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[Preached on Ash Wednesday.]
OF CONFESSING AND FORSAKING SIN, IN ORDER TO PARDON.
He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.—Prov. xxviii. 13.
SINCE we are all sinners, and liable to the justice of God, it is a matter of great moment to our comfort and happiness, to be rightly informed, by what means, and upon what terms, we may be reconciled to God, and find mercy with him. And to this purpose the text gives us this advice and direction: “Whoso confesseth and forsaketh his sins shall have mercy.”
In which words there is a great blessing and benefit declared and promised to sinners, upon certain conditions. The blessing and benefit promised is the mercy and favour of God, which comprehends all the happy effects of God’s mercy and goodness to sinners: and the conditions upon which this blessing is promised are two—confession of our sins, and forsaking of them; and these two contain in them the whole nature of that great and necessary duty of repentance, without which a sinner can have no reasonable hopes of the mercy of God.
I. Here is a blessing or benefit promised, which is the mercy and favour of God: and this, in the 259full extent of it, comprehends all the effects of the mercy and goodness of God to sinners, and doth primarily import the pardon and forgiveness of our sins. And this, probably, Solomon did chiefly in tend in this expression; for so the mercy of God doth most frequently signify in the Old Testament; viz. the forgiveness of our sins. And thus the prophet explains it: (Isa. lv. 7.) “Let the wicked forsake his ways, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”
But now, since the clear revelation of the gospel, the mercy of God doth not only extend to the pardon of sin, but to power against it; because this also is an effect of God’s free grace and mercy to sinners, to enable them, by the grace of his Holy Spirit, to master and mortify their lusts, and to persevere in goodness to the end.
And it comprehends also our final pardon and absolution at the great day, together with the glorious reward of eternal life, which the apostle expresseth, by “finding mercy with the Lord in that day.” And this likewise is promised to repentance: (Acts iii. 19.) “Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord, and he shall send Jesus Christ, who before was preached unto you;” that is, that when Jesus Christ, who is now preached unto you, shall come, you may receive the final sentence of absolution and forgiveness.
And thus much shall suffice to have been spoken of the blessing and benefit here promised—the mercy of God; which comprehends all the blessed 260effects of the Divine grace and goodness to sinners, the present pardon of sin, and power to mortify sin, and to persevere in a good course, and our final ab solution by the sentence of the great day, together with the merciful and glorious reward of eternal life.
II. We will consider, in the next place, the conditions upon which this blessing is promised; and they are two, the confessing and forsaking of our sins: “Whoso confesseth and forsaketh his sin, shall have mercy:” and these two do contain and constitute the whole nature of repentance, without which a sinner can have no reasonable hopes to find mercy with God. I begin with the
First, The confession of our sins; by which is meant a penitent acknowledgment of our faults to God; to God, I say, because the confession of our sins to men is not, generally speaking, a condition of the forgiveness of them, but only in some particular cases, when our sins against God are accompanied and complicated with scandal and injury to men. In other cases, the confession of our sins to men is not necessary to the pardon of them, as I shall more fully shew in the progress of this discourse.
All the difficulty in this matter is, that the confession of our sins is opposed to the covering and concealing of them: “He that covereth his sin shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth them shall have mercy.” But no man can hope to hide his sin from God, and therefore confession of them to God cannot be here meant. But this objection, if it be of any force, quite excludeth confession to God, as no part of Solomon’s meaning; when yet confession of our sins to God is granted on all hands to be a 261necessary condition of the forgiveness of them. And to take away the whole ground of this objection; men are said in Scripture, when they do not confess their sins and repent of them, to hide and conceal them from God: not to acknowledge them, is as if a man went about to cover them. And thus David opposeth confession of sins to God, to the hiding of them: (Psal. xxxii. 5.) “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid: I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord.” So that this is no reason why the text should not be understood of the confessing of our sins to God.
But because the necessity of confessing our sins to men (that is, to the priest), in order to the forgiveness of them, is a great point of difference between us and the church of Rome, it being by them esteemed a necessary article of faith, but by us, so far from being necessary to be believed, that we do not believe it to be true; therefore, for the clear stating of this matter, I shall briefly inquire into these two things:
I. Whether confession of our sins to the priest, as taught and practised in the church of Rome, be necessary to the forgiveness of them.
II. How far the disclosing and revealing of our sins to the ministers of God is convenient upon other accounts, and for other purposes of religion.
I. Whether confession of our sins to the priest, and the manner in which it is taught and practised in the church of Rome, be necessary to the forgiveness of them. What manner of confession this is, the council of Trent hath most precisely determined; viz. “Secret confession to the priest alone of all and every mortal sin, which, upon the most diligent 262search and examination of our consciences, we can remember ourselves to be guilty of since our baptism; together with all the circumstances of those sins, which may change the nature of them; because without the perfect knowledge of these, the priest cannot make a judgment of the nature and quality of men’s sins, nor impose fitting penance for them.” This is the confession of sins required in the church of Rome, which the same council of Trent, without any real ground from Scripture or ecclesiastical antiquity, doth most confidently affirm, “to have been instituted by our Lord, and by the law of God to be necessary to salvation, and to have been al ways practised in the catholic church.”
I shall, as briefly as I can, examine both these pretences, of the Divine institution, and constant practice of this kind of confession.
First, For the Divine institution of it, they mainly rely upon three texts; in the first of which there is no mention at all of confession, much less of a particular confession of all our sins, with the circumstances of them; in the other two there is no mention of confession to the priest: and yet all this ought clearly to appear in these texts, before they can ground a Divine institution upon them; for a Divine institution is not to be founded upon obscure consequences, but upon plain words.
The first text, and the only one upon which the council of Trent grounds the necessity of confession, is John xx. 23. “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” It is a sign they were at a great loss for a text to prove it, when they are glad to bring one that hath not one word in it concerning confession, nor the least intimation of the necessity of it.263
But let us see how they manage it to their purpose. The apostles and their successors (saith Bellarmine) by this power of remitting and retaining sins, are constituted judges of the case of penitents; but they cannot judge without hearing the cause; and this infers particular confession of sins to the priest, from whence he concludes it necessary to the forgiveness of sins.
But do not the ministers of the gospel exercise this power of remitting sins in baptism? And yet particular confession of all sins to the priest is not required, no not in the church of Rome, in the baptism of adult persons. And therefore, according to them, particular confession of sin to the priest is not necessary to his exercising the power of remitting sins, and consequently the necessity of confession cannot be concluded from this text.
And to shew how they are puzzled in this mat ter, Vasquez, by a strange device, concludes the necessity of confession from the power of retaining sins; for (says he) if the priest have a power of retaining sins, that is, of denying pardon and absolution to the penitent, then he may impose confession as a condition of forgiveness, and not absolve the penitent upon other terms. But supposing the priest to have this unreasonable power, this makes confession no otherwise necessary by Divine institution, than going to Jerusalem or China is, in order to the forgiveness of our sins, or submitting to any other foolish condition that the priest thinks fit to require: for according to this way of reasoning, this power of retaining sins, makes every foolish thing that the priest shall impose upon the penitent, to be necessary by Divine command and institution.
But the truth is, this power of remitting and retaining 264sins, is exercised by the ministers of the gospel, in the administration of the sacraments, and the preaching of the gospel, which is called the word of reconciliation, the ministry whereof is committed to them. And thus the ancient fathers understood it; and as a great divine told them in the council of Trent, it was, perhaps, never expounded by any one father concerning the business of confession.
The second text they allege to this purpose is, (1 John i. 9.) “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” Here, indeed, is confession; but general, not particular, as appears by the opposition, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us: but if we confess our sins;” that is, if we acknowledge ourselves to have been sinners. And then there is not a word of confessing to the priest; the confession here meant is plainly to God, because it follows, “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins;” that is, God, who is necessarily understood in the former part of the sentence, as if it had run thus, “If we confess our sins to God, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.”
The third text is, (Jam. v. 16.) “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another.” And here again there is only mention of confession, but not a word of the priest; and for another reason, if I had been to advise them, they should not have pressed this text for their service in this cause, because it does them as much hurt as good; for it is certain, the duty of confession here enjoined is reciprocal and mutual, “Confess your sins one to another:” so that if, by virtue of this text, the people are bound to confess their sins to the priest, the priest is hereby as much obliged to confess his sins 265to the people; which, I dare say, is more than they have a mind to prove from this text. The plain meaning whereof is this—that as Christians should be ready to perform all mutual offices of charity, so to assist and comfort one another by their counsel and prayers. And therefore the apostle adviseth Christians when they are sick, if at the same time they be under any spiritual trouble, by reason of the guilt of any sin lying upon their consciences, to lay open their case to one another, that so they may have the help of one another’s advice and prayers; “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed,” both of your bodily and spiritual distemper. Not that the priest or minister is here excluded; St. James had spoken of that particular before, that when “any was sick,” he should “send for the elders of the church,” that he might, in the first place, have the benefit of their counsel and prayers; and then, because private Christians may also be useful to one another in this kind, he adds, that they should also lay open their condition and troubles “to one another,” that so they might have the help of one another’s advice and prayers; and very probably all the confession here meant of private Christians “to one another,” is of the offences and injuries they may have been guilty of one towards another; that they should be reconciled upon this occasion, and, as a testimony of their charity, should “pray one for another;” whereas they are bound “to send for the elders of the church,” and they are “to pray over them,” as an act, not only of charity, but of superiority, and by virtue of their office in the church, a more especial blessing being to be expected from their prayers. These three texts are the main arguments from 266Scripture, which they, of the church of Rome, bring to prove their auricular or secret confession to be of Divine institution; and woful proofs they are; which shews what miserable shifts they are reduced to, who resolve to maintain a bad cause.
I proceed, in the second place, to discover the falsehood of their other pretences, that this kind of confession hath always been practised in the catholic church: and not only so, but believed absolutely necessary to the remission of men’s sins, and their eternal salvation.
The truth of the whole matter is this; public confession and penance for open and scandalous crimes was in use, and with great strictness observed, in the first ages of Christianity; and there was then no general law, or custom, that exacted secret confession of sins to the priest, as a necessary part of repentance, and condition of forgiveness: afterward public penance was by degrees disused; which plainly shews, that, in the opinion of the church, this discipline, how useful soever, was not of absolute necessity to restore men to the favour of God.
In place of this came in private confession to the priest, particularly appointed to this office, and called the penitentiary; but, upon occasion of a scandal that happened, this also was abrogated by Nectarius, bishop of Constantinople; which shews that neither was this necessary. And this act of Nectarius was justified by his successor St. Chrysostom, who does, over and over, most expressly teach, that confession of our sins to men is not necessary to the forgiveness of them, but that it is sufficient to confess them to God alone; so that St. Chrysostom does plainly stand condemned by the decrees of the council of Trent.267
And thus, for several ages, the matter rested, till the degeneracy of the church of Rome, growing to wards it height, about the ninth and tenth centuries, some began to contend for the necessity of secret confession; and this, in the year 1215, in the fourth council of Lateran, under Pope Innocent III. was decreed and established.
And this is the first public law that was made in the Christian church concerning this matter, not withstanding all the boasts of the council of Trent, about the antiquity of this institution and practice; for Gratian, who lived about fifty years before this council, tells us, that in his time several wise and religious men were of the contrary opinion, and did not hold confession necessary by virtue of any Divine law. Afterwards, in the council of Florence, and especially in that of Trent, this decree of the council of Lateran was confirmed and enlarged in many particulars, of which I have already given some account.
And whereas they pretend for themselves, the universal practice not only of the past but present church, we are able to shew from clear testimony of their own writers, that confession, as taught and practised in the church of Rome, is no where else in use at this day, neither among the Abyssines, nor Indians of St. Thomas, nor the Nestorians, nor the Armenians, nor the Jacobites, churches of great antiquity and vast extent. And as for the Greek church, if we may believe Gratian, and the author of the gloss upon the canon law, the Greeks had anciently no tradition concerning the necessity of confession, nor do they at this day agree with the Roman church in all points concerning it.
So that, in short, there is no nation nor church throughout the whole world, that bears the name of 268Christian, the Roman church only excepted, that doth fully embrace and maintain the whole doctrine of the council of Trent, concerning confession; and yet, according to their principles, the whole is of equal necessity to be believed, as any part of it. With what face, then, do they declare, that this manner of confession always was, and still is, observed in the catholic, that is, in the whole Christian church?
I have not time to shew the great and manifold inconveniences and mischiefs of this practice: how infinite a torture it is to the consciences of men, by entangling them in endless doubts and scruples; and how great a scandal it is to the Christian profession, in the lewd management of it by the priests, is evident from the two bulls of Pope Pius IV. and Gregory XV. which mention things too shameful to be declared; not to insist upon other horrible abuses of it to the vilest and wickedest purposes; not so much to direct the consciences of men, as to dive into their secrets, of which there are so many plain and notorious instances, that they are past denial.
The other thing pretended for it is, that it is a great restraint upon men from sin. And very probably it is so to modest and well-disposed persons; but experience shews how quite contrary an effect it hath upon others, who are the far greatest part of mankind. Does not all the world see in the popish countries, in the time of their carnival, just before Lent, the anniversary season of confession, how scandalous a liberty men take of doing lewd and wicked things; and that for this very reason, because their consciences are presently to be eased and scoured (as they call it) by confession and absolution? 269And they therefore take the opportunity to gratify their lusts, and fill up the measure of their iniquity at that time, because with one labour they can set their consciences right, and clear them of all guilt. And they look upon this as a special piece of spiritual good husbandry, to quit their scores with God at once, that so they may have no occasion to trouble him, nor the priest, nor themselves again for a good while after. So that confession, instead of being a restraint from sin, gives great encouragement to it, by deluding men into a vain hope of obtaining the pardon of their sins from time to time, though they still continue in the practice of them; by which device, men’s sins are at once remitted and retained; the priest remits them by ab solution, and the penitent retains them, by going on still in the commission of them, in hope of obtaining a new absolution as often as occasion shall require. I proceed to the
II. Second inquiry, namely, How far the disclosing and revealing our sins to the ministers of God may be convenient upon other accounts, and to other purposes of religion? To which the answer is very plain and short; so far as is necessary, either to the direction, or the ease of men’s consciences.
There are many cases wherein men under the guilt and trouble of their sins, can neither appease their own minds, nor sufficiently direct themselves, without recourse to some pious and prudent guide; in these cases, men certainly do very well, and many times prevent a great deal of trouble and perplexity to themselves, by a timely discovery of their condition to some faithful minister, in order to their direction and satisfaction, without which they shall never, perhaps, be able to clear themselves of the obscurity 270and entanglement of their own minds; but, by smothering their trouble in their own breasts, shall proceed from one degree of melancholy to another, till at last they be plunged either into destruction or despair; whereas the discovery of their condition in time, would prove a present and effectual remedy. And to this purpose, a general confession is for the most part sufficient; and where there is occasion for a more particular discovery, there is no need of raking into the particular and foul circumstances of men’s sins, to give that advice which is necessary for the cure and ease of the penitent; a thing so far from being desirable, that it must needs be very grievous to every modest and good man.
And thus far confession is not only allowed, but encouraged among protestants. In the Lutheran churches, Chemnitius tells us, that private general confession is in use and practice. And Calvin freely declares, that he is so far from being against people’s repairing to their pastors to this purpose, that he earnestly wisheth it were every where observed before the receiving of the sacrament. And the same is the sense of our own church, laying no necessity upon men in this matter, but advising, especially before the sacrament, those who have any trouble upon their consciences, to repair to some discreet and faithful minister of God’s word, for advice and satisfaction. And thus all the good use which can be made of confession may be had in our church, without the ill effects and consequences of the Romish confession, and without laying a yoke upon the consciences of men which our Saviour never laid.
And now I have, as briefly and as plainly as I could, stated this controversy between us and the 271church of Rome, concerning the necessity and use of secret confession to the ministers of God, as the proper guides and directors of our consciences. But it is granted on all hands, that confession of our sins to God is necessary; and there is no doubt but it is here intended in the text, viz. a penitent acknowledgment of our sins; the nature whereof I shall briefly explain to yon.
And it must not only be a general confession that we are sinners, but there must be a particular acknowledgment of our sins to God, so far as, upon a particular discussion and examination of our consciences, we can call them to remembrance; especially our most heinous sins, which our consciences will not suffer us to forget, must be particularly acknowledged, with the several aggravations of them.
And this confession must be accompanied with such a shame and sorrow for our sins, as produceth in us a sincere resolution to leave them, and to be take ourselves to a better course. These are the principal ingredients of a penitent confession.
1. There must be a shame, without which there is no hope of amendment. Confession always supposeth conviction of a fault; and he that is truly convinced that he hath done amiss, cannot but be ashamed of what he hath done. And thus the penitents in Scripture were wont to make confession of their sins to God: (Ezra ix. 6.) “O my God, (says he) I am ashamed, and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God.” So Jeremiah; (chap. iii. 25.) “We lie down in our shame, and our confusion covereth us; for we have sinned against the Lord.” And so, likewise, Daniel: (chap. ix. 5.) “We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and done wickedly; unto us belongeth confusion of face.” And thus our Saviour describes 272the penitent behaviour of the publican, as ashamed to look up to that God whom he had offended; (Luke xviii. 13.) “He would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven; but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.”
2. Confession must be always accompanied with great sorrow for our sins, considering the great dishonour we have brought to God, and the danger into which we have brought ourselves; “I will declare mine iniquity (says David), and I will be sorry for my sin.”
And this sorrow must be proportionable to the degree of our sin. If we have been very wicked, and have sinned greatly against the Lord, and “have multiplied our transgressions,” and continued long in an evil course, have neglected God, and “forgotten him days without number,” the measure of our sorrow must bear some proportion to the degree of our sins: if they have been as scarlet and crimson (as the prophet expresseth it), that is, of a deeper die than ordinary, our sorrow must be as deep as our guilt; for it is not a slight trouble, and a few tears, that will wash out such stains.
Not that tears are absolutely necessary, though they do very well become, and most commonly accompany, a sincere repentance. All tempers are not in this alike; some cannot express their sorrow by tears, even then when they are most inwardly and sensibly grieved. But if we can easily shed tears upon other occasions, certainly “rivers of tears” ought to “run down our eyes,” because we have broken God’s laws, the reasonable, and righteous, and good laws of so good a God, of so gracious a sovereign, of so mighty a benefactor, of the founder of our being, and the perpetual patron and protector of our lives: but if we cannot command 273our tears, there must, however, be great trouble and contrition of spirit, especially for great sins; to be sure to that degree as to produce the
3. Third property I mention of a penitent confession; namely, a sincere resolution to leave our sins, and betake ourselves to a better course. He does not confess his fault, but stand in it, who is not resolved to amend. True shame and sorrow for our sins, is utterly inconsistent with any thought of returning to them. It argues great obstinacy and impudence to confess a fault and continue in it. Whenever we make confession of our sins to God, “surely it is meet to say unto him, I will not offend any more; that which I know not, teach thou me; and if I have done iniquity, I will do no more.”
This is the first part of repentance mentioned in the text, the first condition of our finding mercy with God, the penitent acknowledgment of our sins to him. I proceed to the
Second condition required to make us capable of the mercy of God, which is the actual forsaking of our sins; “Whoso confesseth and forsaketh them, shall have mercy.” I shall not go about to explain what is meant by forsaking sin; it is that which everybody can understand, but few will do; there lies all the difficulty: I shall only put you in mind, that forsaking of sin comprehends our return to our duty, that necessarily follows from it. In sins of commission, he that hath left any vice, does thereby become master of the contrary virtue. Virtus est vitium fugere; not to be drunk, is to be sober; not to oppress, or defraud, or deal falsely, is to be just and honest: and for sins of omission, the forsaking of them is nothing else, but the doing of those duties which we omitted and neglected before. 274And therefore what Solomon here calls forsaking of sin, is elsewhere in Scripture more fully expressed, by “ceasing to do evil, and learning to do well,” (Isa. i. 16.) By forsaking our sins, and turning to God: (Isa. lv. 7.) “Let the wicked man forsake his ways, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord.” By turning from all our sins, and keeping all God’s laws and statutes: (Ezek. xviii. 21.) “If the wicked will turn from all his sins which he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right.”
And this is a most essential part of repentance, and a necessary condition of our finding mercy with God. That part of repentance which I have mentioned and insisted upon before, the penitent acknowledgment of our sins to God, with shame and sorrow for them, and a firm purpose and resolution to leave them; all this is but preparatory to the actual forsaking of them: that which perfects and completes our repentance, is to turn from our evil ways, and to break off our sins by righteousness.
And these terms, of confessing and forsaking our sins, are reasonable in themselves, and honourable to God, and profitable to us; and upon lower terms we have no reason to expect the mercy of God, nor, in truth, are we capable of it, either by the present forgiveness of our sins, or the final absolution of the great day, and the blessed reward of eternal life. God peremptorily requires this change as a condition of our forgiveness and happiness; “Repent and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out,” (Acts iii. 19.) “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,” (Matt. xix. 17.) “With out holiness no man shall see the Lord.” And why 275should any man hope for the mercy of God upon other terms than those which he hath so plainly and peremptorily declared?
It is a mean and unworthy thought of God, to imagine that he will accept men to his favour and eternal life upon other terms than of better obedience. Will any wise father or prince accept less from his children and subjects? Will they be satisfied with sighs and tears, as well as with obedience; and well-pleased if they be but melancholy for their faults, though they never mend them? We must not impute that to God, which would be a defect of wisdom and good government in any father or prince upon earth. God values no part of repentance upon any other account, but as it tends to reclaim us to our duty, and ends in our reformation and amendment.
This is that which qualifies us for the happiness of another life, and “makes us meet to be made partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.” And without this, though God should be pleased to forgive us, yet we could not forgive ourselves; and notwithstanding the legal discharge from guilt, the sting of it would remain, and we should, like our first parents, after they had sinned, run away and hide ourselves from God, though he spake never so kindly to us. God hath placed in every man’s mind an inexorable judge, that will grant no pardon and forgiveness but to a reformed penitent, to him that hath such a sense of the evil of his past life, as to be come a better man for the future.
And whoever entertains any other notion of the grace and mercy of God to sinners, confounds the nature of things, and does plainly overthrow the reason of all laws, which is to restrain men from 276sin; but when it is committed, to pardon it with out amendment, is to encourage the practice of it, and to take away the reverence and veneration of those laws, which seem so severely to forbid it. So that, next to impunity, the forgiveness of men’s sins upon such easy and unfit terms gives boldness and encouragement to sin, and must necessarily, in the opinion of men, lessen the honour and esteem of God’s laws.
And thus I have considered and explained both the blessing and benefit which is here promised and declared, viz. the mercy and favour of God, which comprehends both the present forgiveness of our sins, and power against them, and grace to persevere in goodness to the end, and our final absolution at the great day, and the glorious and merciful reward of eternal life: and likewise the conditions upon which this blessing is promised; viz. the penitent acknowledgment of our sins to God, with such shame and sorrow for them, as produceth a sincere resolution of leaving them, and returning to a better course, and the actual forsaking of them, which involves in it our actual return to our duty, and a constant and sincere obedience to the laws of God in the future course of our lives.
I shall now make some application of this discourse to ourselves. I am sure we are all nearly concerned in it. The best of us have many sins to confess and forsake; some of us very probably have need to change the whole course of our lives, to put us into a capacity of the mercy of God. This work can never be unseasonable; but there cannot be a more proper time for it, than when we are solemnly preparing ourselves to receive the holy sacrament; in which, as we do commemorate the great mercy 277of God to mankind, so we do likewise renew and confirm our covenant with him; that holy covenant, wherein we engage ourselves to forsake our sins, as ever we expect the forgiveness of them at God’s band.
To persuade us hereto, be pleased to consider the reasonableness of the thing, the infinite benefit and advantage of it; and, which is beyond all other arguments, the absolute necessity of it, to make us capable of the mercy and forgiveness of God in this world and the other, and to deliver us from the wrath which is to come, and from those terrible storms of vengeance, which will infallibly fall upon impenitent sinners: so that we have all the reason, and all the encouragement in the world, to resolve upon a better course. Upon this condition, the mercy of God is ready to meet and embrace us; God will pardon our greatest provocations, and be perfectly reconciled to us. So he hath declared by the prophet: (Isaiah i. 16.) “Wash ye, make you clean: put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red as crimson, they shall be as wool.” And what greater encouragement can we desire, than that, upon such easy and advantageous terms, God should be so ready to have an end put to all controversies and quarrels between him and us?
“I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God,” to take up a serious resolution, “to break off your sins by repentance,” and to reform whatever, upon due search and trial of your ways, you shall find to be amiss in your lives.278
“I beseech you by the mercies of God,” that mercy which naturally leads to repentance, and which “is long-suffering to us-ward,” on purpose that “we may not perish, but come to repentance;” which hath spared us so often, and is not yet exhausted and tired out by our intolerable obstinacy, and innumerable provocations; that mercy which moved the Son of God to become man, to live among us, and to die for us; who now, as it were, speaks to us from the cross, extending his pierced hands, and painful arms to embrace us, and, through the gasping wounds of his side, lets us see the tender and bleeding compassion of his heart; that mercy, which, if we now despise it, we shall in vain one day implore, and catch hold of, and hang upon, to save us from sinking into eternal perdition; that mercy, which, how much soever we now presume upon, will then be so far from inter posing between us and the wrath of God, that it will highly inflame and exasperate it. For whatever impenitent sinners may now think, they will then certainly find that the Divine justice, when it is thoroughly provoked, and whetted by his abused mercy and goodness, will be most terribly severe, and, like a razor set with oil, will cut the keener for its smoothness.
“Consider this all ye that forget God, lest he tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver: consider and shew yourselves men, O ye transgressors!”
We do consider all this, (some may perhaps say) but we have been great sinners, so great, that we doubt whether our case be not already desperate.
This, if it be sensibly said, with deep sorrow and contrition, with that shame and confusion of face 279which becomes great offenders, is a good confession, and the best reason in the world, why ye should now break off your sins: for if what you have already done, do really make your case so doubtful and difficult, do not, by sinning yet more and more against the Lord, make it quite desperate and past remedy; do but you repent, and God will yet return and have mercy upon you. And do not say you cannot do it, when it must be done, or you are undone. Power and necessity go together: when men are hard pressed, they find a power which they thought they had not; and when it comes to the push, men can do that which they plainly see they either must do, or be ruined for ever.
But, after all this, I am very sensible how great a need there is of God’s powerful assistance in this case, and that it is not an ordinary resolution and common measure of God’s grace, that will reclaim those who have been long habituated to an evil course.
Let us, therefore, earnestly beg of him, that he would make these counsels effectual, that he would grant us repentance unto life, that he would make us all sensible of our faults, sorry for them, and resolved to amend them; and let us every one put up David’s prayer to God for ourselves, “Deal with thy servant according to thy mercy, and teach me thy statutes. Order my steps in thy word, and let not any iniquity have dominion over me. Teach me, O Lord, the way of thy statutes, that I may keep them unto the end.”
I have now done; I am only to mind you of another duty, which is to accompany our repentance, and fasting, and prayer, as a testimony of the sincerity of our repentance, and one of the best means 280to make our fasting and prayer acceptable to God, and to turn away his judgments from us; and that is charity and alms to the poor, whose number is very great among us, and their necessities very pressing and clamorous, and therefore do call for a bountiful supply.
And to convince men of the necessity of this duty, and the efficacy of it in conjunction with our repentance, and fasting, and prayers, I shall only offer to your consideration a few plain texts of Scripture, which need no comment upon them. (Dan. iv. 27.) It is the prophet’s advice to Nebuchadnezzar; “Break off thy sins by righteousness, and thine iniquity by shewing mercy to the poor; if so be it may be a lengthening of thy tranquillity.” (Acts x. 4.) The angel there tells Cornelius, “Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God.” (Isa. lviii. 6, &c.) “Is not this the fast which I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thy own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily, and thy righteousness shall go before thee, and the glory of the Lord shall be thy rereward: then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer thee; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am.” To which I will only add that gracious promise of our Saviour; “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy;” and that terrible sentence in St. James, “He shall have judgment with out mercy, that hath shewed no mercy!”281
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