SERMON IX.* The Long-suffering of God.
Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.
I Have considered how apt Men are to abuse the long-suffering of God, to the hardening and en∣couraging of themselves in sin, and whence this comes to pass; where I considered the several false conclusi∣ons which Sinners draw from the de∣lay of Punishment, as if there were no God, or Providence, or difference of good and evil; or else, as is more commonly pretended, that Sin is not so great an Evil, and that God is Page 240 not so highly offended at it, or that God is not so severe as he is repre∣sented, that the punishment of sin is not so certain, or however, it is at a distance, and may be prevented by a future repentance; all which I have spoken fully to, and endeavoured to shew the fallacy and unreasonable∣ness of them. I shall now proceed to the
Third and last thing I propounded, which was to answer an Objection to which this Discourse may seem liable; and that is this. If the long-suffering of God be the occasion of Men's hardness and impenitency, then why is God so patient to Sinners, when they are so prone to abuse his Good∣ness and Patience? And how is it goodness in God to forbear Sinners so long, when this forbearance of his is so apt to minister to them an oc∣casion of their further mischief and greater ruine? It should seem accord∣ing to this, that it would be much greater Mercy to the greatest part of Sinners, not to be patient toward them at all; but instantly upon the first occasion and provocation, to cut them off, and so to put a stop to their Page 241 wickedness, and to hinder them from making themselves more miserable, by increasing their guilt, and trea∣suring up wrath to themselves against the day of wrath.
This is the Objection, and because it seems to be of some weight, I shall endeavour to return a satisfactory an∣swer to it in these following particu∣lars. And
I. I ask the Sinner if he will stand to this? Art thou serious, and wouldest thou in good earnest have God to deal thus with thee, to take the very first advantage to destroy thee or turn thee into Hell, and to make thee miserable beyond all hopes of recovery? Consider of it again. Dost thou think it desirable, that God should deal thus with thee, and let fly his Judgments upon thee so soon as ever thou hast sinned? If not, why do Men trifle, and make an Objecti∣on against the long-suffering of God, which they would be very loth should be made good upon them?
II. It is likewise to be considered, that the long-suffering of God toward Sinners is not a total forbearance; it is usually so mixt with Afflictions and Page 242 Judgments of one kind or other, upon our selves or others, as to be a suffici∣ent warning to us, if we would con∣sider and lay it to heart, to sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon us; lest that Judgment which we saw inflicted up∣on others come home to us. And is not this great goodness, to warn us when he might destroy us, to leave room for a retreat, when he might put our case past remedy?
All this time of God's Patience, he threatens Sinners, to awaken them out of their security; he punisheth them gently, that we may have no ground to hope for impunity; he makes Ex∣amples of some in a more severe and remarkable manner, that others may hear, and fear, and be afraid to commit the like sins, lest the like punishment overtake them; he whips some Of∣fenders before our Eyes, to shew us what sin deserves, and what we also may justly expect, if we do the same things; and will nothing be a warn∣ing to us but our own sufferings?
Nay, God doth usually send some Judgment or other upon every Sinner in this life; he lets him feel the Rod, that he may know that it is an evil Page 243 and bitter thing to sin against him. He ex∣erciseth Men with many afflictions, and crosses, and disappointments, which their own consciences tell them are the just recompences of their deeds; and by these lighter strokes, he gives us a merciful warning to avoid his hea∣vier blows; when Mercy alone will not work upon us and win us, but be∣ing fed to the full, we grow wanton and foolish, he administers Physick to us, by affliction and by adversity endea∣vours to bring us to consideration and a sober mind; and many have been cured this way, and the Judgments of God have done them that good, which his Mercies and Blessings could not; for God would save us any way, by his Mercy or by his Judgment, by Sickness or by Health, by Plenty or by Want, by what we desire or by what we dread; so desirous is he of our, repentance and happiness, that he leaves no method unattempted that may probably do us good; he strikes upon every Passion in the Heart of Man; he works upon our Love by his Goodness, upon our Hopes by his Promises, and upon our Fears, first by his Threatnings, Page 244 and if they be not effectual, then by his Judgments; he tries every Af∣fection and takes hold of it, if by any means he may draw us to him∣self; and will nothing warn us, but what will ruine us, and render our case desperate and past hope?
And if any Sinner be free from out∣ward Afflictions and Sufferings, yet sin never fails to carry its own Punish∣ment along with it; there is a secret Sting and Worm, a divine Nemesis and Revenge that is bred in the Bow∣els of every Sin, and makes it a hea∣vy Punishment to it self; the Con∣science of a Sinner doth frequently torment him, and his Guilt haunts and dogs him where-ever he goes; for when ever a Man commits a known and willful sin, he drinks down Poison, which tho' it may work slowly, yet it will give him many a Gripe, and if no means be used to ex∣pel it, will destroy him at last.
So that the long-suffering of God is wisely ordered, and there is such a mixture of Judgment in it, as is suffi∣cient to awaken Sinners, and much more apt to deter them from sin, than to encourage them to go on and con∣tinue in it.
Page 245III. Nothing is farther from the in∣tention of God, than to harden Men by his long-suffering. This the Scrip∣ture most expresly declares, 2 Pet. 3.9. He is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. He hath a very gracious and merciful de∣sign in his Patience towards Sinners, and is therefore good, that he may make us so, and that we may cease to do evil. The event of God's long-suffering may, by our own fault and abuse of it, prove our ruin; but the design and intention of it, is our re∣pentance. He winks at the sins of men (saith the Son of Syrach) that they may repent. He passeth them by, and does not take speedy Vengeance upon Sin∣ners for them, that they may have time to repent of them, and to make their peace with him, while they are yet in the way.
Nay, his long-suffering doth not only give space for Repentance, but is a great argument and encourage∣ment to it. That he is so loth to sur∣prize Sinners, that he gives them the liberty of second thoughts, time to reflect upon themselves, to consider Page 246 what they have done, and to retract it by repentance, is a sufficient inti∣mation that he hath no mind to ruin us, that he desires not the death of a sin∣ner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live. And should not this goodness of his make us sorry that we have offended him? Doth it not naturally lead and invite us to repentance? What other interpreta∣tion can we make of his Patience, what other use in reason should we make of it, but to repent and return, that we may be saved?
IV. There is nothing in the long-suffering of God, that is in truth any ground of encouragement to Men in any evil course; the proper and natural tendency of God's goodness is to lead men to repentance, and by re∣pentance to bring them to happiness; Rom. 2.4. Despisest thou the riches of his goodness, and patience, and long-suf∣fering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? This St. Peter, with relation to these very words of St. Paul, interprets, leading to salvation; 2 Pet. 3.15. And ac∣count that the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation, as our beloved brother Paul Page 247 also hath written unto you. Now where did St. Paul write so, unless in this Text; Not knowing that the goodness of God leads to repentance? 'Tis not only great ignorance, and a very gross mis∣take, to think that it is the design and intention of God's Patience and long-suffering to encourage Men in sin; but likewise to think, that in the nature of the thing, goodness can have any tendency to make Men evil; not knowing that the goodness of God leads to repentance.
V. That through the long-suffer∣ing of God Sinners are hardned in their evil ways, is wholly to be ascri∣bed to their abuse of God's goodness; 'tis neither the End and Intention, nor the proper and natural Effect of the thing, but the accidental Event of it, through our own fault. And is this any real Objection against the long-suffering of God? May not God be pa∣tient, tho' Sinners be impenitent? May not he be good, tho' we be so foolish as to make an ill use of his goodness? Because Men are apt to abuse the Mer∣cies and Favours of God, is it there∣fore a fault in him to bestow them upon us? Is it not enough for us to Page 248 abuse them, but will we challenge God also of unkindness in giving them? May not God use wise and fitting means for our recovery, because we are so foolish as not to make a wise use of them? And must he be charg∣ed with our ruin, because he seeks by all means to prevent it? Is it not e∣nough to be injurious to our selves, but will we be unthankful to God also? When God hath laid out the riches of his goodness and patience upon Sinners, will they challenge him as accessory to their ruin? As if a foolish Heir that hath prodigally wasted the fair Estate that was left him, should be so far from blaming himself, as to charge his Father with undoing him. Are these the best returns which the infinite Mercy and Patience of God hath deserved from us? Do we thus re∣quite the Lord, foolish people and un∣wise?
God's Patience would save Sinners, but they ruin themselves by their a∣buse of it; let the blame then lie where it is due, and let God have the glory of his Goodness, tho' Men refuse the benefit and advantage of it.
Page 249VI. And Lastly, But because this Ob∣jection pincheth hardest in one point; viz. That God certainly fore-sees that a great many will abuse his long-suffering, to the increasing of their Guilt, and the aggravating of their Condemnation; and how is his long-suffering any Mercy and Goodness to those, who he certainly fore-knows will in the event be so much the more miserable, for having had so much Patience extended to them? Therefore for a full answer, I desire these six things may be considered.
1. That God designs this life for the tryal of our Obedience, that ac∣cording as we behave our selves he might reward or punish us in ano∣ther World.
2. That there could be no tryal of our Obedience, nor any capacity of Rewards and Punishments, but upon the supposition of freedom and liber∣ty; that is, that we do not do what we do upon force and necessity, but upon free choice.
3. That God, by virtue of the in∣finite Perfection of his Knowledge, does clearly and certainly foresee all future Events, even those which are Page 250 most contingent, such as are the ar∣bitrary actions of free and voluntary Agents. This I know hath been de∣ny'd, but without reason; since it is not only contrary to the common ap∣prehensions of Mankind from the ve∣ry light of Nature, that God should not fore-know future Events, but to clear and express Scripture; and that in such Instances, for the sake of which they deny God's fore-knowledge in general of the future actions of free and voluntary Agents, I mean, that the Scripture expresly declares God's determinate fore-knowledge of the most wicked actions; as the Crucifying of Christ, who is said, according to the determinate counsel and fore-knowledge of God, to have been by wicked hands cruci∣fied and slain.
4. That the bare fore-knowledge of things future hath no more influ∣ence upon them to make them to be, than the sight and knowledge of things present hath upon them to make them to be present. I may see or know that the Sun is risen, without being the cause of its rising; and no more is bare knowledge of future Events the cause that they are, Page 251 when they are. And if any Man ask how God can certainly fore-know things, which depend upon free and arbitrary causes, unless he do some way decree and determine them? I answer, that this is not a fair and rea∣sonable demand, to ask of Men, who have but finite Understandings, to make out and declare all the ways that infinite Knowledge hath of knowing and of fore-seeing the actions of free Creatures, without prejudice to their liberty and freedom of acting. How∣ever, it is of the two much more cre∣dible to reason, that infinite Know∣ledge should certainly fore-know things, which our Understandings cannot imagine how they should be fore-known, than that God should a∣ny ways be the Author of Sin, by determining and decreeing the wick∣ed actions of Men. The first only argues the imperfection of our Un∣derstandings; but the other lays the greatest blemish and imperfection that can be upon the Divine Nature.
So that this difficult Controversie about the fore-knowledge of God is brought to this point, Whether a Man had better believe, that infinite Know∣ledge Page 252 may be able to fore-know things in a way which our finite understand∣ing cannot comprehend: or to ascribe something to God, from whence it would unavoidably follow that he is the author of Sin. The 〈◊〉 is only a modest and just acknowledgment of our own ignorance; the lost is the ut∣most and greatest absurdity that a Man can be brought to; and to say that we cannot believe the fore-know∣ledge of God, unless we can make out the particular manner of it, is more unreasonable, than if an ignorant Man should deny a difficult propo∣sition in Euclid or Archimedes to be demonstrated, because he knows not how to demonstrate it.
5. And consequently fore-know∣ledge and liberty may very well con∣sist; and notwithstanding God's fore-knowledge of what Men will do, they may be as free as if he did not fore-know it. And,
Lastly, That God doth not deal with Men according to his fore-know∣ledge of the good or bad use of their liberty, but according to the nature and reason of things; and therefore if he be long-suffering toward Sinners, Page 253 and do not cut them off upon the first Provocation, but give them a space and opportunity of repentance, and use all proper means and argu∣ments to bring them to repentance, and be ready to afford his Grace to excite good resolutions in them, and to second and assist them, and they refuse and resist all this; their wilful Obstinacy and Impenitency is as cul∣pable, and God's Goodness and Pa∣tience as much to be acknowledged, as if God did not foresee the abuse of it; because his fore-sight and know∣ledge of what they would do, laid no necessity upon them to do what they did.
If a Prince had the priviledge of fore-knowledge as God hath, and did certainly foresee, that a great ma∣ny of his Subjects would certainly incur the penalty of his Laws, and that others would abuse his goodness and clemency to them; yet if he would govern them like free and reasonable Creatures, he ought to make the same wise Laws to restrain their exorbitan∣cy, and to use the same clemency in all cases that did fairly admit of it, as if he did not at all foresee what they Page 254 would do, nor how they would abuse his clemency; for it is nevertheless fit to make wise and reasonable Laws, and to govern with equity and cle∣mency, tho' it were certainly fore∣seen, that they that are governed would act very foolishly and unrea∣sonably in the use of their liberty. It is great goodness in God to give Men the means and opportunity of being saved, tho' they abuse this goodness to their farther ruin; and he may be heartily grieved for that folly and obstinacy in Men, which he certainly fore-sees will end in their ruin; and may with great seriousness and sincerity wish they would do o∣therwise, and were as wise to do good, as they are wilful to do evil. And thus he is represented in Scripture, as re∣gretting the mischief which Men wilfully bring upon themselves; O that they were wise, O that they would understand, and consider their latter end!
And this is sufficient to vindicate the goodness of God in his Patience and long-suffering to Sinners, and to make them wholly guilty of all that befalls them for their wilful contempt and abuse of it.
Page 255I shall draw some Inferences from this whole Discourse upon this Ar∣gument.
I. This shews the unreasonableness and perverse disingenuity of Men, who take occasion to harden and encourage themselves in sin from the long-suffering of God, which above all things in the World should melt and soften them. Thou hast sinned and art liable to the Justice of God, Sentence is gone forth, but God res∣pites the execution of it, and hath granted thee a Reprieve, and time and opportunity to sue out thy Par∣don. Now what use ought we in reason to make of this Patience of God towards us? We ought certain∣ly to break off our sins by a speedy re∣pentance, lest iniquity be our ruin; immediately to sue out our Pardon, and to make our peace with God, while we are yet in the way, and to resolve, never any more willingly to offend that God who is so gracious and merciful, so long-suffering and full of compassion. But what use do Men commonly make of it? They take occasion to confirm and strengthen themselves in their wickedness, and Page 256 to reason themselves into vain and groundless hopes of impunity. Now what a folly is this, because punish∣ment doth not come, therefore to hast∣en it, and to draw it down upon our selves? Because it hath not yet over∣taken us, therefore to go forth and meet it? Because there is yet a pos∣sibility of escaping it, therefore to take a certain course to make it un∣avoidable? Because there is yet hope concerning us, therefore to make our case desperate and past remedy? See how unreasonably Men bring ruin up∣on themselves; so that well might the Psalmist ask that Question, Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge?
But their folly and unreasonable∣ness is not so great, but their per∣verseness and disingenuity is greater. To sin, because God is long-suffering, is to be evil, because he is good, and to provoke him, because he spares us; it is to strive with God, and to contend with his goodness, as if we were re∣solved to try the utmost length of his Patience; and because God is loth to punish, therefore to urge and im∣portune him to that which is so con∣trary to his Inclination.
Page 257II. This may serve to convince Men of the great evil and danger of thus abusing the long-suffering of God. It is a provocation of the high∣est nature, because it is to trample upon his dearest Attributes, those which he most delights and glories in, his Goodness and Mercy; for the long-suffering of God is his Good∣ness to the guilty, and his Mercy to those who deserve to be miserable.
Nothing makes our ruin more cer∣tain, more speedy, and more intolle∣rable, than the abuse of God's Good∣ness and Patience. After God had born long with that rebellious Peo∣ple, the Children of Israel, and not∣withstanding all their murmurings, all their infidelity and impenitency, had spared them ten times, at last he sets his Seal to their ruin, Heb. 3.8, 9. Harden not your hearts, as in the pro∣vocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your Fathers proved me, and saw my works forty years. This was a high provocation indeed, to harden their hearts under the Patience and long-suffering of God, after for∣ty Years tryal and experience of it; v. 10. Wherefore I was grieved with Page 258 that generation, and said, They are a people that do err in their hearts, for they have not known my ways. And what was the issue of all this? Upon this God takes up a fixt resolution to bear no longer with them, but to cut them off from the Blessings he had promi∣sed to bestow upon them; He sware in his wrath, that they should not enter into his rest. To whom sware he, that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not? or as the word may be rendred, to them that were disobedient? that is, to them who went on in their rebellion against him, after he had suffered their manners forty years.
And as the abuse of God's Patience renders our destruction more certain, so more speedy and more intollerable. We think that because God suffers long, he will suffer always; and be∣cause punishment is delayed, there∣fore it will never come; but it will come the sooner for this: So our Lord tells us, Luke 12. When the servant said, His Lord delayed his coming, the Lord of that servant shall come in a day that he looks not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and shall cut him in sunder, and appoint him his portion with Page 259 the hypocrites. None so like to be sur∣prised by the Judgment of God, as those who trespass so boldly upon his Patience.
III. To perswade us to make a right use of the Patience and long-suffering of God, and to comply with the merciful end and design of God therein.
1. It is the design of God's long-suffering, to give us a space of repen∣tance. Were it not that God had this design and reasonable expectation from us, he would not reprieve a sinner for one moment, but would execute Judgment upon him so soon as ever he had offended: This our Saviour de∣clares to us by the Parable of the Fig∣tree, Luke 13.6. Were it not that God expects from us the fruit of re∣pentance, he would cut us down, and not suffer us to cumber the ground; af∣ter he had waited three years, seeking fruit and finding none, he spares it one year more, to see if it would bear fruit.
2. The long-suffering of God is a great encouragement to repentance. We see by his Patience that he is not ready to take advantage against us; that he spares us when we offend, is a Page 260 very good sign that he will forgive us if we repent. Thus natural Light would reason, and so the King of Nineveh, a Heathen, reasons, Who can tell if God will turn and repent? But we are fully assured of this by the gracious declarations of the Gospel, and the way of pardon and forgiveness which is therein establisht through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ, who was made a propitiation for the sins of the whole world.
Therefore the long-suffering of God should be a powerful argument to us to break off our sins by repentance: For this is the End of God's Patience; He is long-suffering to us ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. He hath no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked should turn from his way and live. God every where expresseth a vehe∣ment desire and earnest expectation of our repentance and conversion; Jer. 4.14. O Jerusalem! wash thy heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be sa∣ved. And Chap. 13.27. Woe unto thee Jerusalem! wilt thou not be made clean? when shall it once be? He who is so patient as to the punishment of our sins, is almost impatient of our re∣pentance Page 261 for them; Wilt thou not be made clean? when shall it once be? And can we stand out against his earnest desire of our happiness, whom we have so often and so long provoked to make us miserable?
Let us then return into our selves, and think seriously what our case and condition is; how we have lived, and how long the Patience of God hath suffered our manners, and waited for our repentance, and how inevitable and intollerable the misery of those must be who live and dye in the con∣tempt and abuse of it; let us heartily repent of our wicked lives, and say, What have we done? How careless have we been of our own happiness, and what pains have we taken to undo our selves?
Let us speedily set about this Work, because we do not know how long the Patience of God may last, and the opportunities of our Salvation be con∣tinued to us. This day of God's Grace and Patience will have an end, there∣fore, as the Prophet exhorts, Isa. 55.6. Seek the Lord while he may be found, and call upon him while he is near. Now God graciously invites Sinners to Page 262 come to him, and is ready to receive them; nay, if they do but move to∣wards him, he is ready to go forth and meet them half way; but the time will come, when he will bid them depart from him, when they shall cry, Lord, Lord, open unto us, and the door of mercy shall be shut against them.
All the while thou delayest this ne∣cessary work, thou venturest thy im∣mortal Soul, and puttest thy eternal Salvation upon a desperate hazard, and should God snatch thee suddenly away in an impenitent state, what would become of thee? Thou art yet in the way, and God is yet reconcile∣able, but Death is not far off, and perhaps much nearer to thee than thou art aware; at the best thy Life is un∣certain, and Death will infallibly put a period to this day of God's Grace and Patience.
Repentance is a work so necessary, that methinks no Man should lose so much time as to deliberate, whether he should set about it or not; de ne∣cessariis nulla est deliberatio; no man de∣liberates about what he must do, or be undone if he do it not. 'Tis a work of so great consequence and concern∣ment, Page 263 and the delay of it so infinitely dangerous, that one would think no wise Man could entertain a thought of deferring it. What greater folly and stupidity can there be, than for Men to venture their immortal Souls, and to run an apparent hazard in mat∣ters of everlasting consequence?
This day of God's Patience is the great opportunity of our Salvation, and if we let it slip, it is never to be recovered: If we mis-improve this time of our life, we shall not be per∣mitted to live it over again to improve it better. Our state of tryal ends with this life, after that God will prove us no more; then we shall wish, O that I had known in that my day, the things which belonged to my peace, but now they are hid from mine eyes; therefore to day, whilst it is called to day, harden not your hearts, make no tarrying to turn to the Lord, and put not off from day to day, for suddenly shall the wrath of the Lord break forth, and in thy security thou shalt be destroyed; exercise repentance in the time of health, and defer not till death to be justified.