Law & Sin

And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. 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. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
~ Acts 13:39, Romans 3:20, Romans 3:28, Romans 7:9, Romans 6:23

For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them
~ Galatians 3:10

The Law and Sin, by Thomas Watson. 1692. This is Chapter Three of his work, “The Ten Commandments”, as a part of his “A Body of Practical Divinity”.

3.1 Man’s inability to keep the moral law.

Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?

No mere man, since the fall, is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but does daily break them, in thought, word, and deed.

‘In many things we offend all.’ James 3: 2. Man in his primitive state of innocence, was endowed with ability to keep the whole moral law. He had rectitude of mind, sanctity of will, and perfection of power. He had the copy of God’s law written on his heart; no sooner did God command but he obeyed. As the key is suited to all the wards in the lock, and can open them, so Adam had a power suited to all God’s commands, and could obey them. Adam’s obedience ran parallel with the moral law, as a well made dial goes exactly with the sun. Man in innocence was like a well tuned organ, he was sweetly in tune to the will of God; he was adorned with holiness as the angels, but not confirmed in holiness as the angels. He was holy, but mutable; he fell from his purity, and we with him. Sin cut the lock of original righteousness where our strength lay; it brought a languor and faintness into our souls; and has so weakened us, that we shall never recover our full strength till we put on immortality. What I am now to demonstrate, is, that we cannot yield perfect obedience to the moral law.

I. The case of an unregenerate man is such, that he cannot perfectly obey all God’s commands. He may as well touch the stars, or span the ocean, as yield exact obedience to the law. A person unregenerate cannot act spiritually, he cannot pray in the Holy Ghost, he cannot live by faith, he cannot do duty out of love to duty; and if he cannot do duty spiritually, much less perfectly. Now, that a natural man cannot yield perfect obedience to the moral law, is evident. (1) Because he is spiritually dead. Eph 2: 1. How can he, being dead, keep the commandments of God perfectly? A dead man is not fit for action. A sinner has the symptoms of death upon him. He has no sense; he has no sense of the evil of sin, of God’s holiness and veracity; therefore he is said to be without feeling. Eph 4: 19. He has no strength. Rom 5: 6. What strength has a dead man? A natural man has no strength to deny himself, or to resist temptation; he is dead; and can a dead man fulfil the moral law? (2) A natural man cannot perfectly keep all God’s commandments, because he is born in sin, and lives in sin. Psa 51: 5. ‘He drinketh iniquity like water.’ Job 15: 16. All the imaginations of his thoughts are evil, and only evil. Gen 6: 5. The least evil thought is a breach of the royal law; and if there be defection, there cannot be perfection. As a natural man has no power to keep the moral law, so he has no will. He is not only dead, but worse than dead. A dead man does no hurt, but there is a life of resistance against God that accompanies the death of sin. A natural man not only cannot keep the law through weakness, but he breaks it through wilfulness. ‘We will do whatsoever goes out of our own mouth, to burn incense unto the queen of heaven.’ Jer 44: 17.

II. As the unregenerate cannot keep the moral law perfectly, so neither can the regenerate. ‘There is not a just man upon earth, that does good and sinneth not;’ nay, that ‘sins not in doing good.’ Eccl 7: 20. There is that in the best actions of a righteous man that is damnable, if God should weigh him in the balance of justice. Alas! how are his duties fly-blown! He cannot pray without wandering, nor believe without doubting. ‘To will is present with me, but how to perform I find not.’ In the Greek it is, ‘How to do it thoroughly I find not.’ Rom 7: 18. Paul, though a saint of the first magnitude, was better at willing than at performing. Mary asked where they had laid Christ; for she had a mind to have carried him away, but she wanted strength: so the regenerate have a will to obey God’s law perfectly, but they want strength; their obedience is weak and sickly. The mark they are to shoot at, is perfection of holiness; but though they take a right aim, yet do what they can, they come short of the mark. ‘The good that I would, I do not.’ Rom 7: 19. A Christian, while serving God, like a ferry man that plies the oar, and rows hard, is hindered, for a gust of wind carries him back again: so says Paul, ‘The good I would, I do not,’ I am driven back by temptation. Now, if there be any failure in a man’s obedience, he cannot be a perfect commentary upon God’s law. The Virgin Mary’s obedience was not perfect; she needed Christ’s blood to wash her tears. Aaron was to make atonement for the altar, to show that the most holy offering has defilement in it, and needs atonement to be made for it. Exod 29: 37.

If a man has no power to keep the whole moral law, why does God require it of him? Is this justice?

Though man has lost his power of obeying, God has not lost his right of commanding. If a master entrusts a servant with money to lay out, and the servant spends it dissolutely, may not the master justly demand it? God gave us power to keep the moral law, which by tampering with sin, we lost; but may not God still call for perfect obedience, or, in case of default, justly punish us?

Why does God permit such an inability in man to keep the law?

He does it: (1) To humble us. Man is a self-exalting creature; and if he has but anything of worth, he is ready to be puffed up; but when he comes to see his deficiencies and failings, and how far short he comes of the holiness and perfection which God’s law requires, it pulls down the plumes of his pride, and lays them in the dust; he weeps over his inability; he blushes over his leprous spots; he says with Job, ‘I abhor myself in dust and ashes.’ (2) God lets this inability be upon us, that we may have recourse to Christ to obtain pardon for our defects, and to sprinkle our best duties with his blood. When a man sees that he owes perfect obedience to the law, but has nothing to pay, it makes him flee to Christ to be his friend, and answer for him all the demands of the law, and set him free in the court of justice.

Use one. Here is matter of humiliation for our fall in Adam. In the state of innocence we were perfectly holy; our minds were crowned with knowledge, and our wills, as a queen, swayed the sceptre of liberty; but now we may say, ‘The crown is fallen from our head.’ Lam 5: 16. We have lost that power which was inherent in us. When we look back to our primitive glory, when we shone as earthly angels, we may take up Job’s words, ‘Oh that I were as in months past!’ chap 29: 2. that it were with us as at first, when there was no stain upon our virgin nature, when there was a perfect harmony between God’s law and man’s will! But, alas! how is the scene altered, our strength is gone from us; we tread awry at every step: we come below every precept; our dwarfishness will not reach the sublimity of God’s law; we fail in our obedience; and while we fail, we forfeit. This should put us in deep mourning, and spring a leak of sorrow in all our souls.

Use two. Of confutation. (1) It confutes the Armenians, who cry up the power of the will. They hold they have a will to save themselves. But by nature, we not only want strength, but we want will to that which is good. Rom 5: 6. The will is not only full of weakness, but obstinacy. ‘Israel would none of me.’ Psa 81: 11. The will hangs forth a flag of defiance against God. Such as speak of the sovereign power of the will, forget ‘It is God that worketh in you both to will and to do.’ Phil 2: 13. If the power be in the will of man, then what need is there for God to work in us to will? If the air can enlighten itself, what need is there for the sun to shine? Such as talk of the power of nature, and their ability to save themselves, disparage Christ’s merits. I may say (as Gal 5: 4), ‘Christ has become of no effect to them.’ They who advance the power of their will in matters of salvation, without the medicinal grace of Christ, do absolutely put themselves under the covenant of works. I would ask, ‘Can they perfectly keep the moral law?’ Malum oritur ex quolibet defectu [Evil is manifested in any blemish at all]. If there be but the least defect in their obedience, they are lost. For one sinful thought the law of God curses them, and the justice of God condemns them. Confounded be their pride, who cry up the power of nature, as if, by their own inherent abilities, they could rear up a building, the top whereof should reach to heaven.

(2) It confutes that sort of people who brag of perfection; and who, according to that principle, can keep all God’s commandments perfectly. I would ask such whether at no time a vain thought has come into their minds? If there has, then they are not perfect. The Virgin Mary was not perfect. Though her womb was pure (being overshadowed by the Holy Ghost), yet her soul was not perfect. Christ tacitly supposes a failing in her. Luke 2: 49. And are they more perfect than the blessed Virgin was? Such as hold perfection, need not confess sin. David confessed sin, and Paul confessed sin. Psa 32: 5; Rom 7: 25. But they are got beyond David and Paul; they are perfect, they never transgress; and where there is no transgression, what need for confession? Again, if they are perfect, they need not ask pardon. They can pay God’s justice what they owe; therefore, why pray, ‘Forgive us our debts’? Oh, that the devil should rock men so fast asleep, as to make them dream of perfection! Do they plead, ‘Let us therefore as many as be perfect be thus minded’? Phil 3: 15. Perfection there, is meant of sincerity. God is best able to interpret his own word. He calls sincerity perfection. ‘A perfect and an upright man.’ Job 1: 8. But who is exactly perfect? A man full of diseases may as well say he is healthful, as a man full of sins say he is perfect.

Use three. For encouragement to regenerate persons. Though you fail in your obedience, and cannot keep the moral law exactly, yet be not discouraged.

What comfort may be given to a regenerate person under the failures and imperfections of his obedience?

That a believer is not under the covenant of works, but under the covenant of grace. The covenant of works requires perfect, personal, perpetual obedience; but in the covenant of grace, God will make some abatements; he will accept less than he required in the covenant of works. (1) In the covenant of works God required perfection of degrees; in the covenant of grace he accepts perfection of parts. There he required perfect working, here he accepts sincere believing. In the covenant of works, God required us to live without sin; in the covenant of grace he accepts of our combat with sin. (2) Though a Christian cannot, in his own person, perform all God’s commandments; yet Christ, as his Surety, and in his stead, has fulfilled the law for him: and God accepts of Christ’s obedience, which is perfect, to satisfy for that obedience which is imperfect. Christ being made a curse for believers, all the curses of the law have their sting pulled out. (3) Though a Christian cannot keep the commands of God to satisfaction, yet he may to approbation.

How is that?

(1) He gives his full assent and consent to the law of God. ‘The law is holy and just:’ there was assent in the judgement. Rom 7: 12. ‘I consent unto the law;’ there was consent in the will. Rom 7: 16.

(2) A Christian mourns that he cannot keep the commandments fully. When he fails he weeps; he is not angry with the law because it is so strict but he is angry with himself because he is so deficient.

(3) He takes a sweet complacent delight in the law. ‘I delight in the law of God after the inward man.’ Rom 7: 22. Greek: ‘I take pleasure in it.’ ‘O! how love I thy law.’ Psa 119: 97. Though a Christian cannot keep God’s law, yet he loves his law; though he cannot serve God perfectly, yet he serves him willingly.

(4) It is his cordial desire to walk in all God’s commands. ‘O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes.’ Psa 119: 5. Though his strength fails, yet his pulse beats.

(5) He really endeavours to obey God’s law perfectly; and wherein he comes short he runs to Christ’s blood to supply his defects. This cordial desire, and real endeavour, God esteems as perfect obedience. ‘If there be a willing mind, it is accepted.’ 2 Cor 8: 12. ‘Let me hear thy voice, for sweet is thy voice.’ Cant 2: 14. Though the prayers of the righteous are mixed with sin, yet God sees they would pray better. He picks out the weeds from the flowers; he sees the faith and bears with the failing. The saints’ obedience, though short of legal perfection, yet having sincerity in it, and Christ’s merits mixed with it, finds gracious acceptance. When the Lord sees endeavours after perfect obedience, he takes it well at our hands; as a father who receives a letter from his child, though there be blots in it, and false spellings, takes all in good part. Oh! what blotting are there in our holy things; but God is pleased to take all in good part. He says, ‘It is my child, and he would do better if he could; I will accept it.’

3.2 Degrees of Sin

Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?

Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

‘He that delivered me unto thee, has the greater sin.’ John 19: 11. The Stoic philosophers held that all sins were equal; but this Scripture clearly holds forth that there is a gradual difference in sin; some are greater than others; some are ‘mighty sins,’ and crying sins.’ Amos 5: 12; Gen 18: 21. Every sin has a voice to speak, but some sins cry. As some diseases are worse than others, and some poisons more venomous, so some sins are more heinous. ‘Ye have done worse than your fathers, your sins have exceeded theirs.’ Jer 16: 12; Ezek 16: 47. Some sins have a blacker aspect than others; to clip the king’s coin is treason; but to strike his person is a higher degree of treason. A vain thought is a sin, but a blasphemous word is a greater sin. That some sins are greater than others appears, (1) Because there was difference in the offerings under the law; the sin offering was greater than the trespass offering. (2) Because some sins are not capable of pardon as others are, therefore they must needs be more heinous, as the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. Matt 12: 31. (3) Because some sins have a greater degree of punishment than others. ‘Ye shall receive the greater damnation.’ Matt 23: 14. ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ God would not punish one more than another if his sin was not greater. It is true, ‘all sins are equally heinous in respect of the object,’ or the infinite God, against whom sin is committed, but, in another sense, all sins are not alike heinous; some sins have more bloody circumstances in them, which are like the dye to the wool, to give it a deeper colour.

[1] Such sins are more heinous as are committed without any occasion offered; as when a man swears or is angry, and has no provocation. The less the occasion of sin, the greater is the sin itself.

[2] Such sins are more heinous that are committed presumptuously. Under the law there was no sacrifice for presumptuous sins. Num 15: 30.

What is the sin of presumption, which heightens and aggravates sin, and makes it more heinous?

To sin presumptuously, is to sin against convictions and illuminations, or an enlightened conscience. ‘They are of those that rebel against the light.’ Job 24: 13. Conscience, like the cherubim, stands with a flaming sword in its hand to deter the sinner; and yet he will sin. Did not Pilate sin against conviction, and with a high hand, in condemning Christ? He knew that for envy the Jews had delivered him. Matt 27: 18. He confessed he ‘found no fault in him.’ Luke 23: 14. His own wife sent to him saying, ‘Have nothing to do with that just man.’ Matt 27: 19. Yet for all this, he gave the sentence of death against Christ. He sinned presumptuously, against an enlightened conscience. To sin ignorantly does something to extenuate and pare off the guilt. ‘If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin,’ that is, their sin had been less. John 15: 22. But to sin against illuminations and convictions enhances men’s sins. These sins make deep wounds in the soul; other sins fetch blood; they are a stab at the heart.

How many ways may a man sin against illuminations and convictions?

(1) When he lives in the total neglect of duty. He is not ignorant that it is a duty to read the Word, yet he lets the Bible lie by as rusty armour, seldom made us of. He is convinced that it is a duty to pray in his family, yet he can go days and months, and God never hears of him; he calls God Father, but never asks his blessing. Neglect of family-prayer, as it were, uncovers the roof of men’s houses, and makes way for a curse to be rained down upon their table.

(2) When a man lives in the same sins he condemns in others. ‘Thou that judges, does the same things.’ Rom 2: 1. As Augustine says of Seneca, ‘He wrote against superstition, yet he worshipped those images which he reproved.’ One man condemns another for rash censuring, yet lives in the same sin himself; a master reproves his apprentice for swearing, yet he himself swears. The snuffers of the tabernacle were of pure gold: they who reprove and snuff the vices of others, had need themselves be free from those sins. The snuffers must be of gold.

(3) When a man sins after vows. ‘Thy vows are upon me, O God.’ Psa 56: 12. A vow is a religious promise made to God, to dedicate ourselves to him. A vow is not only a purpose, but a promise. Every votary makes himself a debtor; he binds himself to God in a solemn manner. Now, to sin after a vow, to vow himself to God, and give his soul to the devil, must needs be against the highest convictions.

(4) When a man sins after counsels, admonitions, warnings, he cannot plead ignorance. The trumpet of the gospel has been blown in his ears, and sounded a retreat to call him off from his sins, he has been told of his injustice, living in malice, keeping bad company, yet he would venture upon sin. This is to sin against conviction; it aggravates the sin, and is like a weight put into the scale, to make his sin weigh the heavier. If a sea-mark be set up to give warning that there are shelves and rocks in that place, yet if the mariner will sail there, and split his ship, it is presumption; and if he be cast away, who will pity him?

(5) When a man sins against express combinations and threatening. God has thundered out threatenings against such sins. ‘God shall would the hairy scalp of such an one as goes on still in his trespasses.’ Psa 68: 21. Though God set the point of his sword to the breast of a sinner, he will still commit sin. The pleasure of sin delights him more than the threatenings affright him. Like the leviathan, ‘he laugheth at the shaking of a spear.’ Job 41: 29. Nay, he derides God’s threatenings. ‘Let him make speed, and hasten his work, that we may see it:’ we have heard much what God intends to do, and of judgement approaching, we would fain see it. Isa 5: 19. For men to see the flaming sword of God’s threatening brandished, yet to strengthen themselves in sin, is in an aggravated manner to sin against illumination and conviction.

(6) When a man sins under affliction. God not only thunders by threatening, but lets his thunderbolt fall. He inflicts judgements on a person so that he may read his sins in his punishment, and yet he sins. His sin was uncleanness, by which he wasted his strength, as well as his estate. He has had a fit of apoplexy; and yet while feeling the smart of sin, he retains the love of sin. This is to sin against conviction. ‘In his distress did he trespass yet more; this is that king Ahab’ 2 Chron 28: 22. It makes the sin greater to sin against an enlightened conscience. It is full of obstinacy. Men give no reason, make no defence for their sins, and yet are resolved to hold fast iniquity. Voluntas est regula et mensura actionis [An action can be measured and judged by the will involved], the more of the will in a sin, the greater the sin. ‘We will walk after our own devices.’ Jer 18: 12. Though there be death and hell at every step, we will march on under Satan’s colours. What made the sin of apostate angels so great was that it was wilful; they had no ignorance in their mind, no passion to stir them up; there was no tempter to deceive them, but they sinned obstinately and from choice. To sin against convictions and illuminations, is joined with rejection and contempt of God. It is bad for a sinner to forget God, but it is worse to condemn him. ‘Wherefore does the wicked condemn God?’ Psa 10: 13. An enlightened sinner knows that by his sin he disobliges and angers God; but he cares not whether God be pleased or not, he will have his sin; therefore such a one is said to reproach God. ‘The soul that does ought presumptuously, the same reproacheth the Lord.’ Numb 15: 30. Every sin displeases God, but sins against an enlightened conscience reproach the Lord. To condemn the authority of a prince, is a reproach done to him. It is accompanied with impudence. Fear and shame are banished, the veil of modesty is laid aside. ‘The unjust knoweth no shame.’ Zeph 3: 5. Judas knew Christ was the Messiah; he was convinced of it by an oracle from heaven, and by the miracles he wrought, and yet he impudently went on in his treason, even when Christ said, ‘He that dips his hand with me in the dish, he shall betray me:’ and he knew Christ meant him. When he was going about his treason, and Christ pronounced a woe to him, yet, for all that, he proceeded in his treason. Luke 22: 22. Thus to sin presumptuously, against an enlightened conscience, dyes the sin of a crimson colour, and makes it greater than other sins.

[3] Such sins are more heinous than others, which are sins of continuance. The continuing of sin is the enhancing of sin. He who plots treason, makes himself a greater offender. Some men’s heads are the devil’s minthouse, they are a mint of mischief. ‘Inventors of evil things.’ Rom 1: 30. Some invent new oaths, others new snares. Such were those presidents that invented a decree against Daniel, and got the king to sign it. Dan 6: 9.

[4] Those sins are greater which proceed from a spirit of malignity. To malign holiness is diabolical. It is a sin to want grace, it is worse to hate it. In nature there are antipathies, as between the vine and laurel. Some have an antipathy against God because of his purity. ‘Cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us.’ Isa 30: 11. Sinners, if it lay in their power, would not only enthrone God, but annihilate him; if they could help it, God should no longer be God. Thus sin is boiled up to a greater height.

[5] Those sins are of greater magnitude, which are mixed with ingratitude. Of all things God cannot endure to have his kindness slighted. His mercy is seen in reprieving men so long, in wooing them by his Spirit and ministers to be reconciled, in crowning them with so many temporal blessings: and to abuse all this love — when God has been filling up the measure of his mercy, for men to fill up the measure of their sins — is high ingratitude, and makes their sins of a deeper crimson. Some are worse for mercy. ‘The vulture,’ says Aelian, ‘draws sickness from perfumes.’ So the sinner contracts evil from the sweet perfumes of God’s mercy. The English chronicle reports of one Parry, who being condemned to die, Queen Elizabeth sent him her pardon; and after he was pardoned, he conspired and plotted the queen’s death. Just so some deal with God, he bestows mercy, and they plot treason against him. ‘I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.’ Isa 1: 2. The Athenians, in lieu of the good service Themistocles had done them, banished him their city. The snake, in the fable, being frozen, stung him that gave it warmth. Certainly sins against mercy are more heinous.

[6] Those sins are more heinous than others which are committed with delectation. A child of God may sin through a surprisal, or against his will. ‘The evil which I would not, that I do.’ Rom 7: 19. He is like one that is carried down the stream involuntarily. But to sin with delight heightens and greatens the sin. It is a sign the heart is in the sin. ‘They set their heart on their iniquity,’ as a man follows his gain with delight. Hos 4: 8. ‘Without are dogs, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.’ Rev 22: 15. To tell a lie is a sin; but to love to tell a lie is a greater sin.

[7] Those sins are more heinous than others which are committed under a pretence of religion. To cheat and defraud is a sin, but to do it with a Bible in one’s hand, is a double sin. To be unchaste is a sin; but to put on a mask of religion to play the whore makes the sin greater. ‘I have peace offerings with me; this day have I paid my vows; come let us take our fill of love.’ Prov 7: 14, 15. She speaks as if she had been at church, and had been saying her prayers: who would ever have suspected her of dishonesty? But, behold her hypocrisy; she makes her devotion a preface to adultery. ‘Which devour widows’ houses, and for a show make long prayers.’ Luke 20: 47. The sin was not in making long prayers; for Christ was a whole night in prayer; but to make long prayers that they might do unrighteous actions, made their sin more horrid.

[8] Sins of apostasy are more heinous than others. Demas forsook the truth and afterwards became a priest in an idol temple, says Dorotheus. 2 Tim 4: 10. To fall is a sin; but to fall away is a greater sin. Apostates cast a disgrace upon religion. ‘The apostate,’ says Tertullian, ‘seems to put God and Satan in the balance; and having weighed both their services, prefers the devil’s, and proclaims him to be the best master.’ In which respect the apostate is said to put Christ to ‘open shame.’ Heb 6: 6. This dyes a sin in grain, and makes it greater. It is a sin not to profess Christ, but it is a greater to deny him. Not to wear Christ’s colours is a sin, but to run from his colours is a greater sin. A pagan sins less than a baptised renegade.

[9] To persecute religion makes sin greater. Acts 7: 52. To have no religion is a sin, but to endeavour to destroy religion is a greater. Antiochus Epiphanes took more tedious journeys and ran more hazards, to vex and oppose the Jews, than all his predecessors had done to obtain victories. Herod ‘added this above all, that he shut up John in prison.’ Luke 3: 20. He sinned before by incest; but by imprisoning the prophet he added to his sin and made it greater. Persecution fills up the measure of sin. ‘Fill ye up the measure of your fathers.’ Matt 23: 32. If you pour a porringer of water into a cistern it adds something to it, but if you pour in a bucketful or two it fills up the measure of the cistern; so persecution fills up the measure of sin, and makes it greater.

[10] To sin maliciously makes sin greater. Aquinas, and other of the schoolmen, place the sin against the Holy Ghost in malice. The sinner does all he can to vex God, and despite the Spirit of grace. Heb 10: 29. Thus Julia threw up his dagger in the air, as if he would have been revenged upon God. This swells sin to its full size, it cannot be greater. When a man is once come to this, blasphemously to despite the Spirit, there is but one step lower he can fall, and that is to hell.

[11] It aggravates sin, and makes it greater, when a man not only sins himself, but endeavours to make others sin. (1) Such as teach errors to the people, who decry Christ’s deity, or deny his virtue, making him only a political head, not a head of influence: who preach against the morality of the Sabbath, or the immortality of the soul; these men’s sins are greater than others. If the breakers of God’s law sin, what do they that teach men to break them? Matt 5: 19. (2) Such as destroy others by their bad example. The swearing father teaches his son to swear, and damns him by his example. Such men’s sins are greater than others, and they shall have a hotter place in hell.

Use. You see all sins are not equal; some are more grievous than others, and bring greater wrath; therefore especially take heed of these sins. ‘Keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins.’ Psa 19: 13. The least sin is bad enough; you need not aggravate your sins, and make them more heinous. He that has a little wound will not make it deeper. Oh, beware of those circumstances which increase your sin and make it more heinous! The higher a man is in sinning, the lower he shall lie in torment.

3.3 The Wrath of God

What does every sin deserve?

God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and in that which is to come.

‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.’ Matt 25: 41. Man having sinned, is like a favourite turned out of the king’s favour, and deserves the wrath and curse of God. He deserves God’s curse. Gal 3: 10. As when Christ cursed the fig-tree, it withered; so, when God curses any, he withers in his soul. Matt 21: 19. God’s curse blasts wherever it comes. He deserves also God’s wrath, which is nothing else but the execution of his curse.

What is this wrath?

I. It is privative; that is, deprives of the smiles of God’s face. It is hell enough to be excluded his presence: in whose ‘presence is fulness of joy.’ Psa 16: 11. His smiling face has that splendour and beauty in it that ravishes the angels with delight. This is the diamond in the ring of glory. If it were such a misery for Absalom, that he might not see the King’s face, what will it be for the wicked to be shut out from beholding God’s pleasant face! Privatio Divinae visionis omnium suppliciorum summum [To be deprived of the sight of God is the greatest of all punishments].

II. This wrath has something in it positive. It is ‘wrath come upon them to the uttermost.’ 1 Thess 2: 16.

[I] God’s wrath is irresistible. ‘Who knoweth the power of thine anger?’ Psa 90: 2: Sinners may oppose God’s ways, but not his wrath. Shall the briers contend with the fire? Shall finite contend with infinite? ‘Hast thou an arm like God?’ Job 40: 9.

[2] God’s wrath is terrible. The Spanish proverb is, The lion is not so fierce as he is painted. We are apt to have slight thoughts of God’s wrath; but it is very tremendous and dismal, as if scalding lead should be dropped into one’s eyes. The Hebrew word for wrath signifies heat. To show that the wrath of God is hot, therefore it is compared to fire in the text. Fire, when in its rage, is dreadful. So the wrath of God is like fire, it is the terrible of terrible. Other fire is but painted to this. If when God’s wrath is kindled but a little, and a spark of it flies into a wicked man’s conscience in this life, it is so terrible, what will it be when God shall ‘stir up all his wrath’? Psa 78: 38. How sad is it with a soul in desertion! God then dips his pen in gall, and ‘writes bitter things;’ his poisoned arrows stick fast into the heart. ‘While I suffer thy terrors, I am distracted; thy fierce wrath goes over me.’ Psa 88: 15, 16. Luther, in desertion, was in such horror of mind, that nec calor, nec sanguis superesset [no warmth or blood remained]; he had no blood seen in his face, but he lay as one dead. Now, if God’s wrath be such towards those whom he loves, what will it be towards those whom he hates? If they who sip of the cup find it so bitter, what will they do who drink its dregs? Psal 75: 8. Solomon says, ‘The king’s wrath is as the roaring of a lion.’ Prov 19: 12. What then is God’s wrath? When God musters up all his forces, and sets himself in battalia against a sinner, how can his heart endure? Ezek 22: 14. Who is able to lie under mountains of wrath? God is the sweetest friend but the sorest enemy.

(1) The wrath of God shall seize upon every part of a sinner. Upon the body. The body, which was so tender that it could not bear heat or cold, shall be tormented in the wine press of God’s wrath. Those eyes which before could behold amorous objects, shall be tormented with the sight of devils. The ears, which before were delighted with music, shall be tormented with the hideous shrieks of the damned. The wrath of God shall seize upon the soul of a reprobate. Ordinary fire cannot touch the soul. When the martyrs’ bodies were consuming, their souls triumphed in the flames; but God’s wrath burns the soul. The memory will be tormented to remember what means of grace have been abused. The conscience will be tormented with self-accusations. The sinner will accuse himself for presumptuous sins, for misspending his precious hours, and for resisting the Holy Ghost.

(2) The wrath of God is without intermission. Hell is an abiding place, but no resting place; there is not a minute’s rest. Outward pain has some abatement. If it be the stone or colic, the patient has sometimes ease; but the torments of the damned have no intermission; he who feels God’s wrath never says, ‘I have ease.’

(3) The wrath of God is eternal. So says the text. ‘Everlasting fire.’ No tears can quench the flame of God’s anger; no, though we could shed rivers of tears. In all pains of this life men hope for cessation — the suffering will not continue long; either the tormentor dies or the tormented; but the wrath of God is always feeding upon the sinner. The terror of natural fire is, that it consumes what it burns; but what makes the fire of God’s wrath terrible is, that it does not consume what it burns. Sic morientur damnati ut semper vivunt [Those that are lost will so die as to remain always alive]. Bernard. The sinner will ever be in the furnace. After innumerable millions of years the wrath of God is as far from ending as it was at the beginning. If all the earth and sea were sand, and every thousand years a bird should come and take away a grain, it would be a long while ere that vast heap of sand were emptied; but if, after all that time, the damned might come out of hell, there would be some hope; but this word ‘Ever’ breaks the heart.

How does it consist with God’s justice to punish sin, which perhaps was committed in a moment, with eternal fire?

On account of the heinous nature of sin. Consider the Person offended; it is Crimen laesae majestatis [a charge of the highest treason]. Sin is committed against an infinite majesty, therefore it is infinite, and the punishment must be infinite. Because the nature of man is but finite, and a sinner cannot at once bear infinite wrath, therefore he must be satisfying in enmity what he cannot satisfy at once.

(4) While the wicked lie scorching in the flames of wrath, they have none to commiserate them. It is some ease of grief to have some to condole with us; but the wicked have wrath and no pity shown them. Who will pity them? God will not. They derided his Spirit, and he will now laugh at their calamity. Prov 1: 26. The saints will not pity them. They persecuted them upon earth, therefore they will rejoice to see God’s justice executed on them. ‘The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance.’ Psa 58: 10.

(5) The sinner under wrath has no one to speak a good word for him. If an elect person sins, he has one to intercede for him. ‘We have an advocate, Jesus Christ the righteous.’ 1 John 2: 1. Christ will say, ‘It is one of my friends, one for whom I have shed my blood; Father, pardon him.’ But the wicked who die in sin have none to solicit for them; they have an accuser, but no advocate; Christ’s blood will not plead for them; they slighted Christ and refused to come under his government, therefore Christ’s blood cries against them.

[3] God’s wrath is just. The Greek word for vengeance signifies justice. The wicked shall drink a sea of wrath, but not one drop of injustice, It is just that God’s honour be repaired, and how can that be but by punishing offenders? He who infringes the king’s laws deserves the penalty. Mercy goes by favour, punishment by desert. ‘To us belongeth confusion of face.’ Dan 9: 8. Wrath is that which belongs to us as we are simmers; it is due to us as any wages that are paid.

Use one. For information. (1) God is justified in condemning sinners at the last day. They deserve wrath, and it is no injustice to give them that which they deserve. If a malefactor deserves death, the judge does him no wrong in condemning him.

(2) See what a great evil sin is, which exposes a person to God’s wrath for ever. You may know the lion by his paw; and you may know what an evil sin is by the wrath and curse it brings. When you see a man drawn upon a hurdle to execution, you conclude he is guilty of some capital crime that brings such a punishment; so when a man lies under the torrid zone of God’s wrath, and roars out in flames, you must say, ‘How horrid an evil sin is!’ They who now see no evil in swearing, or Sabbath breaking, will see it looks black in the glass of hell-torments.

(3) See here a handwriting upon the wall; that which may check a sinner’s mirth. He is now brisk and frolicsome, he chants to the sound of the viol, and invents instruments of music (Amos 6: 5); he drinks ‘stolen waters,’ and says, ‘they are sweet;’ but let him remember that the wrath and curse of God hang over him, which will shortly, if he repent not, be executed on him. Dionysus thought, as he sat at table, that he saw a naked sword hang over his head; but the sword of God’s justice hangs over a sinner, and when the slender thread of life is cut asunder it falls upon him. ‘Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth . . . but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgement.’ Eccl 11: 9. For a drop of pleasure thou must drink a sea of wrath. Your pleasure cannot be so sweet as wrath is bitter. The delights of the flesh cannot countervail the horror of conscience. Better want the devil’s honey than be stung with the wrath of God. The garden of Eden, which signifies pleasure, had a flaming sword placed at the east end of it. Gen 3: 24. The garden of carnal and sinful delight is surrounded with the flaming sword of God’s wrath.

Use two. For reproof. The stupidity of sinners is reproved who are no more affected with the curse and wrath of God which is due to them. ‘None considereth in his heart.’ Isa 44: 19. If they were in debt and the sergeant was about to arrest them, they would be affected with that; but though the fierce wrath of God is ready to arrest them, they remember it not. Though a beast has no shame, he has fear: he is afraid of fire; but sinners are worse than brutish, for they fear not the ‘fire of hell’ till they are in it. Most have their consciences asleep, or seared; but when they shall see the vials of God’s wrath dropping, they will cry out as Dives, ‘Oh! I am tormented in this flame!’ Luke 16: 24.

Use three. For exhortation. (1) Let us adore God’s patience, who has not brought this wrath and curse upon us all this while. We have deserved wrath, yet God has not given us our desert. We may all subscribe to Psa 103: 8, ‘The Lord is slow to anger;’ and to ver 10, ‘He has not rewarded us according to our iniquities.’ God has deferred his wrath, and given us space to repent. Rev 2: 21. He is not like a hasty creditor, who requires the debt, and gives no time for payment; he shoots off his warning-piece, that he may not shoot off his murdering-piece. ‘The Lord is long suffering to usward, not willing that any perish.’ 2 Pet 3: 9. God adjourns the assizes, to see if sinners will turn; he keeps off the storm of his wrath: but if men will not be warned, let them know that long forbearance is no forgiveness.

(2) Let us labour to prevent the wrath we have deserved. How careful are men to prevent poverty or disgrace! O labour to prevent God’s eternal wrath, that it may not only be deferred, but removed.

What shall we do to prevent and escape the wrath to come?

[1] By getting an interest in Jesus Christ. Christ is the only screen to stand betwixt us and the wrath of God; he felt God’s wrath that they who believe in him should never feel it. ‘Jesus which delivered us from the wrath to come.’ 1 Thess 1: 10. Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace was a type of God’s wrath, and that furnace did not singe the garments of the three children, nor had ‘the smell of fire passed upon them.’ Dan 3: 27. Jesus Christ went into the furnace of his Father’s wrath; and the smell of the fire of hell shall never pass upon those that believe in him.

[2] If we would prevent the wrath of God, let us take heed of those sins which will provoke it. Edmund, successor of Anselm, had a saying, ‘I had rather leap into a furnace of fire, than willingly commit a sin against God.’ There are several fiery sins we must take heed of, which will provoke the fire of God’s wrath. The fire of rash anger. Some who profess religion cannot bridle their tongue; they care not what they say in their anger; they will even curse their passions. James says, ‘The tongue is set on fire of hell;’ chap 3: 6. Oh! take heed of a ‘fiery tongue,’ lest it bring thee to ‘fiery torment.’ Dives begged a drop of water to cool his tongue. Cyprian says he had offended most in his tongue, and now that was most set on fire. Take heed of the fire of malice. Malice is a malignant humour, whereby we wish evil to others; it is a vermin that lives on blood; it studies revenge. Caligula had a chest where he kept deadly poisons for those against whom he had malice. The fire of malice brings men to the fiery furnace of God’s wrath. Take heed of the sin of uncleanness. ‘Whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.’ Heb 13: 4. Such as burn in uncleanness are in great danger to burn one day in hell. Let one fire put out another; let the fire of God’s wrath put out the fire of lust.

(3) To you who have a well-grounded hope that you shall not feel this wrath, which you have deserved, let me exhort you to be very thankful to God, who has given his Son to save you from this tremendous wrath. Jesus has delivered you from wrath to come. The Lamb of God was scorched in the fire of God’s wrath for you. Christ felt the wrath which he did not deserve, that you might escape the wrath which you have deserved. Pliny observes, that there is nothing better to quench fire than blood. Christ’s blood has quenched the fire of God’s wrath for you. ‘Upon me be thy curse,’ said Rebekah to Jacob. Gen 27: 13. So said Christ to God’s justice, ‘Upon me be the curse, that my elect may inherit the blessing.’ Be patient under all the afflictions which you endure. Affliction is sharp, but it is not wrath, it is not hell. who would not willingly drink in the cup of affliction that knows he shall never drink in the cup of damnation? Who would not be willing to bear the wrath of man that knows he shall never feel the wrath of God?

Christian, though thou mayest feel the rod, thou shalt never feel the bloody axe. Augustine once said, ‘Strike, Lord, where thou wilt, if sin be pardoned.’ So say, ‘Afflict me, Lord, as thou wilt in this life, seeing I shall escape the wrath to come.’