For now thou numberest my steps: dost thou not watch over my sin?
~ Job 14:16
I know it is so of a truth: but how should man be just with God? If he will contend with him, he cannot answer him one of a thousand. If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse. If I sin, then thou markest me, and thou wilt not acquit me from mine iniquity. What is man, that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. And enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.
~ Job 9:2-3, Job 9:20, Job 10:14, Job 15:14, Isaiah 53:6, Psalm 143:2
Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
~ Romans 3:20, Romans 3:23
On Psalm 130:3, by John Owen. The following is an excerpt from his work, “The Forgiveness of Sin”.
If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?
~ Psalm 130:3
The words of the verse explained, and their meaning opened.
The general frame of a gracious soul, in its perplexities about sin, hath been declared. Its particular actings, what it doth, what it meets withal, are nextly represented unto us.
First, then, in particular, it cries out, “If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?”
There is in the words a supposition, and an inference on that supposition. In the supposition there is,— 1. The name of God, that is fixed on as suited unto it; and, 2. The thing itself supposed. In the inference there is expressed the matter of it, to “stand;” and the manner of its proposal, wherein two things occur:—1. That it is expressed by way of interrogation. 2. The indefiniteness of that interrogation, “Who shall stand?”
“If thou, LORD.” He here fixes on another name of God, which is Jah;—a name, though from the same root with the former, yet seldom used but to intimate and express the terrible majesty of God: “He rideth on the heavens, and is extolled by his name JAH,” Ps. 68:4. He is to deal now with God about the guilt of sin; and God is represented to the soul as great and terrible, that he may know what to expect and look for, if the matter must be tried out according to the demerit of sin.
What, then, saith he to JAH? אס־ ֲצוֹנוֹת ִּת ְש ָמרִּ ,—”If thou shouldest mark iniquities.” ָש ַמר is to observe and keep as in safe custody; to keep, preserve, and watch diligently; so to remark and observe, as to retain that which is observed, to ponder it, and lay it up in the heart. Gen. 37:11, Jacob “observed” Joseph’s dream; that is, he retained the memory of it, and pondered it in his heart.
The marking of iniquities, then, here intended, is God’s so far considering and observing of them as to reserve them for punishment and vengeance. In opposition unto this marking, he is said not to see sin, to overlook it, to cover it, or remember it no more; that is, to forgive it, as the next verse declares.
I need not show that God so far marks all sins in all persons as to see them, know them, disallow them, and to be displeased with them. This cannot be denied without taking away of all grounds of fear and worship. To deny it is all one as to deny the very being of God; deny his holiness and righteousness, and you deny his existence. But there is a day appointed, wherein all the men of the world shall know that God knew and took notice of all and every one of their most secret sins. There is, then, a double marking of sin in God; neither of which can be denied in reference unto any sins, in any persons. The first is physical, consisting in his omniscience, whereunto all things are open and naked. Thus no sin is hid from him; the secretest are before the light of his countenance. All are marked by him. Secondly, moral, in a displicency with or displeasure against every sin; which is inseparable from the nature of God, upon the account of his holiness. And this is declared in the sentence of the law, and that equally to all men in the world. But the marking here intended is that which is in a tendency to animadversion and punishment, according to the tenor of the law. Not only the sentence of the law, but a will of punishing according to it, is included in it. “If,” saith the psalmist, “thou, the great and dreadful God, who art extolled by the glorious name Jah, shouldst take notice of iniquities, so as to recompense sinners that come unto thee according to the severity and exigence of thy holy law;”—what then? It is answered by the matter of the proposal, “Who can stand?” that is, none can so do. Τὸ γὰρ τἰς ἐνταῦθα οὐδείς ἐστιν, says Chrysostom. This “who,” is none; no man; not one in the world. מי ַי ֲצ ֹמדִּ , “Quis stabit?” or “consistet,”—”Who can stand?” or abide and endure the trial? Every one on this supposition must perish, and that eternally. This the desert of sin, and the curse of the law, which is the rule of this marking of their iniquity, doth require. And there is a notable emphasis in the interrogation, which contains the manner of the inference. “Who can stand?” is more than if he had said, “None can abide the trial, and escape without everlasting ruin;” for the interrogation is indefinite; not, “How can I?” but, “Who can stand?” When the Holy Ghost would set out the certainty and dreadfulness of the perishing of ungodly men, he doth it by such a kind of expression, wherein there is a deeper sense intimated into the minds of men than any words can well clothe or declare: 1 Pet. 4:17, “What shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel?” and verse 18, “Where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” So here, “Who can stand?” There is a deep insinuation of a dreadful ruin as unto all with whom God shall so deal as to mark their iniquities. See Ps. 1:5.
The psalmist then addressing himself to deal with God about sin, lays down in the first place, in the general, how things must go, not with himself only, but with all the world, upon the supposition he had fixed: “This is not my case only; but it is so with all mankind, every one who is partaker of flesh and blood. Whether their guilt answer that which I am oppressed withal or no, all is one; guilty they are all, and all must perish. How much more must that needs be my condition, who have contracted so great a guilt as I have done!” Here, then, he lays a great argument against himself, on the supposition before laid down: “If none, the holiest, the humblest, the most believing soul, can abide the trial, can endure; how much less can I, who am the chiefest of sinners, the least of saints, who come unspeakably behind them in holiness, and have equally gone beyond them in sin!”
This is the sense and importance of the words. Let us now consider how they are expressive of the actings of the soul whose state and condition is here represented unto us, and what directions they will afford unto us, to give unto them who are fallen into the same state.
What first presents itself to a soul in distress on the account of sin—This opened in four propositions—Thoughts of God’s marking sin according to the tenor of the law full of dread and terror
What depths the psalmist was in hath been declared; in them what resolution he takes upon himself to seek God alone for relief and recovery hath been also showed, and what earnestness in general he useth therein. Addressing himself unto God in that frame, with that purpose and resolution, the first thing he fixeth on in particular is the greatness of his sin and guilt, according to the tenor of the law. It appears, then, that,—
First, In a sin-perplexed soul’s addresses unto God, the first thing that presents itself unto him is God’s marking sin according to the tenor of the law. The case is the same in this matter with all sorts of sinners, whether before conversion or in relapses and entanglements after conversion. There is a proportion between conversion and recoveries. They are both wrought by the same means and ways, and have both the same effects upon the souls of sinners, although in sundry things they differ, not now to be spoken unto. What, then, is spoken on this head may be applied unto both sorts,—to them that are yet unconverted, and to them who are really delivered from their state and condition; but especially unto those who know not whether state they belong unto, that is, to all guilty souls. The law will put in its claim to all. It will condemn the sin, and try what it can do against the sinner. There is no shaking of it off; it must be fairly answered, or it will prevail. The law issues out an arrest for the debt; and it is to no purpose to bid the sergeant be gone, or to entreat him to spare. If payment be not procured, and an acquaintance produced, the soul must to prison. “I am going unto God,” saith the soul; “he is great and terrible, a marker of sin, and what shall I say unto him?” This makes him tremble, and cry out, “O Lord, who shall stand?” So that it appears hence that,—
Secondly, Serious thoughts of God’s marking sin according to the tenor of the law is a thing full of dread and terror to the soul of a sinner. But this is not all; he is not swallowed up in this amazement, crying out only, “Who can stand?” There is included in the words a thorough, sincere acknowledgment of his own sin and the guilt thereof. Mentioning the desert of sin, in his own case, he acknowledgeth his own. So that,—
Thirdly, Sincere sense and acknowledgment for sin, with self-condemnation in the justification of God, is the first peculiar, especial working of a gracious soul rising out of its entanglements. All this is included in these words. He acknowledgeth both his own guilt and the righteousness of God if he should deal with him according to the demerit of sin.
And these things lie in the words absolutely considered. But the state of the soul here represented carries us on farther. He rests not here, as we shall see in the opening of the next verse, the chief thing aimed at in the whole. And as a transition from the one to the other, that we may still carry on the general design at the entrance laid down, we must take along with us this farther observation:—
Fourthly, Though self-condemnation be an eminent preparation for the discovery of forgiveness in God, yet a poor distressed soul is not to rest in it, nor to rest upon it, but to pass on to the embracing of forgiveness itself.
There is yet a general proposition lying in the words that we may make use of in our passage, and it is this:—God’s marking of iniquities and man’s salvation are everlastingly inconsistent. I mean his marking them in the persons of sinners for the ends before mentioned.
Of some of these I shall farther treat, according as the handling of them conduceth to the purpose in hand.
That which I shall begin withal is that which was first laid down, about the effects of serious thoughts concerning God’s marking sin according to the tenor of the law; which, as I said, is the first thing that presents itself unto a sin-entangled soul in its addresses unto God.
But this shall not pass alone. I shall draw the two first observations into one, and make use of the first only in the confirmation of the other; which will express the sense of the words absolutely considered. The third and fourth will lead us on in the progress of the soul towards the relief sought after and proposed. That, therefore, which is to be first insisted on comes up to this proposition:—
In a sin-perplexed soul’s addresses unto God, the first thing that presents itself unto him is God’s marking of sin according to the tenor of the law; which of itself is apt to fill the soul with dread and terror.
I shall first somewhat speak unto it in this, as considered in itself, and then inquire into the concernment of the soul in it, whose condition is here described.
The Lord speaks of some who, when they hear the word of the curse, yet “bless themselves,” and say they shall have “peace,” Deut. 29:19. Let men preach and say what they will of the terror of the Lord, they will despise it; which God threatens with utter extermination. And he notes it again as an amazing wickedness, and the height of obdurateness, Jer. 36:24. Generally it is with sinners as it was with Gaal the son of Ebed, Judges 9., when he was fortifying of Sichem against Abimelech. Zebul tells him that Abimelech will come and destroy him. “Let him come,” saith Gaal, “I shall deal well enough with him. Let him bring forth his army; I fear him not.” But upon the very first appearance of Abimelech’s army he trembled for fear, verse 36. Tell obdurate sinners of the wrath of God, and that he will come to plead his cause against them; for the most part they take no notice of what you say, nor have any serious thoughts about it, but go on as if they were resolved they should deal well enough with him. Notwithstanding all their stoutness, a day is coming wherein fearfulness shall surprise them, and make them cry out, “Who among us shall dwell with devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?” Yea, if the Lord be pleased in this life, in an especial manner, to draw nigh to any of them, they quickly see that their “hearts cannot endure, nor can their hands be strong,” Ezek. 22:14. Their hands hang down, and their stout hearts tremble like an aspen leaf.
He who first sinned, and had first occasion to have serious thoughts about God’s marking of sin, gives us a notable instance of what we have affirmed; and the first in every kind is the measure of all that follows in the same kind. Gen. 3:8, “He heard the voice of the LORD God;” so he had done before without the least trouble or consternation of spirit. He was made for communion with God; and that he might hear his voice was part of his blessedness. But now saith he, “I heard thy voice and was afraid, and hid myself.” He knew that God was coming on the inquest of sin, and he was not able to bear the thoughts of meeting him. Could he have gone into the bowels of the earth from whence he was taken, and have been there hid from God, he would not have failed to have attempted it. Things are now altered with him. In that God whom he loved before as a good, holy, powerful, righteous Creator, Preserver, Benefactor, and Rewarder, he saw nothing now but wrath, indignation, vengeance, and terror. This makes him tremble out those dreadful words, “I heard thy voice and was afraid, and hid myself.”
The giving out of the law afterwards evinces what effects the consideration of God’s proceeding with sinners according to the tenor of it must needs produce: Exod. 20:18, 19, “All the people saw the thunderings and the lightnings, and the voice of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking;” as the apostle also describes it, Heb. 12:18. In this manner came forth from the Lord that “fiery law,” Deut 33:2; so that all who are concerned in it “did exceedingly quake and tremble.” And yet all this respects but the severity of the law in general, without the application of it unto any soul in particular. There is a solemnity that carrieth an awe with it in the preparation of an assize to be kept and held by poor worms like ourselves; but the dread of it is peculiar to the malefactors for whose trial and execution all this preparation is made. When a soul comes to think that all this dreadful preparation, this appearance of terrible majesty, these streams of the fiery law, are all pointed towards him, it will make him cry out, “Lord, who can stand?” And this law is still in force towards sinners, even as it was on the day wherein it was given on mount Sinai. Though Moses grew old, yet his strength never failed; nor hath his law, the law given by him, lost any thing of its strength, power, or authority towards sinners. It is still accompanied with thunderings and lightnings, as of old; and it will not fail to represent the terror of the Lord to a guilty soul.
Among the saints themselves I could produce instances to manifest that they have found it to be thus. The cases of Job, David, Heman are known. I shall only consider it in Christ himself. From himself he had no occasion of any discouraging thought, being holy, harmless, undefiled. He fulfilled all righteousness, did his Father’s will in all things, and abode in his love. This must needs be attended with the highest peace and most blessed joy. In the very entrance of his trials, he had a full persuasion of a comfortable issue and success; as we may see, Isa. 1:7–9. But yet when his soul was exercised with thoughts of God’s marking our iniquities upon him, it was “sorrowful unto death.” He was “sore amazed, and very heavy,” Mark 14:33, 34. His agony; his blood-sweat; his strong cries and supplications; his reiterated prayers, “If it be possible let this cup pass from me;” his last and dreadful cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”—all manifest what apprehensions he had of what it was for God to mark iniquities. Well may poor sinners cry out, “Lord, who shall stand?” when the Son of God himself so trembled under the weight of it.
In serious thoughts of God’s marking sin, he is represented unto the soul under all those glorious, terrible attributes and excellencies which are apt to beget a dread and terror in the hearts of sinners, when they have no relief from any covenant engagements in Christ. The soul looks upon him as the great lawgiver, James 4:12,—able to revenge the breach of it, by destroying body and soul in hell fire; as one terrible in holiness, of purer eyes than to behold iniquity; so also in greatness and in power; the living God, into whose hands it is a fearful thing to fall; as attended with vindictive justice, saying, “Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense,” Heb. 10:30. Now, for a soul to consider God, clothed with all these dreadful and terrible excellencies, coming to deal with sinners according to the tenor of his fiery law, it cannot but make him cry out, with Moses, “I exceedingly fear and quake.”
These things work on their minds the conclusion mentioned before, as asserted in these words,— namely, that God’s marking of sin according to the tenor of the law, and man’s salvation, are utterly inconsistent; a conclusion that must needs shake a soul when pressed under a sense of its own guilt.
When a person who is really guilty, and knows himself to be guilty, is brought unto his trial, he hath but these four grounds of hope that his safety and his trial may be consistent. He may think that either,—1. The judge will not be able to find out or discover his crimes; or, 2. That some one will powerfully intercede for him with the judge; or, 3. That the rule of the law is not so strict as to take notice of his miscarriages; or, 4. That the penalty of it is not so severe but that there may be a way of escape. Cut him short of his expectations from some, one, or all of these, and all his hopes must of necessity perish. And how is it in this case?
1. Of the Judge we have spoken somewhat already. The present inquiry is, Whether any thing may be hid from him or no, and so a door of escape be opened to a sinner? The apostle tells us that “all things are naked and open unto him,” Heb. 4:13; and the psalmist, that “there is not a thought in our hearts, nor a word in our tongue, but he understandeth it afar off, and knoweth it altogether,” Ps. 139:2–4. What the sinner knows of himself that may cause him to fear, that God knows; and what he knows not of himself that deserves his fear, that God knows also: “He is greater than our hearts, and knoweth all things,” 1 John 3:20. When God shall not only set in order before the sinner the secret sins which he retains some remembrance of, but also brings to mind and represents unto him that world of filth and folly which either he never took any real notice of or hath utterly forgotten, it will trouble him, yea, confound him.
2. But may not this Judge be entreated to pass by what he knows, and to deal favourably with the sinner? May not an intercessor be obtained to plead in the behalf of the guilty soul? Eli determines this matter, 1 Sam. 2:25, “If one man sin against another, the judge shall judge him; but if a man sin against the LORD, who shall intreat for him?” “There is not,” saith Job, “between us מוֹ ִּכי ַח, one that might argue the case, in pleading for me, and so make up the matter, ‘laying his hand upon us both,’ ” chap. 9:33. We now consider a sinner purely under the administration of the law, which knows nothing of a mediator. In that case, who shall take upon him to intercede for the sinner? Besides that all creatures in heaven and earth are engaged in the quarrel of God against sinners, and besides the greatness and terror of his majesty, that will certainly deter all or any of them from undertaking any such work, what is the request that in this case must be put up unto God? Is it not that he would cease to be holy, leave off from being righteous, relinquish his throne, deny himself and his sovereignty, that a rebel, a traitor, his cursed enemy, may live and escape his justice? Is this request reasonable? Is he fit to intercede for sinners that make it? Would he not by so doing prove himself to be the greatest of them? The sinner cannot, then, expect any door of escape to be opened unto him; all the world is against him; and the case must be tried out nakedly between God and him. But,—
3. It may be the rule of the law whereby the sinner is to be tried is not so strict, but that, in the case of such sins as he is guilty of, it may admit of a favourable interpretation; or that the good that he hath done may be laid in the balance against his evil, and so some relief be obtained that way. But the matter is quite otherwise. There is no good action of a sinner, though it were perfectly good, that can lie in the balance with, or compensate the evil of, the least sin committed; for all good is due on another account, though no guilt were incurred. And the payment of money that a man owes, that he hath borrowed, makes no satisfaction for what he hath stole; no more will our duties compensate for our sins. Nor is there any good action of a sinner but it hath evil and guilt enough attending it to render itself unacceptable; so that men may well cease from thoughts of their supererogation. Besides, where there is any one sin, if all the good in the world might be supposed to be in the same person, yet, in the indispensable order of our dependence on God, nothing of that good could come into consideration until the guilt of that sin were answered for unto the utmost. Now, the penalty of every sin being the eternal ruin of the sinner, all his supposed good can stand him in little stead. And for the law itself, it is an issue of the holiness, righteousness, and wisdom of God; so that there is not any evil so great or small but is forbidden in it, and condemned by it. Hereupon David so states this whole matter, Ps. 143:2, “Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for in thy sight shall no man living be justified;”— that is, if things are to be tried out and determined by the law, no sinner can obtain acquitment; as Paul declares the sense of that place to be, Rom. 3:20, Gal. 2:16. But yet,—
4. It may be the sentence of the law is not so fierce and dreadful, but that, though guilt be found, there may be yet a way of escape. But the law speaks not one word on this side death to an offender. There is a greatness and an eternity of wrath in the sentence of it; and it is God himself who hath undertaken to see the vengeance of it executed. So that, on all these accounts, the conclusion mentioned must needs be fixed in the soul of a sinner that entertains thoughts of drawing nigh to God.
Though what hath been spoken may be of general use unto sinners of all sorts, whether called home to God or yet strangers to him, yet I shall not insist upon any general improvement of it, because it is intended only for one special end or purpose. That which is aimed at is, to show what are the first thoughts that arise in the heart of a poor entangled soul, when first he begins to endeavour a recovery in a returnal unto God. The law immediately puts in its claim unto him and against him;—God is represented unto him as angry, displeased, provoked; and his terror more or less besets him round about. This fills him with fear, shame, and confusion of face; so that he knows not what to do. These troubles are greater or lesser, according as God seeth it best for the poor creature’s present humiliation and future safety. What, then, doth the sinner? what are his thoughts hereupon? Doth he think to fly from God, and to give over all endeavours of recovery? Doth he say, “This God is a holy and terrible God; I cannot serve him; it is to no purpose for me to look for any thing but fury and destruction from him: and therefore I had as good give over as persist in my design of drawing nigh to him?” It cannot be denied but that in this case thoughts of this nature will be suggested by unbelief, and that sometimes great perplexities arise to the soul by them: but this is not the issue and final product of this exercise of the soul; it produceth another effect; it calls for that which is the first particular working of a gracious soul arising out of its sin-entanglements. This is, as was declared, a sincere sense of sin, and acknowledgment of it, with self-condemnation in the justification of God; this is the first thing that a soul endeavouring a recovery from its depths is brought and wrought unto. His general resolution, to make serious and thorough work with what he hath in hand, was before unfolded. That which, in the next place, we are directed unto in these words is, the reflection on itself, upon the consideration of
God’s marking iniquity, now mentioned. This is faith’s great and proper use of the law; the nature whereof shall be farther opened in the next discourse.
The first particular actings of a soul towards a recovery out of the depths of sin—Sense of sin, wherein it consists, how it is wrought—Acknowledgment of sin; its nature and properties—Self- condemnation
What is the frame of the soul in general that is excited by grace, and resolves in the strength thereof to attempt a recovery out of the depths of sin-entanglements, hath been declared. We have also showed what entertainments, in general, such a soul had need to expect, yea, ordinarily shall be sure to meet withal. It may be he goes forth at first like Samson with his locks cut, and thinks he will do as at other times; but he quickly finds his peace lost, his wounds, painful, his conscience restless, God displeased, and his whole condition, as the utmost of his own apprehension, hazardous. This fills him with the thoughts expressed in this third verse, and fixes the conclusion in his mind discoursed of before. He finds now that he hath the law afresh to deal withal. Thence ariseth that sense and acknowledgment of sin, that self-condemnation in the justification of God, whereof we now speak. He grows not sullen, stubborn, displeased, and so runs away from God; he doth not “utterly faint,” despond, and give over, he pleads not anything in his own justification or for the extenuation of his sin and guilt; he quarrelleth not with, he repineth not against, the holiness, severity, and righteousness of the law of God; but reflects wholly on himself, his own unworthiness, guilt, and desert, and in a sense of them lies down at the foot of God, in expectation of his word and sentence.
Three things in this condition we ascribe unto such a soul:—
First, A sincere sense of sin. There is a twofold sense of sin. The one is general and notional; whereby a man knows what sin is, that himself is a sinner,—that he is guilty of this or that, these or those sins; only his heart is not affected proportionably to that discovery and knowledge which he hath of these things. The other is active and efficacious. The soul being acquainted with the nature of sin, with its own guilt in reference unto sin in general, as also to this or that sin, is universally influenced by that apprehension unto suitable affections and operations.
Of both these we have an instance in the same person. David, before Nathan’s coming to him, had the former; afterwards he had the latter also. It cannot be imagined but that, before the coming of the prophet, he had a general knowledge and sense, not only absolutely of the nature of sin, but also that himself was a sinner, and guilty of those very sins which afterward he was reproved for. To think otherwise is to suppose not only that he was unsainted, but unmanned also and turned into a beast. But yet this wrought not in him any one affection suitable to his condition. And the like may be said of most sinners in the world. But now, when Nathan comes to him, and gives him the latter efficacious sense whereof we speak, we know what effects it did produce.
It is the latter only that is under consideration; and that also is twofold:—1. Legal, or antecedaneous unto conversion; 2. Evangelical, and previous to the recovery from depths, whereof we treat. How these two differ, and how they may be discerned one from the other, being both of them in their kind sincere, is not my business to declare.
Now, this last, which we assign as the first duty, work, or acting of a returning soul, is a deep and practical apprehension, wrought in the mind and heart of a believing sinner by the Holy Ghost, of sin and its evils, in reference unto the law and love of God, the cross and blood of Christ, the communion and consolation of the Spirit, and all the fruits of love, mercy, or grace that it hath been made partaker of, or on gospel ground hoped for.
1. The principal efficient cause of it is the Holy Ghost. He it is who “convinceth of sin,” John 16:8. He works indeed by means,—he wrought it in David by the ministry of Nathan, and he wrought it in Peter by the look of Christ,—but his work it is; no man can work upon his own soul. It will not spring out of men’s rational considerations. Though men may exercise their thoughts about such things, as one would think were enough to break the heart of stones, yet if the Holy Ghost put not forth a peculiar efficacy of his own, this sense of sin will not be wrought or produced. As the waters at the pool of Bethesda were not troubled but when an angel descended and moved them, no more will the heart for sin without a saving illapse of the Holy Ghost.
2. It is deep apprehension of sin and the evils of it. Slight, transient thoughts about them amount not to the sense of which we speak. “My sorrow,” saith David, “is continually before me,” Ps. 38:17. It pressed him always and greatly. Hence he compares this sense of sin wrought by the Holy Ghost to “arrows that stick in the flesh,” verse 2; they pain sorely and are always perplexing. Sin, in this sense of it, lays hold on the soul, so that the sinner cannot look up, Ps. 40:12; and it abides with him, making “his sore run in the night without ceasing,” Ps. 77:2, and depriveth the soul of rest. “My soul,” saith he, “refused to be comforted.” This apprehension of sin lies down and rises with him in whom it is. Transient thoughts, attended with infrequent sighs and ejaculations, little become a returning soul. And,—
3. It is practical. It is not seated only in the speculative part of the mind, hovering in general notions, but it dwells in the practical understanding, which effectually influenceth the will and affections,— such an apprehension as from which sorrow and humiliation are inseparable. The acts of the practical understanding do so necessarily produce together with them suitable acts of the will and affections, that some have concluded that those are indeed proper acts of the will which are usually ascribed to the understanding. It is so in the mind as that the whole soul is cast into the mould and likeness of it; humiliation, sorrow, self-abhorrency, do live and die with it.
4. (1.) It hath, in the first place, respect unto the law of God. There can be no due consideration of sin wherein the law hath not its place. The law calls for the sinner, and he willingly gives up his sin to be judged by it. There he sees it to be “exceeding sinful,” Rom. 7:13. Though a believer be less under the power of the law than others, yet he knows more of the authority and nature of it than others; he sees more of its spirituality and holiness. And the more a man sees of the excellency of the law, the more he sees of the vileness of sin. This is done by a soul in its first endeavour of a recovery from the entanglements of sin. He labours thoroughly to know his disease, that he may be cured. It will do him no good, he knows, to be ignorant of his distemper or his danger. He knows that if his wounds be not searched to the bottom, they will stink and be corrupt. To the law, then, he brings himself and his sin. By that he sees the vileness of the one and the danger of the other. Most men lie still in their depths, because they would willingly escape the first step of their rising. From the bottom of their misery, they would fain at once be at the top of their felicity. The soul managed in this work by the Holy Ghost doth not so. He converseth with the law, brings his sin unto it, and fully hears the sentence of it. When the sin is thoroughly condemned, then he farther takes care of the sinner. As ever you desire to come to rest, avoid not this entrance of your passion unto it. Weigh it well, and attend unto what the law speaks of your sin and its desert, or you will never make a due application to God for forgiveness. As ever you would have your souls justified by grace, take care to have your sins judged by the law.
(2.) There is a respect in it to the love of God; and this breaks the heart of the poor returning sinner. Sorrow from the law shuts itself up in the soul, and strangleth it. Sorrow from the thoughts of the love of God opens it, and causeth it to flow forth. Thoughts of sinning against the love of God, managed by the Holy Ghost;—what shall I say? their effects in the heart are not to be expressed. This made Ezra cry out, “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee,” chap. 9:6; and verse 10, “What shall we say after this?” After what? Why, all the fruits of love and kindness they had been made partakers of. Thoughts of love and sin laid together make the soul blush, mourn, be ashamed, and confounded in itself. So Ezek. 36:31, “Then shall ye remember your own evil ways, and your doings that were not good.” When shall they do so? When thoughts and apprehensions of love shall be brought home to them; and, saith he, “Then shall ye lothe yourselves in your own sight.” The soul now calls to mind what love, what kindness, and what mercy, what grace, what patience hath been exercised towards it, and whereof it hath been made partaker. The thoughts of all these now come in upon him as streams of water. Such mercy, such communion, such privileges, such hopes of glory, such tastes of heaven, such peace, such consolation, such joy, such communications of the Spirit,—all to a poor, wretched, cursed, lost, forlorn sinner; and all this despised, neglected! the God of them all provoked, forsaken! “Ah,” saith the soul, “whither shall I cause my sorrow to go?” This fills him with shame and confusion of face, makes him mourn in secret, and sigh to the breaking of the loins. And then,—
(3.) The blood and cross of Christ is also brought to remembrance by the Holy Ghost. “Ah,” saith the soul, “have I thus requited the wonderful, astonishing love of my Redeemer? Is this the return, the requital, I have made unto him? Are not heaven and earth astonished at the despising of that love, at which they are astonished?” This brake Peter’s heart upon the look of Christ. Such words as these from Christ will, in this condition, sound in the ears of the soul: “Did I love thee, and leave my glory to become a scorn and reproach for thy sake? Did I think my life, and all that was dear unto me, too good for thee, to save thee from the wrath to come? Have I been a wilderness unto thee, or a land of darkness? What could I have done more for thee? When I had nothing left but my life, blood, and soul, they went all for thee, that thou mightst live by my death, be washed in my blood, and be saved through my soul’s being made an offering for thee! And hast thou thus requited my love, to prefer a lust before me, or by mere sloth and folly to be turned away from me? Go, unkind and unthankful soul, and see if thou canst find another Redeemer.” This overwhelms the soul, and even drowns it in tears of sorrow. And then the bitterness also of the sufferings of Christ are brought to mind: “They look on him whom they have pierced, and mourn,” Zech. 12:10. They remember his gall and wormwood, his cry and tears, his agony and sweat, his desertion and anguish, his blood and death, the sharpness of the sword that was in his soul, and the bitterness of the cup that was put into his hand. Such a soul now looks on Christ, bleeding, dying, wrestling with wrath and curse for him, and seeth his sin in the streams of blood that issued from his side. And all this increaseth that sense of sin whereof we speak. Also,—
(4.) It relates to the communion and consolations of the Holy Ghost, with all the privileges and fruits of love we are by him made partakers of. The Spirit is given to believers, upon the promise of Christ, to dwell in them. He takes up their hearts to be his dwelling-place. To what ends and purposes? That he may purify and sanctify them, make them holy, and dedicate them to God; to furnish them with grace and gifts; to interest them in privileges; to guide, lead, direct, comfort them; to seal them unto the day of redemption. Now, this Spirit is grieved by sin, Eph. 4:30, and his dwelling-place defiled thereby, 1 Cor. 6:19, 3:17. Thoughts hereof greatly sharpen the spiritual sense of sin in a recovering soul. He considers what light, what love, what joy, what consolation, what privileges, it hath by him been made partaker of; what motions, warnings, workings to keep it from sin, it hath found from him; and says within itself, “What have I done? whom have I grieved, whom have I provoked? What if the Lord should now, for my folly and ingratitude, utterly take his Holy Spirit from me? What if I should have so grieved him that he will dwell in me no more, delight in me no more? What dismal darkness and disconsolation, yea, what utter ruin should I be left unto! However, what shame and confusion of face belongs to me for my wretched disingenuity and ingratitude towards him!”
This is the first thing that appears in the returning soul’s actings and frame,—a sincere sense of sin on the account mentioned, wrought in it by the Holy Ghost. And this a soul in the depths described must come unto, if ever it expects or looks for deliverance and a recovery. Let not such persons expect to have a renewed sense of mercy without a revived sense of sin.