the discourses of his friends reduce him to a right understanding of himself, so as to bring him upon his knees in a submissive acknowledgment of the righteous proceedings of his great Judge. Nothing could control either the risings of his spirit, or the insolence of his speech, till God himself undertook, and encountered him out of the cloud, displaying his greatness, his power, his wisdom, and his other surpassing perfections, laying all these before his astonished eyes, as we have them fully described in those four excellent chapters, the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st of Job: and then the man’s stubborn heart began to bend, and to come down from its heights; then he presently knows himself, and his distance from God; his deplorable weakness and his vileness, and so breaks forth in those expressions, Job xlii. 5, 6, Behold, says he, I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee. What follows? Wherefore, says he, I abhor myself. It was the clear sight of the glory and greatness of the divine nature that humbled him to this self-abhorrence, and altered the tune of his former self-justification. Now 431let every confident, self-valuing person, compare himself with those descriptions of God in the forementioned chapters; and if he has but his under standing and his judging faculties about him, I doubt not but they will have the same effect and impression upon him, that they had upon Job, and make him descend some steps lower, till they have brought him to the level of the poor in spirit. Let this therefore be one way for the obtaining of this evangelical virtue, for a man to think much of the transcendent greatness and majesty of God, and his own unspeakable distance from him.
2. The second course that he is to take for the same purpose, is for him to be much in comparing himself with the exceeding exactness, perfection, and spirituality of the divine law. Self-esteem, which is the thing properly and directly opposite to this poorness of spirit here spoke of by our Saviour, is the effect of men’s rating themselves by false measures; and, as I shew, that men’s not measuring themselves by the infinite perfection of God’s nature brought them to overvalue their persons, so now their not measuring themselves by the sublimity and exactness of God’s law will bring them to the same false valuation of their actions and services. The law of the Lord is perfect, says the Psalmist, Psalm xix. 7. But certain it is, that no mortal man is so; and yet it is as certain, that thousands think that they are, and accordingly entertain thoughts of pride, naturally consequent upon thoughts of perfection.
But now what is the cause of this error, and where and how do men gather up these unreasonable thoughts? Why it is from their ignorance of, 432or nonattendance to the law, which requires a perfect original uprightness and rectitude in the whole man, and throughout all his natural faculties; it requires also a constant holiness and purity in his very thoughts and first inclinations; it requires an universal, uninterrupted practice of the same in all his actions, and through the tenor of his whole life: and this it does with that unrelenting strictness and rigour, as not to allow of the least deviation or turning from the rule; but inexorably curses every the least and most minute transgression of it in thought, word, or deed. This is the economy and constitution of the law: but who is sufficient for these things? What man can answer all these demands, or live up to these heights? What merit-monger among all the sons of supererogation will promise and engage, upon the utmost peril of his soul, that from the first to the last minute of his breathing in the world he will never do or desire, or so much as think any thing amiss? But if this be an undertaking too vast for weak flesh and blood, that will have its failings, and lives merely upon the stock of grace and pardon; then let every man let fall his crest, forget his pride, and learn to be poor in spirit, till he is richer in good works.
Let him come off from those false weights and wrong measures, that pervert him in his judgment about all his actions. Some have contrived the body of practical divinity into easy and flesh-pleasing propositions; such as make salvation attainable by something less than a good life. Now, so long as men trust to and steer by such directions, they may quickly and easily grow into a very good opinion of their own piety and perfection, when to be 433 pious, and to be perfect, is only to live up to an imperfect and a faulty rule: but it is a ready and easy way of proficiency, for a man to learn as much as he is taught, when he is taught but very little.
Others again there are, who measure the piety of their own lives by the scandalous and enormous impiety of other men’s; and will therefore conclude themselves holy, because they neither revel it with the drunkard or the epicure, swear with the profane, or grind the face of the poor with the tyrant or extortioner: all which are heights and great improvements of villainy, and such as have many degrees under them, many impieties of a lesser guilt and malignity, yet enough, unrepented of, to damn and destroy the person in whom they are found. No wonder therefore if men take up a fair opinion of themselves and their own righteousness upon these grounds; and if they count themselves very good indeed, so long as the being good is only not to be as bad as the worst.
But now what course is to be taken to dispossess men of this false and flattering opinion? Why, surely, that course prescribed by the prophet, Isaiah viii. 20, to the law and to the testimony. The doctrines of men may deceive us, and examples may blind us; but there is no trick, or fallacy, or imperfection in the law, which issues from the fountain of infinite truth and goodness, and so is reached forth to the world as that absolute, indefective copy of divine holiness, that all mankind is to write after. This is a glass in which the fairest soul may see its spots and deformities; a glass that will not, that cannot flatter: and therefore he that shall view himself in it frequently and attentively, shall see enough 434to shame and humble him into poorness of spirit: he shall see how many flaws and defects there are in his choicest and most accurately performed duties; how many infirmities cleave to his warmest devotions, that the letter of the law would curse and condemn. And surely, upon a due survey of this, if he has but a spiritual sense of spiritual things, he cannot but loathe and despise his own righteousness, as a torn and ragged garment, utterly unable to cover the nakedness of his soul; and consequently think himself the most miserable person in the world, if there were no other righteousness for him to trust to. This therefore is a second way of obtaining this evangelical poorness of spirit; namely, for a man to compare himself and his actions with the high and absolute perfection of the divine law.
3. The third and last that I shall mention is, for a man to make a due and a spiritual use of all those afflictions and cross events, that the providence of God is pleased to bring him under; for every man shall assuredly have his share of these sooner or later, before he quits the world. And as the scripture says, affliction springs not out of the dust; though it may seem to us an accident, yet God does it by design: and what should he design by it, but to discipline and cure the soul by the adversity of the body? Though the subject-matter of most calamities is something temporal and external, yet the end of them is certainly spiritual; and this end can be no other, than by this means to bring us to a sight of our own wretchedness and great obnoxiousness to the anger of God, whensoever he shall be pleased to let it loose upon us. For such is the blindness and stupidity of man’s heart, that while these outward 435enjoyments flow in fast upon him, he never thinks of those things: spiritual pride and security drive all these thoughts out of his mind; and he cannot frame himself to a thorough practical and severe consideration of that woful and forlorn estate that he was horn in, and that he lives and continues in, so long as ease and prosperity keeps him from feeling any of the penal effects of it: but he is cheerful, frolic, and gay, and, while he thrives in this world, questions not his happiness in the other.
But when a mighty blow from heaven strikes away all his comforts, and leaves him stript and naked, despised and trampled upon; then other thoughts naturally begin to take place; then the ministers of his outward man minister to him sad and misgiving reflections upon the condition of his inward, and make him doubt where the great calamity may end. For his heart must needs tell him, that affliction is but the consequent of sin, and that also such an one, as will determine where the worse and greater consequents of sin shall but begin: and then how unspeakably miserable would his lot be, should all these temporal hardships be but preludiums and beginnings of an intolerable weight of wrath reserved and treasured up for him hereafter. Every affliction carries in it many excellent instructions to a considering mind, when it humbles him under the feet of the insulting world, and covers him with contempt and scorn. It can tell him also, that sin makes him in finitely more contemptible and vile in the sight of God, who despises a wicked person more than the world can undervalue a man for his poverty, while it scoffs at his threadbare clothes and his empty purse. For God knows that the penury and bareness 436 of a soul unjustified, and uncovered with the robe of Christ’s righteousness, represents it more shameful than Job in his utmost misery appeared to be, when he sat naked and afflicted, full of noisome sores and ulcers, upon the dunghill, a mock to others, and a burden to himself.
When men feel the afflicting hand of God pressing them, there is also a voice from the same God, calling upon them to search for the cause of that grievance in their own sinful breasts; and, since they so much abhor the bitterness of the stream, to bethink themselves of the overflowing malignity of the fountain, and to hate and abhor that much more. For this is the only thing that God drives at: it is not so much the poverty of our purses, as of our spirits, that he regards; and if the former does not produce and occasion the latter, there is an affliction; that is, an opportunity of grace lost and misspent upon us. But he that will husband every temporal calamity to a spiritual advantage, will strike in with the divine methods, and being humbled by God, will humble himself yet further. Every judgment shall read him a lesson of himself, discover to him the vanity of his confidence, make him low and destitute in his own eyes, and so impoverish him into the best, the fullest, and the most abiding riches.
And thus I have finished the first general head proposed from the words; namely, the quality or disposition here recommended by our Saviour, which was poorness in spirit.
I shall now speak something briefly of the second; to wit, the ground or argument upon which this poorness of spirit is recommended; which is, that it entitles him that has it to the kingdom of heaven.437
Christ never enjoins us any duty, though ever so irksome, so harsh, and so displeasing to flesh and blood, but still he makes it worth our pains to comply with him, even in those his severest and most unpleasant commands. For a man to loathe and despise himself, to whom nature has made self-love so delightful, and almost inseparable, must certainly be an hard lecture, and not easily learned, because so little liked; yet Christ invites us to it with no less a recompence than the gaining of a kingdom; he calls upon us to exchange an airy conceit for a substantial enjoyment, pride for glory, and opinion for possession. If to be poor is a frightful word, and such as carries but little allurement in it to persuade, yet surely a kingdom sounds big and high, and the kingdom of heaven yet higher; and this is that which is held out and offered to us, to reconcile us to the former. To be poor for a time is but an easy task, when the reward that follows it is to be rich for ever: it is a duty that carries a blessing in its front, and is contrived into such words, that it exhibits the reward before it enjoins the work. Heaven is the first thing that it sets before us, and thereby seems not so much to exact, as to purchase our obedience. Upon which account, though there is required poorness of spirit in point of duty, I am sure there is requisite largeness of spirit to make us capable of the reward. Now in these words, theirs is the kingdom of heaven, two things are worthy of our remark.
1. The thing promised, the kingdom of heaven, which I conceive does not here precisely signify the future state of glory allotted for the saints in the other world; but that whole complex of blessings that is exhibited to mankind in the gospel, the economy 438of which is frequently styled by the evangelists, the kingdom of heaven. So that the meaning of the words is, that those great and glorious things that the gospel is big with, belong only to the humble, lowly, and full of the sense of their own unworthiness, as being the only proper and capable subjects of them. But now the gospel offers grace as well as glory; it gives the Spirit, with all its helps and assistances, to recover the soul of man to some measures of the divine image, worn out and defaced by original sin. There is a great deal of heaven that the gospel imparts to believers in this world, giving them the first-fruits of glory in the sanctification and justification of their persons, and those high privileges of sonship and adoption, by which they are repossessed of and reinstated in all those rights that had been forfeited by sin, and so come to have a new claim to what they enjoy here upon earth, as well as what they hope for in heaven; for they are the saints only to whom even these temporal blessings descend by covenant and filial relation to God; which the rest of mankind receive only as his vassals, by the liberality of a general and promiscuous providence.
2. The second thing to be remarked is, the manner in which heaven is here promised; which is in words importing the present. I shew indeed, that the future state of blessedness was not the only thing here intended, yet it is undoubtedly the principal; and Christ here conveys it to the saints in terms not expressing future, but actual possession: not theirs shall be, but theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They do not so much expect, as grasp it: it is not so much set before their hopes, as put into their hands, and 439from expectation passes into fruition. By this way of speaking, Christ designs to seal to us the certainty of the promise, and to assure us that we have firm hold of heaven, before we find an entrance into it.
The world surely would think that the poor man is of all persons living the most unfit to make a purchase, especially to buy kingdoms, and to bid a price for a crown and a sceptre. But it seems that the evangelically poor man can do all this, and yet not exhaust himself; which shews that the spiritual person is never so indigent, but that he can still outbid the world, and possess himself of that which all the riches upon the earth cannot compass; for immortality and heaven, and not only heaven, but also the God of heaven himself, is his possession.
To whom be rendered and ascribed, as its most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.440
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