|« Prev||Sermon CLI. The Long-Suffering of God.||Next »|
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.
I HAVE considered how apt men are to abuse the long-suffering of God, to the hardening and encouraging of themselves in sin, and when this comes to pass; where I considered the several false conclusions which sinners draw from the delay of punishment, as if there were no God, or providence, or difference of good and evil; or else, as is more commonly pretended, that sin is not so great an evil, and that God is not so highly offended at it, or that God is not so severe as he is represented; that the punishment of sin is not so certain; or, however, it is at a distance, and may be prevented by a future repentance: all which I have spoken fully to, and endeavoured to shew the fallacy and unreasonableness of them. I shall now proceed to the
Third and last thing I propounded, which was, to answer an objection to which this discourse may seem liable, and that is this; If the long-suffering of God be the occasion of men’s hardness and impenitency, then why is God so patient to sinners, when they are so prone to abuse his goodness and patience? And how is it goodness in God to for bear sinners so long, when this forbearance of his is so apt to minister to them an occasion of their farther mischief and greater ruin? It should seem, according to this, that it would be much greater 135mercy to the greatest part of sinners, not to be patient toward them at all; but instantly, upon the first occasion and provocation, to cut them off, and so to put a stop to their wickedness, and to hinder them from making themselves more miserable, by increasing their guilt, and “treasuring up wrath to themselves against the day of wrath.”
This is the objection; and because it seems to be of some weight, I shall endeavour to return a satisfactory answer to it in these following particulars. And,
I. I ask the sinner if he will stand to this: art thou serious, and wouldest thou, in good earnest, have God to deal thus with thee, to take the very first advantage to destroy thee, or turn thee into hell, and to make thee miserable beyond all hopes of recovery? Consider of it again. Dost thou think it desirable, that God shall deal thus with thee, and let fly his judgments upon thee, so soon as ever thou hast sinned? If not, why do men trifle, and make an objection against the long-suffering of God, which they would be very loath should be made good upon them?
If. It is likewise to be considered, that the long-suffering of God towards sinners is not a total forbearance: it is usually so mixed with afflictions and judgments of one kind or other, upon ourselves or others, as to be a sufficient warning to us, if we would consider and lay it to heart, to “sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon us:” lest that judgment which we saw inflicted upon others come home to us. And is not this great goodness to warn us, when he might destroy us? to leave room for a retreat, when he might put our case past remedy?
All this time of God’s patience he threatens sinners, 136to awaken them out of their security; he punisheth them gently, that we may have no ground to hope for impunity; he makes examples of some in a more severe and remarkable manner, that others may hear, and fear, and be afraid to commit the like sins, lest the like punishment overtake them; he whips some offenders before our eyes, to shew us what sin deserves, and what we also may justly expect, if we do the same thing: and will nothing be a warning to us, but our own sufferings!
Nay, God doth usually send some judgment or other upon every sinner in this life; he lets him feel the rod, that he may know that it is “an evil and bitter thing to sin against him.” He exerciseth men with many afflictions, and crosses, and disappointments, which their own consciences tell them are the just recompences of their deeds; and by these lighter strokes, he gives us a merciful warning to avoid his heavier blows; when mercy alone will not work upon us and win us, but, being fed to the full, we grow wanton and foolish, he administers physic to us by affliction, and by adversity endeavours to bring us to consideration and a sober mind; and many have been cured this way, and the judgments of God have done them that good, which his mercies and blessings could not; for God would save us any way, by his mercy or by his judgment, by sickness or by health, by plenty or by want, by what we desire, or by what we dread; so desirous is he of our repentance and happiness, that he leaves no method unattempted that may probably do us good; he strikes upon every passion in the heart of man; he works upon our love by his goodness, upon our hopes by his promises, and upon our fears, first by his threatenings, and if they be not 137effectual, then by his judgments; he tries every affection, and takes hold of it, if by any means he may draw us to himself; and will nothing warn us but what will ruin us, and render our case desperate and past hope!
And if any sinner be free from outward afflictions and sufferings, yet sin never fails to carry its own punishment along with it; there is a secret sting and worm, a Divine nemesis and revenge that is bred in the bowels of every sin, and makes it a heavy punishment to itself; the conscience of a sinner doth frequently torment him, and his guilt haunts and dogs him wherever he goes; for whenever a man commits a known and wilful sin, he drinks down poison, which, though it may work slowly, yet it will give him many a gripe, and, if no means be used to expel it, will destroy him at last.
So that the long-suffering of God is wisely ordered, and there is such a mixture of judgments in it, as is sufficient to awaken sinners, and much more apt to deter them from sin, than to encourage them to go on and continue in it.
III. Nothing is farther from the intention of God than to harden men by his long-suffering. This the Scripture most expressly declares; (2 Pet. iii. 9.) “He is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” He hath a very gracious and merciful design in his patience towards sinners, and is therefore good, that he may make us so, and that we may cease to do evil. The event of God’s long-suffering may, by our own fault and abuse of it, prove our ruin; but the design and intention of it is our repentance. “He winks at the sins of men (saith the son of Sirach) that they may repent.” He passeth 138them by, and does not take speedy vengeance upon sinners for them, that they may have time to repent of them, and “to make their peace with them while they are yet in the way.”
Nay, his long-suffering doth not only give space for repentance, but is a great argument and encouragement to it. That he is so loath to surprise sinners, that he gives them the liberty of second thoughts, time to reflect upon themselves, to consider what they have done, and to retract it by repentance, is a sufficient intimation that he hath no mind to ruin us, that “he desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live.” And should not this goodness of his make us sorry that we have offended him? Doth it not naturally lead and invite us to repentance? What other interpretation can we make of his patience, what other use in reason should we make of it, but to repent and return that we may be saved?
IV. There is nothing in the long-suffering of God, that is in truth any ground of encouragement to men in an evil course; the proper and natural tendency of God’s goodness is to lead men to repentance, and by repentance to bring them to happiness: (Rom. ii. 4.) “Despisest thou the riches of his goodness, and patience, and long-suffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” This St. Peter, with relation to these very words of St. Paul, interprets, “leading to salvation;” (2 Pet. iii. 15.) “And account that the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation, as our beloved brother Paul also hath written unto you. Now where did St. Paul write so, unless in this text; “not knowing that the goodness of God leads to repentance?” It is not only great ignorance, and 139a very gross mistake, to think that it is the design and intention of God’s patience and long-suffering to encourage men in sin; but likewise to think, that, in the nature of the thing, goodness can have any tendency to make men evil; “not knowing that the goodness of God leads to repentance.”
V. That through the long-suffering of God sinners are hardened in their evil ways, is wholly to be ascribed to their abuse of God’s goodness; it is neither the end and intention, nor the proper and natural effect of the thing, but the accidental event of it through our own fault. And is this any real objection against the long-suffering of God? May not God be patient, though sinners be impenitent? May not he be good, though we be so foolish as to make an ill use of his goodness? Because men are apt to abuse the mercies and favours of God, is it therefore a fault in him to bestow them upon us? Is it not enough for us to abuse them, but will we challenge God also of unkindness in giving them? May not God use wise and fitting means for our recovery, because we are so foolish as not to make a wise use of them? And must he be charged with our ruin, because he seeks by all means to prevent it? Is it not enough to be injurious to ourselves, but will we be unthankful to God also? When God hath laid out “the riches of his goodness and patience” upon sinners, will they challenge him as accessary to their ruin? As if a foolish heir, that hath prodigally wasted the fair estate that was left him, should be so far from blaming himself, as to charge his father with undoing him. Are these the best returns which the infinite mercy and patience of God hath deserved from us? “Do we thus requite the Lord, foolish people and unwise!”140
God’s patience would save sinners, but they ruin themselves by their abuse of it: let the blame then lie where it is due, and let God have the glory of his goodness, though men refuse the benefit and advantage of it.
VI. And lastly; But because this objection pincheth hardest in one point, viz. that God certainly foresees that a great many will abuse his long-suffering, to the increasing of their guilt, and the aggravating of their condemnation; and how is long-suffering any mercy and goodness to those, who he certainly foreknows will in the event be so much the more miserable, for having had so much patience extended to them? Therefore, for a full answer, I desire these six things may be considered:
1. That God designs this life for the trial of our obedience, that, according as we behave ourselves, he may reward or punish us in another world.
2. That there could be no trial of obedience, nor any capacity of rewards and punishments, but upon the supposition of freedom and liberty; that is, that we do not do what we do upon force and necessity, but upon free choice.
3. That God, by virtue of the infinite perfection of his knowledge, does clearly and certainly fore see all future events, even those which are most contingent, such as are the arbitrary actions of free and voluntary agents. This I know hath been denied, but without reason; since it is not only contrary to the common apprehensions of mankind, from the very light of nature, that God should not foreknow future events, but to clear and express Scripture; and that in such instances, for the sake of which they deny God’s fore-knowledge, in general, of the future actions of free and voluntary agents; I mean, that 141the Scripture expressly declares God’s determinate fore-knowledge of the most wicked actions; as the crucifying of Christ, who is said, “according to the determinate counsel and fore-knowledge of God,” to have been “by wicked hands crucified and slain.”
4. That the bare fore-knowledge of things future hath no more influence upon them to make them to be, than the sight and knowledge of things present hath upon them to make them to be present. I may see or know that the sun is risen, without being the cause of its rising; and no more is bare knowledge of future events the cause that they are when they are. And if any man ask, how God can certainly foreknow things which depend upon free and arbitrary causes, unless he do some way decree and determine them? I answer, that this is not a fair and reasonable demand to ask of men, who have but finite understandings, to make out and declare all the ways that infinite knowledge hath of knowing and of foreseeing the actions of free creatures, without prejudice to their liberty and freedom of acting. However, it is, of the two, much more credible to reason, that infinite knowledge should certainly foreknow things, which our understandings cannot imagine how they should be foreknown, than that God should any ways be the author of sin, by determining and decreeing the wicked actions of men. The first only argues the imperfection of our under standing; but the other lays the greatest blemish and imperfection that can be upon the Divine nature.
So that this difficult controversy about the fore knowledge of God is brought to this point, whether a man had better believe that infinite knowledge may be able to foreknow things in a way which our 142finite understanding cannot comprehend; or to ascribe something to God, from whence it would unavoidably follow, that he is the author of sin. The first is only a modest and just acknowledgment of our own ignorance, the last is the utmost and greatest absurdity that a man can be brought to; and to say that we cannot believe the fore-knowledge of God, unless we can make out the particular manner of it, is more unreasonable, than if an ignorant man should deny a difficult proposition in Euclid, or Archimedes, to be demonstrated, because he knows not how to demonstrate it.
5. And consequently, fore-knowledge and liberty may very well consist; and, notwithstanding God’s fore-knowledge of what men will do, they may be as free as if he did not foreknow it. And,
Lastly, That God doth not deal with men according to his fore-knowledge of the good or bad use of their liberty, but according to the nature and reason of things; and therefore, if he be long-suffering toward sinners, and do not cut them off upon the first provocation, but give them a space and opportunity of repentance, and use all proper means and arguments to bring them to repentance, and be ready to afford his grace to excite good resolutions in them, and to second and assist them, and they refuse and resist all this; their wilful obstinacy and impenitency is as culpable, and God’s goodness and patience as much to be acknowledged, as if God did not foresee the abuse of it; because his foresight and knowledge of what they would do laid no necessity upon them to do what they did.
If a prince had the privilege of fore-knowledge, as God hath, and did certainly foresee that a great many of his subjects would certainly incur the penalty 143of his laws, and that others would abuse his goodness and clemency to them; yet, if he would govern them like free and reasonable creatures, he ought to make the same wise laws to restrain their exorbitancy, and to use the same clemency in all cases that did fairly admit of it, as if he did not at all foresee what they would do, nor how they would abuse his clemency; for it is nevertheless fit to make wise and reasonable laws, and to govern with equity and clemency, though it were certainly fore seen that they that are governed would act very foolishly and unreasonably in the use of their liberty. It is great goodness in God to give men the means and opportunity of being saved, though they abuse his goodness to their farther ruin; and he may be heartily grieved for that folly and obstinacy in men, which he certainly foresees will end in their ruin; and may, with great seriousness and sincerity, wish they would do otherwise, and were as “wise to do good,” as they are “wilful to do evil.” And thus he is represented in Scripture, as regretting the mischief which men wilfully bring upon themselves: “O that they were wise! O that they would understand, and consider their latter end!”
And this is sufficient to vindicate the goodness of God in his patience and long-suffering to sinners, and to make them wholly guilty of all that befals them for their wilful contempt and abuse of it.
I shall draw some inferences from this whole discourse upon this argument.
I. This shews the unreasonableness and perverse disingenuity of men, who take occasion to harden and encourage themselves in sin from the long-suffering of God, which, above all things in the world, should melt and soften them. Thou hast sinned, 144and art liable to the justice of God; sentence is gone forth, but God respites the execution of it, and hath granted thee a reprieve, and time and opportunity to sue out thy pardon. Now what use ought we in reason to make of this patience of God to wards us? We ought certainly “to break off our sins by” a speedy “repentance, lest iniquity be our ruin;” immediately to sue out our pardon, and “to make our peace with God, while we are yet in the way,” and to resolve never any more willingly to offend that God, who is so gracious and merciful, so long-suffering and full of compassion. But what use do men commonly make of it? They take occasion to confirm and strengthen themselves in their wickedness, and to reason themselves into vain and groundless hopes of impunity. Now what a folly is this, because punishment doth not come, therefore to hasten it, and to draw it down upon ourselves? Because it hath not yet overtaken us, therefore to go forth and meet it? Because there is yet a possibility of escaping it, therefore to take a certain course to make it unavoidable? Because there is yet hope concerning us, therefore to make our case desperate and past remedy? See how unreason ably men bring ruin upon themselves; so that well might the Psalmist ask that question, “Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge?”
But their folly and unreasonableness is not so great, but their perverseness and disingenuity is greater. To sin because God is long-suffering, is “to be evil because he is good,” and to provoke him, because he spares us: it is to strive with God, and to contend with his goodness, as if we were resolved to try the utmost length of his patience; and because God is loath to punish, therefore to urge 145and importune him to that which is so contrary to his inclination.
II. This may serve to convince men of the great evil and danger of thus abusing the long-suffering of God. It is a provocation of the highest nature, because it is to trample upon his dearest attributes, those which he most delights and glories in, his goodness and mercy; for the long-suffering of God is his goodness to the guilty, and his mercy to those who deserve to be miserable.
Nothing makes our ruin more certain, more speedy, and more intolerable, than the abuse of God’s goodness and patience. After God had borne long with that rebellious people, the children of Israel, and, notwithstanding all their murmurings, all their infidelity and impenitency, had spared them ten times, at last he sets his seal to their ruin: (Heb. iii. 8, 9.) “Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation in the day of temptation in the wilderness: when your fathers proved me, and saw my works forty years.” This was a high provocation indeed, to harden their hearts under the patience and long-suffering of God, after forty years trial and experience of it: (ver. 10.) “Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, They are a people that do err in their hearts, for they have not known my ways.” And what was the issue of all this? Upon this God takes up a fixed resolution to bear no longer with them, but to cut them off from the blessings he had promised to bestow upon them; “He sware in his wrath that they should not enter into his rest.—To whom sware he, that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not?” Or as the word may be rendered, “to them that were disobedient?” that is, to them who went on in their 146rebellion against him, after he had suffered their manners forty years.
And as the abuse of God’s patience renders our destruction more certain, so more speedy and more intolerable. We think, that because God suffers long he will suffer always; and because punishment is delayed, therefore it will never come; but it will come the sooner for this: so our Lord tells us, (Luke xii.) when the servant said, his lord delayed his corning; “the lord of that servant shall come in a day that he looks not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and shall cut him in sunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites.” None so like to be surprised by the judgment of God, as those who trespass so boldly upon his patience.
III. To persuade us to make a right use of the patience and long-suffering of God, and to comply with the merciful end and design of God therein.
1. It is the design of God’s long-suffering to give us a space of repentance. Were it not that God had this design and reasonable expectation from us, he would not reprieve a sinner for one moment, but would execute his judgments upon him so soon as ever he had offended. This our Saviour declares to us by the parable of the fig-tree, (Luke xiii. 6.) Were it not that God expects from us the fruit of repentance, he would cut us down, and not suffer us to cumber the ground: after he had “waited three years, seeking fruit and finding none, he spares it one year more, to see if it would bear fruit.”
2. The long-suffering of God is a great encouragement to repentance. We see by his patience that he is not ready to take advantage against us; that he spares us when we offend, is a very good 147sign that he will forgive us if we repent. Thus natural light would reason; and so the King of Nineveh, a heathen, reasons, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent?” But we are fully assured of this by the gracious declarations of the gospel, and the way of pardon and forgiveness, which is therein established through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ, who was made a “propitiation for the sins of the whole world.”
Therefore the long-suffering of God should be a powerful argument to us, “to break off our sins by repentance:” for this is the end of God’s patience; “He is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. He hath no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked should turn from his way and live.” God every where expresseth a vehement desire and earnest expectation of our repentance and conversion. (Jer. iv. 14.) “O Jerusalem! wash thy heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be saved.” And, (chap. xiii. 27.) “Woe unto thee, Jerusalem! wilt thou not be made clean? when shall it once be?” He who is so patient as to the punishment of our sins, is almost impatient of our repentance for them; “Wilt thou not be made clean? when shall it once be?” And can we stand out against his earnest desire of our happiness, whom we have so often and so long provoked to make us miserable? Let us then return into ourselves, and think seriously what our case and condition is; how we have lived, and how long the patience of God hath suffered our manners, and waited for our repentance, and how inevitable and intolerable the misery of those must be who live and die in the contempt and abuse of it; let us heartily repent of our wicked 148lives, and say, “What have we done?” How careless have we been of our own happiness, and what pains have we taken to undo ourselves!
Let us speedily set about this work, because we do not know how long the patience of God may last, and the opportunities of our salvation be continued to us. This day of God’s grace and patience will have an end; therefore, as the prophet exhorts, (Isa. lv. 6.) “Seek the Lord while he may be found, and call upon him while he is near.” Now God graciously invites sinners to come to him, and is ready to receive them; nay, if they do but move towards him, he is ready to go forth and meet them half way; but the time will come, when he will bid them depart from him; when they shall cry, “Lord, Lord, open unto us,” and the door of mercy shall be shut against the them.
All the while thou delayest this necessary work, thou venturest thy immortal soul, and puttest thy eternal salvation upon a desperate hazard; and should God snatch thee suddenly away in an impenitent state, what would become of thee? Thou art yet in the way, and God is yet reconcileable, but death is not far off, and perhaps much nearer to thee than thou art aware; at the best thy life is uncertain, and death will infallibly put a period to this day of God’s grace and patience.
Repentance is a work so necessary, that methinks no man should lose so much time as to deliberate, whether he should set about it or not; De necessariis nulla est deliberatio; “No man deliberates about what he must do, or be undone if he do it not.” It is a work of so great consequence and concernment, and the delay of it so infinitely dangerous, that one would think no wise man could entertain 149a thought of deferring it. What greater folly and stupidity can there be, than for men to venture their immortal souls, and to run an apparent hazard in matters of everlasting consequence.
This day of God’s patience is the great opportunity of our salvation; and if we let it slip, it is never to be recovered: if we misimprove this time of our life, we shall not be permitted to live it over again to improve it better. Our state of trial ends with this life; after that God will prove us no more; then we shall wish, “O that I had known, in that my day, the things which belonged to my peace! but now they are hid from mine eyes: therefore to day, whilst it is called to-day, harden not your hearts, make no tarrying to turn to the Lord, and put not off from day to day; for suddenly shall the wrath of the Lord break forth, and in thy security thou shalt be destroyed. Exercise repentance in the time of health, and defer not till death to be justified.”150
|« Prev||Sermon CLI. The Long-Suffering of God.||Next »|
►Proofing disabled for this book
► Printer-friendly version