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THE NATURE AND INFLUENCE OF THE PROMISES OF THE GOSPEL.
Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises; that by these ye might be partakers of the Divine nature.—2 Pet. i. 4.
THE connexion of these words with the former is somewhat obscure, but it seems to be this: the apostle had, in the verse before, said, that “the Divine power of Christ hath, by the knowledge of the gospel, given us all things that pertain to life and godliness;” that is, by the knowledge of the gospel, w are furnished with all advantages which conduce to make men happy in the next life, and religious in this; and then it follows, “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises.—“Whereby;” this seems to refer to the whole of the foregoing verse; as if it had been said, Christ, by the gospel, hath given to us all things that conduce to our future happiness; and, in order thereto, all things which tend to make men holy and good. Or else, life and godliness are, by a Hebraism frequent in the New Testament, put for a godly life. And then, among all those things which conduce to a godly life, the apostle instanceth in the promises of the gospel, which do so directly tend to make men “partakers of a Divine nature.”
In the handling of these words, I shall,
First, Consider the promises here spoken of; 183“Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises.”
Secondly, The influence which these promises ought to have upon us; “that by these ye might be made partakers of a Divine nature.”
First, We will consider the promises which are here spoken of; “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises.” And, because the chief promises of the gospel are here intended, I shall take occasion from this text to handle the doctrine of the promises, which is frequently discoursed of in divinity, but not always so clearly stated. And to this purpose it will be proper to take into consideration these four things:
I. What the promises are which are here spoken of; “Whereby are given unto us promises.”
II. Why they are said to be so great and precious; “exceeding great and precious promises.”
III. We will consider the tenor of these promises.
IV. When men are said to have a right to them, so as they might apply them to themselves. These four heads will comprehend what I have to say upon this argument.
I. What the promises are which the apostle here speaks of; “Whereby are given unto us promises.” And, no doubt, the apostle here intends those great and excellent promises which Christ hath made to us in the gospel. So that to satisfy ourselves in this inquiry, we need only to consider, what are the principal promises of the gospel. Now the great promises of the gospel are these three.
1. The promise of the free pardon and forgiveness of our sins, upon our faith and repentance.
2. The promise of God’s grace and Holy Spirit to assist our obedience.184
3. The promise of eternal life to reward it.
1. The promise of the pardon and forgiveness of our sins, upon our faith and repentance. The gospel hath made full and clear promises to this purpose; that if we believe the gospel, and will forsake our sins, and amend our wicked lives, all that is past shall he forgiven us, and that Christ died for this end, to obtain for us remission of sins in his blood. The light of nature, upon consideration of the mercy and goodness of God, gave men good hopes that, upon their repentance, God would forgive their sins, and turn away his wrath from them. But mankind was doubtful of this, and therefore they used expiatory sacrifices to appease the offended Deity. The Jewish religion allowed of no expiation, but for le gal impurities and involuntary transgressions, such as proceeded from ignorance and inadvertency; but not for sins of presumption, and such as were committed with a high hand. If men sinned wilfully, there was no sacrifice appointed by the law for such sins. But the grace of the gospel justifies us from the greatest sins, upon our faith and sincere repentance. So St. Paul tells the Jews: (Acts xiii. 38, 39.) “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” There was no general promise of pardon, nor way of expiation, under the law; perfect remission of sins is clearly revealed and ascertained to us only by the gospel.
2. Another great promise of the gospel is, the promise of God’s grace and Holy Spirit to assist our obedience. Our blessed Saviour hath promised that “our heavenly Father will give his Holy Spirit 185to them that ask him.” It is true, indeed, there was a peculiar promise of the Holy Ghost to the apostles and Christians of the first ages, which is not now to be expected; namely, an extraordinary and miraculous power, whereby they were qualified to publish the gospel to the world, and to give confirmation to it. But now that the Christian religion is propagated and settled in the world, the great end and use of these miraculous gifts is ceased: but yet the Spirit of God doth still concur with the gospel, and work upon the minds of men, to excite and assist them to that which is good. And though this operation be very secret, so as we cannot give an account of the manner of it, yet the effects of it are very sensible; and this influence of God’s Holy Spirit is common to all Christians in all ages of the world. This proposition is universally true, and in all ages and times—“If any man hath not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”
It must be acknowledged, that the Spirit doth not now work upon men in that sudden and sensible manner, as it did in the first times of Christianity; because then men were strongly possessed with the prejudices of other religions, which they had been brought up in; and therefore, as more outward means of conviction were then necessary, so likewise a more powerful internal operation of the Spirit of God upon the minds of men, to concur and bear down those prejudices, and to subdue them to the obedience of faith. Hut now the principles of religion and goodness are more gradually instilled into the minds of men, by the gentle degrees of pious instruction and education; and with these means the Spirit of God concurs in a more human way, which is more suited and accommodated to our 186reason, and offers less violence to the nature of men. So that this promise of God’s Holy Spirit is now made good to us, as the necessity and circumstances of our present state do require. God does not use such extraordinary means for the producing of those effects, which may be accomplished in a more ordinary way. The assistance of God’s Holy Spirit is still necessary to men, to incline and enable them to that which is good; but not in that manner and degree that it was necessary at first: because, the prejudices against Christianity are not now so great, and many of those advantages which were necessarily wanting at first, are now supplied in an ordinary way; and therefore it is not reasonable now to expect the same extraordinary operation of the Spirit of God upon the minds of men, which we read of in the first beginnings of Christianity.
3. There is likewise the promise of eternal life to reward and crown our obedience. And this the Scripture speaks of as the great promise of the gospel: (1 John ii. 25.) “This is the promise which he hath promised us, even eternal life.” And upon this account, the new covenant of the gospel is preferred before the old covenant of the law, because it is established upon better promises. All the special and particular promises of the law were of temporal good things, and these were the great encouragements that were given to obedience, under that imperfect dispensation: but now “godliness hath not only the promise of the life that now is, but of that which is to come;” as the apostle tells us, 1 Tim. iv. 8. The gospel hath clearly revealed to us a happy state of immortality after this life, of which men had but very obscure and doubtful apprehensions. So the apostle tolls us: (2 Tim. i. 10.) 187 “That it is now made manifest, by the appearance of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light, through the gospel.” Holy men had good hopes of it before; but they had no sure, distinct apprehensions of it, no such full assurance concerning it, no such clear and express promises of it, as the gospel hath given us.
Thus you see what those great promises are which the gospel hath given us; namely, the promise of the free pardon and forgiveness of our sins, upon our faith and repentance; the promise of God’s grace and Holy Spirit to assist our obedience; and the promise of eternal life and happiness to reward it. These are the three eminent promises of the gospel, and, in all probability, those which the apostle here calls “great and precious promises;” which brings me to the
II. Second thing which I propounded to consider; namely, why they are said to be “exceeding great and precious, τὰ μέγιστα καὶ τίμια ἐπαγγέλματα, the greatest and the most valuable promises.” And to satisfy us that they are such, the very consideration of the blessings and benefits that they carry in them will be sufficient: if we consider the condition that mankind was in, when God was pleased to make these gracious declarations to us, we shall see great reason to set a high value upon every one of these promises. Mankind was extremely degenerated, all flesh had corrupted its ways, and the whole world was guilty before God, and liable to all that misery which the sinner had reason to apprehend from the incensed justice of the Almighty. We had forfeited that happiness to which our immortal nature was designed, and, which made our condition 188more sad, we were without strength to recover ourselves out of it, by our repentance for what was past (if God would have accepted of it), and by our future obedience. Now the promises of the gospel offer relief to us in all these respects, and there by obviate all the difficulties and discouragements which mankind lay under.
The gracious promise of pardon frees us from guilt, and secures us from the terrible wrath of God, which our guilty consciences did so much dread; and without this promise, mankind would have been under the greatest doubts and discouragements. For when men are afraid their sins are greater than will be forgiven them, they are apt to fall into despair, and despair is an effectual bar to repentance; for when men think their condition is desperate, they care not what they do.
And the promise of God’s grace and Holy Spirit, to assist and enable us to do our duty, does fully answer all the discouragements and objections from our own weakness, and the power of temptation. We may do all things through Christ strengthening us: and how weak soever we are of ourselves, we are “strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.” If God be for us, who, or what, can stand against us? The devil is a very powerful enemy, and much too strong for flesh and blood to encounter in its own strength; but there is another principle in the world, which is mightier and more powerful than he, the Holy Spirit of God, who is always ready to help, when we do not repulse and refuse his assistance; “Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world,” says the apostle, 1 John iv. 4. The Spirit of God dwells in all those who are willing to admit him, and is ever ready to assist 188those who comply with his blessed motions, and do vigorously put forth their own endeavours.
And then the promise of eternal life, that answers all the difficulties of our obedience, and sets us above any thing that the world can threaten us withal, for our constancy to God and his truth. A wise man will be content to suffer any thing, or to quit any thing, upon terms of far greater advantage: and what greater consideration can be offered to encourage our constancy and obedience, than an eternity of happiness? So that the apostle had reason to call these “exceeding great and valuable promises;” so valuable, that if any one of them had been wanting, our redemption and recovery had either been absolutely impossible, or extremely difficult. I proceed to the
III. Third thing I propounded, which was to consider the tenour of these promises; that is, whether God hath made them absolutely to us, with out requiring any thing to be done on our part, or upon certain terms and conditions to be performed by us. That God may (if he please) make an absolute promise of any blessing or benefit to us, there is no doubt; and that find’s grace does prevent many, and is beforehand with them, is as little to be doubted: the Spirit of God goes along with the gospel, moving and inclining men to yield obedience to it, many times before any inclination and disposition thereto on their parts. But as to this promise of God’s grace and Holy Spirit, the great question is, not about the first motion of it, but the continuance of this assistance, and the increase of it; and this, I think, may safely be affirmed, is promised only conditionally, as also the pardon of sin, and eternal life. And concerning each of these, the 190matter may quickly be decided, by plain texts of Scripture.
Concerning the promise of the grace and assistance of God’s Holy Spirit, the Scripture takes notice of two conditions. First, That we beg it earnestly of God: and this our Saviour expresseth by asking, seeking, and knocking, which signifies the importunity of our requests; our heavenly Father will give his Holy Spirit to them that thus ask it. And then, secondly, That we improve and make use of the grace which God affords us: “To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away, even that which he seems to have.” That is (as appears plainly from the scope of the parable), to him that useth that grace and those advantages which God affords him, more shall be given; but from him that makes no use of them, and, therefore, is as if he had them not, shall be taken away that which he but seems to have, because he makes no use of it.
Concerning the pardon of sins: the Scripture plainly suspends that upon the general condition of repentance, and the change of our lives; “Repent, that your sins may be forgiven you:” and upon the condition of our forgiving others; “If ye forgive men their trespasses, then will your heavenly Father also forgive you; but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,” says our Saviour. (Matt. vi. 14, 15.)
And then the promise of eternal life, is every where in Scripture suspended upon the condition of faith and repentance, and perseverance in well-doing. “He that believes (says our Saviour) shall be saved;” which, indeed, implies the whole condition 191of the gospel. “He that believes;” that is, he that effectually assents to the doctrine of Christ, and is so persuaded of the truth of it, as to live according to it, shall be saved. But if obedience were not included in the Scripture notion of faith, yet the Scripture elsewhere expressly makes it the condition of our eternal salvation. (Heb. v. 9.) Christ is there said to be “the author of eternal salvation to them that obey him;” thereby implying, that none shall be saved by Christ, but those that obey the gospel. (Heb. xii. 14.) . “Follow holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” (Rom. ii. 7, 8, 9.) “To them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory, and honour, and immortality,” God will give “eternal life; but to them that are contentious, and obey not the truth (that is the gospel), but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil.”
I cannot well imagine what can reasonably be answered to such plain texts; but I will tell you what is commonly answered; namely, that God gives the condition which he requires, and therefore, though these promises run into a conditional form, yet in truth they are absolute; because he that makes a promise to another, upon a condition which he will also perform, doth in effect make an absolute promise. As if a man promised another such an estate, upon condition he pay such a sum for it, and does promise withal to furnish him with that sum, this in effect amounts to an absolute promise of the estate.
And this is very well argued, if the case were thus. Hut God hath no where, promised to work the condition in us without the concurrence of our 192own endeavours. God may, and oftentimes doth, prevent men by his grace; but he hath no where promised to give his Holy Spirit but to them that ask it of him. And he hath no where promised to continue his grace and assistance to us, unless we will use our sincere endeavours; nay, in case we do not, he hath threatened to take away his grace and assistance from us. And if this be so, then the promises of the gospel do not only seem to be conditional, but are really so. And it is a wonder that any man should doubt of this, who considers how frequently, in the New Testament, the gospel is represented to us under the notion of a covenant; such a covenant, in the very nature of it, doth imply a mutual obligation between the parties that enter into it. But if the gospel contain only blessings which are promised on God’s part, without any thing required to be done and performed on our part, in order to the obtaining of those blessings, then the gospel is nothing else but a promise, or deed of gift, making over certain benefits and blessings to us; but can, in no propriety of language in the world, be called a covenant: but if there be some things required on our part, in order to our being made partakers of the promises which God hath made to us (as the Scripture every where tells us there is), then the promises are plainly conditional. To instance in the promise of forgiveness of sins; “Repent, that your sins may be blotted out;” that is, upon this condition, that ye repent of your sins, they shall be forgiven, and not otherwise. Can there be any plainer condition in the world than this, in those words of our Saviour? “If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive your trespasses; but if ye forgive not 193their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.”
This is so far from being any prejudice to the freeness of God’s grace, who is infinitely gracious in offering such great blessings to us upon any condition that we can perform; that it were one of the absurdest things in the world, to imagine that God should grant to men forgiveness of sins and eternal life, let them behave themselves as they will.
IV. The last thing I proposed for the explaining of this doctrine of the promises of God, was, to consider when men may be said to have a right to these promises, so as to be able upon good grounds to apply them to themselves: and the answer to this is very plain and easy; namely, when they find the conditions of these promises in themselves, and not till then.
When a man hath truly repented of his sins so as to forsake them, and lead a new life; and when he does from his heart forgive those that have offended him, and hath laid down all animosity against them, and thoughts of revenge; then hath he a right to the promise of pardon and forgiveness, and may apply to himself in particular what the Scripture saith in general, that God will “blot out all his transgressions, and remember his iniquities no more.” When a man doth constantly and earnestly implore the assistance of God’s Holy Spirit, and is ready to yield to the motions of it, and does faithfully make use of that strength and assistance which God affords him, then he may expect the continuance of his grace, and further degrees of it. When a man makes it the constant and sincere endeavour of his life, to please God, and to walk in all the ordinances and commandments of the Lord 194blameless,” and is effectually taught by the grace of God to “deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, and righteously, and godly in this present world,” then he may with comfort and joy “wait for the blessed hope, and the glorious appearance of the great God, and our Saviour Jesus Christ;” then he may with confidence depend upon God, “in sure and certain hope of that eternal life which God, that cannot lie, hath promised.” When he can say with St. Paul, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith;” then he may likewise triumph as he did, “henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which God the righteous Judge shall give me in that day.”
Upon these terms, and in these cases, men may upon good grounds apply to themselves “these exceeding great and precious promises” of the gospel; and so far as any man is doubtful and uncertain of the performance of the conditions which the gospel requires, so far he must necessarily question his right and title to the blessings promised. And if any man think this doctrine too uncomfortable, and be willing to reject it upon this account, I shall only say this, that men may cheat themselves if they please, but most certainly they will never find any true and solid comfort in any other. This is a plain and sensible account of a man’s confidence and good hopes in the promises of God; but for a man to apply any promise to himself, before he finds the condition in himself, is not faith, but either fancy or presumption.
And, therefore, it is a very preposterous course which many take, to advise and exhort men, with so much earnestness, to apply the promises of God 195to themselves, and to tell them that they are guilty of great unbelief in not doing it. That which is proper to exhort men to is, to endeavour to perform the condition upon which God hath promised any blessing to us; and when men find the condition in themselves, they will, without any great persuasion, take comfort from the promise, and apply it to themselves; but till they discern the condition in themselves, it is impossible for a man that understands himself to apply the promise to himself; for till the condition be performed, he hath no more right to the promise than if such a promise had never been made. And it is so far from being a sin in such a man to doubt of the benefit of such a promise, that it is his duty to do so; and no man that understands himself and the promises of God can possibly do otherwise.
Therefore, it is a vain and groundless trouble which perplexeth many people, that they cannot apply the promises of God to themselves; whereas, the true ground of their trouble should be this, that they have not been careful to perform the condition of those promises which they would apply to themselves: the other is an endless trouble; let them but look to the condition, and the promise will apply itself. I speak all this on purpose to free men from those perplexities wherewith many have entangled themselves by false apprehensions of the promises of God, either as if they were not made to us upon certain conditions to be performed by us, or as if any man could comfortably apply them to himself, before he hath performed those conditions, upon which God hath made such promises. For if men will believe that which is not true, or expect things upon such terms as they are not to be 196had, they may trouble themselves eternally, and all the world cannot help it.
I have now done with the first thing I propounded to speak to; namely, the promises which are here spoken of. The second thing (viz.) what influence these promises ought to have upon us, “that by them we may be made partakers of the Divine nature,” I shall reserve to another opportunity.197
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