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OF CONFESSION, AND SORROW FOR SIN.
I will declare mine iniquity, and be sorry for my sin.—Psalm xxxviii. 18.
IN this psalm David does earnestly beg mercy and forgiveness of God, and in order to the obtaining of it, he declares both his sins, and his repentance for them, in these words, which contain in them two of the necessary ingredients, or at least concomitants, of a true repentance; viz. confession of sin, and sorrow for it.
I shall speak something of the first of these, viz. confession of sin: but the second, viz. sorrow for sin, shall be the main subject of my discourse.
1. Confession of sin; “I will declare mine iniquity;” or, as it is in the old translation, “I will confess my wickedness.” Of which I shall speak under these three heads:
I. What confession of sin is.
II. How far it is necessary.
III. What are the reasons and grounds of this necessity.
I. What confession of sin is. It is a declaration or acknowledgment of some moral evil or fault to another, which we are conscious to ourselves we have been guilty of. And this acknowledgment may be made by us, either to God or man. The Scripture mentions both. Confession of our sins to God is very frequently mentioned in Scripture, as the 282first and necessary part of repentance; and some times, and in some cases, confession to men is no only recommended but enjoined.
II. How far confession of our sins is necessary That it is necessary to confess our sins to God, the Scripture plainly declares, and is I think a matter out of all dispute. For it is a necessary part of repentance, that we should confess our sins to God with a due sense of the evil of them; and, therefore the Scripture maketh this a necessary qualification and condition of pardon and forgiveness. (Prov xxviii. 13.) “Whoso confesseth and forsaketh his sins, shall have mercy.” (1 John i. 9.) “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness;” implying, that if we do not confess our sins to God, the guilt of them will still remain; to God, I say, for of confession to him St. John plainly speaks, when he says, “He is faithful and just.” Who? God surely, who, though he be not named before, yet is necessarily understood in the words before; “If we confess our sins, (i. e. to God), he is faithful and just.”
A general confession of our sins is absolutely necessary; and in some cases a particular acknowledgment of them, and repentance for them, especially if the sins have been great, and deliberate, and presumptuous; in this case a particular confessor of them, and repentance for them, is necessary sc far as we can particularly recollect them, and cal them to remembrance: whereas, for sins of ignorance and infirmity, of surprise and daily incursion, for lesser omissions, and the defects and imperfections of our best actions and services, we have all the reason that can be to believe, that God will accept of a general confession of them, and repentance for 283them. And if any man ask me, where I find this distinction in Scripture between a general and particular repentance? I answer, that it is not necessary it should be any where expressed in Scripture, being so clearly founded in the nature and reason of the thing; because in. many cases it is not possible that we should have a particular knowledge and remembrance of all our particular sins; as is plain in sins of ignorance, since our very calling them by that name does necessarily suppose that we do not know them. It is impossible we should remember those sins afterwards which we did not know when they were committed; and, therefore, either a general repentance for these and the other sins I mentioned of the like nature, must be sufficient, in order to the pardon of them; or we must say that they are unpardonable, which would be very unreasonable, because this would be to make lesser sins more unpardonable than those which are far greater.
And yet, though this difference between a general and particular repentance be no where expressly mentioned in Scripture, there does not want foundation for it there. (Psal. xix. 12.) “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secret sins;” i. e. such as we do not discern and take notice of when they are committed. And yet David supposeth, that upon a general acknowledgment of them, and repentance for them, we may be cleansed from them, though we cannot make a particular acknowledgment of them, and exercise a particular repentance for them, because they are secret, and we do not particularly understand what they are.
As for our confessing our sins to men, both Scripture and reason do, in some cases, recommend and enjoin it. As,284
1. In order to the obtaining of the prayers of good men for us: (James v. 16.) “Confess your sins one to another;” he said before, “the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up.” This, in all probability, is meant of the miraculous power of prayer, which St. Chrysostom reckons among the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, bestowed upon Christians in the first ages of the church: and this is very much countenanced and confirmed by what presently follows after this command, of confessing our sins one to another, and praying one for another, and given as the reason of it; for “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” The original is δέησις ἐνεργουμέην, “the inspired prayer;” which, in the verse before, is called “the prayer of faith,” meaning that miraculous faith, in the power whereof Christians did obtain of God whatever they were inspired to ask of him; according to our Saviour’s promise in the gospel, concerning the efficacy of the prayers of Christians, which we find mentioned among the other miraculous powers which were to be conferred upon them by the coming of the Holy Ghost.
2. Confession of our sins to men is likewise reasonable, in order to the ease and satisfaction of our minds, and our being directed in our duty for the future. In this case, common reason and prudence, without any precept of Scripture, will direct men to have recourse to this remedy; viz. to discover and lay open our disease to some skilful spiritual physician; to some faithful friend, or prudent guide, in order to spiritual advice and direction, for the peace and satisfaction of our minds. And then,
3. In case our sins have been public and scandalous, 285both reason and the practice of the Christian church do require, that, when men have publicly offended, they should give public satisfaction and open testimony of their repentance.
But as for private and auricular confession of our sins to a priest in all cases, and as of absolute necessity to our obtaining pardon and forgiveness from God, as the church of Rome teacheth, this is neither necessary by Divine precept, nor by any constitution and practice of the ancient Christian church, as I have shewn in my former discourse.
Not to mention the bad consequence of this practice, and the impious and dangerous use which hath been made of this seal of confession, for the concealing and carrying on of the most wicked and barbarous designs, and the debauching of the penitents, by drawing them into the commission of the same and greater sins than those which they confessed, which the more devout persons of that church have frequently complained of:—I proceed now to shew briefly in the
III. Third place, the grounds and reasons of the necessity of confessing our sins to God; and I shall but just mention them.
1. From the precept and command of God; for which I have already produced clear proof of Scripture.
2. From the nature of the thing, because without this there can be no repentance towards God. He that will not so much as own the faults which he hath been guilty of, can never repent of them. If we will not confess our sins to God, we are never like to be sorry for them.—Thus much for the first thing in the text, the confession of our sins. I proceed now, to the286
Second ingredient of repentance mentioned in the text, which is sorrow for sin; “I will declare mine iniquity, and be sorry for my sin.” In the handling of this argument, I shall,
I. Consider the nature of this passion of sorrow.
II. The reason and grounds of our sorrow for sin.
III. The measure and degrees of it.
IV. How far the outward expression of our inward grief by tears is necessary to a true repentance.
I. For the nature of this passion. Sorrow is a trouble or disturbance of mind, occasioned by something that is evil, done or suffered by us, or which we are in danger of suffering, that tends greatly to our damage or mischief: so that to be sorry for a thing, is nothing else but to be sensibly affected with the consideration of the evil of it, and of the mischief and inconvenience which is like to redound to us from it: which if it be a moral evil, such as sin is, to be sorry for it, is to be troubled that we have done it, and to wish with all our hearts that we had been wiser, and had done other wise; and if this sorrow be true and real, if it abide and stay upon us, it will produce a firm purpose and resolution in us, not to do the like for the future.
It is true, indeed, that we are said to be sorry for the death and loss of friends; but this is rather the effect of natural affection than of our reason, which always endeavours to check and moderate our grief for that which we cannot help, and labours by all means to turn our sorrow into patience. And we are said, likewise, to grieve for the miseries and sufferings of others; but this is not so properly sorrow, as pity and compassion. Sorrow rather respects ourselves, 287and our own doings and sufferings. I proceed, in the
II. Second place, to inquire into the reasons and grounds of our sorrow for sin; and they, as I have already hinted, are these two—the intrinsical, or the consequent evil of sin; either the evil of sin in itself, or the mischiefs and inconveniences which it will bring upon us. For every one that is sorry for any fault he is guilty of, he is so upon one of these two accounts; either upon the score of ingenuity, or of interest; either because he hath done a thing which is unworthy in itself, or because he hath done some thing which may prove prejudicial to himself; either out of a principle of love and gratitude to God, or from a principle of self-love. And though the former of these be the better, the more generous principle of sorrow; yet the latter is usually the first: because it is the more sensible, and toucheth us more nearly. For sin is a base and ill-natured thing, and renders a man not so apt to be affected with the injuries he hath offered to God, as with the mischief which is likely to fall upon himself. And, therefore, I will begin with the latter, because it is usually the more sensible cause of our trouble and sorrow for sin.
1. The great mischief and inconvenience that sin is like to bring upon us. When a man is thoroughly convinced of the danger into which his sins have brought him, that they have “made him a child of wrath, and a son of perdition,” that he is thereby fallen under the heavy displeasure of Almighty God, and liable to all those dreadful curses which are written in his book; that ruin and destruction hang over him, and that nothing keeps him from eternal and intolerable torments, but the patience and long-suffering 288of God, which he does not know how soon it may cease to interpose between him and the wrath of God, and let him fall into that endless and insupportable misery, which is the just portion and desert of his sins; he that lays to heart the sad estate and condition into which he hath brought himself by sin, and the mischiefs which attend him every moment of his continuance in that state, and how they are to him, and that there is but a step between him and death, and hardly another between that and hell; he cannot surely but be very sorry for what he hath done, and be highly displeased and offended with himself, that he should be the author of his own ruin, and have contributed as much as in him lies to his everlasting undoing.
2. Another and better principle of sorrow for sin, is ingenuity; because we are sensible that we have carried ourselves very unworthily towards God, and have been injurious to him, who hath laid all possible obligations upon us: for he hath made us, and hath given us our beings, and hath charged his watchful providence with the continual care of us; his bounty hath ministered to the necessities and comforts of our life; all the blessings that we enjoy, are the effects of his mere love and goodness, without any hope of requital, or expectation of any other return from us, than of love, of gratitude, and obedience; which yet are of no advantage to him, but very beneficial and comfortable to ourselves: for he does not expect duty and obedience from us, with any regard of benefit to himself, but for our sakes, and in order to our own happiness.
Nay, his kindness did not stop here, but after we had abused him by our repeated provocations, yet he still continued his care of us; and when we had 289farther provoked him to withdraw his love, and to call in his abused goodness, and had done what lay in us to make ourselves miserable, he would not suffer us to be undone, but found out a ransom for us, and hath contrived a way for the pardon of all our offences, and to reconcile us to himself, and to restore us to happiness, by the most stupendous and amazing condescension of love and goodness that ever was, even by giving his only Son to die for us.
And can we reflect upon all this, and not be sorry and grieved at our very hearts, that we should be so evil to him, who hath been so good to us; that we should be so undutiful to so loving a father, so unkind to so faithful and constant a friend, so ungrateful and unworthy to so mighty a benefactor? If any thing will melt us into tears, surely this will do it, to consider that we have sinned against him who made us, and continually preserves us, and after all our unkindness to him, did still retain so great a love for us, as to redeem us from hell and destruction by the death and suffering of his Son, and notwithstanding all our offences, does still offer us pardon and peace, life and happiness? Such considerations as these, seriously laid to heart, should, one would think, break the hardest heart, and make tears to gush even out of a rock. I proceed, in the
III. Third place, to consider the measure and degree of our sorrow for sin. That it admits of degrees, which ought to bear some proportion to the heinousness of our sins, and the several aggravations of them, and the time of our continuance in them, is out of all dispute: for though the least sin be a just cause of the deepest sorrow, yet, because our greatest grief can never bear a due proportion to the 290vast and infinite evil of sin, God is pleased to require and accept such measures of sorrow as do not bear an exact correspondence to the malignity of sin, provided they be according to the capacity of our nature, and in some sort proportioned to the degree and aggravations of our sin: i. e. though the highest degree of our sorrow doth necessarily fall below the evil of the least sin, yet God requires that we should be more deeply affected with some sins than others.
But what is the lowest degree which God requires in a true penitent, and will accept, as it is impossible for me to tell, so it is unprofitable for any body to know: for no man can reasonably make this inquiry with any other design, than that he may learn how he may come off with God upon the cheapest and easiest terms. Now there cannot be a worse sign that a man is not truly sensible of the great evil of sin than this, that he desires to be troubled for it as little as may be, and no longer than needs must: and none surely are more unlikely to find acceptance with God, than those who deal so nearly, and endeavour to drive so hard a bargain with him.
And therefore I shall only say this in general, concerning the degrees of our sorrow for sin; that sin being so great an evil in itself, and of so pernicious a consequence to us, it cannot be too much lamented and grieved for by us: and the more and greater our sins have been, and the longer we have continued and lived in them, they call for so much the greater sorrow, and deeper humiliation from us: for the reasoning of our Saviour concerning Mary Magdalen, “She loved much, because much was forgiven her,” is proportionably true in this case—those who have sinned much, should sorrow the more.291
And then we must take this caution along with us, that if we would judge aright of the truth of our sorrow for sin, we must not measure it so much by the degrees of sensible trouble and affliction, as by the rational effects of it, which are hatred of sin, and a fixed purpose and resolution against it for the future: for he is most truly sorry for his miscarriage, who looks upon what he hath done amiss with abhorrence and detestation of the thing, and wisheth he had not done it, and censures himself severely for it, and thereupon resolves not to do the like again. And this is the character which St. Paul gives of a godly sorrow, (2 Cor. vii. 10.) that it “worketh repentance,” μετάνοιαν, it produceth a real change in our minds, and makes us to alter our purpose and resolution: and though such a person may not be so passionately and sensibly afflicted for sin, yet it appears, by the effect, that he hath a deeper and more rational resentment of the evil of it, than that man who is sad and melancholy, and drooping for never so long a time, and after all returns to his former sinful course; the degree of his sorrow may appear greater, but the effect of it is really less.
IV. As for the outward expressions of our grief and sorrow. The usual sign and outward expression of sorrow is tears; but these being not the substance of our duty, but an external testimony of it, which some tempers are more unapt to than others; we are much less to judge of the truth of our sorrow for sin by these, than by our inward sensible trouble and affliction of spirit. Some persons are of a more tender and melting disposition, and can command their tears upon a little occasion, and upon very short warning; and such persons that can weep for every thing else that troubles them, have much 292more reason to suspect the truth of their sorrow for sin, if this outward expression of it be wanting. And we find, in Scripture, that the sorrow of true penitents does very frequently discover itself by this outward sign of it. Thus, when Ezra and the people made confession of their sins to God, it is said, that “they wept very sore,” (Ezra x.) Peter, when he reflected upon that great sin of denying his master, it is said, “he went forth and wept bitterly.” David also was abundant in this expression of his grief. In the Book of Psalms he speaks frequently of his sighs and groans, and of watering his couch with his tears: yea, so sensibly was he affected with the evil of sin, that he could shed tears plentifully for the sins of others: (Psal. cxix. 136.) “Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because men keep not thy law.” In like manner, Jeremiah tells us, that his soul did weep in secret places, for the pride and obstinacy of the Jews; that his “eye did weep sore, and run down with tears,” (Jer. xiii. 17.) And so likewise St. Paul: (Phil. iii. 18.) “There are many that walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies even to the cross of Christ.” And there seems to be this natural reason for it, that all great and permanent impressions upon the mind, all deep inward resentments, have usually a proportionable effect upon the body and the inferior faculties.
But though this happen very frequently, yet it is not so constant and certain; for all men have not the same tenderness of spirit, nor are equally prone to tears: nay, though a man can weep upon natural accounts, as upon the loss of a child, or near relation, or an intimate friend, or when he lies under a sharp bodily pain, yet a man may truly repent, 293though he cannot express his sorrow for sin the same way, provided he give testimony of it by more real effects: and therefore the rule, which is commonly given by casuists in this case, seems to be more ensnaring than true and useful; namely, “That that man that can shed tears upon account of any evil less than that of sin (as certainly all natural evils are), ought to question the truth of his repentance for any sin that he hath committed, if he can not shed tears for it.” This I think is not true, because there is scarce any man of so hard and unrelenting a spirit, but the loss of a kind father, or a dear child, or other near relation, will force tears from him; and yet such a man, if it were to save his soul, may not be able at some times to shed a tear for his sins. And the reason is obvious; because tears do proceed from a sensitive trouble, and are commonly the product of a natural affection; and therefore it is no wonder, if they flow more readily and easily upon a natural account; because they are the effect of a cause suitable to their nature. But sorrow for sin, which hath more of the judgment and understanding in it, hath not its foundation in natural affection, but in reason; and therefore may not many times express itself in tears, though it may produce greater and more proper effects.
So that, upon the whole matter, I see no reason to call in question the truth and sincerity of that man’s sorrow and repentance, who hates sin and forsakes it, and returns to God and his duty, though he can not shed tears, and express the bitterness of his soul for his sin, by the same significations that a mother doth in the loss of her only son. He that cannot weep like a child may resolve like a man, and that undoubtedly will find acceptance with God. A learned divine 294hath well illustrated this matter by this similitude: Two persons walking together espy a serpent; the one shrieks and cries out at the sight of it, the other kills it: so it is in sorrow for sin; some express it by great lamentation and tears, and vehement trans ports of passions; others by greater and more real effects of hatred and detestation, by forsaking their sins, and by mortifying and subduing their lusts: but he that kills it does certainly best express his inward displeasure and enmity against it.
The application I shall make of what hath been said upon this argument, shall be in two particulars:
I. By way of caution, and that against a double mistake about sorrow for sin.
1. Some look upon trouble and sorrow for sin as the whole of repentance.
2. Others exact from themselves such a degree of sorrow as ends in melancholy, and renders them unfit both for the duties of religion, and of their particular calling. The first concerns almost the generality of men; the latter but a very few in comparison.
1. There are a great many who look upon trouble and sorrow for their sins as the whole of repentance, whereas it is but an introduction to it. It is that which works repentance; but it is not repentance itself. Repentance is always accompanied with sorrow for sin; but sorrow for sin does not al ways end in true repentance: sorrow only respects sins past; but repentance is chiefly preventive of sin for the future. And God doth therefore require our sorrow for sin, in order to our forsaking of it. (Heb. vi. 1.) Repentance is therefore called “repentance from dead works.” It is not only a sorrow for them, but a turning from them.
There is no reason why men should be so willing 295to deceive themselves, for (hey are like to be the losers by it: but so we see it is, that many men are contented to be deceived to their own ruin; and among many other ways which men have to cheat themselves, this is none of the least frequent, to think that if they can but shed a few tears for sin upon a death-bed, which no doubt they may easily do, when they see their friends weeping about them, and apprehend themselves to be in imminent danger, not only of death, but of that which is most terrible, the heavy displeasure and the fiery indignation of Almighty God, into whose hands “it is a fearful thing to fall:” I say, they think that if they can but do thus much, God will accept this for true repentance, and hereupon grant them pardon and eternal life. And upon these fond hopes, they adjourn their repentance, and the reformation of their lives, to a dying hour.
Indeed, if I were to speak to a man upon his death-bed, I would encourage him to a great contrition and sorrow for his sins, as his last and only remedy, and the best thing he can do at that time; but, on the other hand, when I am speaking to those that are well and in health, I dare not give them the least encouragement to venture their souls upon this, because it is a hazardous and almost desperate remedy; especially when men have cunningly and designedly contrived to rob God of the service of their lives, and to put him off with a few unprofitable sighs and tears at their departure out of the world. Our Saviour tells us, that it is “not every one that shall say unto him, Lord! Lord! that shall enter into the kingdom of heaven;” and that there is a time when “many shall seek to enter in, but shall not be able.”296
The sum of this caution is, that men should take heed of mistaking sorrow for sin for true repentance, unless it be followed with the forsaking of sin and the real reformation of our lives. Ahab humbled himself, but we do not find that he was a true penitent. Judas was sorry for his sin, and yet for all that was “the son of perdition.” Esau is a sad type of an ineffectual sorrow for sin: (Heb. xii.) where the apostle tells us, that “he found no place for repentance,” that is, no way to change the mind of his father Isaac, “though he sought it carefully with tears.” If sorrow for sin were repentance, there would be store of penitents in hell: for there is the deepest and most intense sorrow, “weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth.”
2. Another mistake which men ought to be cautioned against in this matter, is, of those who exact from themselves such a degree of sorrow for sin, as ends in deep melancholy, as renders them unfit both for the duties of religion, and of their particular callings. But because there are but very few who fall into this mistake, I shall need to say the less to it. This only I shall say, that those who indulge their sorrow to such a degree, as to drown their spirits, and to sink them into melancholy and mopishness, and thereby render themselves unserviceable to God, and unfit for the necessities of this life, they commit one sin more to mourn for, and overthrow the end of repentance by the indiscreet use of the means of it. For the end of sorrow for sin, is the forsaking of it and returning to our duty: but he that sorrows for sin, so as to unfit him for his duty, defeats his own design, and destroys the end he aims at.
II. The other part of the application of this discourse should be, to stir up this affection of sorrow 297in us. And here, if I had time, I might represent to you the great evil of sin, and the infinite danger and inconvenience of it. If the holy men in Scripture, David, and Jeremiah, and St. Paul, were so deeply affected with the sins of others, as to shed rivers of tears at the remembrance of them; how ought we to be touched with the sense of our own sins, who are equally concerned in the dishonour brought to God by them, and infinitely more in the danger they expose us to! Can we weep for our dead friends; and have we no sense of that heavy load of guilt, of that body of death, which we carry about with us? Can. we be sad and melancholy for temporal losses and sufferings, and “refuse to be comforted;” and is it no trouble to us to have lost heaven and happiness, and to be in continual danger of the intolerable sufferings and endless torments of another world?
I shall only offer to your consideration, the great benefit and advantage which will redound to us from this godly sorrow; “it worketh repentance to salvation, not to be repented of,” saith St. Paul. If we would thus “sow in tears,” we should “reap in joy.” This sorrow would but continue for a time, and in the morning of the resurrection there would be joy to all eternity, “Joy unspeakable and full of glory.” It is but a very little while, and these days of mourning will be accomplished; and then “all tears shall be wiped from our eyes; and the ransomed of the Lord shall come to Sion with songs, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted: but woe unto you that laugh, for ye shall mourn and weep.” If men will rejoice in the pleasures of sin, “and walk 298in the ways of their hearts, and in the sight of their eyes;” if they will remove sorrow from their heart, and put away all sad and melancholy thoughts from them, and are resolved to harden their spirits against the sense of sin, against the checks and convictions of their own consciences, and the suggestions of God’s Holy Spirit, against all the arguments that God can offer, and all the methods that God can use to bring them to repentance; let them “know, that for all these things God will bring them into judgment;” and, because they would not give way to a timely and seasonable sorrow for sin, they shall lie down in eternal sorrow; “weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth shall be their portion for ever.” From which sad and miserable estate, beyond all imagination, and past all remedy, God of his infinite goodness deliver us all, for Jesus Christ his sake.
To whom, &c.299
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