Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may you also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.
I. FROM THE NATURE OF HABITS IN GENERAL OF VICIOUS HABITS IN PARTICULAR. Concerning habits, we may observe that there are many things which we practise at first with difficulty, and which at last, by daily and frequent repetition, we perform not only without labour, but without premeditation and design. Thus it is with the habits of memory. By frequent practice and slow degrees we acquire the use of speech: we retain a surprising variety of words of arbitrary sounds, which we make the signs of things. Thus it is in the habits of the imagination. When we accustom our minds to certain objects, when we call them often before us, these objects, which at first were perhaps as indifferent as any other, become familiar to us, they appear uncalled and force themselves upon us. Thus it is with the habits of sin. They are acquired like other habits by repeated acts; they fix themselves upon us in the same manner, and are corrected with the same difficulty. A sinner by long offending contracts an aversion from his duty, and weakens his power of deliberating and choosing upon wise motives. By giving way to his passions he has made them ungovernable; they rise of themselves, and stay not for his consent, and by every victory over him they gain new strength, and he grows less able to resist them. His understanding and reason become unserviceable to him. At first, when he did amiss, he was ashamed of it; but shame is lost by long offending. Add to this, that vicious habits make a deeper impression and gain faster upon us than good habits. Sin recommends itself to our senses by bringing present profit or pleasure, whilst religion consists frequently in renouncing present profit or pleasure for a greater interest at a distance, and so recommends itself, not to our senses, but to our reason; upon which account it is more difficult to be good than to be bad. One being asked, what could be the reason why weeds grew more plentifully than corn? answered, Because the earth was the mother of weeds, but the stepmother of corn; that is, the one she produced of her own accord, the other not till she was compelled to it by man's toil and industry. This may not unfitly be applied to the human mind, which on account of its intimate union with the body, and commerce with sensible objects, easily and willingly performs the things of the flesh, but will not bring forth the spiritual fruits of piety and virtue, unless cultivated with assiduity and application.
II. FROM EXPERIENCE. There are few who forsake any vice to which they are remarkably addicted. The truth of this may be easiest observed in those faults where the body seems not to be much concerned, such as pride, conceit, levity of mind, rashness in judging and determining, censoriousness, malice, cruelty, wrath, moroseness, envy, selfishness, avarice. These bad dispositions seldom forsake a person in whom they are fixed. Besides, many of them are of so deceitful a nature, that the mind entertains them and knows it not; the man thinks himself free from faults which to every other person are most visible.
III. SCRIPTURE CONCURS WITH REASON AND EXPERIENCE. When the Scriptures speak of evil habits, they make use of figures as strong and bold as language can utter and the imagination conceive, to set forth their pernicious nature. Persons in that condition are said to be enclosed in a snare, to be taken captives, to have sold themselves to work wickedness, to be in a state of slavery. Even those passages which contain great encouragement and favourable promises to repentance, inform us at the same time of the difficulty of amending. Our Saviour gives a plain and familiar representation of it. A shepherd, says He, rejoices more over one sheep which was lost and is found, than over ninety-and-nine which went not astray. Why so? For this, amongst other reasons, because he could not reasonably expect such good fortune, and had little hopes of finding a creature exposed to a thousand dangers, and unable to shift for itself.
IV. REFLECTIONS USEFUL TO PERSONS OF ALL AGES AND OF ALL DISPOSITIONS.
1. If the words of the text were to be taken rigorously and in the strictest sense, it would be a folly to exhort a habitual sinner to repentance, and an unreasonable thing to expect from him a natural impossibility; but it is certain that they mean no more than an extreme difficulty.
2. There are persons who sincerely profess the Christian religion, who fear God and desire to be in His favour, but whose lives are not so conformable to their belief as they ought to be, who are sorry for their faults, and fall into them again, who make not the progress in goodness which they acknowledge to be justly expected from them, and who have not that command over their passions which by a little more resolution and self-denial they might acquire. Such persons should seriously consider the difficulty of reforming bad habits, and the extreme danger of that state: for though it be not their present condition, yet if they use not timely caution, sad effects may ensue.
3. These sad examples should be a warning to those whose obedience is so incomplete and sullied with so many defects, whose love of virtue is not equal and uniform, and whose affections are placed sometimes on God and religion, and sometimes on the follies and vanities of the world.
4. There are Christians who abstain from known and deliberate transgressions, who strive to make a daffy progress in goodness, and to perform an acceptable service to God. The difficulty of reforming vicious habits may warn them to be upon their guard, that after they have set out well and proceeded well, they fail not at last, nor lose a reward near at hand.
5. They who have wisely and happily preserved themselves from evil habits ought to be very thankful to God, by whose blessing they are free from that heavy bondage, and strangers to the sad train of evils which attend it.
(J. Jortin, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.