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THE DANGER OF IMPENITENCE WHERE THE GOSPEL IS PREACHED.
Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment than for you.—Matt. xi. 21, 22.
AFTER our blessed Saviour had instructed, and sent forth his disciples, he himself went abroad to preach unto the cities of Israel; particularly he spent much time in the cities of Galilee, Chorazin, and Bethsaida, and Capernaum, preaching the gospel to them, and working many and great miracles among them; but with little or no success: which was the cause of his denouncing this terrible woe against them; (ver. 20.) “Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not. Woe unto thee, Chorazin!” &c.
In which words our Saviour declares the sad and miserable condition of those two cities, Chorazin and Bethsaida, which had neglected such an opportunity, and resisted and withstood such means of repentance, as would have effectually reclaimed the most wicked cities and people that can be instanced in any age, Tyre, and Sidon, and Sodom; and therefore he tells them, that their condition was much 504worse, and that they should fall under a heavier sentence at the day of judgment, than the people of those cities whom they had always looked upon as the greatest sinners that ever were in the world. This is the plain meaning of the words in general; but yet there are some difficulties in them, which I shall endeavour to clear, and then proceed to raise such observations from them, as may be instructive and useful to us.
The difficulties are these:
I. What repentance is here spoken of; whether an external repentance, in show and appearance only, or an inward, and real, and sincere repentance.
II. In what sense it is said, that “Tyre and Sidon would have repented.”
III. What is meant by their “would have repented long ago.”
IV. How this assertion of our Saviour’s, that miracles would have converted Tyre and Sidon, is reconcileable with that other saying of his, (Luke xvi. 31.) in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, that “those who believed not Moses and the prophets, neither would they be persuaded though one rose from the dead.”
I. What repentance is here spoken of; whether a mere external and hypocritical repentance in show and appearance only, or an inward, and real, and sincere repentance.
The reason of this doubt depends upon the different theories of divines, about the sufficiency of grace accompanying the outward means of repentance, and whether an irresistible degree of God’s grace be necessary to repentance; for they who deny sufficient grace to accompany the outward means of repentance, and assert an irresistible degree 505of God’s grace necessary to repentance, are forced to say that our Saviour here speaks of a mere external repentance; because if he spake of an inward and sincere repentance, then it must be granted, that sufficient inward grace did accompany the miracles that were wrought in Chorazin and Bethsaida, to bring men to repentance; because what was afforded to them, would have brought Tyre and Sid on to repentance. And that which would have effected a thing, cannot be denied to be sufficient: so that unless our Saviour here speaks of a mere external repentance, either the outward means of repentance, as preaching and miracles, must be granted to be sufficient to bring men to repentance, without the inward operation of God’s grace upon the minds of men; or else a sufficient degree of God’s grace must be acknowledged to accompany the outward means of repentance. Again, if an irresistible degree of grace be necessary to true repentance, it is plain, Chorazin and Bethsaida had it not, because they did not repent; and yet, with out this, Tyre and Sidon could not sincerely have repented: therefore our Saviour here must speak of a mere external repentance. Thus some argue, as they do likewise concerning the repentance of Nineveh, making that also to be merely external, because they are loath to allow true repentance to heathens.
But it seems very plain, that our Saviour does speak of an inward, and true, and sincere repentance; and therefore, the doctrines that will not admit this, are not true. For our Saviour speaks of the same kind of repentance, that he upbraideth them with the want of, in the verse before the text. “Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most 506of his mighty works were done, because they repented not;” that is, because they were not brought to a sincere repentance, by his preaching, which was confirmed by such great miracles. It is true, indeed, he mentions the outward signs and expressions of repentance, when he says, u they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes;” but not as excluding inward and real repentance, but supposing it, as is evident from what is said in the next verse, “It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon, at the day of judgment, than for you:” for though an external and hypocritical repentance may prevail with God to put off temporal judgments, yet surely it will be but a very small, if any, mitigation of our condemnation at the day of judgment: so that the repentance here spoken of cannot, without great violence to the scope and design of our Saviour’s argument, be understood only of an external shew and appearance of repentance.
II. The next difficulty to be cleared is, in what sense it is here said, that “if the mighty works which were done” by our Saviour among the Jews, “had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented.”
Some, to avoid the inconvenience which they apprehend to be in the more strict and literal sense of the words, look upon them as hyperbolical: as we say, such a thing would move a stone, or the like, when we would express something to be very sad and grievous; so here, to aggravate the impenitence of the Jews, our Saviour says, that they resisted those means of repentance, which one would think should almost have prevailed upon the great est and most obdurate sinners that ever were; but not intending to affirm any such thing.507
But there is no colour for this, if we consider that our Saviour reasons from the supposition of such a thing, that therefore the case of Tyre and Sidon would really be “more tolerable at the day of judgment” than theirs; because they would have repented, but the Jews did not.
Others, perhaps, understand the words too strictly, as if our Saviour had spoken according to what he certainly foreknew would have happened to the people of Tyre and Sidon, if such miracles had been wrought among them. And no doubt but, in that case, God did certainly know what they would have done; but yet I should rather choose to understand the words as spoken popularly, according to what in all human appearance and probability would have happened, if such external means of repentance, accompanied with an ordinary grace of God, had been afforded to them of Tyre and Sidon. And thus the old Latin interpreter seems to have understood the next words: “If the mighty works which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, ἔμειναν ἄν, forte mansissent, “it would perhaps have remained to this day—in all likelihood it had continued till now.” Much the same with that passage of the prophet: (Ezek. iii. 5, 6.) “Thou art not sent to a people of a strange speech, and of a hard language, but to the house of Israel: surely had I sent thee to them, they would have hearkened unto thee;” that is, in all probability they would; there is little doubt to be made of the contrary. And this is sufficient foundation for our Saviour’s reasoning after wards, that “it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for them.” And if we may judge what they would have done before, by what they did afterward, there is more than 508probability for it: for we read in the 21st chapter of the Acts, (ver. 3. 7.) that the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon received the gospel, and kindly entertained St. Paul, when the Jews rejected them both. The
III, Third thing to be cleared is, what is meant by long ago; “they would have repented long ago.”
Some understand this, as if our Saviour had said, they would not have stood out so long against so much preaching, and so many miracles; but would at first have repented, long before our Saviour gave over Chorazin and Bethsaida for obstinate and in corrigible sinners; they would not only have repented at last, but much sooner, and without so much ado.
But this does not seem to be the meaning of the words; but our Saviour seems to refer to those ancient times, long ago, when the prophets denounced judgments against Tyre and Sidon, particularly the prophet Ezekiel; and to say, that if in those days the preaching of that prophet had been accompanied with such miracles as our Saviour wrought in the cities of Galilee, Tyre and Sidon would in those days have repented.
The last and greatest difficulty of all is, how this assertion of our Saviour, that miracles would have converted Tyre and Sidon, is reconcileable with that discourse of our Saviour’s (Luke xvi.) in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, that those who would not believe Moses and the prophets, would not have been persuaded, though one had rose from the dead.
The true answer to which difficulty, in short, is this: that when our Saviour says, “if they believe not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be 509persuaded though one rose from the dead:” he does not hereby weaken the force of miracles, or their aptness to convince men, and bring them to repentance; but rather confirm it: because Moses and the prophets had the attestation of many and great miracles; and therefore there was no reason to think, that they who would not believe the writings and doctrine of Moses and the prophets, which had the confirmation of so many miracles, and was owned by themselves to have so, should be wrought upon by one particular miracle—the coming of one from the dead, and speaking unto them: or, however this might move and astonish them, for the present, yet it was not likely that the grace of God should concur with such an extraordinary means, to render it effectual to their conversion and repentance, who had wilfully despised, and obstinately rejected, that which had a much greater confirmation than the discourse of a man risen from the dead, and was appointed by God for the ordinary and standing means of bringing men to repentance. So that our Saviour might, with reason enough, pronounce that Tyre and Sidon, who never had a standing revelation of God to bring them to repentance, nor had rejected it, would, upon miracles extraordinarily wrought among them, have repented; and yet deny it elsewhere to be likely, that they who rejected a standing revelation of God, confirmed by miracles, which called them to repentance, would probably be brought to repentance by a particular miracle; or that God should afford his grace to make it effectual for their repentance and salvation.
The words being thus cleared, I come now to raise such observations from them, as may be instructive and useful to us.510
I. I observe from this discourse of our Saviour, that miracles are of great force and efficacy to bring men to repentance.
This our Saviour’s discourse here supposeth; otherwise their impenitence had not been so criminal and inexcusable upon that account, that such mighty works had been done among them, as would probably have prevailed upon some of the worst people that had been in the world; for such were the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon, guilty of great covetousness and fraud, pride and luxury, the usual sins of places of great traffic and commerce: and such, to be sure, was Sodom; and yet our Saviour tells us, that the miracles which he had wrought in the cities of Israel, would, in all probability, have brought those great sinners to repentance; namely, by bringing them to faith, and convincing them of the truth and divinity of that doctrine which he preached unto them, and which contains such powerful arguments to repentance and amendment of life.
II. I observe, likewise, from our Saviour’s discourse, that God is not always obliged to work miracles for the conversion of sinners. It is great goodness in him to afford sufficient means of repentance to men, as he did to Tyre and Sidon, in calling them to repentance by his prophet; though such miracles were not wrought among them, as God thought fit to accompany our Saviour’s preaching withal.
This I observe, to prevent a kind of bold and saucy objection, which some would perhaps be apt to make: If Tyre and Sidon would have repented, had such miracles been wrought among them, as our Saviour wrought in Chorazin and Bethsaida, 511why were they not wrought, that they might have repented? To which it is sufficient answer to say, that God is not obliged to do all that is possible to be <3one, to reclaim men from their sins; he is not obliged to overpower their wills, and to work irresistibly upon their minds, which he can easily do; he is not obliged to work miracles for every particular man’s conviction; nor where he vouchsafeth to do this, is he obliged always to work the greatest and most convincing miracles; his goodness will not suffer him to omit what is necessary and sufficient to bring men to repentance and happiness; nay, beyond this he many times does more; but it is sufficient to vindicate the justice and goodness of God, that he is not wanting to us, in affording the means necessary to reclaim us from our sins, and to bring us to goodness. That which is properly our part, is to make use of those means which God affords us to become better, and not to prescribe to him how much he should do for us; to be thankful that he hath done so much, and not to find fault with him for having done no more.
III. I observe farther, from our Saviour’s discourse, that the external means of repentance which God affords to men, do suppose an inward grace of God accompanying them, sufficiently enabling men to repent, if it be not their own fault; I say, a sufficient grace of God accompanying the outward means of repentance, till, by our wilful and obstinate neglect and resistance, and opposition of this grace, we provoke God to withdraw it from the means, or else to withdraw both the grace and the means from us: otherwise impenitence, after such external means afforded, would be no new and special fault. For if the concurrence of God’s grace with the outward 512means be necessary to work repentance, then the impenitence of those, to whom this grace is not afforded, which yet is necessary to repentance, is neither any new sin, nor any new aggravation of their former impenitence. For no man can imagine that the just God will charge men with new guilt, and increase their condemnation, for remaining impenitent in such circumstances in which it is impossible for them to repent.
IV. I observe from this discourse of our Saviour’s, that an irresistible degree of grace is not necessary to repentance, nor commonly afforded to those who do repent. God may, where he pleaseth, without injury to any man, overpower his will, and stop him in his course, and hinder him from making himself miserable, and by an irresistible light convince him of his error and the evil of his ways, and bring him to a better mind: but this God seldom does, and, when he does it, it is very probable it is not so much for their own sakes, as to make them instruments of good to others. Thus by a secret but overpowering influence he overruled the disciples to follow our Saviour, and to leave their callings and relations, and all their temporal concernments to do it. But one of the most remarkable examples of this extraordinary grace of God is St. Paul, who was violently stopped in his course of persecuting the Christians, and convinced of his sin, and brought over to Christianity, in a very extraordinary and forcible manner. And of this miraculous and extraordinary conversion, God himself gives this account; that he was” a chosen vessel unto him, to bear his name before the gentiles and kings, and the children of Israel;” (Acts ix. 15.) And St. Paul tells us, (Gal. i. 15, 16.) that for 513this end God had separated him from his mother’s womb, and called him by his grace, and revealed his Son to him, in that extraordinary manner, that he might preach among the heathen.
But generally God does not bring men thus to repentance; nor is it necessary he should. For if an irresistible degree of grace were always necessary to bring men to repentance, there could be no difference between the impenitence of Chorazin and Bethsaida, and of Tyre and Sidon. For, according to this doctrine of the necessity of irresistible grace to the conversion of every man, it is evident, that Tyre and Sidon neither could nor would have repented, without an irresistible degree of God’s grace accompanying the outward means of repentance which he afforded to them; because such a degree of grace is necessary to repentance, and, without it, it is impossible for any man to repent. But then it is as plain, on the contrary, that if Chorazin and Bethsaida had had the same irresistible degree of God’s grace, together with the outward means of repentance, afforded to them, that they would have repented as certainly as Tyre and Sidon. Where then is the reason of upbraiding the impenitence of the one more than of the other? Where the aggravation of the one’s guilt above the other? Where the justice of punishing the impenitence of Chorazin and Bethsaida more than theirs of Tyre and Sidon? For, upon this supposition, they must either have repented both alike, or have been both equally impenitent. The sum of what I have said is this: that if no man does, nor can repent, without such a degree of God’s grace as cannot be resisted, no man’s repentance is commendable, nor is one man’s impenitence more blameable than .another’s; Chorazin 514and Bethsaida can be in no more fault for continuing impenitent, than Tyre and Sidon were. For either this irresistible grace is afforded to men or not: if it be, their repentance is necessary, and they cannot help it; if it be not, their repentance is impossible, and consequently, their impenitence is necessary, and they cannot help it neither.
V. I observe from the main scope of our Saviour’s discourse, that the sins and impenitence of men receive their aggravation, and consequently shall have their punishment proportionable, to the opportunities and means of repentance which those persons have enjoyed and neglected.
For what is here said of miracles, is by equality of reason likewise true of all other advantages and means of repentance and salvation. The reason why miracles will be such an aggravation of the condemnation of men is, because they are so proper and powerful a means to convince them of the truth and divinity of that doctrine which calls them to repentance. So that all those means which God affords to us of the knowledge of our duty, of conviction of the evil and danger of a sinful course, are so many helps and motives to repentance, and consequently will prove so many aggravations of our sin and punishment, if we continue impenitent. The
VI. Sixth and last observation, and which naturally follows from the former, is this: that the case of those, who are impenitent under the gospel, is of all others the most dangerous, and their damnation shall be heaviest and most severe.
And this brings the case of these cities here in the text home to ourselves. For in truth there is no material difference between the case of Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum, and of ourselves in 515this city and nation, who enjoy the clear light of the gospel, with all the freedom and all the advantages that any people ever did. The mercies of God to this nation have been very great, especially in bringing us out of that darkness and superstition, which covered this western part of the world; in rescuing us from that great corruption and degeneracy of the Christian religion, which prevailed among us, by so early and so regular a reformation; and in continuing so long this great blessing to us. The judgments of God have been likewise very great upon us for our sins. “God hath manifested himself by terrible things in righteousness;” our eyes have seen many and dismal calamities in the space of a few years, which call loudly upon us to repent and turn to God. God hath afforded us the most effectual means of repentance, and hath taken the most effectual course of bringing us to it. And though our blessed Saviour does not speak to us in person, nor do we at this day see miracles wrought among us, as the Jews did; yet we have the doctrine which our blessed Saviour preached faithfully transmitted to us, and a credible relation of the miracles wrought for the confirmation of that doctrine, and many other arguments to persuade us of the truth of it, which those to whom our Saviour spake had not, nor could not then have, taken from the accomplishing of our Saviour’s predictions, after his death; the speedy propagation and wonderful success of this doctrine in the world, by weak and inconsiderable means, against all the power and opposition of the world; the destruction of Jerusalem, and the dispersion of the Jewish nation, according to our Saviour’s prophecy; besides many more that might be mentioned. And, which is a mighty advantage to us, we are free 516from those prejudices against the person of our Saviour and his doctrine, which the Jews, by the reverence which they bear to their rulers and teachers, were generally possessed withal; we are brought up in the belief of it, and have drunk it in by education; and, if we believe it, as we all profess to do, we have all the obligation and all the arguments to repentance, which the Jews could possibly have from the miracles which they saw: for they were means of repentance to them no otherwise than as they brought them to the belief of our Saviour’s doctrine, which called them to repentance.
So that if we continue impenitent, the same woe is denounced against us that is against Chorazin and Bethsaida; and we may be said, with Capernaum, to be lifted up to heaven, by the enjoyment of the most excellent means and advantages of salvation, that any people ever had; which, if we neglect, and still continue wicked and impenitent under them, we may justly fear, that with them we shall be thrown down to hell, and have our place in the lowest part of that dismal dungeon, and in the very centre of that fiery furnace.
Never was there greater cause to upbraid the impenitence of any people, than of us, considering the means and opportunities which we enjoy; and never had any greater reason to fear a severer doom, than we have. Impenitence in a heathen is a great sin; else how should God judge the world? But God takes no notice of that, in comparison of the impenitence of Christians, who enjoy the gospel, and are convinced of the truth, and upon the greatest reason in the world profess to believe it. We Christians have all the obligations to repentance, that reason and revelation, nature and grace, can lay upon us. 517Art thou convinced that thou hast sinned, and done that which is contrary to thy duty, and thereby provoked the wrath of God, and incensed his justice against thee? As thou art a man, and upon the stock of natural principles, thou art obliged to repentance. The same light of reason which disco vers to thee the errors of thy life, and challengeth thee for thy impiety and intemperance, for thy in justice and oppression, for thy pride and passion; the same natural conscience which accuseth thee of any miscarriages, does oblige thee to be sorry for them, “to turn from thy evil ways, and to break off thy sins by repentance.” For nothing can be more unreasonable, than for a man to know a fault, and yet not think himself bound to be sorry for it; to be convinced of the evil of his ways, and not to think himself obliged by that very conviction, to turn from it, and forsake it. If there be any such thing as a natural law written in men’s hearts, which the apostle tells us the heathens had, it is impossible to imagine, but that the law which obliges men not to transgress, should oblige them to repentance in case of transgression. And this every man in the world is bound to, though he had never seen the Bible, nor heard of the name of Christ. And the revelation of the gospel doth not supersede this obligation, but adds new strength and force to it: and by how much this duty of repentance is more clearly revealed by our blessed Saviour in the gospel; by how much the arguments which the gospel useth to persuade men, and encourage them to repentance, are greater and more powerful by so much is the impenitence of those who live under the gospel the more inexcusable.
Had we only some faint hopes of God’s mercy, a 518doubtful opinion and weak persuasion of the rewards and punishments of another world; yet we have a law within us, which, upon the probability of these considerations, would oblige us to repentance. Indeed, if men were assured upon good grounds, that there would be no future rewards and punishments; then the sanction of the law were gone, and it would lose its force and obligation: or if we did despair of the mercy of God, and had good reason to think repentance impossible, or that it would do us no good; in that case there would be no sufficient motive and argument to repentance: for no man can return to his duty, without returning to the love of God and goodness; and no man can return to the love of God, who believes that he bears an implacable hatred against him, and is resolved to make him miserable for ever. During this persuasion, no man can repent. And this seems to be the reason, why the devils continue impenitent.
But the heathens were not without hopes of God’s mercy, and upon those small hopes which they had, they encouraged themselves into repentance; as you may see in the instance of the Ninevites. “Let them turn every one from his evil ways, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell, if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” (Jonah iii. 8, 9.) But if we, who have the clearest discoveries, and the highest assurance of this, who profess to believe that God hath declared himself placable to all mankind, that “he is in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” and that upon our repentance “he will not impute our sins to us;” if we, to whom “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven, against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men,” and to whom 519 “life and immortality are brought to light by the gospel;” if, after all this, we still go on in an impenitent course, what shall we be able to plead in excuse of ourselves at that great day? “The men of Nineveh shall rise up in judgment” against such an impenitent generation, “and condemn it; because they repented” upon the terror of lighter threatenings, and upon the encouragement of weaker hopes.
And therefore it concerns us, who call ourselves Christians, and enjoy the clear revelation of the gospel, to look about us, and take heed how we continue in an evil course. For if we remain impenitent, after all the arguments which the gospel, superadded to the light of nature, affords to us to bring us to repentance, it shall not only “be more tolerable for the men of Nineveh,” but “for Tyre and Sidon, for Sodom and Gomorrah,” the most wicked and impenitent heathens, “at the day of judgment, than for us.” For, because we have stronger arguments, and more powerful encouragements to repentance, than they had, if we do not repent, we shall meet a heavier doom, and a fiercer damnation. The heathen world had many excuses to plead for themselves, which we have not. “The times of that ignorance God winked at: but now commands all men every where to repent; because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness, by that Man whom he hath ordained, whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”520
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