Great Difficulty

Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them,
Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. ~ Luke 13:23-24

Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.
~ Matthew 25:11

What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded. ~ Romans 11:7

Spiritual Refining, Or, A Treatise of Grace and Assurance, by Anthony Burgess (1600-1663).

Sermon XXXIII.

The Difficulty, and in some sense impossibility of salvation notwithstanding the easiness which men fancy to themselves thereof.

When the disciples heard this, they were astonished, saying, Who then can be saved?
~ Matthew 19.25

(But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.
~ Matthew 19:26)

Having in several instances discovered the weaknesse of those props, which most lean upon in reference to salvation, I shall conclude this matter with a discourse upon the disciples pathetical exclamation in the text, Who then can be saved?

In the verse precedent, we have mention made of one, who had good wishes and desires for heaven, but being put by our Saviour upon an exploratory duty, it proved like jealousie water to him, discovering his rottennesse; he was a spurious brood of the eagle, for he was not able to endure these pure sun-beams, He went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions. It doth not say, for he loved them, but he had them, it being very difficult to have these things, and not immoderately love them: they were (in non-Latin alphabet) indeed, because they possessed him, rather then he possessed them. He had much wealth, as we say, a man hath a fever, when that hath him, destroying and wasting his health. Upon this we have our Saviour uttering a strange and paradoxal speech to flesh and blood, Christ’s words were miracles as well as his works, It is hard for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven: compare this with Mark 10. and there are several aggravations; first, our Saviour saith, its hard; Mark saith, he spake it with admiration, How hard is it? Then this he affirmeth with a vehement asseverati∣on, verily, yea Mark saith, He looked about him, to signifie he had some extraordinary thing to say, and therefore would have them attentive, yea the Evangelist saith, he sighed also, when he spake this further he spake this to his Disciples, though not rich, as appeareth by that compelation in Mark, Sonne, how hard is it, etc.? as a tender father he bids them beware.

In the next place Christ doth not only shew the difficulty, but at last the impossibility by a proverbial speech, It is as impossible for a rich man to be saved, as a camel to go through the eye of a needle, a Proverb in the Eastern parts to expresse an impossibility. Those that would understand it of a cable-rope, as they mistake about the Greek word, so they consider not the greater impossibility is implied in the phrase the more significant it is. Now this speech of our Saviour is an hard speech, but thou art not to expostulate or contend with God’s Ministers about it, for truth it self hath said it: only by rich men, Mark expounds those who trust in them, but Matthew speaks it absolutely, because of the difficulty not to trust in them, when we have them. Upon this speech of our Saviour, we see a notable operation on the disciples, expressed first in their outward disposition, and then in their speech. In their disposition (in non-Latin alphabet), they were stricken with amazement, it was with them, as if they had had some astonishing blow given them; & then you have their admiration, who then can be saved? This implieth that they thought before they heard this a very possible, if not an easy thing to be saved, but now they despair of it: But why do they say, who then can be saved in the general, and not rather what rich man? for of them our Saviour spake, such poor men as the disciples might be saved for all this. it is answered thus, though all men are not rich, yet all men have a desire and appetite after riches, and so they are thereby stopped in their course to heaven. Or thus, Though all men are not rich, yet as rich men have their wealth which they immoderately rely on: So there is no man but he hath some creature or other, he doth inordinately affect, and that makes him a camel with too big a bunch to go in the strait way to Heaven.

That howsoever men may suggest to themselves many probable and easy grounds for their salvation, yet upon Scripture — consideration it will appear a great difficulty, yea in some sense an impossibility.

Thus the disciples while they happily attended only to Christ his gracious invitations and manifold promises of his love, they thought it a very easy matter to get to heaven; They found nothing but honey come out of his mouth. Now when they hear our Saviour speak of the exact qualification of him that shall be saved, they are affected with fear as the Israelites were, who thought it impossible to possesse Canaan, because of the tall Anakims that must first be conquered.

For the clearing of the doctrine, let these three things be premised;

First, that when we say it is such a difficult and impossible thing to be saved, we do not relate to that natural impossibility which is in every man; for so not only rich men, but even infants new-born, it’s as impossible for them to be saved, as a camel to go through the eye of a needle; for seeing all are by nature dead in sinne; we can no more put spiritual life in our selves, then Adam could at first have made himself of a lump of earth, a living soul. We do not then fetch this impossibility of salvation so much from the weaknesse of nature, as from the exactness of the way of grace, for our Saviour in the Text lieth not this impossibility upon the impotency and inability of a man in respect of original defilement, though this stream will by long windings at last empty it self into that fountain, but upon the curious bounds that grace prescribes our affections even to lawful things; so that although we may love and desire, and use these creature-comforts, yet if we go but one step beyond those limits, we have presently transgressed; and so when our Saviour saith upon this to comfort the disciples with some hopes, with God all things are possible. Though it be universally true, yet it is more peculiarly to be limited to the matter in hand, God can level this camels bunch, he can command the waters of our affections to stand still, and not to overflow.

Secondly, This therefore may be extended not only to a natural man in his unregenerate estate, but even to a regenerated person, so that we may cry out, ‘what godly man can be saved?’ The work of grace is so exact, temptations are so great, corruptions are so strong, that we may say, Who of the godly can be saved? for though Gods grace will give them to persevere, as Christ’s presence in the ship did or might assure them they could not perish, yet when they saw their danger, and were in tempests and storms, they cried out, Master save us, we perish; so even a godly man, though while he look to the Covenant of grace he may anchor his soul securely; yet at the same time beholding his temptations and infirmities, he may frequently cry out, O Lord, support me, I am falling into hell; we will therefore suppose a man in the state of grace, yet, were it not that with God all things are possible, this godly man would make shipwreck of his soul a thousand times over ere he could get into that glorious haven. Thus Peter 1 Pet. 4. 18. The righteous is scarcely saved, which although it be principally meant of temporal deliverance, yet spiritual salvation is by necessary consequence included.

Thirdly, Although this be true, yet it must be acknowledged, that if we do respect the grace of Christ, and his fullness, it is a very easy thing to be saved; for let sin abound in the guilt and power of it, yet grace in the justifying and sanctifying effects of it, doth much more abound. Hence Gods mercy in pardoning is compared to the heavens, and our sins are but like the earth a punctum in comparison, Isa. 55. 9. or as a drop of the water to the sun-beams, which is quickly dried up. In the fifth of the Romans you have an excellent opposition between the second and first Adam, shewing how much more potent Christ is to save, and grace to give life, then Adam was to destroy, or sinne to curse and condemn; in which respect Christ is said to give life, and that more abundantly; now this is to be marked by the dejected, tempted heart, which seldom looks up to grace, but to all the difficulties that are in heavens way. They cry out, O never godly, never believing, never coming up to Scripture-principles; but they do not join God’s power and their infirmity, Gods grace, and their guilt together; They do not say, O Lord, because this is impossible to me, Is it also to thee? Because I have sinned away my own grace, Have I also sinned away Christs fullness?

Therefore minde the strict qualifications to make thee walk humbly in fear and trembling, minde the gracious fulnesse of Gods love and power to make thee full of hope and comfort. Put the camels bunch and Gods power together.

These things premised, let us consider what are those considerations that make salvation so easy to a mans natural thoughts.

And the first is, a representation of God altogether pitiful and merciful, without taking any notice of his purity and his justice, that he is a God Who will not acquit the guilty. This half representation of God unto a mans heart, makes him thus confident. Men argue, How can we think God, who saith, He would not the death of a sinner, who saith, Why will ye die, O house of Israel; Who hath put pity into men’s hearts, shall not much more be a fountain when streams are so plentiful? This hath been aggravated so much, that it hath been an opinion of some, that at last all men, yea and devils also shall be saved: but the Scripture speaks of Gods sting as well as his honey, of his fury as well as his pity; The Scripture speaketh of his rejoicing in the destruction of the wicked, as well as pitying them; Do not thou therefore deceive thy own soul, by minding Gods mercy merely. Gods justice is to find out those, who have abused mercy, and he is a fire to consume as well as to give light.

A second ground which makes salvation so easy, is the general offer and tender of Gods grace by his Word, whereby none seem to be exempted: Now if to this be added, a doctrinal opinion also, which doth abound in these days, viz. universal Grace, and universal Redemption, they now quickly persuade themselves the way to heaven is a broad way; but this Doctrine doth quite overthrow the Doctrine of a particular Election of some only to salvation, which yet the Scripture manifestly declareth, and it puts the whole discriminating event of a mans self from others, into the hands of free-will: for if Judas have as much of the grace of God, and as much by the death of Christ, as Peter; the only reason why Peter doth repent and Judas not, is merely, because the one improveth his pow∣er well, and the other doth not. Therefore although general tenders of grace are enough to encourage those that are hungry and thirsty after it, and such as are burdened by sinne; yet they lay no foundation at all for such an universality of grace as they pretend to; neither do we lay a foundation of despair in this, for we say, this grace doth truly belong to every one that believeth and repenteth; And the Arminian cannot go further, he dare not say, This grace belongs to you whether you believe or not, repent or not: so that we are as universal in pouring of oil into wounded souls, as they are.

Thirdly, salvation is thought easy, because of a mistake about faith: Oh say they, if a man do but believe, then heaven is his, Christ is his: as to him that believeth not condemnation belongeth. Now all natural men think it a very easy thing to believe, What, to trust in Christ with all thy heart? how ready is every un∣regenerate man to say, he doth it? And upon this it is, that the Papists charge us as making it such an easy pleasing way to go to Heaven; It’s but believing (say they) and then all is well. But all this is a mistake about faith; he that saith, Faith is easy, never knew what it is to believe: To presume is easy, to be secure and self-flattering is easy; but out of the true sense of sinne and deep humiliation for it to rely on Gods grace; this the godly heart finds not to be done without many conflicts and spiritual agonies; faith therefore is made the work of Gods Spirit, and it is that which the devil doth most oppose, because that doth most withstand him.

Lastly, therefore men make it easy to go to Heaven, They may seek that in the last place, Live in all jollity, and then to cry, Lord have mercy on me at the last gasp is enough, because they wholly mistake what true godliness and repentance is. What godlinesse is they understand not, they think not of beng born again, of the pangs and travail the soul commonly is in, before it is thus formed; They consider not the way to Heaven is a strait way, and few that enter therein; if they did, could they be so silly, as to think such vicious lives as they live, such formality and morality they continue in, were the way to Heaven? Certainly if this be so, then the Scripture speaks falsely, Strait is the way, Mat. 7. 13, 14. No, broad is the way, large are the paths, and few misse them; You therefore think it easy to be saved, because you take copper for gold, counterfeits for pearls; and thus a man may think himself very rich, when he is indeed very poor. Again, they mistake about repentance, for they think all kind of sorrow for sinne, every Lord have mercy upon them, especially if this be with tears, a true Repentance; but if this be so we may cry out contrary to the Disciples, who will not be saved? Then blessed Ahab, godly Pharaoh, holy Judas, for all these more or less acknowledged their sinne, and begged for pardon; But if thou examine Scripture, and see how much goeth to godly sorrow, what principle it must come from, what motives must produce it, what effects flow from it; Thou wilt be amazed, and say, O Lord, I doubt I never truly repented, my tears are too salt to come from a contrite heart in a gracious manner. Now do but observe all those men who are secure and confident about their salvation, you may as soon persuade them, as they begin to have the least doubt and suspicion about themselves; and you shall see its one of these pillars they lean upon, if this their foundation were razed all their hopes were gone. Could you drive them out of this refuge then they would cry out, Men and brethren. What shall we do to be saved?

Let us therefore in the next place consider, why upon Scripture-grounds, it will appear such an impossibility without God’s wonderful grace; for a man, yea a godly man to be saved; so that of all miracles, it will be the greatest, to see a godly man passing all the Rocks here, and safely lodged in Heaven.

And first it appeareth a wonder, If you consider that grace in a mans heart is not in its natural soul. It’s like an herb transplanted and put into some ground it doth not agree with. Now it’s a wonder this herb of Grace doth not wither, alas the soil helps nothing to it. God gave command at first to the earth to bring forth grass; but alas our hearts cannot do so: grace in our hearts is like a stranger in a strange Land, like a spark of fire in the deep ocean, like a candle in a boisterous windy night, it’s a wonder if it do not go out. And certainly if Adam so quickly lost his grace, when yet it was connatural to him, his heart was a fit soil; were it not for the Covenant of Grace, which fails not, a godly man would fall seven times a day wholly from God, as well as the Scripture saith he doth so often in temporal calamities. Oh then wonder how any grace comes to be alive in thy heart, that those coals are not smothered up, that every night thou dost not as that mother lie upon thy child, and through security and negligence kill this poor infant of grace.

2. The impossibility of it appeareth in the several manifold works of Gods grace, which are absolutely necessary after we are regenerated: So that suppose a man be converted, yet if grace do not afterwards help, and that several ways, this man would die in the wilderness and never get to Canaan; now Gods grace is various, There is preventing grace, whereby a man is kept from those many sins and temptations, which if plunged into would utterly undo him. Thus David was kept from murdering Nabal; and as Paul said, 1 Cor. 15. 10. By the grace of God I am what I am; So he might have said (saith Austin) By the grace of God I am not what I am not. Yea Divines say, Plures sunt gratiae privativae quam positivae, Gods prevent∣ing mercies are more then his positive mercies. Oh therefore think, If the grace of God did not keep off this sinne, this lust, this temptation, how had it swallowed thee up, as the Whale did Jonah! Again, There is protecting grace, and that is, when thou art in the midst of all temptations, yet grace defends thee, and thou sinnest not; we wonder at Gods miraculous deliverance to Daniel, who was kept alive in the midst of roaring Lions. Alas God doth no less for thee every day. There are devils like so many roaring Lions, seeking to devour thy soul, and its grace hath a covering over thee. Its a remarkable expression of the Psalmist, mercy doth compass the godly, Ps. 32. 10. its a Court of guard against all those assaults that our spiritual enemies would make upon us. There is also quickening grace, whereby the principles of holinesse are daily blown up and enlivened; now if this bellows were not always blowing, if this were not always filling our sails, we should lie like so many dry bones; This wind must arise ere they can come together. David found the necessity of this, when he so often prayed, That God would quicken him. Thy very graces would lie & rust away, were there not this exciting grace; Do not the people of God fall into divers lethargies and hurtful sleeps, because of the want of this. Again, there is cooperating grace, which goeth along with us to do, as well as to purpose in our heart: Its Gods grace that worketh in us not only to will but to do, Phil. 2. 13. when we have desires and affections to duties, how many times are we diverted, and through laziness or distractions interrupted, but grace carrieth us out to the work it self. There is also corroborating grace, whereby the principles of holinesse, being weak and unsteady, are confirmed and strengthened more and more; for grace though it keeps us from sin, yet carrieth us on to holiness weakly and faintly. Thus he prayed, I believe, help my unbelief, Mar. 9. 24. Thus the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, that many times they do the things they would not, Gal. 5. 17. Paul calls this to be strong in the might of the Lord; and I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me. Paul hath a kind of omnipotency, and to him all things are possible, because possible to grace which inableth him. Lastly, There is persevering Grace; for let a man be furnished with all the former fruits of grace, yet if this of perseverance be not added, their works are not crowned; when we do things (in non-Latin alphabet), then they are (in non-Latin alphabet), as they are often put one for another. It’s not of the essence of grace to continue always in the subject where it is, for then Adam and the Angels could not have fallen. It is therefore a distinct work of grace to give perseverance from the first infusion of it.

3. The impossibility of it is seen in those insinuating motions of lust that do still abide in the heart of the most holy men. Insomuch that it is a wonder all the sweet fruit of thy soul is not quite eaten up with these worms that breed in them, all godly men consumed by those motions and sparks of sin, that are not yet extinct. James doth excellently describe the subtle working of original corruption, Jam. 1. 14: it doth (in non-Latin alphabet) entice a man away, with a sweet or profitable bait hiding the hook, and it doth (in non-Latin alphabet) draw the heart aside from considering all those arguments and motives that would make him forbear sinne; now that this spawn of sinne which would quickly prove serpents and cockatrices, is not destroyed, appeareth by Paul Rom. 7. How strong and unruly doth he find those remainders of sin in him, that were it not for Gods grace ready at hand to heal him, Paul’s soul would quickly become as noisome through spiritual sores, as Jobs body through bodily ulcers. Its a wonder then that every man is not a Cain, a Judas, considering what fuel there is in every mans heart.

4. The impossibility of salvation without grace, appeareth in the temptations that*are in lawful things; Insomuch that when outward gross sins could not damn, the immoderate love of lawful things hath been like a millstone about the neck to drown in perdition; when the Philistines could not undo Samson, a Delilah in his bosom can. Thy wife, thy children, thy houses, thy trade, these kill thee by secret poison, whereas gross sins destroy by open sword. One of the Ancients in a vision saw the world full of snares, and so it is; a shop is a snare, wife, children are snares. Our Saviour on purpose sheweth this in that Parable, where those invited to the feast, say not, I am a drunkard, a swearer, and cannot or will not come, but I have bought, and I have married, and therefore cannot come, Luk. 14. 20. Seeing then every thing we touch is like pitch, every thing we meddle in is ready to entangle us, who can be godly, and so who can be saved? This wrought to an extremity upon some, that thought unless they gave over all worldly employments, and spent their days in cells and caves with continual devotion they could not be saved: but this was too much.

5. This will further be clear if you consider all the enmity, subtlety and power of the devil against a man, especially if godly, Ephes. 6. it is with principalities and dignities in high places, and Satan hath desired to winnow you. He chooseth out the godly in a more special way to undo them, Luk. 22. 31. There is two things in sitting or winnowing, the one is concussion and tumbling of the corn and chaff, or refuse together; the other is the separation of the good from the bad; now the devil he desired the first only, to mingle grace and corruption, to bring them all into a confusion, and so overcome them. Now did not Christ powerfully intercede, our faith would quickly fail in such extremities. That same parable of a man going to Jericho and meeting with thieves, was miserably wounded, being left half dead, if it may be applied to a mans spiritual estate, is not meant of him before conversion, or in his natural estate, for he is wholly dead, but after his conversion many times foiled by Satan, and therefore needs oil and balm continually.

6. The impossibility of it appeareth in the manifold duties and ordinances which God*hath appointed us to he frequent in; All which suppose the fire would quickly go out; he hath appointed frequent preaching, administration of sacraments, daily prayer, and why is all this? that these warm cloths, and continual rubbing of thee may keep life in thee. God knew how fading our graces were; hence he hath commanded this continual dropping and watering, else thy soul of a paradise would quickly become a barren wilderness: and to this head may we bring those continual afflictions and chastisements which God doth most exercise his children with; and why are these, but as so much sope to refine us, so much fire to get out dross? They are like the beating of the garment to get out the dust and moths; now then if there should not be such a continual praying, preaching, purifying, who could be saved? What godly man would not become like a standing pool full of mud and filth? so that salvation is a prize hardly obtained.

7. The impossibility appeareth, in that there is requisite a presence of all graces, and a proportionable cooperation of them. Now without God how impossible is this, add to your faith temperance, &c. 2 Pet. 1. 6. If any one of these be lacking, it is a monster, not the image of God. Hence so many have come near godliness, been very like it, but have proved apes only, not really good; as there must be a presence, so a cooperation also. The Scripture commands the putting forth of such graces that to mere nature are inconsistent, they never act one but they prejudice the other. Thus we are to come with bold assurance to the throne of grace, and yet we must be in holy fear and trembling; so we must have repentance and faith, god∣ly sorrow and godly joy together, we must have prudence and zeal accompanying one another; now who is godly if these things be so?

8. This will appear in the miscarriages of so many, who have put fair for heaven, and yet fell short. Oh if grace and salvation had been an easy haven, men could easily have got into it! why have so many suffered shipwreck in the havens mouth? What was Judas, what was Jehu, what the foolish virgins, what the second and third kind of hearers? Did they not do much and suffer much, and yet at last proved blazing comets ending in slime, not fixed stars? Oh me thinks you should all stand and tremble to see them wallowing in their souls blood, as they did at Asahel in his bodies blood.

9. The strict and accurate endeavours of the godly, argue they concluded on this principle, that it was difficult to get to heaven. I made a covenant with my eyes, saith Job, Job 31. 1. I set a watch before my tongue, said. David, Psal. 141. 3. I keep down my body, saith Paul, lest I become a reprobate, 1 Cor. 9. 27. Think of this and tremble, whose affections and thoughts on good things are by the by only. Its hard for the poor man to get wealth, for a languishing sick man to get health, but above all for a man to get grace, and when he hath it to keep it.