The Unsearchable Riches of Christ
Thomas Brooks, 1655
I shall now proceed to the fourth doctrine, namely, that the gifts and graces which God bestows upon his people should be improved, employed, and exercised by his people.
"Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ!" Ephesians 3:8
A little to open and explain the words.
"That I should preach." That is, declare good news, or the glad tidings of salvation that is brought by Jesus Christ to sinners. The Greek word in the New Testament, answers to the Hebrew word Bessorah in the Old Testament—both signifying good news, glad tidings, or a joyful message.
"That I should preach among the Gentiles." The word that is here rendered Gentiles, is sometimes used generally for all men, or all nations. So it is used in Mat. 25:32, and 28:19. Sometimes this Greek word is used more especially for the people of the Jews; so in John 11:48, 50-52, and Acts 10:22; and sometimes it is used for the Gentiles, distinguished from the Jews; so in Mat. 6:32.
By the Gentiles here you are to understand those poor heathen who were without God in the world, who never had heard of Christ, nor those unsearchable riches that are in him; as you may clearly see by comparing this text with that, Gal. 1:15-16, "But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach among the heathen," says he, "immediately I consulted not with flesh and blood."
The first observation that I shall speak to, from these words thus opened, is this: That the gifts and graces that God bestows upon his people should be improved, employed, and exercised by his people.
The Greek word that is here rendered grace, we showed you, has a three-fold signification in the Scripture. Sometimes it denotes the favor of God, sometimes the common gifts of the Spirit, and sometimes the saving graces of the Spirit. Now, says Paul, that singular favor that God has conferred upon me, and all those common gifts and special graces with which he has enriched me, they are all to be employed and exercised. "Unto me is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ."
So that there is nothing more clear than this, namely: That the gifts and graces that God bestows upon his people, should be employed, improved, and exercised by his people.
"To me is this grace given." Not that I should be idle—but active; not that I should be negligent—but diligent; not that I should hide my talents—but improve them.
I shall touch upon a few scriptures that speak out this truth, and then open it to you. 2 Tim. 1:6, "Therefore I put you in remembrance, that you stir up the gift of God which is in you." As the fire is increased and preserved by blowing, so are our graces. Some think that it is a metaphor taken from a spark kept in ashes, which, by gentle blowing, is stirred up, until it becomes a flame. Others say, it is an allusion to the fire in the temple, which was always to be kept burning. [Calvin and others.] We get nothing by dead and useless habits. Talents hidden in a napkin gather rust. The noblest faculties are imbased, when not improved, when not exercised.
Philip. 2:12, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." The Greek is, "Work until you get the work through." The reason why many men's hearts tremble, and are so full of fears and doubts, is because their salvation is not wrought out; they do net make thorough work in their souls, they put not that question home—Whether they have grace or not? Whether they have an interest in Christ or not? They do not rise with all their strength against sin, nor with all their power to serve the Lord; and therefore fears and doubts do compass them round about.
So in 1 Cor. 15:58, "Be steadfast and unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord."
"Be steadfast." It is a metaphor taken from a foundation, on which a thing stands firmly; or a seat or chair, wherein one sits fast.
"Unmoveable" signifies one that will not easily move his place or opinion.
"Abounding," or excelling "in the work of the Lord."
"Knowing that your labor is not in vain." The Greek is "labors unto weariness." The apostle would have them labor unto weariness; "For," says he, "it is not in vain." It will turn to a good account; it will yield you much of heaven here, and make you high in heaven hereafter. [Grace is bettered and made more perfect by acting. Neglect of our graces is the ground of their decrease and decay. Wells are the sweeter for drawing.]
There are only two things that I shall endeavor to do, for the opening of the point.
I. To show you why persons must improve, employ, and exercise the graces and gifts which God has bestowed upon them. And then,
II. The end to which they are to exercise those graces and gifts.
For the first, There are these
twelve reasons why gracious
souls should exercise and improve their gifts and graces.
Friends, this point is a point of as singular use and
of as great concernment to you, as any that I know the Scripture speaks of,
and therefore I desire you to lend your most serious and solemn attentions.
[1.] First, They must exercise and improve their graces,Because the exercise and improvement of their graces is the ready way to be rich in grace.
As sin is increased in the soul by the frequent actings of it, so grace is nourished and strengthened in the soul by its frequent actings. The exercise of grace is always attended with the increase of grace. Proverbs 10:4, "The diligent hand makes rich;" or, the nimble hand; the hand which is active and agile—that hand makes rich. Ruth 2, how did Boaz follow the business himself! his eyes were in every corner, on the servants and on the reapers, yes, on the gleaners too. [Our graces are like Gideon's army—but a handful in comparison; but our sins are like the Midianites, innumerable as grasshoppers.]
It is recorded of Severus, that his care was not to look what men said of him, or how they censured him—but to look what was to be done by him. He will rise in judgment against those professors who look more what this man and the other man says of them, than what is to be done by them. The heart of a Christian is to be taken up with what is to be done by him, and not with what this man thinks, or the other judges of him.
Pacunius has an elegant saying; "I hate," says he, "the men who are idle in deed, and philosophic in word." God loves, says Luther, the runner, not the questioner. Grace grows by exercise and decays by disuse. Though both arms grow—yet that arm which a man most uses is the stronger and the bigger; so it is both in gifts and graces. In birds, their wings which have been used most are sweetest; the application is easy. Such men as are contented with so much grace as will bring them to glory, with so much grace as will keep hell and their souls asunder—will never be rich in grace, nor high in comfort or assurance. Such souls usually go to heaven in a storm. Oh, how weather-beaten are they before they can reach the heavenly harbor!
[2.] Secondly, They must exercise their gifts and graces, because it is the main end of God's giving gifts and graces to them.
Grace is given to trade with; it is given to lay out, not to lay up. [The reason, say some, why Christ cursed the fig tree, though the time of bearing fruit was not come, was because it made a glorious show with leaves, and promised much—but brought forth nothing.] Grace is a candle that must not be put under a bushel—but set upon a candlestick. Grace is a golden treasure that must be improved, not hoarded up, as men do their gold. Grace is a talent, and it is given for this very end, that it should be employed and improved for the honor and advantage of him who gave it. The slothful servant, in God's account, is an evil servant, and accordingly God has denoted him, and doomed him for his ill husbandry, to destruction, Mat. 25:24-31.
"What a shame is it," says Jerome, "that faith should not be able to do that which infidelity has done! What! not better fruit in the vineyard, in the garden of God, than in the wilderness? What! not better fruit grow upon the tree of life, than upon the root of nature?" etc.
[3.] And then thirdly, Because grace, exercised and improved, will do that for us, which all the means in the world can never do for us. [No Israelite who was bitten or stung with the fiery serpent could be healed but by looking up to the brazen serpent. Those spots which a Christian finds in his own heart can only, by a hand of faith, be washed out in the blood of the Lamb.]
I shall evidence this truth in some remarkable instances.
Suppose the guilt of sin to be upon a man's soul, even as a heavy mountain, there is nothing but the exercise of grace which can remove this guilt. The man prays, and yet guilt sticks upon him; he hears, and yet guilt as a mountain lies heavy upon him; he mourns, he sighs, he groans, and yet guilt sticks upon him; he runs from ordinance to ordinance, and from ordinary service to extraordinary, and yet guilt follows him; he runs from man to man, 'Sir, was ever any man's case like mine? I have prayed thus long, I have heard thus long, I have mourned thus long, etc., and yet guilt lies as a mountain upon my soul!'
There is nothing below the exercise of grace which will remove this. It is only faith in the promises of remission that will remove the guilt of sin which lies so heavy upon the soul. It is only faith's application of the righteousness of Christ which can take off this burden that sinks the soul, even as low as hell. Faith must make a plaster of the blood of Christ, and apply it to the soul, or the soul will die under its guilt. There is nothing below this can do it. Faith's application of the blood of Christ takes off the guilt, and turns the storm to a calm: Romans 5:1, "Being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ."
Again, suppose that the power and prevalency of sin hinders the soul's sweet communion with God, so that the soul cannot sport itself, and joy and delight itself in God, as in the days of old; it cannot see God smiling, stroking, and speaking kindly, as in former days. Now, there is nothing in all the world which can ease the soul of this burden of sin, but the exercise of grace. Oh, says such a poor soul, I pray, sir—and yet I sin; I resolve against sin—and yet I sin; I combat against sin—and yet I am carried captive by sin; I have left no outward means unattempted—and yet after all, my sins are too hard for me; after all my sweating, striving, and weeping—I am carried down the stream. There is nothing now but the actings of faith upon a crucified Christ that will take off this burden from the soul of man. [Much less, then, can the papists' purgatories, watchings, whippings, etc., or Saint Francis' kissing or licking of lepers' sores, cleanse the fretting leprosy of sin, etc.]
Now, you must make use of your graces to draw virtue from Christ; now faith must touch the hem of Christ's garment, or you will never be healed. It is just with a soul in this case as it was with the poor widow, Luke 8:43-49, that had the issue of blood; she leaves no means unattempted whereby she might be cured; she runs from one physician to another, until she had spent all she was worth, and now says she, "If I could but touch the hem of his garment, I would be whole." Hereupon she crowds through the crowd to come to Christ, and being got behind him, she touches the hem of his garment, "and immediately she was made whole." The cure being thus wrought, Christ uncrowns himself to crown her faith: "And he said unto her, Daughter, be of good comfort, your faith has made you whole; go in peace." He does not say, Woman, your trembling has made you whole; or, Woman, your sweating and struggling in a crowd to come to me, has made you whole; or, Woman, your falling down and abasing yourself, though she did all this; but, "Woman, your faith has made you whole." Ah, Christians! it is not your trembling, or your falling down, or your sweating in this and that service—which will stop the bloody issue of your sins—but believing in Christ. [A touch of faith cured the woman, as well as a full hold. It is the exercise of the graces of the Spirit by which we mortify the deeds of the flesh, Romans 8:13. It is not our strong resolutions or purposes which will be able to overmaster these enemies. Α foul sore will run until it be indeed healed, though we say it shall not.]
It is sad to consider how few professors in these days have attained the right way of mortifying of sin. They usually go out against their sins in the strength of their own purposes, prayers, and resolutions, etc., and scarcely look so high as a crucified Christ; they mind not the exercise of their faith upon Christ; and therefore it is a righteous thing with Christ that after all, that they should be carried captive by their sins. Nothing eats out sin like the actings of grace; nothing weakens and wastes the strength of sin like the exercise of grace. Oh! did men believe more in Christ, sin would die more; did they believe the threatenings more, sin would die more; did they believe the promises more, sin would die more; did they believe reigning with Christ more, sin would die more: "He who has this hope purifies himself, even as Christ is pure," 1 John 3:3.
Again, Suppose that the soul be followed with black, dismal, fiery temptations, there is nothing now in all the world that can divinely strengthen and fence the soul against these temptations but the exercise of grace, the improvement of grace. It is true you are to hear, read, pray, meditate, etc.; but all these without the exercise of grace in them, will never make you victorious over Satan's temptations. Nothing puts Satan to it like the exercise of grace. [Luther said, I am without set upon by all the world, and within by the devil and all his angels. And yet, by the exercise of grace, he became victorious over them all, etc.]
It is said of Satan, that he would say to a holy man who was much in the exercise of grace, You do always overcome me. Eph. 6:16. "Above all, take the shield of faith, whereby you may be able to quench the fiery darts of the devil." Whatever piece of armor you neglect, be sure that you neglect not the shield of faith. The Greek word that is here rendered a shield, comes from another word that signifies a door or a gate, to note that as a door or a gate does secure our bodies, so will the shield of faith secure our souls against the fiery darts of the devil: "Above all, take the shield of faith, whereby you may be able to quench all the fiery darts of the devil." The apostle alludes to the custom of the Scythians, who used to dip the heads of their arrows or darts in the gall of asps and vipers, the venom of which, like a fire in their flesh, killed the wounded with torments—most like hell of any other. But the soldiers then had generally shields of leather, as several writers testify, and when the fiery darts landed upon them, they were presently quenched. So these fiery darts of Satan, when they land upon the shield of faith, they are presently quenched; and there is no other way to do it. Until the Lord draws out a man's faith to act upon the promises and upon Christ, these fiery darts will not be quenched.
Suppose that the world, the smiling world or the frowning world, the tempting world or the persecuting world--should lie as a heavy stone or burden upon your hearts, as it does upon the hearts of thousands in these days; (witness their attempting anything to get the favors, honors and riches of this world! Ah! how many have turned their backs upon God, and Christ, and truth, etc., to gain the world!) How will you get this burden off? Only by exercise and actings of grace. Many men hear sermons much--and yet remain worldly. They pray like angels--and yet live as if there were no heaven nor hell. They will talk much of heaven--and yet those who are spiritual and wise do smell their breath to stink strong of earth. All the arts, and parts, and gifts in the world can never cure them of this soul-killing disease; but only the exercise of grace, until faith breaks forth in its glorious actings. A man may hear sermons and pray many years--and yet remain as carnal, base, and worldly as ever! There is no way under heaven to remove this stone, this burden--but the exercise of faith! "For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God." 1 John 5:4-5
[Faith is a better engineer than Daedalus, and yet he made wings with which he made an escape over the high walls within which he was imprisoned. This world is the soul's prison—yet faith is such an engineer that it can make wings for the soul to fly out, etc.]
Not that the habit of faith overcomes the world—but faith in the exercise of it conquers the world, and that it does these three ways.
(1.) First, Faith, in the exercise of it, presents the world to the soul under all those notions that the Scripture holds forth the world unto us by.
The Scripture holds forth the world as an impotent thing, as a mixed thing, as a mutable thing, as a momentary thing. [Earthly riches are full of poverty, says Austin.] Now faith comes and sets this home with power upon the soul, and this takes the soul off from the world.
(2.) Secondly, Faith does it by causing the soul to converse with more glorious, soul-satisfying, soul-delighting, and soul-contenting objects.
2 Cor. 4:16-18, "Though our outward man perish—yet our inward man is renewed day by day." How comes this to pass? "While we look not at the things which are seen—but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal—but the things which are not seen are eternal." [While we look upon eternal things as a man looks upon the mark that he aims to hit.] Now when faith is busied and exercised about soul-ennobling, soul-greatening, soul-raising, and soul-cheering objects, a Christian tramples the world under his feet; and now heavy afflictions are light, and long afflictions short, and bitter afflictions sweet, unto him, etc. Now, stand by world! welcome Christ! etc.
So in Heb. 11. It was the exercise of faith and hope upon noble and glorious objects which carried them above the world, above the smiling world, and above the frowning world, above the tempting world, and above the persecuting world, as you may see by comparing several verses of that chapter together: ver. 9-10, "By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God." Ver. 24-26, "And by faith, Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to suffer afflictions with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season: esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt, for he had respect to the recompense of reward." Ver. 27, "By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible." And in ver. 35, "They refused deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection." [Every man is as the objects are about which his soul is most conversant, etc.]
So in Heb. 10:34, "They took joyfully the confiscation of their goods," (Why?) "knowing in themselves, that they had in heaven a better and more enduring substance."
(3.) Thirdly and lastly, Faith does it by assuring the soul of enjoying of better things. For my part I must confess, so far as I understand anything of the things of God, I cannot see how a soul under the power of a well-grounded assurance can be a servant to his slave, I mean the world. I confess men may talk much of heaven, and of Christ, and religion, etc.; but give me a man who does really and clearly live under the power of divine assurance, and I cannot see how such a one can be carried out in an inordinate love to these poor transitory things. I know not one instance in all the Scripture that can be produced to prove that ever any precious saint that has lived in the assurance of divine love, and that has walked up and down this world with his pardon in his bosom, have ever been charged with an inordinate love of the world. [In my treatise called "Heaven on Earth," you may find many considerations to evince this, and to that I refer you, etc.] That is a sad word, 1 John 2:15.
[4.] Now a fourth reason of this point, why persons are to exercise their graces, is, because it is the best way to preserve their souls from apostasy and backsliding from God. 2 Pet. 1:5-11, "Add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge temperance, and to temperance patience, and to patience godliness, etc.; for if you do these things you shall never fall." "Add to your faith virtue." The Greek word that is here rendered add, has a great emphasis in it. It is taken from dancing round. Link them, says the apostle, hand in hand, as in dancing, people join hands; so we must join hand to hand in these measures of graces, lead up the dance of graces, as in the galliard [French dance] everyone takes his turn.
So in chapter 3:17-18, "You therefore, beloved, seeing you know these things, beware lest you also, being led aside with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness." There are many who turn aside, and part with God, and Christ, and truth, and the words of righteousness; and therefore you had need to take heed that you fall not, as others have fallen before you.
But how shall we be kept from apostatising? Why, "grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." It is a growth in grace, it is the exercise of grace—which will make a man stand when others fall, yes, when cedars fall, etc.
[5.] Fifthly, All other exercises without the exercise of grace will profit nothing. Or if you will, take it thus:
All other exercises will be loss to us, without the exercise of grace; therefore we had need to improve our graces. When the house is on fire, if a man should only pray, and cry, etc., he may be burnt for all that; therefore he must be active and stirring; he must run from place to place, and call out for help, and must work even in the fire, and bestir himself as for his life, in the use of all means, whereby the fire may be quenched. So if grace be not acted upon, it is not all a man's praying and crying, etc., which will profit him or better him. Grace must be exercised—or all will be lost; prayers lost, tears lost, time lost, strength lost, soul lost, etc.
1 Tim. 4:7-8, "But refuse profane and old wives' fables." [Make a fair excuse.] Shift them off, as the word is, set them aside. Tell them that you are not at leisure to attend them, make a fair excuse, as the word notes; tell them you have business of an eternal concernment to look after, and "exercise yourself rather unto godliness;" or lay aside your upper garments, as runners and wrestlers do, to which the apostle alludes, and bestir yourself lustily; for says he, verse 8, "Bodily exercise profits little—but godliness is profitable unto all things, and has the promise of this life, and of that which is to come." [Let the patient take such or such a potion that in itself is good—yet, if it lacks such or such a particular ingredient, it works not; it does no good. It is so here.]
The Babylonians are said to make three hundred and sixty different commodities from the palm tree; but what are those commodities, compared to those thousands which attend holiness, which attend the exercise of grace? "The word did not profit those who heard it, because it was not mixed with faith." Hebrews 4:2. He does not speak there of unbelievers--but of those who had faith in the soul--but not in the exercise; and therefore the word did not profit them. They heard, and were never the better. And what was the ground of it? Why, it was because they did not exercise faith upon the word. The words which fell from the preacher's lips into their ears, were a sweet potion--but they did not work effectually, because they lacked the ingredient of faith. Faith is one of those glorious ingredients, which makes every sermon, every truth, work for their souls' advantage. Nothing will work for a believer's good, for his gain--if it is not mixed with faith. Nothing makes a man rich in spirituals, like the frequent and constant actings of faith.
[6.] Sixthly, Because it is the end of all the dignity and glory which God has conferred upon his people; therefore they must exercise and improve their grace.
In 1 Pet. 2:9, "But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people—that you may show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light."
"You are a chosen generation." That is, a picked people; the dearly beloved of his soul; such as he first chose for his love, and then loves for his choice.
"A royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people." The Greek is, "a people of purchase," such as comprehends, as it were, all God's gettings, his whole stock, that he makes any reckoning of.
"That you may show forth," or, as it is in the Greek, "that you may preach forth," that you may publicly declare the virtues of him who has "called you out of darkness into his marvelous light;" that you may so hold forth the virtues of him who has conferred all this dignity and glory upon you, as to excite others, to "glorify your Father who is in heaven." You know the picture of a dear friend is not to be thrust in a corner—but in some conspicuous place of the house. Why, our graces are the very image of Christ, they are his picture; and therefore to be held forth to open view. These candles must not be put under a bushel—but set up in a candlestick. Jewels are to wear—not to hide; so are our graces. [God himself is wronged by the injury that is done to his image. The contempt is done to the king himself—which is done to his image or coin.]
It was a capital crime in Tiberius's days, to carry the image of the emperor upon a ring or coin, into any sordid place. And shall not Christians be more mindful and careful, that their graces, which are Christ's image, be in no way obscured—but that they be kept always sparkling and shining? Christ's glory and your comfort, O Christian! lies much in the sparkling of your graces. Pearls are not to be thrust in mud walls, or hung in swines snouts—but to be hung around the neck.
[7.] Seventhly, Gracious souls must exercise their grace, because the more grace is exercised and improved, with the more ease and delight will all pious services be performed, Psalm 40:7-8; 119:97-112. When grace is improved and exercised, gracious services are easily performed. As the more natural strength is exercised and improved, with the more ease and pleasure are all bodily services performed; so the more grace is acted and improved, with the more ease and delight all Christian services are performed. Such souls find wages in their very work, they find not only for keeping—but also "in keeping of his commands there is great reward." "All the ways of the Lord are ways of pleasantness to them," and they find "that all his paths drop marrow and fatness," Romans 6:22; Psalm 19:11; Proverbs 3:17; Psalm 65:11. Ah, Christians! as ever you would have the services of God to be easy and delightful to your souls, look to the exercise and improvement of your graces—and then your work will be a joy.
[8.] Eighthly, You must exercise and improve your gifts and graces, because the more grace is improved, the more God will be honored. Romans 4:19-21, "Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead--since he was about a hundred years old--and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised." [Abraham's faith made him rejoice and obey, Heb. 11. Faith is as the spring in the watch, which moves all the wheels. Not a grace stirs until faith sets it to work, Romans 4:3, etc.]
"He gave glory to God." But how did he give glory to God? Was it a dead habit of faith, which set the crown of honor upon the head of God? No! It was the lively actings of his faith upon the promise and the promiser, which gave glory to God. All the honor and glory that God has from believers in this life, is from the actings of their grace. It was Abraham's acting of faith that was his high honoring of God. Christians! I would entreat this favor of you, that you would be often in the meditation of this truth, namely: That all the honor which God has from believers in this life, is from the actings and exercise of their graces.
When you go to prayer, then think thus with yourself: Is it so, that all the honor which God shall have from my soul in prayer, will be from the actings of grace in prayer? Oh then, what cause have I to stir up myself to lay hold on God, and to blow up all those sparks of grace that are in me! As a body without a soul, much wood without fire, a bullet in a gun without powder—so are words in prayer without the Spirit, without the exercise of the graces of the Spirit. Jonah acted his faith when he was in the belly of hell; and Daniel acted faith when he was in the lions' den; and the thief acted faith when he was on the cross; and Jeremiah acted faith when he was in the dungeon; and Job acted faith when he was on the ash-heap; and David acted faith when he was in his greatest distress; and so did Moses in Exod. 14. And you know the outcome of all was—much glory to God, and much good to them. His heart will never be long a stranger to joy and peace, who is much in the exercise and actings of grace. [So did the publican; he prayed much, though he spoke little; the hottest springs send forth their waters by ebullitions. Augustine cries out against those who did not profit by afflictions.]
[9.] Ninthly, Because the more grace is improved, the more afflictions and tribulations will be lessened and sweetened to us. 2 Cor. 4:16-17, "Though our outward man decreases—yet our inward man is renewed day by day," or day and day.
When Peter Martyr was dying, he said, "My body is weak—but my mind is well—well for the present, and will be better forever hereafter." This is the godly man's motto, "For afflictions there is glory—for light afflictions a weight of glory—for momentary afflictions eternal glory." So in Heb. 10 and 11. O friends! if your graces were more exercised and improved, afflictions would be more sweet. This would turn the cross into a crown; this would turn bitter into sweet, and long winter nights into summer days. It would make every condition to be a paradise to you, etc.
[10.] Tenthly, If grace be not exercised and improved—the soul may be easily surprised, conquered, and vanquished by a tempting devil and an enticing world. When the sword is in the scabbard, the traveler is easily surprised; and when the guard is asleep, the city is quickly conquered. The strongest creature, the lion, and the wisest creature, the serpent—if they are dormant, are as easily conquered as the weakest worms. So the strongest and wisest saints, if their graces are asleep, and not in the exercise—they may be as easily surprised and vanquished as the weakest Christians in all the world, as you may see in David, Solomon, Samson, Peter. Every enemy insults over him who has lost the use of his weapons, etc. [Saints should be like the seraphim—beset all over with eyes and lights. The fearful hare, they say, sleeps with her eyes open. Oh, how watchful, then, should a Christian be!]
[11.] Eleventhly, We must improve our graces, because decays in grace are very great losses to us. By decaying in grace, we come to lose our strength, our best strength, our spiritual strength; our strength to do for God; our strength to wait on God, and walk with God; our strength to bear for God; our strength to suffer for God. [Spiritual losses are recovered with great difficulty. A man may easily run down the hill—but he cannot so easily run up. A man may soon put an instrument out of tune—but not so soon put it in again.]
By decaying in grace, we come to lose that "joy which is unspeakable and full of glory," and that comfort and "peace which passes understanding," and to lose the sense of that "favor that is better than life." Now our faith will be turned into fear, our dancing into mourning, our rejoicing into sighing. And when, O Christian! you begin to fall, and to decay—who knows how far you may fall, how much your graces may be impaired, and how long it may be before your sun rises when once it is set; therefore you had need to exercise and improve your graces.
[12.] Twelfthly, and lastly, You are to improve your graces, because souls truly gracious have a power to do good. I do not say that a man in his natural estate—though Arminians do—has power in himself to do supernatural acts, as to believe in God, to love God, and the like, etc., for I think a toad may as well spit cordials as a natural man do supernatural actions, 1 Cor. 2:14; Jer. 13:23; James 1:17; Eph. 2:1-3. No! I say that all the grace we have is from God; and that man in his natural estate is dead God-ward, and Christ-ward, and holiness-ward, and heaven-ward. Yet this I say—that souls truly gracious have a power to do good. It is sad to think how many professors excuse their negligence by pretending an inability to do good, or by sitting down discouraged, as having in their hands no power at all. What can we do, say they, if the Lord does not breathe upon us, as at first conversion? We can do nothing.
I think in my very conscience, that this is one reason of much of that slightness, neglect, and omission of duties, that is among professors in these days, so that God may complain, as he does, Isaiah 64:7, "There is no man who stirs up himself to take hold of me—they are as men asleep," who sit still and do nothing. But certainly those who are truly united to Christ, do not act as dead stocks, as if every time and moment of their acting God-wards and holiness-ward they received new life from the Spirit of Christ, as at first conversion they did. And I am confident, for lack of the knowledge and due consideration of this truth, many professors take such liberty to themselves, as to live in the neglect of many precious duties of godliness, for which, sooner or later, they will pay dear. But remembering that it is not a flood of words—but weighty arguments, that convince and persuade the souls and consciences of men, I shall give you four reasons to demonstrate, that believers have a power to do good; and the first is this.
First, because they have life; and all life is a power to act by. Natural life is a power to act by; spiritual life is a power to act by; eternal life is a power to act by. The philosopher says, "That a fly is more excellent than the heavens, because the fly has life, which the heavens have not," etc.
Secondly, Else there is no just ground for Christ to charge the guilt of sins upon them; as neglect of prayer, repentance, mortification; nor the guilt of carelessness and slothfulness, etc., which he does. If they can act no further, nor any longer than the Holy Spirit acts them, as at their first conversion, notwithstanding their union with Christ, and that spiritual principle of life which at first they received from Christ—certainly if it is so, it will not stand with the unspotted justice of God to charge the guilt of sins of omission upon believing souls, if they have no power to act—but are as stocks and stones, etc., as some dream. [Omission of diet breeds diseases; so does omission of duty—and makes work either for repentance, hell, or the physician of souls.]
A third ground is this: if there is not some power in believers to do good, then we should not have as much benefit by the second Adam as we had by the first. The first Adam, if he had stood, would have communicated a power to all his sons and daughters to have done good, as being corrupted he does communicate power to sin, as all his children find by sad and woeful experience; and shall not Christ much more communicate a power to us to do good in our measure? Surely he does, though few mind it, and fewer improve it as they should. If there is not such a power in believers, how have they gained more by the second Adam than they lost by the first? and wherein lies the excellency of the second above the first?
Fourthly and lastly, All those exhortations are void, and of no effect—if there is not some power in souls truly gracious to do good; as all those exhortations to watchfulness, to stir up "the grace of God that is in us," and to "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling," and that also, "give all dilligence to make your calling and election sure." To what purpose are all these precious exhortations, if the regenerate man has no power at all to act anything that is good? Nay, then, believers under the covenant of grace should be in no better a condition than unregenerate men who are under a covenant of works, who see their duties discovered—but have no power to perform; which is contrary, as to other scriptures, so to that Psalm 40:7-9, "Then said I, Lo I come: in the volume of your book it is written of me, I delight to do your will, O my God: yes, your law is within my heart," or, "your law is in the midst of my heart," as the Hebrew reads it; and to that of Ezek. 36:25-27, etc. A soul truly gracious can sincerely say, "Your law, O Lord, is in the midst of my heart, and I delight to do your will, O Lord." I confess I cannot do as I should, nor shall I ever do it as I would, until I come to heaven; but this I can say in much uprightness, that "Your law is in my heart, and I delight to do your will, O Father." And so Paul, "With my mind I serve the law of God, though with my flesh the law of sin," Romans 7:25.
And we have many promises concerning divine assistance, and if we did but stir up the grace of God that is in us, we would find the assistance of God, and the glorious breakings forth of his power and love, according to his promise, and the work which he requires of us, Isaiah 26:12; 64:5, etc. Though no believer does what he should do—yet doubtless every believer might do more than he does do, in order to God's glory, and his own and others' internal and eternal good, Isaiah 41:10; Heb. 13:5-6, etc. Affection without endeavor is like Rachel—beautiful but barren. They are truly blessed—who do what they can, though they cannot but underdo.
When Demosthenes was asked what was the first part of an orator, what the second, what the third, he answered, Action! The same may I say, if any should ask me what is the first, the second, the third part of a Christian, I must answer, Action! Luther says, "He had rather obey—than work miracles." "Obedience is better than sacrifice."
But, sir, you will say, what is the meaning of that text, that is so often in the mouths of professors, "Without me, you can do nothing"? John 15:5.
I answer, All that that text holds forth is this, that if a man has not union with Christ, if he be not implanted into Christ, he can do nothing. "Without me," that is—separate from me, or apart from me—as the words may be read, "you can do nothing." If you are not implanted into me, if by the Spirit and faith you are not united unto me, you can do nothing. The arm may do much by virtue of its union with the head; but if you separate the arm from the head, from the body, what can it do? Certainly the soul, by virtue of its union with Christ, may do much; while those who as are separated from Christ can do nothing—at least as they should. Ah, Christians! if you would but put out yourselves to the utmost, you would find the Lord both ready and willing to assist you, to meet with you, and to do for you above what you are able to ask or think. Union with Christ is that wherein the strength, comfort, and happiness of the soul does consist.
Caesar, by continual employment, overcame two constant diseases, the headache and dizziness. Oh the spiritual diseases that the active Christian overcomes! Among the Egyptians, idleness was a capital crime. Among the Lucani, he who lent money to an idle person was to forfeit it. Among the Corinthians, the slothful were to be flogged. Oh! the deadly sins, the deadly temptations, the deadly judgments—which idle and slothful Christians are given up to! Therefore be active, be diligent, be abundant in the work of the Lord. Idleness is the source of much sin. Standing pools gather mud, and nourish and breed venomous creatures; and so do the hearts of idle and slothful Christians, etc.
Now the second thing that we are to do
for the further opening of this point is, to show you
The special ENDS that the gifts and graces which God has bestowed upon
believers, should be exercised and improved to.
And they are these that follow:
[1.] First, They are to be improved and exercised to the honor of God, to the lifting up of God, and to the keeping up of his name and glory in the world. 1 Cor. 10:31, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do—do it all for the glory of God."
He who does not use his gifts and graces to this end, crosses the grand end of God's bestowing such royal favors on him. Graces and gifts are talents that God has given you to trade with, and not to hide in a napkin, Mat. 25. The idle servant, in Christ's account, was an evil servant. The idle soul, in Christ's account, is an evil soul, and accordingly Christ will deal with him.
Seneca calls sloth "the nurse of beggary, the mother of misery;" and slothful Christians find it so. Christians, God has given you grace—that you should give him glory. His honor should be dearer to you than your jewels, than your crowns, than your lives, ay, than your very souls. You live no further, than you live to his praise.
It is recorded of Epaminondas, the commander-in-chief of the Thebans, that he did not glory in anything but this, "That his father, whom he dearly loved and honored, was living when he won three famous battles against the Lacedaemonians," who were then renowned for their valor to be invincible; regarding more the honor and contentment which his father would receive of it, than his own. Shall a heathen thus strive to honor his earthly father? And shall not Christians strive more to honor their heavenly Father with all the gifts and graces which he has conferred upon them.
But you will say, HOW should we honor the Lord? I answer,
(1.) You must honor God by a free and frequent acknowledgment that all your graces flow from the Lord Jesus, the fountain of grace. John 1:16, "Of his fullness we all receive grace for grace." James 1:17, "Every good and perfect gift comes down from above," etc. You must say, O Christian, I have nothing but what I have received; I have no light, no life, no love, no joy, no peace—but from above! 1 Cor. 4:7. The jewels which hang about my breasts, and the chains of pearl which are around my neck, and the golden crown which is upon my head, and all the sparkling diamonds in that crown—are all from above! Ezek. 16:11-15, Psalm 45:8, seq. All those princely ornaments by which I am made more beautiful and lovely than others; and all those beds of spices and sweet flowers, by which I am made more desirable and delectable—are from above! I am nothing. I have nothing of my own; all I am, and all I have, is from on high.
"But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand," says David, 1 Chron. 29:14. So you say, "Lord, the love with which I love you—comes from you; and the faith by which I hang upon you—comes from you; and the fear by which I fear before you—comes from you; and the joy which I rejoice before you with—comes from you; and the patience with which I wait upon you—comes from you." And therefore say, as David did, upon the receipt of mercy, "Praise be to you, O Lord, God of our father Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all. Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name." 1 Chronicles 29:10-13
(2.) You must honor him, by acknowledging the dependency of your graces, upon the fountain of grace. And that your strength to stand lies not so much in your graces, as in their dependency upon the fountain of grace—from their reception from the God of grace. A man by his arm may do much—but it is mainly by reason of its union and conjunction with the head. It is so between a Christian's graces and Christ. The stream does not more depend upon the fountain, nor the branch upon the root, nor the moon upon the sun, nor the child upon the mother, nor the effect upon the cause—than our graces depend upon the fountain of grace, Psalm 138:3, Philip. 4:12-13.
Now that our very graces do thus depend upon the fountain of grace; and that our strength to stand lies not so much in our graces as in Christ, is clear by this—that the graces of the saints may and do most fail them when they have most need of them: Mark 4:40, "And he said, Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?" When the wind was high, their faith was low; when the storm was great, their faith was little; so Luke 8:25, "And he said unto them, Where is your faith?" Have you now to seek it—when you should be using it? Peter denied Christ—when he had need by faith to have confessed Christ. Moses' faith failed him—when it should have been most serviceable to him, Num. 20:12. And David's courage failed him—when it should have been a shield to him, 1 Sam. 21:13-14. And the disciples' love failed them—when it should have been most useful to them, John 14:28. And Job's wisdom and patience failed him—when they should have been his greatest supporters. By all which it is most clear, that not only ourselves, but also our very graces—must be supported by the God of grace, the fountain of grace—or else they will be lacking, when we most need them.
Though our graces be our best jewels—yet they are imperfect; and as the moon shines by a borrowed light, so do our graces. If it were not for the Sun of righteousness all our graces would give no light. Though grace is a glorious creature, it is but a creature, and therefore must be upheld by its Creator. Though grace be a beautiful child—yet it is but a child, that must be upheld by the Father's arms. This, Christians, you must remember—and give glory to God!
(3.) You must honor him by uncrowning your graces—to crown the God of your graces. By taking the crown off from your own heads, and putting it upon his, or by laying it down at his feet, as they did theirs, in Rev. 4:10, Acts 3:11-12, 16, and 4:7-10. These scriptures are wells of living waters; they are bee-hives of living honey; see and taste. [True it is that we do what we do—but it is as true that Christ empowers us to do what we do.] The Lord has often uncrowned himself, to crown his people's graces, as you may see in these following scriptures, Mat. 9:22, and 15:28, Mark 10:52, Luke 7:50. And why, then, should not his people uncrown their graces to crown him? Cant. 5:10, seq. That which others attribute to your graces—you must attribute to the God of grace. You must say, Though our graces are precious—yet Christ is more precious; though they are sweet—yet Christ is most sweet; though they are lovely—yet Christ is altogether lovely.
Your graces are but Christ's picture, Christ's image; and therefore do not worship his image, and in the mean while neglect his person. Make much of his picture—but make more of himself. Let his picture have your eye—but let himself have your heart, John 1:39, seq. Your graces are but Christ's hands, by which he works; be therefore careful that you do not more mind the workman's hands—than the workman himself. Your graces are but Christ's servants; therefore do not smile upon the servant—and look asquint upon the Master. Your graces are but Christ's favorites; therefore do not so stare upon them, and be taken with them, as to forget the Prince on whom they wait, etc. All I drive at is this—that not your graces, but Christ, may be all in all unto you, etc.
[2.] The second end to which you must improve your gifts and graces, is to the good of others. Psalm 66:16, "Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will declare what he has done for my soul;" Psalm 34:8, "Oh taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man who trusts in him;" Isaiah 2:3; Acts 5:26-29. God has given you gifts and grace—to that end that you should improve them for others' good. It is the very nature of grace to be diffusive and communicative. Grace cannot be long concealed. The better anything is, the more communicative it will be. Grace is as fire in the bones, as new wine in the bottles; you cannot hide it, you must give vent to it: Acts 4:28, "We cannot but speak the things which we have heard and seen." Can the fire cease to turn all combustible matter into fire? can the candle, once thoroughly lighted, cease to spend itself for the enlightening of others? Then may the precious sons of Zion cease to give light to others, by their examples, counsels, and communicating their experiences.
There is no way to honor God, no way to win souls, nor any way to increase your own gifts and graces—than to exercise them for the good of others. Grace is not like to worldly vanities, which diminish by distribution—but like candles which keep the same light, though a thousand are lighted by them. Grace is like the widow's oil—which multiplied by pouring out, 2 Kings 4; and like those talents—which doubled by employment, Mat. 25.
Again, by how much more we pour out our spiritual things to others—by so much is the abundance the greater to us. Those who give their money to their neighbor, diminish their own substance; and by how much he gives—by so much the less is the money which he possesses; but in spirituals it is quite otherwise.
No way to advance the kingdom of Christ like this—of improving your gifts and graces to the advantage and profit of others. There is no love nor pity to the precious souls of men like this. There is no way to abound in grace, to be rich in grace like this. There is no way to be high in heaven like this. [Romans 1:11-12; 2 Cor. 9:6.] Are you, O Christian, bound to do good to others, by communicating earthly things? And are you not much more bound to do them good by communicating of spiritual things? Surely you are. Why are Christians so often in Scripture compared to trees—but because of their fruitfulness and usefulness to others? And why are they called "stewards of the manifold gifts of God," but to note to us, that their gifts are not to be kept for themselves—but employed for the good of others? And why has Christ put a box of precious ointment into every Christian's hand—but that it should be opened for the benefit of others?
Certainly, he who is good is bound to do good; for gifts and graces are given, not only to make us good, and keep us good—but also to make us, yes, to provoke us to do good. "We therefore learn—that we may teach," is a proverb among the Rabbis. "And I do therefore lay in, and lay up," says the heathen, "that I may lay out for the good of many." I think they are not good Christians who scorn to learn this good lesson, though from a heathen. And oh, that all who write themselves Christians, were so good as to imitate the good which shined in many heathens! To me it is very sad, that Christians that live and act below the very heathens; that they should be offended to hear now and then of those excellencies which sparkled in the very heathens. I think that is a very evil spirit—which cannot endure to hear of those excellencies in others that he lacks himself. Certainly he is a brave Christian, and has much of Christ within—who accounts nothing his own that he does not communicate to others. The bee does store her hive out of all sorts of flowers for the common benefit; and why then in this should not every Christian be like a bee?
Synesius speaks of some, who having a treasure of rare abilities in them, would as soon part with their hearts as their abilities. I think they are rather monsters than real Christians, who are of such a spirit.
[3.] The third and last thing to which you are to improve your gifts and graces is, to the benefit and profit of your own souls. Not to improve them to your own internal and eternal good, is with a high hand to cross the main end of God's conferring them upon you. Ah, Christians! you must improve them—to the strengthening of yourself against temptations—to the supporting of yourself under afflictions—to the keeping under of your strong corruptions—to the sweetening of all your difficulties—and to the preparing and fitting yourself for the days of your death. The good of the soul is specially to be minded:
(1.) because it is the most notable part of man;
(2.) because the image of God is most fairly stamped upon it;
(3.) because it is first converted;
(4.) because it shall be first glorified.
I shall content myself with giving you this hint, because I have before spoken more fully to this head. And thus we have done with the doctrinal part.
We shall come now to make some USE and APPLICATION of this point to ourselves.
If this be so, that it is the duty of Christians to improve and exercise the gifts and graces that the Lord has given them,
Then, in the first place, this looks very sourly and badly upon all lazy, idle, negligent Christians, who do not stir up themselves to lay hold on God, who do not stir up the grace of the Lord in them. It is sad to consider how many Christians can stir up themselves to lay held on all opportunities to make themselves great and rich in the world—and yet allow their golden gifts and graces even to grow rusty for lack of exercise. No Christians are so free from Satan's assaults—as active Christians are; nor are any so tempted—as idle Christians. The Jewish Rabbis report, that the same night that Israel departed out of Egypt towards Canaan, all the idols and idolatrous temples in Egypt, by lightning and earthquakes, were broken down. So when grace and holiness is set up in the heart, all the idols of Satan, which are men's lusts, are thrown down.
It is sad to see how busy many men are to exercise and improve a talent of riches—who yet bind up their talents of gifts and grace in a napkin. By these—God loses much honor and praise—and they themselves lose much comfort and contentment—and others lose much profit and benefit—and the gospel loses much credit and glory.
But the main use that I shall make of this point, shall
be to exhort and stir you all up, to make a blessed improvement of your
graces. And indeed it is a point of most singular use to us all our days, a
truth that is every day of very great concernment to our souls.
Now there are seven considerations or motives, to stir up your souls to make a blessed improvement of the grace and gifts you have received.
[1.] And the first is this: Seriously consider that the exercise and improvement of grace in your souls—will be more and more the death and ruin of sin in your souls.
Take it from experience; there is not a choicer way than this for a man to bring the power of his sin under control—than to keep up the exercise of his grace. Sin and grace are like two buckets at a well—when one is up the other is down. Certainly, the readiest and the surest way to bring under the power of sin, is to be much in the exercise of grace: Romans 8:10, "But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness." The life and activity of Christ and grace in the soul—is the death and destruction of sin in the soul. The more grace acts in the soul—the more sin withers and dies in the soul. The stronger the house of David grew, 2 Sam. 3, the weaker the house of Saul grew. As the house of David grew every day stronger and stronger, so the house of Saul every day grew weaker and weaker. So the activity of the new man—is the death of the old man.
When Christ began to bestir himself in the temple—the money-changers quickly fled out, Mat. 21:12-14. So when grace is active and stirring in the soul—corruption quickly flies. A man may find out many ways to hide his sin—but he will never find out any way to subdue his sin—but by the exercise of grace. Of all Christians, none so mortified as those in whom grace is most exercised. Sin is a viper that must be killed—or it will kill you forever; and there is no way to kill it but by the exercise of grace.
[2.] Secondly, Consider this by way of motive to provoke you to exercise and improve your graces. The exercise and improvement of your graces will provoke others to bless and admire the God of grace. "Let your light so shine before men—that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven," Mat. 5:16—the light of your conversation, and the light of your graces. Oh how many thousand souls are now triumphing in heaven—whose gifts and graces shined gloriously when they were on earth. And ah! how many thousands are there now on earth, who bless and admire the Lord for the shining of the graces of those who are now in heaven; who bless the Lord for the faith of Abraham, and the zeal of David, and the meekness of Moses, and the patience of Job, and the courage of Joshua, etc.
Ah, Christians! as you would stir up others to exalt the God of grace, look to the exercise and improvement of your graces. When poor servants shall live in a family, and see the faith of a master, and the love of a master, and the wisdom of a master, and the patience of a master, and the humility of a master, etc., shining like so many stars of heaven—oh how does it draw forth their hearts to bless the Lord, that ever they came into such a family! It is not a mere profession of religion—but the exercise and improvement of grace, which contributes so much to the lifting up the glory of the Lord, and to the greatening of his praise in the world. Many saints have had their hearts warmed and heated by sitting by other saints' fires, by eyeing and dwelling upon other saints graces. Ah! when men's graces shine as Moses his face did, when their lives, as one speaks of Joseph's life, is a very heaven, sparkling with variety of virtues, as with so many bright stars; ah! how are others stirred up to glorify God, and to cry out—These are Christians indeed! These are an honor to their God, a crown to their Christ, and a credit to their gospel. Oh! if they were all such, we would become Christians too. It is a very great stumbling-block to many poor sinners, to see men who make a very great and large profession of Christ, never to exercise and show forth the virtues or graces of Christ. They profess they know him, and yet by the non-exercise of his virtues—they deny him.
It was one of Machiavel's principles, that the external appearance of virtue was only to be sought. I am afraid that this cursed soul-damning principle is the best flower that grows in many men's gardens in these days. Though there is no virtue but is as a bright stone in a dark night, it shines and shows its clearness and beauty; it is as pure gold, the brighter for passing through the fire; yet how do most covet rather the name of virtue, than to be really virtuous! Such, I believe, shall have the hottest and the lowest place in hell. [There is not a more cruel creature, more impatient and vindictive, than a hypocrite, says Luther, who had the experience of it; therefore trust not to the Machiavels of the times.] Well, Christians, remember this, it is not a mere show of grace—but the exercise of grace—which will provoke others to glorify the fountain of grace.
That is a very remarkable scripture, 1 Thes. 1:2-3, 8, compared, "We give thanks to God always for you, making mention of you in our prayers; remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God, and our Father. For from you sounded out the word of the Lord, not only in Macedonia and Achaia—but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad." In this eighth verse you have an elegant metaphor, which signifies, that their faith was so lively, that with its sound, as it were, it stirred up other nations. The Greek word is to sound as with the sound of a trumpet, to make to sound afar off. Says the apostle, your graces made a noise like a trumpet; they stirred up others to be gracious and active, as the trumpet stirs up men to war.
So in 2 Thes. 1:3-4, "We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. Therefore, among God's churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring." This is the character of the angelical nature, to rejoice in the graces and gracious actings of others. He who acts otherwise holds forth the image of the devil, and declares himself a native of hell. [Pliny tells of some in the remote parts of India, that they have no mouths. We have many such monsters among us—who have no mouths to bless God for the good that shines in others.]
[3.] Thirdly, Consider that the exercise and improvement of grace, may be a special means to stir up the exercise of grace in others.
Your improvement of grace may be a special means to stir up others to improve their graces also. 1 Thes. 1:7, "You became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia." Or as the Greek is, "you were types, moulds," patterns of piety to those who were in Christ long before you. So in 2 Cor. 9:2, "For I know your eagerness to help, and I have been boasting about it to the Macedonians, telling them that since last year you in Achaia were ready to give; and your enthusiasm has stirred most of them to action." I knew you were eager, and this I boasted of; I made it my glory to tell how grace shined in your souls. "And," says he, "your enthusiasm has stirred most of them to action." When they saw how warm and lively, and active, how open-handed and open-hearted you were to the poor saints—their hearts were stirred up to acts of charity also. Stories speak of some who could not sleep when they thought of the trophies of other worthies who went before them. The highest examples are very quickening and provoking. [Precepts may instruct—but examples do persuade.]
That this may stick upon your souls, I beseech you bed and board, rise and walk with this one consideration, namely—that all the good you provoke others to by counsel or example, shall be put down to your account. It shall certainly turn to your internal and eternal advantage. In the great day, Christ will make honorable mention of all the good that you have stirred and provoked others to, and will reward you for it before angels and men. The faith, the love, the hope, the charity, the patience, etc., that you have provoked others to, shall be put down to your account, as if you had been the only actor of them, etc.
As all the sins which men provoke or stir up others to by their counsel or example, shall be put down to their accounts, as you may see in David. David did but send a letter concerning the death of Uriah, and yet the charge comes, "You have slain Uriah with the sword," 2 Sam. 12:9. As whatever is done by letter, counsel, or example, to provoke others to sin, shall certainly be charged upon men's accounts at last; just so, whatever good you stir up others to, that shall be set upon your score, and shall turn to your eternal account in the day of Christ. Oh! who would not then labor with all their might, even day and night, to stir up the grace of the Lord in themselves and others, seeing it shall turn to such a glorious account in that day wherein Christ shall say to his Father, "Lo, here am I, and the children that you have given me," etc. [They shall shine as so many suns in heaven, who are much in stirring and provoking of others to the exercise of grace and holiness, Dan. 12:3, 6:1-2.]
[4.] Fourthly, consider this, the exercise and improvement of grace, contributes very much both to the stopping the mouths of your enemies, and to the rendering of you lovely in the very eyes of your enemies. Oh! there is nothing in all the world that contributes so much to the stopping of the mouths of your enemies, and to the rendering of your souls lovely in the eyes of your enemies, as the exercise and improvement of your graces. As you may see in David, David improved his grace to a glorious height, and says Saul, "You are more righteous than I," 1 Sam. 24:17. John improved his grace to a glorious height, and was much in the exercise of it, and what follows? "Herod feared and reverenced him, knowing that he was a just and a holy man," Mark 6:20.
Oh! how did the wisdom, faith, and holiness of Joseph, Daniel, and the three children, silence their most enraged adversaries! yes, what a deal of honor did the exercise of their graces cause those heathen princes to put upon them? [So what a deal of respect and honor did Alexander the Great put upon Judas the high priest; Theodosius upon Ambrose; and Constantine upon Paphnutius, kissing that eye of his that was bored out for the cause of Christ, etc.] 1 Peter 2:15, "For so is the will of God, that by well-doing you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men." It is not all the talking and profession in the world that can stop the mouths of foolish men; it must be well-doings, grace improved, grace exercised and manifested in ways of holiness—which must work so great a wonder as to stop the mouths of wicked men.
The Greek word that is here translated well-doing, denotes the continual custom of well-doing. And indeed, nothing but a continual course of well-doing will be able to stop the mouths of wicked people. It is not a fit of holiness—but a course of holiness—which can produce so great a miracle as to stop the mouths of wicked men: "That you might stop the mouths of ungodly men."
The Greek is, "that you may muzzle," or, "halter up." There is no way in the world to button, muzzle, or halter up the mouths of wicked men—but by the exercise of your graces in ways of well-doing. Oh! this will cause you to be well thought of, and well spoken of; this is that which will make even wicked men to say, "These are Christians indeed! these are those who have not only a name to live—but are alive; who have not only a form of godliness—but the power!" A Christian's exercise of faith in times of need, and of patience in times of affliction, and of courage in times of temptation, and of boldness in times of opposition, etc., does mightily silence and stop the mouths of the worst of men.
Henry the Second of France, being present at the martyrdom of a certain tailor burnt by him for his piety, was so terrified by beholding the wisdom, courage, faith, and constancy of the martyr, that he swore at his going away, "that he would never be any more present at such a martyrdom."
[5.] Fifthly, Dwell much upon the sweet nature of grace—if you would have your souls carried out to the exercise and improvement of grace.
The name of grace and the nature of grace is very sweet. The Hebrew word that is rendered grace signifies favor and mercy; and it answers to the Greek word that signifies favor and mercy; and some derive the Greek word from a word that signifies joy, because grace begets the greatest joy and sweetness in the hearts of men, that possibly can be. Grace is a panoply against all troubles—and a paradise of all pleasures.
Grace is compared to the sweetest things; to sweet spices, to wine and milk. Grace is a beam of the Sun of righteousness, the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace is a sweet flower of paradise, a spark of glory, etc. It is nourished and maintained by that sweet word, which is sweeter than the honey or the honey-comb, and by sweet union and communion with the Father and the Son. [Cant. 4:10, 14, 16, 6:2; Isaiah 55:1-2; Psalm 119:103; 1 John 1:3-4.] Grace is exercised about the sweetest objects, namely—God, Christ, promises, and future glory. Grace sweetens all your services and duties. Your best religious performances are but stinking sacrifices—if they are not attended with the exercise of grace. Grace is that heavenly salt which makes all our services savory and sweet in the nostrils of God.
Grace is of the greatest and sweetest use to the soul; it is an anchor at sea, and a shield at land; it is a staff to uphold the soul, and a sword to defend the soul; it is bread to strengthen the soul, and wine to cheer the soul; it is medicine to cure all diseases, and a plaster to heal all wounds, and a cordial to strengthen the soul under all faintings, etc. Grace is your eye to see for Christ, your ear to hear for Christ, your head to design for Christ, your tongue to speak for Christ, your hand to do for Christ, and your feet to walk with Christ.
Grace makes men of the harshest, sourest, crabbedest natures, to be of a sweet, lovely, amiable, pleasing temper, Isaiah 11:7-9. It turns lions into lambs, wolves into sheep, monsters into men, and men into angels, as you may see in Manasseh, Paul, Mary Magdalene, Zaccheus, and others. Yet sometimes grace, in a rugged unhewn nature, is like a gold ring on a leprous hand, or a diamond set in iron, or a jewel in a swine's snout, etc.
[6.] Sixthly, By way of motive, consider this, that wicked men do exercise and improve to the uttermost, all those principles of wickedness that are in them—against the ways of God, the honor of God, and the comforts of the saints.
Now shall wicked men improve all their principles to the uttermost against God, his truth, and saints, etc.; and shall not saints improve their graces to the honor of God, the advancement of truth, and the joy and benefit one of another? You may see the activity of wicked men's spirits in Proverbs 4:16, "They sleep not unless they have done mischief, and their sleep is taken away, unless they cause some to fall." Oh, they cannot rest! "The wicked are like the troubled sea," as Isaiah speaks, "when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt," Isaiah 57:20, 21. [The Hebrew word signifies properly a laborious sinner, a practitioner in sin. The verb signifies to make a stir, to be exceeding busy, unquiet, or troublesome, etc.]
So in 2 Pet. 2:14, "Having eyes full of adultery, that cannot cease from sin, beguiling unstable souls." A heart they have, exercised with covetous practices; cursed children—they break all promises and covenants with God and man, as Samson did the new ropes. So in Proverbs 19:19, "A man of great wrath shall suffer punishment, for if you deliver him—yet you must do it again." The Hebrew word signifies to add. Says he, You must add deliverance to deliverance, for he will still be a-adding sin to sin. Ahab, after he was threatened with utter rooting out, begat fifty sons, as it were, to cross God, and to battle it out with him. Let God thunder in his judgments—yet he will add sin to sin, he will proceed from evil to evil, until he comes to the very top of evil, namely, to be hardened in sin, and to scoff at holiness, etc., Jer. 9:3.
The old Italians were accustomed, in time of thunder, to ring their loudest bells, to drown the noise of the heavens. So let God thunder from heaven—yet wicked men will so increase their wicked principles, that their consciences may not hear the noise of the thunder-claps of divine displeasure. [Witness Ahab, Haman, Jehu, Jeroboam, the fool in the Gospel, and those in Mat. 23:14-16.] The covetous man will increase his earthly principles, and the ambitious man will increase his ambitious principles, and the voluptuous man will increase his voluptuous principles, and the unchaste man will increase his unclean principles, and the erroneous man will increase his erroneous principles, and the blasphemous man will increase his blasphemous principles, etc. Ah sirs! shall wicked men thus increase their wicked principles to the uttermost against God, Christ, and piety, and against the prosperity, peace, joy, and happiness of the saints? And shall not saints improve their graces to the uttermost for the honor of the Lord, the advancement of religion, and the mutual profit and benefit of each other?
[7.] Seventhly, The more high and excellent any man is in grace—the more highly he shall be exalted in glory. Oh! therefore, exercise your grace, improve your grace. As you would be high in heaven, labor to improve your graces much while you are here on earth; for glory will be given out at last, according to the exercise and improvement of your grace.
The more high and improved a man's graces are—the more that man will do for God; and the more any man does for God—the more at last shall he receive from God: 1 Cor. 15:58, "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be you steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord." So Gal. 6:7, seq., "He who sows sparingly shall reap sparingly; but he who sows liberally shall reap liberally." [Darius, before he came to the kingdom, received a garment as a gift from Syloson; and when he became king, he rewarded Syloson with the command of his country.]
The more any man has improved his grace—the more that man will be able to bear and suffer for God; and the more any man bears and suffers for God, the more glory shall that man have at last from God: Mat. 5:11-12, "Blessed are you when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake; rejoice and be exceeding glad," or "leap and dance for joy, leap and skip for joy," etc. Why so? "For great is your reward in heaven!" God is a liberal paymaster, and no small payments can fall from so great and so gracious a hand as his.
The more excellent any man is in grace—the more he is the delight of God. Psalm 16:2-3, "My goodness extends not to you—but to the saints who are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight." Now this is spoken in the person of Christ, for the apostle applies these words to Christ, Acts. 2:25. Now says Christ, "My goodness reaches not to you," O Father! "but to the saints, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight." And doubtless, those who are his greatest delight on earth—shall be possessed of the greatest glory in heaven. If fathers give the greatest portions to those children in whom they delight, why should not Christ? Is it equity in the one, and iniquity in the other? Surely not. Christ may do with his own as he pleases. [The father delights in all his children—yet sometimes he delights more in one than in another, etc.]
Again, the more any man improves his grace—the clearer, sweeter, fuller, and richer is his enjoyments of God here. There is no man in all the world who has such enjoyments of God, as that man has that most improves his graces. It is not he who knows most, nor him who hears most, nor yet he who talks most—but he who exercises grace most—who has most communion with God, who has the clearest visions of God, who has the sweetest discoveries and manifestations of God. Now certainly if those who improve their graces most, have most of God here, then without controversy, they shall have most of God hereafter. A man may as well plead for equal degrees of grace in this world—as for equal degrees of glory in the other world.
Again, if those who are most graceless and wicked shall be most tormented—then certainly those who are most gracious shall be most exalted in the day of Christ. The more wicked any man is, the more shall he be tormented in the day of vengeance: "Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you shall receive the greater damnation," Mat. 23:14, Luke 12:47-48. The darkest, the lowest, the hottest place in hell is provided for you; therefore it soundly follows, that those who are most gracious—shall at last be most glorious.
And thus much for the motives that tend to provoke all the precious sons of Zion, to make a thorough improvement of the gifts and graces that the Lord has bestowed upon them.
I shall now come to the resolution of a weighty question,
and so conclude this point, which I have been the longer upon, by reason of
its very great usefulness in these days, wherein men strive to exercise
anything, yes, everything—but grace and holiness, etc.
Now this question is this: When may a soul be said to be excellent in grace—or to have highly improved grace?
Now to this question I shall give these following answers:
[1.] First, A soul that is high and excellent in grace, that has improved his graces to a considerable height, will keep humble and unspotted under great outward enjoyments. It is said of Daniel, that he had "an excellent spirit;" and herein did his excellent spirit appear—in that he was holy and humble in heart, though high in place and worth, etc., Dan. 6:3-7. Daniel keeps humble and holy when he is lifted high, yes, made the second man in the kingdom. Malice itself could not find anything against him—except "in connection with the requirements of his religion." [Many are seemingly good until they come to be great, and then they prove stark nothing.] It is much to be very gracious when a man is very great—and to be high in holiness when advanced to high places. Usually men's pride rises with their outward good. Certainly, they are worthy ones, and shall walk with Christ in white, whose garments are not defiled with greatness or riches, etc., Rev. 3:4.
[2.] Secondly, Those who have highly improved their graces, will comply with those commands of God which cross nature, which are contrary to nature. And doubtless that man has improved his graces to a very high rate, whose heart complies with those commands of God which are cross and contrary to his nature; as for a man to love those who loathe him, to bless those who curse him, to pray for those who persecute him, etc., Mat. 5:44. It is nothing to love those who love us, and to speak well of those who speak well of us; and to do well, and behave well towards those who behave well towards us. Oh—but for a man to love those who hate him, to be courteous to those who are currish to him, to be sweet to those who are bitter to him, etc., this strongly demonstrates a high improvement of grace. [They use to say, If any man would have Mr. Foxe do him a good turn, let him do him an injury.]
Certainly that man is very, very godly, who has learned that holy lesson of "overcoming evil with good," Romans 12:21. Such a one was Stephen, Acts 7:55, 60. He was a man full of the Holy Spirit, that is, of the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit; he was much in the exercise of grace, he can pray and sigh for them, yes, even weep tears of blood for them—who rejoiced to shed his blood. So did Christ weep over Jerusalem. Christ shed tears for those who were to shed his blood.
So Abraham "being strong in faith gave glory to God," Romans 4:20. How? Why, by complying with those commands of God that were contrary to flesh and blood, as the offering up of his son, his only son, his beloved son, his son of the promise; and by leaving his own country, and his near and dear relations, upon a word of command. The commands of God so change the whole man and make him new, that you can hardly know him to be the same man. Well, sirs, remember this—it is a dangerous thing to neglect one of God's commands, though it be ever so cross to flesh and blood; who by another of his commands, is able to command you into nothing or into hell. "Let Luther hate me, and in his wrath call me a devil a thousand times —yet I will love him, and acknowledge him to be a most precious servant of God," says Calvin.
[3.] Thirdly, Consider this, such souls will follow the Lord fully, who have made an improvement of their graces. Oh, this was the glorious commendations of Caleb and Joshua in Numb. 14:24, that they "followed the Lord fully," in the face of all difficulties and discouragements. "They had another spirit in them," says the text, they would go up and possess the land; though the walls were as high as heaven, and the sons of Anak were there, they made no more of it than to go, see, and conquer.
"They followed the Lord fully." In the Hebrew it is, "They fulfilled after me." The Hebrew word is a metaphor taken from a ship under sail, that is carried with a strong wind, as fearing neither sands, nor rocks, nor shelves, etc. Such have little if anything of Christ within—who follow him by halves or haltingly.
Cyprian brings in the devil triumphing over Christ thus: "As for my followers, I never died for them as Christ did for his; I never promised them so great reward as Christ has done to his; and yet I have more followers than he, and they do more for me than his do for him."
[4.] Fourthly, Such souls that have improved their graces to a considerable height, will bless God as well when he frowns—as when he smiles.
As well when he takes as when he gives—when he strikes as when he strokes—as you may see by comparing these scriptures together. [Job 1:21; Lev. 10:3; 2 Sam. 15:25-26; Isaiah 63:14-15.] When the Lord had stripped Job of all, and had set him naked upon the ash-heap, then says Job, "The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, and blessed be the name of the Lord." Where grace is improved to a considerable height—it will work a soul to sit down satisfied with the naked enjoyment of God, without other things: John 14:8, "Show us the Father, and it suffices us." The sight of the Father, without honors; the sight of the Father, without riches; the sight of the Father, without men's favour—will suffice the soul. As Jacob said, "It is enough that Joseph is alive;" so says the soul that is high in grace, It is enough that Jesus is alive, etc.
[5.] Fifthly, Souls that have improved their graces to a considerable height, will be good in bad times and in bad places.
Such souls will bear up against the stream of evil examples, in the worst of times and in the worst of places. [Though the fish live in the salt sea—yet they are fresh. So though souls eminently gracious live among the wicked—yet they retain their spiritualness, freshness, and life.] Abraham was righteous in Chaldea; Lot was just in Sodom; Daniel holy in Babylon; Job upright and fearing God in the land of Uz, which was a profane and most abominable superstitious place; Nehemiah zealous in Damascus. Oh, give me a man who has improved his grace, and the worse the times are—the better that man will be; he will bear up bravely against the stream of evil examples, he will be very good when times and all round about him are very bad.
Some say that roses grow the sweeter when they are planted by garlic. Truly, Christians that have gloriously improved their graces are like those roses—they grow sweeter and sweeter, holier and holier, by wicked men. The best diamonds shine most in the dark, and so do the best Christians shine most in the worst times.
[6.] Sixthly, Such turn their principles into practice. They turn their speculations into power, their notions into spirit, their glorious inside into a golden outside, Psalm 45:13.
[7.] Seventhly, Such as have made a considerable improvement of their gifts and graces, have hearts as large as their heads; whereas most men's heads have outgrown their hearts, etc.
[8.] Eighthly, Such are always most busied about the highest things, namely, God, Christ, heaven, etc., Philip. 3; 2 Tim. 4:8; 2 Cor. 4:18; Romans 8:18.
[9.] Ninthly, Such are always a-doing or receiving good. As Christ went up and down doing good, Mat. 4:23; chapter 9:35; Mark 6:6.
[10.] Tenthly and lastly, Such will mourn for wicked men's sins, as well as their own. Oh the tears, the sighs, the groans, that others' sins fetch from these men's heart! Iambus wept when he saw a harlot dressed with much care and cost, partly to see one take so much pains to go to hell, and partly because he had not been so careful to please God, as she had been to please a wanton lover, Jer. 9:1-2; 2 Pet. 2:7-9.
I have at this time only given you some short hints, whereby you may know whether you have made any considerable improvement of that grace the Lord has given you. I do intend, by divine permission, in a convenient time, to declare much more of this to the world. I shall follow all what has been said with my prayers, that it may help on your internal and eternal welfare.