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THE MERCY OF GOD.
The Lord is long-suffering, and of great mercy.—Numb. xiv. 18.
I HAVE considered God’s goodness in general. There are two eminent branches of it his patience and mercy. The patience of God is his goodness to them that are guilty in deferring or moderating their deserved punishment: the mercy of God is his goodness to them that are or may be miserable. It is the last of these two I design to discourse of at this time; in doing of which I shall inquire,
First, What we are to understand by the mercy of God.
Secondly, Shew you that this perfection belongs to God.
Thirdly, Consider the degree of it, that God is of great mercy.
First, What we are to understand by the mercy of God.
I told you, it is his goodness to them that are in misery, or liable to it; that is, that are in danger of it, or have deserved it. It is mercy to prevent the misery that we are liable to, and which may befal us, though it be not actually upon us. It is mercy to defer the misery that we deserve, or mitigate it; and this is, properly, patience and forbearance. It is mercy to relieve those that are in misery, to support or comfort them. It is mercy to remit the 52misery we deserve, and, by pardon and forgiveness, to remove and take away the obligation to punishment.
Thus the mercy of God is usually, in Scripture, set forth to us by the affection of pity and compassion; which is an affection that causeth a sensible commotion and disturbance in us, upon the apprehension of some great evil that lies upon another, or hangs over him. Hence it is that God is said, in Scripture, to be grieved and afflicted for the miseries of men; his bowels are said to sound, and his heart to turn within him. But though God is pleased in this manner to set forth his mercy and tenderness towards us, yet we must take heed how we clothe the Divine nature with the infirmities of human passions. We must not measure the perfection of God by the expressions of his condescension; and, because he stoops to our weakness, level him to our infirmities. When God is said to pity us, we must take away the imperfection of his passion, the commotion and disturbance of it, and not imagine any such thing in God; but we are to conceive, that the mercy and compassion of God, without producing the disquiet, do produce the effects of the most sensible pity.
Secondly, That this perfection belongs to God.
All the arguments that I used to prove the goodness of God, from the acknowledgment of natural light, and from Scripture and reason, serve to prove that he is merciful; because the mercy of God is an eminent branch of his goodness. I will only produce some of those many texts of Scripture which attribute this perfection to God. (Exod. xxxiv. 6.) “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious.” (Deut. iv. 31.) “The Lord thy God is a merciful 53God.” (2 Chron. xxxiv. 9.) “The Lord your God is gracious and merciful.” (Nehem. ix. 17.) “Ready to pardon, gracious and merciful.” (Psal. xxv. 10.) “All the paths of the Lord are mercy.” (Psal. lxii. 12.) “Unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy.” (Psal. ciii. 8.) “Merciful and gracious.” (Psal. cxxx. 7.) “With the Lord there is mercy.” And so (Jer. iii. 12. Joel ii. 13. Jonah iv. 2. Luke vi. 36.) “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.” The Scripture speaks of this as most natural to him. 2 Cor. i. 3, he is called “the Father of mercies.” But when he punisheth, he doth, as it were, relinquish his nature, and do a “strange work.” “The Lord will wait, that he may be gracious.” (Isa. xxx. 18.) God passeth by opportunities of punishing, but his mercy takes opportunity to display itself: “He waits to be gracious.” To afflict or punish is a work that God is unwilling to do, that he takes no pleasure in; (Lam. iii. 33.) “He doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” But mercy is a work that he delights in; (Micah vii. 18.) “He delighteth in mercy.” When God shews mercy, he does it with pleasure and delight; he is said to rejoice over his people, to do them good. Those attributes that declare God’s goodness, as when he is said to be gracious or merciful, and long-suffering, they shew what God is in himself, and delights to be: those which declare his wrath and severity, shew what he is upon provocation, and the occasion of sin; not what he chooseth to be, but what we do, as it were, compel and necessitate him to be.
Thirdly, For the degree of it; That God is a God of great mercy.
The Scripture doth delight to advance the mercy of God, and does use great variety of expression to 54magnify it: it speaks of the greatness of his mercy; (Numb. xiv. 19.) “According unto the greatness of thy mercy.” (2 Sam. xxiv. 14.) “Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercies are great.” It is called an abundant mercy; (1 Pet. i. 3.) “According to his abundant mercy.” (Psal. ciii. 8.) He is said to be “plenteous in mercy;” and “rich in mercy,” (Eph. ii. 4.) Psal. v. 6. he speaks of the multitude of God’s mercies; and of the variety of them. (Nehem. ix. 19.) “In thy manifold mercies thou forsakest them not.” So many are they, that we are said to be surrounded and compassed about on every side with them. (Psal. ciii. 4.) “Who crowneth thee with loving-kindness and tender mercies.”
And yet further to set forth the greatness of them, the Scripture useth all dimensions. Height; (Psal. lvii. 10.) “Thy mercy is great unto the heavens.” Nay, higher yet; (Psal. cviii. 4.) “Thy mercy is great above the heavens.” For the latitude and extent of it, it is as large as the earth, and extends to all the creatures; (Psal. cxix. 64.) “The earth, O Lord, is full of thy mercy.” (Psal. cxlv. 9.) “His tender mercies are over all his works.” For the length, or duration and continuance of it; (Exod. xxxiv. 7.) “Laying up mercy in store for thousands of generations,” one after another. Nay, it is of a longer continuance: Psal. cxviii. it is several times repeated, that “his mercy endureth for ever.”
And to shew the intense degree of this affection of mercy, or pity, the Scripture useth several emphatical expressions to set it forth to us. The Scripture speaks of the tender mercies of God; (Psal. xxv. 6.) “Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies.” Yea, of the multitude of these; (Psal. li. 1.) “According 55unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” (Jam. v. 11.) “The Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.” They are called God’s bowels, which are the tenderest parts, and apt to yearn and stir in us when any affections of love and pity are excited; (Isa. lxiii. 15.) “Where is the sounding of thy bowels, and of thy mercies towards me? are they restrained?” (Luke i. 78.) “Through the tender mercy of our God;” so it is in our translation: but, if we render it from the original, it is, “through the bowels of the mercies of our God.” How doth God condescend, in those pathetical expressions, which he useth concerning his people? (Hos. xi. 8.) “How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee, Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I set thee as Zeboim? mine heart is turned with in me, and my repentings are kindled together.” Nay, to express his tender sense of our miseries and sufferings, he is represented as being afflicted with us, and bearing apart in our sufferings; (Isa. lxiii. 9.) “In all their afflictions he was afflicted.”
The compassions of God are compared to the tenderest affections among men: to that of a father towards his children; (Psal. ciii. 13.) “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.” Nay, to the compassions of a mother towards her infant; (Isa. xlix. 15.) “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, she may,” it is possible, though most unlikely: but though a mother may turn unnatural, yet God can not be unmerciful.
In short, the Scripture doth every where magnify the mercy of God, and speak of it with all possible 56advantage; as if the Divine nature, which doth in all perfections excel all others, did in this excel itself. The Scripture speaks of it as if God was wholly taken up with it, as if it was his constant exercise and employment, so that, in comparison of it, he doth hardly display any other excellency; (Psal. xxv. 10.) “All the paths of the Lord are mercy:” as if, in this world, God had a design to advance his mercy above his other attributes. The mercy of God is now in the throne; this is the day of mercy; and God doth display it, many times, with a seeming dishonour to his other attributes, his justice, and holiness, and truth. His justice; this makes Job complain of the long life and prosperity of the wicked; (Job xxi. 7.) “Wherefore do the wicked live, yea, become old?” &c. His holiness; this makes the prophet expostulate with God, (Habak. i. 13.) “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue?” &c. And the truth of God; this makes Jonah complain, as if God’s mercies were such as did make some reflection upon his truth. (Jonah iv. 2.)
But that we may have more distinct apprehensions of the greatness and number of God’s mercies, I will distribute them into kinds, and rank them under several heads. It is mercy, to prevent those evils and miseries that we are liable to: it is mercy, to defer those evils that we have deserved, or to mitigate them: it is mercy, to support and comfort us when misery is upon us; it is mercy, to deliver us from them: but the greatest mercy of all is, to remit the evil and misery we have deserved, by pardon and forgiveness, to remove and take away 57the obligation to punishment. So that the mercy of God may be reduced to these five heads:
I. Preventing mercy. Many evils and miseries which we are liable to, God prevents them at a great distance; and when they are coming towards us, he stops them, or turns them another way. The merciful providence of God, and those invisible guards which protect us, do divert many evils from us, which fall upon others. We seldom take notice of God’s preventing mercy; we are not apt to be sensible how great a mercy it is to be freed from those straits and necessities, those pains and diseases of body, those inward racks and horrors which others are pressed withal, and labour under. When any evil or misery is upon us, would we not reckon it a mercy to be rescued and delivered from it? And is it not a greater mercy that we never felt it? Does not that man owe more to his physician, who prevents his sickness and distemper, than he who, after the weakness and languishing, the pains and tortures of several months, is at length cured by him?
II. Forbearing mercy. And this is the patience of God, which consists in the deferring or mode rating of our deserved punishment. Hence it is, that “slow to anger,” and “of great mercy,” do so often go together. But this I shall speak to hereafter in some particular discourses.
III. Comforting mercy. (2 Cor. i. 3.) “The Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort.” The Scripture represents God as very merciful, in comforting and supporting those that are afflicted and cast down: hence are those expressions of” put ting his arms under us; bearing us up; speaking comfortably; visiting us with his loving-kindness:” 58which signify God’s merciful regard to those who are in misery and distress.
IV. His relieving mercy, in supplying those that are in want, and delivering those that are in trouble. God doth, many times, exercise men with trouble and afflictions, with a very gracious and merciful design, to prevent greater evils, which men would otherwise bring upon themselves. Afflictions are a merciful invention of heaven to do us that good, which nothing else can; they awaken us to a sense of God, and of ourselves, to a consideration of the evil of our ways; they make us to take notice of God, to seek him, and inquire after him. God doth, as it were, by afflictions, throw men upon their backs, to make them look up to heaven. (Hos. v. 15.) “In their affliction they will seek me early.” (Psal. lxxviii. 34.) “When he slew them, then they sought him, and they returned and inquired early after God.” But God does not delight in this; “he “doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” When afflictions have accomplished their work, and obtained their end upon us, God is very ready to remove them, and command deliverance for us; (Isa. liv. 7, 8.) “For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment, but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord, thy redeemer.”
V. Pardoning mercy. And here the greatness and fulness of God’s mercy appears, because our sins are great: (Psal. lxxviii. 38.) “Being full of compassion, he forgave their iniquity.” And the multitude of God’s mercies because our sins are many; (Psal. li. 1.) “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness; according unto 59the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” (Exod. xxxiv. 7.) He is said “to pardon iniquity, transgression, and sin.” How manifold are his mercies, to forgive all our sins, of what kind soever! The mercy of God to us in pardoning our sins, is matter of astonishment and admiration; (Mic. vii. 18.) “Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity!” But especially, if we consider by what means our pardon is procured; by transferring our guilt upon the most innocent person, the Son of God, and making him to bear our iniquities, and to suffer the wrath of God which was due to us. The admirable contrivance of God’s mercy appears in this dispensation; this shews the riches of his grace, that he should be at so much cost to purchase our pardon; “Not with corruptible things, as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of his own Son.” (Eph. i. 6, 7.) “To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the Beloved; in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.”
Having dispatched the three particulars I proposed to be spoken to, I shall shew what use we ought to make of this Divine attribute.
Use 1. We ought with thankfulness to acknowledge and admire the great mercy of God to us. Let us view it in all its dimensions; the height, and length, and breadth of it: in all the variety and kinds of it; the preventing mercy of God to many of us. Those miseries that lie upon others, it is mercy to us that we escaped them. It is mercy that spares us: “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, and because his compassions fail not.” It is mercy that mitigates our punishment, and makes 60it fall below the desert of our sins. It is mercy that comforts and supports us under any of those evils that lie upon us, and that rescues and delivers us from them; which way soever we look, we are encompassed with the mercies of God; they “compass us about on every side; we are crowned with loving-kindness, and tender mercies.” It is mercy that feeds us, and clothes us, and that preserves us. But, above all, we should thankfully acknowledge and admire the pardoning mercy of God; (Psal. ciii. 1, 2, 3.) where David does, as it were, muster up the mercies of God, and make a catalogue of them; he sets the pardoning mercy in the front; “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits; who forgiveth all thy iniquities.”
If we look into ourselves, and consider our own temper and disposition, how void of pity and bowels we are, how cruel, and hard-hearted, and insolent, and revengeful; if we look abroad into the world, and see how “full the earth is of the habitations of cruelty,” we shall admire the mercy of God more, and think ourselves more beholden to it. How many things must concur to make our hearts tender, and melt our spirits, and stir our bowels, to make us pitiful and compassionate? We seldom pity any, unless they be actually in misery; nor all such neither, unless the misery they lie under be very great; nor then neither, unless the person that suffers be nearly related, and we be some ways concerned in his sufferings; yea, many times not then neither upon a generous account, but as we are some ways obliged by interest and self-love, and a dear regard to ourselves, when we have suffered the 61like ourselves, and have learned to pity others by our own sufferings, or when in danger or probability to be in the like condition ourselves; so many motives and obligations are necessary to awaken and stir up this affection in us. But God is merciful and pitiful to us out of the mere goodness of his nature; for few of these motives and considerations can have any place in him. This affection of pity and tenderness is stirred up in God by the mere presence of the object, without any other inducement. The mercy of God, many times, doth not stay till we be actually miserable, but looks forward a great way, and pities us at a great distance, and prevents our misery. God doth not only pity us in great calamities, but considers those lesser evils that are upon us. God is merciful to us, when we have deserved all the evils that are upon us; and far greater, when we are less than the least of all his mercies, when we deserved all the misery that is upon us, and have with violent hands pulled it upon our own heads, and have been the authors and procurers of it to ourselves. Though God, in respect of his nature, be at an infinite distance from us; yet his mercy is near to us, and he cannot possibly have any self-interest in it. The Divine nature is not liable to want, or injury, or suffering; he is secure of his own happiness and fulness, and can neither wish the enlargement, nor fear the impairment of his estate; he can never stand in need of pity or relief from us, or any other, and yet he pities us.
Now if we consider the vast difference of this affection in God and us, how tender his mercies are, and how sensible his bowels; and yet we who have so many arguments to move us to pity, how hard our hearts are, and how unapt to relent, as if we were 62born of the rock, and were the offspring of the nether mill-stone: sure, when we duly consider this, we cannot but admire the mercy of God!
How cruel are we to creatures below us! with how little remorse can we kill a flea, or tread upon a t worm! partly because we are secure that they cannot hurt us, nor revenge themselves upon us; and partly because they are so despicable in our eyes, and so far below us, that they do not fall under the consideration of our pity. Look upward, proud man! and take notice of Him who is above thee: thou didst not make the creatures below thee, as God did; there is but a finite distance between thee and the meanest creatures; but there is an infinite distance between thee and God. Man is a name of dignity, when we compare ourselves with other creatures; but compared to God, we are worms, and not men; yea, we are nothing, yea, less than nothing, and vanity. How great then is the mercy of God, which regards us, who are so far below him, which takes into consideration such inconsiderable no things as we are! We may say with David, (Psal. viii. 4.) “Lord, what is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him?” and with Job, (chap. vii. 17.) “What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him, and that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him?”
And then, how hard do we find it to forgive those who have injured us! If any one have offended, or provoked us, how hard are we to be reconciled! how mindful of an injury! how do anger and revenge boil within us! how do we upbraid men with their faults! what vile and low submission do we require of them, before we will receive them into favour, and grant them peace! And if we forgive once, 63we think that is much; but if an offence and provocation be renewed often, we are inexorable. Even the disciples of our Saviour, after he had so emphatically taught them forgiveness, in the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, yet they had very narrow spirits as to this; (Matt. xviii. 21.) Peter comes to him, and asks him, “How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” he thought that was much: and yet we have great obligations to pardoning and forgiving others, because we are obnoxious to God, and one another: we shall many times stand in need of pardon from God and men; and it may be our own case; and when it is, we are too apt to be very indulgent to ourselves, and conceive good hopes of the mercy of others; we would have our ignorance, and inadvertencies, and mistakes, and all occasions, and temptations, and provocations, considered; and when we have done amiss, upon submission and acknowledgment of our fault, we would be received into favour: but God, who is not at all liable to us, how ready is he to forgive! If we confess our sins to him, he is merciful to forgive: he pardons freely; and such are the condescensions of his mercy, though he be the party offended, yet he offers pardon to us, and beseeches us to be reconciled: if we do but come towards him, he runs to meet us, as in the parable of the prodigal, (Luke xv. 20.) What reason have we then thankfully to acknowledge and admire the mercy of God to us!
Use 2. The great mercy of God to us, should stir up in us shame and sorrow for sin. The judgments of God may break us; but the consideration of God’s mercy, should rather melt and dissolve us into tears: (Luke vii. 47.) the woman that washed Christ’s feet with her tears, and wiped them with 64her hair, the account that our Saviour gives of the great affection that she expressed to him, was, “she loved much, because much was forgiven her;” and she grieved much, because much was forgiven her.
Especially, we should sorrow for those sins which have been committed by us after God’s mercies received. Mercies after sins should touch our hearts, and make us relent: it should grieve us that we should offend and provoke a God so gracious and merciful, so slow to anger, and so ready to forgive: but sin against mercies, and after we have received them, is attended with one of the greatest aggravations of sin. And as mercy raises the guilt of our sins, so it should raise our sorrow for them. No consideration is more apt to work upon human nature, than that of kindness; and the greater mercy has been shewed to us, the greater our sins, and the greater cause of sorrow for them; contraries do illustrate, and set off one another; in the great goodness and mercy of God to us, we see the great evil of our sins against him.
Every sin has the nature of rebellion and disobedience; but sins against mercy have ingratitude in them. Whenever we break the laws of God, we rebel against our sovereign; but as we sin against the mercies of God, we injure our benefactor. This makes our sin to be horrid, and astonishing; (Isa. i. 2.) “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.” All the mercies of God are aggravations of our sins; (2 Sam. xii. 7, 8, 9.) “And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hands of Saul: and I gave 65thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things. Wherefore hast thon despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in his sight?” God reckons up all his mercies, and from them aggravates David’s sin; (1 Kings xi. 9.) he takes notice of all the unkind returns that we make to his mercy: and it is the worst temper in the world, not to be wrought upon by kindness, not to be melted by mercy: no greater evidence of a wicked heart, than that the mercies of God have no effect upon it; (Isa. xxvi. 10.) “Let favour be shewed to the wicked, yet will he not learn righteousness.”
Use 3. Let us imitate the merciful nature of God. This branch of God’s goodness is very proper for our imitation. The general exhortation of our Saviour, (Matt. v. 48.) “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect;” is more particularly expressed by St. Luke, (chap. vi. 36.) “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.” Men affect to make images, and impossible representations of God; but, as Seneca saith, Crede Deos, cum propitii essent, fictiles fuisse, We may draw this image and likeness of God; we may be gracious and merciful as he is. Christ, who was the express image of his Father, his whole life and undertaking was a continued work of mercy; he “went about doing good” to the souls of men, by preaching the gospel to them; and to the bodies of men, in healing all manner of diseases: there is no thing that he recommends more to us, in his gospel, than this spirit and temper; (Matt. v. 7.) “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” How 66many parables cloth he use, to set forth the mercy of God to us, with a design to draw us to the imitation of it? The parable of the prodigal; of the good Samaritan; of the servant to whom he forgave ten thou sand talents. We should imitate God in this, in being tender and compassionate to those that are in misery.
This is a piece of natural, indispensable religion, to which positive and instituted religion must give way. (Hosea vi. 6.) “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice;” which is twice cited and used by our Saviour. (Micah vi. 8.) “He hath shewed thee, O man, what it is that the Lord thy God requires of thee; to do justice, and love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
This is always one part of the description of a good man, that he is apt to pity the miseries and necessities of others; (Psal. xxxvii. 26.) “He is ever merciful, and lendeth.” He is far from cruelty, not only to men, but even to the brute creatures; (Prov. xii. 10.) “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.” There is nothing more contrary to the nature of God, than a cruel and savage disposition, not to be affected with the miseries and sufferings of others: how unlike is this to “the Father of mercies, and the God of consolation!” When we can see cruelty exercised, and our bowels not to be stirred within us, nor our hearts be pricked; how unlike is this to God, who is very pitiful, and of tender mercies! but to rejoice at the miseries of others, this is inhuman and barbarous. Hear how God threatens Edom for rejoicing at the miseries of his brother Jacob, (Obad. ver. 10-14.) But to delight to make others miserable, and to aggravate their sufferings; this is devilish, this is the temper of hell, and the very spirit of the destroyer.67
It becomes man, above all other creatures, to be merciful, who hath had such ample and happy experience of God’s mercy to him, and cloth still continually stand in need of mercy from God. God hath been very merciful to us. Had it not been for the tender mercies of God to us, we had all of us, long since, been miserable. Now as we have received mercy from God, we should shew it to others. The apostle useth this as an argument why we should relieve those that are in misery and want, because we have had such experience of the mercy and love of God to us; (1 John iii. 16, 17.) “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us. But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, &c. how dwelleth the love of God in him?” That man hath no sense of the mercy of God abiding upon his heart, that is not merciful to his brother. And it is an argument why we should forgive one another; (Eph. iv. 32.) “Be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” (Chap. v. 1.) “Be ye, therefore, followers of God, as dear children.” (Col. iii. 12, 13.) “Put on therefore (as the elect of God, holy and beloved) bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.”
And we continually stand in need of mercy both from God and man. We are liable one to another; and in the change of human affairs, we may be all subject to one another by turns, and stand in need of one another’s pity and compassion; and we must expect, that “with what measure we mete to others, 68with the same it shall be measured to us again.” To restrain the cruelties, and check the insolences of men, God has so ordered, in his providence, that very often, in this world, men’s cruelties return upon their own heads, and their violent dealings upon their own pates.” Bajazet meets with a Tamerlane.
But if men were not thus liable to one another, we all stand in need of mercy from God. If we be merciful to others in suffering, and forgiving them that have injured us, God will be so to us, he will pardon our sins to us: (Prov. xvi. 6.) “By mercy and truth iniquity is purged.” (2 Sam. xxii. 26.) “With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful.” (Prov. xiv. 21.) “He that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he.” (Prov. xxi. 21.) “He that followeth after righteousness and mercy findeth life.” (Matt. vi. 14.) “If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” But, on the other hand, if we be malicious and revengeful, and implacable to those that have offended us, and in exorable to those who desire to be received to favour, and cruel to those who lie at our mercy, hard hearted to them that are in necessity; what can we expect but that the mercy of God will leave us, that he will “forget to be gracious, and shut up in anger his tender mercy.” (Matt. vi. 15.) “If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” That is a dreadful pas sage: (St. James ii. 13.) “He shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy.” How angry is the lord with the servant who was so inexorable to his fellow-servant, after he had forgiven him so great a debt, as you find in the parable; (Matt. xviii. 24.) he owed him ten thousand talents, 69and, upon his submission and entreaty to have patience with him, he was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him all: but no sooner had this favour been done to him by his lord, but, going forth, he meets his fellow-servant, who owed a small, inconsiderable debt, a hundred pence; he lays hands on him and takes him by the throat, and roundly demands payment of him: he falls down at his feet, and useth the same form of supplication that he had used to his lord; but he rejects his request, and puts him in prison. Now what saith the lord to him: (ver. 32-34.) “O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, until he should pay all that was due unto him.” Now what application doth our Saviour make of this? (Ver. 35.) “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye, from your hearts, forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”
God’s readiness to forgive us should be a powerful motive and argument to us to forgive others. The greatest injuries that we can suffer from men, if we compare them to the sins that we commit against God, they bear no proportion to them, neither in weight nor number; they are but as a hundred pence to ten thousand talents. If we would be like God, we should forgive the greatest injuries; he pardoneth our sins, though they be exceeding great; many injuries, though offences be renewed, and provocations multiplied; for so God doth to us: “He pardoneth iniquity, transgression, and sin.” (Exod. xxxiv. 7.) (Isa. lv. 7.) “He will 70have mercy, he will abundantly pardon.” We would not have God only to forgive us seven times, but seventy times seven, as often as we offend him; so should we forgive our brother.
And we should not be backward to this work; God is “ready to forgive us.” (Nehem. ix. 17.) And we should do it heartily, not only in word, when we retain malice in our hearts; and while we say we forgive, carry on a secret design in our hearts of revenging ourselves when we have opportunity, but we should, “from our hearts, forgive every one;” for so God doth to us, who, when he forgives us, “casts our iniquities behind his back, and throws them into the bottom of the sea, and blots out our transgression, so as to remember our iniquity no more.”
If we do not thus, every time we put up the petition to God, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us,” we do not pray for mercy, but for judgment; we invoke his wrath, and do not put up a prayer, but a dreadful imprecation against ourselves; we pronounce the sentence of our own condemnation, and importune God not to forgive us.
Use 4. If the mercy of God be so great, this may comfort us against despair. Sinners are apt to be dejected, when they consider their unworthiness, the nature and number of their sins, and the many heavy aggravations of them; they are apt to say with Cain, that “their sin is greater than can be forgiven.” But do not look only upon thy sins, but upon the mercies of God. Thou canst not be too sensible of the evil of sin, and of the desert of it; but whilst we aggravate our sins, we must not lessen the mercies of God. When we consider the multitude of our 71sins, we must consider also the multitude of God’s tender mercies: we have been great sinners, and God is of great mercy; we have multiplied our provocations, and he multiplies to pardon.
Do but thou put thyself in a capacity of mercy, by repenting of thy sins, and forsaking of them, and thou hast no reason to doubt but the mercy of God will receive thee: “If we confess our sins, he is merciful and faithful to forgive them.” If we had offended man, as we have done God, we might despair of pardon; but it is God, and not man, that we have to deal with; and “his ways are not as our ways, nor his thoughts as our thoughts: but as the heavens are high above the earth, so are his ways above our ways, and his thoughts above our thoughts.”
We cannot be more injurious to God than by hard thoughts of him, as if fury were in him, and, when we have provoked him, he were not to be appeased and reconciled to us. We disparage the goodness and truth of God, when we distrust those gracious declarations which he has made of his mercy and goodness; if we do not think that he doth heartily pity and compassionate sinners, and really desire their happiness. Doth not he condescend so low as to represent himself afflicted for the miseries of men, and to rejoice in the conversion of a sinner? And shall not we believe that he is in good earnest? Doth Christ weep over impenitent sinners, because “they will not know the things of their peace?” and canst thou think he will not pardon thee upon thy repentance? Is he grieved that men will undo themselves, and will not be saved? and canst thou think that he is unwilling to forgive? We cannot honour and glorify God 72more, than by entertaining great thoughts of his mercy. As we are said to glorify God by our repentance, because thereby we acknowledge God’s holiness and justice, so we glorify him by believing his mercy, because we conceive a right opinion of his goodness and truth; we set to our seal, that God is merciful and true: (Psal. cxlvii. 11.) it is said, that “God takes pleasure in them that hope in his mercy.” As he delights in mercy, so in our acknowledgments of it; that sinners should conceive great hopes of it, and believe him to be what he is. Provided thou dost submit to the terms of God’s mercy, thou hast no reason to despair of it: and he that thinks that his sins are more or greater than the mercy of God can pardon, must think that there may be more evil in the creature than there is goodness in God.
Use 5. By way of caution against the presumptuous sinner. If there be any that trespass upon the goodness of God, and presume to encourage themselves in sin, upon the hopes of his mercy; let such know that God is just, as well as merciful. A God of all mercy is an idol, such a God as men set up in their own imaginations, but not the true God whom the Scriptures describe: to such persons the Scripture describes him after another manner: (Nahum i. 2.) “God is jealous; the Lord revengeth, and is furious; the Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries, and reserveth wrath for his enemies.” If any man abuse the mercy of God, to “the strengthening of himself in his own wickedness, and bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of mine heart, and add drunkenness to thirst; the Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord 73and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven.” (Deut. xxix. 19, 20.)
Though it be the nature of God to be merciful, yet the exercise of his mercy is regulated by his wisdom; he will not be merciful to those that despise his mercy, to those that abuse it, to those that are resolved to go on in their sins to tempt his mercy, and make bold to say, “Let us sin that grace may abound.” God designs his mercy for those that are prepared to receive it; (Isa. lv. 7.) “Let the wicked forsake his ways, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and turn unto the Lord, and he will have mercy, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” The mercy of God is an enemy to sin, as well as his justice; and it is no where offered to countenance sin, but to convert the sinner; and is not intended to encourage our impenitency, but our repentance. God hath no where said that he will be merciful to those who, upon the score of his mercy, are bold with him, and presume to offend him; but “the mercy of the Lord is upon them that fear him, and keep his covenant, and remember his commandments to do them.” There is forgiveness with him, “that he may be feared,” but not that he may be despised and affronted. This is to contradict the very end of God’s mercy, which is, to “lead us to repentance,” to engage us to leave our sins, not to encourage us to continue in them.
Take heed, then, of abusing the mercy of God: we cannot provoke the justice of God more, than by presuming upon his mercy. This is the time of God’s mercy; use this opportunity: if thon neglectest it, a day of justice and vengeance is coming; 74 (Rom. ii. 4, 5.) “Despisest thou the riches of his goodness, and forbearance, and long suffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads to repentance? and treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath, and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God?” Now is the manifestation of God’s mercy; but there is a time a coming, when the righteous judgment of God will be revealed against those who abuse his mercy, “not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth to repentance.” To think that the goodness of God was intended for any other end than to take us off from sin, is a gross and affected ignorance that will ruin us; and they who draw any conclusion from the mercy of God, which may harden them in their sins, they are such as the prophet speaks of; (Isa. xxvii. 11.) “A people of no understanding, therefore he that made them will not save them; and he that formed them will shew them no favour.” Mercy itself will rejoice in the ruin of those that abuse it, and it will aggravate their condemnation. There is no person towards whom God will be more severely just, than towards such. The justice of God, exasperated and set on by his injured and abused mercy, like a razor set in oil, will have the keener edge, and be the sharper for its smoothness. Those that have made the mercy of God their enemy, must expect the worst his justice can do unto them.75
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