Thorns, Briers

And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s (Abel) blood from thy hand; ~ Genesis 4:11

For ye know how that afterward, when he (Esau) would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.
~ Hebrews 12:17

And say to the forest of the south, Hear the word of the LORD; Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will kindle a fire in thee, and it shall devour every green tree in thee, and every dry tree: the flaming flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from the south to the north shall be burned therein. For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. ~ Ezekiel 20:47, Malachi 4:1

And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.
~ Mark 11:21, John 15:6, Revelation 20:15

John Owen’s Commentary on the Book of Hebrews, Chapter Six. An Excerpt.

But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.
~ Hebrews 6:8

Obs. 1. Whilst the gospel is preached unto men, they are under their great trial for eternity.

The application that is made unto them is for an experiment how they will prove. If they acquit themselves in faith and obedience, they receive the blessing of eternal life from God. If they prove barren and unprofitable, they are rejected of God, and cursed by him. Nor shall they ever have any other trial, nor shall ever any other experiment be made of them, Hebrews 10. Their season of the enjoyment of the gospel is their “day.” When that is past, “the night cometh” on them, wherein they cannot work. When these “bellows are burned, and the lead is consumed, the founder melting in vain,” men are rejected as “reprobate silver,”’never to be tried any more. Men do but deceive themselves in their reserve of a purgatory when they are gone out of this world. If they are cast under their trial here, so they must abide to eternity. And we may do well to consider these things distinctly, because our concernment in them is very great. To this purpose observe, —

1. That we are all made for an eternal state and condition, in blessedness or woe. Men may live like beasts, and therefore wish that they might die like them also; but we are all made with another design, and must all of us “stand in our” eternal “lot at the end of the days,” Daniel 12:13.

2. That the unchangeable determination of our eternal state depends on what we do in this life. There is neither wisdom nor knowledge, duty nor obedience, in the grave, whither we are going. As the tree falls so it must lie. “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after that is the judgment.” Nothing interposeth to alter our state and condition between death and judgment. The contrivance of purgatory when we are gone hence was an invention of Satan, to delude the souls of men with hopes of relief, when all means and ways of it were past and irrecoverable.

3. The trial of our future state is made by the preaching of the gospel unto us, and our compliance with it or rejection of it. This is that which the text declares on the one hand and the other; the barren ground is rejected on this trial.

4. It was a fruit of infinite grace, condescension, and mercy, to grant a new trial unto sinners under the curse we had all cast ourselves into. There God might have left us. So he dealt with the sinning angels, whom he spared not. And had he dealt so with all mankind, who could say unto him, “What doest thou?” And it is that which we must all answer for, namely, that when we were lost and fallen under the sentence of the holy and righteous law, God would propose any terms of peace and reconciliation unto us, and give us a second trial thereon.

5. That the especial way of this trial doth most eminently set out this grace and mercy. A way it is full of infinite wisdom, goodness, love, mercy, and grace; such as wherein all the divine perfections will be eternally glorified, whether it be accepted or refused.

6. When the gospel is preached unto any, God telleth sinners that although they have destroyed themselves, and are ready every moment to sink into eternal misery, yet he will, out of infinite grace and compassion, try them once more, and that by the holy terms of the gospel. And in the preaching of the word he doth it accordingly. And although the season of this trial be determined with God, yet it is unto us uncertain, on many accounts. For,

(1.) The continuance of our lives, during which alone we are capable of enjoying it, is so.

(2.) We see that the preaching of the gospel is so also. The Lord Christ doth ofttimes remove the candlestick whilst they continue alive in the world among whom it was once fixed. And,

(3.) There is a time when a period is put unto the efficacy of the word for the conversion of some, although the outward dispensation be continued unto them, Isaiah 6:9-10. Wherefore the present season and present enjoyment of the gospel it is our duty to consider and improve. For what is the work that therein God hath in hand towards us? Is it not to give us our trial, in the use of means, as to what shall be our future condition? He hath therein undertaken us as his vineyard, as his husbandry, and causeth the rain to fall upon us; and hath done so often and long. And who almost doth consider aright how great his concernment is herein? Would men be so careless, negligent, formal, slothful, as they are for the most part under the hearing of the word, if they duly remembered that it is their trial for eternity? and they know not how soon it may be over. If we lose this season, we are gone for ever. It is, therefore, our wisdom to know whether our fruitfulness, in faith, repentance, and obedience, do answer the rain and dressing we have had by the dispensation of the word. The axe is laid at the root of the tree; — if we bring not forth good fruit we shall ere long be hewed down and cast into the fire. It is true, there is none of us do answer as we ought the love and care of God towards us herein; nor can we so do. When we have done our utmost, we are but unprofitable servants. But there is a wide difference between a defect in degrees of obedience, and the neglect of the whole. Where the first is, we ought to walk humbly in the sense of it, and labor after more perfection. And if this defect be great and notable, such as is occasioned by our lusts indulged unto, or by sloth and negligence, as we can have no evidence of our being approved of God, so it is high time to recover ourselves, by new diligence and holy endeavors, or we may be cast in our trial. But where the latter is, where men bring forth no “fruit meet for repentance,” what can they expect but to be finally and totally rejected of God? Whereas, therefore, we have been long most of us under this trial, it is assuredly high time that we call ourselves unto a strict account with respect unto it. And if, upon inquiry, we find ourselves at a loss which sort of ground we do belong unto, because of our barrenness and leanness, unless we are hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, we will give ourselves no rest until we have better evidences of our fruit- bearing. We may do well to remember, that though the earth on which the rain falls is here distributed by the apostle into two sorts, like Jeremiah’s figs, very good and very bad, to one of which every one at last must be joined; yet, as to present effects and appearances, the ground whereinto the seed of the gospel is cast is distributed by our Savior into four sorts, whereof one only brings forth fruit meet for Him by whom it is dressed, Matthew 13. There are several ways whereby we may miscarry under our trial; one only whereby we may be accepted, namely, fruitfulness of heart and life.

Obs. 2. Barrenness under the dispensation of the gospel is always accompanied with an increase of sin.

The ground which brings not forth “herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed,” thrusts forth “thorns and briers.” Let it be observed, that spiritual barrenness never goes alone. Abounding in sin will accompany it, and doth so. It may be it doth not so openly and visibly for a season; but all things will tend thereunto, and at last it will discover itself. Yea, there are no sinners like them, nor sin like theirs, by whom the means of grace are rejected, or not improved. The first generation of great provoking sinners were those of the old world before the flood. Unto these Noah had been a “preacher of righteousness,” 2 Peter 2:5. In his ministry did the Spirit of Christ “strive with them,” until God affirmed he should do so no more, Genesis 6:3. But they were disobedient and barren; 1 Peter 3:19-20. And this issued in those provoking sins which God could not bear withal, but “brought the flood upon the world of the ungodly.” The next was these Hebrews, unto whom the gospel had been preached. And they proved a generation no less wicked than that before the flood, insomuch as their own historian affirms that he verily believed that “if the Romans had not come and destroyed them, God would have poured fire and brimstone on them from heaven, as he did upon Sodom.” And the third generation of the same kind are the apostate Christian churches, whose condition and state is described in the Revelation. This is the issue of barrenness under God’s culture and watering; and it will be so. For, —

1. When men have rejected the last means of their spiritual healing and restraint of sin, what can be expected from them but an outrage in sinning? There are three ways whereby God puts a restraint upon sin. The first is by the light of a natural conscience. This is born with men in the principle of it, and grows into exercise in the improvement of reason. And where the natural workings of it are not prevented and suffocated by the horrible example of parents and relations living in cursing, lying, and all manner of profaneness, it is very useful in youth, to restrain persons from sundry sins. It is so, I say, until corruptions getting strength, and temptations abounding, custom in sinning takes away the edge of it, and weakens it in its operation. Wherefore, —

2. When this restraint is broken through, God sets up the hedge of the law before the minds of men, to deter them from sin. And this also hath a great efficacy with many unto this end, at least for a season. But neither will mere conviction from the law always give bounds unto the lusts of men. Wherefore, —

3. The gospel comes with a different design from them both. The utmost of their aim and work is but to restrain sin, but the gospel comes to convert the sinner. Their work is to set a dam before the streams of sin; that of the gospel is to dry up the spring.

But if this also, as it is in this case, be rejected and despised, what remains to set any bounds unto the lusts of men?

1. They will find themselves at liberty to act their own inclinations to the utmost, as having cast off all regard to God in all the ways whereby he hath revealed himself. Hence you may find more honesty and uprightness, a more conscientious abstinence from sin, wrongs, and injuries, more effects of moral virtue, among heathens and Mohammedans, than among professed Christians, or persons who, being unprofitable under the gospel, do thereby tacitly reject it. No fields in the world are fuller of thorns and briers, than those of people, nations, churches, who profess themselves to be Christians and are not. Suppose two fields equally barren; let one of them be tilled and dressed, and the other be let alone, left unto its own state and condition: when the field that hath been tilled shall be forsaken for its barrenness, trash of all sorts, incomparably above that which was never tilled, will rise up in it. This is that which at this day is such a scandal to Christianity, which hath broken up the flood-gates of atheism and let in a deluge of profaneness on the world. No sinners like unto barren Christians. Heathens would blush, and infidels stand astonished, at the things they practice in the light of the sun. There was sleeping in the bed of uncleanness, and drunkenness, among the heathens: but our apostle, who well enough knew their course, affirms of them, that “they who sleep, sleep in the night; and they who are drunken, are drunken in the night,” 1 Thessalonians 5:7. They did their shameful things in darkness and in secret, Ephesians 5:11-12. But, alas! among Christians who have directly and willfully despised the healing power and virtue of the gospel, these are works of the day, proclaimed as in Sodom, and the perpetration of them is the business of men’s lives. If you would see the greatest representation of hell upon the earth, go into an apostate church, or to persons that have had the word preached unto them, or have heard of it sufficiently for their conviction, but are not healed. The face of all things in Christianity at this day is on this account dreadful and terrible, and bespeaks desolation to lie at the door. The ground whereunto the waters of the sanctuary do come, and it is not healed, is left unto salt and barrenness for ever.

2. It is a righteous thing with God judicially to give up such persons unto all manner of filthy sins and wickedness, that it may be an aggravation of their condemnation at the last day. It is the way of God to do so even when inferior manifestations of himself, his word and will, are rejected, or not improved. So he dealt with the Gentiles for their abuse of the light of nature, with the revelation made of him by the works of creation and providence, Romans 1:24; Romans 1:26; Romans 1:28. And shall not we think that he will, that he doth so deal with persons, upon their unprofitableness under and rejection of the highest and most glorious revelation of himself that ever he did make, or ever will in this world, unto any of the sons of men? It may be asked, ‘How doth God thus judicially give up persons despising the gospel unto their own hearts’lusts, to do the things that are not convenient?’I answer, He doth it,

(1.) By leaving them wholly to themselves, taking off all effectual restraint from them. So spake our blessed Savior of the Pharisees: “Let them alone,” saith he; “they are blind leaders of the blind,” Matthew 15:14. ‘Reprove them not, help them not, hinder them not; let them alone to take their own course.’So saith God of Israel, now given up to sin and ruin, “Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone,” Hosea 4:17; Ezekiel 3:27. And it is the same judgment which he denounceth against unprofitable hearers of the gospel: Revelation 22:11, “He which is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still.” ‘Go on now in your sins and filthiness without restraint.’Now, when men are thus left unto themselves, — as there is a time when God will so leave gospel despisers, that he will lay no more restraint upon them, but withhold the influence of all consideration that should give them any effectual check or control, — it were not to be conceived what an outrage and excess of sin the cursed, corrupted nature of man will run out into, but that the world is filled with the fruits and tokens of it. And God doth righteously thus withdraw himself more absolutely from gospel despisers than he doth from pagans and infidels, whom, by various actings of his providence, he keeps within bounds of sinning subservient unto his holy ends.

(2.) God pours out upon such persons “a spirit of slumber,” or gives them up to a profound security, so as that they take notice of nothing in the works or word of God that should stir them up to amendment, or restrain them from sin. So he dealt with these unbelieving Jews: Romans 11:8, “God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see.” Although it be so come to pass, that many there are whom God’s soul loatheth, and they abhor him also, as he speaks, Zechariah 11:8, so that he will have no more to do with them; yet he doth and will continue his word in the world, and the works of his providence in the government thereof. Now, as in the word there are several warnings and dreadful threatenings against sinners, so in the works of God there are judgments full of evidences of God’s displeasure against sin, Romans 1:18. Both these in their own nature are suited to awaken men, to bring them to a due consideration of themselves, and so to restrain them from sin. But as to this sort of persons, God sends a spirit of slumber upon them, that nothing shall rouse them up, or awaken them from their sins. Though it thunders over their heads, and the tempest of judgments falls so near them, as if they were personally concerned, yet do they cry, “Peace, peace.” When the word is preached to them, or they hear by any means the curse of the law, yet they bless themselves, as those who are altogether unconcerned in it. God gives them up unto all ways and means whereby they may be fortified in their security. Love of sin; contempt and scorn of them by whom the word of God is declared, or the judgments of God are dreaded; carnal confidence, carrying towards atheism; the society of other presumptuous sinners, strengthening their hands in their abominations; a present supply for their lusts, in the pleasant things of this world, — I mean which are so to the flesh; shall all of them contribute to their security.

(3.) God absolutely and irrecoverably gives them up to extreme obstinacy, to final hardness and impenitency, Isaiah 6:9-10. This is no place to treat of the nature of divine induration. It is enough to observe at present, that where provoking sinners do fall under it, they are totally blinded and hardened in sin unto their eternal ruin. Now, when God doth thus deal with men who will not, and because they will not be healed and reformed by the preaching of the gospel, can any thing else ensue but that they will give up themselves unto all wickedness and filthiness with delight and greediness? And this wrath seems to be come upon multitudes in the world unto the utmost. So the apostle describes this condition in the Jews when they were under it, 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 : “Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.” And they are even blind themselves who see not this to be the condition of many in the world at this day.

3. There are especial sins that are peculiar to this sort of barren persons, and so also aggravations of sins that others contract not the guilt of. Now this state and condition, at least the utmost and highest danger of it, is so written on the foreheads of most that are called Christians in the world, that there is no need of making any application of it unto them. And although it be not for us to know times and seasons, or to set bounds and limits to the patience of Christ, yet have we just reason to dread the speedy breaking forth of his severity in judgment, spiritual or temporal, upon most nations and churches that are called by his name. But the duty it is of those who make profession of the gospel in a peculiar manner, to inquire diligently whether there be not growing in their own hearts and ways any such sins as are usually consequent unto barrenness under the word. If it prove so upon search, they may justly fear that God is beginning to revenge upon them the neglect of the gospel, and unprofitableness under it. There are degrees of this sin and its consequents, as we shall show afterwards; and the evidences and effects of God’s displeasure against it are progressive and gradual also. From some of these the sinner is recoverable by grace: from some of them he is not, at least ordinarily, but is inevitably bound over to the judgment of the great day. But the last degree is such as men ought to tremble at, who have the least care for or love unto their immortal souls. For whatever issue of things God may have provided in the purpose of his grace, the danger unto us is inexpressible. And there neither is nor can be unto any the least evidence, token, or hope, that God designs them any relief, whilst themselves are careless and negligent in the use of means for their own deliverance. It may, therefore, be inquired by what sort of sins this condition may be known in more strict professors than the common sort of Christians in the world, and how their barrenness under the gospel may be discovered thereby, as the cause by its effects and inseparable consequents. I shall, therefore, name some of those sins and ways with respect whereunto such persons ought to be exceeding jealous over themselves; as, —

(1.) An indulgence unto some secret, pleasant, or profitable lust or sin, with an allowance of themselves therein. That this may befall such persons, we have too open evidence in the frequent eruptions and discoveries of such evils in sundry of them. Some, through a long continuance in a course of the practice of private sins, are either surprised into such acts and works of it as are made public whether they will or no; or, being hardened in them, do turn off to their avowed practice. Some, under terrors of mind from God, fierce reflections of conscience, especially in great afflictions and probabilities of death, do voluntarily acknowledge the secret evils of their hearts and lives. And some, by strange and unexpected providences, God brings to light, discovering the hidden works of darkness wherein men have taken delight. Such things, therefore, there may be amongst them who make a more than ordinary profession in the world. For there are or may be hypocrites among them, — vessels in the house of God of wood and stone. And some who are sincere and upright may yet be long captivated under the power of their corruptions and temptations. And for the sake of such it is principally that this warning is designed. Take heed lest there be in any of you a growing secret lust or sin, wherein you indulge yourselves, or which you approve. If there be so, it may be there is more in it than you are aware of; nor will your delivery from it be so easy as you may imagine. God seldom gives up men unto such a way, but it is an effect of his displeasure against their barrenness. He declares therein that he doth not approve of their profession. Take heed lest it prove an entrance into the dreadful judgment ensuing.

Whatever, therefore, it be, let it not seem small in your eyes. There is more evil in the least allowed sin of a professor — I mean, that is willingly continued in — than in the loud and great provocations of open sinners. For besides other aggravations, it includes a mocking of God. And this very caution I now insist upon is frequently pressed on all professors by our apostle in this very epistle, Hebrews 3:12; Hebrews 12:15-16.

(2.) Constant neglect of private, secret duties. This also may be justly feared, lest it. be an effect of the same cause. Now by this neglect I mean not that which is universal; for it is sure hard to meet with any one, who hath so much light and conviction as to make profession of religion in any way, but that he will and doth pray and perform other secret duties, at one time or another. Even the worst of men will do so in afflictions, fears, dangers, with surprisals, and the like. Nor do I intend interruptions of duties upon unjustifiable occasions; which though a sin which men ought greatly to be humbled for, and which discovers a “superfluity of naughtiness” yet remaining in them, yet; is it not of so destructive a nature as that which we treat about. I intend, therefore, such an omission of duties as is general; where men do seldom or never perform them but when they are excited and pressed by outward accidents or occasions. That this may befall professors the prophet declares, Isaiah 43:22-23. And it argues much hypocrisy in them; the principal character of a hypocrite being that he will not pray always. Nor can there be any greater evidence of a personal barrenness than this neglect. A man may have a ministerial fruitfulness and a personal barrenness; so he may have a family usefulness and a personal thriftlessness. And hereof negligence in private duties is the greatest evidence. Men also may know when those sins are consequences of their barrenness, and to be reckoned among the thorns and briers intended in the text. They may do it, I say, by the difficulty they will meet withal in their recovery, if it be so. Have their failings and negligence been occasional, merely from the impression of present temptations? — a thorough watering of their minds and consciences from the word will enable them to cast off their snares, and to recover themselves unto a due performance of their duties. But if these things proceed from God’s dereliction of them because of their barrenness, whatever they may think and resolve, their recovery will not be so facile. God will make them sensible how foolish and evil a thing it is to forsake him under the means of fruitful obedience. They may think, like Samson, to go forth and do as at other times; but they will quickly find their locks cut, and their spiritual strength so decayed as that they have no power for what they thought would prove so easy unto them at any time. They will find their wills and affections so entangled and engaged, that without a fresh supply of grace, scarce less than that administered in their first conversion, they cannot be delivered. So is it with all lusts, sins, and negligences that are consequences of a provoking barrenness under the gospel.

(3.) A total want of some graces, both in their principle and exercise, is a great evidence of such a condition. Where there is any true saving grace, there is the root and principle of all. Some graces may be more tried and exercised than others, and so be made more evident and conspicuous; for the occasions of their exercise may much more frequently occur: but yet where there is any true grace, at least where it is kept unrusty, vigorous, and active, as it ought to be in all profiting hearers of the word, there every grace of the Spirit is so far kept alive as to be in some readiness for exercise when occasion and opportunity do occur. But if in any there are some graces that are totally wanting, that no occasion doth excite or draw forth to exercise, they have just reason to fear that either those graces which they seem to have are not genuine and saving, but mere common effects of illumination; or that, if they are true, they are under a dangerous declension, on the account of their unanswerableness unto the dispensation of the gospel. For instance, suppose a man to satisfy himself that he hath the graces of faith and prayer, and the like, but yet cannot find that he hath any grain of true zeal for the glory of God, nor any readiness for works of charity with an eye to God’s glory and love to his commands; he hath great reason to fear lest his other graces are false and perishing, or at least that he is signally fallen under the sin of barrenness. For in common grace, one single grace may appear very evident, and win great honor to the profession of them in whom it is, whilst there is a total want of all or many others: but in saving grace it is not so; for though different graces may exceedingly differ in their exercise, yet all of them are equal in their root and principle.

By these, and the like considerations, may professors try their own concernment in this commination.