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Works of Dr. John Tillotson, Late Archbishop of Canterbury. Vol. 10.
« Prev Sermon CCXLVII. The Duty of Improving the Present… Next »

SERMON CCXLVII.

[Preached Feb. 15, 1685.]

THE DUTY OF IMPROVING THE PRESENT OPPORTUNITY AND ADVANTAGES OF THE GOSPEL

Then said Jesus unto them, Yet a little while is the light with you; walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you.—JOHN xii. 35.

“THEN said Jesus unto them,” that is, upon the discourse he had just before had with them, concerning his approaching death, and departure out of this world; at the mention whereof, they were offended and troubled; but instead of that, our Saviour puts them upon that which would be of real use and benefit to them, to improve those advantages and opportunities, which they were like to enjoy but a little while; “Then said Jesus unto them, Yet a little while is the light with you; walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you; for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth.”

“Yet a little while is the light with you.” This our Saviour speaks of himself, and his personal presence and teaching among them; “Yet a little while is the light with you:”” for so he frequently calls himself and his doctrine. (John iii. 19.) “Light is come into the world.” (John viii. 12.) “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me, shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life;” that is, such a light as will direct him in the way to eternal life; and, (John ix. 5.) “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

“Walk while ye have the light.” Light is the opportunity of action, and going about our business, and therefore it is joined with walking and working, as in the text I mentioned before, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me, shall not walk in darkness.” And (John ix. 4.) where the continuance of this opportunity of light is called the day, and the ceasing or withdrawing of it, the night: “I must work the works of him that sent me, (says our Lord,) while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.” Therefore we should walk and work while we have the light.

“Lest darkness come upon you.” And this will be a dismal and fatal time, when all opportunity of walking and working will be at an end; for when the light hath left us, we shall not be able to see what to do, or whither to go, as our Saviour adds, to enforce his exhortation of making use of the present advantages and opportunities. “Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walketh in darkness, knoweth not whither he goeth.”

All this our Saviour plainly speaks to the Jews, with relation to his own personal presence and preaching among them, which he tells them would shortly cease, and be at an end. In which sense these words do not concern us, but only the Jews at that time, to whom they were spoken; but by an equality of reason, the advice here given by our Saviour, first and immediately to the Jews, may be recommended to us, in the general reason and intention of it; to us, I say, who, though we do not enjoy the light of Christ’s personal presence, yet we have the light of his doctrine, and the power and presence of his Spirit going along with it, and supplying the absence of his person; so that in effect we have all the advantages and means of salvation, which the Jews had; and we know not how long they may be continued, or how soon they may be taken from us; and therefore the general reason and intendment of this advice concerns us equally with the Jews, and considering the uncertainty of the continuance of the means and opportunities of salvation, either to a particular people or person, we may very well apply these words of our Saviour to ourselves, and as if they had been spoken by him to us as well as to the Jews; “Yet a little while is the light with yon: walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you; for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth.”

Abstracting then from the particular occasion and meaning of the words, I shall prosecute the general reason and intention of them, as it may be accommodated to us, and that in these following particulars:”

First, As we have the like means and opportunities of grace and salvation as the Jews had.

Secondly, In that the season of their continuance is uncertain to us, as well as it was to them; we know not how long they may be continued, nor how soon they may be taken from us.

Thirdly, In that the same duty and obligation lie upon us, of improving the present advantages and opportunities which we enjoy. “Walk while ye have the light.”

Fourthly, In that we may justly apprehend the like danger and dismal consequence of being deprived of these happy opportunities and advantages. “Lest darkness come upon you; for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth.”

Fifthly, I shall consider by what things God is more especially provoked, to deprive a people of the means and opportunities of grace and salvation.

And then, lastly, What is the way and means to prevent so dismal a judgment, and procure, if it may be, “a lengthening of our tranquillity.” I shall go over these particulars as briefly as I can.

First, That we have the like means and opportunities of grace and salvation as the Jews had; not the very same in kind, and all the circumstances of them, as I noted before, but the same equivalently, and in substance, and to all the other purposes of our eternal salvation and happiness, if we make a right use of them. The Jews had the personal presence and preaching of Christ among them; they did converse familiarly with him, “did eat and drink in his presence,” and heard him “teach in their streets;” which was a very valuable and signal privilege, vouchsafed only to that people, and only in that age. For as to his personal presence and conversation, “he was not sent, but only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But we have still the same means and advantages in substance, which they had; “the gospel is preached to us, as well as to them;” we have all the light and direction concerning our duty, and all the encouragement to holiness and obedience, which they had; and there is still the same inward operation and concurrence of God’s Holy Spirit, accompanying his word, and making way for the entertainment of it; if there be but the same “obsequiousness of faith” in us, and readiness to “receive the truth in the love of it, that we may be saved.”

Nay, we have several advantages above them; that the Christian religion does not lie under those prejudices in respect of us, which it did with them; it hath been now for many ages received and established among us, and the prejudice of education is on its side; and it hath had great and manifold confirmation given to it, since our Saviour’s time, by the wonderful success and prevalency of it in the world, notwithstanding all the disadvantages it lay under, and the mighty opposition that was raised against it, by the remarkable fulfilling of many of our Saviour’s predictions concerning the final destruction of the temple at Jerusalem, and the desolation of that city, and the dispersion of the Jewish nation over the world, and their being hated of all nations, which hath now continued for above sixteen hundred years, and we see it at this day, as if the providence of God had ordered it on purpose, for a standing monument and testimony in all ages, of the truth of the Christian religion.

So that, blessed be God! there is no want of means “to bring us to the knowledge of the truth, that we may be saved;” no want of evidence to confirm to us the truth of this religion: there is nothing wanting on God’s part; if there be any failure and defect, it is ours, who will not walk in the light, while we have it; nor “know in this our day the things which belong to our peace, before they be hid from our eyes.”

Secondly, The season of the continuance of these means of grace and salvation, which are afforded to us, is uncertain to us, as well as it was to them. We know not how long they may be vouchsafed to us, nor how soon they may be taken away from us: “Yet a little while the light is with you,” saith our Saviour to the Jews; meaning, that he himself should shortly be put to death, and removed from them. This is not just our case: but thus far it agrees, that the light of the gospel, and the blessed opportunities which thereby we enjoy, are of an uncertain continuance, and may be of a lesser or longer duration, as God pleaseth, and according as we make use of them, and demean ourselves under them. I remember there is a very odd passage in Mr. Herbert’s poems, which whether it be only the prudent conjecture and foresight of a wise man, or there be something more prophetical in it, I cannot tell; it is this:”

“Religion stands on tiptoes in our land,

Ready to pass to the American strand.

When Seine shall swallow Tiber, and the Thames,

By letting in them both, pollute her streams,

Then shall religion to America flee:

They have their times of gospel, even as we.”

The meaning of it is this: that when the vices of Italy shall pass into France, and the vices of both shall overspread England, then the gospel will leave these parts of the world, and pass into America, to visit those dark regions, which have so long “sat in darkness and the shadow of death.” And this is not so improbable, if we consider, what vast colonies in this last age have been transplanted out of Europe into those parts, as it were on purpose to prepare and make way for such a change. But, however that be, considering how impiety and all manner of wickedness do reign among us, we have too much cause to apprehend, that if we do not reform and grow better, the providence of God will find some way or other to deprive us of that light, which is so abused and affronted by our wicked and lewd lives; and God seems now to say to us, as our Lord did to the Jews, “Yet a little while is the light with you; walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you.” I proceed to the

Third particular, That there is the same duty and obligation upon us, that was upon the Jews, of improving the present advantages and opportunities of salvation which we enjoy; and our Lord says to us, as well as to them, “Walk while ye have the light.” He expects from us, that we should make use of those blessed opportunities, and answer those manifold advantages, which are afforded to us, above most nations of the world; that we should improve our knowledge in religion, and advance daily in the practice of it; that we should work while it is day, and that the more light we have, the better our lives should be. For this is to walk in the light; to make use of the present advantages and opportunities, and to be active and industrious “to work out our own salvation; to be fruitful in every good word and work, and to abound in all the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.” The apostle St. Peter tells us at large, what obligation the knowledge of the gospel lays upon all Christians, to make answerable improvement in all goodness and virtue: (2 Pet. i. 3-9.) “According as his Divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue; whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, that by these yon might be partakers of the Divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And besides this, giving all diligence, add to your faith, virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge, temperance; and to temperance, patience; and to patience, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things, is blind, and cannot see far off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins.” If the gospel have not this effect upon us, if we make no use of the light of it, we do not consider that the proper effect of the Christian religion, is to purge men from those sins and vices which reigned in them before; and if it have not this effect upon us, it had been better for us to have been without this light and knowledge. So the same apostle declares: (chap. ii. 21.) “For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.” I proceed to the

Fourth particular, That if we make no improvement of these happy advantages and opportunities, we may justly apprehend the like danger, and dismal consequences of being deprived of them. “Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walketh in darkness, knoweth not whither he goeth.” God’s dealing with the Jews upon this provocation was very terrible; and, as the apostle saith upon another occasion, “it serves for an example and admonition to us, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” They who not only opposed and rejected that light which God sent among them, but did what in them lay to extinguish and put it out, by putting to death the Son of God, deserved to have been immediately deprived of that light, and to have been left in utter darkness: but God was pleased in his great mercy to grant a reprieve to them, and to continue the great blessing of the gospel to them for forty years longer: but when, notwithstanding this, they still continued impenitent, God at last withdrew this light, and by a particular providence gave warning to the Christians to flee from Jerusalem, just before the siege was laid to it; and then darkness came upon them indeed, and they knew not whither they went, nor what they did; the things of their peace were then hid from their eyes, because they would not know the time of their visitation. They fell into the greatest disorders and confusions, and, by the just judgment of God, were strangely blinded and hardened to their own ruin; and being forsaken of God, and of his glorious gospel, which they had rejected, they exercised all sorts of violence and cruelty upon one another, and were abandoned to all manner of wickedness and folly; not only of fending against their own law, for which they pretended so great a veneration, but committing things contrary to all laws of nature and humanity; as may be seen at large in the history of the siege of Jerusalem, written by Josephus, who lived in that time.

And there is the like danger, I do not say of the very same judgments, (for there was something peculiar in their case, they not only rejecting and abusing the gospel, but killing and crucifying the Son of God, who brought those glad tidings to them;) but of very great and dismal calamities, if ever we provoke God by our abuse of the gospel, and great unfruitfulness under it, to deprive us of so invaluable a blessing. Whenever that leaves us, we may expect the most dismal judgments and calamities to break in upon us.

For that parable concerning the husbandmen, who, instead of rendering to their lord the fruits of his vineyard in due season, evilly entreated, and killed those whom he sent to them; I say, this parable, though it immediately respected the Jews, yet it does in proportion concern all that live unfruitfully under the gospel: (Matt. xxi. 40, 41.) “When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?” They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons.” And, (ver. 43, 44.) “Therefore I say unto you, (says our Lord,) The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. And whosoever shall fall on this stone, shall be broken; but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.”

The removal of the gospel from any people, as it is the greatest judgment in itself, so it is likely to be accompanied with the greatest temporal miseries and calamities; and so in fact it hath happened not only to the Jews, whose case, as I said before, hath something in it peculiar, but to other churches and nations: to the seven famous churches of Asia, the cities of them being demolished and laid waste, and the very place of several of them hardly known at this day. And so likewise it hath happened to the flourishing churches of Africa, where Christianity is extinguished, and the place of them now the great seat of barbarism and slavery.

And God seems to set these examples before us, as a dreadful warning and admonition to us, and to say to us as he did to the people of Jerusalem, (Jer. vii. 12-15.) “But go ye now unto my place which was in Shiloh, where I set my name at the first, and see what I did to it, for the wickedness of my people Israel. And now, because ye have done all these works, saith the Lord, and I spake unto you, rising up early and speaking, but ye heard not; and I called yon, but ye answered not: therefore will I do unto this house, which is called by my name, wherein ye trust, and unto the place which I gave to you, and to your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh.. And 1 will cast you out of my sight, as I have cast out all your brethren.” I proceed to the

Fifth particular I mentioned, which is to consider, By what means God is more especially provoked to deprive a people of the light of the gospel, and the means of salvation. By these two more especially—by a general barrenness and unfruitfulness under them; and by a general impiety and wickedness.

1. By a general barrenness and unfruitfulness under the means and opportunities of salvation plentifully afforded to us. This our Saviour represents to us in the parable of the husband men, which I mentioned before, who rendered no fruit of the vineyard let out to them, for which they are threatened to have the vineyard taken from them, and let out to other husbandmen, who will render the fruits of it in their seasons. And in the same chapter (Matt. xxi. 19.) we find our Saviour cursing the fig-tree, which he saw in the way, because he found nothing thereon but leaves only. Leaves are the outward show and profession of religion; but if there be no fruit, we may justly fear a curse: for our Saviour did not curse the fig-tree for its own sake, but for our example. Sterilitas nostra in ficu vapulat; “Our barrenness is corrected and chastised in the curse which he pronounced upon the fig-tree.” To the same purpose there is a remark able parable of a barren fig-tree, and of the husbandman’s patient expectation of fruit from it, (Luke xiii. 7-9.) after three years waiting. “Then said he unto the dresser of this vineyard, Behold these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig-tree, and find none: cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground?” And he, answering, said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well; and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.” It is literally true, that fruit may be expected from a fig-tree at farthest the third year; and if in that time it doth not bear, it is almost in vain to expect it: but our Saviour intended by this parable to reprove the Jews, among whom he had taken so much pains for three years, and was now upon his fourth, resolving with the utmost patience to expect the fruit of repentance, and obedience to his doctrine, and then to leave them, and withdraw that light from them which they made no use of: and yet after this, he continued his apostles among them, who preached the doctrine of life and salvation to them for many years, before he punished their barrenness under all those means, by taking away his gospel from them, and giving them up to utter ruin and destruction.

2. Another and higher provocation of Almighty God to take away his gospel from a nation, is great and general impiety and wickedness, an universal corruption and depravation of manners. When the vineyard which God hath planted with so much care, doth not only not bring forth good grapes, but bring forth wild grapes, as it is in the parable of the prophet Isaiah, concerning the house of Israel; then God will breakdown the hedge of it, and lay it waste; and will also “command the clouds, that they rain no rain upon it.” When no means will prevail upon a people to bring them to goodness, God will then give over all care of them, and deprive them of the means whereby they should be made better. When they do not only frustrate his expectation, but do quite contrary to what he looked for, he will be no farther concerned for them. So we find in the application of that parable; (Isa. v. 7.) “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant; and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but be hold a cry.” And this we find under the gospel, (Heb. vi. 7, 8.) “For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God. But that which beareth thorns and briars is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing, whose end is to be burned.” Briars and thorns are not mere unfruitfulness under the gospel, but contempt of it, and affronting it by our wicked lives. When infidelity and contempt of religion appear openly in a nation, and impiety and vice grow impudent and universal, even when the gospel shineth in its clearest and strongest light, and the wrath of God, not only in his word, but by his providence, and “by terrible things in righteousness,” is so plainly “revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men;” when people are taught their duty, and the true knowledge of God, but will receive no instruction, but persist in their lewd and vicious courses, and “commit iniquity with greediness;” this, if any thing, is a just provocation of Almighty God to remove his candlestick from such a nation as this, and to leave them in darkness; since light hath no other effect upon them, but to make them more wild and extravagant. There remains only the

Sixth and last particular, which I mentioned, to be spoken to; namely, What is the way and means to prevent so dismal a judgment, and to procure, if it may be, “a lengthening of our tranquillity,” and a longer enjoyment of the means and opportunities of grace and salvation. And our best direction in this case, will be to follow the counsel which the Spirit gives to the seven churches of Asia, to prevent the removing of their candlestick out of its place; that is, their being deprived of the light of the gospel, which shone so clearly among them: “He then that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” To the church of Ephesus, (Rev. ii. 5.) “Remember from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.” To the church of Smyrna, (ver. 10.) “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: be hold the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried, and ye shall have tribulation ten days. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” To the church of Pergamos, (ver. 16.) “Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly.” To the church of Sardis, (chap. iii. ver. 2, 3.) “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come upon thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.” To the church of Laodicea, (ver. 19.) “Be zealous therefore, and repent.”

You see what are the means prescribed by the Spirit of God, to prevent the removing of our candlestick out of its place; to be sensible of our great degeneracy from our primitive piety, and the strict practice of religion; and to exercise a deep repentance for it, and effectually to reform, and do our first works. “Remember whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do thy first works.” And then great vigilancy and watchfulness, that we be not surprised before we are aware: “Be watchful; for if thou shalt not watch, I will come upon thee as a thief; and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.” Now watchfulness implies great sobriety and temperance, and is usually joined with fervent and earnest prayer: “Watch ye therefore, and pray always.” Next, to hold fast the doctrine which we have received and heard, the faith which was once delivered to the saints, (as St. Jude calls it:”) “Remember how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast.” And lastly, zeal for God’s glory, and an undaunted resolution to adhere to it, notwithstanding all dangers and sufferings. “Be zealous, fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer, but be thou faithful unto the death.”

If we follow this counsel, we may hope, nay, we may be assured, that God will still continue to us the blessed means and opportunities of grace and salvation: that our pastors shall “not be removed into corners, but that our eyes shall still see our teachers;” that God will not let “darkness come upon us:”” or if the light of the gospel should be obscured and eclipsed, that it will be but for a little while, and will soon pass over. But if we will not hearken and obey, if we will not repent and do our first works, we have reason to apprehend, that “God will come against us quickly, and remove our candlestick out of its place,” and take away that light which we have abused, and carry it into some other quarter of the world; and, as our Saviour threatens the Jews, that the kingdom of God shall be taken from us, and given to a nation that will bring forth the fruits of it.

I shall only add that counsel given by the prophet Daniel to King Nebuchadnezzar, and which is very proper for a people and nation, and likewise for particular persons, for the prevention of spiritual as well as temporal judgments, (Dan. iv. 27.) “Break off thy sins by righteousness, and thy iniquities by shewing mercy to the poor; if it may be a lengthening of thy tranquillity.” Nothing so likely, not only to reconcile God to us, but to turn away his judgments from us, as repentance and reformation of our wicked lives, and the practice of alms and charity. “Alms shall deliver from death,” saith the wise man, speaking of the benefit that redounds to particular persons: and by parity of reason, the charity and alms of a great number may save a nation, both from temporal and spiritual judgments: charity and alms to the poor, especially those that are poor and destitute by “forsaking all for God and his truth.” And nothing gives greater hopes of God’s mercy to us, than that general charitable disposition which appears among us.

What I have said needs no long application; I shall therefore do it in very few words. This calls upon the whole nation, and every one of us, “to remember from whence we are fallen, and to repent and do our first works;” to endeavour to recover that ancient piety and virtue which flourished in the days of our forefathers, and was so great an ornament to our holy religion. Blessed be God! that, by his goodness, and the protection of a gracious prince, we still enjoy the blessed means and opportunities of grace and salvation: but if we be still unfruitful under them, and will not “walk in the light,” the just providence of God may have a thousand ways to deprive us of it, and “to bring darkness upon us.”

And what I have said in general to the whole nation, and what our Saviour here says to the Jews, we may accommodate every one to ourselves. “Yet a little while the light is with us, let us walk in the light, while we have it, lest darkness come upon us.” We know not how long the opportunity of life, as well as of grace, may be continued to us; they may be taken from us, or we may be cut off from them.

The season of our solemn repentance is now approaching; let us improve it, as if it were to be our last opportunity of making our peace with God: and let us lose no time, lest we die in our delay, and in our security we be destroyed.

I will conclude with the earnest exhortation of the prophet Jeremiah: (chap. xiii. ver. l6.) “Give glory to the Lord your God, (that is, repent,) before he cause darkness, and before your feet stumble upon the dark mountains, and while ye look for light, he turn it into the shadow of death, and make it gross darkness.” To which I will only add the advice of our blessed Saviour: (Luke xxi. 36.) “Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.”

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