Master, What shall I do to inherit eternal Life?
THE Enquiry we are now upon, is this, What it is that the Gospel requires of Men, who believe in Jesus Christ, and have been baptized into his Religion, and acknowledge him for their Master; in order to their Acquittance from any Sins which they have at any Time been wilfully guilty of, during their Christian Profession; and to their final Justification at the Day of Judgment; and to their Eternal Happiness after this. The Answer to this Enquiry, in my last Discourse, I laid down in four Particulars. And I observed to you, that all four might be comprized in this one general Proposition, viz. That it is required of Christians who have been wilful Sinners, sincerely to endeavour for the future to practise the whole Will of God, any ways made known to them, and that without this Amendment, and sincere, universal Obedience, the Gospel gives them no Ground for Hopes of Pardon and Acceptance, and Eternal Life: but that it would be more useful to discourse upon this Subject, under fore-mentioned Particulars. In order likewise to our knowing our own Condition, and the need we all have of some or other of these Terms, offered to such as have been wilful Sinners, I laid before you an Account of the Nature of wilful Sin; what it is that makes a Man a wilful Sinner; and what are the several Differences, and Degrees, of such as are wilful Sinners. And after having done this; I now come distinctly to consider, in their Order, every one of the four Propositions, laid down in my last Discourse: and this, first, with respect to their Truth; and secondly, with regard to their Fitness, and Reasonableness. The first Proposition is this:
I. IT is required, in the Gospel-Dispensation, of every Christian, who hath been in any sort, or any degree, a wilful Sinner, that He renounce, and forsake his Sins.
I. THE Truth of this will plainly appear from the following Proofs. In general, The Grace of God, i. e. his Mercy in the Gospel is declared by St. Paul, Titus ii.12, 13. to have appeared unto all Men, teaching them to deny Ungodliness; and worldly Lusts; i.e. to renounce and have no Communication with them for the future. And at ver.14. Christ is said to have given himself for us Christians; that he might first redeem us from all Iniquity, in order to redeem us at last from the Punishment of it. It is a faithful Saying, and worthy of all Acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the World to save Sinners, saith the same Apostle, 1 Tim. i.15. But then immediately mentioning himself, as an Example and Instance of this Truth, by the Name of the Chief of Sinners, on account of his having bitterly persecuted the Church of Christ; he plainly lets us know what sort of Sinners they are to whom this Salvation is given, viz. such as have left their Sins: as He had entirely, and with the utmost Abhorrence, that great one of persecuting his Fellow-Creatures on the account of their differing from Him in their Religion, and Worship of God.
IN Pursuance of this main Design of Christianity, all that name the name of Christ are commanded to depart from Iniquity, 2 Tim. ii.19. to have no Fellowship with the unfruitful Works of Darkness, Eph. v.11. which cannot be avoided without forsaking them; to abhor that which is evil, Rom. xii.9. to abstain from all appearance, or, as the Words signify, every sort Evil, 1 Thess. v.22. to mortify their Members which are upon Earth, under which Expression all Sin is contained, Col. iii 5. Particularly, He that hath stolen, is required to steal no more, Eph. iv.28: Agreeably to this, the same St. Paul, describing the Acceptance or Justification, purchased by Christ, expresseth himself thus, Rom. viii.1. There is now no Condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, (i. e. which believe in him; and profess in his Religion) adding these Words, who walk not after the Flesh. And ver.12. we, Christians, are Debtors, not to the Flesh, to live after the Flesh: And v.13. For if ye live after the Flesh, ye shall die, i. e. eternally: but if ye, through the Spirit, mortify the Deeds of the Body, (which is a Scripture Expression for renouncing and forsaking all Sin,) ye shall live; that is, enjoy the Favour of God eternally. In another place, after having reckoned up the Promises of God thro' Jesus Christ, he infers, Having therefore these Promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse our selves from all Filthiness of Flesh and Spirit.2 Cor. vii.1. that is, let us, who are Christians, if we hope to obtain the Promises of God, cleanse our selves from all sin. Timothy is commanded to turn away from, or disown, all such Christians as having the Form of Godliness, deny the Power thereof, 2. Tim. iii.5. And lest all this should not be sufficient; continual Warnings are given to such as are professed Christians, of the Danger and Eternal Punishment of Sin. They are assured over and over again by St. Paul, that it is for their Sins that the Wrath of God will come upon them, Col. iii.6. He appeals to Christians themselves, 1 Cor. vi.9. Know ye not that the Unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God. Be not deceived, neither Fornicators, nor Idolaters, nor other Sinners, there counted up, shall inherit the Kingdom of God, Gal. v.19, 20, 21; the Works of the Flesh are enumerated to Christians, that is, all the principal Sins, of the which the Apostle tells them, as He saith He had before, that they which do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God: And at ver.24. They that are truly Christ's, i.e. who will have any Benefit by him, are such as have crucified the Flesh with the Affections and Lusts, Chap. vi. v.7, 8. the Galatians are called upon again not to be deceived; and assured that God is not mocked: but that he that soweth to the Flesh, i. e. who doth the Works of the Flesh, shall of the Flesh reap Corruption. The Ephesian Christians are likewise called upon, not to be deceived with vain Words, Eph. v.6. and assured that because of these things, i. e. the Sins before counted up, the Wrath of God cometh upon the children of Disobedience; and that no such Sinners as are there mentioned, have any Inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and of God, ver.5.
ALL which, as it was the immediate Instruction of God, to his Apostles; so was it agreeable to the open Declarations of Christ, when He was upon Earth. In his own Account of his Proceedings at the great Day, He brings in such as professed themselves his Disciples, and had many Gifts to boast of; to whom yet he declares He will then say, I know you not, depart from me, ye Workers of Iniquity, Matth. vii.22. In the Parable of the Tares growing up with the Wheat, (by which must be meant unfruitful Professors of his Gospel) the Tares are ordered at last to be gathered for burning, Mat. xiii.30. And at the 41^st and 42^d Verses, they which do Iniquity are to be gathered out of his Kingdom (to which they professed themselves to belong;) and to be cast into a Furnace of Fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of Teeth. The Angels are to sever the Wicked from the Just, and to cast the Wicked into the Furnace of Fire, v.47. The Man in the Parable, found without a Wedding Garment, Matth. xxii.13. and the unprofitable Servant, who had not improved the Talent entrusted to him, that is, the Light, and Strength afforded him in the Gospel, Matt. xxv.30. are both ordered to be cast into outer Darkness, there shall be wailing, and gnashing of Teeth.
I THOUGHT it fitting to make this Matter so exceeding evident, that there might remain no Doubt of it: and these Texts are so plain, that there can be no Thought of mistaking their Meaning; tho' they be not so many in Number as might easily be alledged from the same Sacred Writings. And can any Christians hear all this, and not argue certainly from hence, that there is a Necessity of forsaking their Sins, in order to any Hopes of Pardon and Acceptance at last? For, if it were the Design of the Gospel to teach, and influence Men to deny all Ungodliness; if Christians be commanded, upon Pain of God's Eternal Displeasure, to forsake all Sin; if it be declared, both by Christ and his Apostles, that all Workers of Iniquity shall certainly be excluded the Kingdom of Heaven: then it is most evident, that unless they forsake their Sins, and are changed from being Workers of Iniquity, they are got truly, and fully, Christians; nor shall ever be admitted to the Favour of God, or the Rewards of Heaven.
FROM hence therefore appears most evidently the Truth of the first Proposition, viz. That it is required, in the Gospel-Dispensation, of every Christian, who hath been, in any sort, or any Degree, a wilful Sinner, that He renounce and forsake his Sins. Let us now proceed to the second; which will still more confirm the Truth of the first: viz.
II. IT is required likewise of Him, that He sincerely, and with Perseverance, practise Holiness, and Virtue.
THIS is almost always, in the New Testament, joined to the forsaking of Sin. The Grace of God is declared to have appeared, in the Gospel-Dispensation, teaching Men, not only to deny Ungodliness and worldly Lusts, but also to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this World, Tit. ii.12, 13. And at the 14^th verse, Christ is said to have given himself for us, not only to redeem us from all Iniquity, but to purify to himself a peculiar People zealous of good Works. Agreeably to this, Christians are commanded not only to abhor that which is evil, but also to cleave to that which is good, Rom. xii.9. not only to cleanse themselves from all Filthiness of Flesh and Spirit, but also to perfect Holiness in the Fear of God, 2 Cor. vii.1. They are told, that there is but one way of running in the Christian Race, so as to obtain the Prize, 1. Cor. x.24; that nothing avails in Christ Jesus, that is, in the Christian Dispensation, but a New Creature, or an Alteration of every thing that is bad, Gal. vi.15, or, in other Words, that nothing avails, but Faith which worketh by Love, ch. v.6. They are assured that Faith, or their believing in Christ Jesus, is made perfect by good Works; and is dead without them, and of no account before God. Jam. ii.26; that whosoever shall keep all other parts of God's Law, and wilfully and habitually offend in one Point, is guilty of all, v.10; that without Holiness no Man shall see the Lord, Heb. xii.14. And indeed a great part of St. Paul's Epistles is generally spent in inculcating the Moral Precepts of Religion. It is for them only, who, by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for Glory and Immortality, that Eternal Life is reserved; Rom. ii.7. Nay, it is declared to be so far from being an Advantage to a wicked Man, that he professeth Christianity, that it had been better for such an one not to have known the way of Righteousness, 2 Pet. ii.21. As our Lord himself saith, The Servant who knew his Master's Will, and did it not, shall be beaten with many Stripes, Luke xii.47.
I MIGHT multiply plain, unexceptionable Passages, without Number, declaring that the Rewards of God belong only to Righteousness; that Christians are called to Holiness; that unless they sow to the Spirit, and bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, they must not expect Life everlasting; that, according to what they have done in this Life, so shall be their Doom; and the like. But they would all, as indeed they are, be only Repetitions, and Enforcements of that most plain and express Declaration of our Lord himself, who best knew the Terms of that Acceptance, which he himself purchased; viz. Matt. vii.21. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he that doth the Will of my Father which is in Heaven; which utterly precludes all professed Christians from any Benefit from their Religion, unless they conscientiously practise that good, and perfect Will of God, which they know, to contain their Duty.
AND this being the declared Nature and Design of the Gospel; this being thus evidently required of Christians, as necessary to Salvation, in many plain Passages, uncapable of any other Sense: no Christian can think any thing of Force enough to induce him to doubt of the Truth of what I have now laid down in the Two first Propositions, viz. that it is absolutely necessary for any Christian, who hath been in any respect a wilful Sinner, in order to his Acceptance, and Eternal Happiness, to forsake his Sins; and with Perseverance to practise all Virtue and Holiness, whilst He hath Opportunity allowed him: and that unless He do this so as to make it his own voluntary Act and Deed, (which must be before a Death-bed makes it impossible;) and so, as to be deservedly denominated, holy, righteous, spiritual, and the like; He cannot have a Title to those Rewards, which in the Gospel are promised to none but such as are truly so.
AND thus having established the Truth of these Two first Propositions, upon such plain Texts as cannot be shaken by any thing dubious, or obscure; I proceed
2. SECONDLY, to consider, as I proposed, those Marks of Justice, Reason, and Wisdom, which we ourselves may see to belong to these Two Terms of the Covenant of Grace, thus explained.
AND here I think I may affirm, That, supposing the Nature of Almighty God to be such as it is; at an infinite Distance from all Sin and Iniquity, as well as kindly and tenderly disposed towards his rational Creatures; we cannot imagine any possible Conditions of the Acceptance of Sinners to his Favour, so free from all Exception, as those now laid down in the Two foregoing Propositions. For if God will at all accept Sinners to Mercy for the Sake of Jesus Christ; it must be supposed either, 1. That He will accept them, for his Sake, let their inward Sentiments, and their outward Behaviour, continue what they please; that is, that He requires nothing at all on their part towards it: Or, 2. That He will, for the Sake of Jesus Christ, accept them, without any Alteration in their outward Conduct and Behaviour; provided they do but conceive and express a great Sorrow and Concern that they have transgressed his Laws: Or, 3 That He will, for the sake of Christ, once pardon to them all their former Transgressions; or that he will forgive such a particular Number of Transgressions: after which the Sinner should have no Hope of Pardon, if He should relapse into the Commission of any wilful Sin: or else, 4. and lastly, That, for the sake of Jesus Christ, the Sinner shall be pardoned who doth, at any time, so forsake his Sins, as to bring forth, in the whole Course and Tenour of his Life, the contrary Virtues, and do the whole Will of God. These are all the Suppositions that, I believe, can be thought of, concerning the Terms of Acceptance of any who have been wilful Sinners. Now,
1. LET us examine the first Supposition, which puts the Case, as if it were declared that Sinners should be accepted, for the sake of Christ, whether they regarded his Laws, or not; whether they altered their Notions, and Behaviour, or not. And what can we imagine a greater Repugnancy to all those Conceptions we have of the holy Nature of God, and of the great Law of Reason, and uncorrupted Nature? For what plainer Declaration could Almighty God make, to lead Men to think that there was no Difference between Moral Good and Moral Evil; that Virtue was of no account in his Eyes; and that the Distinction between that and Vice, was not worthy to be regarded by rational Creatures? This would be to make this World an Hell of Wickedness and Misery; and Heaven, at last, the Attendant upon Vice, which would by this means prevail over the Face of the Earth, and not upon Virtue, which would by this means cease from amongst the Children of Men. This is to suppose Almighty God descending in Offers of Mercy; in order to encourage Men, indeed, to continue in Sin; and causing his Son to be born into the World, I will not say, to no Purpose; but to the worst of all Purposes, that is, to the utter Confusion, and Disgrace of the Cause of Virtue. It is to suppose, either that He hath given no Moral Laws to be observed, which we know to be false; or that He hath left it indifferent whether Men will observe them, or no; nay, that he hath sent his Son to assure Men that this is an indifferent Matter; highly absurd. It is to suppose such an extraordinary Person coming into the World in so extraordinary a manner, for nothing but to speak Comfort to the worst part of Mankind, even while they continue the worst; and not to leave them the least effectual Motive to engage them to make themselves better: which is the highest Affront we can offer to Almighty God; who cannot be supposed, without the greatest Indignity, to visit his Creatures after so extraordinary a manner, in order to carry on a Design opposite to his own Nature. In fine, it is to suppose the Cause of Virtue left entirely unguarded; and the main Encouragements of the Gospel to lie on the side of Vice: which having the Inclinations and Customs of most Men on its side, wants nothing but such a collateral Assistance as this, to enable it to overwhelm the World with an irresistible Torrent.
IF any ask, Who are they that ever could think thus of the Terms of Acceptance with God? I may answer, All such as. (tho' they do not say it, and speak it aloud, in so many Words, yet,) think and speak, in such a manner, of the Merits of Christ's Sufferings, and the Imputation of his personal Holiness to Believers, as to make his Moral Laws of none effect, and to render all Virtue in Christians, a poor insignificant, unnecessary Matter; unless it be the great Virtue of applying the Merits of Christ to our selves: a Virtue, which They who have most Spirits, are the most frequently observed to be Masters of: and which hath been too often seen to be founded upon the greatest degree of Confidence, and the greatest degree of Guilt, mix'd and temper'd together by a strong Fancy, and Imagination. And would not this be the greatest Reflection upon Almighty God, to imagine that He should propose the Kingdom of Heaven to suffer such Violence; not to be taken by the Force of an holy and exemplary Life, but by the Force of a groundless Assurance, and a confident Application of his Promises?
2. IF this be not a tolerable Supposition, let us examine the next Supposition, I spake of, concerning the Terms of Acceptance, viz. That all manner of past Sins shall be wholly pardoned for the sake of Jesus Christ, provided that the Sinner do sometimes, and especially in his last Moments, conceive and express a very great Sorrow, and deep Concern for them. And here, let any one of the meanest Capacity judge, whether this be a tolerable Supposition concerning Almighty God, that He requires our Grief, or our Sorrow, for the sake of it self, whilst nothing good results from it: which is an Absurdity plainly implied in this Imagination. For all Sorrow is, for the present, Misery and Uneasiness, in its own Nature: and Almighty God cannot, in a State of Trial, be supposed to require, or expect, the least Uneasiness in his Creatures, considered as Uneasiness; but merely with respect to their better State, and greater Happiness for the Time to come. Not doth He ever require our Sorrow, but as the beginning of Amendment, and the first Step to Reformation. But of this I shall have occasion to speak more largely, under the Second Branch of my present Design: when I come examine more at length the false Hopes, and dangerous Mistakes of Men, in this Affair. I shall only therefore at present observe farther, that the Supposition we are now considering, is encompassed with the same insuperable Absurdities, under which the former laboured: viz. That Christ Jesus descended from Heaven to teach Men to grieve, and shed Tears; that He hath left Virtue unaccompanied with Encouragements, and hath bestowed his Favours upon that which is not so much as the Shadow of Virtue; upon a Practice depending more upon a peculiar Temper and Constitution of Body, than upon any thing truly good and virtuous in the Mind. It is to suppose Almighty God to accept, instead of Service, what no Father, no Master upon Earth, would accept; and, in one word, it is to suppose God himself to invalidate and render vain, every Precept of Virtue, and every Moral Law, from one End of the New Testament to the other: which who can believe, unless one that can believe any thing of the Judge of the whole Earth? Let us therefore,
3. EXAMINE the Third Supposition, viz. That Almighty God declares He is willing to pardon a Sinner just to such a particular Term of Life, or such a particular Number of Sins: but that if, after that, He shall sin wilfully; He shall be absolutely unpardonable. This looks like a very great Discouragement to Sin: but yet at the End inevitably leads to it. For what would be the Issue, suppose any one, after his final Pardon, should, through the Violence of a Temptation, be ensnared into a wilful Sin? What would He think within himself, when He was once sure that He was in a desperate Condition? Would He not certainly find a sort of a present Refuge, in being more resolute than ever in his wicked Courses, since He could hope for no Good in breaking them off? Considering, therefore, the present Frailty and Weakness of Man, this would be a vast Disadvantage, in the End, to the Cause of Holiness and Virtue. For the promising Pardon to such a particular Number of Transgressions, or to a Course of Sin of such a particular Duration, would almost fatally influence Men, who were not of a sort of Angelical Nature, to venture so far, in some Instance or other, without Fear, or Suspicion of Danger: and all that Time the Cause of Vice would be wholly unrestrained. And then their own Weakness, and the Strength of their evil Habits, would, without all doubt, in, some Case or other, carry them so much farther, as that they must come to an hopeless State: and that State of Despair of future Mercy must make them violent and resolved in their Wickedness. Thus we see that even this Supposition, which seems to take most Care of the Cause of Virtue, leaves it, not only in a naked, and unguarded, but in a very desperate Condition.
NAY, let us suppose that it was declared only in general, that there was a certain Number of Sins, or a certain Period of Time, beyond which God would not pardon; and not any particular Number, or Time, specified to the World: yet still most Men, it is too justly to be feared, would first be led by Hope to commit many Sins, with a flattering Persuasion that they should not come up to that Number, or arrive at that Period; and then, when the Habit was become strong, would be fixed by Despair in this Opinion, that being probably got past that Number, and Period, they had e'en as good continue in their Sins, as their Inclination powerfully directs them.
THUS it appears that we our selves can discover great and considerable Inconveniencies in any other Proposal of Terms of Reconciliation between God, and Sinners, except that which I mentioned in the last place, and have before proved to be the Truth of the Matter; viz.
4. THAT, for the sake of Jesus Christ, the Sinner shall be pardoned, who doth, at any time, so forsake his Sins, as to bring forth, in the Course and Tenour of his Life, the contrary Virtues, and sincerely perform the whole Will of God. In which Proposal, you may see, that when it is said that all wilful Sinners, amending their Lives, shall be accepted, there is all the Encouragement possible given to the Practice of Virtue, without making its Cause desperate, even to those who have very much neglected it for the Time past: and that when it is said that no wilful Sinners, without such actual Amendment of their Ways, shall be accepted, there is all the Discouragement given to Vice that can be, without throwing the Sinner into such a desperate Condition; as to tempt him to have recourse to his very Sins for Comfort.
I AM not insensible that there is this Inconvenience attending the Promulgation of Pardon and Favour, even upon these Terms; viz. That Men of evil Dispositions, and strong Propensions to Sin, but yet not void of all regard to future Happiness, are led from hence to the basest Return to so much: Mercy; to imagine, because all wilful Sinners are pardonable upon these Conditions, that therefore all is well, if one time or other they take care to come up to them: and so, with the Possibility of this, they rather encourage themselves to go on for the present in the Commission of Sin, than immediately to forsake it. We find that there were some such ungrateful Persons, in the very first Ages of the Gospel, who barely encouraged themselves to continue in their Sins, as if it would magnify the Honour of God's Favour, to have more to pardon than they had already committed. St Paul speaks with the utmost Abhorrence of this way of arguing, Rom. vi.1. What shall we say then? Shall we continue in Sin that Grace may abound? That is, in order to give the Mercy of God an Opportunity of shewing it self yet more? God forbid! God forbid, indeed, that any should be of so unworthy a Temper, as wilfully before-hand to encourage themselves to affront their Maker, because He hath been so merciful, beyond their Deservings, as to declare that He will accept them whenever they truly turn to him.
I MENTION not this, in order to argue at this time with such Persons as these, who seem to be in the very next Degree to desperate and unpardonable; (which one would think sufficient to alarm any Men in their Senses;) but in order to obviate an Objection which may arise from the seeming Imprudence of openly proposing Favour upon such Conditions, viz. That wicked Men may be led to abuse them to other Purposes, and to their own Destruction: In order, I say, to obviate such an Objection by observing that nothing of this Nature can be framed, but what they may so abuse; that it is fit and reasonable that, in so great a Matter, form thing should be left to the Application of Men themselves, and to the Sincerity of their own Minds; and therefore that this rather shews the Wisdom of the Dispensation than destroys it; that if our Gospel be ineffectual on this Account, it is so only to those who are lost, that is, to men lost to all Sense of Virtue, or common Gratitude; lost to all that is good and tolerable, and totally given up to worldly or bestial Enjoyments; and that men of such Tempers deserve to fall into such a snare, and appear resolved upon Sin, whatever Terms of Acceptance could have been offered them. Notwithstanding therefore, that this Inconvenience may attend this peculiar Method of Acceptance: yet since it is excellently fitted for the Happiness of all who are truly honest and sincere; since it hath been shewn that much greater Inconveniencies must attend all others that can well be thought of; and it is plain that this ariseth from an invincible Perversity of Mind; this is sufficient to justify the excellent Contrivance of this Method, above all others. For infinite Wisdom itself can do no more than chuse that particular Method which is the best of all that are possible; and hath the fewest real Inconveniencies attending it; and is most agreeable to the Nature of God, the Condition of Man, and the End proposed in it.
I SHALL only add that, from what hath been said, we may learn to adore the Goodness of God in condescending to grant any Terms to wilful Sinners; and to admire his Wisdom, in doing this after such a manner as at once to shew the strictest Regard to Virtue; and the tenderest Compassion to his Creatures that have erred from the Paths of it. And God grant that we may be of the Number of those happy Christians, who embrace these Terms, and upon them only, seek for Happiness and Eternal Life! Amen!