To the much honoured, his dear kinsman, Mr. John Flavel, and Mr. Edward Crispe, of London, Merchants; and the rest of my worthy friends in London, Ratcliffe, Shadwell, and Lymehouse, grace, mercy, and peace.
"Among all the creatures in this lower world, none deserves to be styled great, but man; and in man nothing is found worthy of that epithet, but his soul."
The study, and knowledge of his soul was, therefore, always reckoned a rich and necessary improvement of time. All ages have magnified these two words, "Know thyself as an oracle descending from heaven."
"No knowledge, says Bernard, is better than that whereby we know ourselves; leave other matters therefore, and search thyself; run through thyself, make a stand in thyself; let thy thoughts, as it were, circulate, begin and end in thyself; Strain not thy thoughts in vain about other things, thyself being neglected.
The study and knowledge of Jesus Christ must still be allowed to be the most excellent and necessary: But yet the worth and necessity of Christ is unknown to men, till the value, wants, and dangers of their own souls be first discovered to them.
The disaffectedness, and aversion of men to the study of their own souls, are the more to be admired; not only because of the weight and necessity of it, but the alluring pleasure, and sweetness that are found therein. What Cardan speaks, is experimentally felt by many, "That scarce any thing is more pleasant and delectable to the soul of man, than to know what he is, what he may and shall be; and what those divine and supreme things are, which he is to enjoy after death, and the vicissitudes of this present world." For we are creatures conscious to ourselves of an immortal nature, and that we have something about us which must overlive this mortal flesh, and therefore it is ever and anon some way or other hinting and intimating to us its expectations of, and designation for a better life than that it now lives in the body, and that we shall not cease to be, when we cease to breathe.
And certainly, my friends, discourses of the soul, and its immortality; of heaven and of hell, the next, and only receptacles of unbodied spirits, were never more seasonable and necessary than in this atheistical age of the world, wherein all serious piety and thoughts of immortality are ridiculed, and hissed out of the company of many: As if those old condemned Heretics, the "Tnelopsuchitai", who asserted the corruptibility and mortality of the soul as well as the body, had been again revived in our days.
And as the Atheism of some, so the tepidity, and unconcerned carelessness of the most, need and call for such potent remedies, as discourses of this kind do plentifully afford. I dare appeal to your charitable judgements, whether the conversations and discourses of the many, do indeed look like a serious pursuit of heaven, and a flight from hell?
Long have my thoughts bended towards this great and excellent subject, and many earnest desires I have had, (as I believe all thinking persons must needs have) to know what I shall be when I breathe not. But when I had engaged my meditations about it, two great rubs opposed the farther progress of my thoughts therein: Namely,
I. The difficulty of the subject I had chosen: And,
II. The distractions of the times in which I was to write upon it.
I. As for the subject, such is the subtilty and sublimity of its nature, and such the knotty controversies in which it is involved, that it much better deserves that inscription, than Minerva's temple at Saum did, "Never did any mortal reveal me plainly.
"It is but little that the most clear and sharp-sighted do discern of their own souls, now in the state of composition; and what can we positively and distinctly know of the life they live in the state of separation? The darkness in which these things are involved doth greatly exercise, even the greatest wits, and frequently elude and frustrate the most generous attempts." Many great scholars whose natural and acquired abilities singularly furnished and qualified them to make a clearer discovery, have laboured in this field, usque ad sudorem et pallorem, even to sweat and paleness, and done little more but entangle themselves, and the subject more than before; this cannot but discourage new attempts.
And yet, without some knowledge of the inability, and subjective capacity of our souls to enjoy the good of the world to come, even in a state of absence from the body, a principal relief must be cut off from them, under the great and manifold trials they are to encounter in this evil world.
As for myself, I assure you, I am deeply sensible of the inequality of my shoulders to this burden; and have often thought (since I undertook it) of that grave and necessary caution of the poet, to wield and poise the burden as porters use to do, before I undertook it. Zuinglius blamed Carolostadius (as some may do me) for undertaking the controversy of that age; because, says he, Non habet satis humerorum; his shoulders are too weak for it.
And yet I know men's labours prosper not according to the art and elegancy of the composure, but according to the divine blessing which pleaseth to accompany them. Ruffinus tells us of a learned philosopher at the Council of Nice, who stoutly defended his thesis against the greatest wits and scholars there, and yet was at last fairly vanquished by a man of no extraordinary parts: of which con quest the philosopher gave this candid and ingenuous account;-- Against words (said he) I opposed words; and what was spoken I overthrew by the art of peaking: But when, instead of words, power came out of the mouth of the speaker, words could no longer withstand truth; nor man oppose the power of God.
O that my weak endeavours might prosper under the influence of the like Spirit, upon the hearts of them that shall read this inartificial, but well meant discourse.
I am little concerned about the contempts and censures of fastidious readers. I have resolved to say nothing that exceeds sobriety, nor to provoke any man, except my dissent from his unproved dictates must be his provocation.
Perhaps there are some doubts and difficulties relating to this subject which will never fully be solved till we come to heaven. For man, by the fall, being less than himself, doth not understand himself, nor will ever perfectly do so until he be fully restored to himself; which will not be while he dwells in a body of sin and death. And yet it is to me past doubt, that this, as well as other subjects, might have been much more cleared than it is, if instead of the proud contendings of masterly wits for victory, all had humbly and peaceably applied themselves to the impartial search of truth.
Truth, like an orient pearl in the bottom of a river, would have discovered itself by its native lustre and radiancy, had not the feet of Heathen philosophers, cunning Atheists, and daring school divines disturbed and fouled the stream.
II. And as the difficulties of the subject are many, so many have been the interruptions and avocations I have met with, while it was under my hand: which I mention for no other end but to procure a more favourable censure from you, if it appear less exact than you expected to find. Such as it is, I do with much respect and affection tender to your hands, humbly requesting the blessing of the Spirit may accompany it to your hearts. If you will but allow yourselves to think close to the matter before you, I doubt not but you may find somewhat in it apt both to inform your minds and quicken your affections. I know you have a multiplicity of business under your hands, but yet I hope your great concern makes all others daily to give place; and that how clamorous and importunate soever the affairs of the world be, you both can and do find time to sit alone, and bethink yourselves of a much more important business you have to do.
My friends, we are borderers upon eternity, we live upon the confines of the spiritual and immaterial world: we must shortly be associated with bodiless beings, and shall have, after a few days are past, no more concerns for meat, drink, and sleep, buying and selling, habitations and relations, than the angels of God now have. Besides, we live here in a state of trial: Man, (as Scaliger fitly calls him,) is utriusque mendi nexus, One in whom both worlds do meet; his body participates of the lower, his soul of the upper world; Hence it is that he finds such tugging and pulling this way and that way, upward and downward; both worlds, as it were, contending for this invaluable prize, the precious soul. All Christ's ordinances are instituted, and his officers ordained for no other use or end but the salvation of souls. Books are valuable according to their conducibility to this end: how rich a reward of my labours shall I account it, if this treatise of the soul may but promote the sanctification and salvation of any reader's soul.
To your hands I first tender it: it becomes your property, not only as a debt of justice, the fulfilling of a promise made you long since, upon your joint and earnest desires for the publication of it; but, as an acknowledgement of the many favours I have received from you: To one of you I stand obliged in the bond of relation, and under the sense of many kindnesses, beyond whatever such a degree of relation can be supposed to exact.
You have here a succinct account of the nature, faculties and original of the soul of man, as also of its infusion into the body by God, without intitling himself to the guilt and sin resulting from that their union
You will also find the breath of your nostrils to be the nexus, tie, or bond, which holds our souls and bodies in personal union; and that, while the due crasis and temperament of the body remains, and breath continues, your souls hang, as by a weak and slender thread, over the state of a vast eternity in heaven or in hell; which will inform you both of the value of your breath, and the best way of improving it, while you enjoy it.
The immortality of the soul is here asserted, proved, and vindicated from the most considerable objections; so that it will evidently appear to you, by this discourse, you do not cease to be, when you cease to breathe: and, seeing they will overlive all temporal enjoyments, they must necessarily perish as to all their joys, comforts, and hopes, (which is all the death that can be incident to an immortal spirit,) if they be not in the proper season secured and provided of that never perishing food of souls, God in Christ, their portion for ever.
Here you will find the grounds and reasons of that strong inclination, which you all feel them to have to your bodies, and the necessity notwithstanding that, of their divorce, and separation from their beloved bodies; and that it would manifestly be to their prejudice, if it should be otherwise: and to overcome the unreasonable aversations of believers, and to bring them to a more becoming cheerful submission to the laws of death, whensoever the writ of ejection shall be served upon them; you will here find a representation of that blessed life, comely order, and most delightful employment of the incorporeal people inhabiting the city of God; wherein, beside those sweet meditations which are proper to feast your hungry affections, you will meet with divers unusual, though not vain or unuseful, questions stated and resolved, which will be grateful entertainment to your inquisitive and searching minds.
It is possible they may be censured by some as underminable and unprofitable curiosities, but as I hate a presumptuous intrusion into unrevealed secrets, so I think it is a weakness to be discouraged in the search of truth, so far as it is fit to trace it, by such damping and causeless censures. Nor am I sensible I have in any thing transgressed the bounds of Christian sobriety, to gratify the palate of a nice and delicate reader.
I have also here set before the reader an idea or representation of the state and case of damned souls, that, if it be the will of God, a seasonable discovery of hell may be the means of some men's recovery out of the danger of it; and close up the whole with a demonstration of the invaluable preciousness of souls, and the several dangerous snares and artifices of Satan, their professed enemy, to destroy and cast them away for ever.
This is the design and general scope of the whole, and of the principal parts of this treatise. And, O that God would grant me my heart's desire on your behalf; in the perusal of it! Even that it may prove a sanctified instrument in his hand both to prepare you for, and bring you in love with the unbodied life, to make you look with pleasure into your graves, and die by consent of will, as well as necessity of nature. I remember Dr. Stoughton, in a sermon preached before king James, relates a strange story of a little child in a shipwreck, fast asleep upon its mother's lap, as she sat upon a piece of the wreck amidst the waves; the child being awaked with the noise, asked the mother what those things were? She told it, They were drowning waves to swallow them up. The child, with a pretty smiling countenance, begged a stroke from its mother to beat away those naughty waves, and chide them as if they had been its play-mates. Death will shortly shipwreck your bodies; your souls will sit upon your lips ready to expire, as they upon the wreck ready to go down. Would it not be a comfortable and most becoming frame of mind, to sit there with as little dread, as this little child did among the terrible waves? Surely, it our faith has but first united us with Christ, and ten loosed our hearts off from this enchanting and ensnaring world, we might make a fair step towards this most desirable temper; but unbelief and earthly-mindedness make us loth to venture.
I blush to think, what bold adventures those men made, who, upon the contemplation of the properties of a despicable stone first adventured quite out of sight of land, under its conduct and direction, and securely trusted both their lives and estates to it, when all the eyes of heaven were veiled from them, amidst the dark waters, and thick clouds of the sky, when I either start, or at least give an unwilling shrug, when I think of adventuring out of the sight of this world, under the more sure and steady direction and conduct of faith and the promises. To cure these evils, in my own and the reader's heart these things are written, and in much respect and love tendered to your hands, as a testimony of my gratitude, and deep sense of the many obligations you have put me under. That the blessing of the Spirit may accompany these discourses to your souls, afford you some assistance in your last and difficult work, of putting them off at death with a becoming cheerfulness, saying in that hour, Can I not see God till this flesh be laid aside in the grave? must I die before I can live like myself? then die my body, and go to thy dust, that I may be with Christ. With this design, and with these hearty wishes, dear and honoured cousin, and worthy friends, I put these discourses unto your hands, and remain,