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THE EXCELLENCY AND UNIVERSALITY OF THE CHRISTIAN REVELATION, WITH THE SIN AND DANGER OF REJECTING IT.
And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.—John iii. 19.
AT the 16th verse of this chapter our Saviour declares to Nicodemus (who was already convinced by his miracles, that he was “a teacher come from God”) the great love and goodness of God to man kind in sending him into the world, to be the Saviour of it; “God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Considering the great wickedness of mankind, it might justly have been feared and expected, that God should have sent his Son into the world upon a different errand, to have punished the wickedness of men, and to have destroyed them from off the face of the earth; but he tells us at the 17th verse, that “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved;” and that the only way to avoid this condemnation, and to obtain that salvation which God designed for us, is “to believe on him whom God hath sent,” (ver. 18.) “He that believeth on him is not condemned; but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name 568of the only-begotten Son of God.” He is condemned by this very act of rejecting the Son of God, because he rejects the only way whereby salvation is to be had; and to aggravate the condemnation of such persons, our Saviour here in the text represents himself and his doctrine as “a light come into the world, “on purpose to discover to us our sinful and miserable condition, and the way of our recovery out of it, and salvation from it; and those that believe not on him, who do not entertain and welcome this clear and gracious discovery of God’s love and goodness to mankind, as doing the absurdest thing imaginable, and making the most preposterous choice, preferring darkness before light: “This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
In which words there are these six things observable:
First, The description which is here given of our Saviour and his doctrine, they are called a light: “Light is come;” that is, the Son of God preaching the doctrine of life and salvation to men.
Secondly, The universal influence of this light: “Light is come into the world.” It is designed for illumination and instruction, not only of a particular place and nation, but of a whole world.
Thirdly, The excellency and advantages of this doctrine above any other doctrine or institution, even that of the Jewish religion, which was likewise immediately from God; they are all but darkness in comparison of it, “Light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light.”
Fourthly, The absurdity and unreasonableness of rejecting the doctrine of the gospel; it is a preferring 569darkness before light: “men loved darkness rather than light;” that is, they choose rather to continue in their former ignorance, than to entertain this clear and most perfect discovery of God’s will to mankind.
Fifthly, The true reason and account of this ab surd choice: “Men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
Sixthly, The great guilt of those who reject the doctrine of the gospel; by this very act of theirs they are condemned, nay, they condemn themselves, because they reject the only means of their salvation: “This is the condemnation,” this very thing condemns them, and argues the height of their folly and guilt, that when light is come into the world, they preferred darkness before it. I shall discourse distinctly these particulars.
First, We will consider the description which is here given of our Saviour and his doctrine; they are called light; “Light is come into the world.” Light is a metaphor frequently used in Scripture for knowledge, especially for spiritual and Divine knowledge; and those who teach and instruct others are said to be lights. So our Saviour is frequently called “the light of the world,” and “the true light;” and his disciples, who were to instruct the world, are called light, “ye are the light of the world:” and the doctrine of our Saviour is likewise called a light, “the light of the glorious gospel of Christ,” (2 Cor. iv. 4.) And it is with respect to his doctrine, that he is here said in the text to be a “light come into the world:” which phrase, of coining into the world, does not so immediately refer to his nativity, as to his commission from God; for this phrase of coming into the world, is of the 570same importance with that of being sent from God; as (verse 17.) where he says of himself, that “God sent him not into the world to condemn the world;” and here in the text, “this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world,” that is, that when God sent his Son on purpose to preach such a doctrine, men should reject it and set it at nought: and in this sense, this phrase, of coming into the world, is I think frequently used in the New Testament, for coming in God’s name, upon some message into the world. So chap. iv. 14. some of the Jews being convinced of our Saviour’s Divine commission, express it thus; “Of a truth this is that prophet which was to come into the world.” So chap. xii. 46. speaking of himself as sent of God, says he, “I am come a light into the world;” he had said just before, “He that seeth me, seeth him that sent me;” and then he adds, “I am a light come into the world.” There is one text indeed, where this phrase seems to be taken for “being born into the world;” (chap. i. 9.) “And that was the true light, which enlightens every man that cometh into the world:” but several of the fathers, as St. Cyril and St. Augustine, read this text .otherwise, and that with great probability, considering the use of this phrase every where else; I say, they read it thus: “This was the true light, which, coining into the world, enlighteneth every man;” that is, which was sent from God to enlighten all mankind: and so this phrase, of coming into the world, refers not to men’s being born into the world, but to our Saviour’s being sent from God: and this our Saviour seems to distinguish from his birth: (John xviii. 37.) “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I might bear witness to the truth;” meaning 571that he was not only born, but commissioned by God for this end.
But enough for the explication of this phrase, the proper importance whereof is not unworthy our knowledge; especially since a sect amongst us build their doctrine of a light within them, and born with them, sufficient to conduct every man to salvation, upon that text I mentioned before, “This was the true light, which enlightens every man that cometh into the world;” for which there is no pretence, if we read it as the original will very well bear it, “This was the true light, which, coming into the world, enlighteneth every man.” And so our Saviour says of himself, (chap. xii. 46.) “I who am the light, am come into the world.”
But that which I principally intended under this head, is, the unfolding of the metaphor, which runs through the text, that so we may come at the plain sense and meaning of it, namely, why our Saviour, or (which is all one) the doctrine which he preached to the world, is represented to us by light. And here I might tell you that the doctrine of the gospel is called a light, with regard to its cheering and reviving nature; for “light (says Solomon) is sweet, and it is a pleasant thing to the eye to behold the sun:” so the gospel is “glad tidings of great joy.” In regard likewise of its purity; as light is the purest of all corporeal beings, so the doctrine of the gospel doth enjoin a greater holiness and purity than any other religion ever did. And (not to be tedious in slight things) in regard of its sudden communication and speedy propagation in the world. As light darts itself from east to west in a moment; so the gospel was propagated with incredible swiftness, and did in a very short space diffuse itself over the 572world. Thus I might tell you, that in these, and many more such pretty respects, the doctrine of the gospel is called a light: but I do not love to hunt down a metaphor; for I know very well, that the Scripture (like other authors) useth a metaphor only to one purpose atone time; and though many more similitudes may by fancy be found out, it is certain, but one is intended; which I take notice of on purpose to reprove the vanity and injudiciousness of chasing metaphors farther than ever they were intended: for a metaphor is commonly used to represent to our mind the first and most obvious likeness of things. Thus the doctrine of the gospel is called light, in respect of the clearness of its discovery, it being one of the chief and most obvious properties of light, to discover and make visible itself, and other things. So the apostle tells us, (Ephes. v. 13.) “But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light:” and in this respect and no other, the doctrine of the gospel is here called a light; because it clearly discovers to the world those things which they were either wholly ignorant or uncertain of before; and withal it carries its own evidence along with it, and hath plain characters of its own divinity upon it.
And here I might shew at large these two things:
First, What discoveries the doctrine of the gospel hath made to the world.
Secondly, What evidence it brings along with it of its own divinity, that it is from God.
First, What discoveries the doctrine of the gospel hath made to the world. It hath more clearly discovered,
1. The nature of God, which is the great foundation of religion.573
2. Our own sinful and miserable state.
3. The way and means of our remedy and recovery out of it.
4. A more perfect and certain law and rule of life.
5. A more powerful assistance, for the aid and encouragement of our obedience.
6. And lastly, The gospel hath more clearly discovered to us the eternal rewards and punishments of another world, which are the great arguments to obedience and a holy life. I shall go over these as briefly as I can, having elsewhere2121 See Sermon V. vol. i. p. 449. treated more largely on some of them.
1. In the doctrine of the gospel we have a clear discovery made to us of the nature of God; which is the great foundation of all religion. For such as men’s notions and conceptions of God are, such will their religious worship and services of him be; either worthy of him, and becoming his great and glorious majesty; or vain and superstitious, answerable to the idol of their own imagination: and such will be the actions of their lives; for all men make their God their example, and esteem it an essential piece of religion, to endeavour to be like him. Now the gospel gives us the most true and perfect character of the Divine nature, most agreeable to reason and the wisest and best apprehensions of mankind, such a character as is apt to be get in us the highest love and reverence towards him, and to engage us to the imitation of him, by the constant practice of holiness and virtue; representing him to us as most amiable for his goodness, and most dreadful for his power and justice; describing him to be a pure spirit, which the heathen did not generally believe; and consequently to be worshipped 574in such a manner, as is most suitable to his spiritual nature, concerning which the Jews were infinitely mistaken: for God did not command sacrifices to the Jews, and all those external and troublesome observances, because they were most agreeable to his own nature; but because of the grossness of their apprehensions, and the carnality and hardness of their hearts. God did not prescribe this way of worship to them, because it was best; but because the temper of that people, which was so very prone to idolatry, would admit of no other.
The gospel likewise discovers to us more clearly the goodness of God, and his great love to mankind, one of the best and strongest motives in the world to the love of God. The heathen did generally dread God, and look upon him as fierce and revengeful, and therefore they studied by all means to appease him, even by human sacrifices, and offering up their own children to him; and all along in the Old Testament, though there be plain and express declarations of the goodness of God, yet he is generally described as very terrible and severe; but the gospel is full of gracious declarations of God’s love and mercy to mankind. In the Old Testament he is usually styled “the Lord of hosts, the great and terrible God; but in the New Testament, he represents himself in a milder style, “the God of love and peace, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and in him “the Father of mercies, and the God of all patience and consolation.” And this difference between the style of the Old and New Testament was so remarkable, that one of the greatest sects in the primitive church (I mean that of the gnostics, which was subdivided into many other sects) did upon this found their heresy of two 575principles, or Gods; the one evil, and fierce, and cruel, whom they called the God of the Old Testament; the other kind, and loving, and merciful, whom they called the God of the New.
2. The gospel hath likewise more clearly discovered to us our own sinful and wretched state; that, being made upright, and originally designed by God to live in a holy and happy condition, and endued with sufficient power for that purpose, we, by our wilful transgressions and disobedience of an easy law given to our first parents, are sunk into a wretched state of ignorance and weakness of sin and sorrow, and thereby are become estranged from God, and obnoxious to his wrath and displeasure, and utterly unable to help and recover ourselves out of this sad and miserable state. And this is a great advantage to us, to understand the truth of our condition, and the worst of our case; because a just sense of it will prompt us to seek out for a remedy, and make us ready to embrace it when it is offered to us. And therefore, in the
3. Third place, The gospel hath plainly discovered to us the way and means of our recovery out of this wretched condition; namely, that, in tender commiseration of our miserable and helpless condition, God was pleased to send his Son, his only Son, into the world, to assume our nature, and “to be made in all things like unto us, sin only excepted;” to dwell among us, to converse with us, that he might instruct us in the way to happiness, and lead us therein by the example of his holy life; and that by his death he might be a propitiation for our sins, and purchase the forgiveness of them, and obtain eternal redemption for us. So that here is an adequate and perfect remedy discovered in 576the gospel, every way answerable to the weakness and impotency, the degeneracy and guilt, of man kind, “God having laid help upon one that is mighty, and able to save to the utmost all those that come to God by him.” He took our nature upon him, and became man, “that he might bring us to God,” and, by restoring us to his image and likeness, might repair those woful ruins which sin had made in us; and to obtain the pardon and forgiveness of our sins, “God spared not his own Son, but freely gave him to death for us all; and having raised him from the dead, hath sent him to bless us, in turning us away every one from our iniquity.” So that, by this means, the great doubts and fears of mankind, concerning the way of appeasing the offended justice of God, are removed and satisfied. The gospel having given us full assurance, not only that God is reconciled to us, and willing, after all our offences and provocations, to become our friend; but that he hath established the way and means of it; so that “if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, who is the propitiation for our sins, and for the sins of the whole world.” And this is a peculiar advantage of the Christian religion, to assure us of the forgiveness of sins, of the manner how it is procured, and the certain terms upon which it is granted, which neither by the light of nature, nor by any revelation from God, was clearly discovered before.
4. The gospel hath likewise revealed to us a more certain and perfect law and rule of life. It hath fixed our duty, and made it more plain and certain in all the instances of it, than either the light of nature, or the utmost improvement of that light by philosophy, or than the Jewish religion had done 577before. It hath cleared our duty in some instances, which the light of nature had left doubtful, or which the subtle disputes of men had made so. It hath heightened our duty in several instances; and those things which had not the clear force of law before, but were only the counsels of wiser men, it hath turned into strict precepts, and made them necessary parts of our duty. It commands universal love, and kindness, and good-will among men, and perfect forgiveness of the greatest injuries and offences; and inculcates these precepts more vehemently, and forbids all malice and revenge more strictly and peremptorily, than any religion or philosophy had done before; as will fully appear to any one who will but attentively read and consider our Saviour’s sermon upon the mount.
I cannot now enlarge in giving a particular account of the excellent laws and precepts of our religion, relating to God, our neighbour, and ourselves; I shall only say of them, that they all tend to the perfection of our nature, and the raising of it to the highest pitch of virtue and goodness that we are capable of in this life, and to qualify and dispose us for the felicity of the next; that they every way conduce to the benefit and advantage of particular persons, singly considered, and to the peace and welfare of human society; in a word, they all conspire in the glory of God, and the comfort and happiness of man: and no religion that ever was in the world, nor no philosophy, can shew such a system of moral precepts, in which, as there is nothing vain and faulty, so neither is there any thing defective and wanting; so that St. James doth with great reason call it “a perfect law.”
5. The gospel doth also discover and offer to us 578a most powerful assistance for the aid and encouragement of our obedience, abundant help and strength to enable us to the performance of all which God requires of us. It offers us wisdom to enlighten our dark minds, and to direct us in doubtful and difficult cases. (James i. 5.) “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” Our Saviour hath promised “to give his Holy Spirit to them that ask it,” to help our weakness, and to raise our courage to strengthen us against the power and force of strong and violent temptations, and to assist us in all our conflicts with our spiritual enemies, and to comfort and sup port us in all our afflictions and sufferings.
And without this, all the other advantages which our religion affords us would signify little. For what would the knowledge of our sinful and miserable state avail us, without power to rescue ourselves out of it? What is the pardon of our sins past, without strength against them for the future? What would signify the most complete rule of life, and the most perfect pattern of holiness and virtue, without ability in some measure to observe them and live up to them? Without this necessary aid and support, we might despair of resisting the temptations, and mastering the difficulties, of a Christian course, of subduing the power of bad inclinations, and breaking the force of vicious habits, and bearing up against the violence of extreme suffering and persecution for righteousness sake; without this gracious assistance we can do nothing of all this; and by the help of this we may become, as St. Paul expresses it, “more than conquerors.”
6. And lastly, The gospel hath clearly discovered 579to us the eternal rewards and punishments of an other world, which are the great incentives and arguments to obedience, and a patient and constant continuance in well-doing. The gospel (as the apostle to the Hebrews tells us) is in this respect a better covenant than the law, being established upon better promises, and having the sanction of more severe and terrible threatenings. These great and powerful arguments to keep mankind within the bounds of their duty, which the wisest of the heathen had some doubt of, and which were but very imperfectly revealed to the Jews, are clearly made manifest by the gospel. So the apostle tells us, that “life and immortality are brought to light by the gospel;” and that “therein the wrath of God is revealed from heaven, against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” And this gives the gospel a mighty power and influence over the minds of men. “Now God commands all men every where to repent,” and obey his laws; “because he hath appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man, whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.” The resurrection of Christ from the dead is a sensible demonstration to all mankind of another life after this, and consequently of a future judgment.
I might proceed to shew, in the second place, That as the gospel is a light, in respect of its clear discovery of other things to us, so likewise of itself, and its own Divine authority.
It is a holy and reasonable doctrine, suitable to the highest and best-improved reason of mankind, and plainly tending to our perfection and happiness; both for the sublimity of its mysteries, and the simplicity 580and excellency of its precepts, every way worthy to have God for its author, and most likely to proceed from him, and from none else. In a word, it is a doctrine in all respects so excellent and perfect, that it is beyond the compass of human understanding to imagine any thing better; and impossible, that any religion, materially differing from this, should be so good. No religion that ever was, or which the wit of man can devise, can give us juster notions of God, a truer account of ourselves, better rules of a good life, and arguments more powerful to persuade us to goodness, than the Christian religion hath done. And the intrinsic goodness and excellency of any religion, goes half way in the proof of its Divinity; to which, if God be pleased to add the external confirmation of plain and unquestionable miracles, it amounts to a full demonstration, and hath all the evidence that it is possible for any religion to have, that it is from God.
But this is a very large argument, which I have handled in some other discourses.2222 See Sermons CCXXVIII. CCXXIX. CCXXX. p. 347, &c. and the preceding Sermons, in this volume. All therefore that I shall at present add, is an inference or two from what I have been discoursing upon this argument, suited to the solemnity of this season.2323 Preached on Christmas-day.
I. We should welcome this light which is come into the world with all possible expressions of joy and thankfulness. The doctrine of the gospel is the most glorious light that ever shone upon the world, the best news that ever arrived to mankind. Light is a cheerful thing; “The light of the eyes (says Solomon) rejoiceth the heart, and good news 581maketh the bones fat.” When the angel brought the news of our Saviour’s birth to the shepherds, with what joy does he relate it to them! (Luke ii. 10, 11.) “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” And (Matt. ii. 10.) when the wise men saw the star, which pointed at the place of his birth, and conducted them to it, it is said, “they rejoiced with great joy.”
And whenever we commemorate the breaking in of this glorious light upon the world, I mean the birth of our blessed Saviour, how should our hearts be filled with joy, and our mouths with praises! We should every one of us break out into that hymn of the blessed mother of our Lord, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour,” for he hath regarded me and all mankind in our low estate. He was pleased to come down from heaven to save us from hell; and to become man, that he might “bring us to God;” and was contented to be miserable, that he might make us happy; and he did declare this mighty affection to us, when we were not only unworthy of his love, but even beneath the consideration and regard of his pity; for what is man, that God should be thus mindful of him, or the son of man, that the Son of God should visit him? that he should condescend to inhabit our nature, and “to dwell among us?” All mankind may with equal or greater reason say, as the centurion once did to him, “Lord, we are not worthy that thou shouldst come under our roof.” What means this amazing condescension, that thou shouldst leave thy glory, to be thus obscured, and come from God, to be 582“despised and rejected of men;” and quit the regions of bliss and happiness, to become “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief!” Was it for us that thou didst all this? Yea, for our sakes, who never had done any thing for thine, who may be ashamed to remember, that we were grievous sinners, and bitter enemies to thee, when all this was done for us.
Thus we should celebrate the memory of this blessed season, and as often as the year returns, with great joy and thankfulness commemorate the great blessings which this day brought to the world, and say with David, “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will be glad and rejoice therein.” Abraham and David saw this day, but far off; and yet they rejoiced: how should we then be transported with joy, to whom this day is come, and upon whom the Sun of righteousness is long since risen, with healing and salvation under his wings!
II. Let us “walk in this light.” This expression the Scripture useth to signify what use we should make of the advantages and opportunities which, by the glorious light of the gospel, are afforded to us, (John xii. 35.) “Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you.” (Ephes. v. 8.) “For ye were sometimes darkness: but now are ye light in the Lord: walk therefore as children of the light.” (Rom. xiii. 11-14.) “It is now high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, 583not in strife and envying;. but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.”
This counsel is proper for Christians at all times, who live under the light of the gospel; but more especially at this time, when we commemorate the coming of this light into the world. Nothing can be more unsuitable and contrary to it, than works of darkness, I mean sin and wickedness, and those abominable vices, which too many are apt to indulge themselves in at this time, more especially such as the apostle names in the text just now mentioned, “rioting and drunkenness, chambering and wantonness, contention and quarrelling.” We should at this time more especially put off those vices, and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ;” that is, be clothed with all those graces and virtues, which, in the precepts of his religion, and the example of his life, he hath recommended to us. This is the time when the “Word was made flesh,” and put on our nature; and what return can be more proper for us at this season, than “to put on the Lord Jesus; and to make no provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof?”
Nay, at this time we should retrench more than usual from our excess and superfluity, both because of the crying necessities of the poor, who are very numerous, and likewise for the relief of our distressed and persecuted brethren, who are fled to us for shelter from the barbarous rage of their persecutors. What we would have done for the honour of Christ at another time, let us now do for the relief of his members; and whatever kindness we shew to them, he will take it as done to himself. We have great cause to be cheerful at this time, and we may testify 584our joy by feasting, or any other lawful expressions of it: but we must not so feast, as to forget the affliction of Joseph, and not to remember that we also are in the body, and liable to the same sufferings. We must therefore take heed, that our table do not become “a snare to us;” and that our mirth do not degenerate into sensuality and sin.
Every Christian hath so many arguments against sin, that we should abstain from it at all times: but of all other times we should be most ashamed to be guilty of any lewdness and wickedness when we are remembering” the appearance of the Son of God, to bring salvation to us, and to teach us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world.”
To conclude: let us by all that hath been said be persuaded so to celebrate the memory of Christ’s first coming, to “take away sin by the sacrifice of himself,” that we may with comfort and joy “wait for the blessed hope, and the glorious appearance of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, when he shall appear a second time, without sin unto salvation.”585
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