For what purpose do we meet thus together? I would we knew it, -- then it might be to some better purpose. In all other things we are rational, and do nothing of moment without some end and purpose. But, alas! in this matter of greatest moment, our going about divine ordinances, we have scarce any distinct or deliberate thought of the end and rise of them. Sure I am, we must all confess this, that all other businesses in our life are almost impertinent to the great end, the salvation of our souls, in respect of these, in which God in a manner trysts with men, and comes to dwell with them. These have the nearest and most immediate connection with God's glory and our happiness; and yet so wretched and unhappy are we, that we study and endeavour a kind of wisdom and diligence in other petty things, which are to perish with the using, and have no great reach to make our condition either better or worse; and yet we have no wisdom, nor consideration, or attention to this great and momentous matter -- the salvation of our souls. Is it not high time we were shaken out of our empty, vain, and unreasonable custom, in going about such solemn duties, when the wrath of God is already kindled, and his mighty arm is shaking terribly the earth, and shaking us out of all our nests of quietness and consolation, which we did build in the creature? God calls for a reasonable service: but I must say, the service of the most is an unreasonable and brutish kind of work, -- little or no consideration of what we are about, little or no purpose or aim at any real soul advantage. Consider, my beloved, what you are doing, undoing yourselves with ignorance of your own estate, and unacquaintedness with a better; whence it comes, that you live contented in your misery, and have no lively stirrings after this blessed remedy. That for which we meet together is to learn these two things, and always to be learning them, -- to know sensibly our own wretched misery and that blessed remedy which God hath provided. It is the sum of the Scriptures, and we desire daily to lay it out before you, if at length it may please the Lord to awake you out of your dream, and give you the light of his salvation.
You hear of a weakness of the flesh; but if you would understand it aright, it is not properly and simply a weakness. That supposeth always some life, and some strength remaining. It is not like an infirmity, that only indisposeth to wonted action in the wonted vigour; but it is such a weakness, as the apostle elsewhere, (Eph. ii.1,) calls deadness. It is such a weakness, as may be called wickedness, yea, enmity to God, as it is here. Our souls are not diseased properly, for that supposeth there is some remnant of spiritual life, but they are dead in sins and trespasses. And so it is not infirmity but impossibility, -- such a weakness as makes life and salvation impossible by us, both utter unwillingness and extreme inability. These two concur in all mankind, no strength to satisfy justice or obey the law, and no willingness either. There is a general practical mistake in this. Men conceive that their natures are weak to good, but few apprehend the wickedness and enmity that is in them to God and all goodness. All will grant some defect and inability, and it is a general complaint. But to consider that this inability is an impossibility, that this defect is a destruction of all spiritual good in us, -- the saving knowledge of this is given to few, and to those only whose eyes the Spirit opens. There may be some strugglings and wrestlings of natural spirits to help themselves, and upon the apprehension of their own weakness, to raise up themselves by serious consideration, and earnest diligence, to some pitch of serving God, and to some hope of heaven. But I do suspect that it proceeds in many from the want of this thorough and deep conviction of desperate wickedness. Few really believe that testimony which God hath given of man, -- he is not only weak, but wicked, and not only so, but desperately wicked. And that is not all, the heart is deceitful, too, and to complete the account, "deceitful above all things," Jer. xvii.9. A strange character of man, given by him that formed the spirit of man within, and made it once upright, and so knows best how far it hath departed from the first pattern. O who of us believes this in our hearts! But that is the deceitfulness of our hearts to cover our desperate wickedness from our own discerning, and flatter ourselves with self-pleasing thoughts. If once this testimony were received, that the weakness of the flesh is a desperate wickedness, such a wretched and accursed condition as there is no hope therein, as is incurable to any created power, and makes us incurable, and certainly lost, -- then, I say, the deceitfulness of the heart were in some measure cured. Believe this desperate wickedness of your natures, and then you have deceived the deceitfulness of your hearts to your own advantage; then you have known that which none can know aright, till the searcher of the heart and reins reveal it unto them.
Thus man stands environed with impossibilities. His own weakness and wickedness, and the law's impossibility by reason of that, -- these do shut up all access to the tree of life, and are instead of a flaming sword to guard it. Our legs are cut off by sin, and the law cannot help us; nay, our life is put out, and the law cannot quicken us. It declares our duty, but gives no ability; it teacheth well, but it cannot make us learn, While we are in this posture, God himself steps in to succour miserable and undone man; and here is the way, -- he sends his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and grace and truth come by him, which do remove those impediments that stopped all access to life.
This is a high subject, but it concerns the lowest and most wretched amongst us; and that is indeed the wonder of it, that there should be such a mystery, such a depth in this work of redemption of poor sinners, so much business made, and such strange things done for repairing our ruins. In the consideration of this we may borrow that meditation of the Psalmist's, Psal. viii.4, "Lord, what is man, that thou shouldest thus magnify him; and make him not a little lower than the angels, but far higher?" "For he took not on him the nature of angels," Heb. ii.14, 16; but took part with the poor children of flesh and blood. This deserves a pause, -- we shall stay a little, and view it more fully in the steps and degrees that this mystery rises and ascends up by. But, oh! for such an ascending frame of heart as this deserves. It is a wonder it doth not draw us upward beyond our own element, -- it is a subject of such admiration in itself, and so much concernment to us.
Every word hath a weight in it, and a peculiar emphasis. There is a gradation that the mystery goes upon till it come to the top. Every word hath a degree or stop in it, whereby it rises high, and still higher. "God sent," -- that is very strange; but God sent "his own Son," -- is most strange. But go on, and it is still stranger, -- in the likeness of "flesh," and that "sinful flesh," &c. In all which degrees you see God is descending and lower and lower, but the mystery ascends and goes higher and higher; the lower God coming comes down, the wonder rises up. Still the smaller and meaner that God appears in the flesh, the greater is the mystery of godliness, God manifested in the flesh.
If you would rise up to the sensible and profitable understanding of this mystery, you must first descend into the depths of your own natural wretchedness and misery, in which man was lying when it pleased God to come so low to meet him and help him. I say you must first go down that way in the consideration of it, and then you shall ascend to the use and knowledge of this mystery of godliness.
God's sending, hath some weight of wonder in it, at the very first apprehension of it. If you did but know who he is, and what we are, a wonder it had been that he had suffered himself to be sent unto by us, that any message, any correspondence should pass between heaven and earth, after so foul a breach of peace and covenant by man on earth. Strange, that heaven was not shut up from all intercourse with that accursed earth. If God had sent out an angel to destroy man, as he sent to destroy Jerusalem, (1 Chron. xxi.15,) -- if he had sent out his armies to kill those his enemies, who had renounced the yoke of his obedience, it had been justice, Matth. xxi.41; xxii.7. If he had sent a cruel messenger against man, who had now acted so horrid a rebellion, it had been no strange thing. As he did send an angel with a flaming sword to encompass the tree of life, he might have enlarged that angel's commission, to take vengeance on man: and this is the wonder, he did not send after this manner. But what heart could this enter into? Who could imagine such a thing as this? God to send, and to send for peace, to his rebellious footstool! Man could not have looked for acceptance before the throne, if he had presented and sent first up supplications and humble cries to heaven; and therefore finding himself miserable, you see he is at his wits end, he is desperate, and gives it over, and so flies away to hide himself, certainly expecting that the first message from heaven should be to arm all the creatures against him to destroy him. But, O what a wonderful, yet blessed surprisal! God himself comes down, and not for any such end as vengeance, though just, but to publish and hold forth a covenant of reconciliation and peace, to convince man of sin, and to comfort him with the glad tidings of a Redeemer, of one to be sent in the likeness of flesh. It is the grandeur and majesty of kings and great men to let others come to them with their petitions; and it is accounted a rare thing if they be accessible and affable: but that the Lord of lords and King of kings, who sitteth in the circle of the heavens, and before whom all the inhabitants of the earth are as poor grasshoppers, or crawling worms, about whose throne there are ten thousand times ten thousand glorious spirits ministering unto him, as Daniel saw him, (chap. vii.9, 10,) -- that such a one should not only admit such as we to come to him, and offer our suits to his Highness, but himself first to come down unto Adam, and offer peace to him, and then send his own Son! And what were we that he should make any motion about us, or make any mission to us? Rom. v.10. While we were yet "enemies," that we were when he sent. O how hath his love triumphed over his justice! But needed he fear our enmity, that he should seek peace? Nowise; one look of his angry countenance would have looked us into nothing, -- "Thou lookest upon me, and I am not; one rebuke of his for iniquity, would have made our beauty consume as the moth, far more the stroke of his hand had consumed us," Psalm xxxix.11. But that is the wonder indeed, -- while we were yet "enemies;" and weak too, neither able to help ourselves, nor hurt him in the least, and so could do nothing to allure him, nothing to terrify him, nothing to engage his love, nothing to make him fear; yet then he makes this motion, and mission to us, "God sending," &c.
God sending, and "sending his own Son," that is yet a step higher. Had he sent an angel, it had been wonderful, one of those ministering spirits about the throne being far more glorious than man. But "God so loved the world, that he sent his Son." Might he not have done it by others? But he had a higher project; and verily, there is more mystery in the end and manner of our redemption, than difficulty in the thing itself. No question, he might have enabled the creature, by his almighty power, to have destroyed the works of the devil, and might have delivered captive man some other way. He needed not, for any necessity lying upon him, to go such a round as the Father to give the Son, and the Son to receive, -- as God to send, and the Son to be sent. Nay, he might have spared all pains, and without any messenger, immediately pardoned man's sin, and adopted him to the place of sons. Thus he had done the business, without his Son's, or any other's travail and labour in blood and suffering. But this profound mystery, in the manner of it, declares the highness and excellency of the end God proposed, and that is the manifestation of his love; "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed on us," 1 John iii.1. And "in this was manifested the love of God toward us, that God sent his only begotten Son into the world," 1 John iv.9. And truly for such a design and purpose, all the world could not have contrived such a suitable and excellent mean as this. Nothing besides this could have declared such love. There is no expression of love imaginable to this, -- to give his Son, and only begotten Son for us. It had been enough, out of mere compassion, to have saved us, however it had been. But if he had given all, and done all besides this, he had not so manifested the infinite fulness of love. There is no gift so suitable to the greatness and magnificence of his majesty, as this, -- one that thought it no robbery to be equal with himself. Any gift had been infinitely above us, because from him; but this is not only infinitely above us, but equal to himself, and fittest to declare himself.
But then, there is yet a higher rise of the mystery, or a lower descent of God; for it is all one, God descending is the wonder ascending, -- he sent his Son. Man's admiration is already exhausted in that. But if there were any thing behind, this which follows would consume it, -- in the flesh. If he had sent his own Son, might he not have sent him in an estate and condition suitable to his glory, as it became the Prince and Heir of all things, him by whom all were created and do subsist? Nay, but he is sent, and that in a state of humiliation and condescendency, infinitely below his own dignity. That ever he was made a creature, that the Maker of all should be sent in the form of any thing he had made, O what a disparagement! There is no such distance between the highest prince on the throne, and the basest beggar on the dunghill, as between the only begotten of the Father, who is the brightness of his glory, and the most glorious angel that ever was made. And yet, it would be a wonder to the world, if a king should send his son in the habit and state of a beggar, to call in the poor, and lame, and blind, to the fellowship of his kingdom. It had been a great mystery, then, if God had been manifested in the nature of angels, a great abasement of his majesty. But, O what must it be for God to be manifested in the flesh, in the basest, naughtiest, and most corruptible of all the creatures, even the very dregs of the creation, that have sunk down to the bottom! "All flesh is grass;" and what more withering and fading, even the flower and perfection of it! Is. xl.6. Dust it is, and what baser? Gen. xviii.27. And corruption it is, and what viler? 1 Cor. xv.44. And yet God sent his Son in the flesh. Is this a manifestation? Nay, rather, it is a hiding and obscuration of his glory. It is the putting on of a dark veil to eclipse his brightness. Yet manifested he is, as the intendment of the work he was about required, -- manifested to reproach and ignominy for our sin. This is one, and a great point of Christ's humiliation, -- that he took not on him the nature of angels, but the seed of Abraham, Heb. ii.16.
But yet, to complete this mystery more, the Son descends a third step lower, that the mystery may ascend so much the higher, in the likeness of flesh? Not so, but in the likeness of sinful flesh. If he had appeared in the prime flower and perfection of flesh, in the very goodliness of it, yet it had been a disparagement. If he had come down as glorious as he once went up, and now "sits at the right hand of the majesty on high;" if he had been always in that resplendent habit he put on in his transfiguration; that had been yet an abasement of his majesty. But, to come in the likeness of sinful flesh, though not a sinner, yet in the likeness of a sinner, -- so like as that, touching his outward appearance, no eye could discern any difference, compassed about with all those infirmities and necessities, which are the followers and attendants of sin in us; "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;" a man who all his lifetime had intimate acquaintance, and familiarity with grief. Grief and he were long acquaintance, and never parted till death parted them. Nay, not only was he, in his outward estate, subject to all those miseries and infirmities unto which sin subjects other men, but something beyond all, "his visage was more marred than any man's, and his form more than the sons of men," Isa. lii.14; and therefore he was a hissing and astonishment to many. He had no form nor comeliness in him, and no beauty to make him desirable; and therefore his own friends were ashamed of him, and hid their faces from him; "he was despised and rejected of men," Isa. liii.2, 3. Thus you see, he comes in the most despicable and disgraceful form of flesh that can be; and an abject among men, and as himself speaks in Psal. xxii.6, "a worm, and not a man;" a reproach of men, and despised among the people. Now this, I say, is the crowning of the great mystery of godliness, which, without all controversy, is the mystery in all the world that hath in it most greatness and goodness combined together, that is the subject of the highest admiration, and the fountain of the sweetest consolation that either reason or religion can afford. The mysteries of the Trinity are so high, that if any dare to reach to them, he doth but catch the lower fall;(171) it is as if a worm would attempt to touch the sun in the firmament. But this mystery is God coming down to man, to be handled and seen of men, because man could not rise up to God's highness. It is God descending to our baseness, and so coming near us to save us. It is not a confounding but a saving mystery. There is the highest truth in it, for the understanding to contemplate and admire; and there is the greatest good in it, for the will to choose and rest upon. It is contrived for wonder and delight to men and angels. These three, which the angelic song runs upon, are the jewels of it, -- "glory to God, peace on earth, and good-will toward men."