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The second inquiry spoken to, Whether sin hath dominion in us or not — In answer to which it is showed that some wear sin’s livery, and they are the professed servants thereof — There are many in which the case is dubious, where sin’s service is not so discernible — Several exceptions are put in against its dominion where it seems to prevail — Some certain signs of its dominion — Graces and duties to be exercised for its mortification.
II. These things being thus premised in general concerning the nature of the dominion of sin, we shall now proceed unto our principal inquiry, — namely, Whether sin have dominion in us or no, whereby we may know whether we are under the law or under grace, or what is the state of our souls towards God. An inquiry this is which is very necessary for some to make, and for all to have rightly determined in their minds, from Scripture and experience; for on that determination depends all our solid peace. Sin will be in us; it will lust, fight, and entice us; — but the great question, as unto our peace and comfort, is, whether it hath dominion over us or no.
First, We do not inquire concerning them in whom the reign of sin is absolute and easily discernible, if not to themselves yet to others. Such there are who visibly “yield their members instruments of unrighteousness unto sin,” Rom. vi. 13. “Sin reigns in their mortal bodies,” and they openly “obey it in the lusts thereof,” verse 12. They are avowedly “servants of sin unto death,” verse 16, and are not ashamed of it. “The show of their countenance doth witness against them; and they declare their sin as Sodom, they hide it not,” Isa. iii. 9. Such are those described Eph. iv. 18, 19, and such the world is filled withal; such as, being under the power of darkness and enmity against God, do act them in opposition to all serious godliness and in the service of various lusts. There is no question concerning their state; they cannot themselves deny that it is so with them. I speak not for the liberty of censuring, but for the easiness of judging. Those who openly wear sin’s livery may well be esteemed to be sin’s servants; and they shall not fail to receive sin’s wages. Let them at present bear it never so high, and despise all manner of convictions, they will find it, bitterness in the latter end, Isa. l. 11; Eccles. xi. 9.
Secondly, But there are many in whom the case is dubious and not easily to be determined; for, on the one hand, they may have sundry things in them which may seem repugnant unto the reign of sin, but indeed are not inconsistent with it. All arguments and pleas from them in their vindication may fail them on a trial. And, on the other hand, there may be some in whom the effectual working of sin may be so great and perplexing as to argue that it hath the dominion, when indeed it hath not, but is only a stubborn rebel.
The things of the first sort, which seem destructive of and inconsistent with the dominion of sin, but indeed are not, may be referred to five heads:—
1. Illumination in knowledge and spiritual gifts, with convictions of good and evil, of all known duties and sins. This is that which some men live in a perpetual rebellion against, in one instance or another.
2. A change in the affections, giving a temporary delight in religious duties, with some constancy in their observation. This also is found in many who are yet evidently under the power of sin and spiritual darkness.
3. A performance of many duties, both moral and evangelical, for the substance of them, and an abstinence, out of conscience, from many sins. So was it with the young man in the Gospel, who yet wanted what was necessary to free him from the dominion of sin, Matt. xix. 20–23.
4. Repentance for sin committed. This is that which most secure themselves by; and a blessed security it is when it is gracious, evangelical, a fruit of faith, comprising the return of the whole soul to God. But there is that which is legal, partial, respecting particular sins only, which is not pleadable in this case. Ahab was no less under the dominion of sin when he had repented him than he was before; and Judas repented him before he hanged himself.
5. Promises and resolutions against sin for the future. But the goodness of many in these things is “as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away,” as it is in the prophet, Hosea vi. 4.
Where there is a concurrence of these things in any, they have good hopes, at least, that they are not under the dominion of sin, nor is it easy to convince them that they are; and they may so behave themselves herein as that it is not consistent with Christian charity to pronounce them to be so. Howbeit, the fallacy that is in these things hath been detected by many; and much more is by all required to evidence the sincerity of faith and holiness. No man, therefore, can be acquitted by pleas taken from them, as unto his subjection to the reign of sin.
The things of the second sort, whence arguments may be taken to prove the dominion of sin in any person, which yet will not certainly do it, are those which we shall now examine. And we must observe, —
1. That where sin hath the dominion, it doth indeed rule in the whole soul and all the faculties of it. It is a vicious habit in all of them, corrupting them, in their several natures and powers, with that corruption whereof they are capable:— So in the mind, of darkness and vanity; the will, of spiritual deceit and perverseness; the heart, of stubbornness and sensuality. Sin in its power reaches unto and affects them all. But, —
2. It doth evidence its dominion and is to be tried by its acting in the distinct faculties of the mind, in the frame of the heart, and in the course of the life.
These are those which we shall examine:— first, those which render the case dubious; and then those that clearly determine it on the part of sin. I shall not, therefore, at present, give positive evidences of men’s freedom from the dominion of sin, but only consider the arguments that lie against them, and examine how far they are conclusive, or how they may be defeated. And, —
1. When sin hath in any instance possessed the imagination, and thereby engaged the cogitative faculty in its service, it is a dangerous symptom of its rule or dominion. Sin may exercise its rule in the mind, fancy, and imagination, where bodily strength or opportunity gives no advantage for its outward perpetration. In them the desires of sin may be enlarged as hell, and the satisfaction of lust taken in with greediness. Pride, and covetousness, and sensuality, may reign and rage in the mind by corrupt imaginations, when their outward exercise is shut up by circumstances of life.
The first way whereby sin acts itself, or coins its motions and inclinations into acts, is by the imagination, Gen. vi. 5. The continual evil figments of the heart are as the bubbling of corrupt waters from a corrupted fountain.
The imaginations intended are the fixing of the mind on the objects of sin or sinful objects, by continual thoughts, with delight and complacency. They are the mind’s purveying for the satisfaction of the flesh in the lusts thereof, Rom. xiii. 14, whereby evil thoughts come to lodge, to abide, to dwell in the heart, Jer. iv. 14.
This is the first and proper effect of that vanity of mind whereby the soul is alienated from the life of God. The mind being turned off from its proper object, with a dislike of it, applies itself by its thoughts and imaginations unto the pleasures and advantages of sin, seeking in vain to recover the rest and satisfaction which they have forsaken in God himself: “They follow after lying vanities, and forsake their own mercies,” Jonah ii. 8. And when they give themselves up unto a constant internal converse with the desires of the flesh, the pleasures and advantages of sin, with delight and approbation, sin may reign triumphantly in them, though no appearance be made of it in their outward conversation. Such are they who have “a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof;” their hearts being filled with a litter of ungodly lusts, as the apostle declares, 2 Tim. iii. 5.
And there are three evils with respect whereunto sin doth exercise its reigning power in the imagination in an especial manner:—
(1.) Pride, self-elation, desire of power and greatness. It is affirmed of the prince of Tyrus, that he said “he was a god, and sat in the seat of God,” Ezek. xxviii. 2; and the like foolish thoughts are ascribed unto the king of Babylon, Isa. xiv. 13, 14. None of the children of men can attain so great glory, power, and dominion in this world, but that in their imaginations and desires they can infinitely exceed what they do enjoy, like him who wept that he had not another world to conquer. They have no bounds but to be as God, yea, to be God; which was the first design of sin in the world: and there is none so poor and low but by his imaginations he can lift up and exalt himself almost into the place of God. This vanity and madness God reproves in his discourse with Job xl. 9–14; and there is nothing more germane and proper unto the original depravation and corruption of our natures than this self-exaltation in foolish thoughts and imaginations, because it first came upon us through a desire of being as God. Herein, therefore, may sin exercise its dominion in the minds of men; yea, in the empty wind and vanity of these imaginations, with those that follow, consists the principal part of the deceitful ways of sin. The ways of men cannot satisfy themselves with what sins they can actually commit; but in these imaginations they rove endlessly, finding satisfaction in their renovation and variety, Isa. lvii. 10.
(2.) Sensuality and uncleanness of life. It is said of some that they have “eyes full of adultery,” and that they “cannot cease from sin,” 2 Pet. ii. 14; that is, their imaginations are continually working about the objects of their unclean lusts. These they think of night and day, immiring themselves in all filth continually. Jude calls them “filthy dreamers, defiling the flesh,” verse 8. They live as in a constant pleasing dream by their vile imaginations, even when they cannot accomplish their lustful desires; for such imaginations cannot be better expressed than by dreams, wherein men satisfy themselves with a supposed acting of what they do not. Hereby do many wallow in the mire of uncleanness all their days, and for the most part are never wanting unto the effects of it when they have opportunity and advantage; and by this means the most cloistered recluses may live in constant adulteries, whereby multitudes of them become actually the sinks of uncleanness. This is that which, in the root of it, is severely condemned by our Saviour, Matt. v. 28.
(3.) Unbelief, distrust, and hard thoughts of God, are of the same kind. These will sometimes so possess the imaginations of men as to keep them off from all delight in God, to put them on contrivances of fleeing from him; which is a peculiar case, not here to be spoken unto.
In these and the like ways may sin exercise its dominion in the soul by the mind and its imagination. It may do so when no demonstration is made of it in the outward conversation; for by this means the minds of men are defiled, and then nothing is clean, all things are impure unto them, Tit. i. 15. Their minds being thus defiled, do defile all things to them, — their enjoyments, their duties, all they have, and all that they do.
But yet all failing and sin in this kind doth not prove absolutely that sin hath the dominion in the mind that it had before. Something of this vice and evil may be found in them that are freed from the reign of sin; and there will be so until the vanity of our minds is perfectly cured and taken away, which will not be in this world. Wherefore I shall name the exceptions that may be put in against the title of sin unto dominion in the soul, notwithstanding the continuance in some measure of this work of the imagination in coining evil figments in the heart. And, —
(1.) This is no evidence of the dominion of sin, where it is occasional, arising from the prevalency of some present temptation. Take an instance in the case of David. I no way doubt but that in his temptation with Bathsheba, his mind was possessed with defiling imaginations. Wherefore, on his repentance, he not only prays for the forgiveness of his sin, but cries out with all fervency that God would “create a clean heart in him,” Ps. li. 10. He was sensible not only of the defilement of his person by his actual adultery, but of his heart by impure imaginations. So it may be in the case of other temptations. Whilst men are entangled with any temptation, of what sort soever it be, it will multiply thoughts about it in the mind; yea, its whole power consists in a multiplication of evil imaginations. By them it blinds the mind, draws it off from the consideration of its duty, and enticeth it unto a full conception of sin, James i. 14, 15. Wherefore, in this case of a prevalent temptation, which may befall a true believer, the corrupt working of the imagination doth not prove the dominion of sin.
If it be inquired how the mind may be freed and cleared of these perplexing, defiling imaginations, which arise from the urgency of some present temptation, — suppose about earthly affairs, or the like, — I say it will never be done by the most strict watch and resolution against them, nor by the most resolute rejection of them. They will return with new violence and new presences, though the soul hath promised itself a thousand times that so they should not do. There is but one way for the cure of this distemper, and this is a thorough mortification of the lust that feeds them and is fed by them. It is to no purpose to shake off the fruit in this case unless we dig up the root. Every temptation designs the satisfaction of some lust of the flesh or of the mind. These evil thoughts and imaginations are the working of the temptation in the mind. There is no riddance of them, no conquest to be obtained over them, but by subduing the temptation; and no subduing the temptation but by the mortification of the lust whose satisfaction it is designed unto. This course the apostle directs unto, Col. iii. 3, 5. That which he enjoins is, that we would not set our minds on the things of the earth, in opposition unto the things above; that is, that we would not fill our imaginations, and thereby our affections, with them. But what is the way whereby we may be enabled so to do? — that is, saith he, the universal mortification of sin, verse 5.
For want of the wisdom and knowledge hereof, or for want of its practice, through a secret unwillingness to come up unto a full mortification of sin, some are galled and perplexed, yea, and defiled, with foolish and vain imaginations all their days; and although they prove not the dominion of sin, yet they will deprive the soul of that peace and comfort which otherwise it might enjoy.
But yet there is much spiritual skill and diligence required to discover what is the true root and spring of the foolish imaginations that may at any time possess the mind; for they lie deep in the heart, that heart which is deep and deceitful, and so are not easily discoverable. There are many other pretences of them. They do not directly bespeak that pride or those unclean lusts which they proceed from, but they make many other pretences and feign other ends; but the soul that is watchful and diligent may trace them to their original. And if such thoughts are strictly examined at any time, what is their design, whose work they do, what makes them so busy in the mind, they will confess the truth, both whence they came and what it is they aim at. Then is the mind guided unto its duty; which is the extermination of the lust which they would make provision for.
(2.) Such imaginations are no evidence of the dominion of sin, in what degree soever they are, where they are afflictive, where they are a burden unto the soul, which it groans under and would be delivered from. There is a full account given by the apostle of the conflict between indwelling sin and grace, Rom. vii. And the things which he ascribes unto sin are not the first rising or involuntary motions of it, nor merely its inclinations and disposition; for the things ascribed unto it, as that it fights, rebels, wars, leads captive, acts as a law, cannot belong unto them. Nor doth he intend the outward acting or perpetration of sin, the doing, or accomplishing, or finishing of it; for that cannot befall believers, as the apostle declares, 1 John iii. 9. But it is the working of sin by these imaginations in the mind, and the engagement of the affections thereon, that he doth intend. Now, this he declares to be the great burden of the souls of believers, that which makes them think their condition wretched and miserable in some sort, and which they earnestly cry out for deliverance from, Rom. vii. 24. This is the present case. These figments of the heart, these imaginations, will arise in the minds of men. They will do so sometimes to a high degree. They will impose them on us with deceit and violence, leading captive unto the law of them. Where they are rejected, condemned, defied, they will return again while there is any vanity remaining in the mind or corruption in the affections. But if the soul be sensible of them, if it labour under them, if it look on them as those that fight against its purity, holiness, and peace, if it pray for deliverance from them, they are no argument of the dominion of sin; yea, a great evidence unto the contrary may be taken from that firm opposition unto them which the mind is constantly engaged in.
(3.) They are not proofs of the dominion of sin when there is a prevalent detestation of the lust from whence they proceed, and whose promotion they design, maintained in the heart and mind. I confess, sometimes this cannot be discovered. And all such various imaginations are but mere effects of the incurable vanity and instability of our minds, for these administer continual occasion unto random thoughts; but, for the most part (as we observed before), they are employed in the service of some lust, and tend unto the satisfaction of it. They are that which is prohibited by the apostle: Rom. xiii. 14, “Make not provision for the flesh.” And this may be discovered on strict examination. Now, when the mind is fixed in a constant detestation of that sin whereunto they lead, as it is sin against God, with a firm resolution against it, in all circumstances that may occur, no proof can be thence taken for the dominion of sin.
(4.) Sometimes evil thoughts are the immediate injections of Satan, and they are on many accounts most terrible unto the soul. Usually, for the matter of them, they are dreadful, and ofttimes blasphemous; and as unto the manner of their entrance into the mind, it is, for the most part, surprising, furious, and irresistible. From such thoughts many have concluded themselves to be absolutely under the power of sin and Satan. But they are by certain rules and infallible signs discoverable from whence they do proceed; and on that discovery all pretences unto the dominion of sin in them must disappear.
And this is the first case, which renders the question dubious whether sin have the dominion in us or no.
2. It is a sign of the dominion of sin, when, in any instance, it hath a prevalency in our affections; yea, they are the throne of sin, where it acts its power. But this case of the affections I have handled so at large in my discourse of Spiritual-mindedness,33 See the preceding treatise in this volume. — Ed. as I shall here very briefly speak unto it, so as to give one rule only to make a judgment by concerning the dominion of sin in them.
This is certain, that where sin hath the prevalency and predominancy in our affections, there it hath the dominion in the whole soul. The rule is given us unto this purpose, 1 John ii. 15. We are obliged to “love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul;” and therefore if there be in us a predominant love to any thing else, whereby it is preferred unto God, it must be from the prevalency of a principle of sin in us. And so it is with respect unto all other affections. If we love any thing more than God, as we do if we will not part with it for his sake, be it as a right eye or as a right hand unto us; if we take more satisfaction and complacency in it, and cleave more unto it in our thoughts and minds than unto God, as men commonly do in their lusts, interests, enjoyments, and relations; if we trust more to it, as unto a supply of our wants, than unto God, as most do to the world; if our desires are enlarged and our diligence heightened in seeking after and attaining other things, more than towards the love and favour of God; if we fear the loss of other things or danger from them more than we fear God, — we are not under the rule of God or his grace, but we are under the dominion of sin, which reigns in our affections.
It were endless to give instances of this power of sin in and over the affections of men. Self-love, love of the world, delight in things sensual, an over-valuation of relations and enjoyments, with sundry other things of an alike nature, will easily evidence it. And to resolve the case under consideration, we may observe, —
(1.) That the prevalency of sin in the affections, so far as to be a symptom of its dominion, is discernible unto the least beam of spiritual light, with a diligent searching into and judgment of ourselves. If it be so with any that they know it not, nor will be convinced of it (as it is with many), I know not what can free them from being under the reign of sin. And we see it so every day. Men all whose ways and actions proclaim that they are acted in all things by an inordinate love of the world and self, yet find nothing amiss in themselves, nothing that they do not approve of, unless it be that their desires are not satisfied according to their expectations. All the commands we have in the Scripture for self-searching, trial, and examination; all the rules that are given us unto that end; all the warnings we have of the deceitfulness of sin and of our own hearts, — are given us to prevent this evil of shutting our eyes against the prevalent corruption and disorder of our affections. And the issue of all our endeavours in this kind is in the appeal of David to God himself, Ps. cxxxix. 23, 24.
(2.) When men have convictions of the irregularity and disorder of their affections, yet are resolved to continue in the state wherein they are without the correction and amendment of them, because of some advantage and satisfaction which they receive in their present state, they seem to be under the dominion of sin. So is it with those mentioned, Isa. lvii. 10. Upon the account of the present satisfaction, delight, and pleasure, that their corrupt affections do take in cleaving inordinately unto their objects, they will not endeavour their change and alteration.
This, then, is the sole safe rule in this case: Whatever hold sin may have got on our affections, whatever prevalency it may have in them, however it may entangle and defile them, if we endeavour sincerely the discovery of this evil, and thereon set ourselves constantly unto the mortification of our corrupt affections by all due means, there is not in their disorder any argument to prove the dominion of sin in us. Our affections, as they are corrupt, are the proper objects of the great duty of mortification; which the apostle therefore calls our “members which are upon the earth,” Col. iii. 5. This is a safe anchor for the soul in this storm. If it live in a sincere endeavour after the mortification of every discoverable corruption and disorder in the affections, it is secure from the dominion of sin. But as for such as are negligent in searching after the state of their souls, as unto the inclination and engagement of their affections, who approve of themselves in their greatest irregularities, resolvedly indulge themselves in any way of sin to gratify their corrupt affections, they must provide themselves of pleas for their vindication; I know them not. But the meaning of our present rule will be farther manifest in what ensues.
3. It is a dangerous sign of the dominion of sin, when, after a conviction of their necessity, it prevaileth unto a neglect of those ways and duties which are peculiarly suited, directed, and ordained, unto its mortification and destruction. This may be cleared in some particulars:—
(1.) Mortification of sin is the constant duty of all believers, of all who would not have sin have dominion over them. Where mortification is sincere, there is no dominion of sin; and where there is no mortification, there sin doth reign.
(2.) There are some graces and duties that are peculiarly suited and ordained unto this end, that by them and their agency the work of mortification may be carried on constantly in our souls. What they are, or some of them, we shall see immediately.
(3.) When sin puts forth its power in any especial lust, or in a strong inclination unto any actual sin, then it is the duty of the soul to make diligent application of those graces and duties which are specifical and proper unto its mortification.
(4.) When men have had a conviction of these duties, and have attended unto them according to that conviction, if sin prevail in them to a neglect or relinquishment of those duties as unto their performance, or as unto their application unto the mortification of sin, it is a dangerous sign that sin hath dominion in them. And I distinguish between these things, — namely, a neglect of such duties as unto their performance, and a neglect of the application of them unto the mortification of sin; for men may on other accounts continue the observance of them, or some of them, and yet not apply them unto this especial end. And so all external duties may be observed when sin reigneth in triumph, 2 Tim. iii. 5.
The meaning of the assertion being stated, I shall now name some of those graces and duties upon whose omission and neglect sin may prevail, as unto an application of them unto the mortification of any sin:—
The first is, the daily exercise of faith on Christ as crucified. This is the great fundamental means of the mortification of sin in general, and which we ought to apply unto every particular instance of it. This the apostle discourseth at large, Rom. vi. 6–13. “Our old man,” saith he, “is crucified with Christ, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” Our “old man,” or the body of sin, is the power and reign of sin in us. These are to be destroyed; that is, so mortified that “henceforth we should not serve sin,” that we should be delivered from the power and rule of it. This, saith the apostle, is done in Christ: “Crucified with him.” It is so meritoriously, in his actual dying or being crucified for us; it is so virtually, because of the certain provision that is made therein for the mortification of all sin; but it is so actually, by the exercise of faith on him as crucified, dead, and buried, which is the means of the actual communication of the virtue of his death unto us for that end. Herein are we said to be dead and buried with him; whereof baptism is the pledge. So by the cross of Christ the world is crucified unto us, and we are so to the world, Gal. vi. 14; which is the substance of the mortification of all sin. There are several ways whereby the exercise of faith on Christ crucified is effectual unto this end:—
[1.] Looking unto him as such will beget holy mourning in us: Zech. xii. 10, “They shall look on me whom they have pierced, and mourn.” It is a promise of gospel times and gospel grace. A view of Christ as pierced will cause mourning in them that have received the promise of the Spirit of grace and supplication there mentioned. And this mourning is the foundation of mortification. It is that “godly sorrow which worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of,” 2 Cor. vii. 10. And mortification of sin is of the essence of repentance. The more believers are exercised in this view of Christ, the more humble they are, the more they are kept in that mourning frame which is universally opposite unto all the interests of sin, and which keeps the soul watchful against all its attempts. Sin never reigned in an humble, mourning soul.
[2.] It is effectual unto the same end by the way of a powerful motive, as that which calls and leads unto conformity to him. This is pressed by the apostle, Rom. vi. 8–11. Our conformity unto Christ as crucified and dead consists in our being dead unto sin, and thereby overthrowing the reign of it in our mortal bodies. This conformity, saith he, we ought to reckon on as our duty: “Reckon ye yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin;” that is, that you ought so to be, in that conformity which you ought to aim at unto Christ crucified. Can any spiritual eye behold Christ dying for sin, and continue to live in sin? Shall we keep that alive in us which he died for, that it might not eternally destroy us? Can we behold him bleeding for our sins, and not endeavour to give them their death-wound? The efficacy of the exercise of faith herein unto the mortification of sin is known unto all believers by experience.
[3.] Faith herein gives us communion with him in his death, and unites the soul unto it in its efficacy. Hence we are said to be “buried with him into death,” and to be “planted together in the likeness of his death,” Rom. vi. 4, 5. Our “old man is crucified with him,” verse 6. We have by faith communion with him in his death, unto the death of sin.
This, therefore, is the first grace and duty which we ought to attend unto for the mortification of sin. But where sin hath that interest and power in the mind as to take it off from this exercise of faith, to prevent or obstruct it, as it will do, so as that it shall not dare to think or meditate on Christ crucified, because of the inconsistency of such thoughts with an indulgence unto any lust, it is to be feared that sin is in the throne.
If it be thus with any; if they have not yet made use of this way and means for the mortification of sin; or if, being convinced of it, they have been for any season driven or withheld from the exercise of faith herein, — I have nothing to offer to free them from this evidence of the reign of sin, but only that they would speedily and carefully address themselves unto their duty herein; and if they prevail on themselves unto it, it will bring in its own evidence of their freedom.
Some, it may be, will say that indeed they are “unskilful” in this “word of righteousness,” as some are, Heb. v. 13. They know not how to make use of Christ crucified unto this end, nor how to set themselves about it. Other ways of mortification they can understand. The discipline and penances assigned by the Papists unto this end are sensible; so are our own vows and resolutions, with other duties that are prescribed; but as for this way of deriving virtue from the death of Christ unto the death of sin, they can understand nothing of it.
I easily believe that some may say so, yea, ought to say so, if they would speak their minds; for the spiritual wisdom of faith is required hereunto, but “all men have not faith.” On the loss of this wisdom, the Papists have invented another way to supply the whole exercise of faith herein. They will make crucifixes, — images of Christ crucified, then they will adore, embrace, mourn over, and expect great virtue from them. Without these images they know no way of addressing unto Christ for the communication of any virtue from his death or life. Others may be at the same loss; but they may do well to consider the cause of it: for, is it not from ignorance of the mystery of the gospel, and of the communication of supplies of spiritual things from Christ thereby, — of the efficacy of his life and death unto our sanctification and mortification of sin? Or is it not because indeed they have never been thoroughly distressed in their minds and consciences by the power of sin, and so have never in good earnest looked for relief? Light, general convictions, either of the guilt or power of sin, will drive none to Christ. When their consciences are reduced unto real straits, and they know not what to do, they will learn better how to “look unto Him whom they have pierced.” Their condition, whoever they are, is dangerous, who find not a necessity every day of applying themselves by faith unto Christ for help and succour. Or is it not because they have other reliefs to betake themselves unto? Such are their own promises and resolutions; which, for the most part, serve only to cheat and quiet conscience for an hour or a day, and then vanish into nothing. But whatever be the cause of this neglect, those in whom it is will pine away in their sins; for nothing but the death of Christ for us will be the death of sin in us.
Secondly, Another duty necessary unto this end is continual prayer, and this is to be considered as unto its application to the prevalency of any particular lust wherein sin doth in a peculiar manner exert its power. This is the great ordinance of God for its mortification; for, —
[1.] Hereby we obtain spiritual aids and supplies of strength against it. We are not more necessarily and fervently to pray that sin may be pardoned as to its guilt, than we are that it may be subdued as to its power. He who is negligent in the latter is never in good earnest in the former. The pressures and troubles which we receive from the power of sin are as pungent on the mind as those from its guilt are on the conscience. Mere pardon of sin will never give peace unto a soul, though it can have none without it. It must be mortified also, or we can have no spiritual rest. Now, this is the work of prayer, — namely, to seek and obtain such supplies of mortifying, sanctifying grace, as whereby the power of sin may be broken, its strength abated, its root withered, its life destroyed, and so the whole old man crucified. That which was the apostle’s request for the Thessalonians is the daily prayer of all believers for themselves, 1 Thess. v. 23.
[2.] A constant attendance unto this duty in a due manner will preserve the soul in such a frame as wherein sin cannot habitually prevail in it. He that can live in sin and abide in the ordinary duties of prayer doth never once pray as he ought. Formality, or some secret reserve or other, vitiates the whole. A truly gracious, praying frame (wherein we pray always) is utterly inconsistent with the love of or reserve for any sin. To pray well is to pray always, — that is, to keep the heart always in that frame which is required in prayer; and where this is, sin can have no rule, no, nor quiet harbour, in the soul.
[3.] It is the soul’s immediate conflict against the power of sin. Sin in it is formally considered as the soul’s enemy, which fights against it. In prayer the soul sets itself to grapple with it, to wound, kill, and destroy. It is that whereby it applies all its spiritual engines unto its utter ruin; herein it exerciseth a gracious abhorrency of it, a clear self-condemnation on the account of it; and engageth faith on all the promises of God for its conquest and destruction.
It is hence evident that if sin hath prevailed in the mind unto a negligence of this duty, either in general or as unto the effectual application of it unto any especial case where it exerts its power, it is an ill symptom of the dominion of sin in the soul.
It is certain that unmortified sin, sin indulged unto, will gradually work out all due regard unto this duty of prayer, and alienate the mind from it, either as unto the matter or manner of its performance. We see this exemplified every day in apostate professors. They have had a gift of prayer, and were constant in the exercise of it; but the love of sin and living in it hath devoured their gift, and wholly taken off their minds from the duty itself: which is the proper character of hypocrites “Will he delight himself in the Almighty? will he always call upon God?” Job xxvii. 10. He may do so for a season, but, falling under the power of sin, he will not continue so to do.
Now, because sin useth great deceit herein, in a gradual progress for attaining its end, and thereby securing its dominion, we may, in a way of warning or caution, take notice of some of its steps, that the entrance of it may be opposed: for as the “entrance of God’s word giveth light,” Ps. cxix. 130, — the first putting forth of its power on the soul gives spiritual light unto the mind, which is to be improved, — so the entrance of sin, the first actings of it on the mind, towards the neglect of this duty, brings a deceiving darkness with them, which is to be opposed:—
1st. It will produce in the mind an unreadiness unto this duty in its proper seasons. The heart should always rejoice in the approach of such seasons, because of the delight in God which it hath in them. To rejoice and be glad in all our approaches unto God is every way required of us; and therefore, with the thoughts of and on the approach of such seasons, we ought to groan in ourselves for such a preparedness of mind as may render us meet for that converse with God which we are called unto. But where sin begins to prevail, all things will be unready and out of order. Strange tergiversations will rise in the mind, either as unto the duty itself or as unto the manner of its performance. Customariness and formality are the principles which act themselves in this case. The body seems to carry the mind to the duty whether it will or no, rather than the mind to lead the body in its part of it; and it will employ itself in any thing rather than in the work and duty that lies before it.
Herein, then, lies a great part of our wisdom in obviating the power of sin in us: Let us keep our hearts continually in a gracious disposition and readiness for this duty, in all its proper seasons. If you lose this ground, you will yet go more backwards continually. Know, therefore, that there is no more effectual preservative of the soul from the power of sin than a gracious readiness for and disposition unto this duty in private and public, according to its proper seasons.
2dly. In its progress, unto unreadiness it will add unwillingness; for the mind prepossessed by sin finds it directly contrary unto its present interest, disposition, and inclination. There is nothing in it but what troubles and disquiets them; as he said of the prophet who was not willing to hear him any more, it speaks not good but evil of them continually. Hence a secret unwillingness prevails in the mind, and an aversation from a serious engagement in it; and the attendance of such persons to it is as if they were under a force, in a compliance with custom and convictions.
3dly. Sin will at length prevail unto a total neglect of this duty. This is an observation confirmed by long experience: If prayer do not constantly endeavour the ruin of sin, sin will ruin prayer, and utterly alienate the soul from it. This is the way of backsliders in heart; as they grow in sin they decay in prayer, until they are weary of it and utterly relinquish it. So they speak, Mal. i. 13, “Behold, what a weariness is it!” and, “Ye have snuffed at it.” They look on it as a task, as a burden, and are weary in attending unto it.
Now, when I place this as an effect of the prevalency of sin, — namely, a relinquishment of the duty of prayer, — I do not intend that persons do wholly and absolutely, or as to all ways of it, public and private, and all seasons or occasions of it, give it over utterly. Few rise to that profligacy in sin, unto such desperate resolution against God. It may be they will still attend unto the stated seasons of prayer in families or public assemblies, at least drawing near to God with their lips; and they will, on surprisals and dangers, personally cry unto God, as the Scripture everywhere testifieth of them. But this only I intend, — namely, that they will no more sincerely, immediately, and directly, apply prayer to the mortification and ruin of that lust or corruption wherein sin puts forth its power and rule in them; and where it is so, it seems to have the dominion. Of such an one saith the psalmist, “He hath left off to be wise, and to do good. He setteth himself in a way that is not good; he abhorreth not evil,” Ps. xxxvi. 3, 4.
But such a relinquishment of this duty, as unto the end mentioned, as is habitual, and renders the soul secure under it, is intended; for there may, through the power of temptation, be a prevalency of this evil in believers for a season. So God complains of his people, Isa. xliii. 22, “Thou hast not called upon me, O Jacob; but thou hast been weary of me, O Israel;” that is, comparatively, as unto the fervency and sincerity of the duty required of them. Now, when it is thus with believers for a season, through the power of sin and temptation, — (1st.) They do not approve of themselves therein. They will ever and anon call things to consideration, and say, “It is not with us as it should be, or as it was in former days. This thing is not good that we do, nor will it be peace in the latter end.” (2dly.) They will have secret resolutions of shaking themselves out of the dust of this evil state. They say in themselves, “We will go and return unto our first husband, for then was it better with us than now;” as the church did, Hosea ii. 7. (3dly.) Every thing that peculiarly befalls them, in a way of mercy or affliction, they look on as calls from God to deliver and recover them from their backsliding frame. (4thly.) They will receive in the warnings which are given them by the word preached, especially if their particular case be touched on or laid open. (5thly.) They will have no quiet, rest, or self-approbation, until they come thoroughly off unto a healing and recovery, such as that described, Hosea xiv. 1–4.
Thus it may be with some over whom sin hath not the dominion; yet ought the first entrance of it to be diligently watched against, as that which tends unto the danger and ruin of the soul.
Thirdly, Constant self-abasement, condemnation, and abhorrency, is another duty that is directly opposed unto the interest and rule of sin in the soul. No frame of mind is a better antidote against the poison of sin. “He that walketh humbly walketh surely.”44 Prov. x. 9. The English version has it, “He that walketh uprightly.” — Ed. God hath a continual regard unto mourners, those that are of a “broken heart and a contrite spirit.” It is the soil where all grace will thrive and flourish. A constant due sense of sin as sin, of our interest therein by nature and in the course of our lives, with a continual afflictive remembrance of some such instances of it as have had peculiar aggravations, issuing in a gracious self-abasement, is the soul’s best posture in watching against all the deceits and incursions of sin. And this is a duty which we ought with all diligence to attend unto. To keep our souls in a constant frame of mourning and self-abasement is the most necessary part of our wisdom with reference unto all the ends of the life of God; and it is so far from having any inconsistency with those consolations and joys which the gospel tenders unto us in believing, as that it is the only way to let them into the soul in a due manner. It is such mourners, and those alone, unto whom evangelical comforts are administered, Isa. lvii. 18.
One of the first things that sin doth when it aims at dominion is the destruction of this frame of mind; and when it actually hath the rule, it will not suffer it to enter. It makes men careless and regardless of this matter, yea, bold, presumptuous, and fearless; it will obstruct all the entrance into the mind of such self-reflections and considerations as lead unto this frame; it will represent them either as needless or unseasonable, or make the mind afraid of them, as things which tend unto its disquietment and disturbance without any advantage. If it prevail herein, it makes way for the security of its own dominion. Nothing is more watched against than a proud, regardless, senseless, secure frame of heart, by them who are under the rule of grace.
4. A reserve for any one known sin, against the light and efficacy of convictions, is an argument of the dominion of sin. So was it in the case of Naaman. He would do all other things, but put in an exception for that whereon his honour and profit did depend. Where there is sincerity in conviction, it extends itself unto all sins; for it is of sin as sin, and so of every known sin equally, that hath the nature of sin in it. And to be true to convictions is the life of sincerity. If men can make a choice of what they will except and reserve, notwithstanding their being convinced of its evil, it is from the ruling power of sin. Pleas in the mind in the behalf of any sin, that is, for a continuance in it, prevalent thereunto, ruin all sincerity. It may be the pretence is that it is but a little one, of no great moment, and that which shall be compensated with other duties of obedience; or it shall be retained only until a fitter season for its relinquishment; or men may be blinded after conviction to dispute again whether what they would abide in be sinful or no, as is the case frequently with respect unto covetousness, pride, and conformity to the world. It is a dreadful effect of the ruling power of sin. Whatever impeacheth the universality of obedience in one thing overthrows its sincerity in all things.
5. Hardness of heart, so frequently mentioned and complained of in the Scripture, is another evidence of the dominion of sin. But because there are various degrees also hereof, they must be considered, that we may judge aright what of it is an evidence of that dominion, and what may be consistent with the rule of grace; for it is that mysterious evil whereof the best men do most complain, and whereof the worst have no sense at all.
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