by Robert Bolton
But first give me leave to make some general points, out of which come abundant comfort and overflowing rivers of refreshing for all times of temptations and trouble of mind.
GOD’S SWEET MERCY
Firstly, let us be reminded of the infinity of God’s mercy sweetly given; the mercy of God is like Himself, infinite. All our sins are finite, both in number and nature: now between finite and infinite there is no proportion, and thus no possibility of one cancelling the other out. And therefore whether your sins are notorious and numberless, yet in a truly broken heart, thirsting for and throwing oneself upon Christ, unfeignedly resolving upon new obedience, and His glorious service for the time to come, can no more withstand or stand before God’s mercies, than a little spark can stand before the boundless and mighty ocean when thrown into the midst of it. If all the sins of all the sons and daughters of Adam have committed since the creation to this day were all upon one soul — yet so affected as I have said, and put into such a new penitence, gracious temper, — it should be most certainly upon good ground and everlastingly safe. I do not speak thus to make anybody complacent; for any one sin, pleasing and reigning will ruin a soul for ever. But to assure of mercy sufficient, how great or many have the sins been — if the heart is now truly humbled for them all and wholly turned heavenward it is sufficient.
Secondly, let us remember the invaluable nature of Christ’s meritorious blood, which is called the blood of God, and therefore of inestimable price. Do not misunderstand me — it was the blood of God, not of the Godhead, but of Him Who was both God and man. For the manhood of Christ was received into the union of the second person of the Trinity. And so it may be called the blood of God as Paul puts it in Acts 20:28. “God purchased His church with His own blood” — that is Christ, God incarnate. Our divines express it in this way: It was the Son of God and Lord of life that died for us upon the Cross, but it was the nature of man, not of God, wherein He died; and it was the nature of God, the infinite excellency of the same from where the price, value and worth of His passion came. This blessed blood, then, is of infinite efficacy, and therefore if you are now turning to the Lord, assure yourself that whatsoever your sins have been, they have not outstripped the price that has been paid for them. This blood upon repentance did take off the transcendent scarlet guilt from the souls of even of those that shed it. (Acts 2, etc.)
RICHES OF THE WORD
Thirdly, be reminded of the riches of the Word in affording examples of the saints and of the Son of God Himself; who have surpassed you perhaps very far in any estate of misery that you might name.
You are perhaps considering with the Prodigal to come in, but arising before you with terror in your mind is the extraordinary heinousness of your former sins, and that hinders you. Cast your eye then upon Manasseh (II Kings 21) a man of terrible impiety, and matchless villainy: he shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another. He did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord like the abominations of the heathen whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel. And yet this great sinner humbling himself greatly before the God of his fathers, was received in mercy.
FALL INTO SIN?
Suppose (which is a horrible thing) that after conversion, by an extraordinary violent temptation with a strong ensnarement of some sudden offer of the flesh and opportunity, or treacherous insinuation of your own heart or furious reassault of some bosom sin — if this should occur you should be overtaken grossly with some grievous sin and scandalous fall — and then upon illumination comes remorse and a desire to return — do you reason this way: “Alas, what shall I do now? I have undone all — I have defiled my soul again terribly which was so wonderfully washed in my Saviour’s blood and with that which I had rejected from my unregenerate days. I have shamed my profession and disgraced religion for ever. I have broken my vows, lost my peace and my desired blessed communion with my God. And therefore what hope can I have of any acceptance again at the throne of grace?” I say in this case, to keep you from sinking, cast your eyes upon Aaron, David and Peter: who, returning with sound and hearty repentance were mercifully received into as great a favour as before. But God forbid that any professing Christian should ever fall so terribly, especially in this glorious mid-day of evangelical light!
Are you languishing under the heavy desolation of a spiritual desertion, and deprived of your former comfortable feelings of God’s favourable countenance? Look at David in Psalm 77; “I remembered God and was troubled. I complained that my spirit was overwhelmed. I am so troubled that I cannot speak. My soul refused to be comforted.” No, upon Jesus Christ Himself even — Matthew 27:46 where he cried “My God, my God why hast Thou forsaken me?”
Are you haunted with some of Satan’s most hateful and horrible assaults, penetrating to the centre even of your corrupt nature; thoughts framed by him immediately and put into you — perhaps tending towards atheism or to the dishonour of God in the highest degree or of His blessed Word; self-destruction or something similar? Thoughts, which you cannot remember without horror, and you dare not reveal or name because of overwhelming sinfulness. If this is the case with you, consider how this malicious fiend dealt with the Son of God. He offered to our Lord’s most holy and unspotted mind these propositions: first, murder and suicide (Matthew 4:6); secondly, fall down and worship the devil (verse 9); then, the most foul of all — Jesus Christ, blessed forever in whom the God-head dwelt bodily should fall down and worship the devil the most vile of all creatures and yet this was suggested to our most blessed Saviour, to which His purest heart infinitely incapable of sin was as a brass wall to an arrow, beating it back straight away with infinite contempt. And He Himself utterly conquered and confounded the tempter and this for you and your sake also. Therefore if your humbled soul abominates and abandons these things from the root of your heart to the pit of hell, they shall never be laid to your charge but set on Satan’s account. Those people, then, wrong themselves extremely and please the devil to the utmost, who permit such injected thoughts which they heartily hate, and stand against, with all their strength, to hold their heart still upon the rack of extraordinary astonishment and distraction, whereby they are unnecessarily discouraged and disabled from cheerfully discharging their calling. This is something which Satan especially aims at in vexing so many of God’s dearest servants with this fiery dart.
ATTACKS AFTER MANY YEARS
Maybe, that many years after your new birth, when you think the worst is past, you may be revisited and afflicted afresh with perhaps even more trying spiritual pains with more horror than even at the first. What then? Hear how David, a man after God’s own heart, cries out: “My bones waxed old through my roaring all day long; for day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. Selah.”
And Job, a God-fearing man and most upright: “Wherefore hidest thou thy face and boldest me for thine enemy? Wilt thou break a leaf driven to and fro? Wilt thou pursue the dry stubble? For thou writest bitter things against me, and makest me to possess the iniquities of my youth. The arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison thereof drinks up my spirit: the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me.”
Hezekiah, that walked before God in truth, and with a perfect heart: “I reckoned till morning, that as a lion, so will he break all my bones: day even to night wilt thou make and end of me. Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter I did mourn as a dove; my eyes failed with looking upwards; O Lord I am oppressed, undertake for me.”
Do you day after day pour your soul out in prayer before the throne of grace with all the earnestness and importunity your poor dead heart (as you call it) can possibly, and then do you still rise up dull, heavy hearted and discomforted, without any clear answer from God or comfortable sense of His favour and love shed in your heart? This may be so, yet for all this, still pray in obedience unto God against all discouragements and oppositions whatsoever. Continue to press hard and to ply God’s mercy-seat, even if it is with sighs and groanings. Most certainly, at length and in the most appropriate times, you will be most gloriously refreshed and recorded in the remembrance of God as a Christian of excellent faith. See an example of this rare and extraordinary patience in Matthew 15:23. There, that woman of Canaan, having received many grievous rebuffs and cutting discouragements — the one solicited was silent; the disciples grumbled that she was not of the fold — she was a dog; yet for all this, by her constancy in crying after Christ her petition at last was not only granted, but herself was crowned also with that most remarkable word from the Lord’s own mouth: “Oh woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” What an honour and comfort was this to be thus commended by Jesus Christ, and with such amazement.
Has your faith lost its feeling? Do you for the present feel nothing but anger, wrath and great indignation? Is God’s face and favour wherein is life turned away from you and hidden from your sight? No, has He even broken you asunder, taken you by the neck, and shaken you to pieces and set you up for his target? Yet for all this let your truly humbled soul be so far from losing or leaving itself, but rather resting surely upon the person, passion and promises of Jesus Christ; that in such a case, it cleaves and clings faster to the blessed Rock and even more immoveably. For therein is specially the strength and glory of faith improved and made illustrious. It is one of the most noble and heroic acts of faith to believe without feeling. “He who believeth most and feeleth least is he who glorifieth God the most.” It is nothing to swim in a warm bath, but to endure waves and tumbling billows of the sea, that is the man. To believe, when God shines upon your soul, brightly and warmly, with the love and light of His countenance, is no great matter; but to rest invincibly on His mercy through Christ when He grinds thee to powder, that’s the faith. You have before you for this purpose a matchless precedent in holy Job who vexed, not only with an unparalleled variety and extremity of outward afflictions, but also was vexed with the venom of God’s arrows which devoured his spirit. So he said, “Though he slay me yet will I trust him” (Ch. 13:15). Similarly with Abraham — as we see in Romans 4:18.
Have you given your allegience stoutly to Christianity and so you stand on the Lord’s side with resolution, and because of this are you villianously attacked with slanderous and odious nicknames such as Puritan, Hypocrite, Dissembler etc.? Consider then for your comfort the graceless wretches who when our Lord was on the earth called Him a devil. (See Matthew 10:25) Reject then, for ever, and trample upon with a humble and triumphant patience, all their slanders and contempt. Pass by nobly without touch or trouble, without wound or passion, the utmost malice, the most scurrilous tongue and the basest jibe of the impure drunkard. Does the world, carnal men, your own friends, and others censor you as a hypocrite in your profession and they do this confidently? A heavy charge! Yet for all this let your truly humble heart, conscious to itself of its own sincerity in holy service, like a strong pillar of brass, beat back all their poison arrows of malice and mistake this way, without any dejection, or discouragement; only use the occasion to search your heart more thoroughly, and walk more warily. Job also may be a right pattern to you in this. He had against him, not only the devil his enemy, pushing at him with his poison weapons, but even his own friends scourging him with their tongues, his own wife a thorn pricking him in the eye, yea his own God, running upon him like a giant and his terrors setting themselves in array against him. Powerful motives, to make him suspect himself of former stumbling and hollow — heartedness in the ways of God: but notwithstanding, his good and honest heart, having been long-before acquainted with, and knit unto his God in truth, makes him break out boldly and resolutely in his protest: “Till I die, I will not remove my integrity from me. My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go. Behold my witness is in heaven, and my record is on high.”
Are you a loving and tender-hearted mother to your children, and have you lost the dearest? The greatest outward cross, I confess, that ever the sons and daughters of Adam tasted and goes near to the heart — yet your sorrow is not unique, but is outstripped by that of Mary, the mother of Christ, when she stood by and saw her own dear, innocent Son, the Lord of life, most cruelly and villianously murdered upon the cross before her eyes.
Have you lost your goods or children? Does your wife that lies in your bosom set herself against you? Do your nearest friends charge you falsely? Are you in pain extremely from head to toe? Do the arrows of the Almighty strike fast in your soul? Your affliction is grievous enough, if you taste any of these separately. But do they all in their greatest extremity come upon you at once? Have you lost all your children, and all your goods? Does your wife afflict your afflictions? If this is not your case, you come still short of Job, a most just man and one of God’s dearest jewels.
Fourthly, let us consider the exceeding greatness and preciousness of God’s promises. Everyone of them is wonderful to consider with abundant matter of unspeakable and glorious joy wrapped in it. Oh how sweet are these promises to a thirsty soul in the time of anguish and trouble. They are like a cloud of rain that comes in the time of a drought. They are very — glimpses of heaven, shed into a heart many times as dark as hell. They are even rocks of eternity, upon which every bruised reed may sweetly repose with impregnable safety. A truly humbled spirit, relishing spiritual things, would not exchange any one of them for all the riches and sweetness which comes from the Indies. Tell me, dear heart, you that in your unregenerate days though now happily changed, when you lay asoaking in sins of cruelty and blood — whether that merciful promise “Come now and let us reason together saith the Lord: though your sins be. as scarlet they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson they shall be like wool.” — is this not far dearer to you than thousands of gold and silver? Or you, who formerly polluted yourself villainously with such secret lusts, which now you cannot remember without horror, tell me, if the tongue of man could utter the sweetness of the blessed peace with which your broken, heart was bound and revived when you cast your eye believingly upon that precious promise “I will sprinkle water upon you and you shall be clean: and from all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you.”
There was beyond the seas a Christian matron of excellent gifts and piety who languished long under the horrible pressure of most fiery and terrible temptations, woefully at length yielded to despair and attempted the destruction of herself. After consistently seeking an occasion for this bloody deed, at last having laid aside her apparel, threw herself headlong from a high cliff into the sea. But having received no injury by her fall, she was then, as if by a miracle, and extraordinary mercy, strangely preserved for at least 2 hours, though during that time she laboriously and industriously sought to destroy herself. Afterwards being drawn out with much ado and recovered from her estate, yet she still did conflict with that extreme desperate horror for almost a year. But by God’s good providence, which sweetly and wisely orders all things, waiting on a particular time, though very unwillingly at first — she listened to her husband reading among other places from Isaiah 57: “Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. For I will not contend for ever, neither will I be always wrath: for the spirit should fail before me and the souls which I have made” I say listening to these words, the Holy Ghost drawing her heart, she began to reason within herself — God here promises to revive and comfort the heart of the contrite and spirit of the humble, and that he will not contend forever, neither will He always be angry. But I have a very contrite heart, and a humbled spirit even unto the dust because of the acknowledgment and sense of my sin and divine vengeance against them. Therefore perhaps God will vouchsafe to revive and comfort my heart and spirit and not contend with me for ever nor be angry against me still.
Upon this then, by little and little, there flowed by the blessing of God into her dark and heavy heart, abundance of life, spiritual strength, light and assurance. She continued in this constantly and with comfort for many years; and crowned those days and a blessed old age with a glorious and triumphant death and went to heaven in the year 1595. What heart now but hers that felt it can possibly conceive the depth of that extraordinary, unutterably refreshing; coming out of that promise upon her forlorn and fearful soul, or the excess of that love which she bore ever after for those blessed lines of Scripture — to the mercy that made them, to the blood that sealed them!
Another, terrified in conscience for sin, resolves to turn to the Lord, but the cries of his companions, the strength of corruption and the cunning of Satan, carries him back to his former ways. A good number of years afterwards, he was wounded sorely with whatever came to him that he would never return again unto folly. Then came into his mind Proverbs 1 where he reasoned from this against himself that so many years ago God called and stretched out His hand in mercy, but I refused: therefore now, though I call upon Him He will not answer; though I seek Him early, I shall not find Him. Because of this his heart was filled with much grief and terror and slavish fear but the Spirit of God led him at length to the place in Luke 17:4 — “If your brother trespass against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day he turns against you saying, I repent, you shall forgive him.” From this he reasoned for himself — must I a stupid, sinful man forgive my brother as often as he repents, and will not then the Father of mercy and the God of all comfort receive me when I seek again in truth His face and favour? God forbid. From which he blessedly drew such a great deal of divine sweetness, and secret sense of God’s love, that his trembling heart at first revealed some good satisfaction, and afterwards was settled in a certain and glorious peace.
Another godly man, passing through his last sickness with such extraordinary calmness of conscience, and absolute freedom from temptation — that some of his Christian friends, observing and admiring the uniqueness of his soul’s peace, at that time questioned him about it. He answered that he had steadfastly fixed his heart upon that sweet promise in Isaiah 26:3 — “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee because he trusteth in thee.” God had graciously made it fully good to his soul.
And thus must every saint do, who would sound the sweetness of a promise to the bottom, and make it the arm of God unto him for sound and complete comfort. He must settle his heart fixedly upon it and set his face on to work on, to brood over it, as it were with its spiritual heat, that life may come into his soul. For God always makes good His promises to His children proportionately to their trusting them, and dependence upon His truth and goodness for an appropriate performance of them.
ROBERT BOLTON (1572-1631) was one of the earlier Puritan divines who had an excellent written ministry in treatises for the soul. In an essay on his life and death, Edward Bagshawe describes Bolton as a “lover of learning”, a man “of excellent parts and abilities of mind” and “of very strong memory”. He exercised a very fruitful ministry in Broughton in Northampton for over twenty years. To this ministry Nicholas Estwick refers in his funeral sermon on our author, and writes “You were twice a week ordinarily fed with sermons and catechisms, and with the exposition of Scriptures on holy days, which would have been acceptable, wholesome food, I am sure, to the most learned auditory of the land.” This extract, somewhat modernised, is taken from his “Instructions for Comforting of Afflicted Consciences”, printed in 1631.
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