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THE DANGER OF APOSTACY FROM CHRISTIANITY.
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance: seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.—Heb. vi. 4, 5, 6.
THESE words are full of difficulties, and the misunderstanding of them hath not only been an occasion of a great deal of trouble, and even despair, to particular persons, but one of the chief reasons why the church of Rome did for a long time reject the authority of this book; which, by the way, I cannot but take notice of, as a demonstrative in stance both of the fallible judgment of that church, and of the fallibility of oral tradition; for St. Jerome more than once expressly tells us, “that in his time (which was about four hundred years after Christ) the church of Rome did not receive this Epistle for canonical:” but it is plain, that since that time, whether moved by the evidence of the thing, or (which is more probable) by the consent and authority of other churches, they have received it, and do at this day acknowledge it for canonical; from whence one of these two things will necessarily follow; 66either that they were in an error for four hundred years together while they rejected it, or that they have since erred for a longer time in receiving it. One of these is unavoidable; for if the book be canonical now, it was so from the beginning; for Bellarmine himself confesseth (and if he had not confessed it, it is nevertheless true and certain), that the church cannot make a book canonical, which was not so before; if it was not canonical at first, it cannot be made so afterward; so that let them choose which part they will, it is evident, be yond all denial, that the church of Rome hath actually erred in her judgment concerning the authority of this book; and one error of this kind is enough to destroy her infallibility, there being no greater evidence that a church is not infallible, than if it plainly appear that she hath been deceived.
And this, also, is a convincing instance of the fallibility of oral tradition. For if that be infallible in delivering down to us the canonical books of Scripture, it necessarily follows, that whatever books were delivered down to us for canonical in one age, must have been so in all ages; and what ever was rejected in any age, must always have been rejected: but we plainly see the contrary, from the instance of this Epistle, concerning which the church of Rome (which pretends to be the great and faithful preserver of tradition) hath in several ages delivered several things. This is a peremptory instance both of the fallibility of the Roman church, and of her oral tradition.
Having observed this by the way, which I could not well pass by upon so fair an occasion, I shall betake myself to the explication of these words; towards which it will be no small advantage to 67consider the particular phrases and expressions in the text: “It is impossible for those who were once enlightened;” that is, were solemnly admitted into the church by baptism, and embraced the profession of Christianity. Nothing was more frequent among the ancients, than to call baptism φωτισμὸν, “illumination;” and those who were baptized were called, φωτιζόμενοι, “enlightened persons,” because of that Divine illumination which was conveyed to the minds of men by the knowledge of Christianity, the doctrine whereof they made profession of at their baptism. And, therefore, Justin Martyr tells us, that, by calling upon God the Father, and the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the name of the Holy Ghost, ὁ φωτιζόμενος λοῦεται, “the enlightened person is washed;” and again more expressly, Καλεῖται δὲ τοῦτο λουτρὸν φωτισμὸς, “this laver (speaking of baptism) is called illumination.” And St. Cyprian gives us the reason; because by virtue of baptism in expiatum pectus ac purum desuper se lumen infundit, “Light is infused from above into the purified soul.” And that this expression is so to be understood here in the text, as also chap. x. 32. the Syriac and Ethiopic give us good ground to believe; for they render the text thus: “It is impossible for those who have been once baptized, and have tasted of the heavenly gift. “And at the tenth chapter, ver. 32. which we translate, “But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions;” that is, call to mind the former days, in which, after by baptism ye had publicly embraced the profession of Christianity, ye were, upon that account, exposed to many grievous sufferings and persecutions. So that I think there can be no great doubt, but, by “those that 68were once enlightened,” the apostle means, those that were baptized.
To proceed then: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost;” these two expressions seem to denote the spiritual benefits and graces of the Holy Ghost conferred upon Christians by baptism, particularly regeneration, which is the proper work of the Holy Ghost, and justification and remission of sins. So we find faith, whereby we are justified, called the gift of God, (Eph. ii. 8.) “Faith is the gift of God;” and our justification is called a gift, and a free gift, five several times in one chapter, (Rom. v. 15-18.) “But not as the offence, so also is the free gift; for if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many;” and what this free gift is he tells us in the next words; viz. justification, or remission of sins; (ver. 16.) “And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift; for the judgment was by one to condemnation; but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one, much more they which receive abundance of grace, and of the gift of righteousness, shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ. Therefore, as by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” So that by the “heavenly gift,” I understand remission of sins; and by being “made partakers of the Holy Ghost,” the sanctifying power and efficacy of God’s Spirit.69
“And have tasted the good word of God;” that is, entertained the gospel, which is here called “the good word of God,” by reason of the gracious promises contained in it, particularly the promises of eternal life and happiness.
“And the powers of the world to come,” δυνάμεις τε μέλλοντος αἰῶνος, the powers of the gospel age; that is, the miraculous powers of the Holy Ghost which were bestowed upon men, in order to the propagation of the gospel. And that this is the true meaning of this phrase, will, I think, be very plain, to any one who shall but consider that the word δυνάμεις, is generally in Scripture used for miraculous powers and operations; and particularly to express the miraculous gifts of the Holy Ghost, which were be stowed upon the apostles and first Christians; (I need not cite the particular texts for the proof of this, they are so many and so well known;) and then, if we consider farther, that the times of the gospel, the days of the Messias, are frequently called by the Jews, saeculum futurum, “the age to come.” And, indeed, this is the very phrase used by the LXX. concerning our Saviour, (Isa. ix. 6.) where he is called, according to our translation, “The everlasting Father,” but according to that of the LXX. πατὴρ μέλλοντος αἰῶνος, “The Father of the future age.” And this very phrase is used once more in this Epistle to the Hebrews, ii. 5. “For unto the an gels hath he not put in subjection the world to come, whereof we now speak.” He had said before, “that the law was given by angels,” (ver. 2.) “if the word spoken by angels was steadfast;” but the dispensation of the gospel, which he calls “the world to come,” or the future age, was not committed to them; this was administered by the “Son of God;” 70“Unto the angels bath he not put in subjection the world to come.” And it is observable, that this phrase is only used in this Epistle to the Hebrews, because the Jews very well understood the meaning of it, being that whereby they commonly expressed the times of the gospel, according to that ancient tradition of the house of Elias, which distributed the duration of the world into three αἰῶνες, or ages; the age before the law, the age under the law, and the age of the Messias, which they called the saeculum futurum, or, the age to come; and which is likewise in Scripture called the last days, or times, and the conclusion of the ages. Concerning which it was particularly prophesied, that the Holy Ghost should be poured forth upon men in miraculous gifts and powers. And to this very purpose the prophet Joel is cited by St. Peter; (Acts ii. 16, 17.) “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days (saith God), I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy,” &c. From all which it is very evident, that by “tasting of the powers of the world to come,” is meant, being partakers of the miraculous gifts of the Holy Ghost, which were poured forth in the gospel age, by the Jews commonly called, the world to come.
“If they shall fall away;” that is, if after all this they shall apostatize from this profession out of love to this present world, or from the fear of persecutions and sufferings.
“It is impossible to renew them again to repentance;” that is, it is a thing very difficult, hardly to be hoped for, that such wilful and notorious apostates should be restored again by repentance. For the word ἀδύνατον, which we translate impossible, is 71not always to be taken in the strictest sense, for that which absolutely cannot be; but many times for that which is so very difficult that it seems next to an impossibility. So our Saviour; that which in one place he calls “exceeding hard;” viz. “for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven,” he afterwards calls “impossible with men; M and so here I understand the apostle, that those who apostatize from Christianity after baptism, and the benefits of it, “it is exceeding hard to recover them again to repentance:” this phrase, πάλιν ἀνακαινίζειν εἰς μετάνοιαν, to “renew them again to repentance,” some understand of restoring them again to the peace and communion of the church, by a course of penance, such as was prescribed in the ancient church to great offenders; and then they understand by ἀδύνατον, not a natural, but a moral impossibility; that which cannot be done according to [ the orders and constitutions of the church; that is, . the church did refuse to admit apostates, and some! other great offenders, as murderers and adulterers, to; a course of penance, in order to their reconciliation with the church. This Tertullian tells us was the strictness of the church in his time, Neque idololatriae, neque sanguini pax ab ecclesia redditur; “they admitted neither idolaters nor murderers to the reconciliation of the church.” Though they were never so patient, and shed never so many tears, yet, he says, they were jejunae pacis lachrymae, their tears were in vain to reconcile them to the peace and communion of the church. He says, indeed, they did not absolutely pronounce their case desperate, in respect of God’s pardon and forgiveness; sed de venia Deo reservamus, “for that they referred them to God:” but they were never to be admitted again 72into the church; so strict were many churches, and that upon the authority of this text; though the church of Rome was more moderate in this matter, and for that reason called the authority of this hook into question.
But I see no reason why these words should primarily be understood of restoring men to the communion of the church by penance: but they seem to be meant of restoring men to the favour of God by repentance; of which, indeed, their being restored to the communion of the church was a good sign. This the apostle says was very difficult, for those who, after baptism, and the several benefits of it, did apostatize from Christianity, “to be recovered again to repentance.”
“Seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.” This is spoken by way of aggravation of the crime of apostacy, that they who fall off from Christianity, in effect and by interpretation, do crucify the Son of God over again, and expose him to shame and reproach, as the Jews did; for by denying and renouncing of him, they declare him to be an impostor, and, consequently, worthy of that death which he suffered, and that ignominy which he was exposed to; and, therefore, in account of God, they are said to do that, which by their actions they do approve; so that it is made a crime of the highest nature, as if they should crucify the Son of God, and use him in the most ignominious manner, even tread “under foot the Son of God,” as the expression is to the same purpose, (chap. x. 29.)
Thus I have endeavoured, as briefly and clearly as I could, to explain to you the true meaning and importance of the several phrases and expressions 73in the text; the sense whereof amounts to this, that if those who are baptized, and by baptism have received remission of sins, and do believe the doctrine of the gospel, and the promises of it, and are endowed with the miraculous gifts of the Holy Ghost; if such persons as these shall, after all this, apostatize from Christianity, it is very hard, and next to an impossibility, to imagine how such persons should recover again by repentance, seeing they are guilty of as great a crime, as if in their own persons they had put to death and ignominiously used “the Son of God,” because, by rejecting of him, they declared to the world that he suffered deservedly.
Having thus explained the words, in order to the further vindication of them from the mistakes and misapprehensions which have been about them, I shall endeavour to make out these five things:
1st, That the sin here mentioned is not “the sin against the Holy Ghost.”
2dly, That the apostle does not declare it to be absolutely impossible, but only that those who are guilty of it are recovered to repentance with great difficulty.
3dly, That it is not a partial apostacy from the Christian religion by any particular vicious practice.
4thly, That it is a total apostacy from the Christian religion, and more especially to the heathen idolatry, which the apostle here speaks of.
5thly, The reason of the difficulty of the recovery of those who fall into this sin.
1st, That the sin here mentioned is not “the sin against the Holy Ghost,” which I have heretofore discoursed of, and shewn wherein the particular nature of it does consist. There are three things which do remarkably distinguish the sin here spoken 74of in the text, from “the sin against the Holy Ghost” described by our Saviour:—
1st, The persons that are guilty of this sin here in the text, are evidently such as had embraced Christianity, and had taken upon them the profession of it: whereas those whom our Saviour chargeth with “the sin against the Holy Ghost,” are such as constantly opposed his doctrine, and resisted the evidence he offered for it.
2dly, The particular nature of “the sin against the Holy Ghost” consisted in blaspheming the Spirit whereby our Saviour wrought his miracles, and saying he did not those things by the Spirit of God, but by the assistance of the devil, in that malicious and unreasonable imputing of the plain effects of the Holy Ghost to the power of the devil, and, consequently, in an obstinate refusal to be convinced by the miracles that he wrought; but here is no thing of all this so much as intimated by the apostle in this place.
3dly, “The sin against the Holy Ghost” is declared to be absolutely “unpardonable both in this world and in that which is to come.” But this is not declared to be absolutely unpardonable, which brings me to the
2d thing; namely, That this sin here spoken of by the apostle is not said to be absolutely unpardonable. It is not “the sin against the Holy Ghost;” and, whatever else it be, it is not out of the compass of God’s pardon and forgiveness. So our Saviour hath told us, “that all manner of sin what soever that men have committed is capable of pardon, excepting only the sin against the Holy Ghost. And though the apostle here uses a very severe expression, that “if such persons fall away, it is impossible 75to renew them again to repentance;” yet I have shewn that there is no necessity of understanding this phrase in the strictest sense of the word impossible; but as it is elsewhere used for that which is extremely difficult. Nor, indeed, will our Saviour’s declaration, which I mentioned before, that all sins whatsoever are pardonable, except “the sin against the Holy Ghost,” suffer us to understand these words in the most rigorous sense.
3dly, The sin here spoken of is not a partial apostacy from the Christian religion by any particular vicious practice. Whosoever lives in the habitual practice of any sin plainly forbidden by the Christian law, may be said so far to have apostatized from Christianity; but this is not the falling away which the apostle here speaks of. This may be bad enough; and the greater sins any man who professeth himself a Christian lives in, the more notoriously he contradicts his profession, and falls off from Christianity, and the nearer he approaches to the sin in the text, and the danger there threatened; but yet, for all that, this is not that which the apostle speaks of.
4thly, But it is a total apostacy from the Christian religion, more especially to the heathen idolatry, the renouncing of the true God, and our Saviour, and the worship of false gods, which the apostle here speaks of. And this will be evident, if we consider the occasion and main scope of this Epistle. And that was to confirm the Jews, who had newly embraced Christianity, in the profession of that religion, and to keep them from apostatizing from it, because of the persecutions and sufferings which attended that profession. It pleased God, when Christianity first appeared in the world, to permit 76the powers of the world to raise a vehement persecution against the professors of it, by reason whereof many out of base fear did apostatize from it, and, in testimony of their renouncing it, were forced to sacrifice to the heathen idols. This is that which the apostle endeavours to caution and arm men against throughout this epistle: (chap. ii. 1.) “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest, at any time, we should fall away.” And (chap. iii. 12.) it is called u an evil heart of unbelief to apostatize from the living God. Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief to depart from the living God;” that is, to fall from the worship of the true God to idolatry. And, (chap. x. 23.) Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together;” that is, not declining the assemblies of Christians, for fear of persecution; and (ver. 26.) it is called a “sinning wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth;” and, (ver. 29.) “a drawing back to perdition.” And (chap. xii.) it is called, by way of eminency, “the sin which so easily besets;” the sin which, in those times of persecution, they were so liable to.
And I doubt not but this is the sin which St. John speaks of, and calls “the sin unto death, “and does not require Christians “to pray for those who fall into it,” with any assurance that it shall be for given: (1 John v. 16.) “There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not unto death. We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not;” that is, does not fall into the sin of apostacy from Christianity to that of the heathen idolatry; 77“but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.” And then (ver. 21.) he adds this caution, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” Which sufficiently shews what that sin was which he was speaking of before.
So that this being the sin which the apostle designed to caution men against throughout this Epistle, it is very evident what falling away it is he here speaks of; namely, a total apostacy from Christianity, and more especially to the heathen idolatry.
5thly, We will consider the reason of the difficulty of recovering such persons by repentance. “If they fall away, it is extremely difficult to renew them again to repentance;” and that for these three reasons:
1. Because of the greatness and heinousness of the sin.
2. Because it renounceth, and casteth off the means of recovery.
3. Because it is so high a provocation of God to withdraw his grace from such persons.
1. Because of the greatness and heinousness of the sin, both in the nature and circumstances of it. It is downright apostacy from God, a direct renouncing of him, and rejecting of his truth, after men have owned it, and been inwardly persuaded and convinced of it; and so the apostle expresseth it in this Epistle, calling it an” apostacy from the living God, a sinning wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth.” It hath all the aggravations that a crime is capable of, being against the clearest light and knowledge, and the fullest conviction of a man’s mind, concerning the truth and goodness of that religion which he renounceth; against the 78greatest obligations laid upon him by the grace and mercy of the gospel; after the free pardon of sins, and the grace and assistance of God’s Spirit received, and a miraculous power conferred for a witness and testimony to themselves, of the undoubted truth of that religion which they have embraced. It is the highest affront to the Son of God, who revealed this religion to the world, and sealed it with his blood; and, in effect, an expression of as high malice to the author of this religion, as the Jews were guilty of when they put him to so cruel and shameful a death.
Now a sin of this heinous nature is apt naturally either to plunge men into hardness and impenitency, or to drive them to despair; and either of these conditions are effectual bars to their recovery. And both these dangers the apostle warns men of in this Epistle: (chap. iii. 12, 13.) “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, to apostatize from the living God: but exhort one another daily, whilst it is called to-day, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” Or else the reflection upon so horrid a crime is apt to drive a man to despair; as it did Judas, who, after he had betrayed the Son of God, could find no ease but by making away with himself; the guilt of so great a sin filled him with such terrors, that he was glad to fly to death for refuge, and to lay violent hands upon himself. And this like wise was the case of Spira, whose apostacy, though it was not total from the Christian religion, but only from the purity and reformation of it, brought him to that desperation of mind which was a kind of hell upon earth. And of this danger likewise the apostle admonisheth; (chap. xii. 15.) “Looking diligently, 79lest any man fail of the grace of God (or, as it is in our margin, ‘lest any man fall from the grace of God’) lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you;” and then he compares the case of such persons to Esau, who, when he had renounced his birthright, to which the blessing was annexed, was afterwards, when he would have inherited the blessing, rejected, and “found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.”
2. Those who are guilty of this sin, do renounce and cast off the means of their recovery; and, therefore, it becomes extremely difficult to renew them again to repentance. They reject the gospel, which affords the best arguments and means to repentance, and renounce the only way of pardon and forgiveness. And certainly that man is in a very sad and desperate condition, the very nature of whose disease is to reject the remedy that should cure him. And this the apostle tells us, was the condition of those who apostatized from the gospel: (chap. x. 26, 27.) “For if we sin wilfully, after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sin; but a certain fearful looking-for of judgment, and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversary.” The great sacrifice and propitiation for sin was the Son of God; and they who renounce him, what way of expiation can they hope for afterward? what can they expect but to fall into his hands as a judge, whom they have rejected as a sacrifice and Saviour? And then,
3. Those who are guilty of this sin, provoke God in the highest manner to withdraw his grace and Holy Spirit from them, by the power and efficacy whereof they should be brought to repentance; 80so that it can hardly otherwise be expected, but that God should leave those to themselves, who have so unworthily forsaken him; and wholly withdraw his grace and Spirit from such persons as have so notoriously offered despite to the Spirit of grace.
I do not say that God always does this, he is sometimes better to such persons than they have deserved from him, and saves those who have done what they can to undo themselves, and mercifully puts forth his hand to recover them who were drawing back to perdition; especially if they were suddenly surprised by the violence of temptation, and yielded to it not deliberately and out of choice, but merely through weakness and infirmity, and so soon as they reflected upon themselves, did return and repent: this was the case of St. Peter, who being surprised with a sudden fear denied Christ; but being admonished of his sin, by the signal which our Saviour had given him, he was recovered by a speedy and hearty repentance. And so likewise several of the primitive Christians, who were at first overcome by fear to renounce their religion, did afterwards recover themselves, and died resolute martyrs; but it is a very dangerous state, out of which but few recover, and with great difficulty.
And thus I have done with the five things I propounded to make out, for the clearing of this text from the mistakes and misapprehensions which have been about it. I shall now draw some useful inferences from hence by way of application, that we may see how far this doth concern ourselves; and they shall be these:
1st, From the supposition here in the text, that such persons as are there described (namely, those 81who have been baptized, and by baptism have received remission of sins, and did firmly believe the gospel, and the promises of it, and were endowed with miraculous gifts of the Holy Ghost) that these may fall away: this should caution us all against confidence and security; when those that have gone thus far may fall, “Let him that standeth take heed.”
Some are of opinion, that those whom the apostle here describes are true and sincere Christians, and that when he says, “it is impossible, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance,” he means, that they cannot fall away totally, so as to stand in need of being renewed again to repentance: but this is directly contrary to the apostle’s design, which was to caution Christians against apostacy, because, if they did fall away, their recovery would be so exceeding difficult; which argument does plainly suppose, that they might fall away.
On the other hand, there are others, who think the persons here described by the apostle, to be hypocritical Christians, who, for some base ends, had entertained Christianity, and put on the profession of it, but not being sincere and in good earnest, would forsake it when persecution came. But, besides that this is contrary to the description which the apostle makes of these persons, who are said “to have tasted of the heavenly gift, and to have been made partakers of the Holy Ghost;” by which if we understand justification and remission of sins, and the sanctifying virtue of the Holy Ghost, which in all probability is the meaning of these phrases, these are blessings which did not belong to hypocrites, and which God does not bestow upon them; I say, besides this, there is no reason to imagine 82that the apostle intended such persons, when it is likely that there were very few hypocrites in those times of persecution; for what should tempt men to dissemble Christianity, when it was so dangerous a profession? or what worldly ends could men have in taking that profession upon them, which was so directly contrary to their worldly interests?
So that, upon the whole matter, I doubt not but the apostle here means those who are real in the profession of Christianity, and that such might fall away. For we may easily imagine, that men might be convinced of the truth and goodness of the Christian doctrine, and in good earnest embrace the profession of it, and yet not be so perfectly weaned from the world, and so firmly rooted and established in that persuasion, as, when it came to the trial, to be able to quit all for it, and to bear up against all the terrors and assaults of persecution; so that they might be real Christians, and no hypocrites, though they were not so perfectly established and confirmed, and so sincerely resolved as many others. They were not like St. Paul, and those tried persons whom he speaks of: (Rom. viii. 35. 27.) “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors.” (They had been tried by all these, and yet had held out.) Upon which he breaks out into those triumphant expressions; “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of 83God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord,” They might not (I say) be like those; and yet for all that be real in their profession of Christianity, and no hypocrites.
In short, I take them to be such as our Saviour describes him to be, “who received the seed into stony places;” namely, “he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it: yet hath he not root in himself, but endureth for a while; for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.” This is no description of a hypocrite; but of one that was real, as far as he went (for he is said to receive the word with joy), but was not well rooted, and come to such a confirmed state, as resolutely to withstand the assaults of persecution.
So that though we have freely embraced Christianity, and are in a good degree sincere in the profession of it, yet there is great reason why we should neither be secure nor confident in ourselves. Not secure, because there is great danger that our resolutions may be borne down one time or other by the assaults of temptation, if we be not continually vigilant, and upon our guard. Not confident in ourselves, because “we stand by faith, and faith is the gift of God;” therefore, as the apostle infers, “we should not be high-minded, but fear.” Men may have gone a great way in Christianity, and have been sincere in the profession of it; and yet afterwards may apostatize in the foulest manner, not only fall off to a vicious life, but even desert the profession of their religion. I would to God the experience of the world did not give us too much reason to believe the possibility of this. When we see so many revolt from the profession of the reformed religion, to the corruptions and superstitions of Rome; and others, from a religious and sober life, to plunge themselves into all kind of lewdness and debauchery, and, it is to be feared, into atheism and infidelity; can we doubt any longer whether it be possible for Christians to fall away? I wish we were ascertain of the possibility of their recovery, as we are of their falling, and that we had as many examples of the one as of the other.
Let us then be very vigilant over ourselves, and according to the apostle’s exhortation, (2 Pet. iii. 17.) “Seeing we know these things before, beware lest we also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from our own steadfastness.”
2dly, This shews us how great an aggravation it is, for men to sin against the means of knowledge which the gospel affords, and the mercies which it offers unto them. That which aggravated the sin of these persons was, that after they were once enlightened; that is, at their baptism were instructed in the Christian doctrine, the clearest and most perfect revelation that ever was made of God’s will to mankind; that after they were justified freely by God’s grace, and had received remission of sins, and had many other benefits conferred upon them; that, after all this, they should fall off from this holy religion. This was that which did so heighten and inflame their guilt, and made their case so near desperate. The two great aggravations of crimes are wilfulness and ingratitude; if a crime be wilfully committed, and committed against one that hath obliged us by the greatest favours and benefits. Now he commits a fault wilfully, who does it against the clear knowledge of his duty. Ignorance excuseth; for so far as a man is ignorant of 85the evil lie does, so far the action is involuntary: but knowledge makes it to be a wilful fault. And this is a more peculiar aggravation of the sins of Christians, because God hath afforded them the greatest means and opportunities of knowledge; that revelation which God hath made of his will to the world by our blessed Saviour, is the clearest light that ever mankind had, and the mercies which the gospel brings are the greatest that ever were offered to the sons of men; the free pardon and remission of all our sins, and the assistance of God’s grace and Holy Spirit, to help the weakness of our nature, and enable us to do what God requires of us. So that we who sin after baptism, after the knowledge of Christianity, and those great blessings which the gospel bestows on mankind, are of all persons in the world the most inexcusable. The sins of heathens bear no proportion to ours, because they never enjoyed those means of knowledge, never had those blessings conferred upon them, which Christians are partakers of; so that we may apply to ourselves those severe words of the apostle in this Epistle, “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” Hear how our Saviour aggravates the faults of men upon this account, of the wilfulness of them, and their being committed against the express knowledge of God’s will: (Luke xii. 47, 48.) “The servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes: for unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more/ The means and merries of the gospel are so many talents committed to our trust, of the neglect whereof 86a severe account will be taken at the day of judgment. If we be wilful offenders, there is no excuse for us, and little hopes of pardon. “If we sin wilfully, after we have received the knowledge of the truth (says the apostle in this Epistle), there remains no more sacrifice for sin.” I know the apostle speaks this particularly of the sin of apostacy from Christianity; but it is in proportion true of all other sins, which those who have received the knowledge of the truth are guilty of. They who, after they have entertained Christianity, and made some progress in it, and been in some measure reformed by it, do again relapse into any vicious course, do thereby render their condition very dangerous. So St. Peter tells us, (2 Pet. ii. 20, 21.) “If, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome; the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them, not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.” Therefore we may do well to consider seriously what we do, when, under the means and opportunities of knowledge which the gospel affords us, and the inestimable blessings and favours which it confers upon us, we live in any wicked and vicious course. Our sins are not of a common rate, when they have so much of wilfulness and unworthiness in them. If men shall be severely punished for living against the light of nature; what vengeance shall be poured on those who offend against the glorious light of the gospel? “This is the condemnation, that light is come,” &c.
3dly, The consideration of what hath been said 87is matter of comfort to those, who, upon every failing and infirmity, are afraid they have committed “the unpardonable sin,” and that it is impossible for them to be restored by repentance. There are many, who, being of a dark and melancholy temper, are apt to represent things worse to themselves than there is reason for, and do many times fancy themselves guilty of great crimes, in the doing or neglecting of those things which in their nature are in different, and are apt to aggravate and blow up every little infirmity into an unpardonable sin. Most men are apt to extenuate their sins, and not to be sensible enough of the evil and heinousness of them; but it is the peculiar infelicity of melancholy persons to look upon their faults as blacker and greater than in truth they are; and whatsoever they hear and read in Scripture, that is spoken against the grossest and most enormous offenders, they apply to themselves; and when they hear of the “sin against the Holy Ghost, and the sin unto death,” or read this text which I am now treating of, they presently conclude that they are guilty of these sins, and that this is a description of their case. Where as, the sin against the Holy Ghost is of that nature, that probably none but those that saw our Saviour’s miracles are capable of committing it; and excepting that, there is no sin whatsoever that is unpardonable. As for “the sin unto death,” and that here spoken of in the text, I have shewn that they are a total apostacy from the Christian religion, more especially to the heathen idolatry; which these persons I am speaking of, have no reason to imagine themselves guilty of. And though great and notorious crimes committed by Christians may come near to this, and it may be very hard for those who are 88guilty of them, to recover themselves again to repentance; yet, to be sure, for the common frailties and infirmities of human nature, there is an open way of pardon in the gospel, and they are many times forgiven to us upon a general repentance; so that upon account of these, which is commonly the case of the persons I am speaking of, there is not the least ground of despair; and though it be hard many times for such persons to receive comfort, yet it is easy to give it, and that upon sure grounds, and as clear evidence of Scripture, as there is for any thing; so that the first thing that such persons, who are so apt to judge thus hardly of themselves, are to be convinced of (if possible) is this—that they ought rather to trust the judgment of others concerning themselves, than their own imagination, which is so distempered, that it cannot make a true representation of things. I know that where melancholy does mightily prevail, it is hard to persuade people of this; but till they be persuaded of it, I am sure all the reason in the world will signify nothing to them.
4thly, This should make men afraid of great and presumptuous sins, which come near apostacy from Christianity; such as deliberate murder, adultery, gross fraud and oppression, or notorious and habitual intemperance. For what great difference is there, whether men renounce Christianity; or, professing to believe it, do in their works deny it? Some of these sins which I have mentioned, particularly murder and adultery, were ranked in the same degree with apostacy by the ancient church; and so severe was the discipline of many churches, that persons guilty of these crimes were never admitted to the peace and communion of the church again, whatever testimony they gave of their repentance.89
I will not say but this was too rigorous; but this shews how inconsistent with Christianity these crimes, and others of the like degree of heinousness, were in those days thought to be. They did not, indeed, as Tertullian tell us, think such persons absolutely in capable of the mercy of God; but after such a fall, so notorious a contradiction to their Christian profession, they thought it unfit afterwards that they should ever be reckoned in the number of Christians.
5thly, It may be useful for us upon this occasion to reflect a little upon the ancient discipline of the church, which in some places (as I have told you) was so severe, as, in case of some great crimes after baptism, as apostacy to the heathen idolatry, murder, and adultery, never to admit those that were guilty of them, to the peace and communion of the church: but all churches were so strict, as not to admit those who fell, after baptism, into great and notorious crimes, to reconciliation with the church, but after a long and tedious course of penance, after the greatest and most public testimonies of sorrow and repentance, after long fasting and tears, and the greatest signs of humiliation that can be imagined. In case of the greatest offences, they were seldom reconciled, till they came to lie upon their death beds: and, in case of other scandalous sins, not till after the humiliation of many years. This, perhaps, may be thought too great severity; but I am sure we are as much too remiss now, as they were over rigorous then: but were the ancient discipline of the church in any degree put in practice now, what case would the generality of Christians be in? In what herds and shoals would men be driven out of the communion of the church? It is true, the prodigious degeneracy and corruption of Christians hath long 90since broke these bounds, and it is morally impossible to revive the strictness of the ancient discipline, in any measure, till the world grow better; but yet we ought to reflect, with shame and confusion of face, upon the purer ages of the church, and sadly to consider, how few among us would in those days have been accounted Christians; and upon this consideration to be provoked to an emulation of those better times, and to a reformation of those faults and miscarriages, which, in the best days of Christianity, were reckoned inconsistent with the Christian profession; and to remember, that though the discipline of the church be not now the same it was then, yet the judgment and severity of God is; and that those who live in any vicious course of life, though they continue in the communion of the church, yet they shall be shut out of the kingdom of God. “We are sure that the judgment of God will be according to truth, against them which commit such things.”
6thly, and lastly, The consideration of what hath been said, should confirm and establish us in the profession of our holy religion. It is true, we are not now in danger of apostatizing from Christianity to the heathen idolatry; but we have too many sad examples of those who apostatize from the profession of the gospel, which they have taken upon them in baptism, to atheism and infidelity, to all manner of impiety and lewdness, There are many who daily fall off from the profession of the reformed religion, to the gross errors and superstitions of the Roman church, which in many things does too nearly resemble the old pagan idolatry. And what the apostle here says of the apostates of his time, is proportionally true of those of our days, that they 91who thus fall away,” it is “extremely difficult to renew them again to repentance.” And it ought to be remembered, that the guilt of this kind of apostacy hath driven some to despair; as in the case of Spira, who, for resisting the light and conviction of his mind, was cast into those agonies, and filled with such terrors, as if the very pains of hell had taken hold on him; and in that fearful despair, and in the midst of those horrors, he breathed out his soul.
“Let us then hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering;” and let us take heed how we contradict the profession of our faith, by any impiety and wickedness in our lives; remembering, that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” I will conclude with the words of the apostle immediately after the text, “The earth, which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God. But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing, whose end is to be burned.” And how gladly would I add the next words! “But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.”92
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