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THE REASONABLENESS OF FEARING GOD MORE THAN MAN.
And I say unto you, my friends, Be not afraid of them that Ml the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which, after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell; yea, 1 say unto you, Fear him.—Luke xii. 4, 5.
I PROCEED now to apply this serious and weighty argument, and to draw some useful inferences from it.
I. That religion doth not design to annihilate and to root out our passions, but regulate and govern them; it does not wholly forbid and condemn them, but determines them to their proper objects, and appoints them their measures and proportions: it does not intend to extirpate our affections, but to exercise and employ them aright, and to keep them within bounds. Religion does not aim to extirpate our love, and joy, and hope, and fear; but to purify and direct them, telling us how we should love God with the highest and most intense degree of affection, as the Supreme Good deserves, “with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds, and with all our strength;” and other things only in subordination to him. Religion refines our joy and delight from the dregs of sensual pleasure, raising them to better objects, requiring us to “rejoice 88in the Lord evermore,” and to “rejoice that our names are written in heaven:”” it raiseth our hopes above the favour of men, and tells us whom we should fear above all, the great and terrible God, whose power is infinitely above the power of men. Now that which propounds objects to our passions, and sets bounds to them, did never intend the utter extirpation of them; but this religion doth.
II. We may infer likewise from hence, that it is not against the genius of true religion, to urge men with arguments of fear. No man can imagine there would have been so many fearful threatenings in Scripture, and especially in the gospel, if it had not been intended they should have some effect and influence upon us. Some look upon all arguments of fear as legal, and gendering to bondage, as contrary to the genuine spirit and temper of the gospel; and look upon preachers, who urge men with considerations taken from the justice of God, and “the terrors of the Lord,” as of an unevangelical spirit, as the “children of the bondwoman, and not of the free;” as those who would bring men back again to Mount Sinai, to “thunder and lightning,” to “blackness, and darkness, and tempest.” But will such men allow our Saviour and his apostles to have been evangelical preachers?” If so, it is not contrary to the gospel to use arguments of terror; they thought them very proper to deter men from sin, and to bring them to repentance: (Acts xvii. 30, 31.) “But now commandeth all men every where to repent; because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness.” And the same apostle tells us, that one principal thing which made the gospel so powerful for the salvation of men, was the terrible threatenings of it, because 89“therein the wrath of God is revealed from heaven, against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men,” (Rom. i. 18.) And (2 Cor. v. 10.) the apostle puts Christians in mind of the judgment of Christ: “We must all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ.” And, lest any should doubt whether this were a proper argument to work upon Christians under the gospel, he tells us, that he mentioned it for this very purpose, (ver. 11.) “Knowing, therefore, the terrors of the Lord, we persuade men.”
Some are so tender, that they cannot bear any other arguments but such as are taken from the free grace of God, and the free love of Christ. If we mention to them the wrath of God, and the torments of hell, we grate upon them; but if we consider the primitive preaching of Christ and his apostles, and will be concluded by their pattern, we must allow the necessity and usefulness of these arguments.
And, indeed, if we consider the nature and reason of things, nothing is more apt to work upon sinners than arguments of fear. Hence it is that the wisdom of mankind hath thought fit to secure the observance of human laws by the fear of punishment. Fear is deeply rooted in our nature, and immediately flows from that principle of self-preservation which is planted in every man; it is the most wakeful passion in the soul of man, and so soon as any thing that is dreadful and terrible is presented to us, it alarms us to flee from it: and this passion doth naturally spring up in our minds from the apprehension of a Deity, because the notion of a God doth include in it power and justice, both which are terrible to guilty creatures; so that fear is intimate to our being, and God hath hid in 90every man’s conscience a secret awe and dread of his presence, of his infinite power and eternal justice.
Now fear being one of the first things that is imprinted upon us from the apprehension of a Deity, it is that passion, which, above all other, gives the greatest advantage to religion, and is the easiest to be wrought upon. Hence the wise man does so often call “the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom,” because here usually religion begins, and first takes hold of this passion: (Prov. xvi. 6.) “By the fear of the Lord men depart from evil.” Fear is a good sure principle, and one of the best guards and securities against sin: other passions are fickle and inconstant, but we cannot shake off our fears, nor quit ourselves of them, so long as we believe the reality of the object; there will be fear and terror in a guilty conscience, so long as it believes a holy, just, and omnipotent God, and that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
Other passions are more under the government of reason, as our love, and hope, and anger: but fear is the most natural, and most deeply rooted in the sensitive nature, and therefore is common to us with all other creatures, who have any considerable degree of sense, or any other passion: and we may observe those creatures, who scarce betray any other passion, to be fearful of danger, and to flee from it. Now fear having less to do with reason, the effects of it are less to be hindered. All the reason in the world cannot command down our fears, unless the danger be removed, or some probable way shewn of avoiding or mastering it; and therefore arguments of fear are great eloquence, and 91have a mighty force and power of persuasion. “Knowing therefore the terrors of the Lord, (saith St. Paul) we persuade men.” One of the best sort of arguments to fright men from sin, and to bring them to their duty, is, “the terrors of the Lord.” These take the fastest and surest hold of men, even of the most obstinate and obdurate sinners; for arguments of love and kindness will work but little upon such persons; some ingenuity is required to be swayed by such considerations: but the perversest creatures love themselves, and may be wrought upon by arguments of fear: so that it is agreeable both to the nature of man and of religion, to propound such arguments to our consideration.
III. The fear of God is the best antidote against the fear of men. We are very apt to be awed by men, and to start from our duty for fear of temporal evils and sufferings. This fear seized upon St. Peter, and made him deny his Master. And where the fear of men does not prevail so far, yet it will many times make men shy and timorous in the owning of religion in the times of danger. This made Nicodemus to come to our Saviour “by night.” (John iii. 2.) So, likewise, “many of the rulers,” who “believed in Christ,” durst not “make open confession of him, lest they should have been put out of the synagogue,” (John xii. 42.) Some men that have good inclinations to the truth, and are inwardly convinced of it, yet in times of danger they love to be wise and cautious: they have an eye to a retreat, and are loath to venture too far. But if we give way to these fears, and suffer them to possess us, we shall be exposed to many temptations, and be liable to be seduced from our duty. So Solomon 92observes, (Prov. xxix. 25.) “The fear of man bringeth a snare.”
Now if we would cast out this fear of men, it must be by a greater fear, which is stronger and more powerful; and that is the fear of God, (Isa. viii. 12, 13.) “Neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid;” speaking of the fear of men, against which he prescribes this remedy, “Sanctify the Lord of hosts himself, and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” If God be once the object of our fear, and we be thoroughly possessed with awful apprehensions of him, the frowns of men, and the wrath and displeasure of the greatest upon earth, will signify nothing to us. This preserved Moses amidst all the temptations of a court: (Heb. xi. 27.) “He feared not the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.” He could easily bear the anger of Pharaoh, when by faith he beheld the omnipotent justice of “the King immortal and invisible.”
IV. If God be infinitely more to be dreaded than men, then “who is to be obeyed, God or men?” judge ye.” I speak not this to diminish our reverence to magistrates, and their authority; for by persuading men to fear God, who commands obedience to magistrates, we secure their reverence and authority: but when the commands of men are contrary to God’s, and come in competition with them, shall we not hearken to him who is supreme, the greatest and most powerful?” shall we not obey him who hath the most questionable authority over us, and right to command us?” Shall we not dread him most, who is to be feared above all; who can be the best friend, and the sorest enemy; is able to give the greatest rewards to our obedience, and to revenge 93himself upon us for our disobedience, by the most dreadful and severe punishments?” The great Socrates, when he was accused by the Athenians for corrupting and seducing the youth of Athens by his philosophy, makes this generous defence for himself, more like an apostle than a philosopher “That he believed this province was committed to him by God, that he was called by him to this employment, to endeavour to reform the world; and therefore for him to forsake his station for fear of death, or of any other temporal evil, would be a most grievous sin.” And afterwards (as Plato gives us the account of it) he says, “I am not afraid to die: but this I am afraid of, to disobey the commands of my Superior, and to desert the station he hath placed me in, and to give over the work which he hath appointed me; and therefore, (says he,) if you would dismiss me upon these conditions, that I would forbear for the future to instruct the people, and if after this I be found so doing, I should be put to death; if I might be released upon these terms, I would not accept them; I would thank you for your good-will, but this I must affirm to you, that I ought to obey God rather than you; and so long as I have breath, I will never give over exhorting and teaching the people, and inculcating the precepts of philosophy upon every one I meet with.”
Could a heathen, who had but very obscure apprehensions of the rewards of another life, in comparison of what Christians have by the revelation of the gospel; could he take up this brave resolution, and die in it?” Did he with so much constancy despise the wrath and reproaches of men, and with so much cheerfulness entertain death, rather than to 94flinch from his duty?” How does this upbraid the cowardice of many Christians, who are so easily deterred from their duty, and are apt to quit their religion for fear of sufferings; since “life and immortality are brought to light by the gospel,” and the wrath of God is so clearly revealed from heaven! What a folly is it for any man to “choose iniquity rather than affliction,” as the expression is in Job; and to forfeit the favour of God for the friendship of the world!
The fear of men will not be a sufficient plea and excuse for men at the day of judgment; it will not then be enough to say, This I was awed into by the apprehension of such a danger, by the fear of such sufferings; to avoid such an inconvenience, I knowingly committed such a sin; for fear of being persecuted, I violated my conscience, and chose rather to trust God with my soul, than men with my estate; to save my life, I renounced my religion, was “ashamed of Christ, and denied him before men.” Our Saviour hath told us plainly, that this will not serve us at the great day: (Mark viii. 38.) “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me, and of my words, in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with his holy angels.” And (Rev. xxi. 8.) in that catalogue of sinners which shall be “cast into the lake of fire and brimstone,” the fearful and unbelievers are particularly mentioned.
And, indeed, they who out of fear of men offend God, are guilty of this unreasonable folly, they incur the danger of a greater evil to avoid a less, and to save their estates or their lives, they plunge themselves into hell; whilst they are endeavouring 95to escape the hands of “men that shall die, they fall into the hands of the living God.”
Lastly, If God be the great object of our fear, let all impenitent sinners represent to themselves “the terrors of the Lord, and the power of his anger.” This consideration, if any thing in the world will do it, will awaken them to a sense of the danger of their condition, and of the fatal issue of a wicked life. Were but men possessed with due apprehensions of the power of God; the fear of men, and what they can do to us, would have no influence upon us in comparison of the fears of Divine vengeance. Were we sensible what it is to displease God, “in whose hands our breath is, and whose are all our ways,” who can make us as miserable as we are capable of being, and more miserable than we can now imagine, not only in our bodies, but in our souls, not only in this world, but in the other, not only for a time, but without end; would not this make us afraid to offend and displease him?”
Can any consideration be more powerful to restrain us from sin, and to argue us to repentance and obedience, than this?” We may oppose the eternal displeasure of God, not only to all the pleasures of sin, but to all the terrors of sense, which are but for a moment. When men would allure us to sin by the baits and temptations of pleasure, or discourage and deter us from our duty by the threatenings of danger and sufferings; let us oppose to these the anger of the great God, and the infinite treasures of his wrath; and the serious thoughts of these will blunt the edge of all temptations, and quench all motives and incentives to sin.
Do we fear the wrath of man, whose power is short, “and whose breath is in his nostrils,” who 96can but afflict a little, and for a little while; and is not the wrath of the eternal God much more dreadful?” Is not “destruction from the Lord, a terror to thee?” Dost thou “fear man that shall die, and the son of man that shall be made as grass;” and dost thou stand in no awe of “Him who lives for ever?” Is the fear of men so prevalent upon us, and shall not “the terrors of the Lord” have a much greater effect upon us?” God is the supreme, and indeed the only object of our fear, in comparison of whom nothing else is to be dreaded: (Psalm lxxvi. 7.) “Thou, even thou, art to be feared, and who may stand in thy sight, when once thou art angry?” And, (Psalm xc. 11.) “Who knoweth the power of thine anger?” As is thy fear, so is thy wrath.” No passion in the soul of man is more infinite and unbounded than our fear; it is apt to fill our minds with endless jealousies and suspicions of what may befal us, of the worst that may happen: but if we should extend our fears to the utmost of what our wild and affrighted imaginations can reach to, they could not exceed the greatness of God’s wrath: “As is thy fear, so is thy wrath.”
Let us then consider things impartially, and fear him most who hath the greatest power, and consequently whom of all other persons in the world it is most dangerous to offend. Let us set before us God and men; the single death of the body, and the sorest and most sensible torments of body and soul together; temporal afflictions and sufferings, and eternal pains and sorrows: and when we are apt to fear what men can do unto us, let us consider how much more he can do, to whom power belongs, if for fear of men we will venture to provoke him. When men threaten us with a prison, let us think 97of “the chains of darkness;” when they would terrify us with fire and faggot, let us think of “the lake which burns with fire and brimstone;” when we are threatened with banishment, let us consider how great a misery it will be to be banished from the glorious and blissful presence of God for ever: when the danger of a temporal death is presented to us, let us remember the “worm that never dies, and the fire that is not quenched.”
Ye that are so bold as to offend God, and affront the Almighty to his face, by profane blasphemies, and impudent impiety, consider what ye do, how great a danger you run upon, to what fearful misery you expose yourselves, whenever you thus offend him! think of that question of the apostle, and answer it if you can; “Will ye provoke the Lord to jealousy?” are ye stronger than he?” Take warning on this side hell, while ye may escape it; “flee from the wrath which is to come,” while it is yet to come, before it overtake you, and there be no escaping!
And let it not be grievous to us, to be put in mind of those terrible things. How much easier is it now to hear of them, while they may be avoided, than to endure them hereafter, when they will be both unavoidable and intolerable! And look upon them as the best and most faithful friends, who deal plainly with you in these matters, and acquaint you with the true state of things, and tell you nothing but what you will certainly find true, if you persist in this dangerous course of offending God; who represent things to you as they are, and forewarn you of so great and certain a danger.
It is no pleasure to any man to speak of such dreadful and tragical things; it can be no delight to fright men, and to grate upon their ears with such 98harsh and unwelcome words: but it is necessary to the greatest part of sinners, to set their danger before them in the most terrible and frightful manner; and all this is little enough to awaken the greatest part of mankind to due consideration of their ways. Soft words, and sober reason, and calm arguing, will work upon some persons; some sinners are more yielding, and may be taken in upon parley; but others are so obstinate and resolved, that they are not to be carried but by storm; and in this case, violence is the greatest act of friendship and kindness. Our Saviour, when he spake these terrible words to his disciples, and gave them this warning, does insinuate, that it proceeded from a most sincere and hearty friendship to them: “And I say unto you, my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do; but I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear,” &c.99
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