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Concerning the Terms of Acceptance, &c.
St. JAMES ii. 10.
For whosoever shall keep the whole Law, and yet offend in one Point, he is guilty of all.
IN last Discourse I proposed,
I. To shew you the true meaning of these Words.
II. To lay down the Doctrine certainly taught, or implied, in them.
III. To answer some Questions which may arise upon this Subject.
IV. To draw such Observations and Inferences, from the whole, as may be of use, in order to our successful Endeavours after Eternal Life.
As to the first of these; I then shewed you that one who allows himself in the wilful Neglect of any known Duty, or in the wilful Commission of any known Sin, may justly be said to be guilty, with respect to the other parts of God’s Law, as well as this particular Instance, as he sins against that Divine Authority by which the whole was enacted; and as the sinning against that Authority in one Instance doth imply in it a Neglect and Contempt of it in all others also, in which it is of no greater force or account, than it is in this Particular: and likewise, as the Disposition of Mind which permits or induceth the Sinner wilfully to transgress in one Instance, would inevitably produce the same Effect, in other Instances, supposing all the Circumstances of Inclination, and Temptation, to be equal.
AS to the second Head; I shewed you that the main Design of the Passage was to assure Men of the Folly of imagining that they could atone for the wilful Violation, and continued Transgression, of any one Law of God, by the Observation of others: and therefore, that the least that could be intended by St. James in it was this, that it is an universal Obedience to all his Laws which God expects of Christians; that if they think to except any part of his Will from their Observation, and that He will excuse this for the Sake of Obedience to other parts of it, they will find themselves miserably deluded; and that nothing can recommend them to his Favour at last, but a sincere, constant, and universal Obedience to all his Commands, without Partiality, and without Exception; and that upon the Condition of such an Obedience, for the Time to come, any Christian who hath been a Sinner, may hope for his Mercy, thro’ Jesus Christ: but not without it; as far as we know of his Will declared in the Gospel. This I shewed you to be plain from these Words of St: James, as well as others of our Lord himself: and likewise from the many Absurdities following from the contrary Supposition. I come now,
III. To consider some Questions, and Doubts, which may arise upon this Subject.
Now there are Two which presently offer themselves to our Thoughts. The first is this, Whether it doth not follow from what hath been said that Almighty God requires of us a perfect, sinless, Obedience. To which I answer,
1. IT is certain that God requires an Obedience to all, and every of his Commands; at all Times, and in all Places equally: and likewise that there is no one Sin, or Transgression of his Law, in any one Instance, but what He disapproves of, and absolutely forbids. And therefore, if our Practice were directed, without Variation, by his Rules; it would be a perfect and sinless Obedience. In this Sense therefore, it may justly be said that He requires a perfect, sinless Obedience at our Hands, free from all wilful Sin. And wilful Sin being that which we could have avoided, if we would; it is certain, He may justly forbid, and condemn it in every Instance. Nay, this we might be certain of, without any express Revelation, that the supreme infallible Understanding, the most wise and holy God, could not but will that every Law of Reason should be strictly and constantly observed by reasonable Creatures: and could not but condemn all wilful Transgressions of it, as the most unreasonable and absurd Practices. But now, since this is such an Obedience as was never yet actually performed by any Mortal; every Man in the World having found himself surrounded with Infirmities, and misled by Temptations and Trials, in some Instance or other, to as that He cannot but confess himself guilty of some wilful Deviation, in some Point or other, from the Rule of right Reason, and the Will of God; it remains to enquire what Condescension, is shewn by Almighty God, in the Gospel, thro’ i.
2: THEREFORE, it is certain, from the Gospel, that every wilful Transgression of his Law is not unpardonable: for the Design of it, was to offer Pardon upon some Conditions to wilful Sinners. This is very consistent with the former Proposition: For, as a Father may command such and such Particulars; and yet admit his Son to Reconciliation, upon some Terms, after he hath transgressed any of these Commands: so likewise may Almighty God require Obedience to every one of his Commands, at all Times, And in all Places and yet, after any have been so unhappy as wilfully to transgress any of his Commands, He may forgive them these Transgressions, upon some certain Terms and Conditions. It is, therefore, certain that Almighty God forbids every Sin always, and enjoins the Practice of every Virtue at all Opportunities; and in this Sense may be said to require a sinless Obedience: and it is as certain that there is room left by his open Declarations, for Favour and Mercy to such as have wilfully committed Sin. It appears, therefore,
3. THAT the Perfection, which is so required of Christians, as that they shall not be made happy at last without it, is Amendment and Reformation in those Instances in which they have wilfully failed; and a constant Progress in Virtue and well-doing, This State of the Case at once guards against that comfortless Doctrine, on the one hand, that God will insist at last upon that spotless and absolute Perfection which never was yet known in a Mortal: and against that fatal Mistake, on the other hand, that He will accept Sinners to Mercy, for the. Sake of Christ, tho’ they have no Signs in their Lives and Behaviour, of their hearty Repentance, and Detestation of Sin.
THE Perfection required of Man, in a State of Trial and Probation, cannot, be a State uncapable of Improvement: because this seems not attainable in such a State by such a Creature; or, at least, never was actually attained by any. And who, according to this Rule, supposing this to be required, could come to any well-grounded Hopes of Happiness? For who in his Senses can think himself at any time so good, so perfectly free from every thing evil, as He might possibly be? But it must consist in a daily Progress, and sincere Endeavour, after Perfection; in an increasing Conquest over what is evil in us; and in a daily acquiring more and more of those good Qualities, in which we can think our selves defective. This progressive Motion in the Paths of Virtue, and this increasing Conquest over Sin, will sufficiently demonstrate the sincere Repentance of a Sinner; and will be a good Foundation in his breast, for Hope and Comfort.
IN this Sense therefore, God requires universal Obedience to all his Commands equally; and insists upon it as a Condition without which we shall not be happy at last, that in what Instances soever we have in Time past offended, in these He expects us for the future to amend; that in what Points soever of the Law of Righteousness we are defective, He absolutely requires an Improvement in them; a Progress, or growing, in all that is good; a Departure, or flying, from every thing that we know to be evil. He will bestow no Happiness upon those who go on to allow themselves in any one known Transgression of his Law: till Death overtakes them; nor doth He in the Gospel give us Ground to entertain any Hopes, that they than ever experience his Favour, or be put upon the Level with such as by patient Continuance in well-doing seek after Glory and Immortality.
THIS, therefore, is a sufficient Answer to the first Question, concerning the Obedience required to all God’s Commands; that it cannot be so understood, as if He would not make any happy who had not arrived in this World at a State of absolute Perfection and Freedom from every degree of Sin, or moral Evil: but must be understood thus, that He doth absolutely require of all who know themselves to have been in any respect wilful Sinners, that they do sincerely set about the Work of Amendment; and demonstrate their Sincerity by getting Ground of their Vices: by proceeding to greater degrees of Virtue; and by going still more and more towards the Perfection of rational Creatures; at least till they are out of the Power and Dominion of any known Sin; and till they are in such measure possessed of the contrary Virtue, as to be justly denominated virtuous in that Instance in which they know they have been vicious. This is a State of Perfection to which the meanest Christian may arrive; if He knows but what Virtue and Vice mean. This is that Condition of our Acceptance, that Law of the Gospel, which will admit of no Abatements at the great Day. And it is an invaluable Mercy, that God will accept of this Progress, and Improvement in Virtue, instead of State of blameless Perfection.
THE second Question which offers itself, now we have been speaking of the Terms of Favour proposed in the Gospel, and the Conditions of our Acceptance at last, is this, How we shall be able to form good Judgment concerning our own Condition; or to know when we are in such Circumstances, as to be able to have a well-grounded Hope unto Eternal Life.
WHAT I have said concerning the last Question will help us in the resolving this to our own Satisfaction: but I shall not refer to that; but be a little more particular. I am sensible, indeed, that many desire to know exactly what is barely enough for their Happiness, for fear they should do too much for themselves, not out of any Love to Virtue; but indeed out of Love to Vice, which they would gladly retain something of, if they could with any Safety. This, believe, is impossible to be defined exactly, so as to suit all Cases: God having never declared what is the lowest Pitch of Holiness that He will accept of at last. And I cannot but think it wisely concealed from Men; that so Sincerity may be encouraged, and a Love to Virtue, which, seems impossible to consist with the Notions of such Inquirers that so the more may depend upon Men’s own Integrity; and lest the general Progress in the Paths of Virtue, should be more stinted than it is already: it being too probable that most Men would be content to place themselves just out of Danger, rather than to make any large Progress in the Ways of Righteousness. For there is a great deal of difference between the Love of future Happiness, and the Fear of future Misery; and much more in the latter that moves the Actions of most Men, than in the former; and Ground enough for Suspicion, that if Men could but secure themselves from Punishment in the Life to come, they would stop just at that Pitch which they knew would do that, and not greedily aspire after such Degrees of Virtue as would carry them to great Heights of Happiness. But tho’ it be impossible to satisfy all the Inquiries of such Persons, as these; who indeed cannot be in a safe way, whilst they are of a Temper so little a-kin to Sincerity, and a serious Love of Religion: yet it may be possible to offer such Considerations as may help other more truly sincere Christians to judge whether have Ground to hope that they themselves are so disposed, and so free from Sin, as to be within the Covenant of Grace and Mercy, the Conditions of which I have, in some former Discourses, been representing and: explaining to you.
HE, therefore, who makes no other use of the gracious Proposals of the Gospel, but to encourage himself to recover from any Sin, of which He knows he hath wilfuly been guilty; and is so affected by any Instance of his past Weakness, as to keep a greater and stricter Watch over himself for the Time to come; He, who at any time finds, upon a review of himself, that, tho’ He be not absolutely perfect, yet He gets Ground of his Imperfections, and proceeds, by a daily Course, farther and farther, in the Paths of Virtue; He, who carefully avoids the Opportunities and Temptations, by which He knows He hath formerly fallen, may reasonably conclude that He is truly sensible of the Importance of Holiness, and of the Necessity or forsaking his Vices, and sincerely disposed to practise the one, and relinquish the other. He, who, when He unavoidably, and without any Fault of his own, meets with the same Trials, and Temptations, which have formerly vanquished him, finds his Belief of a future State and Sense of his Duty strong enough to vanquish them, and resist all their Arts and Force, hath good ground to Hope that He is in a Way acceptable to God.
IN some Cases, the Rule for this Judgment is so manifest that it cannot be mistaken. He who hath robb’d or cheated his Neighbour after any manner; whether by the Smiles of a Friend, or the Force of an Enemy; cannot but know whether He hath, or hath not, made Restitution, to the uttermost of his Power, of whatsoever He hath thus obtained by Fraud or Force. This is what removes the Guilt of that Injustice: and without this it is impossible He can think that He comes up to the Terms of Acceptance, or is in a safe Way to Happiness. So likewise, in all other sorts of personal Injuries, whether respecting the Reputation, or Quiet, of our Neighbour; He who doth to his utmost make Amends for the Damage received, comes up to the Terms of Acceptance, as far as this Crime is concerned. So that in this Case it is too easy to judge, for Men to pretend an Evasion. In fine, He is certainly in a safe Way, who, in this State, which, as I said, is not a State of absolute but of increasing Perfection in Virtue, is ever studying what He hath to subdue in himself, and is always subduing it by the Power of Religion.
ON the contrary; He, who takes Encouragement before sinning from the Doctrine of Acceptance and Reconciliation, delivered in the Gospel, to venture still farther in the Paths of Sin, with a foolish Hope of coming up to the Terms of that Acceptance some time or other, is as yet in a very unsafe Condition without any the least Ground of Hope from those Terms of Favour which He thus abuses to his own vile Purposes. He, who finds himself led by his sinning at any time, rather to love the Sin than to detest and guard against it; rather, to run to the Temptation, than to fly from it, hath too much Reason to suspect his own Case. He, who finds his Sense of the Importance of Morality and Virtue diminishing, and the Power 0f the World, or the Flesh, increasing over him, so far that he is still every Day carried by their Allurements, or Affrightments, into the Practice of Sin, may be sure that he is rather laying up for himself the Matter of a terrible Repentance to come, than truly repenting at this time of any thing past. He, who keeps Possession of what he hath unjustly obtained; or refuses to do right, or make Restitution, to his Neighbour whom he hath injured; how deep soever his Sorrow, how many soever his Tears may be, is far from the Way of God, or any well-grounded Hopes of Salvation, upon the Gospel-Terms. In a word, He, who finds within himself that his Virtue grows less, and his Passions increase in Strength; that he is so far from getting Ground of them, that they get ground of him every Day, is in the worst Condition we can well imagine. And He, who finds that he is a Captive to any one wilful Sin; that he has not yet made any successful Warfare against it; that he hath not yet got out of its Power; that his Faith in God, his Sense of Religion, his Belief of a future State, are not sufficient to disengage him from it; but that it keeps its Ground, and is too hard for the Resistance of his Virtue, may be sure that He is not yet in such a Condition, as that He may at all depend upon the Favour of God, promised in the Gospel to returning Sinners; having not yet made himself any more obedient to his whole Will than He hath been in Time past.
THESE Particulars I have laid down briefly: but hope the Consciences of all, who are any ways concerned, will apply what has been said to their own particular Cases; without any such foolish Partiality as may endanger their own Eternal Salvation. But if they will not act sincerely with themselves, when themselves only are concerned, and when Almighty God hath shewn such a tender Regard to their Interest; but, on the contrary, will endeavour, and labour hard, to put a Cheat upon their own Souls: how wonderfully strange is this? and how little Thanks will they owe themselves, when they come to feel the Effect of so wilful a Delusion! After having spoken to these Two Questions, I come now, in the last place, as I proposed,
IV. To draw such Observations and Inferences from the whole, as maybe of use to us in our successful Endeavours after Eternal Life. These are such as our Thoughts, I hope, have been naturally led into already by my part Discourses; and will often run into, when we come to retire, and to consider of our true and eternal Interest. The Time will now permit me to mention but Two or Three. As,
1. FROM the very Words of St. James in the Text, and the lowest Sense in which they can be understood, as well as from the Absurdity which I have shewn in the contrary Supposition, it is evident that, upon the Gospel Terms, there is no such thing as atoning for the Neglect of one Virtue by the Performance of others; nay, nor by the Performance of every other Virtue.
2. FROM what hath been said let every one observe, that it is not Inclination, or Custom, that can excuse or bear them out in the continued Commission of Sin, or in the repeated Neglect of any known Duty. For God excepts no Sin from his Condemnation; no Duty out of his Commands. He requires all equally, as we have seen: and to pretend to exempt our selves, is to put our selves out of his Jurisdiction, and Government; and to set our Humour and Inclination above his Law, and Authority. Yet how many Men do we meet with, who are apt to think their own Sin, to which they are most inclined, and most easily seduced, to be out of the Number of the condemned Vices; or else to hope that God will depart from his settled Rules, on purpose to release their Punishment. They will pray, and hear; and perhaps receive the Sacrament; and do several good Actions, to the end that their Inclination may be allowed of by God Almighty: and as long as they do what they have no great Temptation to allure them from doing; or omit that Sin to which they are under no strong Bias: they foolishly imagine that their Inclination and Bias to another Sin will be Excuse enough for their Darling and Bosom Vice. But, if St. James says true, they who are; in one Instance, Transgressors, are Sinners against all the Law; and the whole Authority by which it was enacted.
3. LET the very best of us be led, by what hath been said, to look narrowly into our selves, and to see whether there be not some latent Root of Vice in us: some secret and less observed Instance, in which we transgress the Will of God. The Christian World is come to pass, that He who is not guilty of open Acts of notorious Sin, Drunkenness, Adultery, Blasphemy, Revenge, or the like, passeth for a good Christian: and many think it well with them, because they cannot accuse themselves of such Sins. And so far indeed it is well. But alas! Though they be not thus openly lewd, and profligate: yet perhaps, there remains something in them that requires, and is worthy of, a Cure. They are not Swearers, or Drunkards, or Unclean, or Profane: but perhaps, a silent Discontent eats thro’ their Hearts; a secret grudging and repining discomposeth their Nights and Days; Envy gnaws upon them; or some Passion or other torments, and holds them Captive. Some Imperfection or other we may find, if we tarn our Eyes more to what we have of Evil in us, than to what we have not. And here lies the Business of every Christian, to conquer his own proper Enemy. If we have no very great ones; if we be out of the Reach and Power of the most formidable: the more Shame and Ignominy, to be led captive and spoiled by those of less Strength, and less Account. Let us not think it beneath us to exert ourselves against the least of God’s Enemies, and our own. Since ’tis a Progress towards Perfection that is required of us; let us think and act, as if we thought it our Duty to make this Progress.
IF thro’ the Happiness of a good Disposition, and careful Education, we have escaped those Pollutions under which so many in the World groan; let us thank God: and let us remember that it is from hence, that we are to begin our Race: that we have not those Impediments which others have created to themselves by a long Course of wilful Sin; and that we have Incitements, and Encouragements from hence, as well as Obligation, to attempt the greater Heights of Religion and Virtue. By Religion here I do not mean Devotion, and Prayer; which yet are of admirable Use, and of great Necessity but the greater Degrees of all that is good; the more sure Conquest over all our Passions; the more quiet Possession of our Souls in Patience; the more profound Submission to God’s Will, and to all the Dispensations of his Providence; the more composed Resignation of our selves to his good Pleasure, the bringing down every Imagination which raiseth it self against him; the subduing every undue Tendency in us towards worldly Ambition, Honour, or Riches; the quieting every turbulent Motion in our Breath; the taking off more and more the Edge of the Mind from all sensual enjoyments; the Discovery, and gradual Amendment, of the least Dislocations, the least irregular Movements, the most secret Disorders of our Wills and Affections. This is the Task of a Christian, who is past the Danger of being immersed in open Vice and Profaneness: to go on from Strength to Strength; from one Degree to another; from one Branch of Perfection to another; till He is called for by God into a State of greater Perfection. And whoever will seriously look into themselves, will find Instances enough of Imperfection; in the amending of which they will shew sincere Intention to please God, and give themselves a greater Hope of his Mercy than they could otherwise have.
BUT last of all, let none of us increase our own Misery by such a Baseness of Temper, as ungratefully to abuse the Mercy of God, offered us upon the Terms of the Gospel, to the Purposes of Sin and Wickedness. This is a Sin of a deep Hue; and what will indeed be the greatest Aggravation of our continuing in our Vices. God offers us, for the sake of his Son, to receive us to Favour, returning to him; and sincerely practising his whole Will for the future, without any Partiality, or Neglect of any part of it. It is a servile and ignominious Disposition, for which no Name is bad enough, to take occasion from the Offer of Mercy to which universal Amendment and Holiness is at any time entitled, to defer our Amendment and Holiness. The only generous Way; the only secure Way for our own Interest, (which we pretend to be so dear to us;) is immediately and without Delay to endeavour to came up to his Terms, that we may obtain his Promises; to work out our Salvation while the Day lasteth: because the Night cometh (we know not how soon) when no Man can work. Thus shall we find the Way to Eternal Life, before it be hid from our Eyes: which God grant we may! & c.
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