A Practical Commentary upon the First Epistle of Peter
By Robert Leighton
Ver. 1. Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.
The grace of God in the heart of man is a tender plant in a strange unkindly soil; and therefore cannot well prosper and grow, without much care and pains, and that of a skilful hand, and one who has the art of cherishing it: for this reason God has given the constant ministry of the word to His Church, not only for the first work of conversion, but also for confirming and increasing His grace in the hearts of His children.
And though the extraordinary ministers of the Gospel, the Apostles, had principally the former for their charge—the converting of unbelievers, Jews and Gentiles, and so the planting of Churches, to be after kept, and watered by others (as the Apostle intimates, 1 Cor. 3:6); yet did they not neglect the other work of strengthening the grace of God begun in the new converts of those times, both by revisiting them, and exhorting them in person, as they could, and by the supply of their writing to them when absent.
And the benefit of this extends, (not by accident, but by the purpose and good providence of God,) to the Church of God in all succeeding ages.
This excellent Epistle (full of Evangelical doctrine and Apostolic authority) is a brief, and yet very clear summary both of the consolations and instructions necessary for the encouragement and direction of a Christian on his journey to Heaven; elevating his thoughts and desires to that happiness, and strengthening him against all opposition along the way, both that of corruption within, and temptations and afflictions from without.
The heads of doctrine contained in it are many, but the main that are most insisted on, are these three, faith, obedience, and patience; to establish them in believing, to direct them in doing, and to comfort them in suffering. And because the first is the groundwork and support of the other two, this first chapter is much occupied with persuading them of the truth of that mystery which they had received and did believe, viz. their redemption and salvation by Christ Jesus; that inheritance of immortality bought by His blood for them, and the evidence and stability of their right and title to it.
And then he uses this belief, this assurance of the glory to come, as the great persuasive to the other two, both to holy obedience, and constant patience, since nothing can be too much either to forego or undergo, either to do or to suffer, for the attainment of that blessed state.
And as from the consideration of that object and matter of the hope of believers, he encourages to patience, and exhorts to holiness in this chapter in general; so in the following chapters, he expresses more particularly both the universal and special duties of Christians, both in doing and suffering; often setting before those to whom he wrote the matchless example of the Lord Jesus and the greatness of their engagement to follow Him.
In the first two verses we have the inscription and salutation, in the usual style of the Apostolic Epistles.
The Inscription has the author and the address,—from whom, and to whom. The author of this Epistle is designated by his name—Peter; and his calling—an Apostle.
We shall not insist upon his name, that it was imposed by Christ, or what is its signification: this the Evangelists teach us.1
By that which is spoken of him in various passages of the Gospel, he is very remarkable amongst the Apostles, both for his graces and his failings; eminent in zeal and courage, and yet stumbling oft in his forwardness, and once grossly falling; and these, by the providence of God being recorded in Scripture, give a check to the excess of Rome’s conceit concerning this Apostle. Their extolling and exalting him above the rest, is not for his cause, much less to the honor of his Lord and Master Jesus Christ, for He is injured and dishonored by it; but it is in favor of themselves. As Alexander distinguished his two friends, that the one was a friend of Alexander, the other a friend of the king, the preferment which they give this Apostle is not in good-will to Peter, but in the desire of primacy. But whatever he was they would be much in pain to prove Rome’s right to it by succession. And if ever it had any such right, we may confidently say they have forfeited it long ago, by departing from St. Peter’s footsteps, and from his faith, and retaining too much those things wherein he was faulty; namely—
His unwillingness to hear of, and consent to, Christ’s sufferings,—his Master, spare yourself, or Be it far from you,2—in those they are like him; for thus they would unburden and exempt the Church from the cross, from the real cross of afflictions, and instead of that, have nothing but painted, or carved, or gilded crosses; these they are content to embrace, and worship too, but cannot endure to hear of the other.—Instead of the cross of affliction, they make the crown or miter the badge of their Church, and will have it known by prosperity, and outward pomp; and so turn the Church militant into the Church triumphant, not considering that it is Babylon’s voice, not the Church’s, I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow.3
Again, they are like him in his saying on the mount at Christ’s transfiguration, when he knew not what he said, It is good for us to be here:4 so they have little of the true glory of Christ, but the false glory of that monarchy on their seven hills: It is good to be here, they say.
Again, in their undue striking with the sword, not the enemies, as he, but the faithful friends and servants of Jesus Christ. But to proceed.
We see here Peter’s office or title,—an apostle; not chief bishop. Some in their glossing have been so impudent as to add that besides the text; though in chap. 5 ver. 4, he gives that title to Christ alone, and to himself only fellow elder; and here, not prince of the apostles, but an apostle, restored and reestablished after his fall, by repentance, and by Christ Himself, after His own death and resurrection.5 Thus we have in our Apostle a singular instance of human frailty on the one side, and of the sweetness of Divine grace on the other. Free and rich grace it is indeed, that forgives and swallows up multitudes of sins, of greatest sins; not only sins before conversion, as to St. Paul, but foul offenses committed after conversion, as to David, and to this Apostle: not only once raising them from the dead, but when they fall, stretching out the same hand, and raising them again, and restoring them to their station, and comforting them in it by His free Spirit, as David prays: not only to cleanse polluted clay, but to work it into vessels of honor; not only so, but of the most defiled shape to make the most refined vessels; not vessels of honor of the lowest sort, but for the highest and most honorable services; vessels to bear His own precious name to the nations; making the most unworthy and the most unfit, fit by His grace to be His messengers.
Of Jesus Christ.] Both as the beginning and end of his Apostleship, as Christ is called Alpha and Omega; chosen and called by Him, and called to this—to preach Him, and salvation wrought by Him.
Apostle of Jesus Christ.] Sent by Him, and the message no other than His Name, to make that known. And what this Apostleship was then, after some extraordinary way, befitting these first times of the Gospel, that the ministry of the word in ordinary is now; and therefore an employment of more difficulty and excellence than is usually conceived by many, not only of those who look upon it, but even of those who are exercised in it;—to be Ambassadors for the Greatest of Kings, and upon no mean employment, that great treaty of peace and reconciliation between Him and mankind.6
This epistle is directed to the elect, who are described here by their temporal and by their spiritual conditions. The first has very much dignity and comfort in it; but the other has neither, but rather the contrary of both; and therefore the Apostle, intending their comfort, mentions the one but in passing, to signify to whom particularly he sent his Epistle; but the other is that which he would have their thoughts dwell upon, and therefore he prosecutes it in his following discourse. And if we look to the order of the words [That is, the order in the original …], their temporal condition is but interjected; for it is said, To the elect, first, and then, To the strangers scattered, &c. and he would have this as it were drowned in the other—According to the foreknowledge of God the Father.
That those dispersed strangers who dwelt in the countries here named, were Jews, appears if we look to the foregoing Epistle, where the same word is used, and expressly appropriated to the Jews.7 St. Peter, in Gal. 2:8, is called an apostle of the circumcision, as exercising his Apostleship most towards them; and there is in some passages of this Epistle, somewhat which, though belonging to all Christians, yet has, in the strain and way of expression, a particular fitness to the believing Jews, as being particularly verified in them, which was spoken of their nation.8
Some argue from the name "strangers," that the Gentiles are here meant, which seems not to be; for proselyte Gentiles were indeed called strangers in Jerusalem, and by the Jews; but were not the Jews strangers in these places, Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia?—Not strangers dwelling together in a prosperous, flourishing condition, as a well planted colony, but strangers of the dispersion, scattered to and fro. Their dispersion was partly, first by the Assyrian captivity, and after that by the Babylonish, and by the invasion of the Romans; and it might be in these very times increased by the believing Jews flying from the hatred and persecution raised against them at home.
The places here mentioned, through which they were dispersed, are all in Asia. So Asia here is Asia the lesser; where it is to be observed, that some of those who heard St. Peter are said to be of those regions. And if any of those then converted were amongst these dispersed, the comfort was no doubt the more grateful from the hand of the same Apostle by whom they were first converted; but this is only conjecture. Though Divine truths are to be received equally from every minister alike, yet it must be acknowledged, that there is something (we know not what to call it) of a more acceptable reception of those who at first were the means of bringing men to God, than of others; like the opinion some have of physicians whom they love.
The Apostle comforts these strangers of this dispersion, by the spiritual union which they obtained by effectual calling; and so calls off their eyes from their outward, dispersed, and despised condition, to look above that, as high as the spring of their happiness, the free love and election of God. Scattered in the countries, and yet gathered in God’s election, chosen or picked out; strangers to men amongst whom they dwelt, but known and foreknown to God; removed from their own country, to which men have naturally an unalterable affection, but made heirs of a better (as follows, ver. 3, 4); and having within them the evidence both of eternal election and of that expected salvation, the Spirit of holiness (ver. 2). At the best, a Christian is but a stranger here, set him where you will, as our Apostle teaches after; and it is his privilege that he is so; and when he thinks not so, he forgets and disparages himself, and descends far below his quality, when he is much taken with anything in this place of his exile.
But this is the wisdom of a Christian, when he can solace himself against the meanness and any kind of discomfort of his outward condition, with the comfortable assurance of the love of God, that He has called him to holiness, given him some measure of it, and an endeavor after more; and by this may he conclude, that He has ordained him unto salvation. If either he is a stranger where he lives, or as a stranger deserted by his friends, and very nearly stripped of all outward comforts, yet may he rejoice in this, that the eternal, unchangeable love of God, which is from everlasting to everlasting, is sealed to his soul. And O! what will it avail a man to be surrounded with the favor of the world, to sit unmolested in his own home and possessions, and to have them very great and pleasant, to be well moneyed, and landed and befriended, and yet estranged and severed from God, not having any token of His special love?
To the elect.] The Apostle here designates all the Christians to whom he writes, by the condition of true believers, calling them elect and sanctified, &c.: and the Apostle St. Paul writes in the same style in his Epistles to the Churches. Not that all in these Churches were such indeed, but because they professed to be such, and by that their profession and calling as Christians, they were obliged to be such: and as many of them as were in any measure true to that, their calling and profession were really such. Besides, it would seem not unworthy of consideration, that in all probability there would be fewer false Christians, and the number of true believers would be usually greater, in the Churches in those primitive times, than now in the best reformed Churches; because there could not then be many of those who were from their infancy bred in the Christian faith, but the greatest part were such as, being of years of discretion, were, by the hearing of the Gospel, converted from Paganism and Judaism to the Christian religion first, and made a deliberate choice of it; to which there were at that time no great outward encouragements, and therefore the less danger of multitudes of hypocrites, which, as vermin in summer, breed most in the time of the Church’s prosperity. Though no nation or kingdom had then universally received the faith, but rather hated and persecuted it, yet were there even then amongst them, as the writings of the Apostles testify, false brethren, and inordinate walkers, and men of corrupt minds, earthly-minded, and led with a spirit of envy and contention and vainglory.
Although the question that is raised concerning the necessary qualifications of all the members of a true visible Church can no way, as I conceive, be decided from the inscriptions of the Epistles; yet certainly they are useful to teach Christians and Christian Churches what they ought to be, and what their holy profession requires of them, and sharply to reprove the gross unlikeness and nonconformity that is in the most part of men to the description of Christians. As there are some that are too strict in their judgment concerning the being and nature of the visible Church, so certainly the greatest part of Churches are too loose in their practice.
From the dissimilarity between our Churches and those, we may make this use of reproof, that if an Apostolic Epistle were to be directed to us, it ought to be inscribed, "To the ignorant, profane, malicious," &c. As he, who at the hearing of the Gospel read, said, "Either this is not the Gospel, or we are not Christians," so, either these characters, given in the inscription of these Epistles, are not true characters, or we are not true Christians.
Ver. 2. Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.
In this verse we have their condition and the causes of it.—Their condition, sanctified and justified; the former expressed by obedience, the latter by sprinkling of the blood of Christ. The causes, 1. Eternal election. 2. The execution of that decree, their effectual calling, which, I conceive, is meant by election here, the selecting them out of the world, and joining them to the fellowship of the children of God.9 The former, election, is particularly ascribed to God the Father, the latter to the Holy Spirit; and the blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is here assigned as the cause of their justification; and so the whole Trinity concurring dignify them with this their spiritual and happy estate.
First, I shall discourse of these separately, and then of their connection.
I. Of the state itself, and 1. Of justification, though named last.
This sprinkling refers to the rite of the legal purification by the sprinkling of blood; and aptly so; for these rites of sprinkling and blood all pointed out this blood and this sprinkling, and exhibited this true ransom of souls, which was only shadowed by them.
The use and purpose of sprinkling were purification and expiation, because sin merited death, and the pollutions and stains of human nature were by sin. Such is the pollution, that it can in no way be washed off but by blood.10 Neither is there any blood able to purge from sin except the most precious blood of Jesus Christ, which is called the blood of God.11
That the stain of sin can be washed off only by blood, intimates that it merits death; and that no blood but that of the Son of God can do it, intimates that this stain merits eternal death—and that would have been our portion, if the death of the eternal Lord of life had not freed us from it.
Filthiness needs sprinkling; guiltiness, such as deserves death, needs sprinkling of blood; and the death it deserves being everlasting death, the blood must be the blood of Christ, the eternal Lord of life, dying to free us from the sentence of death.
The soul, like the body, has its life, its health, its purity, and the opposite of these,—its death, diseases, deformities, and impurity, which belong to it as to their first subject, and to the body by participation.
The soul and body of all mankind are stained by the pollution of sin. The impure leprosy of the soul is not an outward spot, but wholly inward; so, as the bodily leprosy was purified by the sprinkling of blood, this is, too. Then, by reflecting, we see how all this expressed by the Apostle St. Peter is necessary for our justification. 1. Christ, the Mediator between God and man, is God and man. 2. A Mediator not only interceding, but also satisfying.12 3. This satisfaction does not reconcile us, unless it is applied; therefore there is not only mention of blood, but the sprinkling of it. The Spirit by faith sprinkles the soul, as with hyssop, by which the sprinkling was made: this is what the Prophet speaks about,13 So shall he sprinkle many nations; and which the Apostle to the Hebrews prefers above all legal sprinklings (chap. 9:12-14), both as to its duration and as to the excellence of its effects.
Men are not easily convinced and persuaded of the deep stain of sin, and that no other laver can remove it but the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ. Some who have moral resolutions of amendment dislike at least gross sins, and try to avoid them—to them it is cleanness enough to reform in those things, but they haven’t considered what becomes of the guiltiness they have already contracted, and how that shall be purged, how their natural pollution shall be taken away. Don’t be deceived in this; it is not a passing sigh, or a light word, or a wish of "God forgive me;" no, nor the highest current of repentance, nor that which is the truest evidence of repentance, change—none of these purify us in the sight of God, and expiate His wrath; they are all imperfect and stained themselves, cannot stand and answer for themselves, much less be of value to compensate the former guilt of sin. The very tears of the purest repentance, unless sprinkled with this blood, are impure; all our washings without this are but washings of the blackamoor—it is labor in vain.14 None are truly purified by the blood of Christ, who do not endeavor after purity of heart and conversation; yet it is the blood of Christ by which they are all made fair, and there is no spot in them. Here it is said, elect to obedience; but because that obedience is imperfect, there must be sprinkling of the blood too. There is nothing in religion further out of nature’s reach, and out of its liking and belief, than the doctrine of redemption by a Savior, and a crucified Savior,—by Christ, and by His blood, first shed on the cross in His suffering, and then sprinkled on the soul by His Spirit. It is easier to make men aware of the necessity of repentance and amendment of life (though that is very difficult), than of this purging by the sprinkling of this precious blood. If we saw how necessary Christ is to us, we should esteem and love Him more.
It is not by the hearing of Christ, and of His blood in the doctrine of the Gospel; it is not by the sprinkling of water, even that water which is the sign of this blood, without the blood itself, and the sprinkling of it. Many are present where it is sprinkled, and yet have no portion in it. See to it that this blood is sprinkled on your souls, so that the destroying angel may pass by you. There is a generation (not some few, but a generation) deceived in this; they are their own deceivers, pure in their own eyes.15 How earnestly does David pray, Wash me, purge me with hyssop! Though bathed in tears, that satisfies not—Wash me.16 This is the honorable condition of the saints, that they are purified and consecrated to God by this sprinkling; yes, they have on long white robes washed in the blood of the Lamb. There is mention indeed of great tribulation,17 but there is a double comfort joined with it. 1. They come out of it; that tribulation has an end. And, 2. They pass from that to glory; for they have on the robe of candidates, long white robes washed in the blood of the Lamb, washed white in blood. As for this blood, it is nothing but purity and spotlessness, having no stain of sin, and besides, has the virtue to take away the stain of sin where it is sprinkled. My well-beloved is white and ruddy,18 says the spouse; thus in His death, ruddy by bloodshed, white by innocence and purity of that blood.
Shall those, then, who are purged by this blood, return to live among the swine, and tumble with them in the puddle? What gross injury would this be to themselves, and to that blood by which they are cleansed! Those who are chosen to this sprinkling, are likewise chosen to obedience. This blood purifies the heart; yea, this blood purges our consciences from dead works to serve the living God.19
2. Of their sanctification. Elect unto obedience.] It is easily understood to whom. When obedience to God is expressed by the simple absolute name of obedience, it teaches us that to Him alone belong absolute and unlimited obedience, all obedience by all creatures. It is the shame and misery of man, that he has departed from this obedience, that we have become sons of disobedience; but grace, renewing the hearts of believers, changes their natures, and so their names, and makes them children of obedience (as afterwards in this chapter). As this obedience consists in the receiving Christ as our Redeemer, so also at the same time as our Lord or King; in an entire rendering up of the whole man to His obedience. This obedience, then, of the Only-begotten, Jesus Christ, might well be understood not as His actively, as Beza interprets it, but objectively, as 2 Cor. 10:5. I think here it is chiefly understood to mean the obedience that the Apostle in the Epistle to the Romans calls the obedience of faith, by which the doctrine of Christ is received, and so Christ Himself, which unites the believing soul to Christ,—He sprinkles it with His blood, to the remission of sin,—and which is the root and spring of all future obedience in the Christian life.
By obedience, sanctification is intimated; it signifies both habitual and active obedience, renovation of heart, and conformity to the Divine will. The mind is illuminated by the Holy Spirit, to know and believe the Divine will; yea, this faith is the great and chief part of obedience.20 The truth of the doctrine is first impressed on the mind—pleasant, loving obedience flows from it. From there all the affections, and the whole body, with its members, learn to willingly obey, and submit to God; while before they resisted Him, being under the standard of Satan.
This obedience, though imperfect, yet has a certain, if I may so say, imperfect perfection. It is universal in three kinds of ways,—1. In the subject. 2. In the object. 3. In the duration. The whole man is subjected to the whole law, and that constantly and perseveringly.
The first universality is the cause of the other. Because it is not in the tongue alone, or in the hand, but has its root in the heart, it does not wither as the grass or flower lying on the surface of the earth; but flourishes, because rooted. And it embraces the whole law because it arises from a reverence it has for the Lawgiver Himself. Reverence, I say, but tempered with love; hence, it considers no law nor command little, or of little importance, which is from God, because He is great and highly esteemed by the pious heart; no command hard, though contrary to the flesh, because all things are easy to love. There is the same authority in all, as St. James divinely argues; and this authority is the golden chain of all the commandments, which if broken in any link, all fall to pieces.
That this threefold perfection of obedience is not a picture drawn by fancy, is evident in David, Psalm 119, where he subjects himself to the whole law: his feet, ver. 105; his mouth, ver. 13; his heart, ver. 11; the whole tenor of his life, ver. 24. He subjects himself to the whole law, ver. 6, and he professes his constancy therein, in verses 16 and 33: Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I shall keep it unto the end.
II. We have the causes of the condition above described.
According to the foreknowledge of God the Father.] The most exact knowledge of things is, to know them in their causes; it is then an excellent thing, and worthy of their endeavors who are most desirous of knowledge, to know the best things in their highest causes; and the happiest way of this knowledge is, to possess those things, and to know them in experience. To such the Apostle here speaks, and sets before them the excellence of their spiritual condition, and leads them to the causes of it.
Their state is, that they are sanctified and justified: the nearest cause of both these is, Jesus Christ. He is made to them both righteousness and sanctification: the sprinkling of His blood purifies them from guiltiness, and quickens them to obedience.
Now follows to consider the appropriating or applying cause, which is the Holy, and holy-making or sanctifying Spirit, the Author of their selection from the world, and effectual calling unto grace.
The source of all, the appointing or decreeing cause, is God the Father: for though they all work equally in all, yet, in order of working, we are taught thus to distinguish and particularly to ascribe the first work of eternal election to the first Person of the blessed Trinity.
In or through sanctification.] For to render it, elect to the sanctification, is strained: so then I conceive this election is their effectual calling, which is by the working of the Holy Spirit; as in 1 Cor. 1:26-28, where vocation and election are used in the same sense: You see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, &c., but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. It is the first act of the decree of election; the beginning of its performance in those who are elected; and it is in itself a real separation of men from the profane and miserable condition of the world, and an appropriation and consecration of a man to God; and therefore, both regarding its relation to election, and regarding its own nature, it well bears that name.21
Sanctification in a narrower sense, as distinguished from justification, signifies the inherent holiness of a Christian, or his being inclined and enabled to perform the obedience mentioned in this verse; but it is here more large, and co-extends with the whole work of renovation; it is the severing or separating of men to God, by His Holy Spirit, drawing them unto Him; and so it includes justification, as here, and the first working of faith, by which the soul is justified, through its apprehending and applying the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Of the Spirit.] The word calls men externally, and by that external calling prevails with many to an external reception and profession of religion; but if it is left alone it goes no further. It is indeed the means of sanctification and effectual calling, as John 17:17, Sanctify them through your truth; but it does this when the Spirit, who speaks in the word, works in the heart, and causes it to hear and obey. The spirit or soul of a man is the chief and the first subject of this work, and it is but slight false work that doesn’t begin there; but the Spirit here is rather to be taken for the Spirit of God, the efficient, than for the spirit of man, the subject of this sanctification. And therefore our Savior in that place prays to the Father, that He would sanctify His own by that truth; and this He does by the concurrence of His Spirit with that word of truth which is the life and vigor of it, and makes it prove the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes.22 It is a fit means in itself, but it is a prevailing means only when the Spirit of God brings it into the heart. It is a sword, and sharper than any two-edged sword, fit to divide, yea, even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit;23 but it does not do this without being in the Spirit’s hand, and Him applying it to this cutting and dividing. The word calls, but the Spirit draws, not severed from that word, but working in it, and by it.
It is a very difficult work to draw a soul out of the hands and strong chains of Satan, and out of the pleasing entanglements of the world, and out of its own natural perverseness, to yield up itself to God,—to deny itself, and live to Him, and in so doing, to run against the mainstream, and the current of the ungodly world without, and corruption within.
The strongest rhetoric, the most moving and persuasive way of discourse, is all too weak; the tongue of men or angels cannot prevail with the soul to free itself, and shake off all that detains it. Although it be convinced of the truth of those things that are represented to it, yet still it can and will hold out against it, and say, Non persuadebis etiamsi persuaseris—You shall not persuade me, even though you convince me.
The hand of man is too weak to pluck any soul out of the crowd of the world, and to set it in amongst the select number of believers. Only the Father of spirits has absolute command of spirits, viz. the souls of men, to work on them as He pleases, and where He will. This powerful, this sanctifying Spirit knows no resistance; works sweetly, and yet strongly; it can come into the heart, whereas all other speakers are forced to stand without. That still voice within persuades more than all the loud crying without; as he who is within the house, though he speak low, is better heard and understood, than he who shouts outside the doors.
When the Lord Himself speaks by this His Spirit to a man, selecting and calling him out of the lost world, he can no more disobey than Abraham did, when the Lord spoke to him after an extraordinary manner, to depart from his own country and kindred: Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him.24 There is a secret, but very powerful, virtue in a word, or look, or touch of this Spirit upon the soul, by which it is forced, not with a harsh, but a pleasing violence, and cannot choose but follow it, not unlike that of Elijah’s mantle upon Elisha.25 How easily did the disciples forsake their callings and their dwellings to follow Christ!
The Spirit of God draws a man out of the world by sanctified light sent into his mind, 1. Revealing to him how base and false the sweetness of sin is, which withholds men and amuses them, so that they return not; and how true and sad the bitterness is that will follow upon it; 2. Setting before his eyes the free and happy condition, the glorious liberty of the children of God,26 the riches of their present enjoyment, and their far larger and assured hopes for hereafter; 3. Making the beauty of Jesus Christ visible to the soul; which immediately takes it so, that it cannot be stopped from coming to Him, though its most beloved friends, most beloved sins, lie in the way, and hang about it, and cry, Will you leave us so? It will tread upon all who come within the embraces of Jesus Christ, and say with St. Paul, I was not disobedient unto, or unpersuaded by, the heavenly vision.27
It is no wonder that the godly are by some called singular and precise: they are so, singular—a few selected ones picked out by God’s own hand, for Himself: Know that the Lord has set apart him that is godly for himself.28 Therefore, says our Savior, Because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.29 For the world lies in unholiness and wickedness—is buried in it; and as living men can have no pleasure among the dead, neither can these elected ones amongst the ungodly; they walk in the world as warily as a man or woman neatly appareled would do amongst a multitude that are all sullied and bemired.
Endeavor to have this sanctifying Spirit in yourselves; pray much for it; for His promise has passed to us, that He will give this Holy Spirit to those who ask it.30 And shall we be such fools as to lack it, for lack of asking? When we find heavy fetters on our souls, and much weakness, yea averseness to follow the voice of God calling us to His obedience, then let us pray with the spouse, Draw me. She cannot go nor stir without that drawing; and yet, with it, not only goes, but runs. We will run after you.31
Think it not enough that you hear the word, and use the outward ordinances of God, and profess His name; for many are thus called, and yet but a few of them are chosen. There is but a small part of the world outwardly called, compared to the rest that is not so, and yet the number of the true elect is so small, that it gains the number of these that are called the name of many. Those who are in the visible Church, and partake of external vocation, are but like a large list of names (as is usual in civil elections), out of which a small number is chosen to the dignity of true Christians, and invested into their privilege. Some men in nomination to offices or employments, think it a worse disappointment and disgrace to have been in the list, and yet not chosen, than if their names had not been mentioned at all. Certainly, it is a greater unhappiness to have been not far from the kingdom of God,32 (as our Savior speaks), and miss it, than still to have remained in the furthest distance; to have been at the mouth of the haven, the fair havens indeed, and yet driven back and shipwrecked. Your labor is most preposterous; you seek to ascertain and make sure things that cannot be made sure, and that which is both more worth and may be made surer than them all, you will not endeavor to make sure. Listen to the Apostle’s advice, and at length set about this in earnest, to make your calling and election sure.33 Make sure this election, as it is here (for that is the order), your effectual calling sure, and that will bring with it assurance of the other, the eternal election and love of God towards you, which follows to be considered.
According to the foreknowledge of God the Father.] Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world, says the Apostle James.34 He sees all things from the beginning of time to the end of it, and beyond to all eternity, and from all eternity He foresaw them. But this foreknowledge here relates peculiarly to the elect. Verba sensus in sacra scriptura denotant affectus—Words of sensation in Scripture denote affections,—as the Rabbis remark. So in man, If I regard iniquity;35 and in God, For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, &c.36 And again, You only have I known of all the families of the earth, &c.37 And in that speech of our Savior, relating it as the terrible doom of reprobates at the last day, Depart, &c., I know you not, I never knew you.38 So St. Paul, For that which I do I allow [Gr. know] not.39 And Beza observes that ginosko is by the Greeks sometimes taken for decernere, judicare—to determine, judge; thus some speak, to cognosce upon a business. So then this foreknowledge is none other than that eternal love of God, or decree of election, by which some are appointed unto life, and being foreknown or elected to that end, they are predestinated to the way to it. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.40
It is most vain to imagine a foresight of faith in men, and that God in the view of that faith, as the condition of election itself, has chosen them: for, 1. Nothing at all is futurum, or can have that imagined futurity, so to speak, but as it is, and because it is, decreed by God to be; and, therefore (as says the Apostle St. James in the passage before cited) Known unto God are all his works, because they are His works in time, and his purpose from eternity. 2. It is most absurd to give any reason of Divine will without Himself. 3. This easily solves all that difficulty which the Apostle speaks of; and yet he never thought of such a solution, but runs high for an answer, not to satisfy caviling reason, but to silence it, and stop its mouth: for thus the Apostle argues, You will say then to me, Why does he yet find fault? For who has resisted his will? No but, O man, who are you who reply against God?41 Who can conceive where this should be, that any man should believe unless it has been given him of God? And if given him, then it was His purpose to give it him; and if so, then it is evident that He had a purpose to save him; and for that end He gives faith; not therefore purposes to save, because man shall believe. 4. This seems cross to these Scriptures, where they speak of the subordination, or rather coordination, of those two: as here, foreknown and elect, not because of obedience, or sprinkling, or any such thing, but to obedience and sprinkling, which is by faith. So God predestinated, not because He foresaw men would be conformed to Christ, but that they might be so: For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate.42 And the same order, And the Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved. Also, And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.43
This foreknowledge, then, is His eternal and unchangeable love; and that thus He chooses some, and rejects others, is for that great purpose, to manifest and magnify His mercy and justice; but why He appointed this man for the one, and that man for the other, made Peter a vessel of this mercy, and Judas of wrath, this is even so, because it seemed good to Him. If this is harsh, yet is Apostolic doctrine. Has not the potter (says St. Paul) power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?44 This deep we must admire, and always, in considering it, close with this: O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!45
III. The connection of these we are now for our profit to take notice of; that effectual calling is inseparably tied to this eternal foreknowledge or election on the one side, and to salvation on the other. These two links of the chain are up in Heaven in God’s own hand: but this middle one is let down to earth into the hearts of His children; and they, laying hold on it, have sure hold on the other two, for no power can sever them. If therefore they can read the characters of God’s image in their own souls, those are the counterpart of the golden characters of His love, in which their names are written in the book of life. Their believing writes their names under the promises of the revealed book of life, the Scriptures; and so ascertains them, that the same names are in the secret book of life which God has by Himself from eternity. So that finding the stream of grace in their hearts, though they see not the fountain from where it flows, nor the ocean into which it returns, yet they know that it has its source, and shall return to that ocean which arises from their eternal election, and shall empty itself into that eternity of happiness and salvation.
Therefore much joy arises to the believer: this tie is indissoluble, as the agents are, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit: so are election, and vocation, and sanctification, and justification, and glory. And therefore, in all conditions, they may, from the sense of the working of the Spirit in them, look back to that election, and forward to that salvation; but those who remain unholy and disobedient, have as yet no evidence of this love; and therefore cannot, without vain presumption and self-delusion, judge thus of themselves, that they are within the peculiar love of God. But in this, Let the righteous be glad, and let them shout for joy, all that are upright in heart.46
It is one main point of happiness, that he who is happy knows and judges himself to be so: this being the peculiar good of a reasonable creature, it is to be enjoyed in a reasonable way; it is not as the dull resting of a stone, or any other natural body in its natural place; but the knowledge and consideration of it is the fruition of it, the very relishing and tasting its sweetness.
The perfect blessedness of the saints is awaiting them above; but even their present condition is truly happy, though incompletely, and but a small beginning of that which they expect. And their present happiness is so much the more, the clearer their knowledge and firmer their persuasion they have of it. It is one of the pleasant fruits of the godly, to know the things that are freely given to us of God.47 Therefore the Apostle, to comfort his dispersed brethren, sets before them a description of that excellent spiritual condition to which they are called.
If election, effectual calling, and salvation, are inseparably linked together, then by any one of them a man may lay hold on all the rest, and may know that his hold is sure; and this is that way by which we may attain, and ought to seek that comfortable assurance of the love of God. Therefore make your calling sure, and by that your election;48 for that being done, this follows of itself. We are not to pry immediately into the decree, but to read it in the performance. Though the mariner sees not the pole-star, yet the needle of the compass which points to it tells him which way he sails: thus the heart that is touched with the loadstone of Divine love, trembling with godly fear, and yet still looking towards God by fixed believing, points at the love of election, and tells the soul that its course is heavenward, towards the haven of eternal rest. He who loves may be sure he was loved first; and he who chooses God for his delight and portion may conclude confidently that God has chosen him to be one of those who shall enjoy Him and be happy in Him forever; because our love and electing of Him is but the return and repercussion of the beams of His love shining upon us.
Find but within you sanctification by the Spirit, and this argues, necessarily, both justification by the Son, and the election of God the Father. Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.49 It is a most strange demonstration, ab effectu reciproco—from the reciprocal effect:—He called those He has elected; He elected those He called: Where this sanctifying Spirit is not, there can be no persuasion of this eternal love of God: those who are children of disobedience can conclude no otherwise of themselves, but that they are the children of wrath. Although, from present unsanctification, a man cannot infer that he is not elected—for the decree may, for part of a man’s life, run, as it were, underground—yet this is sure, that that estate leads to death, and unless it be broken, will prove the black line of reprobation. A man has no portion amongst the children of God, nor can read one word of comfort in all the promises that belong to them while he remains unholy. Men may please themselves in profane scoffing at the Holy Spirit of grace, but let them nevertheless know this, that that Holy Spirit, whom they mock and despise, is that Spirit who seals men unto the day of redemption.50
If any pretend that they have the Spirit, and so turn away from the straight rule of the Holy Scriptures, they have a spirit indeed, but it is a fanatical spirit, the spirit of delusion and giddiness; but the Spirit of God that leads His children in the way of truth, and is for that purpose sent them from heaven to guide them there, squares their thoughts and ways to that rule: and that word whereof It is Author, which was inspired by It, sanctifies them to obedience. He who says, I know him, and keeps not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.51
Now this Spirit which sanctifies, and sanctifies to obedience, is within us the evidence of our election, and the earnest of our salvation. And whoever are not sanctified and led by this Spirit, the Apostle tells us what their condition is: If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.52
Let us not delude ourselves: this is a truth, if there be any in religion—those who are not made saints in the state of grace, shall never be saints in glory.
The stones which are appointed for that glorious temple above, are hewn and polished, and prepared for it here; as the stones were wrought and prepared in the mountains for building the temple at Jerusalem. This is God’s order.
He gives grace and glory.53 Moralists can tell us that the way to the temple of honor is through the temple of virtue. Those who think they are bound for heaven in the ways of sin have either found a new way untrodden by all who have gone before, or will find themselves deceived in the end. We need not then that poor scheme for the pressing of holiness and obedience upon men, to represent it to them as the meriting cause of salvation. This is not at all to the purpose, considering that without it the necessity of holiness to salvation is pressing enough; for holiness is no less necessary to salvation, than if it were the meriting cause of it; it is as inseparably tied to it as the purpose of God. And in the order of performance, godliness is as certainly before salvation, as if salvation wholly and altogether depended upon it, and was in point of justice deserved by it. Seeing, then, there is no other way to happiness but by holiness, no assurance of the love of God without it, take the Apostle’s advice; study it, seek it, follow earnestly after holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.54
Grace to you, and peace, be multiplied.] It has always been a civil custom amongst men, to season their conversation with good wishes one for another; this the Apostles use in their epistles in a spiritual Divine way suitable to their holy writings. It well becomes the messengers of grace and peace to wish both, and to make their salutation conform to the main scope and subject of their discourse. The Hebrew word of salutation we have here—Peace, and that which is the source both of this and all good things, in the other word of salutation used by the Greeks—Grace. All right rejoicing, and prosperity, and happiness, flow from this source, and from this alone, and are sought elsewhere in vain.
In general, this is the character of a Christian spirit, to have a heart filled with blessing, with this sweet good will and good wishing to all, especially to those who are their brothers in the same profession of religion. And this charity is a precious balm, diffusing itself in the wise and seasonable expressions of it, upon fitting occasions; and those expressions must be cordial and sincere, not like what you call court holy-water, in which there is nothing else but falsehood, or vanity at the best. This manifests men to be the sons of blessing, and of the ever-blessed God, the Father of all blessing, when in His name they bless one another: more than this, our Savior’s rule goes higher, bless those who curse you, and urges it by that relation to God as their Father, that in this they may resemble Him: that you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven.55
But in a more eminent way it is the duty of Pastors to bless their people, not only by their public and solemn benediction, but also by daily and importunate prayers for them in secret. And the great Father, who sees in secret, will reward them openly.56
They are to be ever both endeavoring and wishing their increase of knowledge and all spiritual grace, in which they have St. Paul as a frequent pattern. To those who are messengers of this grace, if they have experience of it, it is the oil of gladness that will dilate their heart, and make it large in love and spiritual desires for others, especially their own flocks.
Let us consider, 1. The matter of the Apostle’s desire for them—grace and peace. 2. The measure of it,—that it may be multiplied.
1st. The matter of the Apostle’s desire, grace. We need not make a noise with the many school distinctions of grace, and describe in what sense it is here to be taken: for no doubt it is all saving grace to those dispersed brethren, so that in the largest notion which it can have that way, we may safely here take it.
What are preventing grace, assisting grace, working and co-working grace (as we may admit these differences in a sound sense), but various names of the same effectual saving grace, in relation to our different state? as the same sea receives different names from the different parts of the shore it beats upon. First, it prevents and works; then it assists and prosecutes what it has wrought: He works in us both to will and to do.57 But the whole sense of saving grace, I think, is comprehended in these two. 1. Grace in the fountain, that is, the peculiar love and favor of God. 2. Grace in the streams, the fruits of this love, (for it is not an empty, but a most rich and liberal love,) viz. all the graces and spiritual blessings of God bestowed upon those whom He had freely chosen. The love of God in itself can neither diminish nor increase, but it is multiplied, or abounds in the manifestation and effects of it. So then, to desire grace to be multiplied to them, is to wish to them the living spring of it—that love which cannot be exhausted, but is ever flowing forth, and instead of abating, makes each day richer than the one before.
And this is that which should be the top and sum of Christian desires,—to have, or want any other thing indifferently, but to be resolved and resolute in this, to seek a share in this grace, the free love of God, and the sure evidences of it within you, the fruit of holiness, and the graces of His Spirit. But most of us are taken up with other things. We will not be convinced how basely and foolishly we are busied, though in the best and most respected employments of the world, as long as we neglect our noblest trade of growing rich in grace, and the comfortable enjoyment of the love of God. Our Savior tells us that one thing is needful,58 signifying that all other things are comparatively unnecessary, by-works, and mere impertinences: and yet in these we lavish out our short and uncertain time; we let the other stand by until we find leisure. Men who are altogether profane, do not think about it at all. Some others possibly deceive themselves thus, and say, When I have done with such a business in which I am engaged, then I will sit down seriously to this, and bestow more time and pains on these things, which are undeniably greater and better, and more worthy of it. But this is a neglect that is in danger to undo us. What if we reach not the end of that business, but end ourselves before it? Or if we do not, yet some other business may step in after that. Oh! then, say we, that must be dispatched also. Thus, by such delays, we may lose the present opportunity, and in the end, our own souls.
Oh! be persuaded it deserves your diligence, and that without delay, to seek something that may be constant enough to abide with you, and strong enough to uphold you in all conditions, and that is alone this free grace and love of God. While many say, Who will show us any good? set in with David in his choice, Lord, lift up the light of your countenance upon me, and this shall rejoice my heart more than the abundance of corn and wine.59
This is that light which can break into the darkest dungeons, from which all other lights and comforts are shut out; and without this all other enjoyments are, what the world would be without the sun—nothing but darkness. Happy are those who have this light of Divine favor and grace shining into their souls, for by it they shall be led to that city, where the sun and moon are unnecessary; for the glory of God does lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.60
Godliness is profitable unto all things, says the Apostle, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come;61 all other blessings are the attendants of grace, and follow upon it. This blessing which the Apostle here, as St. Paul also in his Epistles, joins with grace, was, with the Jews, of so large a sense, as to include all that they could desire; they wished peace, they meant all kind of good, all welfare and prosperity. And thus we may take it here for all kind of peace; yes, and for all other blessings; but especially that spiritual peace, which is the proper fruit of grace, and so intrinsically flows from it.
We may and ought to wish outward blessings for the Church of God, and particularly outward peace,—as one of the greatest, so one of the most valuable favors of God: thus prayed the Psalmist, Peace be within your walls, and prosperity within your palaces.62
But that Wisdom which does what He will, by what means He will, and works one contrariety out of another, brings light out of darkness, good out of evil,—can and does turn tears and troubles to the advantage of His Church; but certainly, in itself, peace is more suitable to its increase, and, if not abused, it proves so too. As in the Apostolic times, it is said, The Church had peace, and increased exceedingly.63
We ought also to wish for ecclesiastical peace to the Church, so that she may be free from dissensions and divisions. These readily arise, more or less, as we see in all times, and haunt religion, and the reformation of it, as a malus genius. St. Paul had this to say to his Corinthians, though he had given them this testimony, that they were enriched in all utterance and knowledge, and were lacking in no gift,64 yet, presently after, 11:18; 3:3, I hear that there are divisions and contentions among you. An enemy has done this,65 as our Savior speaks; and this enemy is no fool, for, by Divine permission, he works to his own end very wisely; for there is not one thing that does on all hands choke the seed of religion so much, as thorny debates and differences about itself. So, in succeeding ages, and at the breaking forth of the light in Germany, in Luther’s time, multitudes of sects arose.
Profane men do not only stumble, but also fall and break their necks upon these divisions. "We see," think they, and some of them possibly say it out, "that they, who mind religion most, cannot agree upon it: our easiest way is, not to embroil ourselves, nor at all to be troubled with the business." Many are of Gallio’s temper; they will care for none of those things.66 Thus these offences prove a mischief to the profane world, as our Savior says, Woe unto the world because of offences!67
Then those on the erring side, who are taken with new opinions and fancies, are altogether taken up with them, their main thoughts are spent upon them; and thus the sap is drawn from that which should nourish and prosper in their hearts, sanctified useful knowledge, and saving grace. The other are as weeds, which divert the nourishment in gardens from the plants and flowers; and certainly these weeds, men’s own conceits, cannot but grow more with them, when they give way to them, than solid religion does; for their hearts, as one said of the earth, are mother to those, and but step-mother to this.
It is also a loss, even to those who oppose errors and divisions, that they are forced to be busied in that way; for the wisest and godliest of them find (and such are sensible of it) that disputes in religion are no friends to that which is far sweeter in it, but hinder and abate it; viz. those pious and devout thoughts, that are both the more useful and truly delightful.
As peace is a choice blessing, so this is the choicest peace, and is the peculiar inseparable effect of this grace with which it is here jointly wished,—Grace and Peace; the flower of peace growing upon the root of grace. This spiritual peace has two things in it. 1. Reconciliation with God. 2. Tranquility of spirit. The quarrel, and matter of enmity, you know, between God and man, is, the rebellion, the sin of man; and he being naturally altogether sinful, there can proceed nothing from him, but what foments and increases the hostility. It is grace alone, the most free grace of God, that contrives, and offers, and makes the peace, else it had never been; we would have universally perished without it. Now in this is the wonder of Divine grace, that the Almighty God seeks agreement, and entreats for it, with sinful clay, which He could wholly destroy in a moment.
Jesus Christ, the Mediator and Purchaser of this peace, bought it with His blood, killed the enmity by His own death.68 And therefore the tenor of it in the Gospel runs still in His name: We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ;69 and St. Paul expresses it in his salutations, which are the same with this, Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.70
As the free love and grace of God appointed this means and way of our peace, and offered it,—so the same grace applies it, and makes it ours, and gives us faith to apprehend it.
And from our sense of this peace, or reconciliation with God, arises that which is our inward peace, a calm and quiet temper of mind. This peace which we have with God in Christ, is inviolable; but because the sense and persuasion of it may be interrupted, the soul that is truly at peace with God may for a time be disquieted in itself, through weakness of faith, or the strength of temptation, or the darkness of desertion; losing sight of that grace, that love and light of God’s countenance, on which its tranquility and joy depend. You hid your face, said David, and I was troubled.71 But when these eclipses are over, the soul is revived with new consolation, as the face of the earth is renewed and made to smile with the return of the sun in the spring; and this ought always to uphold Christians in the saddest times, viz. that the grace and love of God towards them depends not on their sense, nor upon anything in them, but is still in itself incapable of the smallest alteration.
It is natural for men to desire their own peace, the quietness and contentment of their minds: but most men miss the way to it; and therefore find it not; for there is no way to it, indeed, but this one by which few seek it, viz. reconciliation and peace with God. The persuasion of that alone makes the mind clear and serene, like your fairest summer days. My peace give unto you, says Christ, not as the world gives.72 Let not your heart be troubled.73 All the peace and favor of the world cannot calm a troubled heart; but where this peace is which Christ gives, all the trouble and disquiet of the world cannot disturb it. When he gives quietness, who then can make trouble? when he hides his face, who then can behold him? whether it be done against a nation, or against a man only.74 All outward distress to a mind thus at peace, is but as the rattling of the hail upon the rooftop, to him who sits within the house at a sumptuous feast. A good conscience is called so, and with an advantage that no other feast can have, nor could men endure it. A few hours of feasting will weary the most professed epicure; but a conscience thus at peace is a continual feast, with continual unwearied delight. What makes the world take up such a prejudice against religion as a sour unpleasant thing? They see the afflictions and griefs of Christians, but they do not see their joys, the inward pleasure of mind that they can possess in a very hard estate. Have you not tried other ways enough? Has not he tried them who had more ability and skill for it than you, and found them not only vanity but vexation of spirit?75 If you have any belief of holy truth, put but this once upon the trial, seek peace in the way of grace. This inward peace is too precious a liquor to be poured into a filthy vessel. A holy heart, that gladly entertains grace, shall find that it and peace cannot dwell asunder.
An ungodly man may sleep to death in the lethargy of carnal presumption and impenitence; but a true, lively, solid peace, he cannot have. There is no peace, says my God, to the wicked.76 And if He says there is none, speak peace who will, if all the world with one voice should speak, it shall prove none.
2ndly. Consider the measure of the Apostle’s desire for his scattered brethren, that this Grace and Peace may be multiplied. This the Apostle wishes for them, knowing the imperfection of the graces and peace of the saints while they are here below; and this they themselves, under a sense of that imperfection, ardently desire. Those who have tasted the sweetness of this grace and peace, call incessantly for more. This is a disease in earthly desires, and a disease incurable by all the things desired; there is no satisfaction attainable by them; but this avarice of spiritual things is a virtue, and by our Savior is called Blessedness, because it tends to fullness and satisfaction. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.77
Ver. 3. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy has begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
Ver. 4. To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fades not away.
It is a cold lifeless thing to speak of spiritual things upon mere report: but those who speak of them as their own, as having share and interest in them, and some experience of their sweetness, their discourse of them is enlivened with firm belief, and ardent affection; they cannot mention them, but their hearts are straight taken with such gladness, as they are forced to vent in praises. Thus our Apostle here, and St. Paul, Eph. 1 and often elsewhere, when they considered these things with which they were about to comfort the godly to whom they wrote, they were suddenly elevated with the joy of them, and broke forth into thanksgiving; so teaching us, by their example, what real joy there is in the consolations of the Gospel, and what praise is due from all the saints to the God of those consolations. This is such an inheritance, that the very thoughts and hopes of it are able to sweeten the greatest griefs and afflictions. What then shall the possession of it be, where there shall be no rupture, nor the least drop of any grief at all? The main subject of these verses is that, which is the main comfort that supports the spirits of the godly in all conditions.
1. Their after inheritance, as in the 4th verse. 2ndly, Their present title to it, and assured hope of it, ver. 3. 3rdly, The immediate cause of both assigned, viz. Jesus Christ. 4thly, All this derived from the free mercy of God, as the first and highest cause, and returned to His praise and glory, as the last and highest end of it.
For the first: The inheritance. [But because the 4th verse, which describes it, is linked with the subsequent, we will not go so far off to return back again, but first speak to this 3rd verse, and in it,]
Consider 1. Their Title to this inheritance, Begotten again. 2. Their Assurance of it, viz. a holy or lively hope.
The title which the saints have to their rich inheritance is of the most valid and most unquestionable kind, viz. by birth. Not by their first natural birth, by that we are all born to an inheritance indeed, but we find what it is, Children of wrath,78 heirs apparent of eternal flames. It is an everlasting inheritance too, but so much the more fearful, being of everlasting misery, or, so to speak, of immortal death: and we are made sure to it; those who remain in that condition cannot lose their right, although they gladly would escape it; they shall be forced to enter possession. But it is by a new and supernatural birth that men are both freed from their engagement to that woeful inheritance, and invested into the rights of this other here mentioned, as full of happiness as the former is miserable: therefore are they said here to be gotten again to that lively hope. God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has begotten us again. And thus are the regenerate the children of an immortal Father, and, as such, entitled to an inheritance of immortality: If children, then heirs; heirs of God; and this sonship is by adoption in Christ; therefore it is added, Joint-heirs with Christ.79 We, adopted; and He, the only begotten Son of God, by an eternal, ineffable generation.
And yet, this our adoption is not a mere outward designation, as adoption is amongst men; but accompanied with a real change in those who are adopted, a new nature and spirit being infused into them, because of which, as they are adopted to this their inheritance in Christ, they are likewise begotten of God, and born again to it, by the supernatural work of regeneration. They are like their heavenly Father; they have His image renewed on their souls, and their Father’s Spirit: they have it, and are actuated and led by it. This is that great mystery of the kingdom of God which puzzled Nicodemus; it was darkness to him at first, until he was instructed in that night, under the cover of which he came to Christ.
Nature cannot conceive of any generation or birth, but that which is within its own compass: only those who are partakers of this spiritual birth understand what it means—to others it is a riddle, an unsavory, unpleasant subject.
It is sometimes ascribed to the subordinate means—to Baptism, called therefore the washing of regeneration:80 to the word of God,81 that immortal seed, by which we are born again; to the ministers of this word, and the seals of it. For though you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you have not many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the Gospel.82 But all these means have their vigor and efficacy in this great work from the Father of spirits, who is their Father in their first creation and infusion, and in this their regeneration, which is a new and second creation: If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.83
Divines have reason to infer from the nature of conversion thus expressed, that man does not bring anything to this work himself. It is true he has a will, as his natural faculty; but that this will embraces the offer of grace, and turns to Him who offers it, is from renewing grace, which sweetly and yet strongly, strongly and yet sweetly, inclines it.
1. Nature cannot raise itself to this, any more than a man can give natural being to himself. 2. It is not a superficial change; it is a new life and being. A moral man in his changes and reformations of himself, is still the same man. Though he reforms so far that men, in their ordinary phrase, shall call him quite another man, yet in truth, till he is born again, there is no new nature in him. The sluggard turns on his bed as the door on the hinges, says Solomon.84 Thus the natural man turns from one custom and posture to another, but never turns off. But the Christian, by virtue of this new birth, can say indeed, Ego non sum ego—I am not the same man I was.
You who are nobles, aspire to this honorable condition; add this nobleness to the other, for it far surpasses it; make it the crown of all your honors and advantages. And you who are of mean birth, or if you have any crack or stain in your birth, the only way to make up and repair all, and truly to ennoble you, is this—to be the sons of a King, yes, of the King of kings, and this honor have all his saints.85 To as many as received Him, He gave this privilege to be the sons of God.86
Unto a lively hope.] Now are we the sons of God, says the Apostle,87 and it does not yet appear what we shall be. These sons are heirs, but all this lifetime is their under-age; yet, even now, being partakers of this new birth and sonship, they have a right to it, and in the assurance of that right, this living hope; as an heir, when he is capable of those thoughts, has not only right of inheritance, but may rejoice in the hope he has of it, and please himself in thinking about it. But hope is said to be only of an uncertain good: true, in the world’s phrase, it is so; for their hope is conversant in uncertain things, or in things that may be certain, after an uncertain manner: all their worldly hopes are tottering, built upon sand, and their hopes of Heaven are but blind and groundless conjectures; but the hope of the sons of the Living God is a living hope. That which Alexander said when he dealt liberally about him, that he left hope to himself, the children of God may more wisely and happily say, when they leave the hot pursuit of the world to others, and despise it; their portion is hope. The thread of Alexander’s life was cut off in the midst of his victories, and so all his hopes vanished; but their hope cannot die nor disappoint them.
But then it is said to be lively, not only objectively, but effectively; enlivening and comforting the children of God in all distresses, enabling them to encounter and surmount all difficulties in the way. And then it is formally so; it cannot fail—dies not before accomplishment. Worldly hopes often mock men, and so cause them to be ashamed; and men take it as a great blot, and are most of all ashamed of those things that reveal weakness of judgment in them. Now worldly hopes do thus—they put the fool upon a man: when he has judged himself sure, and laid so much weight and expectation on them, then they break and foil him: they are not living, but lying hopes, and dying hopes; they die often before us, and we live to bury them, and see our own folly and unhappiness in trusting to them: but at the utmost, they die with us when we die, and can accompany us no further. But this hope answers expectation to the full, and much beyond it, and deceives no way but in that happy way of far exceeding it.
A living hope—living in death itself! The world dares say no more for its device, than Dum spiro spero—While I breathe I hope—but the children of God can add by virtue of this living hope, Dum expiro spero—While I breathe my last, I hope. It is a fearful thing when a man and all his hopes die together. Thus says Solomon of the wicked: When he dies, then die his hopes;88 (many of them before, but at the utmost then, all of them;) but the righteous has hope in his death.89 Death, which cuts the sinews of all other hopes, and turns men out of all other inheritances, alone fulfils this hope, and ends it in fruition; as a messenger sent to bring the children of God home to the possession of their inheritance.
By the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.] This refers both to begotten again by His resurrection, and having this living hope by His resurrection: and well suits both, it being the proper cause of both in this order. First, then, of the birth; next, of the hope.
The image of God is renewed in us by our union with Him who is the express image of his Father’s person.90 Therefore this new birth in the conception is expressed by the forming of Christ in the soul;91 and His resurrection particularly is assigned as the cause of our new life. This new birth is called our resurrection, and that in conformity to Christ, yes, by the virtue and influence of His. His resurrection is called a birth, He the first begotten of the dead,92 and that prophecy, You are my Son; this day have I begotten you,93 is applied to His resurrection as fulfilled in it. God has fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he has raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second Psalm, You are my Son, this day have I begotten you.94 Not only is it the exemplar, but the efficient cause of our new birth. Thus, in the sixth chapter of Romans, at large, and often elsewhere.
And thus likewise it is the cause of our living hope,—that which indeed inspires and maintains life in it. Because He has conquered death, and has risen again, and that is implied which follows, He is set down at the right hand of God,95 has entered into possession of that inheritance;—this gives us a living hope, that, according to His own request, where He is, there we may be also.96 Thus this hope is strongly underpinned, on the one side, by the resurrection of Christ; on the other by the abundant mercy of God the Father. Our hope does not depend on our own strength or wisdom nor on anything in us; (for if it did, it would be short-lived, would die, and die quickly;) but on His resurrection who can die no more: for in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he lives, he lives unto God!97—This makes this hope not to imply, in the notion of it, uncertainty, as worldly hopes do; but it is a firm, stable, inviolable hope, an anchor fixed within the veil.98
According to his abundant mercy.] Mercy is the spring of all this; yes, great mercy, and manifold mercy; "for (as St. Bernard says) great sins and great miseries need great mercy, and many sins and miseries need many mercies." And is not this great mercy, to make of Satan’s slaves sons of the Most High? Well may the Apostle say, Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God!99—The world knows us not because it knew not Him. Those who have not seen the father of a child cannot know that it resembles him. Now the world knows not God, and therefore discerns not His image in His children so as to esteem them for it. But whatever be their opinion, this we must say ourselves, Behold what love! to take firebrands of hell, and to appoint them to be one day brighter than the sun in the firmament; to raise the poor out of the dunghill, and set them with princes.100
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.] Here, lastly, we see it stirs up the Apostle to praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the style of the Gospel; as formerly, under the Law, it was The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,101 and The God that brought you up out of the land of Egypt,102 &c. This now is the order of the government of grace, that it holds first with Christ our Head, and in Him with us. So He says, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God;103 which, as St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catechism, observes, shows us not only our communion with Him,—that might have been expressed thus, I go to my God and Father,—but the order of the covenant, first my Father and my God, and then yours. Thus ought we, in our consideration of the mercies of God, still to take in Christ, for in Him they are conveyed to us: thus, With all spiritual blessings in Christ.104
Blessed.] He blesses us really; benefaciendo benedicit—He blesses by doing us good. We bless Him by acknowledging His goodness. And this we ought to do at all times, I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth.105 All this is far below Him and His mercies. What are our lame praises compared to His love? Nothing, and less than nothing: but love will stammer, rather than be dumb. Those who are amongst His children begotten again, have, in the resurrection of Christ, a lively hope of glory: as it is, Which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.106 This leads them to observe and admire that rich mercy whence it flows; and this consideration awakes them, and constrains them to break forth into praises.
To an inheritance incorruptible.] As he who takes away a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon niter, so is he who sings songs to a heavy heart.107 Worldly mirth is so far from curing spiritual grief, that even worldly grief, where it is great and takes deep root, is not allayed but increased by it. The more a man who is full of inward heaviness is surrounded by mirth, the more it exasperates and enrages his grief; like ineffective weak medicine, which removes not the disease, but stirs it and makes it more agitated: but spiritual joy is seasonable for all conditions; in prosperity, it is pertinent, to crown and sanctify all other enjoyments, with this which so far surpasses them; and in distress, it is the only Nepenthe, the cordial of fainting spirits: so, He has put joy into my heart.108 This mirth makes way for itself, which other mirth cannot do. These songs are sweetest in the night of distress. Therefore the Apostle, writing to his scattered afflicted brethren, begins his Epistle with this song of praise, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The matter of this joy is, the joyful remembrance of the happiness laid up for them, under the name of inheritance. Now this inheritance is described by the singular qualities of it. They contain, 1. The excellence of its nature; 2. The certainty of its attainment. The former in these three, Incorruptible, undefiled, and that fades not away; the latter, in the last words of this verse, and in the verse following: Reserved in heaven for you, &c.
God is bountiful to all—gives to all men all that they have, health, riches, honor, strength, beauty, and wit: but those things He scatters (as it were) with an indifferent hand. Upon others He looks, as well as upon His beloved children; but the inheritance is peculiarly theirs. Inheritance is convertible with sonship; Abraham gave gifts to Keturah’s sons, and dismissed them, but the inheritance was for the son of the promise [Gen. 25:5, 6]. When we see a man rising in preferment or estate, or admired for excellent gifts and endowments of mind, we think there is a happy man; but we consider not that none of all those things are matter of inheritance; within a while he is to be turned out of all, and if he has not something beyond all those to look to, he is but a miserable man, and so much the more miserable, that once he seemed and was reputed happy.
There is a certain time when heirs come to possess: thus it is with this inheritance too. There is mention made by the Apostle of a perfect man,—unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.109 And though the inheritance is rich and honorable, yet the heir, being young, is held under discipline, and is more strictly dealt with, possibly, than the servants,—sharply corrected for that, which is overlooked in them; but still, even then, in regard of that which he is born to, his condition is much better than theirs, and all the correction he suffers prejudices him not, but prepares him for inheriting. The love of our heavenly Father is beyond the love of mothers in tenderness, and yet beyond the love of fathers, who are usually said to love more wisely, in point of wisdom. He will not undo His children, His heirs, with too much indulgence. It is one of His heavy judgments upon the foolish children of disobedience, that ease shall slay them, and their prosperity shall prove their destruction.110
While the children of God are childish and weak in faith, they are like some great heirs before they come to years of understanding: they consider not their inheritance, and what they are to come to, have not their spirits elevated to thoughts worthy of their estate, and their behavior conformed to it; but as they grow up in years, they come, by little and little, to be aware of those things, and the nearer they come to possession, the more apprehensive they are of their quality, and of what does answerably become them to do. And this is the duty of those who are indeed heirs of glory;—to grow in the understanding and consideration of that which is prepared for them, and to fit themselves, as they are able, to those great hopes. This is what the Apostle St. Paul prays for, on behalf of his Ephesians, The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints.111 This would make them holy and heavenly, to have their conversation in heaven, from where they look for a Savior.112 That we may, then, the better know something of the dignity and riches of this inheritance, let us consider the description which is here given us of it. And, first, it is—
Incorruptible.] Although this seems to be much the same with the third quality, That fades not away, (which is a borrowed expression for the illustrating of its incorruptibleness,) yet, I think that there is some difference, and that in these three qualities there is a gradation. Thus it is called incorruptible; that is, it perishes not, cannot come to nothing, is an estate that cannot be spent: but though it were abiding, yet it might be such as that the continuance of it were not very desirable; it would be but a misery at best, to continue always in this life. Plotinus thanked God that his soul was not tied to an immortal body. Then, undefiled; it is not stained with the least spot: this signifies the purity and perfection of it, as that the perpetuity of it. It does not only abide, and is pure, but both together; and it abides always in its integrity. And lastly, it fades not away; it does not fade nor wither at all, is not sometimes more, sometimes less pleasant, but ever the same, still like itself; and that is the immutability of it.
As it is incorruptible, it carries away the palm from all earthly possessions and inheritances; for all those epithets are intended to signify its opposition to the things of this world, and to show how far it excels them all; and thus comparatively we are to consider it. For as divines say of the knowledge of God which we have here, that the negative notion makes up a great part of it—we know rather what He is not, than what He is, infinite, incomprehensible, immutable, &c.; so it is of this happiness, this inheritance: and indeed it is none other than God. We cannot tell you what it is, but we can say so far what it is not, as declares it is unspeakably above all the most excellent things of the inferior world and this present life. It is by privatives, by removing imperfections from it, that we describe it, and we can go no further,—Incorruptible, undefiled, and that fades not away.
All things that we see, being compounded, may be dissolved again. The very visible heavens, which are the purest piece of the material world, notwithstanding the pains the philosopher takes to exempt them, the Scriptures teach us that they are corruptible, They shall perish, but you shall endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shall you change them, and they shall be changed.113 And from thence the Apostle to the Hebrews,114 and our Apostle, in his other Epistle,115 use the same expression. But it is unnecessary to fetch too great a compass, to evince the corruptibility of all inheritances. Besides what they are in themselves, it is a shorter way to prove them corruptible in relation to us and our possessing them, by our own corruptibility and corruption, or perishing out of this life in which we enjoy them. We are here inter peritura perituri—perishing among perishing things; the things are passing which we enjoy, and we are passing who enjoy them. An earthly inheritance is so called in regard of succession; but to everyone it is at the most but for the term of life. As one of the kings of Spain replied to one of his courtiers, who, thinking to please his master, wished that kings were immortal; If that had been, said he, I should never have been king. When death comes, that removes a man out of all his possessions to give place to another; therefore are these inheritances decaying and dying in relation to us, because we decay and die; and when a man dies, his inheritances and honors, and all things here, are at an end, in respect of him; yea, we may say the world ends to him.
Thus Solomon reasons, that a man’s happiness cannot be upon this earth; because it must be some durable, abiding thing that must make him happy—abiding, to wit, in his enjoyment. Now, although the earth abides, yet, because man abides not on the earth to possess it, but one age drives out another, one generation passes, and another comes, velut unda impellitur unda—as wave is driven on by wave, therefore, his rest and his happiness cannot be here.
Undefiled.] All possessions here are defiled and stained with many other defects and failings—still somewhat wanting, some damp on them or crack in them; fair houses, but sad cares flying about the gilded and ceiled roofs; stately and soft beds, and a full table, but a sickly body and queasy stomach. As the fairest face has some mole or wart in it, so all possessions are stained with sin, either in acquiring or in using them, and therefore they are called, mammon of unrighteousness.116 Iniquity is so involved in the notion of riches, that it can very hardly be separated from them. St. Jerome says, Verum mihi videtur illud, dives aut iniquus est, aut iniqui haeres—To me it appears, that he who is rich is either himself an unjust man, or the heir of one. Foul hands pollute all they touch; it is our sin that defiles what we possess, it is sin that burdens the whole creation, and presses groans out of the very frame of the world. For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now.117 This our leprosy defiles our houses, the very walls and floors, our meat and drink, and all we touch; polluted when alone, and polluted in society; our meetings and conversations together being for the greatest part nothing but a commerce and interchange of sin and vanity.
We breathe up and down in an infected air, and are very receptive of the infection by our own corruption within us. We readily turn the things we possess here to occasions and instruments of sin, and think there is no liberty nor delight in their use without abusing them. How few are those who can carry, as they say, a full cup even; who can have digestion strong enough for the right use of great places and estates; who can bear preferment without pride, and riches without covetousness, and ease without wantonness!
Then, as these earthly inheritances are stained with sin in their use, so what grief and strife, and contentions about obtaining or retaining them! Does not matter of possession, this same meum and tuum—mine and yours—divide many times the affections of those who are knit together in nature, or other strict ties, and prove the very apple of strife between nearest friends?
If we trace great estates to their first original, how few will be found that owe not their beginning either to fraud, or rapine, or oppression! and the greatest empires and kingdoms in the world have had their foundations laid in blood. Are not these defiled inheritances?
That withers not.] A borrowed speech, alluding to the decaying of plants and flowers, which bud and flourish at a certain time of the year, and then fade and wither, and in winter are as if they were dead.
And this is the third disadvantage of possessions and all things worldly, that they abide not in one estate, but are in a more uncertain and irregular inconstancy than either the flowers and plants of the field, or the moon, from which they are called sublunary; like Nebuchadnezzar’s image, degenerating by degrees into baser metals, and, in the end, into a mixture of iron and clay.
The excellence, then, of this inheritance is, that it is free from all those evils. It falls not under the stroke of time, comes not within the compass of its scythe, which has so large a compass, and cuts down all other things.
There is nothing in it weighing it towards corruption. It is immortal, everlasting; for it is the fruition of the immortal, everlasting God, by immortal souls; and the body rejoined with it shall likewise be immortal, having put on incorruption, as the Apostle speaks.118
It fades not away.] No spot of sin nor sorrow there; all pollution wiped away, and all tears with it; no envy nor strife; not as here among men, one supplanting another, one pleading and fighting against another, dividing this point of earth with fire and sword;—no, this inheritance is not the less by division, by being parted amongst so many brethren, everyone has it all, each his crown, and all agreeing in casting them down before His throne, from whom they have received them, and in the harmony of His praises.
This inheritance is often called a kingdom, and a crown of glory. This word may allude to those garlands of the ancients; and this is its property, that the flowers in it are all Amaranthes (as a certain plant is named), and so it is called, A crown of glory that fades not away.119
No change at all there, no winter and summer: not like the poor comforts here, but a bliss always flourishing. The grief of the saints here, is not so much for the changes of outward things, as of their inward comforts. Suavis hora, sed brevis mora—Sweet the hour, but short the tarrying. Sweet presences of God they sometimes have, but they are short and often interrupted; but there no cloud shall come between them and their Sun; they shall behold Him in His full brightness forever. As there shall be no change in their beholding, so no weariness nor abatement of their delight in beholding. They sing a new song, always the same, and yet always new. The sweetest of our music, if it were to be heard but for one whole day, would weary those who are most delighted with it. What we have here cloys, but satisfies not; the joys above never cloy, and yet always satisfy.
We should here consider the last property of this inheritance, namely, the certainty of it—Reserved in heaven for you; but that is connected with the following verse, and so will be fitly joined with it. Now for some use of all this.
If these things were believed, they would persuade for themselves; we should not need to add any entreaties to move you to seek after this inheritance. Have we not experience enough of the vanity and misery of things corruptible? and are not a great part of our days already spent amongst them? Is it not time to consider whether we are provided with anything surer and better than what we have here; whether we have any inheritance to go home to after our wandering? or can say with the Apostle, We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens?120
If these things gain our assent while we hear them, yet it dies so. Scarcely any retire themselves after to follow forth those thoughts, and to make a work indeed of them; they busy their heads rather another way, building castles in the air, and spinning out their thoughts in vain contrivances.—Happy are those whose hearts the Spirit of God sets and fixes upon this inheritance: they may join in with the Apostle, and say, as here, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which has begotten us again unto this lively hope, to this inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fades not away.
Ver. 5. Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
It is no doubt a great contentment to the children of God, to hear of the excellences of the life to come; they are not readily weary of that subject; yet there is one doubt, which, if not removed, may dampen their delight in hearing and considering of all the rest. The richer the estate is, the more it will kindle the malice and diligence of their enemies to deprive them of it, and to cut them short of possessing it. And this they know, that those spiritual powers that seek to ruin them, are far more than their match, both in craft and force.
Against the fears of this, the Apostle comforts the heirs of salvation, assuring them, that, as the estate they look for is excellent, so it is certain and safe, laid up where it is out of the reach of all adverse powers, reserved in heaven for you. Besides that this is a further evidence of the worth and excellence of this inheritance, it makes it sure. It confirms what was said of its excellence; for it must be a thing of greatest worth, that is laid up in the highest and best place of the world, namely, in heaven, for you, where nothing that is impure once enters, much less is laid up and kept. Thus, the land where this inheritance lies, makes good all that has been spoken of the dignity and riches of it.
But further, as it is a rich and pleasant country where it lies, it has also this privilege, to be the only land of rest and peace, free from all possibility of invasion. There is no spoiling of it, and laying it waste, and defacing its beauty, by leading armies into it, and making it the seat of war; no noise of drums or trumpets, no inundations of one people driving out another and sitting down in their possessions. In a word, as there is nothing there subject to decay of itself, so neither is it in danger of fraud or violence. When our Savior speaks of this same happiness in a similar term, what is here called an inheritance, is there called a treasure. He expresses the permanence of it by these two, that it has neither moth nor rust in itself to corrupt it, nor can thieves break through and steal it.121 There is a worm at the root of all our enjoyments here, corrupting causes within themselves; and besides that, they are exposed to injury from without, which may deprive us of them. How many stately palaces, which have been possibly many years in building, has fire upon a very small beginning destroyed in a few hours! What great hopes of gain by traffic has one tempest mocked and disappointed! How many who have thought their possessions very sure, yet have lost them by some trick of law, and others, as in time of war, been driven from them by the sword! Nothing is free from all danger but this inheritance, which is laid up in the hands of God, and kept in Heaven for us. The highest stations in the world, namely, the estate of kings, they are but mountains of prey, one robbing and spoiling another; but in that holy mountain above, there is none to hurt or spoil, or offer violence.122 What the prophet speaks of the Church here, is more perfectly and eminently true of it above.
This is, indeed, a necessary condition of our joy in the thoughts of this happy estate, that we have some persuasion of our propriety, that it is ours; that we do not speak and hear of it, as travelers passing by a pleasant place behold and speak of its fair structure, the sweetness of the seat, the planting, the gardens, the meadows that are about it, and so pass on; having no further interest in it. But when we hear of this glorious inheritance, this treasure, this kingdom that is pure, and rich, and lasting, we may add, It is mine, it is reserved in Heaven, and reserved for me: I have received the evidences and the earnest of it; and, as it is kept safe for me, so I shall likewise be preserved to it, and that is the other part of the certainty that completes the comforts of it.123
The salvation that Christ has purchased is, indeed, laid up in Heaven, but we who seek after it, are on earth, surrounded by dangers and temptations. What benefit is it to us that our salvation is in Heaven, in the place of safety and quietness, while we ourselves are tossed upon the stormy seas of this world, amidst rocks and shelves, every hour in danger of shipwreck? Our inheritance is in a sure hand indeed, our enemies cannot come at it; but they may overrun and destroy us at their pleasure, for we are in the midst of them. Thus might we think and complain, and lose the sweetness of all our other thoughts concerning Heaven, if there were not as firm a promise for our own safety in the midst of our dangers, as there is of the safety of our inheritance that is out of danger.
The assurance is full, thus; it is kept for us in Heaven, and we kept on earth for it; as it is reserved for us, we are no less surely preserved to it. There is here, 1. The estate itself, salvation. 2. The preservation, or securing, of those that expect it, kept. 3. The time of full possession, in the last time.
1. The estate—Unto salvation. Before it is called an inheritance; here we are more particularly told what is meant by that, namely, salvation. This is more expressly sure, being a deliverance from misery, and it signifies also, the possession of perfect happiness. The first part of our happiness is, to be freed from those miseries to which we are subject by our guiltiness; to be set free, 1. From the curse of the law, and the wrath of God, from everlasting death. 2. From all kind of mortality or decaying. 3. From all power and stain of sin. 4. From all temptation. 5. From all the griefs and afflictions of this life. To have the perfection of grace, to be full of holiness; and the perfection of bliss, full of joy in the continual vision of God!—but how little we are able to say of this, our Apostle here teaches us, in that it is veiled to us; only so much shines through, as we are capable of here; but the revealed knowledge of it is only in the possession: it is to be revealed in the last time.
2dly. Their preservation, with the causes of it, kept by the power of God through faith. The inheritance is kept not only in safety, but in quietness. The children of God, for whom it is kept, while they are here, are kept safe indeed, but not unmolested and unassaulted; they have enemies, and such as are stirring, and cunning, and powerful; but in the midst of them, they are guarded and defended; they perish not, according to the prayer of our Savior poured out for them, I pray not that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil.124
They have the prince of the power of the air, and all his armies, all the forces he can make, against them. Though his power is nothing but tyranny and usurpation, yet because once they were under his yoke, he stirs himself to pursue them, when they are led forth from their captivity, as Pharaoh, with all his chariots and horses and horsemen, pursued the Israelites going out of Egypt.
The word in the original here translated kept, is a military term, used for those who are kept, as in a fort or garrison-town besieged. So Satan is still raising batteries against this fort, using all ways to take it, by strength or stratagem, unwearied in his assaults, and very skilful to know his advantages, and where we are weakest, there to set on. And besides all this, he has intelligence with a party within us, ready to betray us to him; so that it would be impossible for us to hold out, if there were not another watch and guard than our own, and other walls and bulwarks than any that our skill and industry can raise for our own defense. In this, then, is our safety, that there is a power above our own, yes, and above all our enemies, that guards us; salvation itself our walls and bulwarks. We ought to watch, but when we do so in obedience to our commander, the Captain of our salvation, yet it is His own watching, who sleeps not, nor so much as slumbers, it is that which preserves us, and makes ours not to be in vain.125 And therefore those two are jointly commanded, Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation.126 Watch, there is the necessity of our diligence; Pray, there is the insufficiency of it, and the necessity of His watching, by whose power we are effectually preserved, and that power is our fort. Salvation has God appointed for walls and bulwarks.127 What is more safe than to be walled with Salvation itself? So, The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runs into it, and is safe.128
Now the causes of our preservation are two, 1. Supreme, The Power of God. 2. Subordinate, Faith. The supreme power of God is that on which our stability and perseverance depends. When we consider how weak we are in ourselves, yea, the very strongest among us, and how assaulted, we wonder, and justly we may, that any can continue one day in the state of grace: but when we look on the strength by which we are guarded, the power of God, then we see the reason for our stability to the end; for Omnipotence supports us, and the everlasting arms are under us.
Then Faith is the second cause of our preservation; because it applies the first cause, the Power of God. Our faith lays hold upon this power, and this power strengthens faith, and so we are preserved; it puts us within those walls, sets the soul within the guard of the power of God, which by self-confidence and vain presumption in its own strength, is exposed to all kinds of danger. Faith is a humble, self-denying grace; it makes the Christian nothing in himself, and all in God.
The weakest persons who are within a strong place, women and children, though they were not able to resist the enemy, if they were alone, yet so long as the place where they are is of sufficient strength, and well manned, and every way accommodated to hold out, they are in safety; thus, the weakest believer is safe, because by believing he is within the strongest of all defenses. Faith is the victory, and Christ sets His strength against Satan’s; and when the Christian is hard beset with some temptation, too strong for himself, then he looks up to Him who is the great conqueror of the powers of darkness, and calls to Him, "Now, Lord, assist Your servant in this encounter, and put to Your strength, that the glory may be Yours." Thus, faith is such an engine, as draws in the power of God, and His Son Jesus into the works and conflicts that it has in hand. This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith.129
It is the property of a good Christian to magnify the power of God, and to have high thoughts of it, and therefore it is his privilege to find safety in that power. David cannot satisfy himself with one or two expressions of it, but delights in multiplying them. The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.130 Faith looks above all, both that which the soul has, and that which it wants, and answers all doubts and fears with this Almighty power upon which it rests.
3dly. The time of full possession—Ready to be revealed in the last time. This salvation is that great work wherein God intended to manifest the glory of His grace, contrived before time, and in the several ages of the world brought forward, after the decreed manner; and the full accomplishment of it reserved for the end of time.
The souls of the faithful enter into the possession of it, when they depart from their houses of clay; yet their happiness is not complete until that great day of the appearing of Jesus Christ. They are naturally imperfect until their bodies are raised and rejoined to their souls, to partake together of their bliss; and they are mystically imperfect, until all the rest of the members of Jesus Christ are added to them.
But then shall their joy be absolutely full, when both their own bodies, and the mystical body of Christ shall be glorified; when all the children of that glorious family shall meet, and sit down to that great marriage supper at their Father’s table. Then shall the music of that new song be full, when there is not one missing of those who are appointed to sing it for eternity. In that day shall our Lord Jesus be glorified in his saints, and admired in all those who believe.131
You see what it is that the Gospel offers you, and you may gather how great both your folly and your guiltiness will be, if you neglect and slight so great salvation when it is brought to you, and you are entreated to receive it. This is all that the preaching of the word aims at, and yet, who hearkens to it? How few lay hold on this eternal life, this inheritance, this crown, that is held forth to all that hear of it!
Oh! that you could be persuaded to be saved; that you would be willing to embrace salvation! You think you would; but if it be so, then I may say, though you would be saved, yet your custom of sin, your love to sin, and love to the world, will not permit you; and these will still hinder you, unless you put on holy resolutions to break through them, and trample them underfoot, and take this kingdom by a hand of violence, which God is so well pleased with. He is willingly overcome by that force, and gives this kingdom most willingly, where it is so taken; it is not attained by slothfulness, and sitting still with folded hands; it must be invaded with strength of faith, with armies of prayers and tears; and those who set upon it thus are sure to take it.
Consider what we are doing, how we misplace our diligence on things that abide not, or we abide not to enjoy them. Here have we no continuing city,132 says the Apostle, but he adds that which comforts the citizens of the New Jerusalem, We look for one to come, whose builder and maker is God.133 Hear not these things idly, as if they concerned you not, but let them move you to resolution and actions. Say as they said of Canaan, It is a good land, let us go up at once and possess it.134 Learn to use what you have here as travelers, and let your home, your inheritance, your treasure be on high, which is by far the richest and the safest; and if it is so with you, then Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.135
Ver. 6. Wherein you greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, you are in heaviness through manifold temptations.
The same motives cannot beget contrary passions in the soul; therefore, the Apostle reduces the mixture of sorrowing and rejoicing that is usual in the heart of a Christian to the different causes of them, and shows which of the two has the stronger cause, and therefore is always predominant in him who entertains and considers it aright.
His scope is, to stir up and strengthen spiritual joy in his afflicted brethren; and therefore, having set the matter of it before them in the preceding verses, he now applies it, and expressly opposes it to their distresses.
Some read these words exhortatively, In which rejoice you. It is so intended; but I conceive it serves that end better indicatively, as we now read it, In which you rejoice. It exhorts more insinuatively and persuasively, that it may be so, to urge it on them that it is so. Thus St. Paul, King Agrippa, Do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe. And straight he answered, You almost persuade me to be a Christian.136 This implies how just and how reasonable it is, that the things spoken of should make them glad; in these they will rejoice, yea, do rejoice. Certainly, if you know and consider what the causes of your joy are, you cannot choose but find it within you, and in such a measure as to swallow up all your temporary sorrows, how great and however many their causes are.
We are then to consider severally these bitter waters and sweet, this sorrow and this joy. 1. In their springs; 2. In their streams.
And first, they are called temptations, and manifold temptations. The habits of divine supernatural grace are not acquirable by human study, or by industry, or by exercise; they are of immediate infusion from Heaven; yet are they infused to the end that they may act and exercise themselves in the several conditions and occurrences of a Christian’s life; and by that they grow stronger. Whatever oppositions or difficulties grace meets with in its acting, go under this general name of temptations. It is not necessary to reckon up the variety of senses of this word, in its full latitude; how God is said to tempt man, and how it is said that He tempts him not; how man tempts God, and how it is said that God is not tempted; how Satan tempts men, and men one another, and a man himself; all these are several acceptations of this word: but the temptations here meant, are those by which men are tempted, and particularly the saints of God. And though there is nothing in the words, that may not agree to all sorts of temptations which godly are subject to; yet I conceive it is particularly meant of their afflictions and distresses, as the Apostle James likewise uses it, chap. 1 ver. 2.
And they are so called, because they give particular and notable proof of the temper of a Christian’s spirit, and draw forth evidence both of the truth and the measure of the grace that is in them. If they fail and are foiled, as sometimes they are, this convinces them of that human frailty and weakness which is in them, and so humbles them, and drives them out of themselves to depend upon Another for more strength and better success in after-encounters. If they acquit themselves like Christians indeed (the Lord managing and assisting that grace which He has given them), then all their valor, and strength, and victories turn to His praise, from whom they have received all.
A man is not only unknown to others but to himself, who has never met with such difficulties as require faith, and Christian fortitude, and patience to surmount them. How shall a man know whether his meekness and calmness of spirit be real or not, while he meets with no provocation, nothing that contradicts or crosses him? But when something sets upon him, that is in itself very unpleasant and grievous to him, and yet, if in that case he retains his moderation of spirit, and flies not out into impatience, either against God or men, this gives experiment of the truth and soundness of that grace within him; whereas standing water which is clear at the top while it is untouched, yet if it has mud at the bottom, stir it a little, and it rises presently.
It is not altogether unprofitable, yea, it is great wisdom in Christians to be arming themselves against such temptations as may befall them hereafter, though they have not as yet met with them; to labor to overcome them beforehand, to suppose the hardest things that may be incident to them, and to put on the strongest resolutions they can attain unto. Yet all that is but an imaginary effort; and therefore there is no assurance that the victory is any more than imaginary too, till it comes to action, and then, those who have spoken and thought very confidently, may prove but (as one said of the Athenians) fortes in tabula, patient and courageous in picture or fancy; and notwithstanding all their arms, and dexterity in handling them by way of exercise, may be foully defeated when they are to fight in earnest. The children of Ephraim being armed, and carrying bows (says the Psalmist), turned back in the day of battle.137 It is the battle that tries the soldier, and the storm the pilot. How would it appear that Christians can be themselves, not only patient but cheerful in poverty, in disgrace, and temptations, and persecutions, if it were not often their lot to meet with them? He who framed the heart, knows it to be but deceitful, and He who gives grace knows the weakness and strength of it exactly; yet He is pleased to speak thus, that by afflictions and hard tasks He tries what is in the hearts of His children. For the word of God speaks to men, and therefore it speaks the language of the children of men; thus:—Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.138
God delights to call forth His champions to meet with great temptations, to make them bear crosses of more than ordinary weight; as commanders in war put men of most valor and skill upon the hardest services. God sets some strong furious trial upon a strong Christian, made strong by His own grace, and by his victory makes it appear to the world, that though there is a great deal of the counterfeit coin of profession in religion, yet some there are, who have the power, the reality of it, and that it is not an invention, but there is truth in it; that the invincible grace, the very Spirit of God dwells in the hearts of true believers; that He has a number who do not only speak big, but do indeed and in good earnest despise the world, and overcome it by His strength. Some men take delight to see some kind of beasts, fight together: but to see a Christian mind encountering some great affliction and conquering it, to see his valor in not sinking at the hardest distresses of this life, nor the most frightful end of it, the cruelest kinds of death, for His sake,—this is (as one said) dignum Deo spectaculum—A spectacle worthy of God; this is a combat which God delights to look upon, and He is not a mere beholder in it, for it is the power of His own grace that enables and supports the Christian in all those conflicts and temptations.
Through manifold temptations.] This expresses a multitude of temptations, and those too of various kinds, many and manifold. It were no hard condition to have a trial now and then, with long ease and prosperity between; but to be plied with one affliction at the heels of another, to have them come thronging in by multitudes and of different kinds, uncouth, unaccustomed evils, such as a man has not been acquainted with before, this is that which is often the portion of those who are the beloved of God: Deep calls unto deep at the noise of your water-spouts: all your waves and your billows are gone over me.139
You are in heaviness.] This the Apostle blames not, but aims at the moderating of it. Seek not altogether to dry up this stream, but to bound it, and keep it within its banks. Grace does not destroy the life of nature, but adds to it a life more excellent; yes, grace not only permits, but requires some feeling of afflictions. There is an affected pride of spirit in some men, instead of patience, suitable to the doctrine of the Stoics as it is usually taken: they strive not to feel at all the afflictions that are on them: but this is to despise the correction of the Lord, which is alike forbidden as fainting under it.140 We should not stop our ears, but hear the rod, and who has appointed it, as the prophet speaks.141 Where there is no feeling at all, there can be no patience. Consider it as the hand of God, and thence argue the soul into submission. I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because you did it.142 But this heaviness is mitigated, and yet, as it were, within its banks, between these two considerations—l. The utility, 2. The brevity of it: the profitableness, and the shortness of it.
To a worldly man, great gain sweetens the hardest labor; and to a Christian, spiritual profit and advantage may do much to move him to take those afflictions well which are otherwise very unpleasant. Though they are not joyous for the present, yet this allays the sorrow of them, the fruit that grows out of them, that peaceable fruit of righteousness.143
A bundle of folly is in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction shall beat it out,144 says Solomon. Though the children of God are truly (as our Savior calls them) the children of wisdom, yet, being renewed only in part, they are not altogether free from those follies that call for this rod to beat them out, and sometimes have such a bundle of follies as requires a bundle of rods to be spent upon it—many and manifold afflictions.
It is not an easy matter to be drawn from, nor to be beaten from, the love of this world, and this is what God mainly requires of His children, that they be not in love with the world, nor the things of it; for that is contrary to the love of God, and so far as that is entertained, this is wanting. And if in the midst of afflictions they are sometimes subject to this disease, how would it grow upon them with ease and prosperity! When they are beaten from one worldly folly or delight, they are ready, through nature’s corruption, to lay hold upon some other,—being thrust out from it at one door, to enter at some other; as children unwilling to be weaned, if one breast be embittered, they seek to the other; and therefore there must be something to drive them from that too. Thus it is clear there is need, great need for afflictions, yes, of many afflictions, that the saints be chastened of the Lord, that they may not be condemned with the world.145
There are many illustrations of this truth, in things both of nature and of art, some common, and others choicer; but these are not necessary. The experience of Christians tells them, how easily they grow proud, and secure, and carnal, with a little ease, and when outward things go smoothly with them; and therefore what unhappiness were it for them to be very happy that way.
Let us learn, then, that considering our present frailty there is need of afflictions, and so not promise ourselves exemption, however calm our seas are for the present; and then for the number, and measure, and weight of them, to resign that wholly into the hands of our wise Father and Physician, who perfectly knows our mold and our maladies, and what kind and quantity of chastisement is necessary for our cure.
Though now for a season, if need be, you are in heaviness.] The other consideration that moderates this heaviness is its shortness. Because we willingly forget eternity, therefore this moment seems much in our eyes: but, if we could look upon it rightly, of how little importance is it what be our condition here! If it were as prosperous as we could wish or imagine, it is but for a little season. The rich man in the Gospel talked of many years, but you fool, this night your soul shall be required of you,146 was the longest period. The many years are quickly drawn to a very great abatement, and if full of pains and griefs, those do help to put an end to themselves, and hasten to it. Well then might St. Austin say, Hic ure, caede, modoibi parcas—Use me here as pleases you, so as that hereafter it may be well with me.
Wherein.] This word, though it cannot fall amiss, being referred to any particular to which interpreters have appropriated it, yet it is rather to be taken as relative to the whole complex sense of the preceding verses, concerning the hope of glory. In this thing you rejoice, that you are begotten again,—that there is such an inheritance, and that you are made heirs of it,—that it is kept for you, and you for it,—that nothing can come between you and it, to disappoint you of possessing and enjoying it,—that though there be many deserts, and mountains, and seas in the way, yet you are assured that you shall come there safely.
This is but one thing; but the cause of your grief is temptations, and manifold temptations; yet this one thing weighs down that entire multitude. The heart being grieved in one thing naturally looks out for its ease to some other; and there is usually something that is a man’s great comfort, that he turns his thoughts to, when he is crossed and afflicted in other things; but in this lies the folly of the world, that the things they choose for their refuge and comfort are such as may change themselves, and turn into discomfort and sorrow; but the godly man, who is the fool in the natural man’s eyes, goes beyond all the rest in his wise choice in this. He rises above all that is subject to change, casts his anchor within the veil. That in which he rejoices is still a matter of joy unmovable and unalterable; though not only his estate, but the whole world were turned upside down, yet this is the same, or rather, in the Psalmist’s words, Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.147 When we shall receive that rich and pure and abiding inheritance, that salvation which shall be revealed in the last time, and when time itself shall cease to be, then there shall be no more counting our joys by days and hours, but they shall run parallel with eternity. Then all our love, that is now scattered and parceled out upon the vanities amongst which we are here, shall be united and gathered into one, and fixed upon God, and the soul filled with the delight of His presence.
The sorrow was limited and bounded by the considerations we spoke of; but this joy, this exultation, and leaping for joy (for so it is) is not bounded, it cannot be too much; its measure is, to know no measure. The afflictions, the matter of heaviness, are but a transient touch of pain; but that upon which this joy is built is most permanent, the measure of it cannot exceed, for the matter of it is infinite and eternal, beyond all hyperbole. There is no expression we have which can reach it, much less go beyond it; itself is the hyperbole, still surpassing all that can be said of it. Even in the midst of heaviness itself, such is this joy that it can maintain itself in the depth of sorrow; this oil of gladness still swims above, and cannot be drowned by all the floods of affliction, yes, it is often sweetest in the greatest distress. Then the soul relishes spiritual joy best, when it is not glutted with worldly delights, but finds them turned into bitterness.
For application. In that we profess ourselves Christians, we all pretend to be the sons of God, and so heirs of this glory; and if each man were particularly asked, he would say, he hoped to attain it; but were there nothing else, this might abundantly convince us that the greatest part of us delude ourselves, and are deceived in this; for how few are there who do really find this height of joy, of gladness and exultation, in their thoughts and hopes of it, who daily refresh and gladden themselves with the consideration of what is laid up for them above, more than with all their enjoyments here below!
Consider how the news of some small outward advantage that is to come to us raises our light vain hearts, and makes them leap within us; and yet this news of a kingdom prepared for us (if we be indeed believers), stirs us not; our hearts are as little affected with it as if it concerned us not at all: and this is too clear an evidence against us, that indeed it concerns us not, that our portion as yet is not in it.
In what a fool’s paradise will men be with the thoughts of worthless things, and such things too as they shall never obtain, nor ever shall have any further being than what they have in their imagination! And how will men frequently roll over in their minds the thoughts of any pleasant thing they hope for! And yet we, who say we have hopes of the glory to come, can pass many days without one hour spent in the rejoicing thought of the happiness we look for! If any person of a lowly condition for the present were assured of becoming very rich and advancing to great honor within a week, and after that to live to a great age in that exalted position, enjoying health and all imaginable pleasures, judge whether in the few days between the knowledge of that news and the enjoyment of it, the thoughts of what he were to attain to would not be frequent with him, and be always welcome. There is no comparison between all we can imagine this way and the hopes we speak of; and yet, how seldom are our thoughts upon those things, and how faint and slender is our rejoicing in them! Can we deny that it is the unbelief of these things, which causes this neglect, and forgetting of them? The discourse, the tongue of men and angels cannot produce Divine belief of the happiness to come; only He who gives it, gives faith likewise to apprehend it, and lay hold upon it, and, upon our believing, to be filled with joy in the hopes of it.
Ver. 7. That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perishes, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.
The path of the just (says Solomon) is as the shining light, that shines more and more unto the perfect day.148 Still forging ahead, and ascending towards perfection, moving as fast when they are clouded with affliction as at any time else; yes, all that seems to work against them furthers them. Those graces that would possibly grow heavy and unwieldy by too much ease, are held in breath, and increase their activity and strength by conflict. Divine grace, even in the heart of weak and sinful man, is an invincible thing. Drown it in the waters of adversity, it rises more beautiful as not being drowned indeed, but only washed; throw it into the furnace of fiery trials, it comes out purer, and loses nothing but the dross which our corrupt nature mixes with it. Thus the Apostle here expounds the if need be of the former verse, and so justifies the joy in afflictions, which there he speaks of, by their usefulness, and the advantage faith derives from them: it is so tried that it shall appear in its full brightness at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
The peculiar treasure of a Christian being the grace which he receives from Heaven, and particularly that sovereign grace of faith; whatever he can be assured will better him any way in this, he will not only bear patiently, but gladly embrace it.149 Therefore the Apostle sets this before his brethren in those words of this verse which express, 1. The worth and excellence of faith; 2. The usefulness of temptations in relation to it.
1st, The worth and excellence of faith. The trial of faith is called more precious, a work of more worth than the trial of gold, because faith itself is of more value than gold. The Apostle chooses this comparison as fitting his purpose to illustrate both the worth of faith, and likewise the use of temptations, representing the one by gold, and the other by the trying of gold in the fire.
The worth of gold is, 1. Real; the purest and most precious of all metals, having many excellent properties beyond them, as those who write of the nature of gold observe. 2. Far greater in the esteem and opinion of men. See how men hurry up and down, over sea and land, unwearied in their pursuit, with hazard of life, and often with the loss of uprightness and a good conscience; and not only thus esteem it in itself, but make it the rule of their esteem one of another, valuing men less or more as they are more or less furnished with it. And we see at what a height this is; for things we would commend much, we borrow its name to describe them, e.g. golden mediocrity: and that age which they would call the best of all, they name it the golden age; and as Seneca observes, describing heavenly things (as Ovid the sun’s palace and chariot), still gold is the word for all.
And the Holy Scriptures, descending to our reach, set forth the riches of the new Jerusalem by it150 and the excellence of Christ.151 And here the preciousness of faith, of which Christ is the object, is said to be more precious than gold.
I will not insist on the parallel of faith with gold in the other qualities of it, as that it is pure and solid as gold, and that it is most ductile and malleable, as gold beyond all other metals; it plies any way with the will of God. But then faith truly enriches the soul; and as gold answers all things, so faith gives the soul propriety in all the rich consolations of the Gospel, in all the promises of life and salvation, in all needful blessings; it draws virtue from Christ to strengthen itself, and all other graces.
And thus it is not only precious as gold, but goes far above the comparison; it is more precious, yes, much more precious, 1. In its original; the other is dug out of the bowels of the earth; but the mine of this gold is above, it comes from Heaven. 2. In its nature, answerable to its original, it is immaterial, spiritual, and pure. We refine gold and make it purer, but when we receive faith pure in itself, we mix dross with it, and make it impure by the alloy of unbelief. 3. In its endurance flowing from the former; it perishes not. Gold is a thing in itself corruptible and perishing, and to particular owners it perishes in their loss of it, they being deprived of it any way.
Other graces are likewise tried in the same furnace; but Faith is named as the root of all the rest. Sharp afflictions give a Christian a trial of his love to God, whether it be single and for Himself or not; for then it will be the same when He strikes as when He embraces, and in the fire of affliction will rather grow the hotter, and be more taken off from the world, and set upon Him. Again, the grace of patience is put particularly upon trial in distresses. But both these spring from faith; for love rises from a right and strong belief of the goodness of God, and patience from a persuasion of the wisdom and love of God, and the truth of His promises. He has said, I will not fail you,152 and that we shall not be tempted above our strength, and He will give the issue. Now the belief of these things causes patience. The trying of your faith works patience.153 For therefore does the Christian resign up himself, and all that concerns him—his trials, the measure and length of them all, to God’s disposal, because he knows that he is in the hands of a wise and loving Father. Thus the trial of these and other particular graces still resolves into this, and is comprised under it, the trial of faith. This brings us,
2dly, To the usefulness of temptations in relation to it.
This trial (as that of gold) may be for a twofold end. 1. For experiment of the truth and pureness of a Christian’s faith. 2. For refining it yet more, and raising it to a higher pitch or degree of pureness.
1. The furnace of affliction shows upright real faith to be such indeed, remaining still the same even in the fire, the same that it was, undiminished, as good gold loses none of its quantity in the fire. Doubtless many are deceived in time of ease and prosperity, with imaginary faith and fortitude: so that there may be still some doubt, while a man is underset with outward helps, as riches, friends, esteem, &c., whether he leans upon those or upon God, who is an invisible support, though stronger than all that are visible, and is the peculiar and only stay of faith in all conditions. But when all these outward props are plucked away from a man, then it will be revealed, whether something else upholds him or not: for if there be nothing else, then he falls; but if his mind stands firm and unmoved as before, then it is evident he laid not his weight upon these things which he had then about him, but was built upon a foundation though not seen, which is able alone to sustain him, although he be not only frustrated of all other supports, but beaten upon with storms and tempests; as our Savior says, the house fell not, for it was founded upon a rock.154
This testified the truth of David’s faith, who found it staying him upon God, when there was nothing else near that could do it; I had fainted, unless I had believed.155 So in his difficulty, where it is said that David was greatly distressed; but David encouraged himself in the Lord his God.156 Thus, My flesh and my heart fails: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.157 The heart’s natural strength of spirit and resolution may bear up under outward weakness, or the failing of the flesh; but when the heart itself fails, which is the strength of the flesh, what shall strengthen it? Nothing but God, who is the strength of the heart and its portion forever. Thus faith works alone, when the case suits that of the Prophet’s. Although the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines, &c., yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.158
In spiritual trials, which are the sharpest and most fiery of all, when the furnace is within a man, when God not only shuts up His lovingkindness from his feeling, but seems to shut it up in hot displeasure; when He writes bitter things against him, yet then to depend upon Him, and wait for His salvation, and the more He smites the more to cleave to Him,—this is not only a true, but a strong and very refined faith indeed. Well might he say, When he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold,159 who could say that word, Though he slay me, yet will trust in him:160 though I saw, as it were, His hand lifted up to destroy me, yet from that same hand would I expect salvation.
2. As the furnace shows faith to be what it is, so also it improves it, and makes it more precious and purer than it was.
The graces of the Spirit, as they come from the hand of God who infuses them, are nothing but pureness; but being put into a heart where sin dwells, (which, till the body be dissolved, and taken to pieces, cannot be fully purged out,) there they are mixed with corruption and dross: and particularly, faith is mixed with unbelief, and love of earthly things, and dependence upon the creature, if not more than God, yet together with Him; and for this is the furnace necessary, so that the soul may be purified from this dross, and made more sublime and spiritual in believing. It is a hard task, and many times comes but slowly forward, to teach the heart, by discourse and speculation, to sit loose from the world at all sides, not to cleave to the best things in it, although we are surrounded by them; though riches increase, yet, not to set our hearts on them,161 not to trust in such uncertain things as they are, as the Apostle speaks.162 Therefore God is pleased to choose the more effective way to teach His own the right and pure exercise of faith, either by withholding or withdrawing those things from them. He makes them savor the sweetness of spiritual comfort, by depriving them of those outward comforts upon which they were in most danger to have doted to excess, and so forget themselves and Him. When they are reduced to necessity, and experimentally trained up easily to let go their hold of anything earthly, and to stay themselves only upon their rock, this is the very refining of their faith, by those losses and afflictions wherewith they are exercised. Those who learn bodily exercises, as fencing, &c., are not taught by sitting still, and hearing rules or seeing others practice, but they learn by exercising themselves. The way to profit in the art of believing, or of coming to this spiritual activity of faith, is, to be often put to that work in the most difficult way, to make up all wants and losses in God, and to sweeten the bitterest griefs with His lovingkindness.
Might be found unto praise, and honor, and glory.] This is the end that is intended, and shall be certainly obtained by all these hot trials. Faith shall come through them all, and shall be found unto praise, &c. An unskillful beholder may think it strange to see gold thrown into the fire, and left there for a time; but he who puts it there, would be loath to lose it; his purpose is to make some costly piece of work of it. Every believer gives himself to Christ, and He undertakes to present them blameless to the Father; not one of them shall be lost, nor one drachma of their faith; they shall be found, and their faith shall be found, when He appears. That faith which is here in the furnace, shall be then made up into a crown of pure gold; it shall be found unto praise, and honor, and glory.
This praise, and honor, and glory, may be referred, either to believers themselves, according to the Apostle St. Paul’s expression,163 or to Christ who appears: but the two will agree well together, that it be both to their praise, and to the praise of Christ; for certainly, all their praise and glory shall terminate in the glory of their head—Christ, who is God, blessed for ever. They have each their crown, but their honor is, to cast them all down before His throne. He shall be glorified in his saints, and admired in all those who believe.164 They shall be glorious in Him; and therefore in all their glory He shall be glorified; for as they have derived their glory from Him, it shall all return back to Him again.
At the appearance of Jesus Christ.] This denotes the time when this shall come to pass; for Christ is faithful and true; He has promised to come again, and to judge the world in righteousness, and He will come and will not tarry. He shall judge righteously in that day, who was Himself unrighteously judged here on earth. It is called the Revelation; all other things shall be revealed in that day; the most hidden things, good and evil, unveiled; but it is eminently the day of His Revelation; it shall be by His light, by the brightness of His coming, that all other things shall be revealed; but He Himself shall be the worthiest sight of all. All eyes shall behold Him. He shall then gloriously appear before all men and angels, shall by all be acknowledged to be the Son of God and Judge of the world: some shall with joy own Him, and acknowledge Him to be so; others to their horror and amazement. How beautiful shall He be to those who love Him, when He as the glorious Head shall appear with His whole body mystical together with Him!
Then the glory and praise which all the saints shall be honored with, shall recompense fully all the scorns and ignominies and distresses they have met with here. And they shall shine the brighter for them. Oh! if we considered often that solemn day, how lightly should we regard the opinions of men, and all outward hardships that can befall us! How easily should we digest dispraise and dishonor here, and pass through all cheerfully, provided we may be then found in Him, and so partakers of praise, and honor, and glory, in that day of His appearing!
Ver. 8. Whom having not seen, you love; in whom, though now you see him not, yet believing, you rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory:
Ver. 9. Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.
It is a paradox to the world which the Apostle has asserted, that there is a joy that can subsist in the midst of sorrow; therefore he insists in the confirmation of it, and in all these words proves it to the full, yes, with advantage, that the saints have not only some measure of joy in the griefs that abound upon them here, but excellent and eminent joy, such as makes good all that can be said of it, such as cannot be spoken too much of, for it is unspeakable, nor too much magnified, for it is glorious.
To evidence the truth of this, and to confirm his brethren in the experienced knowledge of it, he expresses here more particularly and distinctly the causes of this their joy, which are,
1. The object or matter of it; 2. the apprehension and appropriation of that object: which two conjoined, are the entire cause of all rejoicing.
1. The object is Jesus Christ, ver. 8, and the salvation purchased by Him, ver. 9. For these two cannot be severed, and these two verses that speak of them, require (as is evident by their connection) to be considered together.
2. The apprehension of these is set forth, first, negatively, not by bodily sight; secondly, positively: whereas it might seem to abate the certainty and liveliness of their rejoicing, that it is of things they had not seen, nor do yet see; this is abundantly made up by three for one, each of them more excellent than the mere bodily sight of Christ in the flesh, which any had who were never the better by it: the three things are, those three prime Christian graces, faith, love, and hope; the two former in ver. 8, the third in ver. 9. Faith in Christ begetting love to Him, and both these giving assured hope of salvation by Him, making it as certain to them, as if it were already in their hand, and they in possession of it. And from all these together results this exultation, or leaping for joy, joy unspeakable, and full of glory.
This is that one thing165 that so much concerns us: and therefore we mistake very far, and forget our own highest interest too much, when we either speak or hear of it slightly, and apply not our hearts to it. What is it that all our thoughts and endeavors drive at? What means all that we are doing in the world? Though we take several ways to it, and wrong ways for the most part, yes, such ways as lead not to it, but set us further off from it; yet what we all seek after by all our labor under the sun, is something that may be matter of contentment and rejoicing to us when we have attained it. Now here it is, and it is sought for elsewhere in vain. And for this end it is represented to you, that it may be yours, if you will entertain it; not only that you may know this to be a truth, that true consolation and rejoicing is laid up in Jesus Christ, that He is the magazine and treasury of it, but that you may know how to bring Him home into your hearts, and lodge Him there, and so to have the spring of joy within you.
That which gives full joy to the soul, must be something that is higher and better than itself. In a word, He who made it, can alone make it glad after this manner, with unspeakable and glorious joy. But the soul remaining guilty of rebellion against Him and unreconciled, cannot behold Him but as an enemy; any belief that it can have of Him while it is in that posture, is not such as can fetch love, and hope, and so rejoicing, but such as the faith of devils produces, only begetting terror and trembling. But the light of His countenance, shining in the face of His Son the Mediator, gladdens the heart; and it is the looking upon Him as such, that causes the soul to believe, and love, and hope, and rejoice. Therefore the Apostle, in his description of the state of the Gentiles before Christ was preached to them,166 joins these together: Without Christ—that was the cause of all the rest,—therefore, without comfort in the promises, without hope, and without God in the world. So He is here by our Apostle expressed as the object. In all these, therefore, He is the matter of our joy, because our faith, and love, and hope of salvation are in Him.
The Apostle writing to the dispersed Jews, many of whom had not known or seen Christ in the flesh, commends their love and faith, for this reason, that it did not depend upon bodily sight, but was pure, and spiritual, and made them of the number of those whom our Savior Himself pronounces blessed, that have not seen, and yet have believed.167 You saw Him not when He dwelt amongst men, and walked to and fro, preaching and working miracles. Many of those who did then hear and see Him believed not; yea, they scoffed, and hated, and persecuted Him, and in the end crucified Him; you have seen none of all those things, yet having heard the Gospel that declares Him, you have believed.
Thus observe, the working or not working of faith does not depend upon the difference of the external ministry and gifts of men; for what greater difference can there be that way than between the master and the servants, between the great Prophet Himself and His weak sinful messengers? and yet many of those who saw and heard Him in person were not converted, believed not in Him; and thousands who never saw Him were converted by His Apostles, and, as it seems, even some of those who were some way accessory to His death, yet were brought to repentance by this same Apostle’s sermon.168
Learn, then, to look above the outward ministry, and any difference that in God’s dispensation can be there; and know, that if Jesus Christ Himself were on earth, and now preaching amongst us, yet might His incomparable words be unprofitable to us, not being mixed with faith in the hearers. But where that is, the meanest and the most despicable conveyance of His message, received with humility and affection, will work blessed effects.
Whom not seeing, yet believing.] Faith elevates the soul not only above sense, and sensible things, but above reason itself. As reason corrects the errors which sense might occasion, so supernatural faith corrects the errors of natural reason, judging according to sense.
The sun seems less than the wheel of a chariot, but reason teaches the philosopher that it is much bigger than the whole earth, and the reason why it seems so little is, its great distance. The naturally wise man is as far deceived by his carnal reason, in his estimate of Jesus Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, and the cause is the same, his great distance from Him; as the Psalmist speaks of the wicked, Your judgments are far above out of his sight.169 He accounts Christ and His glory a smaller matter than his own gain, honor, or pleasure; for these are near him, and he sees their quantity to the full, and counts them bigger, yes, far more worth than they are indeed. But the Apostle St. Paul, and all who are enlightened by the same Spirit, they know by faith, which is Divine reason, that the excellence of Jesus Christ far surpasses the worth of the whole earth, and all things earthly.170
To give a right assent to the Gospel of Christ is impossible, without Divine and saving faith infused in the soul. To believe that the eternal Son of God clothed Himself with human flesh, and dwelt amongst men in a tabernacle like theirs, and suffered death in the flesh; that He who was Lord of life has freed us from the sentence of eternal death; that He broke the bars and chains of death, and rose again; that He went up into Heaven, and there at the Father’s right hand sits in our flesh, and that glorified above the Angels: this is the great mystery of godliness. And a part of this mystery is, that he is believed on in the world.171 This, natural men may very knowledgeably speak of, and give a kind of natural credit to it, as to a history that may be true; but firmly to believe that there is Divine truth in all these things, and to have a persuasion of it stronger than of the very things we see with our eyes,—such an assent as this is the peculiar work of the Spirit of God, and is certainly saving faith.
The soul that so believes cannot choose but love. It is commonly true, that the eye is the ordinary door by which love enters into the soul, and it is true in respect of this love; though it is denied of the eye of sense, yet (you see) it is ascribed to the eye of faith; though you have not seen Him, you love Him, because you believe: which is to see Him spiritually. Faith, indeed, is distinguished from that vision which is in glory; but it is the vision of the kingdom of grace, it is the eye of the new creature, that quick-sighted eye which pierces all the visible heavens, and sees above them; which looks at the things which are not seen,172 and is the evidence of things not seen, seeing him who is invisible.173 It is possible that a person may be much beloved upon the report of his worth and virtues, and upon a picture of him vividly drawn, before sight of the party so commended and represented; but certainly when he is seen, and found answerable to the former, it raises the affection already begun to a far greater height. We have the report of the perfections of Jesus Christ in the Gospel; yes, so clear a description of Him, that it gives a picture of Him, and that, together with the sacraments, is the only lawful and the only lively picture of our Savior.174 Now faith believes this report, and beholds this picture, and so lets in the love of Christ to the soul. But further, it gives a particular experimental knowledge of Christ, and acquaintance with Him; it causes the soul to find all that is spoken of Him in the word, and His beauty there represented, to be abundantly true: makes it really taste of His sweetness, and by that possesses the heart more strongly with His love, persuading it of the truth of those things, not by reasons and arguments, but by an inexpressible kind of evidence, which those only know who have it. Faith persuades a Christian of these two things that the philosopher gives as the causes of all love—beauty and propriety—the loveliness of Christ in Himself, and our interest in Him.
The former it effects not only by the first apprehending and believing of those His excellencies and beauty, but by frequent beholding of Him and eyeing Him in whom all perfection dwells; and it looks so often upon Him, until it sets the very impression of His image, as it were, upon the soul, so that it can never be blotted out and forgotten. The latter it does by that particular uniting act which makes Him our God and our Savior.
You love.] The distinctions which some make in love, need not be taken as signifying different kinds, but different actings of the same love, by which we may try our so much pretended love of Christ, which in truth is so rarely found. There will then be in this love, if it be right, these three qualities—good will, delight, and desire.
1st, Good will, earnest wishing, and, as we can, promoting God’s glory, and stirring up others so to do. Those who seek more their own things than the things of Jesus Christ, more their own praise and esteem than His, are strangers to this Divine love; for she seeks not her own things.175 The bitter root of self-love is most difficult to pluck up; this strongest and sweetest love of Christ alone does it actually though gradually. This love makes the soul, as the lower heaven, slow in its own motion, most swift in the motion of that first which wheels it about; so the higher degree of love, the more swift. It loves the hardest tasks and greatest difficulties, where it may perform God service, either in doing or in suffering for Him. Love is strong as death, and many waters cannot quench it.176 The greater the task is, the more real is the testimony and expression of love, and therefore the more acceptable to God.
2dly, There is in true love a complacency and delight in God; a conformity to His will; loving what He loves, and studious of His will; ever seeking to know more clearly what it is that is most pleasing to Him, contracting a likeness to God in all His actions, by conversing with Him, by frequent contemplation of God, and looking on His beauty. As the eye lets in this affection, so it serves it constantly, and readily looks that way which love directs it. Thus the soul which is possessed with this love of Jesus Christ, has its eye much upon Him, thinks often on His former sufferings and present glory: the more it looks upon Christ, the more it loves; and still the more it loves, the more it delights to upon Him.
3dly, There is in true love a desire; for it is but small beginnings and tastes of His goodness which the soul has here; therefore it is still looking out and longing for the day of marriage. The time is sad and wearisome, and seems much longer than it is, while it is detained here. I desire to depart, says St. Paul, and to be with Christ.177
God is the sum of all things lovely. Thus excellent Gregory Nazianzen expresses himself, Orat. 1. "If I have any possessions, health, credit, learning, this is all the contentment I have of them, that I have somewhat I may despise for Christ, who is totus desiderabilis, et totum desiderabile,"—The all-desirable one, the everything desirable. And this love is the sum of all He requires of us; it is that which makes all our meaner services acceptable, and without which all we offer to Him is distasteful. God does deserve our love not only by His matchless excellence and beauty, but also by His matchless love to us, and that is the strongest loadstone of love. He has loved me, says the Apostle. How appears that? In no less than this, He has given Himself for me.178 Certainly then, there is no clearer character of our love than this, to give ourselves to Him who has so loved us, and given Himself for us.
This affection must be bestowed somewhere: there is no man but has some prime choice, something that is the predominant delight of his soul; will it not then be our wisdom to make the worthiest choice? considering it is offered to us, it is extreme folly to reject it.
Grace does not pluck up by the roots and wholly destroy the natural passions of the mind, because they are distempered by sin; that were an extreme remedy to cure by killing, and heal by cutting off; no, but it corrects the distemper in them; it dries not up this main stream of love, but purifies it from the mud which it is full of in its wrong course, or turns it into its right channel, by which it may run into happiness, and empty itself into the ocean of goodness. The Holy Spirit turns the love of the soul towards God in Christ, for in that way only can it apprehend His love; so then Jesus Christ is the first object of this Divine love; He is medium unionis—the mean of union, through whom God conveys the sense of His love to the soul, and receives back its love to Himself.
And if we will consider His incomparable beauty, we may look on it in the Holy Scriptures, particularly in that divine song of loves, wherein Solomon borrows all the beauties of the creatures, dips his pencil in all their several excellencies, to set Him forth unto us, who is the chief of ten thousands. There is an inseparable intermixture of love with belief, and a pious affection receiving Divine truth; so that in effect, as we distinguish them, they are mutually strengthened, the one by the other, and so, though it seem a circle, it is a divine one, and falls not under the censure of the school’s pedantry. If you ask, How shall I do to love? I answer, Believe. If you ask, How shall I believe? I answer, Love. Although the expressions to a carnal mind are altogether unsavory, by grossly mistaking them, yet, to a soul taught to read and hear them, by any measure of that same Spirit of love by which they were penned, they are full of heavenly and unutterable sweetness.
Many directions and means of begetting and increasing this love of Christ may be here offered; and those who delight in number may multiply them; but surely this one will comprise the greatest and best part, if not all of them,—Believe, and you shall love; believe much, and you shall love much; labor for strong and deep persuasions of the glorious things which are spoken of Christ, and this will command love. Certainly if men indeed believed His worth, they would accordingly love Him; for the reasonable creature cannot but affect that most which it firmly believes to be worthiest of affection. O! this mischievous unbelief is that which makes the heart cold and dead towards God. Seek then to believe Christ’s excellence in Himself, and His love to us, and our interest in Him, and this will kindle such a fire in the heart, as will make it ascend in a sacrifice of love to Him.
Many signs likewise of this love may be multiplied, according to the many fruits and workings of it; but in them all, itself is its own most infallible evidence. When the soul finds that all its obedience and endeavor to keep the commands of Jesus Christ, which Himself makes its character, flows from love, then it is true and sincere: for do or suffer what you will, without love, all passes for nothing; all are ciphers without it, they signify nothing.179
This is the message of the Gospel, and that which the ministry aims at; and therefore the ministers ought to be suitors, not for themselves, but for Christ, to espouse souls to Him, and to bring in many hearts to love Him. And certainly, this is the most expeditious way to persuade to all other Christian duties, for this is to converse with Jesus Christ, and where His love is, no other incentive will be necessary; for love delights in the presence and conversation of the party loved. If we are to persuade to duties of the second table, the sum of those is, love to our brethren, resulting from the love of Christ, which diffuses such a sweetness into the soul, that it is all love, and meekness, and gentleness, and long-suffering.
If times be for suffering, love will make the soul not only bear, but welcome the bitterest afflictions of life, and the hardest kinds of death for His sake. In a word, there is in love a sweet constraint, or tying of the heart to all obedience and duty.
The love of God is requisite in ministers for their preaching of the word; so our Savior to St. Peter, Simon, do you love me?—feed my lambs.180 It is requisite for the people that they receive the truth in the love of it, and that Christ preached may be entertained in the soul, and embraced by faith and love.
You who have chosen Christ for your love, let not your hearts slip out, to renew your customary base familiarity with sin; for that will bring new bitterness to your souls, and at least for some time will deprive you of the sensible favor of your beloved Jesus. Delight always in God, and give Him your whole heart; for He deserves it all, and is a satisfying good to it. The largest heart is all of it too strait for the riches of consolation which He brings with Him. Seek to increase in this love; though it is at first weak, yet labor to find it daily rise higher, and burn hotter and clearer, and consume the dross of earthly desires.
Receiving the end of your faith.] Although the soul that believes and loves, is put in present possession of God, as far as it is capable in its sojourning here, yet it desires a full enjoyment, which it cannot attain to without removing hence. Whilst we are home in the body, we are absent from the Lord.181 with the Apostle. And because they are assured of that happy exchange, that being untied and freed of this body, they shall be present with the Lord, having His own word for it, that where He is, they shall be also;182 this begets such an assured hope, as bears the name of possession. Therefore it is said here, receiving the end of your faith.
This receiving also flows from faith. Faith apprehends the present truth of the Divine promises, and so makes the things to come, present: and hope looks out to their after-accomplishment, which, if the promises be true, as faith avers, then hope has good reason firmly to expect. This desire and hope are the very wheels of the soul which carry it on, and faith is the common axis on which they rest.
In these words there are two things; I. The good hoped for in Christ, so believed on, and loved; I. The assuredness of the hope itself: yes, it is as sure as if it were already accomplished.
I. As for the good hoped for, it consists, 1. In the nature of it viz. the salvation of their soul: 2. In a relative property of it, the end of their faith.
1st, The nature of it is, salvation, and salvation of the soul: it signifies full deliverance from all kinds of misery, and the safe possession of perfect happiness, when the soul shall be out of the reach of all adversities, and adverse accidents, no longer subjected to those evils which are properly its own, namely, the consciousness of sin, and fear of wrath and sad defections; nor yet subject to those other evils which it endured by society with the body—outward distresses and afflictions, persecutions, poverty, diseases, &c.
It is called salvation of the soul: not excluding the body from the society of that glory, when it shall be raised and reunited to the soul: but because the soul is of itself an immortal substance, and both the more noble part of man, and the prime subject both of grace and glory, and because it arrives first at that blessedness, and for a time leaves the body in the dust to do homage to its original: therefore it is alone named here. But Jesus is the Savior of the body too, and He shall at His coming change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body.183
2dly, We have the relative property of this hope,—The end of your faith, the end or reward; for it is both. It is the end, either at which faith aims, or wherein it ceaseth. It is the reward, not of their works, nor of faith, as a work deserving it; but as the condition of the new covenant, which God, according to the tenor of that covenant, first works in His own, and then rewards as if it were their work—and this salvation, or fruition of Christ, is the proper reward of faith, which believes in Him unseen, and so obtains that happy sight. It is the proper work of faith to believe what you see not, and the reward of faith to see what you have believed.
II. This is the certainty of their hope, that it is as if they had already received it. If the promise of God and the merit of Christ hold good, then those who believe in Him, and love Him, are made sure of salvation. The promises of God in Christ are not yes and no, but they are in Him yes, and in Him Amen.184 Sooner may the rivers run backward, and the course of the heavens change, and the frame of nature be dissolved, than can any soul that is united to Jesus Christ by faith and love, be severed from Him, and so fall short of the salvation hoped for in Him: and this is the matter of their rejoicing.
You rejoice with joy unspeakable.] The natural man, says the Apostle, receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he adds the reason why he cannot know them, because they are spiritually discerned.185 He has none of that faculty by which they are discerned. There is a vast disproportion between those things and nature’s highest capacity; it cannot work beyond its sphere. Speak to the natural man of the matter of spiritual grief, the sense of guiltiness, and the apprehension of God’s displeasure, or the hiding of His favor and the light of His countenance from the soul; these things stir not him, he knows not what they mean. Speak to him again of the peace of conscience, and sense of God’s love, and the joy that arises hence; he is no less a stranger to that. Mourn to him, and he laments not; pipe to him, and he dances not, as our Savior speaks.186 But as it there follows (ver. 19), there is a wisdom in these things, though they seem folly and nonsense to the foolish world, and this wisdom is justified of her children.
Having said something already of the causes of this spiritual joy, which the Apostle here speaks of, it remains that we consider these two things; 1. How joy arises from these causes; 2. The excellence of this joy, as it is here expressed.
There is here a solid sufficient good, and the heart made sure of it, being partly put in present possession of it, and having a most certain hope of all the rest. And what more can be required to make it joyful? Jesus Christ, the treasure of all blessings, received and united to the soul, by faith, and love, and hope!
Is not Christ the light and joy of the nations? such a light as Abraham, at the distance of many ages, of more than two thousand years, yet saw by faith, and seeing, rejoiced. Besides this brightness, which makes light a joyful object, light is often in Scripture put for joy. Christ, this light, brings salvation with Him: He is the Sun of Righteousness, and there is healing in his wings.187 I bring you, said the angel, good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. And their song has in it the matter of that joy, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.188
But to the end we may rejoice in Christ, we must find Him ours; otherwise, the more excellent He is the more cause has the heart to be sad, while it has no portion in Him. My Spirit has rejoiced, said the blessed Virgin, in God my Savior.189
Thus, having spoken of our communion with Christ, the Apostle adds, These things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.190 Faith works this joy by uniting the soul to Christ, and applying His merits, and from that application arises the pardon of sin; and so that load of misery, which was the great cause of sorrow, is removed; and so soon as the soul finds itself lightened and unloaded of that burden which was sinking it to hell, it cannot choose but leap for joy, in the ease and refreshment it finds. Therefore that Psalm which David begins with the doctrine of the pardon of sin, he ends with an exhortation to rejoicing. Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered:191 thus he begins; but he ends, Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, you righteous: and shout for joy, all you that are upright in heart. St. Peter speaks to his hearers, of the remission of sins, Acts 2:38: and at ver. 41, it is added, They received his words gladly. And our Savior joins these two together, Be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.192 Thus, good tidings of liberty to captives are proclaimed, and a notable change there is of their estate that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.193 Think with what joy the long-imprisoned debtor, drowned in debt, receives a full discharge, and his liberty: or a condemned malefactor the news of his pardon, and this will somewhat resemble it, but yet fall far short of the joy that faith brings, by bringing Christ to the soul, and so forgiveness of sins in Him.
But this is not all. This believing soul is not only a debtor acquitted and set free, but enriched besides with a new and great estate; not only a pardoned malefactor, but withal highly preferred and advanced to honor, having a right, by the promises, to the unsearchable riches of Christ,194 as the Apostle speaks, and is received into favor with God, and unto the dignity of sonship, taken from the dunghill, and set with princes.195
As there is joy from Faith, so also from Love. Though this is in itself the sweetest and most delightful passion of the soul, yet, as we foolishly misplace it, it proves often full of bitterness; but being set upon Jesus Christ, the only right and worthy object, it causes this unspeakable delight and rejoicing.
First, It is matter of joy to have bestowed our love so worthily; and though our Savior seems to withdraw Himself, and sometimes sadden the soul who loves Him, with absences, in regard of sense, yet even in those sad times, the soul delights to love Him, and there is a pleasure in the very pains it has in seeking after Him. And this it knows, that His mercies are everlasting, and that He cannot be long unkind, but will return and speak comfortably to it.
Secondly, Our love to Christ gives us assurance of His to us, so that we have not only chosen worthily, but shall not be frustrated and disappointed; and it assures us of His, not as following, but as preceding and causing ours; for our love to Jesus Christ is no other than the reflex of His on us. Wine makes glad the heart,196 but your love is better than wine, says the spouse.197 And having this persuasion, that He has loved us and washed us in His blood,198 and forgets us not in our conflicts, that though He Himself is in His glory, yet that He intercedes for us there, and will bring us there, what condition can befall us so hard, but we may rejoice in it, and in them, so far as we are sure to arrive at that full salvation, and the fruition of Him who has purchased it?
Then there is the third cause of our rejoicing, viz. our Hope. Now hope is our anchor fixed within the veil199 that stays us against all the storms that beat upon us in this troublesome sea that we are tossed upon. The soul which strongly believes and loves, may confidently hope to see what it believes, and to enjoy what it loves, and in that rejoice. It may say, whatever hazards, whether outward or inward, whatever afflictions and temptations I endure, yet this one thing puts me out of hazard, and in that I will rejoice, that the salvation of my soul depends not upon my own strength, but is in my Savior’s hand: My life is hidden with Christ in God: and when He who is my life shall appear, I likewise shall appear with Him in glory.200 The childish world is hunting shadows, and gaping and hoping after they know not what; but the believer can say, I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.201 Now we have not only a right to these things, but nevertheless, there must be frequent consideration of them to work joy. The soul must often view them, and so rejoice. My meditation of him shall be sweet, says David; I will be glad in the Lord.202 The godly, failing in this, deprive themselves much of that joy they might have; and they who are most in these sublime thoughts have the highest and truest joy.
The Apostle expresses the excellence of this joy by these two words, Unspeakable, and Full of glory.
That it is unspeakable, no wonder, seeing the matter of it is inconceivable; it is an infinite good. God reconciled in Jesus Christ, and testifying and sealing His love unto the soul, and giving assured hope of that blessed vision of eternity,—what is more unspeakable than this? And for the same reason it is glorious, or glorified joy, having the highest and most glorious object; for it derives all its excellence from thence.
Unspeakable.] The best worldly joys are easily spoken of; they may be expressed to the utmost, yes, usually more is spoken of them than they are indeed. Their name is beyond their worth; they are very seldom found, upon experience, equal to the opinion and expectation that men have of them. But this spiritual joy is above the report any can make of it: say what they can of it who are of happiest expression, yet when a man comes to know it in his own breast, he will say (as that queen said of Solomon’s wisdom), the half was not told me.203
Again, earthly joys are inglorious; many of which men are ashamed of, and those that seem most plausible, yet are below the excellence of the soul, and cannot fill it; but the joys that arise from union with Christ, as they are most avowable, a man needs not blush to own them,—so they are truly contenting and satisfying, and that is their glory, and the reason why we may glory in them. My soul shall make her boast in the Lord, says David.204
For Application of all this. If these things were believed we should listen no more to the foolish prejudice that the world has taken up against religion, and wherewith Satan endeavors to possess men’s hearts, that they may be scared from the ways of holiness; they think it a sour, melancholy life, which has nothing but sadness and mourning in it. But, to remove this prejudice,
Consider, 1. Religion does not bar the lawful delights that are taken in natural things, but teaches the moderate and regular use of them, which is far the sweeter; for things lawful in themselves, are sinful in their excess, and prove to be bitter in the end. And if in some cases it requires the forsaking of lawful enjoyments, as of pleasure, or profits, or honor, for God and for His glory, it is generous and more truly delightful to deny them for this reason, than to enjoy them. Men have done much this way for the love of their country, and by principle of moral virtue; but to lose any delight, or to suffer any hardship for that highest end—the glory of God, and by the strength of love to Him, is far more excellent, and truly pleasant.
2. Religion indeed banishes the delights and pleasures of sin, but it is to exchange them for this joy that unspeakably surpasses them. It calls men from sordid and base delights to those that are pure delights indeed: it calls to men, Drink no longer from the puddle—here are the crystal streams of a living fountain. There is a delight in the very despising of impure delights; as St. Augustine exclaims, Quam suave est istis suavitatibus carere!—How pleasant it is to want these pleasures! But for such a change, to have in their place such delights which, compared to the other, deserve not the name; to have such spiritual joy as shall end in eternal joy, it is a wonder that we all don’t make hast to choose this joy—but it is indeed because we believe it not.
3. It is true, the godly are subject to great distresses and afflictions; but their joy is not extinguished by them, no, nor diminished either, but often sensibly increased. When they have least of the world’s joy, they abound most in spiritual consolations, and then relish them best. They find them sweetest, when their taste is not depraved with earthly enjoyments. We rejoice in tribulation,205 says St. Paul: and here our Apostle insists on that, to verify the substance of this joy in the midst of the greatest afflictions.
4. Spiritual grief, which seems most opposite to this spiritual joy, excludes it not, for there is a secret delight and sweetness in the tears of repentance, a balm in them that refreshes the soul; and even their saddest kind of mourning, viz. the dark times of desertion, has this in it, which is someway sweet, that those mournings after their Beloved, who absents Himself, are a mark of their love to Him, and a true evidence of it. And then all these spiritual sorrows of whatever nature, are turned into spiritual joy; that is the proper end of them; they have a natural tendency that way.
5. But the natural man still doubts of this joy we speak of; because he sees and hears so little of it from them who profess to have it, and seem to have the best right to it. If we consider the wretchedness of this life, and especially the abundance of sin that is in the world, what wonder though this their joy retire much inward, and appear little abroad, where all things are so contrary to it, and so few are capable of it, to whom it were pertinent to vent it? Again, we see here, it is unspeakable; it were a poor thing if he who has it could tell it all out. Pauperis est numerare pecus—He is a poor man who counts his cattle. And when the soul has most of it, then it remains most within itself, and is so inwardly taken up with it, that possibly it can then least of all express it. It is with joys, as they say of cares and griefs, Leves loquuntur, ingentes stupent—Small ones speak, great ones are silent. The deepest waters run stillest. Res severa est verum gaudium, says Seneca. True joy is a solid, weighty thing, dwelling more in the heart than in the countenance: whereas, on the contrary, base and false joys are but superficial, skin-deep (as we say); they are all in the face.
Think not that it is with the godly, as the Prophet says of the wicked, that there is no peace206 to them. The Septuagint reads it, no joy; certainly it is true there is no true joy to the wicked: they may revel and make a noise, but they rejoice not; As the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool;207 a great noise but little heat, and soon at an end. There is no continuing feast, but that of a good conscience. Wickedness and real joy cannot dwell together, as the very moralist Seneca has it often, and at large. But he who can say, The righteousness of Jesus Christ is mine, and in Him the favor of God, and the hope of eternal happiness, has such a light as can shine in the darkest dungeon, yea, in the dark valley of the shadow of death itself.208
Say not, if I commit myself to the way of godliness, I must bid farewell to gladness, never another merry day; no, on the contrary, never a truly joyful day till then, yes, no days at all, but night to the soul, until it receives Jesus Christ and His kingdom, which consists in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. You do not sacrifice Isaac, which signifies laughter (as St. Bernard has it), but a ram; not your joy, but filthy sinful delights which end in sorrow.
Oh! seek to know in your experience what those joys mean; for all describing and commending them to you will not make you understand them; but taste and see that the Lord is good;209 Lauda mellis dulcedinem quantum potes, qui non gastaverit, non intelliget, says Augustine—Praise the sweetness of honey to the utmost, he who has never tasted it, cannot understand it. You cannot see and know this goodness, but by tasting it; and having tasted it, all those poor joys you thought sweet before, will then be bitter and distasteful to you.
And you who have Christ yours by believing, know your happiness, and rejoice, and glory in it. Whatever your outward condition, Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice; for light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.210
Ver. 10. Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come to you:
11. Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.
12. Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported to you by those who have preached the Gospel to you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into.
It is the ignorance, or at least the inconsideration of Divine things, that makes earthly things, whether good or evil, appear great in our eyes; therefore the Apostle’s great aim is, by representing the certainty and excellence of the belief and hope of Christians to his afflicted brethren, to strengthen their minds against all discouragements and oppositions; that they may account nothing too hard to do or suffer for so high a cause and so happy an end. It is the low and mean thoughts, and the shallow persuasion we have of things that are spiritual, that is the cause of all our remissness and coldness in them. The doctrine of salvation, mentioned in the former verse, as the end of our Christian faith, is illustrated in these words, from its antiquity, dignity, and infallible truth.
It is no modern invention; for the Prophets inquired after it, and foretold it in former ages from the beginning. Thus the prejudice of novelty is removed, which usually meets the most ancient truth in its new discoveries.
Again, it is no mean thing that such men as were of unquestioned eminence in wisdom and holiness, did so much study and search after, and having found it out, were careful not only to publish it in their own times, but to record it to posterity; and this, not by the private motion of their own spirits, but by the acting and guidance of the Spirit of God; which likewise sets the truth of their testimony above a doubtfulness and uncertainty.
But taking the three verses entirely together, we have in them these three things, testifying how excellent the doctrine of the Gospel is. I. We have the principal Author of it. II. The matter of it. III. The worth of those who are exercised about it, viz. the best of men, the Prophets, and Apostles, in administering it, and the best of all the creatures, the Angels, in admiring it.
I. The first Author is the absolutely first, the Spirit of God in the Prophets, ver. 11, in the Apostles, ver. 12. But the Spirit of Christ, in ver. 11, is the same Spirit that He sent down on His disciples after His ascension to glory, and which spoke in His Prophets before His descent to the earth. It is the Spirit of Christ, proceeding jointly from Him with the Father, as He is the Son of God, and dwelling most richly and fully in Him as the Son of man.
The Holy Ghost is in Himself holiness, and the source and worker of holiness, and Author of this holy doctrine, which breathes nothing but holiness, and urges it most pressingly upon all who receive it.
This is the very life of Divine faith, touching the mysteries of salvation, firmly to believe the revelation by the Spirit of God. This the word itself testifies, as we see; and it is really manifest in it; it carries the lively stamp of Divine inspiration, but there must be a spiritual eye to discern it. He who is blind, doesn’t know that the sun shines at noon, except by the report of others; but those who see, are assured that they see it, and assured by none other than its own light. To ask one who is a true believer, How know you the Scriptures to be Divine? is the same as to ask him, How know you light to be light?
The soul is nothing but darkness and blindness within, until that same Spirit who shines outwardly in the word, shines likewise within it, and effectually makes it light; but once that is done, then the word is read with some measure of the same Spirit by which it was written, and the soul is assured that it is Divine; as in bodily sight, there must be a meeting of inward light, viz. the visual spirits with the outward object.
The Spirit of God within, brings evidence with it, and makes itself discernible in the word; all arguments, all books and study cannot attain to this. It is given to believe.211
No man knows the things of a man but the spirit of man.212 But how holds that here? For if a man speak out the things that are in his spirit, then others may know them; but the Apostle’s aim there, is to conclude that the things of God, even such as were revealed in His word, could not be known but by His own Spirit; so that though revealed, yet they remain still unrevealed till the Spirit teach within, as well as without; because they are intelligible by none but by those who are the private scholars and hearers of the Holy Ghost, the Author of them; and because there are so few of these, therefore there is so little real believing amidst all the noise and profession that we make of it. Who is there (if you will believe them) who believes not? And yet truly there is too much cause to continue the Prophet’s regret, Who has believed our report?213
Learn then to suspect yourselves, and to discover your own unbelief, that you may desire this Spirit to teach you inwardly those great mysteries that outwardly reveals and teaches by His word. Make use of that promise, and press the Lord with it, They shall be all taught of God.214
But, II. There is here the matter of this doctrine, which we have in three several expressions. 1. That which is repeated from the foregoing verse; it the doctrine of Salvation, that is the end of it. 2. The doctrine of the sufferings and glory of Christ, as the means. And, 3. The doctrine of grace, the spring of both.
1. It is the doctrine of Salvation, the only true doctrine of true happiness, which the wisest of natural men have groped and sought after with much earnestness, but with no success; they had nothing but the dark moonlight of nature, and that is not sufficient to find it out; only the Sun of Righteousness shining in the sphere of the Gospel, has brought life and immortality to light.215 No wonder that natural wisdom, the deepest of it, is far from finding out the true method and way of cure, seeing it cannot discover the disease of miserable mankind, viz. the sinful and wretched condition of nature by the first disobedience.
Salvation expresses not only that which is negative, but implies likewise positive and perfect happiness; thus forgiveness of sins is put for the whole nature of Justification frequently in Scripture. It is more easy to say of this unspeakable happiness, what it is not, than what it is. There is in it a full and final freedom from all annoyance; all tears are wiped away, and their fountain is dried up; all feeling and fear, or danger of any the least evil, either of sin or punishment, is banished forever; there are no invasions of enemies, no robbing or destroying in all this holy mountain, no voice of complaining in the streets of the new Jerusalem. Here it is at the best but interchanges of mornings of joy, with sad evenings of weeping; but there, there shall be no light, no need of sun nor moon; For the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.216
Well may the Apostle (as he does here throughout this chapter) lay this salvation to counterbalance all sorrows and persecutions, and whatever hardships can be in the way to it. The soul that is persuaded of this, in the midst of storms and tempests enjoys a calm, triumphs in disgraces, grows richer by all its losses, and by death itself attains this immortal life.
Happy are those who have their eyes fixed upon this salvation, and are longing and waiting for it; who see so much of that brightness and glory that it darkens all the luster of earthly things to them, and makes them trample upon those things which formerly they admired and doted on with the rest of the foolish world. Those things we account so much of, are but as rotten wood, or glow-worms that shine only in the night of our ignorance and vanity: as soon as the light-beam of this salvation enters into the soul, it cannot much esteem or affect anything below it; and if those glances of it which shine in the word, and in the soul of a Christian, be so bright and powerful, what then shall the full sight and real possession of it be?
2. The Gospel is represented as the doctrine of the sufferings and glory of Christ, as the means of salvation. The worker of this salvation, whom the prophets and Apostles make the sum of all their doctrine, is Jesus Christ, and the sum of that work of redemption (as we have it here), is His humiliation and exaltation; His sufferings and the glory that followed thereupon. Now, although this serves as an encouragement to Christians in their sufferings, that this is the way by which their Lord went into His glory, and is true also of Christ mystical, the head with the members, as the Scriptures often teach us, yet I think it is here mainly intended as a summary of the work of our redemption by Jesus Christ, relating to the salvation mentioned ver. 10, and as the cause for the effect, so it is put for it here. The Prophets inquired, and prophesied of that salvation. How? By searching out and foretelling the sufferings, and glory of Christ. His sufferings, then, and His after-glories are our salvation. His suffering is the purchase of our salvation, and His glory is our assurance of it; He, as our head, having triumphed, and being crowned, makes us likewise sure of victory and triumph. His having entered on the possession of glory makes our hope certain. This is His prayer, that where He is, there we may be also:217 and this is His own assertion, The glory which you gave me I have given them.218 This is His promise, Because I live, you shall live also.219 Christ and the believer are one; this is that great mystery the Apostle speaks of.220 Though it is a commonly known truth, the words and outside of it obvious to all, yet none can understand it but those who indeed partake of it. By virtue of that union, their sins were accounted His, and Christ’s sufferings are accounted theirs; and by consequence, His glory, the outcome of His sufferings, is likewise theirs. There is an indissoluble connection between the life of Christ and of a believer. Our life is hidden with Christ in God; and therefore, while we remain there, our life is there, though hidden, and when Christ who is our life shall appear, we likewise shall appear with him in glory.221 Considering that the sufferings and glory of our Redeemer are the main subject of the Gospel, and the causes of our salvation, and of our comfortable persuasion of it, it is a wonder that they are not more the matter of our thoughts. Shouldn’t we daily consider the bitterness of that cup of wrath He drank for us, and be wrought to repentance and hatred of sin, to have sin embittered to us by that consideration, and find the sweetness of His love in that He did drink it, and by that, be deeply possessed with love to Him? These things we now and then speak of, but they sink not into our minds, as our Savior exhorts, where He is speaking of those same sufferings. O! that they were engraved on our hearts, and that sin were crucified in us, and the world crucified to us, and we unto the world, by the cross of Christ!222
And then considering the glory where He is, to have our eye often upon that, and our hearts solacing and refreshing themselves frequently with the thoughts of that place, and condition where Christ is, and where our hopes are, before long, to behold Him; both to see His glory, and to be glorified with Him; is it not reason? Yes, it is necessary, it cannot be otherwise, if our treasure, and Head be there, that our hearts be there likewise.223
The third expression here of the Gospel is, That it is the Doctrine of Grace. The work of redemption itself and the several parts of it, and the doctrine revealing it, have all the name of Grace; because they all flow from Free Grace; that is their spring and first cause.
And it is this wherein the doctrine of salvation is mainly comfortable, that it is free: By grace are you saved.224 It is true, God requires faith, it is through faith: but He that requires that, gives it too; That not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.225 It is wonderful grace to save upon believing; believe in Jesus for salvation, and live accordingly, and it is done; there is no more required to your pardon, but that you receive it by faith. But truly nature cannot do this; it is as impossible for us of ourselves to believe, as to do. This then is that which makes it all grace from beginning to end, at God not only saves upon believing, but gives believing itself. Christ is called not only the Author and Finisher of our salvation, but even of our faith.226
Free Grace being rightly apprehended, is that which stays the heart in all estates, and keeps it from fainting even in its saddest times. What though there is nothing in myself but matter of sorrow and discomfort? it cannot be otherwise; it is not from myself that I look for comfort at any time, but from my God and His free grace. Here is comfort enough for all times; when I am at the best, I ought not, I dare not, rely upon myself; when I am at the worst, I may, and should rely upon Christ, and His sufficient grace. Though I be the vilest sinner that ever came to Him, yet I know that He is more gracious than I am sinful; yea, the more my sin is, the more glory will it be to His grace to pardon it; it will appear the richer. Does not David argue thus; For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity; for it is great?227 But it is an empty fruitless notion of grace, to consider it only in the general, and in a wandering way: we are to look upon it particularly, as addressed to us; and it is not enough that it comes to us, in the message of him that brings it only to our ear, but, that we may know what it is, it must come into us; then it is ours indeed. But if it comes to us in the message only, and we send it away again, if it shall so depart, we had better never have heard of it; it will leave a guiltiness behind it, that shall make all our sins weigh much heavier than before.
Inquire whether you have entertained this grace or not; whether it has come to you, and into you, or not; whether the kingdom of God is within you, as our Savior speaks.228 It is the most woeful condition that can be, not to be far from the kingdom of God, and yet to fall short, and miss of it. The grace of God revealed in the Gospel is entreating you daily to receive it, is willing to become yours, if you reject it not. Were your eyes open to behold the beauty and excellence of this grace, there would be no need to deliberate; yea, you would endure none. Desire your eyes to be opened, and enlightened from above, so that you may know it, and your hearts opened, that you may be happy by receiving it.
The Apostle, speaking of Jesus Christ as the foundation of our faith, calls Him the same yesterday, today, and forever.229 Yesterday, under the Law,—today, in those primitive times nearest His incarnation,—and forever, in all succeeding ages. And the resemblance holds good between the two cherubim over the mercy-seat, and the two testaments: those had their faces toward one another, and both toward the mercy-seat; and these look to one another in their doctrine, agreeing perfectly, and both look to Christ, the true mercy-seat; and the great Subject of the Scriptures. Thus we see here, the things which the Prophets foretold as to come, and the Apostles reported were accomplished, were the same, and from the same Spirit; they were the sufferings of Christ, and His after-glory, and in them, our salvation by free grace. The prophecies look forward to the times of the Gospel; and the things then fulfilled look back to the prophecies; and each confirms the other, meeting all in Christ, who is their truth and centre.
We have spoken already of the Author and Subject of this salvation. Now we come to say something,
III. Concerning the worth of those who are employed about it, as well in administering to it, as in admiring it. And these are the Prophets and the Apostles: the first foretold what was to come; the second preached them when they came to pass.
In the Prophets, there are three things here remarked. 1. Their diligence. 2. The success of it. 3. The extent of its usefulness.
1. This their diligence disparages not their extraordinary visions and revelations, and that which is added, that the Spirit of Christ was in them, and did foretell the things to come.
It was their constant duty, and they being sensible of their duty, made it their constant exercise, to search into Divine mysteries by meditation and prayer; yea, and by reading such holy writers, as were already extant in their times, as Daniel 9:2; 10:11. For which cause, some, taking the word actively, conceive Daniel to be called there a man of desires, because of his great desire, and diligent search after the knowledge of those high things. And in this diligent way they constantly waited for those revelations, which sometimes, when it seemed good to the Spirit of God, were imparted to them.
"Prophecy resides not (say the Hebrew doctors) but in a man who is great in wisdom and virtue, whose affections overcome him not in any worldly things, but by his knowledge he overcomes his affections continually: on such a man the Holy Spirit comes down, and his soul is associated to the angels, and he is changed to another man." Thus Maimonides.
It was the way of the prince of darkness amongst the idolatrous Gentiles, to speak either through senseless statues, or, where he uttered his oracles by such profane prophets as he had, to cause them in a fury to tumble forth words that they understood not, and knew not what they said. But the Spirit of God, being Light, and the holy Prophets inspired with it, they being diligent attendants on its motions, and searchers of the mysteries of salvation, understood well what their business was, and to what purpose those things of the kingdom of Christ tended which they by inspiration did foretell; and therefore bent their thoughts this way, praying, and searching, and waiting for answers, studying to keep the passage, as it were, open for the beams of those Divine revelations to come in at; not to have their spirits clogged and stopped with earthly and sinful affections, endeavoring for that calm and quiet composure of spirit, in which the voice of God’s Spirit might be the better heard. See Psalm 85:8, and Hab. 2:1; in both which places follows an excellent prophecy concerning Christ, and the salvation that He wrought for His people.
Were the Prophets not exempted from the pains of search and inquiry, who had the Spirit of God not only in a high measure, but after a singular manner? How unbecoming, then, are slothfulness and idleness in us! Whether is it, that we judge ourselves advantaged with more of the Spirit than those holy men, or that we esteem the doctrine and mysteries of salvation, on which they bestowed so much of their labor, unworthy of ours? These are both so gross, that we shall be loath to own either of them; and yet, our laziness and negligence in searching after these things, seem to charge us with some such thoughts as one of those.
You will say, This concerns those who succeed to the work of the Prophets and Apostles in ordinary,—the ministers of the Gospel. And it does indeed fall first upon them. It is their task indeed to be diligent, and as the Apostle exhorts his Timothy, to give attendance to reading,230 but, above all, to study to have much experimental knowledge of God and His Son Jesus Christ, and for this end, to disentangle and free themselves, as much as is possible, from lower things to the search of heavenly mysteries.231 As they are called angels, so they ought to be, as much as they can attain to it, in a constant nearness unto God, and attendance on Him, like the angels, and to look much into these things as the angels here are said to do; to endeavor to have their souls purified from the affections of sin, that the light of Divine truth may shine clear in them, and not be fogged and misted with filthy vapors; to have the impressions of God clearly written in their breasts, not mixed and blurred with earthly characters; seasoning all their readings and common way of studies with much prayer, and Divine meditation. Those who converse most with the king, and are inward with him, know most of the affairs of state, and even the secrets of them, which are hidden from others: and certainly those of God’s messengers who are most often with Himself, cannot but understand their business best, and know most of His meaning, and the affairs of His kingdom; and to that end it is confessed, that singular diligence is required in them. But seeing the Lord has said without exception, that The secret of the Lord is with those who fear him,232 and that He will reveal Himself and His saving truths to those who humbly seek them; do not any of you yourselves so much injury, as to bar yourselves from sharing in your measure of the search of these same things, which were the study of the Prophets, and which by their study and publishing them, are made the more accessible and easy to us. Consider that they concern us universally, if we would be saved; for it is salvation here that they studied. Search the Scriptures, says our Savior,233 and that is the motive, if there can be any that may be thought in reason pressing enough, or if we do indeed think so, For in them you think you have eternal life. And it is there to be found: Christ is this salvation and that eternal life. And He adds further, They are they (these Scriptures) which testify of me. These are the only golden mines in which the abiding treasures of eternity are to be found, and therefore worthy of all the digging and pains we can bestow on them.
Besides their industry in this inquiry and search, there are here expressed their ardent affection to the thing they prophesied of and their longings and wishes for its accomplishment, viz. the coming of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, the top of all their desires, the great Hope and the Light of Israel. No wonder they desired His day, who had so much joy in the seeing it so far off, as over the head almost of two thousand years. Faith overlooking them, and foreseeing it so in Abraham, his heart danced for joy. Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.234
And this is conceived to be the meaning of those expressions in that mystical song, as they suit those times of the Jewish Church, breathing out her longings for the coming of her beloved. His speaking by the Prophets was His voice as afar off; but His incarnation was His coming near, and kissing Church with the kisses of his mouth.235 And to omit other expressions throughout the song, the last chapter, ver. 1, is tender and pathetical, O! that you were as my brother, &c.; and the last words of it, Make haste, my beloved, and be like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of spices. And when this salvation came in the fullness of time; we see how joyfully good old Simeon embraces it, and thought he had seen enough, and therefore upon the sight desired to have his eyes closed: Now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.236 Therefore our Savior says to His Apostles, Blessed are your eyes, for they see: for many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which you see, and have not seen them.237 This is He, whom we disesteem and make so small account of, being now so clearly revealed; whom they studied, and sought, and wished so much for, so many ages before.
2ndly. The success of their search is remarked; in seeking they found the certainty, and the time of His coming; they sought out till they found, and then they prophesied of that salvation and grace; they searched what, and what manner of time, and the Spirit manifestly foretold it to them.
They sought to know what manner of time it should come to pass, viz. in a time of great distress, and bad estate of the people, as all the Prophets testify: and particularly that place238 gives an express character of the time; though there be some diversity of exposition of the particular words, yet the main sense is agreed on by all sound interpreters, and the Chaldee paraphrase has it expressly, that that Shiloh is the Messiah.
And of His sufferings and after-glories they prophesied very clearly, as Psalm 22; Isa. 53, &c. And our Savior Himself makes use of their testimony in both these points.239
3rdly. There is the benefit of their search and finding, in the extent of it, verse 12, to the believers in the Apostles’ times, and to the succeeding Christian Church, and so to us in these days; but in some peculiar sense the Prophets ministered to the people of those times in which Christ suffered and entered into glory, because they were the first who enjoyed the accomplishment of those prophecies, having been fulfilled in their own days.
The Prophets knew well that the things they prophesied were not to be fulfilled in their own times, and therefore in their prophesying concerning them, though both themselves and the people of God who were contemporary with them reaped the comfort of that doctrine, and were by faith partakers of the same salvation, and so it was to themselves as well as to us, yet concerning the accomplishment, they knew it was not to themselves, it was not to be brought to pass in their days; and therefore, speaking of the glory of Christ’s kingdom, they often foretell it for the latter days, as their phrase is. And as we have the things they prophesied of, so we have this peculiar benefit of their prophecies, that their suiting so perfectly with the event and performance, serves much to confirm our Christian faith.
There is a foolish and miserable way of verifying this; men ministering the doctrine of salvation to others and not to themselves; carrying it all in their heads and tongues, and none of it in their hearts; not hearing it even while they preach it; reaching the bread of life to others, and eating none of it themselves. And this, the Apostle says, that he was most careful to avoid, and therefore dealt severely with his body, that it might not in this way endanger his soul. I keep under my body, says he, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.240 It is not in this sense that the Prophets ministered to others, and not to themselves. No; they had joy and comfort in the very hopes of the Redeemer to come, and in the belief of the things that any others had spoken, and which they themselves spoke concerning Him. And thus the true preachers of the Gospel, although their ministerial gifts are for the use of others, yet that salvation which they preach, they lay hold on, and partake of themselves; as your boxes where perfumes are kept for garments and other uses, are themselves perfumed by keeping them.
We see how the Prophets ministered it as the great and never-failing consolation of the Church in those days, in all their distresses. It is wonderful when they are foretelling either the sorrows and afflictions, or the temporal restoration and deliverances of the Jews, what sudden outbursts they will make to speak of the kingdom of Jesus Christ and the days of the Gospel, insomuch that he who considers not the Spirit they were moved by, would think it were incoherence and impertinency; but they knew well what they meant, that those news were never unseasonable, nor beside the purpose: that the sweetness of those thoughts, viz. the consideration of the Messiah, was able (to such as believed) to allay the bitterest distresses, and that the great deliverance He was to work, was the top and sum of all deliverances. Thus their prophecies of Him were present comfort to themselves and other believers then: and further, were to serve for a clear evidence of the Divine truth of those mysteries in the days of the Gospel, in and after their fulfillment.
This sweet stream of their doctrine did, as the rivers, make its own banks fertile and pleasant as it ran by, and flowed still forward to after-ages, and by the confluence of more such prophecies, grew greater as it went, till it fell in with the main current of the Gospel in the New Testament, both acted and preached by the Great Prophet Himself, whom they foretold as to come, and recorded by His Apostles and Evangelists, and thus united into one river, clear as crystal. This doctrine of salvation in the Scriptures has still refreshed the city of God, His Church under the Gospel, and still shall do so, till it empties itself into the ocean of eternity.
The first discovery we have of this stream nearest its source, the eternal purpose of Divine mercy, is in that promise which the Lord Himself preached in few words to our first parents, who had recently made themselves and their race miserable: The seed of the woman shall break the head of the serpent.241
The agreement of the predictions of the Prophets with the things themselves, and the preaching of the Apostles following, (the other kind of men employed in this salvation,) make up one organ, or great instrument, tuned by the same hand, and sounding by the same breath of the Spirit of God; and that is expressed here as the common authority of the doctrine in both, and the cause of their harmony and agreement in it.
All these extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost, the calling of Prophets and Apostles and Evangelists, and the ordinary ministry of the Gospel by Pastors and Teachers, tend to that great design which God has in building His Church, in making up that great assembly of all the elect, to enjoy and praise Him for all eternity.242 For this purpose He sent His Son out of His bosom, and for this purpose He sends forth His messengers to reveal that salvation which His Son has wrought, and sends down His Spirit upon them, that they may be fitted for so high a service. Those cherubim wonder how guilty man escapes their flaming swords, and re-enters paradise. The angels see that their companions who fell are not restored, but behold their place filled up with the spirits of just men, and they envy it not: Which mystery the angels desire to look into; and this is added in the close of these words for the extolling of it.
The angels look upon what they have seen already fulfilled, with delight and admiration; what remains, namely, the full accomplishment of this great work in the end of time, they look upon with desire to see it finished: it is not a slight glance they take of it, but they fix their eyes and look steadfastly on it, viz. that mystery of godliness, God manifest in the flesh; and it is added, seen of angels.243
The Word made flesh, draws the eyes of those glorious spirits, and possesses them with wonder to see the Almighty Godhead joined with the weakness of a man, yea, of an infant. He who stretches forth the Heavens, bound up in swaddling clothes! And to surpass all the wonders of His life, this is beyond all admiration, that the Lord of Life was subject to death, and that His love to rebellious mankind moved Him both to take on and lay down that life.
It is not surprising that angels admire these things, and delight to look upon them; but it is strange that we do not do so. They view them steadfastly, and we neglect them: either we consider them not at all, or give them but a passing look, half an eye. That which was the great business of the Prophets and Apostles, both for their own times, and to convey them to us, we regard not, and turn our eyes to foolish wandering thoughts, which angels are ashamed at. They are not so concerned in this great mystery as we are; they are but mere beholders, compared to us; yea, they seem rather to be losers some way, in that our nature, in itself inferior to theirs, is in Jesus Christ exalted above theirs.244 We bow down to the earth, and study, and grovel in it, rake into the very bowels of it, and satisfy ourselves with the outside of the unsearchable riches of Christ,245 and look not within it; but they, having no will nor desire but for the glory of God, being pure flames of fire burning only in love to Him, are no less delighted than amazed with the bottomless wonders of His wisdom and goodness, shining in the work of our redemption.
It is our shame and folly, that we lose ourselves and our thoughts in poor childish things, and trifle away our days we know not how, and let these rich mysteries lie ignored. They look up on the Deity in itself with continual admiration; but that they look down to this mystery is another wonder. We give them an ear in public, and in a cold formal way stop conscience’s mouth with some religious performances in private, and no more; to have deep and frequent thoughts, and to be ravished in the meditation of our Lord Jesus, once on the cross, and now in glory,—how few of us are acquainted with this!
We see here excellent company, and examples not only of the best of men that have been,—we have them for fellow-servants and fellow-students,—but if that can persuade us, we may all study the same lesson with the very angels, and have the same thoughts with them. This the soul does, which often entertains itself with the delightful admiration of Jesus Christ, and the redemption He has wrought for us.
Ver. 13. Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
The great error of man’s mind, and the cause of all his errors of life, is the diverting of the soul from God, and turning downward to inferior confidences and comforts; and this wrong choice is the very root of all our miseries: therefore the main purpose of the holy Word of God is to untie the hearts of men from the world, and reduce them to God as their only rest and solid comfort; and this is here the Apostle’s mark at which all the preceding discourse aims; it all meets and terminates in this exhortation, Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind.
In the words are these three things, 1. The great support and comfort of the soul, which the Apostle repeats, and represents to his afflicted brethren. 2. His exciting them to the right apprehension and confident expectation of it. 3. The inference of that exhortation.
I. The great matter of their comfort is, The grace which is to be brought to them at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Some for grace read joy: [. . .] the words are not more near one to another, than the things they signify, grace and joy; but it is most commonly thus read.
The estate of grace and that of glory, are not only so inseparably connected, but so like one to the other; yea, so essentially the same, that the same expressions in Scripture often suit both of them; and so suit them, that it is doubtful for which of the two to understand them: but the hazard is not great, seeing they are so near, and so one, grace being glory begun, and glory grace completed, both often called the kingdom of God. So the grace here said to be brought to them, is either the Doctrine of grace in the Gospel, in which Jesus Christ is revealed, and that grace in Him; (for the whole tenor of the covenant of grace, every clause of it, holds in Him; His precious name runs through it all;) or it is the Grace of salvation which is to be fully perfected at the last and clearest revelation of Jesus Christ. And for this rather I take it here, because the Apostle’s nearest preceding words were concerning that, and it is set up here as the object of hope, which though often put for faith, yet, in its proper notion, looks out to that which is to come.
This is the last act of Grace, and yet still it is called by its own name, and not turned into the name of merit, notwithstanding all the obedience and all the sufferings of the saints that have gone before it; yea, even the salvation to be revealed to them, is called Grace. But it is needless to insist on this, for certainly none who partake of grace, will be of another mind, or ever admit the mixture of the least notion of self-deserving.
Though much dispute has been bestowed on this, and questions have been multiplying in the disputants’ hands (as is usual in controversies), one growing out of another, yet truly I think the debate in this matter to be but waste; it is not only against the voice of the Scriptures, and of grace itself in the soul, but even against sound reason, to imagine any meriting, properly taken, in any mere creature at His Creator’s hands, who has given him his being; of which gift all his services and obedience fall short, so that he can never come to be upon even disengaged terms, much less to oblige anew, and deserve somewhat further. Besides, that same grace by which any one serves and obeys God, is likewise His own gift, as it is said, All things come of you, and of your own have we given you.246 Both the ability and the will of giving to Him, are from Him; so that in these respects, not angels, nor man in innocency, could properly merit at the hands of God, much less man lost, redeemed again, and so coming under the new obligation of infinite mercy. And this is so evident a truth, that the most learned and most ingenious Jesuits and schoolmen have, in various passages of their writings, acknowledged it, that there cannot be any compensation, and much less merit from the creature to God, but only in relation to His own free purpose, and the tenor of His word and covenant, which is inviolable, because He is unchangeable, and truth itself.
His first grace He gives freely, and no less freely the increases of it, and with the same gracious hand sets the crown of glory upon all the grace that He has given before. It is but the following forth of His own work, and fulfilling His own thoughts of free love, which love has no cause but in Himself, and finds none worthy, but gives them all the worthiness they have, and accepts of their love, not as worthy in itself to be accepted, but because He Himself has wrought it in them. Not only the first tastes, but the full draught of the waters of life is freely given;247 nothing is brought with them but thirst.
That is to be brought.] Not that is brought, or, that shall be brought, but if we will render it strictly, it is, that is a bringing to you. That blessedness, that consummation of grace the saints are hastening forward to, walking on in their way, wherever it lies, indifferently, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report.248 And as they are hastening to it, it is hastening to them in the course of time; every day brings it nearer to them than before; and notwithstanding all difficulties and dangers in the way, those who have their eye and hopes upon it, shall arrive at it, and it shall be brought safely to their hand; all the malice of men and devils shall not be able to cut them short of this grace that is a bringing to them against the day of the revelation of Jesus Christ.
At the revelation of Jesus Christ.] This is repeated from the 7th verse. And it is a day of revelation, a revelation of the righteous judgment of God.249 And thus it would be to all, were it not that it is withal the revelation of Jesus Christ; therefore is it a day of grace, all light and blessedness to those who are in Him, because they shall appear in Him, and if He be glorious, they shall not be inglorious and ashamed. Indeed, were our secret sins then to be set before our own eyes, in their most frightening aspect, and to be set open to the view of angels and men, and to the eye of Divine justice, and we left alone so revealed, who is there that could gather any comfort, and would not rather have their thoughts filled with horror at the remembrance and expectation of that day? And thus indeed all unbelieving and ungodly men may look upon it, and find it terrible; but to those who are shadowed under the robe of righteous Jesus, yea, who are made one with Him, and shall partake of His glory in His appearing, it is the sweetest, the most comfortable thought that their souls can be entertained and possessed with, to remember this glorious revelation of their Redeemer.
It is their great grief here, not that they are hated and vilified, but that their Lord Jesus is so little known, and therefore so much despised in the world. He is veiled and hidden from the world. Many nations don’t acknowledge Him at all; and many of those that confess Him in word, deny Him in deed. Many that have a form of godliness, do not only lack, but mock and scoff at the power of it; and to such Christ is not known, His excellencies are hid from their eyes. Now this glory of their Lord being tender [precious] to those who love Him, they rejoice much in the consideration of this, that there is a day at hand, when He shall appear in His brightness and full of glory to all nations, and all shall be forced to acknowledge Him; it shall be without doubt, and unquestioned to all, that He is the Messiah, the Redeemer, the Judge of the world.
And as it is the day of His revelation, it is also the revelation of all the adopted sons of God in Him.250 They are now considered the refuse of the world, exposed to all kinds of contempt; but then the beams of Christ’s glory shall beautify them, and they shall be known for His.251
Next, there is, II. The exhortation, by which the Apostle excites them to the right apprehension and confident expectation of this grace—Hope to the end. The difference between these two graces, faith and hope, is so small, that the one is often taken for the other in Scripture; it is but a different aspect of the same confidence; faith laying hold of the infallible truth of those Divine promises, of which hope does assuredly expect the accomplishment, and that is their truth; so that this immediately results from the other. This is the anchor fixed within the veil, which keeps the soul firm against all the tossings on these swelling seas, and the winds and tempests that arise upon them. The firmest thing in this inferior world is a believing soul.
Faith establishes the heart on Jesus Christ, and hope lifts it up, being on that rock, above intervening dangers, crosses, and temptations, and sees the glory and happiness that follow after them.
To the end.] Or, perfectly: and therefore the Christian seeks most earnestly, and yet waits most patiently.252 Indeed, this hope is perfect in continuity; it is a hope unto the end, because it is perfect in its nature, although imperfect in degree. Sometimes doubtings are intermixed with it in the souls of Christians, yet this is their infirmity, as the Psalmist speaks,253 not the infirmity and insufficiency of the object of their hope. Worldly hopes are in their own nature imperfect; they imply, in their very being, doubtfulness and wavering, because the things on which they are built are inconstant and uncertain, and full of deceit and disappointments. How can that hope be immovable, which is built upon moving sands or quagmire? That which is itself unfixed cannot give stability to any other thing resting upon it; but because the truth and goodness of the immutable God are the foundation of spiritual hope, therefore it is assured, and as Mount Zion which cannot be removed:254 and this is its perfection.
Now the Apostle exhorts his brethren to endeavor to have their hearts possessed with as high a measure and degree of this hope, as may be; seeing in itself it is so perfect and firm, such an assured hope; that they aspire to all the assurance and perfection of it they can attain. This exercise of hope, as I conceive, is not only to have the habit of it strong in the soul, but to act it often, to be often turning that way, to view that approaching day of liberty: Lift up your heads; for your redemption draws nigh.255 Where this hope is often acted on, it will grow strong, as all habits do; and where it is strong, it will work much, and delight to act often, and will control both the doubtings and the other many impertinent thoughts of the mind, and force them to yield the place to it. Certainly those who long much for the coming of Christ, will often look out to it. We are usually hoping after other things, which only offer themselves to draw us after them, and to scorn us. What are the breasts of most of us, but so many nests of foolish hopes and fears intermixed, which entertain us day and night, and steal away our precious hours from us, that might be laid out so gainfully upon the wise and sweet thoughts of eternity, and upon the blessed and assured hope of the coming of our beloved Savior!
The other words of exhortation here used, are subservient to this end, that this hope may be the more perfect and firm; a similar exhortation is much after the same manner joined by our Savior256 with the expectation and waiting for His coming; and in this posture the Israelites, eating the passover, were expecting their deliverance: so we our full and final freedom.
If you would have much of this, call off your affections from other things, that they may be capable of much of it. The same eye cannot both look up to Heaven and down to earth at the same time. The more your affections are trussed up and disentangled from the world, the more unencumbered and active will they be in this hope: the more sober they are, the less will they fill themselves with the coarse delights of earth, the more room will there be in them, and the more they shall be filled with this hope. It is great folly in our spiritual warfare to charge ourselves superfluously. All fullness of one thing hinders the receiving and admittance of another, especially of things so opposite as these fullnesses are. Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit,257 says the Apostle. That is a brutish fullness; makes a man no man; this Divine fullness makes him more than a man; it were happy to be so filled with this, as that it might be called a kind of drunkenness, as it was with the Apostles.258
Be sober.] Or watch. The same word means both, and with good reason; for you know the unsober cannot watch. Now, though one main part of sobriety, and that which more properly and particularly bears this name, viz. temperance in meat and drink, is here intended; and though against the opposite of this, not only the purity and spirituality of religion, but even moral virtue inveighs as its special enemy, yea, nature itself; and those who only naturally consider the body, and its interest of life and health, find reason enough to cry down this base intemperance, which is so hateful by its own deformity, and besides, carries its punishment along with it; although, I say, this sobriety is indeed most necessary for the preservation of grace and of the spiritual temper of the soul, and is here intended, yet, I conceive, it is not all that is here meant; the word is more general, for the moderate and sober use of all things worldly. As the Apostle says, Gird up the loins of your mind, so it is to be understood, let your minds be sober, all your affections inwardly adapted to your spiritual condition, not glutting yourselves with fleshly and perishing delights of any kind; for the more you take in of these, the less you shall have of spiritual comfort and of this perfect hope. Those who pour out themselves upon present delights, don’t look like strangers, and hopeful expectants of another life and better pleasures.
And certainly, the Captain of our salvation will not own them for His followers, who lie down to drink of these waters, but only such as in passing take of them with their hand. As excessive eating or drinking makes the body both sick and lazy, suitable for nothing but sleep, and besots the mind, as it clogs up with filthy crudities the ways through which the Spirit should pass, encumbers them, and makes them move heavily, as a coach in a deep way—thus does all immoderate use of the world and its delights wrong the soul in its spiritual condition, making it sickly and feeble, full of spiritual distempers and inactivity, benumbing the graces of the Spirit, and filling the soul with sleepy vapors, making it grow secure and heavy in spiritual exercises, and obstructing the way and motion of the Spirit of God in the soul. Therefore, if you would be spiritual, healthful, and vigorous, and enjoy much of the consolations of Heaven, be sparing and sober in those of the earth, and what you lessen of the one, shall be certainly made up in the other. Health, with a good constitution of body, is a more constant, remaining pleasure, than that of excess and a momentary pleasing of the palate: thus the comfort of this hope is a more refined and more abiding contentment than any that is in the passing enjoyments of this world; and it is a foolish bargain to exchange a drachma of the one for many pounds of the other. Consider how pressingly the Apostle St. Paul reasons: And every man who strives for the mastery is temperate in all things.259 And take besides, our Savior’s exhortation: Be sober and watch, for you know not what hour your Lord does come.260
A double-minded man, says St. James, is unstable in all his ways.261 Although the word usually denotes deceitfulness and dissimulation of mind,—answering to the Hebrew phrase, a heart and a heart,—yet here I think it has another sense, agreeable to the Apostle’s present discourse, and it implies doubtfulness and unsettled wavering of mind.
It is impossible that the course of life can be anything other than uneven and disordered, if the spring of it, the heart, whence are the issues of life,262 be so. A man that is not agreed within, not of one mind with himself, although there was nothing to trouble or alter him from without, that inward commotion is a sufficient principle and cause of inconsistency. How much more then must he waver, when he is assaulted, and beat upon by outward oppositions! He is like the waves of the sea,263 of himself ever fluctuating to and fro, according to the natural instability of that element, and at the same time exposed to the tossings of all the waves that arise.
It is, therefore, in religion, a main thing to have the heart established and fixed in the belief and hope of the great things we look for: this will produce strength of resolution, and consistency in action, and in suffering, too. And this is here our Apostle’s great intention, to ballast the souls of his brethren with this firm belief, that they might sail even and steady in those seas of trouble. Why, says he, if these things we have spoken be so, if there is indeed truth in them, and you believe it so, what remains then, but to resolve for it upon any terms, to fit out for the journey, whatever be the difficulties, and in them all to keep up the soul by that certain hope that will not disappoint us?
What he has said before, is, as it were, showing them some fruits, some clusters of grapes, of that promised land; and this exhortation is answerable to Caleb’s words, seeing it so good a land, Let us go up at once, and possess it. Though there be fleshly objects, sons of Anak,264 giants of temptations, and afflictions, and sins to be overcome, before it becomes ours, yet it is well worth all our labor, and our God has assured us of the victory, and given us, by His own word, undoubted hope of possessing it.
That which he principally exhorts to in this verse, is the right placing and firm continuing of our hope. When we consider how much of our life is taken up this way, in hoping for things we don’t have, and that even those who have most of what others are desiring and pursuing, are still hoping for something more; that when men have attained one thing, though it be something they promised themselves to rest contented with, yet presently upon obtaining it, hope begins to find out some new matter for itself; I say, considering the incessant working of this passion throughout our life, it is of very much concern for us to give it a right object, and not still to be living in vanity and uncertainty. Here is, then, that for our hope to apply itself to, after which it doesn’t need to change, nor can change without the greatest loss. Hope to the end, for the grace that is coming at the revelation of Jesus Christ; bestow all your hope on this and recall it not. Hope perfectly, and to the end.
The other part of the exhortation relates to this as the main end, and in the original runs in this form: Wherefore, girding up the loins of your mind, being sober, hope. And so that hope may be the more perfect and endure to the end, and be more like itself, i.e. heavenly, your minds must be freed from the earth, that they may set for Heaven. And this is expressed in two different words, but both meaning much the same thing: that temper of sobriety and that posture of being girded, are no other than the same removal of earthly-mindedness and encumbering cares and desires of earthly things.
Gird up the loins.] The custom of those countries was, that wearing long garments, they trussed them up for work or a journey. Chastity is indeed a Christian grace, and a great part of the soul’s freedom and spirituality, and fits it much for divine things, yet I think it is not so particularly and only intended in this expression, as St. Jerome and others take it; for though the girding of the loins seemed to them to favor that sense, it is only an allusion to the manner of girding up which was then used; and besides, the Apostle here makes it clear that he meant something else; for he says, The loins of your minds. Gather up your affections so that they don’t hang down to hinder you in your race, and so, in your hopes of obtaining; and do not only gather them up, but tie them up, so that they don’t fall down again, or if they do, be sure to gird them tighter than before. Thus be still as men prepared for a journey, tending to another place. This is not our home, nor the place of our rest: therefore our loins must be still girded up, our affections kept from training and dragging down upon the earth.
Men who are altogether earthly and profane, are so far from girding up the loins of their mind, that they set them wholly downwards. The very highest part of their soul is glued to the earth, and they are daily partakers of the serpent’s curse: they go on their belly and eat the dust; they mind earthly things.265 Now this disposition is inconsistent with grace; but those who are in some measure truly godly, though they grovel not like that, yet may be somewhat guilty of allowing their affections to fall too low, that is, to be too much conversant with vanity, and further engaged than is suitable, to some things that are worldly; and by this means abate of their heavenly hopes, and make them less perfect, less clear and sensible to their souls.
And because they are most subject to take this liberty in the fair and calm weather of prosperity, God often, and wisely and mercifully, causes rough blasts of affliction to arise upon them, to make them gather their loose garments nearer to them, and gird them closer.
Let us then remember our way, and where we are, and keep our garments girded up, for we walk amidst thorns and briars which, if we let them down, will entangle and stop us, and possibly tear our garments. We walk through a world where there is much mire of sinful pollutions, and therefore it cannot but defile them; and the crowd we are among will be ready to tread on them, yea, our own feet may be entangled in them, and so make us stumble, and possibly fall. Our only safest way is to gird up our affections wholly.
This perfect hope is enforced by the whole strain of it; for well may we fix our hope on that happiness to which we are appointed in the eternal election of God, ver. 2, and born to it by our new birth, ver. 3, 4, and preserved to it by His Almighty power, ver. 5, and cannot be cut short of it by all the afflictions and oppositions in the way; no, nor so much as deprived by them of our present joy and comfort in the assurance of it, ver. 6, 7, 8, 9. And then being taught the greatness and excellence of that blessed salvation, by the doctrine of the Prophets and Apostles, and the admiration of Angels, all these conspire to confirm our hope, to make it perfect and persevering to the end.
And we may also learn by the foregoing doctrine that this is the place of our trial and conflict, but the place of our rest is above. We must here have our loins girded, but when we come there, we may wear our long white robes at their full length without disturbance, for there is nothing there but peace; and without danger of defilement, for no unclean thing is there; yea, the streets of that new Jerusalem are paved with pure gold. To Him, then, who has prepared that city for us, let us ever give praise.
Ver. 14. As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance:
Ver. 15. But as he who has called you is holy, so you be holy in all manner of conversation;
Ver. 16. Because it is written, Be you holy; for I am holy.
Your word is a lamp unto my feet, says David, and a light unto my path;266 not only comfortable, as light is to the eyes, but with direction, as a lamp to his feet. Thus here the Apostle not only furnishes consolation against distress, but exhorts and directs his brethren in the way of holiness, without which the apprehension and feeling of those comforts cannot subsist.
This is none other than a clearer and fuller expression, and further pressing of that sobriety and spirituality of mind and life, which he jointly exhorted to, with that duty of perfect hope, ver. 13, as inseparably connected with it. If you would enjoy this hope, be not conformed to the lusts of your former ignorance, but be holy.
There is no doctrine in the world either so pleasant or so pure as that of Christianity: it is matchless, both in sweetness and holiness. The faith and hope of a Christian have in them an abiding precious balm of comfort; but this is never to be so lavished away, as to be poured into the puddle of an impure conscience; no, that were to lose it unworthily. As many as have this hope purify themselves, even as he is pure.267 Here they are commanded to be holy as he is holy. Faith first purifies the heart,268 empties it of the love of sin, and then fills it with the consolation of Christ and the hope of glory.
It is a foolish ungrounded fear, and such as argues inexperience of the nature and workings of Divine Grace, to imagine that the assured hope of salvation will beget unholiness and presumptuous boldness in sin, and that therefore the doctrine of that assurance is a doctrine of licentiousness. Our Apostle, we see, is not so sharp-sighted as these men think themselves; he sees no such matter, but indeed supposes the contrary as unquestionable; he takes not assured hope and holiness as enemies, but joins them as nearest friends; hope perfectly and be holy.
They are mutually strengthened and increased each by the other. The more assurance of salvation, the more holiness, the more delight in it, and study of it as the only way to that end. And as labor is most pleasant when we are made surest it shall not be lost, nothing does make the soul so nimble and active in obedience as this oil of gladness,269 this assured hope of glory. Again, the more holiness there is in the soul, the clearer always is this assurance; as we see the face of the heavens best when there are fewest clouds. The greatest affliction does not damp this hope so much as the smallest sin; yea, it may be the more lively and sensible to the soul by affliction; but by sin it always suffers loss, as the experience of all Christians does certainly teach them.
The Apostle exhorts to obedience, and enforces it by a most persuasive reason. His exhortation is, 1. Negative: Not fashioning yourselves. 2. Positive: Be you holy.
1. For the negative part of the exhortation. That from which he would remove and separate them is Lusts: this is in Scripture the usual name of all the irregular and sinful desires of the heart, both the polluted habits of them and their corrupt streams, both as they are within, and as they outwardly vent themselves in the lives of men. The Apostle St. John calls it the lust of the world,270 and love of the world,271 and then branches it into those three, which are, indeed, the base anti-trinity that the world worships, The lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.272
The soul of man unconverted is nothing but a den of impure lusts, wherein dwell pride, uncleanness, avarice, malice, &c., just as Babylon is described, Rev. 18:2, or as Isa. 13:21. Were a man’s eyes opened, he would as much abhor to remain with himself in that condition as to dwell in a house full of snakes and serpents, as St. Austin says. And the first part of conversion is at once to rid the soul of these annoying inhabitants; for there is no one at all found naturally vacant and free from them. Thus the Apostle here expresses of the believers to whom he wrote, that these lusts were theirs before, in their ignorance.
There is a truth implied in it, viz. that all sin arises from some kind of ignorance, or, at least, from present inadvertence and inconsideration, turning away the mind from the light; which, therefore, for the time, is as if it were not, and is all one with ignorance in the effect, and therefore the works of sin are all called works of darkness;273 for were the true visage of sin seen by a full light, undressed and unpainted, it were impossible, while it so appeared, that any one soul could be in love with it; it would rather flee from it, as hideous and abominable. But because the soul unrenewed is all darkness, therefore it is all lust and love of sin; there is no order in it, because no light. As at the first, in the world, confusion and darkness went together, and darkness was upon the face of the deep,274 it is so in the soul; the more ignorance, the more abundance of lusts.
That light which frees the soul, and rescues it from the very kingdom of darkness, must be somewhat beyond that which nature can attain to. All the light of philosophy, natural and moral, is not sufficient, yea, the very knowledge of the law, severed from Christ, serves not so to enlighten and renew the soul, as to free it from the darkness or ignorance here spoken of; for our Apostle writes to Jews who knew the law, and were instructed in it before their conversion, yet he calls those times, wherein Christ was unknown to them, the times of their ignorance. Though the stars shine never so bright, and the moon with them in its full, yet they do not altogether make it day; still it is night until the sun appears. Therefore the Hebrew doctors, upon that word of Solomon’s, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,275 say, Vana etiam lex, donec venerit Messias—Vain even the law, until Messiah come. Therefore of Him Zacharias says, The day-spring from on high has visited us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.276
A natural man may attain to very much acquired knowledge of the doctrine of Christ, and may discourse excellently of it, and yet still his soul be in the chains of darkness, fast locked up under the ignorance here mentioned, and so he may be still of a carnal mind, in subjection to these lusts of ignorance.
The saving light of faith is a beam of the Sun of Righteousness Himself, that He sends into the soul, by which He makes it discern His incomparable beauties, and by that sight alienates it from all those lusts and desires, which do then appear to be what indeed they are, vileness and filthiness itself; makes the soul wonder at itself, how it could love such base trash so long, and so fully resolves it now on the choice of Jesus Christ, the chiefest among ten thousand,277 yea, the fairest of the children of men,278 for that He is withal the only-begotten Son of God, the brightness of his (Father’s) glory, and the express image of his person.279
The soul once acquainted with Him, can, with disdain, turn off all the base solicitations and importunities of sin, and command them away that formerly had command over it, though they plead former familiarities, and the interest they once had in the heart of the Christian before it was enlightened and renewed. He can well tell them, after his sight of Christ, that it is true; while he knew no better pleasures than they were, he thought them lovely and pleasing, but that one glance of the face of Jesus Christ has turned them all into extreme blackness and deformity; that as soon as Christ appeared to him, they immediately lost all their credit and esteem in his heart, and have lost it forever; they need never look to recover it any more.
And it is by this that the Apostle enforces this warning. It is true, that the lusts and vanities that are in request in the world were so with you, but it was when you were blind, they were the lusts of your ignorance; but now you know how ill they will suit with the light of that Gospel which you profess, and that inward light of faith which is in the souls of those who are really believers.
Therefore, since you have renounced them, keep them still at that distance; not only never admit them more to lodge within you; that surely you cannot do; but do not so much as for custom’s sake, and in compliance with the world about you, outwardly conform yourselves to any of them, or make semblance to partake of them: as St. Paul says, Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them;280 reprove them by your carriage, and let the light of your holy lives reveal their foulness.
2. We have the positive part of the Apostle’s exhortation, Be holy. This includes the former, the renouncing of the lusts and pollutions of the world, both in heart and life; and adds further, the filling of their room, being cast out, with the beautifying graces of the Spirit of God, and the acting of those graces in their whole conversation, both in private and abroad; in conversing with themselves, and conversing with others, whether good or bad, in a constant, even course, still like themselves, and like Him who has called them: for it is a most unseemly and unpleasant thing to see a man’s life full of ups and downs, one step like a Christian and another like a worldling; it cannot choose but both pain himself, and mar the edification of others.
But as he who has called you is holy.] Consider whose you are, and you cannot deny that it becomes you to be holy. Consider your near relation to the holy God: this is expressed two ways, namely, As children, and As he who has called you; which is the same as if he had said, has begotten you again. The very outward vocation of those who profess Christ, presses holiness upon them, but the inward vocation far more. You were running to destruction in the way of sin, and there was a voice which, together with the Gospel preached to your ear, spoke into your heart, and called you back from that path of death to the way of holiness, which is the only way of life. He has severed you from the mass of the profane world, and picked you out to be jewels for Himself. He has set you apart for this purpose, that you may be holy to Him (as the Hebrew word, which signifies holiness, imports setting apart, or fitting for a peculiar use); be not then untrue to His design. God has not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness;281 therefore be holy. It is sacrilege for you to dispose of yourselves after the impure manner of the world, and to apply yourselves to any profane use, whom God has consecrated to Himself.
As children.] This is, no doubt, relative to that which he spoke, verse 3, by way of thanksgiving; and that Wherefore, in the 13th verse, draws it down here by way of exhortation. Since you are, by a spiritual and new birth, the children of such a great and good Father, who commands you to holiness, be obedient children, in being holy; and since He Himself is most holy, be like Him as His children: Be holy, as he is holy.
As obedient children.] Opposed to that expression, children of disobedience or unbelief,282 as the word may be rendered, and that is always the spring of disobedience; sons of mispersuasibleness, who will not be drawn and persuaded by the tenderest mercies of God. Now, though this Hebrew manner of speech, children of obedience or disobedience, signifies no more than obedient or disobedient persons, yet it signifies them most emphatically, and means a high degree of obedience or disobedience; these children of disobedience (verse 2) are likewise children of wrath (verse 3).
Of all children, the children of God are the most obliged to obedience, for He is both the wisest and the most loving of Fathers. And the sum of all His commands is that which is their glory and happiness, that they endeavor to be like Him, to resemble their heavenly Father. Be you therefore perfect, even as your Father who is in Heaven is perfect, says our Savior;283 and here the Apostle is citing out of the Law: You shall be holy; for I am holy.284 Law and Gospel agree in this. And as children who resemble their fathers, as they grow up in years, they grow the more like them; thus the children of God increase in their resemblance, and are daily more and more renewed after His image. There is in them an innate likeness by reason of His image impressed on them in their first renovation, and His Spirit dwelling within them; and there is a continual increase of it, by their pious imitation and study of conformity, which is here exhorted to.
The imitation of vicious men and the corrupt world is here forbidden. The imitation of men’s indifferent customs is base and servile; the imitation of the virtues of good men is commendable; but the imitation of this highest pattern, this primitive goodness, the most holy God, is the top of excellence. It is well said, Summa religionis est imitari quem colis.285 All of us offer Him some kind of worship, but few seriously study and endeavor this blessed conformity.
There is unquestionably, among those who profess themselves the people of God, a select number who are indeed His children, and bear His image both in their hearts and in their lives; this impression of holiness is on their souls and their conversation; but with the most, a name and a form of godliness are all they have for religion. Alas! we speak of holiness, and we hear of it, and it may be we commend it, but we don’t act holy; or if we do, it is but an acting of it, in the sense in which the word is often taken for a personated acting, as on a stage in the sight of men; not as in the sight of our lovely God, lodging it in our hearts, and from there diffusing it into all our actions. A child is then truly like his father, when not only his appearance resembles him, but still more so, his mind and inward disposition; thus the true children of God are like their heavenly Father in their words and in their actions, but most of all in heart.
It doesn’t matter if the profane world (which so hates God that it cannot endure His image) mocks and reviles; it is your honor to be, as David said,286 thus more vile, in growing still more like Him in holiness. So what if the polite man considers your fashion a little odd and too precise? it is because he knows nothing above that model of goodness which he has set himself, and therefore approves of nothing beyond it: he doesn’t know God, and therefore does not discern and esteem what is most like Him. When courtiers come down into the country, the common homebred people possibly think their habit strange; but they care not for that, it is the fashion at court. What need then that the godly should be so tender-foreheaded, as to be put out of countenance because the world looks on holiness as a singularity? it is the only fashion in the highest court, yea, of the King of kings Himself.
For I am holy.] As it will raise our endeavor high, to look on the highest pattern, so it will lay our thoughts low concerning ourselves. Men compare themselves with men, and readily with the worst, and flatter themselves with that comparative betterness. This is not the way to see our spots, to look into the muddy streams of profane men’s lives; but look into the clear fountain of the word, and there we may both discern and wash them. Consider the infinite holiness of God, and this will humble us to the dust. When Isaiah saw the glory of the Lord, and heard the Seraphim cry, Holy, holy, holy, he cried out of his own and the people’s unholiness, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. (Chap. 6:3, 5.)
Ver. 17. And if you call on the Father, who without respect of persons judges according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear.
The temptations that meet a Christian in the world, to turn him aside from the straight way of obedience and holiness, are either such as present the hope of some apparent good, to draw him from that way, or the fear of some evil, to drive and frighten him from it: and therefore the word of God is much in strengthening the Christian mind against these two; and it does it mainly, by possessing it both with hopes and fears of a higher nature, that do by far weigh down the other.
The most frequent assaults of temptation are upon these two passions of the mind: therefore they are chiefly to be fortified and defended by a hope and fear opposite to those that do assault us, and sufficiently strong to resist and repel them. These two, therefore, our Apostle here urges:
1. The hope of that glory which the Gospel propounds, and so outbids all the proffers of the world, both in the greatness and the certainty of its promises. 2. The fear of God, the greatest and most just Judge, alone worthy to be feared and reverenced; the highest anger and enmity of all the world being less than nothing, in comparison of His smallest displeasure. We have here,
I. This fear. II. The reason enforcing it. III. The term or continuance of it.
I. The fear itself, In fear. But how does this square with the high discourse that went before, of perfect assured hope, of faith, and love, and joy, yea, joy unspeakable and glorious, arising out of these? How have all those excellences fallen, as it were, into a dungeon, when fear is mentioned after them! Doesn’t the Apostle St. John say, that perfect love casts out fear?287 And is it not more clearly opposite to perfect or assured hope, and to faith and joy?
If you understand it correctly, this is such a fear as does not prejudice, but preserves those other graces, and the comfort and joy that arise from them: and they all agree so well with it, that they are naturally helps to each other. It would be superfluous to insist on defining this passion of fear, and the many distinctions of it, either with philosophers or divines. The fear here recommended is, out of question, a holy self-suspicion and fear of offending God, which may not only consist with assured hope of salvation, and with faith, and love, and spiritual joy, but is their inseparable companion; as all divine graces are linked together (as the heathens said of their three graces), and, as they dwell together, they grow or decrease together. The more a Christian believes, and loves, and rejoices in the love of God, certainly the more unwilling he is to displease Him, and if in danger of displeasing Him, the more afraid of it; and, on the other side, this fear being the true principle of a wary and holy conversation, fleeing sin, and the occasions of sin, and temptations to it, and resisting them when they make an assault, is as a watch or guard that keeps out the enemies and disturbers of the soul, and so preserves its inward peace, keeps the assurance of faith and hope unmolested, and the joy that they cause, and the communion and societies of love between the soul and her beloved, uninterrupted; all that are then most in danger when this fear abates and falls to slumbering; for then, some notable sin or other is ready to break in and put all into disorder, and for a time make those graces, and the comfort of them to present feeling, as much to seek as if they were not there at all.
No wonder, then, that the Apostle, having stirred up his Christian brethren, whatever be their estate in the world, to seek to be rich in those jewels of faith, and hope, and love, and spiritual joy, and then considering that they travel amongst a world of thieves and robbers,—no wonder, I say, that he adds this, advises them to give those their jewels in custody, under God, to this trusty and watchful grace of godly fear; and having earnestly exhorted them to holiness, he is very fitly particular in this fear, which makes up so great a part of that holiness, that it is often in Scripture named for it all.
Solomon calls it the beginning (or the top) of knowledge:288 the word signifies both, and it is both. The beginning of it is the beginning of wisdom, and the progress and increase of it, is the increase of wisdom. That hardy rashness which many consider valor is the companion of ignorance; and of all rashness, boldness to sin is the most witless and foolish. There is in this, as in all fear, an apprehension of an evil of which we are in danger. The evil is sin, and the displeasure of God and punishment following upon sin. The godly man judges wisely, as the truth is, that sin is the greatest of evils, and the cause of all other evils; it is a transgression of the just law of God, and so a provocation of His just anger, and the cause of those punishments, temporal, spiritual, and eternal, which He inflicts. And then, considering how mighty He is to punish, considering both the power and the reach of His hand, that it is both most heavy and unavoidable; all these things may and should concur to the working of this fear.
There is, no doubt, a great difference between those two kinds of fear that are usually differentiated by the names of servile and filial fear; but certainly, the most genuine fear of the sons of God, who call Him Father, does not exclude the consideration of His justice and of the punishment of sin which His justice inflicts. We see here, it is used as the great motive of this fear, that He judges every man according to his works. And David, in that Psalm in which he so much breathes forth those other sweet affections of love, and hope, and delight in God and in His word, yet expresses this fear even of the justice of God: My flesh trembles for fear of you; and I am afraid of your judgments.289 The flesh is to be awed by Divine judgments, though the higher and surer part of the soul is strongly and freely tied with the cords of love. Temporal corrections, indeed, they fear not so much in themselves, as that impression of wrath that may be upon them for their sins.290 That is the main matter of their fear, because their happiness is in His love, and the light of His countenance, that is their life. They regard not how the world looks upon them; they care not who frown, as long as He smiles on them; because no other enemy nor evil in the world can deprive them of this but their own sin, therefore that is what they fear most.
As the evil is great, so the Christian has great reason to fear in regard of his danger of it, considering the multitude, strength, and craft of his enemies, and his own weakness and lack of skill to resist them. And his sad experience in being often foiled, teaches him that it is so; he cannot be ignorant of it; he finds how often his own resolutions and purposes deceive him. Certainly, a godly man is sometimes driven to wonder at his own frailty and inconsistency. What strange differences will be between him and himself! how high and how delightful at some times are his thoughts of God and the glory of the life to come; and yet, how easily at another time base temptations will soil him, or, at the least, molest and vex him! And this keeps him in a continual fear, and that fear in continual vigilance and circumspection. When he looks up to God, and considers the truth of His promises, and the sufficiency of His grace and protection, and the almighty strength of his Redeemer, these things fill his soul with confidence and assurance; but when he turns his eye downward again upon himself, and finds so much remaining corruption within, and so many temptations, and dangers, and adversaries without, this forces him not only to fear, but to despair of himself; and it should do so, that his trust in God may be the purer and more entire. That confidence in God will not make him secure and presumptuous in himself, nor that fear of himself make him diffident of God. This fear is not opposite to faith, but high-mindedness and presumption are.291 To a natural man, it would seem an odd kind of reasoning that of the Apostle: It is God which works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure:292 therefore (would he think) you may save labor, you may sit still, and not work, or, if you work, you may work fearlessly, being so sure of His help: but the Apostle is of another mind; his inference is, therefore, work out your own salvation, and work it with fear and trembling.293
But he who has assurance of salvation, why should he fear? If there is truth in his assurance, nothing can disappoint him, not sin itself. It is true; but it is no less true, that if he isn’t afraid to sin, there is no truth in his assurance: it is not the assurance of faith, but the mispersuasion of a secure and profane mind. Suppose that it’s true, that the sins of a godly man cannot be such as to cut him short of that salvation of which he is assured; yet they may be such that for a time will deprive him of that assurance, and not only remove the comfort he has in that, but let in horrors and anguish of conscience in its place. Though a believer is freed from hell, (and we may overstrain this assurance, in our doctrine, beyond what the most sober and devout men in the world can ever find in themselves, though they will not trouble themselves to contest and dispute with those who say they have it,) so that his soul cannot come there: yet some sins may bring as it were a hell into his soul for a time, and this is reason enough for any Christian in his right mind to be afraid of sin. No man would willingly risk a fall that may break his leg, or some other bone; though he could be made sure that he should not break his neck, or that his life were not at all in danger, and that he should be perfectly cured, yet, the pain and trouble of such a hurt would scare him, and make him wary and fearful when he walks in danger. The broken bones that David complains of after his fall294 may work fear and wariness in those who hear him, even if they were assured of a similar recovery.
This fear is not cowardice: it does not debase, but elevates the mind; for it drowns all lower fears, and begets true fortitude and courage to encounter all dangers, for a good conscience and the obeying of God. The righteous are bold as a lion.295 He dares do any thing but offend God; and to dare that is the greatest folly, and weakness, and baseness, in the world. From this fear have sprung all the generous resolutions and patient sufferings of the Saints and Martyrs of God; because they dare not sin against Him, therefore they dare be imprisoned, and impoverished, and tortured, and die for Him. Thus the Prophet sets carnal and godly fear as opposite, and the one expelling the other.296 And our Savior, Be not afraid of those who kill the body;—but fear him, who after he has killed has power to cast into hell; yea, I say to you, Fear him.297 Fear not, but fear; and therefore fear, that you may not fear. This fear is like the trembling that has been observed in some of great courage before battles. Moses was bold and fearless in dealing with a proud and wicked king, but when God appeared, he said, (as the Apostle informs us,) I exceedingly fear and quake.298
II. The reason we have here to persuade to this fear is twofold. 1. Their relation to God. 2. Their relation to the world.
1. To God as their Father, and as their Judge. Because you do call Him Father, and profess yourselves His children, begotten again by Him (for this verse looks back to that expression), it becomes you, as obedient children, to stand in awe, and fear to offend Him your Father; and a Father so full of goodness and tender love. But as He is the best Father, so consider that He is withal the greatest and most just Judge: He judges every man according to his work.
God always sees and discerns men, and all their works, and judges, that is, accounts of them, as they are, and sometimes in this life declares this His judgment of them to their own consciences, and in some to the view of others, in visible punishments and rewards; but the most solemn judgment of all is reserved to that great day which He has appointed, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness299 by His Son Jesus.
There is here the sovereignty of this Judge, the universality of His Judgment, and the equity of it. All must answer at His great court; He is supreme Judge of the world. He made it and has therefore unquestionable right to judge it. He judges every man; and it is a most righteous judgment, which has these two in it: 1. An exact and perfect knowledge of all men’s works; 2. Impartial judgment of them so known. This second is expressed negatively, by removing the crooked rule which man’s judgment often follows; it is without consideration of those personal differences which men eye so much. And the first is according to the work itself. He accepts not the persons of princes, nor regards the rich more than the poor; and the reason is added, For they all are the work of his hands.300 He made all the persons, and He makes all those differences Himself as it pleases Him; therefore He does not admire them as we do, no, nor at all regard them. We find very great odds between stately palaces and poor cottages, between a prince’s robe and a beggar’s cloak; but to God they are all one; all these petty differences vanish in comparison of His own greatness. Men are great and small, compared with one another; but they altogether amount to just nothing compared to Him. We find high mountains and low valleys on this earth; but compared with the vast compass of the heavens, it is all but as a point, and has no sensible greatness at all.
Nor does He regard any other differences to bias His judgment, from the works of men, to their persons. You profess the true religion, and call Him Father; but if you live devoid of His fear, and are disobedient children, He will not spare you because of that relation, but rather punish you the more severely. Because you pretended to be His children, and yet obeyed Him not, therefore you shall find Him your Judge, and an impartial Judge of your works. Remember, therefore, that your Father is this Judge, and fear to offend Him. But then, indeed, a believer may look back to the other comfort, who abuses it not to a sinful security. He resolves thus willingly: "I will not sin, because my Father is this just Judge: but for my frailties I will hope for mercy, because the Judge is my Father."
Their works.] This comprehends all actions and words, yea, thoughts; and each work entirely, taken outside and inside together: for He sees all alike, and judges according to all together. He looks on the wheels and paces within, as well as on the handle without, and therefore we ought to fear the least crookedness of our intentions in the best works; for if we entertain any such, and study not singleness of heart, this will cast all, though we pray and hear the word, and preach it, and live outwardly without blame. And in that great judgment, all secret things shall be revealed; as they are always open to the eye of this Judge, so He shall then open them before men and angels: therefore let the remembrance and frequent consideration of this All-seeing Judge, and of that great judgment, wean our hearts and beget in us this fear.301 If you would have confidence in that day, and not fear it when it comes, fear it now, so as to avoid sin; for those who now tremble at it, shall then, when it comes, lift up their faces with joy; and those who will not fear it now shall then be overwhelmed with fears and terror; they shall have such a burden of fear then as that they shall account the hills and mountains lighter than it.
Pass the time of your sojourning here in fear.] In this I think is implied another incentive of this fear, arising, 2. from their relation to this world. You are sojourners and strangers, (as here the word signifies,) and a wary, deportment carriage becomes strangers, because they are most exposed to wrongs, and hard accidents. Enemies and snares surround you; how can you be secure in the midst of them? This is not your rest; watchful fear becomes this your sojourning. Perfect peace and security are reserved for you at home, and that is the last term of this fear; it continues all the time of this sojourning life, dies not before us; we and it shall expire together.
III. This, then, is the term, or continuance of this fear.
Happy is the man who fears always, said Solomon,302 in secret and in society, in his own house, and in God’s. We must hear the word with fear, and preach it with fear, afraid to miscarry in our intentions and manners. Serve the Lord with fear, yea, in times of inward comfort and joy, yet rejoice, with trembling.303 Not only when a man feels most his own weakness, but when he finds himself strongest. None are so high advanced in grace here below, as to be out of need of this grace: but when their sojourning shall be done, and they have come home to their Father’s house above, then no more fearing. No entrance for dangers there, and therefore no fear. A holy reverence of the majesty of God they shall indeed have then most of all, as the angels still have, because they shall see Him most clearly, and because the more He is known the more He is reverenced; but this fear that relates to danger shall then vanish, for in that world there is neither sin, nor sorrow for sin, nor temptation to sin; no more conflicts, but after a full and final victory, an eternal peace, and everlasting triumph. Not only fear, but faith, and hope, do imply some imperfection not consistent with that blessed estate; and therefore all of them having obtained their end, shall end; faith in sight, hope in possession, and fear in perfect safety; and everlasting love and delight shall fill the whole soul in the vision of God.
Ver. 18. Forasmuch as you know that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers;
Ver. 19. But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.
It is impossible for a Christian to give himself to conform to the world’s ungodliness, unless first he forgets who he is, and by what means he attained to be what he is. Therefore the Apostle, persuading his brethren to holiness, puts them in mind of this, as the strongest incentive. Not only have you the example of God set before you, as your Father, to beget in you the love of holiness, as being your liveliest resemblance of Him; and the justice of God as your Judge, to argue you into a pious fear of offending Him; but consider this, that He is your Redeemer; He has bought out your liberty from sin and the world, to be altogether His; and think on the price laid down in this ransom; and these out of question will prevail with you.
We have here, I. The evil dissuaded from, viz. A vain conversation. II. The dissuasion itself.
1. It is called their vain conversation. 2. Received by tradition from their fathers. By this I think is to be understood, not only the superstitious and vain devices in religion, which abounded amongst the Jews by tradition, for which our Savior often reproved them while He was conversant among them, as we find in the Gospel; (and all this was meant, ver. 14, by the lusts of their former ignorance;) but generally, all the corrupt and sinful customs of their lives; for it seems not so pertinent to His purpose when exhorting to holiness of life, to speak of their superstitious traditions as of their other sinful habits, which are no less hereditary, and by the power of example, traditional: which because of their common root in man’s sinful nature, pass so easily from parents to children, nature making their example powerful, and the corruption of nature giving it most power in that which is evil. And this is the rather mentioned to take away the force of it, and cut off that influence which it might have had in their minds. There is a kind of conduct that the authority of your father pleads for; but remember, that it is that very thing from which you are delivered, and called to a new state and form of life, and have a new pattern set before you, instead of that corrupt example.
It is one great error, not only in religion and manners, but even in human science, that men are ready to take things upon trust, unexamined, from those who went before them, partly out of easiness and sparing the pains of trial, partly out of a superstitious over-esteem of their authority; but the chief reason why corruptions in religion, and in the practice of preceding ages, take so much with posterity, is that before mentioned, the universal sympathy and agreement which those evils have with the corrupt nature of man.
The prophet Ezekiel observes this particularly in the Jews, chap. 20 ver. 24, that their eyes were after their fathers’ idols, contrary to God’s express forewarning, ver. 18. This was the great quarrel of the heathens against the Christian religion in the primitive times, that it was new and unknown to their fathers; and the ancient writers of those times are frequent in showing the vanity of this exception, particularly Lactantius.304 The same prejudice does the Church of Rome sing over continually against the reformed religion: "Where was it before Luther?" &c. But this is a foolish and unreasonable diversion from the search of truth, because error is more at hand; or from the entertaining it, being found, because falsehood is in possession.
As in religion, so in the course and practice of men’s lives, the stream of sin runs from one age into another, and every age makes it greater, adding something to what it receives, as rivers grow in their course by the accession of brooks that fall into them; and every man when he is born falls like a drop into this main current of corruption, and so is carried down with it, and this by reason of its strength, and his own nature, which willingly dissolves into it, and runs along with it. In this is manifest the power of Divine grace in a man’s conversion, that it severs him so powerfully from the profane world, and gives him strength to run contrary to the great current of wickedness that is round about him, in his parents possibly, and in his kindred and friends, and most of the men that he meets. The voice of God, that powerful word of effectual calling which He speaks into the heart, makes a man break through all, and leave all to follow God, as Abraham did, being called out from his kindred and father’s house, to journey towards the land that God had promised him.305 And this is that which was spoken to the Church and to each believing soul by the Spirit of God, Forget also your own people, and your father’s house; so shall the king greatly desire your beauty.306 Regard not what others think, though they are your nearest friends, but study only to please Him, and then you shall please Him indeed. Do not deform your face with looking out asquint to the custom of the world, but look straightforward on Him, and so you shall be beautiful in His eyes. When God calls a man in a remarkable manner, his profane friends are all in a tumult: "What needs this, to be more precise than we and all your neighbours?" But all this is a confused noise that works nothing on the heart that the Lord has touched: it must follow Him, though by trampling upon friends and kindred, if they lie in the way. We see how powerfully a word from Christ drew His disciples to leave all and follow Him.
The exhortation is against all sinful and unholy conduct, by whatever authority and example recommended to us. The Apostle’s reasons in these words are strong and pressing; there is one expressed in the very name he gives it; it is vain conversation.
The mind of man, the guide and source of his actions, while it is estranged from God, is nothing but a forge of vanities. The Apostle St. Paul speaks this of the Gentiles, that they became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened,307 their great naturalists and philosophers not excepted; and the more they strove to play the wise men, the more they deceived themselves. Thus likewise, Eph. 4:17. And thus the Lord complains by His prophet Isaiah, of the extreme folly of His people,308 and by Jeremy, that their hearts are lodges of vain thoughts:309 and these are the true cause of a vain conversation.
The whole course of a man’s life out of Christ is nothing but a continual trading in vanity, running a circle of toil and labor, and reaping no profit at all. This is the vanity of every natural man’s conduct, that not only others are not benefited by it, but it is fruitless to himself; there arises to him no solid good out of it. That is most truly vain, which attains not its proper end; now, since all a man’s endeavors aim at his satisfaction and contentment, that conduct which gives him nothing of that, but removes him further from it, is justly called vain conversation. What fruit had you then, says the Apostle, in those things whereof you are now ashamed?310 Either count that shame which at the best grows out of them, their fruit, or confess they have none; therefore they are called the unfruitful works of darkness.311
Let the sensuous person declare on his deathbed, what pleasure or profit then abides with him of all his former sinful delights. Let him tell if there remains anything of them all, but that which he would gladly not have to remain—the sting of an accusing conscience, which is as enduring as the delight of sin was short and vanishing. Let the covetous and ambitious declare freely, even those who have prospered most in their pursuit of riches and honor, what ease all their possessions or titles do then help them to; whether their pains are any less because their chests are full, or their houses stately, or a multitude of friends and servants are waiting on them with hat and knee. And if all these things cannot ease the body, how much less can they quiet the mind? And therefore is it not true, that all pains in these things, and the uneven ways into which they sometimes stepped aside to serve those ends, and generally, that all the ways of sin in which they have wearied themselves, were vain rollings and tossings up and down, not leading to a certain haven of peace and happiness? It is a lamentable thing to be deluded a whole lifetime with a false dream.312
You who are going on in the common road of sin, although many, and possibly your own parents, have trodden it before you, and the greatest part of those you now know are in it with you, and keep you company in it, yet, be persuaded to stop a little, and ask yourselves what you seek, or expect in the end of it. Would it not grieve any laboring man, to work hard all day, and have no wages to look for at night? It is a greater loss to wear out our whole life, and in the evening of our days find nothing but anguish and vexation. Let us then think this—the part of our life that is spent in the ways of sin, is all lost, fruitless, and vain conversation.
And in so far as the Apostle says here, You are redeemed from this conversation, this shows it to be a servile slavish condition, as the other word, vain, expresses it to be fruitless. And this is the madness of a sinner, that he imagines liberty in that which is the basest thraldom; as those poor frantic persons who are lying ragged and bound in chains, yet imagine that they are kings, that their irons are chains of gold, their rags robes, and their filthy lodge a palace. As it is misery to be liable to the sentence of death, so it is slavery to be subject to the dominion of sin; and he who is delivered from the one is likewise set free from the other. There is one redemption from both. He, who is redeemed from destruction by the blood of Christ, is likewise redeemed from that vain and unholy conversation that leads to it. So Tit.2:14. Our Redeemer was anointed for this purpose, not to free the captives from the sentence of death, and yet leave them still in prison, but to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.313
You easily persuade yourselves that Christ has died for you, and redeemed you from hell; but you consider not, that if so, He has likewise redeemed you from your vain conduct, and has set you free from the service of sin. Certainly, while you find not that, you can have no assurance of the other: if the chains of sin continue still upon you, for anything you can know, these chains bind you over to the other chains of darkness the Apostle speaks of.314 Let us not delude ourselves: if we find the love of sin and of the world working stronger in our hearts than the love of Christ, we are not as yet partakers of His redemption.
But if we have indeed laid hold upon Him as our Redeemer, then are we redeemed from the service of sin; not only from the grossest profaneness, but even from all kinds of fruitless and vain conduct. And therefore we ought to stand fast in that liberty, and not to entangle ourselves again to any of our former vanities.315
Not redeemed with corruptible things.] From the high price of our redemption, the Apostle mainly enforces our esteem of it, and urges the preservation of that liberty so dearly bought, and the avoidance of all that unholiness and vain conversation, from which we are freed by that redemption. First, He expresses it negatively, not with corruptible things; (How foolish we are, who hunt them as if they were incorruptible and everlasting treasures!) no, not the best of these things, those that men value most—not with silver and gold; these are not of any value at all towards the ransom of souls. They cannot buy off the death of the body, nor purchase the continuation of temporal life; much less can they reach to the worth of spiritual and eternal life. The precious soul could not be redeemed except by blood, and by no blood but that of this spotless Lamb, Jesus Christ, who is God equal with the Father; and therefore His blood is called the blood of God.316 So that the Apostle may well call it here precious, exceeding the whole world, and all things in it, in value. Therefore do not frustrate the sufferings of Christ: if He shed His blood to redeem you from sin, don’t be false to His purpose.
As a Lamb without blemish.] He is that great and everlasting Sacrifice who gave value and virtue to all the sacrifices under the Law: their blood was of no worth to the purging away of sin, but by relation to His blood; and the laws concerning the choice of the Paschal Lamb, or other lambs for sacrifice, were but obscure and imperfect shadows of His purity and perfections, who is the undefiled Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.317 A lamb in meekness and silence, he opens not his mouth.318 And in purity here without spot or blemish. My beloved, says the spouse, is white and ruddy;319 white in spotless innocence, and red in suffering a bloody death.
Forasmuch as you know.] It is that which must make all this effectual, the right knowledge and due consideration of it. You know it already, but I would have you know it better, more deeply and practically—turn it often over, be more in the study and meditation of it. There is work enough in it still for the most discerning mind; it is a mystery so deep, that you shall never reach the bottom of it, and besides, so useful, that you shall find always new profit by it. Our folly is, we gape after new things, and yet are in effect ignorant of the things we think we know best. That learned Apostle who knew so much, and spoke so many tongues, yet says, I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.320 And again he expresses this as the top of his ambition, That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.321 That conformity is this only knowledge. He who has his lusts unmortified, and a heart unweaned from the world, though he knows all the history of the death and sufferings of Jesus Christ, and can discourse well of them, yet indeed he knows them not.
If you would increase much in holiness, and be strong against the temptations to sin, this is the only art of it; view much, and so seek to know much of the death of Jesus Christ. Consider often at how high a rate we were redeemed from sin, and provide this answer for all the enticements of sin and the world: "Except you can offer my soul something beyond that price that was given for it on the cross, I cannot listen to you."—"Far be it from me," will a Christian say, who considers this redemption, "that ever I should prefer a base lust, or anything in this world, or it all, to Him, who gave Himself to die for me, and paid my ransom with His blood. His matchless love has freed me from the miserable captivity of sin, and has forever fastened me to the sweet yoke of His obedience. Let Him alone dwell and rule within me, and let Him never go forth from my heart, who for my sake refused to come down from the Cross."
Ver. 20. Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.
Of all those considerations (and there are many) that may move men to obedience, there is not one that persuades both more sweetly and strongly, than the sense of God’s goodness and mercy towards men; and amongst all the evidences of that, there is none like the sending and giving of His Son for man’s redemption; therefore the Apostle, having mentioned that, insists further on it; and in these words expresses, 1. The purpose; 2. The performance; and, 3. The application of it.
1. The purpose or decree foreknown; but it is well rendered, foreordained, for this knowing is decreeing, and there is little either solid truth or profit in distinguishing them.
We usually say that where there is little wisdom there is much chance; and comparatively amongst men, some are far more foresighted, and of further reach than others; yet the wisest and most provident men, both lacking skill to design all things correctly, and power to act as they contrive, encounter many unexpected casualties and frequent disappointments in their undertakings. But with God, where both wisdom and power are infinite, there can be neither any chance nor resistance from without, nor any imperfection at all in the contrivance of things within Himself that can give cause to add, or abate, or alter anything in the frame of His purposes. The model of the whole world, and of all the course of time, was with Him one and the same from all eternity, and whatever is brought to pass, is exactly answerable to that pattern, for with Him is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.322 There is nothing dark to the Father of lights: He sees at one view through all things and all ages, from the beginning of time to the end of it, yea, from eternity to eternity. And this incomprehensible wisdom is too wonderful for us; we do but childishly stammer when we offer to speak of it.
It is no wonder that men beat their own brains, and knock their heads against one another, in the contest of their opinions, to little purpose, in their several moldings of God’s decree. Is not this to cut and square God’s thoughts to ours, and examine His sovereign purposes by the low principles of human wisdom? How much more learned than all such knowledge is the Apostle’s ignorance, when he cries out, O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!323 Why then should any man debate what place, in the series of God’s decrees, is to be assigned to this purpose of sending His Son in the flesh? Let us rather (seeing it is manifest that it was for the redemption of lost mankind) admire that same love of God to mankind, which appears in that purpose of our recovery by the Word made flesh;324 that before man had made himself miserable, yea, before either he or the world was made, this thought of boundless love was in the bosom of God, to send His Son forth from there, to bring fallen man out of misery and restore him to happiness; and to do this, not only by taking on his nature, but the curse—to shift it off from us who were sunk under it, and to bear it Himself, and by bearing it to take it away. The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.325 And to this He was appointed, says the Apostle.326
Before the foundation of the world.] Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God.327 Although the learned probably328 think it evincible by human reason, yet some of those who have gloried most in that, and are generally considered masters of reason, have not seen it by that light. Therefore, in order that we may have a divine belief of it, we must learn it from the word of God, and be persuaded of its truth by the Spirit of God, that the whole world, and all things in it, were drawn out of nothing by His almighty power, who is the only eternal and uncreated Being, and therefore the fountain and source of being to all things.
Foundation.] This word plainly intimates the resemblance of the world to a building; and such a building it is, as displays the greatness of Him who framed it; so spacious, rich, and comely, so firm a foundation, raised to such a high and stately roof, and set with variety of stars, as with jewels, therefore called, as some think it, the work of His fingers,329 to express the curious artifice that appears in them. Though naturalists have attempted to give the reason for the earth’s stability from its heaviness, which stays it necessarily in the lowest part of the world, yet that does not lessen our admiration of the wisdom and power of God in laying its foundation so, and establishing it; for it is His will that is the first cause of that, its nature, and has appointed that to be the property of its heaviness, to fix it there; and therefore Job alleges this amongst the wonderful works of God, and evidences of His power, that He hangs the earth upon nothing.330
Before there was time, or place, or any creature, God, the blessed Trinity, was in Himself, and as the Prophet speaks, inhabiting eternity,331 completely happy in Himself; but intending to manifest and communicate His goodness, He gave beginning to the world, and to time with it; made all to set forth His goodness, and the most excellent of His creatures to contemplate and enjoy it. But amongst all the works He intended before time, and in time effected, this is the masterpiece, which is here said to be foreordained, the manifesting of God in the flesh for man’s redemption, and that by His Son Jesus Christ as the first-born among many brethren,332 that those appointed for salvation should be rescued from the common misery, and be made one mystical body, of which Christ is the head, and so entitled to that everlasting glory and happiness that He has purchased for them.
This, I say, is the great work, in which all those glorious attributes shine jointly, the wisdom, and power, and goodness, and justice, and mercy of God. As in great maps, or pictures, you will see the border decorated with meadows and fountains, and flowers, &c., represented in it, but in the middle you have the main design; thus is this foreordained redemption amongst the works of God; all His other works in the world, all the beauty of the creatures, and the succession of ages, and things that come to pass in them, are but as the border to this as the main-piece. But as a foolish unskilled beholder, not discerning the excellence of the principal piece in such maps or pictures, gazes only on the fair border, and goes no further, so do the greatest part of us: our eyes are taken with the goodly show of the world and appearance of earthly things; but this great work of God, Christ foreordained, and in time sent for our redemption, although it most deserves our attentive regard, yet we do not view and consider it as we ought.
2. We have the performance of that purpose, Was manifested in these last times for you.] He was manifested both by His incarnation, according to that word of the Apostle St. Paul, manifested in the flesh,333 and manifested by His marvelous works and doctrine; by His sufferings and death, resurrection and ascension, by the sending down of the Holy Ghost according to His promise, and by the preaching of the Gospel, in the fullness of time that God had appointed, in which all the prophecies that foretold His coming, and all the types and ceremonies that prefigured Him, had their accomplishment.
The times of the Gospel are often called the last times by the prophets, because the Jewish priesthood and ceremonies being abolished, that which succeeded was appointed by God to remain the same to the end of the world. Besides this, the time of our Savior’s incarnation may be called the last times, because although it was not near the end of time, by many ages, yet in all probability it is much nearer the end of time than the beginning of it. Some resemble the time of His sufferings in the end of the world to the paschal lamb, which was slain in the evening.
It was doubtless the suitable time; but notwithstanding, the schoolmen offer at reasons to prove the fitness of it, as their mood is to prove all things—none dare, I think, conclude, but if God had so appointed, it might have been either sooner or later. And our safest way is to rest in this, that it was the fit time, because so it pleased Him, and to seek no other reason why, having promised the Messiah so quickly after man’s fall, He deferred His coming about four thousand years, and for a great part of that time shut up the knowledge of Himself and the true religion within the narrow compass of that one nation of which Christ was to be born: of these and other such things, we can give no reason but that which He teaches us in a like case, Even so, Father; for so it seemed good in your sight.334
3. The application of this manifestation, For you.] The Apostle represents these things to those he writes to, particularly for their use; therefore he applies it to them, but without prejudice of the believers who went before, or of those who were to follow in after-ages. He who is here said to be fore-appointed before the foundation of the world, is therefore called a Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.335 And as the virtue of His death looks backward to all preceding ages, whose faith and sacrifices looked forward to it; so the same death is of force and perpetual value to the end of the world. After he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, says the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews,336 He sat down on the right hand of God; for by one offering he has perfected forever those who are sanctified. The cross on which He was extended points, in the length of it, to heaven and earth, reconciling them together, and in the breadth of it, to former and following ages, as being equally salvation to both.
In this appropriating and peculiar interest in Jesus Christ is our happiness, without which it avails not that He was ordained from eternity, and manifested in time. It is not the general contemplation, but the peculiar possession of Christ, that gives both solid comfort and strong persuasion to obedience and holiness, which is here the Apostle’s particular scope.
Ver. 21. Who by him do believe in God, who raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God.
Now, because it is faith that gives the soul this particular title to Jesus Christ, the Apostle adds this, to declare whom he meant by you. For you, says he, who by him do believe in God, &c.
Where we have, 1. The complete object of faith. 2. The ground or warrant of it. The object, God in Christ. The ground or warrant, In that he raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory.
A man may have, while living out of Christ, yea, he must, he cannot choose but have a conviction within him, that there is a God; and further he may have, even out of Christ, some kind of belief of those things that are spoken concerning God; but to repose on God as his God and his salvation, which is indeed to believe in Him,—this cannot be but where Christ is the medium through which we look upon God; for as long as we look upon God through our own guiltiness, we can see nothing but His wrath, and apprehend Him as an armed enemy; and therefore are so far from resting on Him as our happiness, that the more we view it, the faster we flee from Him, and cry out, Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?337 But our Savior, taking sin out of the way, puts Himself between our sins and God, and so makes a wonderful change of our perception of Him. When you look through a red glass, the whole heavens seem bloody; but through pure uncolored glass, you receive the clear light that is so refreshing and comfortable to behold. When unpardoned sin is between, and we look on God through that, we can perceive nothing but anger and enmity in His countenance; but make Christ once the medium, our Redeemer, and through Him, as clear, transparent glass, the beams of God’s favorable countenance shine in upon the soul; the Father cannot look upon His well-beloved Son, but graciously and pleasingly. God looks on us outside of Christ, sees us rebels, and fit to be condemned; we look on God as being just and powerful to punish us; but when Christ is between, God looks on us in Him as justified, and we look on God in Him as pacified, and see the smiles of His favorable countenance. Take Christ out, all is terrible—interpose Him, all is full of peace; therefore set Him always between, and by Him we shall believe in God.
The warrant and ground of believing in God by Christ is this, that God raised Him from the dead, and gave Him glory, which evidences the full satisfaction of His death; and in all that work, both in His humiliation and exaltation, standing in our place, we may consider it, His as ours. If all is paid that could be exacted of Him, and therefore He set free from death, then are we acquitted, and have nothing to pay. If He was raised from the dead, and exalted to glory, then so shall we; He has taken possession of that glory for us, and we may judge ourselves possessed of it already, because He, our Head, possesses it.
The last words of the verse confirm this to us, implying this to be the very purpose and end for which God, having given Him to death, raised him up and gave him glory: it is for this end expressly, that our faith and hope might be in God. The last end is, that we may have life and glory through Him; the nearer end, that in the meanwhile, until we attain them, we may have firm belief and hope in them, and rest on God as the Giver of them, and so in part enjoy them beforehand, and be upheld in our joy and conflicts by the comfort of them. And as St. Stephen in his vision,338 Faith, in a spiritual way, looks through all the visible heavens, and sees Christ at the Father’s right hand, and is comforted by that in the greatest troubles, though it were amidst a shower of stones, as St. Stephen was. The comfort is no less than this, that being by faith made one with Christ, His present glory wherein He sits at the Father’s right hand is assurance to us, that where He is, we shall be also.339
Ver. 22. Seeing you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that you love one another with a pure heart fervently.
Jesus Christ is made unto us of God, wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.340 It is a known truth, and yet very necessary to be often represented to us, that redemption and holiness are undivided companions, yea, that we are redeemed on purpose for this end, that we should be holy. The pressing of this, we see, is here the Apostle’s scope; and having by that reason enforced it in the general, he now takes that as concluded and confessed, and so makes use of it particularly, to exhort to that main Christian grace of brotherly love.
The obedience and holiness mentioned in the foregoing verses, comprehend the whole duties and frame of a Christian life towards God and men: and, having urged that in the general, he specifies this grace of mutual Christian love, as the great evidence of their sincerity and the truth of their love to God; for men are subject to much hypocrisy this way, and deceive themselves; if they find themselves diligent in religious exercises, they scarcely once ask their hearts how they stand affected this way, namely, in love to their brethren. They can come constantly to the church, and pray, it may be, at home too, and yet cannot find in their hearts to forgive an injury.
As forgiving injuries argues the truth of piety, so it is that which makes all conversation both sweet and profitable, and besides, it graces and commends men and their holy profession, to those who are without and strangers to it, yea, even to their enemies.
Therefore is it that our Savior does so much recommend this to His disciples, and they to others, as we see in all their Epistles. He gives it to them as the very badge and livery by which they should be known as His followers, By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.341 And St. Paul is frequent in exhorting to, and extolling this grace. See Rom. 12:10, and 13:8; Gal. 5:13; Eph. 4:2; and in many other places. He calls it the bond of perfectness,342 the grace that unites and binds all together. So does our Apostle here, and often in this and the other Epistle: and that beloved disciple St. John, who leaned on our Savior’s breast, drank deep of that spring of love that was here, and therefore it streams forth so abundantly in his writings; they contain nothing so much as this divine doctrine of love.
We have here, 1. The due qualifications of it. 2. A Christian’s obligation to it.
The qualifications are three; namely, sincerity, purity, and fervency. The sincerity is expressed in the former clause of the verse, unfeigned love, and repeated again in the latter part, that it be with a pure heart, as the purity is in fervency.
1. Love must be unfeigned. It appears that this dissimulation is a disease that is very incident in this particular. The Apostle St. Paul has the same word;343 and the Apostle St. John to the same sense.344 That it have that double reality, which is opposed to double-dissembled love; that it be cordial and effectual; that the professing of it arise from truth of affection, and, as much as may be, be seconded with action; that both the heart and the hand may be the seal of it rather than the tongue; not court holy-water and empty noise of service and affection, which fears nothing more than to be put upon trial. Although your brother, with whom you converse, cannot, it may be, see through your false appearances, He who commands this love looks chiefly within, seeks it there, and, if He doesn’t find it there, hates them most who most pretend it; so that the art of dissembling, though never so well studied, cannot pass in this King’s court, to whom all hearts are open, and all desires known. When, after variances, men are brought to an agreement, they are much subject to this, rather to cover their remaining malices with superficial verbal forgiveness, than to dislodge them, and free the heart of them. This is a poor self-deceit. As the philosopher said to him, who being ashamed that he was seen by him in a tavern in the outer room, withdrew himself to the inner, he called after him, "That is not the way out; the more you go out that way, you will be the further within it:" so when hatreds are upon admonition not thrown out, but retire inward to hide themselves, they grow deeper and stronger than before; and those constrained semblances of reconciliation are but a false healing, do but skin the wound over, and therefore it usually breaks forth worse again.
How few there are that have truly maliceless hearts, and find this entire upright affection towards their brethren meeting them in their whole conversation, this law of love deeply impressed on their hearts, and from there expressed in their words and actions, and that is unfeigned love, as real to their brethren as to themselves!
2. It must be pure, from a pure heart. This is not all one with the former, as some take it. It is true, doubleness or hypocrisy is an impurity, and a great one; but all impurity is not doubleness: one may really mean that friendship and affection he expresses, and yet it may be most contrary to that which is here required, because impure; such a brotherly love as that of Simeon and Levi, brethren in iniquity, as the expressing them brethren is taken to mean.345 When hearts are cemented together by impurity itself, by ungodly conversation and society in sin, as in uncleanness or drunkenness, &c., this as a swinish fraternity, a friendship which is contracted, as it were, by wallowing in the same mire. Call it good fellowship, or what you will, all the fruit that in the end can be expected out of unholy friendliness and fellowship in sinning together, is, to be tormented together, and to add each to the torment of another.
The mutual love of Christians must be pure, arising from such causes as are pure and spiritual, from the sense of our Savior’s command and of His example; for He Himself joins that with it. A new commandment I give unto you, says He, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.346 Those who are indeed lovers of God are limited; by that their hearts meet in Him, as in one center: they cannot but love one another. Where a godly man sees his Father’s image, he is forced to love it; he loves those whom he perceives godly, so as to delight in them, because that image is in them; and those who appear destitute of it, he loves them so as to wish them partakers of that image. And this is all for God: he loves amicum in Deo, et inimicum propter Deum: that is, he loves a friend in God, and an enemy for God. And as the Christian’s love is pure in its cause, so in its effects and exercise. His society and conversation with any, tends mainly to this, that he may mutually help and be helped in the knowledge and love of God; he desires most that he and his brethren may jointly mind their journey heavenwards, and further one another in their way to the full enjoyment of God. And this is truly the love of a pure heart, which both begins and ends in God.
3. We must love fervently, not after a cold indifferent manner. Let the love of your brethren be as a fire within you, consuming that selfishness which is so contrary to it, and is so natural to men; let it set your thoughts on work to study how to do others good; let your love be an active love, intense within you, and extending itself in doing good to the souls and bodies of your brethren as they need, and you are able: Alium re, alium consilio, alium gratia.347
It is self-love that contracts the heart, and shuts out all other love, both of God and man, save only so far as our own interest carries, and that is still self-love: but the love of God dilates the heart, purifies love, and extends it to all men, but after a special manner directs it to those who are more peculiarly beloved of Him, and that is here the particular love required.
Love of the brethren.] In this is implied our obligation after a special manner to love those of the household of faith, because they are our brethren. This includes not only, as Abraham says, that there be no strife,348 but it binds most strongly to this sincere, and pure, and fervent love; and therefore the Apostle in the next verse repeats expressly the doctrine of the mysterious new birth, and explains more fully, that which he mentioned at the beginning of the Epistle, and again referred to, ver. 14, 17.
There is in this fervent love, sympathy with the griefs of our brethren, desire and endeavors to help them, bearing their infirmities, and recovering them too, if it may be; raising them when they fall, admonishing and reproving them as is necessary, sometimes sharply and yet still in love; rejoicing in their good, in their gifts and graces, so far from envying them, that we are as glad as if they were our own. There is the same blood running in their veins: you have the same Father and the same Spirit within you, and the same Jesus Christ, the Head of that glorious fraternity, the first-born among many brethren;349 of whom the Apostle says, that He has re-collected into one all things in heaven and in earth.350 The word is, gathered them together into one head; and so suits very fitly to express our union in Him. From whom, says he in the same Epistle,351 the whole body is fitly compacted together; and he adds that which agrees to our purpose, that this body grows up and edifies itself in love. All of the members receive spirits from the same head, and are useful and serviceable one to another, and to the whole body. Thus, these brethren, receiving of the same Spirit from their Head, Christ, are most strongly bent to the good of one another. If there is but a thorn in the foot, the back bows, the head stoops down, the eyes look, the hands reach to it, and endeavor its help and ease: in a word, all the members partake of the good and evil, one of another. Now, by how much this body is more spiritual and lively, so much the stronger must the union and love of the parts of it be each to other. You are brethren by the same new birth, and born to the same inheritance, and such a one as shall not be an apple of strife amongst you, to beget debates and contentions: no, it is enough for all, and none shall prejudice another, but you shall have joy in the happiness one of another; since you shall then be perfect in love; all harmony, no difference in judgment or in affection, all your harps tuned to the same new song, which you shall sing forever. Let that love begin here, which shall never end.
And this same union, I think, is likewise expressed in the first words of the verse. Since you are partakers of that work of sanctification by the same word, and the same Spirit, that works it in all the faithful, and are by that called and incorporated into that fraternity, therefore live in it and like it. You are purified to it; therefore love one another after that same manner purely. Let the profane world scoff at that name of brethren; you will not be so foolish as to be scorned out of it, being so honorable and happy; and the day is at hand in which those who scoff you would give much more than all that the best of them ever possessed in the world, to be admitted into your number.
Seeing you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit.] Here is, 1. The chief seat, or subject of the work of sanctification, the soul. 2. The subordinate means, truth. 3. The nature of, it, obeying of truth. 4. The chief worker of it, the Holy Spirit.
For the first, the chief seat of sanctification, the soul: it is no doubt a work that goes through the whole man, renewing and purifying all.352 But because it purifies the soul, therefore it is that it purifies all. Impurity begins there353—not only evil thoughts, but all evil actions come forth from the heart, which is there all one with the soul; and therefore this purifying begins there, making the tree good that the fruit may be good.354 It is not so much external performances that make the difference between men, as their inward temper. We meet here in the same place, and all partake of the same word and prayer; but how wide a difference is there, in God’s eye, between an unwashed profane heart in the same exercise, and a soul purified in some measure in obeying the truth, and desirous to be further purified by further obeying it!
Secondly, That which is the subordinate means of this purity, is, The Truth, or the word of God. It is truth, and pure in itself, and it begets truth and purity in the heart, by teaching it concerning the holy and pure nature of God, showing it and His holy will, which is to us the rule of purity; and by representing Jesus Christ to us as the fountain of our purity and renovation, from whose fullness we may receive grace for grace.355
Thirdly, The nature of this work, that in which the very being of this purifying consists, is, the receiving or obeying of this truth. So, Gal. 3:1, where it is put for right believing. The chief point of obedience is believing; the proper obedience to truth is to give credit to it; and this divine belief necessarily brings the whole soul into obedience and conformity to that pure truth which is in the word; and so the very purifying and renewing of the soul is this obedience of faith, as unbelief is its chief impurity and disobedience; therefore, Faith is said to purify the heart.356
Fourthly, The chief worker of this sanctification is, the Holy Spirit of God. They are said here to purify themselves, for it is certain and undeniable that the soul itself does act in believing or obeying the truth; but not of itself; it is not the first principle of motion. They purify their souls, but it is by the Spirit. They do it by His enlivening power, and a purifying virtue received from Him. Faith, or obeying the truth, works this purity, but the Holy Spirit works that faith; as in the fore-cited place, God is said to purify their hearts by faith. He does that by giving them the Holy Ghost. The truth is pure and purifying, yet cannot of itself purify the soul, but by the obeying or believing of it; and the soul cannot obey or believe, but by the Spirit which works in it that faith, and by that faith purifies it, and works love in it. The impurity and earthliness of men’s minds is the great cause of disunion and disaffection amongst them, and of all their strifes.357
This Spirit is the fire that refines and purifies the soul from the dross of earthly desires which possess it, and which sublimates it to the love of God and of His saints, because they are His, and are purified by the same Spirit. It is the property of fire to draw together things of the same kind: the outward fire of enmities and persecution that is kindled against the godly by the world, does somewhat, and if it were more considered by them, would do more, in this knitting their hearts closer one to another; but it is this inward, pure, and purifying fire of the Holy Spirit, that most powerfully unites them.
The true reason why there is so little truth of this Christian mutual love amongst those that are called Christians, is, because there is so little of this purifying obedience to the truth from which it flows. Faith unfeigned would beget this love unfeigned. Men may exhort to them both, but they require the hand of God to work them in the heart.
Ver. 23. Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which lives and abides forever.
The two things that make up the Apostle’s exhortation, are the very sum of a Christian’s duty—to walk as obedient children towards God, and as loving brethren one towards another—and that it may impress us more deeply, he represents to them again that new birth he mentioned before, by which they are the children of God, and so brethren.
We shall first speak of this regeneration; and then of the seed. 1st. Of the regeneration itself. This is the great dignity of believers, that they are the sons of God,358 as it is the great evidence of the love of God, that He has bestowed this dignity upon them.359 For they are in no way necessary to Him: He had from eternity a Son perfectly like Himself, the express image of his person,360 and one Spirit proceeding from both; and there is no creation, neither the first nor the second, which can add anything to Those and Their happiness. It is most true of that blessed Trinity, Satis amplum alter alteri theatrum sumus.361 But the gracious purpose of God to impart His goodness appears in this, that He has made Himself such a multitude of sons, not only angels that are so called, but man, a little lower than them in nature, yet dignified with this name in His creation: which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.362 He had not only the impression of God’s footsteps (as they speak), which all the creatures have, but of His image. And most of all in this is His rich grace magnified, that sin having defaced that image and so degraded man from his honor, and divested him of that title of sonship, and stamped our polluted nature with the marks of vileness and bondage, yea, with the very image of Satan, rebellion and enmity against God—that out of mankind thus ruined and degenerated, God should raise to Himself a new race and generation of sons.
For this design the Word was made flesh,363 the Son made man, to make men the sons of God. And it is by Him alone we are restored to this; those who receive Him, receive with Him, and in Him, this privilege.364 And therefore it is a sonship by adoption, and is so called in Scripture, in difference from His eternal and ineffable generation, who is, and was, the only begotten of the Father.365 Yet, that we may know that this Divine adoption is not a mere outward relative name, as that of men, the sonship of the saints is here, and often elsewhere in Scripture, expressed by new generation, and new birth. They are begotten of God.366 A new being, a spiritual life is communicated to them: they have in them of their Father’s Spirit; and this is derived to them through Christ, and therefore called His Spirit.367 They are not only accounted of the family of God by adoption, but by this new birth they are indeed His children, partakers of the Divine nature, as our Apostle expresses it.
Now though it is easy to speak and hear the words of this doctrine, yet the truth itself that is in it is so high and mysterious, that it is altogether impossible, without a portion of this new nature, to conceive of it. Corrupt nature cannot understand it. What wonder that there is nothing of it in the subtlest school of philosophers, when a very master of Israel mistook it grossly!368 It is indeed a great mystery, and he who was the sublimest of all the Evangelists, and therefore called the divine, the soaring eagle (as they compare him), he is more abundant in this subject than the rest.
And the most profitable way of considering this regeneration and sonship, is certainly to follow the light of those holy writings, and not to jangle in disputes about the order and manner of it, of which, though somewhat may be profitably said, and safely, namely, so much as the Scripture speaks, yet much that is spoken of it, and debated by many, is but an useless expense of time and pains. What those previous dispositions are, and how far they go, and where is the mark or point of difference between them and the infusion of spiritual life, I think are not so easily determined.
If naturalists and physicians cannot agree on the order of formation of the parts of the human body in the womb, how much less can we be peremptory in the other! If there are so many wonders (as indeed there are) in the natural structure and frame of man, how much richer in wonders must this Divine and supernatural generation be! See how David speaks of the former.369 Spiritual things, being more refined than material things, must be far more wonderful and curious in their workmanship. But then it must be viewed with a spiritual eye. There is an unspeakable luster and beauty of the new creature, by the mixture of all Divine graces, each setting off another, as so many rich several colors in embroidery—but who can trace that Invisible Hand who works it, so as to determine the order and to say which was first, which second, and so on; whether faith or repentance, and all graces &c.? It is certain that these and all graces inseparably make up the same work, and are all in the new formation of every soul that is born again.
If the ways of God’s universal providence were untraceable, then most of all the workings of His grace are conducted in a secret imperceptible way in this new birth. He gives this spiritual being as the dew that is silently and insensibly formed, and this generation of the sons of God is compared to it by the Psalmist,370 they have this original from heaven as the dew. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.371 And it is the peculiar work of the Spirit of God; as He Himself speaks of the dew to Job, Has the rain a father? or who has begotten the drops of dew?372 The sharpest wits are to seek in the knowledge and discovery of it, as Job speaks of a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture’s eye has not seen.373
To contest much, how in this regeneration He works upon the will, and renews it, is to little purpose, provided this be granted, that it is in His power to regenerate and renew a man at His pleasure: and how is it possible not to grant this, unless we will run into that error, to think that God has made a creature too hard for Himself to rule, or has willingly exempted it? And shall the works of the Almighty, and of all others especially this work, in which He glories most, fail in His hand, and remain imperfect? Shall there be any abortive births of which God is the Father? Shall I bring to the birth, and not cause to bring forth?374 No; no sinner so dead, but there is virtue in His hand to revive out of the very stones. Though the most impenitent hearts are as stones within them, yet He can make of them children to Abraham.375 He can dig out the heart of stone and put a heart of flesh in its place;376 otherwise, He would not have made such a promise. Not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.377 If His sovereign will is not a sufficient principle of this regeneration, why then says the Apostle St. James, Of his own will begat he us? And he adds the subordinate cause, with the word of truth,378 which is here called the immortal seed of this new birth.
Therefore it is that the Lord has appointed the continuation of the ministry of this word, to the end that His Church may be still fruitful, bringing forth sons unto Him; that the assemblies of His people may be like flocks of sheep coming up from the washing, none barren amongst them.379
Although the ministers of this word, because of their employment in dispensing it, have, by the Scriptures, the relation of parents imparted to them, which is an exceedingly great dignity for them, as they are called co-workers with God—and the same Apostle who writes that, calls the Galatians my little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you;380 and the ministers of God have often very much pain in this travail—yet the privilege of the Father of spirits remains untouched, which is to effectually beget again those same spirits that He creates, and to make that seed of the word fruitful that way, where, and when He will. The preacher of the word, be he never so powerful, can cast this seed only into the ear: his hand reaches no further; and the hearer, by his attention, may convey it into his head: but it is the supreme Father and Teacher above who carries it into the heart, the only soil in which it proves lively and fruitful. One man cannot reach the heart of another; how should he then renew its fruitfulness? If natural births have been always acknowledged to belong to God’s prerogative, (Lo, children are a heritage of the Lord; and the fruit of the womb is his reward;381 and so Jacob answered wisely to his wife’s foolish passion, Am I in God’s stead?382) how much more is this new birth wholly dependent on His hand!
But though this word cannot beget without Him, yet it is by this word that He begets, and ordinarily, not without it. It is true that the substantial Eternal Word is to us, as we said, the spring of this new birth and life, the head from whom the spirits of this supernatural life flow; but that by the word here is meant the Gospel, the Apostle removes any doubt, verse the last, And this is the word which by the Gospel is preached unto you. Therefore thus is this word really the seed of this new birth, because it contains and declares that other Word, the Son of God, as our life. The word is spoken in common, and so is the same to all hearers; but then, all hearts being naturally shut against it, God by His own hand opens some to receive it, and mixes it with faith; and those it renews, and restores in them the image of God, draws the traces of it anew, and makes them the sons of God. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, says Moses.383 The word, as a heavenly dew, not falling by the wayside, but dropped into the heart by the hand of God’s own Spirit, makes it all become spiritual and heavenly, and turns it into one of those drops of dew that the children of God are compared to, You have the dew of your youth.384
The natural state of the soul is darkness, and the word, as a Divine light shining into it, transforms the soul into its own nature: so that as the word is called light, so is the soul that is renewed by it. You were sometimes darkness, but now are you not only enlightened, but light in the Lord.385 All the evils of the natural mind are often comprised under the name of darkness and error, and therefore the whole work of conversion is likewise signified by light and truth: Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth.386 So 2 Cor. 4:6, alluding to the first Fiat lux, or Let there be Light,387 in the creation. The word brought within the soul by the Spirit, lets it see its own necessity and Christ’s sufficiency, convinces it thoroughly, and causes it to cast itself upon Him for life—this is the very begetting of it again to eternal life.
This efficacy of the word to prove successful seed does not hang upon the different abilities of the preachers, their more or less rhetoric or learning. It is true that eloquence has a great advantage in civil and moral things to persuade, and to draw the hearers by the ears, almost which way it will; but in this spiritual work, to revive a soul, to beget it anew, the influence of Heaven is the main thing. There is no way so common and plain, (being warranted by God in the delivery of saving truth,) but the Spirit of God can revive the soul by it; and the most skillful and authoritative way, yea, being withal very spiritual, yet may effect nothing, because left alone to itself. One word of holy Scripture, or of truth conformable to it, may be the principle of regeneration to him who has heard multitudes of excellent sermons, and has often read the whole Bible, and is still unchanged. If the Spirit of God preach that one, or any such word to the soul, God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,388 it will be cast down with the fear of perishing, and driven out of itself by that, and raised up and drawn to Jesus Christ by the hope of everlasting life; it will believe on Him that it may have life and be inflamed with the love of God, and give itself to Him who so loved the world, as to give His only begotten Son to purchase for us that everlasting life. Thus may that word prove this immortal seed, which, though very often read and heard before, was but a dead letter. A drop of those liquors which are called spirits, operates more than large draughts of other waters; one word spoken by the Lord to the heart is all spirit, and does that which whole streams of man’s eloquence could never effect.
In hearing of the word, men look usually too much upon men, and forget from what spring the word has its power; they observe too narrowly the different hand of the sowers, and depend too little on His hand, who is the great Lord of both seedtime and harvest. Be it sown by a weak hand, or a stronger, the immortal seed is still the same; yea, suppose the worst, that it be a foul hand that sows it, that the preacher himself is not so sanctified and of so edifying a life as you would wish, yet, the seed itself, being good, contracts no defilement, and may be effectual to regeneration in some, and to the strengthening of others; although he who is not renewed by it himself, cannot have much hope of success, nor reap much comfort by it, and usually does not seek nor regard it much: but all instruments are alike in an Almighty hand.
Hence learn, 1. That true conversion is not so slight a work as we commonly consider it. It is not an outward change of a few bad habits, which gains the name of a reformed man, in the ordinary dialect; it is a new birth and being, and elsewhere called a new creation. Though it be but a change in qualities, yet it is such a one, and the qualities are so far different, that it bears the name of the most substantial productions—from children of disobedience and that which is linked with it, heirs of wrath, to be sons of God, and heirs of glory! They have been given a new spirit, a free, princely, noble spirit, as the word is,389 and this spirit acts in their life and actions.
2. Consider this dignity, and be kindled with the ambition of it. How does a Christian pity that poor vanity which men make so much noise about, of their kindred and extraction! This is worth glorying in indeed, to be of the highest blood-royal, and in the nearest relation; sons of the King of kings by this new birth. This adds matchless honor to that birth which is honorable.
But we all pretend to be of this number. If we did not endeavor to deceive ourselves, the discovery whether we are, or not, would not be so hard.
In many, their false confidence is too evident; there is no appearance in them of the Spirit of God, not a footstep like His leading, nor any trace of that character,—As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God;390 not a lineament of God’s visage, as their Father,—If you know that he is righteous, (says St. John,) you know that everyone who does righteousness is born of him.391 And so on the other hand, how contrary to the most holy God, the lover and fountain of holiness, are those who swinishly love to wallow in the mire of unholiness! Is swearing and cursing the accent of the regenerate, the children of God? No; it is the language of hell. Do children delight to indignify and dishonor their father’s name? No; earthly-mindedness is a countersign. Shall the king’s children, those who were brought up in scarlet, as Jeremiah laments, embrace dunghills?392 Princes, by their high birth and education, usually have their hearts filled with far higher thoughts than persons of lower rank: the children of the poorer sort being pinched that way, their greatest thoughts, as they grow up, are, ordinarily, how they shall shift to live, how they shall get bread; but princes think either of the conquest or governing of kingdoms. Are you not born to a better inheritance, if indeed you are born again? Why then do you vilify yourselves? Why are you not more in prayer? There are no dumb children among those who are born of God; they have all that Spirit of prayer by which they not only speak, but cry, Abba, Father.393
2dly. We come to consider the seed of this regeneration, the word of God. Most of us esteem the preaching of the word as a transient discourse that amuses us for an hour. We look for no more, and therefore we find no more. We receive it not as the immortal seed of our regeneration, as the engrafted word which is able to save our souls.394 Oh! learn to reverence this holy and happy ordinance of God, this word of life, and know that those who are not regenerated, and so saved by it, shall be judged by it.
Not of corruptible seed.] It is a main cause of the unsuitable and unworthy behavior of Christians, (those who profess themselves such,) that a great part of them either do not know, or at least do not seriously and frequently consider, what is indeed the estate and quality of Christians, how excellent and of what descent their new nature is; therefore they are often to be reminded of this. Our Apostle here does so, and by it binds on all his exhortations.
Of this new being we have here these two things; 1. Its high original from God, Begotten again of His word; 2. That which so much commends good things, its duration. And this follows from the other; for if the principle of this life be incorruptible, itself must be so too. The word of God is not only a living and ever abiding word in itself, but likewise in reference to this new birth and spiritual life of a Christian; and in this sense that which is here spoken of it is intended: it is therefore called, not only an abiding word, but incorruptible seed, which expressly relates to regeneration. And because we are most sensible of the good and evil of things by comparison, the everlastingness of the word and of that spiritual life which it begets, is set off by the frailty and shortness of natural life, and of all the good that concerns it. This the Apostle expresses in the words of Isaiah,395 in the next verse.
Ver. 24. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower thereof falls away.
In expressing the vanity and frailty of the natural life of man, it agrees very well with the subject to call him flesh, giving to the whole man the name of his corruptible part, both to make the wretched and perishing condition of this life more sensible, and man the more humble by it: for though by providing all for the flesh, and bestowing his whole time in endeavors concerning it, he remembers it too much, and forgets his spiritual and immortal part; yet, in that over-eager care for the flesh, he seems, in some sense, to forget that he is flesh, or, at least, that flesh is perishing, because flesh; extending his desires and projects so far for the flesh, as if it were immortal, and should always abide to enjoy and use these things. As the philosopher said of his countrymen, upbraiding at once their surfeitings and excess in feasting, and their sumptuousness in building, that "they ate as if they meant to die tomorrow, and yet built as if they were never to die:" thus in men’s immoderate pursuits of earth, they seem both to forget that they are anything else beside flesh, and in this sense, too, to forget that they are flesh, that is mortal and perishing; they rightly remember neither their immortality nor their mortality. If we consider what it is to be flesh, the naming of that would be sufficient to the purpose: All man is flesh; but it is plainer thus, All flesh is grass: Thus, in the 78th Psalm,396 He remembered that they were but flesh: that speaks their frailty enough; but it is added, to make the vanity of their estate the clearer—a wind that passes away, and comes not again. So Psalm 103:15-16: As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.
This natural life is compared, even by natural men, to the vainest things, and they can hardly find things light enough to express its vanity—as it is here called grass, so they have compared the generation of men to the leaves of trees. But the light of Scripture most reveals this, and it is a lesson that requires the Spirit of God to teach it correctly. So teach us, says Moses, to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.397 And David, Make me to know my end, how frail I am.398 So St. James, What is your life? it is even a vapor.399 And here it is called grass. So Job, Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower, and is cut down.400
Grass has its root in the earth, and is fed by the moisture of it for a while; but besides that, it is under the hazard of such weather as favors it not, or of the scythe that cuts it down; give it all the forbearance that may be, let it be free from both those, yet how quickly will it wither of itself! Set aside those many accidents, the smallest of which is able to destroy our natural life, the diseases of our own bodies, and outward violence, and casualties that cut down many in their greenness, in the flower of their youth, the utmost term is not long; in the course of nature it will wither. Our life is indeed a lighted torch, either blown out by some stroke or some wind, or, if spared, yet within a while it burns away, and will die out of itself.
And all the glory of man.] This is elegantly added. There is indeed a great deal of apparent difference between the outward conditions of life amongst men. Shall the rich, and honorable, and beautiful, and healthy, go in together, under the same name, with the baser and unhappier part, the poor wretched sort of the world, who seem to be born for nothing but sufferings and miseries? At least, have the wise no advantage beyond the fools? Is all grass? Do you make no distinction? No, all is grass, or if you will have some other name, be it so: once this is true, that all flesh is grass; and if that glory which shines so much in your eyes, must have a difference, then this is all it can have,—it is but the flower of that same grass—somewhat above the common grass in gaiety, a little more beautiful, and better appareled than it, but a partaker of its frail and fading nature; it has no privilege nor immunity that way; yea, of the two, it is the less durable, and usually shorter lived.; at the best it decays with it: The grass withers, and the flower thereof falls away.
How easily and quickly has the highest splendor of a man’s prosperity been blasted, either by men’s power, or by the immediate hand of God! The Spirit of the Lord blows upon it, (as Isaiah says in chap. 40:7,) and by that, not only does the grass wither, but the flower fades though never so fair. When you correct man for iniquity, says David, you make his beauty to consume away like a moth.401 How many have the casualties of fire, or war, or shipwreck, in one day or night, or in a small part of either, turned out of great riches into extreme poverty! And the instances are not few, of those who have suddenly fallen from the top of honor into the foulest disgraces, not by degrees coming down the stair they went up, but tumbling down headlong. And the most vigorous beauty and strength of body, how does a few days’ sickness, or if it escaps that, a few years’ time blast that flower! Yea, those higher advantages which have somewhat both of truer and more lasting beauty in them, the endowments of wit, and learning, and eloquence, yea, and of moral goodness and virtue, yet they cannot rise above this word, they are still, in all their glory, but the flower of grass; their root is in the earth. Natural ornaments are of some use in this present life, but they reach no further. When men have wasted their strength, and endured the toil of study night and day, it is but a small parcel of knowledge they can attain to, and they are forced to lie down in the dust in the midst of their pursuit of it: that head which lodges most sciences shall within a while be disfurnished of them all; and the tongue that speaks most languages be silenced.
The great projects of kings and princes, and themselves also, come under this same notion; all the vast designs that are framing in their heads fall to the ground in a moment; they return to their dust, and in that day all their thoughts perish.402 Archimedes was killed in the midst of his demonstration.
If they themselves would consider this in the heat of their affairs, it would much allay the swelling and loftiness of their minds; and if they who live upon their favor would consider it, they would not value it at such a high rate, and buy it so costly as often they do. Men of low degree are vanity, says the Psalmist; but he adds, Men of high degree are a lie.403 From base, mean persons, we expect nothing; but the estate of great persons promises fair, and often keeps not; therefore they are a lie, although they can least endure that word.
They are, compared to persons of lower rank, as the flower to the grass—they have a somewhat fairer luster, but neither endurance nor exemption from decaying. Thus then, it is a universal and undeniable truth: it begins here with dioti,404 and is as sure a conclusion as the surest of those in their best demonstrations, which they call dioti. And as particular men, so are all states and kingdoms; they have their budding, and flourishing, and withering, and it is in both as with flowers—when they are spread the fullest, then they are near their declining and withering. And so it is with all whole generations of men upon earth: as Solomon says, One generation passes away, and another generation comes,405 but not a word of abiding at all. We, in our thoughts, shut up death into a very narrow compass, namely, into the moment of our expiring; but the truth is, as the moralist observes, it goes through all our life; for we are still losing and spending life as we enjoy it, yea, our very enjoying of it is the spending of it. Yesterday’s life is dead today, and so shall this day’s life be dead tomorrow. We spend our years, says Moses, as a tale,406 or as a thought, so swift and vanishing is it. Every word helps a tale towards its end; and then, in that is the vanity, when it is done, it vanishes as a sound in the air. What has become of all the pompous solemnities of kings and princes at their births and marriages, and coronations and triumphs? They are now as a dream; as Acts 25:23.407
Hence learn the folly and pride of man, who can glory and please himself in the frail and wretched being he has here, who dotes on this poor natural life, and cannot be persuaded to think on one higher and more abiding, although the course of time, and his daily experience, tell him this truth, that all flesh is grass. Yea, the Prophet prefixes to these words a command of crying; they must be shouted aloud in our ears, before we will hear them, and by the time the sound of the cry is finished, we have forgotten it again. If we would consider this in the midst of those vanities that toss our light minds to and fro, it would give us wiser thoughts, and ballast our hearts—make them more solid and steadfast in those spiritual endeavors which concern a durable condition, a being that abides forever—in comparison of which, the longest term of natural life is less than a moment, and the happiest state of it, but a heap of miseries. If we were all more consistently prosperous than we are, yet that one thing would be enough to cry down the price we put upon this life—that it continues not. As he answered to one who had a mind to flatter him in the midst of a pompous triumph, by saying, What is wanting here? Continuance, said he. It was wisely said at any time, but wisest of all, to have such a sober thought in such a solemnity, in which weak heads cannot escape either to be wholly drunk, or somewhat giddy at least. Surely we forget this, when we grow vain upon any human glory or advantage; the color of it pleases us, and we forget that it is but a flower, and foolishly over-esteem it. This is like the passion for flowers which are in demand somewhere—they will give as much for one flower as would buy a good dwelling-house. Is it not a most foolish bargain, to bestow continual pains and diligence upon the purchasing of great possessions or honors, if we believe this, that the best of them is nothing more than a short-lived flower; and to neglect the purchase of those glorious mansions of eternity, a garland of such flowers, as withers not, an unfading crown, that everlasting life, and those everlasting pleasures, that are at the right hand of God?
Now, that life which shall never end must begin here; it is the new spiritual life, of which the word of God is the immortal seed; and in opposition to corruptible seed and the corruptible life of flesh, it is here said to endure forever. And for this reason is the frailty of natural life mentioned, so that our affections might be drawn off from it to this spiritual life, which is not subject to death.
Ver. 25. But the word of the Lord endures forever. And this is the word which by the Gospel is preached unto you.
The word of God is so like Himself, and carries so plainly the image and expression of His power and wisdom, that where they are spoken of together, it is sometimes doubtful whether the expressions are to be referred to Himself or to His word: (as Heb. 4:12; and so here:) but there is no hazard in referring them either way, since there is truth in both, and pertinence too; for those who refer them to God, affirm that they are intended for the extolling of His word, being the subject in hand, and that we may know it to be like Him. But I rather think here that these words are meant of the word—it is called quick or living (zao) as here and Heb. 4:12: and the phrase, abiding forever, is expressly repeated here, in the Prophet’s words. And (with respect to those learned men who apply them to God) I don’t remember that this abiding forever is used to express God’s eternity in Himself. However, this incorruptible seed is the living and everlasting word of the living and everlasting God, and is therefore such, because He, whose it is, is such.
Now, this is not to be taken in an abstract sense of the word only in its own nature, but as the principle of regeneration, the seed of this new life; because the word is enlivening and living, therefore those with whom it is effectual, and into whose hearts it is received, are begotten again and made alive by it; and because the word is incorruptible, and endures forever, that life begotten by it is such too, and cannot perish or be cut down, as the natural life—no, this spiritual life of grace is the certain beginning of that eternal life of glory, and shall issue in it, and therefore has no end.
As the word of God in itself cannot be abolished, but surpasses the endurance of heaven and earth, as our Savior teaches; and all the attempts of men against the Divine truth of that word to undo it, are as vain as if they should consult to pluck the sun out of the firmament; so, likewise, in the heart of a Christian, it is immortal and incorruptible. Where it is once received by faith, it cannot be obliterated again—all the powers of darkness cannot destroy it, although they should be never so diligent in their attempts to do so. And this is the comfort of the Saints, that although the life, which God by His word has breathed into their souls, has many and strong enemies, which they themselves could never hold out against, yet for His own glory, and His promise’s sake, He will maintain that life, and bring it to its perfection; The Lord will perfect that which concerns me, says the Psalmist.408 It is grossly contrary to the truth of the Scriptures to imagine that those who are thus renewed can be unborn again. This new birth is but once, of one kind—though they are subject to frailties and weaknesses here in this spiritual life, yet not to death anymore, nor to such way of sinning as would extinguish this life. This is that which the Apostle John says, He who is born of God sins not; and the reason he adds is the same that is here given, the permanence and incorruptibility of this word, The seed of God abides in him.409
This is the word which by the Gospel is preached unto you.] It is not sufficient to have these thoughts of the word of God in a general way, and not to know what that word is; but we must be persuaded that that word which is preached to us is this very word of so excellent virtue, and of which these high things are spoken; that it is incorruptible and abides forever, and therefore surpasses all the world, and all the excellences and glory of it. Although delivered by weak men, the Apostles,—and by far weaker than them in the constant ministry of it, yet it loses none of its own virtue; for that depends upon the first Owner and Author of it, the ever-living GOD, who by it begets His chosen unto life eternal.
This, therefore, is that which we should learn thus to hear, and thus to receive, and esteem, and love, this holy, this living word; to despise all the glittering vanities of this perishing life, all outward pomp, yea, all inward worth, all wisdom and natural endowments of mind, in comparison to the heavenly light of the Gospel preached to us—rather to hazard all than lose that, and banish all other things from the place that is due to it; to lodge it alone in our hearts, as our only treasure here, and the certain pledge of that treasure of glory laid up for us in Heaven. To which blessed state may God of His infinite mercy bring us! Amen.