... for why should I be as one that turneth aside by the flocks of thy companions?—Canticles 1.7.
HEBREWS VI. 4, 5, 6.
"For it is impossible for 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.
WE have been speaking unto this truth, that mere professors may have great attainments. We shall now handle these - that professors of high attainments may fall away most sadly; and that there is a fall that is irretrievable; and what that is, shall be described further from the word.
Professors of the highest attainments in common grace, may fall away dreadfully: the apostle's supposition proves its possibility. The scripture gives us some instances. In the case of Saul, we find him, according to the times, gifted with a spirit for government, walking for a while in God's way, and then he suddenly falls. Judas, an apostle, Christ's hearer and domestic servant, of whom, though we read nothing particularly to his advantage, yet, doubtless, many good things were with him, and his fellow-disciples never suspect him; and yet, at length he falls away. Herod may be reckoned amongst them, and Demas, and several apostates named in the word. Our own experience testifieth this, in that we have seen many, who when religion was in fashion and favour, did profess highly, pray often, reform many things, and walk blamelessly; who could talk of convictions; and awakenings, and joys, on some experience; and of the force of the word, and benefit of ordinances; yet many have turned profane, many corrupted in their principles - of whom, though it is like, the Lord hath his own whom he may still reclaim, yet, doubtless, many have justified this truth from their experience. For further confirmation of this, take and use in a good sense the world's wicked observation, "A young saint an old devil." Though it is likely the devil did teach men this, to frighten them from religion in their young days, which are the fittest season of setting about it, yet experience shows, that none are more wicked when of age, than such as have been under convictions unprofitable when young. The world's censure of professors, that they are worse in many things to deal with than other folks, though. there be much of prejudice and partiality in it, yet some truth it has as to many. Observe also, that men when awakened by sickness or danger, and who sleep again, go on more seriously and boldly in sin, than ever they did; and are farther out of the reach of a conviction, than any, or than themselves formerly were.
We shall adduce further evidence from scripture to confirm this truth.
1. The truly godly themselves who have saving grace, may fall back in a great measure - and much more they. The instances of such are various; some by a sudden fit of temptation being drawn on unto great sin, and quickly recovering, as Peter; some lying longer under its power, as David, whose decay seems to have been very great, and for many days. And the force of the reason is strong; for common operations are nowise so powerful to restrain corruption and prevent apostacy, as the truth of God's grace in the heart.
2. Men under the highest of common operations may fall utterly away, because what they have, are not sufficient preservatives and antidotes against defection. Thus, mere illumination cannot preserve; because a man, as long as he is unrenewed, may walk contrary to his light, and even then too much. His tasting of faith cannot preserve; because though somewhat of Christ's sweetness be tasted by him, yet there is in Christ what he distastes, and thus he prepares his way to apostacy. His partaking of the Holy Ghost, ordinary or extraordinary, is no bar to hold out defection; for it is no sanctifying participation, and so, is no more than a certain qualification for some works naturally good. His tasting of the good word of God and the powers of the world to come are not sufficient neither; for they are but tastings, and not a feeding thereupon, which alone yields strength unto a man to keep him from falling.
In general, all these are such things as he hath, or such things as he tastes. Two things he hath, - illumination, and gifts of the Holy Ghost; such may be taken from him; and even when they are present with him, they cannot preserve him from apostacy. The things that he hath a taste of are excellent - faith, the word, and works: - but this is the want - that he hath a taste, and no more. And so this bewrayeth either the unsoundness of his aim and intention, that he meddles only with Christ, and the word, and heaven, to get a taste and trial of them, and no more; or the unsoundness of his temper, that he can endure no more but a taste of these things: and certainly it tells their unprofitableness to him. Christ is ordained to be lived on, and by faith (Gal. ii. 20), and only so far tasted in the beginning, as to encourage to follow on to know him, and to be built up on him (1 Pet. ii. 3, 4), to be dwelt in (John xv.), to have him dwelling in the heart (Ephes. iii. 17). The word is to be fed upon by beginners as milk (Heb. v. 12, 13; 1 Pet. ii. 1, 2). Children must live by tasting of the milk, as grown men on it as food proper for them. Man liveth not by bread, but by the word; heaven is not to be tasted, but dwelt in (Philip. iii. 20). It is to be the mark a Christian shoots at. And therefore as to all these things that he tastes of, he wants the due virtue, and influence, and power. Yea, there is also the inconstancy of these things: he may lose the relish of them; yea, the very tastings may be taken away, and so, any little effect that tasting might have, is also removed. And this may come to pass, partly by the corrupt temper of his heart; partly, by the Lord's judgment taking away the opportunities of tasting from him, that hath no mind to feed on this fare. Again, this may betray his weakness, that it prevails not against the sinful savour of other things. This tasting then bewraying, as is said, the unsoundness of the heart; and the short-livedness of these things, saith, that the benefit of them cannot be reaped by him, while he is such; and what benefit is reaped, is not enough to preserve him from decaying.
The third reason of this truth is, that such want the necessary and only sufficient preservatives against defection. As, 1. He wants the new nature: all he has amounts not to innovation and a new creature; and it is evident at the very reading of these words, unto any acquainted with the style and phrase of the Holy Ghost, that it is his design here to speak only of common attainments. Now, that the new nature is an excellent preservative against defection, is evident. This new nature, in a native way and principle which is the strongest and most lasting, produceth love to God from whom it had its being; to his truth and word, the instrument of its being, and means of its nourishment and growth; and also, it hath as native, a loathing of any departure from God and his way, though darkness and delusion in a particular may prevail.
2. They want true faith, a special mean of preventing apostacy (see Heb. iii. 12; and x. 38, 39), and that it is not with them, we showed already. That it is useful to prevent apostacy, is many ways demonstrable: 1. Because it is the mean on our part of our union with Jesus Christ, the fountain of our strength; and so, the way to get communications of grace needful from him, is to exercise this grace on him. 2. It is the main shield we have to oppose to the temptations of Satan (Ephes. vi. 16), and of the world (1 John v. 4). So Moses found it, (Heb. xi. 26-29),
3. They want an interest in God's favour and friendship, and so, want that care, and kindness, and watching over them for good, that his people meet with. The waterings and refreshings, preventing mercies, surprisals of mercy, and wise turning-about of begun falling, to the advancing of future steadfastness, which the Lord gives to his people, and whereby he prevents utter apostacy, they are strangers to.
4. The Holy Ghost's sanctifying abode in their hearts they want, which is the great preservative of the people of God. (See 1 John ii. 27). They have a sort of qualifying abode for the material part of duty, but no more.
These may serve for the clearing and confirming of the truth of this, that common grace is no preservative against defection. In farther prosecution of this purpose concerning the possibility of the fall of men of highest attainments in common things, I shall,
1. Distinguish the sorts of falling away and apostacy;
2. Show how they are carried on and advanced;
3. Show what is their danger.
1. What sorts of falling away professors are in danger of. The general distinction is - an apostacy may either be in principles or profession, or else in practice; and that both of them may be damnable, we shall hear anon. An apostacy from the profession of Christian religion is threefold through ignorance, when many that have not come to any sound understanding of their profession, forsake it; such were the carnal Jews (John vi. 66) - an apostacy from the profession through infirmity and carnal fear, as Peter's was; although it is dreadful, when their profession is cloaked and covered for a while for some base ends - and an apostacy from the profession through resolute wickedness; and this may be sometimes with a check, and sometimes without it. The first of these belongs not to us. An apostacy in practice, is that decay and falling from the practice of those duties, that the profession retained obligeth unto; and this is total or partial: partial, as in the case of the godly, who often fall into it; total, as in that of hypocrites only, who may return just to the same state from which their common workings brought them, (2 Pet. ii. 19, 20). Only, I would have you to regard these things about this distinction of apostacies; to wit, that where there is a great measure of any one, there is no want of a measure of the other - that if they were separable, apostacy from the profession is the worst, because most to God's dishonour, though the other also be dishonorable and destructive - that a great degree of either is damning - and they are so linked together, that in the full handling of one, we must speak of the other, for principles of profession have an influence on practice, and bad practice has an influence to darken the judgment.
2. The next thing promised to be handled is, How such apostacies are carried on. And this question is useful for convicting those who are under them; for preparing us all against them, and Satan's devices and our own heart's treachery in the matter - and for instructing us both in repentance and reformation - for the method of sin's advancing, instructs in the method of reformation and repentance.
As to the apostacy of ignorance it concerns not us, for we speak of that of illuminated professors. As to the other, though we have distinguished them, yet now, shall we offer to give a thread of the scope downward again, premising only these things, 1. That the depth of the sovereignty of Satan's cunning and the heart's treachery, renders it impossible to search out this mystery of iniquity unto the bottom. 2. As it is the design of the Spirit of God in his common operations, to draw men unto that pitch of attainment and happiness from which there is no falling, so is it Satan's, in tempting, to pull men into irrecoverable misery. 3. As men's wickedness often mars the success attainable by the improvement of the Holy Ghost's workings, so the Lord's goodness, sometimes special, sometimes common, stops the career into inevitable apostacies; and therefore, often where saving grace is not, yet the depth of apostacy is prevented, sometimes by restraint on temptations, and sometimes by a restraint on the corruptions in men.
Now, to offer some light upon these black stairs to the pit, we are to remember how far the man is gone upward as is said. 1. His first preparative to backsliding is standing still. He thinks he is so well advanced, that he is now shot-free: now he hath got what will save him; and he looks down upon those below him, with a sort of loftiness and disdain. 2. Then come heart-quarrels against further advancement, As the pride of his heart appears in the former ease, so does its unrenewedness and want of sanctification in this. Wanting the new nature that kindly inclines unto progress, he thinks that further progress is needless, or may be troublesome and prejudicial unto his carnal interests, the love whereof is not rooted out. 3. Satan and his heart do now propose unto him his idol, some one corruption or other, that in the former advancing was, it may be, for a while put to the door: now is it presented, and entertained, it is likely, more secretly, but as warmly as ever. It hath the throne, although it gives not forth such open laws as formerly. 4. Then may his light and this reinstatement struggle awhile together, and with an issue of this sort - that either his light is displeasing, for its crossing him in his enjoyment, or that idol may now and then be a little discountenanced, though never hated, according to the clearness of his light and convictions, as they ebb or flow. 5. While it is thus with him in this carnal warfare, possibly a trial may come, wherein resolvedly he must take part with his light or his sin; for the former may be in his ordinary practice, the latter in his way wherein he must walk, and that with choice and deliberation. And here a hotter and sorer combat must be, and we suppose, without a powerful restraint, he now makes a bad choice, and resolvedly crosseth his light, for satisfying of his carnal aim and scope. 6. When he is arrived at this, that he walks in a way that is not good, with a deliberate purpose, and hath left the way of God in profession or practice, then is it possible that he may arrive at a positive and avowed resolute dislike of that way and truth that formerly he walked in, and which was so prejudicial to his lusts. And the more there remains in him of the light of that truth, then more hotly doth the fire of enmity in his heart break forth. This is a considerable step, and far downward, and near the pit. But this is not all. 7. He comes now to a hatred and dislike of Jesus Christ himself, whose truth he once knew and professed. He thinks him a hard master, now when he hath left him; that his laws are more intolerable and grievous, and his promises unworthy, and insufficient to balance his designs of seeking happiness. 8. And then he comes to hate those pains and workings on his heart, whereby any savour on his heart at any time was wrought of this way, and his offered and once pretended guide. 9. And lastly, His enmity against the worker, the Holy Ghost, may break out, and that the more, that in all this backsliding of his, he hath met with the more warnings, stops, and terrors, in his course.
Another way to guess at the method of such apostacies, shall be from the words themselves, wherein we have five steps of advancement, and so the apostacy must be from all; and we must begin at the top of this ladder.
1. His tasting the powers of the world to come is fallen from, it may be from carelessness, and the bewitching relish of other things, (see Matt. xiii. 22); and this chokes his further growth. Heaven, the end and scope of all godliness, grows an unsavoury thing with him, for he never had a spiritual savour of it; and this little taste may be put away by his savouring the things of the earth. 2. His savouring of God's word decays also naturally, because of the former. He that hath lost his relish of heaven, what taste can God's good word have unto him? 3. He then comes to lose his partakings of the Holy Ghost: gifts decay either through his carelessness, or justly are taken away. 4. His sort of faith decays with it: Christ becomes unsavoury also. He hath now no relish of a Saviour; the tidings of him are tasteless and disgusting. 5. And lastly, he falls from his light and knowledge also, either by struggling with it, and the Lord's withdrawing thereof, or by his wilfully putting it out - which is a sin possible for a man left of God, and given up to Satan to do.
3. What is the danger of apostacy? 1. This is one of its great dangers, that every declining is restless, and tends unto a growth. No man can stand still in this course, unless he is kept by restraining, or brought back by saving grace. 2. Because recoveries are very rare, even from apostacies that are not simply incurable. There is so much provocation in them, that the Lord ordinarily recovers not so many plagues of heart; and these so strongly are contracted, that rarely they are recovered from. 3. And because there is a step in apostacy that is incurable, that is the danger which the Spirit of God here propoundeth. And therefore here we shall both show its nature and its irrecoverableness, and how it is reasonable that it should be so.
For its nature - there is considerable difficulty here; yet shall we endeavour to walk as warily as we can, to shun inconveniences on both hands. The word gives us no definition; but it gives us the names of this sin. It is a "sin against the Holy Ghost," that is, against him in his workings, and as working is the object of this, if we may so speak, (Matt. xii. 31). He that speaks a word against the Son of Man, having no conviction of his godhead and office, it shall upon repentance be forgiven; but not so this sin, which is against the Holy Ghost's workings: he hath "done despite unto the Spirit of grace," (Heb. x. 29). It is also a blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, and relates to the case where the Pharisees, convinced in their consciences by the Holy Ghost of the appearance of God in Christ's mighty works, did yet call him a devil; not that it stands simply in words, but only as the blaspheming words proceed from the heart, as in that instance they did. And it is an apostacy that is utter and total: "For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries," (Heb. x. 26, 27). And it is a "sin unto death" (1 John v. 16), and unpardonable; that is, such as never shall be forgiven. "All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men," (Matt. xii. 31). There is no repentance for such as commit it, (Heb. vi. 6); nothing is left to them, but an expectation of vengeance.
The scriptures as they name the sin, so they specify the persons that commit it. They are professors; it is not the sin of heathens: they have "trodden under foot the Son of God, and counted the blood of the covenant wherewith they were sanctified, an unholy thing, and have done despite unto the Spirit of grace," (Heb. x. 29). And they have knowledge, illumination, and other gifts, as this, and the other places we have cited do all prove. It is then a sin to be found in professors of the highest stamp.
The scriptures tell us what the committers of this sin do. They blaspheme against their conscience and knowledge (Matt. xii. 31); they crucify Christ afresh, call him a deceiver, and approve of the Jews crucifying him. On that account they "put him to open shame;" they openly renounce his name, and give the world to know that they have tried him, and find nothing in him worthy to be adhered unto. But Hebrews x. 29, is a further and clearer explication of this. They "tread under foot the Son of God;" that is, openly and basely despise him - "count the blood of the covenant wherewith they were sanctified an unholy," common "thing;" that is, reckon Christ's blood sealing the covenant wherein once they were externally, and so, federally holy, no more than common blood, nay, not so much - and "do despite unto the Spirit of grace;" despitefully reject the Holy Ghost, who was at labour formerly with their hearts, to convert and sanctify them, and work grace in them.
This much might satisfy, but we shall now briefly deduce some conclusions from the foregoing, without offering any peremptory definition from them.
1. This sin, then, is against Christ as a Saviour, and in his office of Redeemer, and that, witnessed unto by the Holy Ghost in the sinner's conscience; and so, it is called both a sin against Christ and the Holy Ghost in different respects, but the latter more properly; or both thus conjunctly - it is against Christ evidenced to the conscience by the Holy Ghost to be the Redeemer of the world; or against the Holy Ghost witnessing this to the conscience. 2. This sin is an act of the highest contempt, and despite, and willful rejecting; and such it must be where the evidence is so pressing.
How can this sin be committed? As it is thus defined, many question its possibility, and that, because of these circumstances: It is a sin above that of the devils, who are greater and older sinners than men: it is such an avowed rushing on eternal misery, when man's reason and self-love should struggle against it; - and there is no temptation to it. In answer to these objections, we shall give some general reasons to obviate them, and prove the possibility of committing it; explain scripture instances; and give a more particular reply. In general, we give for answer, that the heart's wickedness is an unsearchable depth, and our reason will soon be aground in searching it; nor can it well be told what may be produced of such a creature as man is, when these things concur - total desertion on the part of God; the being utterly left unto Satan's temptations; and the irritating power of spiritual challenges and convictions. As for the scripture instances, we need only allude here to that of the Pharisees, who knew that Christ was led by the Spirit of God, and yet they fell into this blasphemy. But to answer particularly, it is no absurdity to say that there are some aggravations in the sin of men, which are not in that of devils; as all gospel sins, which flow not so much entirely from sinful nature in itself considered, as from it when suitable circumstances draw it out. As for the rushing on eternal misery which it implies, it is a question, if they always know this, when they commit it: belike the Pharisees themselves knew not all their danger. In ordinary sins against knowledge, somewhat of this madness is found, and there is no wonder if it should be found in this, Their stupidity of conscience is come to that height, that it is no wonder they run on. As for the want of temptations to commit this crime; if by a temptation you mean an offer of advantage, that should take with a reasonable man, it is true, there is none here as in other cases. But if we take temptation so largely, as to comprehend Satan's diligence in stirring up, the heart's inclination to yield, some fancied satisfaction to move, then, the sinner against the Holy Ghost sins not without a temptation. His fancied advantages may be many, as was the case with the Pharisees, and as it is with the worst of apostates at all times; yet in such high acts of raging madness against God, man acts rather like a devil, than a reasonable creature.
We are now to show the unpardonableness of this sin, and the reasonableness that it should be so. And though it might be enough to satisfy us that God saith it, yet we may consider its reasonableness, which will appear from a consideration of these points; 1. This is the highest affront unto the Son of God who hath undertaken our redemption. To neglect his salvation through carelessness, is damning (Heb. ii. 3); to contend with Him and his offers in pursuit of our lusts, is yet worse; to stand out against him to the last breath in the madness of rebellion, is terrible. But after some acquaintance and professed subjection, deliberately to pour out contempt on his sacrifice of atonement, and thus give the defiance to God, is intolerable. 2. This is the highest and utmost opposition unto such operations of the Holy Ghost, as may be saving, and that, after the clearest and most convincing evidences that can be given. 3. This is the highest ripeness of sin; this is sin in its own proper colours; thus the man who commits it, is like the devil, or like one in hell. 4. It is the full ripeness of spiritual plagues that do highly indispose unto all returning, Hardness of heart is great and ripe, like the devil's; conscience is stupid, or filled with hopeless fear, and that indeed no pleasure to the man, and yet not heavily his burden.
Because we cannot now enter on the further handling and applying of this terrible purpose, I shall now only draw these inferences from what is said.
1. Then there is no ground for Satan's disquieting of any with their having committed this sin, who are displeased with any thing they have done in opposition to Christ and his Spirit; who have any honest longings to be at peace with God in him; who find any longings of love and liking towards him; and who can entreat the Holy Ghost to work yet more within their hearts.
2. We see then that there is great reason to beware of any thing that leads towards this dreadful sin, that it may be escaped; such as long continuance under the offers of the gospel, without making up a hearty peace, and closing with Christ, which is our security against this sin; and sins against knowledge and conscience, even against the law. These are sad preparatives, and lead on to this sin against the Holy Ghost.
3. Walking in the way and course that is not good. This is more than the former, for this is deliberate and resolved; whereas the violence of a temptation by a surprise may draw Peter and David into the other.
4. Beware of the pardonable sins against the Holy Ghost, if you would escape that which is unpardonable. These are four in scripture terms, which I shall only apply unto our present purpose:
1st, Resisting the saving assaults of the Holy Ghost, (Acts vii. 51), a dreadful sin! which yet all in some measure are guilty of, who yield not their hearts at the first calls of the gospel; and indeed, the unpardonable sin itself, is a high degree of this.
2d, Quenching of the Spirit (1 Thess. v. 19), which whatever be in it as it stands in that chapter, this is in it as to our purposes - when awakening, heart-warning, sin-consuming operations are quenched; when men cast water thereupon, as if they were in hazard of being burnt up thereby.
3. Grieving of the Holy Ghost (Ephes. iv. 30), which though it be a sin, as the former, that the godly may and often do fall into, yet we rather apply it in this sense to the ungodly; and thus it is, when the Spirit of God is at work, and is in some joyful hopeful temper of having gained somewhat on the heart, the man immediately provokes and proves all to be lost labour.
4. Vexing of the Spirit of God, (Isa. lxiii. 10). That is the sin of rebellion, and it hints, as it were, the Spirit of the Lord being put to irresolution and vexation how to guide and gain them, when one mean after another is used, and all in vain: "O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? for your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away," (Hos. vi. 4). Love is tried, and that prevails not; terror, and that works not, (See Matt. xi. 16). None of his dealings please them; but as it was with Israel, they find fault with every thing.
We have thus been handling as dreadful truths as are to be found in the word - that men of unsound hearts may attain to great things in godliness, or in the appearances of it; and that hypocrites of the highest attainments may fearfully fall. But it may be said, "This is the way to dishearten us in religion to tell us such things." I answer, If God do not tell you them, do not believe us. Besides, there is not the least discouragement in all this, but rather matter of humility, and searching, and awakening, and therefore do we use it. Its design is not to discourage, and it is abused if this be felt. And what hazard, say you, are you in of apostacy like this in the text? You are in hazard of heart-declinings, which may be damning. You know not what temptations you may be exposed unto, of renouncing the truth of the gospel; and the prevailing of such temptations may accomplish all the misery spoken of here. May apostates go far forward to heaven? Then search yourselves, and see how far you go beyond them.