« PreviousContinue »
terrible monition as this, and made him tremble while Paul reasoned with him of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come. Acts 24:25. It whispered in his ear such language as this : “O poor soul, how shall such an oppressor, such an intemperate wretch as thou art, stand before God in this day of judgment, which Paul proves is certainly to come ?” For, as Tacitus says of him, he was an insatiable gulf of covetousness. So it was with Agrippa ; he stood unresolved what to do : he saw the heavenly doctrine of Christianity evidently confirmed by doctrines and miracles, his conscience pleaded hard with him to embrace it, and had almost prevailed ; almost, or within a little as the word is, thou persuadest me to be a Christian. Acts 24 : 27. But Agrippa had too much wealth and honor to forsake for Christ; the love of the present world overbore both the hopes and fears of the world to come. And thus that excellent fisher for souls, who had thoroughly converted so many to Christ, came short of securing Agrippa : almost is a great deal for so great a person. The gospel is a net, and encloses all sorts, whole Christians and half Christians. The conscience is caught, and the will begins to incline ; but O the power and prevalence of sin, which, like the rudder, commands all to a contrary course.
Let us come a little nearer, and inquire what are those hinderances that stop conscience in its course, bind and imprison, stifle and suppress its convictions; so that although a man strongly suspect his foundation to be but sand, and his hopes for heaven a strong delusion, yet will he not throw up his vain hopes, confess his self-deceits, and begin all anew. What is it which overbears conscience in this case? Let men impartially examine their hearts, and it will be found that three things bind and imprison these convictions of conscience, and hold the truth in unrighteousness.
(1.) Shame. Men who have been professors, and of good esteem in the world, are ashamed the world should know the
mistakes and errors of all their life past, and what deluded fools and self-deceivers they have been : this is a powerful restraint upon conviction; how shall they look their acquaintances in the face? what will men think and say of them? “How can ye believe, which receive honor one of another ?” saith Christ. John 5:44. What, you Christians, and yet not able to endure a censure or a scoff upon your names! you who stand more upon your reputation than your salvation, how can you believe ?
O what madness and folly appear in this case ! men will choose rather to go on, though conscience tells them the end of that way will be death, than make a just and necessary retraction, which is not their shame, but their duty and glory. You who are so tender of the shame of men, how will you be able to endure the contempt and shame that shall be cast on you from God, angels, and men, in the great day? Luke 9:26. It is no shame to acknowledge your mistake; but to persist in it, after conviction, is shameful madness.
I knew an excellent minister, who proved an eminent instrument in the church of God, who, in the beginning of his ministerial course, was not upon the right foundation of regeneration. He had excellent natural and acquired gifts, and could preach of regeneration, faith, and heavenly-mindedness, though he felt nothing of these things in his own experience. His life was unblamable, and he had no mean esteem among good men. It pleased the Lord, while he was studying an excellent spiritual point to preach to others, that his conscience first preached it in his study to himself, and that with such a close and rousing application, as made him tremble; telling him, that though he had gifts above many, and sobriety in his conversation, yet one thing, and that the main thing, sanctifying grace, was wanting. Hereupon the pangs of the new birth seized his soul, and the Lord made him a most searching, experimental minister,
and crowned his labors with unusual success. This minister, to his dying day, was not ashamed in all companies to acknowledge his mistake, and bless God for his recovery out of it; and in most of his sermons, he would endeavor to convince false professors of the necessity of a second conversion.
(2.) Fear is another drawback which withholds men from executing the convictions of conscience, and obeying its calls in this grand concern of the soul. They are easy under the external profession and duties of religion, and are afraid of throwing up their vain hopes, and engaging themselves heartily and thoroughly in religion. There are two things which alarm them.
The troubles of spirit attending the new birth; which they have read and heard of, and seen the effects in others. O it is a dreadful thing to lie under the terrors which many have felt! and thus it is with them as with one that hath a bone ill-set, who, if he have any ease, will rather endure a little daily pain, and be content to halt all his life, than undergo the pain of another fraction or dislocation in order to a perfect cure.
They are afraid of external sufferings. The form of godliness leaves men a liberty to take or leave, according as the times favor or frown upon the ways of religion ; but the power of godliness will engage them beyond retreat. They must stand to it, come what will. But, soul, let me tell thee, if the just fears of hell and eternal wrath of God, to which thou art exposed by thy formality, were upon thee, all these fears of inward or outward troubles would vanish the same hour.
(3.) Pride of heart suffers not this conviction of con. science to work out its effects, but holds the truth in unrighteousness, to the ruin of many souls. Men that live upon their own duties and self-righteousness, are not easily brought to renounce all this, and live upon the righteousness of Christ alone for justification. Proud nature will rather Christ Knocking
venture the hazard of damnation than practise such selfdenial, Rom. 10:3; as you see it common among poor people to live on coarse fare of their own, rather than upon the alms and bounty of another.
But if once the day of God's power come, and a man feels the commandment come home to his conscience as Paul did, Rom. 7:9, when he comes to realize the world to come, the value of his soul, and the danger it is in, then all these hinderances are as easily swept away, as so many straws by the rapid course of a mighty torrent. Then let men say or think what they please, I must not throw away my own soul to maintain a vain estimation among men. Let inward or outward sufferings be ever so great, it is better for me to feel them, than to suffer the everlasting wrath of the great and terrible God. Let my own righteousness be what it will, all is but dung and dross to the pure and perfect righteousness of Christ.
2. As this general conviction with respect to men's condition is held in unrighteousness, and they go with troubled consciences and frequent inward fears by reason of it;,50 there are many particular convictions bound and imprisoned in men's souls—particular convictions both as to sins committed and known duties omitted against both tables of the law of God, called in the text ungodliness and unrighteousness. Conscience labors and strives to bring men to confess, bewail, and reform them, but cannot prevail ; contrary lusts and interests overpower them, and detain them in unrighteousness. What these are, and how they are withheld by those lusts, I shall give in some INSTANCES. And first, for convictions of UNGODLINESS.
INSTANCE 1. There are many who call themselves Chris. tians, whose conscience tells them that God is to be daily worshipped by them, both in family and closet prayer. It sets before them Joshua's pious practice: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24:15. They
know God is the founder, the owner, the master of their families; that all family blessings are from him, and therefore he is to be acknowledged and sought in daily family prayers and praises. It tells them that the curse of God hangs over prayerless families, Jer. 10:25; and that they live in the inexcusable neglect of these duties, seldom worshipping God with their families or in their closets, and that therefore they live without God in the world. Dreadful will the reckoning be at the great day for their own souls, which they have starved for want of closet prayer, and for the souls committed to their charge, which perish for want of family duties. This is the case of many who yet pass for professors of Christianity.
Lord, how sad a case is here. How can men live in the neglect of so great, so necessary a duty ? Certainly it is not for want of light and conviction; the very light of nature, if we had no Bibles, discovers these duties. But three things hold this truth of God dictated by men's conscience in unrighteousness.
(1.) The love of the world chokes this conviction in the souls of some; and they think it enough to plead for their excuse, the want of opportunities and the many encumbrances they have, which will not allow them time for these duties. The world is a severe taskmaster, and fills their heads and hands all the day with cares and toils. And must the mouth of conscience then be stopped with such a plea as this ? No; God and conscience will not be answered and put off so. The greatest number of persons in the world from whom God has the most spiritual and excellent worship, are of the poorer class. Psalm 74: 21 ; James 2:5. And it is highly probable your necessities had been less, if your prayers had been more. And what sweeter outlet and relief for all these troubles can you find than prayer? This would sweeten all your labors and sorrows in the world.
(2.) Consciousness of want of gifts restrains this con