Volume 1—Sermon 4
Handling Obedience as a Sign of Grace
"And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments," (1 John 2:3).
I have at large discussed the doctrine and usefulness of signs, I shall now propound in so many distinct sermons, several choice and select signs, by which you may know how it is with you in reference to God. For if the heathens did so much admire that saying as an oracle, Nosce te ipsum [know thyself], know and be acquainted with your own self, when yet they had neither true eyes, nor light to discover themselves by, how much rather does this duty lie upon us, when by God's grace we may have the seeing eye, and a sure light of God's word to guide us therein? And the first sign shall be, An universal respect unto, and observation of God's commandments, out of the words read unto you, whereof the coherence is as follows, the Apostle in the verses before, having comforted the children of God against their daily sins of infirmity, which cannot be avoided, he returns again to his scope, which is to press holiness of life; and certainly our faith ought to be as busy in embracing the precepts for holiness, as the promises for comfort. The argument for sanctity pressed by the Apostle is from the profitable effect thereof, it will be a sure and comfortable sign to confirm us that we are in Christ: for to know God, to love him, to be in him, to dwell in him, to have communion with him, are all one with this Apostle.
So that in the words you have two propositions,
First, That the knowledge of God makes us to keep God's commandments.
Secondly, That this observation of God's commandments is a sign by way of an effect, to assure us that we know God, which is the cause.
In the first proposition you have the antecedent and the consequent. The antecedent is knowing of God; howsoever according to the Hebrew rule this word knowing signifieth affectus and effectus consequences: the affections and effects flowing from it, and so includes love of God, and the like; yet it does more properly signify faith, according to that, This is eternal life, to know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent; for faith having several acts: knowledge, assent, fiducial application, the Scripture does by a synecdoche [a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa] express the whole nature of faith by one act of it. Now because there is a three-fold knowledge, the first perfect, which is only in heaven; The second imperfect, but true and saving, which the godly only have; hence regeneration, is expressed by this, They shall all know God, and be taught of God (Jer. 31): A third knowledge which is imperfect and insincere is that common gift of God's Spirit upon temporary believers, whereby though they know the sense and meaning of divine truths, yet have not the saving effect and power of them upon their hearts, in which sense our Saviour making that open confession, and celebrating God's power and sovereignty, saith, The things of God were hidden from the wise and prudent, (Matt. 11:25-26). That is, the scribes, priests and Pharisees, who though very intelligent of the meaning of the Scripture, yet having not their eyes in a gracious manner enlightened, therefore had those divine things hidden from them. A notable thing it is, and worthy all your consideration, and trembling at it, that the very things you know in religion by parts and abilities, may yet be hidden from you, in respect of any saving knowledge; Therefore to declare what kind of knowledge this is, observe the consequent, it is that which is operative and quickens us up to the commandments of God; for that proper and specifical difference, whereby saving faith is distinguished from the hypocrites, is in the cleansing and purifying nature of it, whereby it works by love; so that love is not the form of true faith, but to be operative and effective of love. Now according to the three-fold knowledge spoken of, Zanchy does well observe, there is a three-fold keeping of the commandments; for as our knowledge is, so is our holiness, The first is, perfect and complete, as God did, and the saints in heaven do perfectly love God. The second is imperfect, but sincere, though the Scripture calls it perfect, because of the essential perfection, though it has not a gradual. The third is external, with some internal affections, but altogether unsound. The Apostle as he means the second kind of knowledge, so the second kind of observance of the commandments, and howsoever the translation be in the present tense, We know that we know him, yet in the original it is, We have known him, whereby it's plain, that good works do not go before faith or justification, but follow it. The second proposition is, that the keeping of God's commandments is a sign that we do know him, by which he doth not mean a conjectural knowledge, as the Papists would put it off, but a sure and certain knowledge. Now although the Apostle speaks indefinitely, when he says, Keeping the commandments of God, yet because it is in a necessary matter, the assertion is equivalent to an universal.
Hence the doctrine is,
That an universal respect to, and keeping of God's commandments, is a sure sign and infallible of our being in the state of grace.
Thus in 1 John 3:22, he makes this to assure us in our prayer, because we keep his commandment, and do that which is well-pleasing in his sight.
The doctrine is to be opened in many particulars:
First, There are some considerations in which it is impossible to keep the commandments of God, not absolutely and in se, as it is for a man to fly, for it would be blasphemy to say, he commands impossible things, to do so cannot stand with his justice, wisdom, and holiness: but only it's impossible by accident through our corruption, who as the saints in heaven have felix necessitas as Augustin called it, an happy necessity of obeying God always, so have we infelix necessitas, an unhappy necessity of disobedience continually. Now this impossibility is two ways.
First, In respect of every unregenerate man, who is dead in sin, not sick or diseased, but dead in sin, and God justly does require of us under pain of condemnation to obey his law, though we have lost the power. Neither is this as the Arminians say, as if a judge should sentence a man's eyes to be put out for a former fault, and then afterwards hang him, because he cannot see, for it lies not as a mortal duty upon a man to see, nor has any magistrate such supreme power over a man, as God hath over us. And by these commands of God is demonstrated our duty only, not our ability: hence God makes it his promise, To give us a new heart, and to make us to walk in all his statutes; and although Arminians think it an absurdity to make the same thing a condition required and yet a gift promised; there is nothing more ordinary in Scripture.
A second impossibility of keeping the commandments is, In respect of the regenerate, to whom God giveth not such a measure of grace, as that they are able to keep them according to the perfect obligation of it. We keep God's commandments in truth, not in perfection, not but that God is able to give us perfect grace, but he hath thought good to exalt imputed righteousness, rather than inherent in this life (Rom. 8:3-4).
A third impossibility of keeping the commandments of God, is not only collectively, that we are not able to keep them all, but fail in some, but distributively, there being not one commandment we are at any time able to keep in any duty perfectly. And although it be easier to bring arguments to prove we sin sometimes, and do not keep all the commandments we should, than to prove we sin in every good duty, yet do strongly confirm, that because of the innate corruption still abiding in us, we are not able to do anything so perfectly as the Law requires, (Rom. 7:19; Gal. 5:17): in the most holy men there are both defects depriving us of the inward purity that ought to be in us, and affections contrarily withstanding the obligation of the Law.
In the next place we will show the possibility of it, and that is, first, By a sincere inchoate [rudimentary] obedience, whereby we know God in part, love him in part, though not to such a full degree. This is affirmed of the godly, therefore it is possible, Thus Zachary and Elizabeth are said to be religious before God, walking in all his commandments (Luke 1:6). David says in Psalm 119, He shall not be confounded when he hath respect as all his commandments. As the people of God have done this, so God hath promised this, I will circumcise their hearts to love me with all their heart and mind. So Jeremiah 31, and this is the universal keeping of God's commandments spoken of in the text, and much pressed in several places; for there is the truth of all obedience, though not the gradual perfection. It is no wonder that the people of God are said to keep the Law of God, seeing they endeavor after it, and it's usual in philosophy to call motions from the terminus to which they tend: Regeneration is the writing of the law in their inward parts, whereby the law is not a burden, but pleasing and matter of delight to them, as Paul professes it was to him, (Rom. 7). And by this means the Apostle says, We do not abolish the Law, but establish it, because the grace of God gives such ability and strength, that in some measure we are able to obey it: So that the act of faith ad intra [considered from within], which is receiving of Christ, must not be opposed to, but conjoined with that act of faith ad extra [considered from without], whereby we walk in all the commandments of God.
Secondly, The possibility of keeping them is in an evangelical sense, that is, when whatsoever we fail in, is pardoned unto us, for so it is through the covenant of grace, that when we have sincerely applied ourselves to the obedience of the whole Law, and falling short of our duty in many respects. God through Christ doth forgive us, and so our righteousness consists more in the remission of what is imperfect, than in doing what is perfect. In this sense in Romans 8:3-4, Christ is said to come in the flesh, that the righteousness of the Law may be fulfilled in us: and Romans 10, Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to the believer, not to the worker, so that in all exercises of sanctification we are to have a greater respect to what God doth forgive, than what we do, which has made some say, our perfection is to acknowledge our imperfection.
Thirdly, We may be said to fulfill the law, when although through daily infirmities we fail of the strict obligation, yet we do not by any gross sin break it. In this sense we keep it without a crime, though not without sin. And although they are but few that do so, yet sometimes God gives some of his children to walk in such harmless and spotless lives. Thus Zachary and Elizabeth are said to be blameless (Luke 1:6). That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God in the midst of a crooked generation, (Phil. 2:15): So it's required in a bishop that he be blameless, that is, not without sin, but without crime, for which he may justly be censured, in which sense the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 13, prays that the Corinthians may do no evil, that is, no such crime, for which the Apostle should inflict a church-censure, as formerly we asserted. Thus you have heard in what sense we are said to keep the commandments, the former and the latter being pertinent in our scope.
In the next place, let us consider how it is a sign, for even when signs are agreed on, yet there may be much deceit about the explication of the sign, cutting it too short, or stretching it out too long.
Therefore in the first place, This universal observance is seen, when our obedience is internal and spiritual as well as external. Could a man answer all the affirmative and negative precepts in the outward conversation, yet if not spiritual in all these, they were as a body without a soul. And herein the Pharisees' hypocrisy was discovered, they rested wholly upon the outward obedience of the Law, when their hearts were dens of thievish lusts; Hence our Saviour did so often press them to make clean and wash the inward man: The Law is spiritual, says Paul, and God is a Spirit, says our Saviour, seeking them that worship in spirit and truth. Hence in Matthew 5 our Saviour spends many words to convince the Pharisees that they were horrible violators of God's Law, wretched adulterers and murderers, though guilty of no such outward crimes. Oh what a piercing and discovering sign must this be. This makes the moral, yea and religious man, whose piety is only in the outward exercises of grace, to be without any hope. Alas all these externals are nothing if there be not an inward spiritual rectitude of the whole man. Hence Paul excellently in Romans 7:22 says I delight in the Law of God, in the inward man.
The Antinomian pleads, that this universal obedience cannot be a sign of grace, because Paul while unregenerate performed it, as appears in Acts 23:1 and Acts 24:16, where Paul says, he lived with a good conscience void of offence both towards God and man; Here (say they) Paul lived in an universal obedience unblamably, and kept entirely to his conscience, yet was not in Christ.
But to answer this, a good conscience may be called good in a two-fold respect, either when a man lives not against the dictates of his conscience, or does anything against that as those Christians did, whom Paul compelled through fear of death to blaspheme: and thus Paul had a good conscience, because he verily thought he was bound to do as he did: in this sense a Papist, a Jew, any heretic may be said to have a good conscience. Or else a conscience is said good, when renewed by God's Spirit, and rightly informed and regulated by God's word; and thus Paul had a very evil conscience, in which respect he called himself a persecutor, and the greatest of all sinners, and so by the way you may see it's no argument of comfort for those who broach any damnable heresies, to excuse the matter, saying, are they not conscientious men? Are they not to be pitied rather than punished? Is it not according to their light? All this might have been said for Paul, yet for all this his conscience was very evil and wicked conscience, partly because it was not renewed, partly because it was not informed out of God's word.
Secondly, Though Paul walked with a good conscience, and that towards God as well as man, yet that was for externals only, he was not acquainted with all the sinful motions of his heart, how much diffidence, ignorance, lukewarmness, love to the world, his credit and glory was in him more than of God, he did not perceive. Now God's Law requires that internal good frame above all. That Paul was thus at that time, appears evidently in Romans 7, where the Apostle mentioning that former time of his life, said, He knew not lust to be sin till the Law said thus against it. And that he was alive till then, had good confidence and persuasion in himself, but afterwards he died, he was quite out of love with himself, and loathed all that was in him: so that by this you see, how unblamable soever his life appeared, yet it was far from being in a right way. Oh therefore be persuaded to consider yourselves, you that live unblamable lives, diligent in the duties that relate to God and man, though your outside be thus painted, your inwards may be a noisome sepulchre! how uncomely is it for a man to have his porch and out-rooms very clean, but his chambers and in-rooms full of noisome filth? This is your case, look in your life, no irreligion or impiety to God, no injustice or oppression to men, yet you are destitute of the Spirit, and void of all supernatural life.
2. As our obedience must be thus internal, as well as external; so it must be external as well as internal; We must not please ourselves with contemplative meditations or pretended revelations, neglecting an active industrious life for God in our places and relations. In Popery there is the contemplative life, and the active life; the one they compare to Mary, the other to Martha; and they say, that contemplative life, like Mary hath chosen the better part, but this is to hide our talents in a napkin; and as Tacitus speaks of some men, that they were solasocordia innocentes, because of their slothfulness, they did not come in harms way, as others did. It was not wisdom or justice, but mere sluggishness kept them from meddling in dangerous matters; so we may say these are godly only by slothfulness; To these we may add some that pretend now a days to live upon immediate revelation, crying down all the ordinances, ministry, sacraments and sabbath, as empty forms: But how does this stand with that universal obedience unto all the injunctions of God made to his church?
3. Universal obedience is a sign when it carries us out equally to the duties of the first table concerning God, and the second to our neighbor. To pretend much devotion in matters of God, and to show no conscience or equity in matters with man, is horrible hypocrisy. The Pharisees were notorious in this, who had their long prayers, and yet devoured widow's houses, who taught that neither father or mother might be relieved by their children of anything they had, if it were corban, that is, a gift consecrated to God. Those that are skillful in the Jewish customs tell us, That the Pharisees taught any man might vow the goods he had to God, absolutely, or only in respect of this or that singular person, so that he shall have no benefit by it, and then when this vow was made they thought they might relieve nobody, no though their parents, and that in extreme necessity; but notwithstanding all this seeming religion to God, how corrupt and carnal in their carriages to men? Fides est copulative [faith is all connected], and so must our obedience be copulative [all connected]. Your religion to God is no sign of grace, if there be unconscionable dealing towards men. Again, if you are careful in duties to men, and negligent in the religious service of God, hence your rottenness of heart is manifested, you do with all your heart love a civil, just, and righteous man, but you cannot abide a forward religious man, you love not strict keeping of the sabbath, diligent and powerful family-duties, Oh, what little hope is here of true grace in such a man's heart! It is ordinary with Scripture to describe all religion and piety by one duty sometimes, and sometimes by another, sometimes by praying to God, sometimes by keeping his sabbaths, sometimes by fearing of an oath, because where one duty is graciously performed, there all the others will be also.
3. Universal obedience is a sign, when we are carried thereby to receive the credenda, as well as the agenda, the things to be believed, as well as to be practiced. Hence it's called, the obedience of faith; and this apostle, (1 John 3:23) divides the commandments of God in two parts, 1. Those things that concern faith in Christ. 2. Those things that relate to our love of others; therefore God's commandments must not only be limited to the prohibition of wicked lives, but must also be extended to false doctrines; therefore observe the apostles in all their epistles, they are as vehement and zealous against false teachers as wicked livers, and therefore press with an equal necessity true faith, and a good conscience; Therefore your heart is then sincere, when its set against heresies, as well as profaneness, and profaneness as well as heresies: If you have a man hot and vehement against ungodliness, but indifferent about false doctrines, that man may justly suspect his heart. Again, if a man cry against heresies and the toleration of them, yet can abide profaneness, can tolerate that in his family, or elsewhere, this man also ought to fear himself. Whatsoever the Scripture speaks of impiety as destructive to salvation, the same it also applies to false doctrine. Is that the fruit of work of the flesh? so are heresies: Is that damnable? so are heresies: Is that to be cast out of the church? so is false doctrine: Are wicked men prepared of old to destruction? so are false doctors: Are the sheep of Christ meek and innocent in their conversation? so they will flee from a stranger, and not hear the voice of a stranger. So that if you would try your sincerity, mark whether you desire more liberty in matters of faith, than in matters of life. No doctrine revealed in Scripture to be believed, may be any more dispensed with, than the precepts declared in God's word for practice.
4. Universal obedience is a sign, when it comprehends not only general duties, but particulars of relation, not as a Christian absolutely only, but as a magistrate, minister, husband, wife, child, or servant; if a man discharge not the commands of these relations, though his general conversation as a Christian be never so admirable, yet he has cause to suspect himself; relative and domestic graces do more demonstrate piety and true godliness than public, general duties; for a man's pride, self-ends, may put him upon these, as we see in the Pharisees. But it argues truth of grace, to be diligent in fulfilling of those relations we are engaged in. Hence it is observable, how diligent the Apostle is in the close of his epistles to declare the duties of relations, and to be large in the motives for them.
The use is of exhortation, to judge yourselves by this sign. Are you universal in your obedience, for all the ways and duties required by God, then you may take comfort; otherwise know, if you have not respect to all these, you will be confounded, though with Ahab, Herod, ye do many things, yet if not all things, confusion will be upon you. Oh then how few are they, who may claim a right to grace! Many men have an external obedience only, and no internal, but most have a partial and not entire complete obedience, therefore it is, that many are called and few are chosen. Consider that terrible expression of James in James 2:10-11, where the Apostle informs believers, that if they be guilty but of that one sin, viz. Accepting of persons, they are transgressors of the Law in the general, which he further urges by this assertion, He that keepeth all, and offends in one, is guilty of all, not distributively with a guilt of every particular sin, but in respect of the authority of the law-giver, and the obligation of the Law, according to that, Cursed is every one that continueth not in everything commanded by the Law; seeing therefore God in regeneration does write his Law in our hearts, which does seminally contain the exercise of all holy actions; so that there cannot be an instance of any godly duty, of which God doth not infuse a principle in us; and seeing that glorification will be universal of soul and body, in all parts and faculties, how necessary is it that sanctification should be universal. Take heed therefore that the works of grace in you be not abortive, or monstrous, wanting essential and necessary parts. Let not your ship be drowned by any one leak, dwell upon this, universality is a sure rule of sincerity.