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THE LONG-SUFFERING OF GOD.
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.—Eccles. viii. 11.
NOTHING is more evident, than that “the world lies in wickedness,” and that iniquity every where abounds; and yet nothing is more certain, than that “God will not acquit the guilty,” and let sin go unpunished. All men, excepting those who have offered notorious violence to the light of their own minds, and “have put the candle of the Lord, which is in them, “under a bushel,” do believe that there is a God in the world, to whose holy nature and will sin is perfectly contrary, “who loves righteousness, and hates iniquity;” that “his eyes are upon the ways of man, and he seeth all his goings;” that “there is no darkness, nor shadow of death, where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves.” All men, except those whose consciences are seared, as it were, with a hot iron, are convinced of the difference of good and evil, and that it is not all one, whether men serve God or serve him not, do well or live wickedly. Every man from his inward sense and experience, is satisfied of his own liberty, and that God lays upon men no necessity of sinning, but that whenever we do amiss it is our own act, and we choose to do so; and sc far is he from giving the least countenance to sin that he hath given all imaginable discouragement to 107it, by the most severe and terrible threatenings, such as one would think sufficient to deter men for ever from it, and to drive it out of the world; and to make his threatenings the more awful and effectual, his providence hath not been wanting to give remarkable instances of his justice and severity upon notorious offenders, even in this life: and yet, for all this, men do, and will sin; nay, they are zealously set and bent upon it.
Now here is the wonder; what it is that gives sinners such heart, and makes them so resolute and undaunted in so dangerous a course. Solomon gives us this account of it; because the punishments and judgments of God follow the sins of men so slowly, and are long before they overtake the sinner; Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the hearts of the sons of men are fully set in them to do evil.”
The scope of the wise man’s discourse is this; that, by reason of God’s forbearance and long-suffering towards sinners in this life, it is not so easy to discern the difference between them and other men; his life is the day of God’s patience, but the next will see a day of retribution and recompence. Now because God doth defer and moderate the punishment of sinners in this world, and reserve the weight of his judgments to the next; because, through the long-suffering of God, many great sinners live and die without any remarkable testimony of God’s wrath and displeasure against them; “therefore the heart of the children of men are fully set in them to do evil.”
If we render the text word for word from the original, it runs thus; “Because nothing is done as a recompence to an evil work, therefore the heart of 108the sons of men are full in them to do evil;” that is, because men are not opposed and contradicted in their evil ways, because Divine justice doth not presently check and control sinners, because sentence is not immediately passed upon them, and judgment executed, “therefore the heart of the sons of men is full in them to do evil;” that is, therefore men grow bold and presumptuous in sin: for the Hebrew word which we render “is fully set in them,” we find, (Esth. vii. 5.) where Ahasuerus says, concerning Haman, “Who is he? and where is he that durst presume in his heart to do so?” Whose heart was full to do so? Fervit in iis cor filiorum hominum; so some render it, “the hearts of men boil with wickedness;” are so full of it, that it works over. Men are resolute in an evil course, “their hearts are strengthened and hardened in them to do evil,” so others translate the words. The translation of the LXX. is very emphatical, ἐπληροφορήθη καρδία, “the heart of the sons of men is fully persuaded and assured to do evil.” All these translations agree in the main scope and sense; viz. that sinners are very apt to presume upon the long-suffering of God, and to abuse it, to the hardening and encouraging of themselves in their evil ways. In the handling of this, I shall,
First, Briefly shew that it is so.
Secondly, Whence this comes to pass, and upon what pretences and colours of reason, men encourage themselves in sin from the patience of God.
Thirdly, I shall endeavour to answer an objection about this matter.
First, That men are very apt to abuse the long suffering of God, to the encouraging and hardening of themselves in an evil course, the experience of the 109world, in all ages, does give abundant testimony. Thus it was with the old world, “when the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while he was preparing an ark, for the space of a hundred and twenty years,” (1 Pet. iii. 20.) For the wickedness of man, which was great upon the earth, a general deluge was threatened: but God was patient, and delayed his judgment a great while: hereupon they grew secure in their impenitency, and went on in their course, as if they had no apprehension of danger, no fear of the judgment threatened. So our Saviour tells us: (Matt. xxiv. 38, 39.) “As in the days that were before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away.” And so it was with Sodom: (Luke xvii. 28.) and “likewise also as it was in the days of Lot, they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built.” And so, our Saviour tells us, it will be in the end of the world; “Even thus shall it be in the lay when the Son of man is revealed.” So likewise the apostle St. Paul, (Rom. ii. 4, 5.) “Despisest thou the riches of his goodness, and forbearance, and long-suffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? But after thy hardness and impenitent heart, treasurest up to thyself wrath against the day of wrath, and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” The goodness and long-suffering of God, which ought in all reason to lead men to repentance, is to many an occasion of greater hardness and impenitency. So also St. Peter foretels, (2 Pet. iii. 3.) “That in the last lays there should come scoffers, who should walk after their own hearts’ lusts, saying, Where is the 110promise of his coming?” And we see, in daily experience, that the greatest part of sinners grow more obstinate and confirmed in their wicked ways, upon account of God’s patience, and because he delays the punishment due to them for their sins. Let us consider, in the
Second place, Whence this comes to pass, and upon what pretence and colour of reason men encourage themselves in sin, from the long-suffering of God. And there is no doubt but this proceed? from our ignorance and inconsiderateness, and from an evil heart of unbelief, from the temptation and suggestion of the devil, one of whose great arts it is, to make men question the threatenings of God and to insinuate, as he did to our first parents either that he hath not denounced such threatenings, or that he will not execute them so severely. All these causes do concur to the producing this monstrous effect: but that which I design to inquire into, is, from what pretence of reason, grounded upon the long-suffering of God, sinners argue themselves into this confidence and presumption For when the wise man saith, that “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;” he does not intend to insinuate that God’s long-suffering fills the hearts of men with wicked designs and resolutions, and does, by a proper and direct efficacy, harden sinners in their course; but that wicked men, upon some account or other, do take occasion, from the long-suffering of God, to harden themselves in sin; they draw false conclusions from it to impose upon themselves, as if it were really a ground of encouragement; they think they see something in the forbearance of God, 111and his delay of punishment, which makes them hope for impunity in an evil course, notwithstanding the threatenings of God.
And, therefore, I shall endeavour to shew, what those false conclusions are, which wicked men draw from the delay of punishment, and to discover the sophistry and fallacy of them; and I shall rank them under two heads; those which are more gross and atheistical; and those which are not so gross, but yet more common and frequent.
I. Those conclusions which are more gross and atheistical, which bad men draw to the hardening and encouraging of themselves in sin, from the delay of punishment (which we, who believe a God, call the patience or long-suffering of God), are these three: either that there is no God; or, if there be, that there is no providence; or that there is no difference between good and evil.
I shall speak more briefly of these, because I hope there are but few in the world of such irregular and besotted understandings, as to make such inferences as these, from the delay of punishment.
1st, From hence some would fain conclude, that there is no God. That some are so absurd as to reason in this manner, the Scripture tells us, (Psal. xiv. 1.) “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God: they are corrupt, and have done abominable works.” Now the argument that these men frame to themselves is this; God doth not take a speedy course with sinners, and revenge himself immediately upon the workers of iniquity, therefore there is no God; for if there were, he would shew himself, and not bear the affronts of sinners, when it is so easy for him to vindicate himself by a swift and speedy vengeance. Thus the poet represents 112the atheist arguing; Nullos esse deos, inane cælum, affirmat Selius, probatque, quod se factum, dum negat hoc, videt beatum. “Selius affirms, there are no gods, and that heaven is an empty place, and proves it, because, whilst he denies God, he sees himself in a very happy and prosperous condition.”
And here it is worthy our notice, at what a contradictious rate these men reason. First, They would have no God, lest he should be just, and punish them as they deserve; and then, in another mood, they would have him to be nothing but justice and severity, lest there should be a God: as if no other notion could be framed of the Divine nature, but of a rash fury, and impetuous revenge, and an impotent passion, which, when it is offended and provoked, cannot contain itself, and forbear punishment for a moment. Justice is not such a perfection as doth necessarily exclude wisdom, and goodness, and patience; it doth in no wise contradict the perfection of the Divine nature to bear with sinners, in expectation of their repentance and amendment; or if God foresees their final impenitency, to respite their punishment to the most fit and convenient season. God may suffer long, and yet be resolved, if sinners persist in the abuse of his goodness and patience, to execute vengeance upon them in due time. It is a pitiful ground of atheism, that because God is so much better than wicked men deserve, they will not allow him to be at all.
2dly, Others infer from the delay of punishment, that there is no providence that administers the affairs of the world, and regards the good and bad actions of men. For though the being of God be acknowledged, yet, if he do not regard what is done here below, nor concern himself in human affairs, 113sinners are as safe and free to do what they please, as if there were no God; and upon this ground, the Scripture tells us, many encourage themselves in their wickedness; (Psal. lxiv. 5.) “They encourage themselves in an evil matter; they commune of laying snares privily; they say, Who shall see them?” And more expressly, (Psal. xciv. 4-7.) “How long shall they utter and speak hard things? and all the workers of iniquity boast themselves? They break in pieces thy people, O Lord, and afflict thine heritage. They slay the widow and the stranger, and murder the fatherless. Yet they say, The Lord shall not see, neither shall the God of Jacob regard it.” And if this were so, well might they encourage themselves. If it were true which Epicurus saith, “That God takes no knowledge of the actions of men; that he is far removed from us, and contented with himself, and not at all concerned in what we do:” if this were true, the inference which Lucretius makes were very just; Quare religio pedibus subjecta vicissim obteritur; “Men might trample religion under their feet, and live without any regard to the laws of it.”
But let us see how they infer this from the long-suffering of God, that he neglects the affairs of the world, and hath no consideration of the actions of men, because they see the ungodly to prosper in the world equally with others that are strictly devout and virtuous, yea, many times to be in a more prosperous and flourishing condition; “they are not in trouble like other men, neither are they plagued like other men.” So that if there be a God, it seems (say they) that he connives at the crimes of men, and “looks on upon them that deal treacherously, and holds his peace whilst the wicked devoureth the 114man that is more righteous than himself,” as the prophet expresseth it, (Habak. i. 13.)
For answer to this, I shall only give this reason able and credible account of the long-suffering of God, and the impunity of wicked men in this life, which not only the Scripture gives us, but the heathen were able to give from the light of nature, and is agreeable to the common sense of mankind; namely, that this life is a state of probation and trial, wherein God suffers men to walk in their own ways without any visible check and restraint, and does not usually inflict present and remarkable punishments upon them for their evil deeds; because this, being a state of trial of the dispositions and manners of men, is rather the proper season of patience, than of punishments and rewards; and therefore it is very reasonable to suppose that God reserves sinners for a solemn and public trial at the great assizes of the world, when he will openly vindicate the honour of his justice upon the despisers of his patience and long-suffering, when he will make “his judgment to break forth as the light, and his righteousness as the noon-day.” In the mean time, the providence of God, when he sees it fit, gives some remarkable instances of his justice upon great and notorious offenders in this life, as a pledge and earnest of a future judgment; and these, sometimes, more general, as in the destruction of the old world by an universal deluge, when “he saw the wickedness of men to be great upon the earth:” and such was that terrible vengeance which was poured down upon Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them; which, as St. Jude tells us, “are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire,” that is, of a perpetual destruction by fire.115
3dly, Another gross and atheistical inference, which men are apt to make from the delay of punishment; is, that there is no such difference of good and evil as is pretended; because they do not see the good and bad actions of men differenced in their rewards; because Divine justice doth not presently manifest itself; and every transgression and disobedience doth not immediately receive a just recompence of reward, therefore they cannot believe that the difference between good and evil is so great and evident.
For answer to this: not to insist upon the difference which the providence of God sometimes makes between them in this life, I appeal to the consciences of men, whether they do not secretly and inwardly acknowledge a clear difference between good and evil. Are not the worst of men apt to conceive better hopes of success, when they are about a just and honest undertaking, than when they are engaged in a wicked design? Do not bad men feel a secret shame and horror, when no eye sees them, and the wickedness they are about to commit doth not fall under the cognizance and censure of any human court or tribunal? Have they not many checks and rebukes in their own spirits, much disturbance and confusion of mind, when they are enterprising a wicked thing? And does not this plainly argue, that they are guilty to themselves, that they are about something which they ought not to do?
It is very true, that most men are more sensible of the evil of an action, when they feel the ill effects and consequences of it, and suffer the punishment that is due to it: but yet the sense of good and evil is so deeply impressed upon human nature, that I 116think no man, remaining a man, can quite deface and blot out the difference of good and evil. So that if men will but attend to the natural dictates and suggestions of their own minds, they cannot possibly infer, from the delay of punishment, that there is no difference of good and evil.
But because those who are thus are but few, in comparison, there being not many in the world arrived to that degree of blindness, and height of impiety, as to disbelieve a God and a providence; and I think none have attained to that perfect conquest of conscience, as to have lost all sense of good and evil; therefore I shall rather insist,
II. Upon those kind of reasonings which are more ordinary and common among bad men, and whereby they cheat themselves into everlasting perdition; and they are such as these:
1. Because sentence against an evil work is not speedily executed, therefore sin is not so great an evil.
2. Therefore God is not so highly offended and provoked by it. Or,
3. God is not so severe in his own nature, as he is commonly represented.
4. Therefore the punishment of sin is not so certain. Or, however,
5. It is at a distance, and may be prevented time enough, by a future repentance in our old age, or at the hour of death. By some such false reasonings as these, which men think may probably be collected from the patience and long-suffering of God, they harden and encourage themselves in an evil course.
1. Because the punishment of sin is deferred, therefore they conclude it is not so great an evil; 117they do not feel the ill effects of it at present; all things go well and prosperously with them, no less than with those who are so strict and conscientious; and therefore they hope there is no such great evil in sin, as melancholy people are apt to fancy to themselves. For answer to this,
(1.) Consider seriously what sin is, and then thou wilt see reason enough to call it a great evil. To sin. against God, is to contemn the greatest authority in the world, to contradict the greatest holiness and purity, to abuse the greatest goodness, and to provoke almighty justice to take vengeance upon thee, and to make thee as miserable as thou art capable of being. To sin against God, is to be disobedient to thy sovereign, and unthankful to thy best benefactor, and to act contrary to the greatest obligations, against thy best reason and truest interest; to disoblige thy kindest friend, and to gratify thy worst and bitterest enemy: it is to disorder thyself, to create perpetual disquiet to thy own mind, and to do the greatest mischief possible to thyself; to deprive thyself of the greatest happiness, and to draw down upon thyself extreme and eternal misery. And what do we call a great evil if this be not, which contains in it all the kinds and all the aggravations of evil that can be, and hath all the circumstances of ugliness and deformity in it that can be imagined?
(2.) Whatever sin be in itself, yet from hence we can in no wise conclude that it is not a great evil, because the punishment of it is deferred for a while: from hence, indeed, it follows, that God is very good in deferring the punishment which is due to thee for thy sins, but by no means that sin is not very evil. The reprieve of a traitor does, indeed, 118argue the goodness and clemency of the prince, but doth not at all abate of the heinousness of the crime for which he is sentenced. The great evil of sin is evident, because the holy and just God hath for bidden it, and declared his hatred and detestation of it, and threatened it with most severe and direful punishment; but that God respites the punishment which is due to sin, and does not immediately take vengeance upon sinners, but affords them a space, and means, and opportunity of repentance, this doth not at all lessen the evil of sin, but is rather an aggravation of it, that we should offend and provoke that God who is so patient and long-suffering towards us, so very loath to bring those evils upon us, which we are so rash and forward to pull down upon ourselves.
2. If God doth not immediately punish sin upon the commission of it, and instantly let fly at the sinner, this they would construe to be a sign that he is not so highly offended and provoked by it; if he were, he would manifest his displeasure against it, by the sudden and violent effusions of his wrath. For answer to this, I desire these two things may be considered:
(1.) That God himself, in his word, every where plainly declares to us his great displeasure against sin: (Psal. v. 4, 5.) “Thou art not a God that hast pleasure in wickedness, neither shall evil dwell with thee. The foolish shall not stand in thy sight; thou hatest all the workers of iniquity.” “Thou art not a God that hast pleasure in wickedness.” The words are a μείωσις, and less is spoken than is meant and intended; viz. that God is so far from taking pleasure in the sins of men, that he is highly displeased at them, and bears an implacable hatred against them.119
And do not the terrible threatenings of God against sin declare him to be highly offended at it, when he says, “that he will come in flaming fire to render vengeance to all them that know not the gospel” of his Son; and that they “shall be punished with everlasting destruction, from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power?” Can we think that all the threatenings of God’s word, and all those direful curses which are written in his book, shall return empty, without doing any execution? Thou that now flatterest thyself in vain and groundless hopes, that none of these evils shall come upon thee, when thou comest to stand before the great Judge of the world, and to behold the killing frowns of his countenance, and to hear those bitter words of eternal displeasure from the mouth of God himself, “Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels;” thou wilt then believe that God is heartily angry and offended with thee for thy sins. We shall find in that day, that the threatenings of God’s word, which we now hear securely, and without terror, had a full signification; or rather, that no words could convey to us the terror of them. What the Scripture says of the happiness and glory of the next life, is true also of the misery and punishments of the other world, that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, those terrible things which God hath reserved for the workers of iniquity.”
But, above all, the direful sufferings of the Son of God, when sin was but imputed to him, are a demonstration of God’s implacable hatred of sin; for that rather than sin should go unpunished, God was pleased to subject his own Son to the sufferings 120due to it: this plainly shews that he hated sin, as much as he loved his own Son.
But, (2dly,) God may conceive a very great displeasure against sin, and be highly incensed and provoked by it, and yet suspend the effects of his displeasure, and defer the punishment of it for a great while: and to imagine other wise, argues a gross mistake of the nature of God, arising from our not considering the attributes and perfections of God in conjunction and consistency with one another. When we consider one attribute of God singly, and separate it from the rest, and frame such wide and large apprehensions of it, as to exclude his other perfections, we have a false notion of God; and the reason of this mistake is, because among men, an eminent degree of any one excellency doth commonly shut out others; because, in our narrow and finite nature, many perfections cannot stand together; but it is quite otherwise in the Divine nature. In infinite perfection, all perfections do meet and consist together; one perfection doth not hinder and exclude another; and therefore, in our conceptions of God, we are to take great heed that we do not raise any one attribute or perfection of God upon the ruin of the rest.
So that it is a false imagination of God, when we so attribute justice or anger to him, as to exclude his patience and long-suffering: for God is not impotent in his anger, as we are; every thing that provokes him, doth not presently put him out of patience, so that he cannot contain his wrath, and for bear immediately to revenge himself upon sinners. In this sense, God says of himself, (Isa. xxvii. 4.) “Fury is not in me.” There is nothing of a rash and ungoverned passion in the wise and just God. 121Every sin, indeed, kindles his anger, and provokes his displeasure against us, and, by our repeated and continued offences, we still add fuel to his wrath; but it doth not of necessity instantly break forth like a consuming fire, and a devouring flame. The holy and righteous nature of God, makes him necessarily offended and displeased with the sins of men; but as to the manifestation of his wrath, and the effects of his anger, his wisdom and goodness do regulate and determine the proper time and circumstances of punishment.
3. From the patience of God, and the delay of punishment, men are apt to conclude, that God is not so severe in his nature as he is commonly represented. It is true, he hath declared his displeasure against sin, and threatened it with dreadful punishments; which he may do, in great wisdom, to keep the world in awe and order: but great things are likewise spoken of his mercy, and of the wonderful delight he takes in the exercise of his mercy: so that, notwithstanding all the threatenings which ire denounced against sin, it is to be hoped, that when sentences come to be passed, and judgment to be executed, God will remember mercy in the midst of judgment, and that mercy will triumph over judgment; and that, as now his patience stays his hand, and turns away his wrath, so, at the last, the milder attributes of his goodness and mercy will interpose and moderate the vigour and severity of his justice; and of this, his great patience and long-suffering towards sinners for the present, seems to be some kind of pledge and earnest: he that is so slow to anger, and so loath to execute punishment, may probably be prevailed upon, by his own pity and goodness, to remit it at 122the last: and this is the more credible, because it is granted on all hands, that no person is obliged to execute his threatenings, as he is to make good his promises: he that promiseth, passeth a right to an other; but he that threateneth, keeps the right and power of doing what he pleaseth in his own hands.
I shall speak a little more fully to this, because it is almost incredible how much men bear up themselves upon vain and groundless hopes of the boundless mercy of God, and “bless themselves in their hearts, saying, they shall have peace, though they walk in the imagination of their hearts, to add drunkenness to thirst;” that is, though they still persist in their vices, and add one degree of sin to another.
Now, for answer to this,
(1.) Let it be granted, that a bare threatening does not necessarily infer the certainty of the event; and that the thing threatened shall infallibly come to pass: no person is obliged to perform his threatenings, as he is his promises; the threatenings of God declare what sin deserves, and what the sinner may justly expect, if he continue impenitent and incorrigible. But then we are to take notice, that repentance is the only condition that is implied in the threatenings of God, and will effectually hinder the execution of them: (Jer. xviii. 7-10.) “At what instant I speak (says God) concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, and obey not my voice, then will I repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them.” Now if, when God hath promised 123to do good to a people, sin will hinder the blessing promised, and bring down judgments upon them, much more when it is particularly threatened.
But as to the case of final impenitency and unbelief, God, that he might strengthen his threatenings, hath added a sign of immutability to them, having confirmed them with an oath; “I have sworn (saith the Lord) that they shall not enter into my rest:” which, though it was spoken to the unbelieving Jews, the apostle to the Hebrews applies it to a final unbelief and impenitency under the gospel, of which the infidelity of the Israelites was a type and figure. Now, though God may remit of his threatenings, yet his oath is a plain declaration that he will not; because it signifies, the firm and immutable determination of his will, and thereby puts an end to all doubts and controversies concerning the fulfilling of his threatenings.
(2.) It is certainly much the wisest and safest way to believe the threatenings of God in the strictness and rigour of them, unless there be some tacit condition evidently implied in them; because if we do not believe them, and the thing prove otherwise, the consequence of our mistake is fatal and dreadful. It is true, indeed, that God, by his threatenings, did intend to keep sinners in awe, and to deter them from sin: but if he had any where revealed, that he would not be rigorous in the execution of these threatenings, such a revelation would quite take off the edge and terror of them, and contradict the end and design of them; for threatenings signify very little, but upon this supposition, that, in all probability, they will be executed: and if this be true, it is the greatest madness and folly in the world to run the hazard of it.124
(3.) As for those large declarations which the Scripture makes of the boundless mercy of God to sinners, we are to limit them, as the Scripture hath done, to the time and season of mercy, which is this life, and while we are in the way. This is the day of mercy and salvation; and when this life is ended, the opportunities of grace and mercy are past, and “the day of recompence and vengeance” will begin. Now God tries us, and offers mercy to us; but if we obstinately refuse it, judgment will take hold of us.
And then we must limit the mercy of God to the conditions upon which he offers it, which are, repentance for sins past, and sincere obedience for the future: but if men continue obstinate and impenitent, and encourage themselves in sin, from the mercy and patience of God; this is not a case that admits of mercy, but, on the contrary, his justice will triumph in the ruin and destruction of those who, instead of embracing the offers of his mercy, do despise and abuse them: “He will laugh at their calamity, and mock when their fear comes; when their fear comes as desolation, and their destruction as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon them, then they” may “call upon him, but he will not answer; they” may “seek him early, but they shall not find him.” If we “despise the riches of God’s goodness, and long-suffering, and forbearance,” he knows how to handle us, and will do it to purpose; “with the froward he will shew himself froward,” and will be, in a more especial manner, severe towards those who take encouragement from his mercy, to disbelieve and despise his threatenings. And this God hath as plainly told us, as words can express any thing: (Deut. xxix. 19, 20.) 125“And if it come to pass, that when he heareth the words of this curse, he bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of my heart, to add drunkenness to thirst: the Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord, and his jealousy, shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven.” Whatever might and power God hath reserved to himself about the execution of his threatenings, he hath plainly declared, that, of all others, those who encourage themselves in a sinful course, from the hopes of God’s mercy, notwithstanding his threatenings, shall find no favour and mercy at his hand: whatever he may remit of his threatenings to others, he will certainly not spare those who believe so largely concerning the mercy of God, not with a mind to submit to the terms of it, but to presume so much the more upon it.
(4.) God hath not been wanting to shew some remarkable instances of his severity towards sinners in this world. As he is pleased sometimes to give good men some foretastes of heaven, and earnests of their future happiness; so likewise, by some present stroke, to let sinners feel what they are to expect hereafter; some sparks of hell do now and then fall upon the consciences of sinners. That fear which is sometimes kindled in men’s consciences in this life, that horrible anguish, and those unspeakable terrors which some sinners have had experience of in this world, may serve to forewarn us of “the wrath which is to come,” and to convince us of the reality of those expressions of the torments of hell, by “the worm that dies not, and the fire that is not quenched.” That miraculous deluge, which swallowed 126up the old world; that hell which was rained down from heaven in those terrible showers of fire and brimstone, to consume Sodom and Gomorrah: the earth opening her mouth upon Corah and his seditious company, to let them down, as it were, quick into hell: these, and many other remarkable judgments of God, in several ages, upon particular persons, and upon cities and nations, may satisfy us, in some measure, of the severity of God against sin, and be, as it were, pledges to assure sinners of the insupportable misery and torments of the next life.
(5.) The argument is much stronger the other way, that because the punishment of sinners is delayed so long, therefore it will be much heavier and severer when it comes; that the wrath of God is growing all this while, and as we fill up the measures of our sins, he fills the phial of his wrath (Rom. ii. 5.) “And according to thy hard and impenitent heart, treasurest up to thyself wrath against the day of wrath, and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” God now keeps in his displeasure; but all the while we go on in an impenitent course, the wrath of God is continually increasing and will at last be manifested by the righteous judgment of God upon sinners. God now exerciseth and displayeth his milder attributes, his goodness, and mercy, and patience; but these will not always hold out: there is a dreadful day a coming, wherein (as the apostle speaks) God will “shew his wrath and make his power known,” after he hath “endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction.” All this long time of God’s patience and forbearance his wrath is kindling, and he is whetting his glittering sword, and making sharp his arrows; and this long preparation doth portend 127a much more dreadful execution; so that we should reason thus, from the long-suffering of God--God bears with us, and spares us at present, and keeps in his anger; therefore if we go on to provoke him, time will come when he will not spare, but his anger will flame forth, and his jealousy smoke against us. This is but reasonable to expect, that they who in this world forsake their own mercies, the mercy of God in the next should forsake them.
4. Another false conclusion, which men draw from the delay of punishment, is, that because it is delayed, therefore it is not so certain: the sinner escapes for the present; and though he have some misgivings and fearful apprehensions of the future, yet he hopes his fears may be greater than his danger.
It is true, indeed, we are not so certain of the misery of wicked men in another world, as if it were present, and we lay groaning under the weight of it: such a certainty as this, would not only leave no place for doubting, but even for that which we properly and strictly call faith; for “faith is the evidence of things not seen:” but sure we have other faculties besides sense to judge of things by; we may be sufficiently certain of many things which are neither present nor sensible, of many things past and future, upon good ground and testimony: we are sure that we were born, and yet we have no remembrance of it; we are certain that we shall die, though we never had the experience of it. Things may be certain in their causes, as well as in their present existence, if the causes be certain. The truth of God, who hath declared these things to us, is an abundant ground of assurance to us, though they be at a great distance: the certainty of things 128is not shaken by our wavering belief concerning them.
Besides, the very light of nature, and the common reason of mankind, hath always made a contrary inference from the long-suffering of God, and the delay of present punishment. Though men are apt to think, that because judgment is deferred, therefore it is not certain, yet the very light of nature hath taught men to reason otherwise; that because God is so patient to sinners in this life, therefore there will a time come when they shall be punished; that because this life is a time of trial and forbearance, therefore there shall be another state after this life, which shall be a season of recompence. And by this argument chiefly it was, that the wisest of the heathen satisfied themselves concerning another state after this life, and answered the troublesome objection against the providence of God, from the unequal administration of things in the world, so visible in the afflictions and sufferings of good men, and the prosperity of the wicked; viz. that there would be another state that would adjust all these matters, and set them straight, when good and bad men should receive the full recompence of their deeds.
The 5th and last false conclusion which men draw from the long-suffering of God, and the delay of punishment, is this; That it is, however, probably, at some distance, and therefore they may sin yet a while longer, and all this danger may be prevented time enough, by a future repentance in our old age, or at the hour of death; and they are confirmed very much in this hope, because they see men much worse than themselves, great criminals and malefactors, upon two or three days warning, to perform this work of repentance very substantially, and to die 129with great comfort and assurance of their salvation. This is the most common delusion of all the rest, and hath been, I am afraid, the ruin of more souls than all the other which I have mentioned; they may have slain their thousands, but this its ten thousands.
For answer to this, be pleased seriously to lay to heart these following considerations, most of which I shall speak but briefly to; because I have, upon other occasions, spoken largely to them.
(1.) If there be a future judgment, then it is certain, at how great a distance soever it may be. That which shall be a thousand years hence, will certainly be; and it is but very small comfort and encouragement, considering the vast disproportion between time and eternity, to think, that after twenty or forty years shall be past and gone, then must I enter upon eternal misery; then will those intolerable torments begin, which shall never have an end.
(2.) But it is not certain that it is at such a distance: when we “put from us the evil clay,” it is, many times, nearer to us than we are aware; and when we think the judgment of God is at a great distance, the Judge may be near, even at the door. Our times are not in our own hands, but we are perfectly at the disposal of another, who, when he pleaseth, can put a period to them, and cause our breath to cease from our nostrils, and we shall not be: “There is no man hath power over the spirit, to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death,” saith the wise man, a little before the text. Thou dreamest, perhaps, of many years continuance in this world, and, perhaps, in the height of this vain imagination, “the decree is sealed, and the commandment come forth” to summon thee out 130of this world, and thou art just dropping into that misery, which thou fanciest to be at such a distance; whilst thou art vainly promising thyself the ease of many years, God may say to thee, “Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee;” and then, where are all thy hopes?
(3.) Supposing the evil day were at a considerable distance, yet men run an infinite hazard in venturing all the hopes of their salvation upon a future repentance: for what knowest thou, O man! but thou mayest be surprised by a sudden stroke, which may give thee no warning, leave thee no space of repentance? A violent disease may seize upon thee, which may disorder thy understanding, and so weaken all thy faculties, as to render thee unfit for all reason able operations: at the best how unfit are we for the most serious work of our lives, when we are hardly lit to do any thing? Old age is a very unseasonable time for repentance, when we are full of weakness and infirmity, and our minds are crooked and bowed down by vice, as our bodies are by age, and as hard to be recovered to their first straightness; much more is it an improper time for this work, when sickness and old age meet together. There are two things in which men, in other things wise enough, do usually miscarry; in putting off the making of their wills, and their repentance, until it be too late. Men had need then be of sound understanding, and perfect memory, when they set about matters of so great consequence in respect of their temporal and eternal concernments: especially, when men have the happiness of all eternity to take care of and provide for, they had need have their understandings about them, and all the advantages of leisure and consideration, to make a sober reflection upon their past lives, and 131make up their accounts with God, and to set all things right between him and them; and it is well if, after all, a repentance wilfully deferred so long, so short and imperfect, so confused and huddled up, will at last be accepted as a tolerable atonement for the crimes and miscarriages of a long life.
(4.) Suppose thou wert sure to repent before thou leavest the world, and to do this work thoroughly, which no man can promise to himself, that deliberately delays it; yet this can be no reasonable encouragement to go on in an evil course, because we do but hereby aggravate our own trouble, and treasure up much more sorrow and affliction to ourselves against the day of repentance, and consequently sin on, in hopes of being hereafter so much the more troubled and grieved for what we have done; as if a man should go on to break the laws, in hopes of a more severe and exemplary punishment: sure this can be no encouragement or ground of hope to any reasonable and considerate man.
Lastly, As to the encouragement which men take from the sudden repentance of great criminals and malefactors, and their dying with so much comfort and assurance; if this be well considered, there is little comfort to be fetched from such examples. For,
1st, Though a sincere repentance in such circum stances be possible; yet it is almost impossible for the party himself concerned, much more for others, upon any good ground, to judge when it is sincere. God, who knows the hearts of men, and whether, if they had lived longer, they would, in the future course of their lives, have justified and made good their repentance and good resolutions, only knows the sincerity of it.132
But, 2dly, No certain judgment is to be made for the comfort and confidence of the party concerned; for the business is not what comfort and confidence men have, but what ground they have for it; and whereas men are apt piously to suppose that so extraordinary a comfort and assurance is wrought in them by the Spirit of God, nothing is more uncertain: because we sometimes see those who give no such testimony of their repentance, to die with every whit as much courage, and comfort, and confident persuasion of their salvation, as those that do. But this, certainly, is not from the Spirit of God: a natural obstinacy and courage may carry men a great way; and false and mistaken principles may fill men, for the present, with as much comfort and confidence as well-grounded hopes. In the church of Rome, great numbers of those who have led very wicked lives, after a formal confession and absolution, and some good words of encouragement from the priest, die as full of peace and comfort, to all appearance, as the best of men.
Indeed, it is very natural to men who find themselves in a desperate condition to be strangely elevated and raised, upon any hopes of escaping so great a danger as they apprehend themselves to be in; especially if these hopes be given them by a grave man, of whose piety and judgment they have a venerable opinion. When men have the sentence of death in themselves, as all wicked livers must have, they are naturally apt to be overjoyed at the unexpected news of a pardon.
To speak my mind freely in this matter, I have no great opinion of that extraordinary comfort and confidence which some have, upon a sudden repentance, for great and flagrant crimes; because I 133cannot discern any sufficient ground for it. I think great humility and dejection of mind, and a doubtful apprehension of their condition, next almost to a despair of it, would much better become them; because their case is really so very doubtful in itself. There is great reason for the repentance of such persons, and it becomes them well; but I see very little reason for their great comfort and confidence, nor does it become their circumstances and condition. Let them exercise as deep repentance as is possible, and “bring forth all the fruits meet for it” that are possible in so short a time: let them humble themselves before God, and pray incessantly to him, day and night, for mercy; make all the reparation they can, for the injuries they have done, by confession, and acknowledgment, and by making satisfaction to the parties injured, if it be in their power; by giving alms to the poor; by warning others, and endeavouring to reclaim them to a better mind, and course of life; and for the rest, humbly commit themselves to the mercy of God, in Jesus Christ: let them imitate, as near as they can, the behaviour of the penitent thief, the only example the Scripture has left us of a late repentance that proved effectual, who gave the greatest testimony that could be of a penitent sorrow for his sins, and of his faith in the Saviour of the world, by a generous and courageous owning of him in the midst of his disgrace and suffering, when even his own disciples had denied and forsaken him: but we do not find in him any signs of extraordinary comfort, much less of confidence, but he humbly commended himself to the mercy and goodness of his Saviour, saying, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.”134
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