A Practical Commentary upon the First Epistle of Peter
Ver. 1. Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies; and envies, and all evil speakings,
Ver. 2. As new-born babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that you may grow thereby.
The same power and goodness of God that manifests itself in giving being to His creatures, appears likewise in sustaining and preserving them. To give being is the first, and to support it is the continued effect of that power and goodness. Thus it is both in the first creation, and in the second. In the first, the creatures to which He gave life, He provided suitable nourishment to uphold that life;1 so here, in the close of the former chapter, we find the doctrine of the new birth and life of a Christian, and in the beginning of this, the proper food for that life. And it is the same word by which we there find it to be begotten, that is here the nourishment of it; and therefore Christians are here exhorted by the Apostle so to esteem and so to use it; and that is the main scope of the words.
Observe in general—The word, the principle, and the support of our spiritual being, is both the incorruptible seed and the incorruptible food of that new life of grace, which must therefore be an incorruptible life; and this may convince us that the ordinary thoughts, even of us who hear this word, are far below the true excellence and worth of it. The stream of custom and our profession brings us here, and we sit out our hour under the sound of this word; but how few consider and prize it as the great ordinance of God for the salvation of souls, the beginner and the sustainer of the Divine life of Grace within us! And certainly, until we have these thoughts of it, and seek to feel it thus ourselves, although we hear it most frequently, and let slip no occasion, yea, hear it with attention and some present delight, yet, still we miss the right use of it, and turn it from its true end, while we take it not as the engrafted word which is able to save our souls.2
Thus ought those who preach to speak it; to endeavor their utmost to accommodate it to this end, that sinners may be converted, begotten again, and believers nourished and strengthened in their spiritual life; to regard no lower end, but aim steadily at that mark. Their hearts and tongues ought to be set on fire with holy zeal for God and love to souls, kindled by the Holy Spirit, who came down on the Apostles in the shape of fiery tongues.
And those who hear should remember this as the purpose of their hearing, that they may receive spiritual life and strength by the word. For though it seems a poor despicable business, that a frail sinful man like yourselves should speak a few words in your hearing, yet, look upon it as the way by which God communicates happiness to those who believe, and works that believing unto happiness, alters the whole frame of the soul, and makes a new creation, as it begets it again to the inheritance of glory—consider it thus, which is its true notion; and then what can be so precious? Let the world disesteem it as they will, you know that it is the power of God unto salvation.3 The preaching of the cross is to those who perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God,4 says the Apostle; and if you would have the experience of this, if you would have life and growth by it, you must look above the poor worthless messenger, and call in His almighty help, who is the Lord of life. As the Philosophers affirm, that if the heavens should stand still, there would be no generation or flourishing of anything here below, so it is the moving and influence of the Spirit that makes the Church fruitful. If you would but do this before you come here, present the blindness of your minds, and the deadness of your hearts to God, and say, "Lord, here is an opportunity for You to show the power of Your word. I would find life and strength in it; but neither can I who hear, nor he who speaks, make it thus unto me—that is Your prerogative; say the word and it shall be done." God said, Let there be light; and there was light.5
In this exhortation to the due use of the word, the Apostle continues the resemblance of that new birth he mentioned in the preceding chapter.
As new-born babes.] Don’t be satisfied with yourselves until you find some evidence of this new, this supernatural life. There are delights and comforts in this life, in its lowest condition, that would persuade us to look after it if we knew them; but as most cannot be made aware of these, consider therefore the end of it. Better never to have been, than not to have been partaker of this new being. Except a man be born again, says our Savior, he cannot see the kingdom of God.6 Surely those who are not born again, shall one day wish they had never been born. What a poor wretched thing is the life that we have here! a very heap of follies and miseries! Now if we would share in a happier being after it, in the life that doesn’t end, it must begin here. Grace and glory are one and the same life, only with this difference, that the one is the beginning, and the other the perfection of it; or, if we do call them two several lives, yet the one is the undoubted pledge of the other. It was a strange word for a heathen to say, that that day of death we fear so—aeterni natalis est—is the birthday of eternity. Thus it is indeed to those who are here born again: this new birth of grace is the sure earnest and pledge of that birthday of glory. Why do we not then labor to make this certain by the former? Is it not a fearful thing to spend our days in vanity, and then lie down in darkness and sorrow forever; to disregard the life of our soul, while we may and should be making provision for it, and then, when it is going out, cry, Quo nunc abibis?—Where are you going, O my soul?
But this new life puts us out of the danger and fear of that eternal death. We have passed from death unto life,7 says St. John, speaking of those who are born again; and being passed, there is no re-passing, no going back from this life to death again.
This new birth is the same that St. John calls the first resurrection, and he pronounces them blessed who partake of it; Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power.8
The weak beginnings of grace, in comparison to the further strength attainable even in this life, are sometimes expressed as the infancy of it; and so believers should not continue to be infants: if they do, it is reprovable in them, as we see, Eph. 4:14; 1 Cor. 2:2; 14:20; Heb. 5:12. Though the Apostle writes to new converts, and so may possibly imply the tenderness of their beginnings of grace, yet I think that infancy is here to be taken in such a sense as corresponds to a Christian in the whole course and best state of his spiritual life here below. So, likewise, the milk here recommended is suitable to this sense of infancy; and not to the former, (as it is in some of those cited places, where it means the easiest and first principles of religion, and so is opposed to the higher mysteries of it, as to strong meat;) but here it signifies the whole word of God, and all its wholesome and saving truths, as the proper nourishment of the children of God. And so the Apostle’s words are a standing exhortation for all Christians of all degrees.
And the whole state and course of their spiritual life here is called their infancy, not only as opposed to the corruption and wickedness of the old man, but likewise as signifying the weakness and imperfection of it at its best in this life, compared with the perfection of the life to come—for the weakest beginnings of grace are by no means so far below the highest degree of it possible in this life, as that highest degree falls short of the state of glory; so that, if one measure of grace is called infancy in comparison to another, much more is all grace infancy in comparison to glory. And surely, as for duration, the time of our present life is far less compared to eternity, than the time of our natural infancy is to the rest of our life; so that we may be still called but new or lately born. Our best pace and strongest walking in obedience here, is but as the stepping of children when they begin to go by hold, compared to the perfect obedience in glory when we shall follow the Lamb wherever he goes. All our knowledge here is but as the ignorance of infants, and all our expressions of God and of His praises but as the first stammerings of children, in comparison of the knowledge we shall have of Him hereafter, when we shall know as we are known, and of the praises we shall then offer Him, when that new song shall be taught us. A child has in it a reasonable soul, and yet, by the indisposedness of the body, and abundance of moisture, it is so bound up, that its difference from the beasts in partaking of a rational life, is as apparent as afterwards; and thus the spiritual life that is from above infused into a Christian, although it acts and works in some degree, yet it is so clogged with the natural corruption still remaining in him, that the excellence of it is much clouded and obscured; but in the life to come, it shall have nothing at all encumbering and indisposing it. And this is the Apostle St. Paul’s doctrine.9
And this is the wonder of Divine grace, which brings such small beginnings to a height of perfection that we are not able to conceive of—that a little spark of true grace, which is not only indiscernible to others, but often to the Christian himself, should yet be the beginning of that condition in which they shall shine brighter than the sun in the firmament. The difference is great in our natural life, in some persons especially; that those who in infancy were so feeble and wrapped up as others in swaddling clothes, yet afterwards come to excel in wisdom and in the knowledge of sciences, or to be commanders of great armies, or to be kings; but the distance is far greater and more admirable between the weakness of these newborn babes, the small beginnings of grace, and our after-perfection, that fullness of knowledge that we look for, and that crown of immortality which all those are born to, who are born of God.
But as in the faces or actions of some children, some characters and presages of their after-greatness have appeared, (as a singular beauty in Moses’ face, as they write of him, and as Cyrus was made king among the shepherds’ children with whom he was brought up, &c.,) so also, certainly in these children of God there will be some characters and evidences that they are born for Heaven by their new birth. The holiness and meekness, the patience and faith, that shine in the actions and sufferings of the saints, are characters of their Father’s image, and show their high origin, and foretell their glory to come; such a glory, as does not only surpass the world’s thoughts, but the thoughts of the children of God themselves.
Now, that the children of God may grow by the word of God, the Apostle requires these two things of them: 1. The innocence of children; 2. The appetite of children. For this expression, as newborn babes, as I think, is relative not only to the desiring of the milk of the word, ver. 2, but to the former verse, the putting off malice. So the Apostle Paul exhorts, Howbeit in malice be you children.10
Wherefore laying aside.] This signifies that we are naturally prepossessed with these evils, and therefore we are exhorted to put them off. Our hearts are by nature nothing more than cages of those unclean birds—malice, envy, hypocrisies, &c. The Apostles sometimes name some of these evils, and sometimes others of them, but they are inseparable,—all one garment, and all included under that one word, the old man,11 which the Apostle exhorts Christians to put off—and here it is pressed as a necessary evidence of their new birth, and furtherance of their spiritual growth, that these base habits be thrown away; ragged, filthy habits, unbecoming the children of God. They are the proper marks of an unrenewed mind, the very character of the children of Satan, for they are his image. He has his names from enmity, and envy, and slandering; and he is that grand hypocrite and deceiver, who can transform himself into an angel of light.12
So, on the contrary, the Spirit of God who dwells in His children is the Spirit of meekness, and love, and truth. That dovelike Spirit which descended on our Savior, is communicated from Him to believers. It is the grossest impudence to pretend to be Christians, and yet to entertain hatred and envyings upon whatever occasion; for there is nothing more recommended to them by our Savior’s own doctrine, nothing more impressed upon their hearts by His Spirit, than love. Kakia may be taken generally, but I conceive it intends that which we particularly call malice.
Malice and envy are but two branches growing out of the same bitter root; self-love and evil-speakings are the fruit they bear. Malice is properly the procuring or wishing another’s evil, envy the repining at his good; and both these vent themselves by evil speaking. This infernal fire within smokes and flashes out by the tongue, which St. James says, is set on fire of hell,13 and fires all about it; misjudging the actions of those they hate or envy, aggravating their failings, and detracting from their virtues, taking all things by the left ear; for (as Epictetus says,) Every thing has two handles. The art of taking things by the better side, which charity always does, would save much of those janglings and heart-burnings that so abound in the world. But folly and perverseness possess the hearts of most people, and therefore their discourses are usually the vent of these; For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.14 The unsavory breaths of men show their inward corruption. Where shall a man come, almost, in societies, but his ears shall be beaten with the unpleasant noise (surely it is so to a Christian mind) of one detracting and disparaging another? And yet this is extreme baseness, and the practice only of false counterfeit goodness, to make up one’s own esteem out of the ruins of the good name of others. Real virtue neither needs nor can endure this dishonest shift; it can subsist of itself, and therefore ingenuously commends and acknowledges what good is in others, and loves to hear it acknowledged: and neither readily speaks nor hears evil of any, but rather, where duty and conscience require not discovery, casts a veil upon men’s failings to hide them: this is the true temper of the children of God.
These evils of malice, and envies, and evil speakings, and such like, are not to be overlooked by us, in ourselves, and conveyed under better appearances, but to be cast away; not to be covered, but put off; and therefore that which is the upper garment and cloak of all other evils, the Apostle here commands us to cast that off too, namely, hypocrisies.
What avails it to wear this mask? A man may indeed in the sight of men act his part handsomely under it, and pass so for a time; but know we not that there is an Eye who sees through it, and a Hand that, if we will not pull off this mask, will pull it off to our shame, either here in the sight of men, or, if we should escape all our life, and go fair off the stage under it, yet that there is a day appointed in which all hypocrites shall be unveiled, and appear what they are indeed before men and angels? It is a poor thing to be approved and applauded by men while God condemns, to whose sentence all men must stand or fall. Oh! seek to be approved and justified by Him, and then, who shall condemn?15 It is doesn’t matter who does. How easily may we bear the mistakes and dislikes of the entire world, if He declares Himself well pleased with us! It is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment; he who judges me is the Lord,16 says the Apostle.
But these evils are here particularly to be put off, as contrary to the right and profitable receiving of the word of God; for this part of the exhortation (Laying aside) looks to that which follows (Desire, &c.), and is especially so to be considered.
There is this double task in religion—when a man enters upon it he is not only to be taught true wisdom, but he is also, yea, first of all, to be untaught the errors and wickedness that are deep-rooted in his mind, which he has not only learned by the corrupt conversation of the world, but brought the seeds of them into the world with him. They improve and grow indeed by the favor of that example which is round about a man, but they are originally in our nature as it is now; they are inherent to us, besides continual custom, which is another nature. No one comes to the school of Christ suiting the Philosopher’s word, ut tabula rasa—as blank paper—to receive his doctrine: but, on the contrary, all scribbled and blurred with such base habits as these, malice, hypocrisies, envies, &c.
Therefore, the first work is to raze out these, to cleanse and purify the heart from these blots, these foul characters, so that it may receive the impression of the image of God. And because it is the word of God that both begins and continues this work, and draws the lineaments of that Divine image on the soul, therefore, in order to receive this word rightly, and to be properly affected by it, the conforming of the soul to Jesus Christ, which is the true growth of the spiritual life, it is required beforehand that the hearts of those who hear it be purged of these and other such impurities.
These dispositions are so opposite to the profitable receiving of the word of God, that while they possess and rule the soul, it cannot at all embrace these Divine truths; while it is filled with such guests, there is no room to entertain the word.
They cannot dwell together, because of their contrary nature; the word will not mix with these. The saving mixture of the word of God in the soul is what the Apostle speaks of, and he assigns the lack of it as the cause of unprofitable hearing of the word—not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.17 For by that the word is concocted into the nourishment of the life of grace united to the soul, and mixed with it, by being mixed with faith, as the Apostle’s expression means: that is the proper mixture it requires. But with the qualities here mentioned it will not mix; there is a natural antipathy between them, as strong as in those things in nature, that cannot be brought by any means to agree and mingle together. Can there be any thing more contrary than the good word of God,18 as the Apostle calls it, and those evil speakings? than the word, which is of such excellent sweetness, and the bitter words of a malignant tongue? than the word of life, and words full of deadly poison? For so slanders and defamings of our brethren are termed. And is not all malice and envy most opposite to the word, which is the message of peace and love? How can the gall of malice and this milk of the word agree? Hypocrisy and guile stand in direct opposition to the name of this word, which is called the word of truth; and here the very word shows this contrariety, sincere milk, and a double, insincere mind.
These two are necessary conditions of good nourishment: 1st, That the food be good and wholesome; 2ndly, That the inward constitution of those who use it be so too. And if this fails, the other profits not. This sincere milk is the only proper nourishment of spiritual life, and there is no defect or undue quality in it; but the greatest part of hearers are inwardly unwholesome, diseased with the evils here mentioned, and others of the same nature; and, therefore, either have no kind of appetite to the word at all, but rather feed upon such trash as suits with their distemper (as some kind of diseases incline those who have them to eat coals or lime, &c.), or, if they are in any way desirous to hear the word, and seem to feed on it, yet the noxious humors that abound in them make it altogether unprofitable, and they are not nourished by it. This evil of malice and envying, so ordinary among men (and, which is most strange, amongst Christians), like an overflowing of the gall, possesses their whole minds; and not only are they not nourished by the word they hear, but are made the worse by it; their disease is fed by it, as an unwholesome stomach turns the best meat it receives into that bad humor that abounds in it. Don’t they do so, who observe what the word says, in order to be better enabled to discover the failings of others, and speak maliciously and uncharitably of them, and vent themselves, as is too common—This word met well with such a one’s fault, and this with another’s?—Is not this to feed these diseases of malice, envy, and evil speakings, with this pure milk, and make them grow, instead of growing by it ourselves in grace and holiness?
Thus, likewise, the hypocrite turns all that he hears of this word, not to the inward renovation of his mind, and redressing what is amiss there, but only to the composing of his outward carriage, and to enable himself to act his part better—to be more cunning in his own faculty, a more refined and expert hypocrite; not to grow more a Christian indeed, but more in appearance only, and in the opinion of others.
Therefore it is a very necessary admonition, considering these evils are so natural to men, and so contrary to the nature of the word of God, that they be purged out, so that it might be profitably received. A very similar exhortation to this has the Apostle St. James, and some of the same words, but in another metaphor: Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word.19 He compares the word to a plant of excellent virtue, the very tree of life, the word that is able to save your souls; but the only soil in which it will grow is a heart full of meekness, a heart that is purged of those luxuriant weeds that grow so rank in it by nature; they must be plucked up and thrown out to make place for this word.
And there is such a necessity for this, that the most approved teachers of wisdom, in a human way, have required of their scholars that, to the end their minds may be capable of it, they should be purified from vice and wickedness. For this reason the Philosopher considers young men unsuitable hearers of moral philosophy, because of their abundant and unbridled passions, granting that, if those were composed and ordered, they might be admitted. And it was Socrates’ custom, when they asked him a question, seeking to be informed by him,—before he would answer them, he asked them concerning their own qualities and course of life.
Now, if men require a calm and purified disposition of mind to make it capable of their doctrine, how much more is it suitable and necessary for learning the doctrine of God, and those deep mysteries that His word opens up! It is well expressed in that Apocryphal book of Wisdom, that Froward thoughts separate from God, and into a malicious soul wisdom shall not enter:20 no, indeed, that is a very unfit dwelling for it; and even a heathen (Seneca) could say, The mind that is impure is not capable of God and Divine things. Therefore we see the strain of that book of Proverbs that speaks so much of this wisdom; it requires, in the first chapter, that those who would hear it, do retire themselves from all ungodly customs and practices. And, indeed, how can the soul apprehend spiritual things, that is not in some measure refined from the love of sin, which abuses and bemires the minds of men, and makes them unable to arise to heavenly thoughts? Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God,21 says our Savior: not only shall they see Him perfectly hereafter, but so far as they can receive Him, He will impart and make Himself known unto them here. If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.22 What makes the word obscure is the filthy mists within; whereas, on the contrary, He will in just judgment hide Himself, and the saving truth of His word, from those who entertain and delight in sin; the very sins in which they delight shall obscure and darken the light of the Gospel to them, so that though it shines clear as the sun at noonday, they shall be as those who live in a dungeon—they shall not discern it.
And as those who have the evils here mentioned reigning and in full strength within them, receive no benefit by the word, so with those who are indeed born again, the more they retain of these evils, the less shall they find the influence and profit of the word; for this exhortation concerns them. Some of them may possibly have a great remainder of these corruptions unmortified; therefore they are exhorted to lay aside entirely those evils, all malice, hypocrisies, &c., else, although they hear the word often, yet they will be in a spiritual atrophy; they will eat much, but grow nothing by it; they will find no increase of grace and spiritual strength.
If we want to know the main cause of our fruitless hearing of the word, here it is; men do not bring meek and guileless spirits to it, not minds emptied and purified to receive it, but stuffed with malice, and hypocrisy, and pride, and other such evils; and where should the word enter, when all is so taken up? And if it did enter, how should it prosper amongst so many enemies, or at all abide amongst them? Either they will turn it out again, or choke and kill the power of it. We think religion and our own lusts and secret heart-idols should agree together, because we would have it so—but this is not possible. Therefore labor to entertain the word of truth in the love of it, and lodge the mystery of faith in a pure conscience,23 as the Apostle St. Paul speaks. Join those together with David, I hate vain thoughts: but your law do I love.24 And as here our Apostle, Lay aside all malice, and hypocrisies, and envies, and evil speakings, and so receive the word, or else look for no benefit by it here, nor for salvation by it hereafter; but cast out all impurity, and give your whole heart to it; so desire it, that you may grow, and then, as you desire, you shall grow by it.
Every real believer has received a life from Heaven, far more excelling our natural life than that excels the life of the beasts. And this life has its own peculiar desires and delights, which are the proper actings, and the certain characters and evidence of it: amongst others this is one, and a main one, corresponding to the like desire in natural life—namely, a desire for food; and because it is here still imperfect, therefore the natural end of this is, not only nourishment, but growth, as it is here expressed.
The sincere milk of the word.] The life of grace is the proper life of a reasonable soul, and without it the soul is dead, as the body is without the soul; so that without untruth this may be rendered reasonable milk, as some read it; but certainly that reasonable milk is the word of God, The milk of the word.
It was before called the immortal seed, and here it is the milk of those who are born again, and thus it is nourishment very agreeable to their spiritual life, according to the saying, Iisdem alimur ex quibus constamus.25 As the milk that infants draw from the breast is the most suitable food for them, being of that same substance that nourished them in the womb; so, when they are brought forth, that food follows them as it were for their supply, in the way that is provided in nature for it; by certain veins it ascends into the breasts, and is there fitted for them, and they are by nature directed to find it there. Thus, as a Christian begins to live by the power of the word, so he is by the nature of that spiritual life directed to that same word as its nourishment. To follow the resemblance further in the qualities of milk, after the monkish way, that runs itself out of breath in allegory, I conceive is neither solid nor profitable; and to speak freely, the curious searching of the similitude in other qualities of milk, seems to wrong the quality here given it by the Apostle, in which it is so well resembled by milk, namely, the simple pureness and sincerity of the word; besides that the pressing of comparisons of this kind too far, proves often so constrained before they have finished it, that by too much drawing they bring forth blood instead of milk.
Pure and unmixed, as milk drawn immediately from the breast; the pure word of God without the mixture, not only of error, but of all other composition of vain unprofitable subtleties, or affected human eloquence, such as become not the majesty and gravity of God’s word. If any man speak, says our Apostle, let him speak as the oracles of God.26 Light conceits and flowers of rhetoric wrong the word more than they can please the hearers: the weeds among the corn make it look gay, but it were all the better they were not amongst it. Nor can those mixtures be pleasing to any but carnal minds. Those who are indeed the children of God, as infants who like their breast-milk best pure, do love the word best so, and wherever they find it so, they relish it well; whereas natural men cannot love spiritual things for themselves, desire not the word for its own sweetness, but would have it sauced with such conceits as possibly spoil the simplicity of it; or at the best, love to hear it for the wit and learning which, without any wrongful mixture of it, they find in one delivering it more than another. But the natural and genuine appetite of the children of God is to the word for itself, and only as milk, sincere milk; and where they find it so, from whomever or in whatever way delivered to them, they feed upon it with delight. Before conversion, wit or eloquence may draw a man to the word, and possibly prove a happy bait to catch him (as St. Augustine reports of his hearing St. Ambrose), but once born again, then it is the milk itself that he desires for itself.
Desire the sincere milk.] Not only hear it because it is your custom, but desire it because it is your food. And it is, 1. A natural desire, as the infant’s of milk; not upon any external respect or inducement, but from an inward principle and bent of nature. And because natural, therefore, 2. Earnest; not a cold indifferent willing, that doesn’t care whether it obtains it, but a vehement desire, as the word signifies, and as the resemblance clearly bears; as a child who will not be stilled till it has the breast; offer it what you will, silver, gold, or jewels, it regards them not, these answer not its desire, and that must be answered. Thus David, My soul breaks for the longing that it has unto your judgments;27 as a child likely to break its heart with crying for want of the breast. And again, because natural, it is, 3. Constant. The infant is not cloyed or wearied with daily feeding on the breast, but desires it every day, as if it had never had it before: thus the child of God has an unchangeable appetite for the word: it is daily new to him; he finds still fresh delight in it. Thus David, as before cited, My soul breaks for the longing that it has unto your judgments at all times. And then this law was his meditation day and night.28 Whereas a natural man is easily surfeited of it, and the very commonness and cheapness of it makes it contemptible to him. And this is our case; that while we should wonder at God’s singular goodness to us, and therefore prize His word all the more, that very thing makes us despise it—while others, our brethren, have bought this milk with their own blood, we have it upon the easiest terms that could be wished, only for the desiring, without the hazard of bleeding for it, and scarcely at the pains of sweating for it.
That you may grow thereby.] This is not only the purpose for which God has provided His children with the word, and moves them to desire it, but that which they are to intend in their desire and use of it; and, answerable to God’s purpose, they are therefore to desire it, because it is proper for this end, and that by it they may attain this end, to grow thereby. And herein, indeed, these children differ from infants in the natural life, who are directed to their food beside their knowledge, and without intention of its end; but this rational milk is to be desired by the children of God in a rational way, knowing and intending its end, having the use of natural reason renewed and sanctified by supernatural grace.
Now the end of this desire is, growth. Desire the word, not that you may only hear it—that is to fall very far short of its true end—yea, it is to take the beginning of the work for the end of it. The ear is indeed the mouth of the mind, by which it receives the word, (as Elihu compares it, Job 34:2,) but you know that meat which goes no further than the mouth cannot nourish. Neither should you desire the word only to satisfy a custom; it would be a great folly to make such superficial a thing the purpose of so serious a work. Again, to hear it only to stop the mouth of conscience, that it may not clamor more for the gross impiety of condemning it, this is to hear it, not out of desire, but out of fear. To desire it only for some present pleasure and delight that a man may find in it, is not the due use and end of it: that there is delight in it, may help to commend it to those who find it so, and so be a means to advance the end; but the end it is not. To seek no more than a present delight, which vanishes with the sound of the words that die in the air, is not to desire the word as meat, but as music, as God tells the prophet Ezekiel of his people.29 And, lo, you are to them as a very lovely song of one that has a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear your words, but they do them not. To desire the word for the increase of knowledge, although this is necessary and commendable, and being rightly qualified, is a part of spiritual growth, yet, take it as going no further, it is not the true end of the word. Nor is the venting of that knowledge in speech and frequent discourse of the word and the Divine truths that are in it; which, where it is governed with Christian prudence, is not to be despised, but commended; yet, certainly, the highest knowledge, and the most frequent and skillful speaking of the word, severed from the growth here mentioned, misses the true end of the word. If anyone’s head or tongue should grow apace, and all the rest stand at a stay, it would certainly make him a monster; and they are no other, who are knowing and discoursing Christians, and grow daily in that, but not at all in holiness of heart and life, which is the proper growth of the children of God. Appropriate to their case is Epictetus’s comparison of the sheep; they return not what they eat in grass, but in wool. David, in that 119th Psalm, which is wholly spent upon this subject, the excellence and use of the word of God, expresses, ver. 15, 16, 24, his delight in it, his earnest desire to be further taught, and to know more of it; his readiness to speak of it, ver. 13, 27; but withal, you know, he joins his desire and care to keep it, to hide it in his heart, ver. 5, 11; to make it the man of his counsel, to let it be as the whole assembly of his private counselors, and to be ruled and guided by it; and with him to use it so, is indeed to grow by it.
If we know what this spiritual life is, and of what the nature of it consists, we may easily know what is the growth of it. When holiness increases, when the sanctifying graces of the Spirit grow stronger in the soul, and consequently act more strongly in the life of a Christian, then he grows spiritually.
And as the word is the means of begetting this spiritual life, so likewise of its increase.
1. This will appear, if we consider the nature of the word in general, that it is spiritual and Divine, treats of the highest things, and therefore has in it a fitness to elevate men’s minds from the earth, and to assimilate to itself such as are often conversant with it; as all kind of doctrine readily does to those who are much in it, and apply their minds to study it. Doubtless, such kind of things as are frequent with men, have an influence on the disposition of their souls. The Gospel is called light, and the children of God are likewise called light, as being transformed into its nature; and this they are still the more, by more hearing of it, and so they grow.
2. If we look more particularly unto the strain and tenor of the word, it is most fit for increasing the graces of the Spirit in a Christian; for there are in it particular truths relative to them, that are apt to excite them, and set them on work, and so to make them grow, as all habits do, by acting. It does (as the Apostle’s word may be translated) stir up the sparks, and blow them into a greater flame, make them burn clearer and hotter. This it does both by particular exhortation to the study and exercise of those graces, sometimes pressing one, and sometimes another: and by right representing to them their objects. The word feeds faith, by setting before it the free grace of God, His rich promises, and His power and truth to perform them all; shows it the strength of the new covenant, not depending upon it, but holding in Christ in whom all the promises of God are yea and amen; and drawing faith still to rest more entirely upon His righteousness. It feeds repentance by making the vileness and deformity of sin daily more clear and visible. Still as more of the word has admission into the soul, the more it hates sin, sin being the more discovered and the better known in its own native color: as the more light there is in a house, the more any thing that is unclean or deformed is seen and disliked. Likewise it increases love to God, by opening up still more and more of His infinite excellence and loveliness. As it borrows the resemblance of the vilest things in nature to express the foulness and hatefulness of sin, so all the beauties and dignities that are in all the creatures are called together in the word to give us some small scantling of that Uncreated Beauty who alone deserves to be loved. Thus might it be instanced in respect to all other graces.
But above all other considerations, this is observable in the word as the increaser of grace, that it holds forth Jesus Christ to our view to look upon not only as the perfect pattern, but also as the full fountain of all grace, from whose fullness we all receive. The contemplation of Him as the perfect image of God, and then drawing from Him as having in Himself a treasure for us, these give the soul more of that image which is truly spiritual growth. This the Apostle expresses excellently30 speaking of the ministry of the Gospel revealing Christ, that beholding in him (as it is, ch. 4 ver. 6, in his face) the glory of the Lord, we are changed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord; not only that we may take the copy of His graces, but have a share of them.
There be many things that might be said of this spiritual growth, but I will add only a few.
First, in the judging of this growth, some persons conclude too rigidly against themselves, that they grow not by the word, because their growth is not so sensible to them as they desire. But, 1. It is well known, that in all things that grow, this growth is not discerned in motu, sed in termino,31 not in the growing, but when they are grown. 2. Besides, other things are to be considered in this: although other graces seem not to advance, yet if you grow more self-denying and humble in the sense of your slowness, all is not lost; although the branches shoot not up so fast as you wish, yet, if the root grow deeper, and fasten more, it is a useful growth. He who is still learning to be more in Jesus Christ, and less in himself, to have all his dependence and comfort in Him, is doubtless a growing believer.
On the other side, a far greater number conclude wrong in their own favor, imagining that they do grow, if they gain ground in some of those things we mentioned above, namely, more knowledge and more faculty of discoursing; if they find often some present stirrings of joy or sorrow in hearing of the word; if they reform their life, grow more civil and blameless, &c.; yet all these and many such things may be in a natural man, who notwithstanding grows not, for that is impossible; he is not, in that state, a subject capable of this growth, for he is dead, he has none of the new life to which this growth relates. Herod heard gladly, and obeyed many things.32
Consider, then, what true delight we might have in this. You find a pleasure when you see your children grow, when they begin to stand and walk, and so forth; you love well to perceive your estate or your honor grow: but for the soul to be growing more like God, and nearer Heaven, if we know it, is a pleasure far beyond them all: to find pride, earthliness, and vanity abating, and faith, and love, and spiritual-mindedness increasing; especially if we reflect that this growth is not as our natural life, which is often cut off before it reaches full age, as we call it, and, if it attain that, falls again to move downwards, and decays, as the sun, being at its meridian, begins to decline again; but this life shall grow on in whomever it is, and come certainly to its fullness; after which, there is no more need for this word, either for growth or nourishment,—no death, no decay, no old age, but perpetual youth, and a perpetual spring; ver aeternum; fullness of joy in the presence of God, and everlasting pleasures at His right hand.33
Ver. 3. If so be you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.
Our natural desire for food arises principally from its necessity for that end which nature seeks, viz. the growth, or at least the nourishment of our bodies. But there is, besides, a present sweetness and pleasantness in the use of it that serves to sharpen our desire, and is placed in our nature for that purpose. Thus the children of God, in their spiritual life, are naturally carried to desire the means of their nourishment and of their growth, being always here in a growing state; but besides, there is a spiritual delight and sweetness in the word, in that which it reveals concerning God, and this adds to their desire, stirs up their appetite towards it. The former idea is expressed in the preceding verse, the latter in this. Nature sends the infant to the breast; but when it has once tasted of it, that is a new superadded attraction, and makes it desire after it the more earnestly. So here,
The word is fully recommended to us by these two, usefulness and pleasantness: like milk, (as it is compared here,) which is a nourishing food, and also sweet and delightful to the taste: by it we grow, and in it we taste the graciousness of God. David, in that Psalm which he dedicates wholly to this subject, gives both of these as the reason for his appetite. He passionately expresses his love for it (119:97-102), O how love I your law! It follows, that by it he was made wiser than his enemies,—than his teachers,—and than the ancients; taught to refrain from every evil way; taught by the Author of that word, the Lord Himself, to grow wiser and warier, and holier in his ways; and then, ver. 103, he adds this other reason, How sweet are your words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
We shall speak, I. Of the goodness or graciousness of the Lord; II. Of this taste; and III. Of the inference from both.
I. The goodness of God: The Lord is gracious; or, of a bountiful, kind disposition. The Hebrew word in Psalm 34:8, whence this is taken, signifies good. The Septuagint renders it by the same word as is used here by our Apostle. Both the words signify a benignity and kindness of nature. It is one of love’s attributes,34 that it is kind, chresteuomai, ever compassionate, and helpful as it can be in straits and distresses, and still ready to forget and pass by evil, and to do good. In the largest and most comprehensive sense must we take the expression here, and yet still we shall speak and think infinitely below what His goodness is. He is naturally good, yea, goodness is His nature; He is goodness and love itself. He who loves not knows not God; for God is love.35 He is primitively good; all goodness is derived from Him, and all that is in the creature comes forth from none other than that ocean; and this Graciousness is still larger than them all.
There is a common bounty of God, in which He does good to all, and so the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.36 But the goodness that the Gospel is full of,—the particular stream that runs in that channel, is His peculiar graciousness and love to His own children, that by which they are first enlivened, and then refreshed and sustained in their spiritual being. It is this that is here spoken of. He is gracious to them in freely forgiving their sins, in giving no less than Himself to them; He frees them from all evils, and fills them with all good. He satisfies your mouth with good things and so it follows with good reason, that He is merciful and gracious; and His graciousness is further expressed in His gentleness and slowness to anger, His bearing with the frailties of His own, and pitying them like as a father pities his children.37
No friend is so kind and friendly (as this word signifies), and none so powerful. He is a very present help in trouble,38 ready to be found: whereas others may be far off, He is always at hand, and His presence is always comfortable.
Those who know God, still find Him a real useful good. Some things and some persons are useful at one time, and others at another, but God at all times. A well-furnished table may please a man while he has health and appetite, but offer it to him in the height of a fever, how unpleasant would it be then! Though never so lavishly prepared, it is then not only useless, but hateful to him; but the kindness and love of God is then as seasonable and refreshing to him, as in health, and possibly more; he can find sweetness in that, even on his sickbed. The bitter choler abounding in the mouth, in a fever, does not make distasteful this sweetness; it transcends and goes above it. Thus all earthly enjoyments have but some time (as meats) when they are in season, but the graciousness of God is always sweet; the taste of that is never out of season. See how old age spoils the relish of outward delights, in the example of Barzillai,39 but it makes not this distasteful. Therefore the Psalmist prays, that when other comforts forsake him and wear out, when they ebb from him and leave him on the sand, this may not; that still he may feed on the goodness of God: Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength fails.40 It is the continual influence of His graciousness that makes them still grow like a cedar in Lebanon, that makes them still bring forth fruit in old age, and be fat and flourishing; to show that the Lord is upright, as it is there added, that He is (as the word imports) still like Himself, and His goodness is ever the same.41
Full chests or large possessions may seem sweet to a man, until death presents itself; but then (as the Prophet speaks of throwing away their idols of silver and gold to the bats and moles, in the day of calamity,42) then he is forced to throw away all he possesses, with disdain for it and for his former folly in doting on it—at that time, the kindness of friends, and wife, and children, can do nothing but increase his grief and their own—but then is the love of God the good indeed and abiding sweetness, and it best relishes when all other things are most unsavory and uncomfortable.
God is gracious, but it is God in Christ; otherwise we cannot find Him so: therefore this is here spoken in particular of Jesus Christ, (as it appears by that which follows,) through whom all the peculiar kindness and love of God is conveyed to the soul, for it can come no other way; and the word here mentioned is the Gospel,43 of which Christ is the subject. Though God is mercy and goodness in Himself, yet we cannot find or apprehend Him so to us, but as we are looking through that medium the Mediator. That main point of the goodness of God in the Gospel, which is so sweet to a humbled sinner, the forgiveness of sins, we know we cannot taste of, but in Christ—In whom we have redemption.44 And all the favor that shines upon us, all the grace that we receive, is of his fullness;45 all our acceptance with God, our being taken into grace and kindness again, is in Him—He has made us accepted in the beloved.46 His grace appears in both, as it is there expressed, but it is all in Christ. Let us therefore never leave Him out in our desires of tasting the graciousness and love of God; for otherwise we shall not only dishonor Him, but also disappoint ourselves.
The free grace of God was given to be tasted, in the promises, before the coming of Christ in the flesh; but being accomplished in His coming, then was the sweetness of grace made more sensible; then was it more fully broached, and let out to the elect world, when He was pierced on the cross, and His blood poured out for our redemption. Through those holes of His wounds may we draw, and taste that the Lord is gracious, says St. Augustine.
II. As to this taste: You have tasted.] There is a tasting exercised by temporary believers spoken of, Heb. 6:4. Their highest sense of spiritual things, (and it will be far higher in some than we easily think,) yet is but a taste, and is called so in comparison of the truer, fuller sense that true believers have of the grace and goodness of God, which, compared with a temporary taste, is more than tasting. The former is merely tasting, rather an imaginary taste than real; but this is a true feeding on the graciousness of God, yet it is called but a taste in respect of the fullness to come. Though it is more than a taste, as distinguishable from the hypocrite’s sense, yet it is no more than a taste, compared with the great marriage-feast that we look for.
Jesus Christ being all in all47 to the soul, faith, apprehending Him, is all the spiritual senses: it is the eye that beholds His matchless beauty, and so kindles love in the soul, and can speak of Him as having seen Him, and taken particular notice of Him:48 it is the ear that discerns His voice.49 It is faith that smells His name as ointment poured forth;50 faith that touches Him and draws virtue from Him; and faith that tastes Him;51 and so here, If you have tasted.
In order to this there must be, 1. A firm believing of the truth of the promises in which the free grace of God is expressed and exhibited to us. 2. A particular application or attraction of that grace to ourselves, which is the drawing of those breasts of her consolations,52 namely, the promises contained in the Old and New Testaments. 3. A sense of the sweetness of that grace, being applied or drawn into the soul, and that is properly this taste. No unrenewed man has any of these in truth, not the highest kind of temporary believer; he cannot have so much as a real lively assent to the general truth of the promises; for if he had that, the rest would follow. But as he cannot have the least of these in truth, he may have the counterfeit of them all, not only of assent but of application, yea, and a false spiritual joy arising from it; and all these so drawn to the life, that they may much resemble the truth of them. To give clear characters of difference is not so easy as most persons imagine; but doubtless the true living faith of a Christian has in itself such a particular stamp, as brings with it its own evidence, when the soul is clear, and the light of God’s face shines upon it. Indeed, in the dark we cannot read, nor distinguish one mark from another; but when a Christian has light to look upon the work of God in his own soul, although he cannot make another sensible of that by which he knows it, yet he himself is assured, and can say confidently in himself, "This I know, that this faith and taste of God I have is true; the seal of the Spirit of God is upon it;" and this is the reading of that new name, in the white stone, which no man knows saving he that receives it.53 There is, in a true believer, such a constant love to God for Himself, and such a continual desire after Him, simply for His own excellence and goodness, as no other can have. On the other side, if a hypocrite would deal truly and impartially by himself, he would readily find out something that would reveal him more or less to himself. But the truth is, men are willing to deceive themselves, and herein arises the difficulty. One man cannot make another sensible of the sweetness of Divine Grace: he may speak to him of it very excellently, but all he says in that kind is an unknown language to a natural man; he hears many good words, but he cannot tell what they mean. The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God, because they are spiritually discerned.54
A spiritual man himself does not fully comprehend this sweetness that he tastes of; it is an infinite goodness, and he has but a taste of it. The peace of God, which is a main fruit of this His goodness, passes all understanding,55 says the Apostle, not only all natural understanding, (as some modify it,) but all understanding, even the supernatural understanding of those who enjoy it. And as the godly man cannot comprehend it all, so as to that which he understands, he cannot express it all, and that which he does express, the carnal mind cannot conceive of by his expression.
But he who has indeed tasted of this goodness, O how tasteless are those things to him that the world calls sweet! As when you have tasted something that is very sweet, it disrelishes other things after it. Therefore a Christian can so easily either lack, or use with indifference the delights of this earth. His heart is not upon them: for the delight that he finds in God carries it unspeakably away from all the rest, and makes them in comparison seem sapless to his taste.
Solomon tasted of all the delicacies, the choicest dishes that are in such esteem amongst men, and not only tasted, but ate largely of them, and yet see how he goes over them, to let us know what they are, and passes from one dish to another. This also is vanity, and of the next, This also is vanity, and so through all, and of all in general, All is vanity and vexation of spirit, or feeding on the wind, as the word may be rendered.56
III. We come in the third place to the inference: If you have tasted, &c., then lay aside all malice and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speaking, ver. 1; for it looks back to the whole exhortation. Surely, if you have tasted of that kindness and sweetness of God in Christ, it will compose your spirits, and conform them to Him; it will diffuse such a sweetness through your soul, that there will be no place for malice and guile; there will be nothing but love, and meekness, and singleness of heart. Therefore those who have bitter malicious spirits, prove that they have not tasted of the love of God. As the Lord is good, so those who taste of His goodness are made like Him. Be kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.57
Again, if you have tasted, then desire more. And this will be the truest sign of it: he who is in a continual hunger and thirst after this graciousness of God has surely tasted of it. My soul thirsts for God, says David. He had tasted before; he remembers, that he went to the house of God, with the voice of joy.58
This is that happy circle in which the soul moves: the more they love it, the more they shall taste of this goodness; and the more they taste, the more they shall still love and desire it.
But observe, if you have tasted that the Lord is gracious, then, desire the milk of the word. This is the sweetness of the word, that it has in it the Lord’s graciousness, and gives us the knowledge of His love. Those who have spiritual life and senses find this in it, and those senses are exercised to discern good and evil; and this engages a Christian to further desire of the word. They are fantastical deluding tastes, which draw men from the written word, and make them expect other revelations. This graciousness is first conveyed to us by the word; there first we taste it, and therefore there still we are to seek it; to hang upon those breasts that cannot be drawn dry; there the love of God in Christ streams forth in the several promises. The heart that cleaves to the word of God, and delights in it, cannot but find in it, daily, new tastes of His goodness; there it reads His love, and by that stirs up its own to Him, and so grows and loves, every day more than the former, and thus is tending from tastes to fullness. It is but little we can receive here, some drops of joy that enter into us; but there we shall enter into joy, as vessels put into a sea of happiness.
Ver. 4. To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious,
Ver. 5. You also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.
The spring of all the dignities of a Christian, and therefore the great motive of all his duties, is his near relation to Jesus Christ. There it is, that the Apostle makes that the great subject of his doctrine, both to represent to his distressed brethren their dignity in that respect, and to press by it the necessary duties he exhorts to. Having spoken of their spiritual life and growth in Him, under the resemblance of natural life, he prosecutes it here by another comparison very frequent in the Scriptures, and therefore makes use in it of some passages of those Scriptures, that were prophetical of Christ and His Church. Though there be here two different similitudes, yet they have so near a relation one to another, and meet so well in the same subject, that he joins them together, and then illustrates them severally in the following verses; a temple, and a priesthood, comparing the Saints to both: the former in these words of this verse.
We have in it, 1. The nature of the building: 2. The materials of it: 3. The structure or way of building it.
1. The nature of it; it is a spiritual building. Time and place, we know, received their being from God, and He was eternally before both; He is therefore styled by the Prophet, The high and lofty One who inhabits eternity.59 But having made the world, He fills it, though not as contained in it, and so the whole frame of it is His palace or temple, but after a more special manner, the higher and statelier part of it, the highest Heaven; therefore it is called His holy place, and the habitation of His holiness and glory.60 And on earth, the houses of His public worship are called His houses; especially the Jewish temple in its time, having in it such a relative typical holiness, which others have not. But besides all these, and beyond them all in excellence, He has a house in which He dwells more peculiarly than in any of the rest, even more than in Heaven, taken for the place only, and that is this spiritual building. And this is most suitable to the nature of God. As our Savior says of the necessary conformity of His worship to Himself, God is a Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth,61 so it holds of His house; He must have a spiritual one, because He is a Spirit; so God’s temple is His people.
And for this purpose chiefly did He make the world, the heaven, and the earth, that in it He might raise this spiritual building for Himself to dwell in forever, to have a number of His reasonable creatures to enjoy Him, and glorify Him in eternity. And from that eternity He knew what the dimensions, and frame, and materials of it should be. The continuation of this present world, as it now is, is but for the service of this work, like the scaffolding about it; and therefore, when this spiritual building shall be fully completed, all the present frame of things in the world, and in the Church itself, shall be taken away, and appear no more.
This building is, as the particular designation of its materials will teach us, the whole invisible Church of God, and each good man is a stone of this building. But as the nature of it is spiritual, it has this privilege (as they speak of the soul), that it is Tota in toto, et tota in qualibet parte:62 the whole Church is the spouse of Christ, and each believing soul has the same title and dignity to be called so: thus each of these stones is called a whole temple, the temple of the Holy Ghost;63 though taking the Temple or Building in a more complete sense, each one is but a part, or a stone of it, as it is here expressed.
The whole excellence of this building is comprised in this, that it is spiritual, distinguishing it from all other buildings, and preferring it above them. And inasmuch as the Apostle speaks immediately after of a priesthood and sacrifices, it seems to be called a spiritual building, particularly in opposition to that material temple in which the Jews gloried, which was now null, regarding its former use, and was quickly after entirely destroyed. But while it stood, and the legal use of it stood in its fullest vigor, yet in this respect still it was inferior, that it was not a spiritual house made up of living stones, as this, but of a similar matter with other earthly buildings.
This spiritual house is the palace of the Great King, or His temple. The Hebrew word for palace and temple is one. God’s temple is a palace, and therefore must be full of the richest beauty and magnificence, but such as agrees with the nature of it, a spiritual beauty. In that Psalm which wishes so many prosperities, one is, that our daughters may be as corner-stones, polished after the similitude of a palace.64 Thus is the Church: she is called the King’s daughter; but her comeliness is invisible to the world, she is all glorious within.65 Through sorrows and persecutions, she may be smoky and black, to the world’s eye, as the tents of Kedar;66 but as to spiritual beauty, she is comely as the curtains of Solomon.67 And in this the Jewish temple resembles it rightly, which had most of its riches and beauty on the inside. Holiness is the gold of this spiritual house, and it is inwardly enriched with that.
The glory of the Church of God consists not in stately buildings of temples, and rich furniture, and pompous ceremonies; these agree not with its spiritual nature. Its true and genuine beauty is, to grow in spirituality, and so to be more like itself, and to have more of the presence of God, and His glory filling it as a cloud. And it has been observed, that the more the Church grew in outward riches and state, the less she grew, or rather the more sensibly she abated, in spiritual excellences. But the spirituality of this building will better appear in considering particularly,
2ndly, The materials of it, as here expressed To whom coming, &c., you also, as lively stones, are, &c. Now the whole building is Christ mystical, Christ together with the entire body of the elect: He, as the foundation, and they as the stones built upon Him; He, the living stone, and they likewise, by union with Him, living stones; He, having life in himself, as He speaks,68 and they deriving it from Him; He, primitively living, and they, by participation. For therefore is He called here a living stone, not only because of His immortality and glorious resurrection, being a Lamb that was slain and is alive again forever,69 but because He is the principle of spiritual and eternal life to us, a living foundation that transfuses this life into the whole building, and every stone of it, In whom (says the Apostle) all the building fitly framed together grows unto a holy temple in the Lord.70 It is the Spirit that flows from Him, which enlivens it, and knits it together, as a living body; for the same word is used, Eph. 4:16, for the Church under the similitude of a body. When it is said, Ch. 20, to be built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, it only refers to their doctrine concerning Christ; and therefore it is added, that He, as being the subject of their doctrine, is the chief corner-stone. The foundation, then, of the Church, lies not in Rome, but in Heaven, and therefore is out of the reach of all enemies, and above the power of the gates of hell. Fear not, then, when you see the storms arise, and the winds blow against this spiritual building, for it shall stand; it is built upon an invisible, immoveable Rock; and that great Babylon, Rome itself, that, under the false title and pretence of supporting this building, is working to overthrow it, shall be utterly overthrown, and laid equal with the ground, and never be rebuilt again.
But this Foundation-stone, as it is commended by its quality, that it is a living and enlivening stone, having life, and giving life to those who are built on it, so it is also further described by God’s choosing it, and by its own worth; in both opposed to men’s disesteem, and therefore it is said here to be chosen of God and precious. God did indeed from eternity contrive this building, and choose this same foundation, and accordingly, in the fullness of time, did perform His purpose; so the thing being one, we may take it either for His purpose, or the performance of it, or both; yet it seems most suitable to the strain of the words, and to the place after alleged, in respect to laying Him in Sion, and opposing the rejection of men, that we take it for God’s actual employing of Jesus Christ in the work of our redemption. He alone was fit for that work; it was utterly impossible that any other should bear the weight of that service, and so of this building, but He who was Almighty. Therefore the Spouse calls Him the chiefest, or choice among ten thousand,71 yet He was rejected of men.72 There is an antipathy (if we may so speak) between the mind of God and corrupt nature; the things that are highly esteemed with men are an abomination to God; and thus we see here, that which is highly esteemed with God, is cast out and disallowed by men. But surely there is no comparison; the choosing and esteem of God stands; and by that (judge men of Christ as they will) He is the foundation of this building. And He is in true value answerable to this esteem: He is precious; which seems to signify a kind of inward worth, hidden from the eyes of men, blind and unbelieving men, but well known to God, and to those to whom He reveals Him. And this is the very cause of His rejection by the most, the ignorance of His worth and excellence; as a precious stone that the skilful lapidary esteems of much worth, an ignorant beholder makes little or no account of.
These things hold likewise in the other stones of this building; they, too, are chosen before time; all that should be of this building, fore-ordained in God’s purpose, all written in that book beforehand; and then, in due time, they are chosen by actual calling, according to that purpose, hewed out and severed by God’s own hand, out of the quarry of corrupt nature: dead stones in themselves, as the rest, but made living, by His bringing them to Christ, and so made truly precious, and accounted precious by Him who has made them so. All the stones in this building are called God’s jewels.73 Though they be vilified, and scoffed at, and despised by men, though they pass for fools, and the refuse of the world, yet they may easily digest all that, in the comfort of this, if they are chosen of God, and precious in His eyes. This is the very lot of Christ, and therefore by that the more welcome, that it conforms them to Him,—suits these stones to their foundation.
And if we consider it rightly, what a poor despicable thing is the esteem of men! How soon is it past! It is a very small thing, says the Apostle Paul, that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment.74 Now that God often chooses for this building such stones as men cast away as good for nothing, see 1 Cor. 1:26. And where He says, I dwell in the high and holy place,75 what is His other dwelling, His habitation on earth? is it in great palaces and courts? No; but with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit. Now, these are the basest in men’s account: yet He chooses them, and prefers them to all other palaces and temples. Thus says the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that you build unto me? and where is the place of my rest? For all those things has my hand made, and all those things have been, says the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembles at my word.76 You cannot gratify me with any dwelling, for I myself have made all, and a surer house than any that you can make me, The heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool: but I, who am so high, am pleased to regard the lowly.
3rdly, We have the structure, or way of building. To whom coming.] First, coming, then built up. Those who come to Christ, come not only from the world that lies in wickedness,77 but out of themselves. Of a great many that seem to come to Christ, it may be said, that they have not come to Him, because they have not left themselves. This is believing on Him, which is the very resigning of the soul to Christ, and living by Him. You will not come to me, that you might have life,78 says Christ. He complains of it as a wrong done to Him; but the loss is ours. It is His glory to give us life who were dead; but it is our happiness to receive that life from Him. Now these stones come unto their foundation; which imports the moving of the soul to Christ, being moved by His Spirit, and that the will acts, and willingly (for it cannot act otherwise), but still as being actuated and drawn by the Father. No man can come to me, except the Father which has sent me draw him.79 And the outward means of drawing is by the word; it is the sound of that harp, which brings the stones of this spiritual building together. And then, being united to Christ, they are built up; that is, as St. Paul expresses it, they grow up unto a holy temple in the Lord.80
In times of peace, the Church may expand more, and build as it were into breadth, but in times of trouble, it arises more in height; it is then built upwards: as in cities where men are straitened, they build usually higher than in the country. Notwithstanding the Church’s afflictions, yet still the building is going forward; it is built, as Daniel speaks of Jerusalem, in troublous times.81 And it is this which the Apostle intends, as suiting with his foregoing exhortation: this passage may be read exhortatively too; but taking it rather as asserting their condition, it is for this purpose, that they may remember to be like it, and grow up. For this end he expressly calls them living stones; an adjunct not usual for stones, but here inseparable; and therefore, though the Apostle changes the similitude from infants to stones; yet he will not let go this quality of living, as making chiefly for his purpose.
To teach us the necessity of growth in believers, they are therefore often compared to things that grow, to trees planted in fruitful growing places, as by the rivers of water,82 to cedars in Lebanon,83 where they are tallest; to the morning light; to infants on the breast; and here, where the word seems to refuse it, to stones; yet (it must, and well does admit this unwonted epithet) they are called living and growing stones.
If, then, you would have the comfortable persuasion of this union with Christ, see whether you find your souls established upon Jesus Christ, finding Him as your strong foundation; not resting on yourselves, nor on any other thing either within you or without you, but supported by Him alone: drawing life from Him, by virtue of that union, as from a living foundation, so as to say with the Apostle, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.84
As these stones are built on Christ by faith, so they are cemented one to another by love; and, therefore, where that is not, it is but a delusion for persons to think themselves parts of this building. As it is knit to Him, it is knit together in itself through Him; and if dead stones in a building support and mutually strengthen one another, how much more ought living stones in an active, lively way so to do! The stones of this building keep their place; the lower rise not up to be in the place of the higher. As the Apostle speaks of the parts of the body, so the stones of this building in humility and love keep their station, and grow up in it, unto the edifying of itself in love;85 the Apostle importing, that the lack of this much prejudices edification.
These stones, because they are living, therefore grow in the life of grace and spirituality, being a spiritual building; so that if we find not this, but our hearts are still carnal, and glued to the earth, minding earthly things,86 wiser in those than in spirituals, this evidences strongly against us, that we are not of this building. How few of us have that spirituality that becomes the temples of the Holy Ghost, or the stones of that building! Base lusts are still lodging and ruling within us, and so our hearts are as cages of unclean birds and filthy spirits.
Consider this as your happiness, to form part of this building, and consider the instability of other comforts and privileges. If some have called those stones happy, that were taken for the building of temples or altars, beyond those in common houses, how true is it here! Happy indeed the stones that God chooses to be living stones in this spiritual temple, though they be hammered and hewed to be polished for it, by afflictions and the inward work of mortification and repentance. It is worth enduring all, to be fitted for this building. They are happy, beyond all the rest of men, though they might never be set in such great honors, as prime parts of political buildings, (states and kingdoms), in the courts of kings, yea, or kings themselves. For all other buildings, and all the parts of them, shall be demolished and come to nothing, from the foundation to the cope-stone: all your houses, both cottages and palaces; the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up; as our Apostle has it.87 But this spiritual building shall grow up to Heaven; and being come to perfection, shall abide forever in perfection of beauty and glory. In it shall be found no unclean thing, nor unclean person, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.88
A holy priesthood.] For the worship and ceremonies of the Jewish church were all shadows of Jesus Christ, and have their accomplishment in Him, not only after a singular manner in His own person, but in a derived way, in His mystical body, His Church. The priesthood of the Law represented Him as the great High Priest who offered Himself up for our sins, and that is a priesthood altogether incommunicable; neither is there any peculiar office of priesthood for offering sacrifice in the Christian Church, but His alone who is head of it. But this dignity that is here mentioned, of a holy priesthood, offering up spiritual sacrifices, is common to all those who are in Christ. As they are living stones built on Him into a spiritual temple, so they are priests of that same temple made by Him.89 As He was after a transcendent manner, temple, and priest, and sacrifice, so, in their kind, are Christians all these three through Him; and by His Spirit that is in them, their offerings through Him are made acceptable.
We have here, 1. The office; 2. The service of that office; 3. The success of that service.
1. The Office. The death of Jesus Christ, as being every way powerful for reconciliation and union, not only broke down the partition-wall of guiltiness that stood between God and man, but also the wall of ceremonies that stood between the Jews and the Gentiles: it made all who believe one with God, and made both one,90 as the Apostle speaks—united them one to another. The way of salvation was made known, not to one nation only, but to all people: so that whereas the knowledge of God was before confined to one little corner, it is now diffused through the nations; and whereas the dignity of their priesthood stayed in a few persons, all those who believe are now thus dignified to be priests unto God the Father. And this was signified by the rending of the veil of the Temple at His death; not only that those ceremonies and sacrifices were to cease, as being all fulfilled in Him, but that the people of God who were before by that veil held out in the outer court, were to be admitted into the Holy Place, as being all of them priests, and fitted to offer sacrifices.
The priesthood of the Law was holy, and its holiness was signified by many outward things suitable to their manner, by anointings, and washings, and vestments; but in this spiritual priesthood of the Gospel, holiness itself is instead of all those, as being the substance of all. The children of God are all anointed, and purified, and clothed with holiness. But then,
2. There is here the service of this office, namely, to offer. There is no priesthood without sacrifice, for these terms are correlative, and offering sacrifices was the chief employment of the legal priests. Now, because the priesthood here spoken of is altogether spiritual, therefore the sacrifices must be so too, as the Apostle here expresses it.
We are saved the pains and cost of bringing bullocks and rams, and other such sacrifices; and these are in their stead. As the Apostle speaks of the high priesthood of Christ, that the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law;91 so, in this priesthood of Christians, there is a change of the kind of sacrifice from the other. All sacrifice is not taken away, but it is changed from the offering of those things formerly in use to spiritual sacrifices.
Now these are preferable in every way; they are easier and cheaper to us, and yet more precious and acceptable to God; as it follows here in the text. Even during the time when the other sacrifices were in request, these spiritual offerings always had the precedence in God’s account, and without them He hated and despised all burnt-offerings and the largest sacrifices, though they were then according to His own appointment. How much more should we abound in spiritual sacrifice, who are eased of the other! How much more applies that answer now, which was given even in those times to the inquiry, Wherewith shall I come before the Lord? &c., You need not all that trouble and expense, thousands of rams, &c.—that which God requires most of all is at hand, namely, to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.92 So, Psalm 50:23: Whoever offers praise, glorifies me. That which is peculiarly spoken of Christ, applies to Christians by conformity with Him.
But though the spiritual sacrificing is easier in its own nature, yet to the corrupt nature of man it is by far the harder. He would rather choose still all the toil and cost of the former way, if it were in his option. This was the sin of the Jews in those times, that they leaned the soul upon the body’s service too much, and would have done enough of that to be dispensed from this spiritual service. Hence are the Lord’s frequent reproofs and complaints of this, Psalm 50, Isaiah 1, &c. Hence the willingness in Popery for outward work, for penances and satisfactions of bodies and purses,—anything of that kind, if it might serve,—rather than the inward work of repentance and mortification, the spiritual service and sacrifices of the soul. But the answer to all those from God is that of the Prophet, Who has required this at your hand?93
Indeed, the sacred writers press works of charity, if they be done with a right hand, and the left hand not so much as acquainted with the business, as our Savior speaks, Let not your left hand know what your right hand does.94 They must be done with a right and single intention, and from a right principle moving to them, without any vain opinion of meriting by them with God, or any vain desire of gaining applause with men, but merely out of love to God, and to man for His sake. Thus they are one of these spiritual sacrifices, and therefore ought by no means to be neglected by Christian priests, that is, by any who are Christians.
Another spiritual sacrifice is, the prayers of the saints:95 Let my prayer be set forth before you as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.96 It is not the composition of prayer, or the eloquence of expression, that is the sweetness of it in God’s account, and makes it a sacrifice of a pleasing smell or sweet odor to Him; but the breathing forth of the desire of the heart; that is what makes it a spiritual sacrifice, otherwise, it is as carnal, and dead, and worthless in God’s account, as the carcasses of beasts. Incense can neither smell nor ascend without fire; no more does prayer, unless it arises from a bent of spiritual affection; it is that which both makes it smell, and sends it heavenwards, makes it never stop moving upwards until it comes before God, and smells sweet in His nostrils, which few, too few, of our prayers do.
Praise also is a sacrifice; to make respectful and honorable mention of the Name of God, and of His goodness; to bless Him humbly and heartily. Offer unto God thanksgiving. Whoever offers praise, glorifies me.97 And this is that sacrifice that shall never end, but continues in Heaven to eternity.
Then, a holy course of life is called the sacrifice of righteousness, Psalm 4:5. So also Heb. 13:16, where the Apostle shows what sacrifices replace those which, as he has taught at large, are abolished. Christ sacrificed for us, and that alone was powerful to take away sin: but our gratulatory sacrifices, praise and alms, are as incense burnt to God, of which as the standers-by find the sweet smell, so the holy life of Christians smells sweet to those with whom they live. But the wicked, as putrefied carcasses, are of a noxious smell to God and man. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works.98
In a word, that sacrifice of ours which includes all these, and without which none of these can be rightly offered, is ourselves, our whole selves. Our bodies are to be presented a living sacrifice,99 and they are not that without our souls. It is our heart given, that gives all the rest, for that commands all. My son, give me your heart,100 and then the other will follow, your eyes will delight in my ways. This makes the eyes, ears, tongue, and hands, and all, to be holy, as God’s peculiar property; and being once given and consecrated to Him, it becomes sacrilege to turn them to any unholy use. This makes a man delight to hear and speak of things that concern God, and to think on Him frequently, to be holy in his secret thoughts, and in all his ways. In ever thing we bring Him, every thanksgiving and prayer we offer, His eye is upon the heart—He looks for it along with our offering, and if He doesn’t see it, He cares not for all the rest, but throws it back again.
The heart must be offered too, and the whole heart, all of it entirely given to Him. Se totem obtulit Christus pro nobis—Christ offered up His whole self for us. In another sense, which contradicts not this, your heart must not be whole, but broken.101 But if you find it unbroken, yet give it to Him, with a desire that it may be broken. And if it is broken, and if, when you have given it Him, He breaks it more, yes and melts it too, yet you shall not repent your gift; for He breaks and melts it, that He may refine it, and make it up a new and excellent frame, and may impress His own image on it, and make it holy, and so like to Himself.
Let us then give Him ourselves, or nothing; and to give ourselves to Him, is not His advantage, but ours. As the philosopher said to his poor scholar, who, when others gave him great gifts, told him, he had nothing but himself to give: It is well, said he, and I will endeavor to give you back to yourself, better than I received you;—thus does God with us, and thus does a Christian make himself his daily sacrifice: he renews this gift of himself every day to God, and receiving it every day bettered again, still he has the more delight in giving it, as being more fit for God, the more it is sanctified by former sacrificing.
Now that, by which we offer all other spiritual sacrifices, and ourselves withal, is love. That is the holy fire that burns up all, sends up our prayers, and our hearts, and our whole selves a whole burnt-offering to God; and, as the fire of the altar, it is originally from Heaven, being kindled by God’s own love to us; and by this the Church, and each believer, ascends like pillars of smoke, (as the word is, Cant. 3:6,) going even up to God perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, all the graces of the Spirit received from Christ, but above all, with His own merits.
How far from this are most of us, though professing to be Christians? Who considers his holy calling? As the peculiar holiness of the ministry should be much in the eyes and thoughts of those who are called to it, as they should study to be answerably eminent in holiness, so, all you who are Christians, consider, you are priests unto God; being called a holy priesthood, thus you ought to be. But if we speak what we are indeed, we must say rather, we are an unholy priesthood, a shame to that name and holy profession. Instead of the sacrifice of a godly life, and the incense of prayer and praise, in families and alone, what is there with many, but the filthy vapors and profane speaking and a profane life, as a noxious smell arising out of a dunghill?
But you who have once offered up yourselves unto God, and are still doing so with all the services you can reach, continue so, and be assured, that however unworthy yourselves and all your offerings are, yet they shall not be rejected.
3. The third thing here observable is, the success of that service; Acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.102 The children of God delight in offering sacrifices to Him; but if they didn’t know that they were well taken at their hands, this would discourage them much—therefore this is added. How often do the godly find it in their sweet experience, that when they come to pray, He welcomes them, and gives them such evidences of His love, as they would not exchange for all worldly pleasures! And when this does not so presently appear at other times, yet they ought to believe it. He accepts them and their ways offered in sincerity, although never so inferior: though they sometimes have no more than a sigh or a groan, it is most properly a spiritual sacrifice.
Stay not away because you, and the gifts you offer, are inferior to the offering of others. No, none are excluded for that; only give what you have, and act with affection, for that He regards most. Under the law, those who didn’t have a lamb, were welcome with a pair of pigeons. So the Christian may say—What I am, Lord, I offer myself unto You, to be wholly Yours; and if I had a thousand times more outward or inward gifts, all should be Yours; if I had more estate, or wit, or learning, or power, I would endeavor to serve You with all. What I have, I offer You, and it is most truly Yours; it is but of Your own that I give You.—No one needs to forgo sacrifice because of poverty, for what God desires is the heart, and there is none so poor but has a heart to give Him.
But meanness is not all; there is a guiltiness on ourselves and on all we offer; our prayers and services are all polluted. But this doesn’t hinder either; for our acceptance is not for ourselves, but for the sake of One who has no guiltiness at all: Acceptable by Jesus Christ. In Him our persons are clothed with righteousness, and in His clothing we are, as Isaac said to Jacob in his brother’s garments, as the smell of a field which the Lord has blessed.103 And all our other sacrifices, our prayers and services, if we offer them by Him,104 and put them into His hand to offer to the Father, then doubt not they will be accepted in Him; for this by Jesus Christ, is relative both to our offering and our acceptance. We ought not to offer anything but by Him; and so we are well-pleasing to the Father, for He is His well-beloved Son, in whom His soul is delighted; not only delighted and pleased with Himself, but in Him with all things and persons that appear in Him, and are presented by Him.
And this alone answers all our doubts. For we ourselves, as little as we see that way, yet may see so much in our best services, so many wanderings in prayer, so much deadness, &c., as would make us still doubtful of acceptance: so that we might say with Job, If I had called and he had answered me; yet would I not believe that he had hearkened unto my voice,105 were it not for this, that our prayers and all our sacrifices pass through Christ’s hand. He is that Angel who has much sweet odors, to mingle with the prayers of the saints.106 He purifies them with His own merits and intercession, and so makes them pleasing to the Father. How ought our hearts to be knit to Him, by whom we are brought into favor with God, and kept in favor with Him; in whom we obtain all the good we receive, and in whom all we offer is accepted! In Him are all our supplies of grace, and our hopes of glory.
Ver. 6. Wherefore also it is contained in the Scripture, Behold I lay in Sion a chief corner-stone, elect, precious; and he who believes on him shall not be confounded.
That which is the chief of the works of God, is therefore very reasonably the chief subject of His word, as both most excellent in itself, and of most concern for us to know; and this is the saving of lost mankind by His Son. Therefore is His name as precious ointment, or perfume, diffused through the whole Scripture—all these holy leaves smell of it, not only those that were written after His coming, but those that were written before. Search the Scriptures, says He Himself, for they are they which testify of me;107 namely, the Scriptures of the Old Testament, which were alone then written; and to evidence this, both Himself and His Apostles make so frequent use of their testimony, and we find so much of them inserted in the New, as being both one in substance; their lines meeting in the same Jesus Christ as their center.
The Apostle having, in the preceding verse, expressed the happy state and dignity of Christians, under the double notion, 1. of a spiritual house or temple, 2. of a spiritual priesthood,—here amplifies and confirms both from the writings of the prophets; the former, verses 6, 7, 8; the latter, verse 9. The places that he cites concerning this building are most pertinent, for they have clearly in them all that he spoke of it, both concerning the foundation and the edifice; as the first in these words of Isaiah, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner-stone, &c.108
Let this commend the Scriptures much to our diligence and affection, that their great theme is our Redeemer, and redemption wrought by Him; that they contain the doctrine of His excellences—are the lively picture of His matchless beauty. Were we more in them, we should daily see more of Him in them, and so of necessity love Him more. But we must look within them; the letter is but the case; the spiritual sense is what we should desire to see. We usually hurry them over, and see no further than their outside, and therefore find so little sweetness in them: we read them, but we search them not as He requires. Would we dig into those golden mines, we should find treasures of comfort that cannot be spent, but which would furnish us in the hardest times.
The prophecy here cited, if we look upon it in its own place, we shall find inserted in the middle of a very sad denunciation of judgment against the Jews. And this is usual with the Prophets, particularly, with this Evangelical Prophet Isaiah, to uphold the spirits of the godly, in the worst times, with this one great consolation, the promise of the Messiah, as weighing down all, both temporal distresses and deliverances. Hence are those sudden ascents, so frequent in the Prophets, from their present subject to this great Hope of Israel. And if this expectation of a Savior was so pertinent a comfort in all estates, so many ages before the accomplishment of it, how wrongfully do we undervalue it, being accomplished, who cannot live upon it, and answer all with it, and sweeten all our griefs, with this advantage, that there is a foundation-stone laid in Sion, on which those who are built shall surely not be ashamed!
In these words there are five things, 1. This Foundation-stone; 2. The laying of it; 3. The building on it; 4. The firmness of this building; And 5. The greatness and excellence of the work.
1st. For the Foundation, called here, a chief corner-stone. Though the Prophet’s words are not precisely rendered, yet the substance and sense of them are the same. In Isaiah, chap. 28:16, both the foundation and corner-stone are expressed, the corner-stone in the foundation being the main support of the building, and throughout, the corner-stones uniting and knitting the building together; and therefore this same word, a corner, is frequently taken in Scripture for princes, or heads of people,109 because good governors and government are that which upholds and unites the societies of people in states or kingdoms as one building. And Jesus Christ is indeed the only Head and King of His Church, who gives it laws, and rules it in wisdom and righteousness: the only Rock on which His Church is built; not Peter, (if we will believe St. Peter himself, as here he teaches us,) much less his pretended successors; He is the foundation and corner-stone that knits together the walls of Jews and Gentiles, who has made both one,110 as St. Paul speaks, and unites the whole number of believers into one everlasting temple, and bears the weight of the whole fabric.
Elected.] Or chosen out for the purpose, and altogether fit for it. Isaiah has it, a stone of trial, or a tried-stone.111 As things amongst men are best chosen after trial, so Jesus Christ was certainly known by the Father as most fit for that work to which He chose Him before He tried Him, as after, upon trial in His life, and death, and resurrection, He proved fully answerable to His Father’s purpose in all that was appointed Him.
All the combined strength of angels had not sufficed for that business; but the wise Architect of this building knew both what it would cost, and what a foundation was necessary to bear so great and so lasting a structure as He intended. Sin having defaced and demolished the first building of man in the integrity of His creation, it was God’s design, out of the very ruins of fallen man, to raise a more lasting edifice than the former, one that should not be subject to decay; and therefore He fitted for it a Foundation that might be everlasting. The sure founding, is the main thing; therefore, that it might stand for the true honor of His Majesty, (which Nebuchadnezzar vainly boasted of his Babel), He chose His own Son, made flesh. He was God, that He might be a strong foundation; He was Man, so that He might be suitable to the nature of the stones of which the building was to consist, that they might join and cement together.
Precious.] Inestimably precious, by all the conditions that can give worth to any; by rareness, and by inward excellence, and by useful virtues. Rare He is, without a doubt; there is not such a person in the world again; therefore He is called by the same Prophet, Wonderful,112 full of wonders: the power of God and the frailty of man dwelling together in His person; The Ancient of days113 becoming an infant; He who stretched out the heavens,114 bound up in swaddling clothes in His infancy, and in His full age stretched forth on the cross; altogether spotless and innocent, and yet suffering not only the unjust cruelties of men, but the just wrath of God His Father: the Lord of life, and yet dying. His excellence appears in the same things, in that He is the Lord of life, God blessed forever, equal with the Father: the sparkling brightness of this precious stone is no less than this, that He is the brightness of the Father’s glory:115 so bright, that men could not have beheld Him appearing in Himself; therefore He veiled it with our flesh; and yet, through that it shined and sparkled so, that the Apostle St. John says of himself and of those others who had their eyes opened, and looked right upon Him, He dwelt amongst us, and He had a tent like ours, and yet, through that we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth,116—the Deity filling His human nature with all manner of grace in its highest perfection. And Christ is not only thus excellent in Himself, but of precious virtue, which He lets forth and imparts to others; of such virtue that a touch of Him is the only cure of spiritual diseases. Men tell of strange virtues of some stones; but it is certain that this Precious Stone has not only virtue to heal the sick, but even to raise the dead. Dead bodies He raised in the days of His abode on earth, and dead souls He still raises by the power of His word. The Prophet Malachi calls Him the Sun of righteousness,117 which includes in it the rareness and excellence we speak of—He is singular; as there is but one Sun in the world, so but one Savior: and His luster is such a stone as outshines the sun in its fullest brightness. And then, for his useful virtue, the Prophet adds, with healing in his wings. His worth is unspeakable, and remains infinitely beyond all these resemblances.
2ndly. There is here the laying of this Foundation: it is said to be laid in Sion; that is, it is laid in the Church of God. And it was first laid in Sion, literally, that being then the seat of the Church and of the true religion—He was laid there, in His manifestation in the flesh, and suffering and dying, and rising again; and afterwards, being preached through the world, He became the foundation of His Church in all places where His name was received; and so was a stone growing great, till it filled the whole earth, as Daniel has it.118
He says, I lay; by which the Lord expresses this to be His own proper work, as the Psalmist speaks of the same subject, This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.119 So Isaiah, speaking of this promised Messiah, The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.120
And it is not only said, I lay; because He had the first thought of this great work,—the model of it was in His mind from eternity, and the accomplishment of it was by His Almighty power in the morning of His Son’s birth, and His life and death and resurrection,—but also to signify the freeness of His grace, in giving His Son to be a foundation of happiness to man, without the least motion from man, or motive in man to draw Him to it. And this seems to be signified by the unexpected inserting of these Prophetical promises of the Messiah, in the midst of complaints of the people’s wickedness, and threatening them with punishment; to intimate that there is no connection between this work and anything on man’s part to procure it. Although you do thus provoke me to destroy you, yet, of myself, I have other thoughts; there is another purpose in my mind. And it is observable to this purpose, that that clearest promise of the virgin’s Son is given, not only not required, but being refused by that profane king Ahaz.121
This again, that the Lord Himself is the Layer of this Corner-stone, teaches us the firmness of it; which is likewise expressed in the Prophet’s words, very emphatically, by redoubling the same word, Musad, Musad; fundamentum, fundamentum—Foundation.
So, I have set my king upon my holy hill of Sion:122—who then, shall dethrone Him? I have given Him the heathen for His inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession:123 and who will hinder Him to take possession of His right? If any offer to do so, what shall they be, but a number of earthen vessels fighting against an iron scepter, and so certainly breaking themselves in pieces? Thus here, I lay this foundation stone; and if I lay it, who shall remove it? and what I build upon it, who shall be able to cast down? For it is the glory of this great Master-builder, that the whole fabric which is of His building cannot be ruined; and for that end has He laid an immoveable foundation; and for that end are we taught and reminded of its firmness, so that we may have this confidence concerning the Church of God that is built upon it. To the eye of nature, the Church seems to have no foundation; as Job speaks of the earth, that it is hung upon nothing,124 and yet as the earth remains firm, being established in its place by the word and power of God, the Church is most firmly founded upon the Word made flesh—Jesus Christ, as its chief corner-stone. And as all the winds that blow cannot remove the earth out of its place, neither can all the attempts of men, no, nor of the gates of hell, prevail against the Church.125 It may be beaten with very boisterous storms, but it cannot fall, because it is founded upon this rock.126 Thus it is with the whole house, and thus with every stone in it; as here it follows, He who believes on him shall not be confounded.
3rdly. There is, next, the building on this foundation. To be built on Christ is plainly to believe in Him. But in this most people deceive themselves; they hear of such privileges and happiness in Christ, and presently imagine it is all theirs, without any more ado; as that madman of Athens, who wrote up all the ships that came into the haven for his own. We consider not what it is to believe in Him, nor what is the necessity of this believing, in order that we may be partakers of the salvation that He has wrought. It is not those who have heard of Him, or who have some common knowledge of Him, or who are able to discourse of Him, and speak of His person and nature rightly, but those who believe in Him. Much of our knowledge is like that of the poor philosopher, who defines riches exactly, and discourses of their nature, but possesses none: or we are as a geometrician, who can measure land exactly in all its dimensions, but possesses not a foot thereof. And truly it is but a lifeless unsavory knowledge that men have of Christ by all books and study, until He reveals Himself, and persuades the heart to believe in Him. Then, indeed, when it sees Him, and is made one with Him, it says of all the reports it heard, I heard much, yet the half was not told me.127 There is in lively faith, when it is infused into the soul, a clearer knowledge of Christ and His excellence than before, and with it a recumbence of the soul upon Him, as the foundation of its life and comfort; a resolving to rest on Him, and not to depart from Him upon any terms. Though I be beset on all hands, be accused by the Law, and by my own conscience, and by Satan, and have nothing to answer for myself, yet here I will stay, for I am sure that in Him there is salvation, and nowhere else. All other refuges are but lies, (as it is expressed in the words before these in the Prophet,) poor base shifts that will do no good. God has laid this precious Stone in Sion, for this very purpose, that weary souls may rest upon it; and why should not I make use of it, according to His intention? He has not forbid any, however wretched, to believe, but commands it, and Himself works it where He wills, even in the vilest sinners.
Think it not enough that you know this Stone is laid, but see whether you are built on it by faith. The multitude of imaginary believers lie round about it, but they are never the better nor the surer for that, any more than stones that lie loose in heaps near a foundation, but are not joined to it.—There is no benefit to us by Christ, without union with Him; no comfort in His riches, without an interest in them and a title to them by that union. Then is the soul right when it can say, He is altogether lovely,128 and as the Spouse, He is mine, my well-beloved.129 This union is the spring of all spiritual consolations. And faith, by which we are thus united, is a Divine work. He who laid this foundation in Sion with His own hand, works likewise, with the same hand, faith in the heart, by which it is knit to this Corner-stone. It is not such an easy thing as we imagine to believe.130 Many who think they believe, are, on the contrary, like those of whom the Prophet there speaks, as hardened in sin and carnally secure, whom he represents as in covenant with hell and death, walking in sin, and yet promising themselves impunity.
4thly. There is the firmness of this building, namely, He who believes on him shall not be confounded. This firmness is answerable to the nature of the foundation. Not only the whole frame, but every stone of it abides sure. It is a simple mistake, to judge the persuasion of perseverance to be self-presumption: those who have it are far from building it on themselves, but their foundation is that which makes them sure; because it does not only remain firm itself, but indissolubly supports all who are once built on it. In the Prophet, where this is cited, it is, shall not make haste, but the sense is one: those who are disappointed and ashamed in their hopes, run to and fro, and seek after some new resource; those who come to Christ shall not need to do so. The believing soul makes haste to Christ, but it never finds cause to hasten from Him: and though the comfort it expects and longs for, might for a time be deferred, yet it gives not over, knowing that in due time it shall rejoice, and shall not have cause to blush, and be ashamed of its confidence in Him. David expresses his distrust, by making haste. I was too hasty when I said so.131 Hopes frustrated, especially where they have been raised high, and continued long, reproach men with folly, and so shame them. And thus do all earthly hopes serve us when we lean much upon them. We usually find that those things which have promised us the most contentment, pay us with vexation; and they not only prove to be broken reeds, deceiving our trust, but hurtful, running their broken splinters into our hands when we leaned on them. This sure Foundation is laid for us that our souls may be established on it, and be as Mount Sion, which cannot be removed.132 Such times may come as will shake all other supports, but this holds out against all. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed.133 Though the frame of the world were cracking about a man’s ears, he who is built on this foundation may hear it without fear. Why then do we choose to build upon the sand? Believe it, wherever we lay our confidence and affection besides Christ, it shall sooner or later repent us, and shame us; either happily in time, while we may yet change them for Him, and have recourse to Him; or miserably, when it is too late. Remember that we must die, and must all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ,134 and that none of the things we dote on here have power to keep us here, nor have we power to take them along with us, nor, if we could, would they at all profit us there; and therefore when we look back upon them all at parting, we shall wonder what fools we were to make such a poor choice. And in that great day in which all faces shall gather blackness,135 and be filled with confusion, who have neglected to make Christ their stay when He was offered to them, then it shall appear how happy those are who have trusted in Him: they shall not be confounded, but shall lift up their faces, and be acquitted in Him. In their present state they may be founded136 and exercised, but they shall not be confounded, nor ashamed,—there is a double negation in the original,—by no means; they shall in all be more than conquerors through him who loved them.137
5thly. The last thing observable is the greatness and excellence of the work, intimated in that first word, Behold, which imports this work to be very remarkable, and calls the eyes to fix upon it.
The Lord is marvelous in the least of His works; but in this He has manifested more of His wisdom and power, and let out more of His love to mankind, than in all the rest. Yet we are foolish, and childishly gaze about us upon trifles, and let this great work pass without regard; we scarcely afford it half an eye. Turn your wandering eyes this way; look upon this precious Stone, and behold Him, not in mere speculation, but so behold Him, as to lay hold on Him. For we see He is therefore here set forth, that we may believe on Him, and so not be confounded; that we may attain this blessed union, that cannot be dissolved. All other unions are dissoluble. A man may be plucked from his dwelling-house and lands, or they from him, though he have never so good a title to them; may be removed from his dearest friends, the husband from the wife, if not by other accidents in their lifetime, yet surely by death, the greatest dissolver of all those unions, and of that straitest one, of the soul with the body; but it can do nothing against this union, but perfects it. For I am persuaded, says St. Paul, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.138
There is a twofold mistake concerning faith: on the one side, those who are altogether void of it, abusing and flattering themselves, in a vain opinion that they have it; and on the other side, those who have it, misjudging their own condition, and so depriving themselves of much comfort and sweetness that they might find in their believing.
The former is the worse, and yet by far the commoner evil. What one says of wisdom is true of faith; Many would seek after it, and attain it, if they did not falsely imagine that they have attained it already.139 There is nothing more contrary to the lively nature of faith, than for the soul not to be at all busied with the thoughts of its own spiritual condition, and yet this very character of unbelief passes with a great many for believing. They doubt not, that is, indeed, they consider not what they are; their minds are not all on these things—are not awakened to seek diligently after Jesus, so as not to rest till they find Him. They are well enough without Him; it suffices them to hear there is such a one; but they ask not themselves, Is He mine, or no? Surely, if that be all—not to doubt, the brutes believe as well as they. It is better, without question, to be laboring under doubtings, if it is a more hopeful condition to find a man groaning and complaining, than speechless and breathless and not stirring at all.
There is in spiritual doubtings two things—a solicitous care of the soul concerning its own state, and a diligent inquiry into it, and that is laudable, being a true work of the Spirit of God; but the other thing in them, is perplexity and distrust, arising from darkness and weakness in the soul. Where there is a great deal of smoke, and no clear flame, it argues much moisture in the matter, yet it witnesses certainly that there is fire there; and therefore dubious questioning of a man concerning himself is a much better evidence than that senseless deadness which most take for believing. Men who know nothing in sciences have no doubts. He never truly believed, who was not made first sensible and convinced of unbelief. This is the Spirit’s first errand in the world, to convince it of sin; and the sin is this, that they believe not.140 If the faith that you have grew out of your natural heart of itself, be assured it is but a weed. The right plant of faith is always set by God’s own hand, and it is watered and preserved by Him; because exposed to many hazards, He watches it night and day. I the Lord do keep it; I will water it every moment: lest any hurt it, I will keep it night and day.141
Again, how impudent is it in most people, to pretend they believe, while they wallow in profaneness! If faith unites the soul to Christ, certainly it puts it into participation of His Spirit. Now if any man has not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his,142 says St. Paul. This faith in Christ brings us into communion with God. Now, God is light, says St. John; and he therefore infers, If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.143 The lie appears in our practice, an unsuitableness in our carriage; as one said of him who signed his verse wrong, Fecit solaecismum manu—He made a blunder with his hand.
But there are imaginary believers who are a little more refined, who live after a blameless, yea, and a religious manner, as to their outward behavior, and yet are but appearances of Christians, have not the living work of faith within, and all these exercises are dead works in their hands. Amongst these, some may have such notions within them as may deceive themselves, while their external deportment deceives others; they may have some transient touches of desire to Christ, upon the unfolding of His excellences in the preaching of the word, and upon some conviction of their own necessity, and may conceive some joy upon thoughts of apprehending Him; and yet all this proves but a vanishing fancy, an embracing of a shadow. And because men who are thus deluded meet not with Christ indeed, do not really find His sweetness, therefore, within a while, they return to the pleasures of sin, and their latter end proves worse than their beginning.144 Their hearts could not possibly be steadfast, because there was nothing to fix them on in all that work in which Christ Himself was wanting.
But the truly believing soul who is brought to Jesus Christ, and fastened upon Him by God’s own hand, abides stayed on Him, and departs not. And in these persons, the very belief of the things that are spoken concerning Christ in the Gospel, the persuasion of Divine truth, is of a higher nature than the common consent that is called historical; they have another knowledge and evidence of the mysteries of the kingdom than natural men can have. This is indeed the ground of all, the very thing that causes a man to rest upon Christ, when he has a persuasion wrought in his heart by the Spirit of God, that Christ is an able Redeemer, a sufficient Savior, able to save them to the uttermost who come unto him.145 Then, upon this, the heart resolves upon that course—Seeing I am persuaded of this, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life,146 (or as it is here, shall not be confounded,) I am to deliberate no longer; this is the thing I must do, I must lay my soul upon Him, upon one who is an Almighty Redeemer: and it does so. Now, these first actings of faith have in themselves an evidence that distinguishes them from all that is counterfeit, a light of their own, by which the soul, in which they are, may discern them and say, This is the right work of faith; especially when God shines upon the soul, and clears it in the manifestation of His own work within it.
And further, they may find the influence of faith upon the affections, purifying them, as our Apostle says of it.147 Faith knits the heart to a holy Head, a pure Lord, the Spring of purity, and therefore cannot choose but to make it pure: it is a beam from Heaven, that raises the mind to a heavenly temper. Although there are remains of sin in a believing soul, yet it is a hated wearisome guest there. It exists there, not as its delight, but as its greatest grief and malady, which it is still lamenting and complaining of; it had rather be rid of it than gain a world. Thus the soul is purified from the love of sin.
So then where these are—a spiritual apprehension of the promises, a cleaving of the soul to Christ, and such a delight in Him as makes sin vile and distasteful, so that the heart is set against it, and, as the needle touched with the loadstone, is still turned towards Christ, and looks at Him in all estates,—the soul that is thus disposed has certainly an interest in Him; and therefore ought not to affect a humor of doubting, but to conclude, that however unworthy in itself, yet being in Him, it shall not be ashamed:148 not only it shall never have cause to think shame of Him, but all its just cause of shame in itself shall be taken away; it shall be covered with His righteousness, and appear so before the Father. Who must not think, If my sins were to be set in order, and appear against me, how would my face be filled with shame! Though there were no more, if some thoughts that I am guilty of were laid to my charge, I would be utterly ashamed and undone. Oh! there is nothing in myself but matter of shame, but yet in Christ there is more matter of glorying, who endured shame, that we might not be ashamed. We cannot distrust ourselves enough, nor trust enough in Him. Let it be right faith, and there can be no excess in believing. Though I have sinned against Him, and abused His goodness, yet I will not leave Him; for where should I go? He, and no one but He, has the words of eternal life.149 Yea, though He being so often offended should threaten to leave me to the shame of my own follies, yet I will stay by Him, and wait for a better answer, and I know I shall obtain it: this is assured me for my comfort, that whosoever believes in him shall not be ashamed.
Ver. 7. Unto you therefore who believe he is precious: but unto those who are disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner,
Ver. 8. And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to those who stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.
Besides all the opposition that faith meets with in our hearts, it has this without, that it rows against the great stream of the world’s opinion; and therefore needs, especially where it is very tender and weak, to be strengthened against that. Multitudes of unbelievers, and the considerable quality of many, are continuing causes for that very multitude; and the small numbers of those who truly believe do much to keep them few. And as this prejudice prevails with those who believe not, so it may sometimes assault the mind of a believer, when he thinks how many, and many of them wise men in the world, reject Christ. How can this be? Particularly the believing Jews, to whom this Epistle is addressed, might think it strange that not only the Gentiles who were strangers to true religion, but their own nation—the select people of God, who had the light of His oracles kept in amongst them only, should yet, so many of them, yes, and the chief of them, be despisers and haters of Jesus Christ—and that those who were best versed in the Law, and seemed most able to judge of the foretold Messiah, should have persecuted Christ all His life, and at last put Him to a shameful death.
So that they might know that this makes nothing against Him, nor invalidates their faith at all, but that instead it indeed testifies with Christ, and serves to confirm them in believing, the Apostle makes use of the Prophetic Scriptures that foretell the unbelief and contempt with which most would entertain Christ—as old Simeon speaks of Him, when He came, agreeably to those former predictions, that He should be a sign which shall be spoken against;1 that, as He was the promised sign of salvation to believers, so He would be a very mark of enmities and contradictions to the unbelieving world. The passages the Apostle here uses suit with his present discourse, and with the words cited from Isaiah in the former verse, continuing the resemblance of a corner-stone: they are taken partly from the one hundred and eighteenth Psalm, partly out of the eighth chapter of Isaiah.
Unto you, &c.] Marvel not that others refuse Him, but believe all the more because of that, because you see the word to be true even in their not believing of it—it is fulfilled and verified by their very rejection of it as false.
And whatever the world thinks concerning Christ, matters not, for they know Him not; but you who do indeed believe, I dare appeal to yourselves, to your own faith that you have of Him, whether He is not precious to you, whether you do not really find Him fully answerable to all that is spoken of Him in the word, and to all that you have accordingly believed concerning Him.
We are here to consider, I. The opposition of the persons; and then, II. The things spoken of them.
I. The persons are opposed under the names of believers, and disobedient or unbelievers; for the word is so near that it may be taken for unbelief, and it is by some so rendered: and the things are fully as near to each other as the words that signify them—disobedience and unbelief.
1. Unbelief is itself the grand disobedience. For this is the work of God, that which the Gospel mainly commands, that you believe;2 therefore the Apostle calls it the obedience of faith.3 And there is nothing indeed more worthy of the name of obedience, than the subjection of the mind to receive and to believe the supernatural truths that the Gospel teaches concerning Jesus Christ; to obey, so as to have, as the Apostle speaks, the impression of that Divine pattern stamped upon the heart; to have the heart delivered up, as the word there is, and laid under it to receive it.4 The word here used for disobedience signifies properly unpersuasion; and nothing can more properly express the nature of unbelief than that; and it is the very nature of our corrupt hearts: we are children of disobedience,5 or unpersuasibleness, altogether incredulous towards God, who is truth itself, and as pliable wax in Satan’s hand, who works in such persons what he will, as there the Apostle expresses. They most easily believe him, who is the very father of lies, as our Savior calls Him, a liar and a murderer from the beginning,6 murdering by lies, as he did in the beginning.
2. Unbelief is radically all other disobedience; for all flows from unbelief. This we least of all suspect; but it is the bitter root of all the ungodliness that abounds amongst us. A right and lively persuasion of the heart concerning Jesus Christ alters the whole frame of it, casts down its high, lofty imaginations, and brings not only the outward actions, but every thought to the obedience of Christ.7
II. As for the things spoken concerning these disobedient unbelievers, these two testimonies taken together have in them these three things: 1. Their rejection of Christ; 2. Their folly; 3. Their misery in so doing.
1. Their rejection of Christ: they did not receive Him, as the Father appointed and designed Him, as the foundation and chief corner-stone, but slighted Him, and threw Him by, as unfit for the building; not only the ignorant multitude did this, but the builders, those who professed to have the skill and the office, or power, of building—the Doctors of the Law, the Scribes and Pharisees, and Chief Priests—who thought to carry the matter by the weight of their authority, as overbalancing the belief of those who followed Christ. Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him? But this people who knows not the law are cursed.8
We need not wonder then, that not only the powers of the world are usually enemies to Christ, and that the contrivers of policies, those builders, leave out Christ in their building, but that the pretended builders of the Church of God, though they use the name of Christ, and serve their turn with that, yet reject Himself, and oppose the power of His spiritual kingdom. There may be wit and learning, and much knowledge of the Scriptures, amongst those who are haters of the Lord Christ and of the power of godliness, and corrupters of the worship of God. It is the spirit of humility, and obedience, and saving faith, which teaches men to esteem Christ, and build upon Him.
2. But the vanity and folly of those builders’ opinion appears in this, that they are overpowered by the great Architect of the Church: His purpose stands. Notwithstanding their rejection of Christ, He is still made the head corner-stone. They cast Him away by their miscensures and reproaches put upon Him, and by giving Him up to be crucified and then cast into the grave, causing a stone to be rolled upon this Stone which they had so rejected, that it might appear no more: and so thought themselves sure. But He arose even from there, and became the head of the corner. The disciples themselves spoke, you know, very doubtfully of their former hopes: We trusted that it had been he who should have redeemed Israel;9 but He corrected their mistake, first by His word, showing them the true method of that great work, Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?10 and then really, by making Himself known to them, as risen from the dead. When He was by these rejected and lay lowest, then was He nearest His exaltation; as Joseph in the prison was nearest his promotion. And thus it is with the Church of Christ: when it is brought to the lowest and most desperate condition, then its deliverance is at hand: it prospers and gains in the event, by all the practices of men against it. And as this Corner-stone was fitted to be such by the very rejection of it, so it is with the whole building—it rises the higher the more men seek to demolish it.
3. The unhappiness of those who believe not is expressed in the other word—He is to them a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence. Because they will not be saved by Him, they shall stumble and fall, and be broken to pieces on Him, as it is in Isaiah, and in the Evangelists. But how is this? Has He who came to save become a destroyer of men? He whose name is Salvation, proves He destruction to any? Not He Himself: His primary and proper use is the former, to be a foundation for souls to build and rest upon; but those who, instead of building upon Him, will stumble and fall on Him, what wonder, being so firm a stone, though they be broken by their fall! Thus we see the mischief of unbelief, that as other sins disable the Law, this disables the very Gospel to save us, and turns life itself into death to us. And this is the misery, not of a few, but of many in Israel. Many who hear of Christ by the preaching of the Gospel, shall lament that they ever heard that sound, and shall wish to have lived and died without it, finding so great an increase to their misery, by the neglect of so great salvation.11 They are said to stumble at the word, because they labor not to understand and rightly prize the things in it that testify of Christ; but either altogether slight them, and consider them foolishness, or misunderstand and pervert them.
The Jews stumbled at the meanness of Christ’s birth and life, and the ignominy of His death, not judging of Him according to the Scriptures; and we, in another way, think we have some kind of belief that He is the Savior of the world, yet not making the Scripture the rule of our thoughts concerning Him, many of us undo ourselves, and stumble and break our necks upon this rock, mistaking Christ and the way of believing; looking on Him as a Savior at large, and judging that enough; not endeavoring to make Him ours, and to embrace Him upon the terms of that new covenant of which He is the Mediator.
Whereunto also they were appointed.] This the Apostle adds, for the further satisfaction of believers in this point, how it is that so many reject Christ, and stumble at Him; telling them plainly, that the secret purpose of God is accomplished in this—God having determined to glorify His justice on impenitent sinners, as He shows His rich mercy in those who believe. Here it would be easier to lead you into a deep, than to lead you forth again. I will rather stand on the shore, and silently admire it, than enter into it. This is certain, that the thoughts of God are all no less just in themselves, than deep and unfathomable by us. His justice appears clear, in that man’s destruction is always the fruit of his own sin. But to give causes of God’s decrees without Himself, is neither agreeable with the primitive being of the nature of God, nor with the doctrine of the Scriptures. This is sure, that God is not bound to give us further account of these things, and we are bound not to ask it. Let those two words, as St. Augustine says, answer all, O man, who are you? and, O the depth!12
Our only sure way to know that our names are not in that black line, and to be persuaded that He has chosen us to be saved by His Son, is this—to find that we have chosen Him, and are built on Him by faith, which is the fruit of His love, who first chooses us; and that we may read in our esteem of Him.
He is precious,] Or, your honor. The difference is small. You account Him your glory and your gain; He is not only precious to you, but preciousness itself. He is the thing that you make account of, your jewel, which if you keep, though you might be robbed of all else, you know yourselves to be rich enough.
To you that believe.] Faith is absolutely necessary to make this due estimate of Christ.
1. The most excellent things, while their worth is unseen and unknown, affect us not. Now Faith is the proper seeing faculty of the soul, in relation to Christ—that inward light must be infused from above, to make Christ visible to us; without it, though He is beautiful, yet we are blind; and therefore cannot love Him for that beauty. But by Faith, we are enabled to see Him who is fairer than the children of men,13 not only so, but to see in Him, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father;14 and then, it is not possible but to account Him precious, and to bestow the entire affection of our hearts upon Him. And if any say to the soul, What is your beloved more than another beloved?15 it willingly lays hold on the question, and is glad for an opportunity to extol Him.
2. Faith, as it is that which discerns Christ, so it alone appropriates Him, makes Him our own. And these are the two reasons for our esteeming and affecting anything—its own worth, and our interest in it. Faith begets this esteem of Christ by both—first, it reveals to us His excellences, which we could not see before; and then, it makes Him ours, gives us possession of whole Christ, all that He has, and is. As it is Faith that commends Christ so much, and describes His comeliness in that Song, so that word is the voice of Faith, which expresses propriety. My beloved is mine, and I am his.16 And these together make Him most precious to the soul. Having once possession of Him, it then looks upon all His sufferings as endured particularly for it, and the benefit of them all as belonging to itself. Surely it will say, How can I not consider Him precious, who suffered shame that I might not be ashamed, and suffered death that I might not die; who took that bitter cup of the Father’s wrath, and drank it up, that I might be free from it?
Don’t think that you believe, if your hearts are not taken up with Christ, if His love does not possess your soul, so that nothing is precious to you compared to Him; if you cannot despise and trample upon all advantages that either you have or would have for Christ, and count them, with the great Apostle, loss and dung in comparison with Him.17 And if you do esteem Him, labor for increase of faith, that you might esteem Him more; for as faith grows, so will He still be more precious to you. And if you would have it grow, turn that spiritual eye frequently to Him, who is the proper object of it. For even those who are believers may possibly abate of their love and esteem of Christ, by allowing faith to lie dead within them and not using it in beholding and applying of Christ; and the world, or some particular vanities, may insensibly creep in, and get into the heart, and cost them much pains before they can be thrust out again. But when they are daily reviewing those excellencies that are in Christ, which first persuaded their hearts to love Him, and are discovering still more and more of them, His love will certainly grow, and will chase away those follies that the world dotes upon, as unworthy to be taken notice of.
Ver. 9. But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that you should shew forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
It is a matter of very much consolation and instruction to Christians to know their own state—what they are, as they are Christians. This Epistle is much and often upon this point for both those ends; that the reflection upon their dignities in Christ may uphold them with comfort under suffering for Him; and that it might lead them in doing and walking as becomes such a condition. Here it has been represented to us by a building, a spiritual temple, and by a priesthood conformable to it.
The former is confirmed and illustrated by testimonies of Scripture in the preceding verses; the latter in this verse, in which, though it is not expressly cited, yet it is clear that the Apostle has reference to Exod. 19:5-6, where this dignity of priesthood, together with the other titles here expressed, is ascribed to all the chosen people of God. It is there a promise made to the nation of the Jews, but under the condition of obedience, and therefore it is most fitly here applied by the Apostle, to the believing Jews, to whom particularly he writes.
It is true that the external priesthood of the law is abolished by the coming of this great High Priest, Jesus Christ being the body of all those shadows; but this promised dignity of a spiritual priesthood is so far from being annulled by Christ, that it is altogether dependent upon Him, and therefore fails in those who reject Christ, although they are of that nation to which this promise was made. But it holds good in all, of all nations, who believe, and particularly, says the Apostle, it is verified in you. You who are believing Jews, by receiving Christ, receive with it this dignity.
As the legal priesthood was removed by Christ’s fulfilling all that it prefigured, so He was rejected by those who were in possession of that office at His coming; since the duration of their priesthood was inconsistent with the revelation of Jesus Christ, those who were then in it being ungodly men, their carnal minds had a kind of antipathy against Him. Though they pretended themselves builders of the Church, and by their calling ought to have been so, yet they threw away the Foundation-stone that God had chosen and designed, and in their rejection of it, manifested that they themselves were rejected by God. But, on the contrary, you who have laid your souls on Christ by believing, have this, your choosing Him, as a certain evidence that God has chosen you to be His peculiar people, not only so, but to be so dignified as to be a royal priesthood, through Christ.
We have here to consider, I. The state of Christians, in the words that here describe it; II. The opposition of it to the state of unbelievers; III. The end of it.
First. The state of Christians: A chosen generation. So, in Psalm 24. The Psalmist there speaks first of God’s universal sovereignty, then of His peculiar choice. The earth is the Lord’s (ver. 1), but there is a select company appointed for His holy mountain, there described; and the description is closed thus, This is the generation of those who seek him (ver. 6). Thus, Deut. 10:14-15, and Exod. 19:5, from which this passage is taken, For all the earth is mine, and that nation which is a figure of the elect of all nations, God’s peculiar people, beyond all others in the world. As men who have great variety of possessions, yet have usually their special delight in some one beyond all the rest, and choose to reside most in it, and bestow most expense on it to make it pleasant; so does the Lord of the whole earth choose out for Himself, from the rest of the world, a number that are a chosen generation.
Choosing, here, is the work of effectual calling, or the severing of believers from the rest; for it signifies a difference in their present state, as do likewise the other words joined with it. But this election is altogether conformable to that of God’s eternal decree, and is nothing more than the execution or performance of it; God’s framing of this His building being just according to the idea of it which was in His mind and purpose before all time—it is the drawing forth and investing of those into this Christian, this kingly priesthood, whose names were expressly written up for it in the book of life.
Generation.] This signifies them to be of one race or stock. As the Israelites, who were by outward calling the children of God, were all the seed of Abraham according to the flesh; so, those who believe in the Lord Jesus are the children of promise;18 and all of them are, by their new birth, one people or generation. They are of one nation, belonging to the same blessed land of promise, all citizens of the New Jerusalem, not only so, but all children of the same family, of which Jesus Christ, the root of Jesse,19 is the stock, who is the great King, and the great High Priest. And thus they are a royal priesthood. There is no devolving of His royalty or priesthood on any other, as it is in Himself; for His proper dignity is supreme and incommunicable, and there is no succession in His order: He lives for ever, and is a priest forever,20 and king forever too.21 But those who are descended from Him derive from Him, by that new original, this double dignity, in that way that they are capable of it, to be likewise kings and priests, as He is both. They are of the seed royal, and of the holy seed of the priesthood, inasmuch as they partake of a new life from Christ. Thus, in Rev. 1:5-6, first there is His own dignity expressed, then His dignifying us: who is Himself the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth; and then it follows, and has made us kings and priests unto God and his Father.
A royal priesthood.] That the dignity of believers is expressed by these two together, by priesthood and royalty, teaches us the worth and excellence of that holy function taken properly, and so, by analogy, the dignity of the ministry of the Gospel, which God has placed in His Church, instead of the priesthood of the Law; for this title of spiritual priesthood fitly signifies a great privilege and honor that Christians are promoted to, and it is joined with that of kings, because the proper office of priesthood was so honorable. Before it was established in one family, the chief, the firstborn of each family, had a right to this, as a special honor; and amongst the heathens, in some places, their princes and greatest men, yea, their kings, were their priests, and, universally, the performance of their holy things was an employment of great honor and esteem amongst them. Though human ambition has strained this consideration too high, to the favoring and founding of a monarchical prelacy in the Christian world, yet the abuse of it should not prejudice us of this due and just consequence from it, that the holy functions of God’s house have very much honor and dignity in them. And the Apostle, we see,22 prefers the ministry of the Gospel to the priesthood of the law. So then, those who think it is a disparagement to men who have some advantages of birth or wit more than ordinary, to bestow them thus, and who judge the meanest persons and things good enough for this high calling, are mistaken. Surely this conceit cannot have place but in an unholy irreligious mind, that has either no thoughts or very mean thoughts of God. If those who are called to this holy service would themselves consider this rightly, it would not puff them up, but humble them: comparing their own worthlessness with this great work, they would wonder at God’s dispensation, that should thus have honored them. As St. Paul speaks of himself, Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given,23 &c., so, the more a man rightly extols this his calling, the more he humbles himself under the weight of it; and this would make him very careful to walk more suitably to it in eminency of holiness, for in that consists its true dignity.
There is no doubt that this kingly priesthood is the common dignity of all believers—this honor have all his saints.24 They are kings, have victory, and dominion given them over the powers of darkness and the lusts of their own hearts, which held them captive, and domineered over them before. Base, slavish lusts, not born to command, yet are the hard taskmasters of unrenewed minds; and there is no true subduing of them, but by the power and Spirit of Christ. They may be quiet for a while in a natural man, but they are then but asleep; as soon as they wake again, they return to hurry and drive him with their usual violence. Now this is the benefit of receiving the kingdom of Christ into a man’s heart, that it makes him a king himself. All the subjects of Christ are kings, not only regarding that pure crown of glory they hope for, and shall certainly attain, but in the present, they have a kingdom which is the pledge of that other, overcoming the world, and Satan, and themselves, by the power of faith. Mens bona regnum possidet—A good mind possesses a kingdom, it is true; but there is no mind truly good, but that in which Christ dwells. There is not any kind of spirit in the world as noble as that Spirit who is in a Christian, the very Spirit of Jesus Christ, the great King, the Spirit of glory, as our Apostle calls it below, ch. 4. This is a sure way to ennoble the basest and poorest amongst us. This royalty takes away all accusations, and leaves nothing of all that is passed to be laid to our charge, or to dishonor us.
Believers are not shut out from God, as they were before, but, being in Christ, are brought near to Him, and have free access to the throne of His grace.25 They resemble, in their spiritual state, the legal priesthood very clearly, I. In their consecration; II. In their service; and, III. In their laws of living.
I. In their consecration. The Levitical priests were, 1. Washed; therefore this is expressed, He has washed us in his own blood, and then follows, and has made us kings and priests.26 There would have been no coming near to God in His holy services as His priests, unless we had been cleansed from the guiltiness and pollution of our sins. That pure and purging blood does this—and it alone. No other laver can do it; no water but that fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness.27 No blood, none of all that blood of legal sacrifices,28 but only the blood of that spotless Lamb which takes away the sin of the world.29 So with this, 2. We have that other ceremony of the priest’s consecration, which was by sacrifice, as well as by washing; for Christ at once offered up Himself as our sacrifice, and let out His blood for our washing. With good reason is that prefixed there, Him who loved us, and then it follows, washed us in his own blood.30 That precious stream of His heart-blood, which flowed for our washing, told clearly that the source of it was a heart of unspeakable love. 3. There is anointing, namely, the graces of the Spirit conferred upon believers, flowing unto them from Christ. For of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace;31 and the Apostle St. Paul says that we are established and anointed in Christ.32 It was poured on Him as our Head, and runs down from Him to us; He the Christ, and we Christians, as partakers of His anointing. The consecrating oil of the priests was made of the richest ointments and spices, to show the preciousness of the graces of God’s Spirit, which are bestowed on these spiritual priests; and as that holy oil was not for common use, nor for any other persons to be anointed with it, save the priests only, so is the Spirit of grace a peculiar gift to believers. Others might have costly ointments amongst the Jews, but none of that same sort with the consecration oil. Natural men may have very great gifts of judgment, and learning, and eloquence, and moral virtues, but they have none of this precious oil, namely, the Spirit of Christ, communicated to them; no, all their endowments are but common and profane. That holy oil signified particularly eminency of light and knowledge in the priests; therefore, in Christians there must be light. Those who are grossly ignorant of spiritual things are surely not of this order; this anointing is said to teach us all things.33 That holy oil was of a most fragrant sweet smell, because of its precious composition; but sweeter still is the smell of that Spirit by which believers are anointed, those several odoriferous graces, which are the ingredients of their anointing oil, that heavenly-mindedness, and meekness, and patience, and humility, and the rest, which diffuse a pleasant scent into the places and societies where they come; their words, their actions, and their conduct smelling sweet of them. 4. The garments in which the priests were inaugurated, and which they were wear afterwards in their services, are outshone by that purity and holiness with which all the Saints are adorned; but still more by that imputed righteousness of Christ, those pure robes that are put upon them, in which they appear before the Lord, and are acceptable in His sight. These priests are indeed clothed with righteousness, according to that of the Psalmist.34 The priests were to have the offerings put into their hands; from there, filling of the hand signifies consecrating to the priesthood. And Jesus Christ, the consecrator of these priests, does this; He puts into their hands by His Spirit the offerings they are to present to God. He furnishes them with prayers, and praises, and all other oblations, that are to be offered by them; He gives them themselves, which they are to offer a living sacrifice, rescuing them from the usurped possession of Satan and sin.
II. Let us consider their services, which were many. To name the chief, 1. They had charge of the sanctuary and the vessels of it, and the lights, and were to keep the lamps burning. Thus the heart of every Christian is made a temple to the Holy Ghost, and he himself, as a priest consecrated to God, is to keep it diligently, and the store of Divine grace in it; to have the light of spiritual knowledge within him, and to nourish it by drawing continually new supplies from Jesus Christ. 2. The priests were to bless the people. And truly it is this spiritual priesthood, the Elect, who procure blessings upon the rest of the world, and particularly on the places where they live. They are to offer daily the incense of prayer, and other spiritual sacrifices to God, as the Apostle expresses it above, (verse 5,) not to neglect those holy exercises together or apart. And as the priests offered not only for themselves, but also for the people, so Christians are to extend their prayers, and to entreat the blessings of God for others, especially for the public state of the Church. As the Lord’s priests, they are to offer up those praises to God, that are His due from the other creatures, who praise Him indeed, yet cannot do it after the manner in which these priests do; therefore they are to offer, as it were, their sacrifices for them, as the priests did for the people. And because most men neglect to do this, and cannot do it indeed, because they are unholy, and are not of this priesthood, therefore should they be so much the more careful of it and diligent in it. How few of those, whom the heavens call to by their light and revolution which they enjoy, offer that sacrifice which becomes them, by acknowledging the glory of God which the heavens declare!35 This, therefore, is as it were put into the hands of these priests, namely the godly, to do.
III. Let us consider their course of life. We shall find rules given to the legal priests, stricter than to others, of avoiding legal pollutions, &c. And from these, this spiritual priesthood must learn an exact, holy conduct, keeping themselves from the pollutions of the world; as here it follows: a holy nation, and that of necessity; if a priesthood, then holy. They are purchased indeed to be a peculiar treasure to God,36 at a very high rate. He spared not His only Son, nor did the Son spare Himself; so that these priests ought to be the Lord’s peculiar portion. All believers are His clergy; and as they are His portion, so He is theirs. The priests had no assigned inheritance among their brethren, and the reason is added, for the Lord is their portion; and truly so they needed not envy any of the rest, they had the choicest of all, the Lord of all. Whatever a Christian possesses in the world, yet, being of this spiritual priesthood, he is as though he possessed not,37 lays little account on it. That which his mind is set upon, is how he may enjoy God, and find clear assurance that he has Him for his portion.
It is not so mean a thing to be a Christian as we think; it is a holy, an honorable, a happy state. Few of us can esteem it, or labor to find it so. No, we don’t know these things, our hearts are not set on them, to make this dignity and happiness sure to our souls. Where is that true greatness of mind and holiness to be found, which becomes those who are Kings and Priests to God?—that contempt of earthly things and minding of Heaven, that should be in such? But surely, those who find themselves indeed partakers of these dignities, will study to live agreeably to them, and will not fail to love the Lord Jesus who has purchased all this for them, and exalted them to it; not only so, but, humbled Himself to exalt them.
Now, secondly, as to the opposition of the state of Christians to that of unbelievers. We best discern, and are most sensible of the evil or good of things by comparison. In regard to the outward condition, how many are there who are vexing themselves with causeless murmurings and discontentment, who, if they would look upon the many in the world that are in a far lower condition than themselves, would be cured of that evil! It would make them not only content, but also cheerful and thankful. But the difference here expressed, is far greater and more considerable than any that can be in outward things. Though the state of a Christian is very excellent and precious, and, when rightly valued, has enough in itself to commend it, yet it does and ought to raise our esteem of it all the higher, when we compare it both with the misery of our former condition, and with the continuing misery of those who abide still, and are left to perish in that woeful state. We have here both of these parallels. The happiness and dignity to which they are chosen and called, is opposed to the rejection and misery of those who continue unbelievers and rejecters of Christ.
Not only natural men, but even those who have a spiritual life in them, when they forget themselves, are subject to look upon the things that are before them with a natural eye, and to think hardly, or at least doubtfully, concerning God’s dispensations, beholding the flourishing and prosperities of the ungodly, together with their own sufferings and distresses. Thus Ps. 73. But when they turn the other side of the medal, and view them with a right eye, and by a true light, they are no longer abused with those appearances. When they consider unbelievers as strangers, yes, enemies to God, and slaves to Satan, held fast in the chains of their own impenitence and unbelief, and by these bound over to eternal death, and then see themselves called to the liberties and dignities of the sons of God, partakers of the honor of the only-begotten Son, on whom they have believed, made by Him kings and priests to God the Father, then, surely, they have other thoughts. They no longer envy, but pity the ungodly, and consider all their pomp and all their possessions what they are indeed, nothing more than a glistening misery, and consider themselves happy in all circumstances. It makes them say with David, The lines have fallen unto me in pleasant places; yes, I have a goodly heritage.38 It makes them digest all their sufferings and disgraces with patience, yea, with joy, and think more of praising than complaining, more of showing forth His honor who has so honored them; especially when they consider the freeness of His grace, that it was that alone which made the difference, calling them altogether undeservedly from that same darkness and misery in which unbelievers are deservedly left.
Now the Third thing here to be spoken to is, the End of their calling, to show forth His praise, &c. And so that we might all the more prize the reasonableness of that happy state to which God has exalted them, it is expressed in other terms; which therefore we will first consider, and then the end.
To magnify the grace of God the more, we have here, I. Both the terms of this motion or change,—from where and to what it is; II. The principle of it, the calling of God.
I. For the terms of this motion: out of darkness. There is nothing more usual, not only in Divine, but in human writings, than to borrow outward sensible things, to express things intellectual; and amongst such expressions there is none more frequent than that of light and darkness, transferred to signify the good and the evil estate of man, as sometimes for his outward prosperity or adversity, but especially for things proper to his mind. The mind is called light, because it is the seat of truth, and truth is most fitly called light, being the chief beauty and ornament of the rational world, as light is of the visible. And as the light, because of its beauty, is a thing very refreshing and comfortable to those who behold it, (as Solomon says, A pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun,39) so is truth a most delightful thing to the soul that rightly apprehends it. This may help us to think of the spiritual sense in which it is here taken. The state of lost mankind is indeed nothing but darkness, being destitute of all spiritual truth and comfort, and tending to utter and everlasting darkness. And it is so, because by sin the soul is separated from God, who is the first and highest light, the primitive truth. As He is light in Himself, (as the Apostle St. John tells us God is light, and in him is no darkness at all,40 expressing the excellence and purity of His nature,) so He is light relatively to the soul of man: The Lord is my light, says David.41
And the soul being made capable of Divine light, cannot be happy without it. Give it what other light you will, still it is in darkness so long as it is without God, He being the peculiar light and life of the soul. And as truth is united with the soul in apprehending it, and light with the visive faculty, so, in order that the soul may have God as its light, it must of necessity be in union with God. Now sin has broken that union, and so cut off the soul from its light, and plunged it into spiritual darkness.
Hence all that confusion and disorder in the soul, which is ever the companion of darkness: Toku xabohu—without form and void, as it was at first, when darkness was upon the face of the deep.42 Being ignorant of God and of ourselves, it follows that we love not God, because we know Him not; yea, (though we think it is a hard word,) we are haters of God;43 for not only does our darkness import ignorance of Him, but an enmity to Him, because He is light, and we are darkness. And being ignorant of ourselves, not seeing our own vileness, because we are in the dark, we are pleased with ourselves, and having left God, we love ourselves instead of God. Hence are all the wickedness of our hearts and lives, which are nothing more than, instead of obeying and pleasing God, a continual sacrificing to those Gillulim,44 those base dunghill-gods, our own lusts. For this, the Apostle Paul gives as the root of all evil dispositions 3; because, in the first place, lovers of their own selves, therefore, covetous, boasters, proud, &c., and lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God. And this self-love cannot exist without gross ignorance; our minds are so darkened that we cannot see what we are; for if we did, we would without a doubt, have a different opinion altogether, very far from loving and being pleased with ourselves. Thus our souls being filled with darkness, are likewise full of uncleanness, as that goes along too with darkness; they are not only dark as dungeons, but also filthy as dungeons used to be. So, Ephes. 4:18, Having the understanding darkened, alienated from the life of God; and therefore it is added, ver. 19, have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. Again, in this state they have no light of solid comfort. Our great comfort here, is not in anything present, but in hope; now, being without Christ, and without God, we are without hope.45
And as the state from which we are called by grace is worthily called darkness, so that, to which it calls us, deserves as well the name of light. Christ, likewise, who came to work our deliverance, is frequently so called in Scripture; as John 1:9, That was the true Light; not only in regard of His own nature, being God equal with the Father, and therefore light, as He is God of God, and therefore, Light of Light; but relatively to men, as John 1:4, the life was the light of men. So He is called the Word, and the Wisdom of the Father, not only regarding His own knowledge, but as revealing Him to us. See John 1:18, and 1 Cor. 18, compared with verse 30. And He is named by Malachi 4:2, The Sun of Righteousness. Now, the sun is not only a luminous body, but also a luminary giving light to the world.46
He is our light, opposed to all kinds of darkness. He is so, in opposition to the dark shadows of the ceremonial law, which possibly are here meant, as part of that darkness from which the Apostle writes that these Jews were delivered also by the knowledge of Christ: when He came, the day broke and the shadows flew away.47 He is our light as opposed likewise to the darkness of the Gentile superstitions and idolatries; therefore these two are joined by old Simeon, A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.48 And to all who believe among both, He is light as opposed to the ignorance, slavery and misery, of their natural state, teaching them by His Spirit the things of God, and reuniting them with God, who is the light of the soul. I am, says He, the light of the world; he who follows me shall not walk in darkness.49
And it is that mysterious union of the soul with God in Christ, which a natural man so little understands, that is the cause of all that spiritual light of grace that a believer enjoys. There is no right knowledge of God, to man once fallen from it, but in His Son; no comfort in beholding God, but through Him; nothing but just anger and wrath to be seen in God’s looks, but through Him, in whom He is well pleased.50 The Gospel shows us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, but it is in the face of Jesus Christ.51 Therefore the kingdom of light, as opposed to that of darkness, is called the kingdom of His dear Son, or, the Son of His love.52
There is a spirit of light and knowledge flowing from Jesus Christ into the souls of believers, that acquaints them with the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven,53 which cannot otherwise be known. And this spirit of knowledge is also a spirit of holiness; for purity and holiness are likewise signified by this light. He removed that huge dark body of sin that was between us and the Father, and eclipsed Him from us. The light of His countenance sanctifies by truth; it is a light that has heat with it, and has influence upon the affections, warming them towards God and Divine things. This darkness here is indeed the shadow of death, and those who are without Christ, are said, until He visits them, to sit in darkness and in the shadow of death;54 so, this Light is life,55 it enlightens and enlivens, begetting new actions and motions in the soul. The right notion that a man has of things as they are, works upon him, and stirs him accordingly; thus this light reveals a man to himself, and lets him see his own natural filthiness, makes him loathe himself, and flee from himself,—run out of himself. And the excellence he sees in God and His Son Jesus Christ, by this new light, inflames his heart with their love, fills him with the estimation of the Lord Jesus, and makes the world and all things in it that he esteemed before, base and mean in his eyes. Then spiritual joy and comfort arise from this delight, which are frequently signified by this expression, as in that verse of the Psalmist, (the latter clause expounds the former,) Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.56 As this kingdom of God’s dear Son,57 that is, this kingdom of light, has righteousness in it, so it has peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.58 It is a false prejudice the world has taken up against religion, that it is a sour melancholy thing: there is no truly cheerful and comfortable life but it. All others, regardless of what they have, live in darkness: and is not that truly sad and comfortless? Would you think it a pleasant life if you were kept in a dungeon, with fine clothes and a good diet—but never saw the sun? Thus are those who live in worldly honor and plenty, but still without God; they are in continual darkness, with all their enjoyments.
It is true that the light of believers is not here perfect, and therefore neither is their joy perfect: it is sometimes overclouded; but the comfort is this, that it is an everlasting light, it shall never go out in darkness, as it is said in Job 18:5, the light of the wicked shall be put out: and it shall within awhile be perfected: there is a bright morning without a cloud that shall arise. The saints have not only light to lead them in their journey, but much purer light at home, an inheritance in light.59 The land where their inheritance lies is full of light, and their inheritance itself is light; for the vision of God forever is that inheritance. That city has no need of the sun, nor of the moon, to shine in it, for the glory of God does lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.60 As we said, that Uncreated Light is the happiness of the soul, the beginnings of it are our happiness begun; they are beams of it, sent from above, to lead us to the fountain and fullness of it. With You, says David, is the fountain of life: in Your light shall we see light.61
There are two things spoken about this Light, to commend it—His marvelous light; that it is after a peculiar manner God’s, and then, that it is marvelous.
All light is from Him, the light of sense, and that of reason; therefore He is called the Father of lights.62 But this light of grace is peculiarly His, being a light above the reach of nature, infused into the soul in a supernatural way; the light of the elect world, where God specially and graciously resides. Natural men may know very much in natural things, and, it may be, in supernatural things, after a natural manner. They may be full of school-divinity, and be able to discourse of God and His Son Christ, and the mystery of redemption, &c., and yet they lack this peculiar light, by which Christ is known to believers. They may speak of Him, but it is in the dark; they see Him not, and therefore they love Him not. The light they have, is as the light of some things that shine only in the night, a cold glow-worm light that has no heat with it at all. But a soul that has some of His light, God’s peculiar light, communicated to it, sees Jesus Christ, and loves and delights in Him and walks with Him. A little of this light is worth a great deal, yea, more worth than all of the other common, speculative, and discoursing knowledge that the greatest doctors can attain to. It is of a more excellent kind and original—it is from Heaven, and you know that one beam of the sun is of more worth than the light of ten thousand torches together. It is a pure, undecaying, heavenly light, whereas the other is gross and earthly, (be it never so great,) and lasts but a while. Let us not therefore think it incredible that a poor unlettered Christian may know more of God, in the best kind of knowledge, than any of the wisest and most learned natural man can do; for the one knows God only by man’s light, the other knows Him by His own light, and that is the only right knowledge. As the sun cannot be seen but by its own light, so neither can God be savingly known, but by His own revelation.
Now this light being so peculiarly God’s, no wonder if it be marvelous. The common light of the world is so, although because of its commonness, we don’t think so. The Lord is marvelous in wisdom and in power, in all His works of creation and providence; but above all, in the workings of His grace. This light is unknown to the world, and so marvelous in the rareness of beholding it, that there are but a few who partake of it. And to those who see, it is marvelous; because in it they see so many excellent things that they knew not before: as if a man were born and brought up, until he came to years of understanding, in a dungeon, where he had never seen light, and were brought forth all of a sudden; or, not to need that imagination, take the man that was born blind, at his first sight, after Christ had cured him,—what wonder, think we, would seize upon him, to suddenly behold the beauty of this visible world, especially of the sun, and that light that makes it both visible and beautiful! But how much more is there to admire in this light, to the soul just brought from the darkness of corrupt nature! They see as it were a new world, and in it such wonders of the rich grace and love of God, such matchless worth in Jesus Christ the Sun of Righteousness, that their souls are filled with admiration. And if this light of grace be so marvelous, how much more marvelous shall the light of glory be in which it ends!
Hence, 1. Learn to highly esteem the Gospel, in which this light shines unto us: the Apostle calls it, therefore, The glorious Gospel.63 Surely we have no reason to be ashamed of it, but every reason to be ashamed of ourselves, that we are so unlike it.
2. Think not, you who are grossly ignorant of God, and His Son Christ, and the mysteries of salvation, that you have any portion as yet in His grace; for the first character of His renewed image in the soul is light, as it was His first work in the world. What benefit is it to us to live in the noonday light of the Gospel, if our hearts are still shut against it, and so within we are nothing but darkness?—as a house that is close shut up, and has no entry for light, though it is day without, still it is night within.
3. Consider your delight in the works of darkness, and be afraid of that great condemnation. This is the condemnation of the world, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light.64
4. You who are indeed partakers of this happy change, let your hearts be habitations of light. Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.65 Study much to increase in spiritual light and knowledge, and in all holiness and obedience; if your light is the light of God, truly spiritual light, these will accompany it. Consider the rich love of God, and consider His light marvelous, as in itself, so in this, that He has bestowed it on you. And seeing you were sometimes darkness, but now are you light in the Lord, I beseech you—nay, the Apostle, and in him the Spirit of God, beseeches you, Walk as children of light.66
II. But to proceed to speak to the other parts of this verse, as to the principle of this change, the calling of God.
It is known and confessed to be a chief point of wisdom in a man, to consider what he is, from whom he has his being, and to what end. When a Christian has thought on this in his natural being, as he is a man, he has the same to consider over again of his spiritual being, as he is a Christian and so a new creature. And in this notion, all the three are very clearly represented to him in these words, 1. What he is, first, by these titles of dignity in the first words of this verse: and again, by an estate of light in the last clause of it. 2. Whence a Christian has this excellent being is very express here, He has called you. That God who is the author of all kinds of being, has given you this, called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. If you are a chosen generation, it is He who has chosen you.67 If you are a royal priesthood, you know that it is He who has anointed you. If a holy nation, He has sanctified you.68 If a peculiar or purchased people, it is He who has bought you.69 All are included in this calling, and they are all one thing. 3. To what end,—to show forth His praises. Of the first of these, in all the different expressions of it, we have spoken before; now we shall consider the other two.
He has called you.] Those who live in the society, and profess the faith of Christians, are called unto light, the light of the Gospel that shines in the Church of God. Now, this is no small favor and privilege, while many people are left in darkness and in the shadow of death, to have this light rise upon us, and to be in the region of it, the Church, the Goshen of the world; for by this outward light we are invited to this happy state of saving inward light, and the former is here to be understood as the means of the latter. These Jews who were called to the profession of the Christian faith, to whom our Apostle writes, were even in that respect called unto a light hidden from the rest of their nation, and from many other nations in the world: but because the Apostle undoubtedly describes here the lively spiritual state of true believers, therefore this calling further signifies the effectual work of conversion, making the daylight of salvation, not only without, but within them, the day-star to arise in their hearts.70 When the sun has arisen, yet if a man be lying fast in a dark prison, and in a deep sleep too, it is not day to him; he is not called to light, till someone open the doors and awakens him, and brings him forth to it. This God does, in the calling here meant. That which is here termed calling, in regard of the way of God’s working with the soul, is, in regard of the power of it, called a rescuing and bringing forth of the soul: so the Apostle St. Paul speaks of it,71 Delivered from the power of darkness, and translated into the kingdom of his dear Son. That delivering and translating is this calling, and it is from the power of darkness—a forcible power—that detains the soul captive. As there are chains of eternal darkness upon damned spirits, which shall never be taken off, wherein they are said to be reserved unto the judgment of the great day,72 so there are chains of spiritual darkness upon the unconverted soul, that can be taken off by no other hand but the powerful hand of God. He calls the sinner to come forth, and also causes, by the power of that His voice, the bolts and fetters to fall off, and enables the soul to come forth into the light. It is an operative word that effects what it bids, as that in the creation, God said, Let there be light; and there was light;73 to which the Apostle has reference74 when he says, God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts. God calls man. He works with him indeed as with a reasonable creature, but surely, He likewise works as Himself, as an Almighty Creator. He works strongly and sweetly, with an Almighty easiness. One man may call another to this light, and if there is nothing more, he may call long enough to no purpose; as they tell of Mahomet’s miracle that misgave,—he called a mountain to come to him, but it stirred not. But His call, which shakes and removes the mountains, does, in a way known to Himself, turn and wind the heart in the way that He pleases. The voice of the Lord is powerful and is full of majesty.75 If He speaks once to the heart, it cannot choose but to follow Him, and yet most willingly chooses that. The workings of grace, (as oil, to which it is often compared,) insensibly and silently penetrate and sink into the soul, and dilate themselves through it. That word of His own calling disentangles the heart from all its nets, as it did the disciples, to follow Christ. The call that brought St. Matthew presently from his receipt of custom, puts off the heart from all its customs and receipts too; makes it reject gains and pleasures, and all that hinders it, to go after Christ. And it is a call that touches the soul so as the touch of Elijah’s mantle, which made Elisha follow him. Go back, said he, for what have I done to you?76 Yet he had done so much, as made him forsake all to go with him. And this every believer is most ready to acknowledge, who knows what the rebellion of his heart was, and what his miserable love of darkness was, that the gracious, yet mighty call of God, was that which drew him out of it; and therefore he willingly assents to that which is the Third thing to be spoken of, that it becomes him, as being the end of his calling, to shew forth His praise, who has so mercifully, and so powerfully called him from so miserable to so happy an estate.
For, 1. This is God’s end in calling us, to communicate His goodness to us, that so the glory of it may return to Himself. The highest Agent cannot work but for the highest end: so that, as the Apostle speaks, when God would confirm His covenant by an oath, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself;77 so, in all things, He must be the end of His own actions, because there is no greater, nor better end, yea, none by infinite odds so great, or good. Particularly in the calling and exalting of a number of lost mankind to such a great honor and happiness, both in designing that great work, and in performing it, He aims at the opening up and declaring of His rich grace, for the glory of it, as the Apostle St. Paul tells us once and again.78
2. As this is God’s end, it ought to be ours; and therefore ours because it is His. And for this very purpose, both here and elsewhere, are we reminded of it, that we may be true to His end, and intend it with Him. This is His purpose in calling us, and therefore it is our great duty, being so called—to declare His praises. All things and persons shall pay this tribute, even those who are most unwilling; but the happiness of His chosen is, that they are active in it, others are passive only. Whereas the rest have His praises wrested from them, they declare them cheerfully, as the glorious angels do. As the Gospel brings them glad tidings of peace from God, and declares to them the love and mercy that is in Him, they smother it not, but answer it; they declare it, and set forth the glory of it with their utmost power and skill.
There are two things in this, 1. Not only that they speak upon all occasions to the advantage of His grace, but also that the frame of their actions be such as tends to the exalting of God. And, 2. That in those actions they do intend this end, set up this for their aim.
1. Their words and actions being conformable to that high and holy state to which they are called, do commend and praise their Lord, who has called them to it. The virtues that are in them, tell us of His virtues, as brooks lead us to their springs. When a Christian can quietly repose and trust in God in a matter of very great difficulty, in which there is nothing else to stay him, but God alone, this declares that there is strength enough in God to bear him up, that there must be in Him that real abundance of goodness and truth that the word speaks of Him. Abraham believed, and gave glory to God;79 this is what a believer can do, to declare the truth of God; he relies on it. He who believes has set to his seal that God is true.80 So, also, their holiness is for His praise. Men hear that there is a God who is infinitely holy, but they can see neither Him nor His holiness; yet, when they perceive some traces of it in the faces of His children, which are in no one else, this may convince them that its perfection, which must be somewhere, can be nowhere else than in their Heavenly Father. When these, which are His peculiar plants, bring forth the fruits of holiness, which naturally they yielded not, it testifies a supernatural work of His hand who planted them, and the more they are fruitful, the greater is His praise. Herein, says our Savior, is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit.81 Were it not for the conscience of this duty to God, and possibly the necessity of their station and calling, it may well be, some Christian would rather lock up and keep within himself any grace he has, than let it appear at all, considering some hazards which he and it run in the discovery; and, it may be, could take some pleasure in the world’s mistakes and disesteem of him. But seeing both piety and charity require the acting of graces in conduct with men, that which hypocrisy does for itself, a real Christian may, and should do for God.
2. The other thing mentioned as making up this rule, will give the difference; that not only what we speak and do should be in agreement with this end, but that in so speaking and doing, our eye should be upon this end: that all our Christian conduct be directly intended by us, not to cry up our own virtues, but to glorify God, and His virtues,—to declare His praises who has called us.
Let your light, says our Savior, shine,82 and shine before men too; that is not forbidden; yea, it is commanded, but it is thus commanded; Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works—yourselves as little as may be, your works more than yourselves, (as the sun gives us its light, and will scarce suffer us to look upon itself,)—and glorify—Whom? You? No, but your Father who is in heaven. Let your light shine, it is given for that purpose, but let it shine always to the glory of the Father of lights. Men who seek themselves, may share in the same public kind of actions with you; but let your secret intentions, which God eyes most, sever you. This is the impress that a sincere and humble Christian sets upon all his actions, To the glory of God. He uses all he has, especially all his graces, to His praise who gives all, and is sorry he has no more for this use, and is daily seeking after more, not to bring more esteem to himself, but more honor to God. It is a poor booty to hunt after that, namely, an airy vain breath of men: the best thing in them, their most solid good, is altogether vanity; how much more that which is lightest and vainest in them! This is the mind that is in every Christian, in all his ways to deny himself, and to be willing to abase himself to exalt his Master; to be of St. Paul’s temper, who regarded not himself at all, honor or dishonor, prison or liberty, life or death, content with anything, so Christ might be magnified.83
And as every godly mind must be thus affected, so especially the ministers of the Gospel, those who are not only called with others to partake of this marvelous light, but are in a special manner to hold it forth to others. How do pure affections become them, and ardent desires to promote His glory who has so called them? A rush for your praise or dispraise; only receive Jesus Christ, and esteem highly of Him, and it is enough. We preach not ourselves, says the Apostle, but Christ Jesus the Lord.84 That is our errand, not to catch either at base gain or vain applause for ourselves, but to exalt our Lord Jesus in the hearts of men. And to those who are so minded, there is a reward abiding them, of such riches and honor as they would be very loath to exchange for anything to be had amongst men.
But, in his station, this is the mind of every one who loves the Lord Jesus, most heartily to make a sacrifice of himself, and all he is and has,—means, and esteem, and life, and all, to His glory who humbled Himself so low, to exalt us to these dignities, to make us kings and priests unto God.85
It is most just, since we have our crowns from Him, and that He has set them on our heads, that we take them in our hands, and throw them down before His throne. All our graces (if we have any) are His free gift, and are given as the rich garments of this spiritual priesthood, only to attire us suitably for this spiritual sacrifice of His praises; the costly vesture of the high priest under the law was not appointed to make him gay for himself, but to decorate him for his holy service, and to commend, as a figure of it, the perfect holiness with which our great High Priest, Jesus Christ, was clothed. What good thing do we have that is not from the hand of our good God? And receiving all from Him, and after a special manner spiritual blessings, is it not reasonable that all we have—those spiritual gifts especially—should declare His praise, and His only? David does not grow big with vain thoughts, and lift up himself, because God has lifted him up, but exclaims, I will extol you, O Lord; for you have lifted me up.86 The visible heavens, and all the beauty and the lights in them, speak nothing but the glory of Him who framed them, as the Psalmist87 teaches us; and shall not these spiritual lights, His called ones, whom He has made lights so peculiarly for that purpose, these stars in His right hand, do it much more? Oh! let it be thus with us. The more He gives, be all the more humble, and let Him have the return of more glory, and let it go entirely to Him; it is all His due; and in doing thus, we shall still grow richer; for where He sees the most faithful servant, who purloins nothing, but improves all to his Master’s advantage, surely, him He will trust with most.
And as it is thus both most due to God, and most profitable for ourselves, in all things to seek His praises; so it is the most excellent and generous intent, to have the same thought with God, the same purpose as His, and to aim no lower than at His glory: whereas it is a base, poor thing for a man to seek himself, far below that royal dignity that is here put upon Christians, and that priesthood joined with it. Under the law, those who were squint-eyed were incapable of the priesthood; truly, this squinting out to our own interest, the looking aside to that, in God’s affairs especially, so deforms the face of the soul, that it makes it altogether unworthy the honor of this spiritual priesthood. Oh! this is a large task, an infinite task. The various creatures bear their part in this; the sun says somewhat, and moon and stars, yea, the lowest have some share in it; the very plants and herbs of the field speak of God; and yet, the very highest and best, yea, all of them together, the whole concert of Heaven and earth, cannot show forth all His praise to the full. No; it is but a part, the smallest part of that glory which they can reach.
We all profess these dignities, in that we declare ourselves Christians; but if we are determined to know the truth, (for many, many are deceived in it,) we may, by asking ourselves seriously, and answering truly to these questions: 1st. Whether my actions and the course of my life are such as give evidence of the grace of God, and so speak His praise? If not, surely I am not of this number that God has thus called and dignified. And this test, I fear, would degrade many. 2ndly. If my life is somewhat regular and Christian-like, yet, do I in it all, singly and constantly, without any selfish or sinister end, desire and seek the glory of God alone? Otherwise I may be like this chosen generation, but I am not one of them. And this, out of doubt, would make the number yet far less. Well, think on it; it is a miserable condition, for men either to be grossly staining and dishonoring the holy religion they profess, or, in seeming to serve and honor God, to be serving and seeking themselves; it is the way to lose themselves forever. Oh! it is a comfortable thing to have an upright mind, and to love God for Himself; and love seeks not its own things.88 They are truly happy, who make this their work sincerely, though weakly, to advance the praises of their God in all things, and finding the great imperfection of their best diligence in this work here, are still longing to be where they shall do it better.
Ver. 10. Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.
The love of God to His children is the great subject both of His word and of their thoughts, and therefore is it that His word (the rule of their thoughts and their whole lives) speaks so much of that love, to the very end that they may think much, and esteem highly of it, and walk answerably to it. This is the scope of St. Paul’s doctrine to the Ephesians, and the top of his desires for them.89 And this is our Apostle’s aim here. As he began the Epistle with contrasting their election in Heaven to their dispersion on earth, the same consideration runs through the whole of it. Here he is representing to them the great fruit of that love, the happy and high state to which they are called in Christ; that the choosing of Christ and of believers is as one act, and they as one entire object of it,—one glorious Temple, He the foundation and head corner-stone, and they the edifice;—one honorable fraternity, He the King of kings and great High Priest, and they likewise through Him made kings and priests unto God the Father, a royal priesthood; He the light of the world, and they through Him children of light. Now that this their dignity, which shines so bright in its own innate worth, may yet appear the more, the Apostle here sets it off by a double contrast, first, of the misery under which others are, and secondly, of that misery under which they themselves were before their calling. And this being set on both sides, is as a dark shadowing round about their happiness here described, setting off the luster of it.
Their former misery, expressed in the former verse by darkness, is here more fully and plainly set before their view in these words. They are borrowed from the prophet Hosea,90 where (as is usual with the Prophets) he is raised up by the Spirit of God, from the temporal troubles and deliverances of the Israelites, to consider and foretell that great restoration wrought by Jesus Christ, in purchasing a new people to Himself, made up both of Jews and Gentiles who believe; and therefore the prophecy is fit and applicable to both. So that the debate is altogether needless, whether it concerns the Jews or Gentiles; in its spiritual sense, as relating to the kingdom of Christ, it foretells the making of the Gentiles, who were not before so, the people of God, and the recovery of the Jews likewise, who, by their apostasies, and the captivities and dispersions which came upon them as just punishment for those apostasies, were degraded from the outward dignities they had as the people of God, and were also spiritually miserable and captives by nature, and so in both respects laid equal with the Gentiles, and stood as much in need of this restitution as they. St. Paul uses the passage concerning the calling of the Gentiles.91 And here, St. Peter writing, as is most probable, particularly to the dispersed Jews, applies it to them, as being, in the very reference it bears to the Jews, truly fulfilled only in those who were believers, faith making them a part of the true Israel of God, to which the promises do peculiarly belong; as the Apostle St. Paul argues at large, in the ninth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans.
Their former misery and their present happiness we have here under a double expression; they were, 1. not a people, 2. destitute of mercy. Not the people of God, says the prophet; not a people, says our Apostle: being not God’s people, they were so base and miserable as not to be worthy of the name of a people at all; as it is taken Deut. 32:21.
There is a kind of being, a life that a soul has by a peculiar union with God, and therefore, in that sense, the soul without God is dead, as the body is without the soul.92 Yea, as the body, separated from the soul, is not only a lifeless lump, but putrefies, and becomes noxious and abominable, thus the soul, separated from God, is subject to a mere loathsome and vile putrefaction.93 So that men who are yet unbelievers, are not (as the Hebrews expressed death). Multitudes of them are not a people, but a heap of filthy carcasses. Again; take our natural misery in the notion of a captivity, which was the judgment threatened against the Jews, to make them not a people; therefore their captivity is often spoken of by the prophets as a death, and their restoration as their resurrection.94 And as a captive people is civilly dead (as they speak,) so a soul captive to sin and the prince of darkness is spiritually dead, lacking happiness and well-being, which if it never attains, it had better, for itself, not be at all. There is nothing but disorder and confusion in the soul without God, the affections hurrying it tumultuously.
Thus, captive sinners are not; they are dead; they lack that happy being that flows from God to the souls which are united to Himself, and consequently, they must lack that society and union with one another which results from the former, from the same union that believers have with God, and the same being in Him; which makes them truly worthy to be called a people, and particularly the people of God. His people are the only people in the world worthy to be called a people; the rest are but refuse and dross. Although in the world’s esteem, which judges by its own rules in favor of itself, the people of God are as nobody, no people, a company of silly creatures; yea, we are made, says the great Apostle, as the filth of the earth, and are the offscouring of all things;95 yet in His account who has chosen them, who alone knows the true value of things, His people are the only people, and all the rest of the world as nothing in His eyes. He dignifies and beautifies them, and loves in them that beauty which He has given them.
But under that term is comprised, not only that new being of believers in each one of them separately, but that tie and union that is amongst them as one people, being incorporated together, and living under the same government and laws, without which a people are but as the beasts of the field, or the fishes of the sea, as the creeping things, that have no ruler over them, as the prophet speaks.96 That regular living in society and union in laws and policy makes many men to be one people; but the civil union of men in states and kingdoms is nothing comparable to the mysterious union of the people of God with Him, and one with another. That commonwealth has a firmer union than all others. Believers are knit together in Christ as their Head, not merely as a civil or political head ruling them, but as a natural head enlivening them, giving them all one life. Men in other societies, though well ordered, yet are but as a multitude of trees, regularly planted, indeed, but each upon his own root; but the faithful are all branches of one root. Their union is so mysterious that it is compared to the very union of Christ with His Father, as it is indeed the product of it.97
People of God.] I will say to them, You are my people; and they shall say, You are my God.98 That mutual interest and possession is the very foundation of all our comfort. He is the first chooser; He first says, My people; calls them so, and makes them to be so; and then they say, My God. It is, therefore, a relation that shall hold, and shall not break, because it is founded upon His choice who changes not. The tenor of an external covenant with a people (as the Jews particularly found), is such as may be broken by man’s unfaithfulness, though God remains faithful and true; but the New Covenant of grace makes all sure on all hands, and cannot be broken; the Lord not only keeping His own part, but likewise performing ours in us, and for us, and establishing us, that as He departs not from us first, so we shall not depart from Him. I will betroth you unto me forever.99 It is an indissoluble marriage, that is not in danger of being broken either by divorce or death.
My people.] There is a treasure of instruction and comfort wrapped up in that word, not only more than the profane world can imagine (for they indeed know nothing at all of it), but more than those who are of that number are able to conceive of,—an unfathomable deep. My people: they His portion, and He theirs. He accounts nothing of all the world beside them, and they of nothing at all beside Him. For them He continues the world. Many and great are the privileges of His people, contained in that great charter, the Holy Scriptures, and rich is the land where their inheritance lies; but all is in this reciprocal, that He is their God. All His power and wisdom are engaged for their good. However great and many are their enemies, they may well oppose this to all, He is their God. They are sure to be protected and prospered, and in the end to have full victory. Happy then is that people, whose God is the Lord.100
Which had not obtained mercy.] The mercies of the Lord to His chosen are from everlasting; yet, so long as His decree of mercy runs hidden, and is not revealed to them in the effects of it, they are said not to have received, or obtained mercy. When it begins to act and work in their effectual calling, then they find it to be theirs. It was in a secret way moving forward towards them before, as the sun after midnight is still coming nearer to us, though we perceive not its approach until the dawning of the day.
Mercy.] The former word, the people of God, teaches us how great the change is that is wrought by the calling of God: this teaches us, 1. how free it is. The people of God—that is the good attained in the change: obtained mercy—that is the spring from which it flows. This is indeed implied in the words of the change; of no people—such as have no right to such a dignity at all, and in themselves no disposition for it—to be made His people, can be by nothing but free grace, such mercy as supposes nothing, and seeks nothing but misery in us, and works upon that. As it is expressed to have been very free to this people of the Jews, in choosing them before the rest of the world,101 so it is to the spiritual Israel of God, and to everyone particularly belonging to that company. Why is it that He chooses one of a family, and leaves another, but because it pleases Him? He blots out their transgressions for His own name’s sake.102 And, 2. as it is free mercy, so it is tender mercy. The word in the Prophets signifies tenderness, or bowels of compassion; and such are the mercies of our God towards us.103 The bowels of a father, as it is, Psalm 103:13; and if you think not that tenderness enough, those of a mother, yea, more than a mother.104 3. It is rich mercy; it delights to glorify itself in the greatest misery; pardons as easily the greatest as the smallest of debts. 4. It is a constant unalterable mercy, a stream still running.
Now in both of these expressions the Apostle draws the eyes of believers to reflect on their former misery, and to view it together with their present state. This is very frequent in the Scriptures.105 And it is of very great use; it works the soul of a Christian to much humility, and love, and thankfulness, and obedience. It cannot choose but force him to abase himself, and to magnify the free grace and love of God. And this may be one reason why it pleases the Lord to suspend the conversion of some persons for many years of their life, yea, to suffer them to stain those years with grievous and gross sins, that the riches and glory of His grace, and the freeness of His choice, may be the more legible both to themselves and others. Likewise, those apprehensions of the wrath due to sin, and the sights of hell, as it were, which He brings some to, either at, or after their conversion, serve the same purpose. That glorious description of the New Jerusalem,106 is abundantly delightful in itself; and yet the fiery lake spoken of there, makes all that is spoken of the other sound much the sweeter.
But, universally, all the godly have this to consider, that they were strangers and enemies to God, and to think, why was it that I, a lump of the same polluted clay with those that perish, should be taken, and purified, and molded by the Lord’s own hand for a vessel of glory? Nothing but free grace makes the difference; and where can there be love, and praises, and service found to answer this? All is to be ascribed to the mercy, gifts, and calling of Christ. And His ministers, with St. Paul, acknowledge that as we have received mercy, we faint not.107
But alas! we neither enjoy the comfort of this mercy as obtained, nor are grieved for lacking it, nor stirred up to seek after it, if not yet obtained. What do we think? Does it seem a small thing in your eyes to be shut out from the presence of God, and to bear the weight of His wrath forever, that you thus slight His mercy, and let it pass by you ignored? Or shall an imagined obtaining divert you from the real pursuit of it? Will you be willingly deceived, and be your own deceivers in a matter of such great importance? You cannot think too highly of the riches of Divine mercy; it is above all your thoughts; but remember and consider this, that there is a peculiar people of His own, to whom alone all the riches of it belong. And therefore, however great it is, unless you find yourselves of that number, you cannot lay claim to the smallest share of it.
And you are not ignorant of their character, what a kind of people they are, who have such a knowledge of God as Himself gives. They are all taught of God, enlightened and sanctified by His Spirit, a holy people, as He is a holy God; they have the riches of that grace by which they are saved, in most precious esteem, and have their hearts by it inflamed with His love, and therefore their thoughts taken up with nothing so much as studying how they may obey and honor Him; rather choosing to displease all the world than to offend Him, and considering nothing too dear, yea, nothing good enough to do Him service. If it is so with you, then you have indeed obtained mercy.
But if you can wallow in the same puddle with the profane world, and take a share of their ungodly ways; or if, though your outward carriage be somewhat more smooth, you regard iniquity in your hearts, have your hearts ardent in the love and pursuit of the world, but frozen to God; if you have some bosom idol that you hide and entertain, and cannot find in your heart to part with some one beloved sin, whatever it is, for all the love that God has manifested to man in the Son of His love, Jesus Christ; in a word, if you can please and delight yourself in any way displeasing to God, (though His people, while they are here, have spots, yet these are not the spots of His people that I am now speaking of,) I can give you no assurance that as yet you have obtained mercy: on the contrary, it is certain that the wrath of God is yet abiding on you, and if you continue in this state, you are in apparent danger of perishing under it. You are yet children of spiritual darkness, and on the way to utter and everlasting darkness. Do you know what it is to be destitute of this mercy? It is a woeful state, though you had all worldly enjoyments, and were at the top of outward prosperity, to be shut out from the mercy and love of God.
There is nothing does so kindly work repentance, as the right apprehension of the mercy and love of God. The beams of that love are more powerful to melt the heart than all the flames of mount Sinai—all the threatenings and terrors of the Law. Sin is the root of our misery; and therefore it is the proper work of this mercy, to rescue the soul from it, both from the guilt and the power of it at once. Can you think there is any suitableness in it, that the peculiar people of God should despise His laws, and practise nothing but rebellions? that those in whom He has magnified His mercy, should take pleasure in abusing it? or that He has washed any with the blood of His Son, to the end that they may still wallow in the mire? As if we were redeemed, not from sin, but to sin; as if we should say, We are delivered to do all these abominations, as the Prophet speaks.108 Oh! let us not dare thus to abuse and affront the free grace of God, if we mean to be saved by it; but let as many as would be found amongst those who obtain mercy walk as His people, whose peculiar inheritance is His mercy. And since this grace of God has appeared to us, let us embrace it, and let it effectually teach us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts.109
And if you are persuaded to be earnest suitors for this mercy, and to fly unto Jesus, who is the true mercy-seat, then be assured it is yours. Let not the greatest guiltiness scare you and drive you from it; but rather drive you all the more to it; for the greater the weight of that misery is under which you lie, the more is your need of this mercy; and the more will be the glory of it in you. It is a strange kind of argument used by the Psalmist, and yet a sure one—it concludes well and strongly, for your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity; for it is great.110 The soul oppressed with the greatness of its sin lying heavy upon it, may, by that very greatness of it pressing upon it, urge the forgiveness of it at the hands of Free Mercy. It is for Your name’s sake,—that makes it strong; the force of the inference lies in that. You are nothing, and worse than nothing. True; but all who ever obtained this mercy were once so; they were nothing of all that which it has made them to be; they were not a people, had no interest in God, were strangers of mercy, yea, heirs of wrath; yea, they had not so much as a desire after God, until this mercy stopped them, and showed itself to them, and them to themselves, and so moved them to desire it, and caused them to find it, caught hold on them and plucked them out of the dungeon. And it is unquestionably still the same, and fails not; ever expending and yet never all spent, yea, not so much as at all diminished; flowing, as the rivers, from one age to another, serving each age in the present, and yet not one bit less to those who come after. He who exercises it is The Lord, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, to all who come to Him, and yet, still keeping mercy for thousands who come after.111
You who have obtained this mercy, and have the seal of it within you, it will certainly conform your hearts to its own nature—it will work you to a merciful compassionate temper of mind towards the souls of others who have not yet obtained it. You will, indeed, as the Lord does, hate sin: but, as He does likewise, you will pity the sinner. You will be so far from misconstruing and grumbling at the longsuffering of God, (as if you would have the bridge cut because you are over, as St. Augustine speaks,) that, on the contrary, your great desire will be to draw others to partake of the same mercy with you, knowing it to be rich enough; and you will, in your station, use your best diligence to bring in many to it, from love both to the souls of men and to the glory of God.
And besides, you will still be admiring and extolling this mercy, as it is manifested to yourselves, considering what it is, and what you were before it visited you. The Israelites confessed (at the offering of the first fruits), to set off the bounty of God, A Syrian ready to perish was my father;112 they confessed their captivity in Egypt; but far poorer and baser is our natural condition, and far more precious is that land, to the possession of which this free mercy brings us.
Do but call back your thoughts, you who have indeed escaped it, and look but into that pit of misery from where the hand of the Lord has drawn you out, and you cannot fail to love Him highly, and still kiss that gracious hand, even while it is scourging you with any affliction whatever; because it has once done this for you, namely, plucked you out of everlasting destruction. So David, as the thoughts of this change will teach us to praise, He brought me up also out of an horrible pit: then follows,—He has put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God;113 not only redeemed me from destruction, but also crowned me with glory and honor.114 He not only forgives all our debts, and let us out of prison, but enriches us with an estate that cannot be spent, and dignifies us with a crown that cannot wither, made up of nothing of ours. These two considerations will stretch and tune the heart very high, namely, from what a low estate grace brings a man, and how high it exalts him; in what a beggarly, vile condition the Lord finds us, and yet, that He does not only free us there, but puts such dignities on us. He raises up the poor out of the dust, and lifts the needy out of the dunghill; that he may set him with princes, even with the princes of his people.115 Or, as Joshua the priest was stripped of his filthy garments, and had a fair miter set upon his head,116 so too are those of this priesthood dealt with.
Now, that we may be the deeper in the sense and admiration of this mercy, it is indeed our duty to seek earnestly after the evidence and strong assurance of it; for things work on us according to our notice and apprehensions of them, and therefore, the more right assurance we have of mercy, the more love, and thankfulness, and obedience, will spring from it. Therefore it is, that the Apostle here represents this great and happy change of estate to Christians as a thing that they may know concerning themselves, and that they ought to seek the knowledge of, that so they may be duly affected with it. And it is indeed a happy thing, to have in the soul an extract of that great archive and act of grace towards it, which has stood in Heaven from eternity. It is surely both a very comfortable and very profitable thing to find and to read clearly the seal of mercy upon the soul, which is holiness, that by which a man is marked by God, as a part of His peculiar possession that He has chosen out of the world. And when we perceive anything of this, let us look back, as here the Apostle would have us to do, and reflect how God has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Ver. 11. Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.
The right spiritual knowledge that a Christian has of God and of himself, differentiates itself from whatever is most like it, by the power and influence it has upon the heart and life. And in this, it has the lively impression of the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures that teaches it; in which we still find throughout, that the high mysteries of religion are accompanied with practical truths, not only as agreeing with them, but as drawn out of them, and not violently drawn, but naturally flowing from them, as pure streams from a pure spring. Thus, in this Epistle, we find the Apostle intermixing his Divine doctrine, with most useful and practical exhortation,117 and in the beginning of this chapter again: and now in these words.
And upon this model should both the ministers of the Gospel form their preaching, and the hearers their ears. Ministers are not to instruct only, or to exhort only, but to do both. To exhort men to holiness and the duties of a Christian life, without instructing them in the doctrine of faith, and bringing them to Jesus Christ, is to build a house without a foundation. And, on the other side, to instruct the mind in the knowledge of Divine things, and neglect the pressing of that practice and power of godliness which is the undivided companion of true faith, is to forget the building that ought to be raised upon that foundation once laid, which is likewise a point of very great folly. Or, if men, after laying that right foundation, proceed to the superstructure of vain and empty speculations, it is but to build hay and stubble, instead of those solid truths that direct the soul in the way to happiness, which are of more solidity and worth than gold and silver, and precious stones.118 Christ, and the doctrine that reveals Him, is called by St. Paul, the mystery of the faith,119 and the mystery of godliness;120 as Christ is the object of faith, so is He the spring and fountain of godliness. The Apostle having, we see, in his foregoing discourse unfolded the excellence of Christ and of Christians in Him, proceeds here to exhort them to the pure and spiritual temper of mind and course of life that becomes Christians.
Those hearers are to blame, and do prejudice themselves, who are attentive only to such words and discourse as stir the affections for the present, and find no relish in the doctrine of faith, and the unfolding of those mysteries that bear the whole weight of religion, and are the ground both of all Christian obedience, and all exhortations and persuasives to it. Those temporary, sudden stirrings of the affections, without a rightly informed mind, and some measure of due knowledge of God in Christ, do no good. It is the wind of a word of exhortation that stirs them for the time against their lusts, but the first wind of temptation that comes carries them away; and thus the mind is but tossed to and fro, like a wave of the sea, with all kinds of winds, not being rooted and established in the faith, (as it is Col. 2:7,) and so, not rooted in the love of Christ,121 which are the conquering graces that subdue unto a Christian his lusts and the world.122 Love makes a man to be dead to himself, and to the world, and to live to Christ who died for him.
On the other part, they are no less, yea, more to blame, who are glad to have their minds instructed in the mysteries of the Christian faith, and out of a natural desire to know, are curious to hear such things as inform them; but when it comes to the urging of holiness and mortifying their lusts, these are hard sayings,123—they had rather there were some way to receive Christ and retain their lusts too, and to bring them to agreement. To hear of the mercies of God, and the dignities of His people in Christ, is very pleasing; but to have this follow upon it, Abstain from fleshly lusts, this is an importune, troublesome discourse. But it must be so for all that—those who will share in that mercy and happiness must abstain from fleshly lusts.
Dearly beloved, I beseech you.] There is a faculty of reproving required in the ministry, and sometimes a necessity of very sharp rebukes—cutting ones. Those who have much of the spirit of meekness, may have a rod by them too, to use upon necessity.124 But surely the way of meekness is that they use most willingly, as the Apostle there implies: and out of all question, with ingenuous minds, the mild way of sweet entreaties is very forcible; as oil that penetrates and sinks insensibly, or, (to use that known resemblance,) they prevail as the sunbeams, which, without any noise, made the traveler cast his cloak, which all the blustering of the wind could not do, but made him rather gather it closer, and bind it faster about him. We see the Apostles are frequent in this strain of entreaties, I beseech you, as Rom. 12:1. Now this word of entreaty is strengthened much by the other, Dearly beloved. Scarcely can the harshest reproofs, much less gentle reproofs, be thrown back, which have upon them the stamp of love. That which is known to come from love cannot readily but be so received too. And it is thus expressed for that very purpose, that the request may be the more welcome: Beloved. It is the advice of a friend, one that truly loves you, and aims at nothing in it but your good. It is because I love you, that I entreat you, and entreat you as you love yourselves, to abstain from fleshly lusts, that war against the soul. And what is our purpose, when we exhort you to believe and repent, but that you may be happy in the forgiveness of your sins? Why do we desire you to embrace Christ, but that through Him you may have everlasting life? However you take these things, it is our duty incessantly to remind you of them; and to do it with much love and tenderness of affection to your souls; not only pressing you by frequent warnings and exhortations, but also by frequent prayers and tears for your salvation.
Abstain.] It was a very wise abridgment that Epictetus made of Philosophy, into those two words, "Bear and forbear." These are truly the two main duties that our Apostle recommends to his Christian brethren in this Epistle. It is one and the same strength of spirit that raises a man above both the troubles and pleasures of the world, and makes him despise and trample upon both.
We have, first, briefly to explain what these fleshly lusts mean; then to consider the exhortation of abstaining from them.
Unchaste desires are particularly called by this name indeed, but to take it for these only in this place is doubtless too narrow. That which seems to be the true sense of it here takes in all undue desires and use of earthly things, and all the corrupt affections of our carnal minds.
Now in that sense, these fleshly lusts comprise a great part of the body of sin. All those three which St. John speaks of, 1 Epist. 2:16, the world’s accursed trinity, are included under this name here of fleshly lusts. A crew of base, imperious masters they are, to which the natural man is a slave, serving divers lusts.125 Some are more addicted to the service of one kind of lust, some to that of another; but all are in this unhappy, that they are strangers, yea, enemies to God, and, as the brute creatures, servants to their flesh: either covetous, like the beasts of the field, with their eyes still upon the earth, or voluptuous, swimming in pleasures, as fishes in the sea, or like the fowls of the air, soaring in vain ambition. All the strifes that are raised about these things, all malice and envyings, all bitterness and evil speaking,126 which are works of the flesh, and tend to the satisfying of its wicked desires, we are here entreated to abstain from.
To abstain from these lusts is to hate and flee from the very thoughts and first motions of them; and if surprised by these, yet to kill them there, that they bring not forth; and to suspect ourselves even in those things that are not sinful, and to keep afar away from all inducements to those polluted ways of sin.
In a word, we are to abstain not only from the serving of our flesh in things forbidden, as unjust gain or unlawful pleasures, but also from immoderate desire of, and delighting in, any earthly thing, although it may be in itself lawfully, yea, necessarily, in some degree, desired and used. Yea, to have any feverish, pressing thirst after gain, even just gain, or after earthly delights, though lawful, is to be guilty of those fleshly lusts, and a thing very unbecoming the dignity of a Christian. To see those who were brought up in scarlet embrace dunghills127 is a strange sight. Therefore the Apostle, having so cleared that immediately before, has the better reason to require this of them, that they abstain from fleshly lusts.
Let their own slaves serve them: you are redeemed and delivered from them, a free people, yea, kings; and suits it with royal dignity to obey vile lusts? You are priests consecrated to God, and will you tumble yourselves and your precious garments yourselves in the mire? It was a high speech of a heathen, that he was greater, and born to greater things, than to be a servant to his body. How much more ought he that is born again to say so, being born heir to a crown that fades not away!128
Again, as the honor of a Christian’s estate is far above this baseness of serving his lusts, so the happiness and pleasantness of his estate set him above the need for the pleasures of sin. The Apostle said before, If you have tasted that the Lord is gracious, desire the sincere milk of the word129—desire that word wherein you may taste more of His graciousness. And as that exhortation fitly urges the appetite’s desire of the word, so it is strong to persuade to this abstinence from fleshly lusts; yea, to the disdain and loathing of them. If you have the least experience of the sweetness of His love, if you have but tasted of the crystal river of His pleasures, the muddy puddle-pleasures of sin will be hateful and loathsome to you: not only so, but the best earthly delights that there are, will be disrelished, and will seem unsavory to your taste. The embittering of the breasts of the world to the godly by afflictions does something indeed towards weaning them from them; but the breasts of consolation that are given them in their stead wean much more effectually.
The true reason why we remain servants to these lusts, some to one, some to another, is, because we are still strangers to the love of God, and those pure pleasures that are in Him. Though the pleasures of this earth are poor and low, and most unworthy of our pursuit, yet as long as men know of nothing better, they will stick by those they have, such as they are. The Philosopher gives this as the reason why men are so much set upon sensual delights, because they know not the higher pleasures that are proper to the soul; and they must have it some way. It is too often in vain to speak to men in this strain, to follow them with the Apostle’s entreaty, I beseech you, abstain from fleshly lusts, unless those who are spoken to are such as he speaks of in the former words, such as have obtained mercy, and have tasted of the graciousness and love of Christ, whose love is better than wine.130 Oh that we would seek the knowledge of this love! because, seeking it, we will find it; and finding it, we would need no force to pull the delights of sin out of our hands; we would throw them away of our own accord.
Thus a carnal mind prejudices itself against religion, when it hears that it requires an abstinence from fleshly lusts, and bereaves men of their mirth and delight in sin; but they know not that it is to make way for more refined and precious delights. There is nothing of this kind taken from us, but by a very advantageous exchange it is made up. In the world you shall have affliction, but in me you shall have peace. Is not lack of the world's peace abundantly paid with peace in Christ? Thus, fleshly lusts are cast out of the hearts of believers as rubbish and trash, to make room for spiritual comforts. We are forbidden fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, to the end that we may have fellowship with God and His Son Jesus Christ.131 This is to make men eat angels' food indeed, as was said of the manna.132 The serving of the flesh sets man below himself, down amongst the beasts; but the consolations of the Spirit, and communion with God, raise him above himself, and associate him with the angels. But let us speak to the Apostle's own exhortations against these lusts, taken, 1. From the condition of Christians; 2. From the condition of those lusts.
1. From the condition of Christians: As strangers. These dispersed Jews were strangers scattered in various countries; but that is not intended here: they are called strangers in the spiritual sense that applies in common to all the Saints. Possibly, by calling them so, he alludes to their outward dispersion, but means their spiritual alienation from the world, and interest in the New Jerusalem.
And this he uses as a very pertinent enforcement of his exhortation. Whatever others do, the serving of the flesh and love of the world are most inconsistent and unbecoming in you. Consider who you are. If you were citizens of this world, then you might drive the same trade with them, and follow the same lusts; but considering that you are chosen and called out of this world, and invested into a new society, made free of another city, and are therefore merely travelers here, passing through to your own country, it is very reasonable that there should be this difference between you and the world—that while they live as at home, your behavior is such as suits strangers; not glutting yourselves with their pleasures, nor surfeiting upon their delicious fruits, as some unwary travelers do abroad, but as wise strangers, living warily and soberly, and still minding most of all your journey homewards, suspecting dangers and snares on your way, and so walking with holy fear (as the Hebrew word for stranger means).
There is, indeed, a miserable party even within a Christian—the remainder of corruption—that is no stranger here, and therefore keeps friendship and correspondence with the world, and will readily betray him if he doesn't watch out. So that he is not only to flee from the pollutions of the world that are all around him, and to choose his steps that he will not become ensnared from without, but he is to continually guard against the lusts and corruption that are yet within himself, to curb and control his own lusts, and give them resolute and flat refusals when they solicit him, and to stop up their essays and opportunities of fellowship with the world, and such things as nourish them, and so to do what he can to starve them out of the holds they keep within him, and to strengthen that new nature which is in him; to live and act according to it, though, in doing so, he shall be sure to live as a stranger here, and a despised, mocked, and hated stranger.
And it is not, on the whole, the worse that it should be so. If men in foreign countries are prone to forget their own at any time, it is surely when they are most kindly used abroad, and are most at their ease—and thus a Christian may be in some danger when he is best accommodated, and has most of the smiles and caresses of the world: so that though he can never wholly forget his home that is above, yet his thoughts of it will be less frequent, and his desires for it less earnest, and, it may be, he may insensibly slide into its customs and habits, as men will do that are well seated in some other country. But by the troubles and unfriendliness of the world he gains this—that when they abound most upon him he then feels himself a stranger, and remembers to behave himself as such, and thinks often with much delight and strong desires on his own country, and the rich and sure inheritance that lies there, and the ease and rest he shall have when he gets there.
And this will strongly persuade him to flee from all polluted ways and lusts as fast as the world follows them. It will make him abhor the pleasures of sin, and use the allowable enjoyments of this earth warily and moderately, never engaging his heart to them as worldlings do, but always keeping it free,—free from that earnest desire in the pursuit of worldly things, and the deep delight in obtaining them, which the men of the earth bestow on them. There is a diligence in his calling, and a prudent regard of his affairs, that is not only permitted to a Christian, but required of him. But yet, compared to his great and high calling (as the Apostle calls it, Phil. 3:14), he follows all his other business with a kind of coldness and indifference, as not caring very much which way they go; his heart is elsewhere. The traveler provides himself as he can with entertainment and lodging where he comes; if it be commodious, it is well; but if not, it is no great matter. If he finds only the essentials, he can go without delicacies very well; for where he finds them in his way, he neither can, nor if he could, would choose to stay there. Though his inn were furnished with the richest hangings and furniture, yet it is not his home—he must and would leave it. The character of ungodly men is that they mind earthly things;133 they are drowned in them over head and ears, as we say.
If Christians would consider how little, and for how little a while, they are concerned in anything here, they would go through any state and any changes of state, either to the better or the worse, with very composed, equal minds, always moderate in their necessary cares, and never taking any care at all for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.134 Let those who have no better home than this world lay claim to live here as at home, and serve their lusts; those who have all their portion in this life135—no more good to look for than what they can catch here—let them take their time of the poor profits and pleasures that are here; but you who have your whole estate, all your riches and pleasures laid up in Heaven, and reserved there for you, let your hearts be there, and your conversation there. This is not the place of your rest, nor of your delights, unless you would be willing to change, and to have your good things here, as some foolish travelers, who spend the estate they should live on at home, in a little while, braving it abroad amongst strangers. Will you, with profane Esau, sell your birthright for a mess of pottage,—sell eternity for a moment, and such pleasures, as a moment of them is worth more than an eternity of the other?
2. The Apostle argues from the condition of those lusts. It is argument enough against fleshly lusts which war against the soul, that they are so far below the soul, that they cannot content, no, nor at all reach the soul; they are not a suitable, much less a satisfying good to it. Although sin has unspeakably abused the soul of man, yet its excellent nature and original still causes a vast disproportion between it and all those gross base things of the earth that concern the flesh, and go no further. But this isn't all: these fleshly lusts are not only of no benefit to the soul, but they are its pernicious enemies—they war against it. And their war against it is entirely made up of stratagem and sleight; for they cannot hurt the soul but by itself. They promise it some contentment, and so gain its consent to serve them, and undo itself. They embrace the soul in order to strangle it. The soul is too much diverted from its own proper business by the inevitable and incessant necessities of the body; and therefore it is exceedingly unjust and cruel to make it also serve the extravagant and sinful desires of the flesh: so much time for sleep, and so much for eating and drinking, and dressing and undressing; and by many, the greatest part of the time that remains is spent in laboring and providing for these. Look at the employments of most men: all the labor of the husbandmen in the country, and of tradesmen in the city, the multitudes of shops and callings, what is the purpose of them all, but the interest and service of the body? And in all these the immortal soul is drawn down to drudge for the mortal body, the house of clay in which it dwells. And in the sense of this, those souls that truly know and consider themselves in this condition often groan under the burden, and desire the day of their deliverance. But the service of the flesh in the inordinate lusts of it is a point of far baser slavery and indignity to the soul, and not only diverts it from spiritual things for the time, but habitually indisposes it to every spiritual work, and makes it earthly and sensual, and so unfits it for heavenly things. Where these lusts, or any one of them, have dominion, the soul cannot at all perform any good; can neither pray, nor hear, nor read the word rightly; and in so far as any of them prevail upon the soul of a child of God, they disjoint and disable it for holy things. Although they are not of the grossest kind of lusts, but such things as are scarcely taken notice of in a man, either by others or by his own conscience, some irregular desires or entanglements of the heart, yet, these little foxes will destroy the vines;136 they will prey upon the graces of a Christian, and keep them very low. Therefore it concerns us much to study our hearts, and to be exact in calling to account the several affections that are in them; otherwise, even those who have been called of God, and have obtained mercy (for such the Apostle speaks to), may have such lusts within them as will much abate the flourishing of their graces and the spiritual beauty of the soul.
The godly know from sad experience that their own hearts often deceive them, harboring and hiding those things that greatly deprive them of that liveliness of grace, and those comforts of the Holy Ghost, which otherwise they would be very likely to attain to.
This warring against the soul, which means their mischievous and hurtful nature, has this also included under it, that these lusts, as breaches of God's law, subject the soul to His wrath. So that by this, the Apostle might well urge his point. Besides that these lusts are unworthy of you, the truth is, if you Christians serve your lusts, you kill your souls.137
When men are on their deathbeds, about to enter eternity, consider what they then think of all their moiling [hard work] on the earth, and serving their own hearts and lusts in any kind—when they see that of all these ways nothing remains but the guiltiness of their sin, the accusations of their conscience, and the wrath of God.
Oh! that you would be persuaded to esteem your precious souls, and not wound them as you do, but war for them, against all those lusts that war against the soul. The soul of a Christian is doubly precious, being, besides its natural excellence, ennobled by grace, and so twice descended of Heaven; and therefore it deserves better treatment than to be turned into a scullion to serve the flesh. The service of Jesus Christ is that which alone is fitting to it; it is alone honorable for the soul to serve so high a Lord, and its service is due only to Him who bought it at so high a rate.
Ver. 12. Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.
These two things that a natural man makes least account of, are of all things in highest regard with a Christian—his own soul and God's glory: so that there are no stronger incentives to him in anything than the interests of these two. And by these the Apostle urges his present exhortation to holiness and blamelessness of life. For the substance of his advice or request in this and the former verse is the same: a truly honest conversation is that only which is spiritual, not defiled with the carnal lusts and pollutions of the world.
The abstention from those lusts indeed comprehends, not only the rule of outward behavior, but the inward temper of the mind; whereas this honest conversation more expressly concerns our external conduct amongst men; as it is added, honest among the Gentiles, and so tending to the glory of God. So these two are to be inseparably regarded—the inward disposition of our hearts, and the outward conversation and course of our lives.
I shall speak to the former first, as the spring of the latter. Keep your heart with all diligence,—all depends upon that,—for out of it are the issues of life.138 And if so, then the regulation of the tongue, and eyes, and feet, and all will follow, as there it follows, ver. 24: Put away from you a froward mouth. In order for the impure streams to cease running, the corrupt spring must be dried up. Men may convey them in a close and concealed manner, making them run, as it were, underground, as they do vaults and ditches (sentinas et cloacas); but until the heart is renewed and purged from base lusts, it will still be sending forth, some way or other, the streams of iniquity. As a fountain casts out her waters incessantly, so she casts out her wickedness, says the Prophet, of the very people and city that were called holy, by reason of the ordinances of God and the profession of the true religion that was amongst them: and therefore it is the same Prophet's advice from the Lord, O Jerusalem, wash your heart. How long shall your vain thoughts lodge within you?139
This is the true method, according to our Savior's doctrine, Make the tree good, and then the fruits will be good; not until then; for who can gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?140 Some good outward actions avail nothing, the soul being unrenewed; as you may stick some figs, or hang some clusters of grapes upon a thorn bush, but they cannot grow upon it.
In this men deceive themselves, even those who have some thoughts of amendment; when they fall into sin, and are reproved for it, they say (and possibly think so too), "I will take heed to myself, I will be guilty of this no more." And because they go no deeper, many of them are ensnared in the same kind again; but however, if they never commit that same sin, they merely change it for some other: as a current of waters, if you stop their passage one way, they rest not until they find another. The conversation can never be uniformly and entirely good, until the frame of the heart, the affections and desires that lodge in it, be changed. It is naturally an evil treasure141 of impure lusts, and must in some way vent and spend what it has within. It is to begin with the wrong end of your work, to rectify the outside first, to smooth the conversation, and not first of all purge the heart. Evil affections are the source of evil speeches and actions. From whence come wars and fightings among you? says St. James. Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?142 Unquiet, unruly lusts within are the cause of the unquietnesses and contentions abroad in the world. One man will have his corrupt will, and another his, and thus they shock and jostle one another; and by the cross encounters of their purposes, as flints meeting, they strike out those sparks that set all on fire.
So then, according to the order of the Apostle's exhortation, the only true principle of all good and Christian conversation in the world is the mortifying of all earthly and sinful lusts in the heart. While they have possession of the heart, they clog it, and straiten it towards God and His ways, so that it cannot walk constantly in them; but when the heart is freed from them, it is enlarged, and so, as David speaks, fits a man, not only to walk, but to run the way of God's commandments.143 And without this freeing of the heart, a man will be at the best very uneven and inconsistent in his ways,—one step like a Christian, and another like a worldling; which is an unpleasant and unprofitable way, not according to that word, He makes my feet like hinds' feet,144—sets them even, as the word is, not only swift, but straight and even; and that is what is required here, the whole course and revolution of a Christian's life to be like himself. And that it may be so, the whole body of sin, and all the members of it, all the deceitful lusts, must be crucified.145
In the words there are three things. I. One point of a Christian's ordinary entertainment in the world, to be evil spoken of. II. Their good use of that evil, to do the better for it. III. The good end and the certain effect of their so doing, the glory of God.
I. Whereas they speak against you as evil doers.] This is in the general the disease of man's corrupt nature, and argues much the baseness and depravedness of it,—this propensity to evil speaking one of another, either blotting the best actions with misconstructions, or taking doubtful things by the left ear; not choosing the most favorable, but, on the contrary, the very harshest sense that can be put upon them. Some men take more pleasure in the narrow eyeing of the true and real faults of men, and then speak of them with a kind of delight. All these kinds of evil speakings are such fruits as spring from that bitter root of pride and self-love, which is naturally deep, fastened in every man's heart. But, besides this general bent to evil speaking, there is a particular malice in the world against those who are born of God, which must have vent in calumnies and reproaches. If this evil speaking be the hissing that is natural to the serpent's seed, surely because of their natural antipathy, it must be breathed forth most against the seed of the woman, those who are one with Jesus Christ. If the tongues of the ungodly are sharp swords146 even to one another, they will whet them sharper than ordinary when they are to use them against the righteous, to wound their name. The evil tongue must be always burning, that is set on fire of hell, as St. James speaks;147 but against the godly, it will be sure to be heated seven times hotter than it is for others. The reasons for this are, 1. Being naturally haters of God, and yet unable to reach Him, what wonder is it if their malice vents itself against His image in His children, and labors to blot and stain all that they can with the foulest calumnies? 2. Because they are neither able nor willing themselves to attain to the spotless, holy life of Christians, they bemire them, and would make them like themselves, by false aspersions: they cannot rise to the state of the godly, and therefore they endeavor to draw them down to theirs by detraction. 3. The reproaches they cast upon the professors of pure religion they mean mainly against religion itself; and intend them to reflect upon it.
The evil speakings of the world against pious men professing religion are partly gross falsehoods, invented without the least ground or appearance of truth; for the world, ever inclined to believe evil reports, especially upon so deep a prejudice as it has against the godly, the falsest and most absurd calumnies will always find so much belief as to make them odious, or very suspected at least, to those who know them not. This is the world's maxim, Lie confidently, and it will always do something; as a stone taken out of the mire and thrown against a white wall won't stick, but rebounds presently back again, yet it leaves a spot behind it. The primitive Christians were charged with these kinds of evil speakings, even with gross and horrible falsehoods, as all know, who know anything of the history of those times; even such things were reported of them as the worst of wicked men would scarcely be guilty of. The devil, as witty [crafty] as he is, makes use, again and again, of his old inventions, and makes them serve in several ages; for so were the Waldenses accused of inhuman banquetings and beastly promiscuous uncleanness, and various things not once to be named among Christians, much less to be practiced by them. So that it is no new thing to meet with the most impure, vilest slanders, as the world's reward for holiness and the practice of pure religion.
Then again, consider how much more the wicked will insult the least true blemishes that they can find amongst the professors of godliness. And in this there is a threefold injury very ordinary; 1. Strictly to pry into, and maliciously to object against Christians, the smallest imperfections and frailties of their lives, as if they pretended to and promised absolute perfection. They do indeed exercise themselves (such as are Christians indeed) with St. Paul, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men;148 they have a regard to all God's commandments, as David speaks; they have a sincere love for God, which makes them study the most exact obedience they can reach; and this is an imperfect kind of perfection; it is evangelical, but not angelical. 2. Men are apt to impute the scandalous falls of some particular Christians to the whole number. It is a very short incompetent rule, to make judgment of any one man himself by one action, much more to measure all the rest of the same profession by it. And yet they proceed further in this way of misjudging. 3. They impute the personal failings of men to their religion, and disparage it because of the faults of those who profess it; which, as the ancients plead well, is the greatest injustice, and such as they would not be guilty of against their own philosophers. They could well distinguish between their doctrine and the manners of some of their followers, and so they ought to have dealt with Christians too. They ought to have considered their religion in itself, and the doctrine that it teaches, and if they found it vicious, the blame would have been just; but if it taught nothing but holiness and righteousness, then the blame for any unholiness or unrighteousness found amongst Christians ought to rest upon the persons themselves who were guilty of it, and not to be stretched to the whole number of professors, much less to the religion that they professed. And yet this is still the custom of the world upon the least failing they can find in the godly, or those who seem to be so; much more with open mouth do they revile religion upon any gross sin in any of its professors.
But considering that this is the very character of a profane mind, and the badge of the enemies of religion, beware of sharing in the least with them in it. Don't easily entertain the reports of profane or of mere civil men against the professors of religion; they are undoubtedly partial, and their testimony may be justly suspected. Don't lend them a ready ear to receive their evil speakings, much less your tongue to divulge them, and spread them further; not only so, but be sure that you take no pleasure in even the least scoffs against the sincerity and power of religion. And, all of you who desire to walk as Christians, be very wary that you do not wrong one another, and help not the wicked against you, by your mutual misconstructions and misjudgments of one another. Far be it from you to take pleasure in hearing others spoken evil of; whether unjustly or though deserved in some way, yet let it be always grievous to you, and in no way pleasing to hear such things, much less to speak of them. It is the Devil's delight to be pleased with evil speakings. The Syrian calls him an Akal Kartza (Eater of slanders or calumnies). They are a dish that pleases his palate, and men are naturally fond of his diet. In Psalm 35:16, there is a word that is rendered mockers in feasts or feasting-mockers—persons who feasted men's ears at their meetings with speaking of the faults of others scoffingly, and therefore shared with them of their cakes, or feasts, as the word is. But to a renewed Christian mind, which has a new taste, and all its senses new, there is nothing more unsavory than to hear the defaming of others, especially of those who profess religion. If the law of love possessed our hearts, it would regulate both the ear and tongue, and make them most tender of the name of our brethren: it would teach us the faculty of covering their infirmities, and judging favorably, taking always the best side and most charitable sense of their actions: it would teach us to blunt the fine edge of our censures upon ourselves, our own hard hearts and rebellious wills within, so that they might no longer remain sharp against others than is necessary for their good.
And this would cut short those who are without from a great deal of provisions of evil speaking against Christians, which they are often furnished with by Christians themselves, through their uncharitable carriage one towards another. However, this being the hard measure that they always find in the world, it is their wisdom to consider it rightly, and to study that good which, according to the Apostle's advice, may be extracted out of it; and that is the second thing to be spoken to.
II. Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles.] As the sovereign power of drawing good out of evil resides in God, and argues His primitive goodness, so He teaches His own children some faculty this way, that they may resemble Him in it. He teaches them to draw sweetness out of their bitterest afflictions, and an increase of inward peace from their outward troubles. And as these buffetings of the tongue are no small part of their sufferings, so they reap no small benefit by them in many ways—particularly in this one, that they order their conversation the better, and walk the more exactly for it.
And this, no doubt, in Divine Providence, is intended and ordered for their good, as are all their other trials. The sharp censures and evil speakings that a Christian is surrounded by in the world, is none other than a hedge of thorns set on every side, so that he doesn't go out of his way, but keeps straight on in it between them, not declining to the right hand nor to the left; whereas if they found nothing but the favor and good opinion of the world, they might, as in a way unhedged, be subject to expatiate and wander out into the meadows of carnal pleasures that are about them, which would call and allure them, and often divert them from their journey.
And thus it might happen that Christians would deserve censure and evil speakings all the more, if they did not usually suffer them undeserved. This, then, turns into a great advantage to them, making their conduct more answerable to those two things that our Savior joins, watch and pray;149 causing them to be more vigilant over themselves, and more earnest with God for His watching over them and conducting of them. Because of my enemies, make your way straight before my face,150 says David: the word is my observers, or those who scan my ways, every foot of them; who examine them as a verse, or as a song of music; if there is but a wrong measure in them, they will not let it slip, but will be sure to point it out.
And if the enemies of the godly wait for their halting, shall they not scan their own paths themselves, that they may not halt, and examine them to order them, as the wicked do to censure them; and so depend wholly upon the Spirit of God as their guide, to lead them into all truth,151 and to teach them to order their conversation rightly,152 that it may be all of one piece, holy and blameless, and still like itself?
Honest.] Fair or beautiful: the same word fitly signifies goodness and beauty, for that which is the truest and most lasting beauty grows fresher in old age, as the Psalmist speaks of the righteous, that be planted in the house of the Lord.153 Could the beauty of virtue be seen, said Plato, it would draw all to love it. A Christian holy conversation has such a beauty, that when those who are strangers to it begin to discern it at all correctly, they cannot choose but to love it; and where it begets not love, yet it silences calumny, or at least evinces its falsehood.
The goodness or beauty of a Christian's conversation consists in symmetry and conformity to the word of God as its rule—he ought diligently to study that rule, and to square his ways by it; not to walk at random, but to apply that rule to every step at home and abroad, and to be as careful of the beauty of his ways, to keep that unspotted, as those women are of their faces and attire who are most studious of comeliness.
We who call ourselves Christians are so far from this strict consideration of our conversation, that the greater part not only have many foul spots, but they themselves, and all their ways, are nothing but defilement, all one spot; as our Apostle calls them, spots they are and blemishes.154 And even those who are Christians indeed, yet are not as watchful and accurate in all their ways as becomes them, but stain their holy profession either with pride, or covetousness, or contentions, or some other such like unattractiveness.
Therefore, let us all, be more resolved to study this good and comely conversation that Apostle here exhorts to, that it may be such as becomes the Gospel of Christ; as St. Paul desires his Philippians.155 And if you live amongst profane persons, who will be to you as the unbelieving Gentiles were to those believing Jews who lived amongst them, traducers of you, and given to speak evil of you, and of religion in you, trouble not yourselves with many apologies and clearings when you are evilly spoken of, but let the track of your life answer for you, your honest and blameless conversation: that will be the shortest, and most real and effectual way of confuting all obloquies; as when one in the schools was proving by a sophistical argument, that there could be no motion, the philosopher answered it fully and shortly by rising up and walking. If you would pay them home, this kind of revenge is not only permissable, but recommended to you; be avenged on evil speakings by well doing, shame them from it. It was a king that said, It was kingly to do well, and be ill spoken of. Well may Christians acknowledge it to be true, when they consider that it was the lot of their King, Jesus Christ; and well may they be content, considering He has made them likewise kings (as we heard, ver. 9), to be conformable to Him in this too, this kingly way of suffering, to be unjustly evil-spoken of, and still to go on in doing more good; always aiming in so doing (as our Lord did) at the glory of our Heavenly Father. This is the third thing.
III. That they may glorify God in the day of visitation.] He says not, They shall praise or commend you, but shall glorify God. In whatever way this time, this day of visitation, be taken, the effect itself is this, They shall glorify God. It is this that the Apostle still holds before their eye, and that upon which a Christian willingly sets his eye, and keeps it fixed on all his ways. He does not teach them to be sensible of their own esteem as it concerns themselves, but only as the glory of their God is interested in it. Were it not for this, a generous-minded Christian could set a very light rate upon all the thoughts and speeches of men concerning him, whether good or bad; and could easily drown all their mistakes in the conscience of the favor and approbation of his God. It is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: he that judges me is the Lord.156 Man has a day of judging, but it, and his judgment with it, soon passes away; but God has His day, and it, together with His sentence, abides forever, as the Apostle there adds. As if he should say, I appeal to God; but considering that the religion he professes, and the God whom he worships in that religion, are wronged by those reproaches, and that the slanders cast upon Christians reflect upon their Lord,—this is the thing that makes him sensible; he feels on that side only. The reproaches of those who reproached you are fallen upon me,157 says the Psalmist: and this makes a Christian desire to vindicate, even to men, his religion and his God, without regard to himself; because he may say, The reproaches of those who reproach only me have fallen upon you.
This is his intention in the holiness and integrity of his life, that God may be glorified; this is the axis about which all this good conversation moves and turns continually.
And he who forgets this, let his conversation be never so plausible and spotless, knows not what it is to be a Christian. As they say of the eagles, who try their young ones whether they are of the right kind or not, by holding them before the sun, and if they can look steadfastly upon it, they own them, if not, they throw them away: this is the true evidence of an upright and real Christian, to have a steadfast eye on the glory of God, the Father of lights.158 In all, let God be glorified, says the Christian, and that suffices: that is the sum of his desires. He is far from glorying in himself, or seeking to raise himself, for he knows that of himself he is nothing, but by the free grace of God he is what he is.159 "Whence any glorying to you, rottenness and dust?" says St. Bernard. "Whence is it to you if you are holy? Is it not the Holy Spirit that has sanctified you? If you could work miracles, though they were done by your hand, yet it were not by your power, but by the power of God."
To the end that my glory may sing praise to you,160 says David. Whether his tongue, or his soul, or both, are meant, what he calls his glory he shows us, and what use he has for it, namely, to give the Lord glory, to sing His praises, and that then it was truly David's glory when it was so employed, in giving glory to Him, whose peculiar due glory is. What do we have to do in the world as His creatures, once and again His creatures, His new creatures, created unto good works,161 but to exercise ourselves in those, and by those to advance His glory, that all may return to Him from whom all is, as the rivers run back to the sea from whence they came? Of him, and through him, and therefore, to him, are all things, says the Apostle, Rom. 11:36. Those who serve base gods seek how to advance and aggrandize them. The covetous man studies to make his Mammon as great as he can, all his thoughts and pains run upon that service, and so do the voluptuous and ambitious for theirs; and shall not those who profess themselves to be the servants of the Only Great and the Only True God, have their hearts much more, at least as much possessed with desires of honoring and exalting Him? Should not this be their predominant design and thought: —What way shall I most advance the glory of my God? How shall I, who am engaged more than them all, set in with the heavens and the earth, and the other creatures, to declare His excellence, His greatness, and His goodness?
In the day of visitation.] The beholding of your good works may work this in them, that they may be gained to acknowledge and embrace that religion, and that God, which for the present they reject; but that it may be thus, they must be visited with that same light and grace from above, which has sanctified you. This, I conceive, is the sense of this word, though it may be, and is taken various other ways by interpreters. Possibly, in this day of visitation is implied the clearer preaching of the Gospel amongst those Gentiles, where the preaching Jews dwelt; and that when they should compare the light of that doctrine with the light of their lives, and find the agreement between them, that might be helpful to their effectual calling, and so they might glorify God. But to the end that they might do thus indeed, there must be, along with the word of God, and the good works of His people, a particular visitation of their souls by the Spirit of God. Your good conversation may be one good means of their conversion; therefore this may be a motive to that; but to make it an effectual means, this day of gracious visitation must dawn upon them; the day-spring from on high must visit them, as it is Luke 1:78.
Ver. 13. Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king as supreme;
Ver. 14. Or unto governors, as unto those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do well.
It is one of the most false, and yet one of the most common prejudices that the world has always entertained against true religion, that it is an enemy to civil power and government. The adversaries of the Jews charged this fault upon their city, the then seat of the true worship of God.162 The Jews charged it upon the preachers of the Christian religion,163 as they pretended the same quarrel against Christ Himself. And generally, the enemies of the Christians in the primitive times loaded them with the slander of rebellion and contempt of authority. Therefore our Apostle, descending to particular rules of Christian life, by which it may be blameless, and silence slander, begins with this, not only as a thing of prime importance in itself, but as particularly suitable for those he wrote to, being at once both Jews and Christians, for the clearing of themselves and their religion: Submit yourselves, &c.
There are in the words various particulars to be considered, all concurring to press this main duty of obedience to Magistrates, not only as well consistent with true religion, but as indeed inseparable from it. Not to parcel out the words into many pieces, they might, I think, be all not inappropriately comprised under these two: I. The extent of this duty; II. The ground of it.
I. The extent of the duty, viz. To all civil power, of whatever kind, for the time received and authorized; there being no need of questioning what was the rise and original of civil power, either in the nature of it, or in the persons of those who are in possession of it. For if you will trace them quite through in the succession of ages, and narrowly eye their whole circle, there are few crowns in the world, in which there will not be found some crack or other, more or less. If you look at those great monarchies in Daniel's vision, you see one of them built up upon the ruins of another; and all of them represented by terrible devouring beasts of monstrous shape. And whether the Roman Empire be the fourth there, as many take it, or not, yet, in the things spoken about that fourth, as well as of the rest, it is inferior to none of them, enlarging itself by conquests in all parts of the world. And under it were the provinces to which this epistle is addressed; yet the Apostle enjoins his brethren subjection and obedience to its authority.
Nor is it a question so to be moved as to suspend, or at all abate, our obedience to that which possesses in the present where we live, what form of government is most just and commodious.
God has indeed been more express in the officers and government of His own house, His Church; but civil societies He has left at liberty, in the choosing and modeling of civil government, though always, indeed, overruling their choice and changes in that, by the secret hand of His wise and powerful providence. Yet He has set them no particular rule pertaining to the frame of it; only that the common rule of equity and justice ought to be regarded, both in the contriving and managing of government. Nevertheless, though it be some way defective in both, those who are subject to it are in all things lawful to submit to its authority, whether supreme or subordinate; as we have it here expressly, Whether to the king, as supreme, (namely, to the Emperor,) or unto governors sent by him;—which, though a judicious interpreter refers to God, and will not admit of any other sense, yet it seems most suitable both to the words, and to the nature of the government of those provinces, to take that word to him as relating to the king; for the expression, those who are sent, answers to the other, the king as supreme, and so is a very clear designation of the inferior governors of those times and places. And whatever the purpose of those who sent them, and their administrators who were sent, that which the Apostle adds expresses the reason why they should be sent to govern, and what they should aim at in governing, as the true end of all government. And though they were not fully true to that end in their deportment, but possibly did many things unjustly, yet, as God has ordained authority for this end, there is always so much justice in the most depraved government, as is a public good, and therefore puts upon inferiors an obligation to obedience: and this leads us to consider,
II. The ground of this duty. The main ground of submitting to human authority, is the interest that Divine authority has in it, God having both appointed civil government as a common good amongst men, and particularly commanded His people to obey it, as a particular good to them, and a thing very suitable with their profession—it is for the Lord's sake. This word carries the whole weight of the duty, and is a counterbalance to the former, which seems to be therefore on purpose so expressed, that this may answer it. Although civil authority, in regard of particular forms of government, and the choice of particular persons to govern, is but a human ordinance, or man's creature, as the word is, yet, both the good of government, and the duty of subjection to it, are God's ordinance; and therefore, for His sake submit yourselves.
(1.) God has in general instituted civil government for the good of human society, and there is still good in it. Tyranny is better than anarchy. (2.) It is by His providence that men are advanced to places of authority.164 (3.) It is His command that obedience be yielded to them.165 And the consideration of this ties a Christian to all loyalty and due obedience, which, being still for the Lord's sake, cannot hold in anything that is against the Lord's own command; for kings and rulers, in such a case, leave their station. Now the subjection here enjoined is, hupotasso—Be subject to them, as it were in your rank, still in subordination to God; but if they go out of that even line, follow them not. Those who obey the unlawful commands of kings do it in regard to their god, no question, but that their god is their belly,166 or their ambition, or their greed.
But not only should the exercise of authority, and submission to it, be confined to things just and lawful in themselves, but the very purpose of the heart, both in command and obedience, should be in the Lord, and for His sake. This is the only straight, and the only safe rule, both for rulers and for people to walk by. Would kings, and the other powers of the world consider the supremacy and greatness of that King of whom they hold all their crowns and dignities, they would be no less careful of their submission and homage to Him, than they are desirous of their people's submission to themselves.
I will not speak at all of their civil obligations to their people, and the covenant of justice that with good reason is between them in the fundamental constitutions of all well-ordered kingdoms; nor meddle with that point—the dependence that human authority has upon the societies of men over whom it is, according to which it is here called man's ordinance, or creature, anthropinos ktisis. This is a thing that the greatest and most absolute of princes cannot deny, that all their authority is dependent upon the great God, both as the Author of it in the general, and the sovereign Disposer of it to particular men, giving the kingdoms of the earth to whom He will.167 And therefore He may most justly require obedience and allegiance from them, that they serve the Lord with fear,168 and if they rejoice in their dignities over men, yet that they do it with trembling, under a sense of their duty to God, and that they throw down their crowns at the feet of Christ, the Lord's Anointed.
And to this they are the more obliged, considering that religion and the Gospel of Christ very much presses the duty of their people's obedience to them; so that they wrong both Christianity and themselves very far, in mistaking it as an enemy to their authority, when it is so far from prejudicing it, that it confirms it, and pleads for it. Surely they most ungratefully requite the Lord and His Christ, when they say, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.169 Whereas the Lord binds the cords of kings and their authority fast upon their people; not the cords of tyranny indeed, to bind the subjects as beasts to be sacrifices to the passion of their rulers, but the cords of just and due obedience to their kings and governors. The Lord does (as you see here) bind it upon all who profess His name, and strengthens it by the respect His people carry to Himself, enjoining them, that for His sake, they would obey their rulers. So that kings need not fear true religion, that it will ever favor anything that can justly be called rebellion; on the contrary, it still urges loyalty and obedience: so that as they should in duty, they may in true policy and wisdom, befriend true religion, as a special friend to their authority, and hate that religion of Rome which is indeed rebellion, and the mother of abominations who makes the kings of the earth drunk with her cup, and makes them dream of increase of authority while they are truly on the losing hand. But besides that they owe their power to the advancement of Christ's kingdom, by so employing themselves as to strengthen it they do themselves good; they confirm their own thrones, when they erect His: as it was said of Caesar, that by setting up Pompey's statue, he settled and fastened his own.
But it is an evil too natural to men, to forget the true end and use of any good the Lord confers on them. And thus kings and rulers too often fail to consider what they are exalted for; they think it is for themselves, to honor and please themselves, and not to honor God, and benefit their people, to encourage and reward the good (as here it is), and to punish the wicked. They are set on high for the good of those who are below them, that they may be refreshed with their light and influence; as the lights of heaven are set there in the highest parts of the world, for the use and benefit of the very lowest. God set them in the firmament of heaven, but for what purpose? To give light upon the earth.170 And the mountains are raised above the rest of the earth, not to be places of prey and robbery, as sometimes they are turned to be, but to send forth streams from their springs into the valleys, and make them fertile: the mountains and hills (greater and lesser rulers, higher and lower,) are to send forth to the people the streams of righteousness and peace.171
But it is the corruption and misery of man's nature, that he does not know, and can hardly be persuaded to learn, either how to command rightly, or how to obey; and no doubt many of those who can see and blame the injustice of others in authority, would be more guilty that way themselves, if they had the same power.
It is the pride and self-love of our nature that begets disobedience in inferiors, and violence and injustice in superiors; that depraved humor which ties to every kind of government a procession to a particular disease; which makes royalty easily degenerate into tyranny, the government of nobles into faction, and popular government into confusion.
As civil authority, and the subjection to it are the institutions of God, so the peaceful relationship between these two—just government and due obedience—is the special gift of God's own hand, and a prime blessing to states and kingdoms; and the troubling and interruption of their course is one of the highest public judgments by which the Lord often punishes the other sins both of rulers and people. And whatever be the cause, and on whichever side be the justice of the cause, it cannot be looked upon but as a heavy plague, and the fruit of many and great provocations, when kings and their people, who should be a mutual blessing and honor to each other, are turned into scourges one to another, or into a devouring fire; as it is in the parable: Let fire come out from Abimelech and devour the men of Shechem, and let fire come out from the men of Shechem and devour Abimelech.172
Ver. 15. For so is the will of God, that with well doing you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men
Ver. 16. As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.
This continues the same reason for the same Christian duty: if they will obey the Lord, then they must obey civil powers, for that is His will, and they will not deny their obligation to Him, for they are His servants (ver. 16). The words, indeed, are more general than the former, but they relate chiefly, in this place, to the particular in hand, implying that neither in that kind nor in any other, should Christians dishonor their profession, and abuse their liberty, mistaking it as an exemption from those duties to which it does more strictly tie them. So then, the point of civil obedience and all other good conversation amongst men, is here recommended to Christians, as conformable to the will of God, and the most effectual clearing of their profession, and very agreeable to their Christian liberty.
The will of God.] This is the strongest and most binding reason that can be used to a Christian mind, which has resigned itself to be governed by that rule, to have the will of God for its law. Whatever is required of it upon that warrant, it cannot refuse. Although it crosses a man's own temperament, or his private interest, yet if his heart is subjected to the will of God, he will not stand with Him in any thing. One word from God, "I will have it so," silences all, and carries it against all opposition.
It were a great point, if we could be persuaded to esteem duly of this: it were indeed all. It would make light and easy work in those things that go so hardly on with us, though we are daily exhorted to them. Is it the will of God that I should live soberly? Then, though my own corrupt will, and my companions be against it, yet it must be so. Does He will that I forbear cursing and oaths, though my custom is for them? Yet I must offer violence to my custom, and go against the stream of all the customs that surround me, to obey His will, who wills all things justly and holily. Will He have my charity not only liberal in giving, but in forgiving, and real and hearty in both? Will He have me bless those who curse me, and do good to those who hate me, and love my enemies?1 Though the world considers it a hard task, and my own corrupt heart possibly finds it so, yet it shall be done; and not as upon unpleasant necessity, but willingly, and cheerfully, and with the more delight, because it is difficult; for so it proves my obedience all the more, and my love to Him whose will it is. Though my enemies don't deserve my love, yet He who bids me love them, does; and if He will have this the touchstone to try the uprightness of my love to Him, shall it fail there? No; His will commands me so absolutely, and He Himself is so lovely, that there can be nobody so unlovely in themselves, or to me, but I can love them upon His command, and for His sake.
But that it may be thus, there must be a renewed frame of mind, by which a man may renounce the world, and the forms of it, and himself and his own sinful heart, and its way, to study and follow the only good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God,2 to move most in that line, not willingly declining to either hand, to have his whole mind taken up in searching it, and his whole heart in embracing it. Be not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is,3 says the Apostle Paul, being about to exhort to particular duties, as our Apostle here is doing.
This is the task of a Christian—to understand his Lord's will, and with a practical understanding, that he might walk in all well pleasing to God. Thus the Apostle likewise exhorts the Thessalonians passionately, and adds, This is the will of God, even your sanctification.4 And he then proceeds particularly against uncleanness and deceit, &c.
Let this, then, be your endeavor, to have your wills crucified to whatever is sinful; not only so, but to will outward indifferent things with a kind of indifference. Most things that men are so stiff in aren't worth an earnest willing. In a word, the only happy and truly spiritual temper is to have our will quite rooted out, and the will of God placed in its stead; to have no other will than His, that it might constantly, yea, so to speak, identically follow it in all things. This is the will of God, therefore it is mine.
That with well doing you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.] The duties of the second table, or of well doing towards men, are more obvious to men devoid of religion, than those that have an immediate relation to God: and therefore (as in other Epistles) the Apostle is here particular in these, for the vindicating of religion to those who are without. Ignorance is usually loud and prattling, making a mighty noise, and so has need of a muzzle to silence it.5 Those who were ready to speak evil of religion are called witless or foolish men; there was perverseness in their ignorance, as the word aphron intimates. And generally, all kinds of evil speakings and uncharitable censurings argue a foolish, worthless mind, whence they proceed; and yet, they are the usual amusement of the greatest part of mankind, and take up very much of their conversation and discourse; which is evidence of the baseness and perverseness of their minds. For, while those who have most real goodness, delight most to observe what is good and commendable in others, and to pass by their blemishes, it is the true character of vile unworthy persons (as scurvy flies sit upon sores), to skip over all the good that is in men, and fasten upon their infirmities.
But it especially reveals ignorance and folly, to turn the failings of men to the disadvantage of religion. None can be such enemies to it, but those who know it not, and see not the beauty that is in it. However, the way to silence them, we see, is by well doing; that silences them more than whole volumes of Apologies. When a Christian walks unreproveably, his enemies have nowhere to fasten their teeth on him, but are forced to gnaw their own malignant tongues. As it secures the godly, thus to stop the lying mouths of foolish men, so it is as painful to them to be thus stopped, as muzzling is to beasts, and it punishes their malice.
And this is a wise Christian's way, instead of impatiently fretting at the mistakes or wilful miscensures of men, to keep still on in his calm temper of mind, and upright course of life, and silent innocence: this, as a rock, breaks the waves into foam that roar about it.
As free.] This the Apostle adds, lest any should so far mistake the nature of their Christian liberty, as to dream of an exemption from obedience either to God, or to men for His sake, and according to His appointment. Their freedom he grants, but would have them rightly understand what it is. I cannot here insist at large on the spiritual freedom of Christians; nor is it here necessary, being mentioned only for the clearing of it in this point; but those are are, and those only, who are partakers of this liberty. If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.6 The rest are slaves to Satan and the world, and their own lusts: as the Israelites in Egypt, working in the clay under hard taskmasters.
Much discourse has been spent, and much ink has been spilt, upon the debate of free-will; but truly, all the liberty it has till the Son and His Spirit free it, is that miserable freedom the Apostle speaks of, When you were the servants of sin, you were free from righteousness.7
And as we are naturally subject to the vile drudgery of sin, so we are condemned to the proper wages of sin,8 which the Apostle there tells us is death, according to the just sentence of the law. But our Lord Christ was anointed for this purpose, to set us free, both to work and to publish liberty, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.9 Having paid our complete ransom, He sends His word as the message, and His Spirit, to perform it effectually, to set us free, to let us know it, and to bring us out of prison. He was bound and scourged, as a slave or malefactor, to purchase us this liberty; therefore it should be our special care, first, to have part in it, and then to be like it, and stand fast in it, in all points.
But so that we don't deceive ourselves, as too many do who have no portion in this liberty, we ought to know that it is not to inordinate walking and licentiousness, as our liberty, that we are called, but from them, as our thraldom; we are not called from obedience, but to it. Therefore take care that you don't introduce, under this specious name of liberty, anything that doesn't belong to it. Make it not a cloak of maliciousness; it is too precious a garment for so base a use. Liberty is indeed Christ's livery that He gives to all His followers; but to live suitably to it, is not to live in wickedness or disobedience of any kind, but in obedience and holiness. You are called to be the servants of God, and that is your dignity and your liberty.
The Apostles of this Gospel of liberty gloried in this title, the servants of Jesus Christ. David, before that Psalm of praise for his victories and exaltations, being now settled on his throne, prefixes, as more honor than all these, A Psalm of David, the servant of the Lord.10 It is the only true happiness both of kings and their subjects, to be His subjects. It is the glory of the angels to be His ministering spirits.11 The more we attain to the faculty of serving Him cheerfully and diligently, the more still we find of this spiritual liberty, and have the more joy in it. As it is the most honorable, it is likewise the most comfortable and most gainful service; and those who once know it will never change it for any other in the world. Oh that we could live as His servants, employing all our industry to do Him service in the condition and place in which He has set us, whatever it is, and as faithful servants, more careful of His affairs than of our own, considering it our main business to seek the advancement of His glory. Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he comes shall find so doing.12
Ver. 17. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.
This is a precious cluster of Divine precepts. The whole face of the heavens is adorned with stars, but they are of different magnitudes, and in some parts they are more thickly set than in others: thus is it likewise in the holy Scriptures. And these are the two books that the Psalmist sets open before us,13 the heavens as a choice piece of the works of God instructing us, and the word of God more full and clear than they. Here is a constellation of very bright stars close together. These words have, very briefly, and yet not obscured by briefness, but besides very plainly, the sum of our duty towards God and men—to men both in general, Honor all men; and in special relations, in their Christian or religious relation, Love the brotherhood, and in a chief civil relation, Honor the king. And our whole duty to God, comprised under the name of his fear, is set in the middle between these, as the common spring of all duty to men, and of all due observance of it, and the sovereign rule by which it is to be regulated.
I shall speak of them as they lie in the text. We need not labor about the connection; for in such a variety of brief practical directions, it has not such a place as in doctrinal discourses. The Apostle having spoken of one particular in which he would have his brethren to clear and commend their Christian profession, now accumulates these directions as most necessary, and afterwards goes on to particular duties of servants, &c. But first, observe in general, how plain and easy, and how few are those things that are the rule of our life; no dark sentences to puzzle the understanding, nor large discourses and long periods to burden the memory; they are all plain; there is nothing froward or perverse in them, as Wisdom speaks of her instructions.14
And this gives check to a double folly amongst men, contrary the one to the other, but both agreeing in mistaking and wronging the word of God—the one is of those who despise the word, and the doctrine and preaching which is conformable to it, for its plainness and simplicity; the other of those who complain of its difficulty and darkness. As for the first, they certainly do not take the true end for which the word is designed, that it is the law of our life: (and it is mainly requisite in laws, that they be both brief and clear:) that it is our guide and light to happiness; and if that which ought to be our light be darkness, how great is that darkness!15
It is true, (but I am not now to insist on this point,) that there are dark and deep passages in Scripture, for the exercise, yea, for the humbling, yea, for the amazement and astonishment of the sharpest-sighted readers. But this argues much the pride and vanity of men's minds, when they busy themselves only in those, and throw aside altogether the most necessary, which are therefore the easiest and plainest truths in it. As in nature, the commodities that are of greatest necessity, God has made most common and easiest to be had, so in religion, such instructions as these now in our hands that are given us to live and walk by; and in the search of things that are more obscure, and less useful, men evidence that they had rather be learned than holy, and have still more mind to the tree of knowledge than the tree of life. And in the hearing of the word, are not those who are any whit more knowledgeable than ordinary, still gaping after new notions, after something to add to the stock of their speculative and discoursing knowledge, loathing this daily manna, these profitable exhortations, and requiring meat for their lust? There is an intemperance of the mind, as well as of the mouth. You would think it, and maybe not hesitate to call it a poor cold sermon, which was made up of such plain precepts as these—Honor all men; love the brotherhood; far God; honor the king;—and yet, this is the language of God; it is His way, this foolish, despicable way, by which He guides, and brings to Heaven those who believe.
Again; we have others who are still complaining about the difficulty and darkness of the word of God and divine truths; to say nothing of Rome's doctrine, who talks thus, in order to excuse her sacrilege of stealing away the word from the people of God: senseless pretext, though it were true; because the word is dark of itself, that therefore they should make it darker, by locking it up under an unknown tongue: but we speak of the common vulgar excuse, which the gross, ignorant profaneness of many seeks to shroud itself under, that they are not educated, and cannot reach the doctrine of the Scriptures. There are deep mysteries indeed; but what do you say to these things—such rules as these, Honor all men, &c.? Are these such riddles, that you cannot know their meaning? for do not all understand them, and all neglect them? Why don't you set out do these? and then you shall understand more. A good understanding have all those who do his commandments, says the Psalmist.16 As one said well, "The best way to understand the mysterious and high discourse in the beginning of St. Paul's Epistles, is, to begin with the practice of those rules and precepts that are in the latter end of them." The way to attain to know more is to receive the truth in the love of it, and to obey what you know. The truth is, such truths as these will leave you inexcusable, even the most ignorant of you. You cannot but know, you hear often, that you ought to love one another, and to fear God, &c., and yet you never apply yourselves in earnest to the practice of these things, as will appear to your own consciences, if they deal honestly with you in the particulars.
Honor all men.] Honor, in a narrower sense, is not a universal due to all, but peculiar to some kinds of persons. Of this the Apostle speaks, Rom. 13:7, Honor to whom honor is due, and that in different degrees, to parents, to masters, and other superiors. There is an honor that has, as it were, Caesar's image and superscription on it, and so is particularly due to him; as here it follows, Honor the king. But there is something that goes not improperly under the name of honor, generally due to every man without exception; and it consists, as all honor does, partly in inward esteem of them, partly in outward behavior towards them. And the former must be the ground and cause of the latter.
We do not owe the same measure of esteem to all. We may, yea, we ought to take notice of the different outward quality, or inward graces and gifts of men; nor is it a fault to perceive the shallowness and weakness of men with whom we converse, and to esteem more highly those upon whom God has conferred more of such things as are truly worthy of esteem. But to the lowest we do owe some measure of esteem: 1st. Negatively. We are not to entertain despising, disdainful thoughts of anyone, however worthless and contemptible. As the admiration of men, the very best, is a foolish excess on the one hand, so the total condemnation of any, the very poorest, is against this rule on the other; for the condemnation of vile persons, the Psalmist speaks of Psalm 15:4, and commends, is the dislike and hatred of their sin, which is their vileness, and the not accounting them for outward respects, worthy of such esteem as their wickedness does, as it were, strip them of. 2ndly. We are to observe and respect the smallest good that is in any. Although a Christian be never so base in his outward condition, in body or mind, of very inferior intellectual and natural endowments, yet those who know the worth of spiritual things will esteem the grace of God that is in him, in the midst of all those disadvantages, as a pearl in a rough shell. Grace carries still its own worth, though under a deformed body and ragged garments, yea, though they have but a small measure of that neither—the very lowest degree of grace; as a pearl of the least size, or a small piece of gold, yet men will not throw it away, but, as they say, the least shavings of gold are worth keeping. The Jews would not willingly tread upon the smallest piece of paper in their way, but took it up; for possibly, said they, the Name of God may be on it. Though there was a little superstition in this, yet truly there is nothing but true religion in it, if we apply it to men. Trample not on any; there may be some work of grace there that you know not of. The Name of God may be written upon that soul you tread on; it may be a soul that Christ thought so much of, as to give His precious blood for it; therefore despise it not. Much more, I say, if you can perceive any appearance that it is such a one, you ought to esteem it. Wherever you find the least trait of Christ's image, if you love Him, you will honor it: or if there be nothing of this to be found in him whom you look upon, yet observe what common gift of any kind God has bestowed on him, judgment, or memory, or faculty in his calling, or any such thing, for these in their degree are to be esteemed, and the person for them. And as there is no man so complete as to have the advantage in everything, so there is no man so low and unworthy but he has something in which he is preferable even to those who in other respects are much more excellent. Or imagine you can find nothing else in some men, yet honor your own nature; esteem humanity in them, especially since humanity is exalted in Christ to be one with the Deity: account of the individual as a man. And, along with this esteem goes, 3rdly, that general good-will and affection due to men: whereas there are many who do not only outwardly express, but inwardly bear more regard to some dog or horse that they love, than to poor, distressed men, and in so doing, do reflect dishonor upon themselves, and upon mankind.
The outward behavior wherein we owe honor to all, is nothing but a conformity to this inward temper of mind; for he who inwardly despises none, but esteems the good that is in the lowest, or at least esteems them in that they are men, and loves them as such, will accordingly use no outward sign of disdain of any; he will not have a scornful eye, nor a reproachful tongue to move at any, not the meanest of his servants, nor the worst of his enemies; but, on the contrary, will acknowledge the good that is in every man, and give to all that outward respect that is suitable for them, and that they are capable of, and will be ready to do them good as he has opportunity and ability.
But instead of walking by this rule of honoring all men, what is there almost to be found amongst men, but a perverse proneness to dishonor one another, and every man ready to dishonor all men, that he may honor himself, reckoning that what he gives to others abates of himself, and taking what he detracts from others, as good booty to make up himself? Set aside men's own interest, and that common civility which for their own credit they use one with another, and truly there will be found very little of this real respect to others, proceeding from obedience to God, and love to men,—little tendering of their reputation and good name, and their welfare as of our own, (for so the rule is,) but mutual disesteem and defamation filling almost all societies.
And the bitter root of this iniquity is, that wicked, accursed self-love which dwells in us. Every man is naturally his own grand idol, would be esteemed and honored by any means, and to magnify that idol self, kills the good name and esteem of others in sacrifice to it. Hence the narrow-observing eye and broad-speaking tongue, upon anything that tends to the dishonor of others; and where other things fail, the disdainful upbraiding of their birth, or calling, or anything that comes next to hand that serves for a reproach. And hence arises a great part of the jars and strifes amongst men, the most part being drunk with an overweening opinion of themselves, and the unworthiest the most so—The sluggard, says Solomon, is wiser in his own conceit than seven men who can render a reason:17 and not finding others of their mind, this frets and troubles them. They take the ready course to deceive themselves; for they look with both eyes on the failings and defects of others, and scarcely give their good qualities half an eye; while, on the contrary, in themselves, they study to the full their own advantages; and their weaknesses and defects (as one says) they skip over, as children do the hard words in their lesson, that are troublesome to read; and making this uneven parallel, what wonder if the result be a gross mistake of themselves? Men miscount themselves at home: they reckon that they ought to be regarded, and that their mind should carry it; and when they come abroad, and are crossed in this, this puts them out of all temper.
But the humble man, as he is more conformable to this Divine rule, so he has more peace by it; for he sets so low a rate upon himself in his own thoughts, that it is scarcely possible for any to go lower in judging of him; and therefore, as he pays due respect to others to the full, and gives no ground of quarrel that way, so he challenges no such debt to himself, and thus avoids the usual contests that arise in this. Only by pride comes contention, says Solomon.18 A man that will walk abroad in a crowded street, cannot choose but be often jostled; but he who contracts himself, passes through more easily.
Study, therefore, this excellent grace of humility; not the personated acting of it in appearance, which may be a chief agent for pride, but true lowliness of mind, which will make you to be nothing in your own eyes, and content to be so in the eyes of others. Then will you obey this word; you will esteem all men as is proper, and not be troubled though all men disesteem you. As this humility is a precious grace, so it is the preserver of all other graces, and without it, (if they could be without it,) they were but as a box of precious powder carried in the wind without a cover, in danger of being scattered and blown away. If you would have honor, there is an ambition both allowed you, and worthy of you, whoever you are:19 other honor, though it has its Hebrew name from weight, is all too light, and weighs only with cares and troubles.
Love the brotherhood.] There is a love, as we said, due to all, included under that word of honoring all, but a peculiar love to our Christian brethren, whom the Apostle Paul calls by a similar word, the household of faith.20
Christian brethren are united by a threefold cord; two of them are common to other men, but the third is the strongest, and theirs peculiarly. Their bodies are descended of the same man, and their souls of the same God; but their new life, by which they are most entirely brethren, is derived from the same God-man, Jesus Christ; yea, in Him they are all one body, receiving life from Him their glorious Head, who is called the first-born among many brethren.21 And as His unspeakable love was the source of this new being and fraternity, so, doubtless, it cannot but produce indissoluble love amongst those who are partakers of it. The spirit of love and concord is that precious ointment that runs down from the head of our great High Priest to the skirts of His garment. The life of Christ and this law of love are combined, and cannot be severed. Can there be enmity between those hearts that meet in Him? Why do you pretend yourselves Christians, and yet remain not only strangers to this love, but most contrary to it, biters and devourers one of another, and will not be convinced of the great guiltiness and uncomeliness of strifes and envyings amongst you? Is this the badge that Christ has left His brethren, to wrangle and malign one another? Do you not know, on the contrary, that they are to be known by mutual love? By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.22 How often does that beloved disciple press this! He drank deep of that wellspring of love that was in the breast on which he leaned, and (if they relate aright) he died exhorting this, Love one another. Oh! that there were more of this love of Christ in our hearts, arising from the sense of His love to us! That would teach this mutual love more effectually, which the preaching of it may set before us, but, without that other teaching, cannot work within us. Why do we still hear these things in vain? Do we believe what the love of Christ did for us, and suffered for us? And will we do nothing for Him,—not forgive a shadow, a fancy of injury, much less a real one, for His sake, and love him who wronged us, whoever he be, but especially being one of our brethren in this spiritual sense?
Many are the duties of this peculiar fraternal love; that mutual conversation, and admonition, and reproof, and comforting, and other duties that have fallen into neglect, not only amongst formal, but even amongst real Christians. Let us entreat more of His Spirit, who is love, and that will remedy this evil.
Fear God.] All the rules of equity and charity amongst men flow from a higher principle, and depend upon it; and there is no right observing of them without due regard to that: therefore this word, which expresses that principle of obedience, is fitly inserted amongst these rules; the first obligation of man being to the sovereign majesty of God who made him, and all the mutual duties of one to another being derived from that. A man may, indeed, from moral principles, be of a mild inoffensive carriage, and do civil right to all men: but this answers not the Divine rule even in these same things, after the way that it requires them. The spiritual and religious observance of these duties towards men, springs from a respect to God, and terminates there too; it begins and ends in Him. And generally, all obedience to His commands, both such as regulate our behavior towards Himself immediately, and such as relate to man, arises from a holy fear of His Name. Therefore, this fear of God, upon which follows necessarily the keeping of His commandments, is given us by Solomon as the total sum of man's business and duty,23 and so the way to solid happiness: it is totum hominis, the whole duty of man.24 After he had made his discoveries of all things besides under the sun, gone the whole circuit, and made an exact valuation, he found all besides this to amount to nothing but vanity and vexation of spirit.25 The account he gives of all other things, was only for this purpose, to illustrate and establish this truth all the more, and to make it all the more acceptable; to be a rest after so much weariness, and such a tedious journey, and so, as he speaks there,26 a word of delight as well as a word of truth; that the mind might sit down and quiet itself in this, from the turmoil and pursuit of vanity, that keep it busy to no purpose in all other things. But whereas there was emptiness and vanity, that is, just nothing, in all other things, there was not only something to be found, but everything in this one, this fear of God, and the keeping of His commandments,27 which is the proper fruit of that fear. All the repeated declarations of vanity in other things, both severally and all together, in that book, are but so many strokes to drive and fasten this nail (as it is there, 12:11), this word of wisdom, which is the sum of all, and contains all the rest. So Job, after a large inquest for wisdom, searching for its vein, as men do for mines of silver and gold, has the return of a non inventum est—it is not found—from all the creatures: The sea says, It is not with me, &c. But in the close he finds it is in this, The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.28
Under this fear is comprehended all religion, both inward and outward, all the worship and service of God, and all the observance of His commandments, which is there29 and elsewhere expressly joined with it, and therefore is included in it, when it is not expressed. So Job 28 as above, To depart from evil is understanding, repeating in effect the former words by these. So Psalm 111:10. It has in it all holiness and obedience; they grow all out of it. It is the beginning, and it is the top or consummation of wisdom, for the word signifies both.
Think it not, then, a trivial common matter to speak or hear of this subject; but take it as our great lesson and business here on earth. The best proficients in it have yet need to learn it better, and it requires our incessant diligence and study all our days.
This fear has in it chiefly these things: 1. A reverential esteem of the majesty of God, which is a main, fundamental thing in religion, and molds the heart most powerfully to the obedience of His will 2. A firm belief of the purity of God, and of His power and justice, that He loves holiness, and hates all sin, and can and will punish it. 3. A right apprehension of the bitterness of His wrath, and the sweetness of His love; that His incensed anger is the most terrible and intolerable thing in the world, absolutely the most fearful of all evils; and, on the other side, His love, of all good things the best, the most blessed and delightful, yea, the only blessedness. Life is the name of the sweetest good we know, and yet, His loving-kindness is better than life, says David.30 4. It supposes, likewise, sovereign love to God, for His own infinite excellence and goodness. 5. From all these springs a most earnest desire to please Him in all things, and an unwillingness to offend Him in the least, and, because of our danger through the multitude and strength of temptations, and our own weakness, a continual self-suspicion, a holy fear lest we should sin, a care and watchfulness that we sin not, and deep sorrow, and speedy returning and humbling before Him, when we have sinned.
There is, indeed, a base kind of fear, which, in the usual distinction, they call servile fear; but to account all fear of the judgments and wrath of God a servile fear, or (not to stand upon words) to consider such a fear improper to the children of God, I think is a wide mistake. Indeed, to fear the punishments of sin, without regard to God and His justice as the inflicter of them, or to forbear to sin only because of those punishments, so that if a man can be secured from those, he has no other respect for God that would make him fear to offend,—this is the character of a slavish and base mind. Again, for a man so to view wrath in relation to himself, as to be still under the horror of it in that notion, and not to understand redemption and deliverance by Jesus Christ, is to be under the spirit of bondage, which the Apostle speaks of, Rom. 8:15. And though a child of God may for a time be under such fear, yet the lively actings of faith and persuasion of God's love, and the feeling of reflex love to Him in the soul, cast it out, according to that word of the Apostle, Perfect (or true) love casts out fear.31 But to apprehend the punishments which the Lord threatens against sin, as certain and true, and to consider the greatness and fearfulness of them, especially the terror of the Lord's anger, and hot displeasure, above all punishments, and (though not only, no, nor chiefly for these, yet) in contemplation of these, as very great and weighty, to be afraid to offend that God who has threatened such things as the just reward of sin; this, I say, is not inconsistent with the state of the sons of God—not only so, it is their duty and their property even thus to fear.
1st, This is the very reason why which God has published these intimations of His justice, and has threatened to punish men if they transgress, so that they may fear and not transgress; so that not to look upon them in this manner, and not to be affected with them according to their design, is a very grievous sin; a slight and disregard put upon the words of the great God.
2ndly, Above all others, the children of God have the most right and clear knowledge of God, and the deepest belief in His word; therefore they cannot choose but be afraid, and more afraid than all others, to fall under the stroke of His hand. They know more of the greatness, and truth, and justice of God than others, and therefore they fear when He threatens. My flesh trembles for fear of you, (says David,) and I am afraid of your judgments.32 Yea, they tremble when they hear the sentence against others, or see it executed upon them; it reminds them when they see public executions; Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men,33 says St. Paul; and they cry out with Moses, Who knows the power of your anger? Even according to your fear, so is your wrath.34 It is not an imagination or invention that makes men fear more than they need to. His wrath is as terrible as any who most fear it, can apprehend, and beyond that. Not only is this consistent with the state of the saints, it is their very character to tremble at the word of their Lord. The rest neglect what He says until death and judgment seize them; but the godly know and believe that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.35
And though they have firm promises, and a kingdom which cannot be moved, yet they still have this grace whereby they may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear; even in this consideration, that our God, even He who is ours by peculiar covenant, is a consuming fire.36
But indeed, together with this—more than by this, they are persuaded to fear the Lord, by the sense of His great love for them, and by the power of that love working in them towards Him, and is wrought in them by His. They shall fear the Lord and His goodness in the latter days.37 In those days, His goodness shall manifest itself more than before; the beams of His love shall break forth more abundantly in the days of the Gospel, and shall beat more direct and hotter on the hearts of men; and then, they shall fear Him more, because they shall love Him more.
This fear agrees well both with faith and love—they effect this fear. Compare Psalm 31:23, with Psalm 34:9, and that same Psalm ver. 8, with ver. 9, and Psalm 112 ver. 1, with ver. 7. The heart, touched with the load-stone of Divine love, still trembles with this godly fear, and yet looks fixedly by faith to that Star of Jacob, Jesus Christ, who guides it to the haven of happiness.
Looking upon God in the face of Jesus Christ removes the terror of His countenance that drives men from Him; and in the smiles of His love that appear through Christ, there is a power that unites their hearts to Him, but unites them in such a way as to fear His Name38 as the Psalmist's prayer is. He puts a fear in their hearts that will not cause them to depart from—it causes them not to depart from Him.39
The purest and highest kind of godly fear springs from love—and though it doesn't exclude the consideration of wrath as terrible in itself, and even some fear of it, yet it may surmount it; and doubtless, where much of that love possesses the heart, it will sometimes drown the other consideration, so that it shall scarcely be perceptible at all, and will constantly set it aside, and will persuade a man purely for the goodness and loveliness of God, to fear to offend Him, though there were no interest at all in it of a man's own personal misery or happiness.
But do we fear the Lord our God in this manner? What then, do our oaths, and excesses, and uncleanness, our covetousness, and generally our unholy and unchristian conversation signify? This fear would make men tremble, so as to shake them out of their profane customs, and to shake their beloved sins out of their bosoms. The knowledge of the Holy One causes fear of Him.40
But, alas! we don't know Him, so we fear Him not. If we knew but a little of the great majesty of God, how holy He is, and how powerful a punisher of unholiness, we would not dare provoke Him, who can kill both body and soul, and cast them into hell,41 as our Savior tells us. And He will do so with both, if we will not fear Him, because He can do so; we have been told so that we may fear, and not feel, this heavy wrath. A little lively, spiritual knowledge would go far, and work much, which a great deal of our knowledge, does not. A words such as Joseph's engraved on our hearts would do much—Can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?42 A man would take no more liberty to sin in secret than in public; he would not allow the sin of his thoughts any more than the most public words or actions. If some authoritative wise man saw our secret behavior and our thoughts, would we not examine them more closely, and not permit such rovings and follies in ourselves? Surely, therefore, we forget God's eye; if we thought of it rightly, we would not forget, but respect more than if all men saw within us.
Nor is this the main point to be pressed upon the ungodly only—the children of God themselves need to be reminded of this fear, and to increase in it. How often do they abuse the indulgence of such a loving Father? Their thoughts are not constantly full of Him; they are not in the fear of the Lord (as Solomon advises) all the day long,43 but many times slip out of His directing hand, and wander from Him. They do not so deeply fear His displeasure as to watch over all their ways, as becomes them; they don't keep close to Him, and wait on His voice, and obey it constantly, and are not so humble and afflicted in their repentance for sin, as this fear requires, but only in a slight and superficial degree. They offer much lip-labor, which is but dead service to the living God. These are things, my beloved, that greatly concern us; we ought to seriously lay them to heart; for if those who are freed from condemnation walk fearlessly and carelessly at any time, He has ways enough to make them smart for it. And if for no other reason, should it not wound them deeply, to think how they repay such great, unspeakable love?
Honor the king.] This was the point that the Apostle pressed and insisted on before; and here he repeats it as a special duty of the second table, and a vindication of religion, which is wrongfully blamed in this point; but of this before.
This is without question in the general; the difference lies only in the measure and rule of it. And surely those who are so drunk with power as to admit of none at all, cannot possibly be satisfied,—no measure nor rate for it, no banks nor channel for those rivers, the hearts and wills of kings, to run in, but think that if they like to run over all they may.
There is a wild conceit that destroys all law of reason in human societies, and all religious obligations to the laws of God. For the qualification and measure, I shall mention no more than that in the text, that it is to be regulated by what here goes before it, the fear of God; that we never think of any such obedience and honor due to kings, as opposing the fear that is due to God. Let kings, and subjects, and all know that they are absolutely bound to this. It is spoken to kings, Serve the Lord with fear;44 and to all men, Fear before Him, all the earth, for the Lord is great, and greatly to be praised. He is to be feared above all gods.45 What is man compared to Him? Shall a worm, whose breath is in his nostrils,46 stand in competition with the ever-living God? Shall an earthen potsherd strive with his Maker? Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth;—let them work one against another and see which is hardest, and so they shall often break each other;—but, Woe unto him that strives with his Maker.47 There is nothing here but certain perishing. As we conclude in the question with the Church of Rome, of the honor due to Saints and Angels, let them have honor, with good reason, but not Divine honor, not God's peculiar honor; so, in this, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, but also, and unto God the things that are God's.48
But it is a miserable estate of a kingdom, when debates on this head arise and increase; and their happiness is, when kings and people concur to honor God: For those who honor Him, He will honor, and whoever despises Him shall be lightly esteemed.49
Ver. 18. Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.
Ver. 19. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.
Ver. 20. For what glory is it, if, when you are buffeted for your faults, you shall take it patiently? but if, when you do well, and suffer for it, you take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.
Your word (says the Psalmist) is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,50—not only a light to please his eyes, by the excellent truths and comforts that are in it, but also a light to direct his feet in the precepts and rules of life that it gives—not only to inform and delight his mind, but also to order his course. That Philosopher was deservedly commended, who drew knowledge most this way, and therefore was said to have brought philosophy from the clouds to dwell amongst men, calling it from empty speculations to a practical strain. Thus we are taught in spiritual knowledge by the word of God. When the Son, the eternal Word, came to dwell with men, and so brought life, and wisdom, and all blessings from the heavens down to them, He taught them both by His doctrine and perfect example, how to walk; and His Apostles do, conformably, aim at this in their holy writings, joining with the mysteries of faith, the rules of life that show men the straight way to happiness.
And as it is spoken of the greatness of Solomon's wisdom, that he spoke of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springs out of the wall,51 so in this, we may see the perfection of the holy Scriptures, which give the directions that are necessary to all ranks and sorts of men. They speak not only of the duties of kings, how they ought to behave themselves on their thrones, and the duty of their subjects towards them in that dignity, and how ministers and others ought to carry themselves in the house of God; but they come into private houses, and give economic rules for them; teaching parents, and children, and masters, yea, and servants, how to behave themselves one to another. Thus here, Servants be subject to your masters.
As this is a just plea for all the people of God—they have a right to use this book, which is so useful for all sorts, and they should not to be barred from it; it is also a plea against many who bar themselves the use of it, through slothfulness and earthly-mindedness, considering it is so adapted, that there are many things, yea, all the main things in it, profitable for all, suitable to the use of the lowest estate and lowest capacities of men. Yes, it takes (as we see) particular notice of their condition; stoops down to take the lowest servant by the hand, to lead him in the way to Heaven; and not only in that part of it which is the general way of Christians, but even in those steps of it that lie within the walk of their particular calling; as here, teaching not only the duties of a Christian, but of a Christian servant.
Obs. 1. The Scriptures are a deep that few can wade far into, and none can wade through, (as those waters Ezek. 47:5,) but yet, all may come to the brook and refresh themselves with drinking of the streams of its living water, and go in a little way, according to their strength and stature. Now this (I say) may be spoken to our shame, and I wish it might shame you to amendment, that so many of you either don't use the Scriptures at all, or, in using, do not use them; you turn over the leaves, and, it may be, run through the lines, but you don't consider what they advise you. Masters, learn your part; and servants too, listen to what they say to you, for they don't pass you by, they condescend to speak to you too, but you vouchsafe not to hear them, and observe their voice. How can you think that the reading of this book doesn't concern you, when you may hear it address such particular directions to you? Wisdom goes not only to the gates of palaces, but also to the common gates of the cities, and to the public highways, and calls to the simplest that she may make them wise. Besides dishonoring God, you prejudice yourselves; for doesn't that neglect of God and His word justly procure the disorder and disobedience of your servants towards you, as a fitting punishment from His righteous hand, although they are unrighteous, and are procuring further judgment to themselves in so doing? And not only thus is your neglect of the word a cause of your trouble by the justice of God, but it is so regarding the nature of the word, inasmuch as if you would respect it, and make use of it in your houses, it would teach your servants to respect and obey you, as here you see it speaks for you: and therefore you wrong both it and yourselves, when you silence it in your families.
Obs. 2. The Apostle having spoken of subjection to public authority, adds this of subjection to private domestic authority. The right ordering of families is a matter of great concern; for all other societies, civil and religious, are made up of these. Villages, and cities, and churches, and commonwealths, and kingdoms, are but a collection of families; and therefore such as these are, for the most part, such must the whole societies predominantly be. One particular house is but a very small part of a kingdom, yet the wickedness and lewdness of that house, even from the lowest in it, of servants one or more, though it seems but a small thing, yet it goes in to make up that heap of sin that provokes the wrath of God and draws on public calamity.
And this particularly, when it declines into disorder, proves a public evil; when servants grow generally corrupt, and disobedient, and unfaithful, though they are the lowest part, yet the whole body of a commonwealth cannot but feel very much the evil of it: as a man does when his legs and feet grow diseased and begin to fail him.
We have here, I. Their duty. II. The due extent of it. III. The right principle of it.
I. Their duty, Be subject. Keep your order and station under your masters, and that with fear, and inward reverence of mind and respect for them—that is the very life of all obedience. Then their obedience has in it diligent doing, and patient suffering: they are both in that word, Be subject. Do faithfully to your utmost that which is entrusted to you, and obey all their just commands, for action indeed goes no further; but suffer patiently even their utmost rigors and severities. And this being the harder part of the two, and yet, a part that the servants of those times bore, many of them being more hardly and slavishly used than any with us, (especially those that were Christian servants under unchristian masters,) therefore the Apostle insists most on this. And this is the extent of the obedience here required, that it be paid to all kinds of masters, not only to the good, but also to the froward; not only to obey, but to suffer, and suffer patiently, and not only deserved, but even wrongful and unjust punishment.
Now because this point concerns servants, let them reflect on their own behavior, and examine it by this rule; and truly the greatest part of them will be found very unconformed to it, being either closely fraudulent and deceitful, or grossly stubborn and disobedient, abusing the lenience and mildness of their masters, or murmuring at their just severity. They are so far from the patient endurance of the least undue word of reproof, much less of sharper punishment, either truly, or in their opinion undeserved. And truly, if any who profess religion dispense with this in themselves, they greatly err; for religion ties them more, whether children or servants, to be most submissive and obedient even to the worst kind of parents and masters, always in the Lord; not obeying any unjust command, though they may and ought to suffer patiently, as it is here, their unjust reproofs or punishments.
But, on the other side, this does not justify, nor at all excuse, the unmerciful austerities and unbridled passion of masters: it is still a perverseness and crookedness in them, as the word is here, skolios, and must have its own name, and shall have its proper reward from the Sovereign Master and Lord of all the world.
II. There is here, also, the due extent of this duty, namely, To the froward. It is a more deformed thing to have a distorted, crooked mind, or a froward spirit, than any crookedness of the body. How can he who has servants under him expect their obedience, when he cannot command his own passion, but is a slave to it? And unless much conscience of duty possess servants (more than is commonly to be found with them), it cannot but work a master into much disaffection and disesteem with them, when he is of a turbulent spirit, a troubler of his own house,52 embittering his affairs and commands with rigidity and passion, and ready to take things by that side which may offend and trouble him, thinking his servant slights his call, when he may as well think he heard him not, and upon every slight occasion, real or imagined, flying out into reproachful speeches, or proud threats, contrary to the Apostle St. Paul's rule, which he sets over against the duty of servants: Forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.53 Think, therefore, when you shall appear before the judgment-seat of God, that your behavior shall be examined and judged as well as theirs; and think, that we think much of the differences between masters and servants, but they are nothing with God, they vanish.
Consider, who makes you to differ another?54 Might He not, with a turn of His hand, have made your stations opposite, have made you the servant, and your servant the master? But we willingly forget the things that should compose our mind to humility and meekness, and blow them up with such fancies as please and feed our natural vanity, and make us somebody in our own account.
However, that Christian servant who falls into the hands of a froward master, will not be beaten out of his station and duty of obedience by all the hard and wrongful usage he meets with, but will take that as an opportunity to exercise all the more obedience and patience, and will be more cheerfully patient, because of his innocence, as the Apostle here exhorts.
Men do indeed look sometimes upon this as a just plea for impatience, that they suffer unjustly, which yet is very ill logic—for, as the Philosopher said, "Would any man that frets because he suffers unjustly, wish to deserve it, that he might be patient?" Now, to hear them, they seem to speak so, when they exclaim, that the thing that vexes them most is, that they have not deserved any such thing as is inflicted on them. Truly, desert of punishment may make a man more silent upon it, but innocence; rightly considered, makes him more patient. Guiltiness stops a man's mouth, indeed, in suffering, but surely it does not quiet his mind; on the contrary, it is that which mainly disturbs and grieves him; it is the sting of suffering, as sin is said to be of death.55 And, therefore, when that is not, the pain of sufferings cannot but be much abated; yea, the Apostle here declares that to suffer undeservedly, and also patiently, is glorious to a man and acceptable to God. It is commendable, indeed, to be truly patient even in deserved sufferings, but the deserving them tarnishes the luster of that patience, and makes it look more like constraint: which is the Apostle's meaning, in preferring spotless suffering much before it. And this is indeed the true glory of it, that it pleases God; (so it is rendered in the close of the 20th verse, for the other word of glory in the beginning of it;) it is a pleasing thing in God's eyes, and therefore He will thank a man for it. Though we owe all our patience, under all kinds of affliction, as a duty to Him, and though that grace is His own gift, yet He has obliged Himself by His royal word not only to accept of it, but to praise it, and reward it in His children. Though they lose their thanks at the world's hands, and be rather scoffed at and taunted in all their doings and sufferings, it matters not; they can expect nothing else there; but their reward is on high, in the sure and faithful hand of their Lord.
How often do men work earnestly, and do and suffer much for the uncertain wages of glory and thanks amongst men! And how many of them fall short of their reckoning, either dying before they come to that state where they think to find it, or not finding it where they looked for it, and so live to feel the pain of their disappointment! Or, if they do attain their end, such glory and thanks as men have to give them, what amounts it to? Is it any other than a handful of nothing, the breath of their mouths, and themselves much like it, a vapor dying out in the air? The most real thanks they give, their solidest rewards, are but such as a man cannot take home with him; or if they go so far with him, yet, at farthest, he must leave them at the door, when he is to enter his everlasting home. All the riches, and palaces, and monuments of honor that he had, and that are erected to him after death, as if he had then some interest in them, reach him not at all. Enjoy them who will, he does not, he has no portion forever in anything that is done under the sun;56 his own end is to him the end of the world.
But he who would have abiding glory and thanks, must look elsewhere for them. All men desire glory, but they know neither what it is, nor how it is to be sought. He is upon the only right bargain of this kind, whose praise (according to St. Paul's word) is not of men, but of God.57 If men commend him not, he considers it no loss, or any gain if they do; for he is bound for a country where that coin goes not, and where he cannot carry it, and therefore he gathers it not. That which he seeks in all, is that he may be approved and accepted by God, whose thanks is no less, to the least of those He accepts, than a crown of unfading glory. Every poor servant who fears His name, and is obedient and patient for His sake, shall be so rewarded.
There are some kind of graces and good actions, which men (such as regard any grace) take special notice of, and commend highly,—such as those of a magnificent and remarkable nature, as martyrdom, or doing or suffering for religion in some public way. There are again other obscure graces, which, if men don't despise them, yet they don't esteem them very much; as meekness, gentleness, and patience under private crosses, known to few or none. And yet, these are of great account with God, and therefore should be so with us; these are of more universal use, whereas the other are but for high times, as we say, for rare occasions; these are everyone's work, but few are called to the acting of the other. And the least of these graces shall not lose its reward in any person, as St. Paul tells us, speaking of this same subject, Knowing that whatever good thing any man does, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.58
This is the bounty of the great Master that we serve. For what are we, and all that we can do, that there should be the name of reward attached to it? Yet He keeps all in reckoning; not a poor lame prayer, not a tear nor a sigh poured forth before Him shall be lost. Not any cross, whether from His own hand immediately, or coming through men's hands, that is taken, whatever way it comes, as out of His hand, and carried patiently, yea, and welcomed, and embraced for His sake, but He observes our so entertaining of it. Not an injury that the meanest servant bears Christianly, but goes upon account with Him. And He sets them down so, as that they bear much value through His estimate and way of reckoning of them, though in themselves they are all less than nothing; as a worthless counter stands for hundreds or thousands, according to the place you set it in. Happy are those who have to deal with such a Lord, and who, whether servants or masters, are vowed servants to Him. When He comes, His reward shall be with Him.59
III. The third thing is, the Principle of this obedience and patience: For conscience towards God. This imports, first, the knowledge of God, and of His will in some due measure, and then a conscientious respect unto Him and His will so known, taking it for their only rule in doing and suffering.
Observe, 1. This declares to us the freeness of the grace of God regarding men's outward quality, that He often bestows the riches of His grace upon persons of mean condition. It is supposed here that this conscience towards God, this saving knowledge and fear of His name, is to be found in servants; therefore, the Apostle takes them within the address of his letter amongst those who are elect according to the foreknowledge of God,60 and sharers of the dignities he mentions, a chosen generation.61 The honor of a spiritual royalty may consist with the lowness of a servant; and this grace may be conferred upon the servant, and denied to the master, as is here supposed. It may fall out that a perverse crooked-minded master may have a servant uprightly minded, being endowed with a tender respectful conscience towards God. And thus the Lord does, to counteract the pride of man, and to set off the luster of His own free grace. He has all to choose from, and yet chooses there, where men would least imagine. See Matt. 11:25. 1 Cor. 1:27.
Observe, 2. Grace finds a way to exert itself in every state where it is, and regulates the soul to the particular duties of that state. Whether it finds a man high or low, a master or a servant, it requires not a change of his station, but works a change on his heart, and teaches him how to live in it. The same spirit that makes a Christian master pious, and gentle, and prudent in commanding, makes a Christian servant faithful, and submissive, and diligent in obeying. A skilful engraver makes you a statue indifferently of wood, or stone, or marble, as they are put into his hand; so grace forms a man to a Christian way of walking in any state. There is a way for him in the lowest condition to glorify God, and to adorn the profession of religion; no state so low as to be shut out from that; and a rightly informed and rightly affected conscience towards God shows a man that way, and causes him to walk in it. As the astrologers say, that the same stars that made Cyrus to be chosen king amongst the armies of men when he came to be a man, made him to be chosen king amongst the shepherds' children, when he was a child; thus grace will have its proper operation in every state.
In this, men readily deceive themselves; they can do anything well in imagination, better than the real task that is in their hands. They presume that they could do God good service in some place of command, but serve Him not, as becomes them, in that which is by far the easier, the place of obeying, in which He has set them. They think that if they had the ability and opportunities that some men have, they would do much more for religion, and for God, than they do; and yet they do nothing, but spoil a far lower part than that, which is their own, and is given them to study and act rightly in. But our folly and self-ignorance abuse us—it is not our part to choose what we should be, but to be what we are, to His glory who gives us to be such. Be your condition never so mean, yet your conscience towards God, if it be within you, will find itself work in that. If it little is entrusted to you regarding your outward condition, or any other way, be faithful in that little, as our Savior speaks, and your reward shall not be little: I will make you ruler over many things.62
Observe, 3. As a corrupt mind debases the best and most excellent callings and actions, so the lowest are raised above themselves, and ennobled by a spiritual mind. Magistrates or ministers, though their calling and employments be high, may have low intentions, and draw down their high calling to those low intentions; they may seek themselves, and selfish ends, and neglect God. And a sincere Christian may elevate his low calling by this conscience towards God, observing His will, and intending His glory in it. An eagle may fly high, and yet have its eye down upon some carrion on the earth—and a man may be standing on the earth, and on some low part of it, and yet have his eye upon heaven, and be contemplating it. That which men cannot at all see in one another, is the very thing most considerable in their actions, namely, the principle from which they flow, and the end to which they tend. This is the form and life of actions,—that by which they are earthly or heavenly. Whatever be the matter of them, the spiritual mind has that alchemy indeed, of turning base metals into gold, earthly employments into heavenly. The handiwork of an artisan or servant who regards God, and eyes Him even in that work, is much holier than the prayer of a hypocrite; and a servant's enduring the private wrongs and harshness of a froward master, bearing it patiently for conscience towards God, is more acceptable to God, than the sufferings of those who endure much for a public good cause, without a good and upright heart.
This disposition and posture of the heart towards God, the Apostle St. Paul presses much upon servants,63 as being necessary to allay the hard labor and harsh usage of many of them. This is the way to make all easy, to undergo it for God. There is no pill so bitter, but respect and love to God will sweeten it. And this is a very great refreshment and comfort to Christians in the low estate of servants or other laboring men, that they may offer up their hardship and bodily labor as a sacrifice to God, and say, Lord, this is the station in which You have set me in this world, and I desire to serve You in it. What I do is for You, and what I suffer I desire to bear patiently and cheerfully for Your sake, in submission and obedience to Your will.
For conscience.] In this there is, 1. A reverent compliance with God's administration, both in allotting to them that condition of life, and in particularly choosing their master for them: though possibly not the mildest and pleasantest, yet the most suitable for their good. There is much in firmly believing this, and in heartily submitting to it; for we would, naturally, rather carve for ourselves, and shape our own estate to our mind, which is a most foolish, and also impious presumption—as if we were wiser than He who has done it, and as if there were not as much, and, it may be, more possibility of true contentment in a low, than in a far higher condition! The master's mind is often more toiled than the servant's body. But if our condition has been appointed to us, we want to have at least a voice in some qualifications and circumstances of it—as in this, if a man must serve, he would wish willingly that God would allot him a meek, gentle master. And so, in other things, if we must be sick, we would be well accommodated, and not want helps; but to have sickness, and lack means and friends for our help, this we cannot think of without horror. But this submission to God is never right until all that concerns us is given up into His hand, to do with it, and with every article and circumstance of it, as seems good in His eyes. 2. In this conscience, there is a religious and observant respect to the rule which God has set men to walk by in that condition, so that their obedience does not depend on any external inducement, and so fails when that fails, but flows from an inward impression of the law of God upon the heart. Thus, a servant's obedience and patience will not be pinned to the goodness and equity of his master, but when that fails, will subsist upon its own inward ground; and so, generally, in all other conditions. This is the thing that makes sure and constant walking; makes a man step evenly in the ways of God. When a man's obedience springs from that unfailing, changing reason—the command of God—it is a natural motion, and therefore keeps on, and rather grows than abates; but those who are moved by outward things must often fail, because those things are not constant in their movement; as, for instance, when a people are much acted on by the spirit of their rulers, as the Jews when they had good kings. 3. In this conscience, there is a tender regard for the glory of God, and the adornment of religion, which the Apostle premised before these particular duties, as a thing to be specially regarded in them. The honor of our Lord's name, is that which we should set up as the mark to aim at in all our actions. But, alas! either we don't think about it, or our hearts slip, and start from their aim, like a deceitful bow, as the word is.64 4. There is the comfortable persuasion of God's approbation and acceptance, (as it is expressed in the following verse, of which somewhat before,) and the hope of the reward He has promised, as it is: Knowing that of the Lord you shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for you serve the Lord Christ.65 No less than the inheritance! So then, such servants as these are sons and heirs of God, joint-heirs with Christ.66 Thus he who is a servant may be in a far more excellent state than his master. The servant may hope for, and aim at a kingdom, while the master is embracing a dunghill. And such a one will think highly of God's free grace; and the continual looking forward to that inheritance makes him go cheerfully through all pains and troubles here, as light and momentary, and not worth the naming compared to that glory which shall be revealed.67 In the meantime, the best and most easy condition of the sons of God cannot satisfy them, nor restrain their sighs and groans, waiting and longing for that day of their full redemption.68
Now this is the great rule, not only for servants, but for all the servants of God in whatever state, to set the Lord always before them,69 and to study with St. Paul, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men;70 to eye, and to apply constantly to their actions and their inward thoughts, the command of God; to walk by that rule abroad and at home in their houses, and in the several ways of their calling; as an exact workman is always laying his rule to his work, and squaring it; and for the conscience they have towards God, to do and suffer His will cheerfully in everything, being content that He has chosen their condition and their trials for them; only desirous to be assured, that He has chosen them for His own, and given them a right to the glorious liberty of the children of God,71 still endeavoring to walk in the way that leads to it, overlooking this moment, and all things in it, considering their outward state here a very indifferent matter, provided they may be happy in eternity. Whether we are high or low here, bond or free, it matters little, seeing that all these differences will be so quickly at an end, and there shall not be so much as any track or footstep of them left. With particular men it is so in their graves; you may distinguish the greater from the less by their tombs, but by their dust you cannot: and so it shall be with the whole world in the end. All monuments and palaces, as well as cottages, shall be made fire, as our Apostle tells us: The elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein, shall be burned up.72
Ver. 21. For even hereunto were you called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps:
Ver. 22. Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:
Ver. 23. Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him who judges righteously.
The rules that God has set men to live by are universally just, and there is a universal obligation upon all men to obey them; but as they are particularly addressed to His own people in His word, they, out of question, are particularly bound to yield obedience, and have many peculiar inducements to it, that extend not to others, which are therefore usually represented to them, and pressed upon them in the holy Scriptures. Thus the preface of the Law runs to Israel: Besides that, I am Jehovah, and have supreme power to give men laws, it is added, I am your God, especially your deliverer from slavery and bondage, and so have a peculiar right to your obedience.73 Thus the Apostle here urges this point in hand, of inoffensiveness and patience, particularly in Christian servants, but so as it fits every Christian in his station, For hereunto, says he, were you called. Whatever others do, though they think it too strict a rule, yet you are tied to it by your own calling and profession as you are Christians; and this is evidently the highest and clearest reason that can be, and of greatest power with a Christian, namely, the example of Jesus Christ Himself: for Christ also suffered for us, &c.
So it is all but one entire argument, viz. that they ought thusly to behave themselves, because it is the very thing they are called to, as their conformity to Jesus Christ, whose they profess to be, yea, with whom, as Christians, they profess themselves to be one.
Hereunto were you called.] This, in the general, is a thing that ought to be ever before our eyes, to consider the nature and end of our calling, and to endeavor in all things to act suitably to it; to think in every occurrence, What does the calling of a Christian require of me in this? But the truth is, most of us don't think this way. We profess ourselves to be Christians, and never think what kind of behavior this obliges us to, and what kind of persons it becomes us to be in all holy conversation, but walk disorderly, out of our rank, inordinately. You who are profane, were you called by the Gospel to serve the world and your lusts? Were you called to swearing and rioting and voluptuousness? Don't you hear the Apostle testifying the contrary, in express terms, that God has not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness?74 You who are of proud contentious spirits, do you act suitably to this holy calling? No; for God has called us to peace, says the same Apostle.75 But don't study this holy calling, and therefore we walk so inconsistently, so unlike the Gospel—we lie and do not the truth, as St. John speaks;76 our actions belie us.
The particular things that Christians are here said to be called to, are, suffering, as their lot, and patience, as their duty, even under the most unjust and undeserved sufferings.
And both of these are as large as the sphere of this calling. Not only servants and others of a mean condition, who, lying low, are more subject to rigors and injuries, but, generally, all who are called to godliness, are likewise called to sufferings.77 All who will follow Christ must do it in His livery; they must take up their cross. This is a very harsh and unpleasing article of the Gospel to a carnal mind, but the Scriptures don't conceal. Men are not led blindfolded into sufferings, and drawn into a hidden snare by the Gospel's invitations; they are told it very often, so they can't pretend to be surprised, or have any just plea for turning back. So our Savior tells His disciples, why He was so express and plain with them in this, These things have I spoken unto you, that you should not be offended;78 as if He had said, I have shown you the ruggedness of your way, so that you won't stumble at it, taking it to be a smooth, plain one. But then, where this is spoken of, it is usually allayed with the mention of the comforts that accompany these sufferings, or of that glory which follows them. The doctrine of the Apostles, which was so verified in their own persons, was this, That we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.79 An unpleasant way indeed, if you look no further; but a kingdom at the end of it, and that the kingdom of God, will transfuse pleasure into the most painful step in it all. So Ps. 34:19-20. It seems a sad condition that falls to the share of godly men in this world, to be eminent in sorrows and troubles. Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but that which follows weighs them abundantly down in consolation, that the Lord Himself is engaged in their afflictions, both for their deliverance out of them in due time, and in the meantime, for their support and preservation under them: The Lord delivers him out of them all, and until He does that, He keeps all his bones. This was literally verified in the natural body of Christ, as St. John observes,80 and it holds spiritually true in His mystical body. The Lord supports the spirits of believers in their troubles, with such solid consolations as are the pillars and strength of their souls, as the bones are of the body, which the Hebrew word for them imports. So He keeps all his bones; and the desperate condition of wicked men is opposed to this, to illustrate it, Evil shall slay the wicked.81
Thus, John 16:33, they are forewarned in the close, what to expect at the world's hands, as they were various times before in that same sermon: but it is a sweet testament, take it altogether: In the world you shall have tribulation, but peace in me. And since He has jointly bequeathed these two to His followers, would it not be a great folly to renounce such a bargain, and to let go of that peace for fear of this trouble? The trouble is but in the world, but the peace is in Him, who weighs down thousands of worlds.
So then, those who would reconcile Christ and the world, who would have the Church of Christ, or at least, themselves for their own shares, enjoy both kinds of peace together, are very mistaken—they would willingly have peace in Christ, but are very loath to part with the world's peace. They would be Christians, but they are very poorly satisfied when they hear of anything but ease and prosperity in that state, and willingly forget the tenor of the Gospel in this; and so when times of trouble and sufferings come, their minds are as new and uncouth to it as if they had not been told of it beforehand. They like better St. Peter's carnal advice to Christ to avoid suffering,82 than his Apostolic doctrine to Christians, teaching them, that as Christ suffered, so they too are called to suffering. Men are ready to think as he did, that Christ should favor Himself more in His own body, His Church, than to expose it to so much suffering; and most would be of Rome's mind in this, at least in affection, that the badge of the Church should be pomp and prosperity, and not the cross: the true cross of afflictions and sufferings is too heavy and painful.
But God's thoughts are not as ours: those whom He calls to a kingdom, He calls to sufferings as the way to it. He will have the heirs of Heaven know that they are not at home on earth, and that this is not their rest. He will not have them, with the abused world, fancy a happiness here, and, as St. Augustine says, Beatam vitam quaerere in regione mortis—seek a happy life in the region of death. The reproaches and wrongs that encounter them shall elevate their minds often to that land of peace and rest, wherein dwells righteousness.83 The hard taskmasters shall make them weary of Egypt, which otherwise, possibly, they would comply too well with, and dispose them for deliverance, and make it welcome, which, it may be, they might but coldly desire, if they were better used.
He knows what He does, who secretly serves His own good ends by men's evil, and, by the ploughers that make long furrows on the back of His Church,84 makes it a fruitful field to Himself. Therefore, it is great folly and rashness to take up a prejudice against His way, to think it might be better as we would model it, and to complain about the order of things, whereas we should complain of disordered minds: but we would rather have all altered and changed for us, the very course of Providence, than seek the cause of our own perverse hearts. But the right temper of a Christian is, to run always cross to the corrupt stream of the world and human iniquity, and to be willingly carried along with the stream of Divine Providence, and not at all to stir a hand, no, nor a thought, to row against that mighty current; and not only is he carried with it upon necessity, because there is no steering against it, but cheerfully and voluntarily; not because he must, but because he would.
And this is the other thing to which Christians are jointly called; as to suffering, so to calmness of mind and patience in suffering, although their suffering be most unjust; yes, this is truly a part of that duty they are called to, to maintain the integrity and inoffensiveness of life that might make their sufferings at men's hands always unjust. So the entire duty here is innocence and patience; doing willingly no wrong to others, and yet cheerfully suffering wrong when done to themselves. If either of the two are lacking, their suffering does not credit their profession, but dishonors it. If they are patient under deserved suffering, their guiltiness darkens their patience: and if their sufferings are undeserved, yea, and the cause of them honorable, yet impatience under them stains both their sufferings and their cause, and seems in part to justify the very injustice that is used against them; but where innocence and patience meet together in suffering, there sufferings are in their perfect luster. These are those who honor religion, and shame the enemies of it. It was the concurrence of these two that was the very triumph of the martyrs in times of persecution, who tormented their tormentors, and made them more than conquerors,85 even in sufferings.
Now that we are called both to suffering and to this manner of suffering, the Apostle puts out of question, by the supreme example of our Lord Jesus Christ; for the sum of our calling is to follow Him. Now in both these, in suffering and in suffering innocently and patiently, the whole history of the Gospel testifies how complete a pattern He is. And the Apostle gives us here a summary, yet a very clear account of it.
The words have in them these two things, I. The perfection of this example. II. Our obligation to follow it.
I. The example he sets off to the full, 1. Regarding the greatness of our Savior's sufferings. 2. Regarding His spotlessness and patience in suffering.
The first we have in that word, He suffered; and afterwards, at ver. 24, we have His crucifixion and His stripes expressly specified.
Now this is reason enough, and carries it beyond all other reason, why Christians are called to a suffering life, seeing the Lord and Author of that calling suffered Himself so much. The Captain, or Leader, of our salvation, as the Apostle speaks, was made perfect through sufferings 86—that was the way by which He entered into the holy place, where He is now our everlasting High-Priest, making intercession for us. If He is our Leader to salvation, must not we follow Him in the way He leads, whatever it is? If it be (as we see it is) by the way of sufferings, we must either follow on in that way, or fall short of salvation; for there is no other leader, nor any other way than that which He opened; so that there is not only a congruity in it, that His followers be conformed to Him in suffering, but a necessity, if they will follow Him on until they attain to glory. And the consideration of both these cannot but argue a Christian into a resolution for this via regia, this royal way of suffering that leads to glory, through which their King and Lord Himself went to His glory. It could hardly be believed at first that this was His way, and we can as hardly yet believe that it must be ours. O fools, and slow of heart to believe! Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?87
Would you be at glory, and will you not follow your Leader in the only way to it? Must there be another way cut out for you by yourself? O absurd! Shall the servant be greater than his Lord?88 Are not you fairly dealt with? If you have a mind to Christ, you shall have every bit as much of the world's good-will as He had—if it hates you, He bids you remember how it hated Him.89
But though there were a way to do otherwise, would you not, if the love of Christ possessed your hearts, rather choose to share with Him in His lot, and find delight in the very trouble of it? Is not this conformity to Jesus the great ambition of all His truehearted followers? Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus,90 says the great Apostle. Besides the unspeakable advantage to come, which goes linked with this, that if we suffer, we shall also reign with him,91 there is a glory, even in this present resemblance, that we are conformed to the image of the Son of God in sufferings. Why should we desire to leave Him? Are you not one with Him? Can you choose but to have the same common friends and enemies? Would you willingly, if it were possible—could you find in your heart to be friends with that world which hated your Lord and Master? Would you have nothing but kindness and ease, where He had nothing but enmity and trouble? Or would you not rather, when you think rightly of it, disdain and refuse to be so unlike Him? As that good duke said, when they would have crowned him king of Jerusalem: No, said he, by no means; I will not wear a crown of gold where Jesus was crowned with thorns.
2. Both His spotlessness and patience in suffering are set here before us; the one ver. 22, the other ver. 23.
Whoever you are who makes such a noise about the injustice of what you suffer, and think to justify your impatience by your innocence, let me ask you, Are you more just and innocent than He who is here set before you? Or, are you able to come near Him in this point? Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth. This is to signify perfect holiness, according to that word, If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man.92 Man is a little world, a world of wickedness; and that little part of him, the tongue, a world of iniquity.93 But all Christ's words, as well as His actions, and all His thoughts, flowed from a pure spring, that had not anything defiled in it; and therefore no temptation, either from men or Satan, could seize on Him. Other men may seem clear as long as they are unstirred, but move and trouble them, and the mud arises; but He was nothing but holiness, a pure fountain, all purity to the bottom; and therefore stir and trouble Him as they would, He was still alike clear. The prince of this world cometh, and has nothing in me.94
This is the main ground of our confidence in Him, that He is a holy, harmless, undefiled High-Priest:95 and such a one became us, says the Apostle, who are so sinful. The more sinful we are, the greater need that our High-Priest should be sinless; and being so, we may build upon His perfection, as standing in our place, yes, we are invested with Him and His righteousness.
Again, there was no guile found in His mouth. This serves to convince us concerning all the promises that He has made, that they are nothing but truth. Has He said, Him that comes to me I will in no wise cast out?96 Then you need not fear, however unworthy and vile you may be—do but come to Him, and you have His word that He will not shut the door against you. And as He has promised access, so He has further promised ease and soul's rest to those who come.97 Then be confident to find that in Him too, for there was never a false or guileful word found in His mouth.
But to consider it only in the present action, this speaks Him the most innocent sufferer that ever was, not only judicially just in His cause, but entirely just in His person, altogether righteous; and yet, condemned to death, and an opprobrious death of malefactors, and set between two, as chief of the three! I am, says He, the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys;98 and the Spouse says of Him, My beloved is white and ruddy:99 thus, indeed, He was in His death, ruddy in His blood-shed, and white in His innocence, and also in His meekness and patience; the other thing in which He is here so exemplary.
Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again.] This spotless Lamb of God was a Lamb both in guiltlessness and silence; and the Prophet Isaiah expresses the resemblance, in that He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter.100 He suffered not only an unjust sentence of death, but besides unjust revilings, the contradiction of sinners.101 No one ever so little deserved revilings; no one ever could have said so much in His own just defence, and to the just reproach of His enemies; and yet, in both He preferred silence. None could ever threaten such heavy things as He could against His enemies, and have made good all He threatened, and yet no such thing was heard from Him. The heavens and the earth, as it were, spoke their resentment of His death who made them; but He was silent: or what He spoke makes this still good, how far He was from revilings and threatenings. As spices pounded, or precious ointment poured out, give their smell most, thus, His name was as ointment then poured forth,102 together with His blood, and filling Heaven and earth with its sweet perfume, was a savor of rest and peace in both, appeasing the wrath of God, and so quieting the consciences of men. And even in this particular was it then most fragrant, in that all the torments of the cross, and revilings of the multitude, which, as it were, racked Him for some answer, yet could draw no other from Him than this, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.103
But for those to whom this mercy belonged not, the Apostle tells us what He did; instead of revilings and threatenings, He committed Himself to Him who judges righteously. And this is the true method of Christian patience, that which quiets the mind, and keeps it from the boiling, tumultuous thoughts of revenge, to turn the whole matter into God's hand, to resign it over to Him, to prosecute when and as He thinks good. Not as most, who would rather, if they had power, do for themselves, and be their own avengers; and because they have no power, they offer up such bitter curses and prayers for revenge unto God, as are most hateful to Him, and are far from this calm and holy way of committing matters to His judgment. The common way of referring things to God is indeed impious and dishonorable to Him, being really nothing more than calling Him to be a servant and executioner to our passion. We ordinarily mistake His justice, and judge of it according to our own precipitant and distempered minds. If wicked men aren't thwarted in their designs, and their wickedness evidently crushed, just when we would have it, we are ready to give up the matter as desperate, or at least to abate of those confident and reverential thoughts of Divine justice that we owe Him. However things go, this ought to be fixed in our hearts, that He who sits in Heaven judges righteously, and executes His righteous judgment in the fittest season. We poor worms, whose whole life is but a handbreadth in itself, and is as nothing to God, think a few months or years a great matter; but to Him who inhabits eternity, a thousand years are but as one day, as our Apostle teaches eus.104
Our Savior, in the time of His humiliation and suffering, committed Himself and His cause (for that is best expressed, in that nothing is expressed but He committed) to Him that judges righteously, and the issue shall be, that all His enemies shall become His footstool105 and He Himself shall judge them. But that which is given us here to learn from His behavior toward them in His suffering, is, that quietness and moderation of mind, even under unjust sufferings, make us like Him: not to reply to reproach with reproach, as our custom is, to give one ill word for another, or two for one, to be sure not to be behind. Men take a pride in this, and think it is ridiculous simplicity to suffer; and this makes strife and contention to abound. But it is a great mistake; you think it greatness of spirit to bear nothing, to put up with no wrong, whereas indeed it is great weakness and baseness. It is true greatness of spirit to despise most of the things that usually set you on fire one against another; especially being done after a Christian manner, it were a part of the Spirit of Christ in you: and is there any spirit greater than that, think you? Oh! that there were less of the spirit of the dragon, and more of the spirit of the dove amongst us!
II. Our obligation to follow the example of Christ, besides being enforced by its own excellence, is intimated in the two things contained in the words: 1. The design of His behavior for this use, to be as an example to us. 2. Our interest in Him, and those His sufferings, in which He so carried Himself.
1. That His behavior was intended as an example, Leaving us an example, &c. He left His footsteps as a copy (as the word in the original, hupogrammos, imports) to be followed by us; every step of His is a letter of this copy; and particularly in this point of suffering. He wrote us a pure and perfect copy of obedience in clear and great letters, in His own blood.
His whole life is our rule—not, indeed, His miraculous works, His footsteps walking on the sea, and such like, they are not for our following—but His obedience, holiness, meekness, and humility, are our copy, which we should continually study. The shorter and more effectual way, they say, of teaching, is by example; but above all, this matchless example is the happiest way of teaching. He who follows me, says our Lord, shall not walk in darkness.106
He, who aims high, shoots the higher for it, though he doesn't shoot as high as he aims. This is what ennobles the spirit of a Christian, the propounding of this our high pattern, the example of Jesus Christ.
The imitation of men in worthless things is low and servile; the imitation of their virtues is commendable; but if we aim no higher, it is both imperfect and unsafe. The Apostle St. Paul will have no imitation, but with regard to this Supreme Pattern: Be you followers of me, even as I also am of Christ107. One Christian may take the example of Christ in many things as exhibited in another, but still he must examine all by the original primitive copy, the footsteps of Christ Himself; following nothing, but as it is conformable to that, and looking chiefly on Him, both as the most perfect and most effectual example.108 There is a cloud of witnesses,109 and examples, but look above them all, to Him, who is as high above them as the sun is above the clouds. As in the covenant of grace the way is better, a living way indeed, so there is this advantage also, that we are not left to our own skill for following it, but taught by the Spirit. In the delivery of the law, God showed His glory and greatness by the manner of giving it, but the law was written only in dead tables. But Christ, the living Law, teaches by obeying it, how to obey it; and this, too, is the advantage of the Gospel, that the law is twice written over unto believers, first, in the example of Christ, and then inwardly in their hearts by His Spirit. There is, together with that copy of all grace in Him, a spirit derived from Him, enabling believers to follow Him in their measure. They may not only see Him as the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, as it is John 1:14, but, as there it follows (ver. 16), they receive of his fullness, and grace for grace. The love of Christ makes the soul delight to converse with Him; and converse and love together, make it learn His behavior; as men who live much together, especially if they much affect one another, will insensibly contract one another's habits and customs.
The other thing obliging us is, 2ndly, Our interest in Him and His sufferings: He suffered for us. And to this the Apostle returns, ver. 24. Observe only from the tie of these two, that if we neglect His example set before us, we cannot enjoy any right assurance of His suffering for us; but if we seriously endeavor to follow Him, then we may be persuaded of life through His death, and those steps of His in which we walk will bring us before long to be where He is.
Ver. 24. Who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed.
That which is deepest in the heart is generally most in the mouth; that which abounds within runs over most by the tongue or pen. When men light upon the speaking of that subject which possesses their affection, they can hardly be taken off, or drawn from it again. Thus the Apostles in their writings, when they make mention any way of Christ suffering for us, love to dwell on it, as that which they take most delight to speak of; such delicacy and sweetness is in it to a spiritual taste, that they like to keep it in their mouth, and are never out of their theme, when they insist on Jesus Christ, though they have but named Him by occasion of some other doctrine; for He is the great subject of all they have to say.
Thus here, the Apostle had spoken of Christ in the foregoing words very fitly to his present subject, setting Him before Christian servants, and all suffering Christians, as their complete example, both in point of much suffering, and of perfect innocence and patience in suffering; and he had expressed their obligation to study and follow that example; yet, he cannot leave it so, but having said that all His sufferings in which He was so exemplary, were for us, as a chief consideration for which we should study to be like Him, he returns to that again, and enlarges upon it in words partly the same, partly very near those of that Evangelist among the Prophets.110
And it suits very well with his main scope, to press this point, as giving both very much strength and sweetness to the exhortation; for surely it is most reasonable that we willingly conform to Him in suffering, who had never been an example of suffering, nor subject at all to sufferings, nor in any degree capable of them, but for us; and it is most comfortable in the light sufferings of this moment, to consider that He has freed us from the sufferings of eternity, by suffering Himself in our place in the fullness of time.
That Jesus Christ is, in doing and in suffering, our supreme and matchless example, and that He came to be so, is a truth; but that He is nothing further, and came for no other purpose, is, you see, a high point of falsehood. For how should man be enabled to learn and follow that example of obedience, unless there was more than an example in Christ? and what would become of that great reckoning of disobedience that man stands guilty of? No, these are notions far too narrow. He came to bear our sins in His own body on the tree, and for this purpose, had a body fitted for Him and given Him to bear this burden, to do this as the will of His Father, to stand for us instead of all offerings and sacrifices; by the which will, says the Apostle, we are sanctified, through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all.111
This was His business, not only to rectify sinful man by His example, but also to redeem him by His blood. He was a Teacher come from God:112 as a Prophet, He teaches us the way of life, and as the best and greatest of Prophets, He is perfectly like His doctrine; and His actions (which in all teachers is the liveliest part of doctrine), His behavior in life and death, is our great pattern and instruction. But what is said of His forerunner, is more eminently true of Christ: He is a Prophet, and much more than a Prophet,113—a Priest satisfying justice for us, and a King conquering sin and death for us; an example indeed, but more than an example,—our sacrifice, and our life, our all in all. It is our duty to walk, even as He walked,114 to make Him the pattern of our steps; but our comfort, and salvation lie in this, that He is the propitiation for our sins.115 So, in the first chapter of that Epistle, We are to walk in the light, as He is in the light; but for all our walking, we need that which follows, that bears the great weight,—The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.116 And so still, that glory that He possesses in His own person, is the pledge of ours: He is there for us, He ever lives to make intercession for us, says the Apostle;117 and I go to prepare a place for you, says our Lord Himself.118
We have in the words these two great points, and in the same order as the words lie: I. The Nature and Quality of the sufferings of Jesus Christ; and, II. The End of them.
I. In this expression of the Nature and Quality of the sufferings of Christ, we are to consider, 1. The Commutation of the persons, he his own self—for us. 2. The Work undertaken and performed, He bore our sins in His own body on the tree.
1. The act or sentence of the Law against the breach of it standing in force, and Divine justice expecting satisfaction, death was the necessary and inseparable consequence of sin. If you say, the supreme Majesty of God, being accountable to no one, might have forgiven all without satisfaction, we are not to contest that, nor foolishly to offer to sound the bottomless depth of His absolute prerogative. Christ implies in His prayer,119 that it was impossible that He could escape that cup; but the impossibility is resolved into His Father's will, as the cause of it. But this we may clearly see, following the track of the Holy Scriptures (our only safe way), that this way in which our salvation is contrived, is most excellent and suitable to the greatness and goodness of God; so full of wonders of wisdom and love, that the Angels, as our Apostle tells us before, cannot forbear looking on it, and admiring it: for all their exact knowledge, yet they still find it infinitely beyond their knowledge, still in astonishment and admiration of what they see, and still in search, looking in to see more; those cherubim still having their eyes fixed on this Mercy-Seat.
Justice might have indeed seized on rebellious man, and laid the pronounced punishment on him. Mercy might have freely acquitted him, and pardoned all. But can we name any place where Mercy and Justice, as relating to condemned man, could have met and shined jointly in full aspect, save only in Jesus Christ?—in whom, indeed, Mercy and Truth met together, and Righteousness and Peace kissed each other;120 yea, in whose Person the parties concerned, that were at such a great distance, met so near, as nearer cannot be imagined.
And not only was this the sole way of the consistency of these two, Justice and Mercy, but take each of them severally, and they could not have been manifested in so full luster in any other way. God's just hatred of sin did, beyond doubt, appear more in punishing His own only-begotten Son for it, than if the whole race of mankind had suffered for it eternally. Again, it raises the notion of mercy to the highest, that sin is not only forgiven us, but for this end God's own co-eternal Son is given to us, and for us. Consider what He is, and what we are—He, the Son of His love, and we, enemies. Therefore it is emphatically expressed in the words, He Himself bore our sins. God so loved the world:121 that love amounts to this much, that it was so great, as to give his Son: but how great that Love is, cannot be uttered. In this, says the Apostle,122 God commends his love towards us, sets it off to the highest, gives us the richest and strongest evidence of it.
The foundation of this plan, this appearing of Christ for us, and undergoing and answering all in our stead, lies in the decree of God, where it was plotted and contrived, in the whole way of it, from eternity; and the Father and the Son being one, and their thoughts and will one, They were perfectly agreed on it; and those likewise for whom it should hold, were agreed upon, and their names written down, according to which they are said to be given unto Christ to redeem. And just according to that model did all the work proceed, and was accomplished in all points, perfectly answering to the pattern of it in the mind of God. As it was preconcluded there, that the Son should undertake the business, this matchless piece of service for His Father, and that by His interposing, men should be reconciled and saved; so that He might be altogether a fit person for the work, it was resolved, that as He was already fit for it by the Almightiness of His Deity and Godhead, and the acceptableness of His person to the Father, as the Son of God, so He should be further fitted by wonderfully uniting weakness to Almightiness, the frailty of man to the power of God. Because suffering for man was a main point of the work, therefore, as His being the Son of God made Him acceptable to God, so His being the Son of man made Him suitable to man, in whose business He had engaged Himself, and suitable to the business itself to be performed. And not only was there in Him, by His human nature, a conformity to man, (for that might have been by a new created body,) but a consanguinity with man, by a body framed of the same piece,—a Redeemer, a kinsman (as the Hebrew word goel is),—only purified for His use, as was necessary, and framed after a peculiar manner, in the womb of a virgin, as it is expressed, Heb. 10:5, A body have you prepared me,—having no sin itself, because ordained to have so much of our sins: as it is here, He bore our sins in his own body.
And this looks back to the primitive transaction and purpose. Lo! I come—to do your will,123 says the Son. Behold my servant whom I have chosen,124 says the Father, this masterpiece of my works; no one in Heaven or earth is fit to serve me in this, but my own Son. And as He came into the world according to that decree and will, so He goes out of it again in that way. The Son of man goes, as it was determined:125 it was wickedly and maliciously done by men against Him, but it was determined (which is what He there speaks of) wisely and graciously by His Father, with His own consent. As in those two-faced pictures, look upon the crucifying of Christ one way, as conspired by a treacherous disciple and malicious priests and rulers, and nothing more deformed and hateful than the authors of it—but view it again, as determined in God's counsel, for the restoring of lost mankind, and it is full of unspeakable beauty and sweetness, infinite wisdom and love in every trait of it.
Thus also, as to the persons for whom Christ engaged to suffer, their coming to Him looks back to the first donation of the Father, as flowing from that—All that the Father gives me shall come to me.126
Now this being God's great design, which He would have men eye and consider more than all the rest of His works (and yet it is least of all considered by the most), the other Covenant made with the first Adam, was but to make way, and, if we may so speak, to make work for this. For He knew that it would not hold; therefore, as this New Covenant became necessary by the breach of the other, so the failing of that other sets off and commends the firmness of this. The former was made with a man in his best condition, and yet he kept it not: even then, he proved vanity, as it is Psalm 39:5, Verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. So that the second, that it might be stronger, is made with a Man indeed, to supply the place of the former, but He is God-Man, to be surer than the former, and therefore it holds. And this is the difference, as the Apostle expresses it, that the first Adam, in that Covenant, was laid as a foundation, and though we say not that the Church, in its true notion, was built on him, yet, the estate of the whole race of mankind, the materials which the Church is built of, lay on him for that time; and it failed. But upon this Rock, the second Adam, is the Church so firmly built, that the gates of hell cannot prevail against her.127 The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening (or life-giving) spirit.128 The first had life, but he transferred it not, yea, he kept it not for himself, but drew in and transferred death; but the Second, by death, conveys life to all that are reckoned His seed: He bore their sins.
2. As to the work itself. He bore them on the tree. In that outside of His suffering, the visible kind of death inflicted on Him, in that it was hanging on the tree of the cross, there was an analogy with the end and main work; and it was ordered by the Lord with regard to that end, being a death declared accursed by the Law, as the Apostle St. Paul observes,129 and so declaring Him who was God blessed forever, to have been made a curse (that is, accounted as accursed) for us, that we might be blessed in Him, in whom, according to the promise, all the nations of the earth are blessed.130
The strength and main stress of His sufferings, was in this invisible weight which none could see who gazed on Him, but which He felt more than all the rest: He bore our sins. In this there are three things. 1. The weight of sin. 2. The transferring of it upon Christ. 3. His bearing of it.
[1.] He bore sin as a heavy burden; so the word bearing signifies in general, and those two words particularly used by the Prophet,131 to which these allude, imply the bearing of some great mass or load. And such is sin; for it has the wrath of an offended God hanging at it, indissolubly tied to it, of which who can bear the least? And therefore, the least sin, being the procuring cause of it, will press a man down forever, so that he shall not be able to rise. Who may stand in your sight when once you are angry?132 says the Psalmist. And the Prophet Jeremiah,133 Return, you backsliding Israel, and I will not cause my anger to fall upon you—to fall as a great weight; or as a millstone, and crush the soul.
But senseless, we go lightly under the burden of sin, and feel it not, complain not of it, and are therefore truly said to be dead in it; otherwise it could not but press us, and press out complaints. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me?134 A profane, secure sinner thinks nothing of breaking the holy law of God, to please his flesh, or the world; he counts sin a light matter, makes a mock at sin,135 as Solomon says. But a stirring conscience is of another mind: My iniquities are gone over my head: as a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.136
Sin is such a burden as makes the very frame of Heaven and earth, which is not guilty of it, yea, the whole creation, to crack and groan, (it is the Apostle's doctrine,137) and yet, the impenitent heart, whose guiltiness it is, continues unmoved, groans not; for your customary groaning has nothing to do with this.
Yes, to consider it in connection with the present subject, where we may best read what it is, it was a heavy load to Jesus Christ. In Psalm 40:12, the Psalmist, speaking in the person of Christ, complains heavily, Innumerable evils have compassed me about: my iniquities (not His, as done by Him, but yet His, by His undertaking to pay for them,) have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of my head: therefore my heart fails me. And surely, no one in Heaven or on earth could have sustained and surmounted that which pressed Him so sore who upholds Heaven and earth—but would have sunk and perished under it. Was it, do you think, the pain of that common outside of His death, though very painful, that drew such a word from Him, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?138 Or was it the fear of that beforehand, that pressed a sweat of blood from Him? No, it was this burden of sin, the first of which was committed in the garden of Eden, that then began to be laid upon Him and fastened upon His shoulders in the garden of Gethsemane, ten thousand times heavier than the cross which He was caused to bear. That might be for a while turned over to another, but this could not. This was the cup He trembled at more than at the gall and vinegar to be afterwards offered to Him by His crucifiers, or any other part of His external sufferings: it was the bitter cup of wrath due to sin, which His Father put into His hand, and caused Him to drink, the very same thing that is here called the bearing of our sins in his body.
And consider, that the very smallest sins went in to make up this load, and made it so much the heavier; and therefore, though sins may be comparatively smaller and greater, yet learn here to consider no sin in itself small, which offends the great God, and which lay heavy upon your great Redeemer in the day of His sufferings.
At His apprehension, besides the soldiers, that invisible crowd of the sins He was to suffer for, came about Him, for it was these that laid strongest hold on Him: He could easily have shaken off all the rest, as appears;139 but our sins laid the arrest on Him, being accounted His, as it is in that fore-cited place,140 My iniquities. Now amongst these were even those sins we call small; they were of the number that took Him, and they were amongst those instruments of His bloodshed. If the greater were as the spear that pierced His side, the less were as the nails that pierced His hands and His feet, and the very least as the thorns that were set on His precious head. And the multitude of them made up what was lacking in their magnitude—though they were small they were many.
[2.] They were transferred upon Him by virtue of the covenant that we spoke of. They became His debt, and He became responsible for all they came to. Since you have accepted this business according to my will (may we conceive the Father saying to His Son), you must go through with it: you are engaged in it, but it is nothing other than what you understood perfectly before; you knew what it would cost you, and yet out of joint love with Me to those I named to be saved by you, you were as willing as I to the whole undertaking. Now therefore the time is come that I must lay upon you the sins of all those persons, and you must bear them; the sins of all those believers who lived before, and all who are to come after, to the end of the world. The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,141 says the Prophet; took it off from us and charged it on Him, made it to meet on Him, or to fall in together, as the word in the original imports. The sins of all, in all ages before and after, who were to be saved, all their guiltiness re-encountered and met together on His back upon the Cross. Whoever of all that number had least sin, yet had no small burden to cast on Him; and to give accession to the whole weight, we have turned every one to his own way,142 as the Prophet there expresses it, and He paid for all; all fell on Him. And as in testimony of His meekness and patience, so, in this respect likewise, was He so silent in His sufferings, that though His enemies dealt most unjustly with Him, yet He stood as convicted before the justice-seat of His Father, under the imputed guilt of all our sins, and so eyeing Him, and counting His business to be chiefly with Him, He patiently bore the due punishment of all our sins at His Father's hand, according to that of the Psalmist, I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because you did it.143 Therefore the Prophet immediately subjoins the description of His silent demeanor, to that which he had spoken of, the confluence of our iniquities upon Him: As a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He opens not His mouth.144
And if our sins were thus accounted His, then, in the same way, and for that very reason, His sufferings and satisfaction must of necessity be accounted ours. As He said on behalf of His disciples to the men who came to take Him, If therefore you seek me, let these go their way:145 so He said for all believers to His Father, His wrath then seizing on Him, If you will lay hold of Me, then let these go free. And thus the agreement was: He has made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.146
So then, there is a union between believers and Jesus Christ, by which this interchange is made; He being charged with their sins, and they clothed with His satisfaction and righteousness. This union is founded, 1st, in God's decree of Election, running to this effect, that they should live in Christ, and so choosing the Head and the whole mystical Body as one, and counting their debt as His, in His purpose, that He might receive satisfaction, and they salvation, in their Head, Christ. The execution of that purpose and union began in Christ's Incarnation: it being for them, though the nature He assumed was more common. He is said not to take hold on the angels; but on the seed of Abraham,147 the company of believers—He became man for their sakes, because they are men. That He is of the same nature with unbelieving men who perish, is but by accident, as it were: there is no good to them in that, but the great evil of deeper condemnation, if they hear of Him, and believe not; but He was made man to be like, yea, to be one with the Elect, and He is not ashamed to call them brethren,148 as the Apostle there says. 2ndly, This union is also founded in the actual intention of the Son so made man; He presenting Himself to the Father in all He did and suffered, as for them, having them, and them only, in His eye and thoughts, in all. For their sakes I sanctify myself.149 Again, 3rdly, This union is applied and performed in them, when they are converted and engrafted into Jesus Christ by faith; and this actually discharges them of their own sins, and entitles them to His righteousness, and so justifies them in the sight of God. 4thly, The consummation of this union is in glory, which is the result and fruit of all the former. As it began in Heaven, it is completed there; but between these two in Heaven, the intervention of those other two degrees of it on earth was necessary, being intended in the first, as tending to the attainment of the last. These four steps of it are all distinctly expressed in our Lord's own prayer.150 1st, God's purpose that the Son should give eternal life to as many as you have given Him, ver. 2. 2ndly, The Son's undertaking and accomplishing their redemption in ver. 4: I have finished the work which you gave me to do. 3rdly, The application of this union, and its performance in them, by their faith, their believing, and keeping His word, ver. 6, 8, and in several of the subsequent verses. And then, lastly, the consummation of this union, ver. 24: I will that they also, whom you have given me, be with me where I am. There, the first donation and the last meet.
Now to obtain this life for them, Christ died in their stead. He appeared as the High-Priest, being perfectly and truly what the name was on their plate of gold, Holiness to the Lord, and so bearing their iniquity, as it is there added of Aaron.151 But because the High-Priest was not the Redeemer, but only prefigured Him, he did not himself suffer for the people's sin, but turned it over upon the beasts which he sacrificed, signifying that translation of sin, by laying his hand upon the head of the beast. But Jesus Christ is both the great High-Priest and the great Sacrifice in one: and this seems to be here implied in these words, Himself bore our sins in His own body, which the priest under the Law did not. So, Isa. 53:10, and Heb. 9:12, He made his soul an offering for sin. He offered up Himself, His whole self. In the history of the Gospel it is said that His soul was heavy,152 and chiefly suffered; but it is the bearing sin in His body, and offering it, that is most often mentioned as the visible part of the sacrifice, and in His way of offering it not excluding the other. Thus, we are exhorted to give our bodies, in opposition to the bodies of beasts, and they are therefore called a living sacrifice,153 which they are not without the soul. So, Christ's bearing our sin in His body imports the bearing of it in His soul too.
[3.] His bearing of our sins, hints that He was active and willing in His suffering for us; it was not a constrained offering. I lay down my life,154 as He Himself tells us; and this expression here, He bore, implies, He took willingly off, lifted from us that burden, to bear it Himself. It was counted an ill sign amongst the heathens, when the beasts went unwillingly to be sacrificed, and drew back, and a good omen when they went willingly. But never was a sacrifice so willing as our Great Sacrifice; and we may be assured He has appeased His Father's wrath, and wrought atonement for us. Isaac was in this a type of Christ; we hear of no reluctance; he submitted quietly to be bound when he was to be offered up. There are two words used in Isaiah 53:4, the one signifying bearing, the other taking away. This bearing includes, also, that taking away of the sins of the world, spoken of by St. John, which answers to both: and so He, the Great Antitype, answers to both the goats, the sin offering and the scape-goat.155 He bore our sins on His cross, and from there bore them away to His grave, and there they are buried; and those whose sins He did so bear, and take away, and bury, shall hear no more of them as theirs to bear. Is He not, then, worthy to be beheld in that notion under which John, in the aforementioned text, viewed Him and designated Him?—Behold the Lamb of God, who bears and takes away the sin of the world.156
You then, who are gazing on vanity, be persuaded to turn your eyes this way, and behold this lasting wonder, this Lord of Life dying! But the most, alas! lack a due eye for this object. It is the eye of faith alone that looks rightly on Him, and is daily discovering new worlds of excellence and delight in this crucified Savior; that can view Him daily, as hanging on the cross, without the childish, gaudy help of a crucifix, and grow in the knowledge of that love which passes knowledge, and rejoice itself in frequent thinking and speaking of Him, instead of those idle and vain thoughts at the best, and empty discourses, in which most delight, and wear out their day. What is all knowledge but painted folly compared to this? If you had Solomon's faculty to discourse of all plants, and had not the right knowledge of this root of Jesse; were you singular in the knowledge of the stars and of the course of the heavens, and could walk through the spheres with a Jacob's staff, but ignorant of this star of Jacob; if you knew the histories of all time, and the life and death of all the most famous princes, and could rehearse them all, but do not spiritually know and apply to yourself the death of Jesus as your life—you are still a wretched fool, and all your knowledge shall perish with you. On the other side, if your capacity or breeding has denied you the knowledge of all these things in which men glory so much, yet, you but learn Christ crucified— what would you have more? That shall make you happy forever. For this is life eternal, that they might know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.157
Here St. Paul takes up his rest, I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.158 As if he had said, Whatever else I knew, I resolved to be as if I knew nothing besides this, the only knowledge that I will rejoice in myself, and which I will labor to impart to others. I have tried and compared the rest—I find them all unworthy of their place beside this, and my whole soul too little for this. I have passed this judgment and sentence on all. I have adjudged myself to deny all other knowledge, and confine myself within this circle, and I am not constricted. No, there is room enough in it; it is larger than Heaven and earth, Christ, and Him crucified; the most despised and ignominious part of knowledge, yet the sweetest and most comfortable part of all—the root that all our hopes of life and spiritual joys spring from.
But the greatest part of mankind hears this subject as a story. Some are a little moved with the present sound of it, but they don't draw it home into their hearts, to make it theirs, and to find salvation in it, but still cleave to sin, and love sin better than Him who suffered for it.
But you whose hearts the Lord has deeply humbled under a sense of sin, come to this depth of consolation, and try it, that you experience the sweetness and riches of it. Study this point thoroughly, and you will find it answer all, and quiet your consciences. Apply this bearing of sin by the Lord Jesus for you, for it is published and made known to you for this purpose. This is the genuine and true use of it, as of the brazen serpent, not that the people might emptily gaze on the fabric of it, but to cure those that looked on it.159 When all that can be said, is said against you, "It is true," you may say, "but it is all satisfied for; He on whom I rest made it His, and bore it for me." The person of Christ is of more worth than all men, yes, than all the creatures, and, therefore, His life was a full ransom for the greatest offender.
And as for outward troubles and sufferings, which were the occasion of this doctrine in this place, they are all made exceedingly light by the removal of this great pressure. Let the Lord lay on me what He will, since He has taken off my sin, and laid that on His own Son in my stead. I may suffer many things, but He has borne that for me, which alone was able to make me miserable.
And you who have this persuasion, how will your hearts be taken up with His love, who has so loved you as to give Himself for you;160 who interposed Himself to bear off from you the stroke of everlasting death, and encountered all the wrath due to us, and went through with that great work, because of His unspeakable love? Let Him never go forth from my heart, who, for my sake, refused to come down from the cross.
II. The end of these sufferings. [That we being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness.] The Lord does nothing in vain; He has not made the least of His works to no purpose; in wisdom you have made them all,161 says the Psalmist. And this is true, not only regarding their excellent frame and order, but of their end, which is a chief point of wisdom. So then, in order to have the right knowledge of this great work put into the hands of Jesus Christ, it is of special concern to understand what its purpose is.
Now this is the thing which Divine wisdom and love aimed at in that great undertaking, and therefore it will be our truest wisdom, and the truest evidence of our reflected love, to intend the same thing, that in this, the same mind may be in us, that was in Christ Jesus,162 in His suffering for us; for this very end it is expressed, That we being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness.
In this there are three things to be considered: 1st, What this life and death is; 2ndly, The designing of it in the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ; 3rdly, The effecting of it by them.
1st. What this death and life is. Whatever it is, surely it is no small change that bears the name of the great and last natural change that we are subject to—death—and then another kind of life after it.
In this most are mistaken, in that they take any slight alteration in themselves for true conversion. A world of people are deluded with superficial moral changes in their life, some amendment of their outward actions and course of life, and somewhat too in the temper and habit of their mind. Far from reaching the bottom of nature's wickedness, and laying the axe to the root of the tree, it is such a work as men can make a shift with by themselves. But the renovation that the Spirit of God works is like Himself: it is so deep and thorough a work, that it is justly called by the name of the most substantial works and productions: a new birth, and more than that, a new creation, and here, a death and a kind of life following it.
This death to sin supposes a former living in it, and to it; and while a man does so, he is said indeed to be dead in sin, and yet it is also true that he lives in sin, as the Apostle, speaking of widows, joins the expression, She who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives.163 So Eph. 2:1, Dead in trespasses and sins, and he adds, wherein in time past you walked, ver. 2, which signifies a life, such a one as it is; and more expressly, ver. 3, We all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh. Now, to live thusly in sin is called being dead in it, because, in that condition, man is indeed dead regarding that Divine life of the soul, that happy being which it should have in union with God, for which it was made, and without which it had better not be at all. For that life, as it is different from its natural being, and a kind of life above it, is contrary to the corrupt being and life it had in sin. Therefore, to live in sin is to be dead in it, being deprived of the Divine being, the life of the soul in God, in comparison of which, not only the base life it has in sin, but the very natural life it has in the body, and which the body has by it, is not worthy of the name of life. When the body's thread of union with the soul is cut, it immediately becomes motionless lump, and within a little time, a putrefied, noxious carcass; thus the soul, cut off by sin from God who is its life, as the soul is the life of the body has no moving faculty in good, and becomes full of rottenness and vileness—as the word is, They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy.164 The soul, by turning away from God, turns filthy; yet, as a spiritually dead man lives naturally, he acts and spends that natural life in the ways of sin, so he is said to live in sin. Yea, there is something more in that expression than the mere passing of his life in that way; for instead of the happy life that his soul should have in God, he pleases himself in the miserable life of sin, that which is his death, as if it were the proper life of the soul: living in it imports that natural propensity he has to sin, and the continual delight he takes in it, as in his element, and living to it, as if that were the very purpose of his being. In that state neither his body nor his mind stirs without sin. Setting aside his manifest breaches of the Law, those actions that are evidently and totally sinful, his natural actions, his eating and drinking, his religious actions, his praying, and hearing, and preaching are sin at the bottom. And generally, his heart is nothing more than a forge of sin. Every imagination, every fiction of things framed there, is only evil continually;165 every day, and all the day long; it is his very trade and life.
Now, in opposition to this life of sin, this living in it, and to it, a Christian is said to die to sin, to be cut off or separated from it. In our miserable natural state, there is as close a union between us and sin, as between our souls and bodies: it lives in us, and we in it, and the longer we live in that condition, the more the union grows, and the harder it is to dissolve it; and it is as old as the union of soul and body, begun with it, so that nothing but the death here spoken of can part them. And this death, in this relative sense, is mutual; in the work of conversion, sin dies, and the soul dies to sin, and these two are really one and the same thing. The Spirit of God kills both at one blow, sin in the soul, and the soul to sin—as the Apostle says of himself and the world, each is crucified to the other.166
And there are in it chiefly these two things, which make the difference, [1.] The solidity, and [2.] The universality of this change here represented under the notion of Death.
Many things may come between a man and the commission of various sins that he might have great affection for. Some restraints, either outward or inward, may be upon him—the authority of others, the fear of shame or punishment, or the check of an enlightened conscience—and while because of these, he doesn't commit the sin that he would, yet he lives in it, because he loves it, because he would commit it—as we say the soul lives not so much where it animates, as where it loves. And generally, that metaphorical kind of life, by which man is said to live in anything, has its principal seat in the affection: that is the immediate link of the union in such a life; and the untying and death consists chiefly in the disengagement of the heart, the breaking off the affection from it. You who love the Lord, says the Psalmist, hate evil.167 An unrenewed mind might have some temporary dislikes even of its beloved sins in cold blood, but it returns to like them within a while. A man might not only have times of cessation from his usual way of sinning, but, because of the society where he is, and the withdrawal of occasions to sin, and various other causes, his very desire after it may seem to himself to be abated, and yet he may not be dead to sin, but only asleep to it. Therefore, when a temptation, backed with opportunity and other inducing circumstances, comes and jogs him, he awakes, and arises, and follows it.
A man may for a while, distaste some meat which he loves, (possibly upon a surfeit,) but he quickly regains his liking of it. Every quarrel with sin, every fit of dislike to it, is not the hatred that is implied in dying to sin. Upon the lively representation of the deformity of his sin to his mind, certainly a natural man might fall out with it; but this is but as the little jars of husband and wife, which are far from dissolving the marriage: it is not a fixed hatred, such as amongst the Jews inferred a divorce—If you hate her, put her away; that is to die to it, as by a legal divorce the husband and wife are civilly dead one to another in regard of the tie and use of marriage.
Again; some men's education, and custom, and moral principles, may free them from the grossest kind of sins, yea, a man's temperament may be disinclined to them, but they are alive to their own kind of sins, such as possibly are not so deformed in the common account, covetousness, or pride, or hardness of heart, and either a hatred or a disdain of the ways of holiness which are too strict for them, and exceed their size. Besides, for the good of human society, and for the interest of His own Church and people, God restrains many natural men from the height of wickedness, and gives them moral virtues. There are very many, and very common sins, which more refined natures, it may be, are scarcely tempted to; but as in their diet, and apparel, and other things in their natural life, they have the same kind of being with other persons, though they are more neat and elegant, so, in this living to sin, they live the same life with other ungodly men, though with a little more delicacy.
They don't consider that the devils are not in themselves subject to, nor capable of, many of those sins that are accounted grossest amongst men, and yet are greater rebels and enemies to God than men are.
But to be dead to sin goes deeper, and extends further than all this; it involves a most inward alienation of heart from sin, and most universal from all sin, an antipathy to the most beloved sin. Not only must the believer forbear sin, but hate it—I hate vain thoughts;168 and not only does he hate some, but all—I hate every false way.169 A stroke at the heart does it, which is the most certain and quickest death of any wound. For in this dying to sin, the whole man of necessity dies to it: the mind dies to the device and study of sin, that vein of invention becomes dead; the hand dies to the acting of it; the ear, to the delightful hearing of things profane and sinful; the tongue, to the world's dialect of oaths, and rotten speaking, and slander, and evil-speaking, which is the most common piece of the tongue's life in sin,—the very natural heat of sin exerts and vents itself most that way: the eye becomes dead to that intemperate look that Solomon speaks of, when he cautions us against eyeing the wine when it is red, and well-colored in the cup:170 it is not taken with looking on the glittering skin of that serpent until it bites and stings, as there he adds. It becomes also dead to that unchaste look which kindles fire in the heart, to which Job blindfolded and deadened his eyes, by an express compact and agreement with them: I made a covenant with my eyes.171
The eye of a godly man is not fixed on the false sparkling of the world's pomp, honor, and wealth; it is dead to them, being quite dazzled with a greater beauty. The grass looks fine in the morning, when it is set with those liquid pearls, the drops of dew that shine upon it; but if you can look but a little while on the body of the sun, and then look down again, the eye is as it were dead; it sees not that faint shining on the earth that it thought so gay before: and as the eye is blinded, and dies to it, so, within a few hours, that gaiety quite vanishes and dies itself.
Men think it strange that the godly are not fond of their diet, that their appetite is not stirred with the delights of dainties; they know not that those who are Christians indeed are dead to those things, and the best dishes that are set before a dead man give him not a stomach. The godly man's throat is cut to those meats,172 as Solomon advises in another subject. But can't you be a little more sociable to follow the fashion of the world, and take a share with your neighbors, some may say, without so precisely and narrowly examining everything? It is true, says the Christian, that the time was when I consulted as little with conscience as others, but sought myself, and pleased myself, as they do, and looked no further; but that was when I was alive to those ways; but now, truly I am dead to them—and can you look for activity and conversation from a dead man? The pleasures of sin in which I lived are still the same, but I am not the same. Are you such a sneak and a fool, says the natural man, as to bear affronts, and swallow them, and say nothing? Can you allow yourself to be so abused by such and such a wrong? Indeed, says the Christian again, I could once have resented an injury, as you or another would, and had somewhat of what you call high-heartedness, when I was alive after your fashion; but now that humor is not only something cooled, but it is killed in me; it is cold dead, as you say; and a greater Spirit, I think, than my own, has taught me another lesson, has made me both deaf and dumb that way, and has given me a new vent, and another language, and another Party to speak to on such occasions. Those who seek my hurt, says David, speak mischievous things, and imagine deceits all the day long. What does he do in this case? But I, as a deaf man, heard not; and I was as a dumb man that opens not his mouth. And why? For in you, O Lord, do I hope.173 And for this deadness that you despise, I have seen Him who died for me, who when he was reviled, reviled not again.
This is the true character of a Christian; he is dead to sin. But alas! where is this Christian to be found? And yet thus is everyone who truly partakes of Christ; he is dead to sin really. Hypocrites have a historical kind of death like this, as players in tragedies. Those players have loose bags of blood that receive the wound: so the hypocrite in some externals, and it may be, in that which is as near him as any outward thing, his purse, may suffer some bloodshed of that for Christ. But this death to sin is not a swooning fit, which one may recover out of again: the Apostle adds, that the believer is buried with Christ.174
But this is an unpleasant subject, to talk thus of death and burial. The very name of death, in the softest sense it can have, makes a sour, melancholy discourse. It is so indeed, if you take it alone, if there were not, for the life that is lost, a far better one immediately following: but so it is here: living unto righteousness, succeeds dying to sin.
That which makes natural death so fearful, the King of terrors,175 as Job calls it, is mainly this faint belief and assurance of the resurrection and glory to come; and without this, all men's moral resolutions and discourses are too weak cordials against this fear. They may set a good face on it, and speak big, and so cover the fear they cannot cure; but certainly, those are a little ridiculous, who would persuade men to be content to die, by reasoning from the necessity and unavoidableness of it, which, taken alone, rather may beget a desperate discontentment than a quiet compliance. The very weakness of that argument is, that it is too strong durum telum—a hard weapon. That of company is fantastic: it may please the imagination, but it does not satisfy the judgment. Nor are the miseries of life, though an argument somewhat more proper, a full incentive to meet death without reluctance; the oldest, the most decrepit, and most diseased persons, yet naturally fall not out with life, but could have a mind to it still; and the very truth is this, the worst cottage anyone dwells in, he is loath to go out of, till he knows of a better. And the reason why that which is so hideous to others, was so sweet to Martyrs, and other godly men who have heartily embraced death, and welcomed it though in very terrible shapes, was because they had firm assurance of immortality beyond it.176 The ugly death's head, when the light of glory shines through the holes of it, is comely and lovely. To look upon Death as Eternity's birthday, is that which makes it not only tolerable, but amiable. Hic dies postremus, aeterni natalis est—This last day is the birthday of eternity,—is the word I admire more than any other that ever dropped from a heathen.
Thus here, the strongest inducement to this death is the true notion and contemplation of this life to which it transfers us. It is most necessary to represent this, for a natural man has as great an aversion every whit from this figurative death, this dying to sin, as from natural death; and there is the greater necessity of persuading him to this, because his consent is necessary to it. No man dies this death to sin unwillingly, although no man is naturally willing to it. Much of this death consists in a man's consenting thus to die; and this is not only a lawful, but a laudable, yea, a necessary self-murder. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth,177 says the Apostle. Now no sinner would be content to die to sin, if that were all; but if it is passing to a more excellent life, then he gains, and it were a folly not to seek this death. It was a strange power of Plato's discourse of the soul's immortality, that moved a young man, upon reading it, to throw himself into the sea, that he might leap through it to that immortality; but truly, were this life of God, this life to righteousness, and the excellence and delight of it known, it would gain many minds to this death whereby we step into it.
But there is a necessity of a new being as the principle of new action and motion. The Apostle says, For when you were the servants of sin, you were free from righteousness;178 so it is, while you were alive to sin, you were dead to righteousness. But there is a new breath of life from Heaven breathed on the soul. Then the soul lives indeed, when it is one with God, and sees light in His light179—has a spiritual knowledge of Him, and therefore sovereignly loves Him, and delights in His will. And this is indeed to live unto righteousness, which, in a comprehensive sense, takes in the whole frame of the Christian life, and all the duties of it towards God and towards men.
By this new nature, the very natural motion of the soul so taken, is obedience to God; and walking in the paths of righteousness, it can no more live in the habit and ways of sin, than a man can live under water. Sin is not the Christian's element; it is as much too gross for his renewed soul, as the water is for his body—he may fall into it, but he cannot breathe in it; cannot take delight, and continue to live in it. But his delight is in the law of the Lord;180 that is the walk that his soul refreshes itself in; he loves it entirely, and loves it most, where it most crosses the remainders of corruption that are within him. He bends the strength of his soul to please God; aims wholly at that; it takes up his thoughts early and late. He has no other purpose in his being and living, than only to honor his Lord. This is to live unto righteousness. He does not make a pastime of it, a study for his spare hours—no, it is his main business, his all. In his law does he meditate day and night. This life, like the natural one, is seated in the heart, and from there diffuses itself to the whole man; he loves righteousness and receives the truth (as the Apostle speaks) in the love of it. A natural man may do many things, which, as to their shell and outside, are righteous; but he lives not to righteousness, because his heart is not possessed and ruled by the love of it. But this life makes the godly man delight to walk uprightly and to speak of righteousness; his language and ways carry the resemblance of his heart. I know it is easiest to act the part of religion that is in the tongue, but the Christian, nevertheless, ought not to be spiritually dumb. Because some birds are taught to speak, men do not for that give it over, and stop speaking. The mouth of the righteous speaks wisdom, and his tongue talks of judgment. And his feet strive to keep pace with his tongue, which gives evidence of its sincerity—None of his steps shall slide, or, he shall not stagger in his steps. But that which is between these, is the common spring of both: The law of God is in his heart,181 and from there, as Solomon says, are the issues of life.182 The law in his heart is the principle of this living to righteousness.
2. The second thing here, is, that it was the design of the sufferings and death of Christ, to produce in us this death and life: He bore sin, and died for it, that we might die to it.
Out of some conviction of the consequence of sin, many have a confused desire to be justified, to have sin pardoned, but look no further—they don't think about the importance and necessity of Sanctification, the nature of which is expressed by this dying to sin, and living to righteousness.
But here we see that Sanctification is necessary as inseparably connected with Justification, not only as its companion, but also as its end, which, in some sort, raises it above the other. We see that it was the thing that God eyed and intended, in taking away the guiltiness of sin, that we might be renewed and sanctified. If we compare them in point of time; if we look backward, holiness was always necessary for happiness; but satisfaction for sin, and the pardon of it, were made necessary by sin: or, if we look forward, the state we are appointed to, and for which we have been delivered from wrath, is an state of perfect holiness. When we reflect upon that great work of redemption, we see it aimed at there, redeemed to be holy.183 And if we go yet higher, to the very spring, the decree of election, with regard to that it is said, Chosen before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy.184 And the end shall suit the design: nothing shall enter into the New Jerusalem that is defiled or unholy; nothing but perfect purity is there; not a spot of sinful pollution, not a wrinkle of the old man. For this end was that great work undertaken by the Son of God, that He might frame out of polluted mankind a new and holy generation for His Father, who might surround His throne in the life of glory, and give Him pure praises, and behold His face in that eternity. Now for this end it was necessary, according to the all-wise purpose of the Father, that the guiltiness of sin and sentence of death should be once removed; and thus the burden of that lay upon Christ's shoulders on the cross. That done, it is further necessary that souls so delivered should be likewise purged and renewed, for they are designed for perfection of holiness in the end, and it must begin here.
Yet it is not possible to persuade men of this, that Christ had this in His eye and purpose when He was lifted up on the cross, and looked upon the whole company of those His Father had given Him to save, that He would redeem them to be a number of holy persons. We would be redeemed; who is there who would not? But Christ would have His redeemed ones holy; and those who are not true to this His end, but cross and oppose Him in it, may hear of redemption long and often, but little to their comfort. Are you resolved still to abuse and delude yourselves? Well, whether you will believe it or not, this is once more told you: there is unspeakable comfort in the death of Christ, but it belongs only to those who are dead to sin, and alive to righteousness. This circle shuts out the impenitent world; there it closes, and cannot be broken through; but all who are penitent, are by their effectual calling lifted into it, translated from that accursed condition wherein they were. So then, if you will live in your sins, you may; but then, resolve to bear them yourselves, for Christ, in His bearing of sin, meant the benefit of none but those who are in due time thus dead, and thus alive with Him.
3. But then, in the third place, Christ's sufferings and death effect all this. [1.] As the exemplary cause, the lively contemplation of Christ crucified, is the most powerful of all thoughts, to separate the heart and sin. But [2.] besides this example, working as a moral cause, Christ is the effective natural cause of this death and life; for He is one with believers, and there is a real influence of His death and life into their souls. This mysterious union of Christ and believers, is that upon which both their justification and sanctification, the whole frame of their salvation and happiness, depend. And in this particular view the Apostle still insists on it, speaking of Christ and believers as one in His death and resurrection, crucified with Him, dead with Him, buried with Him and risen with Him.185 Being arisen He applies His death to those He died for, and by it kills the life of sin in them, and so is avenged on it for its being the cause of His death: according to that expression of the Psalmist, Raise me up, that I may requite them.186 Christ infuses, and then actuates and stirs up that faith and love in them, by which they are united to Him; and these work powerfully in producing this.
[3.] Faith looks so steadfastly upon its suffering Savior, that, as they say, Intellectus fit illud quod intelligit—The mind becomes that which it contemplates. It makes the soul like Him, assimilates and conforms it to His death, as the Apostle speaks.187 That which some fabulously say of some of their saints, that they received the impression of the wounds of Christ in their body, is true, in a spiritual sense, of the soul of everyone who is indeed a saint and a believer; it takes the very print of His death, by beholding Him, and dies to sin; and then takes that of His rising again, and lives to righteousness. As it applies it to justify, so to mortify, drawing virtue from it. Thus said one, "Christ aimed at this in all those sufferings which, with so much love, He went through; and shall I disappoint Him, and not serve His end?"
[4.] The other powerful grace of love joins in this work with faith; for love desires nothing more than likeness and conformity: though it be a painful resemblance, so much the better and fitter to testify love. Therefore it will have the soul die with Him who died for it, and the very same kind of death: I am crucified with Christ,188 says the great Apostle. The love of Christ in the soul takes the very nails that fastened Him to the cross, and crucifies the soul to the world, and to sin. Love is strong as death, particularly in this. The strongest and liveliest body, when death seizes it, must yield, and that become motionless, which was so vigorous before: thus the soul that is most active and unwearied in sin, when this love seizes it, is killed to sin; and as death separates a man from his dearest friends and society, this love breaks all its ties and friendship with sin. Generally, as Plato has it, love takes away one's living in one's self, and transfers it into the party loved: but the Divine love of Christ does it in the truest and highest manner.
By whose stripes you were healed.] The misery of fallen man, and the mercy of his deliverance, are both of such a depth that no single expression, yea, no variety of expressions, added one to another, can reach their bottom. Here we have some very significant ones. 1. The guiltiness of sin as an intolerable burden, pressing the soul and sinking it, and that transferred and laid on a stronger back: He bore. Then, 2. The same wretchedness, under the notion of a strange disease, by all other means incurable, healed by His stripes. And, 3. It is again represented by the forlorn condition of a sheep wandering, and our salvation to be found only in the love and wisdom of our great Shepherd. And all these are borrowed from that sweet and clear prophecy in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah.
The polluted nature of man is none other than a bundle of desperate diseases: he is spiritually dead, as the Scriptures often teach. Now this doesn't contradict, or at all lessen the matter; but only because this misery, justly called death, exists in a subject animated with a natural life, therefore, so considered, it may bear the name and sense of sickness, or wounds: and therefore it is a gross mistake,—they are as much out in their argument as in their conclusion, who would extract out of these expressions, any evidence that there are remains of spiritual life or good in our corrupted nature. But they are not worthy the contest, though vain heads think to argue themselves into life, and are seeking the life, by logic, in miserable nature, that they should seek, by faith, in Jesus Christ, namely, in these His stripes by which we are healed.
It would be a large task to name our spiritual maladies; how much more to unfold their various natures! Such a multitude of corrupt false principles in the mind, which, as gangrene, spread themselves through the soul, and defile the whole man; that total gross blindness and unbelief in spiritual things, and that stone of the heart, hardness and impenitence; lethargies of senselessness and security; and then, (for there are such complications of spiritual diseases in us, as in natural, are altogether impossible,) such burning fevers of inordinate affections and desires, of lust, and malice, and envy, such racking and tormenting cares of covetousness, and feeding on earth and ashes,189 (as the Prophet speaks in another case,) according to the depraved appetite that accompanies some diseases; such tumours of pride and self-conceit, that break forth, as filthy blotches, in men's words and behavior with one another! In a word, what a strange disorder must be in the natural soul, by the frequent interchanges and fight of contrary passions within it! And, besides all these, how many deadly wounds do we receive from without, by the temptations of Satan and the world! We entertain them, and by the weapons with which they furnish us, we willingly wound ourselves; as the Apostle says, Those who will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, and pierce themselves through with many sorrows.190
If we could see it, no infirmary or hospital was ever so full of loathsome and miserable spectacles, as in a spiritual sense, our wretched nature is in any one of us apart—how much more when multitudes of us meet together? But our evils are hidden from us, and we perish miserably in a dream of happiness. This makes up and completes our wretchedness, that we feel it not with our other diseases; and this makes it worse still. This was the Church's disease,191 You say, I am rich,—and know not that you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, &c. We are usually full of complaints of trifling griefs which are of little importance, and don't think about, or feel our dangerous maladies; as he who showed a physician his sore finger, but the physician told him taht he had more need to think on the cure of a dangerous imposthume (abscess) within him, which he perceived by looking at him, though himself did not feel it.
In dangerous maladies or wounds, there are these evils: a tendency to death, and with that, the apprehension of the terror and fear of it, and the present distemper of the body. So, there are in sin, 1. The guiltiness of sin binding over the soul to death, the most frightful, eternal death; 2. The terror of conscience in the apprehension of that death, or the wrath that is the consequence and end of sin; 3. The raging and prevailing power of sin, which is the ill habitude and distemper of the soul. But these stripes, and the blood that issued from them, are a sound cure. Applied to the soul, they take away the guiltiness of sin, and death deserved, and free us from our engagement to the everlasting scourgings and lashes of the wrath of God; and they are likewise the only cure for the present terrors and pangs of conscience, arising from the sense of that wrath, and sentence of death upon the soul. Our iniquities which met on Him, laid open to the rod His back which in itself was free. Those hands that never worked iniquity, and those feet that never departed from the way of righteousness, yet, for our works and wanderings, were pierced; and that tongue dropped with vinegar and gall on the cross, which never spoke a guileful or sinful word. The blood of those stripes is the balm issuing from that Tree of Life so pierced, which alone can give ease to the conscience, and heal the wounds of it: they deliver from the power of sin, working by their influence a loathing of sin, which was the cause of them; they cleanse out the vicious humors of our corrupt nature, by opening that issue of repentance; They shall look on Him, and mourn over Him whom they have pierced.192
Now, in order for it to cure, it must be applied; it is the only remedy; but, in order to heal, it must be received. The most sovereign medicines cure not in any other manner, and, therefore, still their first letter is R, Remedy, take such a thing.
This is amongst the wonders of that great work, that the sovereign Lord of all, who binds and looses at His pleasure the influences of Heaven, and the power and workings of all the creatures, would Himself in our flesh be thus bound—the only Son bound as a slave, and scourged as a malefactor! And His willing obedience made this an acceptable and expiating sacrifice, amongst the rest of His sufferings: I gave my back to the smiters.193
Now, it cannot be that anyone who is thus healed, reflecting upon this cure, can again take any constant delight in sin. It is impossible so far to forget both the grief it gave them, and that which it cost their Lord, as to make a new agreement with it, to live in the pleasure of it.
His stripes.] Turn your thoughts, each one of you, to consider this; you who are not healed, that you may be healed; and you who are, apply it still to perfect the cure in the part in which it is gradual and incomplete; and for the ease you have found, bless and love Him who endured so much uneasiness to that end. There is a sweet mixture of sorrow and joy in contemplating these stripes; sorrow, surely, by sympathy, that they were His stripes; and joy, that they were our healing. Christians are too little aware and sensible of this, and, it may be, are somewhat guilty of that with which Ephraim is charged: They knew not that I healed them.194
Ver. 25. For you were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
In these few words, we have a brief, yet clear representation of the wretchedness of our natural condition, and of our happiness in Christ. The resemblance is borrowed from the same place in the prophet Isaiah.195
Not to press the comparison, or as is too common with commentators, to strain it beyond the purpose, in reference to our lost state, this is all, or the main circumstance in which the resemblance with sheep holds,—our wandering, as forlorn and exposed to destruction, like a sheep that has strayed and wandered from the fold. So taken, it signifies, indeed, the loss of a better condition, the loss of the safety and happiness of the soul, of the good that is proper to it, as the suitable good of the brute creature here named is safe and good pasture.
So we may know that no one is exempt in nature from the guiltiness and misery of this wandering, the Prophet is explicit as to the universality of it. All we have gone astray. And the Apostle here applies it in particular to his brethren; so it falls not wrongly to any others. You were as sheep going astray. Yea, the Prophet there, to the collective universal, adds a distributive, Every man to his own way, or, a man to his way. They agree in this, that they all wander, though they differ in their several ways. There is an inbred proneness to stray in all of them, more than in sheep which are creatures naturally wandering, for each man has his own way.
And this is our folly, that we flatter ourselves by comparison, and everyone is pleased with himself because he is free from some wanderings of others; not considering that he is a wanderer too, though in another way; he has his way, as those he looks on have theirs. And as men agree in wandering, though they differ in their way, so those ways agree in this, that they lead to misery, and shall end in that. Do you think that the only way to Hell is by the way of open profaneness? Yes, surely, many ways seem smooth and clean in a man's own eyes, and yet will end in condemnation.196 Truth is but one; Error endless and interminable. As we say of natural life and death, so may we say regarding spiritual, the way to life is one, but there are many out of it. Lethi mille aditus—a thousand avenues to death. Not everyone has the opportunity or ability for every sin, or every degree of sin, but each sins after his own mode and power.197
Your tongue, it may be, doesn't wander in the common pathway of oaths and curses, yet it wanders in secret slanders, in detraction and defamation of others, though so conveyed as it scarcely appears; or, if you speak them not, yet you are pleased to hear them. It wanders, in trifling away the precious hours of irrecoverable time with vain, unprofitable babblings in your conversation—or, if you are often alone, or silent in company, does not your foolish mind still hunt vanity, following one self-pleasing scheme or the other, and seldom, and very slightly, if at all, converse with God and the things of Heaven, which, although they only have the truest and the highest pleasure in them, your carnal mind finds them tasteless and unsavory? There is scarcely anything so light and childish that you will not more willingly and liberally bestow your retired thoughts on, than upon those excellent, incomparable delights. Oh, the foolish heart of man! When it may seem deep and serious, how often is it at Domitian's exercise in his study, catching flies!
Men think little of the wandering of their hearts, and yet truly, that is most of all to be considered; for out of it are the issues of life.198 It is the heart that has forgotten God, and is roving after vanity—this causes all the errors of men's words and actions. A wandering heart makes wandering eyes, feet, and tongue: it is the leading wanderer that misleads all the rest. And as we are here called straying sheep, so, within the heart itself of each of us, there is as it were a whole wandering flock, a multitude of fictions, ungodly devices.199 The word that signifies the evil of the thought in Hebrew is taken from that which signifies feeding of a flock, and it likewise signifies wandering; and so these meet in our thoughts, they are a great flock and a wandering flock. This is the natural freedom of our thoughts—they are free to wander from God and Heaven, and to carry us to perdition. And we are guilty of much pollution in thought, which we never act on in deed. Men are less aware of heart wickedness, if it doesn't break forth; but the heart is far more active in sin than any of the senses, or the whole body. The motion of spirits is far swifter than that of bodies. The mind can go more distance in any of these wanderings in one hour, than the body is able to follow in many days.
When the body is tied to attendance in the exercises in which we are employed, yet, know you not,—it is so much the worse if you do not know, and feel it, and bewail it,—know you not, I say, that the heart can take its liberty, and leave you nothing but a carcass? This the unrenewed heart does continually. They come to you,—and they sit before you as my people,—but their heart goes after their covetousness.200 It has another way to go, another god to wait on.
But are now returned.] Whatever are the several ways of our straying, all our wandering is the aversion of the heart from God, which of necessity follows a continual unsettledness and disquiet. The mind, as a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed,201 tumbles from one sin and vanity to another, and finds no rest; or, as a sick person tosses from one side to another, and from one part of his bed to another, and perhaps changes his bed, in hope of ease, but still it is further off, thus is the soul in all its wanderings. But shift and change as it will, no rest shall it find until it comes to this returning. Why gad you about so much to change your way? You also shall be ashamed of Egypt, as you were ashamed of Assyria.202 Nothing but sorrow and shame, until you change all those ways for this one. Return, O Israel, says the Lord, if you will return, return unto Me. It is not changing one of your own ways for another, that will profit you; but in returning to Me is your salvation.
Since we find in our own experience, besides the woeful end of our wanderings, the present perplexity and disquiet of them, why are we not persuaded to this, to give them all up? Return unto your rest, O my soul,203 says David: this is our wisdom.
But is not that God in whom we expect rest incensed against us for our wandering? and is He not, being offended, a consuming fire? True, but this is the way to find acceptance and peace, and satisfying comforts in returning. Come first to this Shepherd of souls, Jesus Christ, and by Him, come to the Father. No man comes unto the Father, says He, but by me.204 This is via regia—the royal way, the high and right way of returning to God. John 10:11—I am the good shepherd; and ver. 9, I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved. But if he misses this Door, he shall miss salvation too. You are returned, says our Apostle, unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
There are three things necessary to restore us to our happiness, when we have departed in our wanderings: 1. To take away the guiltiness of those former wanderings. 2. To reduce us into the way again. 3. To keep and lead us in it.
Now all these can only be performed by this great Shepherd. 1. He satisfied the offence of our wanderings, and removed our guiltiness. He Himself, the Shepherd, became a sacrifice for His flock, a sheep, or spotless lamb. So Isa. 53:6, We like sheep have gone astray, and immediately after the mention of our straying it is added, The Lord has laid, or, made meet on Him, the iniquity of us all, of all our strayings; and ver. 7, He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter. He who is our Shepherd, the same is the Lamb for sacrifice. So our Apostle (ch. 1), We are redeemed, not by silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. So John 10:11, He is the good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep. Men don't think on this; many of them who have some thoughts of returning and amendment, think not that there is a satisfaction due for past wanderings; and therefore they pass by Christ, and consider not the necessity of returning to Him, and by Him to the Father.
2. He brings them back into the way of life: You are returned. But don't think that it is by their own knowledge and skill that they discover their error, and find the right path, or that by their own strength they return to it. No, if we would contest grammaticisms, the word here is passive: you are returned, reduced, or caused to return. But this truth hangs not on such weak notions as are often used, either for or against it. In that prophecy, Ezek. 34:16, God says, I will seek and bring again, &c. And David says, He restores (or returns) my soul.205 And that this is the work of this Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, God-man, is clearly and frequently taught in the Gospel. He came for this very end: it was His errand and business in the world, to seek and to save that which was lost.206 And thus it is represented in the parable, He goes after that which is lost, until he finds it, and then having found it, not only shows it the way, and says to it, Return, and so leave it to come after, but he lays it on his shoulder, and brings it home; and notwithstanding all his pains, instead of complaining against it for wandering, he rejoices in that he has found and recovered it: he lays it on his shoulder rejoicing.207 And in this, there is as much of the resemblance as in any other thing. Lost man can no more return unsought, than a sheep that wanders, which is observed of all creatures to have least of that skill. Men may have some confused thoughts of returning, but to know the way and to come, unless they are sought out, they are unable. This is David's appeal, though acquainted with the fold, I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant.208 This is what our great and good Shepherd did; through the difficult ways He was to pass for finding us, in which He not only hazarded, but really laid down His life; and those shoulders which bore the iniquity of our wanderings by expiation, are the same that carry and bring us back from it by effectual conversion.
3. He keeps and leads us on in the way to which He has restored us. He leaves us not again to try our own skill, whether we can walk to Heaven alone, being set in the path of it, but He still conducts us in it by His own hand, and that is the cause of our persisting in it, and attaining the blessed end of it. He restores my soul, says the Psalmist; and that is not all: he adds, He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.209 Those paths are the green pastures meant, and the still waters that he speaks of.210 And thus we may be resolved if we are of His flock. Are we led in the paths of righteousness? Do we delight ourselves in Him, and in His ways? Are they the proper refreshment of our souls? Do we find His words sweet to our taste? Are we taken with the green pastures in it, and the crystal streams of consolations that glide through it? Can we discern His voice, and does it draw our hearts, so that we follow it?211
The Shepherd and Bishop.] It was the style of Kings to be called Shepherds; and it is the dignity of the Ministers of the Gospel to have both these names. But this great Shepherd and Bishop is peculiarly worthy of these names, as supreme; He alone is the universal Shepherd and Bishop, and none but an antichrist, who makes himself as Christ, killing and destroying the flock, will assume this title, which belongs only to the Lord, the great Owner of His flock. He Himself is their great Shepherd and Bishop. All shepherds and bishops who are truly such, have their function and place from Him; they hold of Him, and follow His rule and example, in their inspection of the flock. It would be the happiness of kingdoms, if magistrates and kings would set Him, His love, and meekness and equity, before their eyes in their government. And all those who are properly His bishops, are especially obliged to study this pattern, to warm their affections to the flock, and to excite a tender care for their salvation, by looking on this Arch-bishop and Arch-shepherd, (as our Apostle calls Him,) and in their measure, to follow His footsteps, spending their life and strength in seeking the good of His sheep, considering that they are subordinately shepherds of souls, that is, in dispensing spiritual things so communicable.
The Lord Jesus is supremely and singularly such; those under Him are shepherds of souls, because their diligence concerns the soul, which excludes not the body in spiritual respects, as it is capable of things spiritual and eternal, by its union with the soul. But Christ is sovereign Shepherd of souls above all, and singularly, in that He not only teaches them the doctrine of salvation, but purchased salvation for them, and inasmuch as He reaches the soul powerfully, which ministers cannot do by their own power. He lays hold on it, and restores, and leads it, and causes it to walk in His ways. In this sense it agrees to Him alone, as supreme, in the incommunicable sense.
And from His guidance, power, and love, flows all the comfort of His flock. When they consider their own folly and weakness, this only gives them confidence, that His hand guides them; and they believe in His strength, far surpassing that of the roaring lion, His wisdom, in knowing their particular state and their weakness, and His tender love, in pitying them, and applying Himself to it. Other shepherds, even faithful ones, may mistake them, and not know the way of leading them in some particulars, and they may be sometimes lacking in that tender affection that they owe; or, if they have that, yet they are not able to bear them up, and support them powerfully; but this Shepherd is perfect in all these respects. The young and weak Christian, or the elder at weak times, when they are big and heavy with some inward exercise of mind, which shall bring forth advantage and peace to them afterwards, them He leads gently, and uses them with the tenderness that their weakness requires.212
And, in the general, He provides for His flock, and heals them when they are hurt in any way, and washes them and makes them fruitful; so that they are as the flock, described in Cant. 4:2; they are comely, but their Shepherd much more so: Formosi pecoris custos, formosior ipse—The keeper of a lovely flock, himself more lovely. They are given to Him in the Father's purpose and choice, and so, those who return, are, even while they wander, sheep in some other sense than the rest that perish. They are, in the secret love of election, of Christ's sheepfold, though not as yet actually brought into it. But when His time comes, wherever they wander, and however far off , even those who have strayed most, yet He restores them, and rejoices Heaven with their return, and leads them until He brings them to partake of the joy that is there. That is the end of the way in which He guides them. My sheep hear my voice—and they follow me.213 And they shall never repent of having done so. To follow Him, is to follow life, for He is the life. He is in that glory which we desire; and where would we be, if not where He is, who, at His departure from the world, said, Where I am, there you may be also?214 To this happy meeting and heavenly abode, may God, of His infinite mercy, bring us, through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen.