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PSALM xix. 13. FIRST PART.
Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me.
THESE words, running in the form of a prayer or petition, may suggest these three things to our consideration.
1. The thing prayed against; presumptuous sins.
2. The person making this prayer; king David; one adorned with the highest elogies for his piety, even by God himself.
3. The means that he engages for his deliverance from the thing he prays against; namely, the divine grace and assistance: Keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins.
All these things lie naturally and evidently in the text; and there is no doubt, but that it may be most pertinently handled in a distinct prosecution of them. But I shall choose rather to frame my thoughts into another method, and designing to take in and comprehend all these in the progress of the following discourse, I shall cast the discussion of the words under these two general heads.
I. To shew what these presumptuous sins are.
II. To shew the reason of this so holy and excellent person’s so earnestly praying against them.
As for the first of these, what presumptuous sins are. In the handling of this, I shall do these three things.161
1. I shall shew in general what it is to presume.
2. 1 shall assign some of the most notable kinds of presumptuous sins.
3. I shall prescribe some remedies against them.
And first for the first; what it is in general to presume: where, before we proceed to any strict and positive definition of it, we may briefly take notice of the description it lies under in the word of God, which sets forth this sin by various, and those very significant expressions. It calls it a man’s hardening of his heart: hardening his neck, hardening his face, and, in a word, hardening himself against God. It calls it a walking frowardly, and a walking contrary to God; as also a resisting of the Holy Ghost; and a grieving and doing despite to the Spirit of grace. It is likewise expressed by a man’s going on in his own ways, and refusing to be reformed, with the like: that is, all the several evils and provoking malignities that are in obstinacy, stubbornness, impudence, and direct contempt of God, like so many lines in their centre, meet and concur for the making up of the character of presumption.
But that we may yet view the nature of it more closely, and define what it is: to presume, or to commit a presumptuous sin, is for a man, in the doing of any unlawful or suspicious action, to expect and promise himself impunity upon those grounds that indeed afford no reason for any such expectation.
So that, to the making up of such a sin, these three integral parts are required.
1. That a man undertake an action, known by him to be unlawful, or at least doubtful.162
2. That notwithstanding this, he promise to himself security from any punishment of right consequent upon it.
3. And lastly, that he do this upon motives utterly groundless and unreasonable.
In this order therefore does presumption accomplish its course of acting in the heart of the presuming sinner. For, as for the thing that he is about to do; he either doubts whether it be lawful or no; or he certainly knows that it is unlawful: whereupon, if on either hand he proceeds to the doing of it, he infallibly bolts upon a sin, because he certainly acts against conscience, either doubtful or knowing; both of which will involve him in sin: for to act against a knowing conscience is apparently sinful; and to act also against the doubting, from the mouth of the apostle receives the express sentence of condemnation; He that doubteth is damned if he eat, Rom. xiv. last verse.
Now the presuming sinner, knowing the action he is attempting to be unlawful, or at the best suspecting it as doubtful, proceeds, notwithstanding this dissatisfaction, to deliberate and advise with himself, whether he should undertake it or no; he argues the case with himself on both sides. On one side he pleads the unlawfulness, or at least the suspiciousness of it, and the great danger that may follow upon either: on the other, he thinks of the pleasure, the profit, and the advantage of the thing under debate, together with a supposed probability of escape and impunity, though he does commit it. And hereupon, as the result and upshot of his deliberation, he comes to fix, and to resolve that he will do it, be the consequence 163what it will; though yet he believes he shall carry the matter so, as to bring himself off clear and harmless after all: and thus from suspence he proceeds to resolution, and from resolution passes into action; and so stands a perfect, complete, presumptuous sinner before God, as having brought his sin to maturity and actual commission, through all the by-traces, all the rubs and impediments that either conscience or Providence laid in its way.
From what has been said, we may here observe, that the presumptuous sinner is utterly divested of those two only pleas that can be alleged for the extenuation of sin, as, 1. Ignorance. 2. Surprise.
And first, as for ignorance. Though the case is such in the rules of morality, that no ignorance of things, lying under necessary practice, can be totally inculpable, and so cannot wholly excuse the guilt of the action occasioned by it; yet as to an extenuation of the degree, we find the plea of it frequently admitted in scripture; as the servant that knew not his lord’s will, and did things worthy of stripes, was therefore beaten but with few stripes, Luke xii. 48. And our Saviour himself grounds his prayer for his murderers upon their ignorance of what they did; Luke xxiii. 34, Father, for give them; for they know not what they do. And St. Paul gives the same account of his obtaining mercy after his blasphemies and persecutions; 1 Tim. i. 13. I obtained mercy, says he, because I did it ignorantly and in unbelief. So that ignorance, we see, though not by any virtue in itself, but by the mere mercy, and goodness, and condescension of God, has prevailed and been effectual for the covering of a multitude of sins, not yet grown too big for pardon.164
But now the presumptuous sinner cuts himself off from all such plea; for he sins with an high hand, with an open and a seeing eye. His conscience is all the time awake, like a thief that breaks open an house in the face of the sun, and amidst the resorts of a market. The motto of a presuming sinner may be, Veni, vidi, et peccavi. The Devil told Eve, that her and her husband’s eyes should be opened, upon their eating of the forbidden fruit; and accordingly most of their posterity have since inherited the power of sinning knowingly and seeingly, of offending their Maker with counsel and deliberation. Their eyes are opened indeed with a mischief: but for that very cause their sin is heightened; and it were better for them that they were blind; for then, as said our Saviour to the pharisees, they would have had no sin; that is, no sin in comparison: their sin would not have borne so deep a tincture, and been set off with such crimson aggravations.
As sin leaves the soul, so presumption leaves sin itself naked, by drawing from it its covering; and also helpless, by taking away its last asylum and retreat. In both of which it had a fair accommodation from ignorance, which, like darkness, invites sleep; and so is the parent of a little rest and transient quiet to sick, guilty, and disturbed consciences.
Ignorance is looked upon as so plausible a defence, that I have heard and read of those that have studiously been ignorant of the evil of an action, where they have passionately desired the pleasure of it: they have endeavoured to shift off the light, and to convey themselves from the inspection of their own consciences, that so their sinful delights might proceed with the greater relish and the less interruption. 165A pretty art for men to befool and damn themselves withal.
But such must know, that ignorance affected, and voluntarily procured, is so far from giving any mitigation or excuse to other actions, that it is not able to excuse itself. For who can defend an action, by pleading that he did it ignorantly, when it was in his power not to have been ignorant, when the means of knowledge were before him, and the neglect of them was his choice? Presumption and such an ignorance may walk hand in hand, forasmuch as it may be resolved into presumption. It is a blindness brought upon a man, because he would not see; otherwise all ignorance, that is merely negative and inculpable presumption, is utterly inconsistent with, and makes absolutely unpleadable.
2. Presumption excludes all plea from surprise: a plea admitted in human courts for the diminution of the malignity of many crimes. An action not being perfectly evil, but as committed by perfect choice, which is much weakened and disturbed by the hurry of a surprise. And there is no doubt but the mercies of the court of Heaven also have some grains of allowance for those actions that men are thus, in a manner, thrown headlong into. But now where there is deliberation, there can be no surprise; forasmuch as a surprise prevents and takes a man off from all previous deliberation: and presumption is still accompanied with deliberation; it is a sin that proceeds gradually, it destroys the soul soberly, and with design.
But before I go any further, when I say that surprise takes off from the nature of presumption, so that every presumptuous sin must be supposed to be 166 committed with deliberation; I conceive that, for the preventing of mistakes, this may need some further explication. We must know therefore, that a sin may be said to be committed deliberately, either formally and immediately, or only virtually and remotely. Of the former there can be no doubt; for in that sense a man sins deliberately, when he sins with foregoing thought, as well as with present purpose of mind. But for the latter, we may take those terms more at large thus: when a man is brought into a sudden heat of passion and confusion of spirit, in which he proceeds to blaspheme God, or to revile his prince, or the like; this blasphemy and treason of his must not think presently to take sanctuary in this pretence, that it was done only in a surprise of passion, and so ought not to be accounted presumptuous, upon this ground, that it cannot pass for deliberate: this, I say, is not to be allowed, because if the man knowingly and deliberately put himself under those circumstances that raised him to that fury of passion, every action done under that passion is virtually deliberate, and follows the nature and quality of the first action, as the leading, principal cause of all that directly ensued upon it.
A man drinks himself into a present rage, or distraction of mind; in which condition he is perhaps carried to commit a rape or a murder, which action is indeed in itself sudden and indeliberate: but, since the man at first engaged in drinking with full choice and deliberation of mind, his passion being caused by that drink, and the murder being caused by that passion, are both of them virtually deliberate, as being resolvable into a foregoing choice: upon which score they contract the guilt and foulness of presumptuous 167sins, and so stand rated in the accounts of Heaven.
But here, because there is much and frequent discourse in divinity, of a distinction between sins of presumption and sins of infirmity; and since very much depends upon the right or the wrong apprehending of it in a casuistical theology, as also in the daily practices of men; it will not be amiss to inquire into the ground or reason of this distinction.
What a sin of presumption is, we have declared already; so that the whole business will lie in this, to see what that is hat makes a sin to be a sin of infirmity.
Three opinions there are in this matter.
1. The first derives the nature of it from the condition of the agent, or him that commits it.
2. The second derives it from the matter of the action.
3. The third and last, from the principle producing it.
We shall consider each of them in their order.
1. First of all then, there are some who derive the nature of a sin of infirmity from the quality or condition of him that commits it; affirming every sin committed by a believer, or a person truly regenerate, to be a sin of infirmity; partly, because they say, that there is not that absolute and full concurrence of the inward principle in such a one to the commission of the sin; but chiefly because such persons, being supposed to be fixed in an unchangeable possession of the divine favour, so that they cannot possibly fall from it, no sins can be able to alter their estate; whereupon their sins lose their full effect, and become only lapses and infirmities.168
For answer to this; it is not necessary here, either to assert or to deny the perpetuity and unalterable tenor of a regenerate man’s estate: but this I affirm, that to take the nature of his actions merely from the condition of his person, is hugely absurd; for that can only infer the pardon of his sins upon another account: but surely a sin changes nothing of its nature by this, that in one man it is pardoned, in another not.
This indeed has been eagerly asserted by some; and in this assertion they laid a foundation for all licentiousness; for, according to the tenor of their doctrine, it was but for them, first to put on a bold front, and to persuade themselves and others that they were of the number of the converted and the regenerate; and then, whatsoever sins were after wards committed by them, sunk to a wonderful low degree of guilt, as being chargeable with no higher than what arises from infirmity. In the strength of this doctrine, some would hold David’s murder and adultery to have been only sins of infirmity; though each of them complicated, and made up of so many several base sins, and ripened with such deliberate contrivances, that it is hard to commit, or indeed to imagine, sins of a blacker hue.
But, for a fuller vindication of the truth, I shall, even upon the supposition and grant of this principle, that a regenerate person never so loses his ground by any sin, as to be cut off from his interest in the favour of God, and his title to heaven; I shall, I say, yet shew the falseness and unreasonableness of the doctrine perversely built upon it; and that by these following arguments.
1. First: whereas it is said, that persons regenerate 169sin not with such a plenary and entire consent of will as others; for which cause their sin loses many degrees of its malignity; I demand, whether by this they understand not, (as in all reason they must,) that such persons find in their conscience a greater reluctancy to be brought to the commission of sin than others? And if so, what is their excuse but an higher aggravation of their sin? that it is committed more against the light and dictates of conscience struggling and contending against it, than the sins of persons wholly unsanctified.
2. But in the second place, I demand further, whether this estate of regeneration does not, according to their own supposition, raise the persons so qualified to the privilege of being the sons of God? And if so, I would fain know, whether the unworthy behaviour of a son is not of a more provoking nature than the same deportment from a stranger? A son is capable more of presuming upon his father than a slave or servant upon his master; for one of fends only against authority, the other against authority mixed with love, and endeared with the nearest relation. I conclude therefore, that this is so far from degrading a sin to the smallness of an infirmity, that it stamps it ten times a greater presumption than it would be, if committed by another person.
3. And lastly, If the sins of persons regenerate must all pass for infirmities, then how comes David here (who surely was not the last or meanest of this number) to pray so earnestly to be kept from sins of presumption? If the nature of his condition secured him from all possibility of falling into them, where was the danger? And if no danger, where was the 170 necessity of praying to be rescued from an impossibility? But it seems David steered his actions by a different divinity, and looked upon this as the most dangerous presumption of all, to call sins of presumption sins of infirmity. And thus much in answer to the first opinion.
2. Some derive the nature of sins of infirmity from the matter of them; as that they are committed only in thought or desire, or sometimes in word, but pass not into outward and gross action.
But this also is most false and pernicious, and directly opens a gate to the encouragement of the vilest impieties. For though it must be granted, that our thoughts and desires, and sometimes our words, are less under command than our outward actions; yet to affirm, therefore, that whatsoever is sinfully transacted in these, must presently be baptized but an infirmity, is an assertion no ways to be endured.
And for answer to it, I affirm,
1. First, that there is no act producible by the soul of man, that either is or ever was under the power and command of man’s will, but is capable of receiving all the poison and guilt, that the will (which is itself the fountain of all sin) is able to infuse into it; and consequently of being a sin of presumption. But now both thoughts, words, and desires are controllable by the will, which is able to make the soul cease thinking and desiring of any particular thing, by diverting and applying it to other objects. And if the will has now lost some of the absoluteness of its primitive dominion, yet when we come to state the morality of actions, we are to consider the power it had naturally, and in man’s innocency, and has since lost by its own fault; but stands therefore no 171less accountable for it to God, than if it were not lost.
2. But secondly, let us hear the voice of God in the scriptures concerning this matter. There, I am sure, are loud complaints of the sins of men’s thoughts. Esa. lv. 7. Let the unrighteous man forsake his thoughts, says God; and Jeremy iv. 14, How long shall vain thoughts lodge within thee? And in Matt. xv. 19, From the heart, says our Saviour, proceed evil thoughts, murders, and adulteries. We see here evil thoughts put into the same catalogue with murders and adulteries; and these surely are not sins of infirmity. But above all, take that place in Acts viii. 22, where St. Peter bids Simon Magus pray to God, if peradventure the thought of his heart might be forgiven him.
And then for desires; we know that in God’s account they stand for actions. In Matt. v. 28, Christ calls the unlawful desire of a woman adultery. And God still complained of his people, that their heart went after idols: and in Psalm lxxviii. 18 it is said of them, that they tempted God in their heart.
But that evil desires carry so high a guilt with them, is no less evident from mere reason: for if the evil of the thoughts lies under so great a condemnation before God, that of the desires must needs lie under a greater; forasmuch as desire is a further step and advance of the soul into sin; and is indeed the very pulse of the soul, naturally showing the temper and inclination of it.
And so much for the second opinion.
3dly and lastly. The difference of a sin of presumption and of infirmity may be drawn from the principle immediately producing the action; as namely, 172 that the will is carried to the one by malice, to the other by inadvertency. And this is that, that reason will force us to pitch upon. For there is no doubt, but an evil choice (the thing here meant by malice) is that which greatens the impiety and guilt of an action into the nature of presumption; which action, done out of a sudden incogitancy, might pass for but a weakness, and so stand rated at a much lower pitch of guilt.
Certain it is therefore, that malice is that that constitutes the nature of presumption, and inadvertency that makes a sin to be but an infirmity. But then to draw this down a thesi ad hypothesin, and to determine the bounds of each, by showing exactly where malice ceases, and where a faultless inadvertency begins; this, I confess, is most difficult, and perhaps, by any one common rule, constantly and universally appliable to every particular action, not to be effected.
But for our better conduct in a case of such importance, I shall shew first negatively, what is not a sin of infirmity; 2dly, what positively is.
As for the negative part, we are to observe,
1. That whensoever a man ventures and designs to commit a sin upon this ground, that he judges it a sin of infirmity; that sin, by such antecedent thought and design beforehand, is changed from a sin of infirmity into a sin of presumption. For though an infirmity be comparatively but a little sin, yet it is far from an infirmity to account any sin little, and much more upon that ground to commit it. Men are apt to say, (in their hearts at least,) that such or such a thing is no great matter; and therefore, surely, they need not so much scruple the doing of 173it. But such must know, that this argues a cursed undervaluing of the evil of sin, and a desire to take any advantage to commit it; than which there can not be a greater proof of a corrupt, rotten, and unsanctified heart.
2. That sin, though in itself never so small, that a man after the committing of it is desirous to excuse or extenuate, by charging it upon surprise, passion, weakness, company, or the like, does by such excuse cease to be an infirmity: for when a man comes to defend his sin, it shews that he has an hearty kindness for it, and dislikes nothing in it but the consequent danger; than which temper of mind few actual sins are more loathsome and provoking in the sight of God.
But in the next place, to pass from negatives, and to shew positively what a sin of infirmity is; I conceive it may not unfitly be defined, a sin committed out of mere, sudden inadvertency, that inadvertency not being directly caused by any deliberate sin immediately going before it. The reason of this has been given already, viz. that the consequent actions follow the guilt and nature of the antecedent action that caused them. But for the better clearing of the thing discoursed of to our apprehensions, that I may also give an instance of this kind of sin; I suppose, when a man, being suddenly urged and provoked vehemently, conceives an angry thought, or utters an hasty word, that that thought and that word may be reckoned for infirmities. And when an unlawful desire suddenly strikes the mind, but a man’s heart immediately smites him for it, so that he presently checks that desire, this also, 1 conceive, may be reputed a sin of infirmity. But, God knows, few sins 174 pass from us thus. Sin is scarce ever acted by us, but with the full force and power of all our faculties. And it is seldom that we do any thing faintly, when it is to dishonour God, or to ruin ourselves.
And thus I have finished the first branch of the first general head; which was to shew, what it was in general to presume, and wherein the nature of a presumptuous sin did consist.
Now to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, be ascribed all honour, might, majesty, and dominion, now and for ever. Amen.175
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