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THE BAD AND GOOD USE OF GOD^S SIGNAL JUDGMENTS UPON OTHERS.
I tell you, Nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.—Luke xiii. 5.
THE occasion of these words you have at the beginning of the chapter; “There were present, at that season (says the evangelist), some that told our Saviour of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” These, in all probability, were some of the faction of Judas Gaulonita, who about that time, as Josephus tells us, had stirred up the Galileans to a sedition against the Roman government, under a pretence of asserting their liberty, by freeing themselves from the Roman tribute; and some of these, coming to Jerusalem to sacrifice, (as the custom of the Jews was, especially at the time of the passover,) Pilate caused them to be slain upon the place, while they were at this service, shedding their blood with that of the beasts which were killed for sacrifice. The report of this profane cruelty being brought to our Saviour, he (as his custom was in all his conversations, to raise some useful meditation from such occurrences that happened, and to turn them to a spiritual advantage) takes occasion, from the relation of this sad accident, to correct a very vicious humour, which hath always reigned in the world, of censuring the faults of others, whilst we overlook our own.
The principle of self-love which was planted in innocent nature, is by the fall and corruption of man degenerated into self-flattery; so that it is now almost become natural to men, to supply the want of a good conscience, by a good conceit of themselves. Hence it comes to pass, that men are so ready to take all advantages to confirm themselves in that false peace which they have created to themselves in their own imaginations; and so they can but maintain a comfortable opinion of themselves, they matter not how uncharitable they are to others; and knowing no better way to countenance this fond conceit of themselves, than by fancying God to be their friend; hence it comes to pass, that they are so apt to interpret the several providences of God towards others in favour of themselves; and to abuse the judgments of God, which fall upon their neighbours, into an argument of their own comparative innocency.
And therefore our Saviour, (who “knew what was in man,” and what kind of conclusions men are apt to draw from such occurrences of Providence as this which was now presented) endeavours in the first place to prevent the bad use they were likely to make of it: “Suppose ye (says he) that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things?” I tell you, Nay,”&c. To this instance of the Galileans, he adds another of the same kind, well known to all that dwelt in Jerusalem: and that was, of the eighteen persons who were slain by the fall of a tower, which was in the Pool of Siloam, at the foot of Mount Sion (verse the 4th): “Or those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell, think ye that they were sinners above all that dwelt in Jerusalem?” I tell yon, Nay.”
And having thus anticipated their censuring of others, our Saviour proceeds to awaken them to a consideration and care of themselves: “I tell yon, Nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
The general sense of which words is, that impenitency in sin will certainly be the ruin of men sooner or later: it will probably bring great mischiefs and calamities upon men in this world; how ever, it will infallibly plunge them into misery in the next. But besides the certain denunciation of misery and ruin to all impenitent sinners, which is the largest sense of the words, and agreeable to many other express texts of Scripture, it is probable enough, that they may more immediately and particularly refer to those temporal calamities which were to befal the Jews, and bespoken by our Saviour by way of prediction, foretelling what would be the fate of the whole Jewish nation, if they continued impenitent, πάντες ὁμοίως ἀπολεῖσθε, “Ye shall all perish in like manner;” that is, if ye do not repent, besides the vengeance of another world, a temporal judgment as sad as these I have instanced in, and not much unlike them, shall come upon this whole nation: and so indeed it came to pass after wards. For Josephus tells us, that at the time of the passover, when the whole nation of the Jews were met together, as their custom was at Jerusalem, they were all shut up and besieged by the Romans: and he tells us farther, that in the time of that siege, upon a sedition among themselves, a great multitude of them were slain in the temple, as they were sacrificing, and their blood poured forth, together with that of the beasts which were to be offered, as had happened before to the Galileans.
From the words thus explained, I shall observe these two things:”
First, The wrong use which men are apt to make of the extraordinary and signal judgments of God upon others. “Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things?” intimating, that men are very apt so to conclude, and that the Jews did so.
Secondly, The right use that we should make of these things, which is, to reflect upon our own sins, and repent of them, lest the like or greater judgments overtake us. “I tell you, Nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
First, The wrong use which men are apt to make of the extraordinary and signal judgments of God upon others; and that is, to be uncharitable and censorious towards others, which is commonly consequent upon a gross and stupid neglect of ourselves. For men do not usually entertain and cherish this censorious humour for its own sake, but in order to some farther end; they are not so uncharitable merely out of spite and malice to others, but out of self-flattery and a fond affection to themselves. This makes them forward to represent others to all the disadvantage that may be, and to render them as bad as they can, that they themselves may appear less evil in their own eyes, and may have a colour to set off themselves by the comparison. It is the nature of guilt to flee from itself, and to use all possible art to hide and lessen it. For guilt in the soul is like deformity in the body. Persons very deformed seldom arrive to that absurd conceit of themselves, as to think themselves beauties; but because they cannot think so, they do all they can to comfort and commend themselves by comparison. Hence men are apt to censure and aggravate the faults and miscarriages of their neighbours, that their own may appear the less; for a lesser evil in respect of a greater, hath some face and appearance of good; and therefore men are ready to take all advantages to represent others as bad as may be; and because there can be no greater evidence, that a man is a great sinner, than if he be declared to be so from heaven; hence it is, that men are so forward to interpret the remarkable judgments of God upon any person, as an argument of his being a more notorious offender than others.
For the farther explication and illustration of this point, I shall do these three things:”
I. I shall shew that men are very apt to make this bad use of the signal judgments of God upon others.
II. I shall more particularly consider several of the rash conclusions which men are apt to draw from the judgments of God upon others: whether upon public societies and communities of men, or upon particular persons.
III. I shall shew how unreasonable it is to draw from hence any such rash and uncharitable conclusions concerning others, and likewise how foolish it is from hence to draw comfort and encouragement to ourselves.
I. That men are very apt to make this bad use of the signal judgments of God upon others. This our Saviour plainly intimates in the text, “Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things?” or those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloani fell, think ye that they were sinners above all that dwelt in Jerusalem?” By which manner of speaking, our Saviour signifies, that men are very apt thus to suppose, that those upon whom the extraordinary judgments of God fall, are no ordinary sinners, but are guilty of somewhat above the common rate of men.
Thus we find Job’s friends, when they saw him afflicted by the hand of God, in so strange and extraordinary a manner, from hence presently concluded, he must needs be a prodigious sinner; and because they could find no evidence of this in his life and actions, therefore they concluded that his wickedness was secret, and that it lay there where they could not see it, in his heart and thoughts: for this they laid down for a certain conclusion, that being so remarkable a sufferer, he must needs be a great sinner; and because they could discern no such thing in his outward conversation, they charged him with hypocrisy, and concluded all his external profession of piety and religion to be false and counterfeit.
So, likewise, when the man that was born blind was brought to our Saviour, (John ix. 2.) the disciples presently asked him, “Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This was that which lay uppermost in their minds, the very first thing that suggested itself to their thoughts: surely this judgment was inflicted upon this man for some particular and extraordinary sin, which either he, or (because this was not so likely) his parents had been guilty of.
And we find in common experience, how prone men are to make uncharitable constructions of the judgments of God upon others, and grievously to censure those whom God hath smitten; partly because it looks like a vindication of themselves from the guilt of the like crimes, since they are not involved in the like sufferings; partly to gratify their pride and curiosity, in seeming to understand the reason and end of God’s judgments, as if they had been of his council, and saw farther into the reasons of his providence than other men; like some pragmatical people in civil matters, who, though they think no more than their neighbours, yet will needs seem to understand those hidden and secret springs which move public affairs; and, which is yet worse, many times to gratify their own passions and foolish conceits, that God is angry with those things and persons which displease them, and that God’s judgments are expressions of his particular dislike of those whom they disaffect, and would certainly punish, if the government of the world were in their hands: or, lastly, men think it a piece of piety, and affectionate zeal for God, and a taking of his part, to censure those heavily, whom God afflicts severely; like some foolish parasites, who, if they see a great man be angry with any one and strike him, they think themselves bound to fall upon him, and, out of an officious flattery, will beat him too. But from whatever cause it proceeds, it is certainly a very bad thing, and our Saviour here in the text does with great vehemency deny, that any such conclusion can certainly be collected from the judgments of God upon others; “I tell you, Nay.” And to express this more vehemently, he repeats it again, “I tell you, Nay.” Let us, therefore,
II. More particularly consider some of the rash conclusions which men are apt to draw from the judgments of God upon others, whether upon public societies and communities of men, or upon particular persons.
I. It is rash, where there is no Divine revelation in the case, to be peremptory as to the particular sin or kind of it; so as to say, that for such a sin God sent such a judgment upon a particular person, or upon a company of men, unless the judgment be a natural effect and consequent of such a sin; as, if a drunken man die of a surfeit, or a lewd person of a disease that is the proper effect of such a vice, or if the punishment ordained by law for such a crime overtake the offender; in these and such-like cases, it is neither rash nor uncharitable to say, such a mischief befel a man for such a fault; because such an evil is evidently the effect of such a sin: but in other cases, peremptorily to conclude is great rashness.
Thus the heathens of old laid all those fearful judgments of God, which fell upon the Roman empire in the first ages of Christianity, upon the Christians, as if they had been sent by God on purpose to testify his displeasure against that new sect of religion. And thus every party deals with those that are opposite to them, out of a fond persuasion that God is like themselves, and that he cannot but hate those whom they hate, and punish those whom they would punish, if the sway and government of things were permitted to them.
Thus the papists, on the one hand, attribute all the judgments of God upon this nation, the confusion and distractions of so many years, and those later judgments wherewith God hath visited us in so dreadful a manner, to our schism and heresy, as the proper cause of them (for so they call our Reformation of ourselves from their errors and corruptions): but to what cause, then, will they ascribe the great felicity of Queen Elizabeth’s long reign, and the peace of King James’s reign?” And then, on the other hand, some of the dissenters from our church are wont to ascribe these calamities to a quite different cause—that our Reformation hath not gone far enough from the church of Rome. It is hard to say, which of these conclusions is most rash and unreasonable; I wish other reasons of these calamities were not too visible and notorious; the horrible impiety and wickedness which abound and reign amongst us.
2. It is rash, likewise, for any man, without revelation, to conclude peremptorily, that God must needs in his judgments only have respect to some late and fresh sins, which were newly committed; and that all his arrows are only levelled against those impieties of men which are now upon the stage, and in present view. This is rash and groundless; and men herein take a measure of God by themselves, and because they are mightily affected with the present, and sensible of afresh provocation, and want to revenge themselves while the heat is upon them, therefore they think God must do so too. But there is nothing occasions more mistakes in the world about God and his providence, than to bring him to our standard, and to measure his thoughts by our thoughts, and the ways and methods of his providence by our ways. Justice in God is a wise, and calm, and steady principle, which, as to the time and circumstances of its exercise, is regulated by his wisdom. Past and present are very material differences to us, but they signify little to God, whose vast and comprehensive understanding takes in all differences of time, and looks upon them at one view; so that when the judgments of God follow the sins of men at a great distance, “God is not slack, as men count slackness: for a thousand years are in his sight but as one day, and one day as a thousand years;” as the apostle reasons about this very case I am now speaking of. (2 Pet. iii. 8.)
And to convince men of their error and mistake in this particular, the Scripture hath given us many instances to the contrary, that the justice of God hath many times a great retrospection, and punisheth the sins of men a long time after the commission of them. This he threatens in the second commandment; “To visit the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate him.” Thus we find he dealt with Ahab; “Be did not bring the evil in his days, but in his son’s days he brought it upon his house,” (1 Kings xxi. 29.) So, likewise, we find (2 Sam. xxi.) God brought three years of famine upon Israel, in the days of David, for a national sin committed in Saul’s reign: namely, for the cruelty exercised upon the Gibeonites, contrary to the public faith of the nation given to them. So, likewise, the extirpation of the Amorites, and the other inhabitants of Canaan, was not a judgment inflicted by God upon them, only for the sins of that present age, but for the iniquity which had been many ages in filling up; as may plainly be collected from the expression, (Gen. xv. 16.) “The iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full,” which was spoken four or five gene rations before they were rooted out. And so, also, our Saviour tells us, that “the blood of all the prophets and righteous men which had been shed in all ages, should come upon that generation.”
Nay, if this were not so, how should God judge the world?” And if it be consistent with the justice of God to respite the greatest part of the punishment of sinners to another world, then certainly he may, without any imputation of injustice, defer the punishment of sin in this world.
3. It is rash to conclude from little circumstances of judgments, or some fanciful parallel betwixt the sin and the punishment, what sinners, and what per sons in particular, God designed to punish by such a calamity. There is scarce any thing betrays men more to rash and ungrounded censures and determinations concerning the judgments of God, than a superstitious observation of some little circumstances belonging to them, and a conceit of a seeming parallel between such a sin, and such a judgment.
This was the ground of Shimei’s rash determination concerning David, and what particular sin of his it was, for which God permitted his son Absalom to rise up in rebellion against him: (2 Sam. xvi. 8.) “The Lord hath returned upon thee (says he) all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead thou hast reigned, and the Lord hath delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom thy son: and behold, thou art taken in thy own mischief.” Here seemed to be as handsome a parallel between this misfortune which befel David, and his carriage towards the house of Saul, as can easily happen in any judgment. David had carried away the kingdom from the family of Saul, his father-in-law; and now, by the providence of God, David’s own son, Absalom, seems to be stirred up to supplant his father, and to ravish the kingdom out of his hands: the suitableness of the judgment to the supposed sin of David, would tempt any man that had the curiosity to pry into the judgments of God, and a fancy apt to be pleased with parallels, to have looked upon this censure of Shimei as not without ground: for though David was in no fault as to Saul’s house, though in truth and reality he had the best title to the kingdom that could be, it being disposed to him by God’s appointment; yet, because Samuel’s anointing him to be king was a thing privately done, and so might not either be publicly known, or not publicly believed, there seems to be a very fair colour and pretence for this censure of Shimei.
And, therefore, methinks the consideration of this one instance should very much deter wise men from peremptory conclusions concerning the judgments of God, upon such slight grounds as a supposed parallel between the sin and the punishment, and yet we find all sorts of men very superstitiously affected this way: all parties are very greedy to catch at any shadow of a parellel between the judgments which befal their enemies, and the sins which they suppose them to be guilty of, and are apt to cry up such things as evident testimonies from heaven of God’s displeasure against those whom they have a mind to make odious.
In the beginning of the Reformation, when Zuinglius was slain in a battle by the papists, and his body burnt, his heart was found entire in the ashes; from whence (saith the historian) his enemies concluded the obdurateness of his heart; but his friends, the firmness and sincerity of it in the true religion. Both these censures seem to be built upon the same ground of fancy and imagination: but it is a wise and well-grounded observation, which Thuanus, the historian, (who was himself of the Roman communion) makes upon it—Adeo turbatis octio aut amore animis, ut sit in religionis dissensionibus, pro se quisque omnia superstitiose interpretatur: “Thus (says he) men’s minds being prejudiced beforehand by love or hatred (as it commonly falls out in differences of religion), each party superstitiously interprets the little circumstances of every event in favour of itself.” Every thing hath two handles; and a good wit and a strong imagination may find something in every judgment, whereby he may, with some appearance of reason, turn the cause of the judgment upon his adversary. Fancy is an endless thing; and if we will go this way to work, then he that hath the best wit is like to be the best interpreter of God’s judgments.
I do not deny (as I touched before), but where the sin is evident, and the punishment is the genuine product and natural effect of the sin, we may, with out uncharitableness, ascribe the punishment to the sin, as the particular cause of it; as sickness to in temperance, and poverty to sloth and prodigality: or if a judgment be remarkably inflicted upon a person, in the very act of some notorious sin; or if when a person hath been guilty of a sin, which is unquestionably so, and out of all controversy, if afterwards a judgment befal that person, which carries the very signature of the sin upon it; as, when the dogs licked Ahab’s blood, in the very same place where he had shed the blood of Naboth; in these and the like cases, a man may, with out rashness and uncharitableness, fix the cause of such a judgment upon such a sin; but then, as I said before, the sin must be very evident and out of dispute, and the punishment must carry so plain a mark and signature upon it, as, without straining, and the help of fancy, is obvious to every one’s observation.
And yet even in these cases, the party himself upon whom the judgment falls may better make the interpretation than a by-stander; and therefore the Scripture, as it is in all other things very instructive, so particularly in this matter it observes this decorum, not to bring in others making interpretations of the judgments of God, but the persons themselves upon whom the judgments fall. Thus Adonibezek, (Judges i. 6, 7.) when the men of Judah had taken him, and cut off his thumbs and his great toes, the Scriptures do not bring in others making a censure and interpretation of this judgment of God upon him; but bring him in making this reflection upon himself—“Threescore and ten kings, having their thumbs and their great toes cut off, gathered their meat under my table; as I have done, so God hath requited me.” So, likewise, Ja cob’s sons, when they were brought into trouble in Egypt, about their brother Benjamin, they presently reflect upon their sin against their brother Joseph: (Gen. xlii. 21, 22.) “They said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear: therefore is this distress come upon us. Therefore, behold, also his blood is required.” They took notice of the resemblance betwixt the sin and the punishment; they had sinned concerning their brother, and they were punished in a brother.
4. It is rash, likewise, to determine any thing concerning the end and consequence of God’s judgments. Commonly all parties that are down are apt to sooth and flatter themselves, that God intends, by such and such judgments upon their adversaries, to make way for the restoration of their own sect, and the restitution of those things which they desire. Others, who are more melancholy and concerned, are apt to look upon the worst side of things, and to imagine dreadful and dismal consequences. But it is a fond thing for us to pretend to know the secret ends and designs of the Divine Providence: for sometimes God makes one calamity the forerunner of another; and sometimes, again, his omnipotent wisdom forceth good out of evil, and makes a great judgment in the issue to turn to a mighty blessing.
Jacob thought the loss of his son Joseph one of the greatest calamities that could have befallen him, when it was the greatest mercy to his family that could be: for in truth the providence of God sent him as a harbinger into Egypt to provide for his father and his family.
It is observed by the wise author of the History of the Council of Trent, that when Zuinglius and Œcolampadius, the two chief protestant ministers among the Swisses, died within a few days of one another, the papists interpreted this to signify God’s design to restore their former religion to them, in that he had taken away at once the two great pillars and supports of the protestant cause; upon which the author makes this wise observation: “Certainly (says he), it is a pious thought to attribute the disposal of all events to the providence of God: but to determine to what end these events are directed by that high wisdom, is not far from presumption. Men are so religiously wedded to their own opinions, that they are persuaded, that God loves and favours them, as much as they themselves do. But (says he), the things which happened afterwards did confute this presumption; for the protestant doctrine made a much speedier progress after their death than it had done before.” We think that a cause must needs sink, when some great supports of it are taken away: but God stands in need of no mail; he can raise up new instruments, or carry on his own designs by the weakest and most unlikely means.
5. And lastly, It is rashness to determine that those persons, or that part of the community upon which the judgments of God do particularly fall, are greater sinners than the rest, who are untouched by it. And this is the very case our Saviour instanceth here in the text: “Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things?” I tell you, Nay. Or these eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?” I tell you, Nay.” And this brings me to the
III. Third particular I proposed, which was to shew, how unreasonable it is for men to draw any such uncharitable conclusions from the judgments of God upon others^ that they are greater sinners than others; and likewise, how foolish it is from hence to take any comfort and encouragement to ourselves, that because we escape those calamities which have befallen others, therefore we are better than they. Our Saviour vehemently denies that either of these conclusions can justly be made from the remarkable judgments of God, which befal others, and pass by us; “I tell you, Nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
I. It is very unreasonable for men to draw any such uncharitable conclusions concerning others, that because the judgments of God fall upon them, that therefore they are greater sinners than others. For,
1. What do we know, but that God may inflict those evils upon those particular persons for secret ends and reasons, only known to his own infinite wisdom, and fit to be concealed from us?” What do we know but he may afflict such a person in a remarkable manner, purely in the use of his sovereignty, without any special respect to the sins of such a person, as being greater than the sins of other men; but yet for some great end, very worthy of his wisdom and goodness?” As for the trial of such a man’s faith, and of his exemplary patience and submission to the will of God, it pleaseth God to set him up for a mark, and to suffer many and sharp arrows to be shot at him, to try whether his faith and patience be proof; as men set up armour, and shoot at it with a double charge, not with a design to hurt it, but to prove and praise it.
We are assured that the goodness of God is such, that had it not been for sin, we had never known affliction, nor been exercised with it; but now, that we have all sinned, and upon a common account are all liable to the justice of God, he may single out from this common herd of sinners whom he pleaseth to smite with his judgments, and for what end he pleaseth: and therefore, when God at any time lets fly an arrow at a particular person, this only signifies at the utmost that he is a sinner in general, but no man can from hence with any certainty conclude, that this man is a greater sinner than other men.
And this is very plain from those instances I have had occasion before to mention; the instance of Job, whom God afflicted in a most terrible manner, for the trial of his faith and patience, and to furnish all ages with a standing and glorious example of so great and necessary a virtue: and from the in stance of the man in the gospel that was born blind, concerning whom our Saviour expressly declares, that this judgment did not befal this man for any particular or remarkable sin, which either this man or his parents had been guilty of above others, but that the glorious power of God might be manifested in his miraculous cure: (John ix. 3.) “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”
2. What do we know but that God may send these calamities upon some particular persons, in mercy to the generality; and upon some particular places in a nation, out of kindness to the whole?” When wickedness has overspread a nation, and is grown universal, if, out of this herd of sinners, the justice of God please to single out some few persons, and to chase them and hunt them down for terror to the rest, that others “may hear, and fear, and take warning;?” this doth not signify that the persons selected for ruin were in a different condition from the rest, or that others had not de served the like judgments as well as they; it only signifies, that “God remembers mercy in the midst of judgment,” and that he was not willing to destroy them all; that “he does not delight in the death of sinners, but rather that they should turn from their wickedness and live.” He punisheth a few for example, that others taking warning by it, he may have the opportunity and occasion to spare a great many.
Not but that the hand of God doth sometimes as it were by a finger point at the sin, which it designs to punish: as, when remarkable punishments follow visibly upon notorious sins; when the sinner is punished, flagrante crimine, in the very act and heat of his sin; when some great and clamorous impiety calls clown some more immediate and sudden judgment from heaven; when a sin is punished in its own kind, with a judgment so plainly suited to it, and so pat, that the punishment carries the very mark and signature of the sin upon it; as in the case of Adonibezek, who was forced to acknowledge, that as he had done, so God had requited him; and as in the known story of Bajazet, who, having been a cruel and barbarous tyrant, was punished in his own kind, by falling into the hands of Tamerlane, who used him with the same insolence and cruelty which he had exercised towards others.
In such cases as these, men may without uncharitableness conclude, that such a judgment of God was sent upon a particular errand to chastise and punish such a sin: but then in such cases as these, we do not from the judgments inflicted conclude a person guilty of some great sin which we do not know before; but by comparing the sin, which we knew him to be guilty of, with the judgment which was inflicted, we do reasonably collect, that such a judgment was probably sent for such a sin; but generally speaking, no man can with certainty conclude, from the greatness of the judgment that falls upon any one, that such a man was a more grievous sinner than others, who have escaped the same or the like judgments.
II. It is foolish likewise to take any comfort and encouragement to ourselves, that, because we have escaped those sore judgments which have befallen others, therefore we are better than they are; for (as I have shewn) these judgments do not necessarily import, that those upon whom they fall are greater sinners, and that those who escape them are not so: but suppose it true, that they were greater sinners than we are, for any man from hence to take encouragement to himself to continue in sin, is as if, from the severe punishment which is inflicted upon a traitor, a man should encourage himself in felony; both these sorts of criminals are by the law in danger of death, only the circumstances of death are in one case more severe and terrible than in the other; but he that from hence encourageth himself in felony, reasons very ill, because he argues against his own life. The only prudent inference that can be made, is, not to come within the danger of the law, which punisheth all crimes, though not with equal severity.
Thus I have done with the first thing I propounded to speak to from these words, viz. The wrong use which too many are apt to make of the signal and extraordinary judgments of God upon others. I proceed to the
Second thing 1 observed in the text, viz. The right use we should make of the judgments of God upon others; and that is, to reflect upon our own sins, and to repent of them, lest a like or greater judgment overtake us, This our Saviour tells us in the next words, “But except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” As if he had said, There is no reason at all, why ye should conclude from those terrible judgments of God, which have befallen those miserable persons, that they were greater sinners than your selves, who have for the present escaped those judgments; but, instead of censuring others, you should look into yourselves: the most proper reflection to be made upon such occasions, is, that yon are liable to the like judgments, your sins have deserved that God’s providence should have dealt so with you, as it hath done with those Galileans, “whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices; “or with those eighteen persons upon whom the tower of Siloam fell; and for what reasons soever these judgments of God fell upon them, and passed by you, (which you are not at all concerned to inquire into) to be sure, if you continue impenitent, you have reason to expect the like or greater ruin.
When we see the judgments of God abroad in the world, and to fall heavily upon particular places and persons, we should argue thus with ourselves: For what reason the holy and wise providence of God hath dealt so severely with others, I know not; whether out of a particular displeasure against them, for some notorious sin committed by them; or whether for a merciful warning to me and others; or for both: it is not for me to pry curiously into the counsels of God, and to wade into the depth of his judgments; but there is one use which I am sure it concerns me nearly to make of it, to look into my self, to search and try my ways, to repent of my sins, and to forsake them, lest, while I am gazing upon others, I fall into the like or greater calamities. It may be, those persons and places which have been so severely visited with the judgments of God, were no more obnoxious to him than I am; and, when this hath been done to others, in all appearance not guilty of greater sins than I am, what may I not fear, who. am in the same condemnation?” It may be, they were not so great sinners as I am; this should awaken me so much the more to a consideration of my own danger: nay, possibly many of those whom the rod of God hath smitten, were his own dear children. This should startle men most of all: for if this have been done to the green tree, what shall be done to the dry?” If this have been the lot of those whom God loves, what shall be the portion of those whom he hates?” If judgment begin at the house of God, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?”
The judgments of God, which are executed upon particular places and persons, are designed by him to be so many admonitions to the inhabitants of the world to learn righteousness. That fearful ruin which befel Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them, was riot only intended for the punishment of the inhabitants of those wicked cities; but for a standing example, and a lasting terror, to all ages of the world. So St. Jude tells us, (ver. 7.) that “Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.”
It is the advice of the prophet Micah, (vi. 9.) “Hear ye the rod, and him that hath appointed it.” Every rod of God, every affliction hath a voice, which doth not only speak to the sufferers, but to the spectators also; not only to those who are smitten, but to those who stand by and look on: and if, when God sends judgments upon others, we do not take warning and example by them: if, instead of reflecting upon ourselves, and trying our own ways, we fall a censuring of others: if we will pervert the meaning of God’s providences, and will not understand the design and intention of them; then we leave God no other way to awaken us, and to bring us to a consideration of our evil ways, but by pouring down his wrath upon our heads, that so he may convince us to be sinners by the same argument, from whence we have concluded others to be so: or if we continue impenitent, he may ruin us as incorrigible.
And thus I have done with the second observation I propounded, viz. The right use we ought to make of the judgments of God upon others, which is, to reflect upon ourselves, and to repent of our evil ways, lest the like or greater judgments overtake us. I shall only draw an inference or two from what I have already discoursed upon these two heads.
1. Let us adore the judgments of God, and in stead of searching into the particular reasons and ends of them, let us say with St. Paul, (Rom. xi. 33.) “How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” If he, who was taken up into the third heaven, and had such multitudes of revelations, and was admitted so much nearer to the secrets of God than we are, durst not search into them, how much less should we, who only converse here below?”
Let us not then trouble ourselves with nice inquiries into these things; nor one another with mutual censures and uncharitable reflections upon one another: but let us all agree in this, to acknowledge the righteousness of God in all his providences to us and others, “to humble ourselves under his mighty hand,” ἀσπάζεσθαι τὰ συμβαίνοντα, “to kiss all events of the Divine Providence,” and to believe that if we be good, they shall turn to our good. Let us, every one of us, comply with the open and visible ends of God’s judgments upon ourselves and others, which is, to search and try our ways, and to return unto the Lord; and for the rest, let us believe that it is best for us, that things are as they are; that “his judgments are unsearchable, and his ways past finding out.”
2. Let us not be rash in our censures and determinations concerning the judgments of God upon others; let us not wade beyond our depth into the secrets of God: for “who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been his counsellor?” Let us not be hasty and peremptory to pass sentence upon others, because of any evil or calamity that befals them. We may be as severe to ourselves as we please, this is safe and prudent; but “who art thou that judgest another man’s servant?” What our Saviour said in the case of the woman accused of adultery, is very applicable to those who are so forward to censure others, as the causes of God’s judgments; “He that is without sin, let him throw the first stone.” If there be any man that is not conscious to himself that ever he offended and provoked God, that man may have leave to lay all the fault of God’s judgments upon others.
God hath of late years in his providence towards this nation so ordered his judgments, and they have fallen with so great an equality upon all sorts of men, that we cannot without great rashness fix the cause of them upon any particulars; but, however, this does not appertain to us, to pry into the secret reasons of God’s dispensations; that which properly belongs to us, is to take off our eyes from others, and to look into ourselves; and if we would do this, we should see reason enough for God’s judgments, and great cause to admire his mercy and goodness to us, that he hath been pleased to spare us, when he hath ruined so many others.
So that the proper use of all the judgments of God upon others, is, to bring us to a consideration of ourselves and our own ways, and to argue ourselves into repentance. We should reason thus: The judgments of God, which have fallen here and there upon others, were intended for terror to us, and if we still continue impenitent, if we be unreformed by these providences of God, which were purposely designed and intended for our amendment: what can we expect, but that God should also send upon us the like or greater calamities, and that “except we repent, we should all likewise perish?”
I cannot apply these words as our Saviour does, because, as I told you, they are probably a prediction of a particular event to the nation of the Jews, in case they continued impenitent; which they did, and this prophecy was afterward sadly fulfilled upon them in the utter ruin and destruction of that nation: but this we may assuredly say, from the warrant of the general tenor of Scripture, that if, notwithstanding these great judgments of God which have been upon us, and have made such fear ful desolations among us, we do not “search and try our ways, and turn to him who have smitten” others for a warning to us, we have reason to fear, that we shall suffer in the same manner, or that God will bring some greater temporal judgments upon us, and “be angry with us, until he hath consumed us.”
But whatever God may do, as to temporal judgments, this we are as sure of, as the word of God can make us, that there is a sad fate hangs over all impenitent sinners, which, however they may escape in this world, will certainly fall upon them in the next. “God hath sworn in his wrath, that such shall not enter into his rest.” He is immutably deter mined to make such for ever miserable, as, by their final obstinacy and impenitency, refuse to be happy. And of this terrible doom the judgments herein the text are but an imperfect type and representation. How glad would sinners then be, to suffer only such things as the Galileans did! what a favour would they esteem it, to have no worse fate than those eighteen men, upon whom the tower of Siloam fell! and to be crushed under the weight of the heaviest rocks and mountains, and there to lie hid for ever, “from the face of Him that sits upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb!” No, it is a more fearful ruin, a destruction infinitely more terrible, that attends those in another world, who will not repent in this life, even “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.” And how great and fearful that is, is not to be expressed in words, nor can we frame any perfect idea of it from any of those pains and sufferings which we are acquainted with in this world: for “who knows the power of God’s anger?” who can conceive the utmost of what omnipotent Justice is able to do to sinners?”
Nor have we any reason in the mean time to think that God will put a stop to temporal judgments; but that if we be not reformed by all those terrible things which our eyes have seen, God will “punish us yet seven times more for our sins.” If we still persist in our atheism and profaneness, in our contempt of God and his worship, in our abominable lusts and impieties; what can we look for, but greater judgments, and a more fiery indignation to consume us and our habitations?”
Methinks nothing is a sadder presage of greater calamities, and a more fearful ruin yet to befal us, than that we have hitherto been so little reformed by those loud and thick vollies of judgments which have already been thundered out upon us. This was that which at last brought so terrible a destruction upon the Egyptians, that they were hardened under ten plagues. To be impenitent under the judgments of God, which are so mercifully designed to reclaim and reform us, is to poison ourselves with that which was intended for our physic, and, by a miraculous kind of obstinacy, to “turn the rods of God into serpents.” “Oh that we were wise, that we understood this, and that we would consider our latter end!”
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