Living with the promises and threats of God's Word
From Religious Cases of Conscience (1755), by Samuel Pike and Samuel Hayward, ministers at London, England.
How may a person judge when a promise or threatening comes from God, or is brought by Satan, to the soul?
This question you would find contained in the following letter:
"I am a person who have for some years been a professed follower of Jesus, have had a place in his house, enjoyed great privileges, and have advantages above many, sitting under a sound, faithful, and tender minister. But under these means of fruitfulness, I, alas! seem barren and unprofitable, and am afraid I go backward in religion, and make advances in sin; and what is worst, my heart is so hard, that I do not mourn over these declensions as I ought: and therefore fear I am not properly affected with them. No sooner does a temptation offer, but I fall in with it: so that I often think, whether my refraining from gross immoralities is not more for want of temptations, than from a real hatred of them, and love to holiness. And yet I hope I sincerely strive, and pray, and resolve against sin, in Christ's strength, being convinced that I have none sufficient of my own. But can I sincerely do this, and fall so frequently? I attend on gospel ordinances; but, I fear, to little purpose, being cold and lifeless under all. I hear the love of Jesus sweetly displayed; but this icy frozen heart is not melted, these languid and lifeless affections not raised to, nor fixed upon, the dear Redeemer. I cannot call him, my Redeemer, lest I should be deceiving my own soul; and yet I dare not say I have no part in him, lest I should be ungrateful, and deny his work. Thus I am in a strait; but this I must say that I desire to call the glorious Saviour, my Lord and my God. Another thing that appears discouraging is this -- In an answer to a question some time since, you proved that Satan did often produce passages of Scripture, to terrify the trembling Christian. Now, this being the case, may he not transform himself into an angel of light, bring promises to your minds, and so deceive us? If so, how can a poor creature judge, when a promise or threatening comes from God, or from Satan; especially, when sometimes promises have seemed to be sweetly, seasonably, and powerfully set home upon the soul, and afterwards awful threatenings have appeared to come with equal strength? I beg you will take these things into your consideration, if you think them of sufficient importance: and may the eternal Spirit, whose work it is, direct you to a suitable answer, that I may be capable of judging in some measure of my condition; whether I am but a painted hypocrite, or a real, though, I am sure, then, a poor unworthy believer! Oh, that I could experience this made good to my soul! They that wait upon the Lord, shall renew their strength. Now God is faithful, and the promise is absolute; they shall, etc. Surely then, if I waited properly on the Lord, or was within the bond of the everlasting covenant, this would be my case. I think, if I am more lifeless at one time than another, it is at the Lord's supper: so that I sometimes think, I should sin less in neglecting, than in attending in such an unbecoming frame, as I almost constantly do. Oh hard rebellious heart! stupid and ungrateful creature! surely, could you see my vileness, you would never judge favourably of my state."
This case consists of a variety of particulars, which it would not be well to pass over without notice. I would therefore, I. Consider some of the particular circumstances here mentioned; and then, II. Answer this important question, how a person may judge whether a promise or a threatening comes from God, or is brought by Satan, to the soul?
I. Let us take a view of the particular circumstances or complaints, of which this case consists. These, we find, are various. Here is barrenness and unfruitfulness under abundant means mentioned. Here is coldness and lifelessness complained of. Here is a fear of going backward, and yet a mind not suitably affected with it. This person particularly complains of deadness at the Lord's supper, and of being carried away with temptations; which occasions a fear, lest his abstaining from gross immoralities does not arise rather from a want of temptations, than from a hatred of sin, and a love to holiness. He is in a strait, whether to conclude he has an interest in Christ or not. He is afraid that his frequent falls are inconsistent with an experience of the grace of God. And lastly, he is ready to conclude, that he should sin less in neglecting, than in attending the ordinance of the Lord's supper, because of his great coldness there. These are the various complaints this person makes; complaints, all which are suitable to the experience of the Christian, and which therefore deserve consideration. Time indeed forbids our taking particular notice of every one: yet I would not wholly neglect them; and therefore shall make a few general observations, which will refer in some respect to them all, and tend to direct, encourage, and strengthen the Christian under his various fears.
I. It is an unspeakable mercy, when we have a deep and humbling sense of our barrenness, deadness and unprofitableness, and to be enabled to spread it before the Lord. Some persons are mere cumberers of the ground indeed. They bring forth no real fruit, and yet are entirely unconcerned about it. They enjoy all the privileges of the gospel, are favoured with all the means of grace; and yet are absolutely unaffected with the great concerns of eternity, are strangers to all real religion; but, notwithstanding all, think well of themselves, and hypocrite-like, say, Stand by thyself, and come not near us; for we are holier than thou. Awful to be in such a condition! but is this your case, my dear friend? You find a coldness and indifferency under these means, and are afraid you are rather going backward than forward. You complain of hardness and insensibility; but remember, felt hardness is not real hardness. It is rather a blessing, than a judgment, and therefore calls for thankfulness. It is a stupidity felt, and lamented over, and not like the absolute stupidity of the impenitent sinner. Do you not carry your complaints to God, and tell him of your coldness, your fears, your insensibility? Do you not appear humble in your own eyes on this account? Are you accusing yourself of your ingratitude, and abhorring yourself for your vileness? This is no evidence of a hypocrite, but rather of a real Christian. A hypocrite, that abstains from outward immoralities, thinks all is well with him; but the Christian appears vile and odious in his own eyes on account of the sinfulness of his heart. Though he has no public sins to charge himself with, yet, when he looks within, he finds enough to make himself appear vile and despicable. It is a peculiar mercy to be made sensible of the plague, the wickedness, the coldness of your hearts, and to be deeply humbled under it. The Spirit of God always shows the Christian what he is, that he may the more readily acquiesce in the method of salvation exhibited in the gospel. Be thankful then, Christians, that your souls are not absolutely frozen and benumbed, but that you are sensible of, alarmed at, and humbled for, your indifferency and lukewarmness, barrenness, and unfruitfulness, under the means of grace.
2. It is a good evidence of our being Christians indeed, when we are not easy and contented under such a sense of our barrenness and coldness, but find our hearts filled with desires, and are enabled to endeavour after greater holiness. Are you satisfied with complaints? or do you think it is enough to mention them? Do you willingly rest here? Do you find no self-abhorrence on the account of these things, no desires after liveliness of soul, no concern to have things better with you? Do you not pray for, endeavour and strive after, greater degrees and measures of grace? Then you are asleep indeed, and it is high time to awake! It is an awful circumstance to be like the door on its hinges, and to have no desire after an alteration! to sit down, and feebly wish to be better, but cannot find a heart to pray and endeavour after a more spiritual frame and a growing conformity to God! This is sometimes pretty nearly the case with the Christian, when he is under the power of any particular corruption. Sin has caused a too great insensibility in his soul, and all his spiritual powers appear asleep; as was the case with David, when Nathan came to him. But is it thus with you, my Christian mourner? May I not answer for you, and say, no? Are you satisfied to be in such a condition? Do you not desire and long to have it otherwise with you? Nay, do you not pray, and cry, and strive to have things altered with you? Are you contented with a few feeble wishes? Sometimes, my friend, you may appear to yourself to be in such a condition: but at other times are you not full of holy concern about it? Do not you call upon your sleepy soul to awake? Do not you beg to feel the love of Christ melting your hard and stony heart? before duties, are you not concerned to be kept from coldness and indifferency? and, at the close of duties, are you not humbled and ashamed under a view of your great imperfections, and do you not apply afresh to the blood of Christ for pardon? And is not all this an evidence of the Christian? Is there not in all this a sense of the excellency of holiness, a real love to it, and therefore an evidence of a work of grace in the heart? Oh bless God, that it is thus with you, that you can appeal to him, that you would have your soul filled with greater love to him, and brought into a warmer and more lively frame!
3. We should not make our fluctuating frames, nor our being led away by a particular temptation, a mark of our being hypocrites. We are not to judge of ourselves by one particular action in our lives, or by an unbecoming frame, that we may through the power of temptation be led into; but by the general tendency of our desires, frames, and conversation. Sometimes you find all dark within: you cannot call Christ your Saviour. Sometimes you find a sad benumbness: your soul seems, like the earth in winter frost, hard and incapable of impression: the love of a compassionate Saviour does not melt you, when you hear it. All this is consistent with a real experience of the grace of God. These different frames are not uncommon. What must we conclude from them? They only show us the difference between earth and heaven, intimate the state of imperfection we are in, and the sad influence of sin even in a renewed heart; but do not by any means give us reason to conclude that we are but almost Christians. The hypocrite is generally in one frame: but the Christian's frames are ever fluctuating. His sky is not always long clear: but, as the natural sky is sometimes serene, and appears beautiful and pleasant, and again is stormy, dark, and tempestuous; so it is with a Christian's soul. Do not then draw any discouraging conclusion from your various frames. Let a consideration of it keep you humble, make you watchful, and fill you with warmer desires after the heavenly world, where your love will never grow cool, nor your enjoyments meet with any interruption: but do not conclude from hence that you are not Christians indeed.
4. We should ever maintain a godly jealousy over our hearts, yet we should take care and guard against unbelief. We should ever rejoice with trembling. Upon every eruption of sin, and interruption in our frame, we should take the alarm, inquire into the reason of it, and watch the heart with all diligence, knowing that it is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Yet we are not to give way to disputings and unbelief, because our hearts are treacherous: for, if so, we may be always under the power of distressing fears, and never enjoy any satisfaction or peace, saying, we may be deceived. There is a great difference between a godly jealousy and unbelief. If after examination our consciences do not condemn us, we have no reason to be uneasy. This person knows not what conclusion to draw concerning himself. He is afraid to say he is a Christian, there are so many circumstances that appear discouraging; and yet he would not deny what God has done for him. Do not hesitate between two opinions. If, so far as you know your own heart, you have been enabled to give yourself to Jesus Christ, and receive him in all his characters; if your conscience does not contradict you, when you say, you hope you love the Redeemer; you may, and ought to draw a favourable conclusion concerning your state, and to wait for the clearer testimony of the Spirit to make it plain to you. Do not, my friends, be always disputing; that can be of no service to your souls. It will break in upon your peace, dishonour God, and perhaps provoke him to leave you in the dark. Oh, hope and trust! Do not cast away your confidence. Endeavour to live in a thankful frame, considering what God has done for you, and rejoice in the evidences of his distinguishing grace, and give God all the glory.
5. We may be growing Christians and yet not find our affections always lively. If we judge of our state and of our progress in grace by affection, we shall be in danger either of running into all the wild reveries of enthusiasm, or else of falling into despair. Affections may be raised, and yet there be no grace: and, on the other hand, we may have our affections dull, or seem almost to be void of affections, when compared with some persons; and yet we may not only have grace, but be growing in grace. Our affections may not be lively and our souls all on fire; and yet we may really love Christ, and be making some progress in the divine life. Young Christians are often led by affection; therefore their hopes are ever fluctuating. If they are not lively, they conclude they are no better than hypocrites. Constitution makes a great difference as to the liveliness or dullness of our affections; and so does the present state of the body: and these things should always be considered. Some can weep at pleasure; whilst others are incapable of shedding a tear. Some appear all alive; others are of a heavier cast, and yet are solid growing Christians, and have a rich experience in divine things. It is doubtless pleasant and profitable too to have our affections raised by divine truths. When our chariot wheels move on swiftly, and the fire burns within us, it is sweet meditating, praying, reading, hearing, or conversing. Yet we must not judge of the work of God in the soul by the liveliness of our affections altogether. Indeed, when a person, naturally of lively affections, finds a growing coldness and indifferency to spiritual duties, and is all alive when pursuing the things of sense, it is a sad sign at least of a bad frame. But though he does not find his soul lively in duty; yet, if he is labouring after a greater deadness to the world, if he is secretly mourning after God, and lamenting over sin; if he is pressing on towards the mark, and seeking after a greater conformity to Jesus; if he is more careful against sin, and watchful over his own heart; he is a growing Christian, though in waiting upon God he may not find his affections so lively as he would. The tree does not only grow in summer when it appears in all its gaiety; but even in winter, when it appears to the eye as dead. So the Christian in his winter season may grow in humility, in a knowledge of his own heart, and in love to Christ and holiness, though clouds and darkness are round about him, and his countenance may wear an awful gloom.
6. Lifelessness and coldness in ordinances ought not to discourage us from waiting upon God in them. If we must leave off waiting upon God for this, the ordinances must not be administered, because all Christians at times feel this coldness. We should be humbled for it, but not discouraged. It is unpleasant to find a deadness in our spirits; but it should not stumble us. We should search into the reasons of it. Perhaps you have taken no pains with yourselves to get your souls into a warm frame, before you came to ordinances. Be not surprised then that the Spirit was withdrawn. Perhaps you were not so concerned as you ought to keep a strict watch over your hearts in ordinances: or, perhaps there is some sin you have been guilty of, which is not yet lamented over. God may therefore stand at a distance, and your souls be cold and lifeless. Inquire therefore into the reason of your coldness, and endeavour to get it removed; but be not discouraged. This person particularly complains, that, if he is more lifeless at one time than another, it is at the Lord's supper; therefore imagines he should sin less in neglecting, than in attending it. This is no natural consequence. It may be your duty to attend at the Lord's table; yet, in some circumstances, you may be out of the way of duty. Perhaps you may have placed too much dependence upon the ordinance, and thought that there you must be always comfortable and lively. God has therefore disappointed your expectations, that you may be taught not to lay such a stress upon ordinances. You have perhaps depended too much upon your preparations, or else you have rushed too boldly upon the ordinance. Or, perhaps God may, for the trial of your faith and patience, withdraw his special presence from you, to humble you, and to lead you to a greater dependence upon Jesus Christ.
If you desire to wait upon Christ with spiritual views, and in a spiritual frame; if you are watchful over your heart, and labour after a quickening view of the love of Jesus, and a true sense of the nature and design of the ordinance; go on waiting upon him. In time he may give you his comforting presence. Remember you are not singular in your complaints; and you may receive real advantage from an ordinance, though you may not be in so desirable a frame as you would wish. Having given you these few hints for your encouragement and direction, I now proceed to consider the particular question here proposed:
II. How may a person judge whether a promise or a threatening comes from God, or is brought by Satan, to the soul? The occasion of this question is as follows: this person found some of the promises of God's word brought with a peculiar sweetness and power upon his mind; and these were succeeded by awful threatenings, which appeared to come with equal force. Now it is of great importance to know whether these come from the Spirit of God, or from Satan; or which of these properly belongs to us, and points out our state, whether the promise or the threatening; that so we may not be deceiving ourselves on the one hand with false hopes, and yet that we may not give way to unbelief on the other, if we have encouragement to hope. Satan often transforms himself into an angel of light, as well as appears in the character of a roaring lion, and makes use of both Scripture promises and threatenings to carry on his purposes. Thus then it is matter of importance to be able to distinguish when these come from Stan, and when from God. I shall therefore hint two or three things, which I hope will be sufficient to direct and guide us in this interesting affair. And,
I. Let us inquire, how we may know whether a promise, or any comfortable portion of Scripture, that is brought to our minds, comes from God, or from Satan. And, to guide us in our determination of this, we should always consider the circumstances and state of our souls at the time when the promise comes to us, and the immediate end and design, tendency and influence of it upon us.
1. We should consider the circumstances we are in, when a promise or a comfortable portion of Scripture comes to us. For instance -- Are we living in the practice of known sins? Are we secretly or openly gratifying any particular lust? Are we living in the omission of evident appointed duties? If a promise comes to us in such circumstances, to encourage us with the hopes of heaven, we have reason to question its coming from God; because we cannot suppose he will manifest himself unto any, who are walking in evident disobedience to his commands. Is a Christian under the power of any particular corruption? Is he sleepy, dead, and careless? He has reason to question whether a comforting promise comes from God, if any such comes before his mind, unless he has been humbled for his backslidings, and has fled to the blood of Jesus for pardon. God has always chastised his people, and frowned upon them, when running astray from him, Ps. 89:30-33. Therefore David himself was sorely distressed, after he had been guilty of adultery and murder. All Antinomian principles and practices are justly detestable in the sight of God; and so they ought to be in ours. Will God comfort a creature, that is wallowing in all the mire of sin? No: if you are a lover of sin, you have no promise from God to support you; and whatever of that kind comes before you, is brought by Satan, who endeavours to entertain the hypocrite with the pleasing hopes of heaven, and so to lead him into a dangerous security. Examine then your circumstances. How is it with you, when a promise comes? Has your case been represented as above? Then your circumstances are awful and melancholy indeed! But, if your souls are in darkness, mourning and longing after an absent Lord; if you are hungering and thirsting after righteousness; if you are seeking after a sense of the love of God, walking humbly with him, and pressing towards greater degrees of holiness; in this case when any promise is brought to your mind with any degree of power, you may conclude that it comes from the Spirit of God.
2. We should inquire into the immediate end and tendency of a promise brought to us, and its influence upon us. For example -- If it lulls us to security, and gives us any hopes of eternal life, though we are careless and indolent; if it leads us to presumption, encourageth us to sin, and yet assures us of an interest in Jesus Christ: we may look upon it as coming from Satan, who is willing to give us all possible encouragement, provided it does not produce in us a hatred of sin, and a love to holiness. But if, on the other hand, the promise, when it comes, melts our hard hearts, and fills us with admiration of the love and rich distinguishing grace of God; if it not only scatters our fears, and fills us with joy, but makes us humble; if it endears a Saviour more to us, and tends to bring us unto a greater conformity to God; if, in fine, it leads us into a more evangelical frame, even that frame that honours God, and is suited to the scheme of salvation in the gospel; we may then conclude that it comes from God, and not from the enemy. A promise, having such an influence upon the soul, answers all the ends for which it is revealed. Now, we cannot suppose, that Satan would bring a promise to answer these important purposes: this would be acting against himself, and destroying his own kingdom; for the more humble we are, the more Christ is endeared to us, and the less is Satan's influence upon us. -- Thus then we have reason to conclude that a promise in these circumstances comes from God.
II. Let us now consider threatenings and awful passages of Scripture. -- As there is a variety of these in the word of God, and they are designed for usefulness, yet are often made use of to answer other purposes; so it is of importance to us to know, when these come to us from the Spirit of God, and when from the enemy. Now we may take the same method of judging of these, as we did in judging of promises, viz. consider the circumstances we are in, view the end and design of threatenings, when they come, and then examine their influence upon us. Thus, if threatenings, or awful passages of Scripture, come with a design to rob us of our spiritual comfort, to stagger our faith and bring us into despair, we may conclude they come from Satan, and not from God. -- But, if we are slothful and secure; if we have been running into sin, omitting known duties, and are not yet awake; if the means that have been used, have not been made effectual to revive us, and these threatenings or awful passages seem brought to our minds with a design to arouse us, and to stir us up to greater diligence in our Christian course; if, in fine, they have this influence upon us, we may conclude they come from God; for these are the purposes they are designed to answer. We have a variety of passions to work upon. Promises, endearing representations of the love of Christ, etc. are designed to touch the finer springs of human nature, to move the softer passions. Threatenings, and awful representations of hell, etc. are designed to alarm us, to compel, and, as it were, drive us. Thus God makes use of various arguments to begin and carry on his work in us. This use then we should make of the more awful parts of Scripture. A view of them should make us admire that grace, that has plucked us as brands out of everlasting burnings; fill us with a godly jealousy over our hearts; make us seriously inquire whether we are Christians indeed; and stir us up to press forward, with growing cheerfulness, toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. When threatenings appear to be brought with this view, and when they have this influence upon us, they are as means in the hands of God for our good. But, when they forbid our hopes, and draw us to despair, we may conclude there is the hand of Satan in it. Upon the whole, so far as threatenings promote our greater holiness and spiritual advantage, so far they are useful, and answer their end; but, so far as they weaken our hands, discourage our souls, and lead us from God, so far they are made use of by the enemy of souls to our spiritual hurt. Thus then inquire, you who have had promises, or threatenings, or both, come upon your minds with any degree of force, inquire what circumstance you were in, what the direct tendency of these promises or threatenings was, and what influence they had upon you; and from hence you may in some measure determine whether they came from God, or from the enemy. I shall now conclude with one remark, viz.
How glorious is heaven, and how happy the believer there! Here we are fluctuating between hope and fear; we often hang our harp upon the willows: we are watering our couch with tears, and are exposed to the fury of the roaring lion. Oh happy alteration, when we reach the mansions above, to find all sin perfectly destroyed, every fear scattered! no longer to know what it is to be in darkness, or what the least degree of coldness means! desirable state! to be present with the Lord, and to find his presence animating our souls with the noblest ardour in his service! to have the whole conduct of providence laid before us, and every mystery sweetly unraveled! to look back upon the many instances of divine wisdom and grace in our salvation! to find ourselves got safe over Jordan, and appearing in all the glory of the children of God, and triumphing as kings and priests! blessed world, "Hail, happy day, when it will be thus with me! Come thou important period, when this earthly tabernacle shall be dissolved! Haste that joyful moment, when I shall at once be delivered from all my sins, and all my sorrows; when I shall no more stand in need of promises or threatenings, the one to comfort, the other to quicken me; having the glorious uninterrupted views of my exalted Mediator, and the sweetest, fullest manifestations of his love, to keep the sacred fire ever burning in me, to fill me with joy unspeakable, and to engage my unwearied and everlasting praises!" Thus may we long and breathe after the heavenly state, and in God's own time make the glorious exchange. Amen.