The Sins of Men Not Chargeable on God
M’Laurin (1693-1754) was one of the foremost Scottish doctrinal preachers of the eighteenth century. He took part in the revivals which occurred at Cambuslang about 1742, and in his correspondence with Jonathan Edwards contrived the transatlantic concert of prayer for revival. He was behind the efforts to provide financial relief when Edwards was impoverished after leaving Northampton, and M’Laurin’s circle of friends in the Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge appointed David Brainerd their missionary to the American Indians.
M’Laurin was a man of culture, and in many ways a counterpart to Edwards; his brother Colin was professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University, and a friend and interpreter of Isaac Newton. M’Laurin’s sermons, and essays on such topics as grace and faith, have been extolled for their evangelical content, profundity of analysis, apologetic skill, and eloquence of composition. John Brown of Edinburgh commented that, “MacLaurin’s thoughts have in a remarkable degree the characteristic mark of original genius — they are singularly pregnant thoughts. They germinate in the mind. . . . There is a depth of spiritual feeling corresponding to the extent and clearness of his spiritual discernment.” The present sermon, which was preached about 1720 in his first pastoral charge at Luss, Argyleshire, is from his Sermons and Essays, Glasgow 1755.
“Let no man say, when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil; neither tempteth he any man.” James 1:13.
The word of God frequently teaches us, that a principal hindrance of our embracing Christ’s righteousness, is want of a due sense of our own unrighteousness. There is a stupidity in this, as unaccountable in its nature, as it is dangerous in its effects. All men are persuaded, that they have broken the precepts of God’s law; it might be expected of course, they should be persuaded also, that they have deserved to suffer the penalty of it: but experience makes it evident, that it is otherwise. All men are convinced that they are sinners; but very few are convinced that they deserve to be miserable. The word of God, which searches the heart, unfolds the secret cause of this. In like manner, men are insensible of their ill deserving; not that they absolutely deny their sins, but that they excuse them: nor is this a new artifice; it is as ancient in the world, as sin itself. It is natural for our affections to bias our judgment; and therefore, when sin has polluted the one, no wonder it should pervert the other. The first man on earth was no sooner accused, than, since he could not deny it, he strove to defend it, and heightened his guilt by a presumptuous attempt to extenuate it. We his offspring, to this day, do not more resemble him in committing sin, than in excusing it, when we have done. Generally either men do not regret their sins at all, or else regret them as misfortunes, rather than faults, and as deserving pity, rather than punishment. Prosperous sinners scarce see the harm of sin at all; others, while they feel the harm of it, redoubling to themselves, lay the blame of it on something else. It were less unaccountable if men only justified or excused themselves to their fellow creatures, their partakers in guilt: one sinner may easily find a thousand plausible answers to the upbraiding language of another sinner; for how can a man be at a loss for a defence against those who cannot accuse him without condemning themselves; he may answer them in the apostle’s words, Rom 3:1. “Thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art, that judgest another; for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgeth, doest the same things.” But the misery of men’s self-love, is, that it makes them pretend to vindicate themselves, not only against the oftentimes too partial contempt of their guilty fellow creatures, but also against the most impartial challenges of their offended Creator. When men vindicate themselves only against their associates in guilt, it may be constructed as a pretence only to equality with others; but for men to defend themselves before God, is in effect a pretence to innocency. By this means the chief vexation many have about their most unrighteous practices, is murmuring against God’s most righteous precepts, according to the old complaint, “Who can bear these hard sayings?” Many are not so sorry for their sins against God’s law, as for the severity of God’s law against their sins; and one great cause of it, is, their imagining these temptations that allure them to sin, sufficient excuses for the committing of it; which is surely a disposition of mind that undermines repentance, and saps the very foundation of true religion.
Yet this is not the highest pitch the arrogance of sinners arrives at, in defending their sins. It is indeed high enough presumption in one, who has times without number, offended God without cause, to justify himself, when God accuses him; but it is still a far higher pitch of presumption, when a sinner not only defends himself before God, but also defends himself, by accusing God, discharging himself of the blame of his sin, and laying it over upon God: in this likewise men seem to copy after their first parent Adam; the scripture tells that God gave him a help meet for him, which was, no doubt, an act of goodness on God’s part; yet when he sinned against God without cause, rather than want a defence altogether, he made the gift, he received from God, an excuse for his disobedience to him; that is, he made God’s goodness to him an excuse for his ingratitude to God.
It is easy to observe how truly this conduct of his is imitated by his posterity. God has placed us in a beautiful world, where we are surrounded with a variety of useful and delightful objects, his good creatures; all of them display his glory, many of them are for supplying our necessities, others of them for our innocent gratification and comfort; all of them therefore are favours from God, and consequently should be effectual motives to love him. Instead of this, they are first made occasions of departing from him, and afterwards excuses for so doing. As there is something of this perverse disposition in the corrupt nature of all men, so it has appeared in all ages; and that it discovered itself in the days of the apostles, is evident from this text, which was designed to check it, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God,” etc.
In which words, it is useful to observe these two things. First, A rebuke to the arrogance of men, that would lay the blame of their sins on God. Secondly, A strong assertion of God’s untainted holiness and purity, as a God who is infinitely free from tempting others and from being tempted by others to any thing that is evil.
1. The words contain a check to the impious arrogance of men, that would lay the blame of their sins on God; “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God”; that is, Let no man say it with his mouth, or imagine it in his heart; let no man dare to commit such an outrage against the holiness of God, as to charge him with the blame of his sin, in whole, or in part. The apostle here assures us, that if we entertain such thoughts in our hearts, God will justly look upon it as a heinous violation of that homage and respect we owe him: it is one of the chief things that distinguishes the laws of God from those of men; that whereas the latter reach only our outward actions, the former reach our thoughts. One principal part of that holiness which the law of God requires of us, is to entertain just thoughts of him, that is, high and exalted thoughts, such as shall represent him what he truly is, perfectly pure and infinitely lovely. Nothing can be more contrary to this, than to blame him for our sin; and when God’s law forbids such thoughts, it is a certain evidence that they are false, and that we are under the strongest obligations to reject them. God’s truth is infallible, and therefore whatever natural corruption suggests, it can suggest nothing that should come in competition with that evidence.
Secondly, To strengthen our impression of this, the apostle adds a strong assertion of God’s spotless and incorruptible purity. His assertion consists of two parts.
1. He teaches us, that “God cannot be tempted with evil,” that is, That there is nothing in his own nature, that can incline him to any thing but what is perfectly good and just; and that there is no outward object that can make any impression, or have any influence on him, to bias him from these eternal laws of justice and righteousness, by which he always did, and ever will govern the world. The word, tempting, is sometimes taken in another sense, when it signifies not perverting God to do any evil action himself, but provoking him to punish the evil actions of others; thus the Israelites are said to have tempted him in the wilderness: in such cases, though that, by which men tempt, or provoke God, be evil, that which he is provoked to do, is always just and good. Men are said to tempt God, when they carry themselves towards him, as if they desired and expected he should transgress these laws, which himself has established, whether in the works of nature, or of grace: the God of order works by means in both, and when men expect or pray for the end, without using the appointed means, they are said to tempt him; because indeed they behave, as if they thought they could tempt him, that is, prevail with him to violate the perfect order that himself hath established. But since all their thoughts and desires can have no influence upon him, that way, the apostle affirms justly, that God cannot be tempted with evil, because he cannot be perverted, or corrupted with it.
Secondly, As God cannot be perverted to transgress his own laws himself, neither does he pervert any other to do so. As he cannot be tempted with evil, “neither tempteth he any man,” i.e. he neither deceives any man’s judgment, nor perverts his will, nor corrupts his affections, nor does any thing else whatsoever that can charge him with the blame of men’s sins. But for understanding this and the like expressions; we should consider, that tempting sometimes signifies, not seducing men from good to evil, but discovering what is in men, whether it be evil or good. In Abraham’s case, the temptation was not an allurement to sin, but a trial of grace. It is true, God needs no means to discover to himself what is in men; but he uses means for discovering men to themselves, and to others, for ends worthy of infinite wisdom, and in a manner agreeable to spotless holiness. Even men oftentimes find it their duty to discover the good or evil that is in others; and though in some of these cases, the disposition of mind, which is discovered, be evil, the action by which it is discovered may be good: in the trials men make of one another, it is oftentimes so; in the trials God makes of men, it is always so. The actions by which God proves the good that is in men, do not tend to lessen it, but to increase it, and to perfect it; the actions by which he discovers the evil that is in men, do not tend to increase, but to lessen it, and ofttimes effectually cure it.
From all which it is evident, that these scriptures, where God is said to tempt or try men, contain nothing inconsistent with the apostle’s doctrine in the text; that is, that however their corrupt hearts may be too much inclined to blame God for their sins: yet that imputation is really as contrary to truth and justice, as it is to the honour of God, who is as free from tempting or corrupting others with evil, as he is uncapable of being corrupted with it himself. That branch of the doctrine, which affirms that God cannot be tempted with evil himself, is what there is least need to insist upon, after what has been considered already; because it is, what men are least troubled with prejudices against. The design of this discourse is to consider that important truth, which is evidently the apostle’s principal scope, That whatsoever dishonourable thoughts, sinful men may have of God to the contrary, yet it is a certain evident truth, that God is infinitely free from the blame of their sins.
It is useful here to observe the great importance of this doctrine, which, beside other reasons, is evident from the great pains the scriptures take to inculcate it upon us. It is plain, this doctrine is in effect maintained in every scripture that maintains God’s perfect holiness: and it is no less obvious to these who read the scriptures, that of all God’s attributes, his holiness is that which is most frequently asserted, and the belief of which is most earnestly inculcated upon us. That blessed name of purity is represented as thrice repeated in the hallelujahs of the heavenly host, Holy, Holy, holy, Lord God almighty, Isa. 6, Rev. 4.
The same doctrine is presented to our minds, in a beautiful variety of expressions near the beginning of the heavenly song of Moses, Deut. 32:4. “He is the rock, his work is perfect, his ways are judgment, a God of truth, and without iniquity, just and right is he.” But there is one remarkable scripture, that deserves our special consideration on this subject, because it makes the right knowledge of this doctrine (together with the knowledge of God’s goodness) the only thing in the world we are allowed to glory in; that is, Jer. 9:20-21. This should excite in us a holy curiosity, to be well versed in the knowledge of a doctrine which we are commanded to glory in, almost to the exclusion of every thing else. It should excite us to join prayers and endeavours in order to have a firm persuasion of it rooted in our minds, and an habitual lively impression of it fixed upon our hearts.
To set this matter in its true light, let it be observed, that as it is one main end of divine revelation in scripture, to give us the true knowledge of God, and of ourselves; so the impression it endeavours all along to give us of him, and of ourselves, is, that his holiness is unblameable, and our sin unexcusable, that so we may ascribe the glory of perfect righteousness to him, and take shame and confusion of face to ourselves; that is, to use the words of the Psalmist, Ps. 51:4, and of the apostle, Rom. 4:19. “That he may be just when he judgeth, and righteous when he speaketh”; and, on the other hand, “Every mouth may be stopped, and we and the world be guilty before him.” It is an indispensable duty on all rational creatures to love God; but sin has brought an additional obligation on us who are guilty creatures, not only to love God, but also to loath ourselves; without this, we can neither know his righteousness, nor his lovingkindness, which he bids us glory in; his righteousness in all we suffer, his lovingkindness in all we enjoy; how unworthy we are of the one, how richly we have deserved the other; that is, without a right sense of the doctrine in the text, we can neither practice due submission in our afflictions, nor due gratitude for our comforts; and consequently run the greatest risk of losing the one, and having the other multiplied upon us.
In discoursing on this doctrine in such a manner as may be a mean, through divine grace, to give us a right impression of the importance and certainty of it, it will be proper to treat of these following things. 1. To consider some observations, from scripture and experience, to show, that the unworthy thoughts of God, which the text rebukes, however unreasonable, are, notwithstanding, very ordinary, and do a great deal of harm to men’s souls, as well as dishonour to God. In the next place, we shall collect the evidences we have for the doctrine in the text, from God’s works and ways; and shall consider the arguments that are most proper for resisting these injurious thoughts of God, which the apostle warns us against. These will afford us sufficient answers to all the objections and prejudices that natural corruption suggests against the doctrine. After considering which, it will be easy to reflect, what improvement we should make of a truth of so great moment, and in which, the honour of God is so much concerned.
I. First, There are several obvious things, that may easily convince us, that these impious thoughts, which the apostle rebukes, are too common and ordinary.
1. It is not the way of the scriptures, to caution men against imaginary sins, i.e. sins that men are seldom or never guilty of, but sins which natural corruption really inclines them to; especially we cannot suppose that the scriptures would caution men against sins of the heart and thought, which the heart is not really liable to. It can never be the intention of the Holy Ghost to raise evil thoughts in men’s hearts that were not there before; but to discover these that are there, to discover them, in order to cure them. An ingenuous Christian will not stand to acknowledge that this text represents to him what has been sometimes the suggestion of his own heart, and has much troubled his repose; (and it is great matter of comfort to him, that he has been troubled for such thoughts, and struggled against them,) he will not stand to acknowledge that this text is a confirmation of that character, which the epistle to the Hebrews gives of the word of God, “That it is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” He was a person of eminent goodness otherwise, as well as ingenuity, who was wont to confess, “That whatever curiosity others had in perusing the writings of Libertines and heretics against divine truths, for his own part, he could find nothing in them that was new to him, nothing but what he had read before in the imaginations of his own corrupt heart; and that the chief prejudices against God’s perfections and precepts were enforced there, with as much eloquence and efficacy perhaps, and set in as strong a light as in any heretical book in the world.” It is certain, while a man is under the slavery of sin, he carries in his breast a capacious source of heretical thoughts against God’s attributes, as well as of Libertine thoughts against his laws; the former of which, have as great influence in hindering due love and esteem of God in his heart, as the latter have in hindering obedience to him in his life: and it is certain, that of all the ungodly thoughts that arise from unrestrained corruption, none flow more naturally from it, than these, by which men justify or excuse themselves, which they cannot do, without blaming God.
2. Men’s inclination to blame God for their sins, discovers itself by their forwardness in blaming him for their sufferings: sin is the cause of their trouble; and therefore were men perfectly and sincerely convinced, that God is infinitely free from the blame of the cause, they could not be so prone to blame him for the effect. It requires no great insight into human nature, to observe an unaccountable inconsistency that appears in the way of thinking many men have about God’s providence: they ascribe the good, that befalls them, to chance or to themselves, and the evil, that befalls them, to God: they are very ready to acknowledge his providence in their affliction, in order to repine and fret against him; while perhaps they seldom or never seriously acknowledge it in their prosperity, to thank him for it; while they overlook his undeserved goodness in what they enjoy, they pretend it is undeserved displeasure, that makes them suffer.
It is remarkable, the day in which men are to be called to an account for such thoughts, with all their other thoughts and actions, is called the day of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God. Rom. 2:5. Men must then answer, not only for their disobedience in committing of sin, but also for their arrogancy in blaming him for it. And as real aggravations of sin are now covered with pretended excuses, so when the books of that awful court shall be opened, it is certain, pretended excuses will appear in their true colours, and, rising to view in their blackest forms, will be found to be real aggravations. Men must then give an account how they came to blame God for what they suffered, without thanking him for what they enjoyed. Happy were it for us, if we had the same view of sin now, that we shall certainly have then: and surely nothing can be more rational; for what will appear true then, must really be so now; and therefore it is certainly an useful preparation for that day, to be active now in acquiring, through God’s grace, that view and sense of sin, which will otherwise be forced upon us by his righteous vengeance.
But not to insist further on this: the principal evidence of this branch of the doctrine, that deserves to be carefully considered, is, the ingratitude of men to God for his infinite mercy, in sending his Son to save them from their sins; and the more we consider it, the more we may be convinced, that their cold thoughts about divine mercy in the work of redemption, flow, in a great measure, from their false thoughts of his righteousness in the works of providence; that is, plainly, their hearts do not love him ardently for their deliverance, because they blame him secretly for their danger. This point deserves our particular attention, because gratitude for redeeming mercy being the soul and center of Christianity, to which all religious meditations should be referred, the chief importance of the doctrine in the text, consists in its subserviency to that end. It is plain to any who considers the doctrine of redemption, that it represents to us such infinite love, such incomparable tenderness and condescension, that as God’s conduct towards us is an incomprehensible mystery of kindness, so our conduct towards him, is, if we may so speak, an incomprehensible mystery of ingratitude. There are indeed many mysteries in human nature, but they come all far short of this; for if we consider that human nature, corrupt and perverse as it is, is not yet wholly lost to all sense of gratitude in other cases, but that frequently the hearts even of the worst of men are softened with a kindly sense of singular favours; especially that the coldest and hardest hearts are sometimes melted with undeserved favours; if we consider that, in other cases, our acknowledgments rise naturally in proportion to our obligations, and that, after all, the greatest temporal favours, when compared with eternal ones, are but trifles; and yet, as insignificant as they are, they beget sometimes a very high degree of gratitude, and swell men’s hearts with such generous sentiments toward their benefactors, that they take pleasure in nothing in the world more, than in serving them. If we consider all this, and compare it with the returns we make to our greatest (yea, in effect, our only) benefactor, for the greatest benefits he could give, or we receive, or imagine; if we compare these things together, it may be a question, whether we have more reason to be astonished at God’s love, or at our own unthankfulness; or, which of them is the greatest wonder. To think that we should be so strongly affected with earthly favours; favours, from worms like ourselves; favours, of so little importance, of so short continuance; favours, proceeding from such imperfect love, and oftentimes mixed with many injuries; that we should be so strongly affected with such favours as these, and so little with the love of God in Christ, That love which is so perfectly pure, and disinterested, in the grounds of it, so free as to its motives, that it is exercised towards objects, who had neither merit to deserve it, nor power to requite it, nor used importunity in seeking after it; a love that is so infinitely tender in its nature, so inestimably precious in its effects, so rich and abundant in its fruits, so constant, so lasting, yea everlasting, so glorious in all its manifestations; that this should be the only friendship to which most men make no returns, the only kindness, of which they have no grateful resentment, is such a miracle, or rather monster of stupidity, that it might seem incredible, if there were any arguing against experience.
The cause of it can never perhaps be perfectly known, while we are not perfectly free from that deceitfulness of the heart, which the prophet Jeremiah affirms to be so mysterious, that God only knows it: yet some of the causes of it are unfolded to us in scripture; and the more we consider the text, the more we may be convinced, that it makes a very remarkable discovery this way; for it is plain, men are incapable of due gratitude to God, for sending Christ to redeem them from sin, while they barefacedly blame him for their temptations to sin. Men will not be thankful to a deliverer for rescuing them from danger, if they blame him for their falling into it. All which being duly considered, comparing men’s unjust thoughts of providence, and their ingratitude for redemption, the former will be found to be a principal source of the latter; and the latter discovers the former, as the effect shows the cause.
By this means it is, that men forgo that inestimable blessing of love and joy in believing, that joy which is unspeakable, and full of glory. No doubt indeed, with many the cause of ingratitude for redemption, is their disbelief of it; but it is hard to charge all that are guilty of ingratitude, with downright infidelity; rather as the tares in the parable mixed with the wheat, so the belief of the doctrine of redemption is sadly clouded, and its influence marred by a wretched mixture of mean and unworthy thoughts of God, at least suspicions and suggestions, which indeed men are liable to in different degrees, but which all men, less or more, have need to guard, and wrestle against. If it were not for these inward prejudices, the doctrine of redemption, if it appeared in its native beauty, has such light and brightness, such glory in it, that it is hard to conceive how it should not have an irresistible influence, in ravishing every heart, that sincerely believes, with a love stronger than death, and with such transports of joy and admiration, as would make up the happiest state of mind in the world. But while such dismal prejudices are entertained, no wonder though the minds of men are so darkened, and their hearts so disordered and confused, that that amiable doctrine of the crucified Jesus appears mean and low in their eyes; so that many have no relish of it, nothing is almost so distasteful to them: they look on it as a doctrine that importunes them for more gratitude, than they think they see cause for: to them, Jesus Christ has no form, nor comeliness, nor beauty, why they should thank him.
2. These considerations make it too evident, that the unworthy thoughts of God, which the text rebukes, are both very ordinary, and very hurtful. It should not therefore be looked upon merely as an amusement, or matter of curious speculation, but as a meditation of the greatest importance, to take a view of the clearest evidences, that serve to refute these thoughts, and to show, that they are as false and unreasonable in themselves, as they are disparaging to God. But before we proceed to this, it will not be improper to observe, that, when men, instead of rejecting such thoughts, cherish and entertain them, they deal far more unjustly with God, than they do with some men in the like cases. For example, when a good man has once attained an established character of holiness and virtue, if it happens that a known impostor brings a great many plausible accusations against him; they that know that good man, though they should not be able perfectly to answer all the accusations laid against him, yet they will not believe them; especially if the affair be dark and intricate; and if they are certain that the virtuous person could not propose to himself any profit or pleasure by the unbecoming action laid to his charge. To set this matter in a clearer light, we may observe, that appearances and probabilities may be sometimes on the side of error and falsehood, otherwise there would be no difference between probability and certainty; and in some singular cases it has happened, that there has been such a strange complication of presumptions and probabilities of guilt laid against an innocent person, that strangers to his character have indeed believed him guilty, while they that were acquainted with it, found it impossible to doubt of his innocency. Now, to apply all this to the present case with regard to God (and it is a sad thing if God alone should have no friends to vindicate him), had men either due respect to him, or were they heartily inclined to do him justice, all the reasons that restrain them from rash censures of the most virtuous creatures in the world, would have unspeakably more force against rash censures, and mean thoughts of the Creator. Thus we should reflect, in the first place, that the devil, and our own corrupt hearts are such notorious impostors, that the experiences we have of their deceitfulness, are innumerable; and so also are the evidences we have of God’s holiness and goodness. If there are some intricacies and difficulties about the divine actions, that have a relation to our actions (from which our hearts would take occasion to blame the former for the latter); yet all the rest of God’s innumerable actions, (if we distinguish, as certainly we should, his actions from those of his creatures,) the whole history of his providence, the whole tenor of his works and ways, do so plainly and evidently represent to us an uniform character (so to speak) of the most spotless holiness, the most amiable goodness, the most untainted righteousness, that the imputation which the corrupt hearts of men asperse him with, is as absolutely inconsistent with the rest of his character (which is unquestionable) as night is with day, and darkness with light. To this we should add, that God’s providence, especially concerning the actions of rational creatures, is very dark and intricate; nor is this just matter of wonder, if we consider, that all his works and ways are united and linked together by such numberless reciprocal relations and dependencies, that none can perfectly know one part of them, unless he knows the whole: we are but lately sprung from nothing, lately entered into God’s world, we see but a very small part of his works, and that part itself very darkly: that we therefore should not know the reasons of all his actions, is so far from being just matter of wonder, that indeed it would be an incomprehensible wonder, if it were otherwise. Lastly, To complete the parallel, we should reflect, that infinite happiness being incapable of addition, it is impossible God could propose any advantage to himself by these unbecoming things, which the corrupt hearts of men lay to his charge; and therefore on all these accounts we should conclude, that whatever difficulties corruption may suggest against God’s holiness, they should by no means be put in the balance with that infallible evidence we have for it, and that both from God’s word, which cannot deceive us, and from his works, which are so perfectly agreeable to it. Corruption has nothing on its side, but such colours and appearances as may be on the side of error; whereas the apostle’s doctrine is in effect supported by demonstration.
We may have a more lively impression of this (through divine grace) by taking a particular view of the principal evidences we have for the apostle’s doctrine from God’s word and works. To tempt a man to sin, in its most proper sense, is to propose some motive to him, to compel, or allure him to it; to entice him to it, by promises and rewards, or constrain him to it by threatenings and punishments. God is infinitely free from this; because, instead of proposing any motives to sin, he proposes the greatest motives possible against it. This is evident from his promises and threatenings of eternal rewards and punishments; these are plainly the greatest motives possible. And, as it is the distinguishing privilege of human nature above all earthly creatures, to be capable of extending its view to eternity, (since the longest time imaginable, though made up of ever so many myriads of ages, much more this uncertain fleeing moment of life, when compared to eternity, is nothing); it is plain, that eternal motives are properly the only motives that should govern immortal souls: to let temporal motives counterbalance them, is the most outrageous violence to reason, that can be imagined. In effect, when temporal motives interfere with eternal ones, they are no motives at all.
Besides the duration of these motives, it is proper to consider here their extensive influence; none can reasonably pretend to be exeemed from it, not even those who have only the light of nature. The apostle Paul, who was inspired by that Spirit, who searches the hearts of men, assures us, that even the consciences of heathens accused them: it is very reasonable to suppose that the accusations of that witness had some relation to a judge, and might be attended with secret misgivings, and rational forebodings of an after-reckoning (since innumerable sins pass unpunished here); at least, it ought to have been so. Reason might have satisfied them, that the less sin they committed in this world, it would be the better with them in the next.
Nor can these pretend to be exeemed from the influence of eternal motives, who should imagine, that, having incurred the divine threatenings already, they can be no worse than they are. In perfect justice, the punishment deserved bears an exact proportion to the wickedness committed; and surely an eternal addition to misery, is an evil which no temporal motive can weigh with, much less counterbalance.
It deserves our serious attention, how plainly God’s threatenings are revealed to us who have the scriptures. His threatenings are as plainly revealed as his promises. Matt. 25:46, and we have many things from reason and experience, that should confirm our belief of them; particularly God’s attributes, his truth, holiness, and justice; the nature of sin which separates from God our only happiness, that part of the divine threatenings, which we see fulfilled already, these samples of misery that are to be seen in the afflictions of life, and pains and terrors of death: if any person inclines to doubt of the eternity of future punishment, unless he saw it, that person seeks such a way of being satisfied about it, as the nature of the thing does not admit: for though a man saw the place of punishment, with his eyes, he could not see that it is eternal, unless he saw the end of eternity, which is impossible; so that a man can never have evidence for this by sight, if he refuse to give faith to God’s word, which is surely the best evidence in the world.
As to the eternal reward; though our actions cannot merit it, yet since it is offered to us on the most reasonable terms, through the merits of another; whosoever is not at more pains about these terms, than about any earthly thing, must blame himself as the author of his own misery, and acknowledge that God is infinitely free from the blame of it.
These eternal motives would make a strong argument for the apostle’s doctrine, though God had proposed no other motive against sin, but them only; though he had permitted the course of things to fall out so, that there should be vastly more pleasure in sin and trouble in duty that there really is, all this could have no proportion to these rewards and punishments that are eternal. But it is still a further confirmation of the doctrine, that as God has proposed everlasting motives against sin as to the next world, so he is so far from proposing any motives to it, in this world, that his various dispensations in the works of providence as well as of grace, are manifestly calculated for restraining it, and have numberless happy effects that way. It is true, other sinful men lay many motives before us to sin; but we ought no more to blame God for the evil actions of others, than for our own: God is the author of neither, but in numberless instances hinders and restrains both. As to his permission, he has as holy reasons for permitting, what he permits, as for hindering what he hinders: to deny this, is in effect pretending to know all the reasons that a God of infinite knowledge can have for his actions, which is the most extravagant presumption imaginable. We are obliged in justice, as was hinted before, to distinguish God’s own actions, and the actions of his creatures: it is the former we are to vindicate, and not the latter; and for this end, the more we consider God’s actions in the works of nature and providence, the more we may be satisfied that he is not the author even of any temporal motives to sin, because he has annexed no pleasure to it. He has indeed annexed pleasure to the enjoyment of his own good creatures, but that enjoyment is not sinful, it is on the contrary our duty. These good objects indeed may be obtained by evil means, and enjoyed in an evil manner; but that is no just reflection on God’s providence, as shall be made appear more clearly afterwards. To set this matter in a true light, we may reflect on the two different sorts of pleasures we are capable of, that is, the pleasures that are to be had in God himself more immediately, and these that are to be had in his creatures: as to the former, it is plain, we can neither exceed in the desire, not in the enjoyment of them; as to the latter, God himself is the author, and has appointed them all for good ends. This is one of the chief things that show the folly of sin, That the pleasures which men seek after in the ways of sin, are such as may really be had in the way of duty; for it is certain, there is no pleasure in the world peculiar to sin: if it were otherwise, the apostle would not have affirmed so generally, that every creature of God is good, and to be received (that is enjoyed) with thanksgiving; the apostle affirms this, when he is speaking of things sacrificed to idols, which he shows, however they were abused to bad purposes, yet were in themselves good and harmless, being the creatures of a good God, which ought to be enjoyed in a way of obedience and thanksgiving to him. The same may be said of all God’s creatures, which however too oft sacrificed to men’s lusts and idols, yet are not thereby deprived of that natural goodness and usefulness which God has endowed them with, nor rendered incapable of being enjoyed in a lawful way.
We should consider here the proper tendency, and natural use of all the pleasure that is in the creatures; some of them give us pleasure only by the view and contemplation of them. It is plain, the direct tendency of that is to excite love and esteem of the divine perfections manifested in them; this is one of the chief duties we owe more immediately to God. Others of the creatures give pleasure not merely by the view of them, but by applying them to the subsistence of our bodily life; the direct tendency of that pleasure is to excite mankind to self-preservation; this is a duty we owe more immediately to ourselves, and it is justly enjoined by God: it would be a duty, though there were no pleasure in the means of it; but it is a double act of goodness in God, and consequently a double obligation on us, that he has both furnished us with these means, and made them delightful as well as useful. There is no useless superfluous pleasure in nature; all tends either to promote life and health, or, which is no despicable means of health, innocent and comfortable refreshment. It is evident therefore, that when God makes these objects that are useful to men to be at the same time pleasant, it is a hiring them to what is their duty, and a giving them a present reward in doing what he requires of them for their own good. The direct tendency therefore, and proper use of all the pleasure that is in God’s creatures, whether in the contemplation of them, or of the enjoyment of them any other way, is to excite us to adore all God’s perfections in general, and particularly his abundant goodness to ourselves; to love him as a kind and bountiful father, who provides for the several living inhabitants of the world, as for one large family; on whom the eyes of all things wait, and who opens his hand liberally, satisfying the desire of every living thing: nothing can be imagined more just on this head, than the apostle’s reasoning with the heathens of Lystra, who were about to worship him, That all the good and pleasure in the creatures were witnesses for God, testifying men’s obligation to love and praise Him, who filled their hearts with food and gladness. Acts. 14:17.
What we commonly call unlawful pleasures, are nothing else but pleasures in themselves lawful and useful, but procured by wrong means, or enjoyed in a wrong way, either obtained by injustice, or abused by intemperance: but neither injustice nor intemperance have any real pleasure annexed to them; on the contrary, unless a man have a very unnatural temper of mind and body, injustice must be painful to the former, as well as intemperance to the latter.
If this were duly considered, it might convince us, not only that the pleasures in the creatures may be had in a course of obedience to the Creator, but also, that that is incomparably the best way of enjoying them, even as to this life itself; that to live righteously, soberly, and Godly (abstracting from some singular cares, as persecution, or the like) is the way to live joyfully even in this present world; that it is one and the same disposition of mind (that is, holiness and righteousness) that is best adjusted for the true enjoyment both of God and his creatures. Injustice and intemperance argue an immoderate love to temporal pleasure, and that is really the chief source of temporal perplexity and uneasiness. It causes painful impatience in desiring these objects, and painful labour in pursuing them, anxiety in possessing them, because they are always liable to danger; nauseousness and loathing in using them, because their pleasure is less in enjoyment than in expectation; and, little as it is, it is always decaying; and lastly, manifest vexation in losing them; and as such losses in the present state of things are unavoidable, so the uneasiness is always proportionable to the love men bear to uncertain vanities; for so they may be called, though good things in themselves, when an immortal soul places his happiness in them. On the other hand, temperance enables a man to possess earthly objects without anxiety, by being prepared to lose them; to enjoy them without loathing, by using them with moderation; to seek them without impatience, and to lose them without despair.
This the ancient Epicureans were so sensible of, that though they were reckoned patrons of vice, because they placed happiness in pleasure, yet they made temperance an ingredient of happiness, because it gives pleasure a relish. These and many other things, serve to show that the pleasures men seek by a course of sin, may be had, and may be had with advantage, in a course of duty.
To this we may add, that there are many sins, in which there is no real pleasure at all. This is evident of those sins which do not consist in an unlawful enjoyment of the creatures, but in a direct affronting of the Creator. Thus it cannot be alleged, without the greatest absurdity, as well as impiety, that there is any pleasure annexed to the sins of profaneness, blaspheming, mocking religion, censuring God’s laws, word or works, or the like; no person ever pretended, that that common sin of cursing and swearing had any tendency to promote his health, or increase his estate: the Author of nature is infinitely free from annexing any pleasure to these unnatural practices: if men have made them in any sort pleasant to themselves by custom, all that this argues is their outrageous contempt of God, (for which he never gave them any cause) which is so great, that they take pleasure in expressing it. The same consideration might be applied, not only to the sins that are most immediately against the love of God, but also to these that are most immediately against the love of our neighbours, as hatred, wrath, malice, etc. These words or actions by which a man wrongs his neighbour’s reputation, by backbiting, or disturbs his peace by contention, have no proper tendency to promote a man’s own peace or reputation, but the contrary. It is indeed otherwise as to those sins by which a man wrongs his neighbour’s interest by injustice; but it is as true, that as the pleasures of intemperance may be had in a greater abundance in a life of sobriety; so the profits of injustice may be had much more safely in a life of industry: nor can any pretend to be under any necessity to injustice; for if a man be in such a condition (which however is very rare) that he can neither get the necessary means of sustenance by his own industry, nor by the charity of others, the indulgent laws of God make some things to be in that case just and lawful, that would not be so otherwise.
These things serve to prove, that there is no pleasure in nature peculiar to sin; it is no less certain that there is no trouble peculiar to duty: any man may fully satisfy himself of this, by taking a particular view of the several parts of true holiness. The love of God, and of our neighbour, which is the fulfilling of the law, is so far from having any trouble annexed to it, that is the pleasantest disposition the mind of man is capable of; and is a demonstration of what the apostle John teaches us, that God’s commandments are not grievous. Many indeed have a strange aversion from these duties; particularly from the serious exercises of the love of God, which they avoid, as if it were a disease: but these are the exercises of heaven, where no trouble can enter, and are real foretastes of it, as well as preparations for it. The antipathy men have to these duties, the more it is considered the more it will appear unaccountable. No man can pretend, that the love of God tends to impair his health or waste his fortune, as the love of lusts and idols oftentimes do.
If a man’s charity to his neighbour sometimes impairs his interest, yet it does not ruin but rather tends to secure it; and it is certain, there never were so many impoverished by charity, as have been by debauchery and extravagancies, or even by covetousness, which so frequently loses what it has, by grasping at more. Faith, and reliance on Christ Jesus, do not cause such shameful disappointments, as commonly flow from reliance on the world and the flesh. To be heavenly-minded does not eat away a man’s flesh, as worldly anxiety does. Temperance does not lead to diseases, nor industry to poverty, nor humility to contention, nor honesty to shame. Meekness and kindness do not make a man pine away, as envy does; nor will a man blush for being found true to his word, and just in his dealings. It were easy, by taking a view of the other duties of a holy life, to show, that not only there is no peculiar trouble in them, but that really in their own nature they have no tendency to trouble at all, but rather the contrary, as will be considered more directly afterwards.
There are perhaps only two particular duties, that may be objected, against this assertion, viz. repentance for sin, and suffering persecution for righteousness sake, when called to it. As to repentance, It cannot be denied, but that both sorrow for sin, and mortifying corruption have some trouble and uneasiness in them; but that trouble is neither the native fruit of duty and obedience, but of sin, nor is it peculiar to duty, and the pleasure of it surpasses its trouble; the uneasiness that is in repentance, is not the fruit of obedience, but disobedience; because had mankind continued in their duty, there would have been no occasion for repentance; nor is the trouble, that is in this duty, peculiar to it; for impenitent sinners have consciences, which, like serpents in their breasts, can sting them, and cause more uneasiness oftentimes, than the deepest humiliation can give a believing penitent. Faithless remorse was far more painful to Judas, than godly sorrow was to Peter. There are some kinds of melancholy, which human nature takes pleasure in; and surely the noblest, and most rational melancholy in the world is, melancholy for these unworthy actions, by which we have lost the chief perfection of our nature, the image of God; by which we have made such unbecoming returns to his infinite kindness, and forfeited his inestimable favour, presence, and friendship; no wonder such a melancholy, as this, should have something of a sublime pleasure in it, since it is plainly an exercise of the love of God: besides, we should consider that that gospel repentance, which we are obliged to, ought to be joined with hope in God’s mercy through the merits of his Son; and hence it is, that by the exercise of the love of God, and hope in his mercy, (which are the sources of this sorrow, and the concomitants of it,) those that have most experience of it, when they attain to the greatest melting of heart that way, find such satisfaction that they desire more of it; their sin is the cause of their sorrowing, which is their duty, and that duty gives them pleasure and comfort: not that it can merit it, but that it is a mean of it.
As to that part of repentance, which consists in the mortifying of corruption, neither is the trouble of this duty peculiar to it. A wicked man ofttimes cannot gratify one corruption without mortifying another: the graces of God’s Spirit are linked together by a golden chain that cannot be dissolved; but the corruptions of nature are full of contradictions and inconsistencies, and make the soul that is enslaved by them a Babel of confusion. The love of riches, the love of honour, and pleasures, pride, covetousness, vanity, and luxury, justle and interfere in a thousand various rencounters. They are justly compared by Solomon to the daughter of the horse leech, Prov. 30:15. Ever crying, “give, give,” and to the grave, that never says, “it is enough”; so that if mortifying our corruptions be uneasy, the satisfying them, is absolutely impossible.
As to that part of repentance, which consists in the mortifying of corruption, neither is the trouble of this duty peculiar to it. A wicked man ofttimes cannot gratify one corruption without mortifying another: the graces of God’s Spirit are linked together by a golden chain that cannot be dissolved; but the corruptions of nature are full of contradictions and inconsistencies, and make the soul that is enslaved by them a Babel of confusion. The love of riches, the love of honour, and pleasures, pride, covetousness, vanity, and luxury, justle and interfere in a thousand various rencounters. They are justly compared by Solomon to the daughter of the horse leech, Prov. 30:15. Ever crying, “give, give,” and to the grave, that never says, “it is enough”; so that if mortifying our corruptions be uneasy, the satisfying them, is absolutely impossible.
As to the other duty, viz. Suffering for righteousness sake, when called to it; this is neither a just objection against the doctrine, nor against the particular arguments adduced to confirm it. This will appear, by reflecting on what was hinted before, namely that we are obliged in justice to distinguish carefully between God’s actions, and those of his creatures; and that the same reasons which prove we cannot lame God for our own sins, prove also, that we cannot blame God for our own sins, prove also, that we cannot blame him for the sins of others. The reasons already adduced show that God is infinitely free from the blame of these evil inclinations in wicked men, that make them persecute others who are more righteous than themselves; and therefore it is the height of injustice in men to blame him for the persecutions they suffer; though, after all, the best men know, that they suffer infinitely less than they deserve: God is so far from being the author of persecutions, that in numberless instances he entirely prevents and hinders them in a very remarkable manner, and always restrains them, overruling them at the same time for the good of them that love him. We are not competent judges of the reasons why God does not hinder all as well as some of these, or the like fruits of sin; yet this much we may know of many persecutions by their visible effects, that, of all the events in the world, there are few, perhaps, by which, religion, that is the true interest of mankind, has reaped more benefit, considering how they have been overruled by Providence, for promoting those very ends, against which, evil men designed them, that is, the propagating and confirming of the truth, promoting the power of godliness, the trial, exercise, triumph and splendor of grace in the saints of God, which are among the brightest events that have adorned the theatre of the world, and history of mankind. Besides all this, it is plain, whatever troubles good men may suffer for the testimony of a good conscience, they are but troubles that others suffer ofttimes without the testimony; and therefore these troubles are no just objection against holiness, unless we were certain to be secured from trouble by wickedness: but this is so false, that it is evident God keeps up such order in the world, that men suffer much oftener by sin, than by duty; and, what with the justice of magistrates, the special judgments of Providence, and the native effect of sin; it is certain, that all that some men have ever suffered for righteousness, is incomparably less than what others have suffered for wickedness. It may perhaps be objected, that besides the case of persecution, even in the ordinary course of things, several duties of a holy life expose men to various injuries and affronts, as meekness, humility, forgiveness, and the like. In answer to this, we should reflect, That these duties are misunderstood, if they be imagined to hinder self-defence; when duty is practiced instead of being hindrances, they are helps to it; if sometimes they expose men to injuries, the contrary vices are no security against such injuries; the vain-glorious are oftentimes affronted as well as the humble; and proud oppressors have generally far more enemies than the meek and the just. The like may be said of many other sins and duties, when compared together: and nothing is more certain, than, that as there is no pleasure peculiar to sin, so there is no trouble peculiar to duty; and that as the pleasures that may be sometimes had in sin, are pleasures which have not a necessary or direct tendency to excite to it, so the troubles that sometimes attend holiness, are troubles which holiness itself has no natural tendency to produce. From all which it appears, that as God is the author of eternal motives against sin, so he is the author of no temporal motives to it.
It is still a further confirmation of the doctrine, That God has proposed very rational temporal motives against sin. This will appear by reflecting, that there are even in this life innumerable pleasures peculiar to holiness, and innumerable troubles peculiar to wickedness; both these have been hinted at already: but it is proper here to consider them a little further, though it is scarce possible to enumerate and describe them fully, the subject being in effect inexhaustible; it is sufficient to our purpose, to take a general view of it. The word of God tells us “that the ways of wisdom are the ways of pleasantness and peace: That Christ’s yoke is easy, and his burden light: That gladness is sown for the upright in heart: That the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, and peace: That it is the privilege, and should be the practice of believers to rejoice even evermore: That the joy unto which they have access, is a joy unspeakable, and full of glory: that their peace is perfect peace, and a peace that passeth all understanding.” Both the prophets and apostles employ the most beautiful images in nature to paint to us the greatness of these joys; as when they speak of the oil of joy, garments of praise, everlasting joy on their heads; the budding and blossoming of the rose; the time of the singing of birds; the joy of banquets and marriage feasts; and they represent the lifeless part of the creation as joining in the triumph of God’s people, the mountains and hills breaking forth before them into singing, and all the trees of the fields clapping their hands; besides many other bright images, whose scope is to show, that a life of faith and holiness is the way to the greatest solid joy here, as well as hereafter.
If many sincere believers do not attain to all these joys, yet that cannot weaken the force of the argument in view; they must impute the imperfections of these joys to the weakness of their faith and love. It is sufficient to our purpose, that God proposes such motives to holiness, as should excite men to higher and higher advancements in it. It is certain, all these joys have been attained by some good men, and are offered to all; and even those who never felt any of them, may yet reasonably be persuaded of the reality of them, by considering the nature of faith, and all the duties of the covenant of grace on the one hand, and the promises of it on the other.
If we consider the nature and design of holiness; it is not merely a preparation for happiness, but also an ingredient of it. And it is a very just as well as common observation, That grace is glory in the end; it is an imitation of the disposition and employment of these who are already happy, and consequently has the nearest resemblance to their state. Nothing can be more evident in the nature of the thing, than that the true happiness of the soul must increase in proportion to its union to the infinite Source of all happiness and joy.
Faith in Christ has for its object the gladest tidings we can conceive, and the greatest gift we can desire. The love of God contemplates infinitely amiable excellency and beauty, and lays hold on all-sufficiency. The sincere and gracious love of our neighbour is so delightful a duty, that all the pleasures of society, which even wicked men enjoy, are founded on some resemblances of it. Meekness, humility and disengagement of mind from the world, give such serenity and tranquillity of spirit, as is inestimable. Contemplation is one of the most valuable enjoyments in the world: a great part of holiness consists in the noblest kind of it; all we can know, is either something concerning God or his creatures; and surely the noblest view of the latter in the contemplating of their relation to the former; all of them manifest his glory; and therefore if we were accustomed to consider them in that light, whatever way we turned our view, every sensible object might be matter of spiritual joy. To all which we may add, that the well-grounded hope of eternal happiness, if duly improved, is a greater present pleasure than any earthly enjoyment whatsoever.
If we consider, on the other hand, the promises of the covenant of grace, it is plain that God promises to his people, not only future happiness, but also present peace, pardon of sin, strength to perform duty, acceptance of it, communion with himself, comfort under affliction, returns of prayer; and which comprehends numberless blessings, that he will make all things work together for their good, and let nothing separate them from his love. These are the present encouragements God proposeth to duty; and surely, they are incomparably more important than any other motives which the devil or wicked men can offer against it.
Let us take a short view, in the next place, of the present troubles that natively flow from wickedness, many of which are peculiar to it: this will serve to vindicate God’s holiness, and to show his goodness in the frame of our nature in contriving it so, that these things that are contrary to our greatest interest should be at the same time inconsistent with our present ease; which is surely a very rational motive to avoid them; perhaps indeed many of these uneasinesses that attend sin may be the absolutely necessary consequences of it. Thus it is necessary in the nature of the thing, that desires and passions that cannot be fully satisfied, should be exceedingly tormenting; but it is no less certain, that many of the troubles that are inseparable from sin, are not so properly owing to that necessity of the thing, as to a good and wise contrivance for making it more hateful to us.
The two great sources of our sinful actions, are unruly desires and bitter passions; and they are the great sources of our troubles as well as our sins. As to the former, it was observed already, how they entangle men’s minds almost in a constant train of perplexities and disquiet, painful impatience, superfluous toil, anxiety, loathing, grief and vexation. Bitter and malicious passions are no better, but rather worse; they tend to make us enemies to our fellow creatures, and make them so to us; and are the greatest enemies of all themselves. When they exert themselves with vigour, they are like furious storms and tempests, filling the soul with disorder and confusion, and making it like troubled waters, when they cannot rest: when they cannot be satisfied, they frequently rack and harass men’s breasts with pains that cannot be described, and that sometimes with such violence, as unhinges the frame of their nature, and ruins soul and body at once. When they are gratified, and obtain their end, if it gives any joy, it is but the joy of devils, and such pleasure as is in hell, that is to say, pleasure in the misery of others: Instead of that, oftentimes they have been observed to turn to a thousand melancholy wishes, that they had been restrained: sometimes one passionate word or action proves the beginning of a long chain of confusion, strife, contention, and all the other wormwood that embitters human life; which would be vastly more tolerable and pleasant than it is, notwithstanding all its other disasters, were it not for those furies in men’s own breasts, which not only lead them to misery, but anticipate it, and torment them before the time.
It would be too long to enumerate even all the remarkable present disadvantages that attend wickedness; such as comfortless affliction, and unsatisfying prosperity, dismal fears of death, and confounding fore-thoughts of judgment and eternity (which will be sometimes so importunate as to force their way through all the amusements and diversions that are made use of to keep them out), remorse of conscience, which is a refined sort of pain, when the blood of sprinkling is not applied for curing it. Every vice seems to have some way of punishing itself: Pride makes every affront almost a torment; Envy hinders a man from relishing his own enjoyment, till he see his neighbour’s misery; Impiety makes those thoughts and discourses of God (which otherwise would be ravishing) to be uneasy and perplexing. While men entertain such plagues in their souls, it is of little importance to their peace and happiness, that all is right without, when all is wrong within: In the midst of magnificent buildings, sumptuous feasts, gay clothing and all the other fantastic pageantry he can desire, the slave of sin is still but a painted sepulchre, outwardly bright and beautiful, inwardly full of filth and rottenness. From all which it is evident, that God is so far from being the author even of any temporal motives to sin, that he has ordered matters so, that the rational motives against it, even in this life, are incomparably superior to any that can be adduced for it.
Beside the troubles annexed to sin, whose proper tendency is certainly to restrain it, we may observe likewise several principles God has implanted inwardly in the frame of our nature, and several things he has established in the order of providence, that have a very native tendency to the same good end, and in numberless instances are effectual that way. Thus, it is God, that has given us the faculty of reason, by which no doubt men avoid many sinful actions; and, if they improved it right, would hate every sin. We are obliged in justice to thank God for giving us that faculty, and to blame our sins, and not him, for our voluntary abuse or neglect of it. If a poor man receive a thousand talents in a gift, every body will own that he is obliged to acknowledge his benefactor for all the good things he purchases by that money, and to blame himself only, if he misimproves and squanders away any part of it. And indeed, if we inquire narrowly into the nature of sin, we shall find, that every sin is an abuse of some good gift that God has given us, which is in itself good, and might have been improved to excellent purposes.
It is God that has implanted in men that natural conscience, which is, as it were, God’s lieutenant or deputy in the soul, and which gives such an indelible sense of the difference between moral good and evil; that they who cherish sin most in themselves, cannot oftentimes but hate it in others, so that a man abhors his own corruptions when he sees them in his nearest friends, or in the child of his bosom. Thus they who are most addicted to pride, oppression, treachery, or ingratitude, do frequently condemn these when practiced by others; and though this natural conscience is far from hindering every sin, yet certainly it hinders and restrains a great many. It is a principal means of hindering the world from running into a chaos; and all its good influence that way is owing to God.
Further; God has implanted in us that thirst after complete happiness, which is the spring of men’s actions; and since the above-mentioned faculty of reason shows where that thirst may be satisfied, the direct tendency of both, if duly improved, would be to lead the soul to the eternal fountain of all good. God has also planted in us several principles which should tend to promote our love to him and his creatures; as for instance, that delight in the contemplation of things that are most perfect and excellent in their kind, which, if duly improved, would excite us to the contemplation of God’s perfections that are unchangeable and infinite. As to the love of our neighbours, there is that sympathy in human nature, which makes a man in some degree, feel the miseries of others, when he sees them, unless he has acquired such an unnatural temper of mind, as is no small degree of misery itself; beside this, God has laid a very rational foundation for universal friendship, by making all mankind spring from one family, so that they are all united by the ties of blood relation: he has taken care also to cement them by their very necessities; for it is plain, that of all earthly creatures men have most need of mutual help, and of society, in order to their subsistence and comfort.
In the order of providence, God has so contrived things, that most kinds of wickedness are generally attended with present outward shame and punishment. Of all these that practice the greatest wickedness, few dare openly defend it; they rather take all precautions to hide it; hence the apostle judged it proper to recommend to Christians living among heathens, “Whatsoever things were lovely, whatsoever things were of good report”; And hence also it is, that when men are persecuted really for righteousness sake, they must first be branded with wickedness, and generally calumny must pave the way for persecution. To all this we may add, That the divine ordinance of magistracy is plainly owing to the special wisdom and goodness of providence, and it is certainly every where in numberless instances an effectual terror to evil doers.
Beside all these restraints that God has laid upon sin by the present shame and punishment that so frequently attends it, he has laid other very powerful restraints upon it, by the shortness and insignificancy of all the pleasures that can be had by it: this appears from the shortness and uncertainty of human life; but it is not the uncertainty of life only that makes the pleasures of it uncertain; for though we were never so sure of life, that cannot secure us of the enjoyments of it; they are liable to a thousand dangers, which all the precautions human prudence can suggest, are not capable always to prevent. If we consider, that all the pleasures in sin, are pleasures which we are sure to part with at death, and are not sure to retain until then; that let men idolize them never so much, the pleasure of them at its height is very inconsiderable, and, little as it is, naturally decaying; that the pursuit of them is attended with much toil, and the enjoyment of them with much trouble; it is plain, that, when for the sake of such decaying, uncertain, toilsome, troublesome vanities, men offend God, they may be said, in a very proper sense, “To offend him without cause.” But what deserves our particular consideration on this subject, is the shortness of life: men are oftentimes very inconsistent with themselves in their peevish complaints about it; sometimes they seem to grudge that it is too short for the great business of it, and yet live as if they thought it too long for that business, since they delay it to the end of it: it is plain, if our present life were much longer, future rewards and punishments, by being more distant, would have probably weaker influence: so it was before the Flood, and the event was answerable: but as matters are ordered at present, the pleasures of sin, and troubles of duty are so uncertain and short-lived, that it is unaccountable how rational creatures are seduced to wickedness for obtaining the one, or avoiding the other.
To all this we may add, That mankind have naturally some sense of justice and gratitude, as well as of interest; and besides the motives in point of interest, God has given the greatest motives in point of justice and gratitude, to excite us to duty, and restrain us from sin: reason teaches us, that, as we should do justice to all, by giving them their own; it is to God we owe ourselves, and all we have. He has manifested to us in his works and word such glorious perfections as in justice deserve the highest esteem, and particularly such goodness as deserves the profoundest gratitude; his long-suffering and abundant goodness in providence, constantly returning good for evil, has the most rational tendency imaginable to melt our hearts with sorrow for sin, and to kindle in us the greatest indignation against it. But nothing can have a more powerful tendency this way, than his mysterious mercy in the work of redemption, the love of God in Christ who died for us; and, after that blessed redemption is wrought for us, the tenderness and earnestness with which God, in a manner, presses it upon us in his word, makes it unaccountable in those who have that word, to give way to these unworthy thoughts of God, which the text rebukes: he not only freely offers us that redemption, but earnestly importunes us to embrace it; bewails our unwillingness, stretches out his hands to us all day; stands knocking at the door of our hearts; condescends to reason with us, that though our sins be as crimson and scarlet, yet he can make them to be as wool and as snow; expostulates with us as an affectionate father with undutiful children, why we spend our money for that which is not bread; draws us with cords of men, and bands of love; swears to us he does not delight in the death of a sinner; argues the case with us, wherein we can bear witness against him, why we should perish and why we will not come to him that we may have life; beseeches us to be reconciled to him; and promises, if we consent, that he will keep us as a seal on his hand, count us as his own jewels, and keep us as the apple of his eye. Surely these and the like expressions of infinite condescension, have the most native tendency possible to dissuade men from offending God, and ruining themselves. This is plainly the design of them, and, on many accounts, is the happiest effect of them; and whatever use men make of them, these manifestations God gives of himself in his word, with the other manifestations of himself in his works, make conjunctly a complete proof of the apostle’s doctrine, and show, that God can take heaven and earth to witness that he is infinitely free from the blame of men’s sin and misery; that if they perish, the blood of their souls must be upon themselves, and that their ruin is the fruit of their own doings, and not of him.
After insisting so much in proposing the evidences of the doctrine, it will be the easier to apply them for answering the objections against it, which are drawn either from God’s decrees, or his providence: the reasons that vindicate the latter do at the same time vindicate the former; and therefore the former needs not much be insisted on: it is plain, that if God does not actually tempt men by his providence in time, he never decreed to do it from eternity; the scriptures make, and all sound Christians believe, a difference, betwixt what God decreed to do himself, and what he decreed to permit in others; and though reasons of both may be unknown yet we are obliged in reason to believe they are not unjust; not only the reasons of God’s decrees, but his decrees themselves are unknown till the event discover them; and surely it is the wildest absurdity for men to allege that they are tempted by things they know nothing about. God in his decrees laid down measures for hindering innumerable sins, which would otherwise have happened, were it not for the restraints of his providence and his grace: so that if his decrees should be considered on this subject at all, we should consider, that his decrees, as executed by his providence, are not the cause of sin, but the cause why there is not vastly more wickedness in the world than there is, and why the wickedness that is in the world is so much restrained, and kept within such bounds, and over-ruled for such good ends.
As to objections drawn from providence, the most remarkable of them that are found either in the writings of Libertines, or that great source of Libertinism, the suggestions of natural corruption, are perhaps these. First, That it is God himself, who has endowed the creatures with that goodness and pleasure, that inclines us to idolize them; That he has implanted in us desires after them, and yet has made laws contrary to those desires, as if we had laws given us one way, and desires another way; That these tempting objects continue pleasant and delightful, even when abused by wicked men in the pursuit or enjoyment of them; and lastly, that we are placed in such circumstances, that they surround us on all hands, and make continual impression on our senses.
As to the first suggestion, That it is God that has made these objects (and made them so pleasant) which tempt us to sin, or, to express the thing truly, which we pervert into an occasion of sin; this is so far from being a just reflection on God, or an excuse for us, that it is the very reverse. This is the thing that testifies God’s goodness to us, that he has given us so many good creatures to enjoy, which are both useful and delightful to us, and therefore should excite us, not to sin against him, but to love and obey him; and this is the very thing that shows our inexcusable folly and ingratitude, that the objects we prefer to God, are his own creatures, and the things, for the sake of which we offend him, his own gift.
It is not the true worth and real goodness that God has put in the creatures that is to be blamed for our preferring them to the Creator, but a false and imaginary worth we feign in them ourselves. It is lawful, yea it is our duty, to have a true esteem and value for God’s creatures, as they are manifestations of his glory, or fruits of his bounty; sin does not consist in valuing the creatures, but in overvaluing them. The former shows a man’s esteem of the author of them; it is the latter that makes us neglect him. If we loved the creatures only in proportion to their real worth, there would be no irregularity or disorder, consequently no sin in it. It would be the perfection of our nature, if all our desires bore a true proportion to their objects; sin breaks that proportion; it imagines a kind of all-sufficiency or independency in the creatures; this is the most chimerical imagination in the world, and it is the great cause of all our folly: it is plain it is a creature of our own; God’s works cannot be blamed for it; their true worth is not the cause of our false esteem, nor can it be made an excuse for it. All the creatures declare their own insufficiency with the clearest evidence; they direct us to their Author, and acknowledge their absolute dependence upon him.
If men therefore are deceived in this matter, it is because they impose upon themselves; their error is wholly inexcusable. Every practical error indeed is so, because it is voluntary. A man may be passive in believing the truth; irresistible evidence may force his assent to it. Falsehood is incapable of such evidence; it is impossible that the devil or any external cause whatsoever, can force an error on a creature endowed with reason; but there is a peculiarity in this error we speaking of, though a man should pretend some small shadow of reason for other mistakes, he can pretend none for this, that God’s works should be preferred to himself, the stream to the fountain, the shadow to the substance. Though there might be some colour of excuse for falsely preferring one creature to another, surely there can be none for preferring any creature to God.
If any thing be self-evident that some call in question, or seem by their actions to do so, surely this is self-evident, that God is our chief, yea indeed our only true happiness. Want of consideration cannot be alleged to excuse or extenuate a man’s mistake about this. Indeed men cannot consider all things, and therefore may be ignorant or mistaken about some things without danger; but there is on inquiry which no man can excuse himself for neglecting, though he should neglect every thing else, and that is, to inquire wherein his chief happiness lies, and which is the true way to it; and such a neglect is the more inexcusable, because that inquiry scarce requires any pains, nor is there the least occasion for demur about it, the thing being so plain, that He only who gave us being, can give us happiness.
If the objection proposed, be enforced by asking the reasons of that goodness and pleasure that is in the creatures, which though it should not excuse our sin, yet is abused at least into an occasion of sin. Though we are not fit judges of the reasons of God’s actions, yet we may know enough about this, not only for vindicating his holiness, but also for extolling his goodness: for what can be more agreeable to that divine perfection, than that he who is perfectly good himself, should have made his works all very good likewise? that the workmanship might be worthy of the workman, and that the effects might not disparage the cause. Nothing can be more absurd, than to pretend, that it would have been agreeable to God’s goodness to have made evil works himself, to prevent the evil works of his creatures. The brightest manifestations of God’s glory have been made occasions of dishonouring him; but surely none will say, that it had been better these manifestations had not been made, lest they should be abused; that God’s glory had not been so displayed, lest some should have made it an occasion of offending him: that is, that we had wanted those things that are really means and motives of adoring God, lest some should abuse them (contrary to their natural tendency) into occasions of despising him. The old heathens took occasion from the visible glory, beauty and usefulness of the sun, moon and stars, to worship them; how absurd would it be to censure the Author of nature, for endowing these creatures, with such beauty and usefulness, because it was abused. Many curious persons have taken occasion from the regularity, order, and deep contrivance that is in God’s works, to employ their minds wholly in amusing speculations and inquiries into nature, without regarding its Author: but surely that cannot reflect upon him for forming his works, with such regularity and harmony, that the very contemplation of them gives delight. Let us consider the native consequences of it, if matters had been ordered otherwise, if instead of all that beauty and delight that is in the creatures, they had been made unpleasant, deformed, and useless: let us reflect, that the love and esteem of God, is a principal part of holiness, and then consider whether it would have been a greater mean or motive to love and esteem the Author of these works, that the works themselves were unworthy of love or esteem; or whether there would have been any incitements and materials for praising the cause in the effects not deserving praise.
In considering the actions either of God or good men, we should distinguish between two very different sorts of consequences that may follow upon them.
First, Their true and proper effects for which they are designed, and which they have a native tendency to produce, and secondly those indirect consequences that may follow on them, not through any tendency in the good actions themselves to these evil consequences, but through the perverse dispositions of others: in this last sense, very bad consequences may follow upon the very best actions; but the latter can no wise be blamed as the cause of the former: when a good man is about to do an excellent and useful action, he may foresee that some envious person will take occasion from that, to be guilty of slander, backbiting, and perhaps worse, and that others will be very ungrateful for the good he does; but he can neither be blamed for that, nor ought he to forbear his duty to prevent their sins. No man is obliged to do evil, or to forbear what is absolutely good, in order to prevent the evil of others; that would indeed be doing evil, that good might come of it. A man of a wicked disposition may take occasion from the best action to do things directly contrary to the nature of that action, and to its native tendency, and proper effects.
To apply these things to the present case; the direct tendency of all the goodness and pleasure with which God has endowed the creatures, is to manifest his being and glorious perfections, particularly his goodness and all-sufficiency, and our absolute dependence on him, and to make us long for the enjoyment of himself the fountain, when there is so much goodness even in the streams that flow from him: accordingly God’s actions produce these their true and proper good effects in numberless multitudes of holy creatures, angels and saints. These same works of God, from which wicked men take occasion to neglect him, are to all holy creatures means and motives of love, esteem, adoration, praise and thanksgiving, reliance on him, and desire of union to him: light is not more opposite to darkness, than these native effects of God’s works are to the unnatural evil uses, that wicked men make of them; they make the effects of his power occasions of despising him; the evidences of his all-sufficiency occasions of alienating their desires from him. And, which is the most monstrous abuse imaginable, as was before observed, they make his benefits occasions of ingratitude.
It was proved already, that the pleasures of sense are evidences of God’s goodness, because they are means of preserving mankind; but these is a wise temperament in this, which serves both to illustrate the doctrine, and to refute the objections in view. It is God’s goodness, that these objects being so useful, are so pleasant as they are; it is God’s goodness likewise that they are not more pleasant; it is dangerous to exceed in them; such excess tends not only to divert the thoughts, but to alienate the mind from the higher objects, to which these inferior things should lead us; for preventing that excess it is wisely ordered, that these pleasures are neither too numerous, nor too violent, nor durable: it is otherwise with spiritual and intellectual enjoyments; these tend directly to the perfection of our souls, whereas the former are but for the subsistence of our bodies. Intellectual enjoyments have something in their nature that is immortal, like the soul; but sensible pleasures are made fleeting and short lived; because, however innocent in themselves, they are dangerous when exceeded in: it is but a small part of life they can fill up, and when idolized, they decay by use, and cloy by repetition. Things are so well adjusted, that there is just so much pleasure in these objects, as may effectually excite men to use them, and so little, as should in all reason hinder them from abusing them.
These same considerations serve also to refute the second objection that was mentioned, viz. That these objects which are the occasions of sin, are not only made pleasant but necessary to us, and that there are desires after them implanted in our nature. This objection carries its answer in its bosom, (though through men’s stupidity it does harm). If these objects are necessary to us, that itself shows that the use of them is lawful, and the just and natural desire of them innocent. God has only implanted in men desires towards what is their duty, that is, self-preservation; but if men’s wickedness abuseth the means of their preservation into occasions of their ruin, even the heathens could observe that this is living contrary to nature; besides, it is obvious, that God has so ordered matters that it is a very little that satisfies nature, and when that good end is obtained, desire ceases. Thus it is with hunger and thirst for instance, when one has taken what is sufficient for health and nourishment. It is otherwise indeed with men, who have contracted evil habits, by being accustomed to excess; but these habits are not natural, but acquired; and we should distinguish between these inclinations implanted in us by God, and those that are contracted by ourselves.
If it be asked, Why these objects are made necessary to us? This question is as much out of the way, as to ask why the world was made, or men made to inhabit it. The prophet Isaiah seems to intimate, that to have made the earth uninhabited, would have been a making of it in vain, Isa. 45:18. “Thus saith the Lord God himself, that formed the earth , and made it — he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited.” It is hard to conceive, how it could properly be reckoned inhabited, if no creatures resided in it but pure spirits; surely it is no reflection on the Creator, that he has made such a world as this lower world is, or that having made it so beautiful and glorious as it is, that he has not left it to be a desolate wilderness; and then it is easy to conceive, that according to the best order of nature, and the best-conceived laws to govern it, such inhabitants consisting of body as well as spirit, could not subsist, without being constantly recruited with the means of life and nourishment. If it were not for that, the visible world would be comparatively useless; if it were no way subservient to the preservation and subsistence of its inhabitants, there would not be that beautiful connection that is now between the visible and invisible world, making things void of life and reason useful to creatures endowed with both.
To this we may add, that our natural necessities, when duly considered, are arguments of God’s goodness, because, in their proper tendency, they are antidotes against sin, and helps to duty. Their proper tendency is to give us an impression of our own natural emptiness, God’s all-sufficiency, and our dependency upon him, from whom we need so many things, with which he furnisheth us so bountifully; by this means, not leaving himself without witness, as Paul reasoned with the people of Lystra in the forecited place, Acts 14:17. Besides it is useful to reflect here on what was hinted before, that human necessities are an excellent cement of human societies, and the many useful and beautiful relations comprehended in them; they lay also a foundation for the exercise of innumerable virtues and graces, which otherwise could not be exercised in so remarkable a manner, for making men’s graces and good works shine before the world, to the glory of God. Matt. 5:16. And since the image of God drawn on the soul of a creature is the noblest workmanship in the creation, it should not be thought improper that it have occasions of shining in all its splendor, for the honour of its Author. Were it not for men’s natural necessities, they would not have these excellent opportunities, that now they enjoy of showing either their love to God, by sacrificing interest to duty, when they happen to interfere; or their love to their neighbours, by acts of charity, pity and compassion, bounty, generosity, and the like; or temperance, sobriety, and other duties that relate more immediately to the management of themselves. These necessities are also the foundation of all that beautiful variety of stations and employments, which, together with other excellent uses, serve to keep men from idleness and inactivity, than which, experience shows nothing is more hurtful. Men pretend indeed ofttimes, that their labours are hindrances of their duties; but experience shows that generally these who have most time, are not the persons who make the best use of it. So that man’s eating his bread with the sweat of his brow, is such a punishment of sin, as is at the same time an excellent restraint upon it.
From all which it appears, that by the desires, God hath implanted in us, and the objects he has made necessary to us, he does not tempt us to sin, but excites us to duty; and that these things which are made occasions of evil, are really necessary means of good; and that though they are unnaturally perverted by bad men, yet their natural tendency is the exercise and triumph of many graces and virtues. God’s goodness in this matter is the more evident, the more it is inquired into; he has implanted in us desires after things useful and necessary, but none after those things that are useless or hurtful, as was hinted before: no superfluous desires are natural, these are acquired by men themselves, and oftentimes improven to the prejudice of these desires that are just and natural: and, upon the whole, the use we should make of these reflections is certainly an humble acknowledgment of our own emptiness, and of God’s all-sufficient goodness.
After what is said about our natural desires, it is easy to answer the objections about God’s making laws against them; it is only against excess in them, and that excess is graciously forbidden by God, since it is so hurtful to us: it would be so, whether he had forbid it, or not. Excessive love of earthly objects was shown before to be the chief source of earthly trouble; it is in its nature hurtful to our souls and bodies, and makes us hurtful to others; to our souls, by alienating them from our chief good, and only happiness; to our bodies, by the natural fruit of intemperance, anxiety and excessive toil; and to our neighbours, by tempting us to injustice, oppression and strife, and by hindering from charity and beneficence.
It is the very nature of wisdom, not to love any object above its real worth: this is what God’s law requires of us; and surely nothing can be more necessary, or more reasonable; it is the way to that true enjoyment of the creatures, which is both most for the honour of God, and our good: and the allowances, which it was shown his law makes for cases of absolute necessity, prove that there is a perfect harmony between his precepts, and as he is the law giver of the world, and his works, as he is the Author of nature.
As to the next objection, viz. That earthly objects continue pleasant, even when abused by sin; it is plain it could not be otherwise, unless God would destroy the nature of his own creatures at every time when men abuse them. It is easy to conceive, that God may have infinitely wise reasons for not taking such measures; for not overturning these laws of his which govern nature, at every time when men violate these laws which should govern their actions; for not breaking the perfect order of his own works, whenever men are guilty of any disorder in theirs. No doubt if we consider God’s absolute power, he could (for example) turn the most wholesome food into poison, when it is sinfully procured or enjoyed. But besides the reasons God has for not changing the established order of nature; it is evident that such outward miracles would not prevent inwards disorderly inclination, in which sin and corruption chiefly consists; they would not hinder that immoderate love of the creatures, which is not restrained by other motives, but they would hinder indeed the trial and exercise of graces and virtues by which the moderate love of these objects promote the glory of God, and the good of men. It is plain there would not be so much virtue in justice, if there be no advantage by injustice; that is to say, present advantage; for the rest, taking in all considerations, it was shown already, that God has ordered matters so, that the motives of true profits and pleasure are on the side of holiness and righteousness, both as to this life and the next. And, in a word, not to insist longer on this objection, it is plain it cannot be urged without blaming providence for not working miracles constantly to prevent sin; whereas the design of this discourse is not to show the reasons why God does not infallibly hinder men from all sin, but to show that he does not tempt them to any.
As to the last objection, viz., That we are placed in such circumstances, that we are surrounded with these tempting objects on all hands, and that they make continued impression on our senses. It is true, God has placed us in such circumstances; he has surrounded us with these objects, but he has made these objects all very good; it is we ourselves that make them temptations to evil; any truth that is in the objection amounts only to this, and it is thus it should be expressed, God has surrounded us with necessary and useful objects, displaying his glory, and contributing to our subsistence. He has surrounded us on all hands with the fruits of his bounty, and effects of his power; he has endowed us with senses suitable to these objects to see his glory in them all, and to apply several of them to various good uses, which are motives to love him, and materials for contemplating and adoring him. There is nothing in all this, but what is really ground of praise, and not of censure; it would be the wildest extravagance for men to complain either that these useful objects, are not wholly removed, or that they themselves are not deprived of the senses by which they perceive them, and make use of them. If this objection had any force, it would be against peopling of this world at all; which was considered already. No doubt indeed heaven is an incomparably better place; but that cannot reflect on God, for not making all the rest of the creation a wilderness; if we embraced the terms on which heaven is offered, surely our absence from it is not so long, that we have very much reason to repine at it. The time of our life of faith, and state of trial is not so very tedious. On other occasions men are more ready to complain, their time among the sensible objects of this lower world is rather too short; they who are of a different disposition, and with submission to God, long to be among higher objects, and are weary of earthly things, are the persons who are in least danger of neglecting the former, or abusing the latter; as all are obliged to consider that the true use and tendency of the one, is to lead us up to the other. And since (Rom. 1:20) the invisible things of God may be clearly seen in all the visible creatures, these things sink the deeper into our hearts for this very reason, because the manifestation of them makes continual impression on our senses.
Thus we have considered several arguments, which serve both to confirm the doctrine, and to answer objections against it; and though this doctrine be plainly revealed in scripture, especially in the text, and divine revelation obliges us to believe it, yet there considerations are useful, because, as was shown before, many who profess to believe the scriptures in general, are troubled with hurtful suggestions against this doctrine in particular; and it is good for them if they be troubled for them, and struggle against them. Those who have most of the love of God may sometimes be perplexed with unsuitable thoughts concerning him, but they will use prayers and endeavours for avoiding them. If there are other objections against this doctrine, which the evidences adduced cannot be applied to, we should consider that there may be perplexing objections raised oftentimes, even against demonstrable truths, that the difficulties of this subject are owing to the darkness of our views of God’s works, and that intricacy of providence, which is perfectly consistent with the righteousness of it. God’s own testimony of his own holiness, is an infallible evidence for it, which no difficulties should hinder our assent to; and the considerations adduced show that his works and actions agree with the testimony of his word. That as he cannot be “tempted to evil, so neither tempteth he any man”; this has been shown at large from the nature of God’s works; I shall only add here a few things taken from the nature of sin. Sin is a forsaking of God; it is plain, he cannot tempt us to forsake himself, unless he give us ground to expect more happiness, by forsaking him, than by being united to him; this is impossible; reason and experience, as well as scripture, show that it is an exceeding evil and bitter thing to depart from the living God. Sin is the transgression of his law; how can he be thought to propose motives to us to disobey himself? Sin is a preferring his creatures to himself: how can he be thought to put any thing in the creatures, that should make us hope for more good in the effect, than in the cause.
The use that we should make of this doctrine, was hinted already, in showing the importance of it, and the evidences which prove that these thoughts of God which the text rebukes, though both unreasonable and dangerous, are very common and ordinary. The Spirit of God inculcates this doctrine upon us, and to the end we may adore God’s spotless purity, and loath ourselves for our inexcusable wickedness. The truths that have been insisted on, have a very proper tendency this way; it is certain we can scarce consider sin in any light that shows more the madness of it, than the affront it does to God, by preferring his creatures to himself; our giving them that preference is not an honouring them, but a monstrous and unnatural abuse of them. Their beauty and glory consists in manifesting that of their Author. This is the chief end, and true use of them. These visible things which are void of life and reason themselves are constantly importuning us who are privileged with both to employ them in praising and serving him who is their Creator and ours; they offer themselves as steps by which our thoughts may ascend to him. When, instead of this they are made instruments of rebellion against him, these dumb creatures, to allude to the apostle’s expression, Rom 8:20-22, groan under the bondage of our corruption, and travail in pain under the oppression of our vanity, to which they are not willingly made subject; they protest and exclaim against the bad use we make of them, contrary to the end of their being, and upbraid and reproach us for our ingratitude to God, our abuse of them, and cruelty to ourselves.
If men could excuse themselves for not placing their chief happiness in God, they might the more easily excuse all their other sins; for in effect, that is the source of all; since we have an inbred thirst after happiness, it is impossible, but we must be seeking after it in something or other, if not in God, then certainly in his creatures; and if so, it is impossible, but that fundamental disorder should put all the powers and affections of our souls into confusion. When a man has fixed his chief affections on creatures, and made them his chief end, it is impossible but he should have an inclination to the means of that end, though contrary to his true interest, and an aversion from things that are opposite to these his chief desires though really never so excellent. Thus the love of sin creates a distaste of God’s laws, instructions and revelations, because they are against sin; and by this wretched chain, corruption proves a disease that both leads to death, and begets an aversion to the means of recovery. Thus God’s creatures are made occasions and pretences for offending him, though there is nothing in him or them to justify the neglect of the one, or abuse of the other; nothing, on the contrary, but what shows that such a practice is equally destructive and inexcusable.
If we kept our love of outward things within such bounds, as to do no prejudice to the love of God and our neighbour, or even to the true love of ourselves; this would be that true mortification which God requires, and for which the grace of Jesus Christ is offered to us; it is only superstition, and particularly that of the church of Rome that commands men to abstain from things that God made to be received with thanksgiving: the apostle foretold this as one of the errors of the last days. No doubt, abstinence even from things in themselves lawful, has its own use on many occasions; but excessive austerity that way, is the extreme most men are least liable to. In the meantime we may observe, that he whose life should be the pattern of ours as to temperance and all other duties, though he was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, did not refuse to join with men for their good in the use of the lawful comforts as well as necessaries of life. This indeed exposed his spotless character to the censure of morose hypocrites, because he did not affect that useless austerity, on which they valued themselves so much: but it shows, that spiritual comforts and temporal comforts are far from being inconsistent. But wretched is their case, who abuse that liberty they have from God into an occasion of bringing themselves under bondage to his creatures. They can give no pleasure or trouble independently of him; whatever pleasure they give, it is him they should make us love; whatever trouble they give, it is him they should make us fear; and our love and fear should not hinder, but help each other; because as we cannot abuse his goodness, without rendering ourselves obnoxious to his justice, we should consider that perfect goodness and perfect justice are so far from being inconsistent, that they are inseparable.
The truths that have been insisted on, afford various motives for adoring both these glorious attributes. As to God’s justice, some of the observations that have been proposed, might be usefully applied by many, for convincing their hearts, through God’s grace, both of the righteousness of future punishments, and the certainty of them. Wickedness affronts God, and abuses his creatures; it makes men incapable of the enjoyment of the former at all, or of the latter with true satisfaction; and therefore since it both wrongs God, and his creatures, and makes a man incapable of happiness in him, or real contentment in them, it deserves the loss of both, and naturally tends to it; they who entirely neglect God here, surely have no ground to expect to enjoy him hereafter. And as to his creatures, they may find it hard to persuade themselves, if they consider it, that God will be eternally multiplying on them those benefits in the next world, which they so heinously abused in this. Now it is evident, that even supposing God should put no positive punishment on wicked men, but only deprive them for ever of all his favours which they have abused, That itself would be enough to cause such everlasting anguish and melancholy, as cannot well be described or conceived. To be left to our own natural emptiness, to violent desires, without any objects to satisfy them, to suffer the total loss of God, and all his good creatures, is both a loss very terrible in itself, and is so evidently the just demerit and native fruit of final impenitence, that it is a wonder how wicked men can overcome the apprehensions of it.
This may contribute to illustrate the principal use of this doctrine, which (as was hinted formerly) is to help us to a right sense of God’s infinite mercy in the work of redemption; this we can never have without a persuasion of his righteousness in the works of providence. While men’s hearts blame him for their sins, they can never love him aright for his mercies, particularly for his greatest mercy, which is deliverance from sin, and its fruits: whereas on the other hand, to entertain just thoughts of God, and of ourselves (that is, to take all the blame of our sin and misery to ourselves) and to acknowledge sincerely that he is perfectly free from it, is the way through God’s grace, to such gratitude to him for his unspeakable gift, as makes the most rational and happiest disposition of mind, that redeemed sinners are capable of.
It is worth the observing here, that many who are prejudiced against revealed religion, acknowledge that natural religion is very plain and rational. It is evident the difficulties against the apostle’s doctrine are difficulties of natural religion; it is not the Scripture only that tells us we are sinful, guilty, corrupt creatures; experience tells it, and reason teaches us, that an infinitely perfect God must be perfectly free, both from the blame of our sin, and the misery which it tends to; experience and reason teach us, that we are sinners and deserve punishment; it is the gospel that teaches us the remedy. It is unreasonable to make the difficulties of natural religion prejudices against revealed religion; the subject insisted on serves to give a right impression of both, by giving a just view of God’s actions, and of those of his creatures; if that view of them were familiar to us, through God’s grace the love of his creatures, instead of hindering our love to him, would be a help to it. This would be a happy stratagem for turning these earthly things, which corruption makes our enemies, to be really our friends; all the pleasures in these streams, would make us love the fountain; and all the trouble in them would make us long for him, long for that unmixed, unqualified bliss, where there is no more need of temperance, because there is no possibility of excess; where desire will not be checked, nor enjoyment restrained; where our joys will have none of that alloy that always cleaves to our joys here; where our honour will be without envy, our friendship without strife, our riches without care, our pleasures without mixture, without interruption; and, which crowns all, without end.