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THE SUPPORT OF GOOD MEN UNDER THEIR SUFFERINGS FOR RELIGION.
Wherefore, let them that suffer according to the will of Go l, commit the, keeping of their souls to him in well-doing, as unto a faithful Creator.—1 Pet. iv. 19.
THIS Epistle was written by St. Peter, who was the apostle of the circumcision to the dispersed Jews, who were newly converted to Christianity; and the design of it is to confirm and establish them in the profession of it; and to instruct them how they ought to demean themselves towards the heathen, or gentiles, among whom they lived; and, more particularly, to arm and prepare them for those sufferings and persecutions, which he foretels would shortly overtake them for the profession of Christianity, that, when they should happen, they might not be surprised and startled at them, as if some strange and unexpected thing were to come upon them; at the 12th verse of this chapter—“Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you;” that is, do not wonder, and he not astonished at it; as if “some strange thing happened unto you.”
And then he instructs them more particularly, how they ought to behave themselves under those trials and sufferings, when they should happen; not only with patience, which men ought to exercise 210under all kind of sufferings, upon what account and cause soever; but with joy and cheerfulness, considering the glorious example and reward of them: (ver. 13.) “But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy:” and at the 14th verse he tells them, that besides the encouragement of so great an example, and so glorious a reward, they should be supported and assisted in a very extraordinary manner by the Spirit of God resting upon them in a glorious manner, as a testimony of the Divine power and presence with them: (ver. 14.) “If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the Spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you;” or as it is in the best copies, “for the Spirit of glory and of power, even the Spirit of God, resteth upon you;” that is, the glorious power of the Divine Spirit is present with you, to comfort and bear up your spirits under these sufferings. But then he cautions them, to take great care that their sufferings be for a good cause, and a good conscience: (ver. 15.) “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evil-doer;” (that is, as an offender in any kind against human laws, made to preserve the peace and good order of the world:) “or as a busy-body in other men’s matters;” (that is, as a pragmatical person, that meddles out of his own sphere, to the disquiet and disturbance of human society:) for to suffer upon any of these accounts, would be matter of shame and trouble, but not of joy and comfort; but if they suffered upon account of the profession of Christianity, this would be no cause of shame and reproach to them; but they ought rather to give 211God thanks for calling them to suffer in so good a cause, and upon so glorious an account: (ver. 16.) “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian (if that be his only crime) let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God on this behalf; for the time is come, that judgment must begin at the house of God; (that is, the wise and just providence of God, hath so ordered it at this time, for very good reasons and ends, that the first calamities and sufferings .should fall upon Christians, the peculiar people and church of God, for their trial, and a testimony to the truth of that religion, which God was now planting in the world:) and if it first begin at us (that is, at us Jews, who were the ancient people of God, and have now embraced and entertained the revelation of the gospel), what shall the end be of them, that obey not the gospel of Christ? (that is, how much more severely will God deal with the rest of the Jews who have crucified the Son of God, and still persist in their infidelity and disobedience to the gospel:) and if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?” (that is, if good men be saved with so much difficulty, and must through so many tribulations “enter into the kingdom of God,” what will become of all ungodly and impenitent sinners? where shall they appear? how shall they be able to stand in the judgment of the great day?) From the consideration of all which, the apostle makes this inference or conclusion, in the last verse of this chapter: “Wherefore, let them that suffer according to the will of God, commit the keeping of their souls to him in well-doing, as unto a faithful Creator.”
Thus you see the connexion and dependence of these words upon the apostle’s foregoing discourse. 212I shall explain the several expressions in the text, and then handle the main points contained in them.
The expressions to be explained are these: what is meant by those “that suffer according to the will of God;” what by “committing the keeping of our souls to God, as unto a faithful Creator;” and what by “well-doing.”
First, What is meant by “suffering according to the will of God.” This may be understood of suffering in a good cause, such as God will approve; but this is not so probable, because this is mentioned afterwards, in the following expressions of “committing the keeping of our souls to God in well doing;” that is, in suffering upon a good account: and therefore the plain and genuine sense of this expression seems to be this; that those who, according to the good pleasure of God’s will, and the wise dispensation of his providence, are appointed to suffer for his cause, should demean themselves so and so: “let them that suffer according to the will of God;” that is, those whom God thinks fit to call to suffering. And this agrees very well with the like expression, (chap. iii. of this Epistle, ver. 17.) “For it is better, if the will of God be so, (that is, if God have so appointed it, and think it fit) that ye suffer for well-doing, than for evil-doing.”
Secondly, What is here meant by “committing the keeping of our souls to God, as to a faithful Creator.” That is, to deposit our lives, and all that belongs to us; in a word, ourselves, in the hands and custody of his merciful care and providence who made us, and therefore we may be sure will faithfully keep what we commit to him: for, as we are his creatures, he is engaged to take 213care of us, and will not abandon the work of his own hands. Besides that, he hath promised to be more especially concerned for good men, to support them in their sufferings for a good cause, and to reward them for it; “and he is faithful that hath promised.”
And therefore, there is great reason and great encouragement, in all our sufferings for God’s cause and truth, to commit our souls to his care and custody; our souls, that is (as I said before) our lives, and all that belongs tons; in a word, ourselves: for so the word soul is frequently used both in the Old and New Testament: (Psal. vii. 5.) “Let the enemy persecute my soul, and take it;” that is, my life; for so it follows in the next words: “yea, let him trend down my life upon the earth.” And, (Psal. liv. 3.) “Oppressors seek after my soul/ And, (Psal. lix. 3.) “They lay in wait for my soul;” that is, my life. And, (Psal. xvi. 10.) “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell;” my soul, that is, myself; thou wilt not suffer me to remain in the grave, and under the power of death, but wilt raise me up to life again. And so likewise in the New Testament: (Mark viii. 33.) “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” The same word which is here rendered life, in the very next verse is rendered soul: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” that is, his life. And so, likewise (John xii. 25.) “He that loveth his life, shall lose it: and he that hateth his life in this world (in the original the word signifies soul), he that hateth his life in this world (that is, who neglecteth and exposeth his life in this world, for the sake of 214Christ), shall keep it unto life eternal.” And, (Luke ix. 25.) that which the other evangelist renders by the word soul, or life, he renders himself: “For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world and lose himself?” and so here, in the text, to commit “the keeping of our souls to God,” is to commit ourselves to his care and providence.
Thirdly, What is here meant by “committing ourselves to him in well-doing:” by “well-doing” is here meant, a fixed purpose and resolution of doing our duty, notwithstanding all hazards and sufferings; which is called by St. Paul, (Rom. ii. 7.) “a patient continuance in well-doing.” It signifies, some times, acts of goodness and charity; but in this Epistle it is taken in a larger sense, for constancy and resolution in the doing of our duty; as chap. ii. 15. “For so is the will of God, that with well-doing (that is, by a resolute constancy in a good course) ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.” And, (ver. 20.) “But if when ye do well, and suffer for it;” that is, if when ye “suffer for well-doing, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.” And (chap. iii. ver. 6.) “As long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement;” that is, are resolute and constant in doing your duty, notwithstanding all threatenings and terrors. And, (ver. 17.) “For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well-doing, than for evil-doing;” that is, for your religion and constancy in so good a cause, as Christians, and not as criminals, upon any other account.
So that the plain meaning of the words is, as if the apostle had said—Wherefore, being forewarned of suffering and persecution for the cause of religion, the sum of my direction and advice upon the 215whole matter is this—that since it is the will of God that ye should suffer upon this account, commit yourselves, in the constant discharge of your duty, and a good conscience, to the particular care and providence of Almighty God, as your “faithful Creator.”
And now I come to handle the particular points contained in the words; and they are these three:
First, That when men do suffer really and truly for the cause of religion, they may, with confidence, commit themselves (their lives and all that is dear to them) to the particular and more especial care of the Divine Providence.
Secondly, Always provided, that we do nothing contrary to our duty and a good conscience; for this the apostle means, by “committing ourselves to God, in well-doing.” If we step out of the way of our duty, or do any thing contrary to it, God’s providence will not be concerned for us, to bear us out in such sufferings.
Thirdly, I shall consider what ground of comfort and encouragement the consideration of God, as “a faithful Creator,” affords to us in all our sufferings for a good cause and a good conscience.
First, When men do suffer really and truly for the cause of religion and God’s truth, they may, with confidence and good assurance, commit themselves (their lives and all that is dear to them), to the particular and more especial care of his providence. In the handling of this, I shall consider these three things:
I. When men may be said to suffer really and truly for the cause of religion; and when not.
II. Mow far they may rely upon the providence of God, to bear them out in these sufferings.216
III. What ground and reason there is to expect the more particular and especial care of God’s providence, in case of such sufferings.
I. When men may be said to suffer really and truly for the cause of religion, and God’s truth; and when not. In these cases,
First, When men suffer for not renouncing the true religion, and because they will not openly declare against it, and apostatize from it. But it will be said that, in all these cases, the question is—What is the true religion? to which I answer; that all discourses of this nature, about suffering for religion, do suppose the truth of some religion or other. And, among Christians, the truth of the Christian religion is taken for granted, wherever we speak of men’s suffering persecution for it. And the plainest case among Christians is, when they are persecuted, because they will not openly deny and renounce the Christian religion. And this was generally the case of the primitive Christians; they were threatened with tortures and death, because they would not renounce Jesus Christ and his religion, and give demonstration thereof, by offering sacrifices to the heathen gods.
Secondly, Men do truly suffer for the cause of religion, when they are persecuted only for making an open profession of the Christian religion, by joining in the assemblies of Christians for the worship of God; though they be not urged to deny and disclaim it, but only to conceal and dissemble the profession of it, so as to forbear the maintenance and defence of it upon fitting occasions, against the objections of those who are adversaries of it. For to conceal the profession of it, and to decline the defence of it when just occasion is offered, is to be 217ashamed of it, which our Saviour interprets to be a kind of denial of it, and is opposed to the confessing of him before men: (Matt. x. 32, 33.) “Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father which is in heaven: but whoso ever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” And this, by St. Mark, is expressed by being ashamed of Christ; that is, afraid and ashamed to make an open profession of him and his religion; (Mark viii. 38.) “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me, and of my words, in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father, with the holy angels.”
And this, likewise, was the case of the primitive Christians under the moderate emperors, when the persecution of them was not so hot as to drive them to a denial of Christ, provided they would be contented to conceal and dissemble their religion; in that case they did not hunt them out, nor prosecute them to renounce their religion, if they made no discovery of themselves. But yet, they who suffered, because they would not conceal their profession of Christianity, did truly suffer for the cause of religion.
Thirdly, Men do likewise truly suffer for the cause of religion, when they suffer for not betraying it by any indirect and unworthy means; such as among the primitive Christians was the delivering up their Bibles to the heathen, to be burnt and destroyed by them: for to give up that holy Book, which is the great instrument of our religion, is, in I effect, to give up Christianity itself, and consent to the utter extirpation of it.
And such, likewise, is the case of those who suffer 218in any kind for not contributing to break down the fences of religion in any nation, where the providence of God hath given it a legal establishment and security; or, in a word, for refusing to countenance and further any design which visibly tends to the ruin of religion: for to destroy religion, and to take away that which hinders the destruction of it, are, in effect, much the same thing.
Fourthly, Men do truly suffer for the cause of religion, when they suffer for the maintenance and defence of any necessary and fundamental article of it, though they be not required to renounce the whole Christian religion; for what St. Paul says of the article of the resurrection of the dead, is true of any other necessary article of the Christian religion, that the denial of it is a subversion of the whole Christian faith; because it tends directly to the overthrowing of Christianity, being a wound given to it in a vital and essential part. And this was the case of those who, in any age of Christianity, have been persecuted by the heretics, for the defence of any article of Christianity.
And I cannot but observe, by the way, that, after the heathen persecutions were ceased, persecution was first begun among the Christians by heretics; and hath since been taken up, and carried much beyond that bad pattern, by the church of Rome; which, besides a standing inquisition in all countries, which are entirely of that religion (a court, the like whereto, for the clancular and secret manner of proceeding, for the unjust and arbitrary rules of it, for the barbarous usage of men’s persons, and the cruelty of its torments, to extort confessions from them, the sun never saw erected under any government in the world, by men of any religion 219whatsoever); I say, which, besides this court, hath by frequent croisadoes for the extirpation of heretics, and by many bloody massacres in France and Ireland, and several other places, destroyed far greater numbers of Christians, than all the ten heathen persecutions; and hath of late revived, and to this very day continues the same or greater cruelties, and a fiercer persecution of protestants, if all the circumstances of it be considered, than was ever yet practised upon them; and yet whilst this is doing almost before our eyes, in one of our next neighbour nations, they have the face to complain of the cannibal laws and bloody persecutions of the church of England, and the confidence to set up for the great patrons of liberty of conscience, and enemies of all compulsion and force, in matters of religion.
Fifthly, Men do truly suffer for the cause of God and religion, when they suffer for asserting and maintaining the purity of the Christian doctrine and worship; and for opposing and not complying with those gross errors and corruptions, which superstition and ignorance had, in a long course of time, brought into the Christian religion. Upon this account many good people suffered, in many past ages, for resisting the growing errors and corruptions of the church of Rome; which at first crept in by degrees, but at last broke in like a mighty flood, which earned down all before it, and threatened ruin and destruction to all that opposed them. Upon this account, also, infinite numbers suffered among the Waldenses and Albigenses, in Bohemia, and in Eng land, and in most other countries in this western part of Christendom. And they who suffered, upon this account, suffered in a good cause, and for the testimony of the truth.220
Sixthly and lastly, Men do truly suffer for the cause of religion, when they suffer for not disclaiming and renouncing any clear and undoubted truth of God whatsoever; yea, though it be not a fundamental point and article of religion.
And this is the case of those many thousands, who ever since the fourth council of Lateran, which was in the year 1215 (when transubstantiation was first defined to be an article of faith, and necessary to salvation to be believed), were persecuted with fire and sword, for not understanding those words of our Saviour, “this is my body” (which are so easily capable of a reasonable sense), in the absurd and impossible sense of transubstantiation. And though this disowning of this doctrine, be no express and direct article of the Christian religion, yet it is a fundamental article of right reason and common sense: because the admitting of transubstantiation, does undermine the foundation of all certainty whatsoever, and does more immediately shake the very foundation of Christianity itself. Yea, though the Christian religion were no ways concerned in this doctrine, yet out of reverence to reason and truth, and a just animosity and indignation at confident nonsense, a man of an honest and generous mind, would as soon be brought to declare or swear, that twice two do not make four, but five, as to profess his belief of transubstantiation.
And though all truths are not of equal consequence and concernment, yet all truth is of God; and, for that reason, though we are not obliged to make an open profession of all truths, at all times, yet we are bound not to deny or renounce any truth, nor to make profession of a known falsehood or error: for it is merely because of the intrinsical evil 221of the thing, that it is impossible for God to lie; and the Son of God thought it worth his coining into the world, and laying down his life, to bear witness to the truth. So he himself tells us, (John xviii. 37.) “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.”
Thus I have shewn you in these plain instances (to which most other cases may be reduced), when men may be said to suffer truly for the cause of religion and truth.
1 shall mention two or three cases wherein men may seem to suffer for the cause of religion, but can not truly be said to do so.
First, When men rashly expose themselves to danger, and run upon sufferings for the sake of religion. Thus several of the primitive Christians voluntarily exposed themselves when they were not called in question, and in the heat of their affection and zeal for God and religion, offered themselves to martyrdom, when none inquired after them. This, in the gracious interpretation of God, who, knowing the sincerity of their zeal, was pleased to overlook the indiscreet forwardness and rashness of it, might be accepted for a kind of martyrdom; but cannot in reason be justified, so as to be fit to be made a pattern, and to be recommended to our imitation. For though God may be pleased to excuse the weakness of a well-meaning zeal, yet he can approve no thing but what is reasonable.
To suffer cheerfully for the cause of God and his truth, when he calls us to fight this good fight of faith, and to “resist unto blood;” and when we are reduced to that strait, that we must either die for God and his truth, or deny them; to suffer, I say, in this 222case with courage and patience, is one of the noblest of all the Christian virtues. But to be perfect volunteers, and to run ourselves upon sufferings, when we are not called to them, looks rather like the sacrifice of fools; which though God may mercifully excuse, and pardon the evil of the action, for the good meaning of it; yet he can never perfectly approve and accept of it. But I think there is little need now-a-days to caution men against this rashness; it is well if they have the grace and resolution to suffer when it is their duty, and when they are called to it.
Secondly, Nor can men be truly said to suffer for the cause of religion, when they suffer not for their faith, but their fancy, and for the wilful and affected error of a mistaken conscience. As when men suffer for indifferent things, which, in heat and passion, they call superstition and idolatry; and for their own false opinions in religion, which they mistake for fundamental articles of the Christian faith. In this case, their mistake about these things will not change the nature of them, nor turn their sufferings into martyrdom: and yet many men have certainly suffered for their own mistakes. For as men may be so far deluded, as to think they do God good ser vice when they kill his faithful servants; so likewise may they be so far deceived, as to sacrifice their lives, and all that is dear to them, to their own culpable errors and mistakes. But this is zeal without knowledge, not “the wisdom which descends from above,” but that which comes from beneath, and is like the fire of hell, which is heat without light.
Thirdly and lastly, Nor can men truly be said to suffer from the cause of God and religion, when they suffer for the open profession and defence of truths not necessary. For though a man be obliged 223to make an open profession of all fundamental and necessary truths; yet he is under no such obligation to make profession of truths not necessary at all times; and, unless he be called to deny them, he is not bound either to declare or defend them; he may hold his peace, at other times, and be silent about them, especially when the open profession of them will probably do no good to others, and will certainly do hurt to ourselves; and the zealous endeavour to propagate such truths will be to the greater prejudice of charity, and the disturbance of the public peace of the church.
It was a good saying of Erasmus (if we understand it as, I believe, he meant it, of truths not necessary) Adeo invisae sunt mihi discordiae, ut veritas etiam contentiosa displiceat: “I am (says he) so perfect a hater of discord, that I am even displeased with truth, when it is the occasion of contention.” As a man is never to deny truth, so neither is he obliged to make an open profession of truths not necessary at all times; and if he suffer upon that account, he cannot justify it to his own prudence, nor have comfort in such sufferings, because he brings them needlessly upon himself; and no man can have comfort, but in suffering for doing his duty.
And thus I have done with the first thing I proposed to inquire into; namely, when men may be truly said to suffer for the cause of religion.
I proceed now to the
Second inquiry; namely, how far men may rely upon the providence of God to bear them out in such suffering?
To which I answer: that provided we do what becomes us, and is our duty on our part, the providence of God will not be wanting on his part, to 224bear us out in all our sufferings for his cause, one of these three ways.
First, To secure us from that violent degree of temptation and suffering, which would be too strong for human strength and patience; or,
Secondly, In case of such extraordinary temptation and trial, to give us the extraordinary supports and comforts of his Holy Spirit; or else,
Thirdly, In case of a temporary fall and miscarriage, to raise us up by repentance, and a greater resolution and constancy under sufferings. I shall speak severally to these.
First, Either the providence of God will not be wanting to secure us from that violent degree of temptation and suffering, which would be too strong for human strength and patience to bear. And this is a great security to good men, against the fears of final miscarriage, after all their labours, and pains, and sufferings in a religious course, by being over borne at last by the assault of a very violent and powerful temptation. Not but that the best of men ought always to have a prudent distrust of themselves, so as to keep them from security; according to the apostle’s caution and counsel: “be not high-minded, but fear; and let him that stands, take heed lest he fall;” because, till we come to heaven, we shall never be out of the danger and possibility of falling; but yet, for all this, we may hope, by the sincerity and firmness of our resolution, under the usual influences of God’s grace, to acquit ourselves like men, in ordinary cases of temptation and suffering.
And, to this end, we should represent to ourselves those “exceeding great and precious promises” which he hath made to good men, and his merciful providence, which continually watcheth over them, and 225steers their course for them in this world, among those many rocks which they are in danger to split upon; that he is able to stablish us in the truth, and to keep us from falling; “to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, and to preserve us to his heavenly kingdom;” and that, if we do not forsake him, and forfeit his care and protection, he will “keep us by his mighty power through faith unto salvation;” either by his merciful foresight and prevention of those temptations which would, probably, be too hard for us; or, if he thinks fit they should befal us, by supporting us under them in an extraordinary manner.
For I doubt not but that the best men do owe their security and perseverance in goodness, much more to the merciful providence of God, preventing the assaults of violent and dangerous temptations, than to the firmness and constancy of their own resolutions. For there are very few persons of so firm and resolute virtue, but that one time or other a temptation might assault them upon such a disadvantage, as would, in all probability, not only stagger them, but bear them down. Now herein the providence of God towards good men is very remarkable, in securing them from those temptations which are too strong for them to grapple withal; like a kind and tender father, who, if he be satisfied of the dutiful disposition of his child towards him, will not try his obedience to the utmost, nor permit too strong a temptation to the contrary to come in his way. So the Psalmist represents God’s tender regard and consideration of the frailty and infirmity of his children: (Psal. ciii. 13, 14.) “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him: for he knoweth our frame, he remembereth 226that we are but dust;” that is, he considereth us as men, and deals with us accordingly. Provided we be sincere, he will not suffer us to be set upon by temptations that are too big for us. And therefore our blessed Saviour makes it one of the petitions of that excellent prayer, which he hath recommended to us; “Lead us not into temptation;” that is, we should every day beg of God, that his providence would keep us out of the way of great and dangerous temptations, as knowing that this will be a greater security to us, than any strength and resolution of our own.
Secondly, Or in case of such violent and extraordinary temptations, the providence of God will not be wanting to give us the extraordinary support and comfort of his Holy Spirit, to bear us up under them. The providence of God did take care of good men in all ages, and did afford comfort to them under great trials and sufferings; but God never made so express and general a promise of this to all good men, as he hath done by the Christian religion. Never was so constant a presence and influence of the Divine Spirit vouchsafed and assured to men, under any dispensation, as that of the gospel; wherein the Spirit of God is promised to all that sincerely embrace the Christian religion, to reside and dwell in them; not only to all the purposes of sanctification and holiness, but of support and comfort under the heaviest pressures and sufferings. For which reason the gospel is called the ministration of the Spirit; and is, upon this account, said to be more glorious than any other revelation which God had ever made to mankind.
We are naturally apt to be very much disheartened and cast down at the apprehension of great 227sufferings, from the consideration of our own weakness and frailty; but the Spirit of Christ dwells in all true Christians, and the same glorious power, which raised up Jesus from the dead, works mightily in them that believe. St. Paul useth very high expressions about this matter: (Eph. i. 19.) “That ye may know, (saith he, speaking to all Christians) what is the exceeding greatness of his power to usward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand.” So that every Christian is endowed with a kind of omnipotence, being able (as St. Paul speaks of himself) to do and to endure all things, “through Christ strengthening him.” Of ourselves we are very weak, and the temptations and terrors of the world are very powerful; but there is a principle residing in every true Christian that is able to bear us up against the world, and the power of all its temptations. “Whatsoever is born of God (saith St. John) overcometh the world; for greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” The Holy Spirit of God, which dwells in all true Christians, is a more powerful principle of resolution, and courage, and patience, under the sharpest trials and sufferings, than the evil spirit which rules in the world is, to stir up and set on the malice and rage of the world against ns. “Ye are of God, little children;” he speaks this to the youngest and weakest Christians. “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome; because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” The malice and power of the devil is very great; but the goodness and power of God is greater. And therefore, in case of extraordinary temptation, good men, by virtue of this 228promise of God’s Holy Spirit, may expect to be borne up and comforted in a very extraordinary and supernatural manner, under the greatest tribulations and sufferings for righteousness sake.
And this was in a very signal and remarkable manner afforded to the primitive Christians, under those fierce and cruel persecutions to which they were exposed. And this may still be expected, in like cases of extraordinary sufferings, for the testimony of God’s truth. “If ye be reproached (saith St. Peter in this 4th chap. ver. 14.) for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the Spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you.” The Spirit of God is here promised to strengthen and support all that suffer for the name of Christ, in a very conspicuous and glorious manner, according to that prayer of St. Paul, (Colossians i. 11.) that Christians might be “strengthened with all might, according to God’s glorious power, unto all patience and long-suffering, with joyfulness.” For when God is pleased to exercise good men with trials more than human, and such sufferings as are beyond the common rate of human strength and patience to bear, he hath engaged himself to endue and assist them with more than human courage and resolution. So St. Paul tells the Corinthians, who had not then felt the utmost rage of persecution: (1 Cor. x. 13.) “No temptation or trial hath yet befallen you but what is common to man; that is, nothing but what is frequently incident to human nature, and what by human strength, with an ordinary assistance of God’s grace, may be grappled withal. But, in case God shall call you to extraordinary sufferings, “he is faithful that hath promised, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able, but will 229with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it;” that is, as he hath ordered and appointed so great a temptation or trial to befal you, so he will take care that it shall have a happy issue, by enabling you to bear it, by affording you grace and strength equal to the violence and power of the temptation. For as he is said to fall into temptation, that is conquered by it; so he is said to get out of it, or escape it, who is enabled to bear it, and in so doing gets the better of it. And for this we may rely upon the faithfulness of God, who hath promised that we shall not be tried above our strength, either not above the strength which we have, or not above the strength which he will afford us in such a case.
And why then should we be daunted at the apprehension of any suffering whatsoever, if we be secured that our comfort shall be increased in proportion to our trouble, and our strength in proportion to the sharpness and weight of our sufferings? or else,
Thirdly, In case of temporary falling, the providence and goodness of God will give them the grace and opportunity of recovering themselves from their fall by repentance. For the providence of God may sometimes, for wise ends and reasons, see it fit to leave good men to their own frailty, and to faint and fall shamefully under sufferings, so as to renounce and deny the truth: sometimes to punish their vain confidence in themselves, as in the case of Peter, who declared more resolution, and bore it out with a greater confidence than any of the disciples, when he said to our Saviour, “though all men forsake thee, yet will not I;” and yet after this he fell more shamefully than any of the rest, so as to deny his Master with horrid 230oaths and imprecations; and this, though our Saviour had prayed particularly for him, “that his faith might not fail.” From which instance we may learn, that God doth not engage himself absolutely to secure good men from falling, in case of a great temptation and trial; but if they be sincere, he will not permit them to fall finally, though he may suffer them to miscarry grievously for a time, to convince them of the vanity of their confidence in themselves and their own strength.
Sometimes God may suffer good men to fall, in order to their more glorious recovery, and the greater demonstration and triumph of their faith and constancy afterwards; which was the case of that happy instrument of our Reformation here in England, Archbishop Cranmer; who, after he had been so great a champion of the Reformation, was so overcome with fear, upon the apprehension of his approaching sufferings, as to subscribe those errors of the church of Rome, which he had so stoutly op posed a great part of his life: but he did not long continue in this state, but by the grace of God, which had not forsaken him, was brought to repentance; and when he came to suffer, gave such a testimony of it, and of his faith and constancy, as was more glorious, and more to the confirmation of the faith of others, than a simple martyrdom could have been, if he had not fallen; for when he was brought to the stake, he put his right hand (with which he had signed the recantation) into the fire, and with an undaunted constancy held it there, till it was quite burnt, for a testimony of his true repentance for that foul miscarriage; and when he had done, gave the rest of his body to be burnt, which he endured with great courage and cheerfulness 231to the last. So that he made all the amends possible for so great a fault; and the goodness of God, and the power of his grace, was more glorified in his repentance and recovery than if he had never fallen.
But what shall we say when, notwithstanding these promises of extraordinary comfort and support, in case of extraordinary sufferings, so great numbers are seen to faint in the day of trial, and to fall off from their steadfastness? Of which there were many sad instances among the primitive Christians; and have likewise been, of late, in our own times, and in places nearer to us. This, I confess, is a very melancholy consideration; but yet, I think, is capable of a sufficient answer.
And, first of all, let this be established for a firm and undoubted principle, that God is faithful to his promise; and therefore we ought much rather to suppose, in all these cases, that there is some default on our part, than any failure and unfaithfulness on God’s part. Thus St. Paul determines, in a like case, when the promise of God seemed not to be made good to the Jews, he lays the blame of it on their unbelief, but acquits God of any unfaithfulness in his promise: (Rom. iii. 3, 4.) “For what if some did not believe, shall their unbelief make the faith (or fidelity) of God without effect? God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar.” This, I confess, does not answer the difficulty; but yet it ought to incline and dispose us to interpret what can fairly be offered for the removal of it, with all the favour that may be on God’s side. I say, then,
Secondly, That when good men fall, in case of extraordinary temptation, and recover again by repentance, and give greater demonstration, afterwards, 232of their constancy and resolution in the cause of God and his truth, the faithfulness of God, in his promises, is sufficiently vindicated, as in the cases I mentioned; because the promise of God is not ab solute that good men shall be preserved from falling; but that the temptation shall have a happy issue, and that they shall not finally miscarry. For promises of this nature are to be interpreted by us, and understood as we do our Saviour’s prayer for Peter before his fall, that his faith should not fail finally; but though he fell through too much confidence in himself, he should, through the grace of God assisting him, be enabled to recover by repentance.
Thirdly, The sincerity or insincerity of men, in the profession of the true religion, is a thing which we cannot certainly know, because we do not see into men’s hearts; but He, who knows the heart, and tries the spirits of men in a balance, cannot be deceived in this matter; and where men are not sincere, the promise of God is not concerned to hinder them from discovering themselves; and the fall of such persons is no reflection upon the faith fulness of God. And it is reasonable enough to presume, that this may be the case of not a few; and that (like Simon Magus), after they have made a very solemn profession of Christianity, their hearts may not be right in the sight of God.
Fourthly, If we put the case at the hardest, that some that were very sincere, after they have held out a great while, under the extremity of torments, have at last fainted under them, and yielded to the malice and cruelty of their persecutors; and, in this amazement and distraction, have not long after expired, without any testimony of their repentance: in 233this case, both reason and charity ought to restrain us from passing any very positive and severe sentence upon the state of such persons. For what do we know, but God, whose goodness will certainly make all the allowance to human frailty that reason can require (for he knows whereof we are made, and “remembers that we are but dust;” he mercifully considers every man’s case, and weighs all the circumstances of it in an exact balance); I say, who can tell, but that, in such a case as I have mentioned, God may graciously be pleased to accept such a degree of constant suffering of great torments, for so long a time, for a true martyrdom, and not expect a more than human patience and resolution, where he is not pleased to afford more than human strength and support; and whether he may not look upon their failing and miscarriage, at last, in the same rank with the indeliberate actions of men in a frenzy, and beside themselves.
And thus, God may be said, “with the temptation to make a way to escape,” or to give a happy issue to it; since they were enabled to bear it, till, being distracted by their torments, their understandings were thrown off the hinges, and incapable of exercising any deliberate acts of reason. And, with out some such equitable consideration of the case of such persons, it will be very hard to reconcile some appearances of things with the goodness of God and the faithfulness of his promise.
However, it will become us to abstain from all uncharitableness and peremptory censure of the final estate of sue h persons, especially till we ourselves have given greater and better testimony of our constancy; and, in the mean time, to leave them to the 234righteous and merciful sentence of their Master and ours, to whose judgment we must all stand or fall.
I am sure it will very ill become those, who, by the providence of God, have escaped those sufferings, and are at present out of danger themselves, to sit in judgment upon those who are left to endure this terrible conflict; and have, perhaps, held out as long or longer than they themselves would have done in the like circumstances. Let us rather earnestly beg of the God of all grace and patience, that he would endue us with a greater measure of patience and constancy, if he see fit to call us to the exercise of it, and (which we lawfully may, after the example of our blessed Saviour) that, if it be his will, he would “let this cup pass from us,” and not try us with the like sufferings, “lest we also be weary, and faint in our minds.” I come now to the
III. Third and last inquiry which I proposed: What ground and reason there is for good men to expect the more peculiar and especial care of God’s providence in case of such sufferings.
The providence of God extends to all his creatures, according to that of the psalmist: “the Lord is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works.” But he exerciseth a more peculiar providence towards mankind; and more peculiar yet towards those who study to please him by obeying his laws and doing his will. He that is assured of his own heart that he loves God, and would do or suffer any thing for him, can have no cause to doubt but that God loves him, and is concerned for his happiness. No man was ever afraid of God that was not conscious to himself that he had offended him, and, by the wilful breach of his laws, had put 235himself out of the care of his providence. But, on the contrary, if our hearts give us this testimony, that we have made it our sincere endeavour to please him, we are naturally apt to have good assurance and confidence of his favour and good-will towards us. This comfort the mind of every good man is apt to give him, from his own reason, and the natural notions which he hath of God.
But, to free us from all doubt in this matter, God himself hath told us so, and given us plentiful assurance of it in his word: (Psal. xi. 7.) “The righteous Lord loveth righteousness; his countenance doth behold the upright;” that is, he will be favourable unto them: (Psal. xxxiii. 18.) “Behold the eye of the Lord is upon them that fear him; upon them that hope in his mercy.” The eye of God signifies his watchful care and providence over good men. So that, besides the sure and well-grounded reasonings from the essential perfections of the Divine nature, the mercy and goodness of God, “we have a more sure word” of promise in the express declarations of God’s word, and more particularly in the case of great temptations and sufferings. For can we think that the Scripture saith in vain, “Wait on the Lord, and be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart? Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivereth him out of all? The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and he delighteth in his ways: though he fall, he shall not utterly be cast down, for the Lord upholdeth him with his hand? The salvation of the righteous cometh of the Lord; he is their help in time of trouble?” The same promises we find in the New Testament: “All things shall work together for good to them that love God. God is 236faithful, who hath promised that he will not stiffen you to be tempted above what ye are able, but will with the temptation make a way to escape.” And, to mention no more, “Hold fast the profession of your faith without wavering; he is faithful that hath promised;” viz. to support you under sufferings, and to reward them.
Thus much for the first point; namely, that when, men do suffer truly for the cause of religion, they may, with confidence, commit themselves to the more peculiar care of the Divine Providence.237
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