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The first particular actings of a soul towards a recovery out of the depths of sin — Sense of sin, wherein it consists, how it is wrought — Acknowledgment of sin; its nature and properties — Self-condemnation.

What is the frame of the soul in general that is excited by grace, and resolves in the strength thereof to attempt a recovery out of the depths of sin-entanglements, hath been declared. We have also showed what entertainments, in general, such a soul had need to expect, yea, ordinarily shall be sure to meet withal. It may be he goes forth at first like Samson with his locks cut, and thinks he will do as at other times; but he quickly finds his peace lost, his wounds painful, his conscience restless, God displeased, and his whole condition, as the utmost of his own apprehension, hazardous. This fills him with the thoughts expressed in this third verse, and fixes the conclusion in his mind discoursed of before. He finds now that he hath the law afresh to deal withal. Thence ariseth that sense and acknowledgment of sin, that self-condemnation in the justification of God, whereof we now speak. He grows not sullen, stubborn, displeased, and so runs away from God; he doth not “utterly faint,” despond, and give over, he pleads not any thing in his own justification or for the extenuation of his sin and guilt; he quarrelleth not with, he repineth not against, the holiness, severity, and righteousness of the law of God; but reflects wholly on himself, his own unworthiness, guilt, and desert, and in a sense of them lies down at the foot of God, in expectation of his word and sentence.

Three things in this condition we ascribe unto such a soul:—

First, A sincere sense of sin. There is a twofold sense of sin. The one is general and notional; whereby a man knows what sin is, that himself is a sinner, — that he is guilty of this or that, these or those sins; only his heart is not affected proportionably to that discovery and knowledge which he hath of these things. The other is active and efficacious. The soul being acquainted with the nature of 369sin, with its own guilt in reference unto sin in general, as also to this or that sin, is universally influenced by that apprehension unto suitable affections and operations.

Of both these we have an instance in the same person. David, before Nathan’s coming to him, had the former; afterwards he had the latter also. It cannot be imagined but that, before the coming of the prophet, he had a general knowledge and sense, not only absolutely of the nature of sin, but also that himself was a sinner, and guilty of those very sins which afterward he was reproved for. To think otherwise is to suppose not only that he was unsainted, but unmanned also and turned into a beast. But yet this wrought not in him any one affection suitable to his condition. And the like may be said of most sinners in the world. But now, when Nathan comes to him, and gives him the latter efficacious sense whereof we speak, we know what effects it did produce.

It is the latter only that is under consideration; and that also is twofold — 1. Legal, or antecedaneous unto conversion; 2. Evangelical, and previous to the recovery from depths, whereof we treat. How these two differ, and how they may be discerned one from the other, being both of them in their kind sincere, is not my business to declare.

Now, this last, which we assign as the first duty, work, or acting of a returning soul, is a deep and practical apprehension, wrought in the mind and heart of a believing sinner by the Holy Ghost, of sin and its evils, in reference unto the law and love of God, the cross and blood of Christ, the communion and consolation of the Spirit, and all the fruits of love, mercy, or grace that it hath been made partaker of, or on gospel ground hoped for.

1. The principal efficient cause of it is the Holy Ghost. He it is who “convinceth of sin,” John xvi. 8. He works indeed by means, — he wrought it in David by the ministry of Nathan, and he wrought it in Peter by the look of Christ, — but his work it is; no man can work upon his own soul. It will not spring out of men’s rational considerations. Though men may exercise their thoughts about such things, as one would think were enough to break the heart of stones, yet if the Holy Ghost put not forth a peculiar efficacy of his own, this sense of sin will not be wrought or produced. As the waters at the pool of Bethesda were not troubled but when an angel descended and moved them, no more will the heart for sin without a saving illapse of the Holy Ghost.

2. It is deep apprehension of sin and the evils of it. Slight, transient thoughts about them amount not to the sense of which we speak.” My sorrow,” saith David, “is continually before me,” Ps. xxxviii. 17. It pressed him always and greatly. Hence he compares this sense of sin wrought by the Holy Ghost to “arrows that 370stick in the flesh,” verse 2; they pain sorely and are always perplexing. Sin, in this sense of it, lays hold on the soul, so that the sinner cannot look up, Ps. xl. 12; and it abides with him, making “his sore run in the night without ceasing,” Ps. lxxvii. 2, and depriveth the soul of rest.” My soul,” saith he, “refused to be comforted.” This apprehension of sin lies down and rises with him in whom it is. Transient thoughts, attended with infrequent sighs and ejaculations, little become a returning soul. And, —

3. It is practical. It is not seated only in the speculative part of the mind, hovering in general notions, but it dwells in the practical understanding, which effectually influenceth the will and affections, — such an apprehension as from which sorrow and humiliation are inseparable. The acts of the practical understanding do so necessarily produce together with them suitable acts of the will and affections, that some have concluded that those are indeed proper acts of the will which are usually ascribed to the understanding. It is so in the mind as that the whole soul is cast into the mould and likeness of it; humiliation, sorrow, self-abhorrency, do live and die with it.

4. (1.) It hath, in the first place, respect unto the law of God. There can be no due consideration of sin wherein the law hath not its place. The law calls for the sinner, and he willingly gives up his sin to be judged by it. There he sees it to be “exceeding sinful,” Rom. vii. 13. Though a believer be less under the power of the law than others, yet he knows more of the authority and nature of it than others; he sees more of its spirituality and holiness. And the more a man sees of the excellency of the law, the more he sees of the vileness of sin. This is done by a soul in its first endeavour of a recovery from the entanglements of sin. He labours thoroughly to know his disease, that he may be cured. It will do him no good, he knows, to be ignorant of his distemper or his danger. He knows that if his wounds be not searched to the bottom, they will stink and be corrupt. To the law, then, he brings himself and his sin. By that he sees the vileness of the one and the danger of the other. Most men lie still in their depths, because they would willingly escape the first step of their rising. From the bottom of their misery, they would fain at once be at the top of their felicity. The soul managed in this work by the Holy Ghost doth not so. He converseth with the law, brings his sin unto it, and fully hears the sentence of it. When the sin is thoroughly condemned, then he farther takes care of the sinner. As ever you desire to come to rest, avoid not this entrance of your passion unto it. Weigh it well, and attend unto what the law speaks of your sin and its desert, or you will never make a due application to God for forgiveness. As ever you would have your souls justified by grace, take care to have your sins judged by the law.

371(2.) There is a respect in it to the love of God; and this breaks the heart of the poor returning sinner. Sorrow from the law shuts itself up in the soul, and strangleth it. Sorrow from the thoughts of the love of God opens it, and causeth it to flow forth. Thoughts of sinning against the love of God, managed by the Holy Ghost; — what shall I say? their effects in the heart are not to be expressed. This made Ezra cry out, “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee,” chap. ix. 6; and verse 10, “What shall we say after this?” After what? Why, all the fruits of love and kindness they had been made partakers of. Thoughts of love and sin laid together make the soul blush, mourn, be ashamed, and confounded in itself. So Ezek. xxxvi. 31, “Then shall ye remember your own evil ways, and your doings that were not good.” When shall they do so? When thoughts and apprehensions of love shall be brought home to them; and, saith he, “Then shall ye lothe yourselves in your own sight.” The soul now calls to mind what love, what kindness, and what mercy, what grace, what patience hath been exercised towards it, and whereof it hath been made partaker. The thoughts of all these now come in upon him as streams of water. Such mercy, such communion, such privileges, such hopes of glory, such tastes of heaven, such peace, such consolation, such joy, such communications of the Spirit, — all to a poor, wretched, cursed, lost, forlorn sinner; and all this despised, neglected! the God of them all provoked, forsaken! “Ah,” saith the soul, “whither shall I cause my sorrow to go?” This fills him with shame and confusion of face, makes him mourn in secret, and sigh to the breaking of the loins. And then, —

(3.) The blood and cross of Christ is also brought to remembrance by the Holy Ghost. “Ah,” saith the soul, “have I thus requited the wonderful, astonishing love of my Redeemer? Is this the return, the requital, I have made unto him? Are not heaven and earth astonished at the despising of that love, at which they are astonished?” This brake Peter’s heart upon the look of Christ. Such words as these from Christ will, in this condition, sound in the ears of the soul: “Did I love thee, and leave my glory to become a scorn and reproach for thy sake? Did I think my life, and all that was dear unto me, too good for thee, to save thee from the wrath to come? Have I been a wilderness unto thee, or a land of darkness? What could I have done more for thee? When I had nothing left but my life, blood, and soul, they went all for thee, that thou mightst live by my death, be washed in my blood, and be saved through my soul’s being made an offering for thee! And hast thou thus requited my love, to prefer a lust before me, or by mere sloth and folly to be turned away from me? Go, unkind and unthankful soul, and see if thou canst find another Redeemer.” This overwhelms the soul, and 372even drowns it in tears of sorrow. And then the bitterness also of the sufferings of Christ are Brought to mind: “They look on him whom they have pierced, and mourn,” Zech. xii. 10. They remember his gall and wormwood, his cry and tears, his agony and sweat, his desertion and anguish, his blood and death, the sharpness of the sword that was in his soul, and the bitterness of the cup that was put into his hand. Such a soul now looks on Christ, bleeding, dying, wrestling with wrath and curse for him, and seeth his sin in the streams of blood that issued from his side. And all this increaseth that sense of sin whereof we speak. Also, —

(4.) It relates to the communion and consolations of the Holy Ghost, with all the privileges and fruits of love we are by him made partakers of. The Spirit is given to believers, upon the promise of Christ, to dwell in them. He takes up their hearts to be his dwelling-place. To what ends and purposes? That he may purify and sanctify them, make them holy, and dedicate them to God; to furnish them with grace and gifts; to interest them in privileges; to guide, lead, direct, comfort them; to seal them unto the day of redemption. Now, this Spirit is grieved by sin, Eph. iv. 30, and his dwelling-place defiled thereby, 1 Cor. vi. 19, iii. 17. Thoughts hereof greatly sharpen the spiritual sense of sin in a recovering soul. He considers what light, what love, what joy, what consolation, what privileges, it hath by him been made partaker of; what motions, warnings, workings to keep it from sin, it hath found from him; and says within itself, “What have I done? whom have I grieved, whom have I provoked? What if the Lord should now, for my folly and ingratitude, utterly take his Holy Spirit from me? What if I should have so grieved him that he will dwell in me no more, delight in me no more? What dismal darkness and disconsolation, yea, what utter ruin should I be left unto! However, what shame and confusion of face belongs to me for my wretched disingenuity and ingratitude towards him!”

This is the First thing that appears in the returning soul’s actings and frame, — a sincere sense of sin on the account mentioned, wrought in it by the Holy Ghost. And this a soul in the depths described must come unto, if ever it expects or looks for deliverance and a recovery. Let not such persons expect to have a renewed sense of mercy without a revived sense of sin.

Secondly. From hence proceedeth an ingenuous, free, gracious acknowledgment of sin. Men may have a sense of sin, and yet suffer it to lie burning as a fire shut up in their bones, to their continual disquietment, and not he able to come off unto a free, soul-opening acknowledgment; yea, confession may be made in general, and mention therein of that very sin wherewith the soul is most entangled, and yet the soul come short of a due performance of this duty. 373Consider how the case stood with David: Ps. xxxii. 3, “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long.” How could David keep silence, and yet roar all the day long? What is that silence which is consistent with roaring? It is a mere negation of that duty which is expressed, verse 5, that is intended: “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid.” It was not a silence of submission and waiting on God that he intends; that would not have produced a wasting of his spiritual strength, as he complains this silence did: “My bones waxed old.” Nor yet was it a sullen, stubborn, and contumacious frame that was upon him; but he notes, saith Calvin (and he says well), “Affectum qui medius est inter tolerantiam et contumaciam, vitio et virtuti affinis;” — “An affection between patience and stubbornness, bordering on the one and other.” That is, he had a deep sense of sin; this disquieted and perplexed him all the day long; which he calls his roaring. It weakened and wearied him, making his bones wax old, or his strength decay; yet was he not able to bring his heart to that ingenuous, gracious acknowledgment which, like the lancing of a festered wound, would have given at least some ease to his soul. God’s children are ofttimes in this matter like ours. Though they are convinced of a fault, and are really troubled at it, yet they will hardly acknowledge it. So do they. They will go up and down, sigh and mourn, roar all the day long; but an evil and untoward frame of spirit, under the power of unbelief and fear, keeps them from this duty.

Now, that this acknowledgment may be acceptable unto God, it is required, first, that it be free; then, that it be full.

1. It must be free, and spiritually ingenuous. Cain, Pharaoh, Ahab, Judas, came all to an acknowledgment of sin; but it was whether they would or no. It was pressed out of them; it did not flow from them. The confession of a person under the convincing terrors of the law or dread of imminent judgments is like that of malefactors on the rack, who speak out that for which themselves and friends must die. What they say, though it be the truth, is a fruit of force and torture, not of any ingenuity of mind. So is it with merely convinced persona They come not to the acknowledgment of sin with any more freedom. And the reason is, because all sin hath shame; and for men to be free unto shame is naturally impossible, shame being nature’s shrinking from itself and the posture it would appear in. But now the returning soul hath never more freedom, liberty, and aptitude of spirit, than when he is in the acknowledgment of those things whereof he is most ashamed. And this is no small evidence that it proceeds from that Spirit which is attended with that liberty; for “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” 2 Cor. iii. 17. When David was delivered from his silence, he 374expresseth this frame in the performance of his duty: Ps. xxxii. 5, “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions.” His mouth is now open, and his heart enlarged, and he multiplies one expression upon another to manifest his enlargement. So doth a soul rising out of its depths, in this beginning of this address unto God. Having the sense of sin before described wrought in him by the Holy Ghost, his heart is made free, and enlarged unto an ingenuous acknowledgment of his sin before the Lord. Herein he pours out his soul unto God, and hath not more freedom in any thing than in dealing about that whereof he is most ashamed.

2. Full also it must be. Reserves ruin confession. If the soul have any secret thought of rolling a sweet morsel under its tongue, of a bow in the house of Rimmon, it is like part of the price kept back, which makes the whole robbery instead of an offering. If there be remaining a bitter root of favouring any one lust or sin, of any occasion of or temptation unto sin, let a man be as open, free, and earnest as can be imagined in the acknowledgment of all other sins and evils, the whole duty is rendered abominable. Some persons, when they are brought into depths and anguish about any sin, and are thereon forced to the acknowledgment of it, at the same time they are little concerned with their other follies and iniquities, that, it may be, are no less provoking unto God than that is from whence their present trouble doth arise. “Let not,” as James speaks in another case, “such a man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.” It must be full and comprehensive, as well as free and ingenuous.

And of such importance is the right performance of this duty, that the promise of pardon is ofttimes peculiarly annexed unto it, as that which certainly carries along with it the other duties which make up a full returnal unto God, Prov. xxviii. 13; 1 John i. 9. And that place in Job is remarkable, chap. xxxiii. 27, 28, “He looketh upon men, and if any say, I have sinned, and perverted that which was right, and it profited me not; he will deliver his soul from going into the pit, and his life shall see the light.” He shall not only be made partaker of pardon, but of consolation also, and joy in the light of God’s countenance.

Thirdly. There yet remains self-condemnation with the justification of God, which lies expressly in the words of the verse under consideration; and hereof are two parts:—

1. Self-abhorrency, or dislike. The soul is now wholly displeased with itself, and reflects upon itself with all affections of regret and trouble. So the apostle declares it to have been with the Corinthians, when their godly sorrow was working in them, 2 Cor. vii. 11. Among other things, it wrought in them “indignation and revenge;” 375or a reflection on themselves with all manner of dislike and abhorrency. In the winding up of the controversy between God and Job, this is the point he rests in. As he had come in general to a free, full, ingenuous acknowledgment of sin, chap. xl. 4, 5, so in particular he gives up his whole contest in this abhorrency of himself, chap. xlii. 6, “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” “What a vile, wretched creature have I been!” saith the soul. “I blush and am ashamed to think of my folly, baseness, and ingratitude. Is it possible that I should deal thus with the Lord? I abhor, I loathe myself; I would fly anywhere from myself, I am so vile and loathsome, — a thing to be despised of God, angels, and men.” And, —

2. There is self-judging in it also. This the apostle invites the Corinthians unto, 1 Epist. xi. 31, “If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.” This is a person pronouncing sentence on himself according to the tenor of the law. The soul brings not only its sin but itself also to the law. It puts itself, as to merit and desert, under the stroke and severity of it. Hence ariseth a full justification of God in what sentences soever he shall be pleased to pronounce in the case before him.

And these three things which we have passed through compose the frame and first actings of a gracious soul rising from its depths. They are all of them signally expressed in that place where we have a signal recovery exemplified, Hos. xiv. 1–3. And this makes way for the exaltation of grace, the great thing in all this dispensation aimed at by God, Eph. i. 6. That which he is now doing is to bring the soul to glory in him, 1 Cor. i. 31; which is all the return he hath from his large and infinitely bountiful expenses of grace and mercy. Now, nothing can render grace conspicuous and glorious until the soul come to this frame. Grace will not seem high until the soul be laid very low. And this also suits or prepares the soul for the receiving of mercy in a sense of pardon, the great thing aimed at on the part of the sinner; and it prepares it for every duty that is incumbent on him in that condition wherein he is. This brings the soul to waiting with diligence and patience. If things presently answer not our expectation, we are ready to think we have done what we can; if it will be no better, we must bear it as we are able; — which frame God abhors. The soul in this frame is contented to wait the pleasure of God, as we shall see in the close of this psalm. “Oh,” saith such a one, “if ever I obtain a sense of love, if ever I enjoy one smile of his countenance more, it is of unspeakable grace. Let him take his own time, his own season; it is good for me quietly to wait, and to hope for his salvation.” And it puts the soul on prayer; yea, a soul in this frame prays always. And there is nothing more evident than that want of 376a thorough engagement unto the performance of these duties is the great cause why so few come clear off from their entanglement all their days. Men heal their wounds slightly; and, therefore, after a new, painful festering, they are brought into the same condition of restlessness and trouble which they were in before.

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