Of the Work of the Holy Ghost
(the third person of the trinity)
In Our Salvation
A general and brief scheme of the whole of that work committed to the Holy Spirit in bringing us to salvation; in an enumeration of all particulars, and of the glory due unto him for it.—The work of the Holy Spirit in the unction of Jesus to be our Saviour.
Some general observations premised out of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth chapters of St John’s Gospel.
There is a general omission in the saints of God, in their not giving the Holy Ghost that glory that is due to his person, and for his great work of salvation in us, insomuch that we have in our hearts almost lost this third person. We give daily in our thoughts, prayers, affections, and speeches, an honour to the Father and the Son; but who almost directs the aims of his praise (more than in that general way of doxology we use to close our prayers with, ‘All glory be,’ &c.) unto God the Holy Ghost? He is a person in the Godhead equal with the Father and the Son; and the work he doth for us in its kind is as great as those of the Father or the Son. Therefore, by the equity of all law, a proportionable honour from us is due to him. God’s ordination amongst men is, that we should ‘render to all their due, honour to whom honour is due,’ Rom. 13:1. To the magistracy (which there he speaks it of) according to their place and dignity; and this he makes a debt, a due, ver. 8. And the like is enjoined concerning ministers, that are instruments of our spiritual good, that we should ‘esteem them very highly for their work’s sake,’ 1 Thes. 5:13. Let the same law, I beseech you, take place in your hearts towards the Holy Ghost, as well as the other two persons of the Trinity. The Holy Ghost is indeed the last in order of the persons, as proceeding from the other two, yet in the participation of the Godhead he is equal with them both; and in his work, though it be last done for us, he is not behind them, nor in the glory of it inferior to what they have in theirs. And indeed he would not be God, equal with the Father and the Son, if the work allotted to him, to shew he is God, were not equal unto each of theirs. And indeed, no less than all that is done, or to be done in us, was left to the Holy Ghost’s share, for the ultimate execution of it; and it was not left him as the refuse, it being as necessary and as great as any of theirs. But he being the last person, took his own lot of the works about our salvation, which are the last, which is to apply all, and to make all actually ours, whatever the other two had done afore for us. The scope of this treatise is to set forth this work to you in the amplitude of it, to the end you may accordingly in your hearts honour this blessed and holy Spirit. And surely if to neglect the notice and observation of an attribute of God, eminently imprinted on such or such a work of God’s, as of power in the creation, justice in governing the world, mercy in bearing with sinners, grace in our salvation; if this be made so great a sin (Rom. 1) then it must be deemed a greater diminution to the Godhead to neglect the glorifying one of these persons, who is possessed of the whole Godhead and attributes, when he is manifested or interested in any work most gloriously.
In prosecution of my design, to persuade you to honour the Holy Ghost as you do the Father and the Son, I shall consider the 14th, 15th, and 16th chapters of John, and make some general observations upon various passages in those chapters serving to this purpose; and we shall see therein what a valuation the Father and the Son, the other persons with him, have in those chapters put upon him and hi work, and what a great and singular matter they make of his work, and what a great and singular matter they make of his work, and what divine esteem of his person, as by Christ’s speeches scattered up and down therein appears. Though the Father himself doth not immediately speak, yet the Son doth in his name, as well as in his own. And you may well take their judgments, for they are sharers and co-rivals with him in point of glory about our salvation; the work of which I shall only treat of.
There are these general observations which I shall make upon the whole series of the aforesaid chapters, which serve the design of my discourse.
Obs. 1. First, Our Saviour had abundantly in all his former sermons discoursed both his work and hand in our salvation, as also his Father’s; and now at last, just when he was to go out of the world, he then, and not till then, doth more plainly and more fully discover to them this third person, that had an after-work left to him, who to that end was to come when he should be gone, and was to come visibly upon the stage, to act visibly a new scene of works, left by the Father and himself unto him: John 14:16, ‘I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter.’ He had said, chap. 8:17, that ‘the testimony of two men’ (or persons) ‘is true;’ and that he himself was one witness of those two there spoken of, and his Father another: ver. 18, ‘I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me.’ And he tells us here, you see, that there is yet another, distinct from the Father and himself; for in his saying, ‘I will pray the Father to give you another Comforter,’ he must mean a third person, distinct from them both, to be that other. And more over this Spirit, as another person, is said likewise to be a third witness of, and unto Christ; John 15:26, and so is to be joined as a person, and third witness with these two: ‘When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me;’ like as of the Father and himself, the same had been spoken in that chap. 8 ver. 18, last cited. And the coherence with ver. 17 argues their being witnesses alike, to be distinct persons each from other, for, ver. 17, he allegeth the law, ‘It is written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true.’ For therein lies the validity of their testimony, that they must be two men or two persons that make up a legal testimony. And in this 15th chap. ver. 26, there is the Holy Ghost as a third witness brought into court to testify with both; and therefore he is a person if a witness, for there are three persons if three witnesses, and the law itself he cites says, ‘Under the mouth of two or three witnesses shall the matter be established,’ Deut. 19:15, and Matt. 18:16. We may also observe how industriously careful Christ is further to characterise this person of the Holy Spirit, the author of these works, and to describe who he was, and what manner of person, that they might be sure to mind him, and have a regard to him, and to know whom and to what name they were to be so much beholden. Thus, ver. 26, ‘The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost’ (says he); and ver. 17, ‘Even the Spirit of truth;’ and chap. 15:26, ‘Whom I will send unto you from the Father, who proceedeth from the Father.’ Which last addition is to shew the divine procession of the Holy Ghost, and the original and the consubstantiality of his person, to be out of the substance of the Father, proceeding from him; as (1 Cor. 2:12) the apostle signaliseth him, ‘The Spirit that is out of God;’ or (which is all one) that hath his subsistence, or his being a person, by proceeding from God the Father, and so being God with God, insomuch as it is not in anywise to be understood that he subsisted extra Deum, out of, or separate from God; for he had said, ver. 11, that he is in God, even as the spirit of a man is said to be in him.
Some would understand that speech of Christ’s, ‘Who proceedeth from the Father,’ to be meant in respect of God’s sending him forth to us, and his embassage to us. But that had been said by Christ in the words afore, ‘Whom I will send from the Father;’ and therefore to intend the words after—‘Who cometh from the Father’—of an ambassador’s sending, had been needless, for Christ had said that already; and therefore if that had been all the meaning of that addition, he had but said the same over a second time. There is therefore, in those speeches, a manifest distinguishing between that dispensatory sending of him from the Father to them, and that substantial proceeding of his from the Father, as a third person; and this is added to shew the original ground, why it must be from the Father that he sends him, and with his consent first had; because his very person is by proceeding from the Father, and therefore this his office too. And therefore that latter is spoken in the present time, whereas that other speech of Christ’s, ‘Whom I will send from the Father,’ is in the future; because the Holy Ghost his dispensatory sending, both from the Father and from Christ, was yet to come; whereas this personal proceeding of his from the Father was then, when he spake it, and is continually, and had been from eternity.
Now the tendency of these reiterated designations of the person, doth manifest Christ’s sedulous intention, and tender regard to, and for the honour of this, so great a person; and to raise up in their hearts a valuation of this person himself, that should be the Comforter; and to make them careful to give glory to him, even the Holy Ghost, as a third person, and the Comforter. As likewise to assure them of his coming upon them, when himself was gone; and that therefore they might honour him in his coming, for his work, as he would have them to honour himself for his own work, and coming in the flesh. It is as if he had said, I would not, for that honour I ever look for from yourselves, that you should go attribute the comfort you shall have, or the revealing of truth to you (from which he is called ‘the Spirit of truth’), so unto me or my Father alone, as to neglect or omit to give him his peculiar honour in it; for it properly, and of due, belongs to him. You are and shall be beholden to me and my Father, for the sending of him; but you are to be especially beholden to himself, for that work he doth in you, being sent by us. Be sure therefore to take notice of him and his person, distinct both from me and my Father. For it is ‘another Comforter’ (says he, ver. 16) ‘which is the Holy Ghost,’ (ver. 26), and therefore you ought as distinctly to glorify him as you would do us.
Obs. 2. The second observation is concerning the particular works which Christ says are his, and for which we are to honour him. And an enumeration of his works being the scope of this my discourse, we may find divers particulars that are the most eminent of them, named and specified in these chapters to our hand, which will sufficiently serve for me to take the mention of them, for an example to me to proceed to specify other works that are attributed to him elsewhere. This I premise, because I would not be obliged to fetch each of them which I shall after name out of these chapters, and so to confine myself thereto.
The particular eminent work indeed on which he insists in these chapters, is, that of being a Comforter to them; for the occasion of these sermons was to relieve and pacify the apostles’ minds, against his own leaving them, as they thought, desolate. But therewith he further brings in other works of his besides, and in effect that he should do all, that they had need of his help in. He insinuates to them how much already themselves had been obliged unto him for his working hitherto in them, which he calls them to look back upon, for they had received them already in regenerating, converting and calling them out from the world (which was his first and great work in them), and so distinguished them from the world. Thus chap. 14:16, 17, ‘The Comforter, the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him;’ that is, knows him not by experience of any saving work upon them, and so they cannot receive him as a comforter, because it is necessary they first receive him as a converter. ‘But ye know him,’ and have found him to have begotten you again; ‘for he dwelleth in you,’ hath come and taken possession of you, and acted hitherto in you all that spiritual good that hath been found in you, and thereby hath taken everlasting possession of you, as it follows: ‘and shall be in you,’ to perfect all that is wanting, and that for ever, as verse 16.
A second work there specified is, that he should be to them a ‘Spirit of truth,’ ‘to lead them into all truth,’ which, as a sacred depositum, he was by them, as apostles, to leave unto the rest of the world; chap. 14:26, ‘He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.’ And not only so, but shall suggest new to you, chap. 16:12, 13, ‘I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak.’
A third work instanced in is, that ‘He will shew you things to come;’ and this to that end, that ye may teach and write them to others, chap. 15:26, 27. He shall bear witness of me, and you shall bear witness of me.
A fourth work specified is, to sanctify them against sin and corruption. This work is imported in his name, ‘the Holy Spirit,’ as the other, of leading them into all truth, is signified by that other title, ‘the Spirit of truth;’ for he is termed the Holy Spirit, because he sanctifies: Rom. 15:16, ‘Being sanctified by the Holy Ghost.’
Fifthly, He shall be a Comforter to you, against all sorrows, chap. 14:16, 17, 18.
Sixthly, He shall assist and direct you in all your prayers, and be the inditer of them for you; and so effectually as to obtain what you shall ask, chap. 16:23, ‘Verily, verily, whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you; hitherto have you asked nothing in my name;’ for the Holy Ghost was not as yet given, as he in these chapters promiseth he should be. ‘But in that day,’ namely, when the Holy Ghost is come, ‘ye shall ask in my name,’ then (as in chap. 14:20). ‘In that day,’—namely, when the Comforter is come, that word in that day refers thereunto—‘ye shall know that I am in my Father, and you in me.’ These works he specifies as to themselves.
But withal, seventhly, he mentions his works upon the world, by their ministry, unto whom they were sent. He shall be a converter and convincer of the world; that is, the glory of the conversion of the Gentiles is reserved for him, by your ministry: chap. 16 verses 8, 9, ‘When he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they believe not on me,’ &c. To which three enumerations the total of the work of conversion is reduced, of which afterwards.
Obs. 3. Thirdly, observe what Christ says, I myself must be gone (saith he) and disappear, to the end it may appear that all this whole work is his, not mine: ver. 7, ‘If I go not away, the Comforter will not come.’ He will not do these works while I am here, and I have committed all to him. That look, as my Father hath visibly ‘committed all judgment unto me,’ (John 5:22, 23, ‘For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son; that all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father’), so here: I and my Father will send him, having committed all these things to him, that all men might honour the Holy Ghost, even as they honour the Father and the Son. Even as in like manner the reason why the Spirit was not sent, whilst Christ was on earth, was to shew that not the Father alone sent him, but that he came from Christ, as well as from the Father. And so Christ, he went to heaven to shew that both Father and Son would send the Holy Ghost from thence, Acts 2:32, 33, ‘This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this which you see and hear.’ Thus wary and careful are every of the persons to provide for the honour of each other in our hearts. And as careful should we be to give it to them accordingly.
Goodwin, Thomas. The Works of Thomas Goodwin. Vol. 6. (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1863), 3-7. Public Domain
Paperback editions of the 12 volumes are available at https://www.heritagebooks.org/products/the-works-of-thomas-goodwin-12-vols.html
The Art of Contentment
‘The Art of Contentment’ forms the last of the sermons of the ‘Saint’s Cordials, published in 1637 and 1658. It had previously been No. 1 of the first edition, 1629. The text of 1637 is followed in our reprint. In Vol. IV. pp. 75–111 will be found a specimen of the ‘various readings’ of the editions of 1637 and 1658 on a comparison with that of 1629. These may suffice. The result of a minute collation shews that the edition of 1637 presents a careful revision and enlargement of the anonymous, and, I suspect, surreptitious edition of 1629. Instead therefore of encumbering our margins, and distracting the reader with these corrections and improvements of the first edition, it has been deemed better to make the edition of 1637 our text in the remainder, leaving it to those curious in such matters to compare the other two therewith, in the way ‘Judgment’s Reason’ in Vol. IV. is exhibited. The edition of 1637, let it be understood, represents Sibbes’s own version of his sermons, either from fuller ‘Notes,’ or from a revision of that of 1629.
For the general title-page of the three editions of ‘The Saint’s Cordials,’ see Vol. IV. p. 60. The separate title-page of ‘The Art of Contentment’ will be found below.* It may be proper to state, that the text of ‘The Art of Contentment’ now given is less full than in the first edition, the explanation being that the suppressed passages had been appropriated in other sermons in the interval. G.
*THE ART OF CONTENTMENT.
In one Sermon.
|Wherein the shewed.
|That this Art of Contentment is a Mysterie.
That Gods Children are carried, and know how to behave themselves in variety of Conditions.
How this hard Lesson is learned.
What Infirmities are.
The right use of them.
That Christianity is a busie trade.
The way how one is said to doe all things.
What it is to doe things Evangelically.
When a Christian can doe all things.
Why he failes when he failes.
Where his strength is.
Lastly, The skill to fetch strength from Christ.
2 Sam. 15:25, 26.
Then the King said unto Zadok, Carry the Arke of God back againe into the Citie: If I shall find favour in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me again, and shew me both it and the Tabernacle thereof.
But if he thus say, I have no delight in thee, Behold, here am I, let him doe to me as seemeth good in his eyes.
Printed for R. Dawlman, at the brazen Serpent in Pauls Churchyard. 1637.†
The Art of Contentment
I have learned, in what estate soever I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and how to abound: everywhere, in all things, I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ that strengtheneth me.—Philip. 4:11, 12, 13.
The words are the blessed apostle’s concerning himself, expressing the glorious power of the Spirit of God in a strong and grown Christian, and are to wipe away the imputation of worldliness in the apostle, serving herein also for a pattern to all God’s children, that they may learn by his example that as they must be careful to avoid all blemishes and imputations, so especially that of worldliness, as being most contrary to the profession of a Christian, who hath an ‘high calling,’ and whose ‘hope is in heaven,’ Philip. 3:14.
The Philippians had sent Paul some relief; and lest they should think that he expected great matters, he tells them that he had ‘learned to be content in what estate soever he was.’
It is not amiss sometimes for God’s children to speak of themselves, as Paul here as to other good ends so also to avoid false imputations in the way of just apology,* and likewise to be exemplary to weaker Christians. Is not the doctrine of contentment and the power of grace in all estates better learned by this blessed example of Paul, when he speaks thus of himself, ‘I have learned, in what estate soever I am, to be content: to want, and to abound,’ &c., than if he had weakly said, Be content with your present condition? The Scriptures be intended for practice; and therefore it is that there are so many examples in them, to shew the power of God’s Spirit. This is the end of Paul’s speaking so of himself, ‘I have learned,’ &c.
To come to the words. First, In general he sets down the power of God’s Spirit in him in regard of that blessed grace of contentment. ‘I have learned, in what estate I am, therewith to be content.’
And then he doth parcel out this general into particular conditions in this same state, ‘I know how to be abased, and how to abound.’
And then he wraps up all in general again, ‘I can do all things,’ &c.
But lest this should seem to be somewhat vain-glorious, ‘I can do all things,’ as if he were omnipotent (in some sense, indeed, a Christian is omnipotent), therefore he adds, ‘I can do all things,’ but with a blessed correction, ‘through Christ that strengthened me.’
‘I have learned,’ saith he, ‘I am instructed.’ It is very significant in the original, viz., I am consecrated to this knowledge of contentment in all estates (a). It is a learning not of great persons, or of learned persons, but of holy persons. It is a mystical knowledge. There is a mystery in it. For as all religion is a mystery,—‘great is the mystery of godliness,’—not only the speculative part, but likewise the practical part of it, so every part of religion is a mystery, repentance a mystery, faith a mystery, and this practical part of contentment in all conditions is a great mystery. And therefore St Paul saith he is instructed in it, as a consecrated person, having in him the Spirit of God. All the degrees in this world cannot teach this lesson that Paul had learned, ‘to be contented.’ He learned it in no school of the world, not at the feet of Gamaliel; he learned it of Christ, and by blessed experiences in afflictions. Some graces are reserved for some estates. He had learned patience and contentment in variety of estates. He had it not by nature, for he saith, ‘I have learned.’ It is a mystical thing, not so easily attained unto as the world is fondly* persuaded. Your ordinary Christian thinks that religion is nothing, that it is easily learned; whereas there is no point in religion but is a mystery. There is no Christian but he finds it to be so when he sets himself heartily to go through any religious work; as to humble himself, to repent, to go out of himself, and to cast himself upon the mercy of God in Christ. Oh, will he then say, it is a mystery. There is a difficulty in this work that I never thought of till I came to it. And so to be content with our condition, whatsoever the case be, to bring our hearts low, it is a mystery. Nature never teacheth this. It is learned in the school of Christ, and not without many stripes. We must be proficients a good while before we can learn to any purpose this one lesson of contentment in any condition. But the last verse is that which I will now dwell on, wherein we may see three things observable.
First, That God carries his children in this world through variety of conditions. They sometimes want, and sometimes abound. Their condition is sometimes more comfortable than at others. That is the first point.
- The second is, That in this variety of conditions, as they know what it is to want and to abound, so in all variety of conditions they know how to carry themselves.
Thirdly, They know in all variety of conditions how to avoid the sins incident to that condition. As there are graces belonging to every state, so there are sins incident to every condition. And the child of God hath learned to practise the one, and to avoid the other.
- First, God’s children know what it is to want, and to abound by experience. God leads them through variety of conditions, Their estate is not always one and the same.
Quest. What is the reason of this dispensation in God thus to rule his children, to bring them to heaven by variety of conditions?
Sol. Among many other reasons this is one, that their graces may be tried. Every grace that brings a Christian to heaven must be a tried grace. He must try his patience, his contentment, his humility. How shall these graces be tried but in variety of estates and conditions? And secondly, How should we have experience of the goodness of God but in variety of estates? When we find the stable, certain, constant love of God in variety of conditions, that howsoever our conditions ebb and flow, be up and down, like the spring weather, sometimes fair and sometimes foul, yet notwithstanding the love of God is constant always, and we have never so sure experience of it as in the variety of conditions that befall us; then we know that in God there is ‘no shadow of changing,’ howsoever the changes of our life be. Is it not a point worth our learning, to know the truth of our grace, and to know the constancy of God’s love, with whom we are in a gracious covenant? And then again, we learn much wisdom how to manage our life hereby, even in the intercourse of our changes, to be now rich, now poor, now high, now low in estate. Wisdom is gotten by experience in variety of estates. He that is carried on in one condition, he hath no wisdom to judge of another’s estate, or to carry himself to a Christian in another condition, because he was never abased himself. He looks very big at him. He knows not how to tender* another, that hath not been in another’s condition. And therefore to furnish us, that we may carry ourselves as Christians, meekly, lovingly, and tenderly to others, God will have us go to heaven in variety, not in one uniform condition in regard of outward things.
Use. Learn hence not to quarel with God’s government; for though he alters our conditions, yet he never alters his love. A Christian is unmoveable in regard of the favour of God to him, and in regard of sanctifying grace. In all moveable conditions he hath a fixed condition. Therefore let us not find fault with God’s dispensation, but let him do as he pleases. So he bring us to heaven, it is no matter what way, how rugged it be, so he bring us thither.
- The second general thing is this, That in this variety of conditions, God’s children know how to carry themselves. As they know what it is to want and to abound, so they know how to abound and be abased as they should do. For there is no condition but a Christian may pick good matter out of it. As a good artsman will make a good piece of work of an ill piece of matter sometimes, to shew his skill, so a Christian can frame matter that is good out of any condition; he knows how to want, and how to abound, and that with the expression of graces too. He can practise the graces that ought and may be practised in all conditions. For instance, he can abound; that is, with expressing the graces that should be in abundance, which is, thankfulness to God; he hath, in abundance, a spirit of thankfulness; he hath a spirit to be a faithful steward in abundance; a spirit to honour God with his abundance. He hath a spirit to be humble in abundance, knowing all is as ‘grass and the flower of the field.’ He can be humble, he can stoop under the mighty hand of God, he can have experience in the abasement of the vanity of worldly favour, and worldly greatness. He learns what it is, and so he can learn patience, and all other graces that are to be practised in a mean estate. It were too long to name particulars; a Christian can do this. Grace is above all conditions. It can manage and rule all estates of life. It makes them serviceable to its own ends. A gracious man is not dejected over much with abasement; he is not lifted up over much with abundance, but he carries himself in a uniform manner, becoming a Christian in all conditions.
- The third general thing is, He can want and he can abound, without tainting himself over much with the sins of those conditions. For instance, he can abound without pride, though it be a hard matter. Abundance works upon the soul of a man. He had need to have a strong brain that digests abundance; it is a wild untamed thing. And we see by experience in God’s children how hard a matter it is for them to manage abundance. We see how it wrought upon Solomon and David. They were better in adversity, 1 Kings, 11:1, 2 Sam. 11:2; and yet notwitstanding the child of God hath grace even to overcome the sins that are incident to abundance. He hath grace to be lowly-minded in a great estate; not to trust to uncertain riches; he knows by the Spirit of God what they are, and that he hath an inheritance of better things in another world, which teacheth him to set a light esteem upon all things below.
And so for dejection; the sin that we are subject to fall into in want, is putting forth our hands to evil means, to shift.* God’s child can learn to want without tainting his conscience with ill courses, and then he can want without impatience, without too much dejection of spirit; as if all were lost; whenas, indeed, a Christian in a manner is rich all alike. For God is his portion, and howsoever a beam may be took away, the sun is his; take away a stream, the spring is his; in the poorest estate, God all-sufficient is his still; and so in a manner a Christian is rich all alike. God never takes away himself, Gen. 17:1. He knows this, and therefore he can want, he can be abased as long as he hath the spring of all. Though a cistern be took away, he cares not, he can want and abound without murmuring, without dejection of spirit. Whereas those that have not been brought up in Christ’s school, nor trained up in variety of conditions, are able to do nothing. If they abound, they are proud; if they be cast down, they murmur and fret, and are dejected, as if there were no Providence to rule the world, as if they were fatherless children. This is the excellency of a Christian, that as he knows what it is to abound by experience, so he knows how to abound with the practice of the graces, and how to want with the avoiding of the snares that usually are in that condition.
Obj. But hath a Christian learned this at the first?
Ans. No; he learns it not very easily, nor very soon. Self-denial is the first lesson in Christ’s school: to have no wit of our own further than Christ’s wisdom; to have no will of our own further than his commandment guides us; and he that hath learned self-denial, he is in a great way to learn this blessed lesson of contentment in any condition whatsoever. So that every Christian hath some degree of that, as he can deny himself. But there are many things to be learned before we can come to carry ourselves wisely in any condition.
For besides self-denial, we must learn the doctrine of the covenant of grace, that God in Christ is become a Father to us, and carries a fatherly mind to us. In what condition soever we are, he is a father still, and intends us well, and will provide for us in the hardest condition. Having took the relation of a father upon him, do you think that he will fail in the carriage of a father towards us? He is pitiful to us, he respects us in the basest condition. He that knows God to be his father, cast him into what condition you will, knows he hath a good portion.
And then we must know the doctrine of the providence of this Father, that all shall work together for the best to those that love him, Rom. 8:28, want and abundance, prosperity and afflictions, whatsoever. God by his overruling power will bring all things to this blessed issue, to help forward the eternal good of his child. A man must know this, and divers the like things that are to be known, before he can learn this blessed lesson of contentment. There is a venom and a vanity in everything without grace, wherewith we are tainted; but when grace comes, it takes out the sting of all ill, and then we find a good in the worst. There is a vanity in the best things, and there is a good in the worst. Grace picks out the good out of the worst; as God turns all to good, so grace finds good in every condition. The Spirit of God sanctifies a Christian to all conditions, and sanctifies every condition to him. Now, I beseech you, think of this that I have said, which I wish without further enlargement may add to your care, and desire to be in the happy condition of Christians. What a blessed thing is it to be in the covenant of grace, to have God to be our father, to be in Christ, that let our condition outwardly be what it will be, we shall have grace to carry ourselves in it, God will go along with us by his Holy Spirit! What a blessed thing is it, in all the uncertainties of the world, to have a certain rule to go by, as a Christian hath, which carries him along in all the uncertainties in this world! None but a Christian hath this. ‘I have learned,’ saith Paul. When did he learn it? Not before he was a Christian. This I could desire to press, but that I have other things to speak of, to make us in love with religion, with the state of Christians, that is thus above all conditions whatsoever, and can rule all other conditions. A Christian is not at the mercy of the world; his contentment is not a dependent contentment. You may cast him into prison, you may impoverish him, you may labour to debase and disgrace him; but can you take away his comfort? Can you take away his grace? Can you take away the love of God? No; God will rather increase all upon him. For the best things of a Christian are not at the mercy of the world, nor at the mercy of his several conditions. Prosperity and adversity, these are out of him. He hath a state depending upon the good will and pleasure of his Father, that loves him better than he loves himself, and out of love will work good out of the worst condition that can befall him. So I hasten to that which follows.
- Having spoken in particular, then he comes to the general, wherein he wraps up all: ‘I can do all things, but in Christ that strengthens me.’ Here is,
- First of all, The blessed apostle’s ability, ‘I can do all things.’
- And then here is, secondly, the spring of his ability, whence he hath it: ‘I can do all things, but in Christ that strengthens me.’
In the apostle’s ability you have,
- His strength itself. 2. The enlargement of it.
‘I am able.’ And what to do? A few things? No; ‘all things.’ The point of doctrine offered is this, that a Christian man is an able man. Whosoever hath the Spirit of Christ is an able man, and his ability is a large ability; he is able to do all things. Take doing in a transcendent sense, not only to do, but take it to resist ill, to resist temptation, to suffer affliction, to enjoy prosperity, to break off sinful courses, and to take a new course, to practise all duties; for so the apostle means ‘I can do,’ that is, I can carry myself in all conditions, I can express all graces, I can resist all temptations, I can suffer all afflictions, I can do all this. What is the reason a Christian is so able?
- Because, first of all, he hath a stronger and abler spirit than his own. The Spirit of God is a spirit of strength, 2 Tim. 1:8. It is the Spirit of power, which is the soul of his soul, and the life of his life. Now the strength of a man is in his spirit. The stronger spirit makes the abler man, and the Spirit of God being the strongest of spirits, indeed the strength of spirits, it makes a Christian in whom it dwells the ablest man.
- And then again, A Christian is a new creature; therefore he is furnished with abilities fit for the new creature. When Adam was created he was endued with all graces fit for an entire state. As when God made heaven he made stars to beautify heaven; when he made the earth, he made trees and flowers; so, when he made man, he furnished him with graces, and fitted him for that estate. Now after the fall, when God brings a man in Christ to be a new creature, he hath abilities to furnish him for that new condition.
- And then again, Every particular grace of the new creature is a grace of strength. As the Spirit is a strong Spirit, so the spirit of love is as strong as death, it hath a ‘constraining power,’ 2 Cor. 5:14. The Spirit of God is so strong in his children, that are truly his, that it makes them even with willingness to lay down their lives, that is dearest to them in this world. Here is a sweet kind of tyranny in the affection of love, that will carry a man through thick and thin, through all, and that with pleasure, willingly and comfortably too; as the apostles were glad to suffer anything for Christ’s sake, their hearts were so enlarged with a spirit of love. The spirit of faith it is a strong and mighty spirit, an able spirit. It conquers God himself, as Jacob wrestled with the wrestlings of God, and by the strength of God overcame God, Hosea 12:3, 4. And the woman of Canaan overcame Christ by the strength she had from Christ, Mat. 15:28. In the sense of God’s displeasure it will believe God’s favour in Christ, and is able to break through the thickest clouds of discomfort whatsoever, and to see the loving face of God. In a base condition it can struggle with God, saying with Job, ‘Though he kill me, yet will I trust in him,’ Job 13:15. It is a strong grace. Faith prevails with almighty God. It prevails in all inferior conditions whatsoever. You see the fruit and strength of all graces is attributed to faith, Heb. 11:33. By faith they overcame, by faith they were strong, and did this and that; insinuating that faith is not only a strong grace in itself, but it gives vigour and strength to all graces. And so we see love, 1 Cor. 13:4, it is not only a strong grace, but the office of other graces is attributed unto it. It suffers long, which is the office of patience. What should I speak of other graces, these radical and fundamental graces being of such force? Now every Christian in some measure hath a spirit of faith and a spirit of love, and these are very strong, to carry him through all estates and conditions; and that with such glory and lustre that every one may wonder at the condition of a Christian. Even in the worst estate he hath a spirit not of the world but above the world. This faith overcomes the world; and he that is in them, the Spirit of God, is stronger than he that is in the world, 1 John 4:4.
To proceed to a further demonstration of a Christian man’s ability, which is intimated unto us in his very name. What is the name of a Christian? ‘Anointed.’ The Spirit of God is compared to oil. What is the virtue of oil? It is to make nimble, for the Spirit of God makes Christians nimble; and oil it makes strong. The wrestlers were wont to be anointed beforehand with oil; so the Spirit of God makes Christians strong. The virtue of oil anointing is to be above. Jumble it together with other liquors, it is a regal liquor, it will have the pre-eminence, and be above. So grace, although it be mingled with corruption, the Spirit of grace and faith at last will apear, the Spirit of God will be above all, at length it will work itself clear. In all temptations, a Christian as a Christian is an able man. If he be answerable to his own name, if he be not an hypocrite, he hath an ability in him, he can do more than the world.
Use 1. First of all then, learn here, that religion is not a matter of word, nor stands upon words, as wood consists of trees. To speak thus and thus, it may come from parts, from memory, and wit; but religion is a matter of power, it makes a man able. It made Paul, what! To speak only? No; his learning made him able to do all things. It is a matter of practice, and there is nothing so speculative in religion but it tends to practice. Religion is an art, not of great men, not of mighty men, but of holy men. It is an art and trade. A trade is not learned by words, but by experience; and a man hath learned a trade, not when he can talk of it, but when he can work according to his trade. So we see Paul shews his learning he speaks of before, by his ability. The point of the Trinity it is a speculative point, and it tends to practice. First, to be a foundation of our worship, that we worship one God in three persons. And then it tends to shew the unity among Christians, that God will work among Christians at length, that they shall be all one in some sort, as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one: which, though it be a point of high and deep speculation, yet it tends to practice. Now if the sublime and high points do, what point is there in religion but it tends to practice? And therefore let us not please ourselves that we have deep understandings, but let us shew our understandings by our practice. As the sheep shews how he thrives in his pasture by his wool and fleece, so shew how thou profitest in religion, by being enabled with the power of grace, that carries thee through all conditions, to avoid the sins and to express the graces in such conditions. So much grace as thou hast to carry thyself thus, so much ability thou hast, and so much religion.
Use 2. If a Christian be an able man, I beseech you, let it serve to try ourselves by this scantling* that I have spoken of. Is Christianity a point of strength and ability? Let us try the truth of our estate then. Thou wouldst be a Christian; what canst thou do then? What sin canst thou resist? What canst thou bear? What holy duty canst thou do? How canst thou enjoy the good blessings that God sends thee, without defiling of thyself with those blessings, that thou art not proud of the riches nor of the honour thou hast? Grace manageth all conditions. Thus, if thou be a Christian, answer thy name; if not, thou art a hypocrite yet. For a Christian in some measure is able ‘to do all things, through Christ that strengtheneth him.’ I beseech you, let us not deceive ourselves. The best of us all may mourn for our want in this kind. Our consciences tell us that we might have done a great deal more than we have; that God would have enabled us if we had not been false-hearted, and betrayed ourselves, and been negligent in the use of the means, to have done a great deal more than we do. What a shame is it for Christians, that indeed have some truth of grace in them, that they cannot be a little abased in the world, but they are à la mort.† Why, where is the power of grace? They cannot be lift up in their condition a little, but they will scant know their brother of low degree. Where is religion now? What hast thou better in thee than a worldling hath? Nay, a heathen man, out of principles of morality, would learn to conform his carriage, outwardly at the least, better than thou. Let us learn therefore to shame ourselves when we find any murmuring and rising of corrupt nature in any condition whatsoever, and know that this becomes not a Christian. This is it which the apostle presseth so oft, that we should carry ourselves as becometh Christians. Oh, doth this become a Christian? A Christian should be able to do all things through Christ that strengthened him. What a shame is it for a professor of religion to be as worldly, as distracted with cares, as passionate, if he be a little touched, as a man that professeth no religion at all? Where is the power, where is the glory and credit of religion here? I beseech you, let us be ashamed, and know that our profession requireth that we should be able.
Use 3. Again, This answers the common objection of carnal men. They ward off all reproofs with this. Tell them of their faults, why it is my infirmity, it is my weakness. Is it so? Art thou a Christian or no? If thou be a Christian, thou labourest for strength against thy weakness; thou dost not make a plea for it. There is weakness indeed in the best; but that is the matter of their humiliation, and the object of their mortification. It is not their plea for idleness, to give themselves to sinful courses. Men therefore make a false plea of infirmities and weaknesses. There is no infirmity in a carnal man that hath not the Spirit of Christ. He is dead. There is no weakness in a dead person. In regard of civil carriages there may be weakness in such a man. He may be passionate, he may be froward, unbeseeming a man that is civil; but that is not in the rank we speak of. None can have infirmities but a Christian that hath the life of grace in him in sincerity and truth. And therefore if thou discover that thou hast not the truth of grace, never say it is thy infirmity. To shew what infirmities be, I rank them to three heads.
- In the first rank of infirmities are the imperfection of good actions, which are either distractions and deadness in prayer and hearing; or invincible infirmities, of which as an ancient father saith well, ‘Lord, deliver me from my miserable necessities’ (b). A man may be in such a state sometimes in regard of the temper of the body, it being out of tune, that he cannot pray as he would do. ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,’ saith our Saviour, Mat. 26:41. It was almost an invincible necessity in the apostles then. Again, we might resist, and we might be more cheerful than we are ofttimes. But sometimes there may be such distemper in the body, that may almost of necessity unfit us for the duty. This we call the infirmity of a Christian, because he is ashamed of it, and grieved for it.
- Again, Infirmities are those indeliberate passions that carry us sometimes to actions that we should not do, being carried with a tempest of passion, when we understand not ourselves well.
- And lastly, It is an infirmity when we are hindered from doing that which we should do, upon passion, upon surprisal of some great fear and terror, that we are not so bold as we should be to stand out in a cause on the sudden, as Peter was surprised with a spirit of fear that he should lose his life, Mat. 26:70. It was no presumption in him, it was an infirmity in the blessed apostle for that time. These then be the signs of infirmities: to have invincible imperfections, or distraction and deadness, accompanying our good actions; to be carried in the heat and tempest of passion to that which afterwards we are ashamed of and repent for; or to be hindered from that we should do by some prevailing passion.
But otherwise infirmities are not, when we live in them, when we make a custom of them. Customary sins are not sins of infirmity, but the sins that we fall into, that we are overtaken with, on the sudden. Only in some cases a man may live in a sin of infirmity, when the ground of the infirmity is rooted within him, and he hath not yet purged out the root. As for instance, a man by temper prone to anger may live long in that infirmity, being many times inordinately pettish and peevish, because he carries about him the root, temper of the body, and inclination that way. Now he that lives in such an infirmity repents daily, and gets ground of it; he is still hewing at the root, and at length, at the last stroke it falls, and he gets the victory over it.
Again, A sin of infirmity is not a sin that we plead for. A man is ashamed of his infirmities; he is grieved for them. Now when a man pleads for them, and makes them a shelter and cover-shade to go on in sinful courses, they are not infirmities. Therefore whosoever pleads for sins discovers a false heart; his sins are enormities, not infirmities. A Christian gets the better of infirmities. After he falls, he riseth stronger and stronger still. But when a man grows worse and worse, and is habituated in an evil course, it is not an infirmity, because he grows not out of it. Let us not deceive ourselves with this plea, to say, It is my weakness. A Christian should be ashamed to plead this; he should be able to do all things. Well, you see then this point is clear, that a Christian is an able man, he hath a strength above nature in him, notwithstanding all his infirmities. This will appear more in the second branch, in the generality, he is able to do ‘all things.’
To come to that, therefore, there are many things required of a Christian. Christianity is a busy trade. If we look up to God, what a world of things are required in a Christian to carry himself as he should do! A spirit of faith, a spirit of love, a spirit of joy, and delight in him above all. And if we look to men, there are duties for a Christian to his superiors, a spirit of subjection. And duties to equals, to carry a spirit of love; and to inferiors a spirit of pity and bounty. If we look to Satan, we have many duties, to resist him and to watch against the tempter. If we look to the world, it is full of snares. There must be a great deal of spiritual watchfulness, that we be not surprised. If we look to ourselves, there are required many duties, to carry our vessels in honour, and to walk within the compass of the Holy Ghost, to preserve the peace of our consciences, to walk answerable to our worth, as being the sons of God and co-heirs with Christ. The state of a Christian is no idle condition. Sometimes a Christian is in this state, sometimes in that; and then he must have these graces, and anon use other graces; he must have a suit of all graces, fit for all conditions. Now answerable to the variety of all the duties that are required of him, he must have ability; and therefore the apostle saith, ‘I can do all things through Christ.’
- So then the point of doctrine is this, that the trial of a sincere Christian’s estate is universality of obedience. Universality of carriage in all conditions is the trial of Christian sincerity. He must dispense with himself in no sin, and he must be a vessel prepared for every good work, ‘a vessel of glory,’ as the apostle speaks, 2 Tim. 2:21. He must baulk no service that God calls him to. What is the reason of this?
The reason is, because a Christian hath the sanctifying Spirit, and the sanctifying Spirit hath the seeds of all graces in it; so that where it is, there is the subduing of all sin in the root. And then all graces are answerable to the commandments of God in all duties, and to the avoiding of all sins. And therefore James saith pregnantly to this purpose, he that ‘offends in one is guilty of all,’ 2:10.
Use 1. Let us take heed we plead not immunity and freedom from some things, and think that the good we do in some kind may excuse the bad we do in others. You have some that will take liberty in an unclean conversation, because they are bountiful and liberal; and they will take liberty to be oppressive in their callings, because they attend upon the means of salvation. Oh no! take heed of that carriage that is against the profession of religion. There must be an universal disposition to all graces and to all duties, though they be never so contrary and cross to corrupt nature. The devil knows well where to have some men, for he sees they mind some sin, and are careless in the practice of other duties; and therefore, in the hour of temptation, the devil will surprise such men, and it will be a ground of despair if they take not heed. Put the case a man will say this, I can part with all things else, Oh, but I cannot die: I can be content to be imprisoned, but I cannot endure to be disgraced. Let a man dispense and favour himself but in one thing, and when the time comes he will be discovered to be but an hypocrite. Then Satan will work upon that, and there he will be shaken in his condition. By reason that he did not learn self-denial perfectly, he hath not grace disposing him to the practice of all Christian duties. He hath not learned to know God in covenant, to supply his wants of honour, credit, wife and children, and all that he is to part withal for Christ’s sake. Now he that hath not learned this in resolution, though God do not yet call him to it, by entering into his own soul, and asking himself what he can part with, and what he can resist for Christ’s sake, ‘What can I endure? what can I suffer?’ If his heart do not tell him, I can part with all, I will rather endure death itself, rather endure shame, or any thing, than break the peace of a good conscience, and grieve the Spirit of God. If he cannot answer his soul thus, surely I can speak little comfort to that man. For we see a Christian must be able to do all things; that is, to resist all ill, to practise all duty, to break off all sinful courses.
Quest. But some will object, May not a Christian be subject to some especial sin?
Ans. Yes, he may. God, for especial purposes sometimes, will have men of eminent graces to be subject to notable infirmities. But what, do they plead for them? No; but as by temper, or by former custom, or as they find themselves more inclined one way than another, so they gather strength especially against their especial sin. And in the beginning of conversion, there is a blow given to the reigning sin that was before; and as when Goliah was slain, and all the rest fled, 1 Sam. 17:51, so grace strikes at the Goliah. In conversion, there is a main stroke given unto sin. Perhaps somewhat remains still, that grace will be hewing at, and therefore grace may stand with an especial sin that a man is inclined to. But this he labours to get all strength against, as other, so strength of direction. You shall find a Christian when he is subject to any infirmity, he will speak more learnedly, and more judiciously, with greater detestation against that sin that he is most prone unto than against any other. He labours to make up the breach where the wall is weakest. So a man may be a good man, and be subject to an infirmity, but then he gathers more strength against it.
Use 2. Well, you see then a Christian is able to do all things through Christ that strengthens him. I beseech you, let us often enter into ourselves, and make an use of trial, also of that which hath been spoken, what we can do, what we can part with, what we can resist. Let us never think ourselves to be in such an estate as is fit to be, to comfort ourselves, till we can in truth and sincerity of heart renounce all whatsoever. Yet notwithstanding, this must be understood evangelically, ‘I can do all things.’ What! legally, without a flaw? No; ‘I can do all things’ so far forth, as shall shew that I am a true Christian, and not an hypocrite; so far as shall be beautiful in the eye of others, to allure them to the embracing of religion; so far as shall make base spirits to envy to see my even carriage, and to see the power of religion; so far as shall put the world to silence for reproaching; so far as I shall enjoy assurance of the truth of grace; so far as Satan shall not get his will in every sin. Our obedience is evangelical, and not legal.
Quest. Now, what is it to do all things evangelically? To clear that point.
Ans. To do all things evangelically is, first of all, for a man to know that he is in the same state of grace, and that he hath his sins pardoned, and that he is accepted in Christ to life and salvation. That is the ground of all evangelical obedience. He must know that he is in the covenant of grace; that he hath the forgiveness of sins, and a right to life everlasting in Christ. And then comes obedience answerable to that condition; that is, a desire to obey God in all things: a grief that he cannot do it so well as he would; a prayer that he might do it so; and an endeavour together with prayer that he may do so, and some strength likewise with endeavour. For a Christian, as I said before, he hath the Spirit of God, not only to set him to an endeavour, but to give him some strength. So there is a desire, and purpose, and prayer, and grief of heart, and endeavour, and likewise some strength in evangelical obedience.
A Christian then in the gospel can do all things when he hath his sins forgiven, and is accepted in Christ, when he can endeavour to do all, and desire to do all, and in some measure practise all duties in truth. For the gospel requires truth and not perfection. That is the perfection that brings us to heaven in Christ our Saviour. We have title to heaven; in him is the ground, because forgiveness of sins is in him. Now a Christian’s life is but to walk worthy of this, and to fit himself for that glorious condition that he hath title unto by Christ, to walk sincerely before God. Sincerity is the perfection of Christians. Let not Satan therefore abuse us. We do all things, when we endeavour to do all things, and purpose to do all things, and are grieved when we cannot do better. For mark, this goes with evangelical obedience always. God pardons that which is ill, for he is a Father. He hath bound himself to pardon, ‘I will pity you as a father pitieth his child,’ Ps. 103:13. From the very relation he hath took upon him, we may be assured he will pity and pardon us, and then he will accept of that which is good, because it is the work of his own Spirit, and will reward it. This in the covenant of grace he will do. A Christian can do all then; and wherein he fails, God will pardon him. What is good, God will accept and reward; and what is sick and weak in him, God will heal, till he have made him up in Christ.
Thus we see in what sense this is to be understood, a Christian can do all things through Christ. For as it is said of gold, the best gold you have hath allowance of such grains, so take the best Christian, you must have some allowance. Some imperfection cleaves to him. He cannot do all perfectly. For then what need the covenant of grace? He can do all things so as he flies to the mercy of God in Christ for life everlasting. He can do all things required of a Christian in the covenant of grace in regard of sincerity. These things must be well and soundly understood, and then we can take no offence at the doctrine.
Quest. What is the cause that a Christian fails then when he doth fail?
Ans. 1. A Christian fails, when he doth not understand the promises of the new covenant of grace, that God hath given not only promises of the pardon of sin, but of all kind of graces, a promise of the Spirit in general. He will give his Spirit to those that ask it, and a promise of every other particular grace: that he will write his law in our hearts, and he will teach us to love one another, and he will put his fear into our hearts. We have not a grace but either there is a promise of it generally, or specially. Now when a Christian forgets this, he fails for want of understanding the privileges and promises.
Ans. 2. Again, he fails for want of wisdom to plant himself in such helps, whereby he might be able to do all things; for it is the folly sometimes of Christians to be rash in venturing upon occasions; and then he hath no more strength than Samson had when he adventured. He loseth his strength when he ventureth rashly. But if a Christian be wise to keep out of temptation, and to keep himself in good company and acquaintance, using holy means and helps to godliness, wherein the Spirit works, a wise Christian may perform all.
Ans. 3. Again, for want of resolution. A Christian goes not out always with his spiritual armour, as he should. He goes not out with a purpose to please God in all things, and to avoid all sins; but his armour is loose about him. If a Christian would resolve, in the power of God, to break through all difficulties, and to do all duties, God would second him. ‘Arise, and be doing, and the Lord will be with thee,’ 1 Chron. 22:16. Let a Christian go on constantly in a good way, and he shall find experience of God’s helping of him. Without manly resolutions, a Christian fails.
Quest. What is the reason that a Christian many times stands in strong and great duties, and is foiled in little duties?
Ans. Because he is watchful in the one, and careless in the other. Indeed, it is want of will. If we would have strength, and would carry ourselves manfully, we might have grace to carry ourselves even to the glory of our profession and to the credit of it. But we willingly favour corruption, and are not willing to put it out of ourselves to the utmost; whereupon we want much comfort that Christians should enjoy; and hereupon come many breaches in our life. In a word, if a Christian were careful, there is no duty, but he might perform it in some measure. He may go wondrous high upwards, always with this exception, that he never look to be justified by it. For God hath not established the covenant so. That is done by Christ. Again, if he be careless, he may sink wondrous low. There is no sin but the sin against the Holy Ghost, but he may fall into it in some manner.
I hasten to the last point. ‘I can do all things,’ but how? with what strength? ‘Through Christ that strengtheneth me.’
This is to salve up an objection which might be made against the blessed apostle, ‘I can do all things.’ Here is a proud word. Oh no; ‘it is in Christ that strengthens me.’ St Paul was wondrous cautious and careful to avoid spiritual pride, or the least touch of it, as it is 1 Cor. 15:10. ‘Not I,’ saith he. He checks himself presently: ‘I laboured more than they all; not I, but grace within me.’ Of all other sins, take heed of spiritual pride, check it presently. ‘I can do all.’ Oh but, lest proud thoughts should arise, ‘it is in Christ that strengtheneth me.’ My strength is out of myself. As the heads of those rivers, that ran through paradise, and that watered the city of God, they were out of paradise, so the head and spring of those streams that water the church of God, and particular Christians, they are out of themselves, they are in Christ. It is otherwise with us than it was in the ‘first Adam.’ He had strength, and had no promise to stand. He had power to stand, if he would. But a Christian’s strength is out of himself, in the ‘second Adam,’ Christ. And it is well that it is in the keeping of so strong a Saviour, for we should forfeit it as Adam did, if it were in our own hands. It is derived to us, as much as he thinks good; but the spring is in him. And we have not only a will, but the promise and ability to do good; we do all through Christ.
- So the point of doctrine is this, that the original of a Christian’s strength is in Christ. God is the original of all strength. But God himself hath no intercourse of the new covenant with man out of the second person. All our comfort, and all our grace, it comes through Christ, who having taken our nature upon him, and having satisfied God, is fit to derive all grace and comfort to us. For he is near us, he is of our nature, and God in him is well pleased so as we may now go boldly to Christ; we are bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. God himself out of Christ is ‘a consuming fire.’ Now, in Christ God favours man; he is gracious and lovely to us, and we to him; because Christ his beloved Son hath took our nature upon him, and now in our nature he is in heaven. So Christ the mediator is the fountain of all strength; he is the spiritual Joseph that had laid up store for all Egypt, and all that came. He is the high steward of his church, the second in the kingdom of heaven; he is the Joseph, he dispenseth all riches and treasures; all are in him for the church’s sake. In him we do all things. As we can do all things for him as a mediator that died for us and procured favour for us, so we can do all things in him as an head to whom we are united. For there must be union before there can be communion. As in marriage there must be a uniting before there be a communion of estates and conditions, so before we can do anything for Christ we must be in Christ. We have all as through Christ, as in Christ. Thence comes communion with Christ’s Spirit. So then it is Christ by his Spirit, for he doth all by his Spirit: ‘The Lord is that Spirit,’ 2 Cor. 3:17. Christ doth all in the church by his Spirit. Now, the Spirit is the union of Christ, he strengthens all; all our strength is by Christ’s Spirit. Now, this Spirit of God first sanctifies Christ, the human nature of Christ, before he sanctifieth us. We have all grace and power and strength at the second hand. It comes not from Christ as God immediately. And grace comes not from the Holy Ghost immediately to us; but the Holy Ghost first sanctifies Christ his human nature and then he sanctifies us, and we out of Christ’s fulness receive grace for grace. The same Spirit that sanctified his nature in the womb of the virgin, and that sanctified his holy nature that now he hath in heaven with him, the same Spirit is sent from him to sanctify every member of the church. All is in the head, John 1:16. As first the ointment was poured on Aaron’s head, and from thence it ran down to the skirts of his garments, Ps. 133:2, so all grace is poured upon the head of Christ first, and then from him upon the skirts, even upon the meanest Christian, as answerable to their portion; and to those things that God means to call them to, they have grace to carry them. You see then how to conceive of this, how we have all in Christ, that is, by the Spirit of Christ, and how it comes by the Spirit.
Use 1. First of all, then, you see here how these two agree: a Christian, when he is a Christian, hath freedom of will and power. He hath power and free will. As far as he is freed by the Spirit of Christ, so far he is free. For, 2 Cor. 3:17, ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.’ So, John 8:36, Christ says, ‘If the Son shall make you free, then you shall be free indeed.’ ‘He can do all things,’ therefore he is free. But it is in Christ; therefore his freedom is from him. We speak, but it is Christ’s Spirit that openeth our mouth. We believe, but it is Christ by his Spirit that opens our hearts to believe. We are mighty, but it is in God. We are able to do great matters, but it is in Christ that strengtheneth us. We are strong, but it is in the Lord; as it is written, ‘Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might,’ Eph. 6:10. The understanding is ours, the affections are ours, the will is ours; but the sanctifying of all this, and the carriage of all these supernaturally above themselves, to do them spiritually, that is not ours, but it is Christ’s. So we see what is ours, and what is not ours. We are able to do; but the strength, and the grace, and ability is from Christ. A wind instrument sounds, but the man makes it sound by his breath. We are like wind instruments. Indeed, we sound, but no further than we are blown upon; and we yield music, but no further than we are touched by the Spirit of God. We are light, but as the air is, as it is enlightened by the sun; and therefore we must understand these points, that God may have glory, and that we may know what is ours.
And then again we see here, that we have in Christ not only a general ability, that we are able, but we have the very act itself, the deed itself. He strengtheneth us. There is a spiritual life and a spiritual power and will, and then the act and deed itself. Now, we have not only from Christ the life of grace at the first, and then a spiritual power answerable to that again, whereby our powers are renewed, so as we are able to do something in our will, but we have the deed itself. The doing is from Christ; he strengtheneth us for the present. Now, you have some that teach loosely this point, that we have general universal grace, whereby we are enabled, if we will, to believe, and to do this thing, if we will. But I say that is not all; but we have the will and the deed itself from Christ by his Spirit, and in every holy action Christ helps us to do these things in very deed.
First, He moves the soul to the action, and applies the soul to the thing. By the Spirit he doth this. For though we have power, we could not exercise it but by the Spirit, in this or that particular act.
Second, Again, he works a preserving of the grace in that act. God preserves his own work against temptation, and against impediments; for there is no act but it is opposed. The devil is in every good work, either at the beginning to hinder it, or at the end to defile it, one way or other. Now, God preserves his own work by his Spirit. First, He moves us to do, and then he preserves us in doing, and arms us against the impediments of good works. Then he determines the good work, and limits it, how far we shall do well, thus far, and thus far; the degrees come from Christ. For sometimes he doth it by his glorious power, as Paul saith, Eph. 1:19. Sometimes we are strengthened to do more, and sometimes less, as he will. Not only the act itself, and the application of the soul, and the preserving of grace in every act, we sink else, but the degree that we do sometimes better, it comes from Christ now strengthening of us more, and now less, as he sees good.
Know, by the way, that he is a voluntary head. Though he be an head of influence that flows into every member, yet he is a voluntary head, according to his own good pleasure, and the exigents of his members. Sometimes we have need of more grace, and then it flows into us from him accordingly. Sometimes we have need to know our weakness, and then he leaves us to ourselves, that we may know that without him we cannot stand; that we may know the necessity of his guidance to heaven, in the sense of our imperfections; that we might see our weakness and corruptions, that we had thought we had not had in us: as Moses was tempted to murmur, a meek man, Num. 11:21, seq., and David to cruelty, a mild man, 2 Sam. 11:15, that thought they had not had those corruptions in them. God leaves Christians sometimes to themselves, that they may know that they are not strong by their own spirit. So the degrees are from Christ, sometimes more and sometimes less. Sometimes we are in desertion, that we may know the manner of Christ’s governing us till we come to heaven.
Use 1. Well, I beseech you, let us know that out of Christ there is no grace. A civil man doth nothing in religion well. There cannot be a beam without the sun; there cannot be a river without a spring; there cannot be a good work without the spring of good works, Christ. Therefore, we should fetch all from him, since there is no grace out of him at all.
Use 2. Again, let us be sure, in all particular actions, to be poor in spirit. When we have any temptation to resist, any trouble to bear, or any duty to do, let us empty ourselves. No grace is stronger than humility. No man is weaker than a proud man. For a proud man rests on nothing, and an humble man that empties himself, he stands upon the Rock. We should therefore make use of the strength of Christ, that hath not only abundance for himself, but an abundance for us, an overflowing for every Christian for his good. Let us empty ourselves, as the prophet saith to the widow, Bring ‘empty vessels’ now, and we shall have oil enough, 2 Kings 4:3. There is enough in Christ; but first we must empty ourselves by humility, and then there is fulness in him. ‘Of his fulness we receive grace for grace,’ John 1:16. His fulness is like the fulness of the clouds that is ready to drop, and like the fulness of breasts, that are ready to yield what they have. He is willing. It is our fault, and baseness, and pride, that hinders us. Let us as much as we can empty ourselves of ourselves, and stir up the spirit of faith. Go to Christ. So much faith as we carry, so much grace we bring from him. If we do but touch him by faith, the issue of our corruptions will be dried up in some measure, and we shall have a spring of graces in us answerable to the graces in him, Mat. 9:20.
I beseech you, therefore, let us labour for these two graces, especially since all is out of us in the covenant of grace; not only salvation is out of us, but grace that brings us to heaven is out of us, to empty ourselves in humility, and by faith to go to Christ. The one grace makes us go out of ourselves, the other carries us to Christ and to the promises of Christ. Learn to do this in every action, for we may be foiled in every particular action for want of humility and faith. We must not trust to any grace or any ability in us, but trust to our spring, go to Christ when we have anything to do.
Quest. What is the reason that Christians fail?
Ans. They think, I had grace yesterday, and before, and hereupon they go not for supply of new strength to Christ. Know that in every act, in every temptation, in every particular suffering, we need a particular new strength, and a greater strength than we had before, if the temptation be greater, if the work be greater. As it is with a porter, he cannot carry a new burden that is heavier than he did before, without a new strength, without more strength than he had before, so a Christian cannot bear a new affliction without new strength, without more strength. Therefore consider what the nature of the business is that we are to do, and the strength of the temptation that we are to encounter with, and answerably go to Christ for a measure greater than we had before. He never upbraids us nor casts us in the teeth, as James saith, chap. 1:5 (c). There is an art, a skill of fetching strength from Christ to do all things, if we would learn it. As there is a skill to be a Christian, it is a trade, so there is a skill to fetch the strength that he hath from his spring, from Christ. Now, that skill in a word is this:
- First, To know our own want, and to know the necessity of grace, and the excellency of the state of holiness, that of all conditions it is the best, and of all conditions a sinful estate is the worst. This will make us go out of ourselves to Christ. Well, how shall we fetch strength from Christ then?
- Consider wherefore Christ hath the treasures of all in him, and go to him for particular graces we want whatsoever. When we know the excellency and necessity of it before, then make use of the virtue of his death and resurrection. Thus, are we tempted to any sin? Make use of the death of Christ, of his great love in giving himself, and then of the holiness of God in giving Christ to die for sin, he hates sin so; and then,
- Consider of the fruit of his death that was to free and deliver us from sin. When we think of these things, Did God and Christ so love me? Is it the holiness of God, and the holiness of Christ, that God became man to die for me, and shall I go and trifle, and be tempted to sin, and offend so holy and so gracious a God, that hates sin so infinitely?
These be strong reasons fetched from Christ. We have from him both the reasons why we should do good and why we should not do evil, and we have the strength. There are two things requisite for a man to do a thing as a man. The reason why he should do it, and strength to perform it, both these are from Christ.
As from ill we are stopped by the consideration of Christ’s death, so when we are moved to grace, consider the virtue of Christ’s resurrection. Why is Christ now in heaven in our nature? Is it not to fill his church with his Spirit? Why doth he make intercession in heaven? Is it not that we should not be discouraged notwithstanding our daily infirmities? Shall we not make use of it? He is glorious for us, not for himself, but for his mystical body. As he hath made his natural body glorious, so he will make his mystical body glorious by little and little. He being, therefore, in heaven making intercession, go to him in the want of grace. And so for infirmities. The Spirit of God raised him at the lowest, and shall not the Spirit of God raise me from this and that. Yes, the Spirit of God will raise me from the baseness and misery of sin to be better and better. The same Spirit will enable me that raised his body. And so fetch virtue and strength from Christ, make use of Christ for every turn. Oh that we could learn these things! Then we should be able to go through all conditions: we should be able to live, able to die. I beseech you, therefore, consider what hath been spoken. Let us study Christ every day more and more, not for redemption and reconciliation only, though that in the first place, but study Christ to be all in all to us, to be our sanctification to fit us for heaven. Study the promises in Christ, lose no privilege. God would not have left them in his word but for our good. Take heed of base despair; Oh, I shall never overcome this sin and that. What! shut the people out of Canaan? Base despair lost them earthly Canaan, Numb. 14:22, seq. So take heed it shut not you out of heavenly Canaan. I shall not be able to get the victory over sin, and I shall not be able to suffer. No. Why are the promises? and why is Christ in heaven? Shall we, by despair and by base infidelity, lose Christ, and the promises, and all that is put into our hands, and betray our souls basely to Satan? I beseech you, consider of the necessity of these things. We know not what times God may call us to ere long. Despair not beforehand. Let fall what will, get into Christ, to be in him in an happy and eternal condition. We shall have strength from him to carry ourselves in all estates. Come what will, he will stand by us; he will not fail us nor forsake us. When did Paul speak these glorious words? In prison. ‘I can do all things through Christ,’ &c. Did the Spirit of God leave Paul in prison? Was it not better for Paul to have grace than to be freed from the thing? Wicked men may be freed from trouble, only a Christian hath grace to carry himself well in trouble. Come what will, if we be in Christ, either we shall be freed from troubles, or we shall have grace to bear them. Either we shall have that we want, or we shall have contentment without it. Is it not better to have grace without the thing? Is it not better to have a glorious Spirit of glory resting on us? Did not the Spirit of glory rest on Paul? Could not God have freed Paul from prison? Yes. But where had been then the demonstration of a contented spirit, of an heavenly mind? Where had been this example of a Christian bearing the cross comfortably? Paul lost nothing. Here you see how many stars shine in the night of his affliction, what a lustre he had in the dark state of imprisonment. Shall we then be afraid of any condition? No. Get the Spirit of God; get understanding of Christ, and the promises and privileges by him, and then let God cast us into what condition he will, we shall be safe and well.
Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 5 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1863), 175–193. Public Domain
Hardback editions of Sibbes 7 Volumes are available at https://www.heritagebooks.org/products/the-works-of-richard-sibbes-7-vols.html
1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, hath found?
2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not toward God.
3 For what saith the scripture? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness.
4 Now to him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt.
5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness.
6 Even as David also pronounceth blessing upon the man, unto whom God reckoneth righteousness apart from works,
Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered.
8 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not reckon sin.
9 Is this blessing then pronounced upon the circumcision, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say, To Abraham his faith was reckoned for righteousness.
10 How then was it reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision:
11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be in uncircumcision, that righteousness might be reckoned unto them;
12 and the father of circumcision to them who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham which he had in uncircumcision.
13 For not through the law was the promise to Abraham or to his seed, that he should be heir of the world, but through the righteousness V 3, p 117 of faith.
14 For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise is made of none effect:
15 for the law worketh wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there transgression.
16 For this cause it is of faith, that it may be according to grace; to the end that the promise may be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all (as it is written,
17 A father of many nations have I made thee) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth the things that are not, as though they were.
18 Who in hope believed against hope, to the end that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, So shall thy seed be.
19 And without being weakened in faith he considered his own body now as good as dead (he being about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb:
20 yea, looking unto the promise of God, he wavered not through unbelief, but waxed strong through faith, giving glory to God,
21 and being fully assured that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.
22 Wherefore also it was reckoned unto him for righteousness.
23 Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was reckoned unto him;
24 but for our sake also, unto whom it shall be reckoned, who believe on him that raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,
25 who was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification.
Romans 4 (Revised Version 1885)
photo: Cambridge Brevier
1 What advantage then hath the Jew? or what is the profit of circumcision? Much every way:
2 first of all, that they were intrusted with the oracles of God.
3 For what if some were without faith? shall their want of faith make of none effect the faithfulness of God?
4 God forbid: yea, let God be found true, but every man a liar; as it is written,
That thou mightest be justified in thy words,
And mightest prevail when thou comest into judgement.
5 But if our unrighteousness commendeth the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who visiteth with wrath? (I speak after the manner of men.)
6 God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world?
7 But if the truth of God through my lie abounded unto his glory, why am I also still judged as a sinner?
8 and why not (as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say), Let us do evil, that good may come? whose condemnation is just.
9 What then? are we in worse case than they? No, in no wise: for we before laid to the charge both of Jews and Greeks, that they are all under sin;
10 as it is written,
There is none righteous, no, not one;
11 There is none that understandeth,
There is none that seeketh after God;
12 They have all turned aside, they are together become unprofitable;
There is none that doeth good, no, not so much as one:
13 Their throat is an open sepulchre;
With their tongues they have used deceit:
The poison of asps is under their lips:
14 Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:
15 Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 Destruction and misery are in their ways;
17 And the way of peace have they not known:
18 There is no fear of God before their eyes.
19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it speaketh to them that are under the law; that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may be brought under the judgement of God:
20 because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for through the law cometh the knowledge of sin.
21 But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe;
23 for there is no distinction; for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God;
24 being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
25 whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, by his blood, to shew his righteousness, because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God;
26 for the shewing, I say, of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus.
27 Where then is the glorying? It is excluded. By what manner of law? of works? Nay: but by a law of faith.
28 We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
29 Or is God the God of Jews only? is he not the God of Gentiles also?
30 Yea, of Gentiles also: if so be that God is one, and he shall justify the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith.
31 Do we then make the law of none effect through faith? God forbid: nay, we establish the law.
Romans 3 (Revised Version 1885)
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1 Wherefore thou art without excuse, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest dost practise the same things.
2 And we know that the judgement of God is according to truth against them that practise such things.
3 And reckonest thou this, O man, who judgest them that practise such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgement of God?
4 Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?
5 but after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up for thyself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgement of God;
6 who will render to every man according to his works:
7 to them that by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and incorruption, eternal life:
8 but unto them that are factious, and obey not the truth, but obey unrighteousness, shall be wrath and indignation,
9 tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that worketh evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek;
10 but glory and honour and peace to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek:
11 for there is no respect of persons with God.
12 For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned under law shall be judged by law;
13 for not the hearers of a law are just before God, but the doers of a law shall be justified:
14 for when Gentiles which have no law do by nature the things of the law, these, having no law, are a law unto themselves;
15 in that they shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them;
16 in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, by Jesus Christ.
17 But if thou bearest the name of a Jew, and restest upon the law, and gloriest in God,
18 and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are excellent,
19 being instructed out of the law, and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them that are in darkness,
20 a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having in the law the form of knowledge and of the truth;
21 thou therefore that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal?
22 thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou rob temples?
23 thou who gloriest in the law, through thy transgression of the law dishonourest thou God?
24 For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you, even as it is written.
25 For circumcision indeed profiteth, if thou be a doer of the law: but if thou be a transgressor of the law, thy circumcision is become uncircumcision.
26 If therefore the uncircumcision keep the ordinances of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be reckoned for circumcision?
27 and shall not the uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who with the letter and circumcision art a transgressor of the law?
28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew,
29 which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
Romans 2 (Revised Version 1885)
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1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God,
2 which he promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures,
3 concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh,
4 who was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection of the dead; even Jesus Christ our Lord,
5 through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name’s sake:
6 among whom are ye also, called to be Jesus Christ’s:
7 to all that are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world.
9 For God is my witness, whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of his Son, how unceasingly I make mention of you,
10 always in my prayers making request, if by any means now at length I may be prospered by the will of God to come unto you.
11 For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established;
12 that is, that I with you may be comforted in you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine.
13 And I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you (and was hindered hitherto), that I might have some fruit in you also, even as in the rest of the Gentiles.
14 I am debtor both to Greeks and to Barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.
15 So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you also that are in Rome.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
17 For therein is revealed a righteousness of God by faith unto faith: as it is written, But the righteous shall live by faith.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold down the truth in unrighteousness;
19 because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it unto them.
20 For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world V 3, p 115 are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity;
21 that they may be without excuse: because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God, neither gave thanks; but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened.
22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,
23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.
24 Wherefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts unto uncleanness, that their bodies should be dishonoured among themselves:
25 for that they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.
26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile passions: for their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature:
27 and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another, men with men working unseemliness, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was due.
28 And even as they refused to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up unto a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not fitting;
29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity;
30 whisperers, backbiters, hateful to God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding,
31 covenant-breakers, without natural affection, unmerciful:
32 who, knowing the ordinance of God, that they which practise such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but also consent with them that practise them.
Romans 1 (Revised Version 1885)
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Mark 10:15:—“Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein.”
The declaration embodied in this verse, apparently very simple, and certainly perfectly clear in its general sense, is not without its perplexities when examined in its detailed implications. The occasion of its enunciation was an incident in the life of our Lord which manifests His beautiful tenderness as few others of those narrated in the Gospels. In the prosecution of His mission He went up and down the land, as we are told, “doing good.” It was characteristic of His teaching that the common people heard Him gladly. It was of the essence of the beneficent impression that He made that He drew to Him all who were afflicted and were suffering with diverse diseases.
The Evangelists stud their narratives thickly with accounts of how the people flocked to him, bringing all their sick and receiving from Him healing of body and mind. This appeared to His closest followers well worth while. It was all part of his office as One sent from God to heal the hurt of Israel. But the people did not stop there. Mothers brought their babies also to Him, and asked Him to lay His hands on them and bless them, too. Here His disciples drew the line. These babies were not sick and did not need the healing touch of the Great Physician. By the very fact that they were babies they were incapable of profiting by His wonderful words. To intrude them upon His attention was to interfere unwarrantably with His prosecution of His pressing labors, and to supplant those who had superior claims on His time and strength. So the disciples rebuked the parents and would fain have sent the babies away.
But the Lord, perceiving what was toward, was moved with indignation and intervened with His great, “Let the little children come to me, prevent them not.” And taking them in His own arms, He laid His hands on them and blessed them; the word employed being a very emphatic one, meaning a calling down fervently of blessings upon the objects of the prayer. The mothers went away comforted, bearing their blessed babies in their arms.
What a picture we have here of the Master’s loving-kindness! It is not strange if, when we read the narrative, we stop, first of all, to adore and love Him. It is a revelation of the character of Jesus; and what can we contemplate with more profit than the character of Jesus? But we soon begin to realize that the incident is freighted with instruction for us relatively to our Lord’s mission as well, and to question what messages it brings us from this point of view. We ask why was our Lord “moved with indignation” at His disciples for intercepting the approach of the mothers with their babies to Him. They meant well; surely He needed protection from unnecessary and useless draughts upon His energies. Indignation was certainly out of place unless there was some very harmful misunderstanding somewhere.
And so it begins to dawn upon us that the disciples ought to have known better. And that means ultimately that they ought to have known better than to suppose that Jesus’ mission was summed up in instruction and healing. Were this all that it was, it had been right enough to exclude the babies from His presence. Only if He had something for these babies too; only if His blessing on them—not needing healing and incapable of instruction—nevertheless, brought to them the supreme benefit; would it be a crime to shut them out from His offices. Whence we may learn that the blessing which Jesus brought was something above His instruction and superior to His healing ministry. A great physician, yes; a prophet come from God, yes; but above and beyond these, the bearer of blessings which could penetrate even to the helpless babes on their mothers’ breasts.
Perhaps if the disciples stopped short of this, it is not inexplicable that men of to-day, having proceeded so far, should show a tendency to stop right here and utilize this much gain with such devotion that they do not stay to search further. We have obviously here a warrant for infant baptism, they say. For does not Jesus declare that infants are to be permitted to come to Him and are not to be hindered—affirming further that the Kingdom of Heaven is of such, and taking them in His arms and blessing them? And can His Church, representing Him on earth, do less? Must not His Church suffer the infants to be brought to Him and take them in her arms and mark them with His name and bless them? Nay, say others, this and more: A warrant here for confidence in the salvation of infants. For how can we believe that He who on earth so tenderly and solemnly took them in His arms and blessed them, forbidding their access to Him to be hindered, will now in heaven refuse to receive them when they come flocking to His arms? And does He not distinctly declare that the Kingdom of God belongs to such; and does that not mean first of all—whatever else it may mean—just this simple thing, that infants as such are citizens of His heavenly kingdom and must be accredited with all the rights of that heavenly citizenship?
It is no part of my purpose to stop and examine the validity of these inferences. Let it be enough for us to-day to note clearly, merely that they are inferences. And having noted that they are inferences, let us for the moment at least pass them by, and engross ourselves in the teaching which is explicit and for the sake of which, therefore, we must suppose that the incident is recorded. For our Lord did not leave His disciples to draw inferences from the incident, unaided. He draws one for them; and that one is what we have chosen as the subject of our meditation to-day. In this inference He withdraws our minds from the literal children He had taken and blessed, and focuses them upon the spiritual children who should constitute the Kingdom of Heaven.
You will observe that He passes at once from the one to the other. When He says “For of such is the Kingdom of God,” He does not mean that the Kingdom of God consists of literal infants, but rather of those who are like infants. You may assure yourselves of this by turning to the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs”—or “of them”—“is the Kingdom of heaven.” That is to say, the Kingdom of heaven belongs to—or is constituted of—the “poor in spirit.” So, here, if what were intended were that the Kingdom of God belongs to—is constituted of—infants, we should have: “For of them”—or “theirs”—“is the Kingdom of God.” What we do have, however, is not that, but, on the contrary, “For of such as they—of their like—is the Kingdom of heaven.” The Kingdom of heaven is declared, therefore, to be constituted not of children but of the childlike. And the declaration is at once clinched by the words of our text, introduced by the solemn formula “Verily,” “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein.”
The message which the incident is made by our Lord to bring us, therefore,—and which, accordingly, the passage directly teaches us with no inferences of ours—does not concern either infant baptism or infant salvation, but distinctly the constitution of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, it asserts, is made up, not of children, but of the childlike. And that concerns directly you and me. The Kingdom of God, our text asserts, is made up of people like these children whom our Lord took in His arms and blessed. And that being so, we are warned that no one can enter that Kingdom who does not receive it “like a little child.” This is as much as to say, not only that childlikeness characterizes the recipients of that Kingdom, but that childlikeness is the indispensable prerequisite to entrance into it. It certainly behoves you and me who wish to be members of the Kingdom of God to know what this childlikeness means.
Well, many think at once of the innocence of childhood. The statement is, in effect they say, that the Kingdom of God consists solely of those who are in their moral innocence like children. Only such can enter it. A grave difficulty at once faces us, however, when we enunciate this view. That is that Jesus does not seem elsewhere to announce innocence as a—as the—condition of entrance into the Kingdom which He came to establish. On the contrary, He declared that He came not to call the righteous, but sinners, and announced that His mission was to seek and save what is lost. The publicans and harlots, He tells us, go into the Kingdom before the righteous Pharisees. To give point to this we note that in Luke’s narrative the parable of the publican and pharisee praying in the temple immediately precedes the account of our present incident, and is placed there evidently because of the affinity of the two narratives. It would read exceedingly oddly if the publican was justified and the pharisee, with all his righteousness, rejected, and immediately afterwards it were asserted that the Kingdom was solely for the innocent. No, there is nothing clearer than that Jesus’ mission was specifically to those who were not innocent—that it is characteristic of those who enter His Kingdom that they do not feel innocent—that, in a word, the Kingdom is built up from and by the “chief of sinners” like Paul, and those who say of themselves that “if any man say he hath no sin he is a liar, and the truth is not in him,” like John. Not the “righteous” but “sinners” Jesus came to save.
Remembering the pharisee and publican, shall we not say, then, that the trait of childhood here celebrated is, if not exactly innocence, at least humility? It was precisely humility that characterized the prayer of the publican and our Lord elsewhere commends humility as in some sense the primary Christian grace. “Blessed,” He says in that first beatitude, which we have already cited, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs—of them—is the Kingdom of heaven.” Is not this an express parallel to our present passage, saying in plain words what is here said in figure? When we read, then, that the Kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are childlike, and only he can enter it who receives it as a child—is not the very thing meant, that none but the humble-minded, the poor in spirit, can possess the Kingdom? Indeed, is not this very thing spoken out in so many words in a closely related previous incident when Jesus took a child and set it among His disciples, as they were disputing as to who should be greatest, and bade them to humble themselves and become as that little child if they would be great in the Kingdom of heaven—enforcing the lesson moreover with a declaration almost the same as that of the text: “Verily I say unto you, Except ye turn and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the Kingdom of heaven”? It certainly seems as if in that passage at least the humility of little children is just the thing signalized, and entrance into the Kingdom is hung on the possession of that specific virtue.
Even in that passage, however, it may be well to move warily. Is humility the special characteristic of childhood? To become like a child may certainly be an act of humility in one not a child, and it is very intelligible that our Lord should, therefore, tell those whom He was exhorting to become like a child that they can only do it by humbling themselves. But is that quite the same as saying that humility is the characteristic virtue of childhood, or that a humble spirit is the precedent condition of entering the Kingdom of heaven? We seem to be in danger of reading the passage too superficially. Our Lord tells His disciples that they cannot enter the Kingdom which He came to found except they turn and become like little children; and He tells them that they cannot become like little children except by humbling themselves, and, therefore, that when they were quarrelling about greatness they were not “turning and becoming like little children.” But He does not seem to tell them that humility of heart is the characterizing quality of childlikeness; in this statement it is rather the pathway over which we must tread to attain something else which is the characterizing quality of childlikeness. Childlikeness is one thing; that by which that state is attained is another.
Much less is humility suggested to us in our present passage as the constitutive fact of childlikeness. These babies that Jesus took into His arms, in what sense were they lowly minded, and the types of humility of soul? If they were like other children of their age, they were probably, so far as they showed moral characteristics at all, little egotists. There is no period of life so purely, sharply, unrelievedly egotistic as infancy; and there is, consequently, no period of life less adapted to stand as the typical form of that lowliness of mind which seeks another’s, not one’s own, good.
Others have gone further and I think done better, therefore, when they have suggested that it is the simplicity of childhood, its artlessness and ingenuousness, which is the trait which our Lord intends when He declares that the Kingdom of Heaven is made up “of such” as they, and that no one who does not receive that Kingdom like a child—that is, in childlike simplicity and ingenuousness—shall enter into it. Above everything else the mental life of a child is characterized, perhaps, by directness. It lacks the sinuosities, double motives, complications, of the adult intelligence. The child does not think of “serving two masters,” but gives itself altogether to one thing or the other, and possesses at least the single purpose if not always that precise singleness of eye which our Lord commends. We know what an encomium our Saviour passed on that singleness of eye because of which the whole body should be full of light; and what an echo of this teaching His apostles sound in the praise of that singleness of heart or simplicity of soul in which they make the Christian disposition to consist. May it not, then, be this lack of duplicity in thought and feeling, this clear simplicity of heart which results in singleness of devotion, that our Lord declares here to be characteristic of childhood and of those spiritual children who alone may be true disciples?
This is a very attractive idea; but attractive as the idea is, it seems a little artificial and not easily deducible from the passage itself. It might fit very well in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew—and, indeed, would give a far better sense there than the conception of humility; but it seems to be outside the scope of our present passage. These children were mere babies—and in what clear and outstanding sense are babies characterized by simplicity of heart and singleness of soul?
We feel, then, that a great step is taken when others step in and suggest that the particular trait which our Saviour has in mind when He declares that only the childlike can enter His Kingdom is the trustfulness of the child. Here we touch, indeed, what seems really the fundamental trait of the truly childish mind, that colors all its moral life, and constitutes, not merely its dominant but we might almost say, its entire disposition—implicit trustfulness. The age of childhood is, above everything else, the age of trust. Dependent upon its elders for everything, the whole nature of the child is keyed to trust; on trust it lives, and by means of trust it finds all its means of existence. Its virtues and its faults alike grow out of trust as its fundamental characteristic. There is no picture of perfect and simple and implicit trust discoverable in all the world comparable to the picture of the infant lying peacefully and serenely on its mother’s bosom. And we must remember that this is the spectacle that our Lord had before Him. The mothers were bringing their babies to Him to be blessed; He looked at them as they approached; and, observing the utter trustfulness of the attitude of the child reclining in the nest of its mother’s arms, He announced that here is the type of the Kingdom of God and of its children. In these trusting babies He saw the symbol of the citizens of His Kingdom. “Of such as these,” He declared, “is the Kingdom of God”; and then He added that no man who did not receive the Kingdom like one of these little trustful babies, could even enter it. Trust, simple, utter trust, that is the pathway to the Kingdom.
We cannot doubt that in thus directing its attention to the trustfulness of little children as their characteristic trait, the mind has been turned in the right direction for the proper understanding of our Lord’s declaration. But even yet, I think, we have scarcely reached the bottom fact. You will observe that all the suppositions hitherto made move in the subjective sphere. Dispositions of mind alone have been suggested; men have been seeking to discover the disposition of mind which is most characteristic of childhood; to which we may suppose, therefore, that our Saviour, referred, when He declared that His disciples must be like children if they would enter His Kingdom. But our passage says nothing of dispositions of mind; and why should we?
Why not seek an objective characteristic here? These babies, which Christ took in His arms—what dispositions of mind had they? We must now revert to the narrative, and observe with care that these children were, in point of fact, mere babies. Perhaps we have been thinking of them rather as well-grown children, and picturing them as standing around our Lord’s knees, giving Him eager, if wondering attention, as He spoke to them. Nothing of the kind. They were babies in arms, perhaps of only a few weeks or months old, perhaps of only a few days. They had no disposition of mind. Luke calls them distinctly infants, and speaks, therefore, of their being brought as remarkable: “They were bringing to Him even their babies.” And that is the reason why the disciples rebuked their parents for bringing them—mere babies who could get nothing from the Master. The same thing is less clearly but equally really suggested in the other narratives; we read that they were brought; that Jesus took them in His arms, and the like. We must think of them, then, as distinctively babies. What dispositions of soul were characteristic of them? Just none at all. They lay happy and thoughtless in their mother’s arms and in Jesus’ own arms. Their characteristic was just helpless dependence; complete dependence upon the care of those whose care for them was necessary. And it would seem that it is just this objective helpless dependence which is the point of comparison between them and the children of the Kingdom.
What our Lord would seem to say, then, when He says: “Of such is the Kingdom of heaven,” is that the Kingdom of heaven is made up of those who are helplessly dependent on the King of the Heavens. And when He adds that only those who “receive” the Kingdom like a child can enter into it He seems to mean that the children of the Kingdom come into it like children of the world into the world—naked and stripped of everything, infants who are to be done for, who can not do for themselves. There is every indication of this as our Lord’s meaning. Among others we note that the record of the incident is followed immediately in all three Gospels by the record of the incident of the rich young man—which goes on, you see, to illustrate the same idea. For what was the trouble with the rich young man? Just this: that he could not divest himself of everything and come into the Kingdom naked. “He had great possessions.” “How hard, children,”—this “children” is possibly a reminiscence of His demand that they should be “like children”—“children, how hard it is for a rich man—or for anyone—to enter the Kingdom of heaven.” Into this Kingdom we can enter only as poor and naked and helpless as children enter the world. That we have nothing is the condition that we may have all things. Perhaps it may not be too much even to say that what the passage teaches is that we enter the Kingdom of heaven as we enter the world only by a birth—a birth which comes to us—which we do not secure. In that case we have a parallel passage in the third chapter of John which is one of the very few passages in John where the term “Kingdom of God” occurs.
The upshot of it all is, then, this: that the Kingdom of God is not taken—acquired—laid hold of; it is just “received.” It comes to men, men do not come to it. And when it comes to men, they merely “receive” it, “as”—“like”—“a little child.” That is to say, they bring nothing to it and have nothing to recommend them to it except their helplessness. They depend wholly on the King. Only they who so receive it can enter it; no disposition or act of their own commends them to it. Accordingly the Kingdom of God is “of such as little children.” The helpless babe on the mother’s breast, then, now we can say it with new meaning, is the true type of the Christian in his relation to God. It is of the very essence of salvation that it is supernatural. It is purely a gift, a gift of God’s; and they who receive it must receive it purely as a gift. He who will not humble himself and enter it as a little child enters the world, in utter nakedness and complete dependence, shall never see it.
Benjamin B. Warfield, Faith and Life (Bellingham, WA: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1916), 65–80. This work is in the Public Domain. Photo: Robert Davis / Cambridge Brevier Revised Version (1881/1885) with Verses
1 After these things Jesus manifested himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and he manifested himself on this wise.
2 There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples.
3 Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also come with thee. They went forth, and entered into the boat; and that night they took nothing.
4 But when day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach: howbeit the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.
5 Jesus therefore saith unto them, Children, have ye aught to eat?
6 They answered him, No. And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.
7 That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his coat about him (for he was naked), and cast himself into the sea.
8 But the other disciples came in the little boat (for they were not far from the land, but about two hundred cubits off), dragging the net full of fishes.
9 So when they got out upon the land, they see a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon,
10 and bread. Jesus saith unto them, Bring of the fish which ye have now taken.
11 Simon Peter therefore went up, and drew the net to land, full of great fishes, a hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, the net was not rent.
12 Jesus saith unto them, Come and break your fast. And none of the disciples durst inquire of him, Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord.
13 Jesus cometh, and taketh the bread, and giveth them, and the fish likewise.
14 This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after that he was risen from the dead.
15 So when they had broken their fast, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.
16 He saith to him again a second time, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Tend my sheep.
17 He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
18 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.
19 Now this he spake, signifying by what manner of death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me.
20 Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned back on his breast at the supper, and said, Lord, who is he that betrayeth thee?
21 Peter therefore seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do?
22 Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.
23 This saying therefore went forth among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, that he should not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?
24 This is the disciple which beareth witness of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his witness is true.
25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that should be written.
John 21:1–25 (Revised Version 1885)
1 Now on the first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, while it was yet dark, unto the tomb, and seeth the stone taken away from the tomb.
2 She runneth therefore, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we know not where they have laid him.
3 Peter therefore went forth, and the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb.
4 And they ran both together: and the other disciple outran Peter, and came first to the tomb;
5 and stooping and looking in, he seeth the linen cloths lying; yet entered he not in.
6 Simon Peter therefore also cometh, following him, and entered into the tomb; and he beholdeth the linen cloths lying,
7 and the napkin, that was upon his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself.
8 Then entered in therefore the other disciple also, which came first to the tomb, and he saw, and believed.
9 For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.
10 So the disciples went away again unto their own home.
11 But Mary was standing without at the tomb weeping: so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb;
12 and she beholdeth two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.
13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.
14 When she had thus said, she turned herself back, and beholdeth Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.
15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou hast borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.
16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turneth herself, and saith unto him in Hebrew, Rabboni;
17 which is to say, Master. Jesus saith to her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended unto the Father: but go unto my brethren, and say to them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and my God and your God.
18 Mary Magdalene cometh and telleth the disciples, I have seen the Lord; and how that he had said these things unto her.
19 When therefore it was evening, on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.
20 And when he had said this, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. The disciples therefore were glad, when they saw the Lord.
21 Jesus therefore said to them again, Peace be unto you: as the Father hath sent me, even so send I you.
22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:
23 whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.
24 one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side. I will not believe.
26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them. Jesus cometh, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and see my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and put it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
28 Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.
29 Jesus saith unto him, Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
30 Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book:
31 but these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name.
John 20:1–31 (Revised Version 1885)