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Mistakes about Man’s Inability, and God’s Grace, considered.
Not that we are sufficient of our selves, to think any thing as of our selves: but our Sufficiency is of God.
IN my former Discourse upon these Words, I shewed you that it was the sole Design of St. Paul in them, to declare, that, in the setting about, and executing, the difficult and laborious Work of an Apostle, He did not arrogate to himself the Power, and Ability, and Success, which he had: but that he ascribed his Sufficiency for this great Work, as well as his being designed to it, to God himself, who was the great Contriver of the whole Scheme of Christianity; who miraculously called the Apostles to the carrying forward his Design in it; and who endowed them with Powers from above for the Execution of it. This being laid down, as the true meaning of the Apostle’s Words; I did from hence take occasion to examine and confute the Mistakes of such Christians, as have pretended to be led, by this and such like Expressions in the New Testament, into such Notions of their own Weakness and Inability to perform the Will of God; and of the part God Almighty is to bear in their Reformation and Amendment as induce them to indulge their vicious Inclinations, and retain their evil Habits, under the Pretext of waiting for the Interposition of Heaven, and the irresistible Motions of God’s Spirit without which, they think, they can do nothing towards their Salvation; and for the obtaining of which, they imagine that nothing can be done on their Parts.
I HOPE, I then made it appear that what was said by St. Paul with respect to the Work of an Apostle in those Days, in which almost insuperable Difficulties attended it, ought not to be applied to the common Duty of all Christians, in the ordinary Course of God’s Providence; that St. Paul himself never spake of the Obedience of Christians to the Moral Commands of the Gospel, after such a manner as to give Encouragement to any such Opinion, as that of some who are not content with the Help of God, but would willingly have all irresistibly done by Him; and that the Assistance afforded God to all the honest Endeavours of sincere Christians, in the Gospel-Dispensation, is so far from being an Inducement to them to leave all to be effected by that, that it is the most powerful Argument possible to them to exert themselves to the utmost for their own Good; and made use of to this Purpose by the Apostles themselves, and particularly by St. Paul.
AFTER this, I answered more particularly to Two Objections: for the present, supposing that in the New Testament there are some Expressions which ascribe the whole Work of Salvation to God, and represent Men as dead and unactive in it. And I shewed, either that those Expressions were designed solely to give to God the Glory of designing and contriving the Dispensation of the Gospel, and the Work of Redemption; and to describe the State of the World before the Gospel, buried in Sin, and without any Prospect of Help, or any Possibility of such a Relief unless it had come first from Him: or, if any high Expressions of this sort be used concerning the ordinary Task of the Body of Christians, that they may be justly interpreted, by all the Rules of speaking, without recurring to so great an Absurdity, so destructive to the Cause of Virtue; and particularly that they must be explained by the Tenour of plainer Texts, which all represent a great deal to depend upon the Endeavours of Christians themselves, as well as upon the Aids of God’s Spirit; and are constantly pressing the labouring part upon all who pretend to be in Pursuit of Happiness.
THERE is one more Objection which deserves a very serious Consideration in this Debate: and which, therefore, I design particularly to answer before I proceed; and that is this, that it is more for the Glory of God, that the whole Work of our Amendment, and Reformation, and Salvation, should be left to Him, than that any part of it should be claimed by our selves; and that upon this Account it seems more probable that it all depends upon his irresistible Arm; and more pious and humble for Men passively to permit it to do so. But all this is founded upon Two Errors; first, the not judging rightly what is the true Glory of Almighty God; and secondly, the imagining that to suppose Man capable of acting together with God in this great Work, is to exclude God from being the Original Fountain of every thing: and therefore, may be fully answered by some Observations, relating to these two Points. And,
1. THE Glory of God is to be measured by his Nature, and Attributes; and by the Declarations of his Word. If we consider his Attributes; we must fix nothing upon him but what is perfectly consistent with the united Harmony of them all. He is perfectly wise; perfectly just; and perfectly holy. Now it is a greater Glory to his Wisdom, to make Creatures capable of Freedom in their Actions, than to make only Clockwork, and Machines, to be moved by the immediate and constant Interposition of the Artificer. It is a greater Glory to his Holiness, (that Attribute by which He is represented as a Lover of Virtue, and Hater of Vice,) to assist Men in their Endeavours after Perfection; than to force them to be perfect, whether they will or no. Nay, the contrary seems utterly inconsistent with the Supposition of his loving Virtue more than Vice. For if Virtue be not something, in some degree depending upon our selves; there is no reason why he should love it, as it is in us, more than the contrary. For Justice requires that every one should be valued, and rewarded, according to what is in himself good, or evil. Now, if Virtue be nothing but the irresistible Operation of God upon us; there can be no Reason in the World assigned why he should hate and punish a wicked Man, and love and reward another: because, as to themselves, they are exactly alike.
THE only difference here supposed is this, that God is pleased, after an arbitrary manner, to work upon one: and wholly to pass by the other. If any Parent should heap his Favours upon one Child, and then shew the greatest Fondness to him, merely because those Favours have been heaped upon him; and absolutely refuse to bestow the least degree of the same upon another of his Children, and yet hate and punish him, because he had not what he could not have without his Will; would not all the World condemn such a Parent of the most partial Fondness, and of the most arbitrary Proceeding; and attribute it to nothing but Weakness of Understanding; or Strength of Passion? And yet this is what we are not afraid to lay upon Almighty God, when we represent Him as doing all for some, with in irresistible Arm; and then loving them for what they have no part in: and, on the other side, as passing by others, and refusing them that same Strength, without which they cannot move; and yet hating and condemning them for not being what they cannot be, and not doing what they cannot do. If we could not think of this in any Earthly Parent, without calling in question his Wisdom; or his true Regard to what is praise-worthy: how can we fix it upon Almighty God? It is indeed to call in question his Wisdom; or his Impartiality; or his Love to what is truly lovely; or his Aversion to that only which is truly the Object of it. But if a Father hath an equal Regard to all his Children; and is ready to assist them all in their honest Endeavours; to put them in the way of pleasing him; to encourage them to do it; to deter them from the contrary; and to reward, or punish them, according as they have voluntarily chosen to make use of, or to abuse, his Favours: This we account Wisdom, and Equity; and a true Notion of Virtue; and a true Love to what is Praise-worthy; and a true Abhorrence: of what deserves Hatred and Discouragement.
WE cannot help; having such Notions of Wisdom, Justice, and Holiness; and if, whilst we have such, we can fix any thing upon. God contrary to these; we certainly rob Him of the Glory of what we constantly account Perfections; and of what we ever esteem to belong to Wisdom, Equity, and Holiness. Let any one therefore think, whether it can be a Glory to God, to represent Him as acting a Part amongst his Children, and Creatures, which we should severely blame in any Earthly Parent? If I be a Father, saith Almighty God, upon a different Occasion, where is mine Honour? It may be said, if God be a Father, and so thought by us; where is the Regard to Him under this Notion, when that Conduct is attributed to Him, which would not be seen in an earthly Father, without great Detestation, and Abhorrence? If we think, therefore, of God, as of a Being vested with all Perfection of Wisdom, Equity, and Holiness; we shall find it greater Glory to such a Being, to suppose Him assisting his Creatures in the Way to Happiness; joining his Strength to their Endeavours; and expecting their sincere Endeavours to be joined to his Strength; than to represent Him as doing all Irresistibly for them; and then loving them and rewarding them, for what was forced upon them whether they would or no: and, on the other hand, as neglecting many others, who could not stir one step without the same irresistible Arm to work for them; and, after this, hating and condemning them for lying in a State, in which they could not but lie, unless He himself forced them out of it. The one is the Glory of an equitable Distributor of Favours, and Frowns; of Rewards, and Punishments: the other is the Glory of a Tyrannick and Arbitrary Mind, which raiseth to it self Favourites out of Humour; and loves and hates entirely at the Influence of Prejudice, and without Regard to any thing, but what is in itself base and unreasonable.
AND, as we should not fail to judge thus in the Case of any Earthly Parent; so we cannot help it in the much higher Case now before us: nay, we must lose all Notions of good, and equal, and wise; and leave off to speak of God at all, if we can think otherwise. If, therefore, we have any Regard to the Glory of God; the Glory due unto his Name; the Glory of his real and unalterable Perfections: let us not, under Pretence of making Him great and powerful, divest Him of Wisdom, and Equity; let us not, under Pretence of making Him the sole Actor in the great Affair of Salvation, rob Him of the Glory which is much greater; the Glory of regarding, and loving, and rewarding, his reasonable Creatures, (not according to mere Will and Power; but) according to what degrees of good, and sincere, are in them; and according to what depends, in some measure, upon themselves. What we call Virtue, if it be necessarily produced by an Agent distinct from ourselves, is not Virtue, nor commendable, nor rewardable, in us; nor any more to us, then that Vice which is supposed as necessary in another. And if so, we cannot be loved, or rewarded by a wise and holy God, for what doth no more deserve Love in us, than the contrary. But Almighty God is wise, and holy, and equal; and certainly loves, and regards Virtue; as a thing Praise-worthy in us. From whence it follows that it is not so wholly his Work in us, but that He expects Labour from our selves; and looks upon it as depending in some degree, upon our selves: tho’ always under the Influences of his good Spirit; which is ever ready to attend upon our sincere Endeavours.
AND thus, indeed, is He represented in holy Scripture; as delighting in the Man that doth his Will, and walks in the Paths of Virtue; and as abhorring the Man who acts a contrary Part: neither of which could he do, were it equally impossible to both sorts to be virtuous; and were He himself the sole Mover, and irresistable Worker, of al that is good. But,
2. THE other Consideration I mentioned was this, That the Objection I am now answering, is founded upon the Imagination that the giving to Man any part in his own Amendment, and Salvation, implies in it that it is not owing to Almighty God: which seems to derogate from his Glory. Whereas, as I have before observed to you, Almighty God is not at all excluded by this Supposition. For Man, having no Powers, and being possessed of no Faculties, but what are originally owing to this great Creator; he can arrive at no Happiness, but what He in must acknowledge to be owing to that first Original of all his Powers, and all his Faculties.
To say, therefore, that Men can bear an active, and a voluntary Part, in their own Reformation, and Happiness, is not to derogate from God; because it is no more than to say that God hath so made them, and endow’d them with such Powers, as that they are able to do something for themselves. It is not to detract from their Obligations to their great Creator, and Redeemer; but it is only to shew what He hath made them capable of doing: and still, the making of them so, is entirely his Work; and all the happy Result of it, his Glory. Their Use of these Faculties is indeed made, in some measure, their own Work; and voluntary Part; that so it may make them the Subjects of Reward: but the Grant of these Faculties is the creating Work of God; ascribed to him; and a perpetual Fountain of such a Glory as He delights in, when they are used well, and as he requires them to be used; and this a more rational Glory, and a more worthy Honour, than if He had made them only as Machines to be Instances of his Power, and Arguments merely of his Greatness. And besides, I am far from contending that, in the present Degeneracy of Human Nature, these Faculties can do all. For I maintain the Necessity of God’s gracious Concurrence. I am only arguing that they can act together with God’s holy Spirit; and that our Holiness depends upon our own Labour, together with the Assistance of That.
THUS much may suffice to shew the Weakness of this Objection, which pretends to sacrifice Virtue it self to the Glory of God; and to prove the Truth of this Proposition, that it is the truest Glory to such a Being as we are taught, by Reason and Revelation, to esteem Almighty God to be, to have made Men capable, in some degree, of a voluntary Motion towards Heaven andHappiness; and to love and reward him for something which depends upon himself, as well as upon the friendly Assistance of God; which is still made equally necessary to his Attainment of Christian Perfection.
BUT because the Perverseness of habitual Sinners is such, that they are not only glad to lay hold on such Pretences, as I have already examined, to fortify themselves in Sin, which they love, and embrace, as the Effect of their unavoidable Weakness; but to argue from some other Passages of the Scripture, relating even to good Men; from which they hope for Comfort, and endeavour, to flatter themselves that their present deplorable Condition is no worse a State of Weakness than what some in a very safe Condition have been in: I shall, therefore, before I conclude, take notice of Two, or Three, of these abused and perverted Passages.
1. THE first I shall mention, is That in Prov. xxiv. at the 16th ver. For a just Man falleth seven times. It is almost a Shame, indeed, to mention it: but that some have been so extremely weak as to lay hold on it, to administer Comfort to themselves in their falling into Sin. Nay, they generally cite it thus, The just Man falleth seven times a Day: whereas there is no such Word as the last, either in the Original, or in any Translation. I need only direct any one of the most ordinary Capacity to the Passage, as it lies in that Chapter: For whoever turns to it will presently find that the falling, there spoken of, is falling into Trouble, and Affliction, and Misfortune; and not into Sin. For the whole. Verse is thus: For a just Man falleth seven times, and riseth up again: but the Wicked shall fall into Mischief. The Verse before is Advice to the Wicked: Lay not wait, O wicked Man, against the Dwelling of the Righteous; spoil not his Resting-place. For a just Man falleth seven times, & c. It is designed plainly to represent to us; that God preserveth the good Man from the Attempts of the Wicked; and that the Wicked often fall into that Mischief, which they design against the Righteous. The Verses following do likewise go on to speak wholly of Temporal Evils; and of falling into Affliction. The whole Ground, therefore, of this Pretence is taken away. For here is nothing said of the wilful Sins of good Men; but of their being frequently afflicted; and frequently supported in, and raised out of, their Troubles.
BUT, supposing it were said, that even good Men are frequently, or sometimes, surprized into Failings: this can be nothing to those wretched Persons who indulge themselves in an Habit of sinning. For whatever Failings a truly sincere Christian may have been surprized into; they always render him much more careful, and more arm’d against them, for the Time to come: whereas the Sinner is confirmed and settled more and more, in his wicked Course, by every Step he takes in the paths of Sin. Nay, He aggravates the Guilt of his sinful Course, by making those Failings of good Men, which are their Grief, and the Arguments of the greatest Care and Caution to themselves, to be the Ground of Encouragement to him, in a careless, and supine Neglect of God’s Laws. But,
2. ANOTHER as weak Pretence is founded upon that passage in the Acts of the Apostles, ch. xiv, the 15th verse, where Paul and Barnabas say to the Lycaonians, We also are Men of like Passions with your selves: from whence some have concluded themselves to be in as safe a Condition as some of the best of Men; even whilst their Passions and Lusts were in full Power. Whereas, this Passage hath no relation to the Distinction between good and bad; passionate, and well-temper’d Men: but between Men and God; between Human Nature, and the Divine. It was spoken to deter the Laycaonians from offering Sacrifice to Paul, and Barnabas, as if they were Gods. The Words in the Greek signify, We are Beings liable to the same Imperfections the same Sufferings; and particularly to Death it self; as you are. We are weak, and mortal; even Men, as well as your selves: and therefore, do not pay what you account Divine Honour, to us. Then follows immediately, who preach unto you that you should turn from these Vanities unto the living God. This again shews that the Apostles did not level themselves with these Sinners: for it would have been to no purpose to have endeavoured to convert them, if, at the same time, they acknowledged themselves to be in the same Condition of vicious Passion and indulged Sin.
So that, whether, we consider the Words themselves; they were designed to signify nothing but that the Apostles were mortal Men, and not Gods: or the Circumstances of the Place; they shew us that the Apostles were at the very time preaching to the Lycaonians the absolute Necessity of forsaking their Sins. How unjust, therefore, is it for a Sinner to lay hold on so foolish a Mistake; and to chuse to fix the greatest Blot and Absurdity upon the Apostles themselves, rather than become truly good and virtuous.
3. ONE Passage more I shall just mention; and that is, St. Paul’s calling himself, the chief of Sinners. 1 Tim. i. 15. Christ Jesus came into the World to save Sinners; of whom I am chief. Now whoever turns to the 13th Verse, will find that he speaks there of himself, not in his present Condition; but, before his receiving of the Gospel. For there he describes himself, (the Sinner on whom Christ had Mercy,) as one who was before a Blasphemer, and a Persecutor, and injurious: not that he was such an one at that time he spake this; but before he was a Christian. So that this can administer no Comfort, but to one who hath left that sad Condition; and is become what St. Paul at that time was: who was be an Instance of God’s Readiness to forgive the greatest Enemy, upon hearty Amendment; but not whilst he remains in that State of Enmity.
BESIDES, St. Paul speaks not this with relation sinful and vicious acting against the Dictates of his Conscience: but solely with regard to his having been a Persecutor, and Blasphemer, of the Christian Religion. As for other Parts of his Conduct, he often declareth that he was an exact Observer of that Law of which he was then a professed Disciple; and therefore this is not to be interpreted of that which we commonly call Vice and Immorality, in profess’d. Christians. But the Influence St. Paul’s Example should have upon Christians, should all be taken from what he was after he was a Christian. And thence let all Sinners learn their Shame. For they will find him describing himself, as an Example to all to whom he addressed himself, and they will see Him to have been as great an Instance of Labour, Humility, Meekness, Charity, Piety, and every Virtue, as ever blessed the Church of Christ. His State, as he was a Christian, is what Christians should regard: and in this, they will find him so perfect, that they will have but little Encouragement from hence to flatter themselves in those Vices which he abhorred; or in that foolish Notion of their Weakness, of which his Example, as well as Precepts, is the greatest Confutation possible. If Men be Heathens, and Infidels indeed, they may learn from St. Paul’s Example, that God will make allowances for their Prejudices; and accept them, whenever they sincerely comply with the Offers of his Gospel: but if they be Christians, they can learn nothing from his Example, but a continual Watching, and Care, lest they become Cast-aways; and an Assurance, that they have Strength enough to be Fellow-workers together with God, in order to all things required for their Happiness, and Salvation.
BUT how unwilling do we find Men to think themselves able to bear any Part in what is good? In the Paths of Vice; in the Projects of Iniquity; in the Execution of what is evil; their Feet are swift, and their Hands strong; and their Heads able: but when God’s Will is to be performed; nothing is so weak, so impotent, so unable as they. Thus, if you ask a worldly-minded Man for a Gift of Charity, or true Generosity; he often pretends Inability, and Incapacity; whilst he hath enough to lay out upon any Trifle, or useless piece of Vanity; or a great deal laid up, a Sacrifice to Covetousness, and Uselessness. The voluptuous Man hath Power and Spirit to encounter Difficulties without Number; to watch incessantly; to labour without Intermission; to deny himself in many Instances, in order to come to some imaginary Pleasure: but if you speak of self-denial for the sake of Religion, or Virtue; presently the Weakness of Human Nature is pleaded, and the Impossibility of undergoing the least part of the same Labour, for the sake of the greatest Good possible. If ever they think of Amendment, they desire to wait God’s Time.; till his irresistible Arm moves them, against their Will. As for themselves; they are dead; and without Life: unless it be to offend God, and provoke his Anger. Foolish and unwise! to think that such Excuses can ever pass upon the Searcher of all Hearts! to think that their own wilful Habits will be an Apology for their continuing in them! No, The more difficult we find it, the more immediately must we set about the Work: considering that the Difficulty hath been created by our own Folly, and Wilfulness.
LET us not, therefore, pretend Weakness and Inability, in a Case which should fire and animate us to do Wonders. Let us pray to God, in Sincerity, for his holy Spirit; and heartily labour, our selves, under its Directions, and Influences. Let us not think that a vicious Inclination is a better Excuse on one side, than the Dictate of a good Conscience is an Argument on the other. Let us not be so ungrateful to that God who is our Maker, as to think he frames and fits us for nothing but Sin; and leaves all that is good intirely out of our Composition. Let us not be so base, and ingrateful to our Redeemer, as to take occasion, from the Assistances offered us in the Gospel, to continue in Sin; and so blasphemous, as to neglect to do our Duty, under Pretence of consulting the Glory of God. But let us remember that our acting our Parts well, is his greatest Glory; and that the gracious Aids of his Spirit are the greatest Encouragement to us to work out, together with Him, our own Salvation: Which God grant we may all do, & c.
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