It is the great qualification of a disciple, or hearer, to be attentive and docile, to be capable of teaching, and to apply the mind seriously to it. It is much to get the ear of a man. If his ear be gotten, his mind is the more easily gained. Therefore, those who professed eloquence, and studied to persuade men to any thing, used in the entry to fall upon some thing that might stir up the attention of their hearers, or make them the more inclinable to receive instruction, or catch their favour or good-will, which is of great moment to persuasion, for it is sometimes fit to open the passages of the heart by such means, that there may be the more easy entry for instruction and persuasion. Truly there is something of this art runs here in a divine channel; as indeed all these rules of human wisdom attain their perfection, when they meet with a divine Spirit, that elevates them to a more transcendent use. Happy was that eloquence of Paul's, and something like the sweet inspiration of angels, by which they prevail with the spirits of men. "Nevertheless, being crafty, (saith he,) I caught you with guile," 2 Cor. xii.16. These were piae fraudes,(222) whereby he used to catch poor souls out of the pit, and pluck them out of the fire; and he that said, "I will make you fishers of men," taught them to use some holy deceit, to present some things for the allurement of souls, and so to surround and enclose them with most weighty and convincing reasons. This beloved apostle, who leaned upon Christ's bosom, and was likely to learn the very secrets of the art of fishing souls, you see how he goeth about the business. He useth an holy art in this preface. Being about to give a recapitulation of the whole gospel, and to make a short summary of the doctrine of it, for the more effectual establishment and confirmation of souls already converted, and for the powerful persuasion of others to embrace it, he useth all the skill that can be in the entry, to dispose men's hearts to receive it. Like a wise orator, he labours to make them allentos, dociles, et benevolos, to stir up their attention, to conciliate their affection, and so to make them docile and easily teachable. He stirs up attention, when he shows that he is not to speak about trifling, light matters, or low things, or things that do not concern them, but concerning the greatest, most concerning, and important things to them, even the Word of life, in which all their life was wrapt up, which, though it was ancient in itself, yet withal it was a new thing to the world, and so for all respects deserved to be taken serious notice of. Then he conciliates their benevolence and good will, by showing his own good affection towards them, and his great design in it, that it was only for their good and salvation; that he had nothing else before him, but to have them partakers with himself, in that same happiness. He had found a jewel, and he hides it not, but proclaims it, that all men may have fellowship with him, and that is, with God, and that cannot but bring in full joy to the heart. Now a soul being made thus attentive, and willing to hear, it is the best disposition that makes them most capable of being taught. If those two stays were come over, -- the careless regard that is in men's hearts towards the gospel, and the suspicious thoughts and prejudices against the ambassadors of it, -- then what would hinder to believe it? The great miseries of men are, inconsideration and misapprehension. Either men are so noised with other things continually buzzing in their ears, and their hearts so possessed with the clamours of their lusts, and the cries of the things of this world, that they have no leisure so much as to hearken patiently to this blessed sound, or to apprehend seriously what weight and moment lies in it, and so the most part of men cannot give that earnest and deep attention that is necessarily required for this divine teaching, or else there are many mistakes and misconceptions of the gospel, which sometimes arise to that height of reasoning against God and prejudices against them that carry this message, which usually are joined together, (and these stop the ears of men against the wisest and most powerful enchantment of preaching,) that it gains not much ground on them. O! that ye would once listen to the gospel. Hearken and incline your ears unto me, is the Lord's first great request, and if once you do but seriously apply your minds and hearts to see what is held out unto you, and to prove what good is in it certainly these sure and everlasting mercies will mercifully and sweetly catch you with guile, and deceive you (if I may say so) to your eternal advantage. Wisdom, the Father's wisdom, begs but an equal hearing of you. Let her have but a patient hearing, and a silent impartial judgment of the heart, and she will carry it off from all that suit(223) you. It is lamentable that the voice of God should be out cried by men's continual uninterrupted flood of business, that fills the heart with a continual noise, and keeps men in such a constant hurry and distemper that they can give time and patience to nothing else. And this is only the advantage the world and the lusts of it have, for if they come once under a sober and serious examination, and the other party, that is, Jesus Christ and the word of life, might have the liberty to be heard in the inward retired thoughts of the heart, it would soon be found how unequal they are, and that all their efficacy consists in our ignorance, and their strength in our weakness. Certainly Christ would carry it, to the conviction of all that is in the soul. I beseech you let us give him this attention.
He that answers a tale before he hears it, it is a folly and weakness to him. A folly certainly it is to give this gospel a repulse before ye hear it. It promiseth life and immortality, which nothing else doth. And you entertain other things upon lower promises and expectations, even after frequent experiences of their deceitfulness. What a madness then is it to hear this promise of life in Christ so often beaten upon you, and yet never so much as to put him to the proof of it, and to put him off continually who knocks at your hearts, before you will consider attentively, who it is that thus importunes you! O my beloved, that you would hear him to Amen. Let him speak freely to your hearts, and commune with them in the night on your beds, in your greatest retirement from other things, that you may not be disturbed by the noise of your lusts and business, and I persuade myself, you who have now least mind of this life, and joy in God, should find it, and find it in him. But to cut off all convictions and persuasions at first, and to set such a guard at your minds to provide that nothing of that kind come in, or else that it be cast out as an enemy, this is unequal, ignorant, and unreasonable dealing, which you alone will repent of, it may be too late, when past remedy.
He propounds that which he is to speak in the fittest way, for the commendation of it to their hearts, and oh! how vast a difference betwixt this, and the ordinary subject of men's discourses. Our ears are filled continually with reports, and it is the usual way of men to delight to hear, and to report even those things that are not so delightful in themselves. And truly there are not many occurrences in the world (suppose you had a diurnal of affairs of all men every week) that can give any solid refreshment to the heart, except in the holy meditation of the vanity, vexation, and inconstancy that God hath subjected all those things unto. But it is sad that Christians, who have so noble and divine, so pleasant and profitable things to speak upon one to another, are notwithstanding as much subject to that Athenian disease, to be itching after new things continually, and to spend our time this way, to report, and to hear news. And, alas! what are those things that are tossed up and down continually, but the follies, weaknesses, impotencies and wickedness, ambition and avarice of men, the iniquity and impiety of the world that lies in wickedness? And is there any thing in this, either pleasant or profitable, that we should delight to entertain our own thoughts, and others' ears with them? But the subject that is here entreated of, is of another nature. Nothing in itself so excellent, nothing to us so convenient. That which was from the beginning, of the Word of life, we declare unto you. O how pleasant and sweet a voice is that which sounds from heaven, be those confused noises(224) are, that arise from the earth! This is a message that is come from heaven, with him that came down from it. And indeed that is the airth(225) from whence good news hath come. Since the first curse was pronounced upon the earth, the earth hath brought forth nothing but thorns and briars of contention, strife, sorrow, and vexation. Only from above hath this message been sent to renew the world again, and recreate it, as it were. There are four properties by which this infinitely surpasses all other things that can be told you. For itself it is most excellent; for its endurance it is most ancient, and to us it is most profitable, and both in itself, and to us, it is most certain, and by these the apostle labours to prepare their hearts to serious attention.
For the excellency of the subject that he is to declare, -- it is incomparable, for it is no less than that Jewel that is hid in the mine of the scriptures, which he, as it were, digs up, and shows and offers unto them, -- that Jewel (I say) which when a man hath found, he may sell all to buy it, -- that Jewel, more precious than the most precious desires and delights of men, even Jesus Christ, the substantial Word of life, who is the substance of all the shadows of the Old Testament, the end of that ministry, the accomplishment of the promises, and the very life of all religion, without which there is nothing more vain and empty. It is true, the gospel is the word of life, and holds out salvation to poor sinners, but yet it is Christ that is the life of that word, not only as touching the efficacy and power of it, but as touching the efficacy of it, for the gospel is a word of life only, because it speaks of him who is the life and the light of men. It is but a report of the true life, as John said, "I am not that light, but am sent to bear witness of that light," John i.8. So the gospel, though it be called "the power of God to salvation," (Rom. i.16.) and "the savour of life," and "the gospel of salvation," (Eph. i.13.) yet it is not that true life, but only a testimony and declaration of it. It hath not life and immortality in itself, but only the bringing of those to light, and to the knowledge of men, 2 Tim. i.10. It is a discovery where these treasures are lying, for the searching and finding.
To speak of this Word of life, Jesus Christ, according to his eternal subsistence in the infinite understanding of the Father, would certainly require a divine spirit, more elevated above the ordinary sphere of men, and separate from that earthliness and impurity that makes us incapable of seeing that holy and pure Majesty. Angels were but low messengers for this. For how can they express to us what they cannot conceive themselves, and therefore wonder at the mystery of it? I confess, the best way of speaking of these things, which so infinitely surpass created capacities, were to sit down in silence, and wonder at them, and withal to taste such a sweetness, in the immense greatness and infinite mysteriousness of what we believe, as might ravish the soul more, after that which is unknown, than all the perfections of the world known and seen to the bottom can do. This doctrine of the holy Trinity hath been propagated from the beginning of the world, even among the heathens, and derived by tradition from the first fathers, or the Hebrews, to neighbour nations; and therefore they speak many divine things of that infinite, supreme Being, who is the foundation of the whole creation, and that he created all things by his most divine Word, and that his blessed Spirit is the union and bond of both, and of all things besides. It is known what mysteries the Pythagoreans(226) apprehended in the number of three, what perfection they imagined to be in it, so much was let out, as might either make them without excuse, or prepare the world to receive readily the light, when it should be clearly revealed. It is commonly held forth, that this eternal Word is the birth of the infinite understanding of God, reflecting upon his own most absolute and perfect Being, which is illustrated by some poor comparison to us creatures, who form in our minds in the understanding of any thing, an inward word or image of the object some representation and similitude of that we understand. And this is more perfect than any external vocal expression can be. So we have a weak and finite conception of the acting of that infinite wisdom of God, by which he knows himself, that there results, as it were, upon it, the perfect substantial image, and the express character of the divine essence, and therefore is the Son of God called "the Word" which was with God, and "the Wisdom" of the Father, because he is, as it were, the very birth of his understanding and not only the image of his own essence but the idea, in which he conceived, and by which he created the visible world. Then we use to conceive the Holy Ghost as the production of his blessed will, whereby he loves, delights and hath complacency in his own all sufficient, all blessed Being, which he himself alone perfectly comprehends, by his infinite understanding, and therefore called, "the Spirit," a word borrowed from resemblance to poor creatures, who have many impulses, and inclinations to several things, and are carried to motion and action, rather from that part which is invisible in them, the subtilest part, therefore called spirits. So the Lord applies his almighty power, and exerciseth his infinite wisdom according to the pleasure and determination of his will, for that seems to be the immediate principle of working. Therefore there is mention made of the Spirit, in the creation of the world. He sent out his Spirit, and they were created, Psal. civ.30. These are the weak and low attempts of men to reach the height of that unsearchable mystery. Such conjectures we have of this word of God, and his eternal generation, as if trees could take upon them to understand the nature of beasts, or as if beasts would presume to give an account of the spirit that acts in men. Certainly the distance is infinitely greater between God and us and he must needs behold greater vanity, folly, and darkness, in our clearest apprehensions of his majesty than we could find in the reasonings and conceptions of beasts about our nature. When our own conception in the womb is such a mystery, as made David to say, O how wonderfully am I made, and fearfully! he saw a curious art and wisdom in it that he could not understand, and he believed an infinite power he could not conceive, which surprised his soul with such unexpected matter of wonder, as made him fear and tremble at the thought of it, -- I say, when the generation of a poor creature hath so much depth of wisdom in it, how canst thou think to understand that everlasting wonder of angels, the birth and conception of that eternal wisdom of God? And if thou canst not understand from whence the wind comes, and whither it goes, or how thine own spirits beat in thy veins, what is the production of them, and what their motions, how can we then conceive the procession of the holy Ghost, "which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man to consider it?"