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THE DANGER OF ALL KNOWN SIN, BOTH FROM THE LIGHT OF NATURE AND REVELATION.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath shewed it unto them.—Rom. i. 18, 19.
IN the beginning of this chapter, the apostle declares that he was particularly designed and appointed by God to preach the gospel to the world, and that he was not ashamed of his ministry, not withstanding all the reproach and persecution it was attended withal, and notwithstanding the slight and undervaluing opinion which the world had of the doctrine which he preached, it being “to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness;” for though this might reflect some disparagement upon it in the esteem of sensual and carnal men, yet to those who weighed things impartially, and considered the excellent end and design of the Christian doctrine, and the force and efficacy of it to that end, it will appear to be an instrument admirably fitted, by the wisdom of God, for the reformation and salvation of mankind.
And therefore he tells us, (ver. 16.) that how much soever it was despised by that ignorant and inconsiderate age, he was “not ashamed of the gospel of Christ;” because “it is the power of God unto salvation, to every one that believeth, to the Jew first; and also to the Greek:” that is, the doctrine of the gospel sincerely believed and embraced, is a most proper and powerful means, designed by God for the salvation of mankind; not only of the Jews, but also of the gentiles.
The revelations which God had formerly made, were chiefly restrained to the Jewish nation; but this great and last revelation of the gospel, was equally calculated for the benefit and advantage of all mankind. The gospel, indeed, was first preached to the Jews, and from thence published to the whole world; and as this doctrine was designed for the general benefit of mankind, so it was very likely to be effectual to that end, being an instrument equally fitted for the salvation of the whole world, gentiles as well as Jews; “it is the power of God to salvation to every one that believes; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
And to shew the efficacy of it, he instanceth in two things, which render it so powerful and effectual a means for the salvation of mankind.
First, Because therein the grace and mercy of God, in the justification of a sinner, and declaring him righteous, is so clearly revealed, (ver. 17.) “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed, from faith to faith, as it is written, the just shall live by faith.” This is very obscurely expressed, but the meaning of this text will be very much cleared, by comparing it with another in the third chapter of this Epistle, (ver. 20, 21, 22, &c.) where the apostle speaks more fully and expressly of the way of our justification by ^he faith of Jesus Christ; that is, by the belief of the gospel. He asserts, at the 20th verse, that “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in the sight of God.” To this way of justification, “by the deeds of the law,” he opposeth “the righteousness of God by the faith of Jesus Christ, to all, and upon all them that believe,” which is the gospel way of justification: (ver. 21, 22.) “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets, even the righteousness of God, which is by the faith of Jesus Christ, unto all, and upon all them that believe.” “The righteousness of God without the law is manifested;” that is, the way which God hath taken to justify sinners, and declare them righteous “without the deeds of the law;” that is, without observing the law of Moses, “is manifested;” that is, is clearly revealed in the gospel, (which is the same with what the apostle had said before, that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel) “being witnessed by the law and the prophets;” that is, “the righteousness of God,” or the justification of sinners by Jesus Christ, is clearly revealed in the gospel, being also in a more obscure manner attested or foretold in the Old Testament, which he calls “the law and the prophets;” and this fully explains that difficult phrase of “the righteousness of God being revealed by the gospel, from faith to faith;” that is, by a gradual revelation, being more obscurely foretold in the Old Testament, and clearly discovered in the New; so that these two passages are equivalent: in the gospel, “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; and the righteousness of God without the works of the law is manifested, bring witnessed by the law and the prophets.” There is the first and more imperfect revelation of it, but the clear revelation of it is in the gospel; this the apostle calls a revelation “from faith to faith;” that is, from a more imperfect and obscure, to a more express and clear, discovery and belief of it. And then the citation which follows is very pertinent, “as it is written, the just shall live by faith;” for this citation out of the Old Testament plainly shews, that the way of justification by faith was there mentioned; or, as our apostle expresseth it, was “witnessed by the law and the prophets;” and consequently, that this was a gradual discovery, which he calls a revelation “from faith to faith.” “The just shall live by faith;” that is, good men shall be saved by their faith; shall be justified and esteemed righteous in the sight of God, and finally saved by their faith. And so the apostle in the fifth chapter of this Epistle, (ver. 18.) calls our justification by the faith of the gospel, the justification of life, in opposition to condemnation and death, which very well explains that saying of the prophet, “the just shall live by faith.” I have been the longer upon this, that I might give some light to a very difficult and obscure text.
Secondly, The other instance, whereby the apostle proves the gospel to be so powerful a means for the recovery and salvation of men, is, that therein also the severity of God against impenitent sinners, as well as his grace and mercy in the justification of the penitent, is clearly revealed: (ver. 18.) “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven, against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;” because that which may be known of God is manifested in them, for God hath shewn it unto them. The first, viz. the grace of God in our justification and the remission of sins past, is a most proper and powerful argument to en courage us to obedience for the future; nothing being more likely to reclaim men to their duly, than the assurance of indemnity for past crimes; and the other is one of the most effectual considerations in the world to deter men from sin, that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men,” &c.
From which words I shall observe these six things:
First, The infinite danger that a wicked and sinful course doth plainly expose men to. “The wrath of God” is here said to be “revealed against the impiety and unrighteousness of men.”
Secondly, The clear and undoubted revelation which the gospel hath made of this danger, “The wrath of God” against the sins of men is said to be “revealed from heaven.”
Thirdly, That every wicked and vicious practice doth expose men to this great danger. “The wrath of God is” said to be “revealed against all ungodliless and unrighteousness of men.”
Fourthly, That it is a very great aggravation of sin, for men to offend against the light of their own minds. The apostle here aggravates the impiety and wickedness of the heathen world, that they did not live up to the knowledge which they had of God, but contradicted it in their lives, which he calls “holding the truth in unrighteousness.”
Fifthly, The natural knowledge which men have of God, if they live wickedly, is a clear evidence of their “holding the truth in unrighteousness. The apostle therefore chargeth them with “holding the truth in unrighteousness,” because that which may be known of God is manifested in them, God having shewed it to them.
Sixthly and lastly, That the clear revelation of the wrath of God in the gospel, against the impiety and wickedness of men, renders it a very powerful and likely means for the recovery and salvation of men. For the apostle proves “the gospel of Christ” to be “the power of God to salvation;” because “therein the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;” that is, against all impenitent sinners.
I shall, at the present, by God’s assistance, speak to the three first of these particulars.
First, The infinite danger that a wicked and sinful course doth plainly expose men to. If there be a God that made the world, and governs it, and takes care of mankind, and hath given them laws and rules to live by, he cannot but be greatly displeased at the violation and transgression of them; and certainly the displeasure of God is the most dreadful thing in the world, and the effects of it the most insupportable. The greatest fear is from the greatest danger, and the greatest danger is from the greatest power offended and enraged; and this is a consideration exceeding full of terror, that by a sinful course we expose ourselves to the utmost displeasure of the great and terrible God; for “who knows the power of his wrath? and who may stand before him when once he is angry? According to thy fear, so is thy wrath,” saith the psalmist. There is no passion in the mind of man that is more boundless and infinite than our fear; it is apt to make wild and frightful representations of evils, and to imagine them many times greater than really they are; but in this case our imagination must fall short of the truth and terror of the thing; for the wrath of God doth far exceed the utmost jealousy and suspicion of the most fearful and guilty conscience; and the greatest sinner under his greatest anguish and despair, cannot apprehend or fear it more than there is reason for; “according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.”
If it were only the wrath and displeasure of men that the sinner were exposed to, there might be reason enough for fear; because they have many times power enough to crush an offender, and cruelty enough to fret every vein of his body, and to torment him in every part: but the wrath and vengeance of men bears no comparison with the wrath of God. Their passions are many times strong and blustering; but their arm is but short, and their power small; they have not an arm like God, nor can they thunder with a voice like him. They may design considerable harm and mischief to us; but it is not always in the power of their hand to wreak their malice upon us, and to execute all the mischief which their enraged minds may prompt them to; the very utmost they can design is to torment our bodies, and to take away our lives; and when they have designed this, they may die first, and return to their dust, and then their thoughts perish with them, and all their malicious designs are at an end: they are always under the power and government of a superior Being, and can go no farther than he gives them leave. However, if they do their worst, and shoot all their arrows at us, we cannot stand at the mark long, their wrath will soon make an end of us, and set us free from all their cruelty and oppression; they can but “kill the body, and after that they have no more that they can do;” their most refined malice cannot reach our spirits, no weapon that can be formed by the utmost art of man can pierce and our souls; they can drive us out of this world, but they cannot pursue us into the other; so that at the worst the grave will be a sanctuary to us, and death a safe retreat from all their rage and fury.
But the wrath of God is not confined by any of these limits. “Once hath God spoken, (saith David, by an elegant Hebrew phrase, to express the certainty of the thing) once hath God spoken, and twice I have heard this, that power belongs to God.” (Psal. lxii. 11.) He hath a mighty arm, and when he pleaseth to stretch it out, none may stay it, nor say unto him, What dost thou?” he hath power enough to make good all his threatenings, whatever he says he is able to effect, and whatever he purposeth he can bring to pass: for “his counsel shall stand, and he will accomplish all his pleasure;” he need but speak the word, and it is done; for we can neither resist his power, nor fly from it: if we fly to the utmost parts of the earth, his hand can reach us; for “in his hands are all the corners of the earth: if we take refuge in the grave (and we cannot do that without his leave) thither his wrath can follow us; and there it will overtake us; for his power is not confined to this, world, nor limited to our bodies; “after he hath killed, he can destroy both body and soul in hell.
And this is that “wrath of God which is revealed from heaven,” and which the apostle chiefly intends; viz. the misery and punishment of another world. This God hath threatened sinners withal: to express which to us, as fully as words can do, he heaps up in the next chapter so many weighty and terrible words “indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doth evil;” in opposition to that great and glorious reward of “immortality and eternal life,” which is promised to a “patient continuance in well-doing.”
So that “the wrath of God,” which is here denounced “against the impiety and unrighteousness of men,” comprehends all the evils and miseries of this and the other world, which every sinner is in danger of whilst he continues impenitent; for as, according to the tenor of the gospel, “godliness hath the promise of this life, and of that which is to come;” so impotency in sin exposeth men to the evils of both worlds; to the judgments of “the life that now is,” and to the endless and intolerable torments “of that which is to come.” And what can be more dreadful than the displeasure of an almighty and eternal Being? who can punish to the utmost, and who lives for ever, to execute his wrath and vengeance upon sinners; so that well might the apostle say, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
“Consider this all ye that forget God,” that neglect him, and live in continual disobedience to his holy and righteous laws; much more those who despise and affront him, and live in a perpetual defiance of him. “Will ye provoke the Lord to jealousy? are ye stronger than he?” Think of it seriously, and forget him if you can, despise him if you dare; consider this, lest he take you into consideration, and rouse like a lion out of sleep, and “tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.” This is the first observation; the infinite danger that a wicked and sinful course doth expose men to, the wrath of God, which doth not only signify more than all the evils that we know, but than all those which the wildest fears and suspicions of our minds can image.
Secondly, The next thing observable, is the clear and undoubted revelation which the gospel hath made of this danger, “the wrath of God is revealed,” &c. By which the apostle intimates to us, that this was but obscurely known to the world before, at least in comparison of that clear discovery which the gospel hath now made of it; so that I may allude to that expression in Job, which he applies to death and the grave, that “hell is naked before us, and destruction hath no covering.”
Not but that mankind had always apprehensions and jealousies of the danger of a wicked life, and sinners were always afraid of the vengeance of God pursuing their evil deeds, not only in this life, but after it too; and though they had turned the punishments of another world into ridiculous fables, yet the wiser sort of mankind could not get it out of their minds, that there was something real under them; and that Ixion’s wheel, which by a perpetual motion carried him about; and Sisyphus’s stone, which he was perpetually rolling up the hill, and when he had got it near the top tumbled down, and still created him a new labour; and Tantalus’s continual hunger and thirst, aggravated by a perpetual nearness of enjoyment, and a perpetual disappointment; and Prometheus’s being chained to a rock, with an eagle or vulture perpetually preying upon his liver, which grew as fast as it was gnawed: I say, even the wiser among the heathens looked upon these as fantastical representations of some thing that was real; viz. the grievous and endless punishment of sinners, the not to be endured, and yet perpetually renewed torments of another world; for in the midst of all the ignorance and degeneracy of the heathen world, men’s consciences did accuse them when they did amiss, and they had secret fears and misgivings of some mighty danger hanging over them from the displeasure of a superior Being, and the apprehension of some great mischiefs likely to follow their wicked actions, which some time or other would overtake them; which, because they did not always in this world, they dreaded them in the next. And this was the foundation of all those superstitions whereby the ancient pagans endeavoured so carefully to appease their offended deities, and to avert the calamities which they feared they would send down upon them. But all this while they had no certain assurance by any clear and express revelation from God to that purpose, but only the jealousies and suspicions of their own minds, naturally consequent upon those notions which men generally had of God, but so obscured and depraved by the lusts and vices of men, and by the gross and false conceptions which they had of God, that they only served to make them superstitious, but were not clear and strong enough to make them wisely and seriously religious. And, to speak the truth, the more knowing and inquisitive part of the heathen world had brought all these things into great doubt and uncertainty, by the nicety and subtlety of disputes about them; so that it was no great wonder that these principles had no greater effect upon the lives of men, when their apprehensions of them were so dark and doubtful.
But the gospel hath made a most clear and certain revelation of these things to mankind. It was written before upon men’s hearts as the great sanction of the law of nature; but the impressions of this were in a great measure blurred and worn out, so hat it had no great power and efficacy upon the minds and manners of men; but now it is clearly discovered to us, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven,” which expression may well imply in it these three things:
First, The clearness of the discovery; “the wrath of God” is said to be “revealed.”
Secondly, The extraordinary manner of it; it is said to be “revealed from heaven.”
Thirdly, The certainty of it; not being the result of subtle and doubtful reasonings, but having a Divine testimony and confirmation given to it, which is the proper meaning of being “revealed from heaven.”
First, It imports the clearness of the discovery. The punishment of sinners in another world is not so obscure a matter as it was before: it is now expressly declared in the gospel, together with the particular circumstances of it; namely, that there is another life after this, wherein men shall receive the just recompense of reward for all the actions done by them in this life; that there is a particular time appointed, wherein God will call all the world to a solemn account, and those who are in their graves shall, by a powerful voice, be raised to life, and those who shall then be found alive shall be suddenly changed; when our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal and only-begotten Son of God, who once came in great humility to save us, shall come again “in power and great glory,” attended with “his mighty angels; and all nations shall be gathered before him,” and all mankind shall be separated into two companies, the righteous and the wicked, who, after a full hearing and fair trial, shall be sentenced, according to their actions; the one to eternal life and happiness, the other to everlasting misery and torment.
So that the gospel hath not only declared the thing to us, that there shall be a future judgment; but for our farther assurance and satisfaction in this matter, and that these things might make a deep impression, and strike a great awe upon our minds, God hath been pleased to reveal it to us with a great many particular circumstances, such as are very worthy of God, and apt to fill the minds of men with dread and astonishment, as often as they think of them.
For the circumstances of this judgment revealed to us in the gospel are very solemn and awful; not such as the wild fancies and imaginations of men would have been apt to have dressed it up withal, such as are the fictions of the heathen poets, and the extravagances of Mahomet; which, though they be terrible enough, yet they are withal ridiculous; but such as are every way becoming the majesty of the great God, and the solemnity of the great day, and such as do not in the least savour of the vanity and lightness of human imagination.
For what more fair and equal, than that men should be tried by a man like themselves, one of the same rank and condition, that had experience of the infirmities and temptations of human nature? So our Lord tells us, that “the Father hath committed all judgment to the Son,” because he is the Son of man; and therefore cannot be excepted against, as not being a fit and equal judge. And this St. Paul offers us a clear proof of the equitable proceedings of that day: “God (says he) hath appointed a day, in which he will judge the world in righteousness, by that man whom he hath ordained.”
And then what more congruous than that the Son of God, who had taken so much pains for the salvation of men, and came into the world for that purpose, and had used all imaginable means for the reformation of mankind; I say, what more congruous, than that this very person should be honoured by God to sit in judgment upon the world, and to condemn those who, after all the means that had been tried for their recovery, would not repent and be saved. And, what more proper, than that men, who are to be judged for “things done in the body,” should be judged in the body; and consequently that the resurrection of the dead should precede the general judgment.
And what more magnificent and suitable to this glorious solemnity, than the awful circumstances which the Scripture mentions of the appearance of this great Judge; that he shall “descend from heaven,” in great majesty and glory, attended with “his mighty angels, “and that “every eye shall see him; that, upon his appearance, the frame of nature shall be in an agony, and the whole world in flame and confusion; that those great and glorious bodies of light shall be obscured, and by degrees extinguished: “The sun shall be darkened, and the moon turned into blood, and all the powers of heaven shaken;” yea, “the heavens themselves shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements dissolve with fervent heat; the earth also, and all the works that are therein, shall be burnt up.” I appeal to any man, whether this be not a representation of things very proper and suitable to that great day, wherein He who made the world shall come to judge it? and whether the wit of man ever devised any thing so awful and so agreeable to the majesty of God, and the solemn judgment of the whole world? The description which Virgil makes of the judgment of another world, of the Elysian fields, and the infernal regions, how infinitely do they fall short of the majesty of the Holy Scripture, and the description there made of heaven and hell, and of” the great and terrible day of the Lord!” so that in comparison they are childish and trifling; and yet, perhaps, he had the most regular and most governed imagination of any man that ever lived, and. observed the greatest decorum in his characters and descriptions. But who can declare the great things of God, but he to whom God shall reveal them!
Secondly, This expression of “the wrath of God” being “revealed from heaven,” doth not only imply the clear discovery of the thing, but likewise some thing extraordinary in the manner of the discovery. It is not only a natural impression upon the minds of men, that God will severely punish sinners; but he hath taken care that mankind should be instructed in this matter in a very particular and extraordinary manner. He hath not left it to the reason of men to collect it from the consideration of his attributes and perfections, his holiness and justice, and from the consideration of the promiscuous administration of his providence towards good and bad men in this world; but he hath been pleased to stud an extraordinary person from heaven, on purpose to declare this thing plainly to the world: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven;” that is, God sent his own Son from heaven, on purpose to declare his wrath against all obstinate and impenitent sinners, that he might effectually awaken the drowsy world to repentance; he hath sent an extraordinary ambassador into the world, to give warning to all those who continue in their sins, of the judgment of the great day, and to summon them before his dreadful tribunal. So the apostle tells the Athenians, (Acts xvii. 30, 31.) “Now he commandeth all men every where to repent; because he hath appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness, by that man whom he hath ordained, whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”
Thirdly, This expression implies likewise the certainty of this discovery. If the wrath of God had only been declared in the discourses of wise men, though grounded upon very probable reason, yet it might have been brought into doubt by the contrary reasonings of subtle and disputing men: but, to put the matter out of all question, we have a Divine testimony for it, and God hath confirmed it from heaven, by signs, and wonders, and miracles, especially by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead; for “by this he hath given assurance unto all men, that it is he who is ordained of God to judge the quick and dead.”
Thus you see in what respect “the wrath of God” is said to be “revealed from heaven;” in that the gospel hath made a more clear, and particular, and certain discovery of the judgment of the great day than ever was made to the world before. I proceed to the
Third observation, which I shall speak but briefly to; namely, That every wicked and vicious practice doth expose men to this dreadful danger. The apostle instanceth in the two chief heads to which the sins of men may be reduced, impiety to wards God, and unrighteousness towards men; and therefore he is to be understood to denounce the wrath of God against every particular kind of sin, comprehended under these general heads; so that no man that allows himself in any impiety and wickedness of life can hope to escape the wrath of God. Therefore it concerns us to be entirely religions, and to have respect to all God’s commandments; and to take heed that we do not allow ourselves in the practice of any kind of sin whatsoever, because the living in any one known sin is enough to expose us to the dreadful wrath of God. Though a man be just and righteous in his dealings with men, yet if he neglect the worship and service of God, this will certainly bring him under condemnation: and, on the other hand, though a man may serve God never so diligently and devoutly, yet if he be defective in righteousness towards men, if he deal falsely and fraudulently with his neighbour, he shall not escape the wrath of God; though a man pretend to never so much piety and devotion, yet if he be unrighteous, “he shall not inherit the kingdom of God;” if any man “overreach and defraud his brother in any matter, the Lord is the avenger of such,” saith St. Paul. (I Thess. iv. 6.)
So that here is a very powerful argument to take men off from all sin, and to engage them to a constant and careful discharge of their whole duty to ward God and men, and to reform whatever is amiss cither in the frame and temper of their minds, or in the actions and course of their lives; because any kind of wickedness, any one sort of vicious course, lays men open to the vengeance of God, and the punishments of another world; “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness, and unrighteousness of men;” there is no exception in the case, we must forsake all sin, subdue every lust, “be holy in all manner of conversation,” otherwise we can have no reasonable hopes of escaping the wrath of God, and the damnation of hell. But I proceed to the
Fourth observation; namely, That it is a very great aggravation of sin, for men to offend against the light of their own minds. The apostle here aggravates the wickedness of the heathen world, that they did not live up to that knowledge which they had of God, but contradicted it in their lives, “holding the truth of God in unrighteousness.” And that he speaks here of the heathen, is plain from his following discourse, and the character he gives of those persons of whom he was speaking, “who hold the truth of God in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath shewn it unto them;” and this he proves, because those who were destitute of Divine revelation, were not without all knowledge of God, being led by the sight of this visible world, to the knowledge of an invisible Being and power that was the author of it: (ver. 20, 21.) “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things which are made, even his eternal power and godhead, so that they are without excuse; because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, (Haec est summa delicti, nolle agnoscere, quem ignorare non possis, saith Tertullian to the heathen; ‘This is the height of thy fault, not to acknowledge him, whom thou canst not but know, not to own him, of whom thou canst not be ignorant if thou wouldst;’) neither were thankful;” they did not pay those acknowledgments to him which of right were due to the author of their being, and of all good things; but became vain in their imaginations; ἐματαιώθησαν ἐν τοῖς διαλογισμοῖς αὐτῶν, they were fooled with their own reasonings. This he speaks of the philosophers, who in those great arguments of the being and providence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the rewards of another world, had lost the truth by too much subtilty about it, and had disputed themselves into doubt and uncertainty about those things which were naturally known; for nimium altercando veritas amittitur; “Truth is many times lost by too much contention and dispute about it; and, by too eager a pursuit of it, men many times outrun it, and leave it behind;” (ver. 22.) “and professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” Men never play the fools more, than by endeavouring to be over-subtle and wise; (ver. 23.) “and changed the glory of the incorruptible God, into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and to four-footed beasts, and creeping things;” here he speaks of the sottishness of their idolatry, whereby they provoked God to give them up to all manner of lewdness and impurity; (ver. 24.) “wherefore God also gave them up unto uncleanness, through the lusts of their own hearts;” and again, (ver. 26.) “for this cause God gave them up to vile affections;” and then he enumerates the abominable lusts and vices they were guilty of, notwithstanding their natural acknowledgment of the Divine justice; (ver. 32.) “who, knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.” By all which it appears that he speaks of the heathen, who offended against the natural light of their own minds, and therefore were without excuse. Quam sibi veniam sperare possunt impietatis suae, qui non agnoscunt cultum ejus, quem prorsus ignorari ab hominibus fas non est? saith Lactantius; “How can they hope for pardon of their impiety, who deny to worship that God, of whom it is not possible mankind should be wholly ignorant?”
So that this is “to hold the truth in unrighteousness,” injuriously to suppress it, and to hinder the power and efficacy of it upon their minds and actions; for so the word κατέχειν sometimes signifies, as well as to hold fast; and this every man does, who acts contrary to what he believes and knows; he offers violence to the light of his own mind, and does injury to the truth, and keeps that a prisoner which would set him free; “ye shall know the truth (says our Lord), and the truth shall make you free.”
And this is one of the highest aggravations of the sins of men, to offend against knowledge, and that light which God hath set up in every man’s mind. If men wander and stumble in the dark, it is not to be wondered at; many times it is unavoidable, and no care can prevent it: but in the light it is expected men should look before them, and discern their way. That natural light which the heathens had, though it was but comparatively dim and imperfect, yet the apostle takes notice of it as a great aggravation of their idolatrous and abominable practices. Those natural notions which all men have of God, if they had in any measure attended to them, and governed themselves by them, might have been sufficient to have preserved them from dishonouring the Deity, by worshipping creatures instead of God; the common light of nature was enough to have discovered to them the evil of those lewd and unnatural practices, which many of them were guilty of; but they detained and suppressed the truth most injuriously, and would not suffer it to have its natural and proper influence upon them; and this is that which left them without excuse, that from the light of nature they had knowledge enough to have done better and to have preserved them from those great crimes which were so common among them.
And if this was so great an aggravation of the impiety and wickedness of the heathen, and left them without excuse, what apology can be made for the impiety and unrighteousness of Christians, who have so strong and clear alight to discover to them their duty, and the danger of neglecting it, to whom the “wrath of God” is plainly “revealed from heaven, against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men?” The truths of the gospel are so very clear and powerful, and such an improvement of natural light, that men must use great force and violence to suppress them, and to hinder the efficacy of them upon their lives. And this is a certain rule, by how much the greater our knowledge, by so much the less is our excuse, and so much the greater punishment is due to our faults. So our Lord hath told us, (Luke xii. 47.) “That servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” And, (John ix. 41.) “If ye were blind (says our Saviour to the Jews) ye should have no sin.” So much ignorance as there is of our duty, so much abatement of the wilfulness of our faults; but “if we sin wilfully, after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remains no more sacrifice for sin, but a fearful expectation of judgment and fiery indignation,” says the apostle to the Hebrews; (chap. x. 26, 27.) “If we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth; implying, that men cannot pretend ignorance for their faults, after so clear a revelation of the will of God, as is made to mankind by the gospel.
And upon this consideration it is, that our Saviour doth so aggravate the impenitency and unbelief of the Jews, because it was in opposition to all the advantages of knowledge, which can be imagined to be afforded to mankind. (John xv. 22-24.) “If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin;” that is, in comparison their sin had been much more excusable; “but now they have no cloak for their sin. He that hateth me, hateth my Father also. If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin; but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father.” How is that? our Saviour means, that they had now sinned against all the advantages of knowing the will of God that mankind could possibly have: at once opposing natural light, which was the dispensation of the Father; and the clearest revelation of God’s will, in the dispensation of the gospel by his Son; “now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father.”
The two remaining observations I shall reserve to another opportunity.
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