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Concerning the terms of Acceptance, &c.
For if we sin wilfully, after that we have received the Knowledge of the Truth, there remained, no more Sacrifice for Sin: but a certain fearful looking for of Judgment, and fiery Indignation, which shall devour the Adversaries.
I HAVE, in several Discourses, shewn you, from plain and uncontestible Passages of the New Testament, what those Terms and Conditions are, upon which Almighty God will finally pardon, accept, and justify, those professed Christians, who have been, in any Sense, or any Degree, wilful Sinners: and in my last Discourse I summ’d them up in that one Condition of sincere, universal, and impartial Obedience to all the Laws of God, without Exception; or a real and sensible Amendment of their Lives and Tempers, in all those Instances, in which they know themselves to have transgressed any of his Commandments. In order still more to confirm the Truth of what hath been said upon this Subject, design to consider particularly those several Schemes, and various Hopes, which the Imaginations of Men have framed to themselves, more agreeable to their own Humours, and Inclinations; in Opposition to these settled Conditions of God’s Favour.
BUT, before I set about this, it will be very proper to take notice of another sort of Mistake in this important Affair, equally contradictory to what I have already laid down; equally fatal to ill-disposed Minds; and very troublesome and afflictive to many well-meaning and honest Christians: and that is, the Opinion that their Case, as well as the Case of all professed Christians who have been at any time wilful Sinners, it so sad and desperate, that it is in vain for them to hope for Pardon and Reconciliation, upon any Terms; even tho’ they should heartily endeavour to come up to the Conditions I have heretofore laid down. These are of a differing sort, and of a differing Temper, from the most of their Neighbours. And their Opinion is pretended to be founded upon some Texts of the New Testament, which seem to speak of the Irremissibleness of some Sins, which perhaps they fancy themselves to have been guilty of; and particularly upon this Passage, now read to you: which, taken by it self, and separated from the Context and manifest Scope of the Writer of this Epistle, seems to conclude, in general, against all Hope of Pardon to such as have sinned wilfully after the receiving and professing the Christian Religion.
IN Opposition to such Imaginations, (which render all that I have before advanced of none effect) I shall not confine my View to this one Text of the New Testament: but I shall have regard to several others, which have been in the same manner, mistaken and misapplied; as well as to some Considerations taken from the Nature of God, and the End of the Gospel; designing
I. To shew the great Absurdity of fixing upon Almighty God or: the Christian Religion, any such Opinion as that all Hope of Pardon is cut off in the Gospel, from Any Christians who have been wilful Sinners. And
II. To consider particularly the Intent of those mistaken Texts; and the Impossibility of fairly fixing upon them any such Opinion as this.
AND these Points I think it very useful to explain. For tho’ the Generality of professed Christians are more apt to presume upon the Goodness and Mercy of God; and to interpret all Texts of Scripture concerning that, so much in their own Favour as to receive some Support from them, even whilst they wilfully continue in their Sins: yet, fence there are, on one hand, some others, who may, from a pretended Despair of God’s Mercy, go on to increase the Number of their Transgressions; and, on the other hand, some weak, tho’ honest, Christians, who have been brought to the melancholy Condition of thinking themselves, without any Ground, to be such sort of Sinners as have forfeited all Title to God’s future Mercy; it is very necessary to consider this Point, that so the Uneasiness of the latter, which is only their present Unhappiness; and the Despair of the former, which is their Crime (as it is founded upon their Desire to continue in their Sins;) may be removed; and some Stop put to such destructive Imaginations. Nor can it be amiss for us to descend, as near as we can, to the Wants and Occasions of all sorts of Persons; to consider the Scruples of some, as well as the Presumption of others; and to accommodate our Teaching sometimes to the more rare and secret Cases, as well as at other times to the more known and common. Nay, it is indeed necessary, in order to place beyond all reasonable Doubt what I have heretofore laid down, to handle this Subject: that so it may appear, not only that the Terms of God’s Favour which I have pointed out, are the only Terms upon which He hath promised Acceptance; but that there is reason to think but that all professed Christians may be sure of Acceptance, upon coming up to those Terms, whatsoever their former Condition hath been. To return,
I. I SHALL now endeavour to shew the great Absurdity of fixing upon Almighty God, and the Christian Religion, any such Opinion, as that before mentioned.
1. IT is extremely absurd to suppose that Almighty God, in condescending to make Terms with his Creatures, in the Christian Dispensation, should not propose some Method of Reconciliation to all those who sin after they have received that Religion, as well as to those who had been Sinners before their believing: because no Man, tho’ never so hearty and sincere in his Profession of that Religion, is thereby made so infallible, that nothing shall ever impose upon his Judgment; or so well-guarded and resolute as that nothing shall be able to surprize, or entice, his Will into a Consent to Sin, in any possible Instance. It may be true that a Christian hath such a Power, and so much Strength, and that He is so free from an absolute Necessity of committing any one single wilful Sin, that He may possibly, by Watchfulness, and Consideration, and a perpetual Care over himself, prevent this. But it is true likewise that this is so very difficult, that the Experience and Confession of all the best Men, in all Ages, have demonstrated that this sinless Obedience was never performed in Fact.
THERE is indeed a vast difference, and in the Opinion of the World a greater sometimes than is just, between Sins: which hath induced some Men perhaps to think themselves more free from Sin than they really are. Some are apt to imagine, because they do not permit themselves to be guilty of Drunkenness, or Adultery, or Fornication, or Murther, or Covetousness, or Dishonesty in their Dealings, that therefore they are clean. But they often forget the Thoughts of Pride and Haughtiness; of Revenge and Implacability; of Severity and Ill-nature; of Envy end Malice; of Anger and Passion; of Ambition and worldly Grandeur; the frequent Mispence of their precious Time, and the like: in one, or more, of which, they have, some time or other, in some degree or other, too certainly, indulged themselves more than they can answer for at the Bar of Justice. Too certainly, I say: for, Is there a perfect Man upon Earth? Is there one, who hath not one weak Side? who hath been ways so strictly upon his Guard as that He .can say, He hath resisted all Temptations to every sort, and every degree of Sin? It hath been often observed to you, that Men are too apt to pass over the Consideration of that particular Vice to which they have found themselves inclined; especially, if it be not of the Number of those which are called scandalous and notorious Crimes: Whereas some of these I have now mentioned, do in truth defile the Soul; hinder the Perfection of Virtue; render the Man as truly obnoxious to the Divine Anger; and as truly oppose the Design of Christianity, as some of the former sort; and therefore ought to be esteemed as Sins, and acknowledged as such by all Christians.
I BELIEVE, therefore, it may be truly affirmed that there neither is, nor ever was, a Christian who hath not, in some Instance or other, suffered himself to be carried beyond the Bounds of strict Religion, particularly of the Christian Institution; so as that He must acknowledge himself, to the great Judge of the World, and Knower of Hearts, to be, in some degree or other, a wilful Sinner after the Reception of Christianity. St. Paul indeed, after his Conversion to the Christian Religion, and his Labours in the Work of the Gospel, doth say, that He is conscious to himself of nothing for which He can condemn himself, 1 Cor. iv. 4. for that is the meaning of those Words, I know nothing by myself. But He doth not mean this in any other Sense, to be sure, but this, that in the main He had performed his Office after such a manner, as that He had good Ground to hope for the Favour of God, and the Rewards of Heaven: which Assurance, others likewise may arrive at. That He could intend by this to signify that, in any single Instance either of Thought, Word, or Deed; either consider’d as an Apostle, or as a private Christian; He had nothing to accuse himself of; is a Supposition without all Ground, For He doth not appear to have had such an Opinion of himself: and particularly seems to have acknowledged himself in an hasty and indecent Passion before the High-priest, Acts xxiii. 3. for the Words cannot be understood to mean less than that. Nor indeed doth He extend the Expression, 1 Cor. iv. 4. to himself in all Capacities: but is there considering himself particularly as called to, and executing, the Work of an Apostle. St. Peter once thought it absolutely impossible that any worldly Consideration could bring him to a Denial of his Master, after all the convincing Evidences, to which He had been witness, of his being the true Messiah: and yet, the same Night in which He shewed this Confidence, He shewed his Weakness also.
THIS, therefore, being undoubtedly true, that no Christian, since the first preaching of the Gospel, hath actually so fulfilled the Law of Christ, as to be entirely free from all Sin either of Omission, or Commission; either in Thought, or Word, or Deed: I say, It is absurd to suppose that Almighty God would leave no room in such a Dispensation, for the Recovery and Reconciliation of wilful Sinners, after their believing the Gospel, without which there could be no Salvation obtained. This would be to bring Men into such a Dispensation as must only affright and terrify some, and throw others into a more profligate Course of Sin than they were in, before their believing in Christ. This is to suppose Almighty God calling the World solemnly to the Knowledge of the Gospel; descending to treat with his Creatures, in order to bestow his Mercy upon them after an extraordinary manner: and that the Effect of this Condescension is, that the sincerest Believer that ever embraced his Call to the Christian Faith, cannot have any Hopes of Pardon, if He hath once after that wilfully transgressed any of his Laws. And what is this but to publish a Religion to the World, which hath no Effect towards making any of the Sons of Men happy; but indeed, upon this Supposition, makes them all much more miserable, in the End, than they would have been without it.
SOME Men have made it a great Objection against the Wisdom and Goodness of God, that he should promulgate, after such a manner, such a Religion as that of Jesus Christ; when He foresaw that so many, who have it in their Power to do otherwise, would live so unworthily of it, in the Practice of gross, and notorious Sins. But the Love of God, in answer to this Objection, is sufficiently seen in the unspeakable Benefit which the better sort receive from this Institution and in the Proof which that affords is that others might receive the same, were they not extremely wanting to themselves. But the present Supposition takes away all Hopes, even from the most sincere Believer, of acquitting himself so as to obtain God’s Favour at last. For the Weakness of all Christians, in some Instance or other, proving such a Difficulty of absolute Perfection, as no Christian ever yet conquered; this Supposition represents Almighty God as instituting a Religion entirely fruitless and ineffectual. Which is so great an Absurdity, that from hence it may certainly be concluded that there is a Method of Pardon and Reconciliation for those who have wilfully sinned after their receiving the Christian Religion. And this with respect to all sorts of wilful Sinners in that Religion: because, as it is absurd to suppose that God should not mean and speak Consolation to the better sort of Christians; so, on the other hand, it is equally absurd to suppose that He should, by cutting off all Hopes of Favour on any Terms, urge and force the worse sort of Christians into a more resolute and uninterrupted Prosecution of their Vices. And this brings me to another Consideration, viz.
2. THAT, as the contrary Opinion, is, in it self, absurd and shocking: so, it is expresly contrary to the declared Design of the Gospel: which is, that all Sinners should be called and invited to Repentance and Reformation; and that Virtue should have an Encouragement annexed to it, sufficient to work upon Men to forsake Vice, and return to the Practice of their Duty. But now, this End could not possibly be answered, if it were certain that, if once men arrived to such a Pitch of Wickedness, they should never be accepted by Almighty God, even tho’ they should forsake it for the Time to come. For, as I observed in a former Discourse, the Certainty of this, nay, the probable Suspicion of this, would incline all Sinners, especially habitual Sinners, to strengthen themselves in their Sins and to take Courage from their Despair of Mercy, or of any other sort of Happiness, to take as much as they possibly could of the Pleasures of a Course of all manner of Sin; and so to engage themselves, more inextricably than ever, in a vicious Habit of Life.
BUT because some have built so pernicious an Opinion, not upon the Reasonableness of the thing it self; or upon the main End and Design of Christianity; but upon some particular Texts and Passages of the New Testament; and argued from them, against the Acceptance of some Sinners, who are professed Christians, upon any Terms whatsoever: I shall now therefore, in order to remedy the Mischief of such a Mistake,
II. ENDEAVOUR to shew that these Passages of the New Testament prove not the Point, for which they are alledged. And of these Passages I shall take particular Notice of Three; upon which the whole of the present Debate entirely depends.
1. THE first is that Passage, recorded the Gospels, in which our Saviour speaks of sinning against the Holy Ghost; and declares it unpardonable; particularly, Matth. xii. 31, 32. which some well-meaning Christians have been so unkind to themselves, as in their desponding Minutes, to apply to their own Case. The particular handling all the Circumstances of this important Passage would require a long Discourse on purpose. But all that is necessary to my present Design is to shew that the Sin there spoken of, is a Sin in which such Persons as we are now speaking of, cannot possibly be concerned. For whatever it was that was there intended by our Lord; this is manifest, that He speaks to, and of, such Persons as themselves saw the Course and Series of his wonderful Works; and did, out of mere Malice, and an incorrigible Disposition of Mind, ascribe all that He did to the Power of evil Spirits: tho’ there was not the least Sign of that, but manifest Demonstration that He was acting directly against the Interest of all evil Spirits. It is upon this Occasion, and of such sort of Sinners, that He there speaks. And from hence it appears that, whatever the Nature and Malignity of that Sin was, it cannot be a Sin which it is possible for any Persons to commit, who profess Faith in Jesus Christ, and believe Him to have been sent into the World by God; nay, nor for any who did not themselves see with their own Eyes his mighty Works, and, out of mere Malice and Perverseness, ascribe them to the Devil. It follows, therefore, that, supposing the Sin against the Holy Ghost (whatever be the full Nature of it) to be unpardonable; (which probably must arise from the perverse Disposition of Mind from which it proceeds, uncapable of Alteration for the better, and not from any Resolution of Almighty God never to pardon it upon such Alteration for the better;) supposing, I say, this Sin unpardonable: yet it follows from what hath been said, that, notwithstanding this, the wilful Sins of all who profess Faith in Jesus Christ may be pardoned, upon some Terms; and that they may be capable of coming up to those Terms. For it appears that no professed Christian, or sincere Believer in Jesus Christ, is capable of being guilty of this Sin: and it is of Christians, who have been, or are, wilful Sinners, that we are now discoursing. This is fully sufficient for our present Purpose, concerning this Passage about sinning against the Holy Ghost, viz. That professed Christians are not, and cannot be, concerned in it.
2. THE second Passage I shall mention, is that in the Sixth Chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, from ver. 4, to ver. 7. For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly Gift, and were made Partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good Word of God, and the Powers of the World to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again to Repentance: seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open Shame; concerning which Passage, have the following Observations to offer.
1. THIS is spoken only of a wilful and open Apostacy from the Faith of Christ, and a public Denial of Jesus Christ, persisted in for some Time: and this Apostacy is the Apostacy of such Persons as had tasted and, been endowed with some of the miraculous Gifts of the Holy Ghost, seen in those first Days; and had been witnesses to the great and wonderful Gifts which others in the Church likewise enjoyed, and to all the Wonders of the Gospel-Age, called here by a Jewish Phrase, the World, or Age, to come. These are the Persons, and this is the falling away, here spoken of: and such a falling away it is, as may justly be said to be, in effect, an Acquittance of those who crucified our Lord: and a joining with the Infidel World in bringing a publick Shame upon Him, and his Religion. This then is vastly different from the Case of any who are still professed Christians; and cannot possibly be applied to any, who have not, by open Apostacy, fallen from a State of such Gifts, and such Powers, and Each Illuminations.
2. THE Impossibility of the Acceptance of such Persons is not here fixed upon any Resolution, on the part of Almighty God, not to accept them; should they again sincerely turn to Him and come up to his Terms: but it is declared to arise from the Impossibility of such Persons ever recovering themselves, so as to come up to the Terms of the Gospel. It is said to be impossible to renew them to Repentance: not to be impossible for them to be pardoned and accepted, supposing them to come to true Repentance. But we are now speaking of the Pardon of such professed Christians, tho’ never so notorious Sinners, as may, and do, come up to the Terms required: and this Passage, you see, cannot be meant of Sinners, during their Christian Profession; or of Sinners of any sort, who do at any time come up to the Terms offered in the Gospel. But then,
3. THE Impossibility here spoken of, is not a natural or absolute Impossibility: but only a very great Difficulty; which in the ordinary way of speaking, is often said to be impossible; and represented by Similitudes taken from natural Impossibilities. At this Day, we our selves often call a difficult Matter, an impossible thing without meaning it in the strict and accurate Sense of the Word: and in the Eastern Nations, their Ways of speaking were much more exorbitant, and their Figures of Speech more strange, than those amongst us. Can the Ethiopian change his Skin, or the Leopard his Spots? saith the Prophet, Jer. xiii. 23. then shall ye also who are accustomed to do evil, learn to do well. If one were here to follow the Letter of the Expression, one would think that the Prophet was representing it to be as impossible, in the nature of the thing, for the habitual Sinner to turn to the Practice of Virtue, as it is for the Blackmoor to alter the Colour of his Body. Whereas it is manifest that this could not be intended, because it was the same Prophet’s Business and Design, (as it was that of others also) to persuade those very Sinners to whom He speaks, to reform their Ways: which certainly was the absurdest Thing imaginable, supposing it a Matter which He knew, and represented to them, to be absolutely impossible.
THUS our Saviour himself represents the Difficulty of a Rich Man’s embracing the Gospel, and arriving safe at the Place of future Rewards, (a Difficulty arising from the strong Temptations there are in the Possession of Riches, to Covetousness, or Pride, or Luxury;) by a Similitude taken from a thing absolutely impossible: and goeth so high, in the figurative way of speaking, as to say, It is easier for a Camel to go through the Eye of a Needle, than for a rich Man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, Math. xix. 24. And yet his great Design was to call these rich Men themselves to such an use of their Riches, as that they might prove the Occasion of their greater Reward hereafter, Which shews that it was not his Intent, in those Words, to speak literally; or to signify any more than his Sense of the very great Difficulty of rich Men’s behaving themselves so here, as to attain Eternal Happiness hereafter.
FROM all this it appears that Things are, in Scripture, said, or represented, to be impossible, by an usual manner of speaking, which are only extremely difficult: and consequently, that the Word impossible, in the Passage now under Consideration, (taking into the Account likewise the nature of thething spoken of, doth not signify any more and that the Apostle’s Design in that Passage was no other than to signify the extreme Difficulty of the true Repentance of such as do totally renounce the Christian Faith, and publickly disown their Master, Jesus Christ, after they have received themselves, and seen in others, the greatest and most miraculous Proofs that he is the true Messiah.
AND thus We see that, whether we consider the Persons concerned in this Passage; or the thing affirmed of them in it; it hath no reference to the Sins of professed Christians, continuing such; and doth not prove any thing of the Impossibility of their Repentance, and Acceptance:
3. THE third and last Passage of the New Testament which I shall mention, as quoted, and applied, by some, to the same purpose, is that which I read to you, at the Entrance of this Discourse, out of the same Epistle to the Hebrews, ch, x. ver. 26, 27. For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the Knowledge of the Truth, there remains no more Sacrifice for Sin, but a certain fearful looking for of Judgment, and fiery Indignation, which shall devour the Adversaries. Now,
1. To put such an Interpretation upon this Passage, as to take away all Hopes of Pardon, from such professed Christians as have been, in any degree, wilful. Sinners, even supposing them to return and amend; is to contradict the main Design and Tenour of the Gospel: as I have just now shewed. And whatever contradicts the main Design of the Gospel, cannot possibly be the true meaning of any particular Passage in it: whether we be able to find out the exact; meaning of the Passage, or not. The Form of Expression, upon which the Supposition is founded, equally precludes from Mercy the sincerest repenting Christian, who hath once wilfully transgressed God’s Law, and the vilest Sinner who is hardened in his Iniquities. So that, if it excludes any Sinner from Pardon; it excludes all who ever once sinned. And who can put such a Sense upon this Passage, as will render vain the whole Christian Dispensation; and debarr every one, who ever named the Name of Christ, from all Title to any Benefit from Him? This is impossible to conceive, or embrace, as the Intent of the Apostle. And as for the true Intent of it,
2. IT will be obvious, I believe, to every one’s Observation, upon the reading the whole Context, that this sinning wilfully, in ver. 26, is the total and open forsaking the Christian Assemblies, in the Verse before: which was accounted a renouncing and being ashamed of the Christian Faith, in Compliance with the Infidel World about them. And that this sinning wilfully, here spoken of is to be understood of a publick Renunciation of Christianity, and Apostacy from the Gospel, seems plain from the 29th Verse in which the wilful Sinner, mentioned here, is opposed to one amongst the Jews that despised Moses’s Law, and professedly opposed it; and is farther described to be one who hath trodden under Foot the Son of God, and hath counted the Blood of the Covenant, wherewith He was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done Despite unto the Spirit of Grace: Phrases, very like to those by which the Author of this Epistle describes an open Apostacy from the Christian Faith, in the Passage which I last considered; and which cannot agree so well to any other sort of wilful Sins, as to that of a Departure from the Profession of Christianity, and, as much as in Men lies, giving an open Affront to that Dispensation, and bringing a publick Disgrace upon it. So that the wilful Sinners, here spoken of, are not the wilful Sinners, of whom we are now treating; viz. those who are so, at any time, during their Profession of Christianity.
3. WHAT is affirmed of these Sinners, in the Passage now before us, is that there remaineth no more Sacrifice for Sin: that is, either that the Force of Christ’s Sacrifice signifieth nothing to such as have renounced his Religion: or that there is no other Sacrifice of any Force, besides that which they have renounced; which cannot profit them, whilst it is publickly renounced by them. But certainly this is said of them, considered as continuing in their Apostacy; and not as returning sincerely again to their former Profession. And this indeed may be said of any wilful habitual Sinners, continuing such, that the Sacrifice of Christ will profit them nothing: but this, without taking from them the Hope of the Favor of God, upon the Alteration of their Lives, and their coming up to his Terms.
IT appears, therefore, I think, very plainly, that the Persons here spoken of, are not wilful Sinners, who are such, during their open Profession of Christianity; and that, supposing the thing here affirmed, to be affirmed of all wilful Sinners in general, it is not an utter Exclusion of any of them from all Hopes, but as remaining in their Sins: and consequently, that this Passage proves nothing against the Possibility of wilful Sinners, of all Degrees, amongst such as profess Christianity, obtaining the Favour of God; upon the Terms appointed by Himself in the Gospel: viz. the forsaking what is evil; and the sincere, universal Amendment of their Lives, in all those Instances, in which they can discover themselves to have been formerly sinful, or defective.
AND it being so evident, from what I have heretofore discoursed, that these are the only Conditions of their final Justification, and Acceptance; and so plain from what I have now said, that, upon their coming up to these Conditions, they need not doubt of that Justification and Acceptance; what remains but that we all shake off every Pretence of Despair and Despondency, on the one hand; and every vain Hope and fruitless Expectation, on the other; and heartily set our selves to amend whatever is amiss in our Tempers, or Practice; to run our Christian Race in that Path which Christ himself hath marked out to us; and, by patient continuance in well-doing, to seek after Glory and Immortality? Which God grant we may all obtain, for the Sake of his Son Jesus Christ, our Lord!
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