By John Flavel
There is an eminent favour Providence bestows on the saints, which has not yet been considered, and indeed is too little minded by us, and that is the aid and assistance it gives the people of God in the great work of mortification.
Mortification of our sinful affections and passions is one half of our sanctification: 'dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God' (Romans 6:11). It is the great evidence of our interest in Christ (Romans 6:5-9; Galatians 5:24). It is our safety in the hour of temptation. The corruptions in the world are through lust (2 Peter 1:4). Our instrumental fitness for service depends much upon it (John 15:2; 2 Timothy 2:21). How great a service to our souls therefore must that be, by which this blessed work is carried on in them!
Now there are two means or instruments employed in this work. The Spirit, who effects it internally (Romans 8:13), and Providence, which assists it externally. The Spirit indeed is the principal agent, upon whose operation the success of this work depends, and all the providences in the world can never effect it without Him. But they are secondary and subordinate means, which, by the blessing of the Spirit upon them, have a great part in the work. How they are so serviceable to this end and purpose, I shall now explain.
The most wise God orders the dispensations of Providence in a blessed subordination to the work of His Spirit. There is a sweet harmony between them in their distinct workings. They all meet in that one blessed issue to which God has by the counsel of His will directed them (Romans 8:28; Ephesians 1:11). Hence it is that the Spirit is said to be in, and to order the motions of the wheels of Providence (Ezekiel 1:20), and so they move together by consent. Now one great part of the Spirit's internal work being to destroy sin in the people of God, see how conformable to His design external providences are steered and ordered in the following particulars.
There is in all the regenerate a strong propensity and inclination to sin, and in that lies a principal part of the power of sin. Of this Paul sadly complains: 'But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members, (Romans 7:23): and every believer daily finds it to his grief. O, it is hard to forbear those things that grieve God. God has made a hedge about us, and fenced us against sin by His laws; but there is a proneness in nature to break over the hedge, and that against the very opposition of the Spirit of God in us. Now see in this case the concurrence and assistance of Providence for the prevention of sin. As the Spirit internally resists those sinful inclinations, so Providence externally lays bars and blocks in our way to hinder and prevent sin (Job 33:17-19; Hosea 2:6; 2 Corinthians 12:7). There is many a bodily ailment inflicted on this very score, to be a clog to prevent sin. O bear them patiently upon this consideration. Basil was sorely grieved with an inveterate headache; he earnestly prayed it might be removed; God removed it. No sooner was he freed of this clog, but he felt the inordinate motions of lust, which made him pray for his headache again. So it might be with many of us, if our clogs were off.
At this point it may be asked whether it is proper for a gracious spirit to forbear sin because of the rod of affliction? He has surely higher motives and nobler principles than these. This is the attitude of a carnal and slavish spirit!
Indeed it is so when this is the sole or principal restraint from sin, when a man does not abhor sin because of the intrinsic filth, but only because of the troublesome consequences and effects. But this is vastly different from the case of the saints under sanctified afflictions; for as they have higher motives and nobler principles, so they have lower and natural feelings too; and these are, in their kind and place, very useful to them.
Besides, you must know that afflictions work in another way upon gracious hearts to restrain them from sin, or warn them against sin, than they do upon others. It is not so much the smart of the rod which they feel, as the token of God's displeasure, which frightens and scares them. 'Thou renewest thy witnesses against me' (Job 10:17), and this is that which principally affects them. 'O LORD, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure' (Psalm 6:1). 'O LORD, correct me, but with judgment; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing' (Jeremiah 10:24): and surely this is no low and common argument.
Notwithstanding this double fence of God's command and preventive afflictions, yet sin is too hard for the best of men; their corruptions carry them through all to sin. And when it is so, not only does the Spirit work internally, but Providence also works externally in order to subdue them. The ways of sin are not only made bitter to them by the remorse of conscience, but by those afflictive rods upon the outward man, with which God also follows it; and in both these respects I find that text expounded: 'Whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him' (Ecclesiastes 10:8). If, as some expound it, the hedge is the law of God, then the serpent is the remorse of conscience, and the sharp teeth of affliction, which he shall quickly feel, if he is one that belongs to God.
The design and aim of these afflictive providences is to purge and cleanse believers from that pollution into which temptations have plunged them. 'By this, therefore, shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged, and this is all the fruit to take away his sin' (Isaiah 27:9). To the same purpose is that place: 'Before I was afflicted I went astray; but now have I kept thy word' (Psalm 119:67). These afflictions have the same use and end to our souls that frosty weather has upon those clothes that are laid out to be bleached; they alter the hue and make them whiter, which seems to be the allusion in those words: 'And some of them of understanding shall fall, to try them, and to purge, and to make them white' (Daniel 11:35).
And here it may be queried upon what account afflictions are said to purge away the iniquities of the saints? Is it not unwarrantable and very dishonourable to Christ, to attribute to affliction that which is the peculiar honour of His blood?
It is confessed that the blood of Christ is the only fountain opened for sin, and that no afflictions, however many or strong or continual they are, can in themselves purge away the pollution of sin, as we see in wicked men who are afflicted, and afflicted, and again afflicted; and yet nevertheless sinful. And the torments of hell, however extreme, universal and continual they are, yet shall never fetch out the stain of one sin.
But it is still true that a sanctified affliction may, in the efficacy and virtue of Christ's blood, produce such blessed effects upon the soul. Though a cross without a Christ never did any man any good, yet thousands have been indebted to the cross, as it has wrought in the virtue of His death for their good. And this is the case with those souls that this discourse is concerned about.
We find the best hearts, if God bestow any comfortable enjoyment upon them, too apt to be overheated in their affections towards it, and to be too much taken up with these outward comforts. This also shows the great power and strength of corruption in the people of God, and must by some means or other be mortified in them.
This was the case of Hezekiah whose heart was too much set upon his treasures; so that he could not hide a vainglorious disposition (Isaiah 39:2). Likewise good David (Psalm 30:7) thought his mountain, that is, his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his present state, had stood so fast that it should never be moved.
How the same good man set his heart and affections upon his beautiful son Absalom appears by the doleful lamentation he made at his death, prizing him above his own life, which was a thousand times more worth than he.
So Jonah, when God raised up a gourd for him to shelter him from the sun, how excessively was he taken with it, and was exceedingly glad of it!
But will God allow things to lie thus? Shall the creature purloin and draw away our affections from Him? No, this is our corruption, and God will purge it. And to this end He sends forth Providence to smite those creatures on which our affections are either inordinately or excessively set, or else to turn them into rods, and smite us with them.
Is Hezekiah too much puffed up with his full exchequer? Why, those very Babylonians to whom he boasted of it, shall empty it and make a prey of it (Isaiah 39:6).
Is David hugging himself in a fond conceit of the stability of his earthly splendour? Lo! how soon God beclouds all (Psalm 30:7). Is Absalom doted on, and crept too far into his good father's heart? This shall be the son of his sorrow, that shall seek after his father's life.
Is Jonah so carried away with his gourd? God will prepare a worm to smite it (Jonah 4:6, 7).
How many husbands, wives and children has Providence smitten for this very reason! It might have spared them longer, if they had been loved more regularly and moderately. This has blasted many an estate and hopeful project; and it is a merciful dispensation for our good.
The strength of our unmortified corruption shows itself in our pride and the swelling vanity of our hearts when we have a name and esteem among men. When we are applauded and honoured, when we are admired for any gift or excellence that is in us, this draws forth the pride of the heart and shows the vanity that is in it. 'As the fining pot for silver, and the furnace for gold; so is a man to his praise' (Proverbs 27:21); i.e., as the furnace will reveal what dross is in the metal when it is melted, so will praise and commendations reveal what pride is in the heart of him that receives them. This made a good man say: 'He that praises me, wounds me.' And, which is more strange, this corruption may be felt in the heart, even when the last breath is ready to expire. It was the saying of one of the German divines, when those about him recounted for his encouragement the many services he had done for God, 'Take away the fire, for there is still the chaff of pride in me.' To crucify this corruption Providence takes off the bridle of restraint from ungodly men, and sometimes permits them to traduce the names of God's servants, as Shimei did David's. Yea, they shall fall into disesteem among their friends, as Paul did among the Corinthians; and all this to keep down the swelling of their spirits at the realization of those excellences that are in them. The design of these providences is nothing else but to hide pride from man. Yea, it deserves a special remark, that when some good men have been engaged in a public and eminent work, and have therein, it may be, too much sought their own applause, God has withheld His usual assistance at such times from them, and caused them so to falter in their work, that they have come off with shame and pity at such times, however ready and prepared they have been at other times. It would be easy to give various remarkable examples to confirm this observation, but I pass on.
The corruption of the heart shows itself in raising up great expectations to ourselves from the creature, and planning abundance of felicity and contentment from some promising and hopeful enjoyments we have in the world. This we find to have been the case of holy Job in the days of his prosperity: 'Then I said, I shall die in my nest, and I shall multiply my days as the sand' (Job 29:18). But how soon were all these expectations dashed by a gloomy Providence, that benighted him in the noontide of his prosperity. And all this was for his good, to take off his heart more fully from creature expectations. We often find the best men overreckon themselves in worldly things, and overact their confidences about them. They that have great and well-grounded expectations from heaven, may have too great and ungrounded expectations from the earth. But when it is so, it is very usual for Providence to undermine their earthly hopes, and convince them by experience how vain they are. Thus, in Haggai 1:9, the people's hearts were intently set upon prosperous providences, full harvests and great increase; while in the meantime no regard was had to the worship of God and the things of His house; therefore Providence blasts their hopes and brings them to little.
Corruption shows itself in dependence upon creature-comforts and tangible props. O how apt are the best of men to lean upon these things, and stay themselves upon them! Thus did Israel stay themselves upon Egypt, as a feeble man would lean upon his staff; but God allowed it both to fail them and wound them (Ezekiel 29:6-7). So for individuals, how apt are they to depend upon their tangible supports! Thus we lean on our relations, and the inward thoughts of our hearts are that they shall be to us so many springs of comfort to refresh us throughout our lives; but God will show us by His Providence our mistake and error in these things. Thus a husband is smitten, to draw the soul of a wife nearer to God in dependence upon Him (1 Timothy 5:5). So for children, we are apt to say of this or that child, as Lamech of Noah, 'This same shall comfort us' (Genesis 5:29); but the wind passes over these flowers and they are withered, to teach us that our happiness is not bound up in these enjoyments. So for our estates, when the world smiles upon us, and we have got a warm nest, how do we prophesy of rest and peace in those acquisitions, thinking, with good Baruch, great things for ourselves; but Providence by a particular or general calamity overturns our plans (Jeremiah 45:4, 5), and all this to turn our hearts from the creature to God, who is our only rest.
Corruption shows its strength in good men by their adherence to things below and their reluctance to go hence. This often proceeds from the engaging enjoyments and pleasant experiences we have here below. Providence mortifies this inclination in the saints by killing those ensnaring comforts beforehand, making all or most of our pleasant things to die before us. Or it embitters this world to us, by the troubles of it, making life undesirable, through the pains and infirmities we feel in the body, and so loosing our root for our more easy fall by the fatal stroke. Before I pass from this, I cannot but make a pause, and desire you with me to stand in holy amazement and wonder at the dealings of God with such poor worms as we are. Surely God deals familiarly with men; His condescensions to His own clay are astonishing. All that I shall note at present about it shall be under these three heads, in which I find the matter of my present meditations summed up by the Psalmist: 'LORD, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him, or the son of man that thou makest account of him!' (Psalm 144:3). In this Scripture you have represented the immense and transcendent greatness of God, who is infinitely above us and all our thoughts. 'Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea' (Job 11:7-9). 'The heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain him' (2 Chronicles 2:6). He is 'glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders' (Exodus 15:11). When the Scripture speaks of Him comparatively, see how it expresses His greatness: 'Behold, the nations are as the drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing. And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering. All nations before him are as nothing; and they are accounted to him less than nothing, and vanity' (Isaiah 40:15-17). When the holiest men have addressed Him, see with what humility and deep adoration they have spoken of Him and to Him! 'Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts' (Isaiah 6:5). Nay, what respects the very angels of heaven have of that glorious Majesty: 'Each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory' (verses 2 and 3).
Secondly, you have the baseness, vileness and utter unworthiness of man, yea, the holiest and best of men, before God: 'Verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity' (Psalm 39:5). 'Every man,' take where you will; and every man 'in his best state,' or 'standing in his freshest glory,' is not only 'vanity,' but 'altogether vanity,' literally 'every man is very vanity.' For do but consider the best of men in their extraction. 'By nature the children of wrath even as others' (Ephesians 2:3). The blood that runs in our veins is as much tainted as theirs in hell.
Consider them in their constitution and natural disposition, and it is no better, yea, in many there is worse disposition than in reprobates. And though grace depose sin in them from the throne, yet, O what offensive and God-provoking corruptions daily breakout of the best hearts.
Consider them in their outward condition, and they are inferior, for the most part to others. 'I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes' (Matthew 11:25; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:26-28).
And now let us consider and marvel that ever this great and blessed God should be so much concerned, as you have heard He is in all His providences, about such vile, despicable worms as we are! He does not need us, but is perfectly blessed and happy in Himself without us. We can add nothing to Him: 'Can a man be profitable unto God?' (Job 22:2). No, the holiest of men add nothing to Him; yet, see how great account He makes of us. For does not His eternal electing love show the dear account He made of us (Ephesians 1:4, 5)? How ancient, how free, and how astonishing is this act of grace! This is that design which all providences are in pursuit of, and will not rest till they have executed.
Does not the gift of His only Son out of His bosom show this, that God makes great account of this vile thing, man? Never was man so magnified before. If David could say: 'When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained; what is man?' (Psalm 8:3, 4), how much more may we say, 'When we consider Thy Son, that lay in Thy bosom, His infinite excellence and unspeakable dearness to Thee, Lord, what is man, that such a Christ should be delivered to death for him! for him, and not for fallen angels (Hebrews 2:16), for him when in a state of enmity with God' (Romans 5:8).
Does not the assiduity of His providential care for us show His esteem of us? 'Lest any hurt it, I will keep it night and day' (Isaiah 27:3). 'He withdraweth not his eyes from the righteous' (Job. 36:7), no, not a moment all their days; for if He did, a thousand mischiefs in that moment would rush in upon them and ruin them.
Does not the tenderness of His providence show His esteem of us? 'As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you' (Isaiah 66:13). He comforts His own by refreshing providences, as an indulgent mother her tender child. 'As birds flying' (Isaiah 31:5), viz., to their nests when their young are in danger, so He defends His. No parental tenderness in the creature can shadow forth the tender affection of the Creator.
Does not the variety of the fruits of His providence show it? Our mercies are 'new every morning' (cf. Psalm 40:5; Lamentations 3:23). It is a fountain from which do stream forth spiritual and temporal, ordinary and extraordinary, public and personal mercies, mercies without number.
Does not the ministry of angels in the providential kingdom show it? 'Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?' (Hebrews 1:14).
Does not the providence of which this day calls us to celebrate the memory, show the great regard God has for His people? O if not so, why were we not given up 'as a prey to their teeth?' 'If it had not been the LORD who was on our side,' then wicked men, compared to fire, water, wild beasts, 'had swallowed us up quick' (Psalm 124). O blessed be God for that teeming providence that has already brought forth more than seventy years liberty and peace to the Church of God. I suggest concerning this providence that you do by it as the Jews by their Purim (Esther 9:27, 28), and the rather, because we seem now to be as near danger by the same enemy as ever since that time. If such a mercy as this is forgotten God may say: 'I will deliver you no more' (Judges 10:13).