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—The night cometh, when no man can work.
THESE words, as they lie in the context, are a general maxim or assertion, assigned as a reason of Christ’s constancy and assiduity in the particular discharge of those works, which, as mediator, he was to perform while he was yet conversant in the world. And for the figurative scheme of the words, there is nothing more usual in the dialect of scripture, than to set forth and express the time allotted for this life by day; and the time and state after life, which is death, by night: the reasons of which similitude being very natural and obvious, to be exact and particular in recounting them would be but to tell men what they know already, and consequently a work both precise and superfluous.
The sense of the text seems most naturally to lay itself forth in these three propositions.
I. That there is a work allotted, begun, cut out, and appointed to every man, to be performed by him while he lives in the world.
II. That the time of this life being once expired, there is no further opportunity or possibility of performing that work.
III. That the consideration of this ought to be the highest and the most pressing argument to every 37man, to use his utmost diligence in discharging the work incumbent upon him in this life.
I. For the first of these, That there is a work cut out, &c. we must observe, that every man may be considered under a double capacity or relation.
1. As he is a part or member of the body politic, and so is not his own, but stands included in and possessed by the community. In which capacity he is obliged to contribute his proportion of help to the public; as sharing from thence with others the benefits of society, and so being accountable to make it some retribution in his particular station and condition.
2. A man may be considered as he is a member and subject of a spiritual and higher kingdom. And in this capacity he is to pursue the personal, yet great interest of his own salvation. He is sent into this world to make sure of a better; to glorify his Maker by studying to save himself; and, in a word, to aim at enjoyments divine and supernatural, and higher than this animal life can aspire unto.
Now these two capacities are very different; by the former, a man is to approve himself a good citizen; by the latter, a good Christian: and though these relations have their precise limits and distinctions, yet we are not to be ignorant of the subordination of one to the other, as its superior. So that if they chance to clash and thwart, the inferior must give way; nor must a man do any thing to preserve a civil interest that is contrary to a spiritual, and the greater obligations lying upon him with reference to the good of his soul, and the invaluable concerns of felicity in the other world. The distinction of a politic and a private conscience is a thing that true 38 reason explodes, and religion abhors, as placing the matter of duty under a contradiction, and consequently can be nothing but an art to give a man satisfaction in the midst of his sin.
We have seen then how every man sustains a double capacity; according to which he has also a double work or calling.
1. A temporal one, by which he is to fill up some place in the commonwealth by the exercise of some useful profession, whether as a divine, lawyer, or physician; a merchant, soldier, mariner, or any inferior handicraft; by all which, as by so many greater and less wheels, the business of the vast body of the public is carried on, its necessities served, and its state upheld.
And God, who has ordained both society and order, accounts himself so much served by each man’s diligent pursuit, though of the meanest trade, that his stepping out of the bounds of it to some other work (as he presumes) more excellent, is but a bold and thankless presumption, by which the man puts himself out of the common way and guard of Providence. For God requires no man to be praying or reading when the exigence of his profession calls him to his hammer or his needle; nor commands any one from his shop to go hear a sermon in the church, much less to preach one in the pulpit.
God, as the lord and great master of the family of the universe, is still calling upon all his servants to work and labour; a thing so much disdained by the gallant and the epicure, is yet that general standing price that God and nature has set upon every enjoyment on this side heaven; and he that invades the possession of any thing, but upon this claim, is 39an intruder and an usurper. I have given order, says the apostle, 2 Thess. iii. 10, that if any one refuse to labour, neither should he eat. It is the active arm and the busy hand that must both purvey for the mouth, and withal give it a right to every morsel that is put into it.
Some perhaps think they are not born to labour, because they are born to estates. But the sentence that God passed upon Adam is universal; we find in it no exception or proviso for any noble or illustrious drone: no greatness can privilege a man to lie basking in sloth and idleness; and to eat the labours of the husbandman’s hand, and drink the sweat of his brow; to wallow and sleep in ease only, as an useless lump of well clothed, well descended earth: earth for heaviness only, but not for fruitfulness, serves no other end of society, but only to make one in a number.
But it may be replied, Shall those whom God has blessed in the world, and, as it were, by a particular mark of his providential favour exempted from the general curse of toil and labour, be obliged to work in a trade, or to be of such or such a laborious profession? No, I answer, that they need not, nor is this the thing contended for, but simply that they should labour and fill up all the hours of their time by employing themselves usefully for the public; and there are superior and more noble employments in which this labour may be sufficiently exerted. For is any one so rich or high as to be above the labour of doing good to a whole neighbourhood, of composing differences, studying the customs of his country, reading histories, and learning such arts as may render 40 him both eminent and useful, serviceable to the public both in peace and war.
If it be answered, that he stands in need of none of all these, as being already abundantly supplied with all the plenties and supports of life: to this also I rejoin, that they are not only a man’s own personal needs, but the general needs of society, that command a supply and relief from his labour; add to this also, in the second place, that the obligation to labour, lying upon men, is not founded upon their needs and necessities, but upon God’s command, as its proper reason; which command he has laid universally and impartially upon all; and he that excuses himself from all labour, the common lot of mankind, by loading it with the odious name of servility, should do well to consider whether the custom of a place, the vogue of his dependants, and his own little arts of evasion, will be able to bear him out in so broad a contempt of an express command; and to rescue him from that thundering sentence leveled so directly at him in Matt. xxv. 30, Cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
2. Correspondent to a Christian’s other, that is, his spiritual capacity, he has also a spiritual calling or profession; and the work that this engages him to, is that grand one of working out his salvation; a work that a life is too little for, had a man any thing more than a life to bestow upon it; a work that runs out into eternity, and upon which depends the wo or welfare of an immortal soul.
Now this work is threefold.
1. To make our peace with God.41
2. To get our sins mortified.
3. To get our hearts purified with the contrary graces.
1. And first, for the first of these, the making our peace with God. We know how tedious a work it is to reconcile or appease a potent enemy amongst men; frequent addresses must be made, great and irksome submissions must be digested. Days must be spent in attending, and nights in projecting how to assuage, and qualify, and remove the swelling disgust, and recover a place in that breast that has been boiling with rancour and enmity, and designs of mischiefs. Many years perhaps go over a man’s head, before he gets any ground upon such an one, if, peradventure, he succeeds at last; so hard, so troublesome, and discouraging a task it is, to win back a lost affection. Now every man must know, that, upon his very first coming into the world, he has this huge task upon him, to appease and pacify a great enemy; an enemy so much the harder to be pacified, because once a friend. This enemy is God, and therefore his enmities must be commensurate to his person, that is, infinite and unlimited. And it has this property also, that it is an enmity not commencing upon a mere grudge, but upon an injurious violation of his justice, and consequently not to be laid down without satisfaction. This satisfaction was to be infinite, and so impossible to be exhibited by a finite nature. The case being thus, Christ, the eternal Son of that offended God, was pleased to offer himself as a surety and a ransom in our behalf; so as to answer and satisfy all the demands of offended justice.
A satisfaction therefore there is made for us, but 42 so made, that there are conditions required on our parts, before there can be any application of it to our persons; and if these conditions are not reached, we may die with pardons in our Bibles, but not at all be longing to us. Now these conditions are faith and repentance; words quickly uttered, but things not so easily effected. There must pass such a change upon our natures, such a renovation of the very spirit of our minds, as may amount to the verification of this of us, that we are new creatures. The new creature is the subject of justification. And being once justified, the apostle tells us, Rom. v. 1, we have peace with God.
But how is it possible to establish a peace between natures of the widest distance and the fiercest opposition? such as is the most holy, pure, and just nature of God, and the nature of man, polluted and envenomed by original corruption. Can fire and stubble strike a league together, and be friends? Can guilt and justice unite and embrace? No, nothing of any reconcilement was to be expected, till such time as repentance should cleanse this Augean stable, and the Spirit of God infuse into the soul a new principle called faith; which principle shall really translate a man into another family, advance him to the privilege of adoption, and so make him a son and an heir to the God of heaven, by the merits of the second Adam, who was an outlaw and a traitor by the first.
2. The second work that we are to do, is to get our sins mortified. For after we are transplanted from the state of nature into a state of grace, we are not presently to think that our work is wholly done. For after the Israelites were possessed of Canaan, 43they had many of the Amorites and other enemies to conquer and drive out before them. Every man has corrupt, sinful habits that have overspread, and, as it were, engarrisoned themselves in the most in ward parts of his soul; habits deeply fixed, and not easily dispossessed. These are the adversaries that he is to encounter and to wage war with; adversaries that have all the advantages against him imaginable; such as he must make his way to through his own heart, and open his bosom, that the weapon may reach them.
The sharpest, the most afflicting, and yet the most concerning part of a Christian’s duty, is the mortification of his sin. For it is, as it were, a man’s weeding of his heart; he shall find it a growing evil; an evil, that, by a cursed fertility, will sprout out after the cutting. For scarce any weed is fetched up at once; the gardener’s hand and hook must be continually watching over it; and he accounts his ground preserved, if it is not overrun.
Let a man make experiment in any one vice; only let it be such an one as is agreeable and incident to the several ages of man; as for instance, be it pride: for the extirpation of which, we will suppose a man, by the influences of a preventing grace, very early in his attempts against it, and laying the axe to the root of this towering vice in his very youth. Yet, does it fall before him suddenly and easily? does the first foil or blow make him victorious, and enable him to set his foot upon the neck of his conquered enemy? No, there are many vicissitudes in the combat; sometimes he seems to get that under, sometimes that seems to be above him. And what through the strength of its hold, and the treachery 44 of its working, a man finds enough to exercise and humble his old age; and perhaps, after all his conflicts with it, goes out of the world only with this half-trophy, (enough indeed to save him,) that he was not overcome.
Now what I say of this is equally true of all other vices; and he that has a voluptuous, an intemperate, or a covetous heart to deal with, will find work enough laid out for him for this life. And let him beware that he ply his spiritual warfare so, that after forty, fifty, or threescore years, his vice is not as lively in his aged bones, and under his hoary hairs, as ever it was; and he die a decrepit, aged sinner, but yet in the youth and vigour of his sin.
3. The third work incumbent upon every man from his Christian calling, is to get his heart purified and replenished with the proper graces and virtues of a Christian. Christianity ends not in negatives. No man clears his garden of weeds, but in order to the planting of flowers or useful herbs in their room. God calls upon us to dispossess our corruptions, but it is for the reception of new inhabitants. A room may be clean, and yet empty; but it is not enough that our hearts be swept, unless they be also garnished; and that we lay aside our pride, our luxury, our covetousness, unless humility, temperance, and liberality, rise up and shine in their places. The design of religion would be very poor and short, should it look no further than only to keep men from being swine, and goats, and tigers, without improving the principles of humanity into positive and higher perfections. The soul may be cleansed from all blots, and yet still be left but a blank.
But Christianity, that is of a thriving, aspiring 45nature, requires us to proceed from grace to grace; to virtue adding patience, to patience temperance, to temperance meekness, to meekness brotherly kindness, and the like; thus ascending by degrees, till at length the top of the ladder reaches heaven, and conveys the soul so qualified into the mansions of glory.
I shewed before the difficulty of mortification, and we are not to think that it is at all less difficult to make a depraved heart virtuous, to force the soil of an ill temper, and, as it were, to graft virtuous ha bits upon the stock of a vicious nature. We see those that learn a trade, and the habit of any mechanic art, must yet bestow time and toil in the acquiring of it; though perhaps they have also a natural propensity to the art they are in pursuit of. Which being so, with how much more difficulty may we imagine a man to get humility or heavenly-mindedness, while all the appetites, and the very nerves of his soul, strive against it, and endeavour to pull down as fast as he can build up.
True it is therefore, that there is not one virtue that is produced in the soul of fallen man, but is in fused into it by the operation of God’s Spirit. And if any one should hereupon except, first, To what purpose then is our endeavour in this matter, if the Spirit of God works all? And secondly, Whence is it that these virtues are not in an instant conveyed into the heart in their full perfection, but appear and shew themselves only gradually, and by certain steps and increases?
To both these doubts this one answer will give full satisfaction, namely, that habits, though they are in fused, do yet come after the manner of such as are acquired. Though our working produces not those 46 habits, yet the Spirit infuses them into us while we are working; and that in those gradual proportions, that in the whole action it still maintains an imitation of the course of nature, that passes from less profit to more, till at length it arrives at the utmost perfection that it first intended.
And thus I have finished the first proposition, and shewn that there is a work appointed to every man, to be performed by him while he lives in the world; as also the several parts of that work. I come now,
II. To the second proposition, namely, that the time of this life being once expired, there remains no further opportunity or possibility of performing this work.
There is no repenting when we are once nailed up in our coffins; no believing in the grave; no doing the works of charity and temperance in the dust, or growing new creatures amongst the worms; life is the adequate space allotted by the wisdom of Heaven for these matters, which being ended, there is no after-game, or retrieving of a bad choice. And so much seems couched under that one word, by which the time of this life is expressed, namely, a day, which, as it is applied to life, may emphatically denote three things.
1. The shortness of it. What is a day, but a few minutes sunshine; one of the most inconsiderable proportions of time; such an one, as we never grudge to bestow upon any thing; an indiscernible shred of that life that is itself but a span. Yet in these reckonings, God is pleased to rate it by a narrower and a more contemptible measure. God will not dally with us in the great affairs of eternity. He allows us our day, and but our day, to choose whether or 47no we will be happy for ever. Which shows what a value God puts upon these opportunities, by dispensing them so sparingly, that though we have enough to use, yet we have none to lavish or to lend. We are hurried through the world; our whole life is but, as it were, a day’s journey; and therefore certainly it concerns us to manage it so, that we may have comfort at our journey’s end.
2. A day, as it denotes the shortness, so it implies also the sufficiency of our time. A day, as short as it is, yet it equals the business of the day. God, that knows the exact proportions of things, took the measure of both, and found that the compass of our lives would fully grasp and take in all our occasions. Are there not twelve hours in the day? says our Saviour: implying that that was time enough for any man to discharge all the work, that God, and nature, and his profession could, for that space, impose upon him.
And if any one here object the shortness of the time allotted for a Christian’s work against the sufficiency of it; though it must be confessed, that, should we live never so long, we could not have too much time to do the works of repentance, and to honour God in; yet, according to the economy and measures of the gospel, in which God accepts our services according to their truth, not their bulk, we have space enough assigned us, even in this short life, to do all that is necessary to bring us to a better.
And he that repents not and turns to God in the space of fifty, or threescore, or perhaps seventy years, would, for any thing that is in him, live and persevere in the same impenitence, should God add five 48 hundred years to his life. And it is not to be doubted, but God prolongs the life of many here on earth, not with any expectation of their repentance and conversion, as knowing them to be incorrigible, but to serve other ends of his providence in carrying on the affairs of the world.
3dly and lastly, By a day is denoted to us the determinate stint and limitation of our time. For none must think that the great and wise Governor of the world has left a matter of so high a concernment, and of so direct an influence upon the business of the world, as the life of man is, loose and unfixed. God has concluded all under a certain and unchangeable decree; and we have our bounds, be yond which we shall not pass. For as, after such a number of hours, it will unavoidably be night, and there is no stopping of the setting sun; so, after we have passed such a measure of time, our season has its period; we are benighted, and we must bid adieu to all our opportunities.
It is not in the power of man to carve out a longer life to himself. The disposal of times and seasons is part of the divine prerogative: and we know not whether God will allow the figtree to grow one, or two, or three years in his vineyard; but sure it is, that, when its appointed time is come, it must cumber the ground no longer. God has allotted to men talents of time, as well as of other things; to some ten, to some five, to some one. But still we see each man’s proportion is set. And he that has but five, must not think to traffick at the rate of him that has ten.
And thus we have taken some survey of the second proposition, namely, that the time of this life 49being once expired, there remains no further opportunity or possibility of performing the great work incumbent upon us.
I descend now to the third and last,
III. Which is, that the consideration of this ought to be the highest and the most pressing argument to every man to use his utmost diligence in the discharge of this work.
The enforcing reason of diligence in the undertaking of any work, is the difficulty of the performance of that work. Which difficulty here in our case will appear by comparing of the work to be done, with the time allowed for the doing of it. The time I shewed was both short and limited, so, on the other side, the work to be done is both difficult and necessary.
1. And first for its difficulty: though this has been sufficiently intimated in what was discoursed of before, yet, for the further declaration of it, it is observable, that there is no action of mankind that carries any thing of hardship with it, but the scripture expresses the work and duty of a Christian by it. It calls it a warfare; and is there any thing so hard and uneasy as what befalls men in the wars? It calls it a wrestling with principalities and powers: and is there any thing that employs and distends every joint and fibre of the body so much as wrestling does? It calls it a resisting of the Devil, and, what is more, a resisting unto blood: and do men shed their blood and expose their lives to the point of the rapier, and the fury of the enemy, with so much pastime?
But no expressions are so emphatical as those of our Saviour, who calls this work a taking up of one’s 50 cross; a severe task indeed, whether a man bear the cross, or the cross him. It seems to be our Saviour’s design all along to possess men with a true and impartial representation of those afflicting parts of duty, that will be indispensably required of such as shall give up their names to Christianity.
But above all, there is a place in Luke xiii. 24, which I wonder any considerate person can read without trembling: Strive, says our Saviour, to enter in at the strait gate; for many, I say unto you, shall seek to enter inland shall not be able. What! seek to enter, and yet find no entrance? Good God! What then will become of those numberless numbers of men, who never so much as sought, who never were at the expense of an hearty endeavour to get them selves into these narrow paths of felicity? If those that come crying, Lord, Lord, and striving, shall yet have the door shut upon them, what shall the lewd, the slothful, and the sottish epicure build the hopes of his salvation upon?
And now, when we have seen the work to be done so highly difficult, and the time to do it in so very short, can there be a more cogent argument, to induce a man to be covetous of every moment, and to make his industry piece out the scantiness of his opportunities? He that has far to go, and much to do, surely is concerned to rise very early; to count not only hours, but minutes, to make his work keep pace with his time; and, in a word, to mate the difficulty of the business with the diligence of the prosecution.
2. Next to the difficulty of the work, let us take an argument from its necessity. So far as it is necessary for a man to be saved, so far this work is necessary. 51Which argument will be heightened by comparing this necessity with the stinted, fixed limitation of the time allotted for the work. There is no deferring it beyond our day: there is no such thing as a to-morrow in the Christian’s calendar. And yet, are there any almost that lay this so important a consideration to heart? Men, especially in the flower and freshness of their youth, are infinitely careless: while they think they spend upon a full stock, and have the supplies of nature, the treasures of strength, and opportunity open before them. They know not the value of those precious, never-returning hours, that they quaff, and revel, and trifle away, when as the revocation of the least minute is not to be purchased with all the Persian treasures, or the mines of both the Indies.
But when a man comes at last to reflect upon his past days, and the little sand that is left him to run; when his feet are stumbling upon the dark mountains, and the shadows of his long night have overtaken him, he never asks the question then, how to pass away time, and to spend the day. None of his hours then lie upon his hands.
Now, when amidst all this, his great accounts shall also press hard upon him, and the terror of past sins lie heavy upon his conscience; it is worth considering his behaviour in this condition. None, surely, ever heard such a one calling religion pedantry, deriding a divine, or jesting upon the scriptures. How much soever a wretch and a scoffer lie was before, his note is changed now; and we may hear him with the most earnest, humble, and lamentable outcries plying his offended God.
Lord, spare me for a while: Lord, respite me but 52 for a month, a week, or but a day, to make my peace with thee. Set the long and the dark night back for a few hours, that I may put my accounts in some better order for my appearance before thy dreadful tribunal.
And then for this spiritual guide, whom, perhaps, not long since, he could scoff out of his company with disdain, he can now bespeak in a more abject and entreating dialect. Sir, do you think that there is any mercy, any hope for such a one as I? Have I not outsinned the line of grace? Do you not perceive any mortal symptoms upon my sins? Do you think that my repentance is sincere, that it reaches the conditions of the covenant, and that I may venture my salvation upon the reality of it? Can you give me any solid argument from scripture, or the judgment of divines, that the promises of mercy can extend to a man that has committed such and such sins, and that under such and such circumstances? And that I do not all this while abuse and flatter myself, and only prepare for an eternal disappointment? Never did any client, with so much scruple and solicitousness, inquire of his counsel about the strength or weakness of his title, when he was to go to law for all his estate, and to see his whole fortune canvassed at the bar, as a man in this condition will dispute his title to heaven, and argue his several doubts and misgivings with his spiritual guide or confessor.
No sinner, be he never so hardy and resolved, must think to keep up the same stoutness of heart, when he is just a stepping into the other world. No; these are usually the sad accents and language of the dying sinner, when he perceives his time spent, and, 53in the prospect of his approaching end, lies further bemoaning himself.
Oh that I were to live over my former days again! that I could command back some of those portions of time that I sacrificed to my vice, to the humour of my companions, and to those vanities that now serve only to remind me of my folly, and to upbraid me to my face! Oh that I had employed myself in those severities, that I then laughed at as the need less, affected practices of brainsick, melancholy persons! my work had not been now to do, when my time of working is expired.
I shall close up all with that excellent counsel of the preacher, Ecclesiastes ix. 10, Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might: for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, (and I may add also, nor working out a man’s salvation,) in the grave whither thou goest. And going thither we all are apace: wherefore, since after a few days comes death, and after death judgment, and after judgment an eternal, unchangeable condition; surely it concerns us all so to acquit ourselves in the several parts of our Christian profession, that we may be able to leave the world with that saying of the blessed apostle, I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness.
Which God of his mercy at last bestow upon us all, to whom be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.54
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