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When the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
IT is a truth of general acknowledgment, because of universal experience, that there is no misery comparable to that which follows after a near access to happiness; nor any sorrow so quick and pungent, as that which succeeds a preconceived, but disappointed joy. Such a sorrow we have here; for certainly it must be no small matter, that can make a man sorrowful in the midst of great possessions.
We have this young heir driving a bargain with Christ, and that for no less a thing than eternal life; and driving it so near a close, that only one thing was lacking; a thing, though perhaps in itself great, yet, compared to the purchase, small and inconsiderable: in the fourteenth verse, Go, sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; here was as vast a disproportion between the price and the purchase, as there is distance between earth and heaven.
Neither was the proposal unreasonable, because usually practised, even by the most worldly; it being frequent with men to sell an estate in one place, to buy another in a more convenient. So that he was not so much commanded to leave, as to change his 390 possessions. And therefore, the rejection of this offer was, upon the best terms of reason, inexcusable; both because the purchase was so advantageous, and the person, to whom it was offered, so rich.
Now the words here importing the young man’s sorrow, upon something enjoined him by Christ; the natural method of proceeding will require that we reflect upon the command, that was the occasion of this sorrow: and we shall find that it branched itself into these three parts or degrees.
1. The first was this; Go, sell that thou hast. This was not the duty itself, but the preparative and introduction to it. For barely to sell his estate, was only to alter, not to diminish it, and, as we usually say, to turn a long estate into a broad.
2. The second branch was, Give to the poor. It was not to throw it away, like the morose philosopher: for the duty here urged, was not to impoverish himself, but to benefit others; not so much to cast it from him, as to secure it to him in other hands.
3. The third and last article of the command was, Come and follow me; without which, the other two were utterly insignificant: like two propositions that conclude nothing; or like preparing for a journey, without setting forth. It is the taking up of the cross, that makes our following of Christ feasible; but it is our following of Christ, that makes our taking up of the cross acceptable.
We have here seen the command; and we may be sure that Christ, whose precepts never outweigh their motives, would second it with an argument no less ponderous. And therefore, here he enforces it with a reason as commanding as the precept; even 391the delight and aim of all created beings, perfection. If thou wilt be perfect, go sell that thou hast, &c. Which words, being much abused by the papists, may worthily challenge a further explication.
They, to establish their works of supererogation, have invented a distinction between precepts and counsels. A precept they define a command, so obliging to duty, that the omission of it obliges to punishment. But a counsel not so much commands, as recommends some perfection, beyond what is enjoined in the law; for the omission of which, a man shall not incur punishment; and for the performance of which, he shall have a more eminent reward: and therefore it is called a counsel of evangelical perfection.
That popery undermines the law, and perverts the gospel, we are not now to learn: but in this it is hard to judge which is greater, the arrogance or the absurdity. The first, in that they pretend to surpass the limits of all legal perfection: the second, in that they assert, that there may be some perfection that is not contained in the law, which is the unalterable rule and standard of all created holiness.
Let them strive, and strain, and stretch the very sinews of their souls to the highest pin of austerity and alms; yet, unless they can prove that this is to love God more than with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their strength, (which the very letter of the law exacts,) all their evangelical perfection is already drank up and forestalled in the vast comprehensive verge and latitude of the precept. And therefore, this distinction of precepts and counsels is illogical and ridiculous, one member of the distinction grasping within itself the other.392
Now to these counsels they refer this injunction given to the young man, to sell all, and give to the poor; which they further prove, because to the performance of it Christ promises not only heaven, but treasure in heaven, which imports a more accumulate degree of felicity. But to this
I answer, that the word treasure in heaven does not of necessity signify any such superlative degree or pitch of happiness, but simply the thing itself; which appears from this, that the nonperformance of this precept not only degrades from an higher degree of glory, but utterly excludes from any entrance into it at all, as in the twenty-fourth verse.
But you will say, if this be not a counsel, but a command, to which of the ten is it to be reduced? I answer, to the first, of serving God with all the heart and with all the strength.
You will reply then, that all stand obliged to sell their estates, inasmuch as the obligation of that command is universal.
I answer, that this precept commands some things absolutely, which oblige all; some things only hypothetically, that is, in case God shall discover it to be his will to be obeyed in such particular instances: and consequently oblige there only, where God shall make such discoveries.
And here we must observe, that there is a vast difference between a new precept and a new instance of obedience; one esse formale (which is that that gives unity to the precept) may extend itself to the whole objective latitude of many undiscovered particulars.
The precept commands us, in general, to love God with all our hearts. Christ here requires this young 393man to shew that love to God in this particular in stance of selling his estate: so that, though the command of loving God extend to all, yet the determination and application of it to this matter is particular, and consequently but of a particular obligation.
Having thus cleared our way to the words them selves, we may observe in them these four things considerable.
1. The person making the address to Christ, who was one whose reason was enlightened to a solicitous consideration of his estate in another world.
2. The thing sought for in this address, viz. eternal life.
3. The condition upon which it was proposed, and upon which refused; namely, the sale and relinquishment of his temporal estate.
4. His behaviour upon this refusal; he departed sorrowful.
Having thus, as it were, analyzed the text into its several distinct parts, I shall here resume and join them together in this one proposition, viz.
He that deliberately parts with Christ, though for the greatest and most suitable worldly enjoyment, if but his natural reason is awakened, does it with much secret sting and remorse.
In the prosecution of this, I shall do these two things.
I. I shall shew whence it is, that a man, acted by an enlightened reason, finds such reluctancy and regret upon his rejection of Christ.
II. I shall shew the causes why, notwithstanding this regret that the conscience feels upon its rejection 394 of Christ, it is yet brought in the issue to reject him.
I. For the first of these; that an enlightened reason is affected with such remorse, upon its rejection of Christ: it may proceed from these causes.
1. The first may be taken from the nature of conscience, that is apt to recoil upon any error, either in our actions or our choice.
There are some innate principles of turpe and honestum; the standing causes of all religion, that supervise all our actions: and according to their agreement to, or deviation from these principles, there follows in the soul a complacency or regret.
And the verdict of these is so infallible, that a man may know the good or evil of his actions, by the temper of his mind after their performance. After a good action, though never so difficult, so grim, and unpleasant in the onset, yet what a light some, refreshing complacency does it leave upon the mind? what a fragrancy, what a cheerfulness upon the spirits? So, on the contrary, an action morally evil and irregular, though recommended with the greatest blandishment and sweetness of allurement to the appetite, yet how empty, and false, and hollow is it found upon the commission! What a sad damp is there upon the heart! what a confusion and displeasedness covers the whole soul!
A man no sooner displeases God, but he presently displeases himself; according to that excellent and divine saying of the satirist; Prima est haec ultio, quod se judice nemo nocens absolvitur. Hence the expression of forum conscientiae is not a metaphor, but a truth; for there is a severe inquest, an undeniable 395evidence, an unanswerable charge, and a sudden and a dreadful sentence given by conscience.
No sooner is the action past, but conscience makes the report. As soon as David cut off a piece of Saul’s robe, how quickly did his heart smite him! An impure heart, like a foul gun, never vents itself in any sinful commissions, but it recoils.
It is impossible to sequester and divide sin from sorrow. That which defiles, will as certainly disturb the soul. As when mud and filth is cast into a pure fountain, it is not so much said to pollute, as to trouble the waters.
Things good and reasonable have a right to our choice, and a claim to our obedience. There is that overawing majesty, that commanding regency in piety to the conscience, that there is in truth to the intellect. Conscience will not be defied: no stifling the first notions of good and evil, the necessary and eternal dictates of reason.
And this is one cause of the remorse that a sinner feels upon his rejection of Christ. And do you think that this young man had not the experience of this? did not his conscience vex and quarrel with him for his sinful and absurd choice? As soon as ever he turned his back, these thoughts dogged him at the heels. He departed indeed, but it was sorrowful, his conscience ringing him many sad peals within, hitting him in the teeth with the murder of his soul; that he had foolishly and irrationally bartered away eternity for a trifle, and lost a never-returning opportunity: an opportunity, in its improvement unvaluable, and in its refusal irrecoverable.
2. The second cause of this trouble and reluctancy, that men find in the very instant of their rejecting 396 Christ, is taken from the usual course of God’s judicial proceeding in this matter; which is to clarify the eye of reason to a clearer sight of the beauties and excellencies of Christ, in the very moment and critical instant of his departure. This is, as it were, a lightening before death, a short opening of the understanding before he shuts it for ever.
For when the affections have resolved upon a refusal of Christ, it is but just with God to tantalize and vex the understanding with a livelier discovery of a forsaken advantage.
And here undoubtedly God has many ways of working upon the understanding, even beyond the understanding; and can affect it with a sudden, instantaneous view of a good, which he no sooner discovers, than withdraws: which, though it enlightens, and, as it were, gilds the apprehension, yet it changes not the will.
It is like a sudden lightening, that flashes in the face, but alters not the complexion: it is rather vision than persuasion. God here represents the beau ties of the kingdom of heaven to the sinner, as Satan did the beauty and glory of this world to Christ, by a sudden, transient representation; which, we know, did rather amuse than persuade him: it struck his apprehension, but never changed his resolution.
And that this dealing of God should effect no more upon the mind, is suitable to its proper design and purpose; it being intended by God not to in form, but to afflict the reason: that since it refused a full draught of the waters of life, it might, before the final loss of them, have its memory quickened with a taste.
Now this clearer, transient discovery of Christ 397made to the sinner, in the instant of his rejecting him, is another cause that whets the sting, that enhances the vexation, and sends him away sorrowful; for the clearer the apprehension of a good, the quicker is the sense of its loss.
3. The third and last cause of the anxiety that a sinner feels upon his relinquishment of Christ, if his reason be enlightened, is because there is that in Christ and in the gospel, even as they stand in op position to the best of such enjoyments, that answers the most natural and generous discourses of reason.
For the proof of which, I shall produce two known principles of reason, into which the most severe, harsh, and mortifying commands of the gospel are by clear and genuine consequence resolved.
(1.) The first is, that the greatest calamity is to be endured, rather than the least sin to be committed. That this principle grows upon the stock of bare natural reason, may be demonstrated by the united testimony of those, who had no other light but that of reason; all sealing to the truth of this, that the evil of sin is greater than the evil of pain or affliction.
So that it grew into a standing maxim in their philosophy, that no wicked man was happy. But he that is wicked may be rich, learned, beautiful, victorious: he may engross all the perfections, and the very quintessence of nature. It is clear therefore, that their reason told them that these were not happiness; since, notwithstanding these, a man might be wicked, and consequently, upon their own principle, not happy.
Hence Cicero reports, that Socrates would often curse him, that first made that triple division of 398 good, into an honest, a pleasing, and profitable; as accounting the pleasing and the profitable, so far as it cut off from honesty, to lose the very nature of good. But now to state a species so, that it should carry in it a negation of, or a contrariety to its genus, is certainly, upon all principles of logic, absurd and preposterous.
The happiness of every thing is to act suitably to its nature; and reason tells us, that those actions most perfect nature, that perfect the best part of it, the soul. All external miseries and enjoyments can not reach this, but the morality of our actions does. Every sin, every moral irregularity, does as really imprint an indelible stain upon the soul, as a blot falling upon the cleanest paper.
The satirist calls virtue the end and design of living, the vivendi causam; and to save one’s life with the loss of one’s innocence, is to purchase the means with the loss of the end.
Cicero, in the first of his Offices, peremptorily asserts, that nothing can be stated rightly in that subject, but by those qui honestatem propter se dicunt expetendam. Seneca is full of the like assertions. And however they might live below what they spoke, and their practice contradict their principles, yet their principles discovered their reason.
Having thus proved, that natural reason suggests the choice of the greatest misery before the least sin; as being a thing in itself irregular, and therefore irrational, and consequently contrary to nature: it follows, that we are equally to choose it, rather than to engage in that, which by certain and native consequence will occasion sin. For the same reason 399will prove, that whatsoever is done or suffered against sin itself, holds as well against the immediate causes of sin.
If reason tells me, that it is more misery to be covetous than to be poor, as our language, by a peculiar significance of dialect, calls the covetous man the miserable man; and if I find that retaining my wealth, I cannot avoid covetousness; the same reason that tells me, I must avoid the sin, will convince me also, that I am to wash my hands of the temptation. And had the philosopher thrown his wealth into the sea upon this motive, it was more custom than reason that vouched his action ridiculous; it being only a throwing overboard his riches, to keep his conscience from shipwreck.
That reason which tells one, in honour it is better to be despised than to be proud, if with his honours he cannot but be proud, if the popular air will get in, and taint all; why, the same reason will command him to lay them down, and rationally to trample upon them: for if we dread being caught, it is absurd walking upon the snare.
Now what did Christ enjoin in this seemingly severe command to the young man, that a natural reason, acting naturally, might not upon this principle have enforced? For doubtless he saw him so riveted into a confidence and love of his possessions, and perhaps foresaw what he neither did nor could, that they would certainly occasion luxury, epicurism, with all its impure consequences; and that therefore there was no remedy by plastering, but by cutting off the sore; nor by allowing him the use of his possessions, when he saw something in his temper, 400 or the circumstances of his life, that would unavoidably necessitate their abuse.
And without question, the young man who, from Christ’s miracles and life, could not but collect his intimate acquaintance with the mind of God, could not but collect also, that he would propose no command, but of which he knew an excellent reason. No wonder therefore, if he rejected it with reluctancy; and if this rejection, being contrary to reason, was troublesome: for trouble is, when the object grates upon the faculty, either by its disproportion or contrariety.
And thus much for the first principle of reason, upon which the severest commands of the gospel do proceed.
(2.) A second principle is this; that a less good is to be forsaken for a greater: an aphorism attested to by the natural, untaught, universal judgment of reason. And this is so clear, that those who observe how the will is drawn by its object, find that in choice, a less good compared to a greater, is rejected, not formally as a less good, but as absolutely bad.
Hence all deliberation in choice is caused by our apprehension of an equality of goodness, in two things proposed; and as the disproportion grows clearer and clearer, a man begins less to deliberate, and more to determine. But where this disparity of less and greater is evident, there deliberation has no place, but determination is immediate. And this is the reason of the thing from philosophy.
Add weight to one scale, and the balance will no longer be indifferent which way to incline. Did ever any man in his wits prefer brass before gold, a 401pebble before a pearl? The same inclination that desires good, does as naturally desire the best. He that deliberates and doubts, whether ten pounds be better than five, may as well question whether it be more than five. Do you think, when Samuel told Saul of the kingdom, that he was any longer troubled for the asses? Or that when David had received the sceptre, he was solicitous about his shepherd’s crook?
Suspense in the choice, is from indifference in the object, when both parts are equally attractive: like a needle between two loadstones, it inclines to both, but it adheres to neither; but lay it between a load stone and a flint, and you shall quickly see to which it clings.
Now to reduce this principle to the case in hand, we are to demonstrate two things.
1st, That the good promised by our Saviour to the young man was really greater than that which was to be forsook for it. The greatest, the severest, and most unpracticable duty of Christianity, is enforced upon this very principle of reason: as in Matt. v. the cutting off the right hand, and the plucking out the right eye, is not urged upon the bare obligation of duty, but upon this dictate of reason, that it is really better. In the 29th and 30th verses, It is better (συμφέρει γάρ, it is profitable for thee) to go blind and maimed to heaven, than having both eyes and both hands to be thrown into hell. It is an evangelical conclusion, drawn from a natural medium of self-preservation.
For what person of sobriety and recollection would not crucify his sin rather than damn his soul? and endure the severity, and live under the discipline 402 of a mortifying precept, than fry eternally under the flame and fire of a condemning sentence?
There is no proportion between the miseries or the felicities of this life, with those that are exhibited to us by Christ in the gospel; and where the disparity of things is so great, as to meet our first apprehensions, there to make parallels is superfluous, and to produce proofs rather supposes the case doubtful, than makes it at all clearer.
Christ opposed eternal life to the young man’s possessions; and what compare is there between these upon terms of bare reason? between the narrow compass of a few moments, and the vast spaces of eternity? between the froth and levity of these comforts, and between an exceeding weight of glory, between durable, solid, massy happiness?
What equality between the life of a traveller and the reign of a prince? between the transient titillations of a bewitched, sickly appetite, and those in effable pleasures that stream eternally from the beatific vision?
Reason can say nothing for one before the other, unless perhaps it may reply, that a present good is rationally to be preferred before a future. But to this I answer, that a good is not barely to be measured by its immediate presentiality; but by its adequate coexistence to the soul, whose duration being immortal, reaches more to the future, than it possesses of the present. And this we have to say of the greatest temporal happiness, that though it is present, yet it will quickly be past; and of that which is eternal, that though it be now future, yet it will once be always present; and so even upon this score also it is to be preferred.403
We see therefore that natural light joins in with divine revelation, acknowledging the goods of a future estate, incomparably more desirable than any in this. So that when Christ gave this command, reason echoed back the same; and together with the voice redoubled the obligation.
2dly, The second thing to be demonstrated is, that the good promised by our Saviour was not only greater in itself, but also proposed as such with sufficient clearness of evidence, and upon sure, undeniable grounds. For though a thing be really better in itself, yet if it does not appear to be so, no man can be blamed for not embracing it. Now it being proved above, that the eternal life promised by Christ did by infinite degrees of difference exceed the young man’s revenues; the only thing remaining was, whether he promised it upon such grounds, that in reason he ought to have believed him.
Here, to omit other grounds and arguments, the truth of the gospel seems chiefly to be proved upon these two grounds.
1. The exact fulfilling of prophecies in the person of Christ.
2. His miraculous actions.
1. For the first of these, it cannot be denied, but that it affords a solid proof to those that will be convinced; but not so convincing to a sceptical disputer, or to an obstinate Jew. Forasmuch as those prophecies make the kingdom of the Messias, as it is represented in the letter of the scripture, far different from what it fell out to be in the person of Christ; so that we cannot apply them to him, but 404 by a mystical, anagogical explication: the liberty of which they may choose whether or no they will grant us; and if they should deny it, perhaps we could not so easily disprove them.
2. But, secondly, for his miracles: the convincing strength of these was upon all grounds of reason undeniable; and that upon these two most confessed principles.
(1.) That they did exceed any natural, created power, and therefore were the immediate effects of a divine.
(2.) That God cannot attest, or by his power bear witness to a lie.
Now, when Christ avouched to the world such precepts, promises, and threatenings for truths; and to prove his words cured the lame and the blind, raised the dead, stilled the winds and the seas with a word, fed four thousand with three or four loaves; and all this before his enemies, who spitefully, and therefore thoroughly sifted all his actions, and yet confessed the miracle: if, I say, Christ did these miracles to confirm his doctrine; either God must have employed his divine power to ratify and confirm a falsity, or the doctrine so confirmed must needs be a truth. This to me seems so pregnant, so full of convincing evidence, that it leaves the unbeliever inexcusable.
Undoubtedly, Christ knew his own strongest argument, when he still remits his subtlest and most inquisitive enemies to his miracles; as in John v. 36, My works bear witness of me; and in John xiv. 11, Believe me for the works’ sake. And I think I may truly avouch, that if the grounds upon 405which the gospel is proposed to our belief, were not sufficient to convince our reason, no man would stand bound to believe it.
Questionless in this very instance, the young man’s reason, upon this severe and startling command of Christ, could not but discourse the case in this manner:
“He positively tells me, that if I would obtain eternal life, I must sell my estate, and give it all to the poor: is this true, or is it not? If not, and if he only deludes me, how could he back his words with such works as apparently carry in them the finger of God? For God does not hear sinners, he cannot lend the use of his power to a sycophant, to a deceiver; therefore certainly as what he does cannot but be the works of God, so what he says cannot but be the mind of God; and consequently eternal life, which he promises, will be a thing of certain event: and since I cannot have it otherwise, but by relinquishing my temporal estate, relinquish it I must, or never obtain it.”
Here observe, that his reason having convinced itself, beyond all evasion, of the truth of Christ’s words, and consequently of the necessity of his own obedience; his will not being able to comply with that command as good and convenient, which his reason did enforce as true and necessary, he departed sorrowful; there was a tumult in his soul, his judgment and his will were together by the ears: and hereupon he was full of secret trouble and horror, upon the terrifying, irksome, lashing presages of a miserable eternity.
And thus much for the first general head, viz. to 406 shew, whence it is that an enlightened reason finds such regret in its rejection of Christ.
But now it may be naturally inquired, that if there is so much trouble and reluctancy upon an awakened reason, when it breaks and parts with Christ; whence comes it to pass that they break and part at all? If they cannot bid farewell but with tears in their eyes, what necessity is there but that they may forbear parting, and so prevent the sorrow?
And this introduces me to the second general head proposed to be insisted on, which is,
II. To shew the causes, that, notwithstanding all this remorse of conscience, the soul is yet brought in the issue to reject, and shake hands with Christ.
(1.) The first cause is from this, that the perceptions of sense overbear the discourses of reason. Reason discoursing upon grounds of religion, builds only upon another world; but sense fixes upon this. And since religion borrows much from reason, and reason itself has all conveyed to it by sense; it is no wonder, if all knowledge and desire resolves into sense, as its first foundation.
And here it is unfortunately verified, that the elder must serve the younger; that understanding must veil to sense; that the eye must do obeisance to the window, and discourse submit to sensation.
Yet thus it is, sense rebels against reason, and like those captains among the Israelites, it slays its master, and reigns in his stead. Though reason would argue the soul into obedience, by mediums grounded upon divine revelation; yet sense more forcibly persuades to sin, upon the undeniable experiment 407of the sweetness of worldly objects: which indeed prevail not because they are more convincing, but because more suitable; not that they satisfy our judgment, but that they close with our condition.
And herein properly consists the difficulty of believing; that we must part with a good, which we see, taste, and enjoy, for a good that is invisible, and of which there is no idea conveyed to the apprehension; which therefore comes recommended to our desires at a great disadvantage.
The happiness of heaven, for which we are to forego all, is said to be the vision of God, which we find hardly desirable, because not intelligible. For we cannot imagine, and frame in our minds, what it is to see God, since he never was nor can be seen by our senses.
The young man desired eternal life; but he had no notion of the pleasure of it, what kind of thing it was: but he knew and found the sweetness of an estate, so that the sensible impressions of this quickly overcame and swallowed up the weak and languid conceptions that he had of the other.
In short, the very condition of our nature stakes us down, both to the judgment and the inclination of sense: for as there is nothing to any purpose in the understanding, but what was first in the sense; so there is scarce any thing in the will, but what has first passed the appetite.
And this is the reason, that men, though convinced of the excellency of Christ, yet rather choose the world, of which they have such strong, lively, and warm apprehensions. Sense and appetite out vote reason, in which thing alone is summed up the misery of our nature, and the very cause that so few 408 are saved. For what man almost is there in the world, who, upon due observation of his actions, does not find, that his appetite oftener foils his judgment, than his judgment overrules his appetite?
(2.) The second cause or reason of this final rejection of Christ, is from the prevailing opposition of some corrupt affection: which being predominant in the soul, commands the will, and blears the eye of the judgment; shewing it all things in its own colour, by a false and a partial representation. It is through the tyranny of these affections, that when the will goes one way, the practice is forced another.
Come to the sensual and voluptuous person, and convince him that there is a necessity of his bidding farewell to all inordinate pleasure, in order to his future happiness; perhaps you gain his reason, and in some measure insinuate into his will: but then his sensual desire interposes, and outvotes and unravels all his convictions. As when by much ado a vessel is forced and rowed some pretty way contrary to the tide, presently a gust of wind comes, and beats it further back than it was before.
Come to a covetous, worldly man, and convince him, that Christ invites him, and he must come; yet covetousness will stand forth, and tell you, that he has bought a farm or a yoke of oxen, and they draw him another way, and he cannot come. And the truth is, it is impossible that he should, till his corruption is subdued, and the bias of his affections turned.
If Christ ever wins the fort of the soul, the conquest must begin here: for the understanding and will seem to be like a castle or fortified place; there 409is strength indeed in them, but the affections are the soldiers who manage those holds; the opposition is from these: and if the soldiers surrender, the place itself, though never so strong, cannot resist.
And this probably was the case of this young man: had his affection been true to his reason, had he not been worldly as well as rich, Christ and he had never parted for a piece of land, that is, for such a compass of dirt. But the ruling corruption of his mind, the peculiar minion of his affections, was worldliness; and to tell this temper of mind of selling all, that he might be happy, it would have been to that as absurd and ridiculously incredible, as if he had bid him sell and give away all, that he might be rich.
This therefore is the second cause, that though reason and judgment would veil to Christ, yet the man does not, because his affections lord it. It is indeed natural for a man to have the dominion over the acts of his will: but he is in this thing like the centurion; though he has some under him, and bids such an one go, and he goes, yet he is also a man under authority himself: though he commands his will, yet he is commanded by his affections.
And perhaps this may be one reason, not contemptible, of the different judgments of men concerning the freedom or servitude of the will; that they are not so much determined by arguments from without, as by experience from within; that some have strong natural passions and affections, others but weak and moderate: the former of which finding their will so potently swayed by such passions, think it is not free, and cannot but do what it 410 does. Others finding their affections to have so small an ascendant over their will, by reason of this their natural weakness, are apt to think that they have free will, and a perfect indifference to all actions, to accept or to refuse whatsoever is proposed to them. This doubtless may be one great cause of men’s disagreement in this point.
In sum, the economy of the soul in this case is like a public council sitting under an armed force; let them consult and vote what they will, yet they must act as the army and the tumult will have them. In this sense every soldier is a commander: in like manner, let both the judgment and the will be for Christ, yet the tumult of the affections will carry it; and when they cannot out-reason the conscience, they will out-cry it.
(3.) The third cause, inducing men to relinquish Christ contrary to the judgment of their conscience, is the force and tyranny of the custom of the world. It is natural for all men to live more by example than precept; and it is the most efficacious enforcement of duty, to clothe it in a precedent. As a physician by his receipts, persuasions, and discourses cannot win a froward patient to take a bitter potion; but by drinking of it himself, he presently overcomes and shames him into an imitation.
It is the world, and the fashion of it, that ruins souls. It is the shame of men, and the vogue of the times, that frights men out of their consciences: and could we see the secret movings and reasonings of men’s hearts, when Christ by the convictions of his Spirit debates the case between himself and the soul, we should see the non-conversion of most 411men chargeable upon this very cause, and that they miss of salvation upon no other account in the world, than that it is the fashion to be damned.
Christ easily runs down the swearer, the drunkard, and the epicure, and convinces them of the wretched destructive consequences of their riots: but then, this whispers them another lesson; What would the world say of me, should I renounce my garb and jollity, and sneak into a course of severe and religious living? How would my companions despise and post me for a base, pusillanimous spirit, as void of the generosity and air of courtship, and a stranger to the genius of true nobility!
And this temptation is so much the stronger, because it is founded upon the most unyielding corruption of our nature, which is pride; a quality, which will put a man upon doing any thing to keep up the post of his station and reputation in the world: hereupon, if it comes to a justle and competition, gentility must go before Christianity, and fashion take the wall of religion.
It was this that made the Jews suppress their convictions; John xii. 42, 43, Many believed in Christ, but they did not profess him openly, be cause they feared being put out of the synagogue; for it is added, they loved the praise of men. This sent Nicodemus to Christ by night; the struggles of his conscience between conviction and shame made him, upon the former of these, venture to do what the latter of these would not let him own.
And amongst other dissuasives from following of Christ, the young man could not but be assaulted with such as these: What! part with all for a new notion of another world? sell land to buy hope? be 412 preached out of my estate, and worded out of such fair farms and rich possessions? And all this to follow a despised person, hungry and naked, and perhaps come at length to beg an alms at my own door? to be the talk of every table, to be scorned of my enemies, and not pitied by my friends; to be counted a fool, an idiot, and fit to be begged, did I not beg myself? No, I cannot bear it; this is in tolerable.
Now observe, here was the eye of the needle that could not be passed; here Christ and he broke; the power of custom, and the quick apprehensions of shame, staved him off from salvation. He would do like the world, though he perished with it; swim with the stream, though he was drowned in it; rather go sociably to hell, than in the uncomfortable solitude of precise singularity to heaven; the jollity of the company made him overlook the broadness and danger of the way.
Precedency is not only alluring, but authentic: for can a man have any greater warrant for the reasonableness of an action, than the practice of the universe? But certainly, there will be a time one day, when a man shall curse himself for not having had the courage to -outbrave and trample upon the common apprehensions and censures of the world, when Christ and that stood rivals for his soul; and for having been so stupidly a coward, as to be baffled of his salvation by words and opinion.
Now the inferences and deductions from the words thus discussed are these.
1. We gather hence the great criterion and art of trying our sincerity; which is, by the test of such precepts as directly reach our peculiar corruptions. 413Observe the excellent method that Christ took to convince this person. Had he tried him by a precept of temperance, chastity, or just dealing, he had never sounded the bottom of his heart; for the civility of his life would have afforded a fair and satisfying reply to all these: but when he came close to him, and touched upon his heart-string, his beloved possessions, the man quickly shews himself, and discovers the temper of his spirit more by the love of one particular, endeared sin, than by his forbearance of twenty, to which he stood indifferent.
Every man’s sincerity is not to be tried the same way. He that should conclude a man pious, be cause not covetous, would bring but a short argument; for perhaps he may be lustful or ambitious, and the stream be altogether as strong and violent, though it runs in a different channel.
The reason of this assertion is, because no man bears an equal propensity to all sins. There is not only a contrariety between vice and virtue, but also between one vice and another. Nay, perhaps, the distance between the two latter is far the greater; forasmuch as there is a longer passage from extreme to extreme, than from an extreme to the middle, which we know is the situation of virtue. No wonder, therefore, since a man’s corrupt appetite bears not an equal inclination to all sins, that it is not equally to be tried by all precepts. Things peculiar and specific are those that must distinguish and discover.
Now as in a tree, it is the same sap and juice that spreads itself into all that variety of branches; some straight, some crooked, some of this figure, some of that: so it is the same stock and furniture 414 of natural corruption, that shoots forth into that great diversity of vices, that exert such different operations in different tempers. And as it is the grand office of judgment to separate and distinguish, and so to proportion its applications; so here in is the great spiritual art of a prudent ministry, first to learn a man’s proper distemper, and then to encounter it by a peculiar and suitable address. Reprehensions that are promiscuous are always in effectual.
But much more ineffectual, if not also absurd, is a reprehension misplaced. He that should preach damnation to prodigality and intemperance before a company of usurers, what did he else but administer indirectly an occasion to them, to measure their piety by their distance from that vice; while, in the mean time, they stood chargeable with a worse. A man may, with as much propriety, and success of action, angle for birds, or lay lime-twigs to catch fish, as think to convince a man of the sin of prodigality, by loud and sharp declamations against covetousness.
Both, indeed, are sins; but their particular quality makes their agreement, in the general nature of sin, scarce considerable. Was a minister to deal with a luxurious, debauched congregation, how toothless and insipid would it be to make harangues against faction; a sin wholly of another nature, and dwelling in another disposition.
When Paul preached before Felix, he might have directed his sermon against idolatry and superstition, against heresy, or against rebellion; but he chose rather to discourse of justice, temperance, and of judgment to come. Why? but because he determined 415his subject by the temper of his auditor, whose injustice in taking bribes, and whose lust in keeping another man’s wife, made him fit to be charged home with a severe and searching discourse of the contrary virtues? Which we know so struck his conscience, like lightning, both for its force and insinuation, that it sent him away trembling: as Christ before him, by the like methods of discourse, sent this young man away sorrowful.
Now it concerns every man to get the best assurance he can of his sincerity; to attain which, he must follow the method that Christ used towards this young candidate for eternal life. He must arraign his corruption before that precept that particularly strikes at it; otherwise he will find, that he puts a fallacy upon his conscience, if he misapplies the rule; and if his sin being theft, he tries himself by a law made against murder.
2. The issue of the whole action, in the young man’s not closing with Christ’s proposals about eternal life, and his sorrowful departure thereupon, lays before us a full account of that misery which attends a final dereliction of Christ. Now the happiness that man is capable of being twofold, temporal and eternal, and misery being properly a privation of happiness, the greatness of this misery consists in this, that it adequately deprives a man of both these.
(1.) Of that which is eternal. I mention this first, because it is the greatest, and the best. Unbelief eternises nothing but our miseries. The terms are short and absolute. No leaving possessions, no eternal life; no casting away our goods, no escaping the shipwreck.416
Our dearest corruptions are to be mortified, our fairest enjoyments relinquished; this world to be left, or no admission into a better. Yet though the proposal be so evident, and the arguments enforcing it so strong and rational; men, for all this, will not be brought to bend under the power and necessity of this truth: but the heart is still apt to relieve itself with a secret persuasion, that Christ and possessions, future happiness and present ease, are consistent; and that all assertions to the contrary are but the brainsick notions of melancholy spirits, that would impose unnecessary penance upon the world; and therefore they must have their pleasures, their humours, their profits, and their garb, and that in the most eager and slavish pursuit of them; though truth itself has expressly said, that we cannot serve God and mammon. And I am sure, that if they cannot be served, they cannot be so enjoyed together.
But certainly we shall one day find, that the strait gate is too narrow for any man to come bust ling in, thracked with great possessions, and greater corruptions.
These are interests that can never be joined: continual pleasure here and hereafter are incompatible. Heaven and earth are at too great a distance to be united. And, if so, then we see where our unbelief leaves us, even in the regions of horror and despair, in that place of torment and separation from God; where, who knows but this unhappy young heir, with the other rich ones of the world, is now weeping and wailing over his present estate, cursing and crying out of his soul-ruining possessions.
The sorrow he felt before was only an earnest of this damnation, a taste and prelibation of future 417wrath. If men would but consider that sad retinue of consequences which attends the final resolutions of infidelity, the happiness it bereaves of, and the misery that it infallibly condemns to; surely they would not stand and condition with Christ, before they surrendered their pleasures, honours, and possessions; but they would throw them up, and count it not a loss, but an escape. But unbelief will never be counted unseasonable, till it has made the unbeliever perfectly miserable.
(2.) But, secondly, it bereaves even of temporal happiness also; even that which it promises, and which only it designs, and for the retaining of which it brings a man to part with his hopes of that which is future and eternal. That it does so is evident; for what delight, what taste or relish is there in the greatest affluence of all a man’s worldly possessions, when a grim, offended conscience shall stand by him, and protest against all his pleasures? And however men may put the best face upon things, yet certainly there is no such pain or torment, as an aching, angry conscience, under a merry aspect.
When a man shall look upon his rich farms and fair houses, and his conscience in the mean time whisper him, that this is all that he must expect for ever; when he shall eat and drink the price of his soul, and pay down eternity for every morsel; so that he never sits down to his full table, but, like Esau, he sees his birthright served up to him in a mess: when, by whatsoever he looks upon, whatsoever he wears, upon whatsoever he treads, the remembrance of the sad price is still revived upon his conscience: this takes away the heart and life of the comfort; and 418 the mirth of the feast is checked by the consideration of the reckoning.
Now this certainly is the sum of all miseries; and since we can go no further, we may conclude that unbelief is entertained upon very hard terms, when it robs the unbeliever of his last modicum; even of that little slender remain of happiness, that he promised himself in this world: and not only condemns him to die, but also, as it were, feeds him with bread and water till his execution; and so leaves him wretched and destitute, even in that place, where the wicked themselves have an inheritance.
Now to Him who is able to make us wise in our choice here, and happy in our enjoyment here after, the great consequent of a wise choice here; even to Him be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.419
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