For I was alive without the law once: But when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.
Doct. 2. THAT there is a mighty efficacy in the word or law of God, to kill vain confidence, and quench carnal mirth in the hearts of men, when God sets it home upon their consciences. "The weapons of the word are not carnal, but mighty through God; to the pulling down of strong holds, casting down imaginations, and every thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ," 2 Cor. 10: 4, 5.
In the opening of this point I shall,
1. Demonstrate the efficacy of the word or law of God.
2. Shew wherein the efficacy thereof lies.
3. From whence it has all this mighty power and efficacy.
First, I shall give you some demonstrations of the mighty power and efficacy that there are in the word or law of God; which will appear with the fullest evidence,
First, From the various subjects upon whom it works: The hearts and consciences of men of all orders and qualities, have been reached and wounded to the quick by the two-edged sword of God's law. Some, among the great and honourable of the earth, (though indeed the fewest of that rank) have been made to stoop and tremble under the word, Acts 24: 16. Mark 6: 20. 1 Sam. 15: 24. The wise and learned of the world have felt its power, and been brought over to embrace the humbling and self-denying ways of Christ, Acts 17: 31. Thus Origen, Hierom, Tertullian, Bradwardine, and many more, came into Canaan laden with the Egyptian gold, as one speaks, i.e. they came into the church of God abundantly enriched and furnished with the learned arts and sciences, devoting them all to the service of Christ. Yea, and which is as strange, the most simple, weak, and illiterate have been wonderfully changed, and wrought upon by the power of the word: "The testimonies of the Lord make wise the simple:" Men
of weak understandings, in all other matters, have been made wise to salvation by the power of the word, Matth. 11: 25. 1 Cor. 1: 27. Nay the most malicious and obstinate enemies of Christ have been wounded and converted by the word, 1 Tim. 1: 13. Acts 16: 25. Those that have been under the prejudice of the worst and most idolatrous education, have been the subjects of its mighty power, Acts 19: 26. To conclude, men of the most profligate and debauched lives have been wonderfully changed and altered by the power of the word, 1 Cor. 6: 10, 11.
Secondly, The mighty efficacy of the law of God appears in the manner of its operation; it works suddenly; strikes like a dart through the hearts and consciences of men, Acts 2: 37. A wonderful change is made in a short time: And, as it works quickly and suddenly, so it works irresistibly, with an uncontrolled power upon the spirits of men, 1 Thes. 1: 5. Rom. 1: 16. Let the soul be armed against conviction with the thickest ignorance, strongest prejudice, or most obstinate resolution, the word of God will wound the breast even of such a man, when God sends it forth in his authority and power.
Thirdly, The wonderful power of the law or word of God is evidently seen in the strange effects which are produced by it in the hearts and lives of men. For,
First, It changes and alters the frame and temper of the mind: It moulds a man into a quite contrary temper, Gal. 1: 3. "He which persecuted us in times past, now preacheth the faith, which once he destroyed:" Thus a tiger is transformed into a lamb, by the power of the word of God.
Secondly, It makes the soul, upon which it works, to forego and quit the dearest interests it has in this world for Jesus Christ, Phil. 3: 7, 8, 9. Riches, honours, self-righteousness, dearest relations, are denied and forsaken. Reproach, poverty, and death itself, are willingly embraced for Christ's sake, when once the efficacy of the word has been upon the hearts of men, 1 Thes. 1: 6. Those that were their companions in sin, are declined, renounced, and cast of F with abhorrence, 1 Pet. 4: 8, 4. In such things as these the mighty power of the word discovers itself.
First, It has an awakening efficacy upon secure and sleepy sinners: It rouses the conscience, and brings a man to a sense and feeling apprehension, Eph. 5: 13, 14. The first effectual touch of the word startles the drowsy conscience. A poor sinner lies in his sins, as Peter did in his chains, fast asleep, though a warrant was signed for his execution the next day: but the Spirit in the word awakens him as the angel did Peter: And this awakening power of the word is in order, both of time and nature, antecedent to all its operations and effects.
Secondly, The law of God has an enlightening efficacy upon the minds of men: It is eye-salve to the blinded eye, Rev. 3: 18. A light shining in a dark place, 2 Pet. 1: 19. A light shining into the very heart of man, 2 Cor. 4: 6. When the word comes in power, all things appear with another face: The sins that were hid from our eyes, and the danger which was concealed by the policy of Satan from our souls, now lie clear and open before us, Eph. 5: 8.
Thirdly, The word of God has a convincing efficacy: It sets sin in order before the soul, Psal. 50: 21. As an army is drawn up in an exact order, so are the sins of nature and practice, the sins of youth and age, even a great and terrible army is drawn up before the eye of the conscience; the convictions of the word are clear and full, 1 Cor. 14: 24, 25. The very secrets of a sinner's heart are made manifest; his mouth is stopped; his pleas are silenced; his conscience yields to the charge of guilt, and to the equity of the sentence of the law, so that the soul stands mute, and self- condemned at the bar of conscience: It has got nothing to say why the wrath of God should not come upon it to the uttermost, Rom. 3: 19.
Fourthly, The law of God has a soul-wounding, an heart-cut tiny efficacy: It pierces into the very soul and spirit of man, Acts 2: 37. "When they heard this, they were pricked at their hearts, and said unto Peter, and to the rest of tile apostles; men and brethren, what shall we do?" A dreadful sound is in the sinner's ears; his soul is in deep distress; he knows not which way to turn for ease; no plaister but the blood of Christ can heal these wounds which the word makes: No outward trouble, affliction, disgrace, or loss, ever touched the quick as the word of God does.
Fifthly, The word has a heart-turning, a soul converting efficacy in it: It is a regenerating, as well as a convincing word, 1 Pet. 1: 23. 1 Thes. 1: 9. The law wounds, the gospel cures; the law discovers the evil that is in sin, and the misery that follows it; and the Spirit of God, working in fellowship with the word, effectually turns the heart from sin. And thus we see in what glorious acts the efficacy of the word discovers itself upon the hearts of men; and all these acts lie in order to each other: For, until the soul be awakened, it cannot be enlightened, Eph. 5: 14. Till it be enlightened, it cannot be convinced, Eph. 5: 13. Conviction being nothing else but the application of the light that shines in the mind to the conscience of a sinner: Till it be convinced, it cannot be wounded for sin, Acts 2: 37. And until it be wounded for sin, it will never be converted from sin, and brought effectually to Jesus Christ. And thus you see what the power of the word is.
Thirdly, In the last place, it will concern us to enquire whence the word of God has all this power? And it is most certain, that it is not a power inherent in itself, nor derived from the instrument by which it is managed, but from the Spirit of the Lord, who communicates to it all that power and efficacy which it has upon our souls.
1. Its power is not in, or from itself: It works not in a physical way, as natural agents do; for then the effect would always follow, except it were miraculously hindered: But this spiritual efficacy is in the word, as the healing virtue was in the waters of Bethesda, John 5: 4. "An angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: Whosoever then first, after the troubling of the water, steps in, was made whole of whatsoever disease he had." It is not a power naturally inherent in it at all times, but communicated to it at some special seasons. How often is the word preached, and no man awaked or convinced by it!
2. The power of the word is not communicated to it by the instrument that manageth it, 1 Cor. 3: 7. "Neither is he that planteth any thing, neither be that watereth." Ministers are nothing to such an effect and purpose as this is; he does not mean that they are useless and altogether unnecessary, but insufficient of themselves to produce such mighty effects: It works not as it is the word of man, 2 Thess. 2: 13. Ministers may say of the ordinary, as Peter said of the extraordinary effects of the Spirit, Acts 3: 12. "Ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this? or why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk?" If the effects of the word were in the power, and at the command of him that preacheth it, then the blood of all the souls that perish under our ministry must lie at our door, as was formerly noted.
3. If you say, whence then has the word all this power? Our answer is, It derives it all from the Spirit of God, 1 Thes. 2: 13, "For this cause thank we God without ceasing, because when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of man, but (as it is in truth) the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe." It is a successful instrument only when it is in the hand of the Spirit, with out whose influence it never did, nor can convince, convert, or save any soul. Now, the Spirit of God has a sovereignty over three things in order to the conversion of sinners.
1. Over the word which works.
9. Over the soul wrought upon.
S. Over the time and season of working.
First, The Spirit has a glorious sovereignty over the word itself whose instrument it is to make it successful or not, as it pleaseth him, Isa. 4: 10, 11. "For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, &c. so shall my word be that goeth out of my mouth:" as the clouds, so the word is carried and directed by divine pleasure. It is the Lord that makes them both give down their blessings, or to pass away fruitless and empty: yea, it is from the Spirit that this part of the word works, and not another. Those things upon which ministers bestow greatest labour in their preparation, and from which accordingly they have the greatest expectation; these do nothing, when, mean time, sometime, that dropped occasionally from them, like a chosen shaft, strikes the mark and does the work.
Secondly, The Spirit of the Lord has a glorious sovereignty over the souls wrought upon: it is his peculiar work "to take away the stony heart out of our flesh, and to give us an heart of flesh," Ezel. 36:26. We may reason, exhort, and reprove, but no thing will abide till the Lord set it home. The Lord opened the heart of Lydia under Paul's ministry: he opens every heart that is effectually opened to receive Christ in the word: if the word can get no entrance, if your hearts remain dead under it still, we may say concerning such souls, as Martha did concerning her brother Lazarus: "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." So, Lord, if thou hadst been in this sermon, in this prayer, or in that counsel, these souls had not remained dead under them.
Thirdly, The Spirit has dominion over the times and seasons of conviction and conversion. Therefore the day in which souls are wrought upon is called "the day of his power," Psal. 110: 3. That shall work at one time, which had no efficacy at all at another time; because this, and not that, was the time appointed. And thus you see whence the word derives that mighty power it has.
Now this word of God, when it is set home by the Spirit, is mighty to convince, humble, and break the hearts of sinners, Joh 16: 9. "The Spirit when it comes shall convince the world of sin." The word signifies conviction by such clear demonstration as compelleth assent: it not only convinces men in general that they are sinners, but it convinces men particularly of their own sins, and the aggravations of them. So in the text, Sin revived, that is, the Lord revived his sins, the very circumstances and aggravations with which they were committed; and so it will be with us when the commandment comes; sins that we had forgotten, committed so far back as our youth or childhood; sins that lay slighted in our consciences, shall now be roused up as so many sleepy lions to affright and terrify us: for now the soul hears the voice of God in the word, as Adam heard it in the cool of the day and was afraid, and hides itself; but all will not do, for the Lord is come in the word; sin is held up before the eyes of the conscience in its dreadful aggravations and fearful consequences, as committed against the holy law, clear light, warnings of conscience, manifold mercies, God's long-suffering, Christ's precious blood, many warnings of judgement, the wages and demerit whereof, by the verdict of a man's own conscience, is death, eternal death, Rom. 6: 23. Rom. 1: 32. Rom. 2: 9. Thus the commandment comes, sin revives, and vain hope gives up the ghost.
Infer. 1. Is there such a mighty power in the word? then certainly the word is of divine authority. There cannot be a more clear and satisfying proof that it is no human invention, than the common sense that all believers have of the Almighty power in which it works upon their hearts. So speaks the apostle, 1 Thes. 2: 13. "When ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of man, but (as it is in truth) the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe." Can the power of any creature, the word of a mere man, so convince the conscience, so terrify the heart, so discover the very secret thoughts of the soul, as to put a man into such tremblings? No, a greater than man must needs be here; none but a God can so open the eyes of the blind, so open the graves of the dead, so quicken and enliven the conscience that was seared, so bind over the soul of a sinner to the judgement to come, so change and alter the frame and temper of a man's spirit, or so powerfully raise, refresh and comfort a drooping dying soul; certainly the power of God is in all this; and, If there were no more, yet this alone were sufficient to make full proof of the divine authority of the scriptures.
Infer. 2. Judge from hence what an invaluable mercy the preaching of the word is to the world: It is a blessing far above our estimation of it; little do we know what a treasure God committeth to us in the ordinances, Acts 13: 25. "To you is the word of this salvation sent." It is the very power of God to salvation, Rom. 1: 16. And salvation is ordinarily denied to whom the preaching of the word is denied, Rom. 10: 14. It is called the Word of life, Phil. 2: 16. and deserves to be valued by every one of us as our life. The eternal decree of God's election is executed by it upon our souls; as many as he ordained to eternal life shall believe by the preaching of it. Great is the ingratitude of this generation, which so slights and undervalues this invaluable treasure; which is a sad presage of the most terrible judgement, even in the removing our candlestick out of its place, except we repent.
Infer. 3. How sore and terrible a judgement lies upon the souls of those men to whom no word of God is made powerful enough to convince and awaken them! Yet so stands the case with thousands, who constantly sit under the preaching of the word; many arrows are shot at their consciences, but none goes home to the mark, all fall short of the end; the commandment has come unto them many thousand times, by way of promulgation and ministerial inculcation, but yet never came home to their souls by the Spirit's effectual application. O friends! you have often beard the voice of man, but you never yet heard the voice of God; your understandings have been instructed, but your consciences to this day were never thoroughly convinced. "We have mourned unto you, but ye have not lamented," Matth. 11: 17. "Who has believed our report? And unto whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?" Alas! we have laboured in vain, we have spent our strength for nought; our word returns unto us empty; but O what a stupendous judgement is here! Heb. 6: 7, 8. "The earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God; but that which beareth thorns and briars is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing, whose end is to be burned." What a sore judgement and sign of God's displeasure would you account it, if your fields were cursed; if you should manure, dress, prow, and sow them, but never reap the fruit of your labour; the increase being still blasted? And yet this were nothing, compared with the blessing of the word to your souls: that which is a savour of life unto life unto some, becomes the savour of death unto death to others, 2 Cor. 2: 16. The Lord affect our hearts with the terrible strokes of God upon the souls of men!
Use of Exhortation.
I shall conclude this point with a few words of exhortation to three sorts of men, viz.
1. To those that never felt the power of the word.
2. To those that have only felt some slight and common effects thereof.
3. To those unto whose very hearts the commandment is come, in its effectual and saving power.
First, You that never felt any power in the word at all, I beg you in the name of him that made you, and by all the regard and value you have for those precious souls within you, that now at last such considerations as these may find place in your souls, and that you will bethink yourselves.
Whose word is that which cannot gain entrance into your hearts? Is it not the word of God which you despise and slight? "Thou casteth my word behind thy back," Psal. 50: 17. 0 what an affront and provocation to God is this! You despise not man, but God; the great and terrible God, in whose hand your breath and soul are: This contempt runs higher than you imagine.
Consider, that however the word has no power upon you, the commandment cannot come home to your hearts; yet it does work, and comes home with power to the hearts of others: Whilst you are hardened, others are melted under it; whilst you sleep, others tremble; whilst your hearts are fast locked up, others are opened. How can you choose but reflect with fear and trembling upon these contrary effects of the word; especially when you consider that the eternal decrees, both of election and reprobation, are now executed upon the souls of men, by the preaching of the word; some believe, and others are hardened.
That no judgement of God, on this side hell, is greater than a hard heart and stupid conscience under the word; it were much better that the providence of God should blast thy estate, take away thy children, or destroy thy health, than harden thy heart, and sear thy conscience under the word: So much as thy soul is better than thy body, so much as eternity is more valuable than time, so much is this spiritual judgement more dreadful than all temporal ones. God does not inflict a more terrible stroke than this upon any man in this world.
O therefore, as you love your own souls, and are loth to ruin them to all eternity, attend upon every opportunity that God affords you; for you know not in which of them the Lord may work upon your hearts. Lay aside your prejudices against the word or the weaknesses and infirmities of them that preach it; for the word works not as it is the word of man, as it is thus neat and elegant, but as it is the word of God. Pray for the blessing of God upon the word; for except his word of blessing go forth with it, it can never come home to thy soul. Meditate upon what you hear; for, without meditation, it is not like to have any effectual operation upon you. Search your souls by it, and consider whether that be not your very case and state which it describes; your very danger whereof it gives warning. Take heed, lest after you have heard it, the cares of the world choke what you have heard, and cause those budding convictions which begin to put forth, to blast and wither. Carefully attend to all those items and memorandums your consciences give you under the word, and conclude that the Lord is then come nigh unto you.
Secondly, Let this be matter of serious consideration and caution to all such; as have only felt some slight, transient, and ineffectual operations of the gospel upon their souls: The Lord has come nigh to some of our souls; we have felt a strange power in the ordinances, sometimes terrifying, and sometimes transporting our hearts; but, alas! it proves but a morning-dew, or an early cloud, Hos. 6: 4. We rejoice in the word, but it is but for a season, John 3: 25. Gal. 4: 14, 15. They are vanishing motions, and come to nothing. Look, as in nature there are many abortives, as well as perfect children, so it is in religion; yea, where the new creature is perfectly formed in one soul, there be many abortives and miscarriages in others; and there may be three reasons assigned for it, viz.
First, The subtilty and deep policy of Satan, who never more effectually deceives and destroys the souls of men, than in such a method, and by such an artifice as this; for when men have once felt their consciences terrified under the word, and their hearts at other times ravished with the joys and comforts of it, they now seem to have attained all that is necessary to conversion, and constitutive of the new creature; these things look so well like the regenerating effects of the Spirit, that many are easily deceived by them. The devil beguiles the hearts of the unwary by such false appearances: for it is not every man that can distinguish betwixt the natural and spiritual motions of the affections under the word: It is very frequently seen that even carnal and unrenewed hearts have their meltings and transports, as well as spiritual hearts. The subject-matter upon which the word treats, are the weighty things of the world to come; heaven and hell are very awful and affecting things, and an unrenewed heart is apt to thaw and melt at them: Now here is the cheat of Satan, to persuade a man that these must needs be spiritual affections, because the objects about which they are conversant are spiritual; whereas it is certain the objects of the affections may be very spiritual and heavenly, and yet the workings of man's affections about them may be in a mere natural way.
Secondly, The dampening efficacy of the world is a true and proper cause of these abortions and miscarriages under the word, Luke 8: 12, 18, 14. There are hopeful and promising beginnings and buddings of affections in some persons, especially in their youth; but when once they come to be engaged in the world, how soon are they damped and quenched! As the cares of a family grow on, so does the care of salvation wear off. It is not as it was wont to be, What shall I do to be saved? How shall I get interest in Christ? But what shall I eat, and drink, and wherewith shall I, and mine, be maintained? Thus earth justles out heaven, and the present world drowns all thoughts of that to come. Good had it been for many men, they had never been engaged so deep in the world as they are; their life is but a constant hurry of business, and a perpetual diversion from Christ, and things that are eternal.
Thirdly, and lastly, The deceitfulness and treachery of the heart, which too easily gives way to the designs of Satan, suffers itself to be imposed upon by him, is not the least cause why so many hopeful beginnings come to nothing, and the effects of the word vanish. Pride and self-love are very apt to over-rule every little good, and slight or undervalue every ill that is in us; and so quickly choke those convictions that begin to work in our souls.
But oh! that such men would consider, that the dying away of their convictions is that which threatens the life of their souls for ever; now is the bud withered, the blossom blasted: and what expectation is there of fruit after this, except the Lord revive them again? The Lord open men's eyes to discern the danger of such things as these are! Jude 12. Heb. 10: 58. Yet I deny not but there are many stands and pauses in the work of conversion; it seems to die away, and then revives again; and revive it must, or we are lost. But how many are there who never recover it more! This is a sore judgement of a most terrible consequence to the souls of men!
Thirdly, In the last place, let it be a word of counsel and advice to them, upon whom the word works effectually and powerfully; to whose hearts the commandment is come home to revive sin, and kill their vain hopes; and these are of two sorts.
1. Embryos under the first workings of the Spirit.
2. Complete births of the Spirit, regenerated souls.
First, Embryos that are under the first workings of the Spirit in the word. O let it not seem a misery, or unhappiness to you, that the commandment is come, and sin revived, and your former hopes overthrown. It must be thus, if ever God intend mercy for you. Had you gone on in that dangerous security you were in before, you had certainly been lost for ever: God has stopt you in that path that leads down to hell, and none that go in there do ever return again, or take hold of the paths of life. O! it is better to weep, tremble, and be distressed now, than to mourn without hope for ever. Let it not trouble you that sin has found you out; you could never have found out the remedy in Christ, if you had not found out the disease and danger, by the coming of the commandment. And I beseech you carefully to observe, whether the effects and operations of the word upon your hearts be deeper and more powerful than they are found to be in such souls as miscarry under it: the commandment comes to them, and shews them this or that more gross and startling sin. Does it come to you, and shew you not only this or that particular sin, but all the evils of your heart and life; the corruption of your natures, as well as the transgressions of your lives? If so, it promises well, and looks hopefully and comfortably to you. The commandment comes to others, and startles them with the fears of damnation for their sin: it puts them into a grievous fright at hell, and the everlasting burnings: but does it come to thee and discover the infinite evil that is in thy sin, as it is committed against the great, holy, righteous, and good God, and so melts thy heart into tears for the wrong that thou hast done him, as well as the danger into which thou hast brought thyself? This is a hopeful work, and may encourage thee. It comes to others, and greatly shakes, but never destroys and razes the foundation of their vain hopes: if it so revive sin as to kill all vain hopes in thee, and send thee to Christ alone, as thy only door of hope, fear not; these troubles will prove the greatest mercies that ever befel thee in this world, if thus they work, and continue to work upon thy soul.
Secondly, Others there are upon whom the word has had its full effect as to conversion. 0 bless God for ever for this mercy; you cannot sufficiently value it! God has not only made it a convincing and wounding, but a converting and healing word to your souls; he has not only revived your sins, and killed your vain hopes, but begotten you again to a lively hope; see that you be thankful for this mercy. How many have sate under the same word, but never felt such effects of it? As Christ said in another case, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, but unto none of them was the prophet sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, to a certain widow there, Luke 4: 96. So I may say, in this case, there were many souls in the same congregation, at the same time, but unto none of them was the word sent with a commission to convince and save, but such a one as thyself; one as improbable to be wrought upon as any soul there. O let this beget thankfulness in your souls; and let it make you love the word as long as you live: "I will never forget thy precepts, for by them thou hast quickened me," Psal. 119: 98.
But above all, I beseech you make it appear that the commandment has come home to your hearts, with power to convince you of the evil of sin, by your tenderness and care to shun it as long as you live. If ever you have seen the face of sin, in the glass of the law of God; if your hearts have been humbled and broken for it in the days of your trouble and distress, certainly you will choose the worst affliction rather than sin: It would be the greatest folly in the world to return again to iniquity, Psal 85: 8. You that have seen so much of the evil that is in it, and the danger that follows it; you that have had such inward terrors and fears of spirit about it, when that terrible representation was made you, will he loth to feel those gripes and distresses of conscience again, for the best enjoyment in this world.
Blessed be God if any word has been brought home to our hearts, which has been instrumental to bring us to Christ!