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Inferences from the foregoing discourses — The present danger of all sorts of persons, in the prevalency of apostasy from the truth and decays in the practice of evangelical holiness. THE last part of this discourse is designed for cautions unto those who yet stand, or think they stand, with respect unto that general defection from the gospel whose causes and occasions we have thus far inquired into. And thereunto some directions may be added, to be used as preventives of its contagion.
This method are we guided unto by the apostle, who, having declared the apostasy and ruin which ensued thereon of the generality of the church of the Jews, improves the consideration of it unto the caution of others, under a present profession of the truth. “Thou wilt say then,” saith he to the Gentile believers, “The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not high-minded, but fear: for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off,” Romans 11:19-22.
And in another place, on an alike occasion, he speaks unto the same purpose: “Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall,” Corinthians 10:12.
Most men are apt to suppose that the continuance of the true religion in any place depends solely on the prudence and industry of those unto whom the conduct of its outward concerns are committed. The interest of some and the duty of others, in the management of human laws and constitutions, are generally looked on as a sufficient and the only means of its preservation. And those of this persuasion think they have personally no concernment herein, but only to herd themselves in the multitude, and to take their fate, whatever it be. Such as these will despise our cautions, as those from which the reasons of their confidences and fears are most remote. But whereas the profession of religion in the community of Christians will not be preserved but by the power of it in individuals, the only root whereon it will long thrive or grow, we shall not at all concern ourselves in them by whom the directions of their duty are thought needless or useless; for after the utmost exercise of human policy, it is the wisdom that is from above which must be our stability. And if the power of truth and holiness be not preserved in the hearts and lives of particular persons, the profession of them in churches, or the pretense of them in nations (which are all that will remain), are neither acceptable unto God nor useful unto the souls of men.
Some think themselves, as for their own part, little concerned in these things. That there is such a defection from the gospel as hath been complained of they cannot deny, and they will also grant that it is desperately pernicious unto them that are overtaken thereby; therefore they suppose it not amiss that men should be warned of its danger and directed to avoid it. But this they think necessary for others, not for themselves; for as for their part, they have not the like occasions, nor are exposed unto the same temptations, with them who formerly apostatized from the gospel or are in danger now so to do. Besides, they know well enough what are their own resolutions, and that though all men should forsake either the doctrine taught in or the obedience required by the gospel, yet should their constancy be immovable! But I do not think these apprehensions sufficient to render our warnings needless. Occasions and temptations are not in our power; our greatest present freedom from them will not secure us from the assaults of the next hour. Peter foresaw not his dangers and fears when he so confidently engaged unto constancy in the profession of his Master, which yet within a few hours came upon him.
And such is the subtlety of our spiritual adversaries, that sometimes we are under the power of temptation when we think ourselves most remote from it. It is beyond the compass of human reason to take at once a prospect of all the causes and means thereof, with the ways of its efficacy and prevalency. And if at any time we judge ourselves free from an hour of temptation, which comes upon the world to try them that dwell therein, which most are exercised with and many are prevailed on by, so as to be secure and regardless of the means of our preservation, of all men we are in the most danger to be ruined by it. Neither will the best of our resolutions be of any avail without the utmost of our endeavors. The great apostle thought and resolved with respect unto the person of Christ that he would neither deny him nor forsake him, and it this confidence did not betray him into his fall, yet to be sure it did not preserve him from it; and it was upon his own experience that he gave afterward that holy advice, that we should “give a reason of the hope that is in us with meekness and fear,” 1 Peter 3:14,15, and “pass the time of our sojourning here in fear,” chap. 1:17.
The highest present confidences have ever proved the most deceiving presages of future stability. Wherefore, the utmost I design in the ensuing cautions is but to excite men unto a due apprehension of their danger, that they be not surprised into that pernicious security which is the mire wherein this rush doth grow. 1. The consideration of the extent and almost universality of this apostasy may be of use unto this purpose. Ignorance, profaneness, worldlymindedness, with sensuality of life, have obtained the most eminent catholicism in Christendom. The complaint of the prophet is not unsuited to the present state thereof: Isaiah 1:4-6, “Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken theLORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward. The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores.”
Do we hear but of this or that individual person who hath apostatized from a profession of holiness, into a sensual, wicked, worldly course of life, or is turned from the faith into pernicious errors? there is no man that is wise and careful of his eternal concerns, but he will take it as a warning to examine, try, and be careful of himself; and this counsel is laid before us by the apostle, 2 Timothy 2:17-19. What, then, is required of us when we see nations, churches, multitudes of people, by one means or other, degenerated from that power of godliness which once they professed? If we hear that one or other in a city is visited with the plague, we are not altogether insensible of our own concern and danger, because we know how usual it is for the infection of that disease to spread and diffuse itself; but if the whole city be infected, and thousands fall under it every week, there is none so sottish as to need much warning of their danger. And shall we be less concerned for our immortal souls and their eternal condition than we are for these frail carcasses and their continuance for a few days in the world, which, if they escape one distemper, may yet in a few moments fall under the power of another? This spiritual “pestilence,” that hath formerly “walked in darkness,” is now a “destruction wasting at noonday.” Nations are depopulated by it and cities left desolate, as unto their interest in God and the gospel; and is it not high time to “look diligently” lest the infection reach unto us also, lest we also should “fail” and come short “of the grace of God,” and be “hardened through the deceitfulness of sin?” As, then, our bodies are of the same natural frame and constitution, as they have in them the same burnouts, the same kind of animal spirits, as are in those who are infected with the plague, whereby we are obnoxious unto the same infection with them; so there are in our souls and minds the same principles of sin and love of the world as are infected, drawn away, enticed, excited, and enraged, by outward occasions and temptations, until they have issued in apostasy. Do we think that we shall be always easily preserved, and that whilst we are careless and secure, from that torrent which hath carried away such multitudes before it? Are we in ourselves better than they, or any of them? Have we a patent for our preservation, whilst we neglect any ways, means, or diligence that the rule requireth thereunto? Doth not God show unto us, not one, but many churches and nations, saying, “Go unto those Shilohs where I some time placed my name, and see what is become of them, and what I have done unto them? Will ye go after them? have yea mind to be made like unto them? Think not to say within yourselves, ‘We have Abraham to our father; we have those outward privileges and advantages which they had not:’ for they also enjoyed the same until they had forfeited them by their apostasy.” Certainly the general prevalency of this evil proclaims such a danger as no wise man, no man that takes care of his own salvation, ought or indeed can neglect. Wherefore, as it is always with Christians, if ever it be, a time to watch, to stand on our guard, to take unto ourselves the whole armor of God, to be jealous of ourselves, to be constant and diligent in the use of all means, both private and public, for our preservation, it is now a time so to be. And if professors will not be awakened; if they will not stir up themselves with the gifts and graces which they have received; if they will please themselves that all is well with them, and is likely so to be; if they will yet immix themselves with boldness and confidence in the ways of the world; — oh that my head were a fountain of tears! oh that my soul could mourn in secret for them! seeing assuredly they will not be able to stand in that day of temptation which is come upon the face of the earth, to try them that dwell therein. The outward court is long since given to be trodden down by the Gentiles, and how soon the enemies may roar in the very sanctuaries, and set up their banners for tokens, we know not; for, — 2. The present state of this defection hath a dangerous aspect. Physicians say, “Nemo moritur in declinatione morbi,” — “No man dies in the declension of his disease;” and when a public pestilential distemper is in its wane or decay, the danger is esteemed in a great measure over. But whilst a disease is yet growing and daily spreading its contagion, whilst the bills of mortality are every week increased, they are only hardened and profligate persons whom the commonness of the judgment renders regardless and senseless of it. And it is no otherwise with the evil complained of at this day. There is almost nothing in the world that all sober men do generally agree in but this alone, that the whole world doth daily wax worse and worse. Who can give an instance of the decrease or abatement of any one sin in its love or practice? but that some are advanced to higher degrees of confidence in their perpetration than former days or ages afford us any precedent of, every one can declare. What instances have we of a spiritual recovery from any of our decays? What attempts unto that purpose are made by any, unless by such as are not of consideration, as have not advantages to enable them to effect any thing therein? The world is highly at variance about religion, managing its differences with great animosities and industry, how one way, party, and profession, may draw persons from other ways and professions. The sole business of the church of Rome is, by all manner of artifices to win over men unto their communion; that is, a subjection of their souls, consciences, and entire interests here and for eternity, to the authority of the pope. Others bestir themselves as well as they are able to keep what they have, and to rescue men from their seductions; — and although they have the advantage of the truth on their side, and for the most part the advantage of abilities in the management of their cause, yet they visibly lose ground every day; and where one is recovered from the Roman interest, many are added unto it. And there can be no reason assigned hereof, but only that the apostasy is upon its increase, this being one way of it. Half that pains would have formerly turned a whole city from Popery which will not now succeed unto the preservation of one person. But, in the meantime, both in one profession and another, all sorts of men continue regardless of gospel holiness and obedience; and whilst they quarrel about the outward form, the inward power of godliness lies neglected. Do we see things anywhere in the world upon a recovery, or any thriving design for the retrieval of holiness? The name and thing are growing more and more into contempt. What instance can be given wherein this apostasy from the gospel doth or may exert itself, — be it in atheism, be it in Popery, in hatred of and scoffing at the mysteries of evangelical truth, in worldliness, profaneness, vanity, and sensuality of life, in the coldness of love and barrenness among professors, — that is not openly in its progress? And is this a time to be secure, careless, or negligent? Are we sure that this epidemical infection shall not enter our habitations? Do we not find how it hath, one way or other, attempted us already? Can we find no decay in zeal or love among ourselves, no adherence unto the world unsuited unto our present state and condition in it, no neglect of duties, no rareness in divine visitations, no want of life and delight in spiritual communion with Christ, no hurtful growth of carnal wisdom, with all its attendants? or have we not found ourselves, one way or other, sensibly attacked by these evils? It is to be feared that those who can make no observation of any thing of this nature among themselves are somewhat sick of the Laodicean distemper. And if we will not be awakened and stilted up to a more than ordinary diligence, care, and watchfulness, at such a season as this is, it is to be feared that ere long the generality of professors will come to be in the condition of the church of Sardis, — to have a name to live, but indeed and in the sight of Christ to be dead. 3. As this apostasy is yet in its progress, so what will be its event, what it will rise unto, is altogether uncertain. God can put a stop unto it when he pleaseth, as he hath in his holy purposes fixed bounds unto it which it shall not pass; but in the meantime, being greatly provoked by the ingratitude of a wicked world, no man knows how long he may suspend those more powerful influences and more extraordinary effects of his word and Spirit which are needful unto the healing of the nations, and without which they will not be cured. I hope for better things and pray for better things; but I have no certain ground of assurance that this apostasy shall not grow until, in one instance or other of it, it swallow up all visible profession. The whole world, so far as I know (I mean these parts of it), may become papal again, or be so corrupted in their principles and profane in their lives as that it is no great matter what their profession in religion be. Two things I do know or believe, — namely, (1.) That “the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his.” His elect, that truly fear him and diligently serve him, shall be preserved from perishing eternally, and from every thing that necessarily leads thereunto. (2.) That God hath appointed a time and season wherein he will not only put a stop unto this defection from the gospel, but an end also. He will one day execute the vengeance that he hath written and recorded on the throne, power, and kingdom of the antichristian apostasy, and in one day shall the plagues of Babylon come upon her; and he will again “turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call on the name of theLORD, to serve him with one consent,” Zephaniah 3:9.
He will again revive the beauty of his worship, and the glory of holiness in the earth; but, in the meantime, what things may come unto I know not.
Those who pretend to a clearer inspection into future things may not do amiss strictly to examine the grounds whereon they proceed; for many have been made ashamed of their predictions, that within such or such a time the yoke of Babylon should be broken. This is all I say (and I say it only for myself), I know no assurance that can be given on infallible grounds that the apostasy which we are treating of shall not one way or other, in one instance or other, become again to be catholic, and prevail against all open, visible profession of the purity and power of gospel worship and holiness. Now, if this be not so unto others, yet unto myself it ought to be a warning how I may be thought worthy to escape, and to stand before the Son of man. And I am sure there is so much danger of it at least as to deserve the consideration of all who take care of their eternal salvation; for if things should come to such a pass, they are not many, they are but very few, who will be entirely preserved. The most will, one way or other, suffer loss; and it is not an easy thing to be found among the number of the few in such a season. Can we think that men careless in holy duties, cold in zeal, lukewarm in love, barren in good works, cleaving to the world and conformable unto it, low in their light, dubious in their state, useless in the world, fearful of trials, will be of this number? They are woefully deceived who are pleased with such apprehensions Other principles, other ways, courses, and practices, will be required in them who shall be hidden and safeguarded in that day. 4. The various ways whereby this defection prevails in the world should also warn us to stand upon our guard. Were it of one sort only, did it work only one way, or make use of one engine alone for its progress, the evil and danger of it might be the more easily either withstood or avoided; but as we have before referred it unto three general heads, — with respect unto the doctrine, the holiness, and the worship of the gospel, — so under each of them there are various ways and means whereby it is promoted. The infection from this plague is taken innumerable ways, Hebrews 12:1.
Some take it in their shops or especial vocations; some in their societies, civil and ecclesiastical; some from the vanities and pleasures, some from the profits and advantages, of the world. Unbelief, the deceitfulness of sin, corrupt lusts and affections, spiritual sloth, cares about and love of riches, lie all in a readiness to give entertainment to and to embrace any opportunity, advantage, or means, whatever it be, whereby this apostasy may be admitted and take place in them. See Hebrews 3:12,13, 12:15- 17. Satan, in the meantime, labors by his insinuations to corrupt our minds, to poison our lusts, and to supply them with all inveigling or provoking objects, 2 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Peter 5:8. In this state of things, look how many public temptations there are in the world, so many general ways and means are there whereby this apostasy doth prevail; and who can reckon up these temptations? Hence it is that men fall under this evil in such various ways, and unto such various degrees. Some do so by errors and “damnable heresies, denying the Lord that bought them;” some by superstition and idolatry; some by a contempt of gospel mysteries, and preferring another way of duty before evangelical obedience; some by ambition and pride of life; some by love of the world, and a neglect of duties spiritual and moral, under a deceiving profession; some by suffering carnal wisdom and some sensual lusts to devour their convictions and their efficacy; some by the uncertainty of their minds, brought to an indifferency in all things supernatural and divine; some by vain-glory and shame to be found among the scorned society of those who are truly religious; and multitudes are initiated into an irrecoverable profaneness by the vain pomps and spectacles of the age. And other ways there are, more than can be recounted, whereby this evil is propagated, and men fall under the power of it. By this means the very common air we breathe in is infected, 1 Corinthians 15:33. Snakes are in all grass whereon we tread, and scorpions under every stone. Snares are laid for us on every hand, and those (some of them) so gilded and set off, that multitudes of loose professors have taken them up and wear them as their ornaments. Those who escape one evil do every day fall into others. And how shall they escape who are encompassed with so many dangers, if they live in the neglect of any one duty or means of their preservation that God hath appointed and made useful thereunto? 5. Consider that there is an apostasy which is irrecoverable, and it will end in eternal ruin. This is that which we are taught in this context, according unto the exposition before given of it. No man in this world can be, by the rule of the gospel, in an unsalvable condition, — that is, be concluded under an unavoidable destruction by any known rule of the revealed will of God, — unless it be an apostate. There are also several sorts and degrees of apostasy that may have several causes and effects, and so various events. Great surprisals, strong temptations, negligence in watching against the deceitfulness of sin, may produce temporary abnegations of Christ and the gospel, woful declensions from the due observation of his commands, with wandering into foolish opinions, and yet persons may be recovered from them all, and brought by repentance unto salvation. Signal instances of this grace and patience in God might be given. And this is sufficient to render the despair of them causeless who are ever awakened in this world [in] time enough to endeavor a deliverance from any sin, or course of sinning, provoking and destructive; for when any man is by any means called to have any thing to do with God about his eternal concernments, God doth not allow him to be the absolutely sovereign judge of himself, which would usurp his prerogative and put the sinner in the place of God.
There is neither goodness, nor grace, nor mercy fu him, but what I can comprehend.” And this evil God hath obviated in signal instances of the recovery of great apostates. But yet withal there is, as we have showed, an apostasy that is irrecoverable; and hereof God permits many examples in this world, to put an awe not only on bold and presumptuous, but also on careless and negligent sinners: for whereas our apostle cloth expressly twice mind the Hebrews of this severity of God against apostates, in this place and in chap. 10:26,27, in the one he doth it with respect unto unprofitableness under the means of grace, and in the other with respect unto a negligence in attending unto the administration of gospel ordinances.
Now, whereas any men may be overtaken with the beginning of decays and declensions from the holiness and worship of the gospel, all which have a tendency in their own nature unto this irrecoverable apostasy, ought they not to be continually jealous over themselves, lest they should pass the bouunds God hath fixed unto his patience and grace? Ought we not to be careful about every sin or omission of duty that hath a tendency unto this doleful issue? For this very end, that we may be warned to take heed of the beginning of apostasy, doth the apostle in this place declare the end of it. The reader may, if he please (to help him herein), consult our discourses on chap. 4:3. It is not an easy task to stop a course in backsliding when once it is entered into. And I shall close this warning with naming two directions unto this purpose: — (1.) Take heed of a course in any sin. Though every sin cloth not immediately tend unto final apostasy, yet a course in any sin continued doth so. (2.) Take heed of touching on such especial sins as have a peculiar tendency thereunto; and of what nature they are hath been declared. 6. Our last consideration of this kind shall be taken from the nature and guilt of this sin, wherever it be found, with the severity of God against it; and we may look upon it as it is total, such as that supposed by the apostle, Hebrews 6:4-6. The exposition we have given of the words will warrant us to conclude that total apostasy from the gospel once professed is a greater sin, and of a more heinous nature, than that of the Jews in crucifying the Lord Christ in the days of his flesh. This was sufficiently proved in the exposition of the words. It remains only that we do briefly inquire what doth concur unto such a total apostasy, whereby the truth of the exposition and the necessity of the warnings given will be made yet more evident. And though I shall speak with especial respect unto total apostasy from all profession, yet are the things that shall be spoken to be found, in their degree and measure, in all those who are guilty of that partial defection which we have described. There are, therefore, always found in this great offense the things ensuing: — (1.) The loss of all taste of any goodness or excellency in the gospel, in the truth or state of its profession and worship. There is no man who hath ever made a profession of the gospel in earnest, beyond pretense and custom, but he hath found some kind of taste, relish, or sweetness, in the things of it. They “taste of the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come.” Either in the things themselves, or in the manner of their dispensation, or of the duties of worship enjoined therein, they have found somewhat that hath given their minds and consciences some satisfaction. A man cannot go into a pleasant garden in the spring but he will smell some savor from the flowers, though he gather not one of them. A man cannot take meat savory and well condited into his mouth but he will taste the relish of it, though he have no mind nor appetite to eat it; nor can any man walk in the sun but he will have some impressions from its heat. It is so, it can be no otherwise, with them who live under the preaching of the gospel and make profession of its doctrine. More or less it will insinuate itself into their minds with a taste of its excellency and goodness. This in the case considered is lost in the first place; and generally it comes to pass by a love of sin and the pleasures of the world. When this hath filled and possessed the soul, all its senses grow dead unto spiritual things, it hath no faculty or ability to taste any relish in them, yea, it loathes and abhors them as contrary to what it hath immersed itself in or given up itself unto.
This usually is lost in the first place. Such persons find nothing any longer in Christ or the gospel for which they should either delight in them or desire them. And it seems to be thus with so many in the world who once gave hopes of better things, that the consideration of it is dreadful. (2.) This is quickly followed with a loss of all prevading evidence and conviction of the truth of the very doctrine of the gospel. This conviction all are supposed to have who profess it, and all really have it who profess it in any sincerity. Why else do they make profession of it, if they assent not unto its truth upon its conviction and evidence? for we speak not at all of them whose profession hath no other principle or foundation but custom or education. Others build their persuasion upon grounds and evidences prevalent to obtain their assent unto the truth against temptations and objections. This apostates lose in the next place. The truth remains what it was, and so do the arguments and evidences of it; but they have no longer any force upon or authority in their minds. It may be they do not presently renounce the gospel as a lie or “a cunningly-devised fable;” they may let the notions of it lie loose in their minds for a season neglected and unregarded, but give them no part of that entertainment which is due unto acknowledged truths of that nature, nor do they receive any impressions from its authority. And when men have lost these, they have lost their assent to the truth of the gospel upon its proper evidence, and are directly unbelievers; and this on every occasion will issue in a formal renunciation of the truth of the whole. And when men arrive unto this posture in their minds, they will discover themselves, as by a conversation wholly regardless of the precepts of Christ, so also by light, irreverent expressions concerning the Scripture; which, where they have freedom, will be poured out from the abundance of their hearts. This step towards total apostasy will follow that foregoing. When once men have lost all taste and relish of the goodness and excellency of the word of God on their hearts and affections, they will not long retain any prevalent evidence of its truth in their minds. Hence, — (3.) A contempt of the things promised in the gospel doth ensue. The promises of the gospel do indeed contain those things wherein the evident blessedness and happiness of our nature doth consist. Such are serenity of mind in this world, and eternal felicity in the enjoyment of God. These, for the substance of them, mankind cannot despise until they grow atheistically brutish; but they may, and many do so, in the manner and on the terms of their proposal and declaration by the promises of the gospel.
That this enjoyment of God, wherein everlasting happiness consisteth, must be in and through Jesus Christ alone; that the way of attaining thereunto, and the only means of present peace and serenity of mind, is by faith and obedience in and unto him, — this they despise and contemn.
This naturally follows on the former; for all expectation of good by and from the promises of the gospel depends on the evidence that we have of the truth thereof, and when that is lost, these will be despised. Now, herein consisteth one of the greatest aggravations of this sin; for whereas men cannot but desire the things (for the substance of them) which are promised in the gospel, as those wherein their blessedness doth consist, they will, out of hatred to Jesus Christ, reject and despise them, and eternally deprive their souls of them, rather than accept of them in and through him. They will rather never have any interest in God than have it by Christ. This rejection, therefore, of the promises of the gospel, as those which either as to the matter of them are not to be desired, or as to the truth of them not to be trusted, is the most provoking sin. No greater reproach can possibly be cast on Jesus Christ, as that which leaveth him the honor neither of his truth nor power, neither of which the Jews could in the least impeach when they took away his life. And, — (4.) They choose some other way or means in the place and stead of Christ and the gospel, for the ends which they once sought after by them. So did those persons who fell off to Judaism. They looked for that in the law and ceremonies which they could not find in the gospel. And of these there are two sorts: — [1.] Such as retain their first end in general, but reject the gospel from being a sufficient means for attaining it; [2.] Some that renounce the whole end itself, and seek for satisfaction other ways.
The former are such as preserve an aim in general to worship God, to do that in religion which may be accepted by him, and to believe that of him which is right; but they reject the gospel as an insufficient and deceitful guide in and about these things. And this is done either totally, by such as apostatize to Judaism or Mohammedanism; or partially, by such as turn off from the purity, truth, spirituality, and mystery of the gospel unto Popery, or the like. I say not this with an intention to charge the guilt of this whole sin on this latter sort; only I say, they share in a very considerable part of it, and without repentance will do so in the punishment due unto it. And this casts the scorn of folly on Christ and the gospel; both absolutely, as having neither truth nor efficacy sufficient for the end proposed by them; and comparatively, that a falsehood or lie, a diabolical invention or delusion, is to be preferred before them; — which is the highest provocation unto the eyes of God’s glory. The latter sort quite cast off the general end of pleasing God and living unto him. For a while they thought that this would have brought them in some considerable satisfaction, and used the gospel to that end and purpose; but now being fallen under the power of the former degrees of apostasy, in contempt of the gospel, as that which will not afford any tolerable answer unto their expectations, they take up in the lusts and pleasures of the world, preferring them before all the promises of Christ, and despising all the threatenings denounced against those that pursue them. And of this sort of apostates we have numberless examples in the world. (5.) Hereunto is added a perfect hatred and contempt of such as abide constant in, their adherence unto and profession of the gospel. Constant observation hath approved the saying, “Apostata est osor sui ordinis;” great apostates have been always great persecutors, in word or deed, according to their power. As those who love Christ do love all that are his, because they are his, so they that hate him do hate all that are his, because they are his; and their hatred, because it is against the whole kind, acts itself every way possible. They despise them as weak and foolish for adhering and trusting to the things which they have relinquished, trusting to themselves, their reason, and gallantry of spirit. They are filled with revenge against them, as those who censure, judge, and condemn them as guilty of the highest villainy and most desperate wickedness. They know in their hearts that they have reserves against them, as persons whom their Lord will one day judge and destroy; which makes them design, if it were possible, their utter extirpation from the face of the earth. Those who crucified Christ in his own person did it but once, and could do so no more. These do so every day; for what is done unto any of his, for his sake, he esteemeth as done unto himself: “Why persecutest thou me?” (6.) Those persons who proceed thus far do always fall into a peculiar contempt of the Spirit of God, and his whole work in the dispensation of the gospel. The promise of the dispensation of the Spirit is the especial privilege and glory of the gospel. He is sent and given in an especial manner by Jesus Christ as exalted. His whole work is to glorify and exalt Jesus Christ, and to make his mediation effectual unto the souls of men; and in the things which concern him and his work lies the life and soul of the gospel. Hence those who apostatize from it have a peculiar enmity against him and his work; and this usually is one of the first things wherein the fatal backslidings of men do manifest themselves. When once men “tread under foot the Son of God, and count the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing,” as they do in the former instances, they will assuredly “do despite unto the Spirit of grace,” Hebrews 10:29. How this is done in particular shall be considered on that place, if God will, and we live thereunto. Under this head and degree the sin of apostasy becomes formally irremissible. (7.) An open profession of a detestation of the gospel, so far as it is consistent with their worldly interests and advantages, completes the soulruining sin we treat of. It may be they may live in such times and places as that it would be to their secular disadvantage openly to avow their renunciation of Christ; but when that is the only curb from the declaration of themselves, the frame of their minds is esteemed for a full profession of their apostasy.
Now, whereas all these things, and it may be sundry others, do concur unto this sin of apostasy, I shall conclude two things concerning it: — 1. That it is a far greater sin than that of the generality of the Jews who crucified Jesus Christ in the days of his flesh, as was before asserted. 2. That it is inconsistent with the holiness, righteousness, honor, and faithfulness of God, to renew such persons as are fully and openly guilty hereof unto repentance.
Repentance may be given unto them in hell with as much advantage unto the glory of God; for when men, after trial and experiment, with some convictions of its truth and excellency, do obstinately reject the only remedy and relief that God hath provided for sinners, and therein do despite unto the whole blessed Trinity, and each person thereof in his peculiar interest in the dispensation and application of grace, God neither in his faithfulness will, nor in his holiness can, have any thing more to do with such presumptuous sinners in a way of mercy. He may and doth endure them for a while in this world, and that without any visible tokens of his indignation, satisfying his justice in the spiritual judgments that are upon them; but it is only as “vessels of wrath fitted to destruction,” and such “whose damnation slumbereth not.” And these things may suffice to warn men of the danger of this evil; and they will be warnings unto all who shall consider them, who are not hardened through the deceitfulness of sin; and all the judgments of God, which are either impendent over or already inflicted on a wicked, apostatizing world, are calls from heaven unto a consideration of them.
Now, although the generality of men seem to be secure enough from any trouble or discomposure in their minds from the consideration of things of this nature, yet some there are who may by their own misapprehensions fall under such discouragements as may hinder them in that course of obedience which they would pursue. I shall therefore divert a little, to prevent or remove the objections which such persons make against themselves, and from whence their discouragement doth arise, adding some directions suited unto their state or condition; for, — First, Some may suppose themselves so far interested in the backsliding and apostasy described, as that the threatening denounced in the text doth belong unto them also, and that they are now judicially shut up under impenitency; for they say that they had attained unto a greater measure or degree of holiness, unto more readiness, evenness, and constancy in the duties of obedience, than they do now retain. They have fearfully and woefully fallen off from a better frame, into deadness, barrenness, neglect of duties, and it may be in some instance into a sinful course, and that for many days. Hence now they fear, lest as they are sensible that they have forsaken God and gone off from him, so he should forsake them utterly, and they should be sealed up under impenitency. Ans . As this case too often falls out, so it is often answered, and I shall not therefore much insist upon it, nor any otherwise but as our present design and discourse is concerned therein. And I say, — 1. It is to be granted that all such backslidings are not only evil and sinful, but dangerous also, as to the issue and event. Whoever, therefore, find themselves under the power of them, or any way overtaken by them, ought not only to consider the guilt of all the particular sins and omissions of duties which they contract, but principally the whole state of their souls, and the danger they are in of being “hardened through the deceitfulness of sin:” for no man in such a state can have the least spiritual assurance or security that he shall not fall totally and finally from God; and whatever persuasion he hath of that nature, it is but a deceiving presumption that will effectually promote his apostasy and ruin, for there is no word of truth, no promise of God, to assure any of his love and favor whilst they are in such a state. It is therefore unquestionably the duty of every one who is sensible of any evil of this nature, in the frame of his heart or course of his life, to give himself no rest therein, seeing the eternal welfare of his soul is highly in question. But, — 2. There is a decay, a falling away from the degrees of holiness and obedience that men may have attained, and that, it may be, for a long season, and possibly with respect unto some especial sin, which is recoverable, and which doth not cast persons under the power of it absolutely into the threatening here recorded. What circumstances are required hereunto and what aggravations of sin have been showed in the opening of the words. Now, there may be a falling away, and that great and dangerous, which yet riseth not up unto the provocation of the evil here in an especial manner intended. And I judge it may be given as a safe rule in general, that he who is spiritually sensible of the evil of his backsliding is unquestionably in a recoverable condition; and some may be so who are not yet sensible thereof, so long as they are capable of being made so by convictions. No man is past hopes of salvation until he is past all possibility of repentance; and no man is past all possibility of repentance until he be absolutely hardened against all gospel convictions. Wherefore there is a recoverable backsliding: for, — (1.) Christ calleth men unto such a recovery, which, therefore, he approves of, and will assist them therein who conscientiously apply themselves unto their duty, Revelation 2:5, 3:1-3; which latter instance is great in this kind. (2.) God hath promised to recover and heal such backslidings in believers, Hosea 14:4. And unto whom this is not encouragement sufficient to endeavor a recovery of themselves, it is to be feared they will wax worse and worse through the power of sin, until it hath full dominion over them; yea, what pretenses soever they make to keep themselves off from such endeavors, it is either unbelief or the love of sin that is the sole proper cause thereof. Wherefore, — (3.) If the backsliding whereof men complain from the ways of holiness and obedience have not proceeded out of dislike unto Christ and the gospel; if they have not, by the power and deceit wherewith they are accompanied, chosen any other way of duty or sin in his stead, — as there is all necessity imaginable that they should, so there is all encouragement necessary to put them upon the diligent use of all means of a blessed recovery. Suppose their decays have befallen them, or that they have fallen into them, through the power of temptations, the deceitfulness of sin joining with their own sloth and negligence, — which is the highest supposition that can be made in this kind, — yet if they shall say in their hearts that they “will return to their former husband, for then it was better with them than now,” they had peace and much refreshment in their first ways of faith and obedience, which they will therefore return unto; as the Lord Christ calls upon them so to do, so he is ready in all the promises of the gospel to receive them upon their so doing. Only let such persons remember that the command is urgent on them, as on Lot when he was to flee out of Sodom, and the angel said unto him, “Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.” There is no time of deliberation, much less of delay in this matter. It is for their souls, and the present moment wherein they are warned is the only season for their escape; and if any shall yet linger as Lot did, the Lord lay hold upon them, and bring them forth by the power of his grace, that they may be delivered! What are the ways whereby this may be done, what duties such persons are with diligence to attend unto, what means they are to use, are not things which at present fall under our consideration. All that I design is, to show that those who thus complain are not cast under any discouragement by this context and its exposition from an endeavor of a recovery, wherein they will find acceptance with God.
Secondly, It may be alleged that, as to the issue of things, it will be all one whether we fall from gospel holiness or can never attain unto it; — “And this,” say some, “is our condition; for whatever we have thought of ourselves, or whatever others have thought of us upon our profession, yet we now find by experience that we have not attained the holiness which the gospel requires.” For their corruptions (they say, this or that, it may be, in particular) are too strong for their convictions; and after they thought themselves above them, they have again been prevailed on and overcome. They find the power of one or other lust grown so habitual unto them that they fall again and again under the power of it, until, it may be, they have lost much of the sense of its guilt and more of their power to resist it. And it must be acknowledged, also, that this condition is spiritually dangerous, and such as, if deliverance be not obtained from [it], will probably end in total apostasy. To state things aright in this case, we may observe: — 1. That there are three degrees in the power and prevalency of sin, and it must be inquired under which of them they are supposed to be concerning whom this complaint is made. The first is that mentioned Romans 7:23, “I see a law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin.”
Where this is only, or the captivating power of sin, there are two things to be considered: — (1.) That the will, in its dispositions and inclinations, is constantly fixed against the power and interest of sin, so that in all its prevalency it suffers hardship, and is sensible of its captivity. (2.) That this captivity unto the law of sin doth not reach unto the outward perpetration of sin, but only the conflict that is in the mind and affections about it.
And this is a condition which no man in this world is absolutely freed from, but is in some measure or other exercised with it, even as the apostle himself was, and thereon groaned for deliverance, verse 24. Another degree of the prevalence of sin is expressed chap. 6:16, 19, “Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” There is a state and prevalence of sin wherein men, being wholly under its dominion, do give up themselves unto its service willingly, notwithstanding any checks from light or conscience they meet withal. And such as these, the willing servants of sin, that yield up themselves in their affections and members of their bodies unto the obedience and service of it, we do not at present consider. Between these there is a degree of the prevalence of sin, beyond the first, yet falling short of the latter, expressed 2 Peter 2:19. Men are therein in some sense “servants of corruption,” in that they are “overcome” by it and “brought into bondage.” They are not such as willingly, without any contest or conflict, give up themselves unto the service of sin, but they are overcome by it, which manifests that they do in some measure strive against it. And, on the other hand, they go beyond them who complain they are led captives to the law of sin; for they are said to become “servants of corruption,” which the others are not in any sense. These, therefore, seem to be such (and such I do intend) who, notwithstanding all their light and convictions, with all the endeavors that they use, are so far under the power of some prevalent habitual lust as to serve it in a frequent reiteration of actual sins. 2. If this be the case complained of, it is acknowledged to be a condition of no small hazard and danger. And he who is not deeply sensible hereof is “as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast;” as this state is at large described with respect unto them who are given to wine, Proverbs 23:29-35. Wherefore, unless some remedy be found out in this case, it must be acknowledged that it will deprive men of or keep them from any assured interest in gospel holiness.
I must not here divert to consider in general the nature and means of the mortification of sin; I have done it already in other discourses, with the best directions for that end which I am able to propose. Unto them I do refer the persons concerned for guidance and counsel, where better is not at hand. Unto what hath been so treated already I shall only add, that those who would secure an interest in gospel holiness, by a deliverance from the power of inveterate habitual corruptions, may take the ensuing directions: — First, If they have in vain attempted their own deliverance, let them not delay to acquaint some able spiritual guide with their state and condition.
This sometimes hath broken, defeated, and scattered at once the forces of sin in the soul, where in its own wisdom and strength it was no way able to conflict with it. And it is the ordinance of God to this purpose: James 5:16, “Confess your faults one to another,” etc. It was no small effect of the craft of Satan so to abuse this ordinance of God by turning it into a necessary confession of all sin unto a priest, invested with power of absolution, which was attended with innumerable evils, and proved an effectual engine for the ruin of the souls of men, to keep them off from that benefit which the due use of it was designed to administer unto sinners. If, therefore, any have found that sin hath been and yet is too strong for them, and that that is come upon them which the wise man mentions, “Woe to him that is alone,” let them address themselves for advice unto such as have “the tongue of the learned,” to speak a word in season unto them that are weary and ready to faint, and they will find relief. God will discover that evil of this kind which men will hide to their own disadvantage, tie will lay open those festered wounds which men would cover until rottenness enter into their bones.
Secondly, The effect aimed at will never be accomplished without violence offered unto ourselves as unto all occasions of sin, — namely, as to the particular corruption supposed prevalent. In this case, when known occasions of the excitation or acting of the evil complained of do occur, no deliberations, or inclinations, or civil compliances are once to be admitted.
Violence and sudden execution of foretaken resolves, without any parley or debate, are to be pursued. This is the condition wherein our Savior’s advice must take place, if we intend to escape, namely, of “plucking out a right eye, and cutting off a right hand,” Matthew 5:29,30; which cannot be done without offering violence unto our affections and inclinations. This is the meaning of the counsel given, Proverbs 4:14,15, “Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men. Avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away.”
The multiplication of the expressions wherein the duty charged doth consist doth intimate that, in the obedience required in this particular, a resolution acted with a holy violence is required. And there are three things in this holy violence with respect unto the occasions of a prevalent corruption: — 1. The mind’s rejection of their first solicitations. When such seasons do befall or are befalling any man as wherein his lust or sin hath wonted to act itself, they smile on one another and are ready to shake hands in folly, Psalm 50:18; Proverbs 23:31; and sundry things will present themselves unto the mind to render the occasion necessary, or at least not dangerous. But if all insinuations of that kind be not immediately rejected without parley or delay, the soul probably will be again entangled and overcome. 2. A stated satisfaction concerning the folly of reserves, although the occasion should be complied withal or embraced, so as that the mind will hear no more of them, under any pretense whatever. Such reserves will offer themselves, as that although a man proceed so far or so far in the gratification of his present inclinations, yet he will put a stop unto or avoid what they may lead unto. When the mind is fully possessed [aware] of the deceitfulness of the heart in this matter, it will see its own folly in listening after such false promises or reserves, and reject the first thought of them with indignation. 3. Local mutation, or avoiding the place itself, or society and company, with a holy force put upon the affections, where such occasions are offered. This is that which is so expressed and pressed on us in the place before mentioned, Proverbs 4:14,15.
These things belong unto that holy violence which men are to use unto themselves, and must use, if ever they intend to be freed from the power of an habitually prevalent corruption; and those who judge their deliverance not to be worth this watchfulness and care will live and die under the power of sin.
Thirdly, Constancy in private prayer against the power of such a corruption. This is all the way a man hath to deal with God about such an evil; for such things are to be thought and spoken, such circumstances to be insisted on, and such pleas to be used, as are not meet to be communicated to or with others. And, for the most part, it will be found that constant, earnest, faithful, private prayer, and any strong corruption, will be like Moses and Amalek. When Moses’ hands were down Amalek prevailed, but when they were lifted up Israel had the upper hand. And if a man engage into especial prayer in opposition unto any sin or corruption, whatever he thinks of his own resolutions, whatever confidence he hath in his purposes, as he begins to fail or faint in the constancy or fervency of that duty, so his sin gets strength in him, and will not fail to attempt him successfully on the next occasion; nor will the utmost effect of any man’s wisdom, or care, or ability, work out his deliverance in this case, without a conscientious attendance unto and discharge of this duty.
Sundry other things of an alike nature unto these might be insisted on, but that I must not too far digress from my principal design. This I thought meet to interpose for the direction of such as may be kept off from a successful endeavor to “perfect holiness in the fear of God.”