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The Nature and Kinds of Sins of Infirmity.
The Second Sermon on this Subject.
MATTH, xxvi. 41.
and explain the nature of sins of infirmity; and to consider the most material points, which might either fall within the subject or relate to it: and, that I might do this in some order and method, I proposed to throw the substance of what I intended into three general heads, which were these :
I. To consider what kind of sins are properly sins of infirmity. II. To inquire how our spiritual state and condition are affected
thereby. III. To shew what kind of management on our own part may
be prudent or proper in regard to them. Upon the first of these heads, I found myself obliged to be so distinct, large, and particular, that I had no room left for prosecuting the other two. I considered of what importance it might be to us, to distinguish carefully and accurately between sins of infirmity and presumptuous sins : and therefore made it my business to shew, by what marks and tokens we may readily distinguish one from the other : and I endeavoured, further, to illustrate the several cases, as they came to be mentioned, by chosen and pertinent examples taken out of the Old or New Testament. The sum of what I advanced was, that the essence, or distinguishing character, of a sin of infirmity was this: that it is a violation of some law of God, and in some degree wilful, but in a much greater degree weak and pitiable. It must be in some measure voluntary, to make it sin: and it must be in a much greater measure involuntary, to make it a frailty. Even the best of men have their defects, their failings, and infirmities, and do not always stand upright. They have either some flaw in their natural temper, or some weakness in their judgment, which betrays them often into slight mistakes, and almost innocent slips in life, while they retain a very honest and good heart. They lean perhaps a little too much toward the world, and their affections are not altogether so raised and heavenly as they might be or should be. They sometimes find desertion of spirit, coldness in devotion, and flatness in holy exercises: they are too anxious, fretful, and desponding, in the day of adversity; or too gay and too much alert in the day of their prosperity. Besides this, they are liable to sleepiness, forgetfulness, surprise, and inadvertency; either through the hurry and confusion of outward accidents, or through some inward disorder, or indisposition of the blood and spirits: so that sometimes they come short of their known duty, and sometimes they exceed and go beyond it; not observing the due medium, the golden mean between the two extremes. The slips or deviations of this kind are what Divines call sins of infirmity: and such I described at large under my first head, and in my former discourse. I proceed now secondly, as I proposed,
II. To inquire how far our spiritual state and condition are affected by the sins of this kind. They do not exclude a man from the kingdom of heaven: they do not put him out of a state of grace, or out of favour with Almighty God. This may be proved several ways, both from Scripture texts, and from the reason of the thing itself.
1. There are two or three special texts of Scripture, which number up and recite such particular sins, as will most certainly, if not repented of, exclude the offenders from the kingdom of heaven.
One is in the sixth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, and runs thus : “ Know ye not that the unrighteous “shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived:
“ neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effemi.
nate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor “covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall “ inherit the kingdom of Goda.” To the same purpose speaks the same Apostle in the Epistle to the Galatians : “ Now the “ works of the flesh are manifest, which are these ; adultery,
fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, “ hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, “ envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of “ the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time “ past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the “ kingdom of God b.” Now, if we carefully look into this black catalogue of sins which exclude a man from heaven, we shall find them all to be of the wilful, presumptuous kind, and not sins of infirmity. They are all sins of a crying, provoking nature, whereof the injustice and wickedness, with respect to God and man, is palpable: and they are such as men do not commit merely through inadvertency, incogitancy, or surprise, but knowingly, wilfully, presumptuously, against the light of reason and revelation, and against the clearest dictates of their own consciences.
Of the same kind also are the sins of omission which our blessed Saviour recites or points to, where he is describing the sentence which shall pass upon the ungodly at the last day. “Then “ shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me,
ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his “ angels : for I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I
was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and
ye took me not in : naked, and ye clothed me not : sick, and “ in prison, and ye visited me not c." All these instances are notorious breaches of the great law of mercy and charity, and such as a man cannot be guilty of without knowing that he is 80, and designing to be so. To deny one's bread to the hungry, or drink to the thirsty, or clothes to the naked, is inhuman and cruel; and is such a sin as a man is not led into by inadvertency, or frailty, or surprise, but by hard-heartedness, selfishness, covetousness, and other vile affections. The like may be said of a man's refusing to visit the sick, to comfort the afflicted, or to do the common offices of humanity and courtesy to all men.
1 Cor. vi. 9, 10.
b Gal. v. 19, 20, 21.
c Matth. XXV. 41, 42, 43.
The neglect of such great and plain duties as these cannot be extenuated into a sin of infirmity; but it is a wilful, presumptuous, and highly culpable neglect, if it be at all.
The conclusion therefore which I am aiming at from all is this : that sins of mere infirmity are not the sins which either St. Paul or our blessed Lord refer to, as excluding men from the kingdom of heaven: they are quite of another kind from those now mentioned ; and therefore they do not exclude the person from a state of grace, but are consistent with the love of God and the love of one's neighbour, and so are not mortal or damning sins. They are the spots of God's children, such as the best of men are not entirely free from, though they are not imputed to them. In many things we offend all,” says St. James, chap. iii. verse the 2d. He could not mean this of wilful, presumptuous sins; for of such St. John tells us, that " he that " committeth sin is of the devild;" and that " whosoever is “ born of God doth not commit sin." Righteous and good men do abstain consequently from wilful, presumptuous sins; otherwise they would not be righteous, or would cease to be so for the time: but still they are guilty of many slips, failings, and imperfections; and it is in this sense only that “ we offend all.” We read of Zacharias and his wife Elisabeth, that “ they were “ both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments " and ordinances of the Lord blameless :” and yet that very Zacharias was found faulty, in not believing the message which an angel brought him; and he was struck dumb, by way of punishment for his unbeliefe. That is, as to any grievous, presumptuous sins, the man was blameless; but yet he was not altogether or absolutely free from blame : for he was guilty of sin in not believing the angel, but it was a sin of the slighter kind, a sin of infirmity, which he was led into by the surprise and suddenness of the thing, while his heart was sincere, and his intentions honest and upright. There is no man free from these slighter sins, called sins of infirmity; and if God should be extreme to mark them, and to impute them to us, no flesh could be saved. But the Gospel covenant is a covenant of grace, which makes allowances for human frailties, and does not charge them upon us as crimes that shall make a breach between God and us. Though we both live and die with these infirmities about us, and with these sins hanging upon us, we may still die in his favour, and be admitted into heaven.
di John iii. 8, 9.
e Luke i. 6, 20.
Indeed, the Gospel rule is a most perfect rule, requiring and enjoining every virtue, and every degree of virtue ; and to fall short of it in any instance, with any degree of wilfulness, is a sin : but then the Gospel covenant is so mild and merciful, as not to exact any such perfect, unsinning obedience of us, under pain of damnation : neither doth God expect it of us, that we should be entirely innocent of all offences whatever. He is a merciful and gracious God, knows whereof we are made, and remembers that we are but dust.
So long as our hearts are upright, and we use our best, though weak and imperfect endeavours to please him, he is so good as to accept it of us, and to pass by the rest. If we have but a prevailing and constant love of God in our hearts, abstaining from wilful, presumptuous offences, (which are inconsistent with such love,) God is graciously pleased to receive us as innocent, and to accept us as righteous. It is not every slight deviation from our duty, nor every failure in point of perfection, that can separate God and us, while our hearts are whole with him. A wise or good man will not break with his friend for every offence, for a hasty word, for a slight affront or disrespect, for some indiscretion in conduct or frowardness of temper, for some remissness or tardiness in good offices, or some neglects and failures in service : “but for upbraiding or pride,
or disclosing of secrets, or a treacherous wound, (as the Wise “ Man observes,) every friend will depart f.” The reason is plain : some kind of offences, of a slight nature, are very consistent with true and hearty affection, and are therefore no breaches of love or friendship : but others betray such an alienation of affections, or such intolerable negligence as to what the laws of friendship require, that it is highly imprudent or impracticable to keep up any friendly correspondence longer. In like manner, (to compare great things with small, our peace or friendship with Almighty God may very well consist with many indiscretions on our part, many slips and failings, whereby we come short of sinless perfection : but if we offend of malicious wickedness, if we knowingly, designedly, presumptuously transgress against him, then, and then only, is our peace with him broken, and the alliance dissolved ; dissolved I mean for a time, or till
f Ecclus. xxii. 22.