Article of the Month
by Ralph Erskine
SERMONS LXXVII, LXXVIII.*
1 Cor. xv. 56.
— The strength of sin is the law.
[The fifth and sixth Sermons on this text. * Where the two following discourses were delivered is uncertain.]
My friends, we need to seek salvation from sin, elsewhere than in and by the law, and the works thereof; for the law of God cannot save or justify the least transgressor of it, otherwise it must condemn itself, which is impossible: Cursed is everyone, says the law, that continues not in all things written in the hook of the law to do them; and we are obliged to say Amen to that curse, as every way just and righteous: Cursed is he that confirms not all the words of this law, to do them; and all the people shall say, Amen, Deut. xxvii. 26. It is the very nature of the law to condemn the least transgressor of it, whatever after-works of obedience he may perform; for, Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all, Jam. ii. 10. Therefore, the highest act of obedience, even of the saints in heaven, cannot expiate the least breach of God’s law, neither can any duty performed, take away the fault of as in committed. Sin therefore retains its strength to enslave, and strength to destroy the sinner, by virtue of the broken law that he is under, so long as he hath net wherewith to repair the honour of the law: the honour of the precept of the law must be repaired by a perfect obedience, and the honour of the threatening by a complete satisfaction, otherwise the strength of sin remains; but, whenever a man is clothed with the obedience and satisfaction of Christ, then being reputed no transgressor, but a perfect: keeper and fulfiller of the law, it is no more the strength of sin in him; for, according to our doctrine from this text, the law of works is the strength of sin, only to the sinner, by whom it is broken, not to the believer, by whom it is fulfilled in his glorious Head.1
Having already, elsewhere, discussed the doctrinal part, finished the, first use of caution, and deduced twelve inferences for information; there are still many more lessons may be learned from this doctrine, besides what I have already deduced; such as,
1. Hence we may see the dangerous and damnable influence of legal doctrine, that tends to keep sinners under the law; for thus they are under the power of sin. The legal strain, under covert of zeal for the law, hath a native tendency to marr true holiness, and all acceptable obedience to the law, insomuch, that the greatest legalist is the greatest Antinomian, or enemy to the law: the gospel is flighted and disparaged by many, as if it left men to a lawless liberty, and the law is cried up in opposition to it; and therefore God leaves men to all lawless impieties, as a righteous punishment of their contemning of grace, by which alone the strength of sin can be broken, Rom. vi. 14. Why does the devil, in all generations, oppose himself so much to the gospel, and to the doctrine of grace, and raises up all the calumnies in the world against it? Even because it is the doctrine of grace that destroys his kingdom; for the devil knows, that while men are under the law, they are under his power, and under the power of sin; therefore he hath no great ill-will at legal doctrine: but if one preach up grace, and nothing but free grace, then he will raise a hue after him, as an enemy to the law and holiness *. Why, what ails the devil at the soul? Even because nothing spoils his market among souls so much, as the gospel, when it comes with power; for, it is the gospel, and not the law, that is the immediate instrument of conversion, Gal. iii. 2. and of true holiness, Tit. ii. 11, 12. And what is it that makes the gospel the power of God to salvation, and the powerful instrument of converting sinners to God? Even because therein is revealed the righteousness of God, from faith to faith, Rom. i. 15. 17. and therein the righteousness of God, without the law, is manifested, Rom. iii. 21. What was there as on, that, in the beginning of our glorious Reformation such great multitudes were quickened to spiritual life, and made fruitful in the ways of God? Why, God raised up some instruments to publish and illustrate the doctrine of grace, and their preaching wrought wonders, the power of God attending the publication of it; they harped most upon this string, to clear the doctrine of justification by grace, without the works of the law, and in opposition to the damnable doctrine of the church of Rome, which sets up men’s works as the matter of their justification: but as all the Reformers harped sweetly upon the siring of grace, so this article, says Luther, reigns in my heart, “That we are justified “freely by grace, through the redemption that is in “Christ.” But now-a-days, we are become so far ashamed of the gospel of Christ, that as all imaginable methods have been taken to disparage the preaching of it; so some, that have but a saint inclination to preach it, are discouraged from meddling too much with this theme; and others betake themselves to a legal strain; or, if they preach grace, it is in such a hampered way, and with so many cautions and circumlocutions, as if there were a great danger in preaching free grace, but no danger in preaching the law. Is there need of caution in preaching of Christ, and no caution to be used in preaching Moses? I am not against suitable caution on all hands; but it is to be feared, there will be little revival of a Reformation, till the doctrine of grace vent more freely under the conduct of the Spirit, giving such an appropriating faith and persuasion of the free favour, love, and grace of God in Christ, as took place in our Reformers days. Whence is it that all manner of sin and profaneness rages in our day? Why, gospel-light is either darkened or slighted, and men remain under the law, which is the strength of sin.
2. See hence the dreadful corruption and depravation, of our nature, and the deplorable condition of sinners in their natural state, in that the law, which forbids sin should be in men the strength of sin, and should irritate corruption, and stir up to more sin. The law, instead of healing that disease, does increase it; as it is said, Hosea vii. 1. “When I would have healed Israel, then the iniquity of Ephraim was discovered, and the wickedness of Samaria.” See also Rom. viii. 9, 10, 11. It fares with men under the dominion of the law, as with wolves and dogs, that grew more fierce by their being tied up and confined: and as with a brook, which if not interrupted, runs calmer; but if it be dammed up, then Supens et servens, et ab obice sevior ibit; “it swells beyond its bounds, and rages and runs down afterwards the more violently.” When the sun of the law shines upon men’s dunghill hearts, they bring forth the more noisom smell; hence, tell the unregenerate man of his sins, he is the more inclined thereto; tell him of his duties, he is the more averse therefrom: why, whence does this proceed? It even comes to pass by these two means, 1. God is provoked by sin, to work these strange effects upon men, as an angry Judge; he makes the law, which should be their souls meat and drink, to be poison to them. 2. Because the law is contrary to sin, therefore sin is contrary to it; they violently oppose each other. If there were no sin, the law would be pleasant to them, they would wear it as jewels about their neck, and write it upon the tables of their heart; but now, oh! how opposite is the carnal heart to all spiritual work! Some speak of their good hearts, and good nature; but, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” any good thing out of a sinful nature? Naturally we delight in good, just as fish delight to be out of the water; take a fish out of its watery element, and or long as it lives it is not quiet, it does nothing but leaps and tumbles up and down; so, set carnal men upon spiritual work, they are out of their element, they cannot live, cannot rest there, Hos. vi. 5. Praying and preaching does, as it were, hew and slay, vex and torment them; they are never easy till they be in their own element again. That horse must be a froward beast, that, the more he is spurred forward, the more he runs backward; and a stubborn child, that, the more his father injoins him to do a thing, the more he sets himself against it: this is the state of every one by nature; men huff and snuff at reproof, and cannot endure contradiction. And a sour nature is a corrupt and contradicting nature, in opposition to the law; so it is a heterogeneous and self-contradictory nature: men are, while under the curse of the law, both under the power of sin, and under the power of self-righteousness; having a cursed opposition to the law as a rule of holiness, and yet a woeful inclination to be justified by the law as a covenant of works, Rom. x. 3.; and, as the expression is, Gal. vi. 21. they desire to be under the law, to be saved by it; and yet they cannot endure to be under if, to be ruled by it. They take occasion to sin from the law, Rom. vii. 8.; as some evidently do, when they scorn their teacher a, and turn their preaching into scoffing: and yet they take occasion to beast from the law, Rom. ii. 27. as if they were too wise to he instructed, and too good and righteous to despair of life by the law. Thus the law they are under is their ruin, and they know it not. While the commandment never came with power to their effectual conviction, sin and self remain in their power; and yet of this they are ignorant, that, The strength of sin is the law. They perceive not the strength of sin that they are under, nor the strength of natural corruption, nor the dreadful curse they are under, be cause they know not the law they are under, nor perceive it in its spirituality and severity, in its mandatory’ and minatory power, which gives sin both its commanding and condemning strength.
3. Hence we may see the duty of all unbeliever sunder the power of sin, namely, to come to Christ, and to come under his grace, who is the end of the law for righteous ness to every one that believeth, as they would not remain under the yoke of the law, and so under the strength of sin. Oh! What a fearful thing is it to be under the law!
“For as many as are of the works of the law, are under the curse.” Your works can never satisfy the law; to attempt this, were to build a castle in the air: and, as a snow-ball, the more it is rolled, the bigger it grows; so, the more you go on to get a righteousness in yourself to fulfil the law, the further off you are from it, and the more involved under the curse, as being a debtor to do the whole law, Gal. v. 3. And, Oh! How dreadful will your state be in a dying hour, and on the brink of eternity, if you have no righteousness that can please the holiness, or pacify the justice of God! you will have nothing to expect, but to bear the weight of your own sins for ever, where God will open the treasures of his fury, and shut the bowels of his mercy for ever upon you; and when you have suffered millions of years in hell, yet not one mite of a million of your law-debt will be paid! O then, despair, absolutely despair of getting any good by the law, whether by your own doing or suffering; and see the necessity of flying to Christ, and his doing and suffering, knowing that there is no other way of getting both the law and the Law-giver satisfied. O happy these, who are persuaded, through grace, to take this way, namely, of coming to Christ alone, for deliverance from the law, and so from the strength of sin!
4. Hence we may see what is the duty of believers in Christ, who are delivered from the law. Surely they ought to give evidence that they are delivered from the strength of sin, by aspiring after the strength of grace: for, as it is said of believers, Rom. vi. 14. “Sin shall not have dominion over you; for you are not under the law, but under grace;” which says, that by their being delivered from the law, they are delivered from the reigning strength of sin; so it is the duty of believers to give evidence that they are not under the law, nor consequently under the strength of sin, by aiming at the strength of grace, or the highest and noblest degrees thereof, in opposition to the strength of sin.
If you ask, When is it that the strength of grace does appear in a believer?
I shall offer some instances of the strength of grace: I speak not now of grace in the fountain, as it is in God, but of grace in the streams, as it ought to shine in the believer.
(l.) The first instance of the strength of grace is when the believer can be high and yet low; high in his attainments, and yet low in his thoughts and apprehensions of himself. Thus Paul was high in gifts, high in graces, high in comforts, high in services, high in success, high in manifestations, high in many excellent respects, and yet low and humble in spirit: for, if we take his own verdict of himself, he looks on himself as the least of all saints, the chief of all sinners, not worthy to be called an apostle, as I might instance in several of his epistles; yea, he calls himself nothing, 2 Cor. xii. 11. And, O how becoming is it for believers to be low and humble amidst these high and eminent graces and attainments! For he that was the highest became the lowest; “Learn of me, says Christ, for I am meek and lowly in heart:” and yet so high, that, in the preceding verse, he had shewed how all things were delivered to him by his Father, Mat. xi. 27, 28, 29. Oh! may not dust and ashes blush and be ashamed to be proud, when God humbled himself! Oh! For a vile worm to swell, when Majesty humbled itself!
(2.) The second instance of the strength of grace, is, when the believer is low, and yet high; lying low in the dust before God continually, and yet high and heavenly- minded, according to Col. iii. 1, 2. when the lower he sinks in self-abasement, the higher he mounts up as on eagles wings in spiritual-mindedness and holy loftiness of heart, looking down with a generous disdain upon worldly things, that carnal minds are so much taken up with.
(3.) The third instance of the strength of grace, is when a believer is full, and yet empty; full of worldly enjoyments, and yet empty of love to the world; enjoying all manner of temporal good things, and yet able to say, as Psal. lxxiii. 25. “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none on earth that I desire beside thee?” And with Paul, “I am crucified to the world, and the world to me.” It is an instance of great grace, when a man can swim in the streams of creature-enjoyments, and yet so as not to forsake the fountain of living waters.
(4.) The fourth instance of the strength of grace, is, when the believer is empty, and yet full; empty of all outward worldly enjoyment, and yet full, as having all, by having Christ. This is exemplified in Hab. iii. 17, 18. “Tho’ the fig-tree should not blossom, nor fruit be found in the vine, &c. yet will I rejoice in the Lord, and be joyful in the God of my salvation.” Thus, when a man having nothing, yet possesses all things, by seeing all in Christ, even amidst outward wants, losses, crosses, and afflictions, then the strength of grace appears.
(5.) The fifth instance of the strength of grace, is, when the believer is at ease, and yet afflicted; at ease in respect of outward and inward prosperity, and yet afflicted for the afflictions of God’s church and people, laying the church’s calamities duly to heart. You have a notable example of this in David, 2 Sam. vii. 1. There you see that he sat in his house, and the Lord had given him fell round about from all his enemies, and thus he was at ease, but he says to Nathan, “Behold, now I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells within curtains,” ver. 2. Tho’ he was at rest and ease, so that his own personal interest prospered; yet he was afflicted, because it fared not so well with the house and interest of God. It is choice grace, to be deeply afflicted with the affliction of the church, even when no personal affliction takes place.
(6.) The sixth instance of the strength of grace, is, when a believer is afflicted, and yet at ease; I mean, when he is compast about with personal affliction, and yet easy and quiet, in a holy, humble submission to the will of God, and chearfully acquiesces therein: “I was dumb, and opened not my mouth, because thou didst it,” says the Psalmist. Thus Aaron held his peace, even when God’s dispensations towards his children were terrible.
(7.) The seventh instance of the strength of grace, is, when the believer presses after the greatest measure of personal holiness and imparted righteousness, and yet lives wholly and depends intirely upon an imputed righteousness: See a notable example of this in Paul, Phil. iii. 12, 13, 14. where he is pressing after the greatest degree of holiness; and yet, ver. 7, 8, 9 he lives and depends only and wholly upon the imputed righteousness of Christ, for justification and acceptance with God.
(8.) The eighth instance of the strength of grace, is, when a believer can apprehend love in God’s heart, even when he sees nothing but frowns in his face; and when, with Abraham, Against hope be believes in hope; and says, with Job, Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him. To love a smiting God, and trust in a slaying Gad, or notwithstanding all his slaying dispensations, argues great grace; and even when walking in darkness, and having no light, then to trust in the name of the Lord; and when he is calling him a dog, then to draw arguments for his faith out of such a word, and to plead kindness on him amidst all the frowns of his face, and blows of his hand: this is conquering grace.
(9.) The ninth instance of the strength of grace, is, when believers see a beauty in the service of religion, as well as in the sweets of it; a beauty in spiritual employments, as well as spiritual enjoyments; when it is their meat and drink to do their Lord’s will, and work his work, as well as enjoy his presence; and when it is their very life to serve the Lord. O but they are come a great length, that can say, To us to live is Christ!
(10.) The tenth instance of the strength of grace, is, when a man can rejoice in the gifts, graces, and usefulness of others, even when they outshine his own, and eclipse him; and when a man can rejoice to see the work of God carried on by others, tho’ himself be laid aside, and share not in the honour of it. Such eminent grace was in Moses, when he said, “Enviest thou for my sake? would to God all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them, “Numb. xi. 29. And such eminent grace was in Paul, when he rejoiced that Christ was preached, though with a design to cloud and eclipse him, Phil. i. 18. Some have noticed two things as carrying noble grace in them: the one is, to be willing to be used in God’s work, without being taken notice of, or having, the honour of it; and the other is, for a man to rejoice to see the work of God carried on by others, though he himself be laid aside.
(11.) The eleventh instance of the strength of grace is when a man can set the glory of Christ above his own interest, his own happiness, his own life and concerns. Moses and Paul were also eminent in this; Moses content to be blotted out of God’s book, and Paul content to be accursed for Israel’s sake: what was this, but as some observe with respect to Moses, a preferring the glory of God before their own salvation, whose glory they looked upon as conjoined with Israel’s preservation, in respect of the promises made to the fathers, and in respect of the blasphemy which the Egyptians and adversaries were ready to belch out against God, mould he utterly destroy them. And again, we find Paul not only willing to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus; Christ’s honour being dearer to him than his life. O Sirs, it is rare grace for a man to be content that his name be eclipsed, and his honour laid in the dust, if the name and honour of Christ may be advanced thereby; and content to be a footstool on which Christ may ascend his throne.
(12.) The twelfth instance of the strength of grace, is, when a man can account no outward adversity too hard to suffer for the name of Christ on earth, and no outward prosperity too dear to part with for the enjoyment of Christ in heaven: when, on the one hand, he accounts no outward adversity too hard to suffer for the name of Christ on earth, and can glory in the Cross of Christ; it is said of the disciples, Acts v. 41.They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for the name of Christ: or, as the words may be read, that, they were honoured to be dishonoured for Christ. And when, on the other hand, they account no outward prosperity too sweet, or too dear, to part with for the enjoyment of Christ in heaven. If a man be in affliction, adversity, distress, sickness, pain, and then be willing to be gone, there is not much here, this may be where there is no grace at all; but when a man enjoys abundance of worldly comforts and contentments, and yet longs for heaven and perfect: holiness and happiness; when, though he may say, It is good to be here, yet he is saying, O it is better to be there, to be with Christ is best of all; and therefore is breathing, with the spouse, Song viii. 14. “Make haste, my Beloved, and be thou like to a roe, or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices:” make haste to bring me to the place where I shall be for ever with the Lord, and mail be like him; for I shall see him as he is: no paradise here being like the paradise above. This were an instance of the strength of grace; and, O but a new discovery of the glory of Christ would make a man long to be above, and look with contempt upon all sublunary enjoyments! For, as a man that looks any time on the natural sun, when after that he looks down, the earth is but a lump of darkness to him; so, if we look to the glory of Christ, the Sun of righteousness, and the glory of heaven, how will it darken all worldly glory, and make us long to be above.—Now, I say, it is the duty of believers, that are delivered from under the law, and consequently from the strength of sin, to discover, in opposition thereto, the strength of grace, in these or the like instances that I have named.
“To seek life by the law, or justification by the deeds of it, says one, is to seek life in death, justification in condemnation, and heaven in hell.” There are two things necessary to salvation, namely, justification and sanctification; but the law can give none of them. Pardon sin it cannot; for, it is the office of the law to condemn sinners, and to curse the transgressors of it: renew unto holiness it cannot; for, though it be holy, yet it cannot make any holy, in regard, that whom it leaves under the curse, it leaves under the power of sin, which is the leading part of the curse; on which account it is declared in our text, that the strength of sin is the law. If the law could make a sinner either happy or holy, it could neither be just nor holy itself; but so just and holy is the law, that it punishes the least transgression with the greatest judgment: now, the strength of sin being the greatest judgment, and the greatest curse; to inflict this judgment on a sinner, and yet to make him holy, is a contradiction; therefore, though it require holiness, yet it cannot work holiness in a sinner: and hence, it does not detract from, but rather declare and illustrate both the justice and holiness of the law, to say, that the strength of sin is the law. And, from this subject,
We may further infer the woful nature and infinite evil of sin, as it stands in opposition to the infinite holiness of God manifested in his holy law: for, in this doctrine, we may see sin to be both a breach of the command, and a branch of the curse of God’s law; for, as I shewed in the doctrinal part, the law threatened death to the transgressor: and spiritual death, which is the power and strength of sin, is the greatest death therein threatened. The meaning of this, in short, is, that the grand part of the threatening of the law was to this effect, “In the day thou sinnest thou shalt die;” which, when understood of spiritual death, the meaning is, If thou sin, and break my law, then thou shalt be left to the power of sin; I will punish thy sin with sin: there is no evil so great as sin, and there is no punishment so great as sin; if therefore, says the law, the commission of sin be thy choice, the strength of sin shall be thy doom: here is the greatest curse of God’s law against sin; sin is a departing from God. Now, says God in the law, If you depart from me, then I will let you depart from me to sin, where the strength of sin shall be your greatest punishment in time; and at last I will bid you depart from me to hell, where the perfection of sin shall be your greatest punishment to eternity. The strength of sin then is to be considered, not only as it is a breach of the law, but as it is a branch of the curse thereof. This sentence of the law is past, and it is so far execute, as that a man is under the power and strength of sin, which, in this respect, is a penal evil, as well as a moral. The first sin that ever was committed by our first parents, was a moral evil; that is, a violation of the moral law, a breach of the command: but all the following sin, both in them and their sinful posterity, is not only a moral evil; that is, a breach of the command; but also, a penal evil; that is, a branch of the curse, or a just judgment inflicted, according to the sentence of the holy law, against the sinner for his breach thereof. As sin is a moral evil, though it take occasion from the law, yet the holy law can have no casualty, no hand in it; for, on the contrary, as it commands holiness, so it discharges sin, and threatens it with the fire and sword of God’s everlasting vengeance: but as sin is a penal evil, or a righteous punishment of sin, the law is properly the, strength of it; for, to say in this sense, that the strength of sin is the law, is to say, that the strength of sin is a just judgment of God indicted upon the sinner, according to the threatening of his just and holy law. Ye ought then, still to distinguish here betwixt sin, as it is a moral evil, and as it is a penal evil; for, not to distinguish well here, were to make this text unintelligible to you: why? Because to say that the law is the strength of sin, or the cause of it, as it is a moral evil, were to blaspheme the holy law of God; but to say, that the law is the strength of sin, as it is a penal evil, and an execution of the sentence of the law, is to commend the law, in its holiness and justice both. Let this therefore be kept still in mind, that the law is properly the strength of sin, not as sin is a breach of its command, but as it is a branch of its curse; and let this fill your heart with a deep sense of the woful nature and prodigious evil of sin, in that it is both a breach of God’s command, and a branch of God’s curse. As it is a breach of the command, it is our giving up ourselves to work wickedness; as it is a branch of the curse, it is God’s giving us up to ourselves, and to the rule and strength of sin. Behold sin here as the most fearful invention that ever was: for, as sin is the greatest evil that hell could invent, so God’s punishing sin with sin, is the greatest evil that heaven could invent. Sin, as it is a moral evil, and a breach of the law-command, is the most ugly brat of hell, a brat of our own, begotten in us by the devil; and in this respect it is an affronting of the holiness of God, appearing in the precept of the law: and sin, as it is a penal evil, or the strength of sin, `as it is the punishment of sin, and a branch of the law-curse, is the most dreadful fruit and offspring of Heaven’s vengeance against sin; and in this respect it is a flash of the fire of God’s infinite justice, arising out of the threatening of the broken law.— See here, then, the infinite evil of sin, in that the strength of sin is the law.
6. Hence we may infer the standing force and binding power and authority of the law over all that are under it, as a covenant of works: though it be broken, yet it is binding; though it be violated by us, yet it is obligatory upon us by nature, which is evident from its continuing to be the strength of sin to all unbelievers, who, if they were not both under the power of the command, and of the curse of the law, would not be under the commanding and condemning power of sin: the power of the law-command they are under, is the strength of sin occasionally; and the power of the law-curse is the strength of sin effectively.
(1.) The power of the command they are under, is the strength of sin occasionally; Rom. vii. 8. “Sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence.” Here the command is the occasion that sin takes, not that it gives occasion; nay, the law, in its own nature, is so far from being the cause of sin, that it does not so much as give occasion of sinning: but man’s corrupt nature does take occasion from it to break forth into more sin, when it is stirred up, and irritate by the command and prohibition of the law; even as the sparks arise out of a furnace when it is stirred up, so do the sparkles of sin arise oat of the furnace of corrupt nature, when stirred up by the knowledge of the law that condemns it; and, instead of being amended thereby, doth bring forth sin and sinful desires more abundantly. The law being the strength of sin this way, shews how much the power and force of the law takes place even over unbelievers, though in a way that is very terrible; and how much they are under obligation to the command, which yet they are so unwilling to yield subjection unto; yea, and are direct enemies to, Rom. viii. 7. Surely all things work together for evil to them that hate God, since the law itself, which should serve to call men to God, makes them the more to flee from him, and run headlong unto sin and death, through the untowardness of our nature, that is altogether estranged from God. This, by the way, takes the whole fault of our sins from the law, and lays it where it ought to be, even upon our perverse crooked natures; for the law is no more to be blamed by becoming the occasion of so many great evils, than a physician is to be blamed, if, upon his forbidding cold drink unto a sick man, the patient should more frequently and vehemently thirst after it. There are three sorts of people that should lay this matter to heart: All the children of disobedience, that are in a natural state, should hereby be stirred up to seek after a new birth, and a new nature, since this is the wretched condition of corrupt nature: All the children of grace, whose natures are changed, should here upon be humbled, both in regard that they were race under the power of this poisoned corruption, and have still the remains of it sticking in them, and prompting them to offend: and again, all the hearers of the word in general, ought hereupon to hear with fear, and to pray that they be not made the worse by the word, through the fault of their own wicked nature; and particularly, that the gospel itself be not the savour of death to them, and the strength of sin; which gospel is the only thing in the world, that prescribes an antidote against the strength of sin. It is sad enough, when men draw strength to sin from the law; but, what a dreadful thing it is, to draw strength to sin from the gospel! This is the sin of sins, that turns the grace of God into wantonness, and when Christ himself is a stumbling- block, and a rock of offence. But,
(2.) The power of the curse of the law, that sinners are under, is the strength of sin effectively; Rom. iv. 15. “The law worketh wrath; for where no law is, there is no transgression:” as if the apostle should say, Men’s corrupt nature cannot observe God’s law; therefore, where there is a law, there is and must be transgression; where there is transgression, there is and must be wrath: for, the law must curse the breaker of it; and of this curse, as I said, the strength of sin is a principal part.— Both these particulars then do prove the standing force and authority of the broken law over all that are under it, and out of Christ; though they have lost ability to obey, yet it retains its authority to command; and though the law is weak to justify, yet it is powerful to condemn. Its weakness to justify, is not the fault of the law; it is in us, Rom. viii. 3. It is weak through the flesh; our corrupt nature: it cannot justify us, because we cannot fulfil the righteousness of it, and it cannot give life, Gal. iii. 21. As the sun cannot give light to him that hath no eye; so the law cannot give life to him that hath no perfect righteousness: but its power to condemn is from its own nature, as it is a just law, cursing every transgression, Gal. iii. 10.; and from the justice of the Law-giver which appears in the sanction of the law, even as his holiness in the precept thereof. Every sinner out of Christ, then, remains under the commanding and condemning power of the law, as a covenant of works, as is evident from his being under the commanding and condemning power of sin; the strength of sin to command him, being occasionally from the commanding power of the law that he is under; and the strength of sin to condemn, being properly from the condemning power of the law that he is under: yea, the condemning power of the law influences the commanding as well as the condemning power of sin over him, while the sinner is by the sentence of the law righteously condemned to that slavery and bondage under sin, for his breach of the law; in which sense effectively, yet in a most holy and just manner, the law is the strength of sin. This standing force and binding authority of the law, as a covenant, both in its commanding and condemning power over unbelievers, is what makes them stand in absolute need of Christ, both in his active and passive obedience, as revealed in the gospel. The law- command they are under, when it is seen to be imprestable, makes them need to flee to Christ’s obedience; the law-curse that they are under, when it is seen to be intolerable, makes them need to flee to Christ’s satisfaction: and hence it is said; Gal. iii. 24. “The law is our school-master to bring us to Christ;” which it could not be, if sinners under the gospel were not under the commanding and condemning power of it: for, how does it bring us to Christ, but as it urges us to obedience, which is now impossible, and condemns us for our disobedience? Not that the law brings any to Christ directly; for it neither reveals Christ, nor can give strength to believe in him: but only accidentally, in that it accuses and condemns us, and so brings us to Christ, as a disease brings one to a physician.
7. Hence we may see the danger of being ignorant of God’s righteousness, to the establishing of a righteousness of our own; seeing thus we keep ourselves under the law, and so under the power of sin: the danger of this is declared, Rom. x. 3. “They being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and so going about to establish their own righteousness,” or to make their own rotten footless righteousness to stand, “have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God:” and thus they keep themselves under the law, which is the strength of sin— Whatever view we take of God’s righteousness here, ignorance of it hath this sad effect. There are three ways in which God’s righteousness is taken in scripture; either, 1. The righteousness that is in him, his essential holiness and righteousness: Or, 2. The righteousness that he requires of us by the law: Or, 3. The righteousness that he provides for us in the gospel. Now, ignorance of God’s righteousness, in any of these respects, is a dangerous root of a legal spirit, and of establishing our own righteousness, and so of remaining under the law, that is the strength of sin.
(1.) If we consider it as the righteousness that is in God, his essential righteousness and infinite holiness of nature, as he is of purer eyes than that he can behold iniquity, and who will in no wise clear the guilty; surely they that know this righteousness of God, will never trust to a righteousness of their own. How can a sinner stand before this holy God, or be justified in his sight? Sinners may be justified in the sight of men by their works, but cannot be justified in the sight of God; nay, ignorance of God’s righteousness fosters the opinion of self-righteousness and justification by works, which opinion is even the root of licentiousness of life. And whence is it that self-judiciaries, that hold justification by their own works, are ordinarily most licentious in their life and conversation? Why, there a son is, because the very same notions of God that make them fancy he is not so ill-pleased with their works, but that he can justify them by their works, do also make them fancy, that he is not so ill pleased with their sins as that he will be too severe against them; and so here is-a root of licentiousness on which sin grows, the strength whereof is the law.
(2.) If we consider God’s righteousness, as the righteousness God requires of us, in the law; ignorance of this makes them adventure on a righteousness of their own, and go about to establish it, and so remain under the law as the strength of sin. Men are ready to dream, that the law respects only some outward duties, which, when they comply with, they dream also that they are acquit by the law, and so they give loose reins to all other disobedience: but they do not know or consider, that the law requires perfection; and that internal, in heart and nature; external, in life and conversation; and eternal, in respect of perpetuity and duration; yea, sinless obedience; insomuch that it cannot justify any that is, or ever was a sinner. If this were considered, then their hopes by the law would give up the ghost.
(3.) If we consider God’s righteousness, as the righteousness which God hath provided for us in the gospel; that is, “Christ the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth,” Rom. x. 3, 4. which is the principal meaning of the word here; it is the want of the knowledge of this righteousness, that makes men go about to establish a righteousness of their own, and trust to it; and so, remaining under the law, are under the power and strength of sin, because they remain under the curse of the law so long as they want this law-magnifying righteousness, this law-fulfilling righteousness: for the law cannot but curse every breaker of it; and so, the strength of sin being a part of the curse, they remain under the strength of sin so long as they remain under the curse of the law, through the want of this righteousness, which would make them to be accounted perfect keepers of the law, and so would really free them from the strength of sin.— See then, what a dangerous thing it is to be ignorant of God’s righteousness.
8. Hence see, what need there was that our help should be laid upon such a mighty One as our Lord Jesus is, he being the end of the law for righteousness, who alone can deliver us from the strength of sin. There is no power can conquer sin, but that power that can satisfy the law, both in its command and demand. It is utterly impossible for any man to deliver himself from the strength of sin; nay, we can no more do it, than we can shake off the curse of the law that we are under: the strength of sin hath the strength of the curse on its side; the strength of the curse of the law hath the strength of infinite justice on its side: and so, the power that can only remove or break the strength of sin, is that infinite power that can fully satisfy infinite justice; this, therefore, is the work of him who is the wisdom of God, and the power of God. We need not only a helper, but a strong One; therefore God hath laid help upon One that is mighty, Psal. lxxxix. 19. We need not only a Saviour, but a great One, and so Christ is called, Isa. xix. 29. “He shall send them a Saviour, and a great One, and he shall deliver them.” He must be a great Saviour, that is the author of so great a salvation; none else but the eternal Son of God, who is essentially one with the Father and the Holy Ghost. Woe to the Arian blasphemy, that would rob us of the only ground of our hope; yea, rob the Son of God of his supreme Deity. This is our mighty Samson, that carries away the gates of Gaza, the gates of hell, that they might not prevail against us; and he only was able to carry away the strength of sin, by giving full satisfaction to the law and Lawgiver, and so to stop the progress of God’s infinite wrath against sinners with his everlasting righteousness; which law-magnifying righteousness being once imputed and applied, the legal and condemning strength of sin is broken, and thereupon the actual and commanding strength of it gradually broken, according to the measure of faith’s daily improvement of this righteousness of Christ, till it be wholly destroyed in the very in-being thereof at death. For, as he is able, so he will save to the uttermost all that come to God by him.
9. Hence see, what obligations believers are under to Christ, their great Captain of salvation, and glorious Conqueror, that delivers them from the law. How sweet is this swan-song in the view of death, O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law; but thanks be to God that giveth us the victory, thro’ Jesus Christ our Lord.” What makes sin, as it is the sting of death, and death, as it bears that sting, to be so terrible? Why, it is the law, as it is the strength of sin; but now, the great Law-giver becoming; in the person of his Sin, the law-satisfier, in the room of the sinner the law breaker, and thereupon the Judge becoming the justifies, according to Rom. iii. 26. the law hath no more power to curse the believer; and so sin hath lost its strength, and death Lost its sting, mid the grave its victory. The believer being perfectly delivered from the curse of the law, he is perfectly delivered from the strength of sin, as it is a branch of the curse.
Quest. What is the strength of sin that still remains with the believer while here, if it be not a part of the curse?
Answ. (1.) Sin in all unbelievers is, as I said, both a breach of the law, and a branch of the curse: but, with respect to believers, though their sin be a breach of the law, yet they are under no part of the curse of the law; for, though sin be a cursed thing, and the law curses sin where-ever it is, and curses the sin of believers, as well as the sin of others; yet, as the law cannot curse the person of the believer, so the sin that is suffered to remain in him, is designed for some other purpose than to be a curse to him; for it is one of the great privileges of the believer that he is delivered from the wrath of God, and the curse of the moral law. Therefore,
(2.) Though sin in itself, and in its own nature, is a curse and a misery where-ever it is; yet, with respect to the believer, whenever he is delivered from the curse of the law; the remaining strength of sin in him is made subservient to some other end than ever it had before, through the infinite wisdom or that God who can turn a curse to a blessing, and a misery to a mercy. Though he still looks upon sin as his greatest misery, and on himself as miserable and wretched because of sin, saying, with the apostle, Rom. vii. 24. “O wretched: man that I am who shall deliver me from the body of sin and death?” yet it is his mercy that he sees sin to be his misery now, inasmuch as it shall not make him miserable here after. Sin is still the greatest burden to the believer; but it is his mercy that sin is his burden now, that it may not weigh him down to hell, as it will do the rest of the world, who feel not the burden of sin in time. Sin is still, to the believer, the greatest disease; but it is his mercy that sin is his disease: for, whereas others that go on in sin impudently, and without spiritual remorse, sin is not their disease, with which they are affected or afflicted, and they are in danger of dying of that disease, like a man that is distempered with a fever, and yet hath no sense of it; but believers in Christ, having sin for their disease, under which they sigh, and sob, and moan, and groan, the disease is not unto death, eternal death, but unto the glory of God, and to their good. It is to the glory of God, as he is Jehovah-rophi, the Lord their helper and physician; and it is ordered to their good, the curse is turned so far to a blessing, that the remaining strength of sin in the believer is made subservient to these following good ends.
1. It serves for his instruction, that he may see more and more of the corruption of his nature and the daily need that he hath of Christ, both for righteousness and strength, that Christ may be more and more precious to him, as the brazen serpent to the stung Israelites. Sin in itself tends to destruction, but, through grace, it turns to the believer’s instruction; for hereby he learns more and more, that his own righteousness is but filthy rags, that Christ’s righteousness is the only fair and glorious robe: he learns more and more, that as his damnation would have been just, if he had been sent to hell; so, his salvation will be free, if he be brought to heaven: he learns more and more many sad experiences in the daily working of sin in him, and many sweet experiences in the daily improvement of Christ.
2. The remaining strength of sin in the believer serves for his correction, as Peter’s fall was for the correction of his pride and self-conceit, when he said, Though all men forsake thee, yet will not I. Indeed, it is one of the forest effects of God’s fatherly anger towards his children, when he leaves them to one sin, thereby to correct them for another: under such a dreadful correction as this, the believer may have dreadful apprehensions of God through unbelief, as if he were designed to ruin and destroy him, saying, as the church, Isa. lxiii. 16. “Wherefore hast thou made us to err from thy ways? and hardened our hearts from thy fear?” It is what the Lord’s people may have frequent occasions to observe, that the Lord sharply reproves and corrects them for their sloth and unwatchfulness, by leaving them to other sins; as it was with David in the matter of Bathsheba; therefore, “Watch and pray,” says Christ, “that ye enter not into temptation.”
3. The remaining strength of sin in the believer serves for his humiliation; 2 Chron. xxii. 26. “Hezekiah was humbled or the pride of his heart.” Believers are in danger of being lifted up, even after great manifestations; as Paul, 2 Cor. xii. 7.; therefore, a thorn in the flesh, and a messenger of Satan, may be ordered to buffet them, lest they should be exalted above measure.
4. The remaining strength of sin in the believer serves for his excitation and upstirring; it is so ordered, that sin should abide in believers, that it m a y be the continual ground, reason, and occasion of the exercising of all graces, and putting a lustre on their obedience: some excellent graces, such as repentance and mortification, could have no exercise, if the strength of sin were altogether removed; and while we are in this world, there is a beauty in these graces, that is an over balance for the evils of the remainders of sin. And it renders spiritual obedience the more valuable, the more that remaining sin renders it difficult and impracticable to nature.
[1.] The remaining strength of sin excites the believer to love and long for more of the enjoyment of Christ here, and for the full enjoyment of him here after, saying, O to be there, where there shall be no more sin! O when shall the day break, and the shadows of sin and sorrow flee away! “Haste, my beloved, and be thou like a roe, or a young hart, upon the mountains of Bether.”
[2.] The remaining strength of sin excites him to weary of this life: Oh! “I am weary of my life, because of the daughters of Heth,” said Rebekah; lo, I am weary of my life, because of the remains of sin, says the believer; what is life to me, when I am in a continual conflict: with such bosom-enemies?
[3.] It excites him to pray without ceasing, saying, with David, Psalm xix. 12. “Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults; keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins, and let them not have dominion over me.” Where it is supposed, that secret sins that are overlooked, and, perhaps, not known to be sins, may make way for these that are presumptuous. Thus there is a secret pride, that may seem to be nothing but a frame of mind suitable to our wealth, dignity, parts, or abilities; sensuality may seem to be nothing but a lawful participation of the good things of this life; passion may seem to be proper zeal; and covetousness may seem to be but a necessary care of ourselves and our families: but, when the seeds of these are covered with such pretences, they will at length spring up, and bear bitter fruits in the lives of men. The beginning of all apostacy lies in such covered pretences: we need therefore to pray with the psalmist, to be cleansed from secret faults, that we may be kept back from presumptuous sin: the remaining strength of sin excited him thus to pray.
[4.] It excites also to deprecate, with the psalmist, Psal. cxliii. 2. “Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for in thy sight no flesh can be justified:” The words here, Enter not into judgment with thy servant, may be read in the original, Go not to law with thy servant. Tho’ David was a servant of God, a man according to God’s own heart, yet he deprecates the law-trial: the best servants that ever God had, of mere men, cannot be justified by the law; they see sin remaining in them, and therefore are excited to pray, Lord, go not to law with me; go not to the law-threatening with me, to pursue me for my debt; go not to the law-tribunal with me, but rather go to the gospel-tribunal with me; go to Christ with me.
[5.] The remaining strength of sin excites them to make much of Christ, when they get a grip of him, and to say, with Jacob, Gen. xxxii. 26. “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” Oh! my woful sin, and fearful departings had made a sad separation betwixt thee and me, insomuch that I never thought thou wouldest have deigned to give me another visit: but now, that I have got thee in my arms again, through grace I will keep the grip; I cannot think of our parting again, nor of my going back to that sad and sinful case again; nay, “I will not let thee go, till thou bless me.”
[6.] The remaining strength of sin excites them to much heart-exercise, such as self-searching, and pleading that the Lord would search, and try, and discover them to themselves, saying, “That which I know not, teach thou me: To self-abasement and abhorrence; Now I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes:” To self-annihilation; Oh! I am nothing, less than nothing, worse than nothing: To self-condemnation; now the man judges himself, and passes sentence against himself in the court of conscience, that he may not be judged but assoilzed (absolved) in the court of heaven: To self-observation and watchfulness; according to that of the apostle, “Look to yourselves;” and that of the psalmist, “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue;” he is therefore excited the more narrowly to notice and observe the traitor that is in his bosom, and to keep a watch: And to self-reformation, saying with David, “I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies.” And, in these respects, God makes the believer’s malady to be his medicine; and, on these accounts, the strength of sin is not wholly abolished in believers in time; and infinite wisdom sees, that a state of spiritual warfare is best for them,
Let none, from what hath been said, take encouragement to sin, nor abuse this grace of God unto wantonness; for they that do so, will discover themselves to be strangers to Christ, and so under the strength of sin, as it is a branch of the curse of the law. Shun, like hell, and abhor that peace of mind that is consistent with the love of, and living in any known sin; for, though believers may be often surprised into known sins, yet while they refuse all inward peace but that which comes in by most servent desires of deliverance from sin, and continual application to Christ for the ruin of sin, they discover that they are safe from the dominion thereof: yet these people that maintain a presumptuous peace, while they live in any known sin, are near the borders of the territories of hellish security, where sin reigns unto death.
10. To add no more from this doctrine, we may in ser. The dangerous influence of any new doctrine of a legal strain, that stands in opposition to this truth, That the law of works is the strength of sin, to all sinners that have broken and violate it. Whence it being manifest, that all unbelievers are under the commanding and condemning power of the law, as a covenant of works, which appears by their being under the commanding and condemning strength of sin; and that it is the privilege only of believers that they are not under the law, as a covenant, either to be justified or condemned thereby; there is a twofold dangerous doctrine that hands in op position to this truth.
[1.] That doctrine, which asserts, That unbelievers, under the gospel, are not under the commanding power of the Law, as a covenant of works: Which some attempt to prove by this argument; Unbelievers under the gospel, cannot be under two opposite obligations, namely, to seek life by their own obedience; and, at the same time, to seek life by the obedience of another: now, they are by the gospel, obliged to seek life by the obedience of another, viz. of Christ; therefore, they are not obliged to seek life by their own obedience: and consequently, say they, unbelievers are not under the commanding power of the law, as a covenant of works.
Answ. This argument, or rather quirk, and sophism’ may be easily exposed, if we consider,
1. That it goes upon a wrong hypothesis, supposing, as if the form of the command of the covenant of works did ly in this, that Adam was to seek life by his obedience, or that man was to seek justification by his own works; which is a supposition that is not matter of fact: for, Adam might have been justified by his works, or by his own perfect obedience, without seeking or aiming at anything, but the pleasing or glorifying of God, which is the supreme end of man’s obedience; whereas, man’s seeking, or aiming at life and justification by his obedience, is but a subordinate end thereof; yea such, as that the command of that covenant might have been fulfilled without it: for, if Adam had yielded that perfect obedience, without seeking any thing else, or aiming at any other end, but the supreme one, viz. the glory of God, he would have got life by his obedience, even though he had generously neglected the supreme end altogether, namely, the seeking his own life by it, which was no part of the command itself. For, as our common Standards express it, “When God created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience:” not upon condition of man’s seeking life by his obedience; nay, this would have made the covenant of works run in a very selfish strain, namely, instead of Do and live, it would run, Seek life by your doing, and you shall live: and, in stead of the threatening, If you do not, you shall die; it would run, If you seek not life by your doing, you shall die: which is a plain perverting the tenor of that covenant.
In opposition to that hypothesis, we may reasonably suppose, that if that covenant had stood, as Adam would not have claimed life so much upon his perfect obedience, as upon the free promise of God, connecting life with that obedience; so, in obeying, he would not so much, if at all, have sought his own life and happiness, as the glory of God, who graciously condescended to annex the promise of life with that obedience, which he was naturally obliged unto, prior to that annexation. Surely, what man was obliged to by nature was not made void, but rather furthered, by the covenant of works: but man was naturally obliged to obey his Creator perfectly, and that for this great end, viz. the glorifying of him; therefore, whatever hope of life, or fear of death might be the consequent of annexing the promise of life, and the threatening of death to the precept, yet it was the precept itself, to which life and death were thus annexed: that was the command of that covenant, and not man’s seeking to have life, or to shun death by his obedience. The promise and threatening were motives to urge man’s obedience; seeking to have life, or shun death, was but a subordinate end, that man might have lawfully had in his obedience. But now, to suppose, that man’s being obliged to seek life by his obedience, was the command of the covenant of works, is to confound the command with the sanction, and man’s obedience to the command, with the subordinate end that he might have had in his obedience. If man had merely fought himself, and his own life, by his obedience, without seeking God’s glory; surely he had sinned, and so broken that covenant: but if he had sought only God’s glory, and yielded perfect obedience, merely with that view, and abstracting from that subordinate end, the seeking of himself and his own life; I say, suppose he had done so, he would have got life by his obedience: therefore, seeing life might have been obtained by obedience, by virtue of the promise of life annexed to it, and obtained with out man’s seeking or aiming at himself, and his own life by his obedience, then man’s seeking life and justification thereby could never be the precise form of the command of that covenant. Why, the command could have been obeyed, and the promise of life, annexed thereto, could have been accomplished, without that seeking; seeing the promise was made to man’s obedience, and not to his seeking life by his obedience. You see then, the error of the sophism lies in misstating, and misrepresenting the form of the command of the covenant of works. Here it is evident, that unbelievers under the gospel, may be obliged to seek life by the obedience of another, even of Christ, and yet remain under the commanding power of the covenant of works; since the command thereof did not ly precisely in this, viz. that man was to seek life by his own obedience: no, this was but a secondary end, or a consequent lawfully deducible from the promise annexed to the command, but no constitutive part of the command itself.
2. The fallacy of that sophism appears also in this, that it supposes, as if sinners, or unbelievers, not under the gospel, were obliged, by the covenant of works, to seek life and justification by their own works and obedience: but though they, as well as other sinners, do naturally, if they seek life at all, seek it by the law, or by their own works; yet the covenant of works never said to a sinner, Seek life by your own works. Though we would grant, that seeking life by our perfect: obedience were the proper command of the covenant of works, to man in his innocent state, while he was capable to yield it; yet it never commanded as inner to seek life that way, nor did it ever promise life to a sinner, a breaker of that covenant, upon his seeking life by his obedience: nay, it is impossible that ever the law should do so, otherwise it would condemn itself, should it offer to justify any transgressor of it, by whatever after-obedience of his; for, it is the very nature of the law to condemn the least transgressor, what ever his after-works maybe: no act of obedience, no not the highest, even of saints in heaven, can expiate for the least breach of God’s law; nor can any mortification take away the fault of sin committed, Deut. xxvii. 26. Gal. iii. 10. Rom. iii. 20. 23. Jam. i. 10. The law requires no less than a sinless obedience; yea the perfect obedience of a sinless man; but never did, nor does require of any sinner, that he should seek life by his obedience. No man, that is a sinner, is capable of any obedience but what is imperfect; now, imperfect obedience is a breach of-the covenant of works, which requires absolute perfection, Gal. iii. 10. Therefore, if it should require any sinner to seek life by his own obedience, then it would require him to seek life in a sinful way, namely, by the continued breach of the law, which his best obedience would be, so long as it is, and cannot be but imperfect. Now, to suppose that the law requires this of any sinner, whether under the gospel or not, is to speak wickedly of the holy and perfect law of God. The law of the covenant of works requires no less than ever it did; yea, it requires more of the sinner, than it did of the sinless man: it required only active obedience of innocent Adam, but now of the sinner it requires active and passive obedience too; though the sinner be insolvent, and utterly unable to pay his debt, yet the law requires full payment of his double debt, both of obedience to the command, and satisfaction for his sin in breaking of it.
Herein the case of unbelievers appears to be most miserable, that they are under the commanding, as well as the condemning power of the covenant of works; that is, they are under an obligation to perfect obedience, and that upon pain of eternal death, under the sentence whereof they already; and under the continued forfeiture of eternal life, and all title thereto, by reason of their want of that obedience, and violation of that covenant. That all unbelievers are under the command of the covenant of works, is plain,
(1.) Because they are under the curse of it. If they were not under the commanding power, they could not be under the condemning power of it; if they were not under obligation to the command of it, how could they justly be condemned by it, for want of obedience there to, or transgression thereof? Where no command, no transgression; where no transgression, no penalty: but under the penalty or sentence thereof they are, Gal. iii. 10.: therefore they remain under the command of it, so long as they remain out of Christ.
(2.) That they are under the command of the covenant of works, is plain, because they are under the law wherein eternal life is connected with perfect doing. That they are under the law is evident, so long as they are not under grace, Rom. vi. 14. But it is now their misery, that this law they are under, is a law wherein the connection stands betwixt obedience and eternal lisp: though there is no connection by the law, betwixt their obedience now, and the promise of eternal life; yet there is a standing connection betwixt eternal life, and that perfect, personal obedience required by that law they are under, Rom. x. 5. The law still continues to say, “The man that does these things, shall live by them;” and Mat. xix. 16. “Is thou would enter into life, keep the commandments:” which plainly says, that though they cannot yield obedience, such as the law requires; yet the connexion betwixt life and obedience stands by that law they are under: it justifies all that can and do obey it, as it doth the elect angels; and it would justify men also, if they were in case, had they power, and did yield obedience to it, in the manner it requires.
(3.) That unbelievers are under the command of the covenant of works, is plain, because it is “only” the privilege of believers, that they are not under the ``moral law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby either justified or condemned,” as in our Confession of Faith; which plainly says, not only the moral law was turned into the form of a covenant of works, by its being made a covenant of life and justification upon doing, and of death and condemnation upon not doing; but also, as it is the privilege only of believers in Christ, that they are neither under the command of the covenant of works, to be justified by their obedience, nor under the curse thereof, to be condemned for their dis obedience thereto: which evidently shows, that it is the misery of unbelievers, that they are not only under the condemning power of that covenant, wherein disobedience and eternal death are connected; but also the commanding power of that law, wherein perfect obedience and eternal life are connected. This connexion betwixt life and personal obedience does not stand with respect to the believer, because he is not under the law, Rom.vi.14. Hence, though the believers in Christ had a personal righteousness of their own in perfection, as they will have in heaven; yet there is no connexion betwixt it and their justification, or eternal life, which is now to them the gift of God through Jesus Christ; they being brought under another covenant, which makes their title to life to stand upon another foundation, namely, Christ’s perfect obedience, active and passive, in their room and stead. But as for unbelievers, that are under the law, the standing connection betwixt life and obedience by that law, renders them as miserable, in regard that it confirms their forfeiture of eternal life; as the standing connection betwixt death and disobedience, by that same law, renders them miserable, in regard that it continues them under the sentence of eternal death.
(4.) That unbelievers are under the command of the covenant of works, is plain, because they are, by the gospel-dispensation, obliged to seek life by the obedience of another; which is so far from proving them not to be under the command of the covenant of works, that it plainly proves them to be under it. Our Lord Jesus Christ, as Surety, came to fulfil the righteousness of the law, only as it is a covenant of works: and this he did, both by his active obedience, fulfilling the precept of the law; and by his passive obedience, satisfying the threatening, and enduring the penalty, of the law. Now, if unbelievers were only under the condemning power of the law, then they would need only to seek freedom from death, through Christ’s suffering, or passive obedience, in their room; but if they were not under obligation to the command of the covenant of works, then there is no need they would have of Christ’s active obedience, or doing in their room. They were never obliged, as I cleared before, to seek life by their obedience; but if they were not obliged, by the command of the covenant of works, to yield that perfect obedience, to which life was promised therein, then they would have no need to seek life by the obedience of another. What need they to seek that in the person of another, which they are not obliged to have in their own person? Who will see a need for seeking that which he is not obliged to have or yield? The unbeliever’s obligation, therefore, to seek life by the obedience of another, namely, of Christ, is a plain argument to prove that he is under obligation to the command of the covenant of works.
See then the danger of that doctrine which asserts, that unbelievers are not under the command of the covenant of works: it crosses one of the great ends of the gospel, which is to hold out Christ in his complete righteousness, both of doing and suffering, that sinners may come and take the whole benefit thereof, in order to their being intitled to eternal life, and secured from eternal death, according to the method of the covenant of grace; for, while they remain out of Christ, they are Wholly and altogether under a covenant of works, both in its commanding and condemning power.
[2.] Another doctrine that stands in opposition to this truth that we are treating of, is that which asserts, That believers, by their new sins, come under a liableness, or obligation, to the penal sanction of the law, and threatening of eternal death. I have elsewhere endeavoured to refute this error2; therefore, at present, I shall not enlarge upon it, but only repel it with the weapons that the text here affords me, namely, The strength of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, says the apostle in the name of all believers, that giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Where it is plain, that all believers in Christ are delivered, by virtue of their union to him as the Lord their righteousness, from the law and the curse thereof; and consequently from the strength of sin, as it is a part of the curse of the law. See also Gal. iii. 13. Rom. viii. 1. 34. vi. 14. and vii. 6. But now, if believers are, after their union to Christ, brought, by their new sins, under a liableness to the penal sanction of the law; that is, to eternal death, and vindictive wrath; then they are brought under the curse of the law again: and if so, then they are brought under the strength’ of sin, which is the leading branch of that curse. If they that assert this doctrine, attempt to prove it from this, that every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse; and argue from the believer’s sins deserving it, that therefore believers are liable to it, which is a very wide argument; then, by the same argument, I can prove, that because there is no moment of a believer’s life, wherein he is perfectly free of sin, so long as want of perfect conformity to the law, either in nature, heart, or way, is sin; therefore there is not a moment of the believer’s life, where in he is not both under the curse of the law and the strength of sin; and consequently, no sinful believers in this world, as all believers are, could ever, upon good ground, sing this song of victory in the context. But this is such dreadful doctrine, that I hope I need not enlarge in the refutation thereof.
Believers are neither justified upon their personal good, nor unjustified upon their personal evil; but their actual personal title to life, and their freedom from all legal obligation, and liableness to death, which are the two branches of justification, stand upon the active and passive obedience of Christ, imputed to, and received by them, whereby they are discharged from all law-debt. And though God continue to pardon the sins of them that are justified, and they daily need his pardon, as he is a Father, whose fatherly anger their sins expose them to; yet they have no more to do with him as a wrathful Judge, except in their own unbelieving apprehensions and legal fears, which are their sin. Indeed, the more aggravated their sins are, the more are they liable to the bitter effects of God’s fatherly wrath and chastisement; but to make either any good they do a prop to their justification, or any evil they do a flaw in their justification, this is a popery. The righteousness of Christ, with which the believer is ever clothed, secures him so, that the sentence of life is never revoked, neither is the sentence of death ever incurred anew; for, “He that believes hath everlasting life;” and, “There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ:”
Though the law cannot but curse sin, where-ever it is, and even the believer’s sins; yet the curse can never reach his person. Christ hath no cursed or condemned member. Simeon and Levi had been guilty of heinous crimes, in killing the Ishmaelites; yet, as some think, they being good men in the main, Jacob does not curse their persons but their sins; Gen. xlix. 7. “Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce: and their wrath, for it was cruel;” so cruel, that it might have brought a curse upon them deservedly. But Jacob, guided by the Holy Ghost, lays the curse on their extravagant passion, not on their persons: and every believer will join issue with that curse of the law against his sin, saying, Cursed and destroyed be my sin, my unbelief, my enmity.— Believers are not under the law, as a covenant of works, either to be justified or condemned thereby: if they were brought, by their new sins, under the curse of the law, then they would be brought also under the power of sin, and the reigning strength of corruption; and so they are neither justified nor sanctified; neither delivered out of the state of sin nor of misery.
See the danger then of this erroneous doctrine, of believers being made liable to the curse of the law: it is contrary to that gospel-principle, which asserts, “That believers are delivered from the wrath of God, and the curse of the moral law;” and it is contrary to that gospel-practice of the believer’s, which is influenced by the faith of his freedom from the curse, and the faith of God’s everlasting love in Christ Jesus. That doctrine of believers liableness to wrath, upon every sin, tends to create slavish fear and dread in God’s children; and so to discourage from duty, and marr true gospel-holiness, which is a serving of God, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love, and of a willing mind: for the fear of hell, and of falling into eternal wrath, and the fear of losing their sonship, and being disinherit, which some, that pretend much to orthodoxy, tell us, believers ought to be influenced by; these fears, I say, can never be filial or child-like, because they go upon the supposition of an allowed act of unbelief, namely, their- apprehending God not to be their everlasting Father in Christ, according to the tenor of the new covenant; which if they believed him to be, they could not fear these evils, but would rejoice in the faith of the contrary; and this faith would work by love, and love would constrain them to holiness. So that the doctrine I here oppose, is not a doctrine according to godliness, but rather a doctrine of licentiousness, tending to keep believers themselves under the law, which is the strength of sin.
This text then shows us the dangerous tendency of both these new doctrines, the one making the believer not to be, under the command of the covenant of works, and the other bringing the believer under the curse of it: but, as they that are not under the command of the law of works, cannot be under the curse of it; for, where no law, no transgression: and as they that are under the curse of the law, cannot but be under the command of it; for, where no transgression no penalty, and where there is a penalty there is transgression; so this strange doctrine in effect, and by plain consequences, makes unbelievers happy, and believers miserable: by freeing the believer from the command, it frees him from the curse; and by bringing the believer under the curse, it brings him under the command: and, by this means, unbelievers would not be under the law, but free both from the commanding and condemning power thereof; and believers would be under the law, and in bondage, both to the command and the curse.—I dare not think, that all who maintain the foresaid doctrine, are chargeable with asserting these dreadful consequences that flow from it; but surely it is dangerous to maintain such positions, from which such consequences are naturally deducible.— So far have I enlarged upon an use of information, because of the manifold lessons that arise from this text and doctrine.
Use 3.The third use shall be by way of examination and trial, namely, to see what state we are in, whether or not we be delivered from the law of works, as it is the strength of sin. In order to our having a clear view of this, there is a four-fold inquiry we may make.
Inquiry First, In order to try this matter, viz. Whether delivered from the law of works, as it is the strength of sin; let us enquire whether the strength of sin be truly broken; for sin has dominion, and a ruling power, over all that are under the law, Rom. vi. 14.
Why, say you, who are these, in whom the rule and strength of sin remains unbroken?
Answ. 1. All you that do not find a daily exercise with sin: they in whom the strength of sin is dashed, will be at work to get themselves purged from it; they are still either lamenting their sin, or plotting against it, praying against it, watching against it, making use of the blood of Christ against it, and sometimes mourning and crying against it, and against themselves for it: whereas they in whom it reigns, live peaceably and undisturbedly with it.
2. All you who have been your whole lifetime strangers to Christ, and to fellowship and communion with him, you are not yet delivered from sin; there is a throne of iniquity set up in your hearts, which shall not have fellowship with God, and indeed cannot.
3. All you that know nothing of that dispensation of grace, to wit, God’s hearing of your prayers, and giving you his countenance therein; sin reigns in your hearts, and you regard iniquity in your hearts, therefore the Lord hears you not, but is saying, Go to the gods whom you have served.,
4. All you that never found any pain in parting with sin, nor any thing of the cross of Christ, or of suffering in the flesh, 1Pet. iv. 1. It is such as have suffered in the flesh, that have ceased from sin. Some were never disturbed in their making provision for the flesh; never knew the painful exercise of repentance and self-denial; never burdened with the vileness of sin; nor exercised in the work of judging themselves. When a gangrene is to be cured, because it is in the flesh, the flesh must be cut; so, because sin is seated in the flesh, the flesh must suffer by self-denial. There is a woful tenderness that we have of ourselves, that keeps us from mortifying our corruption. Have you never discovered or seen the evil and bitterness of sin, but lived always in peace? Why, then it seems the strongman keeps the house: if the passing of the gravel stone never pained you, ye are not yet quit of it; if your heart was never pained with sin, it lays your heart was never yet circumcised: the strength of sin remains where there has been no gospel-mortification. Which leads to a
Second Inquiry, For helping you to try if you be delivered from the law of works, as it is the strength of sin, namely, inquire if you be acquaint with gospel-mortification. It is almost incredible to think how great a length people may go in legal mortification of sin, while yet they are utter strangers to the gospel. It is strange to think, what some heathens have done this way, and what many popish monks have done; yea, what great reformations have taken place among some, so as by their life you would think they were real converts, because of their exactness and tenderness, while yet they are enemies to grace, and strangers to the gospel, and consequently to true mortification, which cannot be by the law, it being the strength of sin.
Quest. How shall I know, whether it be by the gospel that I mortify sin, or by the law ?
Answ. 1. Gospel and legal mortification differ in their principles from which they proceed. Gospel-mortification is from gospel-principles, viz. the Spirit of God, Rom. viii. 13. “If ye thro’ the Spirit mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live:”— Faith in Christ, Acts xv. 9. “Purifying their hearts by faith:”— The love of Christ: constraining, 2 Cor. v. 14. “The love of Christ constraineth us.”— But legal mortification is from legal principles; such as, from the applause and praise of men, as in the Pharisees; from pride of self-righteousness, as in Paul before his conversion; from the fear of hell; from a natural conscience; from the example of others; from some common motions of the Spirit; and many times’ from the power of sin itself, while one sin is set up to wrestle with another, as when sensuality and self-righteousness wrestle with one another: the man, perhaps, will not drink and swear; why? because he is setting up and establishing a righteousness of his own, whereby to obtain the favour of God: here is but one sin wrestling with another.
2. Gospel and legal mortification differ in their weapons with which they sight against sin: the gospel-believer sights with grace’s weapons, namely, the blood of Christ, the word of God, the promises of the covenant, and the virtue of Christ’s death and cross, Gal. vi. 14. “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, by whom” [or, as it may be read, whereby, viz. by the cross of Christ,] “the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.” But now the man under the law sights against sin by the premises and threatenings of the law; by its promises, saying, I will obtain life; and win to heaven, I hope, if I do so and so; by its threatenings, saying, I will go to hell and be damned, if I do not so and so. Sometimes he sights with the weapons of his own vows and resolutions, which are his strong tower, to which he runs and thinks himself safe.
3. They differ in the object of their mortification: they both, indeed, seek to mortify sin; but the legalist’s quarrel is more especially with the sins of his conversation; but the true believer mould desire to sight as the Syrians got orders; that is, neither against great nor small, so much as against the King himself, even against original corruption: a body of sin and death troubles him more than any other sin in the world; “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from this body of death?” Rom. vii. 24. His great exercise is, to have the seed of the woman to bruise this head of the serpent.
4. They differ in the reasons of the contest: the believer, whom grace teaches to deny all ungodliness, he sights against sin, because it dishonours God, opposes, Christ, grieves the Spirit, and separates between his Lord and him; but the legalist sights against sin, because it breaks his peace, and troubles his conscience, and hurts him, by bringing wrath and judgment on him. As children that will not play in the dust or stour (storm); why? not because it sullies their clothes, but flees into their eyes, and hurts them: so, the legalist will not meddle with sin; why! not because it sullies the perfections of God, and defiles their souls, but only because it hurts them. I deny not, but there is too much of this legal temper even amongst the godly.
5. They differ in their motives and ends: the believer will not serve sin, because he is alive to God, and dead to sin, Rom. vi. 6. The legalist forsakes sin, not because he is alive, but that he may live: the believer mortifies sin, because God loves him; but the legalist, that God may love him: the believer mortifies sin, because God is pacified towards him; the legalist mortifies, that he may pacify God by his mortification. He may go a great length, but it is still that he may have whereof to glory, making his own doing all the foundation of his hope and comfort.
6. They differ in the nature of their mortification: the legalist does not oppose sin violently, seeking the utter destruction of it; if he can get sin put down, he does not seek it to be thrust out: but the believer, having a nature and principle contrary to sin, he seeks not only to have it weakened, but extirpate: the quarrel is irreconcilable; no terms of accommodation or agreement; no league with sin is allowed, as it is with hypocrites.
7. They differ in the extent of the wars are, not only objectively, the believer hating every false way; but also subjectively, all the faculties of the believer’s soul, the whole regenerate part being against sin. It is not so with the hypocrite or legalist: for as he spares some sin or other, so his opposition to sin is only seated in his conscience; his light and conscience oppose such a thing, while his heart approves of it.— There is an extent also as to time; the legalist’s opposition to sin is of a short duration, but in the believer it is to the end; grace and corruption still-opposing one another.
8. They differ in the success: there is no believer, but as he sights against sin, so first or last he prevails, though not always to his discerning; and though he lose many battles, ye? he gains the war: but the legalist, for all the work he makes, yet he never truly comes speed: though he cut off some actual sin, yet the corrupt nature is never changed; he never gets a new heart: the iron-sinew in his neck, which opposes God, is never broken; and when he gets one sin mortified, sometimes another and more dangerous sin lifts up the head: hence all the sins and pollutions that ever the Pharisees forsook, and all the good duties that ever they performed, made them but more proud, and strengthened their unbelieving prejudices against Christ, which was the greater and more dangerous sin.—Thus you may see the difference between legal and gospel mortification, and try yourselves thereby.
Inquiry third, In order to try whether or not you are delivered from the law, as it is the strength of sin; enquire whether you have renounced your own righteousness; for they that make their duties their righteousness, and rely thereupon, are yet under the law, and so under the strength of sin.
Quest. Who are they that make their duties their righteousness, and establish a righteousness of their own, and rely thereupon?
Answ. 1. These that please themselves with a form of godliness; and like the Pharisees, make clean the outside, while yet they have a secret enmity at the power of godliness, having outward conformity to the letter of the law; and, like Paul before his conversion, touching the law blameless, yet little regarding the spirituality of it: they profess a regard to the law, but if they knew the inside of it, they would hate it.
2. These that rest in a certain pitch of religion, when they have as much as they think will save them, and are far no more; not knowing what it is to press towards the mark, for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
3. These that set their duties against their sins, and against the wrath of God, and the fear of judgment; not fleeing to Christ for refuge, as all true believers do, Heb. vi. 18.; but to their duties, their prayers, and no further. Their be taking themselves to duties would be well done, if they went a little further; but they set their duties against their sins, and thereupon have peace, saying, though my sins be so and so great, yet my duties are so and so many; therefore, I hope, all will be right. Thus they speak peace to themselves, when God never spake it: here is a dead fly that spoils all the ointment.
4. These who are at enmity with the doctrine of grace; however much they may be engaged in duty, Christ is a stumbling-block to them, as he was to the Jews, Rom. ix. 33. The doctrine of duties and works, they understand; but the doctrine of grace, and of the righteousness of Christ, they will not understand; they suspect it, as an enemy to the law, and Antinomianism: they are ignorant of God’s righteousness.
5. These that perform duties in their own strength, are establishing a righteousness of their own: though they say they can do nothing without Christ, yet they can do all without seeing much need of him. But, where Christ is the righteousness of a soul, he will be the strength also. Isa. xlv. 24. Some, indeed, profess to take Christ, for their strength, but they set Christ against himself, as it were, by employing the strength of Christ against the righteousness of Christ; that is, when they cry to Christ for strength to perform duties, that when they are enabled to perform them, they may make them their righteousness. Hence many will say, O for a soft heart! O for an enlarged heart in duty! O for grace to seek, and a heart to pray! And if they get anything like it, what make they of it? Why, then they think: they have a good enough righteousness, and seek no further.
6. These that are of a wrathful and implacable disposition, they discover themselves to be under the law, and under the strength of sin, and so not delivered from establishing a righteousness of their own; “The law worketh wrath,” Rom.iv.15. Not only wrath in God against man, and wrath in man against God; but wrath and enmity also in man against man, especially upon any real or supposed injury. When wrath rises, and rests, and remains from day to day, from week to week, from month to month, from year to year, and the man will by no means be reconciled to one that has offered him any affront; nay, he will not pardon, he will not forgive, he will not forget; surely that man is under the law, and under the strength of sin: he never got a pardon from God, that cannot pardon his neighbour an offence; he has not the image of God, not being merciful as his heavenly Father is merciful; he cannot pray, “Forgive me my sins, as I forgive them that sin against me. Anger rests in the bosom of fools,” says Solomon. Anger and wrath may rise, and rage a little in the bosom of a wise man, a good man, but it cannot rest there; it rests only in the bosom of fools. This foolish and implacable disposition shews the man to be selfish and self-righteous.
7. These whose good hope, sounded upon, and drawn from duties, never utterly failed them, so as to say, as it is, Isa. Ivii. 10. “There is no hope; no, They are wearied in the greatness of their way, and have found the life of their hand,” &c.
8. These who, the more they go about outward duties, the more liberty they take to sin, saying, as it is, Prov. vii. 14. and 18, compared, “I have peace-offerings with me; this day have I paid my vows: come let us take our fill of love, until the morning; let us solace ourselves with loves.”
9. These who neglect; duties, through desperation and hopelessness of getting any good by them, saying, “It is vain to serve the Lord;” why, what is this, but that because they would rely on duties, as their Saviour, when they find they may not do so, they will rather forbear them, and cast all behind their back, saying, “There is no hope” Hence,
10. When men are madly pursuing their lusts, it may be a sign they are relying on their duties, even when they commit sin desperately. Why, they are desperate debtors; and, perhaps, have been trying, some time or other, to pay their debt by doing something that they might live: but finding that will sail them, they say, There is no hope of paying that debt, therefore they desperately take on more; Jer. ii. 25. “There is no hope; for, I have loved strangers, and after them will I go:” and, Jer. xviii. 12. “There is no hope; but we will walk after our devices, and do every one the imagination of his evil heart.” They want not a natural inclination, as all others have, to pay the debt in the way of a law of works, with their own righteousness, which appears whenever conscience is awakened; but for the present they are desperate: if they cannot win to heaven by their own righteousness, they will rather go to hell in their wickedness, than be obliged to the righteousness of another for heaven and eternal life: so strong is the law of Do and live, even at the root of their wickedness. The strength of sin is the law.
Again, it may be asked here, Who are they that have renounced their own righteousness?
Answ. 1. Such as have renounced their own righteousness, are easily brought to the sense and acknowledgement of their sin; whereas others are ready to say, with these who are commanded to return to the Lord, Where in shall were turn to him? Such were the Pharisees, Luke xviii. 11, 12.
2. The great care of such will be to advance in the knowledge of Christ; they have a high esteem of Christ’s righteousness, accounting all other things, on which they formerly relied, but dung; and expecting justification and absolution before God, only upon the account of the righteousness of Christ, laid hold upon by faith, Phil. iii. 8, 9.
3. From a sight of their own imperfection, and in ability in duty, they go on and make progress in Christ’s strength, Psalm lxxi. 16. Phil. iii. 12, 13, 14. And in all their approaches to God, they are concerned how to get the Spirit with them, and the internal part of duty performed, as well as the external; and their spiritual joy and comfort arises from Christ: Phil. iii. 3. “They worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.”
4. Such will justify God in all his dispensations of providence towards them, though never so harsh; and undervalue damages and losses, if they can but win Christ, Phil. iii. 8.
5. As they are not listed up upon the account of their inherent righteousness, but say, with Job, chap. x. 15. “If I be righteous, yet will I not lift up my head;” and with the church, Isa. lxiv. 6. “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;” and dare plead for nothing at the throne of grace on the account thereof, Dan. ix. 18, Job ix. 15.: so their obedience is most free; the believer acts freely, not by the coaction and compulsion of the law, and without respect to the promises or threatenings of it, as it is a covenant of life; he being, by virtue of the new nature, ready to do the will of God with pleasure, As there is need of no law for the body, which may compel it to eat, drink, sleep, walk, sit, stand, or do any works of nature, as I said before, because it is ready to do these things naturally; so there is need of no law-coaction and compulsion to drive the believer to obedience: there are gospel-threatenings and promises, that are lined with love, which work upon him, and constrain him; but to be acted by the law-threatening of death, in case of disobedience, or the law-promise of life upon obedience, is not compatible with the state of the believer, as such; he not being under the law, but under grace, his obedience is free, Luke i. 74, 75.
6. They that have renounced their own righteousness, have renounced their own strength also, and said, “In the Lord only have we righteousness and strength, “Isa. xlv. 24. They see the need of the same creating power that began the good work, to carry it on every day, as long as the new-creation work is a-working. As in the first creation, after God made heaven and earth, he left not the work there, but every day the Lord said, Let there be this, and, Let there be that; “Let there be light;” and then, “Let there be fruit:” so, in the new creation, believers see a need every day of an almighty word, saying, Let there be light, spiritual light; and after that, Let there be fruit, spiritual fruit; and again, every day another word of power from God, to carry on the new-creation work, during the whole six days of our life here, till the Sabbath of everlasting rest come.
Enquiry fourth, In order to try whether or not you are delivered from the law, as it is the strength of sin; enquire whether you be experimentally acquaint with the gospel, as it is the means and strength of holiness.
Quest. What is it in the Gospel that contributes to the strength of holiness, that believers, who are not under the law, have saving experimental acquaintance with?
Answ. There are these following things in the gospel, that contribute to the strength of holiness; and you may try what experience you have thereof.
1. What experience have you of the sanctifying discoveries of the gospel? Some discoveries are introductory and preparatory unto, and some are effective of holiness to the destroying of the strength of sin. The introductory discoveries are such, as give persons the faith of the law; such as, conviction from the evidence and demonstration of the Spirit; this may be called a gospel-discovery, in so far as it is by the Spirit promised in the gospel, John xvi. 7, 8, 9. If it be asked here, Does not the law prepare us for the grace of the gospel? We reply; Not in itself, any more than sin and misery doth: for the law makes known sin, and leaves a man under wrath, Rom. iii. 19, 20. The whole revelation of the remedy, and application thereof both, is by the grace of the gospel; Luke xix. 10. Christ came to seek and to save that which was lost; both to seek, by the revelation of the gospel; and also to save, by the application there of. Yet these introductory discoveries may be called gospel-discoveries, in respect, of the author, namely, the Spirit promised in the gospel; and because of their connection, in the elect, with the saving work that follows, even though they be not saving in their own nature; and therefore, these convictions may be called legal, in respect of the man’s state, who is the subject thereof, he not being yet in Christ; and in respect of the subserviency of the law under the influence of the Spirit, for making these discoveries of the man’s sinful and miserable state without this faith of the law, and these convictions, one will never prize gospel-grace, which is the channel wherein true holiness runs.— But again, some gospel-discoveries are effective of holiness, namely, the discovery of the glory and fulness of Christ, and of the glory of the grace of God in him: Holiness to the Lord, is the immediate effect thereof, 2 Cor. iii. 18. “Beholding as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, we are changed into the same image.” Now, what know ye of this gospel-discovery of a God in Christ, reconciling the world to himself? If ever Christ was revealed in you, the revelation would be sanctifying and transforming.
2. What experience have you of the sanctifying, attracting charms of the gospel? Have you always stopt your ears at the voice of the charmer therein? And, was you never taken and captivated with the joyful found? Or, have you been allured with the charms, and drawn by the attractives thereof? What these attractives are, you see, Hosea xi. 4. Jer. xxxi. 3. John xii. 32. The bands of love; the divine loving kindness; and all in and through a crucified Christ, lifted upon the cross, on the are of such a sanctifying nature, and so contributive to the strength of holiness, that they natively constrain the believer there unto, 2Cor. v. 14, 15. This love of God to the sinner, begets love in the sinner to God; “We love him, because he first loved us:” and love to God is the very heart of holiness; “Love is the fulfilling of the law;” and therefore, the more love, the more holiness.
3. What experience have you of the sanctifying attire of the gospel? for the gospel-garment contributes to the strength of holiness. There is a twofold gospel-garment: the one is an unchangeable, and the other a changeable one: the unchangeable gospel-garment is the imputed righteousness of Christ, which, when it is put on by faith, the soul is said to be clothed with the sun, Rev. xii. 1.; and it is such an unchangeable robe, that it is never taken off the back of these that are once clothed with it, but they remain always fair and perfectly righteous in the sight of God. It is true, this may be called, and is, indeed, their justifying attire; and yet I call it sanctifying also; because, as justification is a root and cause of sanctification, so it is this righteousness of Christ that purchased holiness, and consequently brings its purchase still along with it: and hence the faith of this righteousness works by love, and so producing holiness of heart and way.—The changeable gospel-garment is the imparted righteousness of Christ; that is, holiness itself: I call it changeable, like the moon; not because the soul that is clothed with it is ever altogether naked or denuded of it again, but because of the various degrees it admits of; sometimes more and sometimes less, and the changes from better to worse, and from worse to better therein, according to the measure of the communication of the Spirit, and according to the need of the new creature, Isa. xl. 31. “They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength;” they shall change their strength, as I formerly noticed, the word imports: like a man changing his clothes, having several suits conform to his occasions: a garment for working, and a garment for walking abroad withal; a garment for night, and a garment for day; one for the week-day, and another for the Sabbath: he hath changes of raiment; so the believer hath changes of strength: if he need to walk, he has walking strength; if to run, running strength; if to flee, flying strength is communicate: for so it follows, “They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not weary, and walk and not saint.”— Examine your experience with respect to this twofold robe: do you know the sanctifying influence of the justifying righteousness of Christ? If you be delivered from the law T as it is the strength of sin, you have some time or other experienced, that the justifying righteousness of Christ hath a sanctifying effect; and this it hath, when the sense of pardoning mercy melts the heart for sin; when the faith of forgiveness draws forth heart-loathing of sin, and heart-love to holiness; and when the apprehension of the mercy, love, and grace of God, quickens the soul to a lively performance of duty, and enlarges the heart to run the way of God’s commandments.
4. What experience have you of the sanctifying promises of the gospel? That they contribute to the strength of holiness, is evident from 2 Cor. vii. 1. 2 Pet. i. 4. Was ever a promise applied with power and majesty to your heart? If so, then, what effect had it? Did you not see your own hellish nature, even to self-abhorrence? and, was not the desire of your soul after the participation of the divine nature, excited to such a degree, that, perhaps, you could have wished rather to die, than not to be holy; and your breathing was, O to be holy! O to be like unto Christ! O to have all heart-plagues healed, and all spiritual maladies cured.
5. What experience have you of the sanctifying principles, truths, tenets, and doctrines of the gospel? “Ye shall know the truth,” says Christ, “and the truth shall make you free;” free from the ruling power of sin; free from the bondage of the law; at liberty to serve the Lord; free from that slavery to sin and Satan, that the rest of the world are under, who want the true knowledge of the sanctifying principles and doctrines of the gospel, Eph. iv. 19, 20, 21.; where we see, that the knowledge of the gospel directs to another course than the world take; some are altogether ignorant of the sanctifying principles of the gospel, others have a head-knowledge and notion of some gospel-principles, but no sanctifying knowledge thereof; these abuse the grace of God to licentiousness. But, what experience have you of the power of gospel-truth, and the sanctifying virtue of gospel-doctrine? If the grace of God has taught you nothing but looseness, you have no true knowledge of it; for it teaches otherwise, Titus ii. 12. Did never the doctrine of Christ’s death and resurrection, as the Lord our righteousness, tend to beget you to a new and lively hope? Did you never feel the power of that doctrine for killing sin? Examine your experience by that of Paul, who desired to know more and more of Christ, and the power of his resurrection. Phil. iii. 10. compared with 1 Pet. i. 3.
6. What experience have you of the sanctifying privileges of the gospel? Gospel-privileges, enjoyed by believers, are the foundation of gospel-holiness. By the law of works, obedience was first to take place, and then privileges; but by the gospel of grace, privileges first come in, and thereupon obedience influenced thereby. Have you experienced gospel-joys and comforts in the Lord, in so much that the joy of the Lord was your strength? Gospel-consolation is a great furtherance of gospel-sanctification. Have you ever experienced a gospel-day; I mean not a day of preaching only, but a day of power? Why then, surely willingness to serve the Lord in holiness was wrought; “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power.”— But not to enlarge this use further, I come to close with a word, by way of Exhortation.
And our Exhortation shall be first to unbelievers, that are under the law, and so under the commanding and condemning strength of sin. Oh! Sirs, do, not stay there; for it is a fearful state, to be under the law, and under the power of sin: if you die in that state, you must bear the weight of your sins for ever; and, how dreadful will it be, when God shall open the treasures of his wrath, and shut the bowels of his mercy for ever upon you! O unbelievers! see the necessity of fleeing to Christ and his righteousness: think not to please God by your own feeble endeavours; there is but one way in all the world to get from under the law-curse, and so from under sin’s ruining power, and that is, to get in to Christ, who hath fulfilled, and is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth. Where there is but one way, there is no room for consultation: were there many ways to heaven, you might consult which to take; but there is only one, Christ the way, the truth, and the life; there remains no more sacrifice for sin. If a man were fallen into a great pit, full of snakes, and serpents, and fire, and all that can be imagined terrible and dreadful; and there comes one, and casts a rope into this deep pit; will there be need of arguments to persuade the man to take hold of it? He is in a miserable case, and there is no other way to help him: even so here, you are in a pit full of snakes, and serpents, and fire, the power of Satan, the sting of sin, the fire of God’s wrath; you are in a manner in hell already; and God has sent his Son, with a law-biding righteousness in him; he lets down this rope, that poor perishing sinners may lay hold upon it: what will you do in this case? Will you put off time, saying, What shall I do? when there is no other way left for you, but to come to Christ, as the Lord your righteousness. Alas! stand not trifling and dallying till you go to the devil in hell, as many do. Will you take advisement till the next year, when, for ought you know, you may be in hell the next hour? Are you brought to that question, “What shall I do to be saved?” There is no other answer in the world to be given to it, but this one, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved;” despair of life by the law, as you would not live under the ruling, and die under the damning strength of sin: but repair to the gospel, by applying the promise thereof; for there is exhibite to you the saving strength of Christ. Give up with the old covenant of works; for there sin reigns, through want of righteousness, to eternal death: but take hold of the new covenant of promise; for there grace reigns, through righteousness, unto eternal life, by Jesus Christ our Lord, Rom. v. 21. Be content not to think of paying a farthing of your own debt to the law, and to be obliged to Christ for paying it all for you. To believe in Christ, is to come out from under the law, that you may be under grace: and to come under grace, is to be subject to it, so as to be content to be in grace’s debt, and that grace do all for you and in you, and that grace be glorified in you, and Christ glorified in grace, and God glorified in Christ. May the power of grace persuade you to flee to Christ, and out from under the law, which is the strength of sin.— I might here adduce manifold motives and directions; but, referring you to other parallel subjects, and having enlarged so much beyond my intent in the preceding parts of this discourse, I hasten to a conclusion.— Therefore,
2dly, I would offer a short word of exhortation to believers, that are not under the law, and so are delivered from the strength of sin. O let it be your care to study conformity to the law as a rule of life, since you are graciously delivered from it as a covenant of life: give evidence, that being delivered from the law, you are delivered from the strength of sin: make off the power and dominion of it; you are under stronger obligations to mortify sin than any in the world; yea, than Adam in a state of innocency; for you are not under the law that he was under, but under grace; and grace hath brought you to possess a more glorious and honourable righteousness than ever Adam could have yielded, though he had never violate the covenant of works. Grace gives you more encouragement to obey the law, as a rule, than ever Adam had to obey it, as a covenant. You have such grace as Adam never had in that state, even grace in a better hand, where it can never be lost. Adam never had a title to life by the covenant of works, because he sailed in the condition: but you have a title to life, and the conditional so in your Head: “Will you sin, because you are under grace? God forbid.” Will you turn loose, and carnal, and formal, because you are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. Will you hate God, because he loves you? Oh! monstrous ingratitude! Because God has a regard for your happiness, will you have no regard to, his honour? Because he is gracious, will you be ungrateful? Alas! Tell it not in Gath!— Has grace justified you, and will you not evidence your by your sanctification?— Has grace adopted you, and will you not be followers of God as dear children?— Has grace given you the hope of glory, and will you not, having this hope, purify yourself, even as he is pure!— Has grace given you all the promises, and will you not, having these promises, cleanse yourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God?— O give evidence that you are not under the law, which is the strength of sin; but under grace, which is the strength of holiness. If you be under grace, surely you will have a regard to the glory of God, and to the credit of grace, that the gospel of grace be not reproached as an Antinomian doctrine of licentiousness. We call you to mortify sin, and study holiness and conformity to the law, as a rule of life, as you have a regard to the love and grace of God, and to your, own peace and comfort; for, “Great peace have they that love his law:” as you have a regard to the welfare of others, and their conviction and conversion; and as you have a regard to your family and posterity, and would entail a blessing on following generations, and leave a blessing behind you. In a word, it is by your holiness of heart and life, that the power of grace is seen, the truth of grace is tried, the beauty of grace is discovered, and the comfort of grace is felt, as I noticed on a farmer occasion. The power of grace will not be seen, if you be not holy, and if it be not so powerful, as to make the hardest command easy to you: The truth of grace will not be evident to you, if you be not holy; for sin will cast a cloud over it: The beauty of grace will not appear to others, if you be not holy; they will say, You are just like neighbour and other, if you do not shew your faith by your works: The comfort of grace will not accrue to you, if you be not holy; it is they that walk in the fear of the Lord, that walk in the comforts of the Holy Ghost. The sweets of religion, and the exercise of it go together. Go therefore in the strength as grace, leaning upon your Beloved, setting the strength of Christ, who is the Lord your righteousness, against the strength of sin, which is the law. The more firm and fixed that a man’s faith is, with respect to Christ, as the end of the law for righteousness, the more fast will he follow the Lord in the works of holiness; for the true believer hath two feet, as I have formerly said elsewhere, like the feet of a pair of compasses, the one foot stands fast in the centre, and the other draws the line, and goes round; now, if the foot that is in the centre do not stand firm and fixed, if it move out of its place while the line is a drawing, then the other foot can never make an exact circle: so here, the believer, hat two fee, the one is the assured faith of justifying grace, this should be still firmly fixed in its centre Christ, the Lord our righteousness; the other foot is gospel-obedience, and a holy walk influenced by faith, and this should be always moving about in the work of the Lord, and running its holy round of spiritual duties: now, if one foot, namely, the faith of justifying grace, be not fixed, and firmly established in its center, then the other foot, namely, that of obedience, cannot perform its motion with any exactness. While a believer is fixed in the faith of God’s grace and love, then this love constrains him to obedience; but when his faith begins to waver and totter, and he begins to jealouse the Lord’s love, and to deny his grace, then he loses his heart and strength, and courage; and so, by an evil heart of unbeliever, departs from the living God. O then seek to be firmly fixed in the faith of divine grace, and in the full assurance of your privilege, that you are not under the law, but under grace; then shall you be able to mortify sin with success. And, seeing the most thankful believer is the most obedient, entertain still a thankful remembrance of your merciful deliverance from the law, and let the apostle’s song of victory in the text be much in your hearts and mouths, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law: but thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
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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