And Jesus said unto Him, Verily, I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.
IN my last Discourse, (which was upon the Account given us, in these Words, of the happy Ending of the Life of one of the Malefactors crucified with our blessed Lord,) I proposed four Heads: three of which I them went over; and shall now proceed to the fourth, after I have made way for it, by reminding you of what I then, as I hope, very evidently proved.
IN discoursing on the first, I shewed you, that this Malefactor was one who, as soon as He had a fair Opportunity of knowing the Truth concerning the Character of our blessed Lord, and of hearing the Evidence of his Pretensions, did sincerely lay hold on it; and profess himself his Disciple: and behave himself as such, amidst the Calumnies and Reproaches of all about him: and that for this Belief, and Profession; not merely, or chiefly, on account of his Sense of his past Sins; He was accepted, by our Lord, to Mercy.
UNDER the second Head, I went on to shew you, that it was one professed part of the Gospel, preached both by Christ and his Apostles, that whosoever should lay hold on the Opportunity offered by the Providence of God; and should accept of the Terms proposed in the Gospel; and believe in Jesus Christ with an honest and sincere Heart; and make open Profession of this Belief: that every such Person,I say, should be accepted to Favour; and effectually acquitted from the Guilt of his past Sins, whether He should live a short, or a long, Time after this Profession; supposing Him to behave himself, during that Time, agreeably to it. And, in consequence of this, I proved to you that this Thief on the Cross, having sincerely laid hold on the Opportunity offered to Him by Providence; having come to the Knowledge of our Lord's Character, and of the Evidence he gave of the Truth of his Divine Mission; and having, upon this, professed himself his Disciple, and shewn his Sincerity by behaving himself, in all respects, as became such an one, during that short Time which was allowed him, after He was called to the Knowledge and Faith of Christ; that this Malefactor, I say, having acted thus, was accepted upon the ordinary, known, Terms of the Gospel; not upon the secret and hidden Will of Almighty God deviating from, or going beyond, the common Rules of the Christian Institution, and that, therefore, this is no Instance of Almighty God's Acceptance of the Sorrow of a dying Man, instead of the Practice of Virtue during his Life; much less, an Instance of his Acceptance of those, on the Account of their Death-bed Sorrow, who have known and professed the Christian Religion through their whole Lives, and have wilfully and habitually lived in express Contradiction to its Design, and its Precepts, during the Time of that Profession.
UNDER the third Head, I shewed you that those Persons only are in the Case of this Malefactor, so as to argue to their own Satisfaction, from his Example, upon any reasonable Grounds, who, whether living, or dying; whether in perfect Health, or within the Prospect of Death; lay hold on the first fair Opportunity offered them; and seriously consider the Evidence them is for the Christian Religion; and sincerely receive it upon that Evidence; and openly profess themselves the Disciples of Jesus Christ; and behave themselves, as becomes his Disciples, through the remaining part of their Lives, whether long, or short. And such Persons as these, I need not observe to you, would have been entitled to the Justification, and Favour, promised in the Gospel, upon the plain and express Words of our Lord and his Apostles; whether there had been any such Instance, as this of the believing and penitent Malefactor, recorded in the Gospel, or not.
HAVING thus recalled to your Minds what I have already advanced, I may with the more Advantage proceed to the fourth thing which I proposed, viz.
IV. To shew plainly the Extreme Unreasonableness, and great Danger, of the common Mistakes about this Instance of God's Mercy; and the Vanity of those Pretences which some Men have built upon this Example. And here I shall mention particularly the Mistakes of Two sorts of Persons: viz. The Mistake of those who misapply this Instance to their own Ruin; and the Mistake of those who take occasion from it to implant in others very wrong, and very pernicious, Notions, concerning Despair, and Presumption.
I. FROM what hath been said, it manifestly appears how great, as well as fatal a Mistake that is, which some Persons have persuaded themselves to entertain, from this Instance of the crucified Thief: that God will accept them at last, for the sake of a Death-bed Sorrow and Concern for their past Sins; though they have been, all through their Lives, professed Christians, and have neglected to obey those Laws, which they knew to be imposed upon them by the Christian Religion, as the Rules of their Actions, The Weakness and extreme Folly of arguing at this rate, from this Instance, will appear plainly to any one, who will seriously consider the Case of such professed Christians; and compare it with what hath been before said concerning the Case of that Malefactor, and the Conditions of Acceptance laid down in the Gospel.
FOR it is evident, from the Account which I have given of both these, that His Case was such as comes within the professed Terms of the Gospel: upon which all who lay hold on the Opportunity given them; and hear, and receive, and profess, the Christian Religion sincerely; are accepted immediately to Favour, and released from the Guilt of their former Sins. Whereas the Case of such professed Christians as I have been now speaking of, is a condemned Case, upon the professed Terms of the same Gospel. For if the Gospel saith any thing at all, it plainly affirms this, that those Persons, who after they have received the Faith of Jesus Christ, and been made Partakers of this first Justification, do relapse into a Course, or Habit, of those Sins which are condemned in the Gospel; and continue in that Course till Death overtake them: that those Persons, I say, who do this, shall be excluded the Kingdom of Heaven; and instead of God's Favour, shall feel his Wrath, and suffer the Vengeance of Eternal Fire. Now, as Almighty God did, in forgiving and accepting the believing Malefactor, keep exactly to the Terms, which our blessed Lord had, in his Name, promulgated: so, there is all the reason in the World to conclude that, in condemning and punishing that other sort of Persons, who have contradicted and scandalized his Gospel, by their Behaviour during their Christian Profession, He will likewise keep close to the Terms which He hath, in the Gospel, set before the Eyes of the World. And in this Gospel, there is another Law promulgated, as the Rule of Judgment in the Case of such Persons. They are called to the Knowledge of Christianity; they have time allowed them to live in the Practice of its Precepts, and by that means to secure, and encrease, their future Happiness: and yet they transgress its Commands; and, to all their repeated Affronts to God and his Laws, they add the Assurance of imagining, and expecting, that He will deal with them, as He deals with Men, who sincerely receive, and profess the Christian Religion; and do whatever they can, in that shorter Time which is allowed them, to demonstrate the Sincerity of their inward Belief, and outward Profession.
ALMIGHTY God doth all his Works with the most exact Proportion: nor can it easily be imagined that perfect Wisdom, and perfect Power, can do otherwise. And there is no doubt, therefore, but that He will dispense his Rewards and Punishments, with the greatest Equity, and Impartiality. Now can it be consistent with any Rules of Equity and Proportion, to make those equal in a State of Retribution, whose Cases, and Behaviour, have been vastly different, in a State of Tryal? But, besides this it is sufficiently declared to us, in the Name of Almighty God, that He will very much consider, what Light hath been afforded; what Powers Persons have enjoyed; what Time hath been al, lowed them; what Improvement they have made of this Light; what use they have made of these Powers; and how they have spent this Time; that they have had granted to them. And though He will very favourably deal with those who enjoy lesser Degrees of Light, and Power; and no happy Opportunities of Improvement; as Equity requires: yet this is far from Chewing that He will be equally favourable to those who have enjoyed greater Advantages, and happier Opportunities; and have made no other use of them, but to affront and dishonour both God, and Religion, the more, On the contrary, the only Ground of his Favour to the former sort, being their want of Light, and Opportunity; this rather implies in it, that where he hath afforded Light, and Opportunity, there He may justly, and will certainly, require a strict and severe Account of the Use and Improvement that have been made of them.
INDEED, in the Parable of the Labourers hired, at several Hours, into the Vineyard, Matth. xx.1. some have been apt to think that the Method of Proceeding is such, as to encourage Christians to depend upon what they shall be able to do in their last Moments; and to hope, on the account of that, to be made equal, in the Favour of God, to those who have served Him faithfully, through their whole Lives; and so, to conclude that it is no great Matter, how long soever they defer their Repentance. This Parable I shall, therefore, in my next Discourse, distinctly and fully consider. At present, I shall only observe, that it was chiefly intended to signify to the Jews, that Almighty God would make the Gentiles equal to them, in all Privileges, if they did, in the last Age of the World (as the Gospel-Age is called) accept the Invitation given them; and believe, and obey, the Doctrine of the Gospel: which Interpretation wholly takes away the Ground of the Objection. And, as far as it can be supposed to concern particular Persons, I must observe, that it can only signify that God will reward all such with his Favours, as do, whenever they are called to the Knowledge of the Gospel, heartily embrace it, and readily obey the Precepts of it, how little Time soever be allowed them for so doing.
BUT can any one, though never so willing to be imposed upon, in this Case, find out, I will not say in this Parable, but in the whole New Testament, any Reward for those who are called to the Knowledge of the Gospel in the beginning of their Lives, in the first Hours of their Day; and yet either refuse to come in, upon so gracious an Invitation; or else, professing to obey that Call, and entering themselves into his Religion, and pretending to accept the Terms offered by our blessed Lord, not only prove useless and negligent of their Lord's Honour and Service: but even spend that Time which is due, upon their own Contract, to the Service of their Master, in ruining his good Designs; in dishonouring his Name; in abusing their Fellow-Servants; or in some other sort of Practice, detrimental to their Matter's true Interest, or inconsistent with the Office which they have taken upon themselves? Where do we read of any such Servants as these, rewarded and honoured, at last, by their Master? Whenever we meet with the mention of any such in the Gospel; it is with a very sad Conclusion, at the End of their Story: and this merely for not improving the Talents committed to them; for the neglecting to do God positive Service in their Stations; for not using the Opportunities, and Abilities, put into their Hands by Providence, for their own Eternal Interest, and the Honour of their great Master? How much more shall this heavy Sentence be pronounced upon such as not only have not improved the Time, and Abilities, and Advantages, put into their Hands; but have likewise used this Time, and these Abilities, and Advantages, which God in mercy hath afforded them, to the Disservice of Himself, and the Disgrace of his holy Religion; doing very great Mischief by their Example and Influence; affronting God, and making his Enemies to blaspheme? Where do we read, all through the Gospel, of any such Person, after a Continuance of Affronts and Indignities offered to Almighty God, during his Christian Profession, accepted at last to Mercy, on Account of the Sorrow of his dying Hour? That which hath, most of all, inclined Men to be deceived in this Case, is the Instance of the crucified Malefactor; and this Instance, we have now evidently seen, to be at the greatest distance from any Likeness to the Case of such as are professed Christians, and live on, in a Course of Sin, under the Influence of so groundless an Expectation. How great, therefore, as well as fatal, must the Mistake of those be, who being Christians, and having many and continued Opportunities of living worthy of that Name, still continue wilfully in their Sins; and argue themselves into a fond Expectation of God's Mercy at last, from an Instance which bears no manner of relation to the Condition, and Circumstances, in which They are?
2. I SHALL now mention another Mistake, which is usually founded upon the Instance of the crucified Malefactor: and that is, the Mistake of those, who do not, indeed, make any ill use of it in the Conduct of their own Lives; but yet make use of it, to encourage the Presumption, and prevent the Despair, of dying Sinners, who have lived all their Lives long, in the Profession of Christianity, and in the Violation of its Laws; and this, to the great Prejudice of other Christians who survive them. This Mistake, I confess, as far as it is founded upon this Instance, is so much the same, with the former, in the Ground of it, that it can hardly be reckoned as distinct from it: and it hath been sufficiently confuted, under this View, by what I have said, upon the former, to shew that this Instance toucheth not the Case of such professed Christians. But, as it is applied to another Purpose; and as it is not only founded upon this Example of the crucified Malefactor, but upon very wrong, and groundless, Notions concerning Presumption and Despair it seems to deserve a particular, and distinct place, in the present Debate, as it will give occasion for the settling the true Nature of those Two Dispositions of Mind: the misunderstanding of which hath certainly been the reason of representing what is generally called Despair, as the greatest of Sins; and of making what is truly a criminal Presumption, to be a necessary Duty.
Now here I shall lay down one Proposition, which is sufficient to determine this Matter: viz. That these Two Dispositions of Mind must be judged of, by the professed Terms of the Gospel: and not by any supposed Possibilities. And, according to these, I think it is evident that for One who hath, against all the Calls of God's Spirit, and all the Checks of his own Conscience, continued to live in a constant Course of Sin; for such an one, I say, to hope, with any sort of Assurance, that God will bring himto the Happiness, promised in the Gospel only to Holiness and Righteousness, is not a virtuous Hope; because it is an Hope without any Ground, or solid Foundation: but is a vain, and groundless Presumption; and such a Presumption, as seems, in truth, to affront Almighty God, by supposing that He will depart, for this Man's Sake, from his own declared and professed Terms. And, on the contrary, for such an one to Despair; that is, to think that He, having continued through the Time of his Health, and Conversation in the World, an habitual Sinner; and being that wicked Man, whom the Gospel constantly, and in multitudes of Passages, condemns; that He, I say, being such an one, shall be condemned at the great Day, as the Gospel saith: This is indeed his Misery; but is so far from being his Sin, that I do not see, if He believeth the Gospel, how He can possibly avoid thinking so. But, as if it were of no Importance to be guided by the Declarations of the Gospel it self, in this great Affair; dying Christians have lived a Life of habitual and wilful Wickedness; have been led into such Notions of these Two Things, that they have come to think this groundless Presumption their Duty: and, what is of worse consequence, many By-standers have been fatally corrupted into a Security in sinning, by the same Expectations from this unreasonable Confidence in God. Whereas there is nothing in this Confidence that can alter, or affect, the Nature of Things: nor is there any Passage in the whole New Testament, which recommends such a Confidence, in such Circumstances; or which implieth in it, that it is the Duty of such Persons, or any Advantage to them in the Eyes of God, to be confident of those Mercies, of which, in truth, He hath solemnly declared they shall never partake.
IT is true; that many of the best sort of Christians may, in a low and afflicted Condition, entertain an unreasonable and groundless Despondency, or Despair. They may imagine that they have not been those Christians, who shall be rewarded at last; and be filled with very melancholy Apprehensions concerning their future Condition. But this Imagination of theirs cannot affect their future State: which will be determined by that God who knows all things as they are; and will deal with them, according to what they really have been; not according to what they imagine themselves to have been. And this Imagination, proceeding from an Excess of Humility, or from bodily Disorder, is only their present Unhappiness; not their Sin: and is removed far from them, as soon as they themselves are removed out of this State. Whereas the Despondency of those professed Christians, who have resolutely continued wicked to the last, is truly well grounded upon the Gospel-Declarations; and, as it is so, is likewise part of their Punishment, begun in this World, in the inward Torment of their own Minds: which, if it might be removed from them, upon any Promise, or Declaration of God, I should most willingly do it. But who would dare to incite them to assure themselves of the Favour of that God, who hath so plainly declared, that, They shall not see his face; and that He will be to such Sinners a consuming Fire.
NAY, is it not to bring a lasting Disgrace upon the Cause of Virtue, to teach that the confident Assurance of the most profligate Sinner, when He comes to die, (perhaps, a more confident Assurance than the best of Christians commonly have,) shall set him as much out of the reach of God's Displeasure; and in as secure a Condition; as that of the most virtuous Persons, who have spent their whole Lives in the Contemplation, and Practice, of the Laws of Christianity. The Gospel is far from saying any such thing: and, therefore, the Preachers of the Gospel must likewise be far from entertaining the Consciences of Christians with any such Fancies; who, if they have any Sense themselves, will not easily swallow such unreasonable Doctrines.
I GRANT, indeed, that the best thing which the most wicked of Christians can do, when they come within View of Death; and what all about them ought to encourage them to do; is to make themselves as sensible, as they possibly can, of the Evil of their past Ways; to move themselves, upon the best Considerations, to abhor and detest them: and solemnly to warn all about them from the Paths, in which themselves have walked. But, after all this, who could say that these Persons have come up, in any tolerable degree, to the Terms of the Gospel? Or, who could encourage any such notorious Sinners to assure themselves of the Mercy of God, unless a plain Text of Scripture, or Law of Reason, could be found, suitable to their Case, or promising them Happiness? They must still be left (as far as the Gospel hath concerned it self) in the State, in which That pronounceth wilful and habitual Sinners to be. The utmost that can be said is, that they must be left to the uncovenanted Mercies of God: and the highest degree of hope which they can have, must be founded upon this, that Almighty God may possibly depart from his settled Method; and recede from the Terms which He hath openly professed, for the sake of those, who have lived, Year after Year, in an open Violation of his Laws; against all the Checks of their Consciences, and all the Calls of his Gospel. Which let them believe, who can swallow, and embrace, any Absurdities, rather than forsake their Sins.
HAVING, as I hope; very evidently shewn that there is nothing, in this Instance of the believing and penitent Malefactor, which can, with the least Colour of Reason, encourage any, who have been, through many Years, professed Christians, and habitual Sinners, to depend upon the Sorrow of their Death-beds, for Acceptance with God; and having thus finished what I proposed to discourse of from this Example: I shall now take occasion to enquire whether, in the nature of the thing it self; there be any greater Ground for Hope, than We have seen, there is in the Instance We have been considering. And this, I think, will be very proper, not only because the Subject naturally enough leads us to it; but because it is very observable, that one great Support of such unhappy Persons, as go on in a Course of Sin, and yet retain some Sense of Religion, and make Profession of Christianity, is the Hope which they have placed in the Sorrow of their Death-beds, as if there were some peculiar Charm, and Efficacy, in that, above any other Sorrow, (which they falsly call Repentance,) conceived, or expressed, in any other Part of their Lives.
Now, in what is it that this last Sorrow hath the Advantage over any other? in what it agrees with the Sorrow, and Regret, which a Man hath felt in the Time of his Health, it cannot be preferred before it: because it differs not from it. And in what it really differs from it, I fear, it will be found to have the Disadvantage on its side. For, it seems to me that it is much less likely to be sincere, or such as would, upon Trial, prove effectual, than the other: it being probably rather extorted by the Prospect and Fear of Death, than by the Persuasion of Reason; and frequently accompanied with such Terrors, as make it rather a Distraction, than a rational Grief; or a conscientious Sorrow. Whereas, a Regret and Concern for past Sins, in Time of Health, and whilst a Man hath not so near a Prospect of a State of Retribution, may be supposed more sincere, and more likely to influence Him: because it may justly be thought to be more the Result of Reason, and Judgment; and rather proceeding from a well-grounded Persuasion of the Man's own Mind, and the just Consideration of the Nature of Things, than from the terrible Dread of immediate Punishment.
AND yet how is this last Sorrow usually preferred; and accounted of a more excellent Nature than any of the former? One would think, merely because it is the last. Whereas that can make no difference in the Eyes of God: who always judgeth truly from the nature of the Thing; and not from the Time, or any of those inconsiderable Circumstances, which often hide the true nature of things from mortal, Eyes, and finite Understandings. Nay, we our selves cannot judge whether our own present Sorrow, and Compunction, be of that nature as that they would work in us true Repentance and Amendment; were we entrusted with more Opportunities of making the Trial. And this is another Reason why we should build nothing upon it, either in our own Case, or that of others; because, even supposing that it would be sincere, and effectual in its Influences, were more Time allowed; yet this is a Matter wholly out of the reach of our Knowledge, and wholly impossible for us to judge of.
BUT, indeed, it is a very material Observation, that wicked Men have much less reason to think this last Sorrow thoroughly and undoubtedly sincere, than they have heretofore had to think any of their former Sorrows so; which yet, they know, have ended in nothing considerable. There are few professed Christians, even amongst the wickedest of them, who have not, one time or other, had some just and concerning Thoughts about that Course of Sin, and those wilful Vices, in which they have indulged themselves; who have not, one time or other, detested and resolved to forsake them, in the Days of their Health and Prosperity; when they had nothing to move them but the Nature of the thing, and the great Reasonableness of receiving, and obeying the Gospel. If, therefore, they have found that Regret, and Concern, which they have had, in the best Season, and which had so good Ground for it, to come to nothing; to vanish into Air; and leave no good Influence, nor shew any Power, upon their Lives and Actions: upon what Accounts can they think, That Sorrow would have any better, or more lasting Effect, were the Trial made, which for aught they know, is wholly owing to the present Fear of Death, and the near Prospect of a future Punishment; and consequently will most probably vanish, when that Fear, and that Prospect, are removed from them?
THEY will, I dare say, acknowledge no such Sorrow of a sick Bed, to be of any Effect, if they recover, and relapse to their former Sins. And how many such Instances have they seen in others? And how often have they themselves relapsed, after a better, and more reasonable, Sorrow, than this can be esteemed? And how then can they so flatter themselves, as to imagine that this last and unproved, Sorrow; is truly sincere; and would be truly effectual, were Opportunity given it to shew its Power, and display its Influences: when they have not one probable Argument on their side, to give Ground for such an Imagination; but great Presumptions, and much Experience, against it. So that there is no Foundation for such a Supposition: and yet, without it, there is not the least Shadow of Hope, to support them. How miserably deluded, therefore, must they be, who thus rely upon a Reed; who thus build all their Hopes, and all their Expectations of Happiness, upon that which is of a weaker nature, than what, they have experienced, to have deceived them already; who would fain escape Misery, and attain to Happiness, and yet will take none but a desperate Method, and such an one, as will too certainly disappoint and cheat them at last!
AND that they, who indulge themselves in the Habit of any sort of Sin, may be the more effectually sensible of this, I would ask them, whether They believe that Almighty God will punish any sort of Persons in another State; or whether there are any Men in this World now, who shall be condemned, at the great Day, to that miserable State which is threatned in the Gospel. If they pretend not to believe any such thing as this; why are they in such Fears, and in so great Concern, about it? Why do the Terrors of the Lord oppress them? And why do they betray so much Uneasiness, at the Thoughts of appearing before Him? But if they do believe that thus it shall be with some sort of Persons, (as they appear to do by their Presages, and Apprehensions;) I would then ask, Who, they think, they are, that than inherit most of the Anger of God in that future State. Surely, They, who, upon the account of their whole Lives, do most deserve it. And who are they that most deserve it? It must be either the Wilful Sinners of the unbelieving World; or the Wilful Sinners, who are professed Christians, and enjoy the Light, and Assistance, of Christ's Gospel. And which of these Two do most deserve it, is too evident to need many Words. For who can be so unreasonable as to think that They who sin not against so clear Light, and so evident a Divine Authority to the contrary, are in a more desperate Condition, than those who are, or may be, fully acquainted with God's Will; who agree to the Reasonableness of it; who profess to fulfil it; and yet live, through their whole Lives, in express Contradiction to it? No, certainly, if our Saviour speak Truth; or if the Rule of Equity be consulted; They shall be beaten with most Stripes, who have known their Master's Will, and have not done it; They, who have had all fair Opportunities for Reformation, and the Practice of Virtue; and have abused them all to the Purposes of Vice.
IF, therefore, They shall be most miserable in another State, who have most deserved it, as without doubt they shall: tell me, I beseech you, who can deserve it more than the Christian, who hath the greatest Favours, and Obligations, bestowed upon Him; the holiest Law to govern Him; the brightest Light to direct Him; the most powerful Assistance to strengthen Him; and yet goes on to sin, against all the Obligations, and all the Engagements, and all the Motives, to the contrary, which are contained in his Profession. And consequently, unless you will suppose, and maintain, that there shall be no such thing as Punishment in another World; but that all shall equally, either sink into nothing, or be made happy; you must be persuaded of this, as of a certain Truth, that the wicked Christian, who continues a wilful Sinner, under the Cloke of his holy Profession, is the Person, who, because He most of all deserves this Punishment, shall therefore most undoubtedly inherit it. Nor can his Grief, when He comes within View of it, alter the Case: for Grief is not Holiness, nor Virtue; nor probably would it end in the Practice of them: and these are the Things required of Christians, in the Time of their Health, and during their Conversation in this World. But I need not, I hope, add any more Words in order to represent to you the Vanity and Weakness of that fatal Mistake of some wilful Sinners, that the Sorrows which they reserve to be expressed upon their Death-beds, will atone for the profligate, and unchristian, conduct of their whole past Lives.
AND now, Christians, what shall we say to these Things? Shall not all that hath been urged to shew the Unreasonableness of those Hopes which are built upon any such Pretence, as I have now been examining, separated from a Life of Righteousness, and true Goodness: shall it not, I say, move us all to lay hold on the present Opportunity; and to work out our Salvation, whilst the Day lasts; because the Night cometh, (the Night of Sickness, and of Death,) when no Man can work? How happy would it be for us, would we be induced to live as becomes Christians; and worthy of that holy Name by which we are called; and of that Divine Master, to whom We have given up our selves? This is the Thing required of Us, who have Time allowed us to shew the Sincerity of our Faith and Profession: and this alone it is, that can entitle us to the Favour of God, and the Rewards of Heaven. If we be in earnest seeking after Happiness; let us not take the Road which leads to certain Misery: but that good Path which our Lord himself hath marked out to us, both by his Example, and his Precepts; which, will infallibly bring us to his Heavenly Kingdom. Amen!