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THE PATIENCE OF GOD.
The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.—2 Pet. iii. 9.
I HAVE made entrance into these words; in the handling of which, I proposed to do these three things:
First, To consider the patience and long-suffering of God, as it is an attribute and perfection of the Divine nature; “God is long-suffering to us-ward.”
Secondly, To shew, that the patience of God, and the delay of his judgment, is no just ground why sinners should hope for impunity; “God is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness.”
Thirdly, To consider the true reason of God’s patience and long-suffering towards mankind; “He is long-suffering to us-ward; not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” I have already spoken to the
First of these; namely, The patience and long-suffering of God, as it is an attribute and perfection of the Divine nature. I proceed now to the
Second thing I proposed; namely, To shew, that he patience of God, and the delay of judgment, is no just ground why sinners should hope for impunity; “God is not slack concerning his promise, 92as some men count slackness;” that is, as the scoffers, here mentioned by the apostle, did ignorantly and maliciously reason, that because our Lord delayed his coming to judgment so long, therefore he would never come.
There was, indeed, some pretence for this objection; because the Christians did generally apprehend that the day of judgment was very near, and that it would immediately follow the destruction of Jerusalem; and it seems, the disciples themselves were of that persuasion before our Saviour’s death: when our Saviour discoursing to them of the destruction of the temple, they put these two questions to him: (Matt. xxiv. 3.) “And as he sate upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” “When shall these things be? that is, the things he had been speaking of immediately before, viz. the destruction of Jerusalem, and the dissolution of the temple; that is plainly the meaning of the first question; to which they subjoined another, “and what shall be the sign of thy coming?” that is, to judgment, “and of the end of the world?” which, in all probability, was added to the former, because they supposed that the one was presently to follow the other, and therefore the same answer would serve them both: and it appears by our Saviour’s answer, that he was not concerned to rectify them in this mistake, which might be of good use to them, both to make them more zealous to propagate the gospel, since there was like to be so little time for it; and likewise to wean their affections from this world, which they thought to be so near an end.93
One thing, indeed, our Saviour says, which (had they not been prepossessed with another opinion) does sufficiently intimate, that there might be a considerable space of time betwixt the destruction of Jerusalem and the day of judgment; and this we find only in St. Luke, (chap. xxi. 24.) where, speaking of the miseries and calamities that should come upon the Jews, he says, “They shall fall by the edge of the sword, and be carried into captivity into all nations; and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the gentiles, until the time of the gentiles be fulfilled.” So that here were a great many events fore told, betwixt the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world, the accomplishment whereof might take up a great deal of time, as appears by the event of things; Jerusalem being at this day still “trodden down by the gentiles,” and the Jews still continuing “dispersed over the world:” but the disciples, it seems, did not much mind this, being carried away with a prejudicate conceit, that the end of the world would happen before the end of that age; in which they were much confirmed by what our Saviour, after his resurrection, said of St. John, upon occasion of Peter’s question concerning him, (John xxi. 21, 22.) “Lord, what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” Upon which words of our Saviour concerning him, St. John himself adds, (ver. 23.) “Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, That that disciple should not die;” that is, that he should live till the coming of our Lord, and then be taken up with him into heaven: from all which, they probably (as they thought) concluded, that the day of judgment would happen before the end of that age, whilst St. John was alive: but St. John, who writ last of the 94evangelists (as Eusebius tells us), and lived until after the destruction of Jerusalem, as he acquaints us with this mistake, which was current among the Christians, so he takes care to rectify it, telling us, that “Jesus said not, He should not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” He tells us, that our Saviour did not affirm that “He should not die;” but, to repress St. Peter’s curiosity, he says, “If it were my pleasure that he should not die at all, but live till I come to judgment, what is that to thee?” And St. Peter, likewise (or whoever was the author of this Second Epistle, or, at least, of this third chapter, which seems to be a new epistle by itself), takes notice of this mistake, about the nearness of the day of judgment, as that which gave occasion to these scoffers to deride the expectation of a future judgment among the Christians, because they had been already deceived about the time of it; and this the scoffers twitted them with in that question, “Where is the promise of his coming?” Therefore, the learned Grotius conjectures very probably, that this last epistle (contained in the third chapter) was written after the destruction of Jerusalem, which was the time fixed for Christ’s coming to judgment; and, therefore, there could be no ground for this scoff until after that time. St. Peter, indeed, did not live so long; and therefore Grotius thinks, that this epistle was writ by Simeon, or Simon, who was successor of St. James in the bishopric of Jerusalem, and lived to the time of Trajan.
I have been the longer in giving an account of this, that we might understand where the ground and force of this scoff lay; namely, in this, that because the Christians had generally been very confident, that the coming of Christ to judgment would 95be presently after the destruction of Jerusalem, and were now found to be deceived in that, therefore there was no regard to be had at all to their expectation of a future judgment; because they might be deceived in that as well as in the other.
But herein they argued very falsely: because our Saviour had positively and peremptorily foretold his corning to judgment, but had never fixed and deter mined the time of it: nay, so far was he from that, that he had plainly told his disciples, that the precise time of the day of judgment God had reserved as a secret to himself, which he had not imparted to any, no, not to the angels in heaven, nor to the Son himself; (Mark xiii. 32, 33.) “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father; take ye heed, watch and pray; for ye know not when, the time is.” So that if they presumed to make any conjectures about the time when the day of judgment would be, they did it without any warrant from our Lord: it was great presumption in them to determine the time of it, when our Saviour had so expressly told them, that the Father had reserved this as a secret, which he had never communicated to any; and, therefore, if they were mistaken about it, it was no wonder. But their mistake in this, was no prejudice to the truth of our Saviour’s clear prediction of a future judgment, without any determination of the time of it, for that might be at some thousands of years distance, and yet be certain for all that; and the delay of it, was no sign of the uncertainty of our Saviour’s prediction concerning it, but only of God’s great patience and long-suffering to sinners, in expectation of their repentance; “God is not slack concerning his promise, as some 96men count slackness, but is long-suffering to us-ward.” And this brings me to the
Third and last particular in the text; namely, The true reason of God’s patience and long-suffering to mankind: “He is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” And for this, St. Peter cites St. Paul: (ver. 15, of this chapter.) “And account that the long-suffering of the Lord is salvation;” that is, that the great end and design of God’s goodness and long-suffering to sinners, is, that they may repent and be saved: “Account that the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation, even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given unto him, hath written unto you.” Now these words are not expressly found in St. Paul’s writings: but the sense and effect of them is, (viz. in Rom. ii. 4.) “Despisest thou the riches of his goodness, and forbearance, and long-suffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” God hath a very gracious and merciful design in his patience to sinners: he is good, that he may make us so, and that his “goodness may lead us to repentance:” he defers punishment on purpose, that he may give men time to bethink themselves, and to return to a better mind; “He winks at the sins of men, that they may repent,” says the son of Sirach. The patience of God aims at the cure and recovery of those who are not desperately and resolutely wicked.
This is the primary end and intention of God’s patience to sinners; and if he fail of this end, through our hardness and impenitency, he hath other ends, which he will infallibly attain: he will hereby glorify the riches of his mercy, and vindicate 97the righteousness of his justice; the damned in hell shall acknowledge, that the patience of God was great mercy and goodness to them, though they abused it; for God does not lose the glory of his patience, though we lose the benefit of it, and he will make it subservient to his justice, one way or other. Those great offenders whom he spares, after there are no hopes of their amendment, he, many times, makes use of, as instruments for the punishing of others, “as rods of his wrath, for the discipline of the world;” and he often reserves those who are incorrigibly bad, for a more remarkable ruin: but, however, they are reserved to the judgment of the great day; and if, after God hath exercised much patience towards sinners in this world, he inflicts punishment on them in the next, it must be acknowledged to be most just: for what can he do less, than to condemn those who would not be saved, and to make them miserable who so obstinately refused to be happy?
Before I come to apply this discourse concerning the patience and long-suffering of God to sinners, I must remove an objection or two:
I. The severity of God to some sinners in this life, and to all impenitent sinners in the next, seems to contradict what hath been said concerning God’s patience and long-suffering.
As for the severity of God towards impenitent sinners in the next life, this doth not at all contradict the patience of God; because the very nature of patience, and forbearance, and long-suffering, does suppose a determinate time, and that they will not last always: this life is the day of God’s patience, and in the next world his justice and severity will take place. And, therefore, the punishment 98of sinners in another world, after God hath tried them in this, and expected their repentance, is no ways contrary to his patience and goodness, and very agreeable to his wisdom and justice; for it is no part of goodness to see itself perpetually abused; it is not patience, but stupidity and insensibleness, to endure to be always trampled upon, and to bear to have his holy and just laws for ever despised and contemned.
And as for his severity to some sinners in this life—as to Lot’s wife; to the Israelite that gathered sticks on the sabbath-day; to Nadab and Abihu; to Uzzah; to Ananias and Sapphira; and to Herod Agrippa—in all which instances God seems to have made quick work, and to have executed judgment speedily. To these I answer, that this severity of God to some few, doth rather magnify his patience to the rest of mankind; he may be severe to some few for example and warning to many, that they may learn to make better use of his patience, and not to trespass so boldly upon it; and, perhaps, he hath exercised much patience already towards those to whom at last he is so severe, as is plain in the case of Herod, and it may well be supposed in most of the other instances; or else the sin, so suddenly and severely punished, was very heinous and presumptuous, of a contagious and spreading nature, and of dangerous example. Lot’s wife sinned most presumptuously against an express and an easy command, and whilst God was taking care of her deliverance in a very extraordinary manner. That of Nadab and Abihu, and of the man that gathered sticks on the sabbath-day, were presently after the giving of the law, in which case great severity is necessary; and that of Ananias and Sapphira, at 99the first publishing of the gospel, that the majesty of the Divine Spirit, and the authority of the first publishers of it, might not be contemned: that of Uzzah was upon the return of the ark of God from among the Philistines, that the people might not lose their reverence for it after it had been taken captive. So that these necessary severities to a few, in comparison of those many that are warned by them, are rather arguments of God’s patience than objections against it.
II. It is objected, That if God do not desire the ruin of sinners, but their repentance, whence comes it to pass that all are not brought to repentance? for who hath resisted his will? To this I answer:
1. That there is no doubt but God is able to do this: he can, if he pleaseth, conquer and reclaim the most obstinate spirits; he is able out of “stones to raise up children unto Abraham:” and sometimes he exerts his omnipotence herein, as in the conversion of St. Paul, in a kind of violent and irresistible manner: but he hath no where declared that he will do this to all, and we see plainly, in experience, that he does not do it.
2. God may very well be said, “not to be willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” when he does, on his part, what is sufficient to that end; and upon this ground the Scripture every where represents God as desiring the repentance of sinners, and their obedience to his laws: (Deut. v. 29.) “O that there were such a heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them!” So Jer. xiii. 27. “O Jerusalem, wilt thou not be made clean? when shall it once be?” (Isa. v. 3, 4.) We find God there solemnly appealing 100to the people of Israel, whether there had been any thing wanting on his part that was fit to be done: “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard: what could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done to it? wherefore when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?” God may justly look for the fruits of repentance and obedience from those to whom he affords a sufficiency of means to that end. And if so, then,
3. The true reason why men do not repent, but perish, is because they are obstinate, and will not repent; and this account the Scripture every where gives of the impenitency of men, and the ruin consequent upon it: (Psal. lxxxi. 13.) “O that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways! But my people would not hearken to my voice, and Israel would none of me.” (Ezek. xxxiii. 11.) “Why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (Prov. i. 2931.) “That they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord. They would none of my counsel; they despised all my reproof. Therefore they shall eat of the fruit of their own ways, and be filled with their own devices.” The ruin of sinners doth not proceed from the counsel of God, but from their own choice. And so likewise our Saviour every where chargeth the ruin and destruction of the Jews upon their own wilful obstinacy.
The inferences from this discourse concerning the patience and long-suffering of God towards man kind, shall be these three:
I. To stir us up to a thankful acknowledgment of the great patience of God towards us, notwithstanding 101our manifold and heinous provocations. We may every one of us take to ourselves those words: (Lam. iii. 22.) “It is of the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.” They are “renewed every morning.” When ever we sin, (and “we provoke God every day”) it is of his “patience that we are not destroyed:” and when we sin again, this is a new and greater instance of God’s patience. The mercies of God’s patience are no more to be numbered than our sins: we may say with David, “How great is the sum of them?” The goodness of God in sparing us is, in some respect, greater than his goodness in creating us; because he had no provocation not to make us, but we provoke him daily to destroy us.
II. Let us propound the patience of God, for a pattern to ourselves. Plutarch says, “That God sets forth himself in the midst of the world for our imitation, and propounds to us the example of his patience, to teach us not to revenge injuries hastily upon one another.”
III. Let us comply with the design of God’s patience and long-suffering towards us, which is “to bring us to repentance.” Men are very apt to abuse it to a quite contrary purpose, to the encouraging themselves in their evil ways. So Solomon observes: (Eccl. viii. 11.) “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” But this is very false reasoning; for the patience of God is an enemy to sin, as well as his justice; and the design of it is not to countenance sin, but to convert the sinner: (Rom. ii. 4.) “Despisest thou the riches of his goodness, and forbearance, and long-suffering; not knowing that the 102goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” Patience in God should produce repentance in us; and we should look upon it as an opportunity given us by God to repent and be saved: (2 Pet. iii. 15.) “Account that the long-suffering of God is salvation.” They that do not improve the patience of God to their own salvation, mistake the true meaning and intent of it. But many are so far from making this use of it, that they presume upon it, and sin with more courage and confidence because of it; but that we may be sensible of the danger of this, I will offer these two or three considerations:
1. That nothing is more provoking to God than the abuse of his patience. God’s patience waits for our repentance; and all long attendance, even of inferiors upon their superiors, hath something in it that is grievous: how much more grievous and provoking must it be to the great God, after he hath laid out upon us all the riches of his goodness and long-suffering, to have that despised! after his patience hath waited a long time upon us, not only to be thrust away with contempt, but to have that which should be an argument to us to leave our sins, abused into an encouragement to continue in them! God takes an account of all the days of his patience and forbearance: (Luke xiii. 7.) “Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig-tree and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?”
2. Consider that the patience of God will have an end. Though God suffers long, he will not suffer always; we may provoke God so long, until he can forbear no longer without injury and dishonour to his wisdom, and justice, and holiness; and God will not suffer one attribute to wrong the rest: his 103wisdom will determine the length of his patience; and when his patience is to no purpose, when there is no hopes of our amendment, his wisdom will then put a period to it; then the patience of his mercy will determine. “How often would I have gathered you, and you would not? therefore your house is left unto you desolate.” And the patience of God’s judgments will then determine. “Why should they be smitten any more? they will revolt more and more.” Yea, patience itself, after a long and fruitless expectation, will expire. A sinner may continue so long impenitent, till the patience of God, as I may say, grows impenitent, and then our ruin will make haste, and destruction “will come upon us in a moment.” If men will not come to repentance, “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night,” as it follows in the next verse after the text; the judgment of God will suddenly surprise those who will not be gained by his patience.
3. Consider that nothing will more hasten and aggravate our ruin than the abuse of God’s patience. All this time of God’s patience his wrath is coming towards us; and the more we presume upon it, the sooner it will overtake us: (Luke xii. 45, 46.) the wicked servant, who said his “lord delayed his coming,” and fell to rioting and drunkenness; our Saviour tells us, that “the lord of that servant will come in a day when he looks not for him.”
And it will aggravate our ruin; the longer punishment is a coming, the heavier it will be: those things which are long in preparation are terrible in execution; the weight of God’s wrath will make amends for the slowness of it; and the delay of judgment will be fully recompensed in the dreadfulness 104of it when it conies. Let all those consider this who go on in their sin, and are deaf to the voice of God’s patience, which calls upon them every moment of their lives. There is a day of vengeance a coming upon those who trifle away this day of God’s patience: nothing will sooner and more in flame the wrath and displeasure of God against us than his abused patience, and the despised riches of his goodness. As oil, though it be soft and smooth, yet, when it is once inflamed, burns most fiercely; so the patience of God, when it is abused, turns into fury; and his mildest attributes into the greatest severities.
And if the patience of God do not bring us to repentance, it will but prepare us for a more intolerable ruin: after God hath kept a long indignation in his breast, it will, at length, break forth with the greater violence. The patience of God increaseth his judgments by an incredible kind of proportion; (Levit. xxvi. 18.) “And if you will still (says God to the people of Israel) walk contrary to me, and if ye will not be reformed by all these things, I will punish you yet seven times more.” And, (verse 28.) “I will bring seven times more plagues upon you, according to your sins.” At first God’s justice accuseth sinners; but, after a long time of patience, his mercy comes in against us, and, instead of staying his hand, adds weight to his blows; (Rom. ix. 22.) “What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endureth with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction?” They upon whom the patience of God hath no good effect, are “vessels of wrath, prepared and fitted for destruction.” If ever God display his wrath, and make his anger known, he will do it in the 105most severe manner upon those who have despised and abused his patience; for these, in a more peculiar manner, “do treasure up for themselves wrath against the day of wrath, and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”
To conclude: Let us all take a review of our lives, and consider how long the patience of God hath waited upon us, and borne with us; with some twenty, forty, perhaps sixty years, and longer. Do we not remember how God spared us in such a danger, when we gave ourselves for lost? and how he recovered us in such a sickness, when the physician gave us up forgone? and what use have we made of this patience and long-suffering of God to wards us? It is the worst temper in the world not to be melted by kindness, not to be obliged by benefits, not to be tamed by gentle usage. He that is not wrought upon, neither by the patience of his mercy, nor by the patience of his judgments, his case is desperate, and past remedy. “Consider this, all ye that forget God,” lest his patience turn into fury; for “God is not slack, as some men count slackness; but long-suffering to sinners, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”106
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