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of the goodness of God, and his wonderful patience and long-suffering towards us in the midst of our infinite provocations; from his great mercy and pity declared to us in all those gracious means and methods which he useth for our recovery, and from his readiness and forwardness, after all our rebellions, to receive us upon our repentance, and to be perfectly reconciled to us, as if we had never offended him; and from the final issue and event of a wicked life, the dismal and endless miseries of another world, into which we shall inevitably fall, except we repent in time, and return to a better mind; and, lastly, from the danger of being hardened in an evil course, past all remedy, and hopes of repentance. And
yet I am very sensible, that to discourse to men of the impossibility, or at least the extreme difficulty of rescuing themselves out of this miserable state, seems to be an odd and cross kind of argument, and more apt to drive people to despair, than to gain them to repentance.
But since the Spirit of God is pleased to make use of it to this purpose, we may safely rely upon infinite wifdom for the fitness of it to awaken finners to a sense of their condition, in order to their recovery. For here in the text, after terrible threatenings of captivity and desolation to the people of the Jews, who were extremely wicked and degenerate, through an universal depravation of manners in all ranks of men, from the highest to the lowest, so that they seemed to stand upon the brink of ruin, and to be fatally devoted to it; to add to the terror and force of these threatenings, God, by his Prophet, represents to them the infinite danger and extreme difficulty of their case, to see if he could startle them, by telling them into what a desperate condition they had plunged themselves; being, by a long custom of sinning, fo' far engaged in an evil course, that they had almolt cut off themselves from a possibility of retreat ; fo that the difficulty of their change seemed next to a natural impossibility : Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.
The expression is very high, and it is to be hoped somewhat hyperbolical, and above the just meaning of the words. Which are, I think, only deligned to signify
to us the extreme difficulty of making this change; which is therefore resembled to a natural impossibility, as coming very near it, though not altogether up to it.
And that this expression is thus to be mitigated, will appear more than probable, by considering some other like passages of scripture : As where our Saviour compares the difficulty of a rich man's salvation to that which is naturally impossible, viz. to a camel's passing through the eye of a neelle : nay, he pitcheth his expresfion higher, and doth not only make it a thing of equal, but of greater difficulty : I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. And yet when he comes to explain this to his disciples, he tells them, that he only meant that the thing was very difficult, How hard is it for those that have riches to be saved! and that it was not absolutely impossible, but speaking according to human probability: With men this is impossible, but not with God.
And thus also it is reasonable to understand that severe passage of the Apostle, Heb. vi. 4. It is impossible for them that were once enlightened, if they fall away, 10 renew them again to repentance. It is impossible, that is, it is very difficult.
In like manner we are to understand this high expresfion in the text, Gan the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his Spots ? then may ye also do good that are accustomed to do evil: that is, this moral change of men settled and fixed in bad habits, is almost as difficult as the other.
From the words thus explained, two things will properly fall under our consideration.
1. The great difficulty of reforming vitious habits, or of changing a bad course, to those who have been deeply engaged in it, and long accustomed to it.
2. Notwithstanding the great difficulty of the thing, what ground of hope and encouragement there is lcft, that it may be done. So that, notwithstanding the appearing harshness of the text, the result of my difcourse will be, not to discourage any, how bad soever, from attempting this change, but to put them upon it, and to persuade them to it; and to remove out of the way. that which may seem to be one of the strongest objecti
· ons against all endeavours of men very bad, to become better.
I. The great difficulty of reforming vitious habits, or of changing a bad course, to those who have been deeply engaged in it, and long accustomed to it. And this difficulty ariseth, partly from the general nature of hàbits indifferently considered, whether they be good, or bad, or indifferent; partly from the particular nature of evil and vitious habits ; and partly from the natural and judicial consequences of a great progress and long continuance in an evil course. By the consideration of these three particulars, the extreme difficulty of this change, together with the true causes and reasons of it, will fully appear.
1. If we consider the nature of all habits, whether good, or bad, or indifferent. The custom and frequent practice of any thing begets in us a facility and casiness in doing it. It bends the powers of our soul, and turns the stream and current of our animal spirits such a way, and gives all our faculties a tendency and pliableness to such a sort of actions. And, when we have long stood bent one way, we grow settled and confirmed in it; and cannot without great force and violence be restored to our former state and condition. For the perfeetion of any habit, whether good or bad, induceth a kind of necessity of acting accordingly. A rooted habit becomes a governing principle, and bears almost an equal sway in us with that which is natural. It is a kind of a new nature superinduced, and even as hard to be expelled, as some things which are primitively and originally natural. When we bend a thing at first, it will endeavour to restore itself; but it may be held bent so long till it will continue so of itself, and grow crooked ; and then it may require more force and violence to reduce it to its former straightness, than we used to make it crooked at first. This is the nature of all habits; the farther we proceed, the more we are confirmed in them; and that which at first we did voluntarily, by degrees becomes so natural and necessary, that it is almost impossible for us to do otherwise. This is plainly seen in the experience of every day, in things good and bad, both in lesser and greater matters.
2. This difficulty ariseth more especially from the particular nature of evil and vitious habits. These, because they are fuitable to our corrupt nature, and conspire with the inclinations of it, are likely to be of a much quicker growth and improvement, and in a shorter space, and with less care and endeavour, to arrive at maturity and strength, than the habits of grace and good- ness. Considering the propension of our depraved nature, the progress of virtue and goodness is up the
in which we not only move hardly and heavily, but are easily rolled back : but by wickedness and vice we move downwards; which, as it is much quicker and easier, so it is harder for us to stop in that course, and infinitely more difficult to return from it.
Not but that at first a finner hath foine considerable checks and restraints upon him, and meets with several rubs and difficulties in his way; the shame and unreafonableness of his vices, and the trouble and difquiet which they create to him. But he breaks loose from these restraints, and gets over these difficulties by degrees; and the faster and farther he advanceth in an evil course, the less trouble still they give him, till at last they almost quite lose their force, and give him little or no disturbance.
Shame also is a great restraint upon sinners at first; but that soon falls off: and when men have once lost their innocence, their modesty is not like to be long troublefome to them. For impudence comes on with vice, and grows up with it. Lesser vices do not banish all shame and modesty ; but great and abominable crimes harden mens foreheads, and make them shameless. Were they ashamed (faith the Prophet) when they committed abomination ? nay, they were not ashamed, neither could they blush. When men have the heart to do a very bad thing, they seldom want the face to bear it out.
And as for the unreasonableness of vice, though nothing in the world be more evident to a free and impartial judgment, and the finner himself discerns it clearly enough at his first setting out in a wicked course :
-Video meliora, proboque,
Deteriora sequor :
*** He offends against the light of his own mind, and “ does wickedly, when he knows better :" yet, after he hath continued for fome time in this course, and is heartily engaged in it, his foolith heart is darkened, and the notions of good and evil are obscured and confounded, and things appear to him in a false and im perfect light : his lufts do at once blind and biass his understanding; and bis judgment by degrees goes over to his inclinations, and he cannot think that there should be fo much reason against those things for which he hath so strong an affection. He is now engaged in a party, and factiously concerned to maintain it, and to make the best of it; and, to that end, he bends all his wits to advance such principles as are fittest to justify his wicked practices; and, in all debates, plainly favours that side of the question which will give the greatest countenance and encouragement to them. When men are corrupt, and do abominable works, they say in their hearts, There is no God; that is, they would fain think fo. And every thing serves for an argument to a wil. ling mind; and every little objection appears strong and considerable, which makes against that which men are loth should be true.
Not that any man ever fatisfied himself in the princi. ples of infidelity, or was able to arrive to a steady and unshaken persuasion of the truth of them, so as not vehemently to doubt, and fear the contrary. However, by this mcans many men, though they cannot fully comfort, yet they make a shift to cheat themselves; to still their consciences, and lay them asleep for a time, so as not to receive any great and frequent disturbance in thčir course, from the checks and rebukes of their own minds. And, when these restraints are removed, the work of iniquity goes on amain, being favoured both by wind and tide.
3. The difficulty of this change ariseth likewise from the natural and judicial consequences of a great progress and long continuance in an evil course. My meaning is, that inveterate evil habits do, partly from their own nature, and partly from the just judgment and permiffion of God, put men under feveral disadvantages of moving effectually towards their own recovery.