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THE REASONABLENESS OF FEARING GOD MORE THAN MAN.
And I say unto you, my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more than they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which, after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.—Luke xii. 4, 5.
THE occasion of these words will more clearly appear, if we compare this discourse of our Saviour’s, as it is here recorded by St. Luke, with that fuller account given of it by St. Matthew, chap. x. where our Saviour having called his disciples together, and given them their commission, and the rules and instructions they were to observe in the execution of it, he warns them likewise of the opposition they would meet with, and the persecution that would attend them in the faithful discharge of their duty; nevertheless, he bids them take courage, and boldly to proclaim the gospel, notwithstanding all the danger and hazard it would expose them to; but because this is very unwelcome and terrible to flesh and blood, to encounter the rage and fury of men; therefore, to strengthen their resolution and to fortify their spirits against these fears, he tells them of something much more terrible than the wrath or rage of men, viz. the anger and displeasure of God, that so he might chase away this lesser fear by a greater: “I say unto you, my friends, Be not afraid,” &c.
The words are sufficiently plain, and need no explication; only before I come to the main proposition which is contained in them, I shall take notice of these two important doctrines which are supposed in the text; the immortality of the soul, and the resurrection of the body.
First, The immortality of the soul, which is a principle of natural religion, and not any where, that I know of, expressly asserted in Scripture; nor need it be so, being to be known by natural light, without Divine revelation: but Divine revelation did always suppose it, and take it for granted, as one of the foundations of religion. And I the rather take notice of it here, because I do not know any text from which it may be more immediately inferred, than from these words of our Saviour, which necessarily imply these two things:”
1. That the soul is not obnoxious to death, as the body is. “Fear not him that can kill the body, but after that hath no more that he can do;” which St. Matthew expresseth, “cannot kill the soul.”
2. That the soul remains after the death of the body. “Fear him, who, after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell.”
Secondly, Another doctrine implied in these words, is that of the resurrection of the body; which is a doctrine of pure revelation, and most clearly and expressly revealed in the New Testament: and in some sort before to the Jews, who did generally believe it before our Saviour’s coming, excepting the sect of the Sadducees. This is supposed in the fifth verse, “But fear him, who, after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell;” not only the soul, but also to raise up the body which is killed, and to torment it in hell; for so St. Matthew hath it expressly, “But fear him that can destroy both body and soul in hell.” Now the body, so long as it is dead, is devoid of sense, and so in capable of torment till it be raised to life again. These being supposed, I come to the main observation contained in the words,
That God is infinitely more to be dreaded than men.
The words indeed seem to reach farther, and to be an absolute prohibition of the fear of men; but it is a Hebrew phrase and manner of speaking, when two things are opposed, to express many times those things absolutely, which are to be understood comparatively; as, (John vi. 27.) “Labour not for the meat which perisheth; but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life;” that is, not so much for things temporal, as things eternal, incomparably more for the one than the other. So when our Saviour says, “Fear not them that can kill the body,” that is, Fear not men so much as God, fear him in finitely more. It is very lawful for us to fear men, and to stand in awe of their power, because “they can kill the body,” and death is terrible: but when the power of man comes in competition with Omnipotency, and what man can do to the body in this world, with what God can do to the body and soul in the other; there is no comparison between the terror of the one and the other.
The truth of this will appear, by comparing these two objects of fear together, God and man. Fear is a passion which is most deeply rooted in our nature, and flows immediately from that principle of self-preservation which is planted in every man’s nature. We have a natural dread and horror for every thing that may hurt us, and endanger our being and happiness: now the greatest danger is always from the greatest power; so that to make good the truth of this observation, we need do no more than compare the power of men and God, and the effects of both, and then to calculate the difference: and if there appear to be a vast and infinite difference between them, it will be evident that God is infinitely more to be dreaded than men.
First, We will consider the power of man, and what it is he can do; or rather his impotency, or what he cannot do.
Secondly, How much the power of God exceeds the power of men, and what he can do more.
First, We will consider the power of man, and what it is he can do: which our Saviour expresseth in these words, “Be not afraid of them that can kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.” Which signifies in general, that the power of man is finite and limited, and circumscribed within certain bounds, beyond which it cannot go; some thing it can do, but not much; it can hurt the body, yea, and take away our life; it can “kill the body;” hither it can go, and no farther.
More particularly in these words you have man’s power, what he can do; and his impotency, what he can but do, the limits and bounds of his power.
I. The power of men, and what they can do, they can “kill the body,” and take away our lives; which includes a power of doing whatever is less. All those evils and persecutions which fall short of death, these they can inflict upon us, they can “revile us, and speak all manner of evil against us;” they can “persecute us from one city to another,” and “bring us before councils,” and “scourge us in their synagogues;” they can “spoil us of our goods,” and “deprive us of our liberty;” they can exercise us with “bonds and imprisonments,” with “cruel mockings and scourgings,” with “hunger and thirst,” with “cold and nakedness;” they can many ways afflict and torment us, and at last they can put us to death; all this they can do by the permission of God; here is the sum of their power; give them all advantages, let them be united and combined together. Our Saviour puts it in the plural number, “Fear not them;” and let them be backed with human authority, which our Saviour supposeth, when he speaks of bringing his disciples “before kings and governors.” Thus much their powers amount to.
II. We will consider the impotency of men, which will appear in these two particulars:”
1. That they cannot do this without the Divine permission.
2. That if they be permitted to do their worst, they can but do this; “after that they have no more that they can do.”
1. They cannot do this without the Divine permission. The devil, though he hath a greater natural power than men, yet he could not touch Job, either in his substance or his body, without God’s leave and permission. Men are apt to arrogate to themselves a great deal of power, forgetting whence they derive it, and on whom it depends. “Knowest thou not that I have the power to crucify thee, and power to release thee?” said Pilate to our Saviour: but he tells him, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above,” (John xix. 10, 11.) All the power that men have, they have it from God, and he can check and countermand it when he pleaseth; he can “restrain the rage of men, and put a hook in their nostrils;” he can “still the noise of the sea, and the tumult of the people.”
God’s providence is continually vigilant over us, and unless it seem good to the Divine wisdom to permit men, they cannot touch or hurt us. It is added immediately after the text, that the providence of God extends to creatures much less considerable than we are, and to the most inconsiderable things that belong to us: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” and yet not one of them is forgotten before God,” or falls to the ground with out the will of our Father; yea, the very hairs of our heads, are they not all numbered?” Much more is the providence of God concerned in our lives, and the more considerable accidents and events which befal us; we are always under God’s eye and care, and no man can do us the least hurt with out his permission.
2. If men be permitted to do their worst, they can do but this, “they can but kill the body/after that they have no more that they can do.” Now this implies several limitations of men’s power, and abatements of the terror of it.
1. “They can but kill the body,” that is, they can only injure the worst and least considerable part of us. The power of the devil reacheth no farther than this, this was the worst mischief his malice could devise to do to Job, to “touch his bone and his flesh,” and to take away his life; and all that the fury and rage of man can do, is to wound these vile bodies, and to spurn down these houses of clay, whose foundations are already in the dust. But the man’s soul, which is himself, that they can not touch; though they may pierce and break the cabinet, yet they cannot seize the jewel that is in it, and get that into their power and possession; when they have broken open this cage, “our soul will escape like a bird to his mountain.” Men may in vent several instruments to torture and afflict the body; but no weapon can be formed against the soul, that can touch it, or do it harm.
2. When they have killed the body, by doing this, they do but prevent nature a little, they do but antedate an evil a few moments, and bring our fears upon us a little sooner; they kill that which must die within a few r days, though they should let it alone; they do but cut asunder that thread which would shortly break of itself, by its own weakness and rottenness; so that, as the lepers reasoned, when the famine was in Samaria, (2 Kings vii. 3, 4.) “Why sit we here until we die?” If we say, We will enter into the city, then the famine is in the city, and we shall die there: and if we sit still here, we die also. Now therefore come, and let us fall unto the hosts of the Syrians; if they save us alive, we shall live; and if they kill us, we shall but die;” so we may reason in this case—Why should we so much desire to sit still till we die?” if men persecute us, and do their worst, we shall die; and if they do not, however we shall die; therefore let not the fear of any danger from men make us forget our duty to God, for “if they kill us, we shall but die.”
3. “They can but kill the body;” and what argument of power is this, to be able to kill that which is mortal?” as if you should say, They can break a glass, they can throw down that which is falling. This is no such wonderful effect of power, to be able to do that, which almost every thing can do, which the least thing in the world, which the poorest creature can do; a pin, or a thorn, or a grape-stone; there is hardly any thing in the whole creation so inconsiderable, but it can do this which men are apt to boast of as so great an evidence of their power. We are frail creatures, and it is no mere melancholy conceit, that we are made of glass, and as we pass through the world we are liable to be broken in pieces by the justle of a thousand accidents; every thing can lie in wait for us, and lurk privily for our lives. Men think it such an act of power to kill a man, whereas nothing is so easy. A man may be killed by another’s kindness, as soon as by thy hatred; by his own excessive love, or joy, or hope, as well as by thy malice; so that it is no such instance and argument of power, to be able to “kill the body.”
4. The killing of the body does not necessarily signify any great mischief or harm in the issue and event. “They can kill the body,” that is, they can knock off our fetters, and open the prison doors, and set us at liberty; they can put us out of pain, thrust us out of an uneasy world, put an end to our sins and sorrows, to our misery and fears; they can “give the weary rest,” and send us thither where we would be, but are loath to venture to go; they can hasten our happiness, and make way for the more speedy accomplishment of our desires, and dispatch us to heaven sooner than otherwise we should get thither; they can kill us in the cause of God, and in the discharge of our duty; that is, they can add to our happiness, and brighten our crown, and increase the weight of our glory.
5. “They can but kill the body; when they have done that, they may give over, here their proud waves must stop; here their cruelty and malice, their power and wit, must terminate, for they can reach no farther. When they have done all they can, they cannot annihilate us, they cannot make an utter end of us. As for the soul, they cannot come at that to do it any harm; neither the axe, nor the sword, nor the spear, nor the nail, nor any other instrument, can wound or pierce it: and as for the body, though they wound it, and bruise it, and mangle it, yet they cannot turn it into nothing; though they may banish life from it, and make it a vile and loathsome carcass, yet they cannot command it out of being, it will still maintain itself under one form or other, and after it is killed, defy any thing more that can be done to it.
6. “They can but kill the body,” they cannot do the least harm to the soul, much less can they annihilate it, and make it cease to be; they cannot torment it, they cannot with all their instruments of cruelty reach and touch the spirit of a man; they cannot throw stings into the consciences and fill our minds with anguish and horror; nor can they make us torment ourselves by the racking of our own thoughts; they cannot create guilt in our minds, nor animate against us that never-dying worm, nor cast despairing thoughts, nor cause self-condemning and furious reflections in our own minds; no thing of all this are they able to do.
7. And lastly, “They can but kill the body,” that is, they can but inflict temporal misery upon us; their power, as it is but small, so it is of a short continuance, it reacheth no farther than this life, it is confined to this world; so that what mischief men would do us, they must do it quickly, “while we are in the way.” There is no plot, nor device, nor cruelty, can be practised upon us “in the grave, whither we are going.” They cannot slay the dead, nor can their malice overtake those that are gone down into the pit; the longest arm, and the most inveterate hatred, cannot reach those that are got out of the land of the living. Our most powerful and deadly enemies cannot follow us beyond the grave, and pursue us into the other world. Thus Job elegantly describes the happy state of the dead, that they are out of the reach of all evil and disquiet; (Job iii. 17-19.) speaking of the grave, “There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together, they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there, and the servant is free from his master.” Thus you see what the power of man is, and what the effects of it, what is the worst that he can do to us; and consequently, how much he is to be feared and regarded. I proceed to the
Second thing I propounded to speak to, namely, how much the power of God exceeds the power of man; which our Saviour declares in these words, “who, after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell.”
Which in general signifies, that his power is infinite and unlimited. God cannot only do what man can do, but infinitely more; his power is not confined to the body, but he hath power over the spirit; he cannot only make body and soul miserable in this world, but in the other; not only for a time, but to all eternity.
More particularly in these words you have implied all those advantages which the power of God hath above the power of man. Not to insist upon that, which yet the text takes notice of, that God can do all that man can do; he can kill the body, which is implied in these words, “after he hath killed.” He can blast our reputation, and ruin our estate, and afflict our bodies with the sharpest pains, and smite us with death. And God doth all that with ease, which men many times do with great labour and endeavour; they are glad to use the utmost of their wit, and power, and contrivance, to do us mischief; but God can do all things by a word: if he do but speak, judgments come: we are but a little dust, and the least breath of God can dissipate us: he hath all creatures at his command, ready to execute his will. So that whatever man, or any creature can do, that God can: and infinitely more; and this is that which I shall briefly open to you, wherein the power of God doth exceed the power of man; in these following particulars:”
1. God’s power is absolute, and independent upon any other; not subject to be at any time checked and controlled by a superior power, because there is none greater, none above it. “There is a higher than the highest” upon earth, and one that may say to the greatest and proudest of all the sons of men, “What doest thou?” God can forbid any man to execute his purpose, when he is most firmly resolved and determined; but when he hath a mind to manifest his power, he needeth not ask any man’s leave. “Fear him that hath power,” ἐξουσίαν ἔχοντα, “that hath authority;” he hath an independent power, and a sovereign right over the lives of men, because they are all his creatures, and when he will put forth his power, there is none can resist or challenge him. God did once force this acknowledgment from one of the greatest and proudest kings of the earth, Nebuchadnezzar: (Dan. iv. 35.) “He doth according to his will in the armies of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can say unto him, What doest thou?”
2. His power reacheth to the soul as well as the body. He can annihilate soul and body. He that brought all things into being by his word, can, with as much ease, make them vanish into nothing: as “he spake the word, and they were made;” so he can “command, and they shall not be.” By the least breath of his mouth he can turn us into nothing; nay, upon the very withdrawing of those influences of his power and goodness, whereby we are maintained and supported in being, our bodies would vanish and “flee away like a shadow,” and “our spirits also would fail before him, and the souls which he hath made.”
And as he can annihilate the souls of men, if he please, so he can torment them. He that made our souls, and can make them happy, can likewise make them miserable; for he is a spirit, and hath power over ours; he can shoot his arrows into them, and make them stick fast there; he can wound our souls with invisible darts, and fill our spirits with secret anguish and amazement. When he sends a sword without to destroy our bodies, he can send terrors within to torment our minds; he can “distract us with terrors,” as David speaks: (Psalm lxxxviii. 15.) nay, he can make us a terror to ourselves, and by letting loose our thoughts upon us, can make us more miserable, than all the tyrants of the world can do, by the most exquisite torments; and that in this life, as we see in the instance of Francis Spira. When the Father of spirits will take us under correction, he can chastise us to purpose, and make our own guilty consciences to sting and lash us, and oar minds to torture themselves by furious reflections upon themselves. All this God can do in this life.
3. In the other world he can raise our bodies again, and reunite them to our souls, and cast them into hell, and torment them there. This is that which St. Matthew calls “destroying body and soul in hell.” And what the misery of that state shall be, the Scripture, in the general, gives us an account, describing it to us by the greatest anguish and the most sharp and sensible bodily torments, by “the worm that dies not,” that is, that guilt which shall eternally gnaw the consciences of sinners; and by “the fire which is not quenched,” that is, the everlasting pains of the body.
In the other world God will raise the bodies of wicked men, and reunite them to their souls, and cast them together into hell, to be tormented there; and this is that which is called “the second death.” And as tortured persons, when they are taken off the rack, have their joints new set, to be new racked again; so the bodies of wicked men shall be raised to a new life, that they may be capable of new pains.
This state of miserable men is set forth to us by the most sharp pains, and sensible torments; by the pain of burning: (Matt. xxv. 41.) “Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.” The rich man in the parable cried out, that he was “tormented in flames;” and, in the Revelation, the wicked are said to be “cast into a lake of fire and brimstone.” Fire is the most active thing in nature, and brimstone the most combustible, to shew how quick and sharp the torment of sinners shall be; and it shall be universal, they shall be “cast into the lake,” their torments shall be sharp as that of burning, and as universal as if they were drowned in flames. And to shew how great a sense they shall have of these sufferings, the Scripture describes those who are condemned to these hideous pains, lamenting and wringing their hands, and “gnashing their teeth” for very anguish: (Matt. xxiv. 51.) “There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Thus the Scripture represents to us the dismal state of the damned, possibly after this sensible manner, that it may accommodate things to our capacity: but to be sure, if these be not the very torments of hell, they shall be every whit as dreadful, as great as the terrors of God’s wrath, which ill men have laid up in store for themselves, can afford; and very probably they are of that nature, and so great as not to be capable of being fully described by any thing that we are now acquainted withal: for “Who knows the power of God’s anger?” Who can imagine the worst that omnipotent Justice can do to sinners?” As the glory of heaven, and joys of God’s presence, are now in explicable to us, so likewise are the torments of hell, and the miseries of the damned. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of men,” those dreadful things which “God hath laid up for them that” hate him.
4. Which is the most dreadful consideration of all, God can punish for ever. The wrath of man is but a blast, a storm that is soon over: all misery and torments that men can inflict, expire with this life; but the miserable effects of the Divine displeasure extend themselves to all eternity. For this reason, the judgment of God is called “an eternal judgment,” (Heb. vi. 2.) because the sentence which shall then be passed upon men, shall assign them to an eternal state; and the punishment that, in pursuance of this sentence, shall be inflicted upon sinners, is called “an everlasting punishment:”” (Matt. xxv. 46.) and the instruments of their torment are said to be everlasting: Matt. xxv. 41. it is called “everlasting fire:”” and, Mark xi. 44. 46. 48. you have it there three times repeated, “where the worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched.” “The smoke of the bottomless pit” is said to “ascend for ever and ever:”” (Rev. xiv. 11.) and, Rev. xx. 10. it is said, that “the wicked shall be tormented day and night, for ever and ever,” without intermission and without end.
It must needs be then, as the apostle says, (Heb. x. 31.) “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” that is, the God that lives forever, because he that lives for ever, can punish for ever. And this is that which makes the great difference between the effects of the wrath of man, and the displeasure of God; the wrath of man, and the effects of it, are but for a moment; but the effects of God’s displeasure extend themselves to all eternity.
By these particulars, which I have briefly gone over, you may see, who is the great object of our fear; and when you have calculated the difference between God and man, you will find that there is no proportion between the impotency of man, and the omnipotency of God; between those evils that men can inflict upon us, and “the terrors of the Lord;” and, consequently, what great reason we have to be afraid of offending God, and transgressing our duty in any kind, to avoid any temporal danger and inconvenience. But I shall not now enter upon the application of this serious and weighty argument.
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