Article of the Month
by Ralph Erskine
SERMONS LXXV, LXXVI.*
I Cor. xv. 56. The strength of sin is the law!
[The third and fourth Sermon on this text.]
THAT sin hath a great strength, will be denied by none, but such as are wholly under the power of it, and have utterly lost the understanding of their own miserable condition. There are two arms of sin, by which it puts forth and exerts its power, and by which it attains to its dominion; the one is fraud, and the other is force: the fraud of it is so great, that, it is dreadful above all things; and the force of it is so violent, that, like a mighty torrent, it carries down all before it, with respect to which it is promised, Psalm lxxii. 15. concerning our Lord Jesus Christ, in behalf of the poor and needy that cry to him, He shall redeem their souls from deceit and violence; and how he redeems them from the strength of sin, when it takes and holds them with these powerful arms, if, here discovered in this triumphant song, O death, where is thy sting? O grave, in here is thy victory? When a powerful enemy is to be subdued, the great and leading inquiry is, where the strength of the enemy lies, that so it may be attacked in its principal strength: but, if the ignorant world, that are strangers to the grace of God revealed in the gospel, should be examined and asked, Where does the strength of sin ly? They would never answer it as our apostle does here; yea, it would be a hard question, a difficult catechism to the most part of gospel-professors, especially such as are under the powerful influence of a legal spirit. It cannot but be a mystery to their understanding, to hear, that the strength of sin is the law. If the apostle Paul had been living and preaching in our day, it is likely, upon his delivering such doctrine as this, he had been taxed as a ring-leader of Antinomians and enemies to the law: and it is plain from his epistle, he did not escape this reproach, which therefore we find him wiping off, Rom. iii. 31. Do we then make void the law through faitb? God forbid; yea, we establish the law. Why, but is it possible to establish the law, and yet assert, that the strength of sin is the law? How can this be? Yea, it may be asserted in a consistency both with the honour of the law, and with a casting the greatest contempt upon sin: and therefore it is an essay to open this mystery, that, through grace, I would endeavour at this time, namely, That the strength of sin is the law.
* The two discourses following were delivered at Orwell, August 7th and 8th, 1727.
After a communion solemnity, the battle, is to be expected; for even in the banquetting-house, the banner of love supposes a battle at hand; yea, a battle present, as well as a battle to come: now, the strength of the battle, to be sure, is to be against the strength of sin. Believers, that know what it is to be brought to, the banqueting house, do also know that sin is the great enemy they have to combat with: and if it be asked on the one hand, Where the believer’s strength lies? Surely it lies in the Lord Jesus, his righteousness and strength, and in the banner of love and grace that he spreads over his people, who are not under the law, but under grace. And, since the apostle sets the law and grace in opposition to one-another, and since the love and grace of God in Christ, is the banner and strength of the believer, it is no wonder if it be asked, on the other hand, Where the strength of sin lies? Then the apostle answers it in this manner, saying, The strength of sin is the law. Hence Christ and the law are the two main strengths here opposed: The strength of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, that giveth us the victory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Surely there is a greater mystery in sin than the world can imagine, particularly in that it could, in a manner, get the law of God upon its side, and set the law and the Law-giver at variance, insomuch, that the main battle stands betwixt them, as being the two great contending parties and opposing powers; for, as the strength of the believer is Christ’s, so the strength of sin is the law. ***
Having elsewhere finished the first doctrine, I laid down from these words; I come now to the second doctrine proposed which was,
Doct. “That the strength of sin is the law:” Or thus, “That the law of works, is the strength of sin to the sinner that hath violate and broken it.”
The method I premise, after proving that the law is the strength of sin, is the following,
I am first to prove that the law is the strength of sin. You may see a cluster of proofs for it, Rom. vii. 5- 9. compared with Rom. vi. 14.; where you see, that the reason of man’s being under the dominion of sin, is his being under the law; which plainly proves, that the strength of sin is the law: But it is, needless to insist in proving what is expressly asserted in the sacred text.
I. The first question I proposed was, What law is it that here is said to be the strength of sin? For understanding this, you would consider, that the law is taken two ways;
I. More largely, for the whole revelation of the will and mind of God in the word; To the law and to the testimony; is they speak not according to this, it is because they have no light in them, Isa. viii. 20. It is not in this sense that you are to understand the law here; for thus the law is not the strength of sin, but is rather the means of light, life, and strength against sin, Psal. cxix. I, 2, 3, &c. For, in this respect, it contains not only precepts to obey, but also promises of strength; and the whole covenant of promise, which is the mean of conveying spiritual life and strength. Now, in this sense, it is not opposed to the gospel of the grace of God, but contains the gospel in it; and therefore the law, under this consideration, is not here intended.
2. More strictly, the law is taken for the old-covenant rule of perfect obedience; and under this form, Do, and live. In this sense it is the strength of sin, as being opposite to the gospel, or to grace, which believers are said to be under; Ye are not under the law, but under grace.
“All men besides are under the power, rule, conditions, and authority of the law as a covenant, says Dr. Owen; even all men who are not instated in the new covenant through faith in Christ Jesus, who set up in them and over them the rule of grace: for all men must be, one way or other, under the rule of God; and he rules only by the law, or by grace: and none can be under both at the same time.”
But, for further clearing what this law is, that is here called the strength of sin, you may consider it,
(I.) In its distinction: it is to be viewed formally, as a covenant of works; and materially, as a rule of life. The law, materially considered, is the matter of the covenant of works, the simple precept of obedience relating to the abstaining from what is evil, and doing what is good; this is continually and eternally binding upon all rational creatures. The law, formally considered, is the form of the covenant of works, commanding all duties, with a promise of life upon our obedience; and forbidding all sin, with a threatening of death in case of disobedience. Thus it is a covenant of life or death, upon doing or not doing. In this respect, the believer is not under it; it is not binding upon him: he is, indeed, bound to do what is good, and shun what is evil, be cause he is still under the law, materially considered as a rule of life; but under no obligation to it formally as a covenant, as if he were to be justified upon his obedience, or condemned upon his disobedience: No; he is not under the law as a covenant, to be either justified or condemned. But then,
(2.) Consider it in its parts, namely, the command, and the sanction: the command of it, as a covenant, is not simply Do, or yield obedience; for this was incumbent on man before ever there was a covenant of works made with him, the law as a rule of holiness being written on the table of his heart, in his first make and constitution, before ever God entered into covenant with him: but the command of the covenant of works was that same Do, in its connection with the sanction of the promise of life upon doing, and threatening of death upon not doing; Do and live: if thou do not, thou shalt die.
(3.) Consider it in its properties: it is holy, just and good, says the apostle, Rom.vii.12. Holy, in its command; just, in its threatening; and good, in its promise. The command of holiness is a holy command, the threatening of death is a just threatening, the promise of life is a good promise. The holiness of the command, requiring perfect personal obedience, flows from the holiness of God, and the purity of his nature; the justice of the threatening of eternal death against sin, flows from the justice of God, and the demerit of sin; the goodness of the promise of eternal life upon man’s obedience, issued from the sovereignty of God, that was pleased to make such a promise, not from the merit of that personal and perfect obedience, though it had been performed: no creature-obedience, whether of man or angel, hath any merit of condignity; all the merit that could take place, even in a state of innocence, was a merit of paction: for, though man had obeyed perfectly, he did no more than what he was bound to do, and so could never merit; and therefore the promise of life, annexed to obedience, was a good promise, shewing forth the sovereign goodness of God. Now, before this law was violated and broken by sin, it could never be the strength of sin to man in these circumstances; nay, it was rather, in every part and property of it, a bulwark against sin: the command was a bright glass wherein the beauty of holiness stained; the threatening of eternal death was a flaming sword to make sin terrible; and the promise of eternal life, upon obedience, was a golden bait to make duty delectable. But now,
(4.) Consider this law in the violation of it, and as it is a broken law, a violated covenant; and under this consideration it is, that the law is the strength of sin, namely, to the sinner that hath violated and broken it: and so it became the strength of sin to Adam upon his fall, and to all his posterity, for sailing in the obedience and righteousness therein required. We have forfeited the life therein promised, and incurred the death there in threatened; “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death pasted upon all men, for that all have sinned,” Rom.v.12. And thus the life of God in man being lost, thro’ his being alienated from it, the life and strength of sin must succeed. The law then, that is the strength of sin, is the law of works, violated by the sinner. It could not be the strength of sin to the keeper; but it is so to the breaker of it. To the perfect keeper of it, it is life; but to the least breaker of it, it is death: and if the law be death to the breaker, it must be, of consequence, the sting and strength of sin, according to our apostle here, The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. Now, the sting and the strength of sin is much the same, even as the strength of the bee lies in the sting of it; and therefore the strength of sin must be the law, which, to the least breaker of it, is death. The perfect keeper of the law is safe, if such an one could be found; for it says, “The man that does these thing small live by them,” Rom.x.5. And this safety and life flows from the promissory sanction of it, Do, and live. But every breaker of the law is a dead man; the law that he breaks is his death; for it says, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things, written in the book of the law, to do them,” Gal. iii. 10.; or, the man that does not these things, shall die in and by hiss in and disobedience: and this death issues from the minatory sanction of the law; “If thou do not, thou shalt die.” The strength of sin then, is that violated law, that made death the wages of sin, by the penal sanction of it. But more of this sin afterward.
II. The second thing promised here was, To shew what strength it is that tin hath from the law. In general, all the strength it hath is from that violated law of works; it would have no strength to enslave us; no strength to ruin us, if there were no law violated there by; Rom. iv. 15. “Where no law is, there is no transgression,” no sin: and where no sin is, there is no strength of sin; consequently, where a broken law is, there is sin and its strength; and so the strength of sin is the broken law: thus, whatever strength sin hath, it is from the law. But more particularly, I name only a six-fold strength that sin hath from the violated law of works, viz.
1. The commanding strength of sin is from the law; hence sin is said to have dominion over all that are under the law, Rom. vi. 16. For it is there declared, that it shall not have dominion over them that are not under it and just it is, that man, who would not remain under the command of God, should be put under the command of sin; yea, it follows necessarily, that these who cannot be subject to the law of God, must be subject to the law of sin. Sin receives from the law a kind of title to the dominion and rule over all the breakers of it, that remain under it, and through unbelief abide out of Christ, the end of the law for righteousness. How the commanding strength of sin is from the law, may appear more clearly afterwards; only, it cannot be otherwise, if you consider it as a broken law. Where the law is not broken, the law hath the command; but where the law is broken, which is a transgression of the law, there sin hath the command. It is true, the commanding power of the law still remains in point of obligation, insomuch, that all that are under it are obliged to obey it upon pain of death; but the transgressor of the law is under the commanding power of sin, in point of subjection; insomuch, if he is enslaved to it, and willingly captivated by it: the broken law then is the strength of sin, because the breaking of the command of the law necessarily brings a man under the command of sin. Though he remain under the command of the law, in point of original, righteous, and indissolvable obligation; yet he is under the command of sin, in point of subjection: hence the strength of sin to command, is the law as it is broken by sin; the refusing of subjection to the law of God, is a chusing of subjection to the law of sin: to break the command of God, is to give the command to sin; and therefore the commanding strength of sin necessarily issues from the law, as it is broken by sin.
2. The condemning strength of sin, is from the law; this is more easy to be understood, therefore I insist not much upon it: sin would have no strength to condemn us, if the law did not condemn sin, saying, Cursed be the breaker of it, Gal. iii. 10. Now, all men are included under sin; therefore, all are under the curse that remain under the law. The law hath past a sentence of condemnation upon all sinners; and this gives sin a strength to condemn, it is true, sin hath no strength to condemn a believer; “There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ,” because the law is satisfied, both in the commanding and cursing part thereof, in and by their head Jesus Christ; yea, they are not under the law, but under grace, being united to Christ, the end of the law: therefore, though the law still condemn their sin, yet it cannot condemn their person, nor involve a member of Christ under the curse. They may be afraid of condemnation through unbelief; but they are more frighted than hurt. But as to all that are out of Christ, sin hath a condemning power over them; and this it hath from the law, which not only condemns their sin, but their person: the condemning sentence lights and terminates on the sinner, that hath no covert to secure him therefrom.
3. The working strength of sin is from the law: sin is no idle thing in the sinner; nay, it is a working thing; and whence its working strength flows, see Rom. vii. 5. 8. “The motions of sin that are by the law, did work in our members, to bring forth fruit unto death.” Why are the motions of sin said to be from the law, and these motions said to work in our members, but to shew that the working strength of sin is from the law? And how that is, the apostle explains, verse 8. “For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupisence.” Hence,
4. The warring strength of sin is from the law; hence, Rom. vii. 23. It is called the law in the members, warring against the law in the mind: yea, it wars and wins both; for it conquers and captivates even the children of grace, leading them captive to the law of sin and death. This warring strength of sin issues out of the working strength of it, for the work of it is the warfare of it; therefore, if the working strength of it be from the law, so must the warring strength of it be: and if it work and war in believers, how powerfully does it work and carry all before it in these that have no true grace, and when it meets with no opposition? It is true, the strength of it appears most, where there is most opposition to it; but yet they are most under the strength of it, to whom the strength of it does least appear.
5. The wounding strength of sin is from the law. Whence comes a wounded spirit, but from sin? Whence comes the wounded strength of sin, but from the law? A wounded spirit who can bear? Why, what, makes it intolerable? Even because the broken law presents the in tolerable wrath of God, the interminable wrath of God, the everlasting wrath of God, as the native fruit of sin: And when eternal wrath and eternal death is stinging and tormenting the man’s conscience, what is then a-doing? Why, the matter is, The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law; and that sting is sticking in the heart, and wounding the spirit. Many, indeed, are not wounded by sin, because sin is steeping, and the guilty conscience steeping; but, the less they see of the wounding strength of sin, the more wounds are abiding them, when sin revives and conscience wakens.
6. The killing strength of sin is from the law, and the destroying power thereof; for the wages of sin is death by the law, Rom. vi. 23.; soul-death, as well as bodily death: and the text says, that as sin is the sting of death, so the law is the strength of sin. And thus the law not only hath a condemning strength, that it derives from sin, but a damning and destroying strength also; sin could not damn the sinner, if the law did not damn sin, and give a damning strength there unto. All that die out of Christ, and under the law, will ly under the damning and destroying strength of sin for ever, which it derives from the law. Thus the most part are miserably slain by sin to eternity. There are some few, that are mercifully slain by it in time, as the apostle says, Rom. vii. 11. “For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me:” it slew him, and put an end to his self-righteous life; “I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died,” ver.9. This is when the Spirit of God shews to a man the spirit of the law, that had studied nothing before but the letter of it, and so kills all his hopes of life and justification by the deeds of the law.— Thus you have a hint at the strength that sin derives from the law; and whatever other strength it hath, is reducible to these particulars named.
III. The third thing proposed, was, To shew, what sin the law is the strength of. In general, the law is the strength of all sin, whether original or actual. The apostle speaks here of sin in general; The strength of sin is the law. More particularly,
[1.] The law is the strength of original sin, whether imputed or inherent. Imputed original sin, you know, is the guilt of Adam’s first sin, which is ours by imputation: inherent original sin is the total want of original righteousness, and the corruption of the whole nature, which we have by derivation from Adam. Now, the strength of both is the law, and the strength of both remains in all that are under the law, and out of Christ; for, while men are under the law, they are members of the first Adam, in whom as their federal head, they stand guilty of the first sin, the violation of the law, or covenant of works; and from whom, as their natural root, they derive the whole depravation and corruption of their nature: for, By the offence of One, judgment came upon all men unto condemnation; and, By one man sin entered into the world, Rom. v. 12. 18. The strength then of this original guilt and corruption flows from the violated law: all that are under the law, are guilty and filthy by nature, before ever they be capable of actual sin. The most innocent-like children that are born, and come of Adam, are nothing but a generation of vipers by nature; the venom of the serpent is in them.
[2.] The law is the strength of all actual sin: it is not only the strength of the root, but the strength of the fruit; and, indeed, being the strength of the fountain, it must be the strength of the streams. The fountain of sin is the strength of sin; and if the law be the strength of the fountain, it is the strength of the streams of sin. While a man is out of Christ, the strength of sin remains, even though it were possible that he had not been guilty of any actual sin; because the strength of original sin, both imputed and inherent, remains, While he remains under the power of a violated law. But with respect to actual sin, both inward and outward, the strength thereof is this broken law, that men remain under, while they remain in unbelief, and out of Christ. For instance,
1. The strength of Atheism arises from the broken law that men are under; hence, all that are without Christ, are said to be without God, [or, Atheists, ] in “the world, Eph. i. 12. The power of Atheism is never broken, while people are under the law; because, as the broken law can give them no right notions of God, being never designed of God as the mean of the saving knowledge of God to a sinner, so it fills the sinner with wrong notions of God, who is not to be found in the law, but in the gospel. Since the violation of the law by sin, God, in a manner, is gone out of the law, and is to be found no where but in Christ and the gospel. Now, when the sinners, that are under the law, cannot apprehend God, or seek him anywhere but where they themselves are, namely, in the law, and under the law; and as he is not there to be seen and found, no wonder that they begin to think that he is no-where, and consequently to say in their heart, There is no God; and thus Atheism is strengthened: and hence the most part of men have no clear notions of God at all, because they are under the law, where God is not present with them; or, if they who are under the law have any clear notions of God, suited to the slate they are under, it is a notion of him as a consuming fire to the breaker of his law. But this view of God, if it be not mercifully ordered and over-ruled, for making a man to flee to Christ for refuge, that he may not be consumed with that fire; if it be not thus mercifully over-ruled, I say, then, it is but a root of practical atheism; for, it makes him run away from God as Adam did, and hide himself, where he atheistically dreams that God shall not see him.
2. The strength of unbelief arises from the broken law that men are under, and keep themselves under to their own ruin. Why do they not believe the gospel? They will not join in marriage with Christ, because they are married to the law: hence marriage to Christ, supposes a divorce from the law, Rom. vii. 4. Mens legal faith, believing God will give them life and mercy upon their own obedience, or doing so and so, is the very strength of unbelief: for gospel-faith stands upon a quite other foundation, while it is a believing life and salvation to be had by the obedience of another, even of Jesus Christ. Now, while the law of works says, Come to me for life; or, Do and live; and the gospel of Christ says, “You will not come to me, that ye might have life;” and the sinner’s ears are open only to hear what the law says; he cannot believe what the gospel says, nor can fall in with it; because the remaining power of the broken law, which he is under, hath broken his courage and confidence in coming to God upon any other footing.
3. The strength of enmity arises from the broken law, which is the strength of sin, and which men are naturally under. It is the strength of enmity against God and Christ both, against law and gospel both. On the one hand, while a man is under the law that is violated by him, it says, that he is not subject to the law that he is under, as it is with all that are under the law; The carnal mind is enmity against God, and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be, Rom. viii. 7. He cannot be subject to the law he is under: and it is strange that men should naturally desire to be under the law as a covenant, which yet they cannot be subject to as a rule, by reason of their carnal mind and wicked nature. However, the enmity of the nature is not cured, but strengthened by the law: for, let God therein appear as a commanding God, we cannot obey him; let him appear as a threatening God, we cannot endure him; let the law thunder out vengeance, this may fill the man with slavish fear, but cannot create love; nay, it in creases enmity.— On the other hand, as the carnal mind is enmity against God in the law, so the legal mind is enmity against Christ in the gospel, Rom. x. 3. Men being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, do not, and will not, submit unto the righteousness of God. Hence,
4. The strength of prejudice against Christ arises from the broken law that men are under, and wedded naturally unto: the law of works, that they are under, can neither save them itself, nor will it suffer them to go to Christ to be saved by him. Though the law cannot save a sinner, but damns all that are under it, and remain under it; yet it points out no other way of salvation; it is the gospel does that: the law leads a sinner no where but to itself. It is true, the law is said to be a schoolmaster to lead unto Christ; or, as the word is, Gal. iii. 24. a Schoolmaster unto Christ, or, until Christ come. At the school of the law, under the convincing influence of the Spirit, men may come to see their need of a better master than the law, and so their need of Christ; but the law of itself, as it never revealed Christ, nor led to any other righteousness but that which is personal; so, as it is a covenant of works, it seeks no righteousness but the man’s own personal obedience; and this being naturally impressed upon all men, they having some dim notions of life by doing, are filled with prejudice against life, by believing in another for righteousness: hence, all that are wedded to the law, are filled with prejudice against the gospel, as if it were no friend to the holiness of the law; because, forsooth, it decries their rotten righteousness, in order to lay another foundation on which true holiness doth grow: but this the man under the law cannot understand. For,
5. The strength of pride arises from the law; Where is boasting then? It is excluded: By what law? Of works? Nay, but by the law of faith, Rom. iii. 27. As pride was the root of the first rebellion and breach of the law, while this temptation was yielded to, You shall be as gods; so, in the righteous judgment of God, the broken law is the root of pride. They that are under the law, are proud of that which should lay their pride; proud of a trifle, proud of a nothing, proud of rags that cannot cover their nakedness; yea, of filthy rags that but defile them: they glory in their shame. Whenever a man comes in to Christ, he is ashamed of that which was his glory, and counts that but loss which he reckoned gain to him; but while he remains out of Christ, and under the law, he glories in that which is his shame. Is it not a shame for a man to glory in that which is but stinking dung? So do these secretly boast of, and pride themselves in some poor petty duty and righteousness of theirs; whereas the apostle calls all personal righteousness dung, when compared with Christ’s imputed righteousness, Phil. iii. 8, 9. But much more, is it not a shame for men to glory in their sins, as some do in their profane swearing, and drinking, and the like debauchery? Yet, even this is rooted in the violated law. For,
6. Even the strength of profaneness arises from the broken law, that men are under and remain under by unbelief. Though profane persons are evidently under no subjection to the law, yet even their profaneness proves that they are under bondage to it: for no man is under the bondage of sin, and under subjection to it, but he that is under the bondage of the law, both in its commanding and condemning power; and though the sense of their obligation to the law-command be of no force to bind them to obedience, yet the strength of their sin and disobedience discovers the strength of a legal temper, and the power of a covenant of works that they are under. You will think strange to understand, that there is a secret boasting of their law-righteousness, even under the open contempt they are pouring upon the authority of the law; and this appears, either in their ignorant hope, on the one hand; or their foolish despair, on the other.— On the one hand, their ignorant hope, thinking either the law will justify them in their present impiety, or upon their future amendment and penitency: hence profane men will justify themselves in their cursing, and swearing, and drinking, though they swear by faith and conscience; why, say they that is no swearing: and though they drink away their stock, or tipple away their time; yet if they have any sense or reason left, why say they, that is no drunkenness: and as they justify themselves, so they hope the law will not condemn them; and so they expect it will justify them: there is part of their ignorant hope, Deut. xxix. 19.— On the other hand, foolish despair may be latent at the root of their profaneness, which also discovers how much they are wedded to the law, even when they are breaking it. Perhaps they have essayed some duties, at a certain time of their life; or, at least, been conscious of the obligation they were under to obey the law; but having little hope of success, or coming speed that way, or of gaining life by their doing, they are be come desperate: and, the more they give up themselves to profaneness, the more desperate they grow, and hopeless of winning life by the law, or of paying the debt they owe to it; therefore, like desperate debtors, finding themselves out of capacity to pay it, they take on still more and more, concluding there is no hope, Jer. xxii. 25. and xviii. 12.: Which does not at all prove that they have no manner of inclination to pay debt, but rather their secret willingness to do it if they were able, but that they have no hope. Such is the case of many profane persons, they are desperately taking on more and more debt to the law by their sin, which is so far from proving them to be under the law, that as it declares them under the curse of it; so it proves their secret inclination to do and live; that it is through desperation they give up themselves to all wickedness, having no hope of life that way: and the more their profaneness increases, the more their desperation grows, whereby they take on more and more debt, being hope less of ever paying it, and expecting no profit in obeying the law, Job xxi. 15. Thus there is at the bottom a strength of legal pride: because the man cannot win life by his doing, therefore he desperately sights against that law which he hath no hope of satisfying, and chuses rather to be damned in his unrighteousness, than be obliged to the righteousness of another.
7. The strength of hypocrisy and formality arises from the broken and mistaken law; hence, they that are under the law, are under this delusion, that the law will be pleased with any service they may give it, though it be but outside conformity thereunto; like the Pharisees, of whose legal performances Christ says, Except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you cannot be saved. The legalist is a lover of himself, and his own righteousness; and his self-love blinds him, that he secretly supposes any thing that comes from him will be acceptable to the law. As the law is broken and violated, so it is but broken pieces of the law that he sees, because his understanding also is broken and blinded, he knows not the perfection thereof; and therefore, making to himself an imperfect law, he doubts not but it will be satisfied with his imperfect righteousness: yea, he may think his righteousness as perfect as the law is, saying, with the young man in the gospel, “All these things have I done from my youth up.” Thus hypocrisy and formality issue from the law as it is, broken and abused, manked and maimed by them that are under it.
8. The strength of security arises from the law, as it is broken and abused by men: for they that are under the law, make their very obedience to it (however moral and external only it is) a handle for their security, contempt, and neglect of the law. Thus said the whore in Prov. vii. 14. “This day have I paid my vows, and offered my peace-offering; come let us take our fill of loves.” Her duty hardened her in sin and security; and thus many go to the church, they go to their prayers, they go to their duty; and then they imagine, that as they have made sufficient amends for what is past, so they have made sufficient provision for preventing the bad effects of what is to come; they may now indulge themselves in their pleasure, since they suppose they have satisfied the Law-giver with some obedience. What is this but the strength of security fostered by the law? When men after such and such duties allow themselves a latitude, they draw strength to their carnal security from the law; “We shall have peace, though we walk after the imaginations of our hearts.” And thus it is the strength of negligence also: none are readily more negligent of the duties of the law, than these that boast of the law, and of winning to heaven by their good works; whence is this, but from the law of works cutting them short of strength through their abuse of it? Why, is it possible that men will neglect duty, and yet think to be justified by their duties? Yea, and why so? Because they make their own duty a salve for their sore; and as they but seldom find their sores, so they seldom make application even of their own salve. In a word, the law of works is thus the strength of all sin.
IV. The fourth thing proposed, was, To show how and in what respect the law is the strength of sin. This is the main question and the grand mystery here to be solved; for, that the law is the strength of sin, is plain from the text, wherein the Holy Ghost declares it in express terms; terms that we durst never have used, if the Spirit of God had not used them before us: but how the law is the strength of sin, remains yet to be considered. Besides the hints that I have given before, there are these eight following respects, wherein the law of works, now violated and broken, is the strength of sin, ever since the original breach and violation thereof.
1. The law is the strength of sin, in respect of the extensive malediction and curse of the law, whereof the power and strength of sin is a principal part, and so the breach of it could not but necessarily infer the strength of sin. Death temporal, spiritual, and eternal, was the penalty of the law, incase of the breach thereof. Now, spiritual death is nothing else but the power of sin; and this power of sin, or spiritual death, being the main breach of the law-threatening; “In the day thou eatest thou shalt surely die,” Ezek. xviii. 4. Gal. iii. 10. Now, this is the primary and radical respect wherein the law is called the strength of sin; any other particular that I am to mention, is rather secondary and consequential unto this. Let this, therefore, be remembered, as the main thing, the chief respect wherein the law is the strength of sin, that it cannot be otherwise in the nature of the thing, and according to the constitution of the law, or covenant of works, denouncing the leading judgment of spiritual death upon the breaker of it. No sooner was it broken, than mankind came under the curse of it; and all men, by nature, being under the curse of the law, they are by this very curse under the power and strength of sin, because the strength of sin is the main part of the curse of the law: man’s being given up to the power of sin, is the main branch of the punishment of sin, and the chief death threatened in the law. Temporal death is nothing, if you take away the strength of sin; it hath no sting, no strength to harm. Eternal death would have no being; and, as it lies in mere torment, is but the consequential evil of sin and nothing to the intrinsical evil and power of it in spiritual death. This being the main threatening, the main curse; to be under the curse of the law, and under the power of sin, is one and the same thing. In this respect then, especially, the strength of sin is the law. Happy is the believer in Christ, that is delivered from the curse of the law; for, ipso facto, by this very mean he is delivered from the strength of sin: and sad is your case, that are Christless unbelieving sinners, and who have never fled to Christ for refuge; for you, being under the curse of the law, are necessarily under the power of sin: This is the main part of your cursed state, that the strength of sin is not felt, is not broken, is not weakened in you; but its commanding and condemning power both of them remain, and will remain while you are under the law, for the strength of sin is the law; and if you be not disjoined and divorced from the law, and joined and united to Christ the end of the law, the strength of sin will be your death and your doom forever. But then,
2. The law is the strength of sin, in respect of its office, to discover sin, and make it known in the power and strength of it; Rom. iii. 20. By the law is the knowledge of sin; for, without the law, sin was dead, says the same apostle, Rom. vii. 8. Dead, and, as it were, destitute of life and strength, because the life and power of it was hid and out of sight; For I was alive without the law, says he, ver.9. Before the commandment came with power, discovering the spirituality of the law, I was, as it were, without the law; and so they that are without law, are without sin: for, Where no law is, there is no transgression. Without the law, then, sin was dead, and I was alive; the life and strength of sin did not appear; and I thought, I had an innocent and holy life of it: But when the commandment came, so, as by the law I got the knowledge of sin, then the life and strength of sin appeared; sin revived, and I died. Before the law came with convincing power, might he say, sin was dead, and I was alive; but whenever the commandment came, giving me the knowledge of sin, then sin was alive, and I died; my carnal confidence died, my hope of life by the law died: for then I saw the strength of sin. Thus the law is the strength of sin, in respect of its discovering the life and strength of it, which without the law is dead. Why, may one think, if sin be dead without the law, then better want the law that gives life to it. To this we reply; The apostle here speaks of sin’s being dead in point of the discovery thereof; and sin’s being dead in this sense, and the strength of it hid, is no mercy, but a misery. It is the misery of unconverted sinners, that the strength of it lies dead and buried, as it were, in the rotten sepulchre of their wicked heart and corrupt nature, where, like a stinking carcase, it is putrefying the whole soul; while yet the sinner, that is also dead in sins and trespasses, does not find the filthy smell thereof; for sin is nothing but death and putrefaction, but the dead man does not find the filthy smell of death and rottenness about him. The life and strength of sin is just spiritual death, and soul-defilement; and when this death is hid and out of sight to the sinner, and unfelt by him, the strength of that sin and death is not the less, but the more fearful and strong, that it is not seen and felt: therefore, as it is a mercy to get effectual conviction of sin by the law, so it is a misery to be under the power and strength of sin, and yet not to know it; for then the sinner, that is alive without the law, is but living in sin, and yet dead while he lives: the strength of sin being dead and hid to him, while without the law, which is the strength of sin, in respect of its office to discover it.
3. The law is the strength of sin, in respect of its deficiency and weakness through our flesh to destroy the strength of sin; “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son, in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin condemned sin in the flesh,” Rom. viii. 3. The law is said to be weak through the flesh, or through our corrupt nature, in so much, that it cannot justify a sinner, it cannot sanctify, it cannot save: the broken law cannot give life or strength to the breaker of it; there is no help to be expected there against the strength of sin. Its commanding, condemning, enslaving, and ruining strength being from the law, is violated by us; surely no help against the dominion and rule of sin can come from the law: yea, the law was never ordained of God to convey grace, or spiritual strength, to the soul of man: had it not been so, the promise and the gospel had been needless, as the apostle argues, Gal. iii. 21. “If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness I should have been by the law.” If it could have given life or strength, then it would have produced righteousness, and we should have been justified by it. The law discovers sin and condemns it, but gives no strength to oppose it; it was never designed of God as his ordinance for the dethroning of sin, nor for the destruction of the power of sin. It was designed to declare the whole duty of man, but never had power to bar the entrance of sin nor to cast out sin, when it is once enthroned: and the broken law hath nothing to do with sinners, but to judge, curse, and condemn them; it neither contains any grace, nor communicates any for the destroying of sin: therefore, they that are under the law, are under the dominion of sin. The law is holy, but it cannot make them holy that have made themselves unholy; the law is just, but it cannot make them just, nor justify them whom it does condemn; the law is good, but it can do them no good who have once broken it. Sin will never be dethroned by it, and will never give place to the law, either in its title to dominion, or in its power to exert the same. When the law presses on the conscience of these that are under it, perplexing or disquieting them; or when the commandment comes unto them, so as sin revives, and they die, as I said already; that is, when the law gives power to sin to slay the hope of the sinner, and to distress him with the apprehension, of guilt and death; when the law is thus giving power to sin to disquiet and condemn sinners, then, being prest with a sense of the guilt of sin, and deprived of all rest and peace in their minds, they will resolve to cast off the yoke of sin, and endeavour it in some instances of duty, and abstinence from sin. But, alas! the law can not enable them hereunto; it cannot give them life and strength to go through with what their convictions press them unto; and hence they saint after a while, and grow weary, and at length give quite over, if grace come not in with that aid that the law cannot give.
4. The law is the strength of sin, not only in respect of its deficiency, for giving strength against sin; but in respect of its efficiency, in giving strength to sin through the corruption of our nature. As the law is weak through the flesh, and affords no strength against sin; so it is strong through the flesh, for increasing the strength of sin. In the former it is deficient, in this latter it is efficient through the flesh; hence it is said, Rom. iv. 15. The law worketh wrath; that is, not only wrath in God against the sinner, that breaks the law; but also wrath in the sinner against God, and enmity against him; and both these go together. If the law work wrath in God against the sinner, the revelation of this wrath works wrath and enmity in the sinner against God. It is only the love and grace of God, revealed in the gospel, that works love; We love him, because he first loved us, I John iv. 19. Now, the law makes no revelation of the love, but only of the wrath of God; and therefore the law, as it is the revelation or wrath, worketh wrath. Try it when you will, you will find that it is only the revelation of God’s love that worketh love; and that is the revelation of him in the gospel, as a gracious God, a promising God, a pitying, and sin-pardoning God, a reconciled God in Christ, this works love: but God, as revealed in the broken law, is merely a commanding God, a threatening God, a judging and avenging God, a terrible God, a consuming fire to sinners; and this works wrath and enmity. Now, love being the fulfilling of the law, and the sum thereof; enmity is the sum of all sin: therefore, while the law works wrath and enmity, it is the strength of sin. The gospel works love, the law works enmity: and as the faith of the gospel works by love; so legal faith, or rather unbelief, works by enmity: and as the law works wrath and enmity, so it works fear and bondage; slavish fear, and dreadful bondage, which is attended with disorder, disturbance, and despair.
5. The law is the strength of sin, in respect: of its opposition to the gospel, wherein grace and strength alone is exhibited for the destruction of sin. The law is not of faith, Gal. iii. 12.— The law and grace are set in opposition to one-another, in many places, as Rom. xi. 6. “If by grace, then it is no more of work, other wise grace is no more grace; but if it be of work, then it is no more grace, otherwise work is no more work.” The command of the law, as a covenant of works, Do and live, stands directly opposite to the call of the gospel, which is to lay hold on eternal life upon the doing of another: the threatening of the law, and the promise of it also, stand directly opposite to the profer and promise of the gospel; the threatening of the law is a threatening of death to the sinner for his disobedience; the promise of the gospel is a promise of life to the sinner through the obedience of the Surety: the promise of the law was a promise of life to him that works for it, and works perfectly; the promise of the gospel is a promise of life to him that works not, but believes on him that justifieth the ungodly, Rom. iv. 4, 5. The conditional promise of the law, whereof the condition is no less than perfect, personal obedience, is directly opposite to the free and absolute promise of the gospel, and the freedom of the grace thereof, which is to be had without money and without price.— The righteousness of the law, and the righteousness of the gospel, and also directly opposite: the righteousness of the law is only for the perfect man, that never sinned; the righteousness of the gospel is for a sinner, a sinner overwhelmed with sin: the righteousness of the law is the righteousness of man, and the righteousness of the gospel is the righteousness of God; it is a righteousness of another, and in another than ourselves: it is a righteousness imputed without works, to a sinner believing in Christ, Rom. iii. 21, 22. The strength of the law for obedience, was the natural strength that God gave to Adam at first; it was home-bred, and yet but strength only in the stream, which is dried up, so as by nature we are without strength; and sin hath the possession of all the strength of nature: but the strength of the gospel is a borrowed strength, as well as the righteousness a borrowed righteousness, saying, In the Lord have I righteousness and strength; and so it is the strength of the fountain, that can never be dried up. The law requires all to be done in our own strength; the gospel expects nothing to be done but in the strength of another: the law gives no ground of claim for life, but by debt to the doer; the gospel gives no claim for it, but by grace to the sinner. Now, there can be nothing more opposite than law and gospel; and therefore, in respect of the opposition of the law to the gospel of the grace of God, it may be called the strength of sin, since it opposes that which alone can destroy that strength.
6. The law is the strength of sin, in respect of its agreement with the natural impression that it hath left upon the heart of the children of men; and by reason of which they stand out against Christ, in and by whom alone the strength of sin is broken: I call it an agreement, because the law, though it will never accept of any work that a sinner can do, yet it requires the sinner to do whatever it required at the first, and that under the pain of eternal death, which he hath already incurred by sin; and under the pain of forfeiture of eternal life, which he hath already forfeit by his failure; for the law hath not lost its authority to command, though we have lost ability to obey. Now, the natural impressions that the law hath left upon the children of men, are agreeable to the original constitution of the law, or covenant of works. The law was the first liquor poured into the vessel of man’s nature, and the vessel smells of that liquor that was first put into it; hence it is so natural for all men to expect life no other way but in away of doing for it. And these legal impressions, left on our nature by the law, are the strength of sin in manifold respects, especially in their agreement with the law to oppose Christ in the gospel: hence the legal mind opposes Christ as a Prophet, as it is ignorant of God’s righteousness, and averse from being taught this lesson, taking up God as still dealing with it in the old-covenant way. The legal conscience opposes Christ as a Priest; for, whenever it is awakened, it knows nothing of seeking peace by the blood of Christ, but natively looks to the law, and its own obedience for it, saying, O since I have displeased God by my disobedience, how shall I please him but by my obedience? If I have offended him by my sin, how shall I pacify him but by my duty? It is as natural for conscience thus to act and speak when it is pressed, as it is natural for a man to breathe in the air, or for a fish to swim in the water: hence the natural conscience, instead of leading men to Christ, in whom alone God is well-pleased and satisfied, it leads them to the law, and so the quite opposite way to Christ. The legal will also opposes Christ as a King; for, when he is rejected as a Priest, he cannot be received as a King: for his spiritual kingdom is founded upon his Priesthood, insomuch, that they who receive him not for righteousness, cannot receive him for strength; and consequently the strength of sin, both to condemn and command, remains. In a word, the will is unwilling to be saved in this way of grace, and the natural man the gospel; men’s legal notions and imaginations exalt themselves against the knowledge of Christ, 2 Cor. x. 4, 5. And they are so high and mighty, that nothing can pull them down but the power of omnipotency; the weapons that are mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds, casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the know ledge of God.— Again, these legal impressions left by the law, have a weakening influence upon the graces of the Spirit, where they are implanted; for the implantation of grace does not wholly root out the impression of the law in time, such a deep rooting it hath in our nature. These weeds of legal impressions, that grow up in the garden of the heart, draw away the sap and strength of the fruits of the Spirit, and weaken them. They either hinder or weaken faith, For the law is not of faith: it opposes both the doctrine of faith, and the grace of faith: it hinders and weakens repentance; for gospel repentance issues from that faith which the law opposes: it hinders and weakens love; for the man cannot love that God, whom, by the law, he apprehends to be an enemy: And hence it hinders and opposes joy in the Lord; for the legal spirit is a spirit of heaviness, in opposition to joy; and so it eats out the man’s strength, for, The joy of the Lord is our strength: and, consequently, when thus the law weakens and opposes the strength of grace, in this respect it is the strength of sin; its agreement with the natural impression that it hath left on the hearts of the children of men, creates a natural disagreement betwixt us and Christ, betwixt us and the gospel, and the grace of the gospel. Pride of natural righteousness stands up against, and opposes the gospel-righteousness;
7. The law is the strength of sin, in respect of the irritating quality of its precept upon corrupt nature; “Sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence, “Rom.vii.8. And here it is strange to think of the different effects of the law of works, in strengthening sin on the one hand, by its agreement with proud and self-righteous nature, as I have been shewing; and, on the other hand, by its disagreeableness with, and opposition unto carnal and corrupt nature, which is irritated by the law. Sin takes occasion by the commandment, and so the law is the strength of sin; as it is in the Latin proverb, Occasio facit furem, “Occasion makes the thief.” Thus Achan; I saw such and such things, and seeing them I coveted them, and took them. The law does not, properly speaking, give occasion to sin; but sin takes occasion from the law to be operative and working; yea, such is the corruption of nature, that the more God’s law forbids sin, the more we break out into sin; as a dam or bank made in the midst of a strong current of water, the more it is dammed up, the more it swells; and, when once it prevails, it breaks over with the greater violence: so here, the more God’s law opposes sin, the more does sin rise, and swell, and rage: Niti-mir in vetitum, &c. Why this? Even because there is such a contrariety betwixt God’s holy law and our unholy nature.— Again, in regard of righteous nature, now proud and selfish, they seem to agree, and do really so in some things: for, according to the tenor of the covenant of works, man would have had a personal righteousness to have gloried in, if God had designed him life that way; and proud nature abused that original constitution, which God never designed should stand but for a little, to be like a scaffold for building up a better covenant; yet proud nature grips, as I said, to that wherein the law would have exalted it, if it had stood: but, in regard of corrupt and carnal nature, there is such an opposition to the very command of the law, that it is not subject thereto, neither can be; nay, instead of subjection to it, it is irritate and increased by it. In this sense it may be said, that when the law enters, offence doth abound: for sin, like a mad horse, rages, and is the more furious, that it is checked with the bridle.
8. To name no more, As the law is the strength of sin, in respect of the irritating quality of the command upon corrupt nature; so the law is the strength of sin, in respect of the severity of the sanction thereof; which, so far as it is regarded by us now in our obedience to the law, in these our sinful circumstances under a broken covenant of works, cannot but be the strength of sin and self, to all that are influenced in their obedience, with a respect thereunto. The sanction of the law, by which it was cast into the farm of a covenant of works, was the promise of life upon our obedience, and threatening of death upon disobedience: now, to obey, or do, from a regard to that sanction, is to do duty, from the hope of eternal life by doing; and to shun evil, from the fear of eternal death and damnation: but, for a man to be thus under the co-action and compulsion of the law, is to be under the power of sin, not withstanding his best performances; for the man that is acted and influenced by that sanction, cannot now be acted from love to God, which alone is true holiness, nor from a view to God’s glory and honour, but merely to himself; which is evident from his legal hope of heaven, upon his obedience, influenced by the promissory sanction of the law; and from his legal fears of hell, upon his disobedience, influenced by the penal sanction of the law. This power of the legal sanction that he is under, keeps him under the power of sin; for, like a strong chain, it setters him, that he cannot act freely and willingly, nay, he acts only in a mercenary and slavish way, like a slave to the law, and not like a servant to God. Believers, so far as they are delivered from the law, act freely, and with a willing mind; not by the co-action and compulsion of the law, but without respect either to the law-promise of life upon doing, or the law-threatening of death upon not doing; being, by virtue of the new nature, ready to do the will of their God and Father in Christ with pleasure: this title to life, and security from death, standing allenarly upon the obedience and satisfaction of their Head and Surety. Therefore, there is no law-promise of life, or threatening of death, that they have to regard; and consequently their obedience must be chearful, free, willing, and natural, without all legal compulsion. As the body needs no law-sanction, to compel it to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or stand, or do any of the works of nature; even so, it is natural to the believer, according to the measure of his freedom from legal bondage, to act freely in the Lord’s service, without the coaction of the law: being loosed from it, the strength of sin is broken, and he is at liberty to serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him. But such as are under the power of legal compulsion, and are acted and influenced by a regard to the sanction of the law-promise and threatening, and so under the power of legal hopes and fears; that is, the hope of eternal life upon their doing so and so, and the fear of eternal death upon their failure, they are, on this very account, under the power and strength of sin; where, if they remain, and live, and die, their hope will sail them, and their fears will come upon them: for, as their hope is a dead hope, that can not purify their heart; so their fear is a slavish fear, that makes them depart from God. It is true, under the power of these legal hopes and fears, influenced by the promissory and penal sanction of the law, the poor sinner that is thus in bondage to the law, may perform a multitude of duties, and be very strict and devout, as if who but he? and yet, the more he does, the more he undoes himself, being intangled in that yoke of bondage, as the expression is, Gal. v. 1. The yoke but galls his neck, and holds him back from taking on Christ’s easy yoke. Yea, in these circumstances, he can bring forth no fruit that is truly and spiritually good: for, as they only that are divorced from the law, and married to Christ, do bring forth fruit unto God, Rom. vii. 4.; so they that remain thus under the yoke of the law, can bring forth no fruit, but to themselves and the devil.— Thus you see how and in what respect the law is the strength of sin. I proceed,
V. To the Fifth thing proposed, which was, To show whence it is that the law is the strength of sin. From what spring and source does this arise? whence comes it, that sin should have a commanding and condemning power over a man, that is under the law; and that, as the law cannot deliver him, so it detains him a captive unto sin? Several reasons of this doctrine are interspersed among the particulars on the former heads: But, beside what hath been said, I shall now offer the following:
1. That the law, now violated and broken, is the strength of sin, proceeds from the holiness and justice of the Law-giver: “He is of purer eyes than that he can behold iniquity;” and, “Justice and judgment are the habitation of his throne:” Therefore, when his holiness and purity appearing in the precept of the law, is crossed by sin, his justice and equity declared in the threatening of the law, cannot but break forth against sin in the righteous punishment thereof. Now, sin being the greatest evil, and the greatest evil deserving the greatest punishment; and there being no greater punishment of sin, than that of punishing it by sin, and giving up the sinner to the power and strength of it; therefore, this just and holy God makes the strength of sin to be the strength of the sanction of the law, to the greatest ruin of the breaker of it. There is no evil like the evil of sin, which is the transgression of the law; and no judgment like the judgment of being given up to the strength of sin: therefore, the most just and holy Lawgiver makes the penalty of the broken law to be the strength of sin. So that to say, the strength of sin is the law, is so far from reflecting any dishonour upon the purity of the law, that it is a declaration of the holiness of the command, and the justice of the threatening both.
2. That the law is the strength of sin, proceeds from the nature of the Law, in the office that God hath de signed and assigned to it; and that is, not to be the ministration of life, and strength against sin, but to be subservient to the gospel, which is the ministration of life and righteousness, 2Cor. iii. 7-10. The law was never appointed of God to be the ministration of life, but of death, even spiritual death, and thereupon of further condemnation; but yet, as it is a ministration of death and condemnation, it is appointed to be a servant to the gospel; and hence law-commands, and law-threatenings both, are brought into the gospel-dispensation, to be subservient thereto, and to illustrate the glory thereof, and make way for its powerful efficacy, for the pulling down the strong holds of sin, to which office the gospel only is appointed of God. And as the darkness of the night serves to shew forth the brightness of the day; so the strength of sin, that arises from the broken law, serves to illustrate and manifest the strength of grace, that is brought in by the glorious gospel.
3. That the law is the strength of sin, proceeds from the very nature of Sin, and its direct opposition and contrariety to the law. You know, when two are of a contrary disposition, they never, agree together, but will ever be brawling and quarrelling one with another; so, whatever agreement there be betwixt the law, as a covenant of work: and proud self-righteous, nature, let such a disagreeable couple is God’s holy law and our corrupt nature, that there is a direct contrariety betwixt them. The law of God bears the image of God; it is perfectly just, perfectly holy, and like unto God the giver of it: but the corruption of our nature bears the image of the devil, being wholly unjust, and altogether unholy: so says the apostle, “The law is holy, but I am carnal; in me, that is, in my stem, dwells no good thing,” Rom. vii. 14. 18. Now, as natural philosophy teaches, that in winter-time, the coldness of the air and frost, that may be about the fire, makes the heat of the fire more intense, so that it burns a great deal the faster and fiercer; so God’s law, coming to, and meeting with our corrupt nature, certainly it makes corruption more intense and more violent. Hence, when the commandment comes, sin revives, and rises up in the fury of its strength; as, when a deadly foe comes upon one, the person gathers all his strength together to oppose him. The strength of sin is not the less before the commandment come, or the law appear; but when the law appears, the strength of sin appears, and exerts itself: As fire and water are opposites, though at a distance; yet their opposition to one-another is not so evident till they meet and come together, and then there is a mighty sputtering and striving between them: so the holy law and the unholy heart are opposite, though they do not meet; but when once they meet together, the heart rises, and rages, and opposes it like the devil. This appears whenever a man is convinced by the law, and the conviction is merely legal, so as the man sees nothing but the spirituality of the law-command, and the severity of the law-curse: I say, when the conviction is merely legal, the severity of the curse raises a trembling devil of fear in the awakened conscience, and the spirituality of the command raises a devil of enmity in the carnal heart.— And thus, from the very nature of sin, the law is the strength of sin.
4. That the law is the strength of sin, especially to these that are under the gospel-dispensation, arises from the nature of unbelief, and the malignant influence thereof; as is evident from that word of our Lord Jesus, John iii. 18. “He that believes is not condemned; but he that believes not, is condemned already, because he believes not in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” He that believes not the gospel, is condemned already by the law. Now, here consider, what the law-condemnation is. I told you formerly, that the leading and severest part of the law-sentence of condemnation is just the strength of sin; so as, to be under the curse and condemnation of the law, is to be under the power of sin, in its commanding and condemning strength. But what influence hath the not believing the gospel upon a man’s being thus condemned? Was he not in a state of condemnation, though he had never heard the gospel? Why then does Christ say, “He that believes not is condemned already?” Why, it demonstrates, that though all the world be under the power of sin, by the sentence of the law; yet they that are under the gospel, and believe not in the Lord Jesus, their condemnation is condemnation indeed; they stand under the condemning sentence of the law, and so under the power of sin more than ever, because the gospel-news of freedom from that condemnation is rejected. It is not my office as a Saviour, might Christ say, to condemn them; “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved:” but it is the office of the law, as it is the ministration of death and condemnation, to condemn them; so that they are condemned already by another hand; yea, condemned already by the law, because they believe not in, me, who am not come to condemn them, but to save them. No sooner is this gospel-salvation rejected, but the law-condemnation is strengthened and fortified; for then the law, which before was dumb and silent, as it were, after the gospel hath spoken a word of freedom and salvation from the strength of sin, and the man refuses and rejects it, the law opens its mouth, in a manner, saying in effect, I take instruments upon this refusal of yours, that under my dominion and power you stand by your own consent, and that the strength of sin shall not be abated, but increased; and let this stand registrated and recorded in the book of conscience, to bear witness to the equity and justice of my final sentence, when the bocks shall be opened at the great day. `In a word, unbelief holds and detains the man under the law, by refusing Christ and the grace of the gospel: and as the law is the strength of sin, so unbelief strengthens the hands of the law, to kill, and condemn, and enslave the sinner under the commanding and condemning power of sin; and if the law be the strength of sin, and unbelief the strength of the law, then unbelief is the strength of the strength of sin, as it contributes to keep the sinner more under the law than ever.— Thus you see how the law’s being the strength of sin arises from unbelief, which rejects the strength offered in the gospel for destroying sin. And so much for the grounds of the doctrine.
VI. The Sixth thing proposed, was, To make Application of this doctrine. And this we shall essay in the following uses, viz. 1. In an use of Caution. 2. Of Information. 3. Of Examination. 4. Of Exhortation.
1st, The subject may be improved, we say, for Caution and Dehortation. Is the law the strength of sin, in the manner I have described?
1. The first caution I offer is, O man, woman, think not the worse or the less of the law, that it is the strength of sin: nay, you have reason to think the better of it, and to have the higher thoughts of it, as it is the eternal rule of righteousness; for, if it were not a holy law, it would not irritate and exasperate our unholy nature at that rate, so as to augment the commanding power and strength of sin: if it were not a just law, it would not condemn sin at that rate, so as to give it a condemning strength over the sinner. That the law is the strength of sin, in the respect I have named, is so far from being a reflection upon, or a detracting from the holiness and justice of the law, that it serves rather to illustrate the purity of the command of the law, as a rule of holiness; and the equity of the penal sanction thereof, as it is a covenant of works.
2. The second caution is, As you are not to think the worse of the law, so you are not to think the better of sin, that the strength of it is the law. As you are to think the better of the law, that it makes the trouble some sea of corruption to rage, and binds over the sinner with strong bonds of heavy curses for his sin, such is the holiness and strictness of it; so you may think worse of sin, that turns such a good thing as the law to such an ill use, as to draw strength to itself out of it; like a venomous beast, a viper, that sucks poison out of the sweetest flower.
3. The third caution I offer is, think not to conquer sin by the law, or by your personal obedience to it. That law, which is the strength of sin, can never be the destruction of it; it gives strength to it, but cannot take strength from it. They labour in vain, who think, by the strength of their own best endeavours, to subdue sin; for, do what they will, sin hath still dominion over them, because they are under the law, Rom. vi. 14.: and all their endeavours are influenced by the law as a covenant of works; which makes their essays not only ineffectual for breaking the strength of sin, but rather effectual for augmenting the force and increasing the strength thereof.
4. The fourth caution we suggest is this, Think not that obedience to the law, as a rule of life, is needless or hurtful, because the law, as a covenant of works, is the strength of sin: beware of thinking that God’s writing the law in the heart, and that gospel-holiness and conformity to the law, as in the hand a Mediator, is either dangerous or unnecessary; this were an Antinomian principle indeed: but know, of a truth, that, “Without holiness no man shall see God;” without holiness, and conformity to the law, as a rule, no man hath evidence of justification, or of freedom from the law as a covenant; without holiness there is no glorifying of God, nor edifying of man; without holiness no adorning of the gospel; without holiness no evidence of love to God or Christ, who hath said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
Use 2. These confuse shall be by way of Information. There is a number of necessary lessens may be deduced from this doctrine, “That the strength of sin is the law;” such as,
1. Hence we may learn, that there can be no justification before God, by the deeds of the law; for, if the law be the strength of sin, then it can never take away the guilt of sin; Rom. iii. 20. “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh living be justified in his sight; for, by the law is the knowledge of sin.” The force of this reason is very great; for, if it be the office of the law, under the influence of the Spirit of conviction, to give the knowledge of conviction of sin, and so to condemn the sinner, then surely it cannot justify him. And that it is the moral law the apostle here speaks of, is plain; for, as it is that law by which men have the knowledge of sin, and of which the same apostle faith, Rom. vii. 7. “I had not known sin but by the law; for, Thad not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet:” which is the moral law: so it is plain, chap. iii. from ver. 9th to 20th, speaks of that law by which every mouth may be stopt, and all the world, Gentiles as well as Jews, may become guilty before God; or, as it is in the margin, subject to the judgment of God: so that it is a vain thing for any to alledge, that in these scriptures the apostle intends only the ceremonial law, and the deeds thereof.
2. Hence we may learn, that as there is no life or justification by the law of works, it being the strength of sin; so there is no new or milder law in the room thereof, by which life and justification is to be obtained: for no new law can mend the matter; because men remain under the strength of sin, by virtue of the old law, and in that condition cannot be justified by any law of God, being unable to perform any. Some cloud and darken the gospel, by making it a new or milder law, requiring faith, and repentance, and new obedience, instead of the perfect obedience required in the covenant of works. The gospel, properly speaking, is no law, but a promise: and it might be easily evinced, that faith, repentance, and new obedience, are so far from being easier or milder terms, that they are harder conditions to us, in our lapsed state, than perfect obedience was to Adam in a state of innocence. And so the apostle argues against any such new law; Gal. iii. 21. “If there had been a law given, which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law;” or, as it may be read, “Verily righteousness should have been by a law.” But there is no such law given to fallen man, as could give life to him; therefore, there is no righteousness, or justification, to be had by a law, but by a promise; no life by any new law, but by a new promise of mercy and grace in Christ Jesus; “By the works of the law, no flesh living can be justified. Eternal life is the gift of God, through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
3. Hence see, that there is no justification before God, partly by the law, and partly by the gospel; or partly by our own righteousness, and partly by the righteousness of Christ: for, as this detracts from the glory, sufficiency, and perfection of Christ’s righteousness; so it renders our justification lame and imperfect, and consequently void and null: for if the law be the strength of sin, and gives it a commanding and condemning power; then, till the law be satisfied, with a personal, perfect, and everlasting righteousness, the strength of sin remains, and so the man under it remains under condemnation. Why, the obedience of two put together, to make up a perfect obedience, is vain: for, in that case, the obedience both of the one and the other is imperfect, and so not conform to the law; therefore cannot be accepted fur righteousness: sa that they who would be justified before God, must either bring to him a perfect and personal righteousness of their own, and wholly renounce Christ; or else they must bring the perfect, personal righteousness of Christ, and wholly renounce their own. It is one of the most soul-ruining delusions among the generality of professors in our day, that they are guilty of spiritual Bigamy; they think they must have two husbands, Christ and the law both; they suppose that their own duties and righteousness will not do their business alone without Christ’s merit and righteousness, which they hope will make amends, and make up what is wanting, and wherein they are deficient; and so his and theirs together is the ground of their hope: this is a popery, which makes Christ’s righteousness only a footstool on which self-righteousness mounts the throne; yea, this is a Bigamy which Christ will not relifliand put up with. If we be not married to Christ alone, as the end of the law for righteousness, and divorced from the law, as a covenant, the strength of sin remains.
4. Hence see the excellency of the gospel and the great advantage of a clear gospel-dispensation. Why, the law is the strength of sin, but the gospel is the weapon that pulls down the strength thereof: for, it is the power of God to salvation from sin; because therein is revealed the righteousness of God, from faith to faith, Rom. i. 16. Therefore, says the same apostle, 2 Cor. x. 4, 5. “The weapons of our wars are are not carnal, but mighty thro’ God, to the pulling down the strong holds, casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” It is the gospel that is the revelation of divine grace; justifying grace, to pull down the condemning strength of sin; sanctifying grace, to pull down the commanding strength of sin. It is true, the gospel is not powerful this way, unless the Spirit of God accompany it, as a Spirit of faith, causing us to believe the gospel savingly: but, when ever God saves a man from the strength of sin, as it is by hearing the gospel that faith comes; so, it is by believing the gospel that salvation from sin comes; Rom. x. 15, 16. Mark xvi. 15, 16. “Go, preach the gospel to every creature.” What is that gospel? It is the good news of grace and salvation to sinners, thro’ Christ, the Lord our righteousness. Well, what will be the issue? “He that believes this gospel shall be saved; he that believes not shall be damned.” O Sirs, see then the excellency of the gospel, which, as it is the instrument of God’s power for working faith; so, being believed, is the power of God to salvation from the strength of sin, and so from wrath and condemnation.
5. Hence see, that sin, under the gospel, is strangely aggravated. They that are not only under the law, as all are by nature, but also under the want of gospel-light, no wonder that sin reign there; they cannot but live in sin, and in the perpetual violation of the law as a rule, who hear of no deliverance from the law, as a covenant: but for these who live under the gospel, which is the only antidote against the strength of sin, their sin is dreadfully aggravated; their living in sin, and remaining under the strength of sin, is an evidence of their unbelief, whereby they reject the gospel, and so keep themselves under the curse of the law, of which curse the strength of sin is a leading part. The breach of the law, as a rule of obedience, is egregiously aggravated, where freedom from the law, as a covenant, is proclaimed through Christ. The sum of the moral law is love, the sum of disobedience is enmity; but, alas! how is enmity against God heightened, when God manifests such love, grace, and good-will towards sinners! Enmity against God, under the gospel, is enmity in deed: it is rendering him enmity for love. Oh! how do the offers of mercy heighten our malignity! And, what a dreadful and dangerous thing is it to live in sin, under the dispensation of grace! An evil heart of unbelief, neglecting the gospel, and so the great salvation tendered therein, is the spring of apostacy, and departing from the living God. You will say, Ah! I have a wicked heart, a wandering heart, a vain heart, a loose heart, a black heart; yea, but the worst thing about it is, that it is an unbelieving heart: for your unbelief keeps you under the curse of the law, and the law-curse keeps you under sin’s power.
6. Is the law of works the strength of sin? Then see the necessity of union to Christ, as the end of the law for righteousness, in order to freedom from the strength of sin. If Christ be the righteousness of any, he is their strength also; and, because he is their righteousness, he is their strength, and both in a way of union to him: Surely shall one say, In the Lord have I righteousness and strength, Isa. xlv. 24. See also, 1Cor. i. 30. Of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who is God is made unto us righteousness and sanctification. It is the character of believers in Christ, that they walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit, Rom.viii.1.4. Now, how comes this sanctification of heart and way, and freedom from the strength of sin to take place? Why, the root of it is, the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in them, by virtue of their union with Christ. The weakest saint in Christ hath perfectly satisfied every demand of the law; he hath completely paid every penny of debt that he owed to the law. Why, being united to Christ, they are like man and wise; as man and wise are one flesh, so Christ and believers are one Spirit: and as man and wise are one person in law; so, Christ having perfectly fulfilled the law, the believer hath perfectly fulfilled it in him. And so the righteousness of the law being fulfilled in the believer, the commanding and condemning strength of sin, derived from the law, is broken; and consequently he is in case to walk spiritually, and to evidence his freedom from the law, as a covenant, and his being a perfect fulfiller of it, by his walking not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
7. Hence see, That justification is the root of sanctification, and justifying faith the root of a holy life, and is necessary, in order of nature, before it; seeing, as there is no conformity to the law, as a rule of holiness, till once the person get freedom from the law, as a covenant, which, to the transgressor, is the strength of sin; so, in justification, the believer being no more reputed a breaker, or transgressor, but a perfect fulfiller of the law of works, it ceases to be any more the strength of sin unto him: whereupon the removal of the strength of sin lays a foundation for a life of holiness, both habitual and actual; habitual, confiding in the immediate principles of action, in contradistinction from the remote principle infused in regeneration; and actual sanctification whether privately, in the mortifying or killing of sin; or positively, in the quickening of the soul to a newness of life; and that bath internal, in the exercise of grace; and external, in the performance of duty. And hence, as justifying faith is said to have a purifying virtue, Acts xv. 9.; so the whole life of the believer is said to be by faith in the justifying righteousness of God, revealed in the gospel, Rom. i. 17. On which account, the gospel is said to be the power of God to salvation, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek; for therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith; that is, faith in this righteousness of God. No man, therefore, can live a holy life, or walk abroad in the duties of the law, as a rule, in a course of sanctification, till once his feet be loosed from the setters, and his soul liberated from the prison of the law, as a covenant, through justification by faith; and then, and not till then, is he in case to live a holy life by faith: yea, were he never so just and righteous, in respect of personal imparted righteousness; yet he cannot live, but by the faith of this imputed righteousness of God: renewed acts of faith thereupon tend to quicken his soul from time to time. The just, even the just, shall live by this faith; for, without it, all his own justness, righteousness, and personal holiness would languish, and die, and give up the ghost. What makes the obedience of a multitude of professors vain and unacceptable; yea, and all their duties sinful and hurtful? Why, they begin to yield obedience to the precepts of the law, by doing and working out a righteousness of their own, before they be delivered from the curse of the law, by believing and laying hold on the righteousness of Christ; and hence, the strength of sin being a grand part of the curse of the law, and they not being delivered from that curse, all they can do is cursed of God, because the strength of sin remains. But, say you, m a y not this discourage professors from obedience? No: it only directs them to the right and acceptable obedience, and not to dream that they shall ever yield any acceptable obedience to the precept of the law, as a rule, till they be delivered from the curse of the law, as a covenant; and consequently, that their first duty is to come to Christ, as the end of the law for righteousness; and then, being delivered from the strength of sin, they shall be in case to perform duties of obedience acceptably.
8. Hence see, That the fruit of Christ’s merit, and the fruit of his power go together: for, as a being under the law, and under the strength of sin, go together; so freedom from the law, through the law-biding righteousness of Christ, and freedom from the strength of sin, go together: so that the fruit of Christ’s merit and righteousness, imputed for freeing a man from the law of works, and the fruit of his power exerted in freeing a man from the commanding, as well as the condemning power of sin, go hand in hand together. It is worth our notice, my friends, that there is a fruit of the merit of Christ’s death and resurrection, and that fruit is called redemption and justification; and there is also a fruit of the power as Christ’s death and resurrection, and that is called likeness and conformity, Rom. vi. 5.: and these two go together. The fruit of the merit and righteousness of Christ in his doing and dying, is never reaped by any soul, without the fruit of the power thereof also, which is the heart’s being moulded to a conformity to his death and resurrection, by dying to sin, and arising again to newness of life. Now, there is a twofold struggle and opposition in every heart by nature against both these two things: there is a struggle against the merit and righteousness of Christ, and that is by self-righteousness, which cannot endure to be shut out of doors: and there is a struggle against the power of Christ’s death, and that is by lusts and corruptions, which cannot endure to lose their strength, rule, and dominion. But, whenever the merit of Christ, and his righteousness, is effectually applied, for shutting self-righteousness out of doors, there also the power of Christ is effectually exerted, for pulling sin and corruption down from its throne and dominion, and divesting it of its ruling power and strength. Hence, true faith closes with Christ both for righteousness and strength. As true obedience is called universal obedience, having a respect to all God’s commandments; so, true faith is an universal faith, having a respect to all the offices of Christ and to all the capacities where in he is held forth. It receives a whole Christ, without exception either of his righteousness or strength, merit or Spirit. Some have but a partial faith, relishing Christ only for freedom from the wrath of God, and not also for freedom from the power of sin: this is an evidence of a rotten heart; for true believers prize Christ, not only as a Surety, for paying their debt, but also as a Root, for seeding them with the sap of spiritual life, as a root seeds the branches; and they relish Christ, not only as one that appeases God’s wrath, but one that purifies the soul from sin. To this purpose, read Exod. xxiv. 6. 3. “And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basons, and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. And then took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold, the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words.” There you see that the blood, of the covenant, part of it was sprinkled on the altar, and part of it on the people: the blood was, as it were, divided two ways,, signifying that the blood of Christ works partly upward, for pacifying the wrath and satisfying the justice of God, in paying the ransom and price for lost souls; and partly downward upon the people, for sanctifying, sprinkling, cleansing, and purifying them, that their defiled souls may be made clean.
9. Hence, if the law be the strength of sin, we may see what it is that hinders the success of the gospel for pulling down the strength of sin. Why, the law stands in the way of every natural man, his not submitting to Christ offered in the gospel. The sig-leas covering of self-righteousness hinders men from putting on the white robe, the glorious garment of Christ’s righteousness. As the spider hath a web, and the snail hath a shell, and these are their strongholds; so everyman hath his strong hold that he flees unto for shelter, and something that his heart sets up as a ladder, by which he hopes to be saved, and climb up to heaven: and though the law be a broken ladder, and Christ alone the true Jacob’s ladder, that reacheth from earth to heaven, and which the gospel points at; yet the man will not quit the broken ladder, the law of works; and, the more they climb that ladder, the further they go away from Christ. Hence the greatest zealots for the law are the greatest enemies of Christ: witness, Paul before his conversion; he was one of the best men for his righteousness in the law; and yet one of the worst men we read of for his opposition to Christ. Think it not strange, Sirs, to see some very grave, sober, moral, and devout persons, and touching the law blameless and innocent outwardly, and yet these very persons, heart-enemies to Christ, and violent opposers of the gospel: why, even like Paul, the best legal man may be the worst gospel man; and hence the Gentile is brought in before the Jews, Rom. ix. 26. yea, the publicans and harlots before the self-righteous Pharisees, Mat. xxi. 31. But you would consider, that it is not merely these that are by profession and outward practice zealous for the law, that are the only opposers of the gospel; but there is an underhand dealing with the law, that marrs also the success of the gospel, and that by two sorts of persons, which are not suspected to be in such friendship with the law of works, namely,
I. Profest breakers of the law. 2. Profest believers of the gospel.
(1.) There are profest breakers of the law; I mean, profane, wicked, and ungodly persons, who declare their sin as Sodom, and are in a manner professors of profanity, drunkenness, whoredom, swearing, Sabbath breaking, and debauchery; being graceless, prayerless, godless persons, with a witness, that have no regard to the law as a rule of life, yet we will find they have an underhand dealing with the law, and a natural regard to it, as a condition of life, or covenant of works, and thereupon reject the gospel. Now, their regard to the law, as a covenant, appears, partly, when they are inwardly challenged by conscience; and partly, when they are outwardly challenged by men for their sin: when inwardly challenged by conscience, if at any time it be awakened, why then, they flee to the law for relief, saying with themselves, Oh! I hope, I will be a better man before I die; I will take up myself, and turn anew leaf: and so they build upon the law of works, hoping they will do something that they may obtain life by, and saying in effect, “Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all;” and thus they reject Christ, the Surety of the better testament. Or, if such meet with no inward checks, and have no challenges inwardly for their sin; yet their zeal for the law will sometimes appear, when outwardly challenged by men; why, the profane swearer either takes the reproof with a jest, and laughs it over; or, if he find the reprover in sad earnest with him, then he will fall a justifying himself upon a law-bottom; Why, says he, what take you me to be? do you think that I am an atheist or an infidel? Nay, whatever be my faults, I was never such an ill man as you take me to be; and, therefore, I hope in God that he will have mercy on me. What is this but the profane breaker of the law, underhand, building his hope of mercy upon the law, as a covenant, to the greatest dishonour of the law, and contempt of Christ, the end of the law for righteousness, and hereupon living in the open neglect of the great salvation offered in the gospel?
(2.) There are profest believers of the gospel, that yet have underhand dealing with the law for righteousness, to the neglect of the gospel, which yet they profess to believe, insomuch, that Christ is but a stumbling-block to them: such were the Jews, Rom. ix. 31, 32. “But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness: Wherefore? because they sought it not by faith, but, as it were, by the works of the law; for they stumbled at that stumbling-stone.” These words, as it were, are of great significancy, shewing, that they did not profess to seek righteousness by the law, or by their own works, but by Christ, the promised Messias, to whom they were directed by their sacrifices that typified him, and by the Old Testament prophecies and promises that pointed him out: but while they profest Christ the Meffias, and faith in him for righteousness; yet they closely and underhand, pursued their own righteousness, seeking life and salvation, not professedly and directly, but as it were, by the works of the law, and secretly rested in the law and the works thereof, and so miscarried; and this was their stumbling stone, under a bright profession that they made to the contrary. Thus many profess the doctrine of justification by faith, and not by the works of the law; yet secretly and underhand closely pursue and go about to establish their own righteousness, if not directly, yet, as it were, by the works of the law; laying more stress, for example, upon what they call their sincere heart, sincere obedience, sincere endeavours, than ever they did upon the perfect obedience of Christ for justification. But whether a bottle be stopt with gold or dung, yet being full, whatever water you pour upon it, it will all run aside: even so, the water of life, freely dispensed in the gospel, runs aside like water spilt upon the ground, because men’s hearts are stopt with the law, their own legal righteousness, which they esteem as gold; but Paul compares it to dung: Christ can get no admittance, because the soul is full already. But then,
10. If the strength of sin be the law, hence we may see, That the law cast never pacify the duly awakened conscience; and that so far is any man from being able to stand before God, in the best of his own righteousness, that he cannot so much as stand before his own conscience in the best righteousness of his own. Some go to the law for satisfaction to their conscience; they rock and lull their consciences asleep in the cradle of some outward duty; they go to church, and attend some ordinances; they say some formal prayers; and others go greater lengths, merely to gratify conscience: but if conscience were duly awakened and convinced, it would not be pacified with any thing less than that which pacifies infinite justice; nor would it be satisfied with any thing less than that which sully satisfies the law: so long as the law finds any sault with or defect in our righteousness, so long does it curie us, Gal. iii. 10.; and so long as the curse remains, the strength of sin remains: and consequently the law cannot give relief to the awakened conscience by any the best righteousness of our own, whether of inward graces, or outward duties; for the awakened conscience will witness against us, judge and condemn us, in the best of these.
(1.) Suppose you have inward graces and good qualifications, the bell of these will not give conscience peace when God awakens it: I shall suppose you have faith; well, `but have you not unbelief also, and more unbelief than faith? And may not conscience condemn you for that, as Christ did his disciples, “How is it that ye have no faith,” while you carry in many cases as if you had none at all? Suppose you have repentance, yet have you not impenitency also? May not conscience condemn you many times for a hard impenitent heart; so hardened from God’s fear, that neither the word nor rod of God does make impression on you; yea, neither mercies nor judgments do you lay to heart as you ought? Suppose you have humility; yet is there not pride also in your heart? and may not your conscience accuse you of much self-elevation, and self-confidence? Suppose you have love to God; yet, have you not much enmity also? and may not your conscience condemn you, that you love not God with all your heart, with all your soul, mind, and strength; and that your heart goes more out after the creature than the Creator, at least some times, and in many instances? Suppose you have sincerity; yet, may not conscience witness against you, that your sincerity is mixed with hypocrisy? Suppose you have zeal; yet, will not conscience witness that you have too much luke warmness? Suppose you have a fixed heart upon God, and Christ, and heavenly things at some times; yet, will not conscience accuse you of innumerable wanderings of heart? Why, then it seems your best righteousness even of inward graces will not pacify conscience. Nor,
(2.) Suppose you have outward duties to add to your inward graces; suppose you pray in your closet, in your family, and in public, which is well done; and suppose you hear the word carefully, and joyfully, and perform all other duties: yet, will not conscience witness that sin mixes itself with your best duties? And when you pray, yet you are not always praying in the Holy Ghost; when you worship, yet you are not still worshipping God in the Spirit; when you hear, you are not always hearing in faith; when you receive the word and sacraments, you are not ay receiving Christ therein; and when you communicate, you are not ay communicating worthily: may not conscience condemn you for these things, and put you to cry after all, Lord, be merciful to me a sinner?
Well then, when you cannot stand before your own consciences, in your best righteousness, either of internal qualifications or external performances; how can you think to stand before God, who is greater than conscience, and knows all things, and sees more sin and wickedness in you than ever you saw? He sees the errors you cannot see, Psalm xix. 12. “Who can understand his errors?” and the heart’s wickedness you can not discern, Jer. xvii. 9, 10. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it? I the Lord search the heart, and try the reins, to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.” Now, O man, woman, if you cannot stand before the bar of your own heart and conscience, but you must be condemned, though it knows not the thousandth part of your heart-wickedness that God knows; how will you stand before the bar of God, whose understanding is infinite, and who is of glorious holiness and dreadful justice? Oh! his fiery law will burn up all your filthy rags, if you have not another covering, when death, judgment, and eternity stare you in the face! Is it not your duty and interest then, to seek after a better robe, even that of Christ’s everlasting, law-biding righteousness? that alone can pacify conscience, because it gives the law all its demands, and quenchest desire of it with his blood. O seek then to be under this covert of the blood of the Lamb of God, that purple-covering of the new-covenant chariot, that is paved with love for the daughters of Jerusalem.
11. Hence see, why it is that sin hath a reigning power over the ungodly, and a prevailing power over the godly; even because the former are wholly under the law, and the latter partly under it. On the one hand, sin reigns over unbelievers, because they are under the law: men being in bondage to the law, are in bondage to their lust. Whence is it that all manner of sin and profaneness rages in our day, and so much practical opposition to the law, as a rule of holiness? Even because, people being under the law, as a covenant of works, the gospel is slighted and disparaged; grace, in effect, is cried down, and the law is cried up in opposition to it: therefore God leaves men to all lawless impiety, as a righteous punishment of their contemning of grace, by which alone the law can be honoured, both as a covenant and a rule, Isa. xlii. 21. Mat. v. 17. Rom. iii. 31.— On the other hand, why does sin prevail so much over believers? why are they so unholy and untender in their walk? Even because they are partly under the law. It is true, they are not under the law, but under grace: in point of right, the law of works hath no authority over them; but yet, in point of possession, it maintains a great sway, while unbelief remains; and hence, though sin hath no rightful legal dominion over them, yet it continues to have great actual prevalence, while they do not make use of that grace they are under, Rom. vi. 14. When they let the grace of God out of their mind, then they are discouraged, and sin gets advantage: they are apt to trust partly to their own works, and endeavours, and frames; and therefore, like the woman with the bloody issue, they lose both their time and pains, and spend all on physicians that do them no good, till they come back to Christ and grace again. Sometimes even believers, instead of using grace aright, are ready to misuse it, and make it a cover for sloth, under pretence that Christ must do all. They are thus in danger of practical Antinomianism, and turning the grace of God into wantonness: they pray not, watch not, and therefore they have nothing, because their hands refuse to labour; and they do not study, in all appointed means, to keep themselves under the droppings of grace, which would make their duties their pleasure; but, being under much legal bondage, it makes their duties their burden, and a wearisome talk; which being thereupon shifted and slighted, sin gets advantage. But, Oh! If believers did but believe their privileges, and rightly use the grace they are under, it were impossible for them to belong under the feet of their enemies. If they by faith were reckoning themselves to be what they are, according to Rom. vi. x1. “Likewise reckon ye yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God, through Jesus Christ our Lord;” what a happy and holy life would the believer have, if by faith he were reckoning himself to be in Christ? For he should not conceive of God out of Christ, nor of himself out of Christ, nor of Christ and himself as two, but as one mystical person, by virtue of the mystical spiritual union betwixt Christ and him. If he were reckoning that he is a member of Christ, and can do all things through him; and reckoning that Christ is in him, and he is in Christ; reckoning that he is dead in Christ unto sin, and alive in Christ unto God; how would his spirit be railed, elevated, and nobilitated to the life of religion, looking to himself, not in himself, but in Christ, by virtue of marriage to him?
If the believer were saying, by faith, O! I am complete in Christ; I am perfectly righteous in Christ, and accepted as righteous in the sight of God, only through the righteousness of Christ; I was once bound to the fiery law, the terrible law, and thousands, in hell are paying that debt of satisfaction to it, and cannot pay it to eternity; but I have paid every farthing, and the law can ask no more; yea, in Christ, I have magnified the law, and made it honourable: Here is one of the greatest mysteries in the world, behold a man who sees himself so sinful, that he thinks none in all the world so black, and ugly, and sinful as he, can, in this respect, reckon himself as righteous as Abraham or Paul; yea, perfectly righteous; and see himself in that gospel-glass, that says, Thou art all fair, my love, there is no spot in thee. Why, the believer being clothed with the Sun of righteousness, he is righteous in the sight of God: to be righteous hi man’s sight is nothing to this, hypocrites may arrive at that; but to be righteous in God’s light, is to be so righteous, that infinite holiness, infinite justice can find no blot, no spot, no hole, in the garment of righteous ness with which the man is clothed. O believers in Christ, you that are perfect through his comeliness, you do not view sufficiently your privileges, otherwise it would elevate you above corruption, and fill you with holy triumph over all your lulls and idols, and make you think shame to sin; if you were reckoning what you are in Christ, you would reckon it below you to tread in the dirty steps of the world: but when unbelief darkens your gospel privileges, and grace is out of view, you saint in duty, and are discouraged and disheartened in your work, so as sin recovers its spirit and strength.
12. Hence we may see, that whatever opposition and residence to sin, hypocrites and unbelievers may make, yet still they are under the strength of sin, because under the law; and whatever prevalence sin may have over believers, yet they are freed from the strength of sin, because they are not under the law. This twofold inference lays a foundation for resolving two difficult cases.
First Case is, Seeing hypocrites may resist sin, what resistance of sin is consistent with the dominion thereof? Hypocrites and reprobates do net always sin peaceably but with some reluctancy; they forbear many sins, and get victory over them: how then may this be cleared? And how does it appear that they may make resistance, against sin, and yet the strength of it never broken?
I answer, for clearing this, in these two assertions.
(1.) The first assertion is, That there is indeed a resisting of sin, which is consistent with the power and dominion of it; as I would clear in a few words. A person may solemnly resolve and swear against sin, and yet be under the power of it; as it was with Israel, Psal. lxxviii. 37.and Josh. xxiv. 18. People may confess their sins, and repent of them with tears; as Esau, and Judas, and Saul, Heb. xii. 17. Matth. xxvii. 3, 4, 5. 1 Sam. xxiv. 16, 17. And yet be under the power of it. People may separate some time for special fasting and humiliation, on the account of sin, and yet be under the power of it; As Ahab, 1Kings xxi. 29. People may be zealous opposers and reformers of sin in others, and yet be under the reigning power of it; like Jehu, 2 Kings x. 1, — 31. People may resist sin unto suffering and blood; as Alexander, mentioned, Acts xix. 33. and 1 Tim. i. 19. People may resist all motions, inclinations, and temptations to sin, so far as never to break forth into any gross out-breaking thereof, and be in all things blameless before the world; as Paul was before his conversion, Phil. iii. 9. And yet all this while they may be under the power and dominion of sin: Why? because their resistance of sin proceeds from wrong principles; such as fear of God’s judgments, as Ahab, when Elijah threatened him; fear of man, like Herod; affectation of human applause, like the Pharisees; and because their resistance is but partial, chiefly bended against gross out-breakings, while heart lusts are welcomed and entertained; the out-side of the cup being clean, while within it is full of corruption, Matth. xxiii. 24.— Thus, I say, there is a resisting of sin that is consistent with the power of it.
2. The second assertion is, That the power of sin is never broken in a hypocrite; why, because the nature of an hypocrite, the reigning sin, which is the sin of nature, and which gives life and breath to all his other sins, is never discovered, never groaned under; though some actual sins get a streak, yet this remains in power: and hence, the opposition that a hypocrite or graceless man finds in himself sometimes to sin, is not the opposition of the Spirit to the flesh, but rather the opposition of one sin to another: As if two noblemen strive together in a kingdom, the king’s power is never a whit weakened thereby, he rules absolutely notwithstanding; so two sins may cast out with one-another, and yet the reigning sin, which is the sin of nature, remain in power: hence a man’s pride and prodigality will differ with his avarice and covetousness; a man’s self-love may discord with his sloth, and put him upon several duties. Though one sin contend with and cast out another sin, it will not say that sin is exauctorate: the sin that prevails, will yet do homage to the reigning sin; but while the reigning sin remains untouched, sin hath dominion. And power. The taking of a few villages does not much weaken the strength of a king; hut when his royal city is taken, and himself confined, then his power is gone: even so here, the forbearing, resisting, and down-bringing of some sins, does much abate the power of sin; but ifonce the reigning sin of the nature be taken, then the power of sin is gone. Now, Christ gives the body of death in every saint a deadly wound; he does not only bruise Satan’s heel, but his head: when a man comes to see his wicked nature, his opposition to God and Christ, and all his ways in every thing, and mourns fir this as the greatest evil, and comes to the Lord Jesus, and employs him for power against it, and renounces its dominion; though he cannot rid himself altogether thereof, yet then is the power of it broken and gone. But here notice further. The permission to do some duties, and to leave off some sins, does Hot evince that the power of sin is broken, because this may be done with sin’s authority and consent; yea, and with Satan’s leave: for if the devil see that Christ is like to get a profane soul from him, and that the man is like to break off from him, he compones, he suffers him to leave many sins, and to do many good duties: as a man that hath no will to quit his lands, he pays a composition for it; so sin makes a composition with many, where as it reigns over some very absolutely, yet it reigns over others so as to permit them to pay some acknowledgement to God, and yet sin still reigns. Many a man’s conscience is awakened for sin; they confess and mourn for it, they seek pardon, and yet keep their sins still, and hold them fast: many will tipple and drink, and live in covetousness, and sloth, and unbelief; O but their desires are good; they pray privately and in their families, and confess their sins, and are sorry for them! What is this? Alas! This is nothing but the composition made betwixt Satan and you: you still hold of sin, and it reigns still; even as your lands hold of such a person o f quality, it may be of the king, or of a noble man: well, some lands are under greater servitude to the king, or other superiors, than others; yet all hold of them: so, perhaps your slavery to sin is not so great as that of others, but yet you hold of sin; sin is your superior, and it hath the power. So, some ministers in the late times, after the king’s supremacy was established, when the king found and apprehended many to be dissatisfied with his absolute government, he offered and they accepted of an indulgence from him, giving them leave to preach in such and such places and circumstances: this acceptance, many maintained, was such a sin, as that thereby they did hold their ministry of the king, and homologate or approve of his supremacy in matters sacred as well as civil; or that the king was still supreme over all causes, as well as persons: so it is here; sin perceiving that many begin to entertain a great dissatisfaction with such an absolute form of government, or ruling in such a manner, resolve to alter their method and way of living, and to offer indulgencies: perhaps, Satan ruled before in a way of drunkenness, swearing, whoredom, and profanity; but now he will rule by pride, formality, covetousness, and setting up of men’s own righteousness: here is an indulgence offered and accepted; it is no change of government in the substantials of it, it is no change of the power of sin, only some are indulged to do more than others. Sin and Satan indulge some to do many things, while sin is still king, only it rules in a different manner.— Thus, I say that the power of sin is never broken in hypocrites, as it is in the believer who is under grace.
The Second Case was, In what respects are believers freed from the strength of sin, while yet they are sensible of the prevalency thereof? For sin remains in them, and acts, and works, and strives in them, and they are led captive thereby, Rom. vii. 23. Therefore, though they be not under the law, but under grace, it would seem that they are not freed from the power, dominion, and strength of sin; for the strength of sin is what they daily feel and complain of: how then, and in what respects, are they fread from it?
* Viz. CHARLES II. The Supremacy was established by the Parliament, 1661. And the Indulgence granted by the Privy-Council, 1669.
Answ. There are these following respects, wherein the believer is freed from the strength of sin.
(1.) In so far as they are under grace, it is sure they are not under sin’s power. Indeed, if believers would take hold of the shield of faith, they would find little of the power of sin; but they many times cast this shield away by discouragements, and run in to the law thro’ unbelief, and so they sink: hence, casting themselves out, as saints may do for a start, from under the influence of grace, they may, like Peter, begin to sink, because they begin to fear and doubt; so that it is true thus far, namely, so far as they are under grace, and through grace keep themselves under the influence of grace, they are not under the power and dominion of sin.
(2.) Believers are freed from the power of sin, in so far as they are intitled to the promise, which says, Their sin shall be subdued, and that sin shall not have dominion. It is to be noticed, that it is not said in the context, sin hath no dominion or power over them, but it is said, It shall not have dominion: now, in regard the time is coming, when all sin shall be taken away, in all these that are under grace; its power and dominion is to be cutoff, though for a while it rages. There is a counsel and determination against Babylon; God hath de creed and ordered, that sin’s dominion shall expire, Rom. xvi. 20. “The God of peace will bruise Satan under your feet shortly;” and he will turn judgment unto victory; but how long the believer may sight and groan under the prevalence of it, cannot easily be determined.
(3.) Believers that are under grace, are freed from the power of sin, in regard it hath no righteous and lawful power and dominion over them; the first husband is dead, and they are married to Christ, the second Husband, Rom. vii. 4.; and therefore they are not debtors to the flesh to live after it, Rom.viii.12. Though the flesh may compel and crave them to obey, yet it has no just power so to do. Sin’s just authority is exauctorate; and Christ, by satisfying the law, which is the strength of sin, hath condemned sin, Rom. viii. 3. So that it being now condemned and exauctorate, though it keep possession, yet there is a sentence and decreet of ejection obtained against sin. The believer hath law upon his side, whereas sin hath no law, no right concerning him. Sin hath a fort of right to reign in wicked men, and these that are under the law; tor it hath a right of con quest over them, and they are servants, because, by their actual obedience, they have homologate the right of conquest that sin had: but in believers, who are under grace, and delivered from sin by the Lord Jesus Christ, who satisfied the law, which is the strength of sin, and now renouncing the service of sin, and taking on with Christ as their Lord, who redeemed them by his blood from sin, and overcame and condemned sin, sin hath no pretext of title anymore. It is true, it actually exercises authority: yet that is but an usurped authority: sin rules by no lawful title. You will say, If sin rule, what is the matter whether it hath a title or not? I answer, Yea, it is a great matter; for the just Lord of heaven and earth, upon the believer’s complaining of unjust oppression, will right him, and deliver him from such an oppression and oppressor in due time: and he hath encouragement, in opposing sin, that he shall prevail, seeing his cause is just, and that he hath just matter of pleading with the righteous God, that sin shall not have power over him. The believer may go to God, as Bathsheba did to David, when Adonijah did usurp the kingdom, saying, “My Lord, O King, did thou not swear, saying, Assuredly Solomon shall reign? and yet, behold, Adonijah reigneth.” So may the believer go to God, and say, Lord, hath thou not said that sin shall not reign, but that graces shall reign? And, yet behold, sin and corruption usurp the power: and, to be sure, he will take order with this matter.
(4.) Believers, that are under grace, are freed from the power of sin, in regards in hath no power to condemn or damn such as are under grace; its authority is so far broken in them, that though they sin, and though sin may force them to some acts of obedience to it, yet it cannot condemn them to hell, as it may do these that are strangers to Christ, and not under grace, in whom sin is said to reign unto death, Rom. v. 21. and chap, vi. 23. Now, whatever way it may reign and rule, yet it reigns not unto death in them that are under grace, and in Christ; for, There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ; and against such there is no law, Gal. v. 23. As when the Romans conquered the Jews, though they left some authority, yet they took from them the power of life and death, as they acknowledge, John xviii. 32. It, is not lawful for us to put any man to death: so, when Christ hath conquered sin, though he did in his wisdom not altogether destroy the power of sin, yet he took away the power of life and death from it, so as sin cannot now condemn any believer; and this is a comfortable privilege.
(5.) Believers under grace are freed from sin, in regard they have renounced the dominion thereof, and their allegiance thereto; hence that word, 2 Cor. iv. 2. We have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty. Why, by closing and engaging with Christ to be his, and coming to him for protection from, and power against sin, they have declared that they renounce sin, and all allegiance thereto. Christ hath engaged all his servants in heart and practice against sin directly and indirectly; there is war declared against sin in all the saints. You know, it was a great impairing of Rehoboam’s power, 1 Kings xii. 16. when the ten tribes revolted, and said to him, What portion have vie in the son of Jesse? See to thine own house, David; to your tents, O Israel; and so shook off his authority: whatever therefore sin does in believers, whatever obedience it extorts from them, or entices them to yield to it, yet there is war irreconcilable denounced against sin. This is a great matter, when a people shake off the authority of a prince, and declare themselves free from his authority; however he be seeking to reduce them to obedience again, yet he hath, for the present, no dominion over them: so it is here: tho’ sin may endeavour to bring the believer into subjection, yet it hath not absolute sway over him.
(6.) In regard sin hath not that power over such as are under grace, as it had formerly before they were under it; for, notwithstanding that sin prevails, yet it prevails not as it did before, when the strong man kept all his goods in peace, 2 Pet. iv. 4. They run not to the same excess of riot: there is some more in them that opposes sin; and sin does not rule so absolutely and peaceably in them as it does in these that are under the law. Formerly the strong man kept all in peace, while the man committed sin with greediness; but now there are always protestations and uprisings against it: sin hath not absolute, peaceable, and voluntary dominion.
(7.) Believers under grace are freed from sin, in regard sin, in its principal design, is broken; its chief strength is taken away: as when two great parties are competing and striving with one another, there is a fort or principal city of the kingdom; and whosoever of them can make themselves master of that, they are fair to carry the whole kingdom; therefore both strive to gain it, and he that first gains it, has much weakened his enemy’s power: so it is here, the great design of sin and Satan is to keep the soul from closing with Christ; he hides their need of Christ from them so long as he can; and when they come to see their need of Christ, he seeks to comfort and salve them by the law, or by their legal endeavours: when this miscarries with him, then, by a multitude of objections, he scares them from Christ; all his forces and might are bent upon this, as his chief and only design, to keep the soul and Christ from joining together; for then he knows he hath lost them forever. Now, when the Lord Jesus, in a day of power, hath so far overcome Satan, that he hath broken his chief design, and maugre all the opposition of the devil and corruption, hath made the soul to come to him and believe on him, and so hath put the Soul in to a state of reconciliation, life and grace, then he hath very much delivered them from the power of sin, especially the mother-sin of unbelief, John xvi. 9.
(8.) In regard that sin hath got a deadly wound by the power of converting grace, of which it never heals again till it totally die. There is such a plot laid in the day of believing and conversion, as sin will certainly be blown up with; having got a death’s wound, it will die ere long. Indeed, it may be like a man in a malignant fever, that hath strength of humours, and in whom the strength of nature is overcome; he seems to he very strong, so as three men perhaps cannot get him kept in the bed: yea, all this is but only the raging of his humour, and nature’s last attempt; for within a few hours the man dies. So, after sin hath got a death’s wound, it may rage for a little, but dies at last: like an ox felled on the forehead with an ax; how does he leap and stamp, and put forth power with violence for a while? But at last falls down and dies. Thus the first draught of the water of life that the soul by faith drinks, proves poison to sin; and, the more of this water that the soul drinks, the more is the power of sin abated; there is a trap laid for sin. You have a word, Obadiah verse 7. They have laid a wound under thee; there is a train laid for sin, that cannot fail to be its death. Why, what for a train? why, the believer, by faith, sets all at work against sin; not only prayers and tears, and all means .and duties, under the conduct: of new-covenant grace; but the special train is the word and promise of Christ; the grace and fulness of Christ; the blood, righteousness, and merit of Christ; the power, grace, and Spirit of Christ; are all employed to knock down sin, and all clapt upon sin’s head; so that its power must cease, and it cannot but die.
Ralph Erskine (1685-1752), Scottish divine, brother of Ebenezer Erskine (q.v.), was born on the 18th of March 1685. After studying at the University of Edinburgh, he was ordained assistant minister at Dunfermline in 1711. He homologated the protests which his brother laid on the table of the assembly after being rebuked for his synod sermon, but he did not formally withdraw from the establishment till 1737. He was also present, though not as a member, at the first meeting of the associate presbytery. When the severance took place on account of the oath administered to burgesses, he adhered, along with his brother, to the burgher section. He died after a short illness on the 6th of November 1752. His works consist of sermons, poetical paraphrases and gospel sonnets. The Gospel Sonnets have frequently appeared separately. His Life and Diary, edited by the Rev. D. Fraser, was published in 1842.
This sermon is taken from The Sermons, and Other Practical Works of the Late Reverend and Learned Mr. Ralph Erskine, Minister of the Gospel in Dunfermlinem, published in 1796.
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