Article of the Month
by Ralph Erskine
SERMON LXXIII, &C.
1 Cor. xv. 56 The strength of sin is the law.
PERHAPS there was never a generation wherein the strength and dominion of sin did more discover itself, in the life and conversation of the people, than in this present age. Such is the mighty power thereof, that as all the children of men are slaves, so most of the children of God are captives to it. How are the thoughts, words, and actions of men and women, as so many slaves, captives, and drudges to sin! But, for as strong as it is, the strength of it is little seen, and few know where the strength of it lies. As the Philistines did not know that the strength of Samson lay in his hair, or in the locks of his head, which whenever it was shaved, his strength was gone; so the world little know this mystery, that the strength of sin is the law, insomuch, that till the sinner be shaved, as it were, with the sharp razor of the Spirit of Christ, so as to be cut off from the law, and united to Christ, the end of the law, the strength of sin remains, and the rule of it.
*This subject appears to have been handled in six sermons, preached on sacramental occasions, in the year 1727. The first two at the sacrament of Kinglassy, July 30th, 31st. The next two at Orwel, August 7th, 8th. The two last are an enlargement on the same subject; but when or where delivered is uncertain.
That I may come to the purpose I design, you may only notice, that as the apostle in the preceding part of the chapter, is treating the great doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, proving it from the resurrection of Christ, answering objections against this truth, and shewing what a remarkable change will be made upon the bodies of believers, both these that are dead and these that shall be living at the sound of the last trumpet: so, in the context here, he is discovering the complete conquest that then the saints will obtain over death and the grave, and that then will be accomplished what the prophet Hosea says, chap. xiii. 14. “Death shall be swallowed up in victory; I will ransom thee from the power of the grave, I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy plaques; O grave, I will by thy destruction.” What the prophets declare were to have their initial accomplished in the New-Testament days, the apostles declare are to have their full and consummate accomplishment at the day of judgment; yet, so sweet and satisfying is the begun accomplishment thereof in Christ Jesus, that the apostle, for himself, and in name of all believers in Christ, sings their [EPINIKION], their song of triumph and victory, whereof these words are a part, saying, O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, the strength of sin is the law: but thanks to God, that giveth us the victory, thro' our Lord Jesus Christ. Death had a sting, even power to hurt and kill; and the grave had a victory: but now where are they? In Christ they are spoiled and disarmed so as they are not to be seen; where are they! And the day is coming, with respect to the saints, when not so much as the sign and vestige of death's power or the grave's victory will remain; where are they? The sting of death is sin: for sin gives power unto death, which would have no power to hurt, did not sin give venom to its darts: bot Christ, by death, hath taken out this sting, made atonement for sin, and obtained remission: so that though death may hiss, it cannot hurt. The strength of sin is the law; for sin hath strength to condemn us, and strength to destroy us, from the law, and its curses, and threatenings; but Christ hath removed the curse of the law, by becoming a curse for us. Yea, the whole power and sanction of the first covenant, the law of works, was transferred upon Christ, and in him fulfilled and ended; so that sin is deprived of its strength and sting, by Christ's obedience unto death, even the death of the cross: therefore, tho' death may seize the believer in Christ, yet it can never sting him, nor hold him in its power: “Thanks be to God, then, that giveth the victory, says the apostle, thro' Jesus Christ.” By faith the believer shares of his conquest and victory; the victory is given through Christ to them, yet they are stiled the overcomers; “To him that overcometh, will I give to eat of the tree of life.” Who are the overcomers? Even they to whom it is given of God through Jesus Christ. Christ hath obtained it, and gives it. As heaven, and eternal life, is the give of God thro' Christ; so the victory over sin, and death, and hell, and all enemies in the way to heave, is the give of God thro' Jesus Christ. Hence the apostle in the last verse, infers duty and service incumbent upon all believers; Therefore, beloved brethren, be ye stedfast and unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord;” teaching us, that there is no gospel-service, without the faith of victory through Christ; no gospel-holiness, till a person, being in Christ, hath victory in him over sin, death, and the law, which is the strength sin; then he is in case to abound in the work of the Lord, from a principle of gratitude; knowing that his labour shall not be in vain in the Lord. The believer hath in view the recompence of reward; and this is the reward of grace, that as in the Lord he hath victory, in the Lord he hath righteousness, in the Lord he hath strength for work and warfare; so in the Lord his work and warfare will be crowned: he shall not obtain the crown, no more than the victory, by his own work and labour, nor because he or his works are worthy, but because of Christ, in whom he is worthy, and hath by his dying obtained the victory and the crown both; and his work of faith, and labour of love, is an evidence of his union to Christ, in whom he is blessed with grace and glory. Therefore he knows, according to the measure of his faith, that his labour is not in vain in the Lord.
But now, the verse where my text lies, seems to be an explication of the fist part of the apostle's song; he had said, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” But if any should ask, What mean you, Paul, by the sting of death? Why, says he, The Sting of death is sin: so that, take away sin, and then death hath no sting; no strength to hurt or harm us. Well, but may it be said, Where lies the strength of sin: and whence hath it such strength? The answer is The strength of sin is the law; as sin is the strength of death, so the law is the strength of sin. Sin puts arms in the hand of death, and the law puts arms in the hand of sin: The strength of sin is the law.
Where you may notice these three things following.
1. The grand evil that ruins all mankind, here spoken of, namely, Sin; this is that which makes us need a Saviour, whose name is Jesus, because he saves his people from their sin. The apostle speaks not here of any transient act of sin, but even of the root and fountain of sin; the corruption and depravation of nature, together with the lusts and affections of the flesh.
2. You have here the quality of sin; Strength is ascribed to it. There are several attributes this monster hath, particularly these two, guilt and filth; but strength is the compend of all its other qualities. It hath strength to defile, and strength to destroy; strength to kill, and strength to damn. The strength of sin makes us stand in need of a strong Saviour, and of that help which is laid upon One that is mighty.
3. You have here the accidental source or rise of the strength of sin, namely, the Law; the law of works, commanding obedience, as the condition of eternal life, and discharging disobedience on pain of eternal death. The moral law, under the form of a covenant of works, is the law the apostle here speaks of; and this law, as it is violated and broken by our apostacy and rebellion against God; for, as this law is become so weak through the flesh, Rom. viii. 3. that it cannot justify nor sanctify a sinner, nor save a breaker of it; so it is become powerful only to condemn, and powerful to damn the sinner; and this it does, by giving sin a power to ruin, condemn, and destroy the sinner. As sin, in a manner took justifying strength from the law, so the law gives condemning strength to sin, leaving the sinner under its curse: and, because sin violated the holy command of the law, the law gives sin a commanding power over the sinner, and makes sin to rife, and rage, and reign over the sinner, so as it commands him to serve like a drudge and a slave. This the law does, both by virtue of its curse, and by virtue of its command; the power of sin being a part of the curse of the law, and consequence of the command. Not that the holy, just, and good law of God, that commands holiness, can possibly command sin or unholiness; but by reason of our corruption, which, like water, the more it is dammed up, the more it swells. The command of holiness excites and stirs up the rule and command of sin over us; which bears no more reflection upon the holiness of the law, than the stink of a dung hill, raised and excited by the heat of the sun, reflects any indignity upon, or in the least stains the purity of the beams thereof. The more pure and refulgent the beams of the sun are, the more influence it hath for stirring up the filthy vapours of the dunghill; so, the more holy that the law is, the more does it excite the filthy streams, and raise and exasperate the impurity of corruption. But in what respect the law is the strength of sin, may be shewed more at large in the sequel.
Having offered this short view of the words, there are two doctrines might be treated from them.
I. “That sin is a very strong and powerful thing.”
II. “That the strength of sin is the law:” Or thus, “That the law of works is the strength of sin to a sinner that hath violated and broken it.”
I intend, thro' divine aid, to illustrate both these propositions; but shall confine myself to the first at this time. If we get right views of the strength of sin, it will commend the strength of a Saviour to us.
Doct. I. That sin is a very strong and powerful thing.
In treating of which, I would essay to do the following things.
I. We propose to speak a little concerning the nature of sin. I shall confine myself to these two accounts of it, namely, (I.) That it is a transgression of the law, I John iii. 4. (2.) That it is an opposition to God the Lawgiver and enmity against God, Rom. viii. 7.
I. Consider it as it is a transgression of the law; and all mankind are transgressors from the womb, ever since Adam and Eve began the rebellion: we daily transgress it, in thought, word, and deed. It is strange to consider how many poor ignorant sinners expect to be justified by that law which they are daily transgressing; which declares, that they know not themselves to be sinners and transgressors thereof. They say they are sinners, but they do not believe what they say; or, if they believe they are sinners, they do not believe they are such sinners, but that the law may bear with them; for they cannot see such depravity in their actions, as that the law should condemn them; and when once they imagine, that the law will not condemn them, they fancy next, that the law will justify them. Some, whole lives and actions are not evidently gross and profane, may be filled with foolish ignorant thoughts of this fort, that the law hath little to say against them; yea, that they have done all these thing from their youth up. O dreadful arrogance and ignorance, for a brat of hell to imagine that he hath not transgressed the law by any wicked deed!
But if any be so grosly ignorant, as to justify their deeds as being conform to the law; let them set the law of God, and even their words in opposition to each other, and see if they have transgressed the law: for, tho' in many things we offend all; yet, “If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man,” says the apostle, Jam. iii. 2. But where is there even such perfection as this among the children of men, if you consider how every command of the law is broken by the ordinary speech of men?—Why, every word that favours of atheism, unbelief, and contempt of God, and carnal confidence, is a breach of the first command.—Every word that favours of disrespect to divine ordinances, whether preaching, praying, reading, meditating, communicating, and the like, is a breach of the second command.—Every word that tends to the abusing of God's name, by rash swearing, minched oaths, carnal praying, formal devotion, and hypocritical protestations and profession, is a breach of the third command. Every idle and unprofitable word on week-days, and especially on Sabbath-days, whereon we are in a peculiar manner called to abstain from our own swords, is a breach of the fourth command.—Every disrespectful and dishonourable word of superiors, inferiors, or equals, and especially of parents and relations, whether natural, civil or spiritual, is a breach of the fifth command.—Every malicious, invective, bitter, offensive, and killing word, that cuts like a sword, is a breach of the sixth command. Every immodest, unchaste, sensual, and lascivious word, that savours of a vile, polluted mind, is a breach of the seventh command.—Every cheating word, as in buying and selling, when you vilify too much what you buy, and magnify too much what you sell, is a breach of the eight command.—Every railing word, every reproachful, backbiting, lying, and false accusation, whether to, or of your neighbours, is a breach of the ninth command. And, finally, every murmuring and fretful word, that favours of discontent, grudging, and envy, is a breach of the tenth command.
You then that home for justification by the works of the law, if you be not conscious of your ill works, what say you of your words? If in word you have offended, know, that by your words you shall be condemned. Why, say you, Who are they that want their faults of that sort? But, whatever words escape me, yet, I hope, I have a good heart go God. Alas, man! will you examine that heart of yours with the good law of God, and see if it be a good heart of not; and if it be found a transgressor of the law, then the fountain is defiled, and never call it good again. If you be chargeable with any of these transgressions of the law, that I have named, whether in your works or words, know, that the heart is the very fountain of these evil words and actions; for, out of the heart they proceed, Mat. xv. 19.; and if the fruit be evil, the root cannot be good: if the streams be bitter, the fountain cannot be sweet. The smoke of vain words and evil actions, that comes out at the chimney of your daily conversation, declares that there is a fire within doors, a furnace of corruption in the heart. But more particularly, will you set your heart and the law together a little, and see what it is.—Compare your heart with the first command, and you will find it to be nothing but a throne of iniquity, a receptacle of false gods, where a thousand other gods are worshipped. —Compare it with the second command, and then you will see it to be nothing but a chamber of imagery, filled with so many images, and misrepresentations of God.—Compare it with the third command, and you will find nothing else but a bench of blasphemy, issuing forth indignities and affronts to the name of God.— Compare it with the fourth command, and you will find it to be nothing but a dunghill of profanity, a play-house of idleness, and a sacrilegious waster of holy time.—Compare it with the fifth command, and you will see it to be nothing but a palace of pride, and a tower of self exaltation, setting yourself above all others.—Compare it with the sixth command, and here it will be found to be nothing but the devil's shambles, and a slaughterhouse of malice and murder; for, He that hates his brother in his heart, is a murderer.—Compare your heart with the seventh command, and you will find it nothing but a cage of unclean birds, unclean thoughts, vile affections.—Compare it with the eighth command, and then you will see it to be nothing but a tabernacle of robbers, though your hand should be free of theft and robbery: but if you have stolen all that your heart went after, many a horse and cow hath it stolen; yea, many a fine house and yard hath your heart robbed your neighbour of.—Compare it with the ninth command, and you will find it to be nothing but a fountain of calumny, either inventing ill tales of your neighbour, or exaggerating and magnifying any false report; or tickled with, and glad of any occasion to cast a blot upon his name.—Compare your hearts with the tenth command, and you will find it also to be nothing but a temple of idolatry: for, Covetousness is idolatry, says the apostle. As many objects as the covetous heart pursues after, so many idols does it fall down before—And now, tell me, after all, Is that a good heart? Nay, alas! every imagination of it is evil, and evil continually; yea, it is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.
Thus sin is a transgression of the law, whether in heart, speech, or behaviour; and thus we are all transgressors: yea, though we could free ourselves of actual sins, which is impossible, and say that we are clean in thought, word, and action: yet as we have sinned in Adam, Rom. v. 12; so our very natures are sinful and corrupt, and destitute of conformity to the law; as void of righteousness, as Christ was free of sin; and altogether filthy, as Christ is altogether lovely. The law requires holiness of nature, heart and way, and curses every one that continues not in all things required therein, Gal. iii. 10. Why then, the meaning of that word to a sinner, If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments, is as much as to say, O sinner, you have forfeit eternal life by your not keeping the commandment, and thou art doomed to eternal death, which, as sure as God lives, will be your everlasting lot, if the law get not a better keeper than you in your room and stead: the reason then, why I declare you transgressors of the law, is, that I may recommend Christ the more to you as the end of the law for righteousness. “Sin is a transgression of the law.”
2. Consider it as it is an opposition to God, the Law-giver: it is called enmity against God. Some have a notion of sin, that it is a transgression of God's law, and yet not a due sense of sin in the intrinsical evil of it, as it is an opposition to God's nature: as every actual sin, whether of omission or commission, is a walking contrary to God, Lev. xxvi. 27.; so sin, in its nature, is a contrariety to God's nature, and a despising of him, as well as displeasing to him, 1 Sam. ii. 30.: yea, nothing is so opposite to God, as sin. God is wisdom, sin is folly; God is holiness, sin is filthiness; God is justice, sin is iniquity; God is goodness itself, sin is badness itself; God is faithfulness, sin is treachery; God is light, sin is darkness; God is life, sin is death; God is beauty, sin is deformity; God is majesty, sin is baseness; God is love, sin is enmity. Sin is so opposite to God, that if the least drop of it should get into his nature, he would cease to be God. The wicked think, because God is patient and long-suffering, therefore he approves of their sin, and is of the same judgment with themselves; “Because I held my peace, thou thoughtest that I was altogether like thyself; but I will reprove thee, and set thine iniquities in order before thee,” Psalm 50. 21. Know, when you have any such thoughts of God as this, you do blaspheme God; for, if God did approve of your sin, he would cease to be God, he would be God no longer: why so, think you? Even because then God would not be infinitely holy: now, holiness is his being; therefore, if he should cease to be infinitely holy, he would cease to be God: so opposite is sin to God, that if he did not hate sin as much as he does, he would cease to be God. If his hatred of sin were less than it is, then he would not be infinitely holy; and infinite holiness must needs have infinite hatred against sin. This is the very thing that makes sin to be an infinite evil, objectively considered: and whatever some may think of sin, surely we cannot speak enough of the evil of it. You that have but light thoughts of sin, you have light and slight thoughts of God: and you that have light thoughts of sin, have light thoughts of Christ; it cannot be a light matter, that the eternal God gave his eternal Son to be a sacrifice for, otherwise we had been eternal sacrifices to his incensed justice. The more dishonourably that we speak of sin, the more honourably must we speak of Christ, the Saviour that saves from it. Nothing exposes sin so much as the gospel of Christ, declaring him to be the sacrifice for sin; which says, that the infinite hatred that God bears to sin, is equal to the infinite love that he bears to his own Son; and that his hatred to sin is as deep, as his love to Christ is high; and that the depth of the one, and the height of the other, are both equally infinite. As Christ's death is the great sacrifice for sin, that we commemorate at this occasion; so the view of the infinite value thereof, relates to the infinite evil of sin. As there would be no need for Christ, as a Saviour, if there were no sin; so there would be no need for such a Saviour as he is, if sin were not such an evil as it is: and as the guilt of it cannot be expiated without such an infinite ransom as he gave; so the power of it cannot be destroyed but by such an almighty arm as he hath, who alone is able to save to the uttermost.—But this leads me, having thus far touched the nature, to speak next of the strength of sin.
II. The second thing proposed here is, to enquire a little into the strength of sin. The devil is called the strong man, yet he is without; but sin is the strong man within; or, as the apostle calls it, the old man, Eph. iv. 22.; where he exhorts even the saints to put off the old man. Sin is no child, but a man: it is no young stripling, but an ancient, strong, old man; one that is grown in years, and carries power, command, authority with it in the best of God's children: and if it many times powerfully prevails in and over them, how powerfully does it reign in the rest of the world? But, that the strength of sin may be farther opened, I mall lay before you, 1. Some of the qualities of the strength of sin. 2. The degrees of its strength, positive, comparative, and superlative.
Ist, As to the quality of the strength of sin: what sort of a strength it hath, may appear in these ten qualities and bad properties of it.
1. Sin hath a commanding strength, requiring obedience, and obliging its servants, to obey it in the lusts thereof, Rom. vi. 12. 16. Indeed, the commands of sin. are very unlawful and unreasonable; yet it commands men to go, and they go; to come, and they come: and men obey the commands of sin, by disobeying the commands of God; for, when they do not what God injoins them, they do what sin requires them.
2. Sin hath a condemning strength: as sin is a great commander, so the commanding power of sin, when yielded to, delivers us over to the condemning power of sin. Now, what this condemning power of sin is, the apostle shows plainly, Jam. i. 15. “Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” Sin is a faithless and shameless tyrant and tempter; for, at first it promises life and immunity from death, saying, like the devil that sinned from the beginning, “You shall not surely die:” yet, no sooner does a man obey the command of sin, than it condemns him to death; “The wages of sin is death,” Rom. vi. 23. Hence,
3. Sin hath a deceiving strength. See Heb. iii. 13. Exhort one-another while it is called to-day, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin: hence the lusts of the flesh are called deceitful lusts, Eph. iv. 22. Sin powerfully deceives, by blinding the mind, corrupting the judgment, hardening the heart, alluring the affections, and persuading the sinner that there are some things forbidden in the law that are good and profitable, and may be done without any scruple of conscience. Sometimes it will persuade the greedy-minded worldly man, that is thinking how to enrich himself, that to do it by the subtilty of his pate, the forgery of his tongue, the villainy of his hand, and by violent means, is an easier and sweeter way than to toil and labour to enrich himself by honest means. Sometimes it will persuade the sinner, that there is no hell, no sear of punishment; or, if there be, yet he may afterwards repent, and prevent it; and so he is emboldened to sin, and deceived.
4. Sin hath a working strength; When we were in the flesh, the motions of sin that were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death, Rom. vii. 5. And, ver. 8. “Sin taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence.” Sin, then, and natural corruption, is no idle thing; no, by no means: it hath an affecting and working power, to bring forth evil notions. Hence, James i. 15. “When lust is conceived, it bringeth forth sin:” and the flesh is said to lust against the Spirit, Gal. v. 17. By reason of corruption, there is an inclination and a proneness of all the faculties of the soul to that which is evil.
5. Sin hath a conquering and captivating strength: the children of God themselves are many times brought into captivity to it; “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin, which is in my members,” Rom. vii. 23. And if it sometimes carry all before it, in a manner, where there is grace, how must it be where there is no grace, and where the man is under the law, and not under grace? Surely it carries them whithersoever it pleases, except in so far as the man is under the restraint of providence.
6. Sin hath a defiling and polluting strength; “To the pure all things are pure; but to them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure, but even their mind and conscience is defiled,” Tit. i. 15. Sin defiles the mind, defiles the conscience, defiles the will, defiles the affections, defiles the memory, defiles the imagination, defiles the thoughts, defiles the words, defiles the actions, and defiles and stains all the duties the man puts his hand to: it defiles his hearing, defiles his reading, defiles his praying, defiles his meditating, defiles his communicating, defiles his conferring with others; and, in a word, defiles soul and body, inward and outward man; yea, defiles and infects neighbours, friends, strangers, and all that come near to it.
7. Sin hath a dementing strength, to make people mad; They are mad upon idols, Jer. 1. 38. Sin makes men nothing but mad fools, and beside themselves.—We reckon him a fool that would drink a cup of poison: that is what the sinner does. Is he not a fool that would despise his food? So do sinners, that despise Christ and the gospel. Is he not a mad fool, that would prefer a shadow to a substance? So are they, that prefer earth to, heaven, and the things of time to these of eternity. Hence also,
8. Sin hath a transforming strength, insomuch, that when it comes to a height, it turns the soul to a devil. This must be a great strength, that can turn a man to a devil. What are wicked men, in whom sin reigns, and rages, and is come to a height, but like so many devils? It can even turn disciples into devils; “I have chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil,” John vi. 70. Yea, such is the strength of it, that it can, in some respect, turn a saint to a devil, at least to act the part of one: hence Christ says to Peter, a saint, Get thee behind. me, Satan. The godly man, out of a mistaken affection to his Master, spoke the language of Satan: and therefore received this sharp reprimand from his Lord. Ye need not wonder at this, for sin turned angels to devils; the sin that the angels did commit, presently turned them, to devils: therefore you need not think strange, if sin hath such a transforming power, as to turn men and women into devils.
9. Sin hath a weakening and wounding strength; it weakens the hands even-of saints, that they cannot do what they would, Rom. vii. 15. How much more is the Christless sinner under an utter inability and incapacity to do any good thing? Nay, we are by nature without strength; for the strength of sin hath taken away the strength of man. So weak by reason of remaining sin and corruption is the saint, that he is not sufficient of himself to think any thing as of himself, but his sufficiency is of God, 2 Cor. iii. 5. What then can a Christless sinner do? Let Arminians, who magnify the power of nature, tell. Sin hath weakened our hands; yea, and wounded us to death. For,
10. Sin hath a killing and slaying strength; Sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me, Rom. vii. 11. Every sin we commit, is a wound and a stab to our souls. And, Oh! my friends, we have wounded ourselves with sin, and rendered ourselves liable to eternal death. Let us not remain and die in our wounds, without searching and seeking for recovery, relief, and redress. As the smart of a wound sends us to the surgeon, may the smart of our sins send us to the physician of souls, to Jesus Christ: his precious blood alone can cure that deadly wound. The Son of man is lifted up, like the brazen serpent among the Israelites, that whosoever look to him may be healed of the deadly wound. If you say, what warrant have I to look to him for healing? Why, you need no better than his own call and command, `Look to me, and be saved.' But, will I come speed, and be successful? Yea, “Him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out;” even so, him that looks to me, I will not fail to save.
But, say you, my wounds are old and festered, and, I fear, incurable; I have had them now these many years: If I had come to Christ in time, perhaps, he might have cured me; but now, I think, he will not.
To this we reply; It is, indeed, very dangerous to sight many years under Satan's banner, where you shall get fear upon fear, and wound upon wound, to the hazarding of your soul's everlasting death. The danger is exceeding great, and it will be a wonder of mercy, if Christ undertake the cure: but, since wonders of mercy are many times performed by him, therefore, be your wounds old or new, it is all a matter to him, and to the Father's infinite, boundless, bottomless mercy in him; and therefore, in a way of looking to the mercy seat, sprinkled with the blood of Christ, there is yet hope in Israel concerning you.—If you say, Such is the strength of sin that you have been speaking of, and the strength of unbelief, that I cannot come, I cannot believe, I cannot turn to God in Christ. Why, Sirs, for what end do we point out the strength of sin to you, but that you may see your utter inability to save yourselves, and that you may look to him, in whom almighty strength is, for working faith, and drawing you? Therefore, O cry to him, and plead with him, that the right-hand of the Lord may do valiantly, in delivering you: but rest not satisfied in saying you cannot come, while the matter is, you will not come; you have no strength, because you have no will. If you were willing, strength is at hand; the day of your willingness is the day of his power; “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power.” When the will is gained to Christ, the power of Christ hath been there, and will be more and more.—But, that you may see still the more need of the strength of Christ, take a further view of the strength of sin,
2dly, In the degrees of its strength. And here you may consider the strength of sin in a positive, comparative, and superlative manner.
[1.] Positively, sin hath a manifold strength. If we look further into the scriptural account thereof, you will find, that,
1. Sin hath the strength of a law; hence called the law of sin and death, Rom. viii. 2. What this law requires, that men do by their commissions; and what this law forbids, that men forbear by their omissions. And what is required by this law? Even all acts of enmity against God. And, what is forbidden by it? Even all acts of duty towards God.
2. Sin has the strength of a king. Where there is a law, there is a lawgiver, a legislator; and sin is both law and lawgiver, for it reigns like a king: hence sin is said to reign, Rom. vi. 12. “Let not sin reign in your mortal body.”
3. Sin hath the strength of a conqueror. Some kings are weak and impotent, and cannot be stiled conquerors; but sin is both a king and a conqueror, a victorious conqueror. All the myriads of fallen angels, that are now devils; and all the millions of fallen men that have been, and are in the world, are so many black trophies of the conquest thereof.
4. Sin hath the strength of a tower and strong hold: and hence the weapons of the gospel-warfare are said to be mighty thro' God, to the pulling down these strong holds, 2 Cor. x. 4, 5. And many a pull do they take before they be pulled wholly down, even though every pull that does any execution, must be a pull of omnipotency.
5. Sin hath the strength of an army. Sin, even in believers, is compared to an army; they are said to have in them a company of two armies, an army of lusts and an army of graces; and the former army sometimes prevails against the latter. How strong must the army of hell be in these that want grace, and have no army to oppose it?
6. Sin hath the strength of a mountain, the advantage of the ground, even in the children of grace; their corruptions, like the Canaanites, have possession, old possession, and they keep the mountain: yea, sin and corruption themselves, are compared to high and strong mountains, mountains of Bether, and hills of separation. When Christ comes, he is said to come skipping on the mountains, and leaping over the hills. “Who art thou, O great mountain? Before our Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain.”
7. Sin hath the strength of a prison; it is a dark prison, a close prison, a strong prison: and sinners are called prisoners; and hence the work of a Saviour is called the opening of the prison, Isa. lxi. 1.
8. Sin hath the strength of a chain. Of all men, staves are in the worst circumstances; of all staves, prisoners are worst; and of all prisoners, these that are in chains and setters. Sinners are not only staves, but prisoners; not only prisoners but in chains within their prison, held in the bond of iniquity, shut up in unbelief, as in a prison and chain: and so strait is the chain, that their hands are in chains, they cannot work; their feet in chains,
“they cannot walk; their head chained down, that they cannot look up to God for mercy; their heart in chains, that they cannot so much as desire the Lord Jesus to loose, and save, and deliver them. But then,
[2.] Consider the strength of sin comparatively, and you will find it stronger than many strong things.
I. Sin is stronger than all the children of men; for it hath made them all its captives; yea and willing subject:. As it is said of Christ, “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power;” so, such is the strength of sin, that we may say, it hath made millions of willing subjects and staves to it in the day of its power; and the day of its hellish power is always till a day of divine power come to conquer it.
2. Sin is stronger thin affliction, no rod will drive it away; Isa. xi. 13. “The people turn not to him that smites them, neither do they seek the Lord:” nay, they are apt to revolt more and more; Isa. lvii. 17. “For the iniquity of his covetousness was I wroth, and smote him; yet he went on frowardly in the way of his heart.”
3. As it is stronger than affliction, so it is stronger than conviction. Many go to hell with a bosom-full of convictions: and, does not sin hurry people to run its errands by a multitude of wicked actions, and that over the belly of a thousand conviction?, conscience flying in their face for omitting such a duty, or committing such a trespass; yet sin masters it.
4. Sin is stronger than warnings, calls, and all external means; for it makes men flight all these as trifles, and Hand out against them. Sin is 11 >t daunted with the threatenings of hell and wrath; “Because sentence against an evil work is not speedily executed, therefore the heart of the children of men is set in them to do evil.” Neither can it be allured with the promises of the gospel; “Who hath believed our report?” Again,
5. Sin is stronger than resolutions, vows, and promises. Perhaps you have resolved an hundred times, and solemnly vowed against such sins; but all your vows and resolutions have been but like flax or tow before the sire of a new temptation. Your legal weapons of warfare against sin are too weak; your leviathan lusts, they but laugh at the shaking of your spear. Again,
6. Sin is stronger than the world. The frowns and flatteries of the world are very strong, very deceitful and ensnaring; but sin in the heart is yet more strong and deceitful: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” Sin is stronger than all the good examples and good education of the world, let be the evil things in it.
7. But no wonder that it be stronger than the world; for it is stronger than the devil, the God of this world. The devil may tempt, but he cannot compel, as sin does; he may work upon the fancy, but he cannot conquer the will, as sin does: sin does all that work to his hand, and so his work is the more easy.
8. Sin is stronger, than death and the grave. Death itself cannot kill sin: death hath destroyed millions of millions of men and women, but it never destroyed one sin. The power of death is very great, insomuch that none among mere men could ever yet either withstand the arrest of death, nor break the prison of death, which is the grave; yet it is easier to bring a dead body out of the grave, and to raise it to life; than to raise a dead soul out of the grave of sin. The dead bodies will not resist, as the soul dead in trespasses will do. Yea,
9. Sin is stronger than hell; for all the flames of hell cannot burn out the dross of sin and corruption: all the torments of the damned will not make them cease from blaspheming the name of God, Rev. xvi. 9. 11.; where you may learn, that all the torments of hell will not make a man repent, but rather increase his impenitency and augment his blasphemy. What shall I say?
10. Sin is not only stronger than the sufferings of hell, but stronger than the suburbs of heaven; I mean, it is stronger than real grace, which is the beginning of heaven. It is not only stronger than common grace, fer common grace can hardly stand before a common temptation; but stronger than real habitual grace. Peter had a large stock of habitual grace, yet sin was stronger, and brought him down to the ground by a base denial of his Lord: Paul had a great measure of true grace, and yet he was led captive to the law of sin that was in his members, Rom. vii. 23. till a new recruit of auxiliary grace came from the Lord Jesus to him. Sin is not only stronger than the common motions of the Spirit, which men through the power of sin do resist every day; but it is stronger than special influences, formerly received, till new supplies of influences come from the glorious Head; stronger than former influences, till a new communication came; stronger than former communications, till once a new manifestation come; stronger than former manifestations, till new divine aids still succeed. Thus it is stronger than the very suburbs of heaven; and you need not think strange of this: for, what if I shall say, and prove, that sin is stronger than perfect holiness, and the formal immediate vision of God in heaven, when it is possible for sin to get in its hand there, as you know it did once among the glorious angels? Notwithstanding of the strong bulwark of perfect: holiness and formal' vision of God that they were blessed with, sin brake in upon them, and brought down legions of them: it overcame them, so as now they are devils, under the rule and government of sin. If sin then brought devils and men from their excellency while they were in their bell estate, you need not think strange that we say sin is stronger than that which may be called the suburbs of heaven; and therefore, little wonder that you find sin to be so strong, that it is much stronger than your prayers and tears: may be, for this you besought the Lord thrice, as Paul did in a like case; yea, perhaps, three hundred times, and yet the bow of sin abides in strength. Alas! Sin is stronger than prayers and tears, stronger than sighs and groans; it is stronger than afflictions and enlargements, stronger than sermons and sacraments. Oh! a greater strength than all that, is requisite for pulling down the strength of sin; and if you get a view of the strength of sin this day, so as to be led out of yourself, and out of your duties, and a little further than means and ordinances to the strength of the Redeemer, it would be a very good communion season.
[3.] Consider the strength of sin superlatively, or in the superlative degree. I must tell you, sin is not only a strong thing, and stronger than many things that I have named, but also it is the strongest thing in nature, the strongest thing in hell, and the strongest thing out of heaven. Particularly,
I. Sin is the strongest weight and burden, the strongest pressure that ever was, the most burdensome thing in the world; for it is a burden to the great God: No wonder then that the whole creation groan under the burden of it; for it is a burden to God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: God is said to be weary with it, speaking after the manner of men; “Ye have wearied me with your iniquities,” Isa. xliii. 24. It was a burden to Christ, that made him sweat great drops of blood; it is a burden to the Holy Ghost, therefore called a vexing, grieving, and doing despite to him. What a burden will it be to men that die in it? And what a burden do the people t>f God find it? Nothing presses them down so much as this?
2. Sin is the strongest sting, the strongest torment: it is the sting of all stings, the sting of sorrow, the sting of affliction, the sting of desertion, the sting of death, as here in the context, The sting of death is sin. The pains of death are nothing to the sting of death: the pain is tolerable, but the sting, is intolerable.
3. As it is the strongest sting, so it is the strongest poison: if but a drop of that poison could possibly get into the nature of God, he would cease to be, as I formerly noticed. What a mighty poison would it be, that if one drop of it were cast into the ocean, it would poison the whole ocean? So it is here; and little wonder then, when some of this poison entered the human and angelical natures, it poisoned them, and turned them to devils and monsters. There is no antidote against it, but the blood of Christ.
4. Sin is the strongest plague and disease that ever was; you that know the plagues of your own hearts, will know this. Sin is the mother of all maladies and soul-diseases, and is a compound of all. The worst sever in the world is the inflamed lusts of the flesh; the most dangerous tympany is the towering pride of the heart, and swelling of the vain mind; the most fearful flux is the bloody flux of sin and corruption. O what divine power is requisite for drying up this bloody issue! What dropsy is so deadly as that of drinking in iniquity as the ox drinketh water? What apoplexy and palsy is so direful as that by which people fall into mischief, and hinders all spiritual breathing and motion! And what lethargy so lamentable as that of spiritual security and stupidity! The world is an hospital of diseased souls. O if the Physician Jesus Christ would come and heal!
5. Sin is the strongest tyrant, and the most cruel. It hath a tyranny most lawless and intolerable. There is not any other oppressor but will give some rest sometimes, at least to these that are under his slavery; as cruel Pharaoh gave the Israelites leave to refresh themselves with meat, and drink, and steep: but sin gives no rest to its miserable captives and staves; for, whether they eat, drink or steep, it always exacts of them the service of sin. Augustine speaking of the tyranny of sin, even over the people of God, “Many times, says he, sin does that “when they are sleeping, that it cannot do when they “are waking.” And if sin be so tyrannical towards the children of God, how great is its tyranny towards its staves? Surely there is no peace to the wicked, no rest for them. Satan put it in Judas's heart to betray Jesus; and behold he would not let him rest till he had performed that evil suggestion: the devil was so strict with him, that he would not let him eat his meat, but hastened him from the table to the treason. Thus Amnon, being incited by his own devilish lusts to defile his sister Tamar, was so inwardly vexed, that his very flesh wore away, and his mind had no rest; he could not eat, or drink, or steep, till he had satisfied his lust. What an intolerable tyrant is the man's inordinate affections, giving him no rest day nor night! As it is said of some, Prov. iv. 16. They sleep not, except they have done mischief; their sleep is taken away, unless they cause some to fall.
6. Sin is the strongest witchcraft; Gal. iii. 1. “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, says the apostle, that you should not obey the truth, before whose, eyes Christ hath been evidently set forth crucified among you?” People think it a terrible thing to hear that such a body is bewitched or possest of the devil; but I must tell all you who will not receive the gospel, you are bewitched; sin hath bewitched you: and to be bodily possest with a legion of devils, is not so great a misery, as to be under the power of one sin. A man possest is an object of pity: thus Christ pitied the man whose name was Legion: but sin makes a man the object of Christ's hatred. When God gave up Job's body to the devil, why did not the devil take possession of him, says one of the fathers? “Why, “says he, because, though he had taken possession of his body, and made him fret and tear himself, it had not been his sin, but his affliction: whereas, to bring him to sin, and curse God, was the great thing he fought after.” Therefore, to be given up to sin, is a greater evil than to be possest. Ye that are parents, and have children whom you have cause to sear that they are given up to the power of sin, know, it is worse than if they were possest with the devil; therefore, such should come more earnestly to Christ with their children than these in the gospel that brought to Christ their children possest with devils: they are worse than bewitched.
7. Sin is the strongest waster. Oh! how mightily does sin waste you! Sin wastes your soul and body; it wastes your time, and wastes your talents; it wastes your opportunities, it wastes your strength, and wastes your spirit, and all to no purpose. Oh! how many wasted Sabbaths, sermons, wasted communions, wasted meals, and wasted mercies, all wasted and abused by sin!
8. Sin is the strongest death. Sin itself is spiritual death, and spiritual death is the most strong and powerful death; inasmuch as the soul is superior to the body, so much is spiritual death more powerful and terrible than temporal or bodily death; and insomuch as the cause is more considerable than the effect, so much is spiritual death more powerful and dreadful than eternal death: I mean, sin is more dreadful than hell itself, as it is a place of torment; for, as the strongest cord that draws people to hell is sin; so the strongest flame to torment the sinner there, is sin. The wrath of God would cease, if sin did not feed and increase it.—Thus much of the strength of sin.
III. The third thing here proposed was, To show how the strength of sin discovers itself. Here I may show you, I. At what seasons especially does the strength of sin discover itself. 2. By what effects.
Ist, At what seasons more especially does the strength of sin discover itself?
I. When men should be most holy, sin readily discovers itself to be most strong. In the unregenerate, sin is equally strong at all times, but not equally evident. Some, will say, Oh! my heart is never so ill as on the Sabbath-day: why, perhaps it is just the same thing at other times, only the strength of it may be more evident then. In the regenerate, sin is sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker; but ordinarily it discovers its strength most when they would most gladly be quit of it; “When I would do good, evil is present with me,” Rom. vii. 21. It is in this case many times, as with the children of these that observe the worship of God daily in their families, they find the children most fretful and ill-natured in time of worship, when they ought to be best. Perhaps it may be so, indeed; and the tempter may have a hand in it for disturbing the worship of God: but, for ordinary, it is not then that they are worst, but then they are most noticed.
2. Sin discovers its strength most, when a heart change comes to be sought after. It is easy to wear Christ's livery for a while, by a fair profession; but when he comes to seek the heart, there is no hearing on that side of the head. People may soon be induced to give some compliment to Christ, to give him the outward man, to give him the hand: but to give him the heart, is another matter; for, when it comes to that, the strength of sin appears. And then,
3. When a darling lust is demanded, then the strength of sin appears; for the man will quit any thing for Christ but that. Naaman will part with any thing save a bow in the house of Rimmon: the young man in the gospel will hold on with Christ, till Christ touch him on the fore, and strike upon his covetousness; then he goes away sorrowful.
4. When long custom hath taken place, then the strength of sin appears; for, Can the Ethiopian change his colour, or the leopard his spots? No more can ye that are accustomed to do evil, learn to do well. It is hard, yea, extremely difficult to pull up an old tree by the roots.
5. When a time of spiritual drousiness takes place, then the strength of sin discovers itself. Take the heart while awake, and it can then pray, and wait, and praise, and worship: but let drousiness come on, it cannot watch with Christ one hour, for all his intreaty; for then the eyes are heavy; then is the hour and power of darkness. When the believer is waking and watchful, believing and holy, then the power of God appears; it is the hour of God's power: bat when spiritual drousiness comes on, then the power of sin appears; the soul cannot stir hand nor foot.
6. When a time of temptation comes, then the strength of sin appears. The person will be very meek, very modest, very chaste, very moderate, very devout, and very innocent like, when there is no temptation, no opportunity for sin's working; and at such a time sin will be very silent, very quiet, very still, and fast asleep: but let a strong temptation, and a strong lust meet together, then the strength of sin stirs up itself. Sin is like a thief, who would seem to be a very honest man till a fit opportunity come, and then his hand falls to. “It is, as one says, like the spider, that never appears out of her hole till the she be intangled in her net; then she appears, and destroys the poor creature, and carries it along with her.” When temptation is at a distance, perhaps, you hope you will withstand it; you pray, and promise, and what not? and sin lets you be saying, and never a word from it, till the new temptation comes, and then it appears with new strength.
7. When a time of trial and temptation comes, .sin discovers its power. It may be, you can preach patience and submission to others in affliction; but when it comes to your own door, then you will find the heart rebelling against the providence, and that it is easier to give an advice than to take it. The power of enmity falls a working, as against the preceptive, so against the providential will of God.
8. When difficult duties are pressed, then the strength of sin appears.—When duties cross to flesh and blood, cross to self and self-righteousness are pressed, what! must I reprove even my superiors and great ones when they err? This says sin, will expose you to their wrath and indignation. Must I profess Christ, even before a wicked company? Nay says sin, this will expose you to shame and reproach. Must I bear with injuries and affronts? Nay, says sin, flesh and blood cannot bear with that. Must I deny myself, and all my best duties and righteousness? Nay, says sin, this is a hard saying, who can bear it? May I not hope that my duties will profit me as to my acceptance and justification before God? No, no; the heart casts out with God, and sin shows its strength in these cases.—Again, in a time when all diligence in duty is required, as well as deniedness thereunto; and when the law is urged to be regarded as a rule of obedience, as well as renounced as a rule of acceptance: What! to be stedfast and immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord; to make religion the constant trade; to be holy in duties, and holy in the intervals of duties: the strength of sin here appears in its mighty opposition to this kind of life. A man will be content to pray, and hear, and read, and sing, if he may be allowed a latitude when he is done; but to be always praying, always watching, and always waiting on the Lord, the carnal heart resists this like death: it may be restrained a while, like a stream that is dammed up for a time; but it breaks out with greater violence at last.
9. When the commandment comes powerfully, sin revives, and discovers its power, Rom. vii. 9. The spirituality of the law, wakens up the malignity of sin.
10. In a time when gospel-light shines most clearly, then the strength of sin appears most evidently. The law of works, and legal doctrine may be preached, and yet the strength of sin never touched, never truly discovered; yea, the legal heart may fall in with the legal strain, and comply with all the legal duties and means of life, and yet the strength of sin more and more increased, though hidden under a legal covert; for, The strength of sin is the law, and therefore sin does not differ with the law as it is a covenant of works: But, let the gospel-light shine clearly, then sin will discover itself more evidently, and rage more desperately, unless it be conquered by gospel-grace. Why, because though the law of works, or the works of the law and the power of sin, are no opposites, but friends that live and die together; yet the gospel of grace, and the power of sin, are direct opposites: for nothing in the world can destroy the power of sin, but the graces of the gospel; and therefore the strength of sin resists the grace of the gospel with main force. Gospel-grace seeks no less than the very life of sin; therefore sin must now sight for its life. Wonder not that the world opposes the gospel so much, in conjunction with the god of this world, who blinds the minds of them that believe not, &c. Neither wonder if sin appear very strong, where the gospel shines very clear; or if there be the greatest opposition, where there is the clearest light. Men naturally understand something of the law, that says, Do, and live; work, and get your wages: and this natural understanding is what men pride themselves in, so as in the pride of their heart they reject the gospel, which is wholly supernatural and divine, and wherein Christ is set up as the only Potentate that can demolish the strength of sin, by executing his saving offices in us. But, behold, pride of wisdom opposes him as a Prophet, and so man's folly is increased; pride of righteousness opposes him in his priestly office, and so the guilt of sin is increased; pride of strength opposes him as to his kingly office, and so the power of sin is increased: and thus, through an evil heart of unbelief, they depart from the living God. The gospel sets up Christ against the strength of sin, and therefore the strength of sin appears in arms against the gospel.—Thus you see at what seasons, and on what occasion, especially, the strength of sin appears.
2idly, By what effects does the strength of sin discover itself? I am not here to run through all the sad effects of sin: otherwise I might show how it brought angels out of heaven, and Adam out of Paradise; how it brought fire and brimstone upon Sodom, and a deluge of water on the old world; and what confusion, calamity, and misery it hath brought into the world; what temporal, spiritual, and eternal judgments it brings on: these are common topics, and too large a field for me now to insist upon; therefore I confine myself to that effect of sin that the text and context leads me to. Know then, that the strength of sin appears in the Sting of it, and the sting of death is sin: there is the great discovery that the strength of sin makes of itself.
And there are two deaths I would here speak a little of, as the greatest discoveries of the strength of sin, namely, 1. The death of the sinner. 2. The death of the Saviour. Both these deaths discover the powerful sting and mighty strength of sin.
[1.] The death of the sinner discovers the strength of sin; for, The wages of sin is death. And here, first, Sinning angels were stung to death by their sin; and hence we are told, Jude 6. “That the angels that kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, are reserved in everlasting chains under darkness, unto the judgment of the great day.” And next, sinning man was stung to death; By one man sin entered into the world, and death by Jin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned, Rom. v. 12, The<death of the sinner, whereof death is the sting and strength, is threefold, namely, external, internal, and eternal: external relates to the body, internal relates to the soul, and eternal relates to the soul and body for ever.—Death external, or of the body and outward man, includes not only the separation of soul and body, to the privation of bodily life; but also all the pains and sickness, public calamities, personal miseries, and grievous diseases that do attend a present life, or are the forerunners and attendants of death: all which are parts of this sting and strength of sin.—Death internal, includes soul-defilement and pollution; soul-debasement and degradation to the rank of beasts; soul-disturbance, disorder, and confusion; soul-separation from God, and alienation from the life of God; the life of God being gone, and the candle of the Lord put out, so as nothing remains but the darkness of death and hell. Oh! how great a loss is the loss of God, the loss of his favour, his image, his fellowship, and sweet communion with him! All the life of the carnal man, who is but dead while he lives, is at best (instead of righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost, which are part of the spiritual life) nothing but a little while's eating, and drinking, and playing, and laughing, and living in filthiness, and enjoying no better pleasure than brute beasts; but so much the worse, that, having an immortal soul, the issue is terrible, nothing remaining but torment and terror of mind and conscience whenever it begins to awaken.—Death eternal, includes everlasting separation from the presence of God: indeed, the former deaths were not so terrible to the sinner, if there were not two sad words and sadder things following thereupon, namely, judgment and eternity, that tread upon the heels of death; for, whenever the soul is separate from the body, it must see the things it would never believe, nor seriously think upon, that verily there is a God that judgeth in the earth; and that, dying in sin, and out of Christ, it must receive from that just Judge a sentence of excommunication from the glorious and joyful presence of God, and that for ever and ever; besides the suffering of everlasting torment, as the due demerit of sin.—Thus, in the death of the sinner, the strength of sin is discovered. But more especially,
[2.] The death of the Saviour shews forth the strength of sin above all other things; for sin was the cause of it, and the very sting by which he suffered unto death. Every life, whether it be the life of beast, the life of men, the life of angels, or the life of God, hath an excellency according to its kind; and the more excellent the life is, the more powerful, terrible, and hurtful is the cause of the privation thereof. “The life of a flie, says Augustine, is more excellent than the sun; because the sun, though an excellent creature, hath not life; but the flie, though little, yet it hath life: it shows the excellency of God to make such a living creature.” But if the life of a beast, or insect, be so excellent, how much more the life of a man! And if the life of a man, or an angel, be excellent, what infinite excellency is there in the life of God! Now, the principal excellency of the life of man lay at first in this, that he was in the image of God; and how terrible is that sting of sin, that could deprive man of that excellent life, so as to strike at God's image in man, both to deface and destroy it! But if sin strike at God himself, and aim at the highest life, even the life of God; and if the stroak reach so far, as to kill and take away the life of that person who was God as well as man; then we may see and conclude, that the strength of sin is inconceivably more great and terrible than it can be seen to be in any other glass. But so it is, though God cannot die, and though the divine nature of Christ could not be touched with the sting, yet he, who was God-man in one person, was pressed down to death with the strength, and wounded even to death with the sting of sin. And this one thing makes a greater discovery of the strength of sin, than all the torments of the damned to eternity can do. In the red glass of the sufferings of Christ you may see more of the power and strength of sin, than if God should let you down to hell, and make you see all the tortures and torments of the damned. In order, therefore, to your having a clearer insight into the strength of sin, O Sirs, look to a crucified Christ: look upon his agony and cross, when he was wounded for our sin. O see the sting of sin, and the strength of it, when it made the Son of God to say, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death, Mat. xxvi. 38. There the sting was sticking in his soul, while he was under the apprehension of God's wrath, and was about to bear the wrath that sin deserved. Perhaps, upon the sight of sin, you content yourself with some little flight sorrow, saying, I am sorry for it; Lord have mercy on me; and so it passes away: but when the weight of sin was lying on Christ's back, it made his soul sorrowful, compassed about with sorrow, and sorrowful even unto death, and that for our sins. See the strength of sin in the sufferings of Christ, expressed also in that word, Mark xiv. 33. He began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy: amazed at the dreadfulness of that cup of wrath for sin, which he, as Surety, behoved to drink. He knew very well, and understood perfectly, what that wrath of God was; and this made him stand amazed. Many hear of God's wrath, but are never amazed at it, never affected with it, at all Christless sinners ought to be: but, alas! they do not understand it, they do not know what it is for a creature to stand before the wrath of an infinite Deity; they know not the power of his wrath, therefore they are not amazed. Christ saw to the bottom of that cup, and to the dregs thereof; and when he was to drink it, he stood amazed: how great then is the strength of sin, that procured this amazement of the Son of God !—See again the strength of sin in Christ's sufferings for it, while it is said, he was in an agony, Luke xxii. 44.; that is, as it were, in a Combat; in combat with the infinite justice and wrath of God, and with the dreadful threatenings and curse of the law, that sin brought upon him, when he stood our Surety. How great is the strength of sin, that put the Son of God, the Strength of Israel, the Captain of salvation, into such an agony!—Again, it is said, Mark xiv. 35. that he fell down to the ground; and Mat. xxvi. 39. that he fell on his face: Alas! Sirs, when he, that upholds the heavens and the earth by his power, fell grovelling on the earth, when the weight and burden of sin was upon him; how strong must: sin be! Christ fell upon his face, and fell to the ground; surely that weight, that made Christ fall to the ground, would have pressed all the angels of heaven, and men on earth to the bottomless gulf of despair. If all the strength of all the men that ever were from the beginning of the world, and of all the angels in heaven were put into one, and that person had the weight upon him that Christ had, it would make him sink to the lowest hell, and ly there for ever.. If Christ had not been God, as well as man, he could never have borne it, but would have funk down eternally: but though he was God as well as man, yet such was the strength of sin, that under its burden he funk down to the ground.—Again, the strength of it appears, in that it made him to sweat great “chops of blood, Luke xxiii. 44. The word signifies Great Clots of blood; blood thickened into clots. Never was there such a sweat, and that upon the cold ground, in a cold winter night, and nothing else upon him to make him sweat but the burden of sin, and the weight of wrath that it brought upon him.—But again, how does the strength of sin appear, in his crying under this weight, Father, is it he possible, let this cup pass from me ? And thus he cried three times. Why, this was the very end for which he came to the world, to drink that cup; and he knew that the salvation of an elect world of poor sinners depended upon his drinking of it: and, was he now unwilling? No, by no means: but knowing the dreadfulness of it, when it was put to his head, he put it away, as it were, saying, Father, is it be possible, let this cup pass from me: but now he sees, if he drink it not, all the children of men must eternally perish; therefore, he put it to his mouth again the second time; but knowing the dreadfulness of it, he takes it away again, and cries, “Father, if it be possible, let it pass away from me.” But, because he could not see so many thousands of poor sinners perish eternally, he put it to his mouth again, the third time; and yet, beholding the dreadfulness of it, he put it away again, saying, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass.” But, after all, his infinite love overcame his dreadful amazement; and away he goes to the cross, to drink that bitter cup of vengeance to the bottom: and while he was drinking it, he cries out with a more bitter cry than ever, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? This was such a cry from the Son of God, the Son of his eternal love, that heaven was not able to bear it without blushing, nor the earth to bear it without trembling: therefore, as the sun withdrew his light, and became dark and black at the sight; so the earth shook, the rocks clave, and the veil of the temple was rent in twain, from the top to the bottom. Mean time, the sting went to his heart, and stabbed him to death; and all this was done, that the sting of death, which is sin, and the strength of sin, which is the law, might be vanquished by him, and that poor sinners might be victorious through him.
However, the more we view here the strength of sin, the more sweet will be the song of victory. Dwell a little further upon this then: Christ is the Strength of Israel; but never was the Strength of Israel tried so much as by the strength of sin, when he had that to deal with, and when by the sin of man he was made a curse, Gal. iii. 13. What made the death and sufferings of Christ so dreadful to him, even before he suffered? Let me ask here four questions.
1. Did not Christ perfectly know all that he was to suffer, long before he suffered? What made it then so dreadful when he expected it? Had he any sin of his own, to weaken him, or take away his strength? No; he had none, but by imputation. Had he any impatience? No; his patience was absolutely perfect. What then was the matter? Weakness of patience makes us cry; but Christ cried not from want of the strength of patience, but from the feeling of the strength of sin, the whole power and force of the fiery law.
2. Was not Christ the Captain of all that were to suffer afterwards? How came the martyrs to suffer with joy, and yet the Captain to fall to the ground, and cry out of exceeding sorrow? Was it not thro' the strength of Christ, that all that ever did suffer, were enabled to suffer for his name what they did? Yea, but the matter was, he had some other thing to suffer than they had; he had even the wrath of God, and the strength of sin to grapple with, which they had nothing to do with, he having thus taken it away.
3. Did not Christ know what infinite good his suffering would do, that he was to save s) many thousands of thousands of signers, and that thus he was to reconcile God and man to glorify his Father, and to do the greatest work for God that ever was done, and to bring in a tribute of eternal praise from men and angels? And did he not know, that though his sufferings were extreme, yet they were to last but a few hours, and then he was to be glorified? Why then was his suffering so dreadful to him? Why, because then the whole strength of sin was pressing him, the whole strength of a broken law.
4. Had not Christ the strength of an infinite Deity to support him? the divine nature to support the human? Was there not a personal union betwixt the divine and human nature at that time? Was he not God-man in one person? Yea, why then was his suffering so dreadful to him? Why, the strength of sin lighted on him with its whole weight, and the strength of sin brought on him the strength of the law, the strength of the broken law brought on him the strength of offended justice, the strength of infinite justice, brought on him the strength of infinite wrath and vengeance for sin; and therefore, though his strength was the strength of God, he behoved to cry and roar, and die under the strength of sin.
O my dear friends, you cannot conceive how infinite wisdom, though inventing a way from all eternity, to discover the strength and dreadfulness of sin, could do it much to the life, as it is discovered in the death and sufferings of the Son of God. If ever you see the evil and strength of sin here, you will see it to be sin indeed.
IV. The Fourth head proposed was, to show whence the strength of sin comes, and where it lies. I shall very shortly speak to this, in these four particulars.
I. As the strength of a tree lies in, the root of it, and the strength of the water lies in the fountain; so the strength of sin lies in the root and fountain of sin, viz. The original violation of the covenant of works, by our first parents; the righteous imputation of that guilt unto us; and the total depravation of our nature, issuing from thence, and called, A body of sin and death. Hence, no less power can destroy the strength of sin, than that power that can pull up the root, and dry up the fountain of sin.
2. As the strength of an army lies much in their general; so the strength of sin and lusts lies in their commander the devil. I said before, that sin is stronger than the devil; and yet the devil may be said to be the strength of sin, as a general or commander is the strength of an army; for, though the army may be stronger than the general that commands it, yet his skill and management may be the principal cause of their victorious power, while his leading and directing them gives them great advantage against their enemies. Thus the devil is the commander in sin's army, and the great quarter-master that sills the sinner's heart, as it is said of Ananias, Acts v. 3. “Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lye to the Holy Ghost?” It is the devil that fills the hearts of people to lye, and drink, and swear, and do other acts of wickedness; for, he rules in the children of disobedience, Eph. ii. 2. and the god of this world blinds the minds of them that believe not; and so holds them under the strength of sin, in chains of darkness and ignorance. No less power, then, can subdue the strength of sin, than that power that can destroy the devil and his works.
3. As the strength of Samson lay in his locks, and the strength of a society lies in their unity, or the strength of a company lies in their conjunction; so the strength of sin lies in its union with the sinner, and in its conjunction with and relation to him: the strength of sinful lusts lies in their oneness with, and relation to ourselves. And for a man to destroy his lusts, is to deny himself: they are such a part of a man's self, that they seem to be the best part, and the most powerful part of himself; his right-hand, his right-eye, his most useful and powerful members; Mortify therefore your members that are upon the earth, Col. iii. 5. The power then that can destroy the power and strength of sin, is such as can pull down, self, and all the members of it, and divide one member from another. The power that is necessary for destroying sin, is that divine power that can divide and separate a man from- himself, and even destroy nature itself by a new creation.
4. As the strength of a kingdom lies in the constitution and government thereof; so the strength of sin lies in the law of works: The strength of sin is the law. Now, to shew how the law is the strength of sin, is the subject of the next doctrine, which 1 design to treat of afterwards. In a word, as the command of the law irritates sin, and gives it a commanding power over the sinner; and as the threatening of the law curses sin, and gives it a condemning power over the sinner; so the power alone that can bring down the strength of sin, must be such as can give full satisfaction both to the precept and penalty of the law of works. And whereas sin draws its commanding strength from the violated precept, and its condemning strength from the incurred sanction of the law, and yet the precept of the law derives its strength from the holiness of God, and the sanction of the law derives its strength from the justice of God; therefore, the power that can vanquish sin, must be such as can give infinite holiness all the obedience it commands in the precept, and infinite justice all the satisfaction it demands in the threatening of the law: consequently in man is freed from the power, strength, and dominion of sin, till he be unbottomed from the law as a covenant of works, united to Christ the second Adam, and invested with his everlasting law-biding righteousness.
V. The fifth thing proposed, was, to make some application of this doctrine. Is it so, that sin is such a strong and powerful thing as I have shown? Then hence we may learn,
1. That it is no easy matter to be delivered from the power and strength of sm. Let Arminians magnify the power of man's nature and free-will as they please; yet let us hence see the need of the power of God, and magnify the power of sovereign grace. If any man think .so proudly of himself, that he can, at his own will and pleasure, deliver himself from the bondage of corruption, he is both ignorant of the strength of sin, declaring himself to be under the power of it, and running on in the way to his own eternal ruin; yea, by such a conceit as this, sin gathers more and more strength, and holds sinners so much the faster under its power; for thus they are hardened in a continuance in that course which they fancy they can reform when they will; and hence, though their time of returning to God is always, even when they will; yet that time never comes. To will is present with a child of God many times, Rom. vii. 18. when he finds an opposing power of sin withstanding him: but a present will to come to Christ, and forsake all sin, is never present with a natural man. A future will he may have, thinking that after such or such a time he will repent, and reform, and come to Christ; but that future will is a present nill and denial. The strength of sin remains in the will, and will remain there, unless a day of power come to make him willing.
2. If sin hath such a strength, then see the miserable thraldom of Christless sinners; they are staves to the basest roaster in the world, namely, sin: and if they live and die in that slavery, they are to have the fearfullest wages, and that is death. As nothing is more base than sin, so nothing is more bitter than death. You have heard of the misery of galley-staves among the Turks, who use to chain them to their seats, and scourge them cruelly with rods; how sweet is it to be delivered from such bondage! But, alas! what is a Turk to a devil? What is the labour of oars to the service of sin, and the torments of hell?
3. If sin hath such a strength, then see the necessity of regeneration, and the power of grace to break the power of sin. It was the speech of one to a skilful philosopher, that upon the calculation of his nativity, had foretold him some specialities concerning his suture state: he answered in tins manner, “Such, perhaps, I was born at first; but, since that time, I have been born again; and my second nativity hath crost my first.” Some will excuse their sin from their birth, and excuse their wickedness by their natural inclination, saying, I am. born choleric, 1 am born covetous, I am born amorous, or born thus and thus vicious: why, indeed the power of nature is a plausible plea for these that acknowledge no power above nature; but for a professed Christian to excuse his sin from his nature; is an apology worse than the sault; for, wherefore serves the power of godliness, but to subdue the power of sin, and to govern nature? We are so far Christians, indeed, as we have the power and government over ourselves by the power of regenerating grace; and religion, without this, is nothing but form and speculation.
4. If sin be so strong, then conversion is a miracle, an inward miracle. Outward miracles cannot convert a man, where there is no inward power accompanying them. Ten miraculous plagues could not convert Pharaoh; the thunder, and hail, and frogs, and flies, and lice, and locusts, were destroying the land of Egypt, but could not destroy Pharaoh's pride and obstinacy: nor could all the miracles that Christ wrought, destroy the Pharisees pride and infidelity. And do we not daily see, from sad experience, how the strength of sin makes men break through the thousands of means, that might be thought would be effectual to conversion, such as vows, promises, mercies, crosses, sickness, convictions, terrors, sermons, warnings, challenges; yea, and break through them all into hell? It is some internal miracle only that will do the business; and, indeed, the strength of God is in nothing more known, than in subduing the strength of sin, which requires the exceeding greatness of his power, Eph. i. 19. even the power of his power. Hence believers are said to be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might; that is, in the power of his power, the very quintessence of power. Was it a miracle for God to make a world out of nothing? It is yet a greater miracle for him to make a saint out of a sinner, that was under the power and strength of sin. Indeed, miracles are not ceased, so long as there are any converts in the world.
5. If sin be so strong and powerful, then see the happiness of believers in Christ, that are delivered from the sting of death, and the strength of sin. The least branch of that vine that is in Christ, is too high for Satan's reach; yea, while there is sap in the root, they shall not want it: they will not want the Spirit, that, thro' the Spirit, they may mortify the deeds of the body. There is a power in Christ, which will bring down every contrary power, and disanul the law of sin. Christ hath so handled that snake, by taking out the sting and teeth of it, that, though it hiss, it cannot hurt. Though sin be not killed out-right in the children of God while here, yet it is so maimed and so weakened, that, like the proud king Adonibezek, when once his hands and toes were mangled, and he fast in chains, he could not endanger Israel in any thing; so neither can sin or Satan with respect to the children of God: “The God of peace shall bruise Satan under their feet shortly.” Strong is the devil, but stronger is the Captain of their salvation; great is the power of sin, but greater is the power of Christ, whose strength will be perfected in their weakness.*
6. If sin be strong, then see to whom salvation from sin is to be ascribed, and in whom it is to be fought, namely, Christ the valiant conqueror. It is so mighty and so glorious a work to defeat his strength, that our glorious Lord thought it not unbeseeming” omnipotency to meddle with it: 0 Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thy help. Our perdition is of ourselves; but our salvation belongs to the Lord, and to the Lamb that sits upon the throne. No part of the glory of this work must be ascribed to any else: “His glory will he not give to another.” The believer's song, therefore, will be, as in the context, “Thanks be to God, that giveth us the victory, through Jesus Christ:” Not by our own righteousness or our own strength; nay, “In the Lord only have we righteousness and strength: Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.” And hence,
7. If the strength of sin be so great, then, how great is the strength of grace that can conquer sin! “By grace we are saved, from the power of sin, through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man would boast.” It is the sin-pardoning grace, the sin-subduing grace, the free mercy of God in Christ, offered to sinners in the gospel, that is mighty, through God, to the destroying of the power of sin. Al l hearers of the gospel that are not believers, are impenitent sinners: and they that will venture to say, that it is an affront to God, to offer pardon to the impenitent, they know not what they say; for it is by offers of pardoning grace and mercy to impenitent hard-hearted sinners, that God breaks their heart, and destroys the strength of their sin and impenitency: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Why, what influences such a sinner to turn and repent? Even the offer of pardoning mercy; “For our God will abundantly pardon,” Isa. lv. 7. He will multiply to pardon. O Sirs! when the impenitent sinner gets an ear to hear such an offer as this, that God will multiply pardons even upon one that hath multiplied transgressions, this goodness of God leads him to repentance, and melts his heart. If any thing in the world break the strength of sin, it will be the strength of grace, and of God's love and mercy, through Christ, held out in the gospel.
8. If the strength of sin be so great, then hence I infer, that there can be no gospel-repentance before faith: No repentance, or turning from sin to God, till a man come to Christ for righteousness and strength, against the strength of sin. It is another piece of the new and odd divinity of some in our day, that gospel-repentance, or some acts of it, are before saving faith: but this doctrine of the strength of sin declares the contrary; for, when true gospel-repentance takes place, then the strength of sin is broken, and the man is actually in arms against it. But where got he his armour, if he never came to Christ by faith for strength? Repentance is a turning to God; but, who ever turned to God, without taking Christ by the way? For no man comes to the Father but by him. Much hypocritical, and feigned, and legal repentance there may be without faith; but, true, actual, gospel-repentance is always the fruit both of Christ's look to the soul, as he did to Peter, whereupon he goes out and weeps bitterly; and also of faith looking to Christ; “They shall look upon him whom they have pierced, and mourn.” And this, by the bye, may serve to gloss several abused texts of scripture, where repentance is first named before faith, which never import that true gospel-repentance is before faith; but only, as we may first speak of the end, and then of the means to accomplish that end; so repentance may be the first named, which is the end, even turning to God; and then faith comes in, as the mean to that end. Thus, Repent, and believe the gospel, there is the end; repent and turn to a right mind, by turning to God: Why, he must even come to Christ by believing the gospel, otherwise he will never repent so as to turn unto God: thus we read of repentance towards God, and then faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ; where, tho' repentance towards God, be first named, yet, faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ, without which there is no coming to God, is first acted. If I should say, Go up to heaven, and climb the ladder; though going up to heaven is first named, yet the mean of this, though last named, must be first used; for, who will ever win up to heaven, unless they get up by the true Jacob's ladder, the Lord Jesus Christ? In a word, the strength of Christ must be improved by faith, and set against the strength of sin; otherwise no part of its strength is in the least broken.
9. If the strength of sin be so great, then, hence I infer, that our Lord Jesus Christ is the great and eternal God, because he alone could destroy the strength of sin, and through him alone we can have complete victory over it. Oh! cursed Arianism! that would diminish our only strength, by denying the supreme Deity of our Lord Jesus. If he had not been, true God, essentially one with the Father, as well as personally equal to him, when the strength of sin and the whole power of it was laid upon him, it would have destroyed him. The power of sin, which strikes against an infinite Majesty, brought the power of infinite vengeance upon him, which would have ruined him to eternity, if he had not been God; but, because he was the infinite and eternal God, he was able, by his death in the flesh, to condemn sin in the flesh, Rom. viii. 3.; and so to destroy the strength of sin.
10. If the strength of sin be so great, see the duty of poor sinners, that are captives to the power of sin, viz. to look to him who is the Strength of Israel, that they may be saved from the strength of sin; Isa. xlv. 22. “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else.” None else can save from the strength of sin: set the strength of angels against it, it will be too hard for them; the strength of means and ordinances, the strength of ministers and sermons, the strength of duties and prayers will not do of themselves. I have already shewed that sin is stronger than all these; but here is a strength that is able to save to the uttermost from it, even the strength of Christ; therefore, Let him take hold of my strength, Isa. xxvi. 3. But, say you, why desire you one, that is under the strength of sin, to lay hold on the strength of Christ? The strength of sin weakens me, so that I have no ability to lay hold on his strength. It is true, you have no strength, nor ever will have strength in yourself, or power in your own hand, while you are in this broken state; but as you are called to lay hold on his strength, so you are called to go out of yourself, for strength to lay hold on his strength: if you had strength in yourself to lay hold on him by faith, Christ would never be presented to you as the author of faith, as well as the object of it. Therefore, when you are called to believe, you are not called to bring strength out of yourself for that end, but to say, with your soul, Oh! I have neither righteousness nor strength; but, “Surely in the Lord have I righteousness and strength.” And tho' it be almighty power alone that can make you say that with the heart, and believingly; yet, while you cannot say it, though God be offering Christ to you for your righteousness and strength, you are saying, in effect, It is a lye that God says; I cannot believe it; he is not offering any such thing to me; I cannot take it to me; I cannot trust his word for it: and so, by unbelief, you make him a liar.
Oh! Sirs, cast yourselves on the Lord Jesus, for salvation from sin, and from all your sins, and from the strength of all your lusts; for he is freely offering himself and all his grace to you, saying, “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come ye, buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk, without money and without price.” Why, what means this, Ho, every one? Why it is even as Christ should say, Ho, every guilty person, come to me for pardon; Ho, every filthy sinner, come to me for cleansing; my blood only cleanseth from all sin; Ho, every naked sinner, come to me for a robe of righteousness to cover you; Ho, every needy sinner, come to me for supply out of my infinite fulness; Ho, every faithless, unbelieving sinner, come to me, as the author of faith, that I may give, you faith, and help your unbelief, and then increase your faith; Ho, every impenitent sinner, hard-hearted sinner, come to me, as to a Prince exalted by the right hand of God, to give repentance, and to give you the heart of flesh promised in the covenant; Ho, every great sinner, come to me for the great salvation from your great sins, and from God's great wrath; Ho, every graceless sinner, come to me for grace and glory, and eternal life. Why will you not come to me, that you might have life? To come to Christ for life, supposes death; and, how can the dead come to him for life? Why, it is his call, who is the Lord of life, and can make the dead to hear and live; therefore, Ho, every powerless sinner, in whom the strength of sin and lusts is stronger than hell and the devil, come to me for strength, and look to me for strength; “For I am God, and there is none else.” None else but the mighty God can lave from the might of sin, which, if he save you not, is mighty to defile you, and mighty to destroy you. But, what is the Mediator's name? His name is, Wonderful Counsellor, the Almighty God; and never did he appear more mighty than in destroying mighty lusts, and subduing the strength of sin: all the strength of men and angels could have done no more against sin, or the wrath of God that it brought on, than if you would set a piece of paper against a mighty flame. Such is the wrong that sin hath done to God, that all the created power of heaven and earth coming in betwixt God and man, to satisfy for that wrong, had been but like a piece of dry thin paper, betwixt you and a mighty devouring flame. But, behold, Christ, who undertook to remove the strength of sin, and the power of wrath that it entails, is the mighty God, the infinite God, able to expiate that infinite wrong that sin had done to God: and as he hath discovered his ability, by pouring out his blood to save meritoriously; so he is ready to discover his ability, by pouring out his Spirit to save efficaciously. Ho, every powerless sinner then, here is a powerful Saviour, ready to save you freely, without money and without price; having no merit but only this, that you merit hell and damnation: having no power but this, that you arc under the power and strength of sin. If you could merit any good, you would have no need of Christ to save you by price; if you had power to help yourself, you would have no need of Christ as a Saviour to save you, by power: and, therefore, it is even because you have no merit, no power, no grace', no good, that this all sufficient Saviour is offered to you, and boding himself upon you so freely.
If the strength of sin could be broken any other way, the strength of a Saviour would not be thus freely offered by the great God unto you: God would not expose his great eternal Son to contempt, by offering him thus to poor sinners, if they could be saved without him. But, though you have contemned him all your days, to your own shame, in despising your own mercy; yet now again he is offering himself anew to you, as fully and freely as ever: and think not the less of sin, that salvation from it is so freely offered to you, and so freely boded upon you by this gospel; for, I declare to you, in the Lord's name, that this free dispensation of the grace of God to you, is a greater business, and more momentous, than the tongues of men and angels can express: for God to come and offer his Christ, and for Christ to come and offer himself, to save you from the strength of sin, is more than if he should offer you ten thousand worlds.
There is more of the glory of God in one word of the gospel, in one line, one sentence of the gospel, than in all heaven and earth beside; more of God's glory shines in this gospel of grace, wherein he freely offers his pardoning and purifying grace, to take away the guilt, and filth, and power of sin; more of his glory shines here, than shines in the making of heaven and earth: for, here the great Counsel of God, working from all eternity, is displayed. In the work of creation he opens his hand, as it were; but in this gospel-dispensation he is opening his heart, and discovering his deep design, especially of redeeming love through Christ, to the glory of all his perfections, in destroying sin and saving the sinner.
Think not the less of sin then, that salvation from it is offered so freely, and at such an easy rate: for as you cannot have it at all, unless you have it freely, considering your lost, doleful, and destitute circumstances; so the thing offered to you is most becoming to infinite Majesty to offer, and most declarative of the infinite evil of sin. For the things offered amount to no less than an infinite price to save from the guilt of sin, and infinite power to save from the strength of sin: for, Christ, in all his fulness of merit and Spirit, is laid to your hand. And therefore, lay your hand to your heart, and see if it be panting after, and welcoming a Saviour or not, and closing with him for righteousness and strength. Say not, the strength of sin is great, the strength of enmity, the strength of unbelief, the strength of ether sins stand in the way; for the strength of sin is the very reason for which Christ is offered to you, and the very thing which he is offering to take away by his almighty strength. What, say you, can he not do it without me? Yea, but he will not do it without your consent: it is his stated method of saving; he does not save any against their wills, but by making them willing, and gaining their consent. And, what is the meaning of this free offer, but to gain your full consent?
Well then, O sinner, is it come to this with it, What wilt thou that he should do unto thee? Wilt thou have Christ to pull down the strength of sin, and of all your lusts and idols? Is your heart saying, O welcome, Jesus, to save me a poor sinner, not only from the guilt of sin, by thy pardoning grace; but from the strength of sin, by thy sanctifying grace? Why then, there were ground to conclude the work of power is begun: “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power.” If you have no manner of will that Christ should save you from the strength of sin, alas! then, who is to blame that you die in your sin, and perish under the power of it?
But, perhaps, the case of some one person or other may be this, Alas! I not only feel the strength of sin that you have been speaking of, but also a strength of unwillingness to be saved from it; and if I were willing, and so and so disposed, I might be welcome: but while it is not so, is there any hope for me?
I answer, I. This strong Redeemer is offered to all the hearers of the gospel without an if. The covenant of works is a covenant of ifs; if you do, you shall live; if you be so and so qualified, you shall be so and so blessed: but it is not so in the absolute promise of the covenant of grace. And as the promise of the covenant is without an if; so the offer of the gospel is without an if, to whosoever will, whosoever pleases. It is true, he only that believes shall be saved; but as they are different questions, Who they are that shall be saved? and, Who they are to whom salvation is offered? So, seeing salvation is of faith, that it may be by grace, the meaning of these words, “He that believes shall be saved,” is, He that will have salvation freely by grace, and without any if he may have it.
2. If you feel the strength of sin, I hope the strength of a Saviour will be the more welcome to you; and if the strength of unwillingness to be saved be your plague, the healer is at hand, the strength of a strong and mighty Redeemer is at hand, in the offer and promise, saying, “He gives power to the saint, to him that hath no might he increaseth strength.” Let Christ therefore get the glory of conquering your will: put your unwilling will into his able hand, saying, Lord, make me willing; O subdue the rebellion and resistance of my will, and subject my will to thy will. They that are willing to have Christ, bending and bowing their will, are both convinced of their natural enmity, and partly cured of it. However, whether your willingness to part with sin, and join with Christ, be cured or not; whether you be willing or unwilling, the offer of Christ is come to your door, insomuch, that you are invited freely to come to him. Christ's complaint is, “You will not come to me, that you might have life;” which says, that though they were unwilling to come, yet they were invited to come. The gospel-invitation then is to all poor sinners to come, be who they will, and be the strength of sin that they are under never so great, that the Son may make them free, and then shall they be free indeed.
But if this call be slighted, I have this to tell you, that the strength of sin never exerted itself so much in all the sins that ever you committed to this day, as it does in rejecting a Saviour. Ye may think, if sin should excite you to murder, and adultery, and blasphemy, and other horrid things of that sort, then the strength of sin would be great: very true, so it would; but I must tell you whether you think it or not, that there is a thousand times more of the strength of sin put forth in your slighting of Christ and his offered salvation, than is put forth in all the horrid villainies besides that can be committed: for, as all your sins would lose their strength by your laying hold on Christ for righteousness and strength, so your refusing Christ to be your strength, is the sin that is the strength of all your other sins; they have strength to command you, and strength to condemn you, because of your unbelief, which strengthens every sin; yea, and is the very strength of the strength of sin; all your departures from the living God flow from the evil heart of unbelief, Heb. iii. 12. The faith of the gospel would be the death of sin, but unbelief keeps you under the law, which is the strength of sin.
Perhaps, some may say, Though Christ be offered to me for righteousness and strength, and I am called to believe in him with application, as the Lord my strength; yet how shall I believe thus in him for strength, unless I feel his strength?
Why man, to feel his strength, is sense and not faith, and imports the presence of the thing believed, and the enjoyment of the thing promised: but there is a vast difference betwixt believing the promise, and enjoying the thing promised: to believe the promise of strength in the Lord Jesus, is to take his word, even when you want the thing promised, or want the feeling of it; for, Faith is the evidence of things not seen, nor felt; for, if they were seen and felt, they would not be the object of faith, but the object of sense. Faith's proper object is nothing else but the word of the God of truth.
Why, say you, but can I believe that Christ will be my strength, without getting strength to believe.
I answer, Strength to believe is one thing, and to believe in Christ for strength is another; strength to believe is God's enabling one to the act of faith; but to believe for strength, is faith's acting upon Christ the object held up in the word of promise. And again, though none can believe, without getting strength to believe; yet it is one thing to get strength to believe, and another thing to get the feeling of that strength; for, though faith cannot be acted without the feeling of that power and strength of God within the man; yea, so far is the believer many times from feeling any strength within him when he believes, that he feels nothing but want and weakness, utter inability and impotency; which makes him go out of himself, and look to the strength of Christ that lies in the gospel-offer and promise. Nay, the very language of faith supposes, that the man hath no feeling of strength in himself, but believes his strength to be in the Lord. Faith is not acted in the sense of strength, but in the sense of weakness, saying, In the Lord only have I righteousness and strength.
But, say you, If I felt the strength of sin broken, then I might believe in him as my strength, and take him for such; but, how can I believe in him as my strength, and persuade myself that he is so, according to the offer and promise of the gospel, when I find the strength of sin still remaining?
Answer 1. The work of God, in breaking the strength of sin, and the feeling of that work, is the fruit of faith; and the reason why you do not feel that work of God, is because you do not believe his word: “If you would believe, you should see the glory of God.”
2. The word of God, wherein he offers and promises to be your strength, is the ground of faith, upon which alone the persuasion of faith is to be founded. Beware of confounding the ground and foundation of faith, with the fruits, marks, and effects of it. The sensible decay of the strength of sin, is a mark, a fruit, and effect of faith, and might yield a persuasion of sense: but God's word alone is the ground and object of faith; and to build the persuasion of faith upon it, is the very means of producing all these fruits of faith that are the objects of spiritual sense. To say, therefore, that you cannot believe in Christ as your strength, till you feel the strength of sin once broken, is the same as if one should say, I cannot lay the foundation, till once I see the house is built; I will not come to the physician, till once I see the disease healed. Nay, if you saw the house well built, what need would there be of laying the foundation? If you saw your, plagues healed, what need would there be of coming to the physician? If you felt the strength of sin removed, what need would there be of employing Christ for strength? Nay, the very feeling of the strength of sin, which you make the reason why you cannot believe, is the very reason why you should believe, and lay stress upon the divine testimony concerning Christ, with particular application of him to you as your strength.
My friends, Christ puts himself in a promise for your use; he puts his righteousness in the promise, his strength in the promise, his grace in the promise; and Christ hath put himself there, that faith may seek him there: therefore, seek the Lord and his strength; otherwise the strength of sin will be your death. There are but two ways wherein it can be supposed the strength of sin may be broken or removed; either by the law, or by the gospel. As to the law, as a broken covenant, it may well discover sin and condemn it, and you for it; but it is so far from giving strength against it, that sin gathers strength from it, The strength of sin is the law; which is the subject I purpose to treat of, in the next doctrine. Therefore, it is only in the gospel, and the promise thereof, that strength is to be found; and the strength that is in the promise, is the strength of Christ, in whom all the promises are Yea and Amen: and hence when you quit the promise by unbelief, you quit the strength of Christ; when you rely on the promise by faith, you rely on the strength of Christ: cursed unbelief, then, gives strength to sin; whereas faith sets the strength of Christ against it. O may this gospel come to you, not in word only, but in power, and in the Holy Ghost.
Let me close this purpose with a word to you that are believers, and have fled for refuge from the strength of sin, to the strength of a Saviour. If this hath been your course, I must tell you, though the free offer of the gospel was your warrant to take that course, yet the great power of God was the thing that determined and enabled you thereunto: therefore, bless him that gave you counsel; for now the strength of sin is broken.
Alas! may one say, that hath tied to Christ for strength, if the strength of sin be broken in all that have fled to Christ, then I, think, I am a stranger to him; for I feel the strength of sin more than ever.
Answer. Sin is not always strongest, when the strength, of it is most felt. The world, that are under the power and and dominion of sin, have no sense or feeling of the power of it, because it is their element: even as a man that is in the water, feels not the weight of it, because he is in the element of it; but, bring him out of the water, and put a tub full of water on his head, he will then find the strength and weight of it, because he is not within its element. The wicked world feel not the strength of sin, because they are under the power of it, and within the very element of sin's strength: but, believer, thy beginning to feel the strength of sin, says, thou art getting out from under the power of it; yea, the prevailing power of sin may sometimes take place, where the killing and domineering power of it is broken: Iniquity prevails against me, may the believer say; and yet, Sin shall not have dominion over him; for, he is not under the law, but under grace. But tho' the strength of sin be broken in you, believer; yet even the broken strength of sin may be so great, as to break your heart, and break your back, and break your peace, and break your confidence and courage: therefore, as you have begun to flee to Christ for refuge from the strength of sin, so you must hold on; living by faith oh him as your strength, and that in the course of all his appointed means, such as reading, hearing, meditating, watching, and praying, and guarding against all the motions of that strong enemy and particularly against the first motions of sin, and the first beginnings of it: great evils arise out of small beginnings; one spoonful of water will quench that fire, which afterwards whole buckets cannot abate. Therefore, resist the beginnings of sin, as you would resist the devil. When sin does not seem to be shewing all its strength, that which it aims at, even in its weakest assaults at first, is to put forth its utmost strength: Watch, therefore, and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: and let not down your watch; for if you watch one half-hour, and think you may sleep safely the other half, The Philistines will be upon you, Samson. Whenever you begin to sleep in security, sin will waken upon you in its strength and fury, though it were upon the back of a saving manifestation: yea, if you have been upon the mount with God, even upon the top of the mount; Satan, if he can, will throw you down from the pinacle of the temple: therefore, keep near to your Lord, your strength.
And whatever means you use, beware of going back to your old husband the law; for, as I design to show in the following doctrine, the law, instead of helping you, will hurt you. If you wind up a clue of legal performances, expecting to overcome sin that way, you will find it vain labour, and that you must wind it off again, and begin upon a new bottom, namely, Christ, the Lord your righteousness and strength. To work hard in the duties of religion, without faith in Christ, as your righteousness, for acceptance, and strengths for assistance, is as vain labour, as for a weaver to throw the shuttle from one side of the web to the other, without a thread in the shuttle. Why, let him work never so hard with feet and hands, it is lost labour, he will never make out his web that way; yea, he but wastes his strength in doing nothing. Therefore, being divorced from the law, as a covenant of works, and condition of life, and married unto Christ, live upon your new Husband Jesus Christ, and live near him by faith, that you may bring forth fruit unto God. The more you live under grace, the more free will you be from the strength of sin; but the more you live under the law, the more will you be under the dominion of sin: for, The strength of sin is the law.
Ralph Erskine (1685-1752), Scottish divine, brother of Ebenezer Erskine (q.v.), was born on the 18th of March 1685. After studying at the University of Edinburgh, he was ordained assistant minister at Dunfermline in 1711. He homologated the protests which his brother laid on the table of the assembly after being rebuked for his synod sermon, but he did not formally withdraw from the establishment till 1737. He was also present, though not as a member, at the first meeting of the associate presbytery. When the severance took place on account of the oath administered to burgesses, he adhered, along with his brother, to the burgher section. He died after a short illness on the 6th of November 1752. His works consist of sermons, poetical paraphrases and gospel sonnets. The Gospel Sonnets have frequently appeared separately. His Life and Diary, edited by the Rev. D. Fraser, was published in 1842.
This sermon is taken from The Sermons, and Other Practical Works of the Late Reverend and Learned Mr. Ralph Erskine, Minister of the Gospel in Dunfermlinem, published in 1796.
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