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Of the Practice of the Grace of Repentance in the Time of Sickness.
Men generally do very much dread sudden death, and pray against it passionately; and certainly it hath in it great inconveniences accidentally to men's estates, to the settlement of families, to the culture and trimming of souls; and it robs a man of the blessing which may be consequent to sickness, and to the passive graces and holy contentions of a Christian, while he descends to his grave without an adversary or a trial;116116Descendisti ad Olympia, sed nemo praeter te: coronam tabes, vistoriam non habes. and a good man may be taken at such a disadvantage, that a sudden death would be a great evil even to the most excellent person if it strikes him in an unlucky circumstance. But these considerations are not the only ingredients into those men's discourse who pray violently against sudden deaths; for possibly if this were all, there may be in the condition of sudden death something to make recompence for the evils of the over-hasty accident. For certainly it is a less temporal evil to fall by the rudeness of a sword than the violence of a fever, and the axe is much a less affliction than a strangury; and though a sickness tries our virtues, yet a sudden death is free from temptation; a sickness may be more glorious, and a sudden death more safe. The deadest deaths are best, the shortest and least premeditate,117117Mitius ille perit subith qui mergitur unda, Quam sua qui liquidis brachia lassat aquis.—Ovid. so Caesar said; and Pliny called a short death the greatest fortune of a man's life. For even good men have been forced to an indecency of deportment by the violences of pain:118118Etiam innocentes mentiri cogit dolor. and Cicero observes concerning Hercules, that he was broken in pieces with pain even then when he sought for immortality by his death, being tortured with a plague knit up in the lappet of his shirt.119119Ipse illigatus peste interimor textili. And therefore as a sudden death certainly loses the rewards of a holy sickness, so it makes that a man shall not so much hazard and lose the rewards of a holy life.
But the secret of this affair is a worse matter; men live t that rate either of an habitual wickedness, or else a frequent repetition of single acts of killing and deadly sins, that a sudden death is the ruin of all their hopes, and a perfect consignation to an eternal sorrow. But in this case also so is a lingering sickness: for our sickness may change us from life to health, from health to strength, from strength to the firmness and confirmation of habitual graces; but it cannot change a man from death to life, and begin and finish that process which sits not down but in the bosom of blessedness. He that washes in the morning when his bath is seasonable and healthful,120120Lavor honesta hora et salubri, quae mihi et calorem et sanguinem servet: rigere et pallere post lavacrum mortuus possum. Tertul. Apol. c.42. is not only made clean, but sprightly, and the blood is brisk and coloured like the first springing of the morning; but they that wash their dead cleanse the skin, and leave paleness upon the cheek, and stiffness in all the joints. A repentance upon our deathbed is like washing the corpse: it is cleanly and civil; but makes no change deeper than the skin. But God knows it is a custom so to wash them that are going to dwell with dust, and to be buried in the lap of their kindred earth, but all their lives time wallow in pollutions without any washing at all; or if they do, it is like that of the Dardani, who washed but thrice all their lifetime, when they were born, and when they marry, and when they die; when they are baptized, or against a solemnity, or for the day of their funeral; but these are but ceremonious washings, and never purify the soul if it be stained and hath sullied the whiteness of its baptismal robes.
God intended we should live a holy life; he contracted with us in Jesus Christ for a holy life; he made no abatements of the strictest sense of it, but such as did necessarily comply with human infirmities or possibilities; that is, he understood it in the sense of repentance, which still is so to renew our duty, that it may be a holy life in the second sense; that is, some great portion of our life to be spent in living as Christians should. A resolving to repent upon our death-bed is the greatest mockery of God in the world, and the most perfect contradictory to all his excellent designs of mercy and holiness: for therefore he threatened us with hell if we did not, and he promised heaven if we did live a holy life; and a late repentance promises heaven to us upon other conditions, even when we have lived wickedly. It renders a man useless and intolerable to the world; taking off the great curb of religion, of fear and hope, and permitting all impiety with the greatest impunity and encouragement in the world. By this means we see so many πατυαξ πολυχρονιους, as Philo calls them, or as the prophets, pueros centum annorum, children of almost a hundred years old, upon whose grave we may write the inscription which was upon the tomb of Similis in Xiphilin. “Here he lies who was so many years, but lived but seven.” And the course of nature runs counter to the perfect designs of piety; and God, who gave us a life to live to him, is only served at our death when we die to all the world; and we undervalue the great promises made by the holy Jesus,121121Vide the Life of Christ, Disc. of Repentance; Rule of Holy Living, chap. iv. Sect. of Repentance; and volume of Serm. Serm. v. vi. for which the piety, the strictest unerring piety often thousand ages is not a proportionable exchange: yet we think it a hard bargain to get to heaven if we be forced to part with one lust, or live soberly twenty years; but, like Demetrius Afer, (who having lived a slave all his life-time, yet desiring to descend to his grave in freedom,122122Ne tamen ad Stygias famulus descenderet umbras, Ureret implicitum cum scelerata lues, Cavimus begged manumission of his lord,) we lived in the bondage of our sin all our days, and hope to die the Lord's freed-men. But above all, this course of a delayed repentance must of necessity therefore be ineffective and certainly mortal, because it is an entire destruction of the very formality and essential constituent reason of religion: which I thus demonstrate.
When God made man and propounded to him an immortal and a blessed state as the end of his hopes and the perfection of his condition, he did not give it him for nothing, but upon certain conditions; which, although they could add nothing to God, yet they were such things which man could value, and they were his best: and God had made appetites of pleasure in man, that in them the scene of his obedience should lie. For when God made instances of man's obedience, he, 1. Either commanded such things to be done which man did naturally desire; or, 2. Such things which contradict his natural desires; or, 3. Such which were indifferent. Not the first and the last: for it could be no effect of love or duty towards God for a man to eat when he was impatiently hungry and could not stay from eating; neither was it any contention of obedience or labour of love for a man to look eastward once a day, or turn his back when the north wind blew fierce and loud. Therefore for the trial and in stance of obedience, God made his laws so that they should lay restraint upon man's appetites, so that man might part with something of his own, that he may give to God his will, and deny it to himself for the interest of his service: and chastity is the denial of a violent desire; and justice is parting with money that might help to enrich me; and meekness is a huge contradiction to pride and revenge; and the wandering of our eyes, and the greatness of our fancy, and our imaginative opinions, are to be lessened that we may serve God. There is no other way of serving God; we have nothing else to present unto him: we do not else give him anything or part of ourselves, but when we for his sake part with what we naturally desire; and difficulty is essential to virtue, and without choice there can be no reward, and in the satisfaction of our natural desires there is no election; we run to them as beasts to the river or the crib. If, religion that satisfied all our natural desires in the days of desires and passion, of lust and appetites, and only turns to God when his appetites are gone and his desires cease, this man hath overthrown the very being of virtues, and the essential constitution of religion: religion is no religion, and virtue is no act of choice, and reward comes by chance and without condition, if we only are religious when we cannot choose; if we part with our money when we cannot keep it; with our lust when we cannot act it; with our desires when they have left us. Death is a certain mortifier; but that mortification is deadly, not useful to the purposes of a spiritual life. When we are compelled to depart from our evil customs, and leave to live, that we may begin to live, then we die to die; that life is the prologue to death, and thenceforth we die eternally.
St. Cyril speaks of certain people that chose to worship the sun because he was a day-god; for believing that he was quenched every night in the sea, or that he had no influence upon them that light up candles, and lived by the light of fire, they were confident they might be Atheists all night, and live as they list. Men who divide their little portion of time between religion and pleasures, between God and God's enemy, think that God is to rule but in hiscertai period of time, and that our life is the stage for passion and folly, and the day of death for the work of our life. But as to God both the day and the night are alike, so are the first and last of our days: all are his due, and he will account severely with us for the follies of the first, and the evil of the last. The evils and the pains are great which are reserved for those who defer their restitution to God's favour till their death. And therefore Antisthenes said well, “It is not the happy death, but the happy life, that makes man happy.” It is in piety, as in fame and reputation: he secures a good name but loosely that trusts his fame and celebrity only to his ashes; and it is more a civility than the basis of a firm reputation that men speak honour of their departed relatives; but if their life be virtuous, it forces honour from contempt, and snatches it from the hand of envy, and it shines through the crevices of detraction; and as it anointed the head of the living, so it embalms the body of the dead.123123Tu milhi, quod rarum est, vivo sublime dedisti Nomen, ab exsequiis quod dare fama solet. From these premises it follows, that when we discourse of a sick man's repentance it is intended to be not a beginning, but the prosecution and consummation of the covenant of repentance which Christ stipulated with us in baptism, and which we needed all our life, and which we began long before this last arrest, and in which we are now to make further progress, that we may arrive to that integrity and fulness of duty, ‘that our sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.'124124Acts, iii. 19.
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