Application is the very life of the word, at least it is a necessary condition for the living operation of it. The application of the word to the hearts of hearers by preaching, and the application of your hearts again to the word by meditation, these two meeting together, and striking one upon another, will yield fire. Paul speaks of a right dividing of the word of truth (2 Tim. ii.15), not that ordinary way of cutting it all in parcels, and dismembering it, by manifold divisions, which I judge makes it lose much of its virtue, which consists in union, though some have pleasure in it, and think it profitable, yet I do not see that this was the apostolic way, that either they preached it themselves or recommended it to others, but rather he means, the real distribution of the food of souls unto their various conditions, as it is the duty of a steward to be both faithful and wise in that, to give every one their own portion, and as it is the pastor's duty thus to distribute the word of God unto you, so it is your part to apply it home to yourselves, without which application, the former division of the word aright will not feed your souls, if every man act not the pastor to his own heart it cannot profit. Now indeed the right application of the word to souls is the difficultest part of preaching, and it is the hardest point of hearing, in which there needs both much affection and much direction, the one to be serious and ernest in it, the other to be wise and prudent in it. Without suitable affection, it will not pass into the substance of the soul to feed it, no more than the stomach can digest meat, that wants convenient heat, and without discretion and wisdom, to choose our own portion, it will not yield convenient food, but increase humours and superfluities, or distemper our spirits. That which I look at in these words, is the discretion and prudence of this wise steward in God's house, after he hath represented the wretched and woful estate of them that are in the flesh, how their natures cannot but are enmity against God, how their end is death and destruction, he subjoins in due season a suitable encouragement to believers, "You are not in the flesh," &c. Because there is no man so sensible of that corruption that dwells within, as he that is in part renewed, as pain to a healthful body is most sensible, and as the abundance of light makes a larger discovery of what is disordered and defiled in the house, therefore such, upon the hearing of the accursed estate of men in nature, of their natural rebellion against God, and God's displeasure against them, they are most ready, I say, to apply such things to themselves, to the weakening of their own hands, and saddening of their hearts, as the upright-hearted disciples were more ready to take with the challenge of betraying Christ, than the false hearted Judas. Therefore the apostle prevents such an abuse of the doctrine, by making application of the better part unto the Romans, but for you, "ye are not of the flesh," &c. Indeed, self examination is necessary, and it is like chewing of the meat before it be sent into the stomach, it is as necessary and precedent before right application. I wish that every one of you would consider well what this living word concerns you. It is the ground of all our barrenness, no man brings this home to himself, which is spoken to all, but truly the Lord speaks to all, that every man may speak to himself, and ask at his own heart, what is my concernment in it? What is my portion? As for you whom the Lord hath put upon this search of yourselves and hath once made you to find yourselves in the black roll of perdition, under the hazard of the eternal weight of God's displeasure, and there hath showed unto your souls a way of making peace with God, and a place of refuge in Jesus Christ which hath sometimes refreshed and eased your hearts, and only was able to purify your consciences, and calm the storms that did arise in them, if it be hence forth your study to walk to please him and this engagement be on your hearts, to make no peace with the flesh, and corruption that dwells in you, then, I say, the Lord calls and accounts you not carnal but spiritual, though there be much carnality in you, yet he denominates from the better part, not from the greatest part, you are not after the flesh but after the Spirit. Though Isaac be a weak young child, and Ishmael the son of the bond woman be a strong man, yet thou art in God's account esteemed according to the promise, which shall be the ground of thy stability. Isaac must abide in the house for ever, and grow stronger and stronger, and Ishmael must be cast out and grow weaker and weaker; the one is ordained for destruction, and so is called the old man, drawing near to its grave, the other for life, and so is a new man renewed day by day. Thus they are in God's promise, and you would learn thus to look upon it, not according to their present inequality in strength, but that future inequality and difference which is wrapt up in the promise of God and the seed whereof is in you.
As there is a woful penury and scantiness of examination in the most part of men who are wholly spent without, and take no leisure to recognise their own souls, so there is a miserable excess, and hurtful superfluity of examination and disputation among many of God's children, who are always in reflection, and almost never in action, so much on knowing what is, that they take not much leisure to do or pursue what is not. Truly, I think when the apostle commands us to examine whether we be in the faith, and prove ourselves, he did not mean to make it our perpetual exercise, or so to press it as we should not endeavor to be in the faith, till we know whether we be in it; that were no advancing way, to refuse to go on in our journey till we know what progress we have made, as the custom is. But simply and plainly, I think, he intended to have Christianity begin in examination, as the first returning of a soul must needs be upon some inquiry and search of the way, and knowledge upon search, that our former way was wrong, and this is only right. But if this be the porch to enter at, will you sit down and dwell in it, and not go on into the palace itself? Because you must begin to search what you have learned wrong, that now you may unlearn it, will you be ever about the learning to know your condition, and by this means never attain to the knowledge of the truth? But when you have upon any inquiry found yourselves out of the way, you should not entertain that dispute long, but hearken to the plain voice of the gospel, that sounds unto you, "This is the way, walk in it." "I am the way," saith Christ, "enter at me, by believing in me." Now, once having found that you are unbelievers by nature, to suspend believing till you prove whether you be in the faith, is unreasonable and impossible, for certainly having once found yourselves void of it, you must first have it, before you know that you have it, you must first apply to action, and afterward your examination shall be more easy.
But I would tell of more profitable improvement of such representations of the sinful and miserable estate of the ungodly world, than you use to make of it, and I think it is that the apostles intend, in the frequent turning the eyes of saints about to the accursed state of the world, partly consolation, and partly some provocation to suitable walking. Things that are opposite are best known by comparison one with another, each of them cast abroad a light to see the other by. Therefore it is that the apostles do frequently remind the converted Gentiles of the wretched estate the world ties into, and themselves once were into. You see it, 1 Cor. vi.11, "And such were some of you, but now you are washed." And, Eph. ii.1, "You who were dead in sins hath he quickened." There is not any thing will more commend unto a Christian the grace of God towards him, nor(192) to look abroad round about him, and take a view of the whole world lying in wickedness, and then to look backward to what himself once was, and compare it with what the free grace of God hath made him. O what a soul ravishing contemplation is that, 1 John v.19, "And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness." How doth this heighten the price of grace, and how much doth it add to a soul's inward contentment, to think what it was of itself, and what it would undoubtedly have been, if not thus wonderfully surprised! One used always to look to those below him, that he might not envy those above him. Truly it might do well here, when a Christian is grieved and disquieted, because he hath not attained to that desired measure of the image of God, and fellowship with him, to cast a look about him to the miserable and hopeless estate of so many thousands who have the image of Satan so visibly engraven on them, and have no inward stirring after this blessed image, and reflect a little backward, to the hole of the pit whence he was taken, to look upon that primitive estate that grace found him into, so loathsome, as described in Ezek. xvi. Would not such a double sight, think you, make him break out in admiration, and be powerful to silence and compose his spirit? O to think, that I was once in that black roll of those excluded from the kingdom! "Such were some of you," and then to consider, that my name was taken out, and washed by the blood of Christ to be enrolled in the register of heaven. What an astonishing thing is it! You see in nature, God hath appointed contrarieties and varieties to beautify the world, and certainly, many things could not be known how good and beneficial they are, but by the smart and hurt of that which is opposite in them, as ye could not imagine the good of light, but by some sensible experience of the evil of darkness. Heat, you could not know the benefit of it, but by the vexation of cold. Thus he maketh one to commend another, and both to beautify the world. It is thus in art, contrariety and variety of colours and lines make up one beauty, diversity of sounds make a sweet harmony. Now, this is the art and wisdom of God, in the dispensation of his grace he setteth the misery of some beside the happiness of others, that each of them may aggravate another, he puts light beside darkness, spirit fore-against(193) flesh, that so saints may have a double accession to their admiration at the goodness and grace of God, and to their delight and complacency in their own happiness, he presents the state of men out of Christ, that you may wonder how you are translated, and may be so abundantly satisfied as not to exchange your portion for the greatest monarchs.
Then, I say, this may provoke us, and persuade us to more suitable walking. Doth he make such a difference? O do not you unmake it again! Do not confound all again, by your walking after the course of the world. Conformity to the world is a confusion of what God hath separated. Has infinite grace translated you from that kingdom of darkness to light? O then walk in that light, as children of light! Are you such? Own your stations, consider your relations, and make yourselves ashamed at the very thoughts of sin. He points out the deformed and ugly face of the conversation of the world, that you may fall in love with the beauty or holiness, as the Lacedemonians were wont to let their children see their slaves drunk, that the brutish and abominable posture of such in that sin might imprint in the hearts of their children a detestation of such a vice. Certainly, the Lord calls you to mind often what you have been, and what the world about you is, not to engage you to it, but to alienate your minds from the deformity of sin, and to commend to you the duty of obedience. You would learn to make this holy use and advantage of all the wickedness the world lieth into, to behold in it, as in a glass, your own image and likeness, that when you use to hate or despise others, you may rather loathe and dislike yourselves, as having that same common nature, and wonder at the goodness of God that makes such difference where none was. This were the way to make gain of the most unprofitable thing in the world, that is, the sins of other men, for ordinarily the seeing and speaking of them doth rather dispose us and incline us to more liberty to sin. Many look on them with delight, some with contempt and hatred of those that commit them, but few know how to speak or look on sin itself with indignation, or themselves, because of the seeds of it within them, with abhorrency. I would think if we were circumspect in this, the worse the world is, we might be the better, the worse the times are, we might spend it better, the more pride we see, it might make us the more humble, the more impiety and impurity abound, it might provoke us to a further distance from, and disconformity with, the world. Thus, if we were wise, we might extract gold out of the dunghill, and suck honey out of the most poisonable weed. The surrounding ignorance and wickedness of the world might cause a holy antiperistasis(194) in a Christian, by making the grace of God unite itself, and work more powerfully, as fire out of a cloud, and shine more brightly, as a torch in the darkness of the night.
As for you, whose woful estate is here described, who are yet in the flesh, and enemies to God by nature, I would desire you to be stirred up at the consideration of this, that there are some who are delivered out of that prison, and that some have made peace with God, and are no more enemies but friends, and fellow citizens of the saints. If the case were left wholly incurable and desperate, you had some ground to continue in your sins and security, but now when you hear a remedy is possible, and some have been helped by it, I wonder that you do not, upon this door of hope offered, bestir yourselves, that you may be those who are here excepted, "but you are not in the flesh." Since some are, why may not I be? Will you awake yourselves with this alarm! If you had any desire after this estate, certainly such a hope as this would give you feet to come to Jesus Christ, for these are the legs of the soul, -- some desire of a better estate, and some probability of it conceived by hope.