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Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins, lest they get the dominion over me.
THE prosecution of these words was first disposed under these two general heads.
I. To shew what these presumptuous sins was.
II. To shew the reason of this so excellent and holy person, the Psalmist’s, so earnest praying against them.
The first of these I proposed to be handled under these three particulars.
1. To shew what it was in general to presume.
2. To shew and assign some of the most remarkable kinds of presumption.
3. To propose some remedies against these sins.
The two first of which being despatched, I proceed now to the third and last.
The grand and general remedy against presumptuous sins surely must be, to arm the understanding, and to check the exorbitance of the will, by consideration: for the employment of which, with matter in reference to the sins we are treating of, these three things offer themselves to be considered.
1. Let a man endeavour to fix in his heart a deep apprehension and persuasion of the transcendent evil of the nature of sin in general: which is no less than a direct affront to our Creator and Governor in a breach of that law that he values as a transcript of his own holiness, and enforces by the penalty of eternal death threatened to the violators and transgress ors of the least iota of it. The foundation of men’s apostasy from God seems to be laid in the under valuing thoughts they have of sin. It is but as a mote in their eye, not for any trouble that it gives them, but for their opinion of its smallness. The easiness of the commission of it hides the monstrous greatness of the provocation: and men can sport away a soul so quickly and so easily, that they can scarce be brought to think themselves any poorer for the loss.
But since it is difficult to view the nature of a thing immediately in itself, let men read the nature of sin in the dismal history of the effects and consequents of it. And for this, let them first see the ruin of a whole species, and the fall, not of man only, but of mankind, effected by it. Let them view Adam tumbled out of paradise, embased in his nature, and cursed in his actions, with a perpetual toil and misery entailed upon his descending posterity. Let them also see a deluge breaking in upon the earth, and the whole world lying under the destroying element; and they shall find that it was sin that opened the sluices of heaven, and brake up the fountains of the great deep. Sin was the thing that made God almost unravel the works of an whole creation, and deface the draughts of his own hand.
He that shall read the several captivities, bondages, dispersions, and massacres of the Israelites, reads so many comments upon sins, so many lively descriptions of the destructive force of a mighty guilt. But he that would bring the matter to a compendium, and see all in one, let him see the only Son of God fetched out of the bosom of his Father, to bleed and suffer, and die upon the cross; that is, to die a vile, cursed, ignominious death. Let him see his very Father his executioner, and preparing him a cup full of the dregs of an infinite, flaming fury, to be drunk off by him. And all this, not for any personal sin of his own, but for the sins of others, took upon himself merely by imputation: so that being found under this, neither the dignity nor innocence of his person could secure it against the nails and the spear, the scoffs and the flouts, the gall and the vinegar, that our sins had prepared and infused for him.
And lastly, to add a later, since there can be no greater instance of the malignity of sin: when we shall have the fabric of this beautiful frame of all things unfixed and torn down about us, the elements melting with fervent heat, and the heavens passing away with a noise; when the universe shall be reduced to its first principles, and time shall be no more; when the judgment shall be set, and the books opened; then we shall understand that it was sin that made all these desolations, that kindled these fires, and will be yet kindling much greater.
Now let a sinner consider all these passages, and when he has considered them, let him know, that there is unspeakably more evil in sin than in all these. For God can destroy and confound a world, but he cannot sin: and Christ could submit to all the violences of cruelty, all the loads of contumely; but he who could do all this, could not be brought to commit the least sin.
Nor is this to be wondered at; for as every quality flows much more plentifully in the cause than in the effect; so sin, that causes and produces all these evils, must needs contain a much more redundant evil in itself. But now, after all this, the presuming sinner must yet further consider, that all the evil he has hitherto heard of is but the evil of sin considered barely as sin: and then let him collect, that presumption is the very poison and gall of sin itself, the highest degree of it. Sin then reigns and sits in its throne, when it is once advanced to the nature of being presumptuous: so that presumption is a sin (if it were possible) something more than sinful.
2. Let a man most seriously consider and reflect upon God’s justice. The hands of justice are not so tied up by mercy, but that they are loose enough upon those who have no title to mercy: and such the greatest part of the world are, who may possibly, by a redundant bounty, enjoy, but they cannot claim it; for as God deals with men upon a double account, either of the gospel or of the law, the tenor of the former of which is, that there is no condemnation to such as are in Christ Jesus; that is, to such as believe and repent, and become new creatures: and the tenor and voice of the latter is, Cursed be every one that continueth not in all things written in the law to do them; so these two dispensations divide and comprehend all mankind; whereupon those who are not under one are certainly ranged under the other. Those who have not, by sincere repentance and the fruits of it, reached the conditions of the gospel, are under the lash and dint of the law. In the execution of whose sentence the divine justice reigns and shews itself, as the other is the proper scene of mercy.
But now, while a sinner presumes and sins confidently, upon what grounds of certainty, or indeed of rational probability, can he conclude himself to be within the verge and compass of the second covenant? There is not a greater and a more dangerous symptom of a person wholly estranged from all right to the evangelical privileges. For none can be entitled to these but the penitent; and can any man evidence his penitence by his presumption? his sorrow for sin by a resolved progress and continuance in it? And if he can make out no title here, let him consider, and tremble under the consideration, that he lives every minute obnoxious to the arrests of that fierce attribute of God, his justice: he is absolutely under the power of the law, that law that cries for wrath and revenge upon the violators of it.
So that, as presumptuous, he is the proper object for wrath and justice to discharge itself upon. Mercy indeed wards off all these dreadful blows; but it does not this universally and promiscuously for all, but for those only who by certain conditions are qualified for the proper subjects of mercy, as others are of justice. Where we may observe, that each of these attributes confine their working within their proper object, and encroach not upon the respective bounds of each other. He that is a vessel of mercy is out of the reach of justice; and he whom the law consigns over to justice, so long can have no protection from mercy.
The impartial thought of which, surely, should be sufficient to disabuse the confidence of the presumptuous, and to rectify his wild, unlimited apprehensions of that pardoning grace, which speaks pardon to none while they presume upon it.
3. Let a man correct his presumptuous humour, by considering how much such offences would exasperate even men. It is well, if some men can pardon once. But when they see that an offender grows upon them, takes heart, and reiterates the provocation over and over, their patience is out of breath, tires, and can hold out no longer. Peter thought, according to the rate of the world’s pardoning, that he extended charity to a vast compass, when he discoursed of pardoning his brother seven times. He thought that then surely the acts of pardon were in their number of perfection.
No man of spirit will endure that his clemency should prostitute his honour to the saucy invasions of a bold and a growing impudence. No father will endure that his son should abuse his goodness, as if it served for nothing else but only to suffer and for give. And this is a thing so known to men, so implanted in them by nature, that such as have not wholly shook off all modesty, dread the very sight of a man whom they have much presumed upon: and though they fear no punishment from him, yet they find those rejolts from humanity, that deject their countenance, and make them sneak, and fly the presence of an affronted person.
Which being so, has not every presumptuous sinner reason thus to school and upbraid himself: Shall I fear to deal thus and thus with a man, a sinful man like myself; a worm, a piece of living dirt; one whose breath and life are in his nostrils? and shall I venture to pass the same and greater affronts upon the omnipotent Creator of the world, that can crush me to nothing, that can frown me into hell, and even look me into endless destruction? Shall I fear an anger that lasts but a moment, and can do but little while it lasts; an anger that is but as the spleen of a wasp, a short fester, and huff of passion: and shall I provoke such a displeasure as the very angels tremble at; a displeasure that for its duration is eternal, and for its weight intolerable?
Men see and converse with that every day, in the ordinary passages of common life, that might invincibly argue them into a better behaviour towards their Maker. Could we but treat God as a king, as a magistrate, or a master, of all sins those of presumption would be the fewest. For in the courts of men people seldom expect to be pardoned the second time. But as for God, his mercy, they say, is infinite; and therefore they resolve that their rebel lions shall be so too, since there is no exhausting, no coming to the bottom of an infinite: and thus they presume to be pardoned so often, that in the issue they fall short of being pardoned once.
And thus much for the third and last branch of the first general head; which was, to prescribe remedies against sins of presumption.
II. I proceed now to the other general head proposed at first for the handling of the words; which is, to shew the reason of this holy and excellent person’s, the Psalmist’s, so earnest praying against these sins.
I suppose the prosecution of the first head, which was to declare to us what presumptuous sins were, might be argument enough to declare to us the second also, in shewing the cause why the Psalmist so fervently prays against them. He prays against them, as against so many pests, so many direful causes of God’s wrath, so many devourers of souls; and every prayer made against such things carries its reason too visibly writ upon it to be long inquired after.
But yet, for a more full and explicit discussion of the point in hand, I shall endeavour to give some more particular account of the reasons inducing this holy person with so much zeal to engage his prayers against presumptuous sins. And I conceive the principal of them may be brought under these two heads.
1. The danger of falling into these sins.
2. The sad consequences of them, if fallen into.
And first for the danger of falling into them; this appears in several respects.
1. In respect of the nature of man, which is generally apt to be confident, and to measure its belief by its desires; still presaging the best, flattering itself, and building broad superstructures upon narrow foundations. Few men feel their conditions so bad, but they find room for hope: and that which is hope in some cases, will rise into arrogance and presumption in others.
Most men are of a debonair, sanguine, jolly disposition, which never fails to supply those builders with materials, who are apt to rear castles in the air: so that we may well avouch, that where despair has slain its thousands, presumption has slain its ten thousands.
For despair seldom breeds but in the melancholy temper, that inclines men to be thoughtful and suspicious, or in such breasts as have been forced into a preternatural melancholy by conversing with unskilful spiritual guides, of an indiscreet severity, and pinning their faith upon ill-managed discourses about predestination. But these are but a very small portion of mankind, in comparison of the other: these go in handfuls, the other in herds, thronging into the broad way, where mirth and confidence carry them, hop ping and laughing into perdition. Let this therefore be the first reason of the danger of men’s falling into presumptuous sins.
2. The second reason is from the object of presumption, God’s mercy: which though I shew was limited, and not as boundless and absurd as some men’s imaginations; yet there is no doubt but, according to the present economy of God’s actings, the exercise of it is of much more latitude and extent than the exercise of his justice. The time of this life is a time of mercy, and God delights to make the experiments of it splendid and illustrious.
Hereupon presumption strikes in, and advances it into endless and irrational; and uses it not only as an argument for repenting of past sins, (the sole proper use of it,) but as an antecedent inducement to warrant sin for the future. The largeness of mercy has made it apt to be abused by the corruption of man’s heart, which is ready to suck poison out of the fairest flowers of God’s garden; and to make the most amiable of his attributes serve the interest of its vilest affections.
Let both law and gospel denounce death against the commission of such or such a sin; and presumption shall interpose, and tell the sinner in the Devil’s own words, Thou shalt not surely die; and then mercy shall be alleged for a proof of this assertion: that shall be brought for an encouragement, that God intended only for a cure of sin.
3. Thirdly and lastly. A third reason of the danger of falling into presumptuous sins is from the tempter, who chiefly busies and concerns himself to engage men in this kind of sin. It is said of David, concerning his sin in numbering the people, which put the sword in the hand of the destroying angel, to give his whole kingdom such a blow, that Satan stood up and provoked David to number Israel, 1 Chron. xxi. 1. And of Judas it is most particularly remarked, in Luke xxii. 3, that Satan entered into Judas; and so by a kind of immediate possession acted him to the betraying of his master. And for Ananias who prevaricated about the price of his lands, and so endeavoured, as it were, to put a trick upon the Spirit of God, the apostle Peter tells him, in Acts v. 3, that it was Satan that filled his heart to lie to the Holy Ghost. Nay, and in that notable temptation in which he accosted our Saviour himself, the sin he drove at was a high presumption, namely, that Christ should cast himself headlong from a pinnacle of the temple; because God had charged his angels to keep him in all his ways; that is, that he should presume to promise himself the divine protection in an action wholly uncommanded, and consequently unwarranted, because God had engaged to secure and guard him in the commanded instances of duty and obedience.
It is clear therefore, that the Devil lays a more than ordinary stress upon this; and if so, he will be sure to employ all his engines to push his design forward; for he knows that one great sin does his work compendiously, and destroys at a blow. He knows also, that his design, like a twoedged sword, may chance to cut both ways. For first he will make a man presume to commit a sin, and then, if possible, he will make him despair for having committed it. Wherefore, if all the arts and stratagems of our mortal enemy can endanger us, we are in danger of being entangled in this sin; this fatal, destructive sin, which is the very masterpiece of the Devil, and the gate of hell; and consequently have cause, with bended knees and bowed hearts, night and day to invoke the almighty assistances of Heaven for our rescue from that sin; in the commission of which every man so really proves the murderer of his own soul.
And thus much for the first reason of David’s so earnest praying against presumptuous sins, namely, the danger of falling into them; as also the several causes from whence that danger does arise.
I proceed now to the other reason, which is, the sad consequences of these sins, if once fallen into: amongst which we may reckon these that follow.
1. This kind of sin is marvellously apt to grow and prevail upon him that gives way to it; which ill consequence of it is deservedly mentioned by me, in the first place, it being that great and only one that David mentions instead of all the rest; Keep, says he, thy servant from presumptuous sins, lest they get the dominion over me. Every presumption is properly an encroachment, and all encroachment carries in it still a further and a further invasion upon the person encroached upon. It enters into the soul as a gangrene does into the body, which spreads as well as infects, and, with a running progress, carries a venom and a contagion over all the members. Presumption never stops in its first attempt. If Caesar comes once to pass Rubicon, he will be sure to march further on, even till he enters the very bowels of Rome, and break open the capitol itself. He that wades so far as to wet and foul himself, cares not how much he trashes further.
When the tenderness of the soul is lost, and its first awe of God and religion broke by a bold sin, it grows venturous, and ready to throw itself upon all sorts of outrages and enormities. It does not demur and tremble as it used to do, when any thing gross and foul was proposed to it; but it closes with it readily, and steps undauntedly into that stream that is like to carry it away, and swallow it up for ever.
This growing, encroaching mischief perhaps first fastens but upon the thoughts, and they take the liberty to settle upon some unlawful, base thing, like flies upon a carcass; from these it advances a step further, and seizes the desires, which presently are carried out with a restless eagerness after the same vile object; and these at length meet with some friendly opportunity, by the help of which they break forth into actual commission; which actual commission grows from one into many, and comes to be frequent and repeated, till it settles into a custom, and fixes itself immoveably and for ever in a man’s behaviour.
This is the nature and quality of presumption; much like what our Saviour says of the mustard seed, which at first is the least of all seeds, but being grown up is greater than all herbs, so that the birds of the air lodge in the branches of it. In like manner presumption first sows itself in a thought, the least of all sins for the matter of it; but from thence shooting up into a custom and an habitual practice, it grows mighty and wide, opens its arms, and spreads out its branches for every unclean bird, every sinful action and abomination to come and lodge and rest upon.
No man can assign the limits, the ne plus ultra of presumption, where it will stay, and with what pitch of villainy it will be contented: it is as unruly as power, as boundless as rebellion; and therefore, he that would preserve his conscience, and the peace of it, has cause to keep a perpetual guard upon his heart, to stave it off from a first admission.
2. The second ill consequence of presumptuous sins is, that of all others they prove the most difficult in their cure, forasmuch as they take away that which is the proper disposition to it, tenderness of conscience; leaving the heart fixed and hardened, and not easily capable of any healing impression. It is impossible for any man to be brought off from sin, but by the sense and feeling of sin: which sense, every presumption does by degrees weaken and dull, and in the issue utterly extinguish.
For I shew before, that the proper effect of such sins w^as custom in sinning; and with what difficulty that is removed we are told in Jeremiah xiii. 23. Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil. The Ethiopian’s blackness and the leopard’s spots are natural to them; and there is no washing away nature, no purging off the essential properties of things; and therefore this is mentioned as a difficulty but one remove from an impossibility.
Custom and frequency in sin breeds a familiarity with it that produces an affection to it, and ends in a resolved continuance in it. And as it is said by the apostle upon another occasion, that perfect lone casts out fear; so, where custom has fastened a man’s love upon sin, the awe and the dread of it vanishes; and the sinner can break a precept under the very eye of sin-revenging justice, without trembling; without feeling any inward wound or blow upon his heart: which is a frame of spirit, leaving a man not far from a reprobate mind and a seared conscience; a disease that laughs at all the applications of the spiritual physician; Jerem. li. 9, We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed. And the truth is, he who comes recovered out of a course of presumptuous sinning, has plucked his foot out of a mortal snare, a deliverance never vouchsafed but to the favourites of mercy, supplying the defect and weakness of the means by an invincible grace. And we may say of such an one very properly, as of a man rising from a swoon, and the very neighbourhoods of death, that he is come to himself.
3. As sins of presumption are more difficultly cured, so they waste the conscience infinitely more than any other sins. As really as blows and wounds and bruises weaken the body, and by degrees dispose it to its final dissolution; so certainly do some sins shake, and batter, and tear down the constitution of the soul. Guilt upon the conscience, like rust upon iron, both defiles and consumes it, by degrees gnawing and creeping into it; as that does, till at length it has eat out the very heart and substance of the metal. The inward as well as the outward man has his proper health, strength, and soundness naturally belonging to him; and in proportion, has also his diseases and distemper, arising from an irregular course of living. And every act of presumption is to him as a spiritual debauch or surfeit: things that bring a present disorder, and entail a future decay upon nature.
David was a sufficient example of this, who complained in Psalm xxxviii. that there was neither soundness in his flesh, nor rest in his bones, by reason of his sin: and that his wounds even festered and grew noisome because of his foolishness, so that he became as a man in whom there was no strength. He lost that vigorous, athletic habit of soul, which before made him eminent and mighty in the ways of God; and now he began to droop and languish like a man that had drank a poisonous draught, that ever after wasted and consumed his spirits; so that in Psalm xxxix. and the last verse, he prays to God to spare him a little, that he might recover strength, before he went hence, and was seen no more. He that would see what desperate stabs and gashes the guilt of presumptuous sinning gives the conscience, should do well to acquaint himself with the case of David, as he himself (dolefully enough) expresses it all along in his Psalms; and if that does not warn him of his danger, he is like to learn it too late by the woful instructions of smart and experience.
4. Fourthly and lastly. These sins have been always followed by God with greater and fiercer judgments than any others; and for this also we need go no further than David for an eminent in stance and demonstration: for after those two horrid sins committed by him, did not God raise up a rebel against him, not only out of his own house, but also out of his own loins? one that defied him both in the relation of a father and of a king, that trampled upon his authority, and abused his wives in the face of all Israel? Did not God also punish his adultery with an infamous lewd action in his family? his son committing incest with his own sis ter: and moreover the sword was never to depart from his house. To all which may be added the ignominy, the scoffs and reproaches that were in whole volleys discharged at him from all sides: hard usage for majesty and sovereignty to be treated with: yet by all this, God was pleased to give him some taste of the poison of his presumptions.
And to proceed to other instances: Did not the villainy and lewdness of a few Benjamites, set and resolved upon their sin against all admonition, almost consume and reap down an whole tribe? Did not the violence and uncleanness of Hophni and Phinehas, bring a disaster and a defeat upon the armies of Israel? and withal perpetuate an hideous destructive curse upon their father’s house? Did not the apostasy and ingratitude of Solomon against that God that made him shine like a star of the first magnitude amongst all the neighbouring princes, rend away ten tribes from his son at once?
But above all, take that notable instance of Manasses, whose sins indeed were of that high strain, that they seemed to surpass all those of the kings of Israel and Judah, that were either before or after him; yet, notwithstanding this, both he himself proved a penitent and a convert at the last; and as for his son and successor Josiah, he was as eminently transcendent for his piety, as his father had been for his sin; and extended a reformation every way as large and wide as the former’s corruption. So that one would have imagined that he had cleansed the land, and even atoned his father’s abominations: whereupon the Spirit of God gives him this bright and glorious character; 2 Kings xxiii. 25, 26, That like unto Josiah there was no king before him that turned to the Lord with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses, neither afterwards arose any like unto him. And now what follows after all this? Why in the next verse, Notwithstanding this, the Lord turned not from the fierceness of his great wrath, wherewith his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasses had provoked him withal. Josiah’s goodness could not expiate Manasses sin. The son’s penitential tears could not wash away the father’s guilt.
And now for the sinner that we have been hitherto discoursing of; if all the former considerations will not move him, yet let him at least arrest his presumption with this last. Perhaps the growing, contagious nature of his sin moves him not; the difficult cure of it, peradventure, prevails upon him as little; and it is like, that its aptness to waste, and harden, and debauch the conscience may make but small impression upon him; yet shall not the effects of it, the confusion, the disaster, and the curse that it is big with, the curse that will descend like rottenness into his bones, and strike like a dart through his liver; shall not all this terrify him into caution and prayer, into reformation and amendment?
It is the concernment of God’s justice and his honour, to meet and confound an audacious sinner in his course with some remarkable instance of his vengeance. It is a clearing of his Providence to the rational world. Men surely have cause to pray against the commission of that sin, which, if once committed, may leave a guilt that no repentance can so wipe off as to discharge the sinner wholly from all punishment in this world. God, upon the intercession of Moses, was reconciled to the Israelites after their making of the golden calf; yet the pardon was mingled with a bitter allay; Exod. xxxii. 34, Nevertheless, saith God, in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them. And it was an usual saying of the Jewish rabbies, that there was no affliction or judgment that ever befell the children of Israel but had an ounce of the golden calf in it.
And no sinner can assure himself but that, after all his prayers, and tears, and humiliations, nay, and what is more, his reconcilement with God, as to his eternal estate, yet, as to his temporal, the anger of the same God may, for the guilt of some gross, presumptuous sin, stick in his skirts, and never cease to pursue and dog him to his grave, sealing his offence with that dreadful sentence in Isaiah xxii. 14, Surely this iniquity shall not be purged from you till you die. Which sentence as every presumption will deserve, so it is only in his power that pronounces it to prevent.
To whom be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.
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