It is a common doctrine often declared unto you, that the most part of those who hear the gospel do run, in their pretended course to heaven, either upon a rock of dashing discouragement, or the sands of sinking presumption. These are in all men's mouths; and no question they are very dangerous, so hazardous, as many fools make shipwreck either of the faith, or a good conscience, -- of the faith, by running upon and dashing upon the rock, -- of a good conscience, by sitting down upon the quicksand. But I fear that which is commonly confessed by all is cordially believed by few, and so, little regarded in our course and conversation. All Christians pretend to be making a voyage heaven-ward, and that is only home-ward. Now the gospel is given us to direct our course, and teach us how to steer between these two hazards, both safely and surely. This is the shore that shall guide us, and conduct to our intended haven, that is heaven, if we set our compass by it, and steer our course accordingly. Yet strange it is to behold the infinite wanderings and errors of men, on the one hand or the other: -- some presuming upon the news of mercy, and the sound of God's grace, to walk after the imagination of their own hearts, and to live and continue in sin, for which Christ died, that he might redeem us from it, fancying a possibility of living in sin, and escaping wrath, and so abusing the tender of grace to promote licentiousness; -- others, again, apprehending the wrath of God, and their just deservings, abusing the notion of God's justice, and the perfection of his holiness, to the prejudice of the glory of his grace and mercy, and their own salvation. This is certainly the cunning sleight of Satan, with the deceitfulness and ignorance of our own hearts, that leads men, and sometimes one and the same man, at diverse times, to contrary misapprehensions of divine truths. The wind of temptation gets fires to one corner of the house and then to another, and sometimes over-persuades the notion of mercy, and another time overstretches the apprehension of his justice; and yet in effect there is no true persuasion of any of them, but a cloud or shadow is apprehended instead of them.
Now I say, there is one cure for both these, -- the right apprehension of the gospel in its entire and whole sum, the right uptaking of the light which shines in a dark place, and is given to lead us to our place of rest -- to have a complete model, and a short summary of the gospel, always in our heart and eye. For truly it is the apprehending of parcels of divine truth, which leads men into such opposite mistakes and courses. To remedy this, we have some brief comprehensive models of the gospel set down by the Holy Ghost, and none in better terms than this here: "This is his commandment, that ye believe," &c. You have it in two words, faith and love. This is the form of sound words which we should hold fast, 2 Tim. i.13. This is the mould of doctrine delivered by Christ and his Apostles. It is the separation of these two in some men's fancy, that leads too many in such paths of destruction. Truly they can as little be divided as the sun's light and heat, but the motions and shadows of them may, and it is the following the shadows of some of them which shipwrecks souls. Now not only the common multitude of the hearers of the gospel are in hazard of this, but even God's own children, who have believed in him.
The taking up of these things apart, creates the heart much trouble and perplexity, and occasioneth much sin and stumbling. I do think it is the ignorance and advertency of this conjunction, that makes our case both more sad and sinful than otherwise it would be. And these two indeed have a mutual influence upon one another, loosing reins to sin more freely, for it unquestionably disturbs the soul's peace, and procures it much bitterness. And again, the quitting hold of the promise of grace in Christ Jesus, and the indulging our own sad and sullen apprehensions, cannot but in the issue disable the soul from the duties of love, and expose it unto the violence of every temptation. As these two do mutually strengthen one another, the faith of Jesus Christ, and the lively apprehension of his grace and goodness, so they are the most noble and effectual persuasives to live unto him, and to walk in love. Besides, faith is the mean and way which God hath appointed to convoy his influence unto the soul; and then again, love carrying itself actively in duties to God and men, bestirring itself for God and those who are beloved of God, it brings in a supply to faith, and returns by a straight compass to the spring from whence it first issued, and increases it still more. Believing on the name of the Son sends forth the stream of holy affection to him, and all begotten of the Father, and this returns again by the circuit of obedience to his commands and submission to his easy yoke, to unbosom itself in the fountain from whence it first issued; and whereas faith was at first one simple soul adherence to a Saviour, and a hearty embracing of him, this accession of the fruits of it exalts it unto that height of assurance, and gives that evidence which it wanted; and faith being thus strengthened, and rooted, and built up to the top of assurance of God's grace, love, and salvation, it becomes more able to bear the yoke of his commands, which are not grievous. The spring of believing, thus swelled by the concurrence of so many streams, it breaks forth the more, and sends out more love and delight in God, and more charity, compassion, and meekness towards men. And this is the circle and round Christianity runs, until that day come that the head-spring of faith shall be obscured and shrivelled up in the great sea of the love of God, which shall overflow all the saints' graces in due time, when we shall see God face to face.
This is a true Christian, which this apostle so beloved of God describes. Here is one under a commandment, and not above it, as some fondly conceive. He is a keeper of his commands, and a doer of these things which are pleasant in God's sight. This is no legal notion, if it be right taken.
It is not the bondage of the creature to be under the command of God, truly it is the beauty and liberty of a reasonable soul. Some speak of all subjection unto a law as slavery, but is it not an infinitely greater slavery to be at liberty to sin, and serve our own lusts? O wretched and base liberty! the Son indeed makes us truly free, and that from sin; and he is truly a Redeemer who redeems us from all iniquity, John viii.32; Psal. cxxx. ult.; Tit. ii.14.
But this commandment here spoken of, would not indeed be gospel, unless there was a prior command, a brighter precept, given by the Father to the Son. I find two commands given by the Father, and received by the Son, which two you may conjoin and make one of, as here faith and love are made one commandment. The first is, John x.18, "I lay down my life of myself, no man taketh it from me. This commandment have I received from my Father, and no other." John xii.49, 50, "The Father gave me a commandment, what I should say and speak, and I know that his commandment is life everlasting." This is more expressly and clearly set down, John vi.39, 40, "This is the Father's will that sent me, that of all that he gave me I should lose none, but raise them up at the last day. This is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, should have everlasting life." Here, then, beloved in the Lord, is the foundation of our hope, and that which makes all commandments given by God to us to come under a gospel notion, that which makes Christ's yoke easy, and his burden light, and his commands not grievous. The great commandment was imposed upon our Saviour. The great weight of that wrath due to our sins was put upon his shoulders. This was the Father's will, that he should lay down his life for his sheep; this command he received willingly, and obeyed faithfully and fully. And by his obedience to this, that great obligation to satisfy God's justice, and pay a ransom for our souls is taken off us; inasmuch as he died, justice cannot come and demand it at our hand. Now, therefore, there is another commandment given to Christ, which directly concerns us, and it is this in substance: "I will and command that thou who hast come in the place of sinners, and resolvest to die for them, that thou give eternal life to whom thou wilt, even to as many as believe in thy name; I give to thee the absolute disposal of life and death; I command thee to preach life everlasting to all pious souls, that shall flee unto thee upon the apprehension of the danger of death, and that thou bestow that life upon them, and raise them up at the last day to be partakers of it." This is the commission the Father gave to the Son, a sweet commission for poor sinners, and the charter of our salvation. And for this errand he was anointed with the Holy Spirit, and sent into the world; nay, the commission extends further than grace, even to eternal glory also. Christ has received commandment of the Father, to give repentance and remission of sin, both to give faith, and love, and all other graces, else it were defective. Thus Christ comes instructed to the world. He lays open his commission in preaching the gospel. He obeys the first commandment in his own person, by offering up himself upon the cross a sacrifice for sins, and he is about the fulfilling the next commandment, that is, the giving life to them that believe: and that he may accomplish it, having ascended himself unto heaven to intercede for us, he also sent his ambassadors into the world, to whom he hath committed the word of reconciliation, and he gives them commission to publish and proclaim this commandment in his own name. This is his command, that ye "believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ." And this we do proclaim in his name, since he has gotten a commandment to give life everlasting to believers. This, then, is his charge to you, to come and receive it from him. Come and embrace him, and ye shall have life and all in him. This is the hardest and heaviest burden he imposes upon you, the weight of your life and salvation he hath taken upon himself. But O! now come and lay hold on him, who is thus offered unto you. Know that you are lost and undone in yourselves, consider the impossibilities you lie under to escape his wrath. Behold the anger of God hanging over your head, ready to be revealed in flaming fire, and a tempestuous cloud of eternal misery. Will ye consider that ye are born heirs of wrath? Your natural inheritance is in the lake of fire; and whatsoever your endowments by nature, or your privileges by birth be, nothing shall exeem you from this. Shall not then this Saviour be welcome to you? For truly faith is but a cordial salutation and embracement of our blessed Redeemer. The soul brings him into the house, and makes him welcome, and he is standing ready to come in to your heart, and to bring in salvation with him.
Now whatever soul hath obeyed this commandment by belief of the truth, and receiving of Christ into the heart, there is but one commandment behind, and it is not grievous, viz., love me, and love one another; love me, and live unto me. This is an easy yoke; and there is good reason for it, though it had never been required to love him, and live to him, who loved not his life unto the death for us. There is mention made only of brotherly love here, but certainly the other love to God flowing from the sense of his love, is the right wing of the soul, and brotherly love the left; and by these the pious soul mounts up to heaven with the wings of an eagle. The love of our brother is but the fruit and consequent of this love, but it is set down as a probation, and clear evidence of the love of God in our souls.
Love is commanded as the very sum and substance of the whole law, as the fountain of all other duties. Things are compacted in their causes, and lie hid within the virtue of them. Truly this is the way to persuade and constrain you to all the duties of godliness and righteousness, of piety towards God, and charity towards men, -- if once we could fasten this chain of affection upon your hearts, and engage your souls by love to God and man. We cannot but beat the air, while we seek to persuade you to the serious practice of religious duties, of prayer in secret and in your families, of reading and meditation upon the word, of sanctifying the Sabbath, of dealing justly and moderately with all men, of sobriety and temperance in your conversation, of denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, of walking humbly with God and towards men, of restraining and subduing your inordinate lusts and passions; I say, it is almost in vain to press these things upon you, or expect them from you, till once the Spirit of power and love enter into your hearts; and indeed the spirit of love is a powerful spirit, the love of God possessing the heart within, cannot but conform all within and without to his love and good pleasure. Love only can do these things which are pleasant in his sight, for it doth them pleasantly, heartily, and cheerfully; and God loves a cheerful giver, a cheerful worshipper. Brotherly love is rather expressed, because little or not at all studied by the most part. Other duties to God, if men come not up in practice to them, yet they approve them in their soul and mind. But there is scarce a notion of the obligation of charity and love towards our brethren, yea, not so much as in the minds of Christians, let be in their practice. It is the special command which Christ left to his disciples when he was going away, John xiii.35. But, alas! we have forgotten it, it is so long since.