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THE UNCERTAINTY OF THE DAY OF JUDGMENT, CONSIDERED AND IMPROVED.
But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray; for ye know not when the time is.—Mark xiii. 32, 33.
THESE words are spoken by our Saviour of the day of judgment; for though, in this chapter, as likewise in the 24th of St. Matthew, and the 21st of St. Luke, which are parallel to it, our Saviour discourseth very particularly and largely concerning the eminent appearance of his power and justice in the destruction of Jerusalem, which may, perhaps, sometimes in Scripture be called “his coming;” yet it is plain, likewise, that he discourseth there concerning his coming to judgment at the end of the world. For we find, in the 24th of St. Matthew, that, after our Saviour had foretold his disciples of the utter ruin of Jerusalem, they came afterwards to him, to inquire more particularly about it: (ver. 3.) “And as he sat upon the Mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” Where there are two several questions, to which our Saviour returns a distinct answer. The first, when those things he had been speaking of before should be? that is, the things which related to the destruction 101of Jerusalem, for of that only he had been speaking of before. The other question was, concerning the sign of his coming, and of the end of the world.
The reason of their joining these two questions together, seems to be this, (as is very probable from many texts of the New Testament) viz. that the apostles did think (and our Saviour permitted them for a long time to remain under this mistake) that the end of the world, and the general judgment, would be presently after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Now to this second question of theirs, concerning the end of the world, and our Saviour’s coming to judgment, he gives an answer in the latter part of that chapter: (ver. 29.) “But immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light; and then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven.” Not that the general judgment of the world was immediately to follow the destruction of Jerusalem; for there were many other things to intervene, as is manifest from St. Luke: (xxi. 24.) That the Jews should be led captive into all nations, and Jerusalem should be trodden down of the gentiles until the times of the gentiles were fulfilled. And though these things be expressed in a few words, yet they comprehend a long tract of time; for the captivity of the Jews hath continued for above sixteen hundred years, and is not yet at an end. And then after the accomplishment of these things it follows, that “there shall be signs in the sun and the moon, and then they shall see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” And then he tells them in conclusion, that these things should begin 102to come to pass, that is, some of them should happen before the end of that generation: and so they did, for the destruction of Jerusalem was about forty years after. But when the end of all should be, that is, when the day of judgment would happen, he could not tell them the precise time: (ver. 36.) “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no not the angels of heaven, but the Father only;” and it is added in St. Mark, “neither the Son.”
Now by that day and hour is meant that famous and terrible time of the general judgment of the world, which St. Peter calls, by way of eminency, “the day of the Lord:” (2 Pet. iii. 10.) “The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night;” that is, it will surprise men suddenly and unexpectedly, because no man can tell when it will be; it will steal upon the world, as a thief does into a house by night. “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray; for ye know not when the time is.”
Having thus cleared all difficulties concerning the general meaning of the text, that it is to be understood of the day of judgment, and not, as some learned men have thought, of the destruction of Jerusalem; I shall now consider the words more particularly, and they contain in them these two things:
First, The uncertainty of the day of judgment as to us, and all other creatures. “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no not the angels of heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.”
Secondly, That the consideration of the uncertainty of the time, should make us very careful to be always prepared for it. “Take ye heed, watch 103and pray, for ye know not when the time is.” I shall speak as briefly as I can to both these.
First, Our Saviour here declares the uncertainty of the time, as to us and all creatures, when the general judgment shall be. And to express this the more emphatically, he tells us,
1. That God only knows it. “Of that day and hour, οὐδεὶς οἶδεν, εἰ μὴ ὁ Πατὴρ, none knows, but the Father,” For though we translate it, “no man,” yet in the Greek it is more general, “none knows but the Father, (that is) God only.” For the word Father is several times in the New Testament not used personally, in way of distinction from the Son and the Holy Ghost; but signifies the Deity, the Father being fons et principium Deitatis, “the fountain and principle of the Deity.”
“Of that day and hour;” the word ὥρα is not here to be taken strictly for the measure of time, commonly called a hour; this were to make our Saviour’s expression very flat, after he had denied that the day is known, to deny that they know the hour; for if they do not know the clay, much less the hour. Now in these kind of speeches, the expression ought to rise, and that which is most emphatical ought to be said in the last place; so that it should rather have been, “they know not the hour, no, nor the day;” but ὥρα here does undoubtedly signify the appointed season or time; and so the four seasons of the year are by the Greeks called ὥραι; and in this sense the word is most certainly used by the evangelist St. John: (chap. vii. 30.) “But no man laid hands upon him (speaking of Christ), because his hour was not yet come,” that is, the time appointed for his suffering; and that which in the text is called hour, is in the next verse 104called καιρός, which signifies a particular season, or appointed time. “Ye know not when the time is;” that is, the time which God hath particularly designed and appointed for this great work of judging the world.
2. He excludes from the knowledge of it, those who were most likely to know it, if God had not absolutely reserved it to himself. “Of that day and hour knows none, no, not the angels, neither the Son.”
(1.) “Not the angels, which are in heaven;” though they be creatures of so perfect a knowledge, though they be the ministers of God, and do continually attend upon him, and behold his face, and understand much more of the works of God, and his providence, in regard to the affairs of the world, than we that live here below in so much error and ignorance, that “dwell in houses of clay, whose foundations are in the dust:” yet the particular time, when God will judge the world, he hath reserved as a secret to himself, and not communicated it so much as to the angels, who are designed to wait upon the great Judge of the world, and to make up his train in that solemnity. So our Saviour tells us, (Matt. xxv. 31.) that “the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him.” And so likewise the apostle, (2 Thess. i. 7.) that “the Lord Jesus Christ shall be revealed from heaven, with his mighty angels.”
But this is not only hid from “the angels,” but which is yet more, from the Son himself. “Of that day and hour knows none, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son.” This seems strange indeed, that the Son of God, who came from the bosom of his Father, and therefore is more 105likely than any to know his secrets, that he, whom God had ordained to be the judge of the world, into whose hands he had committed that great trust and authority, should not be acquainted with the time of this judgment: nay, that he, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and in whom the Divinity does substantially reside, should not know this time; this seems incredible, but that he himself hath told us so. It was, indeed, a common saying among the Jews, that the time of the end of the world was revealed to none; but yet one would think, the Son was always excepted. Nay, how can it well be otherwise, if we believe him to be God? and indeed the fathers, in their disputes with the Arians, have mightily puzzled themselves about this text.
Some, and those of no small account, have understood these words, as if our Saviour only in tended to put off his disciples from a more particular inquiry about this matter; not that he was ignorant of the day of judgment, but that he did not know it so as to reveal it to them: which is by no means to be admitted, not only because it looks too like the equivocation of the Jesuits, but likewise because the same may be said of the angels; since it is no otherwise denied of the angels, that they know this time, than it is of the Son. Others say, that his human nature was not ignorant of the day of judgment, but that it did not know this of itself, but by virtue of its union with the Divine nature. But our Saviour absolutely says, that the Son did not know it. And therefore others more reasonably have distinguished between his human nature and Divine; and though as God he could not be ignorant of any thing, yet his human understanding did 106not know it. And it is not unreasonable to suppose that the Divine wisdom which dwelt in our Saviour, did communicate itself to his human soul according to his pleasure; and so his human nature might at some times not know some things. And if this be not admitted, how can we understand that passage concerning our Saviour, (Luke ii. 52.) that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature;” or, as the word ἡλικία may more fitly be translated, “in age, and in favour with God and man? For if the human nature of Christ did necessarily know all things by virtue of its union with the Divinity, he could not then, as man, be said to grow in wisdom.
And this I think may be sufficient for the clearing of this difficulty, concerning the Son’s not knowing the particular time which God had appointed for judging the world: and if he did not know it, it is surely no reflection upon his disciples if they were ignorant of it, or mistaken about it. Their infallibility was only in things that were revealed to them, but cannot be imagined to extend to things not revealed.—And thus I have done with the first thing, namely, the uncertainty of the time of the general judgment, as to all but God only. “Of that day and hour knoweth none, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” I proceed now to the
Second thing, which I mainly intended, viz. That the consideration of the uncertainty of the time should make us very careful to be always prepared for it. “Take ye heed, watch and pray; for ye know not when the time is.” In which words we have,
First, A general caution; “Take ye heed.” Look to it, that ye be not surprised and overtaken by that time. The time being so uncertain, they were always in danger.107
Secondly, More particular directions how they should demean themselves in this case. And our Saviour directs to two things, vigilancy and prayer; “Watch and pray.”
Thirdly, There is a reason added to enforce this care and diligence, from the uncertainty of the time as to us: “For ye know not when the time is,”
From whence I shall observe, by the way, the great goodness of God to us, and his singular care of us. That, as he is gracious and merciful to us, in giving us the knowledge of those things which are necessary and useful for us to know; so no less in keeping us ignorant of other things, which are not only not necessary for us to know, but which it would be very much to our harm and prejudice, to have the knowledge of them communicated to us. God hath acquainted us with whatever is necessary to direct and excite us to our duty; but he hath purposely concealed from us those things, which might tend to make us slothful and careless, negligent and remiss in it. He hath not acquainted us with the secrets of his decrees and providence; but hath reserved these in his own power; because it would be really to our disadvantage to have the knowledge of them. If we knew all events before hand, and how and when all things would happen, we should be too much concerned about some things, and too little about others; and therefore God hath, in great wisdom and goodness, afforded us the knowledge of those things which are most proper and useful for us, whereby we may be instructed in our duty, and encouraged and stirred up to it. (Job xxviii. 28.) “Unto man he saith, The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom: and to depart from evil, is understanding.” This is the knowledge which 108is fit for us, and which no man is destitute of, but by his own fault, and gross neglect of himself.
So that God is very good to us, both in revealing some things to us, and in hiding other things from us; particularly those things which we are speaking of, concerning the time of the end of the world, and the judgment of the great day. Which, did men certainly know to be so far off, as it really was in our Saviour’s time, and may perhaps now be, it would very much abate the force and awe of it upon the minds of men; for then men would think themselves safe, till death should remove them out of the world. But when, for any thing we know, the general judgment of the world may overtake us the next moment; this consideration gives a great deal of weight to all the rest, and is apt to strike a particular terror into men. What man would not be afraid to offend, if he did not know but that the next moment he should be brought to his trial, be fore a severe and impartial judge? So that, for this reason, God hath in great kindness to us concealed this matter from us, and, like a wise and good father, instead of gratifying our curiosity, hath consulted our real benefit and advantage.
Besides this, that it is always useful to the world to be kept in awe by the continual danger and terror of an approaching judgment, there seems to have been a more particular reason why our Saviour would have the disciples and first Christians ignorant of this thing; for which reason he discoursed so to them concerning it, as that they might rather apprehend, that the end of all things was at hand, and might probably happen in their time. And thus it seems his disciples understood his speech concerning St. John, as if he should not die till our 109Lord came to judgment. And the apostles, in several of their exhortations, seem to urge Christians from this very consideration, of the nearness of the general judgment. So St. Paul: (Phil. iv. 5.) “Let your moderation be known to all men; the Lord is at hand.” And the author to the Hebrews, (chap. x. 25.) encourageth Christians to constancy in their profession upon the same account; “Not forsaking the assembling yourselves together, as the manner of some is, but exhorting one an other, and so much the more, because the day approacheth.” So likewise St. James: (chap. v. 9.) “Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the Judge standeth at the door.” And St. Peter tells us, that several impious men scoffed at them upon this account, as if the apostles had been deceivers in this matter, and therefore said, “Where is the promise of his coming?” as it were upbraiding them, for putting men in a vain expectation of it.
And it was no inconvenience at all, that the apostles and first Christians had this apprehension of the nearness of that time; for no consideration could be more forcible to keep them steadfast in their profession, and to fortify them against sufferings, than a persuasion of the approach of that day, where in those who suffered for Christ should be so gloriously rewarded; and those who, for fear of suffering, fell off from him, should be so terribly punished. And nothing could be more proper and powerful, to wean their affections from the love of this world, and to make them willing to part with any thing in it, than to apprehend that there would shortly be an end of it, and then all the enjoyments of it would signify nothing. So that their ignorance in 110this matter was, by the providence of God, admirably fitted for the animating and encouraging of Christians to a great zeal and constancy in the profession of their faith, and in the propagating of it, as thinking they had but a little while to do this great work in.
And it will be in all ages to the end of the world, a good argument to men to vigilance and constant preparation; because, if they be remiss and careless, the great Judge of the world may “come in a day that they think not of, and at an hour when they are not aware.”—But to return to the particulars I propounded to speak to from the words.
First, Here is a general caution, “Take ye heed;” look heed fully to it, that ye be not surprised and overtaken by that time: for, being uncertain when it will happen, ye are always in danger. But, because this general caution is only premised by our Saviour, to make way for the more particular directions, therefore I shall not insist upon this, but in the second place proceed to them. And they are these two, “Watch and pray.”
I. Vigilancy, which is a large duty, and comprehends under it the whole care of a Christian life; all that watchfulness and preparation which we ought to use, that we be not surprised by that terrible day; that we be not found in such a condition, as slothful and negligent servants use to be in, when their lord comes suddenly upon them, and finds all things in confusion and disorder. And to this our Saviour alludes several times in his exhortations to watchfulness: (Luke xii. 35, 36.) “Let your loins be girded about, and your lamps burning, and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord. Blessed are those servants, whom the lord, when he 111comes, shall find watching.” And, (ver. 40.) “.Be ye therefore ready also; for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not.” So that this watchfulness implies a continual care of our lives and actions, that we be always in such a posture as we would be willing the great Judge of the world should take us in; doing those things which we should not be ashamed to own, if he should come suddenly upon us, and summon us before his tribunal; and avoiding those things, which would be matter of shame and confusion to us at his appearance. (Luke xxi. 34-36.) Where our Saviour giveth this caution, he instanceth in some particular sins, which are more directly contrary to this vigilance: as, intemperance, and an inordinate love and care about earthly things: “Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness, and the cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares: for as a snare shall it come on all that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all those things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.”
It would be a large work to descend to all particulars, whereby we should express our care and vigilance. I shall mention but a few, but such as will comprehend most others under them.
1. We should resolve, without delay, to put ourselves into that state and condition, in which we may not be afraid judgment should find us. It is to be feared, that a great part of mankind are in that loose and negligent posture, in the time of their health and prosperity, in which, if the great Judge of the world should surprise them, and bring them to a speedy trial, it would go ill with them; their 112lease would be sad and deplorable beyond all imagination, infinitely sadder than of a malefactor standing before an earthly judge, guilty of great and notorious crimes, and continually expecting the sentence of death to be passed upon him, Such is the condition of all impenitent sinners, who have lived careless and dissolute lives, without any serious consideration of their future state, or preparation for it; who have, in the general course of their lives, neglected God and religion, and a great many necessary and essential parts of their duty, and have indulged themselves, either in a continual course of impiety and wickedness, or of sensual pleasures and vanity. What shall become of those whom the Judge of the world shall find in this condition, either actually wicked, or wretchedly secure?
Nay, those who do in some measure and degree mind religion, how few of them live under “the powers of the world to come,” have “their loins girded about, and their lamps burning;” and are habitually so prepared, as if they were in a continual expectation of the coming of their Lord? So that, in the secure and negligent posture that most men live, even the better sort of men, if judgment should overtake them, how few could be saved? For this cause “God is long-suffering to men, because he is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” And if he should not by his merciful providence awaken many men to consideration and care of themselves, and, by some great affliction, or long sickness, put men upon serious thoughts, and give them the space and opportunity to recollect themselves, to make up their accounts, and so make their peace with God, and to put themselves into a better posture for another world, than 113 they usually are in the time of their health and prosperity; it is very much to be feared, that the great est part of those who are tolerably good would be destroyed in their security.
But this patience of God will not always last; but “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night,” and will surprise the careless world all at once, and give them no time to trim up their lamps, and to get oil, if they be not provided already; but in an instant the door will be shut against them, and they shall never enter into the kingdom of God. This day hath not yet happened; but it will certainly come, and, as our Saviour says, “will come as a snare upon all them that dwell upon the face of the whole earth.” And “blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he comes shall find ready.”
So that our first care must be, to get out of this dangerous state of sin and security, “to break off our sins by repentance,” that we may be capable of the mercy of God, and at peace with him, before he comes to execute judgment upon the world; for, till this be done, we are every moment in danger; and if death or judgment should overtake us in this impenitent state, we are lost beyond recovery.
2. After this great work of repentance is over, we should be very careful how we contract any new guilt, by returning to our former sins, or by the gross neglect of any part of our duty. A true and sincere repentance will put us into a safe condition; but then we must take heed, that we do not repent of our repentance, and bring ourselves into danger again, by starting aside from those good resolutions, which we had so solemnly taken up. For every deliberate and presumptuous sin that we are guilty of after our repentance, does endanger our state, and 114shake the foundations of our peace: but if we relapse into our former evil course, or after our repentance we allow ourselves in the habitual practice of any known sin, either our repentance was insincere before, or if it were true for the time, we are fallen from it, and all that we have done signifies nothing, and we have the whole work to begin again. And if the judgment of God should over take us, before we have renewed our repentance, and reformed our lives, we should be found in the number of the ungodly, “who cannot stand in judgment.” So that, as it concerns us to make haste out of an impenitent state, so no less to order our conversation afterwards with great vigilancy and care: lest, by relapsing into our former sins, and being surprised in them by the judgment of God, we fall into condemnation.
3. Let us neglect no opportunity of doing good, but always be employing ourselves, either in acts of religion and piety towards God, or of righteousness and charity towards men, or in such acts as are subordinate to religion; I mean the works of a lawful calling, in which, if we demean ourselves with diligence and good conscience, we may be said to serve God, and to live in his fear, because we are governed by the rules of religion, all the while we are about our worldly business, and providing for the necessities of this life in an honest and industrious way.
More particularly we should strictly charge ourselves, according to our estate and opportunities, to be very much in the works of mercy and charity; remembering that our Saviour hath represented this as a special matter of inquiry at the judgment of the great day, how we have acquitted and discharged 115ourselves in duties of this kind, and that nothing does more immediately qualify us for the mercy of God, when we shall come to stand before his judgment-seat, than to have shewn mercy to our brethren; as, on the other hand, the Scripture hath terribly threatened, that “he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy.” By these, and all other acts of a good life, we shall be in a constant readiness and preparation for the coming of our Lord. And, oh! what a happiness and comfort will it be to us, to be found by him thus employed! “Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing.” I proceed:
4. We should often review our lives, and call ourselves to a strict account of our actions, that, judging ourselves, we may not be judged and condemned by the Lord. This frequent examination of ourselves, will give us to understand our errors and miscarriages; which, if we seriously consider, must needs prompt us to repentance, and engage us in purposes and resolutions of amendment. And the practice of this is certainly the best way to keep our accounts clear, and to prevent that horrible confusion which we shall be in, if judgment should surprise us unawares, when we have the guilt of great and manifold sins unrepented of lying upon our consciences, like a heavy weight, ready to sink us into eternal perdition. Besides that, this strict and frequent examination of our actions, will be an excellent means to make us more careful for the future to avoid those faults and miscarriages which we have observed in ourselves before. We should be ashamed to fall into those errors again, for which we have so lately and severely censured and condemned ourselves.116
5. Another part of our preparation for the coming of our Lord, is, a humble trust and confidence in the virtue of his death and passion, as the only meritorious cause of the remission of our sins, and the reward of eternal life. Though we be regenerated and renewed by the Holy Ghost, and, by the assistance of God’s grace, enabled to perform works of righteousness, and, as is said of Zachary and Elizabeth, “to live in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless;” that is, in the general course of our lives, to yield a sincere obedience to the laws of God: yet, because in many things we offend, and our best righteousness is very imperfect, and falls extremely short of that exact and strict duty which the law of God requires; and if it were perfect, our obedience for the future could make no reparation to the justice of God for past sins and transgressions; therefore, we cannot hope for our own righteousness to be justified and accepted with God, and upon the merit of it to have our sins pardoned, much less to be rewarded with eternal life. God, indeed, of his infinite mercy is pleased, upon our repentance, to pardon our sins past, and upon our sincere obedience to give us eternal life; and without these qualifications we shall never be made partakers of these blessings; except we repent, our sins shall not be forgiven us, and “without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” But then, it is not for the merit of our repentance and righteousness, that these blessings are conferred upon us, but for the meritorious obedience and sufferings of our blessed Saviour: that most acceptable sacrifice of himself, which he offered to God in our stead, and in our behalf, hath purchased and procured these benefits for us; and “we are accepted in his beloved Son,” 116and “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ;” and therefore, “not for any works of righteousness which we have done, but of his mercy he saves us.” And here we are to fix our hopes of justification and salvation, viz. upon that perfect propitiation and satisfaction, which Christ, by the sacrifice of himself once offered, hath made for the sins of the whole world. For the alone merit of this sacrifice, God is graciously pleased to forgive us all our sins, upon our true repentance, and to reward our sincere, though very imperfect, obedience, with eternal life. So that through faith in the blood of Christ, not by confidence in ourselves and our own righteousness, we obtain remission of sins, and eternal life. And it is not only in itself great arrogance, but great ingratitude to our blessed Redeemer, “who gave himself for us,” to ascribe that to the merit of our own righteousness, or the merits of the saints, which nothing in heaven or earth, but the precious blood of Christ, who was “a lamb without spot or blemish,” could have purchased for us. And it is argument and encouragement enough to holiness and obedience of life, that without it we cannot see God; and by it we are qualified for that happiness which Christ hath purchased for us, and, as the apostle expresseth it, are “made meet to be made partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.”
6. And lastly, To awaken and maintain this vigilancy and care, we should often represent to our minds the judgment of the great day, which will certainly come, though we know not the time of it. And if any consideration in the world will make men watchful and diligent, certainly this will, that the judgment of God continually hangs over them, 118and may seize upon them at any time; nay, for aught we know, the judgment of God may now be standing at the door, and be ready to rush in upon us, whilst we are so negligent and secure. For this day, whenever it shall be, will come suddenly, and surprise the careless world, when they least think of it, and look for it. So our Lord himself hath foretold, that “as a snare it shall come upon all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth:” that is, the greatest part of mankind shall be taken unprepared, when they are unprovided for it; nay, when they are generally lulled asleep in a stupid security and infidelity; when the world is grown atheistical, and do hardly believe any such thing as a future judgment. So our Saviour seems to intimate: (Luke xviii. 8.) “When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith upon the earth?” And if this be a mark and token of the general judgment, we have too much cause to apprehend that it is drawing on apace: for never was there any age since the general flood, that we know of, when iniquity did so abound, and the infidelity of mankind was so full, so great, and so general; when profaneness and atheism, the open contempt of God and religion, was so raging and violent; and when, as our Lord says, there was so little faith to be found on the earth; whether by faith we understand the belief of the principles of religion, or the fidelity of men one towards another. For was there ever any age, wherein false accusation, perjury, and subornation were more rife and impudent? wherein the reverence of an oath was so lost, and the sacred obligation of it in so little regard among men? So that, if the great Judge of the world should delay his coming, human society seems ready to disband and 119dissolve of itself, for want of mutual trust and confidence among men to hold it together.
And this want of faith, in both senses, we owe in a great measure to popery; which, by its artificial ways of falsehood and perjury (which, when they have to deal with heretics, they have upon solemn occasions declared lawful), hath not only weakened, but even destroyed the credit of mankind with one another, as we find of late by sad experience. And as for infidelity in religion, they have not only given great occasion to it, by the monstrous absurdities they have brought into religion; and, by overstraining the faith of men in some parts of it, have brought them to a disbelief of the whole; as is at this day too visible in many of the most knowing persons of their communion, both in France and Italy: but besides this, they have, in their writings, to gain men to a dependance upon, and submission to, the infallibility of their church, undermined the foundations of religion, and industriously endeavoured to bring men to scepticism and infidelity; hoping that, when they have made men of no religion, they will be fit for theirs, which in too many respects is next to none; and in some, worse.
But whether the judgment of the great clay be near at hand, or farther off, God alone knows; this is certain, that God hath in great mercy delayed it for a long time, because “he is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” And it is no less certain, that it may come at any time, and will come when men least expect it; when the world is in great security, and very little apprehensive of the nearness and danger of it; which is reason and argument enough to continual care and vigilancy: for it may come the next hour, 120the next moment, for any thing we know to the contrary: and whenever it comes, if we be not prepared, it will be too late to begin that work; if our lamps be gone out, and we want oil, we cannot provide ourselves in such a hurry; we shall be full of fear and amazement, but we shall “find no place for repentance,” and a deliberate preparation for our great trial. As the great Judge of the world then finds us, so will he deal with us; such as our state and condition then is, such will be our sentence and doom to all eternity. And is not this argument enough to us to be always upon our guard, always watchful, and always ready—because the Son of man may “come at an hour when we think not?” and if we be not then prepared, it will be too late to set about it: the opportunity of doing it, and wo ourselves, are lost for ever.
This is the first direction our Saviour gives us; continual vigilancy and watchfulness over ourselves in general.
The second direction is more particular, and that is, prayer; “Take ye heed, watch and pray.” And the practice of this duty of prayer will be of great advantage to us upon these two accounts:
1. As it tends to awaken and excite our care and diligence in the business of religion.
2. As it is, if sincerely performed, effectual to engage the Divine blessing and assistance to second our care and endeavours, and to secure them from miscarriage.
1. It is very apt to awaken and excite our care and diligence in the business of religion. For whenever we heartily beg of God to assist us by his grace to any thing that is good, we mind ourselves of our own duty; and both reason and Scripture will tell 121us, that we pray to God in vain for his help, if we will do nothing ourselves; that it is gross hypocrisy, and an impudent mocking of God, to implore his grace and assistance, if we be not resolved to put forth our own endeavours. Prayer, indeed, supposeth I hat we stand in need of the Divine help; but it implies, likewise, a resolution on our part to do what we can for ourselves; otherwise we ask in vain, and have no reason to hope that God will hear our prayers, and grant our requests, though never so earnestly and importunately put up to him.
2. If we use our sincere endeavours for the effecting of what we pray for, prayer is the most effectual means to engage the Divine blessing and assistance to second our endeavours, and to secure them from miscarriage. And, without the aid of God’s grace, and his blessing upon our endeavours, they will all be ineffectual, and signify nothing; we shall not be able so much as to “watch one hour.” If God be not with us, “the watchman waketh but in vain:” for “the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” It is necessary, therefore, that we continually implore the Divine grace, and that we do not rely upon our own, strength, and the fickleness and uncertainty of our own resolutions, according to the wise advice of Solomon; (Prov. iii. 5, 6.) “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not to thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” Therefore, as ever we hope to persevere and continue in a good course, and to order our lives so, as to be in preparation for judgment, let us every day, by continual and fervent prayer, apply ourselves to the Fountain of grace and mercy, for his aid and help, to make us vigilant over 122ourselves, and all the actions of our lives; to enable us to a “patient continuance in well-doing, to keep us from every evil work, and to preserve us to his heavenly kingdom.”
And, to this purpose, we have all the encouragement which the assurance of the Divine goodness, and the security of his never-failing promise can give us. It is but asking and receiving. So St. James tells us, speaking of this heavenly wisdom to direct us in our Christian course, so as we may be “perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” (Jam. i. 5.) “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.” I proceed to the
Third and last part of the text, which is the reason which our Saviour here adds to enforce our care and diligence in a matter of so great concernment, viz. the uncertainty, as to us, of the particular time when this day of judgment will be: “ye know not when the time is.” Therefore we should always be in expectation of it, always in a readiness and preparation for it. The certainty of the thing, and that God hath appointed and deter mined “a time, in which he will judge the world in righteousness,” though we were sure this day were far off, ought, in all reason, to make us very watchful over ourselves, and very careful of all our actions, very strict and conscientious in the discharge and performance of every part of our duty. If there were no more but this, that we must one day be called to a strict account for all the actions of our lives, and receive the just recompence of them, and according to the nature and quality of them be sentenced to eternal happiness, or ever lasting misery; this alone were a mighty argument. 123So St. Peter reasons: (2 Pet. iii. 10-12.) “But the day of the Lord will come, in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat; the earth also, and the works that are therein, shall be burnt up. Seeing then all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God?” that is, making speedy preparation for it. The very expectation of this “terrible day of the Lord,” at how great a distance soever, should make us diligent, that when ever it shall be, “we may be found of him in peace, without spot and blameless.”
But it adds a great deal of awe and force to this argument, to consider, that, for aught we know to the contrary, this judgment may surprise us at any time; that this very night we may be awakened by the sound of that mighty trumpet, which shall pierce the ears of all the world, and summon the living and the dead to judgment. And God, who is the lover of souls, and desirous to save us any ways, by hope and by fear, by his mercies and by his corrections, by our knowledge and by our ignorance, hath purposely concealed from us the time of his coining to judgment, to the end we may always be prepared, and that we might continually stand in awe of it; and for fear our Lord should come upon us unawares, might always be in a posture to receive him.
And whatever the secure part of mankind may think, who “put far from them the evil day,” how careless and confident soever they may be, it would for all that be a terrible thing to them, all on the sudden, to “see the Son of man coming in the 124clouds of heaven, with his mighty angels;” to hear the great trumpet sound, summoning the dead to arise and come to judgment; to see the whole world in a combustion, and the whole frame of nature ready to dissolve and. fall in pieces; “the sun darkened, and the moon turned into blood, and all the powers of heaven shaken, the earth and all the works that are therein, flaming about us;” to see the dead starting out of their graves, some with great joy, others in a mighty amazement and fright, according to their several expectations of a happy or fearful doom. What a surprise would it be to drowsy and careless sinners, to be thus suddenly and unexpectedly overtaken? How will the profane infidel like to find himself so terribly confuted by his own eyes, and forced to believe that which will make him tremble? It will then be too late for men to think to make their peace with God, and to prepare for judgment. And if there were any time for it, the horror and amazement that sinners will then be in, will hinder them from doing any thing. Thus the Scripture represents the fearful case of impenitent sinners, who are thus surprised, as not knowing what to do with themselves, nor whither to fly for safety, as ready to betake themselves any whither for shelter and refuge, as “calling upon the mountains and rocks to fall upon them, and hide them from the face of Him that sits upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb;” here by signifying to us, that sinners shall be in such a consternation, and so deep a despair of the mercy of God towards them, that instead of addressing themselves to him, they shall turn their supplications to the mountains and rocks, as being more exorable than he.125
But this possibly may not be our case; this dreadful day may not come in our days; and yet it is madness to run a venture in a matter of such moment: but if it should not, I must tell you, that the case of a dying sinner is not much different, who hath neglected God and religion in his life-time, and would never think of betaking himself to him, or making any submission, till his justice be ready to cut him off. And how secure and careless soever sinners may be now, no man knows how soon he may be reduced to the very last opportunity of making his peace with God, and may be brought into those sad and miserable straits, that no man that is in his wits would be in for all the world: that he may have nothing left that can give him the least hope of being saved from eternal perdition, but a sudden and confused, and, in all probability, an ineffectual repentance; nothing but this one plank to trust to, which it is ten thousand to one whether it ever bring him to shore.
Therefore be wise, sinner, in time, and seize upon the present opportunities of life, and improve them with all thy might, with all possible care and diligence, lest judgment find thee unprepared; or in case God, in mercy to the world, should delay it yet longer, lest death seize upon thee careless and unprovided. And when that is once in view, it is but very little that can be done by way of preparation: for as “there is no counsel, nor wisdom, no work nor device in the grave,” whither we must go; so there is very little when we are come near to it; and therefore, “blessed is that servant, whom his Lord, when he cometh, shall find watching,”126
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