Spiritual thoughts of God himself – The opposition to them and neglect of them; with their causes and the way of their prevalency – Predominant corruptions expelling due thoughts of God how to be discovered, etc. – Thoughts of God, of what nature, and what they are to be accompanied withal, etc.
2. I have spoken very briefly unto the first particular instance of the heavenly things that we are to fix our thoughts upon, namely, the person of Christ; and I have done it on the reason before mentioned, namely, that I intend a particular treatise on that subject, or an inquiry how we may behold the glory of Christ in this life, and how we shall do so unto eternity.
That which I have reserved to the last place, as unto the exercise of their thoughts about who are spiritually minded, is that which is the absolute foundation and spring of all spiritual things, namely, God himself.
He is the fountain whence all these things proceed, and the ocean wherein they issue; he is their centre and circumference, wherein they all begin, meet, and end. So the apostle issues his profound discourse of the counsels of the divine will and mysteries of the gospel: “Of him, and through him, and to him are all things, to whom be glory for ever” (Rom 11:36). All things arise from his power, and are disposed by his wisdom into a tendency unto his glory: “Of him, and through him, and to him are all things.” Under that consideration alone are they to be the objects of our spiritual meditations – namely, as they come from him and tend unto him. All other things are finite and limited, but they begin and end in that which is immense and infinite. So God is “all in all.” He therefore is, or ought to be, the only supreme, absolute object of our thoughts and desires; other things are from and for him only. When our thoughts do not either immediately and directly, or mediately and by just consequence, tend unto and end in him, they are not spiritual (1 Pet 1:21).
To make way for directions how to exercise our thoughts on God himself, something must be premised concerning a sinful defect herein, with the causes of it:
First, it is the great character of a man presumptuously and flagitiously wicked that “God is not in all his thoughts” (Ps 10:4); that is, he is in none of them. And of this want of thoughts of God there are many degrees, for all wicked men are not equally so forgetful of him:
1. Some are under the power of atheistical thoughts. They deny or question, or do not avowedly acknowledge, the very being of God.
This is the height of what the enmity of the carnal mind can rise unto. To acknowledge God, and yet to refuse to be subject to his law or will, a man would think were as bad, if not worse, than to deny the being of God; but it is not so. That is a rebellion against his authority, this a hatred unto the only Fountain of all goodness, truth, and being; and that because they cannot own it but withal they must acknowledge it to be infinitely righteous, holy, and powerful, which would destroy all their desires and security. Such may be the person in the psalm; for the words may be read, “All his thoughts are that there is no God:” howbeit the context describes him as one who rather despiseth his providence than denieth his being. But such there are, whom the same psalmist elsewhere brands for fools, though themselves seem to suppose that wisdom was born and will die with them (Ps 14:1, 53:1).
It may be, never any age since the flood did more abound with open atheism, among such as pretended unto the use and improvement of reason, than that wherein we live. Among the ancient civilized heathen, we hear ever and anon of a person branded for an atheist, yet we are not certain whether it was done justly or no; but in all nations of Europe at this day, cities, courts, towns, fields, armies, abound with persons who, if any credit may be given unto what they say or do, believe not that there is a God. And the reason hereof may be a little inquired into.
Now this is no other, in general, but that men have decocted and wasted the light and power of the Christian religion. It is the fullest revelation of God that ever he made; it is the last that ever he will make in this world. If this be despised, if men rebel against the light of it, if they break the cords of it, and are senseless of its power, nothing can preserve them from the highest atheism that the nature of man is capable of. It is in vain to expect relief or preservation from inferior means, where the highest and most noble are rejected.
Reason, or the light of nature, gives evidences to the being of God, and arguments are still well pleaded from them to the confusion of atheists; and they were sufficient to retain men in an acknowledgment of the divine power and Godhead who had no other, no higher evidences of them. But where men have had the benefit of divine revelation, where they have been educated in the principles of Christian religion, have had some knowledge and made some profession of them, and have, through the love of sin and hatred of every thing that is truly good, rejected all convictions from them concerning the being, power, and rule of God, they will not be kept to a confession of them, by any considerations that the light of nature can suggest.
There are therefore, among others, three reasons why there are more atheists among them who live where the Christian religion is professed, and the power of it rejected, than among any other sort of men, even than there were among the heathens themselves:
(1.) God hath designed to magnify his word above all his name, or all other ways of the revelation of himself to the children of men (Ps 138:2).
Where, therefore, this is rejected and despised, he will not give the honour to reason, or the light of nature, that they shall preserve the minds of men from any evil whatever. Reason shall not have the same power and efficacy on the minds of men who reject the light and power of divine revelation by the word, as it hath or may have on them whose best guide it is, who never enjoyed the light of the gospel; and therefore there is ofttimes more common honesty among civilized heathens and Mohammedans than amongst degenerate Christians; and for the same reason the children of professors are sometimes irrecoverably profligate.
It will be said, “Many are recovered unto God by afflictions who have despised the word.” But it is otherwise. Never any were converted unto God by afflictions who had rejected the word. Men may by afflictions be recalled unto the light of the word; but none are immediately turned unto God by them – as a good shepherd, when a sheep wanders from a flock, and will not hear his call, sends out his dog, which stops him and bites him; hereon he looks about him, and hearing the call of the shepherd, returns again to the flock (Job 33:19-25). But with this sort of persons it is the way of God, that when the principal means of the revelation of himself, and wherein he doth most glorify his wisdom and his goodness, is despised, he will not only take off the efficacy of inferior means, but judicially harden the hearts and blind the eyes of men, that such means shall be of no use unto them. See Isa 6:8-12; Acts 13:40,41; Rom 1:21,28; 2 Thess 2:11,12.
(2.) The contempt of gospel light and the Christian religion, as it is supernatural (which is the beginning of transgression unto all atheists among us), begets in and leaves on the mind such a depraved, corrupt habit, such a congeries of all evils that the hatred of the goodness, wisdom, and grace of God can produce, that it cannot but be wholly inclined to the worst of evils, as all our original vicious inclinations succeeded immediately on our rejection and loss of the image of God.
The best things, corrupted, yield the worst savour; as manna stunk and bred worms. The knowledge of the gospel being rejected, stinking worms take the place of it in the mind, which grow into vipers and scorpions. Every degree of apostasy from gospel truth brings in a proportionate degree of inclination unto wickedness into the hearts and minds of men (2 Pet 2:21); and that which is total, unto all the evils that they are capable of in this world.
Whereas, therefore, multitudes, from their darkness, unbelief, temptation, love of sin, pride and contempt of God, do fall off from all subjection of soul and conscience unto the gospel, either notionally or practically, deriding or despising all supernatural revelations, they are a thousand times more disposed unto downright atheism than persons who never had the light or benefit of such revelations. Take heed of decays! Whatever ground the gospel loseth in our minds, sin possesseth it for itself and its own ends.
Let none say it is otherwise with them. Men grow cold and negligent in the duties of gospel worship, public and private; which is to reject gospel light. Let them say and pretend what they please, that in other things, in their minds and conversations, it is well with them: indeed it is not so. Sin will, sin doth, one way or other, make an increase in them, proportionate unto these decays, and will sooner or later discover itself so to do; and themselves, if they are not utterly hardened, may greatly discover it, inwardly in their peace, or outwardly in their lives.
(3.) Where men are resolved not to see, the greater the light is that shines about them the faster they must close their eyes.
All atheism springs from a resolution not to see things invisible and eternal. Love of sin, a resolved continuance in the practice of it, the effectual power of vicious inclinations in opposition unto all that is good, make it the interest of such men that there should be no God to call them to an account; for a supreme, unavoidable judge, an eternal rewarder of good and evil, is inseparable from the first notion of a Divine Being.
Whereas, therefore, the most glorious light and uncontrollable evidence of these things shines forth in the Scripture, men that will abide by their interest to love and live in sin must close their eyes with all the arts and powers that they have, or else it will pierce into their minds unto their torment. This they do by downright atheism, which alone pretends to give them security against the light of divine revelation. Against all other convictions they might take shelter from their fears under less degrees of it.
It is not, therefore, unto the disparagement but honour of the gospel that so many avow themselves to be atheists, in those places wherein the truth of it is known and professed; for none can have the least inclination or temptation thereunto until they have beforehand rejected the gospel, which immediately exposeth them unto the worst of evils.
Nor is there any means for the recovery of such persons. The opposition that hath been made unto atheism, with arguments for the divine being and existence of God, taken from reason and natural light, in this and other ages, hath been of good use to cast contempt on the pretences of evil men to justify themselves in their folly; but that they have so much as changed the minds of any I much doubt.
No man is under the power of atheistical thoughts, or can be so long, but he that is ensnared into them by his desire to live securely and uncontrollably in sin. Such persons know it to be their interest that there should be no God, and are willing to take shelter under the bold expressions and reasonings of them who by the same means have hardened and blinded their minds into such foolish thoughts. But the most rational arguments for the being of the Deity will never prove an effectual cure to a predominant love of and habitual course in sin, in them who have resisted and rejected the means and motives unto that end declared in divine revelation; and unless the love of sin be cured in the heart, thoughts in the acknowledgement of God will not be fixed in the mind.
2. There are those of whom also it may be said that “God is not in all their thoughts,” though they acknowledge his essence and being; for they are not practically influenced in any thing by the notions they have of him.
Such is the person of whom this is affirmed in Psalm 10:4. He is one who, through pride and profligacy, with hardness in sin, regards not God in the rule of the world (Ps 10:4,5,11,13). Such is the world filled with at this day, as they are described in Titus 1:16, “They profess that they know God, but in works deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.” They think, they live, they act in all things as if there were no God, at least as if they never thought of him with fear and reverence.
And, for the most part, we need not seek far for evidences of their disregard of God – the “pride of their countenances testifies against them” (Ps 10:4); and if they are followed farther, cursed oaths, licentiousness of life, and hatred of all that is good, will confirm and evidence the same. Such as these may own God in words, may be afraid of him in dangers, may attend outwardly on his worship; but they think not of God at all in a due manner – “he is not in all their thoughts.”
3. There are yet less degrees of this disregard of God and forgetfulness of him.
Some are so filled with thoughts of the world and the occasions of life that it is impossible they should think of God as they ought; for as the love of God and the love of the world in prevalent degrees are inconsistent, (for if a man love this world, how dwelleth the love of God in him?) so thoughts of God and of the world in the like degree are inconsistent.
This is the state of many, who yet would be esteemed spiritually minded: They are continually conversant in their minds about earthly things. Some things impose themselves on them under the notion of duty; they belong to their callings, they must be attended unto. Some are suggested unto their minds from daily occasions and occurrences. Common converse in the world engageth men into no other but worldly thoughts. Love and desire of earthly things, their enjoyment and increase, exhaust the vigour of their spirits all the day long. In the midst of a multitude of thoughts, arising from these and the like occasions, whilst their hearts and heads are reeking with the steam of them, many fall immediately in their seasons unto the performance of holy duties. Those times must suffice for thoughts of God. But notwithstanding such duties, what through the want of a due preparation for them, what through the fulness of their minds and affections with other things, and what through a neglect of exercising grace in them, it may be said comparatively that “God is not in all their thoughts.”
I pray God that this, at least as unto some degrees of it, be not the condition of many among us. I speak not now of men who visibly and openly live in sin, profane in their principles, and profligate in their lives. The prayers of such persons are an abomination unto the Lord, neither have they ever any thoughts of him which he doth accept. But I speak of them who are sober in their lives, industrious in their callings, and not openly negligent about the outward duties of religion. Such men are apt to approve of themselves, and others also to speak well of them, for these things are in themselves commendable and praiseworthy; but if they are traced home, it will be found, as to many of them, that “God is not in all their thoughts” as he ought to be. Their earthly conversation, their vain communication, with their foolish designs, do all manifest that the vigour of their spirits and the most intense contrivances of their minds are engaged unto things below. Some refuse, transient, unmanaged thoughts are sometimes cast away on God; which he despiseth.
4. Where persons do cherish secret predominant lusts in their hearts and lives, God is not in their thoughts as he ought to be.
He may be, he often is, much in the words of such persons, but in their thoughts he is not, he cannot be, in a due manner. And such persons no doubt there are. Ever and anon we hear of one and another whose secret lusts break forth into a discovery. They flatter themselves for a season, but God ofttimes so orders things in his holy providence that their iniquity shall be found out to be hateful. Some hateful lust discovers itself to be predominant in them: one is drunken, another unclean, a third an oppressor. Such there were ever found among professors of the gospel, and that in the best of times: among the apostles one was a traitor, “a devil.” Of the first professors of Christianity, there were those “whose god was their belly, whose end was destruction, who minded earthly things” (Phil 3:18,19).
Some may take advantage of this acknowledgment that there are such evils among such as are called professors; and it must be confessed that great scandal is given hereby unto the world, casting both them that give it and them to whom it is given under a most dreadful woe: but we must bear the reproach of it as they did of old, and commit the issue of all things unto the watchful care of God. However, it is good in such a season to be jealous over ourselves and others, to “exhort one another daily, while it is called To-day, lest any be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13). See Heb 12:13—17.
And because those with whom it is thus cannot be spiritually minded, [and] yet are there some difficulties in the case, as unto the predominancy of a secret lust or sin, I shall consider it somewhat more distinctly:
(1.) We must distinguish between a time of temptation in some and the ordinary state of mind and affections in others.
There may be a season wherein God, in his holy, wise orderings of all things towards us, and for his own glory, in his holy, blessed ends, may suffer a lust or corruption to break loose in the heart, to strive, tempt, suggest, tumultuate, unto the great trouble and disquietude of the mind and conscience; neither can it be denied but that, falling in conjunction with some vigorous temptation, it may proceed so far as to surprise the person in whom it is into actual sin, unto his defilement and amazement. In this case no man can say, “I am tempted of God;” for “God tempteth no man, but every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.” But yet temptations, of what sort soever they be, so far as they are afflictive, corrective, or penal, are ordered and disposed by God himself; for there is no evil of that nature and he hath not done it. And where he will have the power of any corruption to be afflictive in any instance, two things may safely be ascribed to him:
[1.] He withholds the supplies of that grace whereby it might be effectually mortified and subdued.
He can give in a sufficiency of efficacious grace to repel any temptation, to subdue any or all our lusts and sins; for he can and doth work in us to will and to do according to his pleasure. Ordinarily he doth so in them that believe; so that although their lusts may rebel and war, they cannot defile or prevail. But unto the continual supplies of this actual prevailing grace he is not obliged. When it may have a tendency unto his holy ends, he may and doth withhold it. When, it may be, a proud soul is to be humbled, a careless soul to be awakened, an unthankful soul to be convinced and rebuked, a backsliding soul to be recovered, a froward, selfish, passionate soul to be broken and meekened, he can leave them for a season unto the sore exercise of a prevalent corruption; which, under his holy guidance, shall contribute greatly to his blessed ends. It was so in the temptation of Paul in 2 Cor 11:7—9.
If a man, through disorder and excesses, is contracting any habitual distempers of body, which gradually and insensibly tend unto his death, it may be an advantage to be cast into a violent fever, which threatens immediately to take away his life; for he will hereby be thoroughly awakened unto the consideration of his danger, and not only labour to be freed from his fever, but also for the future to watch against those disorders and excesses which cast him into that condition. And sometimes a loose, careless soul, that walks in a secure, formal profession, contracts many spiritual diseases, which tend unto death and ruin. No arguments or considerations can prevail with him to awaken himself, to “shake himself out of the dust,” and to betake himself unto a more diligent and humble walking before God. In this state, it may be, through the permission of God, he is surprised into some open, actual sin. Hereon, through the vigorous actings of an enlightened conscience, and the stirrings of any sparks of grace which yet remain, he is amazed, terrified, and stirs up himself to seek after deliverance.
[2.] God may and doth in his providence administer objects and occasions of men’s lusts, for their trial.
He will place them in such relations, in such circumstances, as shall be apt to provoke their affections, passions, desires, and inclinations, unto those objects that are suited unto them. In this state any lust will quickly get such power in the mind and affections as to manage continual solicitations unto sin. It will not only dispose the affections towards it, but multiply thoughts about it, and darken the mind as unto those considerations which ought to prevail unto its mortification. In this condition it is hard to conceive how God should be in the thoughts of man in a due manner. However, this state is very different from the habitual prevalency of any secret sin or corruption in the ordinary course of men’s walking in the world, and therefore I do not directly intend it.
If any one shall inquire how we know this difference, namely, that is between the “occasional prevalency of any lust or corruption in conjunction with a temptation, and the power of sin in any instance habitually and constantly complied withal, or indulged in the mind, I answer:
1st. It is no great matter whether we are able to distinguish between them or no; for the end why God suffers any corruption to be such a snare and temptation, such a thorn and brier, is to awaken the souls of men out of their security, and to humble them for their pride and negligence. The more severe their apprehensions concerning it, the more effectual it will be unto this end and purpose. It is good, it may be, that the soul should apprehend more of what is sinful in it as it is a corruption than of what is afflictive in it as it is a temptation; for if it be conceived as a predominant lust, if there be any spark of grace remaining in the soul, it will not rest until in some measure it be subdued. It will also immediately put it upon a diligent search into itself, which will issue in deep self-abasement, the principal end designed. But,
2dly. For the relief of them that may be perplexed in their minds about their state and condition, I say there is an apparent difference between these things. A lust or corruption arising up or breaking forth into a violent temptation is the continual burden, grief, and affliction of the soul wherein it is. And as the temptation, for the most part, which befalls such a person will give him no rest from its reiterated solicitations, so he will give the temptation no rest, but will be continually conflicting with it and contending against it. It fills the soul with an amazement at itself and continual self-abhorrency, that any such seeds of filth and folly should be yet remaining in it. With them in whom any sin is ordinarily prevalent it is otherwise. According to their light and renewed occasional convictions, they have trouble about it; they cannot but have so, unless their consciences are utterly seared. But this trouble respects principally, if not solely, its guilt and effects. They know not what may ensue on their compliance with it, in this world and another. Beyond this they like it well enough, and are not willing to part with it. It is of this latter sort of persons of whom we speak at present.
(2.) We must distinguish between the perplexing solicitation of any lust, and the conquering predominancy of it.
The evil that is present with us will be soliciting and pressing unto sin of its own accord, even where there is no such especial temptation as that spoken of before. So is the case stated, so are the nature and operations of it described in Romans 7 and Galatians 5:17. And sometimes an especial, particular lust may be so warmed and fomented by men’s constitutions within, or be so exposed unto provoking, exciting occasions without, as to bring perpetual trouble on the mind; yet this may be where no sin hath the predominancy inquired after.
And the difference between the perplexing solicitation of any corruption unto sin and the conquering prevalency of it lies in this, that under the former, the thoughts, contrivances, and actings of the mind, are generally disposed and inclined unto an opposition unto it, and a conflict with it, how it may be obviated, defeated, destroyed, how an absolute victory may be obtained against it; yea, death itself is sweet unto such persons, under this notion, as it is that which will deliver them from the perplexing power of their corruptions. so is the state of such a soul at large represented in Romans 7.
In the other case, namely, of its predominancy, it disposeth of the thoughts actually, for the most part, to make provision for the flesh, and to fulfil it in the lusts thereof. It fills the mind with pleasing contemplations of its object, and puts it on contrivances for satisfaction; yea, part of the bitterness of death to such persons is, that it will make an everlasting separation between them and the satisfaction they have received in their lusts. It is bitter in the thoughts of it unto a worldly-minded man, because it will take him from all his enjoyments, his wealth, profits, and advantages. It is so unto the sensual person, as that which finally determines all his pleasures.
(3.) There is a difference in the degrees of such a predominant corruption.
In some it taints the affections, vitiates the thoughts, and works over the will to acts of a secret complacency in sin, but proceeds no farther. The whole mind may be vitiated by it, and rendered, in the multitude of its thoughts, vain, sensual, or worldly, according as is the nature of the prevailing corruption; yet here God puts bounds to the raging of some men’s corruptions, and says to their proud waves, “Thus far shall ye proceed, and no farther.” He either lays a restraint on their minds, that when lust hath fully conceived it shall not bring forth sin, or he sets a hedge before them in his providence, that they shall not be able in their circumstances to find their way unto what perhaps they do most earnestly desire. A woful life it is that such persons lead. They are continually tortured between their corruptions and convictions, or the love of sin and fear of the event.
With others it pursues its course into outward actual sins: which in some are discovered in this world, in others they are not; for some men’s sins go before them unto judgment, and some follow after. Some fall into sin upon surprisal, from a concurrence of temptation with corruption and opportunities. Some habituate themselves to a course in sin. Though in many it be not discovered, in some it is.
But among those who have received any spiritual light, and made profession of religion thereon, this seldom falls out but from the great displeasure of God; for when men have long given way unto the prevalency of sin in their affections, inclinations, and thoughts, and God hath set many a hedge before them to give bounds unto their inclination, and to shut up the womb of sin, sometimes by afflictions, sometimes by fears and dangers, sometimes by the word; and yet the bent of their spirits is toward their sin, God takes off his hand of restraint, removes his hindrances, and gives them up unto their own hearts’ lusts, to do the things that are not convenient. All things hereon suit their desires, and they rush into actual sins and follies, setting their feet in the paths that go down to the chambers of death. The uncontrollable power of sin in such persons, and the greatness of God’s displeasure against them, make their condition most deplorable.
Those that are in this state, of either sort, the first or the latter, are remote from being spiritually minded, nor is “God in all their thoughts” as he ought to be; for:
First, They will not so think and meditate on God. Their delight is turned another way. Their affections, which are the spring of their thoughts, which feed them continually, cleave unto the things which are most adverse unto him. Love of sin is gotten to be the spring in them, and the whole stream of the thoughts which they choose and delight in are towards the pleasures of it. If any thoughts of God come in, as a faint tide for a few minutes, and drive back the other stream, they are quickly repelled and carried away with the strong current of those which proceed from their powerful inclinations.
Yet may such persons abide in the performance of outward holy duties, or attendance unto them. Pride of, or satisfaction in, their gifts, may give them delight in their own performances, and something in those of others they may be exceedingly pleased withal, as it is expressly affirmed in Ezekiel 33:31,32. But in these things they have no immediate real thoughts of God, none that they delight in, none that they seek to stir up in themselves; and those which impose themselves on them they reject.
Secondly, As they will not, so they dare not, think of God. They will not, because of the power of their lusts; they dare not, because of their guilt. No sooner should they begin to think of him in good earnest, but their sin would lose all its desirable forms and appearances, and represent itself in the horror of guilt alone. And in that condition all the properties of the divine nature are suited to increase the dread and terror of the sinner. Adam had heard God’s voice before with delight and satisfaction; but on the hearing of the same voice after he had sinned, he hid himself and cried that he was afraid. There is a way for men to think of God with the guilt of sin upon them which they intend to forsake; but none for any to do it with the guilt of sin which they resolve to continue in.
Wherefore, of all these sorts of persons it may be said that “God is not in all their thoughts,” and therefore are they far enough from being spiritually minded; for unless we have many thoughts of God we cannot be so. Yea, moreover, there are two things required unto those thoughts which we have of God, that they may be an evidence of our being so:
[1.] That we take delight in them. “Sing unto the Lord, O ye saints of his, and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness” (Ps 30:4). The remembrance of God delighteth and refresheth the hearts of his saints, and stirs them up to thankfulness:
1st. They rejoice in what God is in himself. Whatever is good, amiable, or desirable; whatever is holy, just, and powerful; whatever is gracious, wise, and merciful, and all that is so – they see and apprehend in God. That God is what he is, is the matter of their chiefest joy. Whatever befalls them in this world, whatever troubles and disquietment they are exercised withal, the remembrance of God is a satisfactory refreshment unto them; for therein they behold all that is good and excellent, the infinite centre of all perfections.
Wicked men would have God to be any thing but what he is; nothing that God is really and truly pleaseth them. Wherefore, they either frame false notions of him in their minds, as Ps 50:21, or they think not of him at all, at least [not] as they ought, unless sometimes they tremble at his anger and power. Some benefit they suppose may be had by what he can do, but how there can be any delight in what he is they know not; yea, all their trouble ariseth from hence, that he is what he is. It would be a relief unto them if they could make any abatement of his power, his holiness, his righteousness, his omnipresence; but his saints, as the psalmist speaks, “give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.”
And when we can delight in the thoughts of what God is in himself, of his infinite excellencies and perfections, it gives us a threefold evidence of our being spiritually minded:
(1st.) In that it is such an evidence that we have a gracious interest in those excellencies and perfections, whereon we can say with rejoicing in ourselves, “This God,” thus holy, thus powerful, thus just, good, and gracious, “is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide unto death.” So the psalmist, under the consideration of his own frailty and apprehensions of death in the midst of his years, comforts and refresheth himself with the thoughts of God’s eternity and immutability, with his interest in them (Ps 102:23-28). And God himself proposeth unto us his infinite immutability as the ground whereon we may expect safety and deliverance (Mal 3:6). When we can thus think of God and what he is with delight, it is, I say, an evidence that we have a gracious covenant interest even in what God is in himself; which none have but those who are spiritually minded.
(2dly.) It is an evidence that the image of God is begun to be wrought in our own souls, and that we approve of and rejoice in it more than in all other things whatever. Whatever notions men may have of the divine goodness, holiness, righteousness, and purity, they are all but barren, jejune, and fruitless, unless there be a similitude and conformity unto them wrought in their minds and souls. Without this they cannot rejoice in the thoughts and remembrance of the divine excellencies. Wherefore, when we can do so, when such meditations of God are sweet unto us, it is an evidence that we have some experience in ourselves of the excellency of the image of those perfections, and that we rejoice in them above all things in this world.
(3dly.) They are so also in that they are manifest that we discern and judge that our eternal blessedness doth consist in the full manifestation and our enjoyment of God in what he is, and of all his do divine excellencies. This men for the most part take for granted, but how it should be so they know not. They understand it in some measure whose hearts are here deeply affected with delight in them; they are able to believe that the manifestation and enjoyment of the divine excellencies will give eternal rest, satisfaction, and complacency unto their souls. No wicked man can look upon it otherwise than a torment, to abide for ever with “eternal holiness” (Isa 33:14). And we ourselves can have no present prospect into the fulness of future glory, when God shall be all in all, but through the delight and satisfaction which we have here in contemplation of what God is in himself, as the centre of all divine perfections.
I would therefore press this unknown, this neglected duty on the minds of those of us in an especial manner who are visibly drawing nigh unto eternity. The days are coming wherein what God is in himself (that is, as manifested and exhibited in Christ), shall alone be, as we hope, the eternal blessedness and reward of our souls. Is it possible that any thing should be more necessary for us, more useful unto us, than to be exercised in such thoughts and contemplations? The benefits we may have hereby are not to be reckoned; some of them only may be named. As:
[1st.] We shall have the best trial of ourselves how our hearts really stand affected towards God; for if upon examination we find ourselves not really to delight and rejoice in God for what he is in himself, and that all perfections are eternally resident in him, how dwelleth the love of God in us? But if we can truly “rejoice at the remembrance of his holiness,” in the thoughts of what he is, our hearts are upright with him.
[2dly.] This is that which will effectually take off our thoughts and affections from things here below. One spiritual view of the divine goodness, beauty, and holiness, will have more efficacy to raise the heart unto a contempt of all earthly things than any other evidences whatever.
[3dly.] It will increase the grace of being heavenly minded in us, on the grounds before declared.
[4thly.] It is the best, I had almost said it is the only, preparation, for the future full enjoyment of God. This will gradually lead us into his presence, take away all fears of death, increase our longing after eternal rest, and even make us groan to be unclothed. Let us not, then, cease labouring with our hearts, until, through grace, we have a spiritually-sensible delight and joy in the remembrances and thoughts of what God is in himself.
2dly. In thoughts of God, his saints rejoice at the remembrance of what he is, and what he will be unto them.
Herein have they regard to all the holy relations that he hath taken on himself towards them, with all the effects of his covenant in Christ Jesus. To that purpose were some af the last words of David, “Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure: for this is all my salvation, and all my desire” (2 Sam 23:5). In the prospect he had of all the distresses that were to befall his family, he triumphantly rejoiced in the everlasting covenant that God had made with him.
In these thoughts his saints take delight, they are sweet to them and full of refreshment: “Their meditations of him are sweet,” and “they are glad in the Lord” (Ps 104:34). Thus it is with them that are truly spiritually minded. They not only think much of God but they take delight in these thoughts – they are sweet unto them; and not only so, but they have no solid joy nor delight but in their thoughts of God, which therefore they retreat unto continually. They do so especially on great occasions, which of themselves are apt to divert them from them.
As suppose a man hath received a signal mercy, with the matter whereof he is exceedingly affected and delighted; the minds of some men are apt on such occasions, to be filled with thoughts of what they have received, and their affections to be wholly taken up with it, but he who is spiritually minded will immediately retreat to thoughts of God, placing his delight and taking up his satisfaction in him.
And so, on the other side, great distresses, prevalent sorrows, strong pains, violent distempers, are apt of themselves to take up and exercise all the thoughts of men about them; but those who are spiritually minded will in and under them all continually betake themselves unto thoughts of God, wherein they find relief and refreshment against all that they feel or fear. In every state, their principal joy is in t2he remembrance of his holiness.”
[2.] That they may be accompanied with godly fear and reverence.
These are required of us, in all wherein we have to do with God (Heb 12:28,29); and as the Scripture doth not more abound with precepts unto any duty, so the nature of God and our own, with the infinite distance between them, make it indispensably necessary, even in the light of the natural conscience. Infinite greatness, infinite holiness, infinite power, all which God is, command the utmost reverential fear that our natures are capable of. The want hereof is the spring of innumerable evils, yea, indeed, of all that is so. Hence are blasphemous abuses of the holy name of God in cursed oaths and execrations; hence it is taken in vain, in ordinary exclamations; hence is all formality in religion.
It is the spiritual mind alone that can reconcile those things which are prescribed us as our duty towards God. “To delight and rejoice in him always, to triumph in the remembrance of him, to draw nigh to him with boldness and confidence,” are on the one hand prescribed to us; and on the other it is so “that we fear and tremble before him, that we fear that great and dreadful name the Lord our God, that we have grace to serve him with reverence and godly fear, because he is a consuming fire.”
These things carnal reason can comprehend no consistency in – what it is afraid of it cannot delight in; and what it delights in it will not long fear. But the consideration of faith, concerning what God is in himself, and what he will be unto us, gives these different graces their distinct operations, and a blessed reconciliation in our souls. Wherefore, all our thoughts of God ought to be accompanied with a holy awe and reverence, from a due sense of his greatness, holiness, and power. Two things will utterly vitiate all thoughts of God, and render them useless to us: vain curiosity and carnal boldness.
1st. It is unimaginable how the subtle disquisitions and disputes of men, about the nature, properties, and counsels of God, have been corrupted, rendered sapless and useless, by vain curiosity, and striving for an artificial accuracy in expression of men’s apprehensions. When the wits and minds of men are engaged in such thoughts, “God is not in all their thoughts,” even when all their thoughts are concerning him. When once men are got into their metaphysical curiosities and logical niceties in their contemplations about God and his divine properties, they bid farewell, for the most part, to all godly fear and reverence.
2dly. Others are so under the power of carnal boldness, that they think of God with no other respect, than if they thought of worms of the earth like themselves. There is no holy awfulness upon their minds and souls in the mention of his name. By these things may our thoughts of God be so vitiated that the heart shall not in them be affected with a reverence of him, nor any evidence be given that we are spiritually minded.
It is this holy reverence that is the means of bringing sanctifying virtue into our souls, from God, upon our thoughts of him. None that think of God with a due reverence, but he shall be sensible of advantage by it. Hereby do we sanctify God in our access unto him; and when we do so, he will sanctify and purify our hearts by those very thoughts in which we draw nigh to him.
We may have many sudden, occasional, transient thoughts of God, that are not introduced in our minds by a preceding reverential fear; but if they leave not that fear on our hearts, in proportion unto their continuance with us, they are of no value, but will insensibly habituate us to a common, bold frame of spirit, which he despises.
So is it in the case of thoughts of a contrary nature. Thoughts of sin, of sinful objects, may arise in our minds from the remainders of corruption; or be occasioned by the temptations and suggestions of Satan. If these are immediately rejected and cast out of us, the soul is not more prejudiced by their entrance than it is advantaged by their rejection, through the power of grace. But if they make frequent returns into the minds of men, or make any abode or continuance in their soliciting of the affections, they greatly defile the mind and conscience, disposing the person unto the farther entertainment of them.
So, if our occasional thoughts of God do immediately leave us, and pass away without much affecting our minds; we shall have little or no benefit by them; but if, by their frequent visits and some continuance with us, they dispose our souls unto an holy reverence of God, they are a blessed means of promoting our sanctification. Without this, I say, there may be thoughts of God unto no advantage of the soul.
There is implanted in our nature such a sense of a divine Power and Presence as that on all sudden occasions and surprisals it will act itself according to that sense and apprehension. There is “vox naturae clamantis ad Dominum naturae” – a voice in nature itself, upon any thing that is suddenly too hard for it, which cries out immediately unto the God of nature. So men, on such occasions, without any consideration, are surprised into a calling on the name of God and crying unto him. And from the same natural apprehension it is that wicked and profane persons will break forth on all occasions into cursed swearing by his name. So men in such ways have thoughts of God without either reverence or godly fear, without giving any glory unto him, and, for the most part, for their own disadvantage. Such are all thoughts of God that are not accompanied with holy fear and reverence.
There is scarce any duty that ought at present to be more pressed on the consciences of men, than this of keeping up a constant holy reverence of God in all wherein they have to do with him, both in private and public, in their inward thoughts and outward communication. Formality hath so prevailed in religion, and that under the most effectual means of its suppression, that very many do manifest that they have little or no reverence of God in the most solemn duties of his worship, and less, it may be, in their secret thoughts. Some ways that have been found out to keep up a pretence and appearance of it have been and are destructive unto it.
But herein consists the very life of religion. The fear of God is, in the Old Testament, the usual expression of all the due respect of our souls unto him, and that because where that is not in exercise, nothing is accepted with him. And thence the whole of our wisdom is said to consist therein, and if it be not in a prevalent exercise in all wherein we have to do with him immediately, all our duties are utterly lost as to the ends of his glory, and the spiritual advantage of our own souls.