Various perplexities are often felt by inquirers.
1. Many are exceedingly perplexed and distressed on the subject of their personal election to eternal life.
I have nothing to do now with those careless or profane persons, who make this awful doctrine an excuse, or rather profess to make it an excuse, for the entire neglect of religion; and who, with a wicked indifference, exclaim, “If I am elected to be saved, I shall be saved, without any concern of mine; but if I am not elected, no effort of mine will or can save me.” The fact is, that such persons do not believe in the doctrine of election at all; nor, indeed, care any thing about salvation, but are utterly ignorant and careless, and refer to this solemn truth, either to quiet their own conscience, or to silence and turn away the voice of faithful admonition. But there are others who do feel, especially in the early stages of religious inquiry, no small degree of perplexity on this subject.
Now, here let me at once inform you, that you, who are inquiring after salvation, have nothing to do with the doctrine of election; nor, indeed, has any one aught to do with the secret purposes of God, as a rule of conduct. The sublime truth of God’s sovereignty in the salvation of his people, is introduced in Scripture, not to discourage the approach of the sinner to Christ for salvation, but to remind those who have come to him, that their salvation is all of grace; to take away from them all ground of boasting; to confirm their faith in the accomplishment of the Divine promises; to promote their comfort; to inculcate the necessity of personal holiness; and to encourage Christians amidst the afflictions of life (Rom. 8:9; Eph. 1:4,5,9,11; 1 Pet. 1:2). But it was never designed to be a source of discouragement to penitents.
The rule of your conduct is the invitation and promise of Christ, not the secret purposes of God: “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). The mercy of God is infinite; the merit of Christ’s atonement is infinite; the power of the Spirit is infinite; and the invitations of the gospel are universal. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden” (Matt. 11:28). And thus saith the Lord, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezek. 33:11). “The Lord is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). “Him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37). “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17). Now, these are the words of Scripture, and must, therefore, be true; and here is the rule of your conduct. You can understand this, but you know nothing about the secret purposes of God.
Besides, if you knew you were elected, you would not be received and saved because of this knowledge, but because you believed in Christ, who invites men, not as elected to life, but as lost sinners condemned to death. If you had been permitted to read the decrees of Heaven, and had seen your name in the Lamb’s book of life, you would not be one whit more welcome to Christ than you are now that you know nothing about the matter. You are invited; and if you neglect the invitation which you do know, because of a decree which you do not know, the blame of perishing will lay at your own door; and you will find at last that you were lost, not in consequence of any purpose of God determining you to be lost, but in consequence of your own unbelief.
Why should the purpose of God, in reference to salvation, be that only view of the Divine decree that perplexes you? Do you not believe there is also a purpose which refers to the events of your natural life and death? But do you, on this account, hesitate in sickness to take the medicine prescribed for you by a skilful physician, lest you should not be ordained to life? No. You say, and with reason, “I know nothing about the Divine purpose; my business is with plain rules of duty, and with instituted means; for if I am to live, I can expect recovery only by these means.” Act thus in reference to your souls; leave the decrees out of consideration, for you know nothing about them, and have nothing to do with them. You are invited to use the means of life; if you are decreed to be saved, you must be saved by these; and if you use them aright, you certainly will be saved.
If any use at all is to be made, by an inquirer, of the doctrine of election, it is a use in his own favour. You know not that you are not elected, and the very solicitude of your mind about salvation, is a presumption that you are, since that solicitude is the way in which God carries his decree into execution.
Besides, if you get away from the invitation, and, instead of making that the rule of your conduct, trouble your head with other views and subjects, you will find as much perplexity in God’s foreknowledge, as you do in his decree. Even those who deny the purposes of God, have just as much reason to perplex themselves with Divine prescience, and say, “Whatsoever God foresees, and nothing but what he foresees, will take place; now he foresees either that I shall be saved or lost; and as I do not know that he foresees that I shall be saved, I am greatly discouraged.”
Abandon at once, therefore, all solicitude, and indeed all thoughts about the decree, and fix your attention on the invitation. Christ bids you come to him for salvation; and every bar and obstacle which lies in the way of your coming, is placed there by you, and not by him. He does not say, Come when you have ascertained your election; but, Come and ascertain it. He does not say, You are welcome if you have read the decree; but, You are welcome if you believe the promise. He does not say, Come under the presumption that you are predestinated; but, Come with the assurance that you are bidden. Your business is to make your calling sure, and then you will no longer doubt of your election.
2. Another source of perplexity with some, is, a fear that they have committed the unpardonable blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.
This is by no means an uncommon ground of painful solicitude; and even when it does not amount to a deep and terrifying conviction, yet the subject haunts the imagination with many distressing fears, keeps the peace unsettled, and prevents that calm and tranquilising reliance to which the penitent is invited.
Now, I wish you to know that in whatever awful and terrific obscurity this subject is enveloped, no one that is really anxious about his salvation, need to be under the least fear that he has passed the line of hope, and entered the region where mercy never dispenses pardon. The very fear of having committed this sin, when such fear is connected with concern about religion, is a proof that it has not been committed. It may be taken for granted, that in every case where this mysterious crime has been committed, the transgressor is given up either to a deadly stupor, or a raging frenzy of the conscience.
But, perhaps, the best way of removing the apprehension is to explain the subject which occasions it. What is the nature of this sin? Read the account of it: “Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come” (Matt. 12:31-32). The occasion of these awful words, was the conduct of the Pharisees, in ascribing the miracles of Christ, the reality of which they could not deny or doubt, to the power of the devil. Still, though this was the occasion of the words, it was not a description of the sin, for this was speaking against the Son of man, and not against the Holy Ghost, which was not yet poured out.
The day of Pentecost, properly speaking, commenced the dispensation of the Spirit when his Divine gifts, conferred upon the apostles, completed the evidence of the Christian economy; and the language of Christ, therefore, seemed to direct the Pharisees forward, in the way of impressive warning, to that event; and to remind them, though they understood him not, that the malicious contempt cast upon his miracles, if repeated after the Holy Ghost should be poured out, would fill the measure of their iniquities, seal them up in unbelief, and place them beyond the reach of mercy. There would remain no further evidence of the Divine mission of Christ; the last and the fullest attestation to his Messiahship would be rejected and reviled with malice of heart. (It is proper to remark here, that very many wise and good men are of opinion, that this awful crime referred as truly to the miracles wrought by Christ during his personal ministry, as to those which were wrought by the Holy Ghost, through the instrumentality of the apostles, on and after the day of Pentecost.)
If, in addition to this, you will just recollect the meaning of the term blasphemy, which signifies to speak reproachfully, opprobriously, or impiously, you will then have the nature of this crime before you. It is knowledge in the mind that miracles were wrought; malice in the heart against Christ, in attestation of whom they were given; contempt of the Holy Ghost, their author; and the language of spite upon the tongue, reviling the miracles themselves, by ascribing them to the agency of devils.
It is not simple unbelief under the dispensation of the Spirit, persevered in till death; it is not mere infidelity, even under very aggravated circumstances: but it is the union of conviction, malice, and impiety. It is therefore evident, that if this sin is now ever committed, no inquirer after salvation needs for a moment entertain any apprehension that it has been committed by him. He has not passed the boundary of mercy; nor is there any sin he has ever been guilty of, however enormous in magnitude, or however painful in remembrance, but the blood of Jesus Christ can cleanse it away.
3. But this leads to another perplexity, which is felt by others; who, though they do not fear that they have been guilty of this unpardonable crime, are distressed by the apprehension, that their sins are too great, too numerous, or too peculiar to be forgiven.
Sometimes convinced sinners are enabled by Divine grace to indulge the hope of pardon, almost as soon as they receive the conviction of sin. Yea, some are led to see the evil of sin at first, more by the mercy of the gospel, than the stern justice which appears in the law; but others are long and sorely harassed by fears of rejection, before they are brought to a comfortable expectation of forgiveness. This is more commonly the case with those who have gone to great lengths in sin, and have resisted the clearest and loudest warnings of conscience; it is not unusual for such persons, when truly awakened to a sense of their sin and danger, to plunge into the very depths of despondency, and to remain for a long time without hope or peace.
In some cases, I think it possible, that this desponding frame of mind is really cherished, as if it were an evidence of sincere and deep repentance: there are those who look upon doubts and fears as the marks of a work of grace, and proofs of genuine piety. This, however, is a great delusion, since true godly sorrow is both accompanied and promoted by faith and hope. Despair tends to harden the heart, and to freeze up the feelings of penitence. God cannot be glorified, nor Christ honoured, by doubting of his ability or willingness to save. I am persuaded that many persons say more about their sins being too great to be pardoned, than they either believe or feel, from a supposition that it is a token of humility to talk thus. Watch against this, for it is an act of guilty insincerity: it is trifling with sacred things, and should be avoided.
But there are many who are really distressed with the most painful solicitude, and the most gloomy apprehensions, about the pardon of their sins. Now here let me put a plain question to you: is your concern merely to be pardoned, or to be sanctified as well as pardoned? Are you afraid only of being left under punishment of sin, or do you also fear being left under its power? If you are so selfish as to be anxious for nothing but your own safely, without caring for holiness, no wonder you are left by God to such dark despondency. You do not yet understand the design of Christ’s work, which is not merely to deliver from hell, but also from sin. Change, then, or rather enlarge the object of your hope, so as to include sanctification as well as justification, and in all probability your unbelief and distress will soon give way; for it will be found easier, perhaps, to some to believe that God is willing to make them holy, than to forgive them. Desponding sinner, think of this: the salvation of Christ is designed to make you a new creature, and to restore the image of God to your soul; and do you not believe that God must be infinitely willing to do this?
After all, however, there are some who, even with this view of the design of Christ’s death, cannot be induced to hope that their sins can be forgiven: none have sinned, they think, like them; there are aggravations in their sins not to be found in the conduct of any other. Now I refer such burdened and desponding minds,
To the promises of God’s word. Read attentively such declarations as are found in the following passages: Isaiah 44:22; Isaiah 55:6-7; Micah 7:18-19; Matthew 12:31-32. Dwell, especially, upon this last passage, because it most explicitly declares that the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost is the only sin excepted from forgiveness. If, then, you are led to see that you have not committed the only sin for which there is no forgiveness, it must, I think, appear plain to you, that your transgressions are not unpardonable.
Dwell much upon the perfection of Christ’s work in making atonement for sm. The apostle declares, that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin (1 John 1:7). It would seem as if this declaration were written on purpose to meet such cases as yours. This scripture says positively, the blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin. “No,” you say, in flat and perverse contradiction, “it cannot cleanse from mine.”
Did Christ die to save sinners, and yet are there some sinners to be found, according to your view, whom he cannot save? Then his work of salvation is unfinished, and his character as a Saviour is incomplete. Has he not already saved millions by the merit of his death? Well, suppose all the sins of those millions had been in you alone, could he not as easily have saved you in that case, as he has saved them? Certainly he could. Can you really make up your mind to go and say to Christ, “Lord, thou canst not, wilt not, save me; there is neither love enough in thy heart nor power enough in thy Spirit, nor merit enough in thy great sacrifice, to save me. Look upon me, and behold a sinner whom even thou canst not save: behold in me a sinner whom thy utmost ability cannot reach.” No, you cannot say this; and yet you may say it, and innocently say it, if what you affirm is true, that your sins are too great to be forgiven.
Let it be admitted, for the sake of argument, that you are the chief of sinners, still Christ can save you; so at least the apostle thought, when he said, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” And now read what follows: “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first [or, as it signifies, in me the chief sinner] Jesus Christ might show forth all long-suffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (1 Tim. 1:15-16). Think what Saul of Tarsus was; a bloody persecutor, and even murderer of the disciples of Christ; yet Christ not only pardoned him, but raised him to the dignity of the chief of the apostles. For what purpose? To be a pattern of God’s mercy to the end of time. Yes, there he stands, upon the pedestal of his own immortal writings, a monument of the riches, power, and sovereignty of Divine grace, bearing this inscription: “I, who was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and injurious, obtained mercy. Let no man ever despair; for if there arise a greater sinner than I was, let him look on me, and hope for pardon through the blood of Christ. I was forgiven, to encourage the wickedest of men to repent, to believe in Jesus, and expect salvation.”
Consider well the other instances recorded in the word of God, of pardon granted to some of the greatest sinners. There is scarcely one class of sinners, or one kind of crime, which is not specifically mentioned in Scripture as having been pardoned. Think of Manasseh, an apostate, an idolater, a wholesale murderer, a man whose example and authority as a king were employed to fill a nation with iniquity: of David, who was guilty of the united crimes of adultery and murder: of the dying malefactor, who was saved upon his cross: of the Jews who were converted on the day of Pentecost, and who, though they had been the murderers of Christ, were forgiven: of the once polluted members of the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 6:9-11). What proofs are these that no sins will keep a man from salvation, that do not keep him from Christ!
The fact is, that greatness and littleness, few and many, have nothing to do with this matter, in the way of making it more difficult or more easy to obtain mercy. No man is pardoned because his sins are fewer than others; and none is rejected because his sins are more. Great sinners are as welcome as little ones; for as the skill of the physician is the more displayed in dangerous and difficult cases, than in slight ones, so is the grace of Christ the more illustriously manifested in the pardon and sanctification of notorious sinners, than in the salvation of those who have not gone so far astray. If God’s mercy be infinite, it must be as easy to him to pardon a million of sins as one.
Desponding sinner, dry up your tears, and doubt no longer. The greatest sin you can commit, is to disbelieve God’s promise to forgive your other sins. Unbelief is the most heinous of all sins. “He that believeth not God hath made him a liar” (1 John 5:10). Yes, you are giving God the lie to his face, as often as you say your sins are too great to be forgiven. Do you not tremble at this? Is there not abominable pride in unbelief? Who, and what are you, that you should suppose God has any object or interest in deceiving you by a false promise? Are you so considerable a person, that he should think it worth his while to falsify his word, in order to draw you into false confidence? Believe, then, from this hour, that God is more willing to forgive you the greatest of your sins, than you imagine he is to blot out the least of them.
4. Some are perplexed with the notion, that as “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to God,” and as none of the works of unregenerate persons are acceptable to God, it is not right for them to pray, since they are not yet believers in Christ.
With regard to the expression above alluded to, which speaks of the sacrifice of the wicked, it means the hypocritical religious services of men, who are still living in the commission of known sin, and impiously designing to make some atonement for their iniquities by their sacrifices. This is evident from the passage itself, where it is also said, “The way of the wicked is abomination” (Prov. 15:9); that is, his conduct; and because his conduct is abominable, therefore his prayer is also abominable.
This passage is best expounded by a reference to Isaiah 1:10-18. It applies to a totally different case from yours. I acknowledge that your prayers do not merit the Divine blessing which you are anxious to obtain, however frequently or fervently they may be presented. You ought not to pray with the idea, that there is any worth in your prayers to make any atonement for your sins; nor ought you to look for peace and comfort from your prayers.
I go a step further, and remind you that unless you pray in faith, your prayers are not such as God has engaged to answer. You should believe that God is willing and waiting to bestow all spiritual blessing, for he has promised to do so. To doubt at the time you pray whether God will grant what he has promised, is sin; but to doubt whether it is your duty to pray, because you do not yet know that you are accepted of God, is unquestionably wrong. You may as well question whether it is your duty to read the Bible, or to go to public worship. Did not Peter tell Simon Magus to pray? “Repent therefore,” said he, “of this thy wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee; for I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:22-23). And we read of many instances in the Old Testament, of persons praying, and being heard and answered, who were not at the time truly converted to God; as for example, Ahab (1 Kings 21:29); Jehoahaz, (2 Kings 13:4-5). So also the Ninevites prayed, and obtained favour of God (Jonah 3:5-10).
No prayers can be acceptable to God that are insincere; and such are the prayers of wicked men for salvation, for they do not really desire to be saved from sin. But the prayers of the inquirer after salvation are sincere; he really desires it.
Still, however, I would remind you, that as long as you pray in an unconverted state, your prayers are only the operations of self-love, which, though not sinful, are not truly holy; they are but the cries of misery after relief, the desire of the soul after happiness; and, however frequently or fervently repeated, prefer no claim on God for his blessing. The sin lies not in praying; for, if sincere, there is no sin in crying to God for help; but in not believing.
Instead, therefore, of leaving off prayer, or harassing your minds with doubts about the propriety of carrying it on, continue instant in prayer, believing at the same time the promise of mercy in Christ Jesus. You are to add to your prayer, faith; and it is doubtless your duty at once to believe: but should it not be that your soul loses immediately its guilty fears, still you are to go on praying for mercy, and for faith to receive it. It cannot be wrong for a soul to cry for mercy. With such light as you have, although it may not be such as is necessary to salvation, lift up your desire to God. Pray for more knowledge, stronger faith, and firmer hope. Prayer is your duty, and it is your privilege; and let no speculative difficulties have a moment’s influence to induce you to suspend it. If you cannot yet pray as a believer, cry for mercy as a sinner. But do not remain in unbelief, supposing that prayer can be a substitute for faith; for, as I said before, so I repeat, God does not bind himself to answer any prayers but those of faith.