Volume 1—Sermon 10
Showing That, and Whence Men Have Such Strong
Persuasions of their Exact Keeping of God's Law
"The young man saith unto him, all these things have I kept from
my youth up: What lack I yet?" (Matthew 19:20).
This text is a remarkable history, wherein many excellent practical doctrines are contained. The whole scope being to represent a man that has good affections and desires for heaven, yet because of some strong corruption and temptation violently detained from it; for in the close of the history he goes away, not reviling and raging at Christ, as the Pharisees used to do, but exceeding sorrowful, and as Mark has it as sadly affected, as the sky seems to be, when it's black with clouds, and threatens rain; so that in this posture with Christ, he is like the poet's Medea, or like Aristotle's incontinent person, who has great conviction, but strong corruption.
In the history observe the person and his question propounded: The person, as apppears by the harmony of three evangelists was a rich man, a great man in power and place, and a young man: All which three were sore temptations to prejudice him against Christ and his way: Yet by his question it seemed he was not altogether profane and worldly, for his desire is to know what he might do to have eternal life. In which question although we may perceive a Pharisaical leaven in him, thinking by works to be saved, yet there appears for the main a good desire in him. Our Saviour intending to beat down his Pharisaical confidence, which is as great an enemy to Christ as publican sins, first reproveth him for his compilation, and then answereth his question. His reproof is, Why callest thou me good, there is none good but God? Christ refused this title, partly because he called him good in no other sense, than as some eminent and singular prophet, not as indeed the Son of God: but especially to teach the young man that he was wholly corrupted, and therefore whatsoever good is in us, is to be acknowledged, as coming from God; it is his gift, it is none of our work.
In the next place our Saviour directs him to keep the commandments, instancing not in the ceremonial, but the moral, nor in the moral duties that relate to God, but that belong to our neighbor, which were most vulgar, that hereby he might teach this Pharisaical man, that he never yet performed any one commandment aright. Therefore the ignorance and the arrogance of this young man in the text is remarkable; All these have I kept from my youth up; he thought he had kept not some but all, and that from his youth up, as soon as ever he could act with reason; some expositors think, that he grossly lied against his own conscience in saying so: but that is not likely because Mark says Christ loved him, upon this speech, and that could not be if he were such a dissembler; and if you take the word love, for to praise or kindly to speak to a man; as the Septuagint sometimes does, (Cant. 1:1, 4 and 2 Chron. 18), it will argue that he was no hypocrite, and hereby we see, that it is a minister's duty to love and encourage those men, who though they have not the truth of grace, yet have a fair, civil, honest life, and have general desires for heaven. He did not therefore lie against his conscience, but yet he spoke that which was false, for he had not kept one of those commandments perfectly, as appears by that trial or exploratory precept Christ puts him upon: only he knew no better: He was brought up in ignorance about the spiritual latitude and extent of the Law, and so thought a mere negative, or not doing gross wickedness, to be a positive keeping of the Law.
Observation: It is a very difficult thing to drive an unregenerate man out of this false sign of his good estate, viz. that he keeps the commandments of God. This was the fundamental miscarriage of this great man, that he had a confident persuasion of his good estate, because he did no murder, he committed no adultery, he bore no false witness against his neighbor. Now falsely judging this to be all the Law required, he concludes that unless Christ hath some new and extraordinary way about this, these matters are so low and easy, that he observed them along while ago. Upon this point was our Saviour's greatest controversy with the Pharisees, who like serpents, though they had a fine skin and color, yet inwardly were full of poison: and the great work that the ministers of God have to do in their congregations in these times, Is it not to show to men the pure glass of the Law, that they looking therein, may see their deformities, and be wonderfully out of love with themselves? Does not every man walk with this self-damning principle, that his heart is good? What would you have him to do more than he does? Is he any drunkard, whoremonger? and thus he pleases himself with an external righteousness, being altogether ignorant of the pure and excellent work of regeneration, and from hence it is, that our auditors are filled with so much stupidity and security, that it is a wonder to hear of a man or woman, with fear and trembling, expostulating after this manner: The Law is so spiritual, and I am so carnal; regeneration and a new nature is so necessary, but I am so plunged in that sinful estate and corruption I was born in, That I fear myself, I quake at my condition, Oh for the Lord's sake, help ye ministers by your prayers and directions, that I may be put in a safe way.
For the clearing of the doctrine consider,
First, Whence it arises that men have such a strong persuasion of their good lives, as satisfactory to God's Law. Why is it that though a man by nature be indeed like a Job, or Lazarus full of wounds and sores: yet he judgeth himself like Absalom, altogether fair, without any blemish at all?
And the first ground is ignorance about the total, deep, and universal pollution of our natures, whereby this leprosy has made all we are and all we do unclean: and in this sense our Saviour saith, we may call none good, for can we call any spiders, any serpents, any toads sweet? so neither can we call any man good or holy. Therefore the Scripture that it may lay a foundation for our prizing of Christ, and open our eyes to see the necessity of regeneration, is very diligent and copious in aggravating this natural defilement. Paul is a clear instance in this, in Romans 7 his heart was like a dungeon full of noisome and crawling vermin, but because no light was in his heart, therefore he did not see, or believe this. Let me therefore expostulate with you, who please yourself in your good estate: Is your life as free from sin as the child new born? May no more iniquity be laid to your charge now, than could be to you, when you sucked at your mother's breast? Yet, if no more, you ought not to take any content or delight in yourself, but to tremble and earnestly to importune to be translated from that darkness into light: lay aside then your high, and self-flattering thoughts; say no more, your good heart, your good meaning, your good life, but cry out unclean and unclean. Woe, woe unto me, for I am polluted in my blood, and God might not say unto me in my blood, live, as he did to the church, but to die, and be damned: Would you therefore no longer be sick of this dangerous surfeit and fullness? Study more, and meditate more of original corruption, how universal and diffusive it is, how contagious and infecting of everything that we do, so that although we could speak with the tongue of angels, and work with the hands of angels, yet we being in our natural condition, all that would be abominable: Without faith it is impossible to please God, and the tree must be good before the fruit; To the defiled, all things are defiled. What therefore is external righteousness, moral justice, formal piety, as long as we abide in that old bitter stock of nature? Pray therefore, Lord give me to understand what I am by nature, make me to know how sinful and loathsome it is, and let not this be a general, speculative, barren knowledge, but let it be a close, particular, applicative, and practical knowledge, whereby the whole heart may be set on fire, and powerfully wrought upon, even to bid all creatures, all comforts, all businesses stand aloof till you be redeemed from this slavery.
- Another cause of this bold persuasion is, An ignorance of the spiritual exactness and obligation of the Law. It was the received opinion of the Jews, and the Pharisees they so explained it, as appears in Matthew 5, that the Law commanded only external acts, and that we satisfied it, if we did keep it in the outward man. Therefore our Saviour seemed to bring new doctrine into the world, when he explained the law of heart-sins, and showed that men might be adulterers, murderers, etc., though they never committed those external acts. This was so paradoxical to the received doctrine at that time, that men were amazed at it. Now howsoever (it may be) people will acknowledge the doctrine true, yet in practice they are as gross and secure as ever Jews and Pharisees were. Neither did they ever make their works a refuge, and a bulwark, more than people now-a-days do. And no wonder, for Paul so great a proficient in the knowledge of the Law of God, yet confesses his great blindness and mistake herein, (Rom. 7), insomuch that when he comes to understand how spiritual the Law is, and how carnal he is, he cries out of himself as most miserable. The Law is spiritual, says Paul, that is, it reaches to the sins of the spirit, it forbids all inordinate motions there, it prohibits all their secret irregularities: so that as God is the father of spirits, thus the Law is the Law of spirits, and you may become an horrid transgressor of this in your heart when your outward life seems pure and innocent; The Law is compared by James to a glass; now it's no wonder that a man never abhors the foulness of spots and dirt upon his face, as long as he looks not in there. No man can bewail the obliquity and crookedness of his actions, that does not diligently apply them in the straightness of the rule, Oh then, say, This justice, this honesty, this freedom from gross sin is highly esteemed among men: but what is it to God's Law? How foul a transgressor shall I be convinced to be, if I compare myself with that rule! Hence therefore arises all that self-righteousness, in that men do not more understand how holy and exact that rule is by which they ought to walk. There is a world of unseen and unknown filthiness in you, and if your eyes were opened to behold it you could no longer abide yourself. But it is no wonder that unregenerate men who have no life at all in them, feel none of these distempers, when the godly themselves as appears in Psalm 19:12 cry out, Who can understand his errors, cleanse me from secret sins: By that David implies, that there is more corruption in his heart than he is aware of. Much unknown pride, hypocrisy, earthliness dwells in their hearts, and they perceive it not. If therefore it be thus with the godly, that they are not able to understand how loathsome and wretched they are, is it any wonder if men dead wholly in sin, feel not any burden, though mountains lie upon them? Soon therefore would you depose those lofty imaginations, if so be you would on purpose consider how exact the Law is, forbidding the root, as well as the branches of sin, making every inordinate motion, (thousands of which rise hourly in your soul) a transgression of the Law.
- Therefore are they so confidently persuaded, because they attend only to the negative commandments, Thou shalt do no murder; Thou shalt not steal; Thou shalt not forswear thyself, etc., and so suppose that the whole duty required by God of us, is swallowed up in those negatives. This made the young man no doubt so bold; from his youth up, he had been preserved from such foul, gross sins. Indeed he speaks arrogantly when he says, I have kept these; as if he by his own power had restrained that sea of corruption from overflowing the banks; for what evil has been committed by any man, which he might not also have done had not God bounded and limited his wickedness? Well but howsoever though he be thus spotless in his life: yet that is not all God requireth, God has positive commands, as well as negatives; and the same authority which says; Do not steal, do not kill, says also, Keep the sabbath holy, and sanctify the name of God. Now although this be a very small matter to build a man's salvation upon, yet we may wonder to see that all the covering many men have for their nakedness, is only these fig-leaves: That they are no drunkards, no whoremongers, no thieves; a mere negative godliness, what pity is it, that a people instructed out of God's word, living under the means of salvation, should apprehend no better in matters of God?
- Another cause of false persuasion is, that although they may mind affirmative precepts, as well as negatives, yet they understand them not in their comprehensive sense, and so think they have attained to what the Law requires, when indeed they fall exceeding short. As for example, this command Thou shalt do no murder, does not only forbid that sin, but commands the contrary duty, and not only so, but all the means, occasions, and circumstances that tend thereunto; and so in every commandment. Now if a man consider seriously how many occasions and circumstances, and causes there are of all sins; as on the contrary, how many occasions, motives, and causes there are of holy duties, he will stand amazed to see himself so much guilty in millions of sins, which he thought could never have been laid to his charge; so then as the gospel has a mystery of grace, and original sin a mystery of sin, so that we are never able to go to the depth and breadth of these: So the Law is a mystery of duties: and as the Logicians say, the ten predicaments do contain every created being that is in the world; so do these then commandments all the duties required of us; It is therefore of great consequence if ever men would be driven out of these golden dreams, and foolish paradises they fancy to themselves, to study, and understand the comprehensive sense of every precept.
- Another stupefying and benumbing principle is the total neglect of that necessary duty, self-reflection and self-examination; Whereby a man lives forty or threescore years, and is a mere stranger to his own self. Hence are those duties so frequently pressed, to commune with our own hearts, to sweep them, as some translate, to dig into them, as others; and this duty is to be done with much stillness and quietness of spirit, and at those times when we are most free from disturbances, according to that rule, anima sedendo, and quiescendo fit sapiens [the soul is made wise by sitting still in quietness]. In other texts, it is called searching our hearts, and trying our reins; which duties imply, that our hearts are not presently what they outwardly appear: Gold may be in the surface, and iron or stone in the bottom: you know how impossible Hazael thought that should be in his heart, and done by him, which the prophet foretold. Man in that he is rational, can only reflect upon himself, beasts cannot, and it is a great obstruction to salvation, that men use this no more, no man says according to the prophet, What have I done? Therefore deal with yourselves as an enemy would do. The Hebrew word for an enemy is an observer, because he watches and lies at the catch to see what haltings and failings there be; Do you thus become an enemy to yourself, and that is to be a friend to yourself: Say, O Lord I arraign myself at thy bar, I would be winnowed that my chaff may appear, I would be filed, that my rust come off. It is strange to consider what sins men may live in, and yet not attend to the consideration of such. The making of a practical syllogism would be very introductory to our full conversion unto God, in this manner: The Scripture in several places speaks terrible threatenings to such and such sins. But I live in such and such sins. Therefore all those threatenings belong to me: oh how can the soul put off this conviction? how can it extinguish this light shining upon it? What have I to do but to repent and turn to God! There is no other course can be taken by me.
- Therefore are men thus senseless, because of that abominable self-love, and self-flattery which cleaves to every man. This ruined the Pharisees, our Saviour tells them plainly of it; You are they that justify yourselves, but that which is highly esteemed amongst men is an abomination before God. Wonder not at this in wicked men: see David a godly man, through self-love, how did he favor himself in his gross sins, and applies nothing till Nathan say, Thou art the man. And this lay at the bottom in this rich man's heart, an over-weaning of a man's self, and an immoderate love, whereby we judge everything we do well done: Many times a godly man through pusillanimity of spirit, and an holy fear, does bear false witness against himself, he will not own or acknowledge these good things God's Spirit enables him to do, and thereby he walks both unthankful, and uncomfortably. But the unregenerate man he is in the other extremity, he presumes of good to be in him, when it is not; a full instance of this is the church of Laodicea, who said, she was full, and wanted nothing, as if she were God himself, for he only is all sufficient, yet she boasts, she wants nothing, not a God, or Christ, or his grace, when at the same time, she was miserable, and wanted all things. Here was a great difference between God's judgment about them, and their own; and it is a poor small thing to be acquitted by ourselves, when God doth condemn us: Therefore say, it is your folly, it is your madness, it is your self-love, makes you conclude yourself in a good estate: Doth God say so? Do the Scriptures say so? It is a sin to call good evil, and evil good, in ourselves as well as in others.
Fear of guilt, that also makes us hoodwink our eyes that we will neither look into the Law, nor into our hearts: so that it is with us as with bankrupts, that are loathe to cast up their accounts, because thereby they shall see how undone they are. As it argues guilt in heretics that they are such owls that cannot abide the day, such thieves that love not the light: so it argues our guilt in our own hearts, when we are walking without any disquisition to persuade ourselves of the good in us. Oh we are afraid to be troubled, we think we shall find that which may disquiet us, and so by this means, we rest in generals; thereby to deceive our own souls. But as it is folly in a wounded man to fear the searching of his sore, for if that be not discovered he can never be made whole: No less wickedness is it in a man not to search out the worst by himself, and to know the greatest danger he is in, that thereby he may indeed come to be healed.
Therefore are men thus well conceited of themselves, because they are ignorant of regeneration, they know not the necessity of being born again; yea, they bless themselves they are no changelings. They have found no manifest alteration of themselves from the beginning. We see Nicodemus a man much conversant in the Law of God, yet altogether to learn about this great point. If therefore a master of Israel knows not these things, is it any wonder that an ordinary disciple does not? Therefore take most men, they do as grossly mistake about godliness and regeneration, and know no more of it, than a blind man of colors. If therefore you did know the nature and necessity of regeneration, you could take no more delight in yourself, or anything you do. You would say, I am but a weed and no flower in God's garden; I am a thistle and no branch of the true vine. And in this case you would cry more bitterly than the blind or lame did; for you need life itself.
There is an extrinsical cause which adds to all this, and that is, the devil, he reigns in the heart of every one by nature, he has blinded their eyes, and hardened their hearts. Now our Saviour tells us that while the strong man keeps the house, all things are quiet: There is no trouble or contest; even as Pharaoh let the people alone, till he saw them desirous to go out of his power. Wonder not therefore to see moral, civil men, with such great peace and quietness in their conscience, never fearing of their condition, never doubting of their estate, for all this calmness comes in part from the devil, who keeps everything quiet, and hardens in presumption more and more; bless not God then for every peace and quietness you feel in yourself: The body may feel no pain from rum rottenness as well as soundness, and it may be your condition were far better if you could neither eat or drink, or sleep for fear of your condition: Blessed are they that mourn, and woe to those that laugh.
The last and main reason is, because every man naturally is destitute of the Spirit, without which we are all devoid of light and life. The Spirit of God, is that which convinceth the world of sin, (John 16); so that a man can never vigorously and powerfully be affected with his wretched estate, till these sun-beams shine into him, which will discover the least motes; The spiritual man judgeth all things. Hence it is that godly men though great proficients in grace, have lower thoughts of themselves than unregenerate men, only because the Spirit of God is always convincing them of sin, as well as sanctifying, and comforting of them against it, Paul never had such debased and humble expressions about himself before his conversion, as after: Would he ever have said all his righteousness was dung and dross? That he had not yet attained what he desired? Would he ever have acknowledged himself the greatest of all sinners in his former days? No: The people of God are more debased for their imperfect duties, than wicked men are for their greatest sins, and whence is all this, but because of God's Spirit dwelling in them, and enlightening of them? But wicked men being without this light are not able to judge anything about themselves.
The use is, To take heed of this self-conceit and self-love, desire God's word may be a two-edged sword in you, dividing between marrow and joints: I am afraid this Laodicean fullness is the sin of most now-a-days, and this is as desperate an enemy to Christ and his grace as gross profaneness, yea, in some particulars worse. More publicans and harlots were brought to repentance, and so to the kingdom of heaven, than Pharisees. Oh then fear, lest that which you judge your blessedness and happiness, be not your greatest danger and misery. You think it well that all is at peace and ease within your soul: O pray rather that God would convince and trouble your soul more effectually, and so give you true peace.