The Method of Grace

by John Flavel

Of the Aggravation of the Sin, and Punishment
of Unbelief under the light of the Gospel

"And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and
men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil."
    John 3:19     
Out of the foregoing verse it was fully proved in our last sermon,
that all Christless and unregenerate men are no better than dead
men, being condemned already. Our Savior proceeds in this verse to
aggravate the misery of those that refuse and despise him; yet
farther, and to let them know, that those who remain in unbelief and
the state of unregeneracy, must expect some greater and sorer wrath
than other men; not only a simple condemnation, but an aggravated
and peculiar condemnation, "This is the condemnation, that light is
come," &c.
    In the words we find these three parts.
    1. The aggravation of sin by the abuse of gospel-light, "Light
is come," &c.
    2. The aggravation of misery, in proportion to that abuse of
light, "This is the condemnation."
    3. The cause and occasion, drawing men into this sin and misery
"Because their deeds were evil."
    First, We have here the aggravation of sin by the abuse of
gospel light, "Light is come." By light we are to understand the
knowledge, discovery, and manifestation of Christ, and redemption by
him in the gospel. He is the Sun of righteousness that arises in the
gospel upon the nations, Mal 4: 1. When he came in the flesh, then
did "the day spring from on high visit us," Luke 1: 78. And the
light may be said to come two ways; either,
    First, In the means by which it is conveyed to us; or,
Secondly, in the efficacy of it upon our minds, when it actually
shines in our souls. Light may come among a people in the means, and
yet they actually remain in darkness all the while. As it is in
nature; the sun may be up and a very glorious morning far advanced,
while many thousands are drowning upon their beds with their
curtains drawn about them. Light in the means, we may call potential
light. Light in the mind, we may call actual light. It is but seldom
that light comes in the means, and continues long among men, but
some light must needs actually shine into their souls also; but this
actual light is twofold.
    1. Common, and intellectual only, to conviction; or,
    2. Special and efficacious light, bringing the soul to Christ
by real conversion, called, in 1 Cor. 4: 6. - God "shining into the
    Wherever light comes, in this last sense, it is impossible that
such men should prefer darkness before it: But it may come in the
means, yes, it may actually shine into the consciences of men by
those means, and convince them of their sins, and yet men may hate
it, and chuse darkness rather than light. And this is the sense of
this place, light was come in the gospel-dispensation among them,
yes, it had shined into many of their consciences, galled and
reproved them for sin, but they hated it, and had rather be without
such a troublesome inmate. In a word, by the coming of light, we are
here to understand a more clear and open manifestation of Christ by
the gospel than ever was made to the world before: For we are not to
think that there was no light in the world until Christ came, and the
gospel was published in the world by the apostles' ministry. For
Abraham saw Christ's day, John 8: 56. and all the faithful before
Christ saw the promises, that is their accomplishment in Christ, afar
off, Heb. 11: 13. For it was with Christ, the Sun of righteousness,
as it is with the natural sun, "which illuminates the hemisphere
before it actually rises or shows its body above the horizon;" but
when it rises and shows itself, the light is much clearer; so it was
in this case. The greater therefore was their sin that rebelled
against it, and preferred darkness to light; this was their sin,
with its fearful aggravation.
    Secondly, In a most just proportion to this sin, we have here
the aggravated condemnation of them who sinned against such clear
gospel-light: "This is the condemnation," this is the judgment of
all judgements, the greatest sad most intolerable judgment; a
severer sentence of condemnation than ever did pass against any
others that sinned in the times of ignorance and darkness: they that
live and die impenitent and unregenerate, however few the means
of salvation have been which they have enjoyed, must be condemned:
yes, the Pagan world, who have no more but natural light to help
them, will be condemned by that light; but "this is the
condemnation," that is such sinning as this is the cause of the
greatest condemnation and sorest punishment, as it is called, Heb.
10: 19.
    Thirdly, The cause and occasion, drawing men into this sin and
misery, "because their deeds are evil," that is the convincing fight of
truth put a great deal of vigor and activity into their
consciences, which they could not endure. The accusations and
condemnations of conscience are very irksome and troublesome
things to men: To avoid this, They are willing to be ignorant. An
enlightened conscience gives an interruption also unto men in their
sinful courses and pleasures; they cannot sin at so easy a rate in
the light as they did in darkness; and this made them hate the light
as a very troublesome thing to them. Thus you see what was the sin,
what the punishment, and what the cause of both.
                      Hence the Observation is,
    Doctrine. That the greater and clearer the light is under which the
         impenitent and unregenerate do live in this world, by so
         much greater and heavier will their condemnation and misery
         be in the world to come.
    Mat. 11: 21, 22. "Woe unto you Chorazin, woe unto you
Bethsaida; for if the mighty works which were done in you, had been
done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in
sackcloth and ashes: But I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable
for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment than for you". Two things
require explication in the doctrinal part of this point, namely,
    1. How light puts a deeper guilt and aggravation into sin.
    2. Why sin so aggravated, makes men liable to greater
    First, We will enquire into the grounds and reasons why greater
lights greatens and aggravates, proportionately, the sins that are
committed under it, and it will appear that it does so, upon divers
    First, All light (especially evangelical light) is a great
preservative from sin, and an excellent means to prevent it: It is
the property of light to inform the judgement, and rectify the
mistakes and errors of it; and thereby to give check to the
affections in the pursuit of sinful designs and courses: It is a
plain case, that many men would never do as they do, if their
understandings were better informed. 1 Cor. 2: 8. "Which none of the
princes of the world knew; for had they known it, they would not
have crucified the Lord of glory." It was want of light and better
information which drew them under that horrid and unparalleled
guilt. Our Savior also supposes, in the place before cited, that if
Tyre and Sidon had enjoyed the same light and means of grace that
Chorazin and Bethsaida did, they would never have been so sinful as
they were: light discovers danger, and thereby overawes and stops
men from proceeding farther in those parts and courses that will run
them into it.
    Secondly, Sinning under and against the light, supposes and
involves in it a greater contempt and despite of God's authority,
than sinning in ignorance and darkness does. Every man that breaks
the law of God, does not in the same degree, despise and slight the
authority of the law maker: But when a man has light to discover the
evil and danger of what he does, and yet will dare to do it, what is
this but the treading of God's authority under foot? The casting of
his word behind our backs? Wilful sinning is a despiteful sinning
against God, Heb. 10: 26. it argues a low and vile esteem of the law
of God, which is reverend and holy; and by so much the more it
makes sin to be exceeding sinful.
    Thirdly, Sinning under and against the light, admits not of
those excuses and pleas to extenuate the offence, which sins of pure
ignorance do. Those that live without the sound of the gospel may
say, Lord, we never heard of Christ, and the great redemption
wrought by him; if we had, we would never have lived and acted as we
did: and therefore Christ says, John 15: 22. "If I had not come and
spoken unto them, they had not had sin, but now they have no cloak
for their sin."
    The meaning is, that if the gospel light had not shined among
them, their sin had not been of that deep guilt that now it is: For
now it is foul and heinous, by reason of the light under and against
which it is committed, that they have no pretense or excuse to
extenuate or mitigate it.
    Fourthly, Evangelical light is a very rich favor and mercy of
God to men; one of the choicest gifts bestowed upon the nations of
the world; and therefore it is said, Psalm. 147: 19, 20. "He shows
his word unto Jacob, and his statutes and his judgements unto
Israel: He has not dealt so with any nation; and as for his
judgements they have not known them." Other nations have corn and
wine, gold and silver, abundance of earthly delights and pleasures;
but they have not a beam of heavenly light shining upon them. We may
account this mercy small; but God who is best able to value the
worth of it, accounts it great, Hos. 8: 12. "I have written unto
them the great things of my law." Christ reckoned Capernaum to be
exalted unto heaven by the ministry of the gospel in that place. Now
the greater the mercy is which the light if truth brings with it, by
so much the more horrid and heinous must the abusing and despising
of it be.
    Fifthly, Sinning against the light, argues a love to sin, as
sin; to naked sin, without any disguise or cover. It is nothing near
so bad for a man through a mistake of judgment, when he thinks
that to be lawful, which is indeed sinful; he does not now close with
sin, as sin, but he either closes with it as his duty, or at least
his liberty. It is hard for Satan to persuade many men to embrace a
naked sin; and therefore he clothes it in the habit of a duty, or
liberty, and thereby deceives and draws men to the commission of it.
But if a man have light shining into his conscience, and convincing
him that the way he is in, is the way of sin, quite contrary to the
revealed will of God, stripping the sin naked before the eye of his
conscience, so that he has no cover or excuse, and yet will persist
in it; this, I say, argues a soul to be in love with sin, as sin.
Now, as for a man to love grace as grace is a solid argument to
prove the truth of his grace; so on the contrary for a man to love
sin as sin, does not only argue him to be in the state of sin, but
to be in the fore-front, and among the highest rank of sinners.
    Sixthly, The greater and clearer the light is, under and
against which men continue in sin, the more must the consciences of
such sinners be supposed to be wasted and violated by such a way of
sinning: For this is a sure rule, that "the greatest violation of
conscience, is the greatest sin." Conscience is a noble and tender
part of the soul of man: it is in the soul, as the eye in the body,
very sensible of the least injury; and a wound in the conscience is
like a blow in the eye: But nothing gives a greater blow to
conscience, nothing so much wastes it and destroys it as sins
against the light do. This puts a plain force upon the conscience,
and gives a dreadful stab to that noble power, God's viceregent in
the soul. And thus you see the first thing made good, that light
puts deep guilt and aggravation into sin.
    Secondly, In the next place, let us examine why sin so
aggravated by the light, makes men liable to the greater
condemnation: For that it does so, is beyond all debate or question;
else the apostle Peter would not have said of those sinners against
light, as he does 2 Pet. 2: 21. "that it had been better for them
not to have known the way of righteousness." Nor would Christ have
told the inhabitants of Chorazin or Bethsaida, that it should be
more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment than for
them. There is a twofold reason of this.
    1. Ex parte Dei, on God's part.
    2. Ex parte peccatoris, on the sinner's part.
    First, Ex parte Dei, on God's part, who is the righteous Judge
of the whole earth; and will therefore render unto every man
according as his work shall be; For shall not the Judge of the whole
earth do right? He will judge the world in righteousness, and
righteousness requires that difference be made in the punishment of
sinners, according to the different degrees of their sins. Now that
there are different degrees of sin, is abundantly clear from what we
have lately discoursed under the former head; where we have showed,
that the light under which men sin, puts extraordinary aggravations
upon their sins, answerable whereunto will the degrees of punishment
be awarded by the righteous Judge of heaven and earth. The Gentiles
who had no other light but that dim light of nature, will be
condemned for disobeying the law of God written upon their hearts:
but yet, the greater wrath is reserved for them who sin both against
the light of nature, and the light of the gospel also: And therefore
it is said, Romans 2: 9. "Tribulation and anguish upon every soul of
man that does evil; of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile."
Impenitent Jews and Gentiles will all be condemned at the bar of
God; but with this difference, to the Jew first, that is principally
and especially, because the light and mercies which he abused and
violated were far greater than those bestowed upon the Gentiles,
"because unto them were committed the oracles of God:" And God has
not dealt with any nation as with that nation. Indeed, in the
rewards of obedience, the same reason does not hold; he who came
into the vineyard the last hour of the day, may be equal in reward
with him that bare the heat and burden of the whole day; because
the reward is of grace and bounty, not of debt and merit: But it is
not so here, justice observes an exact proportion in distributing
punishments, according to the degrees, deserts, and measures of sin:
And therefore it is said Concerning Babylon, Rev. 18: 7. "How much
she has glorified herself, and lived deliciously; so much torment
and sorrow give her."
    Secondly, En parte peccatoris, upon the account of sinners; it
must needs be, that the heaviest wrath and most intolerable torments
should be the portion of them who have sinned against the clearest
light and means of grace: For we find, in the scripture account,
that a principal and special part of the torment of the damned, will
arise from their own consciences. Mark 9: 44. "Where their worm
dies not, and the fire is not quenched." And nothing is more
manifest than this, that if conscience be the tormentor of the
damned, then sinners against light must needs have the greatest
torment. For,
    First, The more knowledge any man had in this world, the more
was his conscience violated and abused here by sinning against it:
And O what work will these violations and abuses make for a
tormenting conscience in hell! With what rage and fury will it then
avenge itself upon the most stout, daring, and impudent sinner! The
more guilt now, the more rage and fury then.
    Secondly, The more knowledge, or means of knowledge any man has
enjoyed in this world, so much the more matter is prepared and laid
up for conscience to upbraid him with in the place of torment? And
the upbraidings of conscience are a special part of the torments of
the damned. O what a peal will conscience ring in the ears of such
sinners! "Did not I warn you of the issue of such sins, undone
wretch? How often did I strive with you, if it had been possible to
take you off from your course of sinning, and to escape this wrath?
Did not I often cry out in your bosom, Stop your course, sinner?
Hearken to my counsel, turn and live; but you would not hearken
to my voice! I forewarned you of this danger, but you slightest
all my warnings; your lusts were too strong for my light, and now
you see where your way tended, but, alas, too late".
    Thirdly, The more knowledge, or means of knowledge any man has
abused and neglected in this world, so many fair opportunities and
great advantages he has lost for heaven; and the more opportunities
and advantages he has had for heaven, the more intolerable will hell
be to that man; as the mercy was great which was offered by them, so
the torment will be unspeakable that will arise from the loss of
them. Sinners, you have now a wide and open door, many blessed
opportunities of salvation under the gospel; it has put you in a
fair way for everlasting happiness: Many of you are not far from the
kingdom of God: there will be time enough in hell to reflect upon
this loss. What think you, will it not be sad to think there: O how
fair was I once for heaven, to have been with God, and among yonder
saints! My conscience was once convinced, and my affections melted
under the gospel. I was almost persuaded to be a Christian, indeed
the treaty was almost concluded between Christ and my soul; there
were but a few points in difference between us; but wretch that I
was, at those points I stuck, and there the treaty ended to my
eternal ruin: I could not deny my lusts, I could not live under the
strict yoke of Christ's government; but now I must live under the
insupportable wrath of the righteous and terrible God for ever: and
this torment will be peculiar to such as perish under the gospel.
The Heathen, who enjoyed no such means, can therefore have no such
reflections; nay, the very devils themselves, who never had such a
plank after their shipwreck, I mean, a mediator in their nature, or
such terms of reconciliation, offered them, will not reflect upon
their lost opportunities of recovery, as such sinners must and will.
This, therefore, "is the condemnation, that light is come into the
world; but men loved darkness rather than light.
    Inference. 1. Hence it follows, that neither knowledge, nor the best
means of knowledge, are in themselves sufficient to secure men from
wrath to come. Light in itself is a choice mercy, and therefore the
means that begat and increased it must be so too; but yet is a mercy
liable to the greatest abuse, and the abuse of the best mercies
brings forth the greatest miseries. Alas! Christians, your duty is
but half learned when you know it; obedience to light makes light a
blessing indeed. John 13: 17. "If you know these things, happy are you
if you do them." Happiness is not entailed upon simple knowing, but
upon doing; upon obedience to our knowledge; otherwise he who
increases knowledge, does but increase sorrow: "For that servant
which knew his Lord's will, and prepared not himself, nor did
according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes", Luke 13:
47. "And to him that knows to do good, and does it not, to him it
is sin," James 4: 17. We are bound with all thankfulness to
acknowledge the bounty of heaven to this sinful generation, in
furnishing us with so many excellent means of light, beyond many
other nations and generations that are past, but yet we ought to
rejoice with trembling when we consider the abuses of light in this
wanton age, and what a dismal event is like to happen unto many
thousands among us. I fear the time is coming when many among us
will wish they had never set foot on English ground. God has blessed
this nation with many famous, burning and shining lights. It was
once said to the honor of this nation, that the English ministry
was the world's responder; and when a man of another nation began to
preach methodically and convincingly, they were accustomed to say, "We
perceive this man has been in England": The greater will our account
be for abusing such light and rebelling against it. The clearer our
light is now, the thicker will the mists of darkness be hereafter,
if we are thus wanton under it. The devils have more light than we,
and therefore the more torment: Of them it is said, James 2: 19.
"The devils also believe, and tremble;" the horror of their
consciences is answerable to their illumination, they tremble; "the
word signifies the roar of the sea," or such a murmuring, dreadful
noise as the tempestuous seas use to make when they break themselves
against the rocks.
    Inference. 2. If the abuse of light thus aggravate sin and misery,
then times of great temptations are like to be times of great guilt.
Woe to an enlightened, knowing generation, when strong temptations
befall them. How do many, in such times, imprison the known truth to
keep themselves out of prison? offer violence to their own
consciences, to avoid violence from other hands?
    Plato was convinced of the unity of God, but dared not own his
convictions; but said, "It was a truth neither easy to find, nor
safe to own." And even Seneca, the renowned moralist, was "forced by
temptation to dissemble his convictions;" of whom Augustine says,
"He worshiped what himself reprehended, and did what himself
reproved." And even a great Papist of later times was heard to
say, as he was going to mass, Let us go to the common error.
O how hard is it to keep conscience pure and peaceable in
days of temptation! Doubtless, it is a mercy to many weak and
timorous Christians to be removed by a seasonable death out of
harm's way; to be disbanded by a merciful providence before the heat
of the battle. Christ and Antichrist seem at this day to be drawing
into the field; a fiery trial threatens the professors of this age:
but when it comes to a close engagement, indeed we may justly
tremble, to think how many thousands will break their way through
the convictions of their own consciences, to save their flesh.
Believe it, sirs, if Christ hold you to himself by no other tie than
the slender thread of a single conviction; if he have not interest
in your hearts and affections, as well as in your understandings and
consciences; if you be men of great fight and strong unmortified
lusts; if you profess Christ with your tongues, and worship the
world with your hearts; a man may say, of you, without the gift of
prophecy, what the prophet said of Hazael, I know what you will do
in the day of temptation.
    Inference. 3. If this be so, what a strong engagement lies upon an
enlightened persons to turn heartily to God, and reduce their
knowledge into practice and obedience, The more men know, the more
violence they do their own consciences in rebelling against the
light, this is to sin with an high hand, Numb. 15: 30. Believe it,
sirs, you cannot sin at so cheap a rate as others do; knowledge in a
wicked man, like high metal in a blind horse, does but the sooner
precipitate him into ruin. You may know much more than others, but
if ever you come to heaven, it must be in the same way of faith and
obedience, mortification, and self-denial, in which the weakest
Christian comes there; whatever knowledge you have, to be sure you
have no wisdom, if you expect salvation upon any other, or easier
terms than the most illiterate Christian finds it. It was a sad
observation of the father, Surgunt indocti, et rapiunt caelum; the
unlearned rise, and take heaven. What a pity is it that men of such
excellent parts should be enslaved to their lusts! that ever it
should be said, Sapientis sapienter descendunt in Gehennam; their
learning does but hang in their light, it does but blind them in
spiritual things, and prepares them for greater misery.
    Inference. 4. Hence also it follows, that the work of conversion is a
very difficult work; He soul is scarcely half won to Christ, when
Satan is cast out of the understanding by illumination. The devil
has deeply entrenched himself and strongly fortified every faculty
of the soul against Christ; the understanding, indeed, is the first
entrance into the soul, and out of that faculty he is oftentimes
cast by light and conviction, which seems to make a great change
upon a man: now he becomes a professor, now he takes up the duties
of religion, and passes up and down the world for a convert; but,
alas, alas! all the while Satan keeps the fort-royal, the heart and
will are in his own possession; and this is a work of more
difficulty: the weapons of that warfare must indeed be mighty
through God, which do not only cast down imaginations, but bring
every thought of the heart into captivity to the obedience of
Christ, 2 Cor. 10: 4, 5. While the heart stands out, though the
understanding be taken in, the soul remains in Satan's possession;
it is a greater work, (and we daily find it so,) to win one heart
than to convince twenty understandings.
    Inference. 5. Hence also we may learn what strength and power there
is in the lusts of men's hearts, which are able to bear down so
strong convictions of the conscience before them. That is a great
truth, though a very sad one, Eccl. 8: 11. "The heart of the sons of
men is fully set in them to do evil." O how common is it every day,
and in every place to see men hazarding their souls to satisfy their
lusts! Every man, says the prophet, "turns to his course, as the
horse rushes into the battle." The horse is a very fierce and
warlike creature; and when his courage is roused by the sounds of
drums and trumpets and shouts of armies, he breaks headlong into the
ranks of armed men, though death is before him. Such boisterous and
headlong lusts are found in many enlightened persons, though their
consciences represent damnation before them; onward they will rush,
though God be lost, and a precious soul undone forever.
    Inference. 6. To conclude, As ever you will avoid the deepest guilt,
and escape the heaviest condemnation, open your hearts to obey and
practice whatever God has opened your understandings and
consciences to receive of his revealed will; obey the light of the
gospel, while you have opportunity to enjoy it: this was the great
counsel given by Christ, John 12: 35, 36. "Yet a little while the
light is with you, walk while you have the light, lest darkness come
upon you." The manifestation of Christ in the gospel, is the light
of the world; all the nations of the earth that want this light are
benighted; and those upon whom this light is risen, have but a short
time under it; "Yet a little while the light is with you:" and
whatever patience God may exercise towards poor ignorant souls, yet
commonly he makes short work with the despisers of this light. The
light of the gospel is a shining lamp, fed with golden oil; God will
not be at the expense for such a light for them that do but trifle
with it. The night is coming when no man can work. There are many
sad signs upon us of a setting sun, a night of darkness approaching;
many burning and shining lights are extinguished, and many put under
a bushel; your work is great, your time short, this is the only
space you have for repentance, Rev. 2: 21. If this opportunity of
salvation be lost it will never come again, Ezek. 24: 13. How
pathetical was that lamentation which Christ made over Jerusalem,
Luke 19: 41, 42. "And when he was come near. he beheld the city, and
wept over it, saying, If you had known, even you, at least in
this your day, the things which belong unto your peace, but now they
are hid from your eyes." Christ is threatening those nations with
the removal of his gospel presence; he has found but cold
entertainment among us: England has been unkind to Christ; many
thousands there are that rebel against the light, that say unto God,
"Depart from us, we desire not the knowledge of your ways." Christ
will not tarry where he is not welcome; who would, that has any
where else to go? Obey the light therefore, lest God put it out in
obscure darkness.