PRACTICAL DISCOURSES ON REGENERATION.
DISCOURSE IV. THE NECESSITY OF REGENERATION, ARGUED FROM THE IMMUTABLE CONSTITUTION OF GOD.
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
WHILE the ministers of Christ are discoursing of such a subject, as I have before me in the course of these Lectures, and particularly in this branch of them which I am now entering upon, we may surely, with the utmost reason, address our hearers in those words of Moses to Israel, in the conclusion of his dying discourse: Set your hearts unto all the words which I testify among you this day, which ye shall command your children to observe and do, even all the words of this law; for it is not a vain thing for you, because it is your life. Deuteronomy 32:46, 47. That must undoubtedly be your life, concerning which the Lord Jesus Christ himself, the incarnate wisdom of God, the faithful and true witness, (Revelation 3:14,) has said, and said it with a solemn repeated asseveration, that without it a man cannot see the kingdom of God.
The occasion of his saying it deserves our notice; though the niceties of the context must be waived in such a series of sermons as this. He said it to a Jew of considerable rank, and, as it appears, one of the grand Sanhedrim, or chief council of the nation; who came not only for his own private satisfaction, but in the name of several of his brethren, to discourse with Christ concerning his doctrine, at the first passover' he attended at Jerusalem, after he had entered on his public ministry. Our Lord would, to be sure, be peculiarly careful what answer he returned to such an inquiry: and this is his answer, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God: as if he should have said, "If the princes of Israel inquire after my character, let them know that I came to be a preacher of regeneration; and that the blessings of that kingdom, which I am come to reveal and erect, are to be peculiar to renewed and sanctified souls; who may, by an easy and natural figure, be said to be born again." And the figure appears very intelligible, and very instructive to those that will seriously consider it; and might well lead us into a variety of pertinent and useful remarks.
You easily perceive, that to be born again must intimate a very great change; coming, as it were, into a new world, as an infant does; when after having lived awhile a kind of vegetative life in the darkness and confinement of the womb, it is born into open day; feels the vital air rushing in on its lungs, and light forcing itself upon the awakened eyes; hears sounds before unknown; opens its mouth to receive a yet untasted food, and every day becomes acquainted with new objects, and exerts new powers, till it grows up to the maturity of a perfect man. Such, and in some respects greater and nobler than this, is the change which regeneration makes in a heart, before unacquainted with religion: as you may have seen at large from the preceding discourses.
But I might further observe, that the phrase in the text may also express the humbling nature of this change, as well as the greatness of it. Erasmus gives this turn to the words; and it is so edifying, that I should have mentioned it at least, though I had not thought it so just, as it appears. To be born again, must signify to become as a little child; (Matthew 18:3;) and our Lord expressly and frequently assures us, that without this we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17. He has pronounced the very first of his blessings on poverty of spirit; (Matthew 5:3;) and where this is wanting, the soul will never be entitled to the rest. A mild and humble, a docile and tractable temper, a freedom from avarice and ambition, and an indifference to those great toys of which men are generally so fond, are all essential parts of the Christian character; and they have all, in one view or another, been touched upon in the preceding discourses. Let it be forgiven, however, if considering the importance of the case, you are told again, that in malice ye must be children; (1 Corinthians 14:20;) and that if any man think himself wise, he must become a child, and even a fool, that he may be wise indeed.1 1 Corinthians 3:18.
I might observe once more, that these words intimate the divine power, by which this great and humbling change is effected. Our first formation and birth is the work of God, and no less really so in the succeeding generations of men, than the first production of Adam was, when God formed him of the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Genesis 2:7. We may each of us say, with respect to the natural birth, and in an accommodated sense with respect to the spiritual too, thine eyes did see my substance, being as yet imperfect, and in thy book all my members, which in continuance of time were fashioned, were written, when as yet there was none of them. Psal. cxxxix.16. All the first gracious impressions that were made upon the mind, and all the gradual advances of them, till Christ was formed in the heart, and the new creature animated, must, as I shall hereafter show at large, be ultimately and principally referred into a divine operation; and in this sense, it is God that brings every good purpose in the mind to the birth, and God that gives strength to bring forth. Isaiah 66:9.
But I omit the farther prosecution of these remarks at present, because they coincide with what I have said in former discourses, or what will occur in those which are yet to come: and shall only further consider the words, as they are a confirmation of, and therefore a proper introduction to, what I am to lay before you under the third general head of these discourses; in which—as I have already shown who may be said to be in an unregenerate state, and how great that change is which regeneration makes in the soul—I shall now proceed,
Thirdly, to show the high importance, yea, the absolute NECESSITY of this change.
Our Lord expresses it in a very lively and awakening manner, in these few determinate words, which are here before us.: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. You see how emphatical the words are: he who is himself invariable truth, the same yesterday, to-day, and forever, (Hebrews 13:8,) repeats it again and again, with as much solemnity as he ever uses upon any occasion; repeats it to us, as he did to Nicodemus, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, that is, I seriously deliver it as a truth of infinite moment; except a man, i. e. any man, whatever his profession, whatever his knowledge, or whatever his privileges, may be; though he be a Jew, though he be a Pharisee, though he be, as thou Nicodemus art, a ruler or a senator; except he be born again, and have that great change, so often described in the word of God, wrought by the operation of the Spirit in his mind, he cannot see the kingdom of God: he cannot by any means approach it so as to enter into it, or have any share in the important blessings which it contains."
That we may more fully understand, and enter into this weighty argument, I shall from these words,
I. Briefly consider, what it is to see the kingdom of God.
II. Show how absolutely impossible it is, that any unregenerate man should see it. And,
III. How wretched a thing it is to be deprived of the sight and enjoyment of it.
And I am well persuaded, that if you diligently attend to these things, you will be inwardly and powerfully convinced, that no argument could be more proper to demonstrate the importance and necessity of regeneration, than this, which our Lord has suggested in these awful, emphatical, and comprehensive words.
I. I am to show you what it is to see the kingdom of God.
And for the explication of it, it will be necessary to consider—what we are to understand by this kingdom; and what is meant by seeing it.
I will show you now what we are to understand by the kingdom of God. And you will pardon me if I state the matter pretty largely; because the phrase is used in scripture in different senses; and the true interpretation of many passages in it depends on a proper distinction between them. You may observe then, for the explication of this phrase, that the kingdom of God in general signifies, 'the society of those, who profess themselves the servants and subjects of Christ;' and in consequence of this, that there are some passages, in which it peculiarly relates to the imperfect dispensation of this kingdom, and the beginning of it in the world; and others, in which it relates to the more perfect form, which this society is to bear in the world of glory.
1. The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven—for they are synonymous phrases—does in the general signify the society of those, who profess themselves the servants and subjects of Christ.
You well know this was a phrase used among the Jews: and therefore the original of it is to be traced from the Old Testament; and I apprehend it to be this: Almost every Christian is aware, that in the early days of the Jewish commonwealth, as Samuel with great propriety expresses it, God was their king.1 Sam. xii.12. Jehovah was not only the great object of their religious regard, as the creator and supporter of the whole world; but he was also their supreme civil magistrate, settling the forms of their political government, and reserving to himself some of the chief acts of royal authority. They did indeed afterwards desire another king, like the other nations around about them.1 Sam. viii.5. But still those kings, being appointed by God, were indeed to be looked upon as no other than his vicegerents, though another kind of governors than he had originally instituted.
By degrees their peculiar regard to the civil authority of God among them, as well as to his religious authority, which was nearly connected with it, in a great measure wore out; and their government went through a great many different forms, which it would be unnecessary here particularly to describe. Nevertheless, God was pleased to declare by king David, and by many others of his holy prophets, that he would in due time interpose to erect another, and a far more extensive kingdom in the world; not indeed upon the same political principles with that which he exercised over the Jews; which principles would by no means have suited this extensive design: but it should be a kingdom in which the authority of the God of heaven should be acknowledged, and his laws of universal righteousness observed with greater care, and to nobler purposes, as well as by a vastly greater number of subjects than ever before. This kingdom he determined to commit to the government of the Messiah, who, with regard to this was called the Lord's anointed, his king whom he set upon his holy hill of Zion; (Psal. ii.2, 6;) and to whom indeed he would give all power, not only on earth, but in heaven too; (Matthew 28:18;) so that having trained up his subjects here, in the discipline of holiness and obedience, he should at length translate them to another and a better country, that is, a heavenly, where they should see his glory, and should reign with him in eternal life.
This plainly appears from the whole tenor of the Old and New Testament, to have been the grand plan of God, with respect to the Messiah's kingdom: and you will easily see, that coming from God as its great author, and referring to him as its end, it may, with great propriety, be called the kingdom of God; and ultimately terminating in the heavenly state, it may also properly be called the kingdom of heaven. These were phrases, which prevailed in the Jewish nation, before Christ, or his immediate forerunner appeared; and indeed they were used by Daniel in a very remarkable manner, which probably made them so familiar to the Jews, who had some peculiar reason for studying his writings, even more than those of some other prophets. After that prophet had foretold the rise and fall of several great empires of the world, he adds, and in the days of these last kings, i. e. of the Romans, shall the God of Heaven set up a kingdom which shall not be destroyed,—-but shall stand forever. Daniel 2:44. And the person whom the Ancient of Days, i. e. the eternal and ever blessed God, should fix on the throne of this kingdom, from his appearing in the human nature, is called the Son of Man; (Daniel 7:13, 14;) "I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the Son of Man, came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before him; and there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed."
In allusion to this, when our Lord Jesus Christ appeared, he called himself the Son of Man; and he particularly used this phrase, and it was exceedingly proper that he should, in this conference with Nicodemus, again and again. John 3:13, 14. And all those who, being convinced of the divine commission he bore, submitted themselves to him, might in this respect be said, to enter into the kingdom of God, or of heaven: that is, into the society which had so long been foretold and expected under that title. This kingdom, as the above mentioned prophecy declared, was to be raised from very low beginnings, and under the personal ministry of Christ and his Apostles, till at last it should extend through very distant regions of the world, and kings and princes should submit themselves to it, and reckon it their glory to enroll themselves among his subjects.
Agreeably to this meaning of the phrase, and to this view with respect to the establishment of his kingdom, our Lord opened his ministry with preaching, as John the Baptist had done, the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 3:2; iv.1. And you will see, that in most places of the Gospel, where the phrase occurs, it is to be taken in this sense. Thus our Lord says, Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; (Matthew 5:3;) i. e. they are fit to be members of this society, and to receive the blessings of it. Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; (Matthew 6:33;) i. e. labor to serve the interests of this society that I am erecting, and to obtain and promote that righteousness which it recommends, and is intended to establish in the world. And again, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God: (Luke 18:16;) persons with such a disposition are most fit to become my subjects, and to enter into this holy and spiritual society. And when our Lord says to, the Pharisees, Publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you; (Mark 21.31;) he means, no doubt, they are more ready than you to join themselves to the society of those who profess themselves my subjects. And once more, when he speaks of some who chose the severities of a single life, that with less entanglements they might serve the interests of his church, he expresses it, by their making themselves eunuchs, for the kingdom of heaven's sake. Matthew 14:12.
I shall only add, that the phrase, by a near connection with this sense, sometimes signifies the character of this society, or the privileges which it affords to its members; as when our Lord says, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, shall in no wise enter therein. Luke 18:17.
This then is the general sense of this phrase; it signifies the society of those who should submit themselves to the government of Christ, as appointed by God to rule over them; who are thereby to be considered as God's people and subjects. In consequence of this you will easily apprehend,
2. That it comprehends the more imperfect dispensation, under which the members of this society are, during their abode in the present world.
All that passes here is indeed but the opening of Christ's kingdom: nevertheless, the phrase does sometimes more particularly refer to this opening; and there are several passages, in which it would be apparently absurd to suppose it comprehended the glories of the invisible state, to which Christ intended finally to conduct his faithful servants. Thus our Lord tells the Pharisees, The kingdom of God is come unto you, (Matthew 12:28,) i. e. that gracious dispensation under the Messiah, by which God is gathering subjects to his Son. And elsewhere he says to them, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation, i. e. not with such outward show and grandeur as you expect; but behold it is within, or, (as it might be rendered,) among you; (Luke 17:20, 21;) God has begun to open and establish it, though you know it not; and has actually brought many poor sinners into it, whom you proudly deride as ignorant and accursed. Thus also, when our Lord says to Peter, I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, (Matthew 16:19,) it would be most absurd to suppose, he meant to grant to him the power of admitting into, or excluding from, the world of glory: but the plain meaning is, that he should bear office in the church on earth, and be the means of admitting Jews and Gentiles into it. Here, as in many other instances, the kingdom of God, or of heaven, means much the same with the professing church of Christ, in this imperfect state; as it undoubtedly does, when Christ threatens his hearers, that the kingdom of God should be taken away from them; (Matthew 21:43;) and when he represents it as consisting of good and bad, (Matthew 13:48,) of tares and wheat; (Verse 25,) but declares, that at the last day he will gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them that do iniquity; (Matthew 13:41;) whereas nothing of that kind shall ever enter into the kingdom of glory. But yet,
3. It ultimately relates to the more perfect form and state of this society in the kingdom of glory.
You very well know, that the design of God in his Gospel was not to establish a temporal kingdom, as the Jews expected: nor merely to form a body of men, who should live upon earth with some peculiar forms of worship, under very excellent rules, and with distinguished privileges of a spiritual nature; but that all these ultimately referred to the invisible world. Thither the Son of Man was removed, when he had finished the scenes of his labor and sufferings upon earth; and thither all the true and faithful members of the kingdom were sooner or later to be brought, and there were to have their final settlement and everlasting abode, in a far more splendid and happy state, than the greatest monarch on earth has ever known: they shall there, as the Apostle most properly expresses it, reign in life by Jesus ChriRomans 5:17.
Now as the kingdom of God upon earth is to be considered with a leading view to this, so we sometimes find, that this glorious state of its members, or which will come much to the same thing, the society of the faithful in this glorious state, is, by way of eminence, called the kingdom of God: and with regard to this, they whose characters are such that they shall be excluded from thence, are represented as having no part in the kingdom of heaven, though they have been by profession members of the church of Christ on earth. Of this you have a remarkable instance, where our Lord says, Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father which is in heaven: (Matthew 7:21:) now it was calling Christ, Lord, or professing a regard to him as a divine teacher and governor, which was the very circumstance that distinguished the members of his kingdom on earth from the rest of mankind: yet as they who do this insincerely shall be excluded from final glory, it is said, they shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. So also the Apostle tells us, that flesh and blood, i. e. such gross machines of animal nature as those in which we now dwell, cannot inherit the kingdom of God; (2 Cor. 50;) they cannot dwell in so pure a region; and therefore it is necessary, that before they enter upon it, those who are found alive at the illustrious day of Christ's appearance, should undergo a miraculous change to fit them for such an abode. In reference to this we are likewise told, that then, i. e. at the great resurrection-day, the righteous shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Matthew 13:43. And this is what our Lord most certainly had in view, when he tells the impenitent Jews, that there should be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when they should see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and they themselves thrust out; (Luke 13:29;) which could not be meant of the privileges of the Christian church upon earth, in which the patriarchs had no share; nor did the Jews at all envy those professing Christians, who most evidently had: it must undoubtedly therefore be numbered among those passages, in which the kingdom of God chiefly refers to the state of glory. And I apprehend, the text here before us may be added to that catalogue which leads us to show,
2. What we are to understand by seeing the kingdom of God.
Now, in general, you will easily apprehend, that to see the kingdom is to enjoy the blessings of it. There is no need of enumerating many passages of Scripture, where to see properly signifies to enjoy. This is apparently the sense of it, when Christ declares, Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God: (Matthew 5:8:) for the Deity cannot be the object of sight; but the promise is, that such souls—Oh, that we may be in their number!—shall forever enjoy the most delightful communications from him. And thus again we are to understand it, where it is said, What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may see, i. e. that he may enjoy, good? Psal. xxxiv.12. For otherwise, to see it without enjoying it, would be a great aggravation of misery and distress. And in this sense it is most evident, that seeing the kingdom of God must here be put, for enjoying the most important blessings appropriated to this state; because, as I have just been observing, condemned sinners are represented in another sense, as seeing that kingdom and the glorified saints in it; but viewing it only at an unapproachable distance, as a spectacle that fills them with horror and despair.
This therefore is, upon the whole, the meaning of this passage: That no unregenerate soul shall finally have any part in the glory and happiness which Christ has prepared for his faithful subjects; nor can any that appear to be such, according to the tenor and constitution of the gospel, be admitted into the number even of professing Christians. It is true, indeed, a man may appear under such a disguise, that those who are in this sense the stewards of the mysteries of God, (1 Corinthians 4:1,) may, in the judgment of charity, be obliged to think well of him, and to admit him; but Christ, who intimately knows him, does even now discern him. The present external privileges he enjoys, are such as he has no just right to; and in a little time, Christ will root him out of this kingdom with a vengeance, and he shall be openly declared a rebel, and one whom the Lord of it never knew, or never approved. Matthew 7:23. So that upon the whole, it is so little a part that he had in the kingdom, and that for so short a time, that it may, in the free language of Scripture, be said, that he has never seen the kingdom of God at all; that he has neither part nor lot in this matter, (Acts 8:21,) has no part with God's chosen, nor any lot with his inheritance.
Having thus largely explained the meaning of this phrase, I now proceed,
II. To show you how CERTAIN this declaration of our Lord in the text is, or how absolutely impossible it is, that any unregenerate man should thus see the kingdom of God.
Now this I shall argue, partly from the immutable constitution of God, whose kingdom it is: and partly from the nature of its blessings, which are such, that no unregenerate man, while he continues in that state, can have any fitness or capacity to enjoy them.
The first of these considerations is copious and important enough, to furnish out abundant matter for the remainder of this discourse: and it will be difficult to dispatch it within these limits.
1. The impossibility there is, that any unregenerate man should enter into the kingdom of God, appears from the IMMUTABLE CONSTITUTION of that God, whose kingdom it is.
This might be sufficiently argued, from the express and emphatical words of our Lord Jesus Christ in the text. For he bore his Father's commission to preach the Gospel of the kingdom, to publish the good news of its erection and success, and likewise to declare its nature, and the method of admittance into it. And he is himself the great Sovereign of that kingdom; and consequently cannot but perfectly, and beyond all comparison with any other, know the whole of its constitution. But God has repeated the declaration by him, and by his other messengers to the children of men, in different ages, and under different dispensations, in such a manner as suited its infinite importance. And, therefore, for the further illustration of the argument, I shall enumerate a great variety of scriptures that speak the same language; not so much aiming therein at the speculative proof of the point, as attempting to impress the conscience of my hearers with a sense of its certainty; and humbly hoping that some of those sharp-pointed arrows, which I am now drawing out of the quiver of God, may, by the direction of his Spirit, enter the reins of some against whom they are leveled, (Lamentations 3:8,) and convince them of the absolute necessity of an entire change in their hearts, as well as their lives, or of the vanity of all those hopes which they entertain, while that change is wanting. And let me bespeak your attention, not to the conjectures or reasoning of a frail mortal man, but to the solemn admonitions and declarations of the eternal God; and be assured that in one sense or another, his word shall take hold on you, as it has done on sinners of former generations, either for conviction, or condemnation.
That I may not be confounded in the multiplicity of my proofs, I shall range them under these three distinct heads. The prophets of the Old Testament were commissioned to make this declaration:—it was renewed by the preaching of Christ;—and was supported by the testimony of the Apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The prophets of the Old Testament were commissioned in effect to make this declaration, that no unregenerate sinner should enter the kingdom of God.
Well might our Lord say to Nicodemus, Art thou a teacher in Israel, and knowest not these things? For to this in effect all the prophets bear witness, and it might be learned from almost every page of their writings. It is true the particular phrase of being born again, or regenerated, does not occur there; nor is it expressly said, that an unregenerate man shall not be admitted into God's kingdom. But then the prophets everywhere assert, what is in effect the same, that no wicked man, who does not heartily repent of his sins, and turn from them to God, must expect the Divine favor. Now if you consider what we mean by an unregenerate man, according to the description I have given before, you will find it is just the same as an impenitent sinner; and if it be declared that such are not to expect the Divine favor, nay, that they must certainly prove the object of his displeasure, this must certainly. imply an exclusion from his kingdom, and must intend a great deal more than being deprived of everlasting happiness. And thus you see that all those scriptures, which speak of the irreconcilable hatred of God against sin, and against all impenitent sinners, come in to do service here, and are equivalent to the declaration in the text. And I may hereafter show you, that there are many scriptures in the Old Testament which lead men to consider that change, said to be so necessary, as what must be effected by a Divine operation on their souls. But as that will more properly come in under a following head, I shall at present content myself with selecting a few scriptures as a specimen of many hundred more, in proof of the main point before us: and I beseech you that you would endeavor to enter, not only into the sense, but into the spirit of them.
You well know that unregenerate sinners are wicked men; and of such it is said, God is angry with the wicked every day; (Psal. vii.2;) or all the day long, as the original imports. The sinner lies down and rises up, goes out and comes in, under the Divine displeasure: and though with great patience God bears with him for awhile, he is described as preparing his dreadful artillery against him, to smite him even with a mortal wound: so far will he be from admitting him into his kingdom, that, as it is there added, if he turn not he will whet his sword; he has bent his bow and made it ready; he has also prepared for him the instruments of death. Psal. vii.12, 13. And in another place, he describes the dreadful consequence of that preparation in most lively terms: "If I whet my glittering sword, and my hand take hold on judgment, I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me: I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh, from the beginning of revenges on the enemy;" i. e. as soon as I begin this awful work. Deuteronomy 32:41, 42. And elsewhere he compares the destruction which he will bring upon sinners at last, to that which he executed on Sodom and Gomorrah, when he scattered fire and brimstone on their habitations, and reduced their pleasant country to a burning lake; Upon the wicked he will rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest; this will be the portion of their cup: (Psal. xi.6:) and oh, how unlike the state and abode of those who are the happy subjects of his kingdom!
None of the prophets speak in milder and more gentle language to returning penitents than Isaiah; yet he declares, there is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked. Isaiah 57:21. Yea, he does, as it were, call in the concurrence of all who feared God, and who loved their country, to echo back and enforce the admonition: say ye to the righteous, that it shall be well with him: but on the other hand, wo to the wicked! it shall be ill with him; for the reward of his hands shall be given him. Isaiah 3:10, 11.
The enumeration would be endless; and it would require more than the time of a whole discourse, only to read over, without any comment or remark one half of the passages which might properly be introduced on this occasion. I will therefore only mention two more, which, though some of you may hear with indifference, I confess I cannot read without a very sensible inward commotion.
The one is that passage in the Mosaic law, where God directs his servant to say, "If there be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood, (i. e. any unregenerate soul,) who when he hears the words of this curse, shall bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace though I walk in the imagination of mine heart, to add drunkenness to thirst, (i. e. run into one debauchery and sin after another:) the Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord, and his jealousy shall smoke against that man;—-and the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant, that are written in the book of the law." Deuteronomy 29:18-21. There is a terrible emphasis of which we cannot but take notice here: God declares, that if among all the thousands of Israel, there was but one such presumptuous sinner, that thus flattered himself in the way of his own heart, he would make a terrible example of him, and separate that one man to evil, out of thousands and ten thousands of his faithful and obedient servants.
This therefore is a passage full of apparent terror: the other is indeed a language of mercy; but it contains a most awful insinuation, which appears, as good Archbishop Tillotson expresses it, "like a razor set in oil, which wounds with so much the keener edge." As I live, saith the Lord God, 1 have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11;) thereby plainly intimating, that notwithstanding all that gentleness of the Divine nature, which he expresses in a most tender invitation, which he confirms even with the solemnity of an oath; yet, if sinners did not turn from their evil ways, there was no remedy, but they must die for it.
And how, sirs, will any of you that continue in an unregenerate state, arm yourselves against these terrors? Is it by saying, 'that these are the thunders of Mount Sinai; that these are denunciations of the Old Testament; whereas the New speaks in milder language?' You may easily know the contrary.
And to this purpose I am further to show you, that this declaration was renewed by the preaching of Christ.
It is true, indeed, that grace and truth came by Jesus Christ: (John 1:17:) yet all the grace and gentleness of that administration he brought, did not contradict those awful threatenings; nay, it obliged him to set them in a stronger light. He presently repeats to Nicodemus what he had just before asserted in the text, and declares, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water, and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God; (John 3:5;) i. e. 'As he must be baptized with water, in order to a regular entrance into the society of my people, so he must also be transformed by the cleansing and renewing influence of the Spirit, signified by the water there used, or he can have no part in the blessings which my Gospel brings.'
And that this must produce a universal change in the life as well as the heart, and a faithful subjection to the will of God—without which no profession will stand a man in any stead—our Lord solemnly declares in the conclusion of his incomparable discourse on the Mount: "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven: many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name cast out devils, and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity." Matthew 7:21, 22, 23.
And shall you, sirs, merely for having a name and place in his house, escape; when those that have preached his Gospel, and wrought miracles in confirmation of it, when those that personally conversed with Christ, and those that ministered unto him shall perish, if destitute of a holy temper of heart, and of its solid fruit in their lives? Has not our Lord expressly said, that he will gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them that do iniquity; and will cast them into a furnace of fire; there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth? Matthew 13:41, 42. Nay, in his infinite compassion, he has given to sinners, as it were, a copy of the sentence that will another day be pronounced upon them; that they may meditate upon it, and review it, and judge whether they can bear the terror of its execution. Hear it attentively, and then say whether unregenerate sinners shall enter into his kingdom. The dreadful doom is this: Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. Matthew 25:41. And what now will you say to this? Can any soul of you imagine, that the Lord Jesus Christ did not know what would pass in this day in which he is appointed to preside? or that knowing it, and knowing it would be something different from this, he would, on any consideration whatsoever, make a false representation, and lay so much stress upon it? Yet one or other of these things you must secretly imagine; or must own, that every unregenerate sinner, and you among the rest, must not only be excluded from his presence, but be condemned to suffer all the fury of his wrath, in company with devils and damned spirits, in final darkness, and everlasting burning.
It only remains that I show you, that the same testimony was renewed by the Apostles, under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
You know that they were authorised by their Great Master to declare, in an authentic manner, the constitution of his kingdom; and that he who despises them, despises ChriLuke 10:16. Now I would fain persuade you all, to consider this argument as it lies in Scripture; to read over the epistolary parts of the New Testament in this view, to observe what encouragement they any of them give to an unregenerate sinner, to expect any part in the kingdom of heaven. In the mean time, permit me to present you with a few texts, as a specimen of the rest.
The apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, does indeed speak of God's justifying the ungodly; (Romans 4:5;) but lest any should vainly imagine that he encourages the hope of those that continue so, he expressly tells us, in the very same epistle, that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men; (Romans 2:8;) and that ere long this wrath shall be executed, even in the day of the more ample revelation of the righteous judgment of God; who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them that do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, which is the character of every unregenerate sinner, indignation and wrath: tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doth evil, of the Jew first, as having had the most signal advantages, though advantages inferior to yours, and also of the Gentile. Romans 2:5, 6, 8, 9. And farther he assures us, that to be carnally minded is death: and that the carnal mind, which universally prevails in men, till by regenerating grace they are made spiritual, is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. Romans 8:6, 7.
In another epistle he mentions it as a first principle, in which it might rationally be supposed, no Christian was uninstructed. Know ye not, says he, that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? 1 Corinthians 6:9. And elsewhere he declares, that all external modes of religion, separate from that entire change of soul which I have described, are worthless and vain. In Christ Jesus, says he, or to those that desire any part in him and his kingdom, neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. Galatians 6:15. He likewise tells us to this purpose in another place, that his grace, which has appeared unto all men, teaches us to deny "ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world;" (Titus 2:11, 12;) and yet, after all, to acknowledge, that it is "not by works of righteousness, which we have done, but according to his mercy he saves us, by the washing of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Ghost, which he has shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour." Titus 3:5, 6. And without holiness, which is the effect of these sacred operations upon the soul, he expressly tells us in another place, that no man shall see the Lord. Hebrews 12:14. And to allege but one more passage from him: as it is evident, that all unregenerate sinners, and only they are ignorant of God, and disobedient to the Gospel; he solemnly assures us, that instead of receiving such at last into his kingdom, the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven, with his mighty angels, in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power. (2 Thessalonians 1:7, 8, 9. This is the testimony of the apostle Paul in his own emphatical words, zealous as he was for the doctrine of free grace, which such declarations as these do not in the least degree contradict.
Let us now hear his brethren, the other apostles of the Lord. James urges sinners, if they ever desire to draw nigh to God, and to have him draw nigh to them, to cleanse their hands, and purify their hearts. James 4:8. And yet more expressly he says when he speaks of those who should receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him; of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures. James 1:12, 18. The apostle Peter describes Christians, as those whose souls were purified in obeying the truth through the Spirit-being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible; (1 Pet. i.22, 23;) and as those who were made partakers of the Divine Nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.2 Pet. i.4. Again, John, the beloved disciple, tells us, that every one that doth righteousness is born of God; (1 John 2:29;) but he that committeth sin is of the devil; (1 John 3:8;) and that every one that has a well grounded hope of being like Christ, and seeing him as he is when he appears, purifies himself, even as he is pure.1 John 3:2, 3. And once more, the apostle Jude, as he describes those who are sensual and have not the Spirit, as men, that if they were saved at all, must be plucked out of the fire; (Jude ver.19, 23;) so he echoes back that awful prophecy, which Enoch had so long since delivered, that the Lord will come with ten thousand of his saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all that are ungodly, of all those ungodly deeds and works, by which they have violated his law. Jude ver.14, 15.
This then appears, from the whole tenor of the Scriptures, to be the positive and immutable constitution of the great God—that none who are unregenerate shall be admitted to enjoy the happiness of heaven.
And from the view that we have taken of the sacred writings it is manifest, that this, in every age, has been the language of the word of God; and under every dispensation we have sufficient evidence of this important truth. This is the doctrine of the Old Testament; and many are the passages that I have offered from the law of Moses, and from the Prophets, and the Psalms, that show it is impossible an unrenewed soul should enter into heaven. And the same also is asserted in the strongest terms in the New Testament; and when Christ came to set the Gospel of the kingdom in a clearer light, the purport of the declaration that he makes to Nicodemus in the text, was frequently repeated by him in the course of his preaching, and represented as the rule he would regard at the last day. And the inspired apostles speak the same thing with a united voice, and testify at large in their epistles, that it is absolutely necessary we should be born again, if ever we would hope to see the kingdom of God.
So that now, sirs, I may say, Call, if there be any that will answer; and to which of the saints will you turn, (Job 5:1,) to encourage your vain and presumptuous hope, of finding your lot among God's people in the kingdom of glory, if you are strangers to that important and universal change, which we before described as regeneration in the Scripture sense of the word? The prophets under the Old Testament, and Christ and his apostles under the New, concur, in all the variety of the most awful language, to expose so presumptuous a hope. And is it not audacious madness in any to venture their souls upon it? Thus you would undoubtedly judge of any man who should strike a dagger into his breast, or discharge a pistol at his head, on this presumption, that the almighty power of God could prevent his death, though the heart or the brain were pierced.
But it is much greater folly for a man, while he continues in an unregenerate state, to promise himself a part in the kingdom of heaven. For though there would be no reason in the world to expect a miraculous interposition, to save a life which a man was so resolutely bent to destroy; yet none can say, that such an interposition would contradict any of the express engagements of God's word; whereas to admit an unregenerate sinner into the regions of glory, would be violating, not this, or that single declaration, but the whole series and tenor of it; and we shall farther show, in the next Discourse, that it would also be, in effect, altering the very nature of the heavenly kingdom itself, as well as its constitution. Now what hope can be more desperate, than that which can have no support, but in the subversion of the Redeemer's kingdom, and even of the eternal throne of God, the foundations of which are righteousness and truth!