The greatest design that ever God had in the world, is certainly the sending of his own Son into the world. And it must needs be some great business, that drew so excellent and glorious a person out of heaven. The plot and contrivance of the world was a profound piece of wisdom and goodness, the making of men after God's image was done by a high and glorious counsel. "Let us make man after our image." There was something special in this expression, importing some peculiar excellency in the work itself, or some special depth of design about it. But what think you of this consultation, -- let one of us be made man, after man's image and likeness. That must be a strange piece of wisdom and grace. "Great is the mystery of godliness, God manifested in the flesh." No wonder though Paul cried out, as one swallowed up with this mystery, for indeed it must be some odd matter beyond all that is in the creation, wherein there are many mysteries, able to swallow up any understanding, but that in which they were first formed. This must be the chief of the works of God, the rarest piece of them all -- God to become man, the Creator of all to come in the likeness of a creature, -- he by whom all things were created, and do yet consist to come in the likeness of the most wretched of all. Strange, that we do not dwell more, in our thoughts and affections, on this subject. Either we do not believe it or if we did, we could not but be ravished with admiration at it. John, the beloved disciple who was often nearest unto Christ, dwelt most upon this, and made it the subject of his preaching, "that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, and seen, and handled, &c." 1 John i.1. He speaks of that mystery, as if he were embracing Jesus Christ in his arms, and holding him out to others, saying "Come and see." This divine mystery is the subject of these words read, but the mystery is somewhat unfolded and opened up to you in them, yet so as it will not diminish, but increase the wonder of a believing soul. It is ignorance that magnifies other mysteries, which vilifies thorough knowledge; but it is the true knowledge of this mystery that makes it the more wonderful, whereas ignorance only makes it common and despicable.
There are three things then, of special consideration in the words, which may declare and open unto you something of this mystery.
First, What was the ground and reason, or occasion of the Son's sending into the world; next, What the Son, being sent, did in the world; and the third, For what end and use it was, -- what fruit we have by it.
The ground and reason of God sending his Son, is because there was an impossibility in the law to save man, which impossibility was not the law's fault, but man's defect, by reason of the weakness and impotency of our flesh to fulfil the law. Now, God having chosen some to life, and man having put this obstruction and impediment in his own way, which made it impossible for the law to give him life, though it was first given out as the way of life; therefore, that God should not fail in this glorious design of saving his chosen, he chose to send his own Son, in the likeness of flesh, as the only remedy of the law's impossibility. That which Christ, being sent into the likeness of flesh did, is the condemning of sin in the flesh, by a sacrifice offered for sin, -- even the sacrifice of his own body upon the cross. He came in the likeness not of the flesh simply, for he was really a man; but in the likeness of sinful flesh, -- though without sin, yet like a sinner, -- as to the outward appearance, a sinner, because subject to all those infirmities and miseries which sin did first open a door for. Sin was the inlet of afflictions, of bodily infirmities and necessities, of death itself; and when the floods of these did overflow Christ's human nature, it was a great presumption to the world, who look and judge according to the outward appearance, that sin was the sluice opened to let in such an inundation of calamity. Now, he being thus in the likeness of a sinner, though not a sinner, -- he, for sin, that is, because of sin, that had entered upon man, and made life impossible to him by the law; by occasion of that great enemy of God which had conquered mankind, he condemned sin in his flesh, he overthrew it in its plea and power against us. He condemned that which condemned us, overcame it in judgment, and made us free. By sustaining the curse of it in his flesh, he cut off all its plea against us. This is the great work and business, which was worthy of so noble a messenger, his own Son, sent to conquer his greatest enemy that he hates most. And then, in the third place, you see what benefit or fruit redounds to us by it; what was the end and purpose of it, -- verse 4, "that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us;" that seeing it was impossible for us to fulfil the righteousness of the law, and that so it became impossible to the law to fulfil our reward of life, it might be fulfilled by him in our name; and so the righteousness of the law being fulfilled in us by Christ, the reward also of eternal life might be fulfilled by the law to us, -- he having removed the impediment of our weakness, it might be not only possible, but certain to us.
You would consider then the reason of Christ's coming. God made at first a covenant with man, promising him life upon perfect obedience to his law; and threatening death and damnation upon the transgression thereof. You see then, what was the way of life to Adam in the state of innocency. He was made able to satisfy the law with obedience, and the law was abundantly able to satisfy him, by giving life unto him. God's image upon man's soul instructed him sufficiently for the one and the Lord's promise made to him was as sufficient to accomplish the other; so that there was no impossibility then in the law, by reason of the strength which God gave man. But it continued not long so. Sin entering upon man, utterly disabled him; and because the strength of that covenant consisted in that mutual and joint concurrence of God's promise and man's obedience -- this being broken, (the one party falling off,) that life and salvation becomes impossible to the promise alone to perform. It is sin that is the weakness and impotency of man. This is the disease which hath consumed his strength, and concluded man under a twofold impossibility, an impossibility to satisfy the curse, and an impossibility to obey the command. There are three things in the covenant of works, -- a command of obedience, and a threatening of wrath and condemnation upon disobedience, and a promise of life upon obedience. Sin hath disabled us every way. In relation to the curse and threatening, man cannot satisfy it -- no price, no ransom being found sufficient for the soul for the redemption of it is precious, and ceaseth for ever. That curse hath infinite wrath in it, which must needs swallow up finite man. And then in relation to the command, there is such a diminution of all the powers of the soul, such a corruption and defilement, by reason of the first sin, that that wherein man's strength lay, which was God's image, is cut off and spoiled, so that henceforth it is become impossible to yield any acceptable obedience to the commandment. And hence it is, from our impossibility to obey in time to come, that there is a holy and faultless impossibility upon the promise, to give life unto mankind. So you see that the law cannot do it, because of our weakness. If either man, while he was made upright, had continued in obedience, or man now fallen from uprightness, could satisfy for the fault done, and walk without any blemish in time coming, then it were feasible for the law to give life to us. But the one was not done, and the other now cannot be done, and so the impossibility of life by works, is refounded upon ourselves, who would not when we could, and now neither will nor can obey. Thus we may see clearly, that all mankind must needs perish, for any thing that man can do, and according to that first transaction of God with man, unless some other way and device be found out, which indeed was far from the eyes of all living, -- without the reach of their invention or imagination. I believe if all the creatures, higher or lower, that have any reason, had convened to consult of this business, how to repair that breach made in the creation by man's sin, they might have vexed their brains, and racked their inventions unto all eternity, and yet never have fallen upon any probable way of making up this breach. They might have taken up a lamentation, not as the bemoaners of Babylon's ruin, -- "we would have healed thee, and thou wouldst not," -- but rather thus, -- we would heal thee, but we could not, and thou wouldst not. This design, which is here mentioned of repairing the breach, by destroying that which made it, sin, lay hid in the depth of God's wisdom, till it pleased himself to vent and publish it unto poor, forlorn, and desperate man, who, out of despair of recovery, had run away to hide himself. A poor shift indeed, for him to think that he could hide himself from him to whom darkness is as light, and to flee from him whose kingdom is over all, and who is present in all the corners of his universal kingdom, -- in hell, in heaven, in the utmost corners of the earth. But this silly invention shows how hopeless the case was.
Though this be the case and condition of man by nature, yet strange it is, to see every man by nature attempting his own delivery, and fancying a probability, yea, a certainty of that which is so impossible, that is an attaining of life by ourselves, according to the law and first covenant of works. Though our strength be gone, yet, like Samson, men rise up and think to walk and rouse up themselves as in former times, as if their strength were yet in them, and many never perceive that it is gone, till they be laid hold on by Satan according to the law's injunction, and bound in the chains of everlasting darkness. But then, alas! it is too late, for they cannot save themselves, and the season of a Saviour is gone. And this, no doubt, will be the accession of the bitterness and torment that damned souls shall be into, -- that they dreamed of attaining life by a law that now is nothing but a ministration of death, -- that they lost life by seeking their own righteousness, and made the law more able to condemn them, by their apprehending in themselves an ability to satisfy it, and by resting in a form of obedience to it. There is something natural in it. Adam and all his posterity were once to be saved this way, -- so the terms run at first, "do this and live." No wonder that something of that impression be retained; but that which was a virtue in Adam, while he retained integrity, and fulfilled his duty, is a mighty fault, and presumptuous madness in us, who have fallen from that blessed estate. If man, doing his duty, expected a reward, according to the promise, it was commendable, but for man, now rebellious and stubborn, and come short of the glory of God, to look for a reward from God, against whom he warneth continually, and that for rebellion and enmity, it is damnable. But besides this, I think this principle of self righteousness is much corrupted in man now, by what it was in Adam. I conceive, though Adam looked for life upon obedience, according to the promise, yet he rested not on, and trusted not in, his obedience. I believe, a holy and righteous man would be a humble man too, and would rather glory in God's grace than in his own works. The sense of a free and undeserved promise would not suffer him to reflect so much upon his own obedience, or put such a price upon it. But now, it is conjoined with unmeasurable pride, and arises only from self-love. There is no ground of men's looking to be saved by their own doings, but the inbred pride and self love of the heart, together with the ignorance of a better righteousness. Adam hid himself among the trees, and covered his nakedness with leaves, and truly the shift of the most part is no better. How vain and empty things do men trust unto, and from them conclude an expectation of eternal life! The most part think to be safe in the midst or thick of the trees of the church. If they be in the throng of a visible church, and adorned with church privileges, as baptism, hearing the word, and such like, they do persuade themselves all will be well. Some have civility, and a blameless conversation before men, and with such acts of righteousness, or rather wants of some gross outbreakings, do many cover their nakedness. If there be yet a larger and finer garment of profession of religion, and some outward performances of service to God, and duties to men, O then, men do enforce upon their own hearts the persuasion of heaven, and think their nakedness cannot be seen through it! These are the coverings, these are the grounds of claim and title, that men have to eternal life, and in the meantime they are ignorant of that large glorious robe of righteousness, which Christ, by his obedience and sufferings, did weave for naked sinners.
But as the impossibility of the law's saving us, by reason of the weakness of the flesh, was the ground and occasion of Christ's coming into the flesh for to supply that defect, and take away that impossibility, so the sense and sight of this impossibility in us to satisfy and fulfill the law, and of the law to give life, is the very ground and reason of a soul's coming to Jesus Christ for the supplying of this want. As the Son should not have come in the likeness of sinful flesh, unless it had been otherwise impossible, by man's doing or suffering, that life should be obtained, so will not a soul come to Christ, the Son of God, through the vail of his flesh, until it discern and feel that it is otherwise impossible to satisfy the law or attain life. That was the impulsive cause (if we may say that there was any cause beside his love) why Christ came, -- even man's misery, and remediless misery. And this is the strong motive and impulsive, that drives a poor sinner unto Jesus Christ, -- the sense and impression of his desperate and lost estate without him. As there was first sin, and then a Saviour dying for sin, because nothing else could suffice, so there must be in the soul, first, the apprehension of sin, and that remediless sin, sin incurable by any created power or act, and then a sight of a Saviour coming to destroy sin and the works of the devil, and destroying it by dying for it. There is no employment for this Physician upon every slight apprehension of a wound or sickness, till it be found incurable, and help sought elsewhere be seen to be in vain. Indeed, upon the least apprehension of sin and misery, men ought to come to Christ. We shall not set or prescribe any measure of conviction to exclude you, if you can but come to him indeed. Upon the least measure of it, you will not be cast out, according to his own word, but as certain it is, that men will not come to this Physician till they find no other can save them. These two things I wish were deeply and seriously thought upon, -- that you cannot satisfy God's justice for the least point of guilt, and then, that you cannot do any thing in obedience to please God. There is a strange inconsideration, yea, I may say, ignorance among us. When you are challenged and convinced of sin, (as there is no conscience so benumbed, but in some measure it accuseth every man of many wrongs,) what is the course you fall on to pacify it or please God? Indeed, if you can get any shadow of repentance, if it were but a bare acknowledgment of the fault, you excuse yourselves in your own consciences, and answer the accusation by it. Either some other good works formerly done occur to you, or some resolution for amendment in time coming. And this you think shall pacify God and satisfy justice. But, alas! you are far from the righteousness of God, and you do err even in the very foundation of religion. These are but sparks of your own kindling, and for all these, you shall lie down in darkness and sorrow. These are but the vain expiations and excuses of natural consciences, which are led to some sense of a deity by the law written in their heart. But consider this once, -- you must first satisfy the curse of the law which you are under, before you can be in any capacity to please him by new obedience. Now, if you should undertake to pay for your former breaches of the law, that will eternally ruin you; and therefore, you see the punishment is lengthened throughout eternity to them who have this to undergo alone. Go then, and first suffer the eternal wrath of an infinite God, and then come and offer obedience if thou can. But now, thou art in a double error, both of which are damnable; one is, thou thinkest thou art able, by consideration and resolution, to perform some acceptable obedience to God; another, that performance of obedience, and amending in time coming, will expiate former transgressions. If either of these were true, Christ needed not to have come in the likeness of sinful flesh, because it had been possible for the law to save thee. But now, the truth is, such is the utter disability and impotency of man through sin, that he can neither will, nor do the least good, truly good and pleasant to God. His nature and person being defiled, all he doth is unclean. And then, suppose it were possible that man could do any thing in obedience to his commands, yet it being unquestionable that all have sinned, satisfaction must first be made to God's threatening, "thou shalt die," before obedience be acceptable, and that is impossible too. This, then, I leave upon your consciences, beseeching you to lay to heart the impossibility you are encompassed with on both hands; justice requiring a ransom, and you have none, and justice requiring new obedience again, and you can give none; old debts urging you, and new duty pressing you, and ye alike disabled for both; that so finding yourselves thus environed with indigency and impossibility within, you may be constrained to flee out of yourselves unto him that is both able and willing. This is not a superficial business, as you make it. It is not a matter of fancy, or memory, or expression, as most make it. Believe me, it is a serious business, a soul-work, such an exercise of spirit as useth to be when the soul is between despair and hope. Impossibility within, driving a soul out of itself, and possibility, yea, certainty of help without, even in Christ, drawing a soul in to him. Thus is the closure made, which is the foundation of our happiness.