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From whence it may be observed, in general, that sin is a debt. As it is contrary to the holiness of God, it is a stain and blemish, a dishonour and reproach to us; as it is a violation of his law it is a crime; and, as to what respects the guilt which we contract hereby, it is called a debt; which is the principal thing considered in this petition. There was a debt of obedience demanded from us as creatures: and, in case of the failure hereof, or any other sin committed by us, there was a threatening denounced, pursuant to the sanction of the law, from whence arises a debt of punishment; and in this respect it is that we are directed, more especially, in this petition, to pray for forgiveness. There are several things which respect the nature of forgiveness, as founded on the satisfaction given by Christ, as our Surety which have been largely insisted on under some foregoing answers *: Therefore, the method we shall observe, in considering the subjectmatter of this petition, shall be,
I. To take a view of sinful man as charged with guilt, and rendered uneasy under a sense thereof.
II. How he is to address himself to God by faith and prayer for forgiveness. And,
III. The encouragement which he has to hope that his prayer will be answered. Under which head we shall take occasion to consider how far that disposition which we have to forgive others, is an evidence hereof.
I. Concerning the charge of guilt upon us, and that uneasiness which is the consequence thereof. Here we consider the sinner as apprehended and standing before God, the Judge of all; an accusation brought in against him, in which he is charged with apostacy and rebellion against his rightful Lord and Sovereign, and, as the consequence thereof, his nature is vitiated and depraved, his heart deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; from whence proceed all actual transgressions, with their respective aggravations, which, according to the tenor of the law of God, deserve his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come t. And this charge is made good against him by such convincing evidence, that he must be very much unacquainted with himself, and a stranger to the law of God, if he does not see it: But if we suppose him stupid, and persisting in his own vindication, through the blindness of his mind, and hardness of his heart, and ready to say with Ephraim, In all my labours they shall find none iniquity in me, that were sin, Hos. xii. 8. yet the charge will, notwithstanding, appear to be just, and every mouth shall be stopped, and they are forced to confess themselves guilty before God: Sec Quest. CLIȚ
See vol. II. 289-290 and vol. III. 72..
Upon this, conscience is awakened, and trembles at the thoughts of falling into the hands of an absolute God, who appears no otherwise to him than as a consuming fire; his terrors set themselves in array against him, and this cannot but fill him with the greatest anguish, especially because there is no method which he can find out, to free himself from that misery, which he dreads as the consequence thereof.
If he pretends to extenuate his crimes, it will not avail him; and if his own conscience does not come in as a witness against him, as having been a party concerned in the rebellion, it is an argument that it is rendered stupid by a continuance therein: Nothing that it can allege in its own vindication, will be regarded in the court of heaven, but rather tend to add weight to the guilt he has contracted; for the omniscience of God will bring an unanswerable charge against him, as being a transgressor of his law, and thereby liable to condemnation, upon which, vindictive justice will demand satisfaction.
If he makes an overture to pay the debt, he must either yield sinless obedience, which is impossible, from the nature of the thing; or bear the stroke of justice, and suffer the pu nishment that is due to him, which, if he is content to do, he knows not what it is to fall into the hands of the living God, or to be plunged into an abyss of endless misery. If he thinks that he shall be secure by flying from justice, this would be a vain attempt, since God is omnipresent; and there is no darkness or shadow of death, where the workers of iniquity' may hide themselves, Job xxxiv. 52.
Nothing therefore remains, but that he make supplication to his Judge, that he would pass by the crimes he has committed, without demanding satisfaction: But this is to desire, that he would act contrary to the holiness of his nature; which would be such a blemish on his perfections, that he is obliged to reject: What is this but to relinquish his throne, deny his sovereignty, and act contrary to his own law, which is the rule of his government, whereby sinners will take occasion to transgress, expecting that they may do this with impunity?
But, is there no intercessor that will plead his cause, or appear for him in the court of heaven? this cannot be done but by one who is able to make an atonement, and thereby secure the glory of divine justice, by having the debt transferred or placed to his account, and giving a full satisfaction for it; but this belongs to none but our Lord Jesus Christ, who has obtained redemption and forgiveness through his blood; and none can take encouragement from hence, but he that addresses himself to God by faith, which we are now considering the sinner as destitute of, and therefore the charge of guilt remains upon him. And it is certain, that the consequence
hereof is such, as will tend to fill him with the greatest uneasiness under the burthen that lies on his conscience, which has a perpetual dread of the execution of the sentence that is in force against him. This wounds his spirits; and it is impossible for any one to apply healing medicines, but by directing him according to the prescription contained in the gospel, to seek forgiveness in that way in which God applies it, in and through a Mediator.
II. We are now to consider, how a person is to address himself to God by faith and prayer for forgiveness, which is the principal thing designed in this petition. Here it is to be acknowledged, that when we draw nigh to God, it is with a sense of guilt, and, it may be, with great distress of conscience, arising from it; yet it differs very much from what was observed under the last head, when we considered a sinner as standing before an absolute God, without any hope of obtaining forgiveness, since that cannot but fill him with dread and horror; whereas, this is an expedient for his obtaining a settled peace of conscience; and, indeed, there is nothing of greater importance, than our performing this duty in a right manner. And, in order thereunto, let it be considered,
1. That when we pray for forgiveness of sin it is supposed, that none can bestow this blessing upon us but God. No one has a right to forgive an offence, but he against whom it is committed: This will appear, if we consider sin as a neglect or refusal to pay a debt of obedience, which is due from us, tó God, and consequently it would be an invading his right, for any one who had no power to demand it, to pretend to give a discharge to the sinner as an insolvent debtor: This would be to act like the person mentioned in the parable, who was appointed indeed, to receive his lord's debts, but not to cancel them; and therefore, our Saviour calls him an unjust steward; and he is said to have wasted his lord's goods, by compounding the debts which were owing to him without his order, Luke xvi. 1. & seq. Now, since obedience, as it is a religious duty is due to God alone; it is only he that can give a discharge to those who have not performed it: and since it belongs to him as a judge and law-giver, to punish offenders, it would be the highest affront to him for a creature to pretend to this prerogative; and therefore God appropriates it to himself, when he says, I even I am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, Isa. xliii. 25. which expression is to be understood of him exclusive of all others; accordingly, when the Jews charge our Saviour with blasphemy on his forgiving sins, and say, Who can forgive sins but God only? the proposition was true, how false soever the inference, which VOL, IV. SG
they deduce from thence to disprove his Deity, might be. We shall now consider,
2. That all ought to pray for forgiveness, and in what sense this is to be done,
(1.) All ought to pray for forgiveness: One would think, that this is so evident, and agreeable to the condition of fallen man, as well as founded on many scriptures, and expressly commanded in this petition, which we are explaining, that it is needless to give a farther proof of it; but this we are obliged to do, inasmuch as some have asserted that a justified person ought not to pray for pardon of sin, since this is what is already done: This is an inference from what they advance, who plead for actual justification from eternity; and therefore it is, as they suppose, equally absurd for such an one to pray, that God would forgive him, as it is to pray that he would choose them to eternal life, or that Christ would satisfy divine justice for the sins of his people, which he has already done. It is, indeed, not very easy to understand what some persons mean, when they insist on this subject, inasmuch as they lay down propositions, without sufficiently explaining them; and whatever they allege in their vindication, that they intend nothing else hereby but what is agreeable to the sentiments of the reformed churches, it is certain, that they advance several things, or, at least, make use of such unguarded expressions as are altogether disowned by them; and, at the same time, give occasion to some, to run into the contrary extreme, who, for fear of being thought to assert eternal justification, deny the eternal purpose of God relating thereunto.
But whatever they intend when they say, that a justified person ought not to pray for pardon of sin; the contrary to this is sufficiently evident from scripture. For every believer is a justified person; therefore, if we have any instance of believers praying for the pardon of sin, this sufficiently confutes that absurd notion which we are opposing. Now that many have prayed for pardon of sin, who have, at the same time, been true believers, is evident, from David's praying for the pardon of sin, as he often does: Thus he says, in Psal. xxv. 11. For thy name's sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity, for it is great; and yet, at the same time, he expresses himself like a justified person; 0 my God, I trust in thee, ver. 2. and ver. 5. Thou art the God of my salvation: And, in Psal. cxliii. 2. he prays, Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for in thy sight shall no man living be justified; yet, at the same time, he appears to be a believer; for he speaks, in ver. 8. of his trusting in, and lifting up his soul to God, and fleeing to him, that he would hide him, ver. 9. which are all acts of justifying faith; and, in Psal. li. 1. he prays, Have mercy upon me, O God, ac
cording to thy loving-kindness; according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions; and, in ver. 9. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities: Whereas he had an intimation before from God, that he had pardoned his sin, 2 Sam. xii. 13. which, as appears by the preface to this Psalm, was the occasion of its composure; so that the Spirit of God hereby put words into his mouth, and taught him, notwithstanding the assurance he had from him of his having obtained forgiveness, to pray for it: And the apostle Paul was in a justified state, when he expressed his earnest desire of being found in Christ, not having his own righteousness, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith, Phil. iii. 9. This might also be ar gued from all those scriptures, that represent believers as pray. ing for salvation, which cannot be done without praying for forgiveness of sin, as being inseparably connected therewith. I shall therefore add no more concerning the obligation which all are under, to pray for the pardon of sin, but proceed to consider,
(2.) In what sense we are to pray for it. This may, without much difficulty, be determined, if we rightly state the doctrine of justification, which, if it be considered as an immanent act in God, or the eternal purpose of his will, not to impute sin, which is what divines call decretive justification, it is to be allowed, that this is no more to be prayed for than eternal election; neither are we to pray, that Christ may be constituted the Head and Surety of his elect, or, that he might finish transgressions, make an end of sin, and bring in an everlasting righteousness, for that is already done. But, inasmuch as the scripture often speaks of justification as consisting in the applica tion of Christ's righteousness, or that right we have to lay claim to it, which is styled justification by faith, and is the only foundation on which we build our hope, that we have an interest in what Christ did and suffered, and are thereby discharged from guilt and condemnation. This cannot be before we believe; and in this sense we pray that God would justify us: Now since forgiveness of sin is a branch of justification, it is, in this sense that we pray for the pardon of sin. And this includes in it,
[1.] An earnest desire that God would not lay those sins to our charge that we daily commit; or, that he would not, as the Psalmist says, enter into judgment with us, Psal. cxliii. 2. And, as the consequence hereof, we pray, that God would not punish us as our iniquities deserve. This is to pray for the application of Christ's righteousness as the ground and foundation of our claim to forgiveness.