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In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.
THERE is no duty or action of religion, in which it concerns a man to proceed with so much caution and exactness, as in prayer; it being the greatest and most solemn intercourse that earth can have with heaven; the nearest access to him who dwells in that light that is indeed inaccessible: and in a word, the most sovereign and sanctified means to derive blessing, happiness, glory, and all that heaven can give or heart desire, upon the creature.
But since the distance between God and us is so great by nature, and yet greater by sin, it concerns us to see upon what terms of security we make our address to him: for it cannot be safe for a traitor to venture himself as a petitioner into the presence of his prince, whatsoever his wants or necessities may be. And that sin puts us in the very same capacity in reference to God is most sure; so that if there be no accommodation and reconcilement first found out, for any sinner to come to God, is but for him to cast himself into the arms of a consuming fire, to provoke an imminent wrath, to beg a curse, and to solicit his own damnation.
But Christ has smoothed a way for us, and 306turned the tribunal of justice into a throne of grace; so that we are commanded to change our fears into faith; to lift up our heads, as well as our hands, and to come with a good heart, not only in respect of innocence, but also in respect of confidence.
For the prosecution of the words I shall endeavour the discussion of these four things.
I. That there is a certain boldness and confidence very well consisting with and becoming of our humblest addresses to God.
II. That the foundation of this confidence is laid in the mediation of Jesus Christ.
III. I shall shew the reasons why the mediation of Christ ought to minister such confidence to us in our access to God.
IVthly and lastly, I shall shew whether or no there be any other ground, that may rationally embolden us in these our approaches to him.
I. And first for the first of these, that there is a certain boldness and confidence very well consisting with and becoming of our humblest addresses to God. This is evident; for it is the very language of prayer to treat God with the appellation of father; and surely every son may own a decent confidence before his father, without any intrenchment either upon paternal authority or filial reverence. For when God by the spirit of adoption has put us into the relation of sons, he does not expect from us the behaviour of slaves, and allow of no other expresses of our honour to him but distance and amazement, silence and astonishment. As for the nature of this confidence, it is not so easily set forth by any positive description, as by the opposition that it bears to its extremes; which are of two sorts.307
1. In defect. 2. In excess.
And first, for those of the first sort, that consist in defect.
1. This confidence is in the first place opposed to desperation and horror of conscience. A temper that speaks aloud in those desponding ejaculations of the Psalmist, Psalm lxxvii. 7, 8, 9, Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more? Is his mercy clean gone for ever? and doth his promise fail for evermore? Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies? Every word seems to be the voice of a soul supposing itself in the very brink of hell, and even already singed with the everlasting burnings. Nor does despair here only put it to the question, as the Psalmist does; but takes it for a granted, concluded truth, and verily believes that matters stand thus between God and the despairing person; who looks upon God as his implacable adversary, and himself as under a condemning sentence that is both final and irreversible. Nothing can be imagined more black and dismal than those thoughts and representations, that such a mind frames to itself of God’s power and justice. For it thinks that this latter is inexorable, and that the former is wholly employed about the execution of its severe decrees. These grim attributes constantly exercise and take up the meditations; which considered with relation to the state of a sinner, absolutely in themselves, and without any qualification or allays from mercy, must needs drive a man into all the agonies and terrors of mind that can be. For what can a sinner hope for, from power and justice without mercy? What can he expect but the extremity of wrath 308and revenge? a separation from God, and a consignation over to eternal miseries?
But besides, if despair does sometimes think and reflect upon mercy, yet it expects no share in it; but supposes the bowels shut up, the resentings past, and the day of grace spent and gone. Now so long as it thus misrepresents and libels God to the conscience in all his attributes, how is it possible for a man to have the confidence to pray to him? Despair stupifies and confounds, and stops not only the mouth, but the very breath, and, as it were, keeps and confines a man within himself.
It is natural for every thing to fly from an enemy, and while a man apprehends God to be so, he would if it were possible convey himself out of his very sight. He that presumes to ask a thing of another, is prompted to the doing so, by an opinion of the proneness of such a one to hear and relieve him in all his straits and necessities; but no man puts a petition into the hands of his tormentor, or asks any other favour of his executioner but to despatch him quickly. No man can pray where he cannot hope.
That confidence therefore that must qualify us for and attend us in prayer, is opposed to all kind of desperation, which by making a man account God his enemy, and thereby forbear praying to him, makes him indeed his own.
2. This confidence is opposed also to doubtings and groundless scrupulosities. 1 Tim. ii. 8, I will, says Paul, that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. Why? Suppose they should doubt and waver in presenting their prayers to God; James i. 7, Let not such an one, says St. James, think that he shall receive any 309thing of the Lord. And the reason is plain; for no man is to pray for any thing, but what God both allows and commands him to pray for. In which case, if he doubts of the issue and success of his prayer, is it not clear that his suspicion upbraids either God’s power, that he cannot, or his truth, that he will not make good the effects of his promise? And would any great man favour a petitioner that should entertain such thoughts of him? Would he not rather think himself affronted than honoured by such an address? Qui timide rogat, docet negare. No man counts himself any longer obliged to do a kindness, after he comes once to be suspected: for to suspect a man is to asperse his clearness and ingenuity, and plainly declares that we judge him not really to be what he pretends and appears; than which there cannot be a greater and a more injurious reflection upon the divine goodness.
God does not love a misgiving, half-persuaded petitioner, that comes in suspense, and trembling, sometimes hopes, sometimes fluctuates, and, in a word, cannot be so properly said to come as a petitioner, as an adventurer to the throne of mercy. God loves to maintain worthy apprehensions of himself and of all his dealings, in the minds of such as serve him; and it is but reason that those apprehensions should shine forth in the freedom of their deportment, and in their frank reliance upon his readiness to give or do whatsoever shall be fit for them to ask.
But it will perhaps be pleaded in defence and excuse of such doubting, that it arises not from, any unbecoming thoughts of God, but from the sense of the unworthiness of him that prays; which makes him question the success of his petition, notwithstanding 310all the divine mercy and liberality. And this seems to be so far from a fault, that it ought rather to be cherished and commended as an effect of the grace of humility.
But to this I answer, that by the plea of unworthiness is meant either an unworthiness in point of merit; and so the argument would keep a man from praying for ever, forasmuch as none can ever pretend a claim of merit to the thing he prays for, as shall be more fully observed hereafter.
Or 2dly, it is meant of an unworthiness in point of fitness to receive the thing prayed for; which fitness consists in that evangelical sincerity, that makes a man walk with that uprightness, as not to allow himself in any sin. But for a man to plead himself unworthy upon this account, is to plead himself unfit to pray: for whatsoever makes him fit to pray, makes him fit also to expect the thing asked for in prayer. This therefore concerns not the matter in debate; for the question is, whether he that is duly qualified for such an address to God, can without sin doubt of the issue of that address? Which we deny: otherwise it is most certainly true according to that of Solomon, that the prayer of the wicked is an abomination to God; and that such an one may not only lawfully doubt whether he shall be heard or no, but ought to conclude, that without all doubt he shall not be heard.
But it may be urged further. Does not experience shew, that persons that are thus qualified in point of sincerity and uprightness before God, do not always obtain the things they sue for, but are sometimes answered with a repulse? For did not David earnestly pray for the life of his child, and 311yet was denied it? And the like instances might be produced of several other saints. Now where a man is sure that the prayers of the righteous are not always granted, may not he very well doubt of the success of his own?
To this I answer; that in that respect that a man ought to pray for any thing from God, the prayer of no righteous person was ever denied. For every man is to pray for a thing with submission to the divine will, and so far as God shall think fit to grant it. And in this respect no man is to entertain the least doubt in prayer, but steadfastly to believe that God will vouchsafe him the thing he petitions for, so far as the ends of God’s glory and his own good shall make the granting of that thing necessary. Otherwise for a man to expect absolutely and infallibly the event of whatsoever he prays for, only because he thought fit to pray for it, is a great folly and a bold presumption; it is to determine and give measures to the divine bounty and wisdom; to tell it what it ought to do; to send instructions to heaven, and in a word, it is not so properly to pray as to prescribe to God.
Having thus shewn the two extremes to which the confidence spoken of in the text is opposed in point of defect, I come now to treat of those to which it is opposed in point of excess, and to shew, that as it excludes despair and doubting on the one hand, so it banishes all rashness and irreverence on the other. It is indeed hard for the weak and unsteady hearts of men to carry themselves in such an equal poise between both, as not to make the shunning of one inconvenience the falling into 312another; but the greater the danger is, the greater must be our attention to the rule.
1. First of all then, confidence in point of excess is opposed to rashness and precipitation. Rashness is properly a man’s sudden undertaking of any action, without a due examination of the grounds or motives that may encourage him to it, and of the reasons that may on the other side dehort and deter him from it: an omission of either of which makes it rash and unreasonable. And prayer surely, of all other duties and actions, ought to be a reasonable service. It calls upon him that undertakes it to consider before he resolves, again and again to consider, into what presence he is going, what the thing is that he is about to do, what preparedness and fitness he finds in himself for it, what the advantages of a right, and what the sad consequences of an undue performance of it are like to be.
I have read that it has been reported of an holy person, that he used to bestow an whole hour at least in meditation before he kneeled down to that prayer which perhaps he uttered in three minutes. He that goes about to pray, must know that he goes about one of the weightiest and the grandest actions of his whole life. And therefore let him turn his thoughts to all the ingredients and circumstances relating to it; let him meditate before what a pure and a piercing eye he presents himself; such an one as shoots into all the corners and recesses of his heart like a sunbeam, as ransacks all his most concealed thoughts, views all the little indirect designs, the excursions and wanderings of his spirit, and spies out the first early buddings and inclinations of 313his corruption. And as it sees them, so it cannot but abhor and detest them, unless their guilt be washed off by repentance, and covered under the imputed righteousness of a Saviour.
Let him consider, how it were like to fare with him, if this should happen to be his last prayer, and God should stop his breath in the very midst of it, and interrupt him with a summons into another world; whether, in such a case, he should be found in a fit posture to own an appearance at that fearful tribunal, without blushing and confusion of face. No man is fit to pray, that is not fit to die.
Let him consider also, whether there are not the scores of old sins yet uncancelled lying upon his hand. Whether he is not in arrears to God in point of gratitude for past mercies, while he is begging new; and whether he has not abused that bounty that he is now imploring, and made the liberality of heaven the instrument of his vanity and the very proveditor for his lust; even in a literal sense turning the grace of God into wantonness. These things should be recollected and canvassed with a deep, close, and intent reflection, and all reckonings (as much as possible) set even between God and the soul.
David would first wash his hands in innocency, before he would presume to compass God’s altar, Psalm xxvi. 6. But how few are there, that think preparation any part of this duty! They bolt immediately into the presence of God, though perhaps they come but newly from doing that, that they would not own in the presence of men. They come with the guilt of fresh sins warm upon their consciences, lifting up those hands in prayer that were 314lately busied in all kind of rapine and violence, and joining in it with those tongues that were not long before the instruments of railing, filth, and obscenity. As David washed his hands, so such persons should do well to wash their mouths also, before they approached the place of divine worship, especially when they were to bear a part in it. With what awe and veneration did Jacob look and think upon the place where God had appeared to him! Gen. xxviii. 16, 17. Surely, says he, the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! it is none other but the house of God. But sad experience shews, that men nowadays resort to that, that they both call and think the house of God; but yet behave themselves in it, as if it were neither holy nor dreadful: though if God were not more merciful than men are sinful, they would feel by a severe instance that it was both.
There is some boldness that is the effect of blindness; and surely it is this, that brings men to so sacred and so concerning an action as prayer is, with such trivial spirits, such rambling unrecollected thoughts, and such offensive profane behaviours. But such persons must know, that this is far from the boldness mentioned in the text: and that though God both allows and enjoins a due confidence “in our accesses to him, yet still they are to remember that confidence does not exclude caution.
2. The confidence spoke of in the text, in point of excess is opposed to impudence or irreverence; which, the truth is, is but the natural effect and consequent of the former: for he that considers not the sacredness of a thing or action, cannot easily pay it that devotion and reverence that the dignity of it 315requires. There are many ways by which this irreverence may shew itself in prayer, but I shall more especially mention and insist upon two.
(1.) The using of saucy, familiar expressions to God. A practice that some heretofore delighted in to that degree of extravagance, that he that should have stood without the church, and not seen what was doing within it, would have verily thought that somebody was talking to his equal and companion. Now the ground of this must needs have been from gross, low, and absurd conceptions of God, and withal very fond and high opinions of themselves, by which they thought themselves such absolute masters of his favour, and bound so close to him by election, that they were to bespeak him at a different rate of fellowship and peremptoriness from all other mortals. And accordingly, they would utter themselves to him as if they were perfectly acquainted with all his counsels, knew his mind, and read over his decrees: and if need were, could advise him in many matters relating to the government of the world.
And therefore their usual dialect was; We know, Lord, that this and this is thy way of dealing with thy saints; and that thou canst not be angry with those whose heart is right with thee, though they may sometimes out of infirmity trip into a perjury, a murder, or an adultery. Nay, and they would tell God to his face, that he had revealed such a thing to them; when perhaps within two or three days the event proved clean contrary. When their armies were in the field, they would usually at home besiege God with such expressions; Lord, if thou shouldest forsake us, thy peculiar inheritance, who 316are called by thy name, where wouldest thou find such another praying people? And again; Lord, thou mayest, out of anger to the nation, deliver thy chosen ones into the hands of their enemies, but consider what thou doest. It would be endless, and indeed unsavoury, to draw forth all the flowers of their profane rhetoric, with which they so liberally stuffed their impudent harangues, which they were pleased to call prayers.
And the rude familiarity of their expressions was attended with an equal rudeness of gesture and motion, throwing forth their arms, sweating, and carrying their whole bodies so, as if their prayer was indeed a wrestling with God, without a metaphor. But it is strange that any should be able to persuade themselves that this should be zeal, and the proper fervour of devotion, when common sense and good manners generally prompt men to a greater wariness and restraint upon themselves in their appearance before an earthly superior. For no man shakes his prince by the hand, or accosts him with an hail fellow well met. And if the laws and customs of nations will by no means endure such boldness to sovereign princes, for fear of debasing majesty, and so by degrees diminishing the commanding force of government, surely there ought to be more care used in managing our deportment toward God; since the impressions we have of things not seen by us are more easily worn off, than those that are continually renewed upon the mind by a converse with visible objects. And that which will bring us into a contempt of our earthly prince whom we see, is much more likely to bring us into a light esteem of our heavenly King whom 317we have not seen. We are to use such words as may not only manifest, but also increase our reverence; we are (as I may so say) to keep our distance from God, in our very approaches to him. But such undue familiarity, as it does for the most part arise from contempt, so it always ends in it.
(2.) This irreverence in prayer shews itself in a man’s venting his crude, sudden, extemporary conceptions before God. Why God should be pleased with that which intelligent men laugh at, I cannot understand. And there is nothing more loathsome and offensive to discreet ears, than the loose, indigested, incoherent babble of some bold, self-opinioned persons, who in their talk are senseless and endless. Some indeed sanctify their unpremeditated way of speaking to God, by calling it praying by the Spirit; and so entitling the Holy Ghost to all their impertinencies, which is to excuse or defend boldness with blasphemy. But surely folly is no such difficult thing, that any man should need to fetch it from a supernatural cause, and owe his absurdities to immediate inspirations. For if this be to pray by the Spirit, a man needs only to forget himself, to balk the use of his reason, and to let his words fly at random without care or observation, and he shall find very plentiful assistances of this nature.
But to vindicate the Spirit of God from these unworthy imputations, and withal to dash such impudent pretences, we are to know, that the Spirit measures out his assistance to men in the use of the means proper for the effecting or accomplishing of any work; but suspends and denies that assistance, where the use of those means is neglected; for he cooperates with men according to the established 318course of working proper to their natures: and no man prays and preaches more by the Spirit, than he that bestows time and study in the orderly disposing of what he is to say; and so employs and exerts those faculties of mind, which the Spirit of God endowed him with, for the better and more exact management of those holy services that he stands engaged in.
Were a man to petition his prince, or to plead at the bar for his life, I believe none could persuade him to venture the issue of so great an action upon his extempore gift. But admit that a man be never so well furnished with an ability of speaking suddenly and without premeditation; yet certainly premeditation and care would improve and heighten that ability, and give it a greater force and lustre in all performances. And if so, we are to remember that God calls for our best and our utmost; we are to bring the fairest and the choicest of our flock for an offering, and not to sacrifice a lame, unconcocted, wandering discourse to God, when our time and our parts are able to furnish us with one much more accurate and exact. When a Roman gentleman invited Augustus Caesar to supper, and provided him but a mean entertainment, Caesar very properly took him up with an Unde mihi tecum tanta familiaritas? Friend, pray how come you and I to be so familiar? Great persons think themselves entertained with respect, when they are entertained with splendour; and they think wisely and rightly. In like manner God will reject such sons of presumption and impertinence with disdain; and though they took no time for the making of their prayers, yet he will take time enough before he will grant them.319
But besides, to dismiss this supposition, it is indeed scarce possible, but much speaking without care or study must needs put the speaker upon unseemly repetitions and tautologies, which Christ most peculiarly cautions his disciples against as an heathenish thing, in Matth. vi. where he prescribes them that excellent form of prayer, composed with so much fulness, strictness, and significancy of sense, that it is impossible for any thing that is extempore to resemble it. He that does not consider and weigh every word of his prayer, will find it very unfit to be weighed more severely by God himself in the balance of the sanctuary; who will account no man to speak piously, who does not also speak properly in his devotions. And therefore I shall conclude this particular with that most divine and excellent direction given by Solomon concerning this matter, Ecclesiast. v. 2, Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few. When we speak to a superior, to use words few and expressive is the proper dialect of respect.
And thus I have finished the first thing proposed for the handling of the words, which was to shew that there was a certain confidence well becoming our humblest addresses to God, and withal to demonstrate what this confidence was; which I have done, by shewing that it is such an one as stands opposed both to despair and doubting on the one hand, and to rashness and irreverence on the other.
II. I come now to the second particular, which is to shew that the foundation of this confidence is laid in the mediation of Christ. Where there is a breach 320of amity between two persons, of which the offended person is much the superior, upon which account his dignity will not permit him to seek or offer a reconcilement; as on the other side, the inferior condition of him that is the offender will not let him dare to attempt one; it is manifest, that unless there be some third person to interpose between both, the breach must needs be perpetual and incurable. It was thus between God and man, upon his apostasy from God: God was too great, too glorious immediately by himself to court his rebel creature, and the creature too vile and obnoxious to treat with his injured sovereign: whereupon they must have both prepared for mutual acts of hostility, had not Christ, God and man, undertook to mediate and compromise the difference on both sides; so that every sinner has cause to speak to Christ as the Israelites did to Moses, an eminent type of him; Speak thou unto us and for us too, and we will hear; but let not God the father speak to us, or we to him, lest we die. A guilty person is but a bad advocate.321
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