In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt perform the truth to Jacob, and the mercy to Abraham, which thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old.
~ Zechariah 13:1, Jeremiah 31:34, Micah 7:18-20
And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.
~ Hebrews 9:22, Hebrews 10:10-14
This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin.
~ Hebrews 10:16-18
The Forgiveness of Sin, A Practical Exposition Upon Psalm 130, by John Owen. This is an excerpt from his work.
Search the Scriptures.
~ John 5:39
Discovery of forgiveness in God a great supportment to sin-entangled souls—Particular assurance attainable.
(2.) The revelation and discovery of forgiveness that is made in the gospel evidenceth the same truth. The first proposal of it or concerning it is not to any man that his sins are forgiven. No; but it is only that there is redemption and forgiveness of sins in Christ. So the apostle lays it down, Acts 13:38, 39, “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” All this may be believed without a man’s assurance of his own personal interest in the things mentioned. Now, where they are believed with the faith the gospel requires, that faith is saving, and the root of gospel, acceptable obedience. The ransom, I say, the atonement by Christ, the fulness of the redemption that is in him, and so forgiveness in his blood for believers, from the good will, grace, and love of the Father, is the first gospel discovery that a sinner in a saving manner closeth withal. Particular assurance ariseth or may arise afterward; and this also is supposed in the assertion.
Secondly, That which is affirmed in it is, that a discovery of forgiveness in God, without any particular assurance of personal interest therein, is a great supportment to a sin-entangled soul. And let no man despise the day of this small thing; small in the eyes of some, and those good men also, as if it did not deserve the name of faith. Now, as hath been made to appear, this discovery of forgiveness is the soul’s persuasion, on gospel grounds, that however it be with him, and whatever his state and condition be, or is like to be, yet that God in his own nature is infinitely gracious, and that he hath determined, in a sovereign act of his will from eternity, to be gracious to sinners, and that he hath made way for the administration of forgiveness by the blood of his Son, according as he hath abundantly manifested and declared in the promises of the gospel. “However it be with me, yet thus it is with God; there is forgiveness with him.” This is the first thing that a soul in its depths riseth up unto; and it is a supportment for it, enabling it unto all present duties until consolation come from above.
Thus hath it been to and with the saints of old: Hos. 14:3, “Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses: neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods: for in thee the fatherless findeth mercy.” A solemn renunciation we have of all other helps, reliefs, or assistances, civil or religious, that are not God’s; thereon a solemn resolution, in their great distress, of cleaving unto God alone;—both which are great and blessed effects of faith. What is the bottom and foundation of this blessed resolution?—namely, that proposition, “In thee the fatherless findeth mercy;” that is, “There is forgiveness with thee for helpless sinners.” This lifted up their hearts in their depths, and supported them in waiting unto the receiving of the blessed promises of mercy, pardon, grace, and holiness, which ensue in the next verses. Until they came home unto them in their efficacy and effects, they made a life on this, “In thee the fatherless findeth mercy.”
The state and condition of things seem to lie yet lower in that proposal we have, Joel 2:13, 14, “Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing?” That which is proposed to the faith of those here spoken unto is, that the Lord is gracious and merciful,—that there is forgiveness in him. The duty they are provoked unto hereupon is gospel repentance. The assent unto the proposition demanded, as to their own interest, amounts but unto this, “Who knows but that the LORD may return, and leave a blessing?” or, “deal with us according to the manifestation he hath made of himself, that he is merciful and gracious.” This is far enough from any comfortable persuasion of a particular interest in that grace, mercy, or pardon. But yet, saith the prophet, “Come but thus far, and here is a firm foundation of dealing with God about farther discoveries of himself in a way of grace and mercy.” When a soul sees but so much in God as to conclude, “Well, who knoweth but that he may return, and have mercy upon me also?” it will support him, and give him an entrance into farther light.
The church in the Lamentations gives a sad account of her state and condition in this matter; for she maketh that hard conclusion against herself, chap. 3:18, “My strength and my hope is perished from the LORD…. Also when I cry and shout, he shutteth out my prayer,” verse 8. So far is she from a comfortable persuasion of a particular interest in mercy and acceptance, that, under her pressures and in her temptations, she is ready positively to determine on the other side, namely, that she is rejected and cast off for ever. What course, then, shall she take? Shall she give over waiting on God, and say, “There is no hope?” “No,” saith she, “I will not take that way; for (verse 26) ‘It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of God.’ ” But yet there seems small encouragement for her so to do if things be with her as was expressed. “Things, indeed,” saith she, “are very sad with me. ‘My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is bowed down in me,’ verse 20; but yet somewhat ‘I recall to mind, and therefore have I hope,’ verse 21,—’It is of the LORD’S mercy that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.’ [verse 22.] There is mercy and never-failing compassion in God, so that though my own present condition be full of darkness, and I see no deliverance, yet I purpose still to abide waiting on him. Who knows what those infinite stores and treasures of mercy and relief that are with him may at length afford unto me?” And many instances of the like kind may be added.
We may observe, by the way, how far this relief extends itself, and what it enables the soul unto; as,—
1. The soul is enabled thereby to resign itself unto the disposal of sovereign grace in self-abhorrency, and a renunciation of all other ways of relief: Lam. 3:29, “He putteth his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope.” “What God will,” is his language. Here he lies at his disposal, humble, broken, but abiding his pleasure. “Though he slay me,” saith Job, “yet will I trust in him,” chap. 13:15;—”It is all one how he deals with me; whatever be the event, I will abide cleaving unto him. I will not think of any other way of extricating myself from my distress. I will neither fly like Jonah, nor hide like Adam, nor take any other course for deliverance.” Saith the soul, ” ‘God is a God that hideth himself’ from me, Isa. 45:15; ‘I walk in darkness and have no light,’ chap. 50:10. ‘My flesh faileth and my heart faileth,’ Ps. 73:26; so that I am overwhelmed with trouble. ‘Mine iniquities have taken such hold on me that I cannot look up,’ Ps. 40:12. ‘The LORD hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me.’ [Isa. 49:14.] Every day am I in dread and terror, and I am ready utterly to faint, and no relief can I obtain. What, then, shall I do? Shall I ‘curse God and die?’ or cry, ‘This evil is of the LORD; why should I wait for him any longer?’ Shall I take the course of the world, and, seeing it will be no better, be wholly regardless of my latter end? No; I know, whatever my lot and portion be, that there is forgiveness with God. This and that poor man trusted in him; they cried unto him, and were delivered. So did David in his greatest distress; he encouraged his heart in the Lord his God, 2 Sam. 15:25, 26. It is good for me to cast myself into his arms. It may be he will frown; it may be he is wroth still: but all is one, this way I will go. As it seems good unto him to deal with me, so let it be.” And unspeakable are the advantages which a soul obtains by this self-resignation, which the faith treated of will infallibly produce.
2. It extends itself unto a resolution of waiting in the condition wherein the soul is. This the church comes unto, Lam. 3:26, “It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD;”—”I will not give over my expectation, I will not make haste nor limit God; but I will lie at his feet until his own appointed time of mercy shall come.” Expectation and quietness make up waiting. These the soul attains unto with this supportment. It looks upwards, “as a servant that looks to the hands of his master,” still fixed on God, to see what he will do, to hear what he will speak concerning him; missing no season, no opportunity wherein any discovery of the will of God may be made to him. And this he doth in quietness, without repining or murmuring, turning all his complaints against himself and his own vileness, that hath cut him short from a participation of that fulness of love and grace which is with God. That this effect also attends this faith will fully appear in the close of the psalm.
3. It supports unto waiting in the use of all means for the attainment of a sense of forgiveness, and so hath its effect in the whole course of our obedience. “There is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” To fear the Lord, is an expression comprehensive of his whole worship and all our duty. “This I am encouraged unto, in my depths,” saith the psalmist, “because there is forgiveness with thee. I will abide in all duties, in all the ways of thy worship, wherein thou mayst be found.” And however it be for a while, the latter end of that soul, who thus abideth with God, will be peace.
Let us, then, nextly see by what ways and means it yields this supportment:—
1. It begets a liking of God in the soul, and consequently some love unto him. The soul apprehends God as one infinitely to be de sired and delighted in by those who have a share in forgiveness. It cannot but consider him as good and gracious, however its own estate be hazardous. Ps. 73:1, 2, “Yet God is good to Israel, to such as are of a clean heart. As for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well-nigh slipped;”—”However the state stands with me, yet I know that God is good, good to Israel; and therewith shall I support myself.” When once this ground is got upon the soul, that it considers God in Christ as one to be delighted in and loved, great and blessed effects will ensue:—(1.) Self-abhorrency and condemnation, with resignation of all to God, and permanency therein, do certainly attend it. (2.) Still, somewhat or other in God will be brought to mind to relieve it under faintings, some new springs of hope will be every day opened. (3.) And the soul will be insensibly wrought upon to delight itself in dealing with God. Though, in its own particular, it meets with frownings, chidings, and repulses, yet this still relieves him, that God is so as hath been declared; so that he says, “However it be, yet God is good; and it is good for me to wait upon him.” Without this discovery the soul likes not God, and whatever it doth with respect unto him, it is because it dares do no otherwise, being overawed with his terror and greatness; and such obedience God may have from devils.
2. It removes sundry overwhelming difficulties that lie in the soul’s way before it close with this discovery of forgiveness; as,—
(1.) It takes away all those hinderances that were formerly insisted on from the greatness, holiness, and severity of God, the inexorableness and strictness of the law, and the natural actings of conscience rising up against all hopes of forgiveness. All these are by this faith removed, and taken out of the way. Where this faith is, it discovers not only forgiveness, as hath been showed, but also the true nature of gospel forgiveness; it reveals it as flowing from the gracious heart of the Father, through the blood of the Son. Now, this propitiation in the blood of the Son removeth all these difficulties, even antecedently unto our special sense of an interest therein. It shows how all the properties of God may be exalted and the law fulfilled, and yet forgiveness given out to sinners. And herein lies no small advantage unto a soul in its approaches unto God. All those dreadful apprehensions of God, which were wont to beset him in the first thoughts of coming to him, are now taken out of the way, so that he can quietly apply himself unto his own particular concernments before him.
(2.) In particular, it removes the overwhelming consideration of the unspeakable greatness of sin. This presseth the soul to death, when once the heart is possessed with it. Were not their sins so great, such as no heart can imagine or tongue declare, it might possibly be well with them, say distressed sinners. They are not so troubled that they are sinners, as that they are great sinners; not that these and those sins they are guilty of, but that they are great sins, attended with fearful aggravations. Otherwise they could deal well enough with them. Now, though this discovery free men not from the entanglement of their sins as theirs, yet it doth from the whole entanglement of their sins as great and many. This consideration may be abstracted. The soul sees enough in God to forgive great sins, though it doth not as yet to forgive his sins. That great sins shall be pardoned, this discovery puts out of question. Whether his sins shall be pardoned is now all the inquiry. Whatever any faith can do, that this faith will do, unless it be the making of particular application of the things believed unto itself. The soul, then, can no longer justly be troubled about the greatness of sin; the infiniteness of forgiveness that he sees in God will relieve him against it. All that remains is, that it is his own sin about which he hath to deal; whereof afterwards. These and the like difficulties are removed by it.
3. It gives some life in and encouragement unto duty. And that, first, unto duty as duty. Eyeing God by faith, in such a fulness of grace, the soul cannot but be encouraged to meet him in every way of duty, and to lay hold upon him thereby;—every way leading to him, as leading to him, must be well liked and approved of. And, secondly, to all duties. And herein lies no small advantage. God is oftentimes found in duties, but in what, or of what kind, he will be found of any one in particular, is uncertain. This faith puts the soul on all: so it did the spouse in the parallel to that in hand, Cant. 3:2–4. Now, what supportment may be hence obtained is easily apprehended,—supportment not from them or by them, but in them, as the means of intercourse between God and the soul.
From these effects of this discovery of forgiveness in God three things will ensue, which are sufficient to maintain the spiritual life of the soul:—
(1.) A resolution to abide with God, and to commit all unto him. This the word, as was observed, teaches us: “There is forgiveness with thee, and therefore thou shalt be feared;”—”Because this I found, this I am persuaded of, therefore I will abide with him in the way of his fear and worship.” This our Saviour calls unto, John 15:4, ” ‘Abide in me;’ except ye do so ye can bear no fruit.” So the Lord, representing his taking of the church unto himself under the type of the prophet’s taking an adulteress in vision, doth it on these terms: Hos. 3:3, “Thou shalt abide for me many days; thou shalt not play the harlot, and thou shalt not be for another man: so will I also be for thee.” Now, this abiding with God intimates two things:—[1.] Oppositions, solicitations, and temptations unto the contrary. [2.] Forbearing to make any other choice, as unto that end for which we abide with God.
[1.] It argues oppositions. To abide, to be stable and permanent, is to be so against oppositions. Many discouragements are ready to rise up in the soul against it: in fears especially that it shall not hold out, that it shall be rejected at last, that all is naught and hypocritical with it, that it shall not be forgiven, that God indeed regards it not, and therefore it may well enough give over its hopes, which seems often as the giving up of the ghost; [these] will assault it. Again, oppositions arise from corruptions and temptations unto sin, contrary to the life of faith; and these often proceed to a high degree of prevalency, so that the guilt contracted upon them is ready to cast the soul quite out of all expectation of mercy. “I shall one day perish by these means,” saith the soul, “if I am not already lost.”
But now, where faith hath made this discovery of forgiveness, the soul will abide with God against all these discouragements and oppositions. It will not leave him, it will not give over waiting for him. So David expresseth the matter in the instance of himself: Ps. 73:2, “But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well-nigh slipped:” and, verse 13, “Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain.” But yet, after all his conflicts, this at last he comes unto, verse 26, “Though ‘my flesh and my heart faileth,’ yet (verse 28) ‘It is good for me to draw near unto God;’—I will yet abide with God; I will not let go his fear nor my profession. Although I walk weakly, lamely, unevenly, yet I will still follow after him.” As it was with the disciples, when many, upon a strong temptation, went back from Christ, and walked no more with him, “Jesus said unto them, Will ye also go away?” to which Peter replies, in the name of the rest of them, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life,” John 6:66–68;—”It is thus and thus with me,” saith the soul; “I am tossed and afflicted, and not comforted; little life, little strength, real guilt, many sins, and much disconsolation.” “What then?” saith God by his word; “wilt thou also go away?” “No,” saith the soul; “there is forgiveness with thee; thou hast the words of eternal life, and therefore I will abide with thee.”
[2.] This abiding with God argues a forbearance of any other choice. Whilst the soul is in this condition, having not attained any evidences of its own special interest in forgiveness, many lovers will be soliciting of it to play the harlot by taking them into its embraces. Both self-righteousness and sin will be very importunate in this matter. The former tenders itself as exceeding useful to give the soul some help, assistance, and supportment in its condition. “Samuel doth not come,” saith Saul, “and the Philistines invade me; I will venture and offer sacrifice myself, contrary to the law.” The promise doth not come to the soul for its particular relief; it hath no evidence as to an especial interest in forgiveness. Temptation invades the mind: “Try thyself,” says it, “to take relief in somewhat of thine own providing.” And this is to play the harlot from God. To this purpose self-righteousness variously disguises itself, like the wife of Jeroboam when she went to the prophet. Sometimes it appears as duty, sometimes as signs and tokens; but its end is to get somewhat of the faith and trust of the soul to be fixed upon it. But when the soul hath indeed a discovery of forgiveness, it will not give ear to these solicitations. “No,” saith it; “I see such a beauty, such an excellency, such a desirableness and suitableness unto my wants and condition, in that forgiveness that is with God, that I am resolved to abide in the gospel desire and expectation of it all the days of my life; here my choice is fixed, and I will not alter.” And this resolution gives glory to the grace of God. When the soul, without an evidence of an interest in it, yet prefers it above that which, with many reasonings and pretences, offers itself as a present relief unto it, hereby is God glorified, and Christ exalted, and the spiritual life of the soul secured.
(2.) This discovery of forgiveness in God, with the effects of it before mentioned, will produce a resolution of waiting on God for peace and consolation in his own time and way. “He that believeth shall not make haste,” Isa. 28:16. Not make haste, to what? Not to the enjoyment of the thing believed. Haste argues precipitation and impatience; this the soul that hath this discovery is freed from, resolving to wait the time of God’s appointment for peace and consolation. God, speaking of his accomplishment of his promises, says, “I the LORD will hasten it,” Isa. 60:22. Well, then, if God will hasten it, may not we hasten to it? “Nay,” saith he, “I will hasten it, but in its time.” All oppositions and impediments considered, it shall be hastened, but in its time, its due time, its appointed time. And this the soul is to wait for; and so it will. As when Jacob had seen the beauty of Rachel, and loved her, he was contented to wait seven years for the enjoyment of her to be his wife, and thought no time long, no toil too hard, that he might obtain her; so the soul having discovered the beauty and excellency of forgiveness as it is with God, as it is in his gracious heart, in his eternal purpose, in the blood of Christ, in the promise of the gospel, is resolved to wait quietly and patiently for the time wherein God will clear up unto it its own personal interest therein. Even one experimental embracement of it, even at the hour of death, doth well deserve the waiting and obedience of the whole course of a man’s life.
And this the psalmist manifests to have been the effect produced in his heart and spirit; for upon this discovery of forgiveness in God, he resolved both to wait upon him himself, and encourageth others so to do.
(3.) This prepares the soul for the receiving of that consolation and deliverance out of its pressures, by an evidence of a special interest in forgiveness, which it waiteth for:—
[1.] For this makes men to hearken after it. It makes the soul like the merchant who hath great riches, all his wealth, in a far country, which he is endeavouring to bring home safe unto him. If they come, he is well provided for; if they miscarry, he is lost and undone. This makes him hearken after tidings that they are safe there; and, as Solomon says, “Good news,” in this case, “from a far country, is as cold waters to a thirsty soul,” Prov. 25:25,—full of refreshment. Though he cannot look upon them as his own yet absolutely, because he hath them not in possession, he is glad they are safe there. So is it with the soul. These riches that it so values are as to its apprehensions in a far country. So is the promise, that “he shall behold the land that is very far off,” Isa. 33:17. He is glad to hear news that they are safe, to hear forgiveness preached, and the promises insisted on, though he cannot as yet look upon them as his own. The merchant rests not here, but he hearkeneth with much solicitousness after the things that should bring home his riches, especially if they have in them his all. Hence such ships are called ships of desire, Job 9:26. Such a man greatly desires the speeding of them to their port. He considers the wind and the weather, all the occasions, and inconveniences, and dangers of the way; and blame him not,—his all is at stake. The soul doth so in like manner: it hearkeneth after all the ways and means whereby this forgiveness may be particularly brought home unto it; is afraid of sin and of temptation, glad to find a fresh gale of the Spirit of grace, hoping that it may bring in his return from the land of promise. This prepares the heart for a spiritual sense of it when it is revealed.
[2.] It so prepares the soul, by giving it a due valuation of the grace and mercy desired. The merchantman in the gospel was not prepared to enjoy the pearl himself, until it was discovered to him to be of great price; then he knew how to purchase it, procure it, and keep it. The soul having, by this acting of faith, upon the discovery of forgiveness insisted on, come to find that the pearl hid in the field is indeed precious, is both stirred up to seek after possession of it, and to give it its due. Saith such a soul, “How excellent, how precious is this forgiveness that is with God! Blessed, yea, ever blessed, are they who are made partakers of it! What a life of joy, rest, peace, and consolation do they lead! Had I but their evidence of an interest in it, and the spiritual consolation that ensues thereon, how would I despise the world and all the temptations of Satan, and rejoice in the Lord in every condition!” And this apprehension of grace also exceedingly prepares and fits the soul for a receiving of a blessed sense of it, so as that God may have glory thereby.
[3.] It fits the soul, by giving a right understanding of it, of its nature, its causes, and effects. At the first the soul goes no farther but to look after impunity, or freedom from punishment, any way. “What shall I do to be saved?” is the utmost it aims at. “Who shall deliver me? how shall I escape?” And it would be contented to escape any way,—by the law, or the gospel, all is one, so it may escape. But upon this discovery of forgiveness treated of, which is made by faith of adherence unto God, a man plainly sees the nature of it, and that it is so excellent that it is to be desired for its own sake. Indeed, when a soul is brought under trouble for sin, it knows not well what it would have. It hath an uneasiness or disquietment that it would be freed from,—a dread of some evil condition that it would avoid. But now the soul can tell what it desires, what it aims at, as well as what it would be freed from. It would have an interest in eternal love; have the gracious kindness of the heart of God turned towards itself,—a sense of the everlasting purpose of his will shed abroad in his heart; have an especial interest in the precious blood of the Son of God, whereby atonement is made for him; and that all these things be testified unto his conscience in a word of promise mixed with faith. These things he came for; this way alone he would be saved, and no other. It sees such a glory of wisdom, love, and grace in forgiveness, such an exaltation of the love of Christ in all his offices, in all his undertaking, especially in his death, sacrifice, and blood-shedding, whereby he procured or made reconciliation for us, that it exceedingly longs after the participation of them.
All these things, in their several degrees, will this discovery of forgiveness in God, without an evidence of an especial interest therein, produce. And these will assuredly maintain the spiritual life of the soul, and keep it up unto such an obedience as shall be accepted of God in Christ. Darkness, sorrow, storms, they in whom it is may meet withal; but their eternal condition is secured in the covenant of God,—their souls are bound up in the bundle of life.
From what hath been spoken, we may make some inferences in our passage concerning the true notion of believing; for,—
1. These effects ascribed to this faith of forgiveness in God, and always produced by it, make it evident that the most of them who pretend unto it, who pretend to believe that there is forgiveness with God, do indeed believe no such thing. Although I shall, on set purpose, afterward evince this, yet I cannot here utterly pass it by. I shall, then, only demand of them who are so forward in the profession of this faith that they think it almost impossible that any one should not believe it, what effects it hath produced in them, and whether they have been by it enabled to the performance of the duties before mentioned? I fear with many, things on the account of their pretended faith are quite otherwise. They love sin the more for it, and God never the better. Supposing that a few barren words will issue the controversy about their sins, they become insensibly to have slight thoughts of sin and of God also. This persuasion is not of him that calls us. Poor souls, your faith is the devil’s greatest engine for your ruin,—the highest contempt of God, and Christ, and forgiveness also, that you can be guilty of,—a means to let you down quietly into hell,—the Pharisees’ Moses, trusted in, and [yet] will condemn you. As none is saved but by faith, so you, if it were not for your faith (as you call it), might possibly be saved. If a man’s gold prove counterfeit, his jewels painted glass, his silver lead or dross, he will not only be found poor when he comes to be tried, and want the benefit of riches, but have withal a fearful aggravation of his poverty by his disappointment and surprisal. If a man’s faith, which should be more precious than gold, be found rotten and corrupt, if his light be darkness, how vile is that faith, how great is that darkness! Such, it is evident, will the faith of too many be found in this business.
2. The work we are carrying on is the raising of a sin-entangled soul out of its depths; and this we have spoken unto is that which must give him his first relief. Commonly, when souls are in distress, that which they look after is consolation. What is it that they intend thereby? That they may have assurance that their sins are forgiven them, and so be freed from their present perplexities. What is the issue? Some of them continue complaining all their days, and never come to rest or peace, so far do they fall short of consolation and joy; and some are utterly discouraged from attempting any progress in the ways of God. What is the reason hereof? Is it not that they would fain be finishing their building, when they have not laid the foundation? They have not yet made thorough work in believing forgiveness with God, and they would immediately be at assurance in themselves. Now, God delights not in such a frame of spirit; for,—
(1.) It is selfish. The great design of faith is to “give glory to God,” Rom. 4:20. The end of God’s giving out forgiveness is the “praise of his glorious grace,” Eph. 1:6. But let a soul in this frame have peace in itself, it is very little solicitous about giving glory unto God. He cries like Rachel, “Give me children, or I die;”—”Give me peace, or I perish.” That God may be honoured, and the forgiveness he seeks after be rendered glorious, it is cared for in the second place, if at all. This selfish earnestness, at first to be thrusting our hand in the side of Christ, is that which he will pardon in many, but accepts in none.
(2.) It is impatient. Men do thus deport themselves because they will not wait. They do not care for standing afar off for any season with the publican. They love not to submit their souls to lie at the foot of God, to give him the glory of his goodness, mercy, wisdom, and love, in the disposal of them and their concernments. This waiting compriseth the universal subjection of the soul unto God, with a resolved judgment that it is meet and right that we, and all we desire and aim at, should be at his sovereign disposal. This gives glory to God,—a duty which the impatience of these poor souls will not admit them to the performance of. And both these arise,—
(3.) From weakness. It is weak. It is weakness in any condition, that makes men restless and weary. The state of adherence is as safe a condition as the state of assurance; only, it hath more combats and wrestling attending it. It is not, then, fear of the event, but weakness and weariness of the combat, that makes men anxiously solicitous about a deliverance from that state before they are well entered into it.
Let, then, the sin-entangled soul remember always this way, method, and order of the gospel, that we have under consideration. First, exercise faith on forgiveness in God; and when the soul is fixed therein, it will have a ground and foundation whereon it may stand securely in making application of it unto itself. Drive this principle, in the first place, unto a stable issue upon gospel evidences, answer the objections that lie against it, and then you may proceed. In believing, the soul makes a conquest upon Satan’s territories. Do, then, as they do who are entering on an enemy’s country,—secure the passages, fortify the strongholds as you go on, that you be not cut off in your progress. Be not as a ship at sea, which passeth on, and is no more possessed or master of the water it hath gone through than of that whereunto it is not yet arrived. But so it is with a soul that fixeth not on these foundation principles: he presseth forwards, and the ground crumbles away under his feet, and so he wilders away all his days in uncertainties. Would men but lay this principle well in their souls, and secure it against assaults, they might proceed, though not with so much speed as some do, yet with more safety. Some pretend at once to fall into full assurance; I wish it prove not a broad presumption in the most. It is to no purpose for him to strive to fly who cannot yet go,—to labour to come to assurance in himself who never well believed forgiveness in God.
Thirdly. Now, that we may be enabled to fix this persuasion against all opposition, that which in the next place I shall do is, to give out such unquestionable evidences of this gospel truth as the soul may safely build and rest upon; and these contain the confirmation of the principal proposition before laid down.
Evidences of forgiveness in God—No inbred notions of any free acts of God’s will—Forgiveness not revealed by the works of nature nor the law.
First, the things that are spoken or to be known of God are of two sorts:—
1. Natural and necessary; such as are his essential properties, or the attributes of his nature, his goodness, holiness, righteousness, omnipotency, eternity, and the like. These are called, Τὸ γνωσὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ, Rom. 1:19,—”That which may be known of God.” And there are two ways, as the apostle there declares, whereby that which he there intimates of God may be known,—(1.) By the inbred light of nature: Φανερόν ἐστιν ἐν αὐτοῖς, verse 19,—”It is manifest in themselves,” in their own hearts; they are taught it by the common conceptions and presumptions which they have of God by the light of nature. From hence do all mankind know concerning God that he is, that he is eternal, infinitely powerful, good, righteous, holy, omnipotent. There needs no special revelation of these things, that men may know them. That, indeed, they may be known savingly, there is; and, therefore, they that know these things by nature do also believe them on revelation: Heb. 11:6, “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder.” Though men know God by the light of nature, yet they cannot come to God by that knowledge. (2.) These essential properties of the nature of God are revealed by his works. So the apostle in the same place, Rom. 1:20, “The invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.” See also Ps. 19:1–3. And this is the first sort of things that may be known of God.
2. There are the free acts of his will and power, or his free, eternal purposes, with the temporal dispensations that flow from them. Now, of this sort is the forgiveness that we are inquiring after. It is not a property of the nature of God, but an act of his will and a work of his grace. Although it hath its rise and spring in the infinite goodness of his nature, yet it proceeds from him, and is not exercised but by an absolute, free, and sovereign act of his will. Now, there is nothing of God or with him of this sort that can be any ways known but only by especial revelation; for,—
(1.) There is no inbred notion of the acts of God’s will in the heart of man; which is the first way whereby we come to the knowledge of any thing of God. Forgiveness is not revealed by the light of nature. Flesh and blood, which nature is, declares it not; by that means “no man hath seen God at any time,” John 1:18,—that is, as a God of mercy and pardon, as the Son reveals him. Adam had an intimate acquaintance, according to the limited capacity of a creature, with the properties and excellencies of the nature of God. It was implanted in his heart, as indispensably necessary unto that natural worship which, by the law of his creation, he was to perform. But when he had sinned, it is evident that he had not the least apprehension that there was forgiveness with God. Such a thought would have laid a foundation of some farther treaty with God about his condition. But he had no other design but of flying and hiding himself, Gen. 3:10; so declaring that he was utterly ignorant of any such thing as pardoning mercy. Such, and no other, are all the first or purely natural conceptions of sinners,—namely, that it is ὸοκαίωμα τοῦ Θεοῦ, “the judgment of God,” Rom. 1:32, that sin is to be punished with death. It is true, these conceptions in many are stifled by rumours, reports, traditions, that it may be otherwise; but all these are far enough from that revelation of forgiveness which we are inquiring after.
(2.) The consideration of the works of God’s creation will not help a man to this knowledge, that there is forgiveness with God. The apostle tells us, Rom. 1:20, what it is of God that his works reveal, “even his eternal power and Godhead,” or the essential properties of his nature, but no more; not any of the purposes of his grace, not any of the free acts of his will, not pardon and forgiveness. Besides, God made all things in such an estate and condition,—namely, of rectitude, integrity, and uprightness, Eccles. 7:29,—that it was impossible they should have any respect unto sin, which is the corruption of all, or to the pardon of it, which is their restitution, whereof they stood in no need. There being no such thing in the world as a sin, nor any such thing supposed to be, when all things were made of nothing, how could any thing declare or reveal the forgiveness of it?
(3.) No works of God’s providence can make this discovery. God hath, indeed, borne testimony to himself and his goodness in all ages, from the foundation of the world, in the works of his providence:
— so Acts 14:15–17, “We preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein: who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” Οὐκ ἀμάρτυρον ἑαυτὸν ἀφῆκε,—”He left not himself without witness;” that is, by the works of his providence, there recounted, he thus far bare testimony to himself, that he is, and is good, and doth good, and ruleth the world; so that they were utterly inexcusable, who, taking no notice of these works of his, nor the fruits of his goodness, which they lived upon, turned away after τὰ μάταια, “vain things,” as the apostle there calls the idols of the Gentiles. But yet these things did not discover pardon and forgiveness; for still God suffered them to go on in their own ways, and winked at their ignorance. So again, Acts 17:23–27, “Whom ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (where, by the way, there is an allusion to that of Gen. 11:8, “The LORD scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth”), “and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us.” By arguments taken from the works of God, both of creation and providence, the apostle proves the being and the properties of God; yea, he lets them know with whom he had to do, that God designed by his works so far to reveal himself unto them as the true and living God, the maker and governor of all things, as that they ought to have inquired more diligently after him, and not to look on him alone as the “unknown God” who alone might be known, all their idols being vain and nothing. But of the discovery of pardon and forgiveness in God by these ways and means he speaks not; yea, he plainly shows that this was not done thereby: for the great call to saving repentance is by the revelation of forgiveness. But now, by these works of his providence, God called not the Gentiles to saving repentance. No; saith he, “He suffered them to walk still in their own ways,” Acts 14:16, “and winked at the times of their ignorance; but now,”—that is, by the word of the gospel,—”commandeth them to repent,” chap. 17:30.
Secondly, Whereas there had been one signal act of God’s providence about sin, when man first fell into the snares of it, it was so far from the revealing forgiveness in God, that it rather severely intimated the contrary. This was God’s dealing with sinning angels. The angels were the first sinners, and God dealt first with them about sin. And what was his dealing with them the Holy Ghost tell us, 2 Pet. 2:4, Ἀγγέλων ἁμαρτησάντων οὐκ ἐφείσατο·—”He spared not the sinning angels.” “He spared them not;” it is the same word which he useth where he speaks of laying all our iniquities on Christ, he undergoing the punishment due unto them: Rom. 8:32, Οὐκ ἐφείσατο,—”He spared him not;” that is, he laid on him the full punishment that by the curse and sanction of the law was due unto sin. So he dealt with the angels that sinned: “He spared them not,” but inflicted on them the punishment due unto sin, shutting them up under chains of darkness for the judgment of the great day. Hitherto, then, God keeps all thoughts of forgiveness in his own eternal bosom; there is not so much as the least dawning of it upon the world. And this was at first no small prejudice against any thoughts of forgiveness. The world is made; sin enters by the most glorious part of the creation, whose recovery by pardon might seem to be more desirable, but not the least appearance of it is discovered. Thus it was “from the beginning of the world hid in God,” Eph. 3:9.
Thirdly, God gave unto man a law of obedience immediately upon his creation; yea, for the main of it, he implanted it in him by and in his creation. This law it was supposed that man might transgress. The very nature of a law prescribed unto free agents, attended with threatenings and promises of reward, requires that supposition. Now, there was not annexed unto this law, or revealed with it, the least intimation of pardon to be obtained if transgression should ensue. Gen. 2:17, we have this law, “In the day thou eatest thou shalt surely die;”—”Dying thou shalt die;” or “bring upon thyself assuredly the guilt of death temporal and eternal.” There God leaves the sinner, under the power of that commination. Of forgiveness or pardoning mercy there is not the least intimation. To this very day that law, which was then the whole rule of life and acceptance with God, knows no such thing. “Dying thou shalt die, O sinner,” is the precise and final voice of it.