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THE DIFFICULTIES OF A CHRISTIAN LIFE CONSIDERED.
Strive to enter in at the strait gate; for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.—Luke xiii. 24.
THERE are two great mistakes about the nature of religion, equally false, and equally pernicious to the souls of men: and the devil, whose great design it is to keep men off from religion by any means, makes use of both these mistakes, to serve his own purpose and design upon the several tempers of men. Those who are melancholy and serious, he disheartens and discourageth from attempting it, by the extreme trouble and difficulty of it, representing it in so horrid and frightful a shape, incumbered with such difficulties, and attended with such troubles and sufferings, as are insuperable, and intolerable to human nature; whereby he persuades men, that they had better never attempt it, since they may despair to go through with it.
On the other hand, those who are sanguine, and full of hopes, he possesses with a quite contrary apprehension; that the business of religion is so short and easy a work, that it may be done at any time; and, if need be, at the last moment of our lives, though it is not so well to put it upon the last hazard; and by this means a great part of mankind are lulled in security, and adjourn the business of 162religion from time to time; and because it is so easy, and so much in their power, they satisfy themselves with an indeterminate resolution to set about that business some time or other before they die, and so to repent, and make their peace with God, once for all.
These pretences contradict one another, and therefore, cannot be both true; but they may both be false, as indeed they are, and truth lies between them; religion being neither so slight and easy a work as some would have it, nor so extremely difficult and intolerable as others would represent it. To confute the false apprehensions which some have of the easiness of it, our Saviour tells us, there must be some striving; and to satisfy us that the difficulties of religion are not so great and insuperable as some would make them, our Saviour tells us, that those who strive shall succeed and enter in; but those who only seek, that is, do not vigorously set about the business of religion, but only make some faint attempts to get to heaven, shall not be able to enter in. “Strive to enter in at the strait gate; for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, but shall not be able.”
The occasion of which words of our blessed Saviour, was a question that was put to him by one of his disciples, concerning the number of those that should be saved: (ver. 23.) One said unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved?” To which curious question, our Saviour (according to his manner when such kind of questions were put to him) does not give a direct answer, because it was neither necessary nor useful for his hearers to be resolved in; it did not concern them to know what number of persons should be saved, but what course 163they should take that they might be of that number; and therefore, instead of satisfying their curiosities, he puts them upon their duty; admonishing them, instead of concerning themselves what should become of others, to take care of themselves. “And he said unto them, Strive to enter in at the strait gate; for many, J say unto you, shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” He does not say, that but few shall be saved (as some have presumptuously ventured to determine), but only few in comparison of those many that “shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able.”
In these words we may consider these two things:
First, The duty enjoined; “Strive to enter in at the strait gate.”
Secondly, The reason or argument to enforce it: “For many shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able.”
First, The duty enjoined; “Strive to enter in at the strait gate.” Which words being metaphorical, I shall strip them of the metaphor, that so we may see the plain meaning of them. Now by this metaphor, or rather allegory, these three things are plainly intended:
1st, The course of a holy and Christian life, in order to the obtaining of eternal happiness, is here represented to us by a way, which every man that would come to heaven, must walk in. For so St, Matthew (who expresseth this more fully) makes mention of a way, as well as a gate, by which we must enter into it; “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, that leadeth to life.” And this, though it be not expressed by St. Luke, is necessarily understood; “Strive to enter in at the strait gate;” that is, into the way that leads to life.164
2dly, The first difficulties of a holy and religious course of life, are here represented to us by a strait gate. For the gate at which we enter, and the way in which we walk, can signify nothing else, but the beginning and progress of a holy and religious course.
3dly, Our diligence and constancy in this course, are represented by striving, a word which hath a great force and emphasis in it, ἀγωνίζεσθε, a metaphor taken from the earnest contention which was used in the Olympic games, by those who strove for mastery in running or wrestling, or any of the other exercises which were there used.
Secondly, Here is a reason added to enforce the exhortation or duty; “for many shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able:” that is, there are a great many that will do something in Christianity, and make some faint attempts to get to heaven, who yet shall fall short of it, for want of such a firm resolution and earnestness of endeavour, as is necessary to the attaining of it.
Having thus explained the words, I shall take occasion from the first part of them, namely, the duty or exhortation, to handle these three points, very useful for us to consider, and to be well instructed in:
1st, The difficulties of a holy and Christian course.
2dly, The firm resolution and earnest endeavour that is required on our part for the conquering of these difficulties.
3dly, That these difficulties are not so great and insuperable, as to be a just discouragement to our endeavours; if we will strive, we may master them.
First, The difficulties of a holy and Christian 165course And these are either from ourselves, or from something without us.
1. From ourselves; from the original corruption and depravation of our nature, and the power of evil habits and customs, contracted by vicious practices. Our natures are vitiated and depraved, inclined to evil, and impotent to good; besides that, being habituated to sin and vice, it is a matter of in finite difficulty to break off a custom, and to turn the course of our life another way. Now, because this is the difficulty of our first entrance into religion, it is represented by a strait gate, which is hard to get through.
2. There are, likewise, other difficulties from without; as, namely, the opposition and persecution of the world, which was very raging and violent in the first beginnings of Christianity. And this our Saviour represents by the ruggedness and roughness of the way, as St. Matthew expresseth it: (chap. vii. 14.) “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, that leads to life, Καὶ τεθλιμμένη ἡ ὁδὸς, confragosa est via, (so Grotius renders it) the way is craggy, full of afflictions and troubles.
So that these are the two great difficulties in a Christian course; indisposition from within, and opposition from without.
1. Indisposition from within. And this makes religion so much the more difficult, because it checks us at our very first entrance upon our Christian course, and makes us unwilling to set out. The corruption of our nature, and those vicious habits, which by a long custom of sin we have contracted, do strongly incline us to the contrary way, so that a man must offer great force and violence to himself, that will conquer this difficulty. It is one of the hardest 166things in the world to break off a vicious habit, and to get loose from the tyranny of custom. The prophet Jeremiah speaks of it as next to a natural impossibility: (chap. xiii. 23.) “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.” This requires great striving indeed. No thing shews the spirit and resolution of a man more, than to contend with an inveterate habit; for in this case a man strives against the very bent and inclination of his soul; and it is easier to set a man against all the world, than to make him tight with himself: and yet this every man must do, who, from any wicked course of life, betakes himself seriously to religion; he must, as it were, lay violent hands upon himself, and fight with the man he was before; and this in Scripture is emphatically expressed to us, by “crucifying the old man, with the affections and lusts thereof.” A Christian, when he first enters upon a holy and good course of life, is represented as two persons and parties at civil war one with another, the old and the new man; so that whoever will be a Christian must put off himself, and become another man; and it is no easy matter for a man to quit himself.
2. In our Christian course, we must likewise expect to meet with great opposition from without. Blessed be God, Christianity hath generally been for many ages free from this difficulty, which at tended the first profession of it; it was then, indeed, a very steep and craggy way, very rough and thorny, not to be travelled in without sweat and blood; then the dangers and hazards of the profession were such, as were not to be encountered by a mere moral resolution, and the natural strength of 167flesh and blood; the persecution that attended it was so hot, and the torments which threatened it so terrible, that the sensual and inconsiderate part of mankind would rather venture hell at a distance, than run themselves upon so present and evident a danger.
But since these ages of persecution, this difficulty hath been in a great measure removed. Not but the true religion hath still its enemies in the world; but they are not let loose, as they were in those times: it is still persecuted and exposed to the malice and reproach, but not to the rage and fury of unreason able men. In the calmest times there is hardly any man can be a strict and sincere Christian, without being liable to hatred and contempt, without denying himself many of those worldly advantages, which those who make no conscience of the strict laws of Christianity may make to themselves; so that, at all times, it requires a good degree of constancy and resolution to persevere in a holy course, and to bear up against the opposition of the world, and to withstand its temptations, to be “harmless and blameless in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation;” not to be infected with the eminent and frequent examples of vice, and carried down with the stream of a corrupt and degenerate age. So that though our difficulties be not always the same, and equal to those which the primitive Christians encountered, yet there is enough to exercise our best resolution and care, though the main body of the enemies of Christianity be broken, and “the sons of Anak be destroyed out of the land; yet some of the old inhabitants are still left, to be thorns in our sides, and pricks in our eyes,” that true religion may always have something to exercise its 168force and vigour upon. I have done with the first point, and the difficulties of a Christian course. I proceed to the
Second, The earnest endeavour that is to be used on our part, for the conquering of these difficulties. And to the business of religion, if we will set upon it in good earnest, these three things are required:
1st, A mighty resolution to engage us in a holy and Christian course.
2dly, Great diligence and industry to carry us on in it.
3dly, An invincible constancy to carry us through it, and make us persevere in it to the end.
1st, A mighty resolution to engage us in a holy and good course. For want of this most men miscarry and stumble at the very threshold, and never get through the strait gate, never master the difficulties of the first entrance. Many are well disposed towards religion, and have fits of good inclination that way (especially in their young and tender years), but they want firmness of resolution to conquer the difficulties of the first entrance upon a religious and virtuous life; like the young man that came to our Saviour, well inclined to do some good thing, that “he might inherit eternal life;” but when it came to the point, he gave back, he was divided betwixt Christ and the world, and had not resolution enough to part with all for him.
Many men (I doubt not) have frequent thoughts and deliberations about a better course of life, and are in a good mind to take up, and break off that lewd and riotous course they are in; but they can not bring themselves to a fixed purpose and resolution: and yet without this nothing is to be done, “the double-minded man is unstable in all his 169ways.” There must be no indifferency and irresoluteness in our minds, if we will be Christians: we must not stop at the gate, but resolve to press in. We see that men take up peremptory resolutions in other matters, to be rich and great in the world, and they can be true and steadfast to these resolutions; and why should not men resolve to be wise and happy, and stand to these resolutions, and make them good? God is more ready to assist and strengthen these kind of resolutions than any other; and I am sure no man hath so much reason to resolve upon any thing, as to live a holy and virtuous life; no other resolution can do a man that good, and bring him that comfort and happiness, that this will.
2dly, The business of religion, as it requires a mighty resolution to engage us in a holy and good course, so likewise a great diligence to carry us on in it. When we are got through the strait gate, we must account to meet with many difficulties in our way; there are in the course of a Christian life many duties to be performed, which require great pains and care; many temptations to be resisted, which will keep us continually upon our guard; a great part of the way is up hill, and not to be climbed without labour; and the Scripture frequently calls upon us, “to work out our salvation with fear and trembling;” that is, with great care and industry; “to give all diligence to make our calling and election sure;” to follow holiness, διώκειν, to pursue it with great earnestness. Nothing in this world that is of value, is to be had on other terms; and we have low thoughts of heaven, if we think any pains too much to get thither.
3dly, The business of religion requires an invincible 170constancy to carry us through it, and to make us persevere in it to the end, Resolution may make a good entrance; but it requires great constancy and firmness of mind to hold out in a good course. A good resolution maybe taken up upon a present heat and may cool again; but nothing but a constant and steady temper of mind will make a man persevere; and yet, without this, no man shall ever reach heaven. “He that continueth to the end shall be saved; but if any man draw back, God’s soul will have no pleasure in him.” God puts this case by the prophet, and determines it, (Ezekiel xviii. 24.) “When the righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, shall he live? all his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned; in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them he shall die;” nay, so far will his righteousness be from availing him, if he do not persevere in it, that it will render his condition much worse, to have gone so far towards heaven, and at last to turn his back upon it. So St. Peter tells us: (2 Pet. ii. 20, 21.) “For 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 over come; 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.” I proceed to the
Third point; namely, That the difficulties of a holy and a Christian life are not so great and insuperable, as to be a just ground of discouragement to our endeavours. All that I have said concerning the difficulties of religion was with no design to 171damp, but rather to quicken our industry; for, upon the whole matter, when all things are duly considered, it will appear, that “Christ’s yoke is easy, and his burthen light; that the commandments of God are not grievous;” no, not this commandment of “striving to enter in at the strait gate;” which I shall endeavour to make manifest by taking these four things into consideration.
1. The assistance which the gospel offers to us. God hath there promised to “give his Holy Spirit to them that ask him;” and by the assistance of God’s Holy Spirit, we may be able to conquer all those difficulties. Indeed, if we were left to ourselves, to the impotency and weakness of our own nature, we should never be able to cope with these difficulties; every temptation would be too hard for us; every little opposition would discourage us; but “God is with us, and there is nothing too hard for him.” If the principles of a holy life were only the birth of our own resolution, they would easily be borne down; but they are from God, of a heavenly birth and original; and whatsoever is “born of God, overcometh the world.” (John i. 12, 13.) “As many as received him, to them gave he power (ἐξουσίαν, the privilege) to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name; which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
God considers the impotency of human nature, in this depraved and degenerate state into which we are sunk, and therefore he hath left us to ourselves; but when he commands us to work out our own salvation, he tells us for our encouragement, that “he himself works in us both to will and to do:” he does not bid us to be strong in our own 172strength, for he knows we have no strength of our own, but to be “strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might;” and what may not even a weak creature do, that is so powerfully assisted? If we will but make use of this strength, nothing can be too hard for us. Ail that God expects from us is, that we should comply with the motions of his Spirit, and be as sincere in the use of our own endeavours, as he is in the offers of his grace and assistance.
2. Let us consider, that the greatest difficulties are at first; it is but making one manful onset, and sustaining the first brunt, and the difficulties will abate and grow less, and our strength will every day increase and grow more. The gate is strait; but when we have once got through it, “our feet will be set in an open place.” After some struggling to get through, we shall every day find ourselves at more ease and liberty. It will be very hard at first, to master our vicious inclinations, to change the habit of our minds, and the course of our lives, and to act contrary to what we have been long accustomed: but this trouble lasts but for a little while; these pangs of the new-birth, though they be sharp, yet they are not usually of long continuance.
It does, indeed, require great resolution and firmness of mind, to encounter the first difficulties of religion; but if we can but stand it out for one brunt, our enemy will give way, and the pleasure of victory will tempt us on. It is troublesome to conflict with great difficulties, and men are loath to be brought to it: but when we are engaged, it is one of the greatest pleasures in the world to prevail and conquer. Many men are loath to go to war; but after a little success, they are as loath to give over; that which was a terror to them at first, turns into a pleasure.173
3. Consider that custom will make any course of life tolerable, and most things easy. Religion, and the practice of a holy life, is difficult at first; but after we are once habituated to it, the trouble will wear off by degrees, and that which was grievous will become easy; nay, by degrees, much more pleasant than ever the contrary practice was. We see the daily experience of this, in the most difficult and laborious employments of this world; a little pains tires a man at first, but when he is once seasoned and inured to labour, idleness becomes more tedious and troublesome to him than the hardest work. Custom will make any thing easy, though it be a little unnatural. Nothing is more unnatural than sin; it is not according to our original nature and frame, but it is the corruption and depravation of it, a second nature superinduced upon us by custom; whereas the practice of holiness and virtue is agreeable to our original and primitive state; and sin and vice are the perverting of nature contrary to our reason, and the design of our beings, and to all obligations of duty and interest: but by returning to God and our duty, we return to our primitive state; we act naturally, and according to the intention of our beings; and when the force of a contrary custom is taken off, and the bias clapped on the other side, we shall “run the ways of God’s commandments with more delight” and satisfaction, than ever we found in the ways of sin.
For sin is a violence upon our natures, and that is always uneasy, yet it is made more tolerable by custom: but religion restores men to their natural state, and then we are at ease and rest. Religion is at first “a yoke and burthen:” but unless we take this upon us, we shall never find rest to our souls.174
4thly, and lastly, Consider the reward that religion propounds, and this must needs sweeten and mitigate all the troubles and difficulties that are occasioned by it. This “strait gate” through which we must enter, and this “craggy way” which we are to climb up, leads to life, and he is a lazy man, indeed, that will not strive and struggle for life. All that a man can do, he will do for his life, for this miserable life which is so short and uncertain, and “born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards;” a life not worth the having, nor worth the keeping with any great care and trouble, if it were not in order to a better and happier life. But it is not this life which our Saviour means; that, indeed, were not worth all this striving for: it is eternal life; a state of perfect and endless happiness; of “joys unspeakable and full of glory.” And who would not strive to enter in at that gate which leads to so much felicity? Can a man possibly take too much pains, be at too much trouble for a few days, to be happy for ever?
So often as I consider what incredible industry men use for the things of this life, and to get a small portion of this world, I am ready to conclude, that either men do not believe the rewards of another world, or that they do not understand them; else they could not think much to be at the same pains for heaven, that they can cheerfully bestow for the obtaining of these corruptible things. Can we be so unconscionable, as to think God unreasonable, when he offers heaven and everlasting happiness to us upon as easy terms, as any thing in the world is ordinarily to be had? And are not we very foolish and unwise, to put away eternal life from us, when we may have it upon terms so infinitely below the true worth and value of it?175
I have now done with the three things which I propounded to speak to from the first part of these words, which are so many arguments to enforce the exhortation here in the text; to “strive to enter in at the strait gate,” and to give all diligence, by the course of a holy and virtuous life, to get to heaven; and we may assure ourselves, that nothing less than this will bring us thither. So our Saviour tells us, in the latter part of the text, that “many shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” I now proceed to the
Second part of the text; The reason or argument whereby this exhortation is enforced; “Strive to enter in at the strait gate; for many, I say unto you, shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” Every seeking to enter in will not gain our admission into heaven; therefore there must be striving: for men may do many things in religion, and make several faint attempts to get to heaven, and yet at last fall short of it, for want of that earnest contention and endeavour, which is necessary to the attaining of it. We must make religion our business, and set about it with all our might, and persevere and hold out in it, if ever we hope to be admitted to heaven; “for many shall seek to enter,” that shall be shut out.
Now what this seeking is, which is here opposed to striving “to enter in at the strait gate,” our Saviour declares after the text: (ver. 25.) “When once the Master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are: then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets: but he shall say, I tell you, I 176know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity.” St. Matthew mentions some other pretences which they should make; upon which they should lay claim to heaven: (Matt. vii. 21-23.) “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say unto me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” After all their seeking to enter in, and notwithstanding all these pretences, they shall be shut out, and be for ever banished from the presence of God. This shall be their doom, which will be much the heavier, because of the disappointment of their confident expectation and hope. So St. Luke tells us: (chap. xiii. 28, 29.) “There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth; when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out. And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God.” To which St. Matthew adds, (chap. viii. 12.) “But the children of the kingdom shall be cast into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And then our Saviour concludes: (Luke xiii. 30.) “Behold, there are last that shall be first, and first which shall be last.” From all which it appears, with what confidence many men, upon these false pretences (which our Saviour calls “seeking to enter in,”) shall lay claim to heaven, and how strangely they shall be disappointed of their expectation 177and hope; when they shall find themselves cast out of heaven, who they thought had outdone all others in religion, and were the only members of the true church, and the children and heirs of the kingdom; and shall see others, whom they thought to be out of the pale of the true church, and excluded from all terms of salvation, come from all quarters, and find free admission into heaven; and shall find themselves so grossly and widely mistaken, that those very persons whom they thought to be last, and of all others farthest from salvation, shall be first; and they themselves, whom they took for the children of the kingdom, and such as should be admitted into heaven in the first place, shall be rejected and cast out.
So that by “seeking to enter,” we may understand all those things which men may do in religion upon which they shall pretend to lay claim to heaven; nay, and confidently hope to obtain it; and yet shall be shamefully disappointed, and fall short of it. Whatever men think, and believe, and do in religion, what privileges soever men pretend, what ways and means soever men endeavour to appease the Deity, and to recommend themselves to the Divine favour and acceptance, all this is but “seeking to enter in,” and is not that striving which our Saviour requires. If men “do not do the will of God, but are workers of iniquity,” it will all signify nothing to the obtaining of eternal happiness.
Our Saviour here instanceth in men’s profession of his religion, calling him “Lord, Lord;” in their personal familiarity and conversation with him, by eating and drinking in his presence and company; in their having heard him preach the doctrine of life and salvation, “Thou hast taught in our streets;” 178in their having prophesied, and wrought great miracles in his name and by his power; “Have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?” These were great and glorious things which they boasted of; and yet nothing of all this will do, if men “do not the will of God;” notwithstanding all this, he will say unto them, “I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, ye workers of iniquity.”
And by a plain parity of reason, whatever else men do in religion, what attempts soever men may make to get to heaven, upon what privileges or pretences soever they may lay claim to eternal life, they will certainly fall short of it, if they “do not do the will of God, but are workers of iniquity.” My business, therefore, at this time shall be, to discover the several false claims and pretences which men may make to heaven, and yet shall never enter into it. And to this purpose I shall instance in several particulars, by one or more of which men commonly delude themselves, and are apt to entertain vain and ill-grounded hopes of eternal salvation.
1st, Some trust to the external profession of the true religion.
2dly, Others have attained to a good degree of knowledge in religion, and they rely much upon that.
3dly, There are others that find themselves much affected with the word of God, and the doctrines contained in it.
4thly, Others are very strict and devout in the external worship of God.
5thly, Others confide much in their being members of the only true church, in which alone salvation 179is to be had, and in the manifold privileges and advantages which therein they have above others of getting to heaven.
6thly, Others think their great zeal for God and his true religion, will certainly save them.
7thly, Others go a great way in the real practice of religion.
8thly, Others rely much upon the sincerity of their repentance and conversion, whereby they are put into a state of grace, and become the children of God, and heirs of everlasting life; and being once truly so, they can never fall from that state, so as finally to miscarry.
Lastly, Others venture all upon a death-bed repentance, and their importunity with God to receive them to mercy at the last.
I shall briefly go over these particulars, which are the several ways whereby men seek to enter into heaven, and hope to get thither at last; and shall shew the insufficiency of them; and that there is something beyond all this necessary to be done for the attainment of everlasting salvation.
1st, Some trust to the mere external profession of the true religion, and think it enough to call Christ, Lord, Lord; to be baptized in his name, and thereby to be admitted members of the Christian church. What the apostle says of the profession of the Jewish religion, and the outward badge of it, circumcision, may be applied to the profession of Christianity made in baptism: (Rom. ii. 17, 25, 28, 29.) “Behold, thon art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God. Circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law; but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision; for he is not a Jew that is 180one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew which is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter.” The case is the same of those who make only an outward profession of Christianity. “Baptism verily profiteth, if we perform the condition of that covenant which we entered into by baptism;” but if we do not, our baptism is no baptism: for he is not a Christian which is one outwardly, nor is that baptism which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Christian which is one inwardly, and baptism is of the heart, in the spirit, and not in water only. So St. Peter tells us, (I Pet. iii. 21.) that baptism is not only the washing of the body with water, and “the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience towards God.”
The promise of eternal life and happiness is not made to the external profession of religion, without the sincere and real practice of it. “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, (says our Saviour) and do not the things which I say?” The Scripture hath no where said, he that is baptized shall be saved; but “he that believeth and is baptized, he that repenteth and is baptized, shall be saved.” This deserves to be seriously considered by a great many Christians, who have nothing to shew for their Christianity, but their names; whose best title to heaven is their baptism, an engagement entered into by others in their name, but never confirmed and made good by any act of their own; a thing which was done before they remember, and which hath no other effect upon their hearts and lives, than if it were quite forgotten.
2dly, There are others who have attained to a 181good degree of knowledge in religion, and they hope that will save them. But if our knowledge in religion, though never so clear and great, do not descend into our hearts and lives, and govern our actions, all our hopes of heaven are built upon a false and sandy foundation. So our Saviour tells us: (Matt. vii. 26.) “Every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand.” And, (John xiii. 17.) “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.”
There is not a greater cheat in religion, nothing wherein men do more grossly impose upon themselves, than in this matter; as if the knowledge of religion, without the practice of it, would bring men to heaven. How diligent are many in reading and hearing the word of God, w ho yet take no care to practise it in their lives? Like those in the prophet Ezekiel, xxxiii. 31. of whom God complains, “They come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear my words, but they will not do them.” None do so foolishly, and yet so deservedly, miss of happiness, as those who are very careful to learn the way to heaven, and when they have done, will take no pains at all to get thither.
3dly, There are others who find themselves much affected with the word of God, and the preaching of it; and this they take for a very good sign, that it hath its due effect upon them. And this happens very frequently, that the word of God makes considerable impressions upon men for the present, and they are greatly affected with it, and troubled for their sins, and afraid of the judgments of God, and the terrible vengeance of another world; and upon 182this they take up some resolutions of a better course, which after a little while vanish and come to nothing. This was the temper of the people of Israel; they delighted to hear the prophet speak to them in the name of God, (Ezek. xxxiii. 32.) “And lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well upon an instrument, for they hear thy words, but they do them not.” Mark vi. 20. it is said that Herod had a great reverence for John the Baptist, “that he observed him, and heard him gladly;” but yet, for all that, he continued the same cruel and bad man that he was before. And in the parable of the sower, (Matt. xiii. 20.) there are one sort of hearers mentioned, who, “when they heard the word, received it with joy; but having no root in themselves, they endured but for a while, and when tribulation or persecution ariseth, because of the word, presently they are offended.” There are many men who have sudden motions in religion, and are mightily affected for the present; but it must be a rooted and fixed principle, that will endure and hold out against great difficulties and opposition. Acts xxiv. 25. it is said, that when St. Paul “reasoned of righteousness, and temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled:” and no thing is more frequent, than for men to be mightily startled at the preaching of the word, when their judgments are convinced and borne down, and their consciences touched to the quick: a lively representation of the evil of sin, and the infinite danger of a sinful course, may stir up the passions of grief and fear, and dart such stings into the consciences of men, as may make them extremely restless and unquiet, and work some good thoughts and inclinations 183in them towards a better course; and yet like metals, when the heat is over, they may be the harder for having been melted down.
4thly, Others shew great strictness and devotion in the worship of God, and this they hope will be accepted, and cannot fail to bring them to heaven: and yet some of the worst of men have been very eminent for this. The pharisees were the most exact people in the world in matter of external ceremony and devotion; and yet for all this, our Saviour plainly tells them, that they were farther from the kingdom of God, than those who seemed to be farthest, than publicans and harlots: and that because they were so very bad, under so great a pretence of devotion, therefore they should “receive the greater damnation.”
Not but that external devotion is a necessary expression of religion, and highly acceptable to God, when it proceeds from a pious and devout mind, and when men are really such in their hearts and lives as their external devotion represents them to be: but when the outward garb of religion is only made a cloak for sin and wickedness, when there is nothing within to answer all the show that we see without, nothing is more odious and abominable to God. These are mere engines and poppets in religion; all the motions we see without proceed from an artificial contrivance, and not from any inward principle of life; and as no creature is more ridiculous than an ape, because the beast makes some pretence to human shape, so nothing is more fulsome than this hypocritical devotion, because it looks like religion, but is the farthest from it of any thing in the world.
5thly,Others confide very much in their being members 184of the only true church, in which alone salvation is to be had, and in the manifold privileges and advantages which they have thereby above others of getting to heaven. Thus the Jews confined salvation to themselves, and looked upon all the rest of the world as excluded from it. And not only so, but they believed that by one means or other every Israelite should be saved. So that they were the Jewish catholic church, out of which there was no hope of salvation for any.
The same pretence is made by some Christians at this day, who engross salvation to themselves, and will allow none to go to heaven out of the communion of their church; and have so ordered the matter, that hardly any that are in it can miscarry. They are members of an infallible church, which cannot possibly err in matters of faith; they have not only “eat and drunk in Christ’s presence,” but have eat and drunk his very corporal presence, the natural substance of his flesh and blood; they have not only our blessed Saviour, but innumerable other intercessors in heaven; they have not only their own merits to plead for them, but in case they be defective, they may have the merits of others as signed and made over to them out of the infinite stock and treasure of the church, upon which they may challenge eternal life, as of right and due be longing to them; and by a due course of confession and absolution, may quit scores with God for all their sins from time to time. Or, if they have neglected all this, they may, after the most flagitious course of life, upon attrition (that is, upon some trouble for sin, out of fear of hell and damnation) joined with confession and absolution, get to heaven at last; provided the priest mean honestly, and 185do not, for want of intention, deprive them of the saving benefit and effect of this sacrament.
But is it possible men can be deluded at this rate! as to think that confidence of their own good condition, and want of charity to others, will carry them to heaven? that any church hath the privilege to save impenitent sinners? And they are really impenitent, who do not exercise such a repentance as the gospel plainly requires; and if men die in this state, whatever church they are of, the great Judge of the world hath told us, that he will not know them, but will bid them to depart from him, because they have been workers of iniquity.
6thly, Others think that their zeal for God, and his true religion, will certainly save them. But zeal, if it be not according to knowledge, if it be mistaken in its object, or be irregular and excessive in the degree, is so far from being a virtue, that it may be a great sin and fault; and though it be for the truth, yet if it be destitute of charity, and separated from the virtues of a good life, it will not avail us. So St. Paul tells us, that “though a man shall give his body to be burnt; yet if he have not charity, it is nothing.”
7thly, Others go a great way in the real practice of religion, and this sure will do the business. And it is very true, and certain in experience, that religion may have a considerable awe and influence upon men’s hearts and lives, and yet they may fall short of happiness. Men may in many considerable instances perform their duty to God and man; and yet the retaining of one lust, the practice of any one known sin, may hinder them from “entering in at the strait gate.” Herod did not only hear John gladly, but did many things in obedience to his 186doctrine; and yet he was a very bad man. The pharisee thanked God (and it may be truly) that he was not like other men, an extortioner, or unjust, or an adulterer; and yet the penitent publican was justified before him. The young man who came to our Saviour to know what he should do to enter into life, and of whom our Saviour testifies, that he was not far from the kingdom of God, and that he wanted but one thing; yet for want of that he miscarried. And St. James assures us, that “if a man keep the whole law, and yet fail in one point, he is guilty of all.” If we be workers of iniquity in any one kind, Christ will disown us, and bid us depart from him.
8thly, Others rely upon the sincerity of their repentance and conversion, whereby they are put into a state of grace, from whence they can never finally fall. They did once very heartily repent of their wicked lives, and did change their course, and were really reformed, and continued a great while in that good course. And all this may be certainly true, but it is as certain that they are relapsed into their former evil course: and if so, the prophet hath told us their doom, that “if the righteous man forsake his righteousness, his righteousness shall not be remembered; but in the sin that he hath sinned, in that shall he die.” So that a righteous man may turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and die in it. For the prophet doth not here (as some vainly pretend) put a case, which is impossible in fact should happen, unless they will say, that the other case which he puts together with it, of “the wicked man’s turning away from his wickedness, and doing that which is lawful and right,” is likewise impossible, which God forbid. And that men may fall from a state of grace, is no matter of 187discouragement to good men; but a good caution against security, and an argument to greater care and watchfulness; according to that of the apostle, “Let him that standeth, take heed lest he fall;” which admonition were surely to little purpose, if it were impossible for them that stand to fall.
Lastly, Others venture all upon a death-bed repentance, and their importunity with God to receive them to mercy at last. This, indeed, is only to seek, and not to strive to enter in; and these perhaps are they, whom our Saviour represents as “standing without, and knocking at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us;” or, as St. Matthew expresses it, “Many shall say to me in that day, Lord, Lord,” which is most probably meant of the day of judgment, when their case is brought to the last extremity; and next to that is the day of death, when men are entering into a state of endless happiness or misery. And no wonder, if the sinner would then be glad, when he can no longer continue in this world, to be admitted into happiness in the next: but the door is then shut to most sinners, and it is a miracle of God’s grace and mercy, if any repentance that men can then exercise (which at the best must needs be very confused and imperfect) will then be accepted; if any importunity, which men can then use, will be available. For with what face can we expect, that, after all the evil actions of a long life, God should be mollified towards us by a few good words, and accept of a forced and constrained repentance for all our wilful and deliberate crimes, and that he should forgive us all our sins upon a little importunity, when we can sin no longer, and will repent no sooner.
Let us then, by all that hath been said, be effectually persuaded to mind the business of religion in 188good earnest, and, with all our might, especially the practice of it, in the exercise of all the graces and virtues of a good life. Let us heartily repent of all the sins of our past life, and resolve upon a better course for the future; and let us not delay, and put off this necessary work to the most unfit and improper time of old age, and sickness, and death: but let us set about it presently, and enter upon a good course, and make all the speed and progress in it we can.
And let us remember, that whatever we do in religion will not bring us to heaven, if we do not “do the will of our Father which is in heaven;” if we do not give up ourselves to a constant and universal obedience to his laws. To “strive to enter in at the strait gate:” and though we strive to enter in a thousand other ways, we shall not be able; and after all our confidence and conceit of ourselves, and our own righteousness, and security of our salvation from the privileges of any church, it will be a strange damp and disappointment to us, to see the sincere Christians, who have done the will of God, and lived in obedience to his laws, to come from all quarters, and churches in the world, and “sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of God;” when we, who thought ourselves “the children of the kingdom, shall be cast out,” because we have been workers of iniquity. I will conclude all with those plain words of the apostle, (Rom. ii. 7-9.) “To them who, by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for glory, and honour, and immortality, eternal life: but unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to the gospel.”189
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