1 John 5:3
You have seen what Christ calls for poverty of spirit, pureness of heart, meekness, mercifulness, cheerfulness in suffering persecution, etc. Now that none may hesitate or be troubled at these commands of Christ, I thought good (as a closure to the former discourse) to take off the surmises and prejudices in men's spirits by this sweet, mollifying Scripture, His commandments are not grievous.'
The censuring world objects against religion that it is difficult and irksome. Behold what a weariness is it!' (Malachi 1:13). Therefore the Lord, that he may invite and encourage us to obedience, draws religion in its fair colours and represents it to us as beautiful and pleasant, in these words: His commandments are not grievous.' this may well be called a sweetening ingredient put into religion and may serve to take off that asperity and harshness which the carnal world would put upon the ways of God.
For the clearing of the terms, let us consider:
1. What is meant here by commandments?
By this word, commandments, I understand gospel-precepts; faith, repentance, self-denial etc.
2. What is meant by not grievous?'
The Greek word signifies they are not tedious or heavy to be borne. There is a meiosis in the words. His commands are not grievous', that is, they are easy, sweet, excellent.
Hence observe that none of God's commandments are grievous, when he calls us to be meek, merciful, pure in heart. These commandments are not grievous. My burden is light' (Matthew 11:30). The Greek word there for burden', signifies properly the ballast of a ship' which glides through the waves as swiftly and easily as if the ship had no weight or pressure in it. Christ's commandments are like the ballast of a ship, useful, but not troublesome. All his precepts are sweet and facile, therefore called pleasantness' (Proverbs 3:17). To illustrate and amplify this, consider two things:
1 Why Christ lays commands upon his people. There are two reasons.
(i) In regard of Christ, it is suitable to his dignity and state. He is Lord paramount. This name is written on his thigh and vesture, King of kings' (Revelation 19:16). And shall not a king appoint laws to his subjects? It is one of the regal rights, the flowers of the crown, to enact laws and statutes. What is a king without his laws? And shall not Christ (by whom kings reign', Proverbs 8:15) put forth his royal edicts by which the world shall be governed?
(ii) In regard of the saints, it is well for the people of God that they have laws to bind and check the exorbitancies of their unruly hearts. How far would the vine spread its luxuriant branches were it not pruned and tied? The heart would be ready to run wild in sin if it did not have affliction to prune it and the laws of Christ to bind it. The precepts of Christ are called a yoke' (Matthew 11:30). The yoke is useful. It keeps the oxen in from straggling and running out. So the precepts of Christ as a yoke keep the godly from straggling into sin. Whither should we not run, into what damnable opinions and practices, did not Christ's laws lay a check and restraint upon us? Blessed be God for precepts! That is a blessed yoke which yokes our corruptions. We should run to hell were it not for this yoke. The laws of Christ are a spiritual hedge which keeps the people of God within the pastures of ordinances. Some that have broken this hedge and have straggled are now in the devil's pound. Thus we see what need the saints have of the royal law.
2 The second thing I am to demonstrate is that Christ's commands are not grievous. I confess they are grievous to the unregenerate man. To mourn for sin, to be pure in heart, to suffer persecution for righteousness' sake, is a hard word, grievous to flesh and blood. Therefore Christ's commands are compared to bands and cords, because carnal men look upon them so. God's commands restrain men from their excess and bind them to their good behaviour. Therefore, they hate these bonds and instead of breaking off sin, say, Let us break their bands asunder and cast away their cords from us' (Psalm 2:3). A carnal man is like an untamed heifer which will not endure the yoke, but kicks and flings, or like a wild bull in a net' (Isaiah 51:20). Thus to a person in the state of nature Christ's commands are grievous.
Nay, to a child of God, so far as corruption prevails (for he is but in part regenerate), Christ's laws seem irksome. The flesh cries out that it cannot pray or suffer. The law in the members, rebels against Christ's law. Only the spiritual part prevails and makes the flesh stoop to Christ's injunctions. A regenerate person, so far as he is regenerate, does not count God's commandments grievous. They are not a burden, but a delight.
Divine commands are not grievous if we consider them first positively in these eight particulars:
(1) A Christian consents to God's commands, therefore they are not grievous. I consent to the law that it is good' (Romans 7:16). What is done with consent is easy. If the virgin gives her consent, the match goes on cheerfully. A godly man in his judgement approves of Christ's laws, and in his will consents to them. Therefore they are not grievous. A wicked man is under a force; terror of conscience hales him to duty. He is like a slave that is chained to the galley. He must work whether he will or no. He is forced to pull the rope, tug at the oar. But a godly man is like a free subject that consents to his prince's laws and obeys out of choice as seeing the equity and rationality of them. Thus a gracious heart sees a beauty and equity in the commands of heaven that draws forth consent, and this consent makes them that they are not grievous.
(2) They are Christ's commands, therefore not grievous. Take my yoke' (Matthew 11:29). Gospel commands are not the laws of a tyrant, but of a Saviour. The husband's commands are not grievous to the wife. It is her ambition to obey. This is enough to animate and excite obedience, Christ's commands. As Peter said in another sense, Lord if it be thou, bid me come unto thee upon the water' (Matthew 14:28), so says a gracious soul; Lord, if it be thou that wouldest have me mourn for sin and breathe after heart purity; if it be thou (dear Saviour) that biddest me do these things, I will cheerfully obey. Thy commandments are not grievous'. A soldier at the word of his general makes a brave onset.
(3) Christians obey out of a principle of love, and then God's commandments are not grievous. Therefore in Scripture serving and loving of God are put together. The sons of the strangers that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him and to love the name of the Lord ...' (Isaiah 56:6). Nothing is grievous to him that loves. Love lightens a burden; it adds wings to obedience. An heart that loves God counts nothing tedious but its own dullness and slowness of motion. Love makes sin heavy and Christ's burden light.
(4) A Christian is carried on by the help of the Spirit, and the Spirit makes every duty easy. The Spirit helpeth our infirmities' (Romans 8:26). The Spirit works in us both to will and to do' (Philippians 2:13). When God enables us to do what he commands then his commandments are not grievous'. If two carry a burden it is easy. The Spirit of God helps us to do duties, to bear burdens. He draws as it were in the yoke with us. If the scrivener guides the child's hand and helps it to frame its letter, now it is not hard for the child to write. If the loadstone draw the iron, it is not hard for the iron to move. If the Spirit of God as a divine loadstone draw and move the heart, now it is not hard to obey. When the bird has wings given it, it can fly. Though the soul of itself be unable to do that which is good, yet having two wings given it (like that woman in the Revelation, (Revelation 12:14), the wing of faith and the wing of the Spirit, now it flies swiftly in obedience. The Spirit lifted me up' (Ezekiel 11:1). The heart is heavenly in prayer when the Spirit lifts it up. The sails of a mill cannot move of themselves, but when the wind blows then they turn round. When a gale of the Spirit blows upon the soul, now the sails of the affections move swiftly in duty.
(5) All Christ's commands are beneficial, not grievous. And now, O Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to love him, to keep his statutes which I command thee this day for thy good' (Deuteronomy 10:12, 13). Christ's commands carry meat in the mouth of them, and then surely they are not grievous. Salvation runs along in every precept. To obey Christ's laws is not so much of duty as our privilege. All Christ's commands centre in blessedness. Physic is in itself very unpleasant, yet because it tends to health no man refuses it. Divine precepts are to the fleshy part irksome, yet, having such excellent operation as to make us both holy and happy, they are not to be accounted grievous. The apprentice is content to go through hard service, because it makes way for his freedom. The scholar willingly wrestles with the knotty difficulties of arts and sciences because they serve both to ennoble and advance him. How cheerfully does a believer obey those laws which reveal Christ's love! That suffering is not grievous which leads to a crown. This made Saint Paul say, I take pleasure in infirmities, in persecutions' (2 Corinthians 12:10).
(6) It is honourable to be under Christ's commands. Therefore they are not grievous. The precepts of Christ do not burden us but adorn us. It is an honour to be employed in Christ's service. How cheerfully did the rowers row the barge that carried Caesar! The honour makes the precept easy. A crown of gold is in itself heavy, but the honour of the crown makes it light and easy to be worn. I may say of every command of Christ, as Solomon speaks of wisdom, She shall give to thine head an ornament of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee' (Proverbs 4:9). It is honourable working at court. The honour of Christ's yoke makes it easy and eligible.
(7) Christ's commands are sweetened with joy and then they are not grievous. Cicero questions whether that can properly be called a burden which is carried with joy and pleasure? When the wheels of a chariot are oiled they run swiftly. When God pours in the oil of gladness, how fast does the soul run in the ways of his commandments! Joy strengthens for duty. The joy of the Lord is your strength' (Nehemiah 7:10); and the more strength, the less weariness. God sometimes drops down comfort and then a Christian can run in the yoke.
(8) Gospel commands are finite, therefore not grievous. Christ will not always be laying his commands upon us. Christ will shortly take off the yoke from our neck and set a crown upon our head. There is a time coming when we shall not only be free from our sins, but our duties too. Prayer and fasting are irksome to the flesh. In heaven there will be no need of prayer or repentance. Duties shall cease there. Indeed in heaven the saints shall love God, but love is no burden. God will shine forth in his beauty, and to fall in love with beauty is not grievous. In heaven the saints shall praise God, but their praising of him shall be so sweetened with delight that it will not be a duty any more, but part of their reward. It is the angels' heaven to praise God. This then makes Christ's commands not grievous; though they are spiritual, yet they are temporary; it is but a while and duties shall be no more. The saints shall not so much be under commands as embraces. Wait but a while and you shall put off your armour and end your weary marches. Thus we have seen that Christ's commands considered in themselves are not grievous.
Let us consider Christ's commands comparatively, and we shall see they are not grievous. Let us make a fourfold comparison. Compare Gospel commands:
1 With the severity of the moral law,
2 With the commands of sin,
3 With the torments of the damned,
4 With the glory of heaven
1 Christ's commands in the gospel are not grievous compared with the severity of the moral law. The moral law was such a burden as neither we nor our fathers could bear. Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them' (Galatians 3:10). Impossible it is that any Christian should come up to the strictness of this. The golden mandates of the gospel comparatively are easy. For:
(1) In the gospel, if there be a desire to keep God's commandments, it is accepted. If there be first a willing mind it is accepted' (Nehemiah 1:11; 2 Corinthians 8:12). Though a man had had never so good a mind to have fulfilled the moral law, it would not have been accepted. He must de facto' (in actual deed) have obeyed (Galatians 3:12). But in the gospel God crowns the desire. If a Christian says in humility, Lord, I desire to obey thee, I would be more holy' (Isaiah 26:8), this desire springing from love passes for current.
(2) In the gospel a surety is admitted in the court. The law would not admit of a surety. It required personal obedience. But now, God so far indulges us that, what we cannot of ourselves do, we may do by a proxy. Christ is called a surety of a better testament' (Hebrews 7:22). We cannot walk so exactly. We tread awry and fall short in everything, but God looks upon us in our surety, and Christ having fulfilled all righteousness' (Matthew 3:15), it is all one as if we had fulfilled the law in our own persons.
(3) The law commanded and threatened, but gave no strength to perform. It Egyptianized, requiring the full tale of brick, but gave no straw. But now God with his commands gives power. Gospel-precepts are sweetened with promises. God commands, Make you a new heart' (Ezekiel 18:31). Lord, may the soul say, I make a new heart? I can as well make a new world. But see Ezekiel 36:26, A new heart also will I give you'. God commands us to cleanse ourselves: Wash you, make you clean' (Isaiah 1:16). Lord, where should I have power to cleanse myself? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?' (Job 14:4). See the precept turned into a promise: From all your filthiness and from your idols will I cleanse you' (Ezekiel 36:25). If, when the child cannot go, the father takes it by the hand and leads it, now it is not hard for the child to go. When we cannot go, God takes us by the hand, I taught Ephraim also to go, taking them by their arms' (Hosea 11:3).
(4) In the gospel God winks at infirmities where the heart is right. The law called for perfect obedience. It was death to have shot but an hairbreadth short of the mark. It were sad if the same rigour should continue upon us. Woe to the holiest man that lives (says Augustine) if God comes to weigh him in the balance of his justice. It is with our best duties as with gold. Put the gold in the fire and you will see dross come out. What drossiness in our holy things! But in the gospel, though God will not endure haltings, yet he will pass by failings. Thus Christ's commands in the gospel are not grievous compared with the severity of the moral law.
Christ's commands are not grievous compared with the commands of sin. Sin lays an heavy yoke upon men. Sin is compared to a talent of lead (Zechariah 5:7) to show the weightiness of it. The commands of sin are burdensome. Let a man be under the power and rage of any lust (whether it be covetousness or ambition), how he tires and excruciates himself! What hazards does he run, even to the endangering of his health and soul, that he may satisfy his lust! They weary themselves to commit iniquity' (Jeremiah 9:5). And are not Christ's precepts easy and sweet in comparison of sin's austere and inexorable commands? Therefore Chrysostom says well that virtue is easier than vice. Temperance is less burdensome than drunkenness. Doing justice is less burdensome than violence. There is more difficulty and perplexity in the contrivement (Micah 2:1) and pursuit of wicked ends than in obeying the sweet and gentle precepts of Christ. Hence it is that a wicked man is said to travail with iniquity' (Psalm 7:14), to show what anxious pain and trouble he has in bringing about his wickedness. What tedious and hazardous journeys did Antiochus Epiphanes take in persecuting the people of the Jews! Many have gone with more pain to hell than others have to heaven.
3 Christ's commands are not grievous compared with the grievous torments of the damned. The rich man cries out I am tormented in this flame' (Luke 16:24). Hell fire is so inconceivably torturing that the wicked do not know either how to bear or to avoid it. The torment of the damned may be compared to a yoke and it differs from other yokes. Usually the yoke is laid but upon the neck of the beast, but the hell-yoke is laid upon every part of the sinner. His eyes shall behold nothing but bloody tragedies. His ears shall hear the groans and shrieks of blaspheming spirits. He shall suffer in every member of his body and faculty of his soul, and this agony though violent yet perpetual. The yoke of the damned shall never be taken off. The footprints show no return' Sinners might break the golden chain of God's commands, but they cannot break the iron chain of his punishments. It is as impossible for them to file this chain as to scale heaven.
And are not gospel-commands easy in comparison of hell-torments? What does Christ command? He bids you repent. Is it not better to weep for sin than bleed for it? Christ bids you pray in your families and closets. Is it not better praying than roaring? He bids you sanctify the Sabbath. Is it not better to keep an holy rest to the Lord than to be for ever without rest? Hell is a restless place. There is no intermission of torment for one minute of an hour. I appeal to the consciences of men. Are not Christ's commands sweet and facile in comparison of the insupportable pains of reprobates? Is not obeying better than damning? Are not the cords of love better than the chains of darkness?
4 Gospel commands are not grievous compared with the glory of heaven. What an infinite disproportion is there between service and reward! What are all the saints, labours and travails in religion compared with the crown of recompense? The weight of glory makes duty light.
Behold here an encouraging argument to religion. How may this make us in love with the ways of God! His commandments are not grievous'. Believers are not now under the thundering curses of the law, no, nor under the ceremonies of it, which were both numerous and burdensome. The ways of God are equal, his statutes eligible! He bids us mourn that we may be comforted. He bids us be poor in spirit that he may settle a kingdom upon us. God is no hard Master. His commandments are not grievous.' O Christian, serve God out of choice (Psalm 119:3). Think of the joy, the honour, the reward of godliness. Never more grudge God your service. Whatever he prescribes, let your hearts subscribe.
It reproves them that refuse to obey these sweet and gentle commands of Christ. Israel would none of me' (Psalm 81:11). We may cry out with Augustine that the generality of men choose rather to put their neck in the devil's yoke than to submit to the sweet and easy yoke of Christ. What should be the reason that, when God's commandments are not grievous', his ways pleasantness, his service perfect freedom, yet men should not vail to Christ's sceptre nor stoop to his laws?
Surely the cause may be that inbred hatred which is naturally in men's hearts against Christ. Sinners are called God-haters' (Romans 1:30). Sin begets not only a dislike of the ways of God, but hatred; and from disaffection flows disloyalty. His citizens hated him and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us' (Luke 19:14)
Besides this inbred hatred against Christ, the devil labours to blow the coals and increase this odium and antipathy. He raises an evil report upon religion as those spies did on Canaan. They brought up an evil report of the land' (Numbers 13:32). Satan is implacably malicious, and as he sometimes accuses us to God, so he accuses God to us, and says, He is an hard Master and his commandments are grievous. It is the devil's design to do as the sons of Eli, who made the offering of God to be abhorred' (1 Samuel 2:17). If there be any hatred and prejudice in the heart against religion, an enemy hath done this' (Matthew 13:28, 38). The devil raises in the hearts of men a twofold prejudice against Christ and his ways:
(1) The paucity of them that embrace religion. The way of Christ is but a pathway (Psalm 119:35), whereas the way of pleasure and vanity is the roadway. Many ignorantly conclude that must needs be the best way which most go. I answer: There are but few that are saved, and will not you be saved because so few are saved? A man does not argue thus in other things: there are but few rich, therefore I will not be rich; nay, therefore, he the rather strives to be rich. Why should not we argue thus wisely about our souls? There are but few that go to heaven, therefore we will labour the more to be of the number of that few.
What a weak argument is this: there are but few that embrace religion, therefore you will not! Those things which are more excellent are more rare. There are but few pearls and diamonds; in Rome, few senators. The fewness of them that embrace religion argues the way of religion excellent. It is not every man than can get to Corinth."
We are warned not to sail with the multitude (Exodus 23:2). Most fish goes to the Devil's net.
(2) The ways of religion are rendered deformed and unlovely by the scandals of professors.
I answer: I acknowledge the lustre of religion has been much eclipsed and sullied by the scandals of men. This is an age of scandals. Many have made the pretence of religion a key to open the door to all ungodliness. Never was God's name more taken in vain. This is that our Saviour has foretold. It must needs be that offences come' (Matthew 18:7). But to take off this prejudice, consider: scandals are not from religion, but for want of religion. Religion is not the worse, though some abuse it. To dislike religion because some of the professors of it are scandalous is as if one should say, Because the servant is dishonest, therefore he will not have a good opinion of his master. Is Christ the less glorious because some that wear his livery are scandalous? Is religion the worse because some of her followers are bad? Is wine the worse because some are intemperate? Shall a woman dislike chastity because some of her neighbours are unchaste? Let us argue soberly. Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgement' (John 7:24).
God sometimes permits scandals to fall out in the church out of a design:
(1) As a just judgement upon hypocrites. These squint-eyed devotionists who serve God for their own ends, the Lord in justice suffers them to fall into horrid debauched practices that he may lay open their baseness to the world and that all may see they were but piebald Christians, painted devils; Judas, first a sly hypocrite, afterwards a visible traitor.
(2) Scandals are for hardening of the profane. Some desperate sinners who would never give God a good word, they would not be won by religion, they shall be wounded by it. God lets scandals be to be a break neck to men and to engulf them more in sin. Jesus Christ (God blessed for ever') is to some a rock of offence' (Romans 9:33). His blood, which is to some balm, is to others poison. If the beauty of religion does not allure, the scandals of some of its followers shall precipitate men to hell.
(3) Scandals in the church are for the caution of the godly. The Lord would have his people walk tremblingly. Be not high-minded, but fear' (Romans 11:20). When cedars fall, let the bruised reed' tremble. The scandals of professors are not to discourage us but to warn us. Let us tread more warily. The scandals of others are sea-marks for the saints to avoid. And let all this serve to take off these prejudices from religion. Though Satan may endeavour by false disguises to render the gospel odious, yet there is a beauty and a glory in it. God's commandments are not grievous'.
Let me persuade all men cordially to embrace the ways of God. His commandments are not grievous'. God never burdens us but that he may unburden us of our sins. His commands are our privileges. There is joy in the way of duty (Psalm 19:11), and heaven at the end.