THE SAD CASE OF A RELAPSE INTO KNOWN AND DELIBERATE SIN, AFTER SOLEMN ACTS OP DEDICATION TO GOD AND SOME PROGRESS MADE IN RELIGION.
1. Unthought of relapses may happen.--2. And bring the soul into a miserable case.--3. Yet the case is not desperate.--4. The backslider urged immediately to return, by deep humiliation before God for so aggravated an offence.--5. By renewed regards to the divine mercy in Christ.--6. By an open profession of repentance, where the crime hath given public offence.--7. Falls to be reviewed for future caution.--8. The chapter concludes with a prayer for the use of one who hath fallen into gross sins, after religious resolutions and engagements.
1. THE declensions which I have described in the foregoing chapter, must be
acknowledged worthy of deep lamentations; but happy will you be, my dear
reader, if you never know, by experience, a circumstance yet more melancholy
than this. Perhaps, when you consider the view of things which you now have,
you imagine that no consideration can ever bribe you, in any single instance,
to act contrary to the present dictates or suggestions of your conscience, or
of the Spirit of God by which it has been enlightened and directed. No: you
think it would be better for you to die. And you think rightly: but Peter
thought and said so too; "Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny
thee," (Matt. 26.35) and yet, after all. he fell; and therefore, "be not
high-minded, but fear." (Rom. 11:20) It is not impossible but you may fall into
that very sin of which you imagine you are least in danger, or into that
against which you have most solemnly resolved and of which you have already
most bitterly repented. You may relapse into it again and again. But, O! if you
do, nay, if you should deliberately and presumptuously fall but once, how deep
will it pierce your heart! How dear will you pay for all the pleasure with
which the temptation has been accompanied! How will this separate between God
and you! What a desolation, what a dreadful desolation will it spread over your
soul! It is grievous to think of it. Perhaps in such a state you may feel more
and agony and distress in your own conscience, when you come seriously to
reflect, than you ever felt when you were first awakened and reclaimed: because
the sin will be attended with some very high aggravations, beyond those of your
unregenerate state. I well know the person that said, "the agonies of a sinner,
in the first pangs of his repentance, are not to be mentioned on the same day
with those of the `backslider in heart,' when he comes to be filled with his
own way." (Prov. 14:14)
2. Indeed, it is enough to wound one's heart to think how yours will be wounded; how all your comforts, all your evidences, all your hopes, will be clouded; what thick darkness will spread itself on every side; so that neither sun, nor moon, nor stars will appear in your heaven. Your spiritual consolations will be gone; and your temporal enjoyments will also be rendered tasteless and insipid. And if afflictions be sent, as they probably may, in order to reclaim you, a consciousness of guilt will sharpen and envenom the dart. Then will the enemy of your soul, with all his art and power, rise up against you, encouraged by your fall, and laboring to trample you down in utter, hopeless ruin. He will persuade you that you are already undone beyond recovery. He will suggest that it signifies nothing to attempt it any more; for that every effort, every amendment, every act of repentance, will but make your case so much the worse, and plunge you lower and lower into hell.
3. Thus will he endeavor by terrors to keep you from that sure remedy which yet remains. But yield not to him. Your case will indeed be sad; and if it be now your case, it is deplorably so; and to rest in it, would be still much worse. Your heart would be hardened yet more and more; and nothing could be expected but sudden and aggravated destruction. Yet, blessed be God, it is not quite hopeless. Your "wounds are corrupted, because of your foolishness," (Psa. 38:5) but the gangrene is not incurable. "There is a balm in Gilead, there is a physician there." (Jer. 8:22) Do not therefore render your condition hopeless, by now saying, "There is no hope," (Jer. 2:25) and by drawing a fatal argument from a false supposition, "for going after the idols you have loved." Let me address you in the language of God to his backsliding people, when they were ready to apprehend that to be their case, and to draw such a conclusion from it: "only return unto me, saith the Lord." (Jer. 3:13) Cry for renewed grace; and in the strength of it labor to return. Cry with David, under the like guilt, "I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant, for I do not forget thy commandments;" (Psa. 119:176) and that remembrance of them is, I hope, a token for good. But if thou wilt return at all, do it immediately. Take not one step more in that fatal path, to which thou bast turned aside. Think not to add one more sin to the account, and then to repent; as if it would be but the same thing on the whole. The second error may be worse than the first; it may make way for another and another, and draw on a terrible train of consequences, beyond all you can now imagine. Make haste, therefore, and do not delay. "Escape, and fly as for thy life," (Gen. 19:17) before "the dart strike through thy liver." (Prov. 7:23) "Give not sleep to thine eyes, nor slumber to thine eyelids," (Prov. 6:4) lie not down upon thy bed under unpardoned guilt, lest evil overtake thee, lest the sword of divine justice should smite thee, and, whilst thou purposest to return tomorrow, thou shouldst this night go and take possession of hell.
4. Return immediately, and, permit me to add, return solemnly. Some very pious and excellent divines have expressed themselves upon this head, in a manner which seems liable to dangerous abuse: when they urge men after a fall, "not to stay to survey the ground, nor consider how they came to be thrown down, but immediately to get up and renew the race." In slighter cases the advice is good; but when conscience has suffered such violent outrage, by the commission of known, willful, and deliberate sin, (a case which one would hope should but seldom happen to those who have once sincerely entered on a religious course) I can by no means think that either reason or Scripture encourages such a method. Especially would it be improper, if the action itself had been of so heinous a nature, that even to have fallen into it on the most sudden surprise of temptation, must have greatly ashamed, and terrified, and distressed the soul. Such an affair is dreadfully solemn, and should be treated accordingly. If this has been the sad case with you, my then unhappy reader, I would pity you, and mourn over you; and would beseech you, as you value your peace, your recovery, the health and the very life of your soul, that you would not loiter away an hour. Retire immediately for serious reflection. Break through other engagements and employments unless they be such as you cannot in conscience delay for a few hours, which can seldom happen in the circumstance I now suppose. Set yourself to it, therefore, as in the presence of God, and hear at large, patiently and humbly, what conscience has to say, though it chide and reproach severely. Yea, earnestly pray that God would speak to you by conscience, and make you more thoroughly to know and feel "what an evil and bitter thing it is, that you have thus forsaken him." (Jer. 2:19) Think of all the aggravating circumstances attending your offence; and especially think of those which arise from abused mercy and goodness which arise, not only from your solemn vows and engagements to God, but from the views you have had of a Redeemer's love, sealed even in blood. And are these the returns? Was it not enough that Christ should have been thus injured by his enemies? Must he be "wounded in the house of his friends" too? (Zech. 13: 6) Were "you delivered to work such abominations as these?" (Jer. 7:10) Did the blessed Jesus groan and die for you, that you might sin with boldness and freedom, that you might extract, as it were, the very spirit and essence of sin, and offend God to a height of ingratitude and baseness, which would otherwise have been, in the nature of things, impossible? O think, how justly God might "cast you out from his presence!" How justly he might number you among the most signal instances of his vengeance! And think how "your heart would endure or your hands be strong,"if he should " deal thus with you!" (Ezek. 22:14) Alas! all your former experiences would enhance your sense of the ruin and misery that must be felt in an eternal banishment from the divine presence and favor.
5. Indulge such reflections as these. Stand the humbling sight of your sins in such a view as this. The more odious and the more painful it appears, the greater prospect there will be of your benefit by attending to it. But the matter is not to rest here. All these reflections are intended, not to grieve, but to cure; and to grieve no more than may promote the cure. You are indeed to look upon sin; but you are also, in such circumstances, if ever, to look upon Christ, to look upon him whom you have now pierced deeper than before, and to mourn for him with sincerity and tenderness. (Zech. 12:10) The God whom you have injured and affronted, whose laws you have broken, and whose justice you have, as it were, challenged by this foolish, wretched apostasy, is nevertheless "a most merciful God." (Deut. 4:21) You cannot be so ready to return to him, as he is to receive you. Even now does he, as it were, solicit a reconciliation, by those tender impressions which lie is making upon your heart. But remember how he wilt be reconciled. It is in the very same way in which you made your first approach to him, in the name and for the sake of his dear Son. Come therefore in an humble dependence upon him. Renew your application to Jesus, that his blood may, as it were, be sprinkled upon your soul, that your soul may thereby be purified, and your guilt removed. This very sin of yours, which the blessed God foresaw, increased the weight of your Redeemers sufferings: it was concerned in shedding his blood. Humbly go, and place your wounds, as it were, under the droppings of that precious balm, by which alone they can be healed. That compassionate Savior will delight to restore you, when you lie as an humble suppliant at his feet, and will graciously take part with you in that peace and pleasure which he gives. Through him renew your covenant with God, that broken covenant, the breach of which divine justice might teach you to know "by terrible things in righteousness:" (Psa. 65: 5) but mercy allows of an accommodation. Let the consciousness and remembrance of that breach engage you to enter into covenant anew, tinder a deeper sense than ever of your own weakness, and a more cordial dependence on divine grace for your security, than you have ever yet entertained. I know you will be ashamed to present yourself among the children of God in his sanctuary, and especially at his table, under a consciousness of so much guilt; but break through that shame, if Providence open you the way. You would be humbled before your offended Father; but surely there is no place where you are more likely to be humbled, than when you see yourself in his house, and no ordinance administered there can lay you lower than that in which "Christ is evidently set forth as crucified before your eyes." (Gal. 3:1) Sinners are the only persons who have business there. The best of men come to that sacred table as sinners. As such make your approach to it; yea, as the greatest of sinners, as one who needs the blood of Jesus as much as any creature upon earth.
6. And let me remind you of one thing more. If your fall has been of such a nature as to give any scandal to others, be not at all concerned to save appearances, and to moderate those mortifications which deep humiliation before them would occasion. The depth and pain of that mortification is indeed an excellent medicine, which God has in his wise goodness appointed for you in such circumstances as these. In such a case, confess your fault with the greatest frankness; aggravate it to the utmost; entreat pardon and prayer from those whom you have offended. Then, and never till then, will you be in the way to peace; not by palliating a fault not by so making vain excuses, not by objecting to the manner in which others may have treated you; as if the least excess or rigor in a faithful admonition were a crime equal to some great immorality that occasioned it. This can only proceed from the madness of pride and self-love; it is the sensibility of a wound, which is hardened, swelled, and inflamed; and it must be reduced, and cooled, and suppled, before it can possibly be cured. To be censured and condemned by men, will be but a little grievance to a sour thoroughly humbled and broken under a sense of having incurred the condemning sentence of God. Such a one will rather desire to glorify God, by submitting to deserved blame; and will fear deceiving others into a more favorable opinion of himself than he inwardly knows that lie deserves. These are the sentiments which God gives to the sincere penitent in such a case; and by this means he restores him to that credit and regard among others, which he does not know how to seek; but which, nevertheless, for the sake both of his comfort and usefulness, God wills that he should have, and which it is, humanly speaking, impossible for him to recover any other way. But there is something so honorable in the frank acknowledgment of a fault, and in deep humiliation for it, that all who see it must needs approve it. They pity an offender who is brought to such a disposition, and endeavor to comfort him with returning expressions, not only of their love, but of their esteem too.
7. Excuse this digression, which may suit some cases; and which would suit many more, if a regular discipline were to be exercised in churches; for, on such a supposition, the Lord's Supper could not be approached, after visible and scandalous falls, without solemn confession of the offence, and declarations of repentance. On the other hand, there may be instances of sad apostacy, where the crime, though highly aggravated before God, may not fall under human notice. In this case, remember that your business is with Him to whose piercing eye every thing appears in its just light before him, therefore, prostrate your soul, and seek a solemn reconciliation with him, confirmed by the memorials of his dying Son; And when this is done, imagine not, that, because you have received the tokens of pardon, the guilt of your apostacy is to be forgotten at once. Bear it still in your memory for future caution: lament it before God, especially in the frequent returns of secret devotion; and view with humiliation the scars of those wounds which your own folly occasioned, even when by divine grace they are thoroughly healed. For God establishes his covenant, not to remove the sense of every past abomination, but "that thou mayest remember thy ways, and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, even when I am pacified towards thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord." (Ezek. 16:63)
8. And now, upon the whole, if you desire to attain such a temper, and to return to such steps as these, then immediately fall down before God, and pour out your heart in his presence, in language like this.
A Prayer for one who has fallen into gross Sin, after religious Resolutions and Engagements.