HEBREWS VI. 4, 5, 6.
"For it is impossible that those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame." - HEB. VI. 4, 5, 6.
BECAUSE the depth of the purposes in these words requires somewhat more than ordinary explication, and application also, I thought it fit to insist on them in this exercise also,1 and not to satisfy myself with our brief exposition. Many truths may be deduced from them, as we hinted in expounding; but it is the scope we shall attend unto mainly, and that, as it is relating to us, rather than to such a kind of apostacy of which none of us can possibly be guilty.
On all hands it is granted, that an account of the sin against the Holy Ghost, and its punishment, is here held forth unto us, as is most plain; and that there is such a sin, which man through his corruptions and Satan's temptations may arrive unto, as shall render his salvation desperate. It is called from Matthew xii. 31, 32, a "sin unto death," (1 John v. 16), for the pardon whereof in another, we are not to pray. And here, and in Hebrews x. 29, it is spoken of as certainly damnable. All sin indeed is damnable in its nature; all sins may be damning in effect, without repentance and pardon; but this is always certainly damning.
The handling of the purpose here to your edification, labours under singular disadvantages, as - the difficulty that there is in finding out the nature of this great sin. The Lord hath left it so dark in the word, that many of his servants have had their different apprehensions about it, whereof I might give you a large list, though in these times, wherein light shineth more clearly about many other gospel truths, there is a greater agreement about it. It is - the deepest apostacy after the highest common operations of the Spirit. It is some disadvantage also, that Satan is so ready to assault many of the godly, with temptations about this; and where they prevail, they are the worst of all his darts. Yet have I adventured to handle this subject on these accounts, 1. To use it as a reason against security and arro-gancy in godliness, and as a preventive of the same deadly evil. 2. To encourage the truly godly, and arm them against Satan's temptations to this evil, or persuading them that they are guilty of it. 3. Because it comes in very seasonably upon the preceding purpose of men's standing out against Christ; which is so deep a subject, that it requires a strict and exact handling. And, 4. To prevent or remove the scandal to the gospel by men's apostacy.
Our method in our discourse is this - 1. To remove any mistakes that this portion of the word not rightly understood may occasion. And the main end is this - that they that have saving and true grace, may fall away: - and therefore, we shall prove, how it is not of such, but merely of professors that the apostle speaks. And for clearing our path in this, we must compare these verses with verses 7 and 8, and especially 9, 10, 11, and 12, where he is speaking certainly to the truly godly amongst them. And so we have these comparisons, 1. Here are "gifts" and "tastings," that is, faith working by love, 2. How few are the men called and counted amongst Christians, that are sensible souls fleeing for refuge to Christ. 3. Here are things glorious indeed, but not accompanying salvation; but in some, going before it, in others, without it. 4. Here the apostle supposeth a possibility of falling away, of those who are persuaded to the contrary. So that it is evident, that the danger hinted in these words concerns bare professors only, and not them that are true converts; yea, it is remarkable, that in this same chapter, the apostle saith as much for the certainty of the faith and perseverance, and salvation of true believers, as any where in the word. "God willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have, as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil." (verses 17, 18, 19).
Our next work shall be, to premise some truth from the words themselves, that may clear our way: 1. That these attainments the apostle speaks of, are in themselves excellent things, and greatly to be valued; being great tokens of a more special favour of God to them to whom they are given, than to them from whom they are withheld. 2. The having of them, as it is a mercy, so the truly godly have them all, and more. 3. The apostle doth not threaten any that have these things, save such as do not duly use them to an increase and obtaining of what is better still.
Our discourse now shall be on these heads, 1. What great attainments a mere professor may have. 2. How deeply he may fall from them, and notwithstanding of them. 3. What is the danger of such an apostacy.
I. Such as shall be damned eternally may attain unto great things in religion. The truth of this is so plain, and so well known in the word (see Matthew vii. 21, and xiii. 20, 21), that we need not stand to prove it farther, than by confirming the particulars; and we shall content ourselves with what is here. In handling this truth, we shall, 1. Show what these attainments are. 2. Why the Lord gives them to such characters. 3. What is wanting of that which would preserve them from apostacy.
First, What these attainments are. We shall insist on the five steps which the apostle names here:
1. He may be "enlightened" - natural darkness and blindness in the things of God are removed. This saith, that he may have the means - and the worst of men have had the best of these, as the Jews, who had Christ's ministry, and that of his apostles - and these means may have a good effect on him, in enlightening his mind in the knowledge of truth. And this effect that is here named, may extend so far, that he may have a literal knowledge of the word, and the truth thereof: of this there is no question. He may have a supernatural knowledge of many profound things in the word, by a special gift of knowledge or illumination, so that he may in this be above many of the truly godly, as to that sort of knowledge. It is likely that Judas knew more than the thief when he became penitent. And, indeed, there is nothing that a believer knoweth, but this apostate may know, though not in the same manner; and thus, the righteous who are ignorant, may be far inferior to those who come short of heaven. The measure of his knowledge may be great; even that of all things concerning God, his own heart, and the doctrines that are contained in the word. And the fruits of that illumination may be great. He may see such an excellency in Christ's church, as to join with it; and such danger in gross sin, that he may leave it; and attach such blamelessness to his walk, that no man can discern his rottenness.
2. He may "taste of the heavenly gift" - he may have a sort of faith, whereby Christ, and his grace and mercy may be tasted by him. This is a mighty attainment, whereof we spoke in the explication: but that we may draw the line the more accurately, we must now further handle the nature of this faith whereby he tastes. We say, then, that he hath an historical faith believing the truth of gospel tidings: this is a little tasting of justifying faith, for it is like it. He may meditate and contemplate on this truth; and this cannot be, without some savour of it and its goodness. And he may apply these things to himself, as his portion, and far more must this be savoury to him. "He heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while:" for a while only he believeth.
3. Such believers are "partakers" of the more special (not most special) workings "of the Holy Ghost." There may be alarming convictions; but Felix, Herod, and Judas, wanted not these: to be awakened with a fright of hell, is no token of a godly man. Or there may be debasing discoveries of self, so that they have not been ashamed to confess their sin, to God's glory and their own shame: even Judas had this. Or external reformation flowing from fear of wrath, and that sensibly working on the heart, as in the case of Ahab. There may be within them a secret restraint on corruption, by the hand of God, not only by his providence (Genes. xx.), but by motions on the heart. There may be a spirit of zeal for a good cause when it is afoot in a particular season, as that of the Jewish multitudes, when they cried "Hosannah!" They may have great gifts, such as that of prayer, whereby they are able to speak to God in pertinent petitions as to words, with good appearance of tender affections, and great fervency; and also as of understanding the things of God, so of expressing them to the edification of others, in preaching and in conference. And they have some exercise of conscience in the discharge of these, not only as reflecting on the right season of doing, and of influence stirring them up to do them, but in looking on them when done; yea, and in finding difference as to assistance therein at one time and another: even Saul knew and lamented when God had departed from him.
4. And "taste the good word of God" - that is, they find its relish and sweetness. When they find it touching their condition, yea, when some of its discoveries of duty are made, they may relish them, as Herod, who heard John gladly, and did many things. Also, not only its suitableness, but its power may be felt, to the stirring up of delight and wonder, as in the case of many of Christ's hearers; and turning them to good resolutions and purposes. Its mysteries may delight them, (and what wonder?) so that the feet of its ministers may be "beautiful upon the mountains''; and its promises of pardon, and peace, and acceptance being thought to be theirs, may by them also be tasted and relished.
5. They may taste of the "powers of the world to come." Besides what is said of this in the explication, these may be added: he may fancy heaven and that blessedness to be his, and venture and lose much for them - he may in some good measure undervalue the earth in comparison of them. By the "powers of the world to come," we may understand its virtues and properties, both of which this man may taste. And of its virtues and effects - such as the making a man solicitous and careful about knowing how to get it (Luke xviii. 18), and painfulness in the means of obtaining it. This is one of its powers also. There is also joy in the thought of its being his, and the endurance of suffering, rather than forfeit this right, though not much nor long; and he may have a lower esteem of this world than he formerly had, and like Balaam, think little and joyfully of death, as a passage to heaven. And he may taste of its properties: its vast greatness may puzzle his understanding, and make him cry out, with David, "Oh, how great is thy goodness, which thou hast laid up for them that fear thee; which thou hast wrought for them that trust in thee before the sons of men!" (Psalm xxxi. 19). Its goodness and excellency may draw forth his affection of love and delight, and its being to come, his expectation and looking for it. - So much of the first thing, as to what great attainments a hypocrite may win to in godliness; not that every one attains so much, but the Lord gives them to some.
Second. Why doth the Lord grant so great things unto them that get no more? - a deep question! that might safely enough be answered with silence, or with the words of the householder, "May not I do what I will with mine own?" Yet may we offer at some wise reasons of this depth of Providence.
1. It is to declare His willingness to save, and to make it the more evident, that men's ruin is of themselves: for in this case is all done, that can be done, in the way of means; and more than is done to many, and more than he is bound to do for any. He brings them on a great way, to leave this on their consciences, and on the consciences of others, that he delights not in the death of sinners.
2. The Lord doth this to make his grace the more conspicuous - his special saving grace; conspicuous in its freedom, and in its power also. When two are carried an equal length in the preparation to a saving interest in God, the one is taken, and the other left.
3. That his own people may not stay, and sit down on any measure of attainments, but still may press on; so is he pleased, for this end, to communicate so much of his common grace to them that may backslide, that all may press forward for more.
Third. But you may say, "What is wanting to saving grace in all these things? - they seem to be greater attainments than many of the people of God win to." This leads to the question, "What is wanting of that which would preserve from apostacy?" I answer, Every thing here in the text hath somewhat wanting: As,
1. Their illumination: it wants still these: they never see themselves quite undone, and empty of all good, so as to loathe themselves, and be quite diffident of themselves, and to go out of themselves. Always there is somewhat that the unsound sinks into, and hath a good opinion of. And they never saw Christ, as the only enriching treasure for the man himself. Fine notions of Christ's accomplishments they may have in the general; but of his being all in all, and that he is suited fully to them, this they see not.
2. As to their faith, it is called temporary, because it lasts not; but this is not visible until defection; therefore we must search it farther out. Whatever faith a man may have of divine truth, and whatever application may be made of Christ to himself, he wants these things of a sound faith: 1. He wants the bottom and ground-work of saving faith, and that is, denial of self and all self-sufficiency. The guilt of sin on his conscience may stir him up to employ Christ in some way; but utter emptiness of all good in himself, as well as of safety from himself, never can, nor doth move him. 2. And therefore he fails in the very act of faith, which is, a receiving of Christ wholly, and resting in him, as he is made of God to us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification and redemption, and offered to us, (1 Cor. i. 30). God hath exalted him to be a Prince and Saviour (Acts v. 31), and as such he is to be received. 3. And lastly, he is a stranger unto the life of faith, or abiding in Christ, and drawing virtue from him, (John xv.; Gal. ii. 20). These are mysteries impracticable unto the man of highest common attainments. Now, all these three are knit together, and follow one on another. As to this, their shortcoming flows from this mistake; - they imagine they need Christ as a Saviour, and a giver of grace, and then, when they have got that which they think to be grace they look on it as somewhat sufficient of itself, with their careful improvement of it, to advance the work of their salvation. Whereas the true believer seeth as much necessity of taking up his abode in the city of refuge, as of fleeing to it; and knows, that as his first new life flowed from his engrafting into Christ, the true stock, so his fruitfulness depends on the daily communication of his virtue.
3. As to their partaking of the Holy Ghost, here is a vast difference; - they know nothing of the regenerating sanctifying virtue of the Holy Ghost, which is the main benefit sinners receive by him. They want still the change of the heart and nature; they are still bad ground (verse 8), still "dogs," (2 Pet. ii. 22).
Object. Buthow shall I know, that there is such a change by the Holy Ghost on me, but by such things as you have ascribed to the common operations? - I answer, Better marks than any of these may every godly man find out of himself; As, 1. A single regard unto God's glory, which can never affect an unsanctified soul. To make it the man's chief aim, the attaining of it his chief joy; His dishonour his chief sorrow, are no where to be found but in a sanctified soul. 2. And as to external reformation, those indications that are in the sound man, are in the heart, and from thence in the life, while the other man is still in an evil condition; and therefore, that reformation of the former, is more sound, and even, and universal. And it hath an aim also towards perfection; perfect holiness is lovely, to a holy sincere man. 3. As to gifts, the godly man, whatever share he hath or wants of these, hath what is far better than they are, and never wants such measure of them as is simply needful. In prayer, for instance, though it may be he talks not so much nor so well as to words, as one of greater gifts, yet he still talks better - for his heart is more at the work, his aim is more honest, his reflections more spiritual, and his attainments more gracious and sanctifying.
4. Their tasting of the good word of God, whatever it hath in it, it wants much that the sound man hath. They taste not all in the word of God, for some things in it they are strangers unto; as, its enlivening power quickening them by it, and according to it, which David (Psalm cxix.) so often prays for. See also 1 Peter i. 23, where it is described as a living seed cast into their heart, raising them up unto a new life: this they know not. Its promises may quicken them to joy, but it never removes their natural death. Its feeding fructifying power also they know not of. They taste it only for trial, but do not feed on it. But a godly man finds this his bread, whereby his soul lives, and grows, and brings forth fruit unto God. It is the children's bread that children's nature only hath an appetite after. Some things of the word also they taste, that they do not relish and savour, as - its convincing power: when it comes close to them, and that daily, to make new discoveries of their distemper, this they have no relish of. David takes it as a commendation of the word, that it warns him, (Psalm xix. 11, 12). The unsound man can take its conviction now and then in good part; but when it is full at the work of discovering sin, and comes close upon his practices, he cannot endure it. And the unspotted holiness and strictness of God's word, is no relishing thing to him, but he is ready inwardly to blame it; as being too strict; whereas the godly man will, like Paul (Rom. vii. 12), call the law good, even when he cannot fulfil it.
5. Though he may taste of the powers of the world to come, he wants what a godly man may have. For he wants the experience of the due meetness for it that every godly man in some measure possesses. He is ready, that is, willing, but not meet and prepared to receive it; and therefore you will find, that he may pray for it, and not make ready for it. It hath no such power on him, as to induce him to prefer it, as a spiritual happiness, above all things in the world; but still, there are some things he loves better - somewhat which he is more afraid of losing, than of this blessedness, as trials do discover: the cares of the world, or the persecution of it, draws him away. And the spiritual and true earnest of it is still unknown to him; and though it may, in some measure; be also unknown to a godly man, yet seeing the apostle speaks of such an attainment of the hypocrite, that the sincere themselves do not always obtain, we may well lay this against that, as a proof of its wanting that which it seems to have. The earnest of glory is all one with that of the Spirit. "In whom (Christ) also, after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance, until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory." - "Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts." - Now, he that hath wrought us for the self same thing is God, "who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit." (Ephes. i. 13, 14; 2 Cor. i. 22, and v. 5). These expressions may help us to guess at the thing. The earnest being of the nature with the principal sum, as well as a securing of it, and the Holy Ghost being its author; we may know that it must have these things to make it up, - some near degree of fellowship with God; some sensible advance in conformity to him; and a holy delight and satisfaction resulting therefrom. Something like this, but a counterfeit, may the ungodly hypocrite have; but it is attained this way, - he looks on heaven as a state of excellent happiness, by his historical faith; his false spirit tells him it is his; and his heart rejoices in the hopes of it, though he still remain a stranger unto holy, sanctifying fellowship with God. The unsound man, for all his tasting of its powers, is yet unacquainted with these virtues that the meanest of the godly partake of; its main powers are not yet tasted. It takes not off his eye from sensible things, unto invisibles, (2 Cor. iv. 18). It puts not a bitterness into all his contentments, in comparison of it. A godly man is a stranger, and all his desirable mercies are but pilgrim's fare to him, that is often seasoned, and hath the bitter sauce of the remembrance where he is, and how far from home. It makes not all sufferings light, and tolerable, and small, in regard of it. (See Rom. viii. 18; 2 Cor. iv. 17); then joyful (Matt. v. 12; Heb. x. 34). An unsound man may suffer for heaven, but he looks on this suffering as a great disadvantage, and is sorry that the way is not more easy; and therefore, when sufferings come to a height, he falls off. It makes the godly man count all the pains in labouring for it to be but small, and unworthy of it; but the unsound man thinks he may take pains enough, and possibly too much; and therefore he becomes a censurer of them that go beyond him in diligence, that they may make more ado than there is need.
USE 1. - Since it is thus that bare professors, in whom the root of the matter is not found, may go so far, then this speaks terror unto those that are short of them; and they are many: it says, "If you come short of them that have not true grace, you must be far more behind than they." For the enforcing and clearing of this subject, know, that many of those who go to hell, are not by much so near heaven, as others who yet shall be there also: - many sail to hell by the coast of heaven, still expecting to land safely, till the storm come, and drown them in perdition; - and that all these things in some measure all the godly have had, and many remarkably, ere the gracious change was felt or came on them. And therefore, though the having them will not prove you godly, yet the want of them will prove you to be ungodly.
Now, a slender reflection might suffice for conviction, that many want what is here. As for illumination - are there not many grossly ignorant, and who know not the letter of divine truth; and many who have that, have no more? A hypocrite may have great discoveries of the things of God, as we have already said. For faith - there are many that give an ignorant implicit assent unto divine truth and the gospel, that never came unto a tasting of the sweetness of the gospel; they have never felt any relish of a Saviour. For the partaking of the Holy Ghost - many have no knowledge that there is a Holy Ghost, by any experience of his workings in awakening and convincing them. As for the taste of the word - many feel nothing in it of goodness and savour, nor of its pertinency to them, nor of its bitterness in reproving them. And as little power hath the world to come on them. If they can get thither when they die, they care not for any of its virtues. How terrible should this be to you, who are short of the attainments of those that yet may be in the gall of bitterness! The security of the age we live in, and the arrogancy of professors, call aloud to ministers to proclaim to them their hazard.
USE 2. - Be exhorted to take the warning in the scope of the apostle: go still forward in godliness, until you come the length that no hypocrite can attain; and this will be a work for you all your life long. For though the sincere though weak believer be quite above the reach of a bare profession, yet every sincere man hath these things, that will make his endeavours in advancing constant: - He is humble, and thinks little of his attainments, though never so great: - he is illuminated, and seeth both how small his attainments are, and how much is yet before him: hence, holy fear, and jealousy of himself and his treacherous heart, and so is he the more diligent - and he hath a love to progress, both from his single regard to God's commandment, and the love which the new creature within him hath toward further holiness.
If this fruit be reached in you, it is the design of the Holy Ghost in writing this, and mine in handling it: if not, I shall witness for God, that you were warned of the greatest danger that can befall you, and that you slighted it; so that when it overtakes you, you may justify God, and condemn yourselves. Oh! consider what a dreadful thought it will be in hell, to think, "A little more advancing would have removed me out of the way of this danger." Certainly none fall deeper into hell, than they that fall from the top of heaven's walls. He that hath given you what you have, is as ready to give you what you want, and more. A misery wilfully contracted must yours then be.
1. This and the following Sermon form the first part of a series in the original MS. consisting of four discourses, of which the last two are merely notes, and therefore unfit for publication.