« PreviousContinue »
plished the number of his elect, will hasten his kingdom ;” when “the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat." 3. They know not the reasons even of many
of His present dispensations with the sons of men ; but are constrained to rest here,—Though “ clouds and darkness are round about him, righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his seat. Yea, often with regard to his dealings with themselves, doth their Lord say unto them, “What I do, thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” And how little do they know of what is ever before them, of even the visible works of his hands !—how “he spreadeth the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing ?” how he unites all the parts of this vast machine by a secret chain, which cannot be broken? So great is the ignorance, so very little the knowledge, of even the best of men !
4. No one, then, is so perfect in this life, as to be free from ignorance. Nor, Secondly, from mistake; which indeed is almost an unavoidable consequence of it; seeing those who “know but in part” are ever liable to err touching the things which they know not. It is true, the children of God do not mistake as to the things essential to salvation: They do not “put darkness for light, or light for darkness ;” neither " seek death in the error of their life.” For they are “taught of God;" and the way which he teaches them, the way of holiness, is so plain, that “the wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err therein.” But in things unessential to salvation they do err, and that frequently. The best and wisest of men are frequently mistaken even with regard to facts ; believing those things not to have been which really were, or those to have been done which were not. Or, suppose they are not mistaken as to the fact itself, they may be, with regard to its circumstances; believing them, or many of them, to have been quite different from what, in truth, they were. And hence cannot but arise many farther mistakes. Hence they may believe either past or present actions which were or are evil, to be good; and such as were or are good, to be evil. Hence also they may judge not according to truth with regard to the characters of men; and that, not only by supposing good men to be better, or wicked men to be worse, than they are, but by believing them to have been or to be good men, who were or are very wicked; or perhaps those to have been or to be wicked men, who were or are holy and unreprovable.
5. Nay, with regard to the Holy Scriptures themselves, as careful as they are to avoid it, the best of men are liable to mistake, and do mistake day by day; especially with respect to those parts thereof which less immediately relate to practice. Hence, even the children of God are not agreed as to the interpretation of many places in holy writ : Nor is their difference of opinion any proof that they are not the children of God on either side ; but it is a proof that we are no more to expect any living man to be infallible, than to be omniscient.
6. If it be objected to what has been observed under this and the preceding head, that St. John, speaking to his brethren in the faith, says, “ Ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things :” (1 John ii. 20 :) The answer is plain : “Ye know all things that are needful for your souls' health.” That the Apostle never designed to extend this farther, that he could not speak it in an absolute sense, is clear, First, from hence; —that otherwise he would describe the disciple as “ above his Master;" seeing Christ himself, as man, knew not all things : “Of that hour,” saith he, “ knoweth no man; no, not the Son, but the Father only.” It is clear, Secondly, from the Apostle's own words that follow : “ These things have I written unto you concerning them that deceive you ;” as well as from his frequently repeated caution, “ Let no man deceive you;” which had been altogether needless, had not those very persons who had that unction from the Holy One been liable, not to ignorance only, but to mistake also.
7. Even Christians, therefore, are not so perfect as to be free either from ignorance or error: We may, Thirdly, add, nor from infirmities.—Only let us take care to understand this word aright: Only let us not give that soft title to known sins, as the manner of some is. So, one man tells us, “ Every man has his infirmity, and mine is drunkenness :" Another has the infirmity of uncleanness; another, that of taking God's holy name in vain ; and yet another has the infirmity of calling his brother, “ Thou fool," or returning “ railing for railing." It is plain that all you who thus speak, if ye repent not, shall, with your infirmities, go quick into hell! But I mean hereby, not only those which are properly termed bodily infirmities, but all those inward or outward imperfections which are not of a moral nature. Such are the weakness or slowness of understanding, dulness or confusedness of apprehension, incoherency of thought, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination. Such (to mention no more of this kind) is the want of a ready or retentive memory. Such, in another kind, are those which are commonly, in some measure, consequent upon these ; namely, slowness of speech, impropriety of language, ungracefulness of pronunciation; to which one might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behaviour. These are the infirmities which are found in the best of men, in a larger or smaller proportion. And from these none can hope to be perfectly freed, till the spirit returns to God that
it. 8. Nor can we expect, till then, to be wholly free from temptation. Such perfection belongeth not to this life. It is true, there are those who, being given up to work all uncleanness with greediness, scarce perceive the temptations which they resist not; and so seem to be without temptation. There are also many whom the wise enemy of souls, seeing to be fast asleep in the dead form of godliness, will not tempt to gross sin, lest they should awake before they drop into everlasting burnings. I know there are also children of God who, being now justified freely, having found redemption in the blood of Christ, for the present feel no temptation. God hath said to their enemies, “ Touch not mine anointed, and do my children no harm.” And for this season, it may be for weeks or months, he causeth them to ride on high places, he beareth them as on eagles' wings, above all the fiery darts of the wicked one. But this state will not last always; as we may learn from that single consideration, that the Son of God himself, in the days of his flesh, was tempted even to the end of his life. Therefore, so let his servant expect to be; for “ it is enough that he be as his Master."
9. Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from igno. rance, or mistake, or infirmities, or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness. They are two names for the same thing. Thus, every one that is holy is, in the Scripture sense, perfect. Yet we may, Lastly, observe, that neither in this respect is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees, as it is termed ; none which does not admit of a continual increase. So that how much soever any
man has attained, or in how high a degree soever he is perfect, he hath still need to “grow in grace," and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his Saviour.
II. 1. In what sense, then, are Christians perfect? This is what I shall endeavour, in the Second place, to show. But it should be premised, that there are several stages in Christian life, as in natural ;—some of the children of God being but new-born babes; others having attained to more maturity. And accordingly St. John, in his First Epistle, (ii. 12, &c.,) applies himself severally to those he terms little children, those he styles young men, and those whom he entitles fathers. “I write unto you, little children,” saith the Apostle, “because your sins are forgiven you :” Because thus far you have attained, -being “justified freely," you “have peace with God, through Jesus Christ.” “I write unto you, young men,
have overcome the wicked one;” or, (as he afterwards addeth,) “ because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you.” Ye have quenched the fiery darts of the wicked one, the doubts and fears wherewith he disturbed your first peace ; and the witness of God, that your sins are forgiven, now abideth in your heart. “ I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known Him that is from the beginning." Ye have known both the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit of Christ, in your inmost soul. Ye are “perfect men,” being grown up to “ the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ."
2. It is of these chiefly I speak in the latter part of this discourse : For these only are perfect Christians. But even babes in Christ are in such a sense perfect, or born of God, (an expression taken also in divers senses,) as, First, not to commit sin. If
any doubt of this privilege of the sons of God, the question is not to be decided by abstract reasonings, which may be drawn out into an endless length, and leave the point just as it was before. Neither is it to be determined by the experience of this or that particular person. Many may suppose they do not commit sin, when they do ; but this proves nothing either way. To the law and to the testimony we appeal. “Let God be true, and every man a liar." By His word will we abide, and that alone. Hereby we ought to be judged.
3. Now, the word of God plainly declares, that even those who are justified, who are born again in the lowest sense, “ do not continue in sin;” that they cannot “live any longer therein ;
(Rom. vi. 1, 2;) that they are “planted together in the likeness of the death" of Christ; (verse 5;) that their “old man is crucified with him," the body of sin being destroyed, so that henceforth they do not serve sin ; that, being dead with Christ, they are free from sin ; (verses 6, 7;) that they are “dead unto sin, and alive unto God;" (verse 11;) that “ sin hath no more dominion over them,” who are not under the law, but under grace; but that these,“ being free from sin, are become the servants of righteousness." (Verses 14, 18.)
4. The very least which can be implied in these words, is, that the persons spoken of therein, namely, all real Christians, or believers in Christ, are made free from outward sin. And the same freedom, which St. Paul here expresses in such variety of phrases, St. Peter expresses in that one: (1 Peter iv. 1, 2:) “ He that hath suffered in the flesh, hath ceased from sin, that he no longer should live to the desires of men, but to the will of God.” For this ceasing from sin, if it be interpreted in the lowest sense, as regarding only the outward behaviour, must denote the ceasing from the outward act, from any outward transgression of the law.
5. But most express are the well-known words of St. John, in the third chapter of his First Epistle, verse 8, &c.: “He that committeth sin is of the devil , for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin ; for his seed remaineth in him : And he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” And those in the fifth : (Verse 18 :) “ We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.”
6. Indeed it is said, this means only, He sinneth not wilfully; or he doth not commit sin habitually; or, not as other men do ; or, not as he did before. But by whom is this said ? by St. John ? No: There is no such word in the text; nor in the whole chapter; nor in all his Epistle; nor in any part of his writings whatsoever. Why then, the best way to answer a bold assertion, is, simply to deny it. And if any man can prove it from the word of God, let him bring forth his strong reasons.
7. And a sort of reason there is, which has been frequently brought to support these strange assertions, drawn from the examples recorded in the word of God: “What !” say they,