Volume 1—Sermon 5
That Opposition Against and Abstinence from Sin is a Sign of Grace
"Whosoever is born of God sinneth not, because the seed abideth in him, neither can he sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are manifested." (1 John 3:9-10).
The Apostle at the first verse having declared the glorious privilege of being the sons of God, he does in verse 3 mention also their duty: for external grace and inherent are inseparably joined together. Their duty is to avoid sin, which is pressed from several arguments;
1. From the native filthiness of it, It is a transgression of the law.
2. From the end of Christ's coming, which was to destroy the works of the devil.
3. From a collation or comparison between the two fountains or fathers of him that doth sin, or him that doth righteousness; the one is of the devil, the other is born of God; and this difference my text amplifies: So that in the words you read, you may observe five propositions; first, He that is born of God sinneth not; what it is to be born of God is easily known, viz. to have the image and holiness of God stamped upon us by his Spirit's quickening of us; we must not imagine any communicating of the divine essence to us; in which sense the second person is born of the father, and so called, The Son of God; but by participation of those supernatural graces which make us resemble him; The greater doubt is about the predicate, He sinneth not; which has much exercised the thoughts of men: some understand it of a perfection attained to in this life, not to sin at all. Thus Papists, Pelagians, some Anabaptists and diverse of late; but if this were the meaning, the Apostle within a very little space would expressly contradict himself, for in Chapter 1:8 and 10 he says expressly, If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and make God a liar. Not to sin therefore is not wholly to be without sin. Others limit it to a certain kind of sin, in this sense, He sinneth not, viz. unto death, so that he shall be damned; and without question to this purpose the Apostle speaks in Chapter 5:16-18. But this seems to straighten it too much. Others, as Arminians, He sinneth not, viz. in this respect, and so far as he is born of God; but what an absurd sense would this be, and who knows not that a godly man does not sin in that he is godly, or because he is born of God. The most genuine and unforced interpretation therefore is, to understand it not universally, but according to the subject matter, he sinneth not, as one who is of the devil his father, he sinneth not as Cain, all within him is not corrupted so that he makes sin his trade, his custom, and delight. The very opposition makes this the meaning, although I grant that that phrase sometimes signifies no more than barely to sin, not denoting custom or delight, as in Romans 7.
But my foundation is upon the context, the opposition Paul makes between a righteous and unrighteous man, in respect of the roots whence they are, and then from the second proposition, which is the reason why he sinneth not, because the seed abideth in him, by which metaphorically is meant the principle of grace wrought in him by the Spirit of God, and that not only so, for Adam had the seed of grace, yet sinned it away, but because it's preserved by the covenant of grace. This place is brought to prove perseverance in grace, and no strength of wit has yet been able to overcome it. The third proposition is higher than the former, for it does not only deny the act of sin, but the power of it. Neither can he sin, viz. in the sense before explained; and the fourth proposition is a ground of the third, because he is born of God. Some make this reason the same with the former, but there seems to be this difference, the one signifies that inward permanent principle of grace: The other that divine resemblance of God which is in us by this regeneration. The first proposition is, That this difference between the righteous and unrighteous about sin is a sure sign, whereby the godly man is manifested both to himself and others that he is godly.
That an opposition against and abstinence from sin is a sure sign, by which a man may be persuaded that he is in the state of grace.
For there can be no better sign to discover principles by, than their proper incommunicable actions; thus we discover fire by burning, a rational life by speaking, now of all actions, this is most natural to the permanent habit of grace, to incline us to loath and abhor those things that are destructive to the nature of it, which is only sin: but because we may easily be deceived about this sign, for everyone that is afraid of sin, yea bitterly cries out of it, and leaves it, is not yet regenerated. Therefore let us diligently consider how it is a sign. And
First, It is a sign, When we perceive a settled fixed frame of heart against sin. As the reason in the text implies: The seed of grace abides in a man, he is born of God, now these expressions do denote something in us by way of a new nature, whereby we have an enmity and hostility, yea and irreconcilableness with sin; As some creatures have an antipathy against others; As on the contrary, he that is of the devil, and so has a fixed root of ungodliness in him, he has a constant enmity and hatred against godliness, and those that are godly, Why so? Because their works are good, and his are evil, as John expresses it; on the contrary the godly cannot agree and delight in evil, or evil men, because their works are evil, and his good; the Apostle in Romans 12 calls it hating sin as hell itself, and the exhortation is to cast away their transgressions, because of the loathsomeness they see in sin; So then, let Pharaoh, let the Israelites in several calamities bewail their idolatries, and sins against God, yet here is no sign of grace, because their hearts were not steadfast within them. These were sudden transient motions, not permanent principles, if you would take comfort from this sign do not judge of yourself by some fits or seasons, but by the habitual inclination of your soul. God in regeneration does first change our natures, new mould us; and from this supernatural principle issue gracious actions.
Secondly, Then is this a sign, When there is an universal repugnancy in every part of a man against sin, not only in his reason and conscience but in his will, affections, and whole man. For this seed of grace is nothing, but regeneration diffusing itself into the understanding, will, and affections of the whole soul; so that in every part there is that which is regenerate and purified, as well as that which is corrupt and defiled. Paul in Romans 7 gives you a large instance of this in himself, He delighted in the Law of God in the inward man. There was the law of his mind in him (which was the seed of grace diffused through his whole soul) that did incline him to every good thing commanded in the Law; so that although there was at the same time a law of the members, and the body of sin captivating of him, yet he had also a settled life of grace opposing all those motions of sin; and this particular is diligently to be marked; There is many a man comforts himself in this, my heart is set against sin, and if I be overtaken at any time, my conscience checks me for it, and I condemn myself, so that I say with Paul, The good I would not do that I do. Oh take heed you do not deceive yourself! for there is a vast difference between the check or resistance of conscience against your corrupt affections and lusts, and between the opposition of the regenerate part in a man against the unregenerate; for the former is only between two particular faculties, the conscience against the affections, but the latter is universal, there is the regenerate part of the will and affections against the unregenerate part. So that in such a case a Christian does not only say, my conscience bids me, do otherwise, I know better things, as Aristotle speaks of his incontinent person, but he also says, I will better things, I love and delight in better things. Oh therefore consider this sign aright! When your heart cries out of sin, Oh you will meddle with it no more! Is this opposition only from conscience enlightened? Is it from that faculty only? Alas if so (as commonly it is no more) you have no more sign of grace in you, than many heathens have had. When a man is regenerated, not only his conscience is made spiritual to discover the loathsomeness of sin, but his heart also, his love, his delight, whereby he is carried out in all the power of his soul against sin; and if this be so, may we not cry out with the Psalmist, Help Lord, for they are few that do truly hate sin.
Thirdly, This is a sign, As hereby it works in a man a difficulty, yea a kind of an impossibility to sin with willfulness and purposed continuance. He doth not sin, neither can he sin, says the text. There being a root of grace in him, it's impossible he should sin with such an universal content of soul, as wicked men do. There is a twofold cannot, one moral, and is no more than that which difficulty is not so. Thus 2 Corinthians 13:8 says, We cannot do anything against the truth but for the truth. Acts 4:20 says, We cannot but speak the things we have heard and seen. And in this sense, the children of God may be said [that], They cannot sin, because they have an averseness of heart to it. Secondly, there is a cannot, absolutely, so that the thing can never be, whether easily or difficultly, and in this sense the godly man cannot sin totally and finally, so as to be wholly deserted of God. As for the instance of Peter, David, and others, and whether the sins of the godly may be called reigning sins, I have already spoken to that matter. This is certain, it's impossible for a godly man so to delight and live in sin, as that the seed of grace should be quite extinct. Although the grace that is in God's children may for a time make no actual resistance, yet the principle of it, by reason of God's promise, will never be fully removed out of the heart. The apostle Peter in 1 Peter 1 makes that new nature opposite to all earthly glory and greatness, because that is corruptible and fading, but this abides forever. If therefore you would have any comfort from this sign, see how the seed of grace within you does so affect and overpower your heart, that you cannot sin with willingness, content, no nor commit the acts of gross sins, How can I do this and sin against God? How can I? and by this means you have a palpable discovery of many among us, not yet to be in the state of grace; How can I lie, swear, deal unjustly, neglect family-duties? You would find such a constraining and overruling power of grace, that you could not do it: and mark if this impossibility to sin arises wholly from a kindly work of grace within, otherwise a wicked man cannot sin sometimes because God puts a terrible restraint upon his conscience; Balaam could not sin in that wherein he was solicited, If thou wouldst give me (says he to Balaak) this house full of gold, I cannot curse them, but must bless those whom God blesseth. God many times puts a bridle upon the conscience of a wicked man, that he dares not, nor cannot commit such a sin, as his heart would carry him to, but this cannot sin, is far different from the godly man's cannot sin; The one is a violent motion, the principle is from without, the other is a natural motion, and has its ground from within it.
Fourthly, This is a sign, in that hereby a godly man in some measure, and by degrees, does not only leave outward gross sins, but even conquer and crucify the inward body of sin. He hath crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts thereof; and he is said to crucify the body of sin, and the deeds of the flesh, (Gal. 5); and herein this sign is most eminently significant; for a man cannot simply take comfort from this, he has indeed once been such and such an ungodly sinner, he has wallowed in such mire, but now he has given over all those courses; a man (I say) cannot barely take comfort from this leaving of actual gross sins, unless there be a mortifying of them in the root, in the affections and motions thereunto; for Peter speaks of some, who had escaped the pollution of the world, and that through the knowledge of Christ, yet were swines and dogs in their nature. Wherein does Paul in Romans 7 so passionately bewail his captivity to sin, but only in respect of the inward motions thereof? Thus David in Psalm 51 stays not upon his murder and adultery, but goes to that soul fountain, He was conceived in sins, and entreats God to create in him a clean heart. If therefore you would fain know whether you are born of God or no; See how pure and clean you desire to make yourself within, how does the fountain of blood within you dry up?
Fifthly, This is a sign, When a man's opposition to sin, and leaving of it, is because of the foul nature of sin. It is contrary to God; it's a transgression of his Law, and upon this spiritual motive he is bent against it. The apostle (as you heard) gives this as a reason, why the sons of God should not sin, because sin is a transgression of the Law; and David in Psalm 51 bewails his sin, though pardoned, because God was offended thereby; so that though a man pour out floods of tears for sin, though his conversation outwardly become white as snow, yet this is no symptom of grace, a man can take no comfort from hence, unless it be upon this ground, because God is displeased, and his law broken: look over the Scriptures, you may see wonderful examples of men remorse and sorrow about sin, yet those very tears were so foul that they needed washing; Take Ahab, observe the Jews, consider Judas, how were they cast down about their sins? With what horror of conscience did Judas cast away his thirty pieces? Oh men may go very far in sorrow for sin, and in reforming of their lives about sin, and yet this be no sign to them of the truth of grace. Why (you may say) what should work upon them, if it be not grace? Oh there are many other motives that work upon them: terrors of conscience, fear of God's judgments, and the pressing calamities that lie upon them! Insomuch that true unfeigned hatred of sin is very rare; I deny not but the judgments of God upon a man ought to work in him a sense and feeling of his sins, a severe judging and condemning of himself under God's hand. But to have this the only ground argues not the presence of grace in them. They are tied up from sin as mastiffs and wolves are; their natures are not changed.
Sixthly, This is a sign, when the inclination and bent of the heart against sin, is universal in respect of all sin: For a man highly in love with some sins, may yet extremely set against other sins. Therefore as sins run out in several streams, so do their affections proportionally: as there are sins of the heart, and sins of the outward man visible to others. The Pharisees, who were free from outward wickedness, yet abounded with heart-defilements, as our Saviour charges them. But Paul does deeply bemoan the evil motions of his heart, and Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart; That pride, unbelief, earthliness, and several lusts of soul are discovered by him, and crucified, and we read of no hypocrite that went so far. Again, there are sins done in secret, which none, or few know, such as theft, uncleanness, unlawful trading, crafty policies: or public, that are as it were upon the theater in the eyes of all: now the godly man abhors the former as well as the latter, he dares not commit a sin in the eye of Almighty God, which is everywhere, he fears God's knowledge of it more than all the world.
Again, Sins are either of commission, by a positive disobedience unto the Law of God, or of omission, by defect or neglect, such are omission of holy religious duties, neglect, lukewarmness and distraction therein; now a gracious heart abhors not only gross sins, but defects in holy ordinances. As God is angry, When we fall from our first love, when we strengthen not the things that are ready to die, when we are not fervent in spirit, serving the Lord. So also is a godly man much troubled and grieved herein.
Further, There are sins against the moral commandments of God, which are of good things intrinsically so; and against positive commands, which are only good, because commanded. A sanctified person fears the sin against the one, as well as against the other; thus he fears to profane the Sabbath, to use any false worship, to come to the sacrament in an unprepared manner, as well as to be unjust and oppressive.
Lastly, There are sins that become endeared by custom, education, complexion, by profit or pleasures. Now notwithstanding all these temptations, the godly man throws them away like a menstruous cloth, yea the sins they have been most enticed with, they manifest the greatest zeal against, and desire in all things to show themselves approved. Oh (beloved) if these marks and signs be in you, then may your joy abound. Do not henceforth argue thus, he must needs be a godly man, for he has such revelations, such enlargements in duties; he has had such experimental workings upon him, he is of such opinions, for such a church-government. These are nothing. Is he a man that dares not sin? Is he a man that is afraid to offend God in any of those ways mentioned? This man is godly by Scripture-judgment, whereas the other may be only in the sight of themselves and others. And oh that the good old Scripture-way of bringing men more into the sight of sin, the loathing of it, were more preached and urged among us. If Jehu be not afraid to sin, if Judas be not afraid to sin, let them have all the glorious appearances of godliness that can be, they carry not a true badge of holiness upon them.
Seventhly, This frame of heart against sin, is so real and operative, that although it cannot wholly dry up the fountain of corruption within them, yet it does all the foggy and miry puddles of gross and enormous courses. The Apostle says, The fruits of the flesh are uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, wrath, envyings, drunkenness, revelling, with such like; and that they which do these things shall not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore an habitual, constant profane person, cannot say, He is born of God. Oh do you tremble, who live and wallow in your gore blood! Your profane oaths, your malicious hatred of the things that are good, do they not discover you are in the gall of bitterness and wormwood? Be not deceived, there are but two sorts of men; Either, the children of light or of darkness, of God, or of the devil. There is not any hearer this day, but is either in the state of grace, one of Christ's sheep, or in the state of sin, one of Christ's goats; Now in which number are you? Do not actions betray some? Do not words betray others? Do not commissions some? Do not omissions others? Oh that the word of God might fall like fire into your breasts! Why sit you still? Why are not your consciences reflecting upon you? What am I, Lord, and what is my way?
Eighthly, This is a sign, as it does not only oppose it in ourselves, but set against it in others. For being born of God, we now (though with great disproportion) resemble him; and therefore as God is of purer eyes then to behold iniquity; and he is angry with the wicked all the day long; such is a godly man in respect of his zeal against sin where he lives. Thus David, I hate them that hate thee, with a perfect hatred: And Lot, His just soul was tormented with seeing and hearing the wicked actions of the Sodomites. If therefore you are born of God, you will not bear ungodliness in your family, the zeal of God's house will make you see it be not a den of thieves; Oh that men in great place and power would put forth such a divine zeal against sin. What a shame is it to show animosities, and an high spirit in a carnal way, and not able to demonstrate an heroic spirit against sin, and the works of Satan everywhere!
Ninthly, It is a sign, as it puts a man upon the choosing of any outward affliction rather than to sin against God. Job was charged to choose sin rather than affliction, but herein he was wronged. It is a true touchstone of the powerful work of grace, that it makes a man fear the evil of sin, because it deprives us of an infinite good, rather than the evil of punishment, which takes away a finite good; Hence where this work of grace is, though storms and tempests arise, yet they are built upon a rock; They fear not miseries, death, they fear only to sin against God.
The Use is of Exhortation, To lay this sign close upon your hearts. Are you such that cannot, that dare not, that have an habitual averseness from sin, that are of God, hating evil as he hates? behold what a sure evidence here is of your eternal salvation. But alas, where are the men? How few are they of whom this text is true, They sin not, neither can they sin? The contrary is true, they love not that which is holy, neither can they, because they are of the wicked one. Nature sequitur semina quisque sue. Fortes creantur fortibus; see an excellent antithesis, (John 8:38-41; 44-45). How did the Pharisees see the devil do that which they did? They thought not so, for they said, They were of Abraham, but because they expressed in their lives such wickedness as was in the devil. No doubt but many will take it ill to be said, They are of the devil, but their actions demonstrate it.