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1. A sinner's delaying repentance and amendment is an act of great imprudence, and such as men are not ordinarily guilty of in other matters.
It is, I say, great imprudence to delay to reform; because it is a thing of the utmost importance, upon which depends our everlasting concerns, our happiness or misery in another state. Is not the condition of an habitual sinner extremely hazardous? Every one must own, that whilst a man is in any evil course, allowed of and indulged, he is under the displeasure of God. And if he die in that state and course, he is miserable beyond redress. The only way of averting the displeasure of God, and of escaping future misery, is that of sincere repentance. And how imprudent must it be to defer that a moment? Should not every discreet and thoughtful person desire to be in a safe condition, rather than in a state of great danger?
Should we not then be all ready to embrace the pardoning mercy of God, now offered to us, by confessing and forsaking our sins, as he requires? He will, then," receive us graciously, and love us freely," Hos. xiv. 2, 4.
2. We ought seriously to consider the shortness and uncertainty of life. Can it be reasonable to defer a thing which we own ought to be done, when we are not certain that we shall have another opportunity of doing it? For we cannot depend upon tomorrow, not knowing what the present day may bring forth. All do not arrive at old age, or any other of the advanced periods of life. Numberless are the dangers to which we are exposed. And the strongest and most healthy may be taken off by sudden accidents.
Suppose death to make gradual approaches. Yet we are not certain what pains, what indispositions they are, that shall bring on the dissolution of soul and body. They may be such as shall immediately and utterly unqualify us for settling any of our affairs relating to this life, or making any preparations for another. How inconvenient then, how unsafe, how unwise must it be, to defer this important concern to a distant, unknown, and uncertain futurity!
3. You defer repenting and giving up yourself to God for the present, in hopes of doing so hereafter. But repentance will be more unlikely hereafter than now.
There cannot, I apprehend, be any reason to think it should be more likely in some future time, than the present. But there are many reasons to suppose the contrary.
You are not sure of having such calls to repentance as you now have, even supposing the continuance of life. You now enjoy means of virtue and holiness: and earnest and frequent calls and invitations are made to you. But it may not be always so. Your worldly affairs may place you in some other situation, where the like means are not to be had, which are now afforded you. Or, if the principles of religion do not now make a deep and abiding impression upon your minds, you may be prevailed upon by some worldly considerations, to forsake and abandon the ordinances of divine worship, and all the usual means of awakening, reforming, and reclaiming sinners. For these, and other the like reasons the scripture speaks of "an accepted: time," and a "day of salvation," Is. xlix. 8, which it is of importance to improve, and very dangerous to neglect, 2 Cor. vi. 2.
If the ordinary means of holiness and salvation are continued, what reason is there to think that you should be at any time hereafter better disposed to improve them than you are now? Is there not rather a great deal of reason to fear, lest the heart should contract some hardness by a long continuance in sin? And if reasonable and forcible arguments do not now sway and prevail, they will be so far from influencing more hereafter, that they will affect much less than at present. Besides, by delaying and deferring you contract a habit of delaying, and do it with less remorse. Your first put-offs and excuses, perhaps, are not made without a good deal of uneasiness: and you are almost ashamed, or even confounded, when you make them: and your heart afterwards smites you for it. But having time after time excused and deferred compliance with the reasonable demands that have been made of you, you become more assured and confident; and such demands åre for the future put off with little or no scruple, or concern of mind.
Moreover, it is a vain thing to imagine, that you may outlive temptations; and that the time may come, when there shall be no longer any impediments or obstructions of repentance and amendment. For there always will be temptations, suited to every age of life, which will have a powerful influence upon those who are not fully devoted to God, and have not attained to the government of their passions. If sensual pleasure be a bait that seduces and ensnares
men in the early days of life, riches, and honour, and preferment are as taking with men of worldly minds, in the more advanced, and the very latest periods of life.
4. Late repentance, supposing it to be sincere and available and accepted of God, must be very bitter and sorrowful.
It cannot be otherwise. For you will have little or nothing to comfort you. And you will have a great number, and a long course of transgressions and neglects, to reflect upon with grief and concern. It will be very grievous to recollect many instances of ingratitude to God, who has been very good and gracious to you, who would not think of him, or pay a just regard to his reasonable and holy laws and commandments. You will then, severely blame and condemn yourselves for acting contrary to conviction, and for refusing to hearken to former pressing and friendly calls and invitations. You will be filled with the utmost concern to think how you have multiplied transgressions, and persisted therein: thereby offending God, and perhaps grieving men, whose comfort and happiness should have been dear to you. And it is well "if you have not also the sad and bitter reflection to make, that by your sins, some of them more especially, you have been the means of misleading some of your fellow-creatures, and causing them to fall and miscarry.
5. But late repentance is seldom sincere.
I do not say that it is never sincere; but there is too much reason to think it is seldom so. The confessions and lamentations of men in sickness, and in visible danger of death, appear rather forced and unavoidable, than free and voluntary. And very often, when the danger is over, and health and safety are restored, and the temptations of life return with their usual force, men shew their repentance was not unfeigned and effectual, by returning to their former evil courses, and by being again entangled and overcome by this world, and the snares of it, as before.
6. Consequently, late repentance must be very uncomfortable.
For though it should be sincere, and accepted of God, you cannot ordinarily have a full and satisfactory persuasion of it in your minds. Some hope, possibly, you may entertain: but it will be weak and languid: somewhat between hope and despair, a sad mixture of doubt and fear, whether this late humiliation will be accepted or not. And forasmuch as you have not now an opportunity of approving to yourselves, or others, the truth of your repentance by future acts of steady obedience, and that in time of temptation you must go out of the world without that assured hope and expectation of a better life, and the heavenly happiness, which is very desirable and necessary to give peace in the hour of death.
These considerations shew the folly and danger of delaying repentance."
II. I would now consider the pleas and excuses which some make for delaying to reform, and their objections against immediate compliance with the commands of God, and against forming a present resolution to be immediately religious.
1. Some think with themselves, and are apt to plead, that a life of strict virtue and serious religion is unpleasant, sad and melancholy: depriving men of the pleasures and entertainments of life, and of much worldly gain and profit, which they might otherwise make.
To this I answer two things.
1.) Allowing the truth of all this, it is not a good and reasonable ground of deferring to be really good and virtuous, and securing the happiness of a future life: because things earthly and temporal are not to be compared with things heavenly and eternal. These last are greatly superior and preferable in real excellence, just value, and length of duration. And therefore, if the possessions and enjoyments of this world are inconsistent and incompatible with heavenly treasures and enjoyments, they may be reasonably quitted and resigned for the sake of these. If both were proposed and set before us: but one, certainly, without the other: there could be no doubt or hesitation which should be chosen and preferred. Let the path of virtue be ever so thorny, strait, and difficult, if it lead to eternal life, we should resolve to enter on it, and persist in it. The reward at the end will crown all our labours, and make full recompense for all our self-denial and patience.
2.) But, secondly, this is not altogether true. Men have no reason to be shy of the paths of virtue, as sad, gloomy, and melancholy. Many are the testimonies, which wise and good men,
• If any find this sermon too long for a single reading, here is a proper pause.
who have made trial, have borne in favour of virtue and real goodness. Solomon recommending" to men true wisdom, and the ways she prescribes and teaches, says, "Length of days is in her right hand, and in her left hand riches and honour. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace," Prov. iii. 16, 17.
Put the case of the most prosperous sinner, and the most afflicted saint, and compare them together. The former will scarce have the advantage, as to this present life.
It should not be overlooked, nor forgotten, that religion does not deprive men of any of the innocent enjoyments of life, or of any lawful gain and worldly advantage. In the way of virtue many good men find a large share of these things. And whatever they possess, they enjoy it without the sting of guilty reflections, and the remorse of unrighteousness and oppression. And if at any time, in the course of things, they are called to resign any earthly advantages; their religious principles and virtuous dispositions enable them to do it without regret, and support them under such losses.
It must be obvious to all, that the end of such is preferable to that of other men, which is a thing of no small moment. This the Psalmist speaks of with the fullest assurance, and calls upon all men to take notice of it: "Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace," Ps. xxxvii. 37.
They have also many comforts in the way. They have a delightful communion with God in devout exercises of the mind, in prayer and praise, performed in a spiritual manner, accompanied with humility, gratitude, trust in the divine care and providence, and resignation to his will. They have pleasure in the persuasion of the divine approbation and acceptance, and the hope of a fuller participation of his likeness, and everlasting felicity in his presence. And do you not think the fellowship of saints may be as comfortable as that of sinners? or that the conversation of wise and virtuous men is as pleasing, yea, more delightful and entertaining, as well as more edifying, than the society of the wicked and profane, or those who have no sense of religion, and mind the affairs of this world only?
Moreover, the way of virtue will grow more and more easy, pleasant and delightful: and that especially, as virtuous habits strengthen and improve. This well deserves the observation of those, who are discouraged by disadvantageous apprehensions concerning the way of obedience to God's commandments.
Once more, religion, and conformity to its rules and precepts, afford support and comfort under the troubles and afflictions of this life, from which none are exempted: as David says at ver. 165 of this psalm: "Great peace have they that love thy law. And nothing shall offend
Upon the whole then, good men, who live in the fear of God all their days, who are upright and conscientious, serious, and truly religious, being conscious of their integrity, and persuaded of the divine favour, and having hopes of a future recompense, have much comfort both in life, and in death: and their way and their condition are preferable to those of other men.
2. Another plea and excuse made by some is to this purpose: we do not intend by any means to persist in sin always: we fully purpose and hope to repent of, and forsake it, before we die. And we have such persuasion of the grace and mercy of God that we believe he will accept of and pardon us, though it be ever so late.
But this plea has been considered and confuted already, in a great measure, under the first head, where we shewed the uncertainty and unlikelihood of repentance, proposed to be made some time hereafter, and consequently the folly and danger of deferring it, and neglecting the present opportunity. With regard to the other part of this plea, the ground of delaying, here insisted upon, "the grace and mercy of God,” I now observe these following things.
1.) That this way of arguing is extremely disingenuous. Because God is good and merciful, even to sinners, when they return to him, you encourage yourself in an evil way, and presume to try the utmost of divine patience and mercy: and, as it were, resolve, at the least, that you will allow yourselves, for a long course of time, to multiply transgressions of his laws, and offences against him. Nor do you think of forsaking those ways that are contrary to his will, and displeasing to him, till near the end of life: when health and strength will be impaired by age, or sickness, or accidents: and you are as unfit for the service of God, as of man, and the enjoyments of life have lost all their relish. Is not this very disingenuous? a thought unworthy of a rational being?
2.) With regard to the extent of the divine mercy, and the hope of sharing in it upon the latest repentance, several things may be observed.
The mercy of God is certainly very great. Nor does it become us to set limits to it. It may be extended to some very late, if sincere penitents. We dare not deny, that whensoever sinners forsake the evil of their ways and their doings, he will have mercy upon them, accept them, and pardon them. Nevertheless none are in more danger of being excluded, than those who in the early days of life are favoured with frequent and earnest calls and invitations, and withstand them. And there are in scripture some declarations and threatenings, which are very awful and affecting. You know, that a peremptory sentence passed upon the whole congregation of the people of Israel, who often repeated their transgressions. "Because," said the Lord, "all those men, which have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt, and in the wilderness, and have tempted me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to my voice: surely they shall not see the land which I promised unto their fathers," Numb. xiv. 22, 23. Which event is improved both by the Psalmist, and the Apostle in the epistle to the Hebrews, as a warning to men, not to provoke the Divine Being by long delays, and repeated acts of disobedience, and to improve the present opportunity, saying: "To day, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation," Ps. xcv. 7, 8. Heb. iii. and iv. And men are directed by one of the prophets, in this manner: "Seek the Lord, while he may be found. Call ye upon him, while he is near," Is. lv. 6. And very moving are the warnings and expostulations of Wisdom in the book of Proverbs, "How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity, —and fools hate knowledge-Because I have called, and ye refused: I have stretched out my hands, but no man regarded: but ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity, and will mock, when your fear cometh. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer. They shall seek me early;" that is, when distresses and calamities have befallen them; "but they shall not find me. For that they hated. knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord," Prov. i. 23-29.
As for the repentance and acceptance of the penitent thief, we do not know when he repented. The crime, for which he suffered, may have been committed by him, and repented of, some while before. Supposing his repentance to be very late, and very sudden, on the day of his death only: his case is altogether singular, on account of his suffering with Jesus. You know, likewise, that the other malefactor repented not, even then. Moreover the penitent gave extraordinary proofs of the sincerity of his repentance: under the pains of crucifixion acknowledging the justice of the punishment he underwent, professing faith in Jesus, and praying to him, in the time of his lowest abasement, when almost all the world rejected him, and the disciples themselves failed, through the weakness of their faith. Above all it should be considered, that there is a great difference between his case and theirs who live under the gospel dispensation. He had not in early life such instructions, such warnings, such calls and invitations, as you have had.
The parable of the labourers hired into the vineyard at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours of the day, does not relate to the ages of man's life: but rather represents the dispensations of Divine Providence in the several ages of the world. They who were hired at the eleventh hour are the Gentiles, who had been long without the benefit of revelation. Therefore when asked, "Why stand ye here all the day idle?" they say, "because no man hath hired us, Matt. xx. 1-16. which shews, that the doctrine of this parable cannot countenance delays in things of religion; or encourage those to expect particular calls and invitations in old age, who have been favoured with such advantages, and neglected them, in the time of their youth.
3. Once more: some may say, we are backward now, in the time of our youth, and the early days of life, to enter upon the ways of religion and virtue, because we fear we shall not persevere. And if we should finally fall away, our guilt would be increased.
To which I answer: you are in the right to be sensible of your own weakness, and the difficulties of a religious course of life. For there are difficulties therein. It is a great undertaking, and should be entered upon with mature consideration. Nevertheless, you have no good reason to defer, or hesitate in your choice. If you are serious and sincere in the undertaking, your progress and perseverance may be reckoned very likely and hopeful.
They who set out in the way of religion with a mixture of worldly views and expectations, well fall away, if “tribulation, or persecution, ariseth because of the word," Matt. xiii. 21.
But they who have a true principle of virtue will hold out to the end. "They went out from us," says St. John, "but they were not of us. For if they had been of us, no doubt they would But they went out, that they might be made manifest, that they were
have continued with us.
Observe the history of the Old and New Testament. And I presume, you will scarce find any instances of total apostacy in men who were once sincerely good, but many examples of early and persevering piety. Abraham immediately obeyed the call of God, and went out, not knowing whither he went. And he continued to give frequent proofs of a strong and lively faith. Isaac and Jacob walked with God all their days. Joseph was an example of early and constant virtue, both in prosperity and adversity. Moses, as soon as he came to years" of discretion, "refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter: choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin, which are but for a season," Heb. xi. 23-26. Nor did he ever repent of that choice. Samuel was early dedicated to God, and was eminent for wisdom and piety all his days to old age. Of Obadiah, chief minister to king Ahab, we are informed that he "feared the Lord greatly," 1 Kings xviii. 3. And we know also, that he "feared the Lord from his youth," ver. 12. I might mention Daniel, the three young men his companions, who persevered, notwithstanding great trials: and others, enrolled in the catalogue of worthies, in the epistle to the Hebrews, and elsewhere: famous not for one act of faith only, however eminent and distinguished, but for a course of steady virtue and obedience.
If in the New Testament we meet with some who believed and followed Jesus for a time, and afterwards" went back, and walked no more with him," John vi. 66, it appears evidently, that they went not upon a good foundation at the beginning; but came to Christ with worldly views and expectations. And if it be said of Simon Magus, that he "believed," Acts viii. 13, we know that he never was sincere: "his heart was not right in the sight of God," ver. 21. At the same time, there were churches, or societies of men, the greater part of which were faithful, and persevered under many difficulties and discouragements. The apostles of Christ were for the most part, from the beginning, plain, honest, upright men. And when he called them, they obeyed without delay. And though they had their failings, only one was lost. The rest would not go away: and were, upon the whole, and to the end, an honour to him, and their profession: being persuaded that he "had the words of eternal life," John vi. 68.
You have no reason, therefore, to be disheartened. By taking heed to God's word, the young may cleanse their way," Ps. cxix. and always keep themselves pure from the pollutions of an evil world. With the use of the appointed means, the spiritual life, once begun, will be maintained. And if you watch and pray, as Christ has directed, you shall be preserved from great temptations, or shall be victorious therein.
III. Let me now propose to you some motives and arguments, inducing to early piety, and immediate compliance with the gracious calls of God.
1. The whole of our time ought to be employed in the service of God. Nor can we in any part of life knowingly and willingly transgress any of God's commandments without contracting guilt. We ought therefore, as soon as we are arrived at any maturity of reason and understanding, to give up ourselves to God, determining to obey all his laws, and to decline every evil thing. And if we are sensible of any acts of disobedience, already done, they should be repented of, and every sin forsaken. The reason of things teaches this.
2. The word of God teaches the same. Addresses are there made to the young, as well as to others. The Jewish people were commanded to "teach their children diligently" the divine laws that had been delivered to them. The design of Solomon in his collection of wise maxims was to "give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and understanding," Prov. i. 4. And children are to be "trained up in the way they should go," ch. xxii. 6. How just is that admonition!" Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them," Ecc. xii. 1. And, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might. For there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave whither thou goest," ch. ix. 10.
All which shews, that we do not satisfy the law of God, nor answer the end of our being, by some acts of religion near the end of life: but we ought to be truly religious, and serve God all