By John Flavel
A further great advantage and mercy the saints receive from the hand of Providence is in their preservation from the snares and temptations of sin, by its preventing care over them. That Providence wards off many a deadly stroke of temptation and many a mortal thrust which Satan makes at our souls is a truth as manifest as the light that shines. This is included in that promise: God 'will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it' (1 Corinthians 10:13). Providence gives an outlet for the soul's escape when it is shut up in the dangerous straits of temptation. There are two eminent ways by which the force and efficacy of temptation is broken in believers. One is by the operation of internal grace. 'The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would' (Galatians 5:17), i.e., sanctification gives sin a miscarrying womb after it has conceived in the soul. The other way is by the external working of Providence; and of this I intend to speak here.
The Providence of God is the great barrier and hindrance to a world of sin, which otherwise would break forth like an overflowing flood from our corrupt natures. It prevents abundance of sin, which otherwise wicked men would commit (Genesis 19:11). The Sodomites were greedily pursuing their lusts; God providentially hinders it by smiting them blind. Jeroboam intends to smite the prophet; Providence interposed and withered his arm (1 Kings 13:4). Thus you see, when wicked men have contrived and are ready to execute their wickedness, Providence claps on its manacles 'so that their hands cannot perform their enterprise' (Job 5:12).
And so much corruption there remains in good men that they would certainly plunge themselves under much more guilt than they do if Providence did not take greater care of them than they do of themselves. For though they make conscience of keeping themselves, and daily watch their hearts and ways, yet such is the deceitfulness of sin that if Providence did not lay blocks in their way, it would, more frequently than it does, entangle and defile them. And this it does in several ways.
Sometimes by stirring up others to interpose with seasonable counsels, which effectually dissuade them from prosecuting an evil design. Thus Abigail meets David in the nick of time, and dissuades him from his evil purpose (1 Samuel 25:34).
And I find it recorded, as on another account was noted before, of that holy man Mr. Dod, that being late at night in his study, he was strongly moved, though at an unseasonable hour, to visit a gentleman of his acquaintance. Not knowing what might be the design of Providence in this, he obeyed and went. When he came to the house, after a few knocks on the door, the gentleman himself came to him and asked him whether he had any business with him. Mr. Dod answered, No; but that he could not be quiet till he had seen him. O, Sir, replied the gentleman, you are sent of God at this hour, for just now (and with that takes the halter out of his pocket) I was going to destroy myself. And thus was the mischief prevented.
Sometimes by hindering the means and instruments, whereby the evil itself is prevented. Thus, when good Jehoshaphat had joined himself with that wicked King Ahaziah to build ships at Ezion-gaber to go to Tarshish, God prevents the design by breaking the ships with a storm (2 Chronicles 20:35-37). We find also in the life of Mr. Bolton, written by Mr. Bagshaw, that while he was in Oxford he had familiar acquaintance with Mr. Anderton, a good scholar, but a strong papist, who knowing Mr. Bolton's natural gifts, and perceiving that he was in some outward need, took this advantage and used many arguments to persuade him to be reconciled to the Church of Rome, and to go over with him to the English seminary, assuring him he should be furnished with all necessities and have gold enough. Mr. Bolton being at that time poor in mind and purse, accepted the invitation, and a day and place was appointed in Lancashire, where they should meet and take shipping and be gone. But Mr. Anderton did not come, and so he escaped the snare.
Sometimes by laying some strong affliction upon the body, to prevent a worse evil. And this is the meaning of: 'I will hedge up thy way with thorns' (Hosea 2:6). Thus Basil was a long time exercised with a violent headache which he observed was used by Providence to prevent lust. Paul had a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan sent to buffet him; and this affliction, whatever it was, was ordained to prevent pride in him (2 Corinthians 12:7).
Sometimes sin is prevented in the saints by the better information of their minds at the sacred oracles of God. Thus, when sinful motions began to rise in Asaph's mind, from the prosperity of the wicked and his own afflicted state, and grew to such a height that he began to think all he had done in the way of religion was little better than lost labour, he is set right again, and the temptation dissolved, by going into the sanctuary, where God showed him how to take new measures of persons and things, to judge them by their ends and issues, not their present appearances (Psalm 73:12, 13, 17).
And sometimes the Providence of God prevents the sins of His people by removing them out of the way of temptations by death. In this sense we may understand that text: 'The righteous is taken away from the evil to come' (Isaiah 57:1); the evil of sin as well as sufferings. When the Lord sees His people low-spirited and not able to grapple with strong trials and temptations which are drawing on, it is for them a merciful Providence to be released by death and set out of harm's way.
Now consider and admire the Providence of God, O ye saints, who has had more care of your souls than ever you had of them. Had not the Providence of God thus wrought for you in a way of prevention, it may be you had this day been so many Magor Missabibs (See Jeremiah 20:3-4). How was the heart of David melted under that preventing providence aforementioned (1 Samuel 25:32-34). He blesses the Lord, the instrument and that counsel by which his soul was preserved from sin. Do but seriously think of a few particulars about this case.
Think how your corrupt natures have often impetuously hurried you on towards sin, so that all the inherent grace you had could not withstand its force, if Providence had not prevented it in some such way as you have heard. 'But every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed' (James 1:14). You found yourselves but feathers in the wind of temptation.
How near you have been brought to the brink of sin, and yet saved by a merciful hand of Providence. May you not say with one: 'I was almost in all evil' (Proverbs 5:14), and 'My feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped' (Psalm 73:2). O merciful Providence that stepped in so opportunely to your relief!
How many have been allowed to fall by the hand of temptations, to the reproach of religion and wounding of their own consciences, so far that they have never recovered their former peace again, but lived in the world devoid of comfort to their dying day!
How woeful your case had been if the Lord had not mercifully saved you from many thousand temptations that have assaulted you! I tell you, you cannot estimate the mercies you possess by means of such providences. Are your names sweet, and your consciences peaceful, two mercies as dear to you as your two eyes? Why surely you owe them, if not wholly yet in great measure, to the aids and assistances Providence has given you all along the way you have passed through the dangerous tempting world to this day.
Walk therefore suitably to this obligation of Providence also. And see that you thankfully own it. Do not impute your escapes from sin to accidents, or to your own watchfulness or wisdom.
See also that you do not tempt Providence on the other hand, by an irregular reliance upon its care over you, without taking all due care of yourselves. 'Keep yourselves in the love of God' (Jude 21); 'Keep thy heart with all diligence' (Proverbs 4:23). Though Providence keep you, yet it is in the way of your duty.
Thus you see what care Providence has had over your souls in preventing the spiritual dangers and miseries that otherwise would have befallen you in the way of temptations.
In the next place I will show you that it has been no less concerned about your bodies, and with great tenderness it has carried them in its arms through innumerable hazards and dangers also. 'He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep' (Psalm 121:4); 'He is the preserver of men' (Job 7:20). To display the glory of this Providence before you, let us take into consideration the perils into which the best of men sometimes fall, and the ways and means by which Providence preserves them in those dangers.
There are many hazards into which we are often cast in this world. The Apostle Paul gives us a general account of his dangers (2 Corinthians 11:26), and how great a wonder is it that our life has not been extinguished in some of those dangers we have been in!
Have not some of us fallen, and that often, into very dangerous sicknesses and diseases, in which we have approached to the very brink of the grave (Job 33:18, 21, 28), and have or might have said with Hezekiah: 'I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years' (Isaiah 38:10)? Have we not often had the sentence of death in ourselves? and our bodies at that time been like a leaky ship in a storm, as one aptly resembles it (Thomas Goodwin in his Aggravation of Sin Against Mercy), that has taken in water on every side, till it was ready to sink? Yet has God preserved, repaired and launched us out again as well as ever. O what a wonder is it that such a crazy body should be preserved so many years, and survive so many dangers! Surely it is not more wonderful to see a Venice-glass pass from hand to hand in continual use for forty or fifty years, and still to remain whole, notwithstanding the many knocks and falls it has had. If you enjoy health, or recover from sicknesses, it is because he puts 'none of these diseases upon thee,' or because he is 'the LORD that healeth thee' (Exodus 15:26).
How many deadly dangers has His hand rescued some of you from, in those years of confusion and public calamity when the sword was bathed in blood and made horrid slaughter, when, it may be, your lives were often given you for a prey! This David put a special remark upon: 'O GOD the Lord, the strength of my salvation: thou hast covered my head in the day of battle' (Psalm 140:7).
Beza, being in France in the first Civil War and there tossed up and down for two and twenty months, recorded six hundred deliverances from dangers in that space, for which he solemnly gave God thanks in his last testament. If the sword did not destroy you, it was because God did not give it a commission to do so.
Many of you have seen wonders of salvation upon the deeps, where the hand of God has been signally stretched forth for your rescue and deliverance. This is elegantly expressed in Psalm 107:23-27 (which I have elsewhere expounded at large), concerning which you may say in a proper sense what the Psalmist says metaphorically: 'If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul' (Psalm 124:1, 4). To see men that have spent so many years upon the seas, where your lives have continually hung in suspense before you, attain to your years, when you could neither be reckoned among the living or the dead, as seamen are not, O what cause have you to adore your great Preserver! Many thousands of your companions are gone down, and you are yet here to praise the Lord among the living. You have bordered nearer to eternity all your days than others, and often been in eminent perils upon the seas. Surely these and so many salvations call aloud to you for most thankful acknowledgments.
What innumerable hazards and accidents, the least of which have cut off others, has God carried us all through! I think I may safely say your privative and positive mercies of this kind are more in number than the hairs of your heads. Many thousands of these dangers we never saw, nor were made particularly aware of, but though we did not see them, our God did, and brought us out of danger before He brought us into fear. Some have been evident to us, and those so remarkable that we cannot think or speak of them to this day, but our souls are freshly affected with those mercies.
It is recorded of our famous Jewel, that about the beginning of Queen Mary's reign, the inquisition taking hold of him in Oxford, he fled to London by night; but providentially losing the road, he escaped the inquisitors who pursued him. However, he fell that night into another imminent hazard of life, for wandering up and down in the snow, he fainted and lay starving in the way, panting and labouring for life, at which time Latimer's servant found and saved him.
It would be easy to multiply examples of this kind; histories abound with them. But I think there are few of us but are furnished out of our own experience abundantly; so that I shall rather choose to press home the sense of these providences upon you, in order that you may make a suitable return to the God of your mercies for them, than add more instances of this kind. To this purpose I desire you seriously to weigh the following particulars.
Consider what you owe to Providence for your protection, by which your life has been protracted unto this day, with the usefulness and comfort thereof. Look around in the world, and you may daily see some in every place who are objects of pity, bereaved by sad accidents of all the comforts of life, while in the meantime Providence has tenderly preserved you. 'He keepeth all his bones, not one of them is broken' (Psalm 34:20). Is the elegant and comely structure of your body unspoiled, your members not deformed, or made so many seats of torment, neither the usefulness of any part deprived? Why, this is because Providence never left its hold of you since you came out of the womb, but with a watchful eye and tender hand has guarded you in every place, and kept you as its charge.
Consider how every member which has been so tenderly kept, has nevertheless been an instrument of sin against the Lord; and that not only in the days of your unregeneracy, when you yielded 'your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin' (Romans 6:13), but even since you gave them up in covenant unto the Lord as dedicated instruments to His service; and yet how tender has Providence been over them! You have often provoked Him to afflict you in every part, and lay penal evil upon every member that has been instrumental in moral evil. But O, how great have His compassions been towards you, and His patience how wonderful!
Consider what is the aim of Providence in all the tender care it has manifested for you. Why does it protect you so assiduously, and suffer no evil to befall you? Is it not that you should employ your bodies for God, and cheerfully apply yourselves to that service He has called you to? Doubtless this is the end and goal of these mercies; or else to what purpose are they afforded you? Your bodies are a part of Christ's purchase, as well as your souls (1 Corinthians 6:19). They are committed to the charge and tutelage of angels (Hebrews 1:14), who have performed many services for them. They are dedicated by yourselves to the Lord, and that upon the highest account (Romans 12:1). They have already been the subjects of many mercies in this world (Psalm 35:10), and shall partake of singular glory and happiness in the world to come (Philippians 3:21). And shall they not then be employed, yea, cheerfully worn out, in His service? How reasonable it is they should be so! Why are they so tenderly preserved by God, if they must not be used for God?