by Thomas Boston
O thou that hearest prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come. - PSALM 65:2
WHAT avails prayer, if it be not heard? But God's people need not lay it aside on that score. Our text bears two things with respect to that matter.
1. A comfortable title ascribed to God, with the unanimous consent of all the sons of Zion, who are all praying persons, "O thou that hearest prayer." He speaks to God in Zion, or Zion's God, that is, in New Testament language, to God in Christ. An absolute God thundereth on sinners from Sinai, there can be no comfortable intercourse betwixt God and them, by the law; but in Zion from the mercy-seat in Christ, he is the hearer of prayer; they give in their supplications, and he graciously hears them. Such faith of it they have, that praise waits there for the prayer-hearing God.
2. The effect of the savour of this title of God, spread abroad in the world, "Unto thee shall all flesh come;" not only Jews, but Gentiles. The poor Gentiles, who have long in vain implored the aid of their idols, hearing and believing that God is the hearer of prayer, will flock to him, and present their petitions. They will throng in about his door; where by the gospel they understand beggars are so well served. They will "come in even unto thee," (Heb.) They will come in even to thy seat, thy throne of grace, even unto thee thyself, through the Mediator.
The doctrine I chiefly propose speaking to, is,
DOCTRINE, God in Christ is the hearer of prayer.
In handling this doctrine, I shall shew,
I. Wherein God's hearing of prayer lies.
II. The import of his being the hearer of prayer.
III. What prayers they are that God hears.
IV. More particularly consider the hearing and answering of prayer.
V. Lastly, Apply.
1. I am to shew wherein God's hearing of prayer lies. God being omniscient and every where present, there can nothing be said or done in the world, but he hears or discerns it. But the hearing of prayer in the sense of the scripture is a peculiar privilege of the Lord's people, and lies in the following things.
1. God's accepting of one's prayer, Psalm 141:2, "Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening-sacrifice. Many prayers are said in the world, that are so far from being accepted of God, that they are an abomination to him, Prov. 28:9. God turns them away from him, as one flings a petition over the bar, that he is displeased with, Psalm 66 ult. But the prayers that he hears, he is well pleased with them, he approves of them. Hence he is said to attend, hearken to the voice, and consider prayer, as one listens to a sound that pleases him, and dwells on a pleasing thought, Psalm 66:19, "Verily God hath heard me; he hath attended to the voice of my prayer." He delights in the petition, Prov. 15:8, "The prayer of the upright is his delight." He loves to hear the petitioner's voice, Cant. 2:14, "Let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice." He accepts the petitioner's person, and his petition too, as the angel said unto Lot, Gen. 19:21, "See I have accepted thee concerning this thing also, that I will not overthrow this city, for the which thou hast spoken." For where prayer is heard, the person is accepted too, as Gen. 4:4, "The Lord had respect unto Abel, and to his offering; Job 42:9, "The Lord also accepted Job."
2. His granting the request, Psalm 20:1, 4, "The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble;—grant thee according to thine own heart, and fulfil all thy counsel." The sinner coming to God with a petition, lays it before him, and his desire is granted. God wills it to be unto him accordingly, Matth 15:28, "O woman," said Christ to the woman of Canaan, "great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt." The mercy prayed for is ordered for the sinner, in kind or equivalent. Thus prayer is heard in heaven, heard and granted.
3. His answering of prayer, Psalm 102:2, "In the day when I call answer me speedily." This is more than granting the request, being a giving unto the petitioner's hand what is desired. It is an answer not in word to the believer's faith only, but in deed to the believer's sense and feeling. Thus Hannah prayed for a child, and she got one; Paul prayed for the removal of a temptation, and he got grace sufficient to bear him out against it. Thus prayer heard in heaven comes back like the dove with the olive-branch of peace in her mouth.
II. I shall shew the import of God's being the hearer of prayer. These comfortable truths are imported in it.
1. God in Christ is accessible to poor sinners, 2 Cor. 5:19, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them." Though he sits on the throne of glory, and we are guilty before him; yet he is on a throne of grace, so as we may have access to him with our supplications. The flaming sword of justice guards the tree of life, on the side of the law; so that on that part our God is a consuming fire, which sinners are not able to dwell with; yet behold him in Christ, and through the vail of his flesh he is accessible to the worst of sinners.
2. He is a sin-pardoning God, Exod. 34:6, 7, "And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin." Prayer is made particularly for the pardon of sin; the daily cry at the throne is, "Forgive us our debts." If then he is the hearer of prayer, he is a sin-pardoning God. We cannot pay our debt, but God can forgive it, and will forgive it to all that come to him in Christ for forgiveness. All kinds of sin he forgives freely, Micah 7:18; Isa. 1:18. There is no exception, but of the sin against the Holy Ghost, which in its own nature makes the guilty refuse pardon, Matth. 12:31. The pardon is proclaimed in the gospel, Acts 13:38; not to encourage presumption in any, but to prevent despondency in all, Psalm 130:4, "There is forgiveness with thee; that thou mayest be feared."
3. He is an all-sufficient God, Gen. 17:1, "l am the Almighty God, (Heb.) "All sufficient." He is self-sufficient for himself, and all-sufficient for his creatures. If he were not so, he could not be the hearer of prayer; the needs of praying persons would soon exhaust his treasure. But though all flesh come to him for supply of their various wants, he is the hearer of prayer; he has enough for them all, to answer all their needs, come as oft as they will. He is a fountain of goodness, that never runs dry, but is ever full.
4. He is a bountiful and compassionate God, Psalm 86:5, "Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee." He is willing and ready to communicate of his goodness and mercy to poor sinners for the supply of all their needs. He is more ready to give, than we to ask; we are not straitened in him, for he is the hearer of prayer; but in our own bowels. He has laid down a method, how we are to ask; and in that method, it is ask and have, James 1:5, 6, 7, "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering; for he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind, and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord." The faith of this is necessary to acceptable prayer, Heb. 11:6. "For he that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him."
5. He is an omnipresent and omniscient God, Psalm 139:7, "Whither shall I go from thy Spirit; or whither shall I flee from thy presence?" Heb. 4:13, "Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight; but all things are naked, and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do." How else could he be the hearer of prayer? What part of the world soever the petitioner is in, whether he prays with the voice or with the heart only, God is the hearer of prayer. Idolaters might choose high places to worship their idols in; but it is all one to the hearer of prayer, whether the petitioner be on the top of the highest mountain, or as low as the centre of the earth. Jonah was heard out of the whale's belly. Though thousands of voices be going in prayer to the throne at the same time, the infinite mind comprehends them all, and every one, as easily as if there were but one at once.
6, Lastly, He is a God of infinite power, Rev. 4:8, "They rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty."—While there is such a variety of cases, that the creatures have to lay before him in prayer, he could not be the hearer of prayer, if there were anything too hard for him to do. But nothing is impossible with him; he calleth things that are not to be as if they were, at the voice of prayer.
III. I proceed to show what prayers they are that God hears. It is not every prayer, nor every one's prayer that God hears. But it is the prayers of his children, for things agreeable to his will, made by the assistance of his Spirit, and offered through Christ.
1. They are the prayers of his own children, who are justified by faith, and reconciled to him, James 5:16, "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much." Our Lord teaching how to pray, teaches as to call God "our Father;" which can be only through faith. Our persons must be accepted in justification, ere any work of ours can be so. Where there is no peace betwixt God and the sinner, what communion can be there? Amos 3:3, "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" The scripture is plain, "God heareth not sinners," John 9:31. God's way of giving graciously, is to give other things with Christ, Rom. 8:32, "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" It is in the covenant only that one can have a bottom for acceptance of his prayers.
OBJECTION. Then it is in vain for any to pray, but true believers. ANSW. There is less evil in praying by an unbeliever, than in his omitting it; and consequently less punishment will be. But going to pray, go to Christ by faith, and so your prayer shall be accepted; and no otherwise.
2. They are such prayers of theirs as are for things agreeable to God's will, 1 John 5:14, "This is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us." Even in saints there are remains of a corrupt will, and so it is not left to them to pray for what they please; not what is the choice of their corruption, but what is the choice of their grace. When James and John would have prayed for fire from heaven to consume the Samaritans, Christ rebuked them, and said, "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of," Luke 9:54, 55. Elias did it, but they might not, not having his spirit.
3. They are prayers made by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, hence called "inwrought," (Gr.) Jam. 5:16. No language is acceptable in heaven, but what is learned from thence. It is not the art of payer, but the Spirit of prayer, that is pleasing in the sight of God. The former may be reached by God's enemies, whose false heart may vent itself by a flattering tongue, as Israel did, Psalm 78:36, 37, "Nevertheless, they did flatter him with their mouth, and they lied unto him with their tongues. For their heart was not right with him, neither were they stedfast in his covenant." The latter is the peculiar privilege of God's children, yet common to them all; Gal. 4:6, "Because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father."
4. Lastly, They are prayers offered to God through Christ the Mediator, the soul trusting on his merit and intercession alone for the hearing of them, Dan. 9:17, "Now therefore, our God, hear the prayer of thy servant, and his supplications, and cause thy face to shine upon thy sanctuary that is desolate, for the Lord's sake." John 14:14, "If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it." Christ is the altar on which our spiritual sacrifices can be accepted; and it is not consistent with the honour of God, to hear the prayers of sinners otherwise.
The doctrine being thus explained in the general, I come in the next place more particularly,
1. To confirm it, and shew that there is such a thing as hearing of prayer, the privilege of the Lord's people in this lower world.
2. To shew in what manner the Lord hears prayer.
FIRST, I am to confirm it, and shew that there is such a thing as hearing of prayer, the privilege of the Lord's people in this lower world, God is in heaven, they are on the earth; voices from heaven, or angel-messengers to report the acceptance of prayers there, are not to be expected. Nevertheless we are sure there is such a thing still in being, and it is necessary to prove it.
1. For the sake of a profane generation, who, as they are strangers to, so they are despisers of, communion with God.
2. For the sake of formalists, who go about the duty of prayer as a task, but are in no concern for the fruit of it; send away the messenger, but look for no report.
3. For the sake of discouraged Christians who go bowed down, because they cannot perceive it as they desire.
That God is the hearer of prayer, and will hear the prayers of his people, is evident from these considerations.
First, The supernatural instinct of praying that is found in all that are born of God, Gal. 4:6, forecited. It is as natural for them to pray to fall a praying when the grace of God has touched their hearts, as for children when they are born into the world to cry, or to desire the breasts; Zech. 12:10, "I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace and of supplications." Compared with Acts 9:11, where, in the account that is given of Paul, at his conversion, it is particularly noticed, "Behold he prayeth." Hence the whole saving change on a soul comes under the character of this instinct; Jer. 3:4, 19, "Wilt thou not from this time cry unto me, My Father, thou art the guide of my youth? I said, Thou shalt call me, My Father, and shalt not turn away from me." This supernatural instinct being the work of God in the new nature, cannot be in vain. Accordingly it is determined; Isa. 45:19, "I said not unto the seed of Jacob, Seek ye me in vain." But it would be a vain appetite, if it were not to be satisfied by hearing.
Secondly, The intercession of Christ; Rom. 8:34, "It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us." It is a great part of the work of Christ's intercession, to present the prayers of his people before his Father, Rev. 8:4, to take their causes in hand contained in their supplications, 1 John 2:1. So we find him interceding for his church of old in her low condition, Zech. 1, and in the New Testament, John 17. He is ever at the work, and cannot neglect it, Heb. 7:25, and it cannot be without effect; John 11:42, "I knew that thou hearest me always," said Jesus to his Father.
Thirdly, The promises of the covenant, whereby God's faithfulness is impawned for the hearing of prayer; as Matth. 7:7, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." Isa. 65:24, "And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer, and whiles they are yet speaking, I will hear." Psalm 145:19, "He will fulfil the desire of them that fear him; he also will hear their cry, and will save them." The promise of hearing of prayer, is one of the great lines of the covenant; Hos. 2:20, 21, "I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness, and thou shalt know the Lord. And it shall come to pass in that day, I will hear, saith the Lord, I will hear the heavens," &c.; and it is so proposed with his being his people's God; Zech. 10:6, "I am the Lord their God, and will hear them."
Fourthly, The many encouragements given in the word to the people of God, to come with their cases unto the Lord by prayer. He invites them to his throne of grace with their petitions for supply of their needs; Cant. 2:14, "O my dove that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely." He sends afflictions for to press them to come; Hos. 5 ult, "I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face; in their affliction they will seek me early." He gives them ground of hope of success, Psalm 50:15, whatever extremity their case is brought to; Isa. 41:17, "When the poor and needy seek water and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them." He shews them, that however long he may delay for their trial, yet praying and not fainting shall be successful at length; Luke 18:8, "I tell you that he will avenge them speedily."
Fifthly, The gracious nature of God, with the endearing relations he stands in to his people; Exod. 22:27, "And it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto me, that I will hear; for I am gracious." Matth. 7:9–11, "What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?" He wants not power and ability to fulfil the holy desires of his people; he is gracious, and will withhold no good from them that they really need. He has the bowels of a Father to pity them, the bowels of a mother to her sucking child. He has a most tender sympathy with them in all their afflictions, the touches on them are as on the apple of his eye; and he never refuses them a request, but for their good; Rom. 8:28.
Sixthly, The experiences which the saints of all ages have had of the answer of prayer. The faith of it brings them to God at first in conversion, as the text intimates; and they that believe cannot be disappointed. Abraham, Moses, David's and Job's experiences of this kind are in record, with many others, Paul's, &c. The Psalmist sets up his case as a way-mark to all the travellers to Zion; Psalm 34:6, "This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him; and saved him out of all his troubles." And to this day the saints' experience seals the truth thereof.
Lastly, The present ease and relief that prayer sometimes gives to the saints, while yet the full answer of prayer is not come; Psalm 138:3, "In the day when I cried, thou answeredst me; and strengthenedst me with strength in my soul." The unbosoming of themselves to the Lord in prayer, comforts and strengthens the heart; 1 Sam. 1:18. This is on the faith of the Lord's hearing of prayer; Micah 7:7, "I will look unto the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me."
SECONDLY, I come to shew in what manner the Lord hears prayer. For clearing of this, I lay down the following observations thereon,
FIRST, A thing desired of God may be obtained, and yet the prayer not heard and accepted, as in Israel's case; Psalm 78:29, "So they did eat, and were well filled; for he gave them their own desire." For as it is plain on the one hand, that sinners out of Christ may sometimes obtain a thing they pray for, as in the case of the Ninevites, it is as plain on the other, that no prayer of theirs can be accepted of God, according to John 9:31, "God heareth not sinners." It is one thing to get a thing prayed for, another to get it as an answer of accepted prayer; Psalm 78:34–38. Now this falls out in two cases,
1. When the thing prayed for is given downright in wrath, as it was in the case of the Israelites seeking a king; Hos. 13:11, "I gave thee a king in mine anger." Men often need no more to ruin them, but to get their will; and God may give it them with a vengeance. They get their desire, but it is far from being accepted; for it is in anger it comes to them.
2. When it is given in the way of uncovenanted condescendence. Thus sinners out of Christ may get particular requests of theirs answered, as Ahab; 1 Kings 21:29. For though God does not accept their persons, nor any performance of theirs; yet he may shew regard to his own ordinance of prayer, and therefore make it not fruitless even to them. And thus the Lord does to train sinners to the yielding themselves to him, and to depending on him by faith and prayer; Hos. 11:3, "I taught Ephraim also to go, taking them by their arms."
Answers of accepted prayer come in the way of the covenant of grace, but these in the way of common providence. And they may be discerned by these attending signs.
(1.) Wilfulness and unhumbledness of spirit in asking; 1 Sam. 8:19, "Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay, but we will have a king over us." When one's will is peremptory, and is not brought to a holy submission to God in the matter, but they will wring the mercy out of God's hand, and have it at any rate, whether with or without his good will; be sure that is what comes in the way of common providence only.
(2.) Strengthening and feeding of lusts by them when received, Psalm 78:29, 30. Hence on such receipts men commonly grow worse, and their mercies are short-lived; being greedily snatched off the tree of providence, ere they are ripe, their teeth are set on edge with them, vers. 30, 31.
(3) A frame of spirit, in asking and receiving, not of the mould of the gospel, but of the law; whereby more stress is laid upon our own necessity than on the intercession of Christ; there is much desire of the mercy, but no believing dependence on the Lord for it in the promise as a free promise through Christ; and ordinarily it leaves the heart fixed on the gift, and does not carry it back to the Giver.
Secondly, A prayer may be heard and accepted, and yet the desire of it not granted. That is to say, God may be pleased with, and accept of the prayer as service to him; and yet may see meet not to grant the thing prayed for. Even as a father going to correct one of his children, may be very well pleased with another child of his interposing for sparing, though he may not see it meet to for-bear for all that.
The truth of this is put out of doubt, in the case of Jesus Christ himself, Matth. 26:39, who prayed, saying, "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." Compare, Heb. 5:7, "Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications, with strong crying and tears, unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard, in that he feared." If it was so done with the Head, no wonder it be so with the members too, as David, 2 Chron. 6:8, 9, "But the Lord said to David my father, Forasmuch as it was in thine heart to build an house for my name, thou didst well in that it was in thine heart; notwithstanding, thou shalt not build the house, but thy son which shall come forth out of thy loins, he shall build the house for my name." A thing may be very agreeable to the command of God, to be prayed for, which yet may be otherwise ordered in the holy wise providence of God. It is one thing what he requires of us by his revealed will, another what in his secret will he minds to do, Deut. 29 ult., "The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed, belong unto us, and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law."
Now of prayers accepted and not granted, it is to be observed,
1. They are not absolute and peremptory, but with holy submission to the divine pleasure, as of our Lord's, Matth. 26:39. If we pray absolutely, for what God has not so promised, and such a prayer is not granted, it is not accepted neither. So all that this amounts to is, that God sees meet to refuse what the petitioner did seek, but with submission to his will either to grant or refuse it.
2. Where a prayer is accepted and not granted, there is in the bosom of the denial an unseen greater mercy. Had that cup passed from Christ, where had been the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in the salvation of an elect world, that was wrapt up in the denial of that sinless desire of Christ's holy human nature? Had David's child lived for whom he prayed, he had been a lasting stain on his father's reputation; but God refused David's petition in that, where the refusal was a greater mercy than the granting would have been.
3. Hence that treatment of such prayers is agreeable to the chief scope and aim of the petitioner, which is God's glory and his own good. This is the design of believers in all their accepted prayers, which, being agreeable to the promise, there is no jarring there betwixt God and them. Only, they in this case look on such a thing as they pray for to be the most proper mean for that end; God sees it is not, and therefore refuses it. So all that this amounts to is, as if one should desire one to lead him such a way to such a place; he refuses not to lead him to the place, but he will not lead him that way, but a nearer and better way.
QUESTION. How may I know such prayers of mine to be accepted, when they are not granted?
ANSWER 1. When the heart is brought to submit to the denial as a holy and righteous dispensation; Psalm 22:2, 3, "O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent. But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel." When the sinner from his heart clears the Hearer of prayer, leaving his complaint on his unworthy self, such an effect is an argument of prayer accepted, though not granted.
2. When though the thing be denied, yet divine support under the denial is granted, and made forthcoming, Luke 22:42, 43. Christ having prayed, saying, "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done; there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him." And he was carried through all his sufferings by his Father, so that he was victorious over death itself. Thus often God, denying the petitions of his children, with respect to temptations, troubles, &c., yet testifies his acceptance of their prayers by the supports given under the same; Psalm 138:3, "In the day when I cried," says David, "thou answeredst me; and strengthenedst me with strength in my soul."
3. Lastly, When such a soul is helped to go back to the same God with new petitions in faith and hope of hearing; 2 Sam 12:20, "Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the Lord and worshipped." This argues a faith of the promise of all things working together for good, Rom. 8:28, a leaving a latitude of dispensation to sovereignty, well becoming a submissive and resigned petitioner.
Thirdly, The desire of a prayer may be heard and granted, and yet it may be long ere it be answered. That is to say, all prayers not answered to our sense and feeling, are not lost; they may stand granted in heaven, and yet it may be many a day ere the answer of them come to us. A prayer may be granted, and yet the mercy prayed for be still withheld, so that the petitioner may be obliged to send new petitions day by day for it still.
I shall first confirm this, and then shew why it may be so ordered.
First, To confirm the truth of this, consider,
1. Scripture instances. Abraham prayed for an heir, it was granted, Gen. 15:3, 4, yet it was more than thirteen years before that prayer was answered, in the birth of Isaac., Gen. 17:25. So the Israelites in Egypt, Exod. 2:23, 24; and Daniel, chap. 9:23. Such instances are recorded for our learning.
2. There is a difference betwixt the granting of a petition, and the intimation of that grant to us; betwixt Heaven's order for our getting of the mercy, and the execution of it. The one is the hearing and grant of prayer, the other is the answer; and though these sometimes may come both in one instant, as Matth. 15:28, "Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt; and her daughter was made whole from that very hour;" yet often they are at a great distance of time, as in Abraham's case.
3. The hearing and granting of prayer is an object of faith, the answer of prayer an object of sense and feeling, 1 John 5:14, 15; Matth. 15:28. A prayer made through the assistance of the Spirit, according to the will of God, and offered to God through Christ, is heard and granted in that instant wherein it is made; and this is what we are to believe, on the ground of the faithfulness of God in the promise, before we get the answer to our sense and feeling; for "faith is the substance of things not seen, and we walk by faith not by sight;" and therefore this is the ordinary way to put the grant and answer at some distance of time, though not always, Isa. 65:24.
Secondly, I shall shew why the answers of prayers heard and granted, are kept up for a time, and may be for a long time.
1. To keep the petitioners hanging on about the throne of grace; Prov, 15:8, "The prayer of the upright is his delight." The Lord by this means gives them many errands to the throne, so that they must always be going back again, and renewing their suits. So fathers make their little children follow them, and hang about them, and speak to them as they can; and no father has such delight in the company and converse of his children, as God has in his, Cant. 2:14.
2. For the trial of their graces; Jam. 1:12, "Blessed is the man that endureth temptation; for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him." This life is the time of trial, and God's withholding for a time the answers of granted prayers, is a piece of trial that will go in through and out through the child of God. It tries their sincerity and earnestness for an answer, Job 27:10; with Luke 18:7; their patience and disposition to wait on God, Hab. 2:3; their hope in God, Psalm 147:11; and 42:5; especially it tries their faith in the word of promise, and that is a trial of great estimation in the sight of God; 1 Pet. 1:6, 7, "Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season (if need be) ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations. That the trial of your faith being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise, and houour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ. Every new act of faith in the word, is more valuable than all the famed exploits of carnal, selfish men; especially when faith keeps hold of the promise like a rope in the water, while providence is bringing one wave after another over the man's head, Psalm 56:10. So Matth. 15:21–28.
3. Till they be prepared and fitted for receiving the answer; Psalm 10:17, "Lord, thou hast heard the desire of the humble; thou wilt prepare their heart, thou wilt cause thine ear to hear." Mercies we need, but we are not at all times meet to receive them. God gives his left-hand gifts to strangers, in the way of common providence, whether they be prepared for them or not; and hence many are ruined getting much laid to their hand before they have the grace or wisdom to manage it, for God's honour and their own good. But his right-hand gifts to his children, in the way of the covenant, though they be ready for them, yet he will keep them back till they be made ready and prepared for them too. So he is at pains to humble them, and work them for that thing. Saul was brought to the kingdom easily, but David not so.
4. Lastly, Till the best time come, for their getting it, when it may come to them with the greatest advantage; Eccl. 3:14, "I know that whatsoever God doth, it shall be for ever; nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it; and God doth it, that men should fear before him." There is much in the timing of a favour; the same thing may be worth double to a man at one time, beyond what it will be at another. And be sure, if God is keeping back the answer of a granted prayer, he is only reserving till the best time of bestowing it; John 11:14, 15, and 2:4.
QUEST. How may a Christian know his prayer is heard and granted, while yet it is not answered?
ANSW. 1. If ye have prayed in faith, no doubt your petition is heard and granted, though it should not be answered for ever so long after; Matth. 21:22, "All things whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive." God refuses not, nor rejects any prayer for things agreeable to his will, made in faith of the promise, through the assistance of the Spirit, and offered to him through his Son. And ye ought to believe, that such prayers are granted, but that God for holy wise ends delays the answer.
2. If ye are strengthened to hang on about the Lord's hand for the answer, hoping and waiting for the Lord; Psalm 138:3. It is a certain truth, which ye may build upon; Gal. 6:9, "In due season we shall reap, if we faint not." This is the very character of an elect believer, on his trials for glory; Luke 18:7, "Shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bean long with them?" Granted prayer brings something in hand, namely, grace to wait on; Psalm 27 ult., "Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart; wait I say on the Lord." Compare ver. 13, "I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living."
3. Lastly, It is a good sign when ye are encouraged to wait for the desired answer, by the Lord's answering you in other things that fall out in the meantime of the delay. For the Lord lays these to your hand to support your faith and hope in point of the delayed answer. How was David's faith of the promise of the kingdom kept up, so many years during Saul's reign? Why, David in that time had many experiences of answers of prayer, and fulfilling of promises in other things, as Psalm 34:6, "This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him; and saved him out of all his troubles."
FOURTHLY, Prayers accepted and granted, shall certainly be answered to the believer's sense and feeling at length. The answer may be delayed, but it cannot be forgotten nor miscarried. Such prayers will surely be turned into praise at long-run; and faith will bring in sense and feeling, when it is tried a while.
I shall first confirm the truth of this, and then shew when they shall be so answered to their sense and feeling.
First, To confirm this, consider,
1. The interest the Mediator has in the matter, which secures and puts it beyond doubt. It is upon his merit that the prayer is accepted, on his intercession that it is granted; so that he is nearly concerned in the obtaining of the answer; and then he is the great Steward in heaven, into whose hands the whole fulness of covenant-benefits for sinners' supply is put. How then can it fail, when the mercy petitioned for is lodged in the hand of our Intercessor?
2. The faithfulness of God in his word; Psalm 89:8, "O Lord God of hosts, who is a strong Lord like unto thee? or to thy faithfulness round about thee?" This stands as a rock immoveable in all the changes that befall his people. His word must be accomplished, and his promise fulfilled, whatever stand in the way of it. Heaven and earth shall rather be removed than it fail, or fall a minute behind the set time of its bringing forth; Hab. 2:3, "For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie; though it tarry, wait for it, because it will surely come, it will not tarry."
3. The love and pity God has to his children that cry to him "His ears are open to their cry; Psalm 34:15. He forgets it not; Psalm 9:12. As he is their God, so he will be "a God to them," as the expression is; 1 Chron. 17:24, namely, to do the part of a God to them; that is, to hear and answer their prayers.
4. Lastly, Such prayers are the product of his own Spirit in them; Rom. 8:26. And be sure, the mouths that he opens, he will fill; the holy appetite and desires that he creates in them, he will satisfy.
Secondly, I shall shew when they shall be answered to their sense and feeling. There are two periods in general, wherein God gives answers of prayers accepted and granted. Answers of prayer are given,
1. In time, during the petitioner's life in this world; Psalm 58 ult., "Verily there is a reward for the righteous; verily he is a God that judgeth in the earth." Believers in this life have communion with God, and do get answers of prayer, as provision allowed them of their Father, for their journey through the wilderness. But one may wait a long time of his life for an answer of some prayers, and ere he go off be made to say, "Lord, now lettest then thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation;" Luke 2:29, 30.
Of the seasons of life for answers of prayer, we may say in the general, there are four seasons thereof.
(1.) A time of the Lord's return to a church and people from whom he had hid his face; Psalm 102:16, 17, "When the Lord shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory. He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise their prayer." The children may cry long to their Father, ere he let on he notices them, when he is angry with their mother; but when he is pleased with her, they get speedy answers from him; Dan. 9:1, 2, 23. Times of reformation, and outpouring of the Spirit on a land, are times of answers of prayer to particular persons; which should move us to carry along the public case, with our private cases, as David did; Psalm 51:18, 19, "Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion; build thou the walls of Jerusalem;" &c.
(2.) A time of greatest extremity, when matters are carried to the utmost point of hopelessness; Deut. 32:36, "For the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants; when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left." When God's people are brought to that, they can do no more, then is the special season of God's doing for them; Isa. 41:17, "When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them." When the child was laid by for dead, the well was discovered. When the knife was at Isaac's throat, the answer comes from heaven, "Stay thine hand." A sentence of death is often passed on all probable means, the thing is put as it were in the grave, and the stone sealed; and then comes the resurrection of it; 2 Cor. 1:8–10. Psalm 126:1, "When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream."
(3.) A time of the petitioner's deepest humiliation, when he is beat down from all his heights, and brought as low as the dust of the Lord's feet, as in Job's case; chap. 42:6, 7, &c., and the woman of Canaan's; Matth. 15:27, 28. It is the Lord's way with his children to lay them very low, before he raise them up; to empty them soundly of themselves, before he fill them. They must be made to see their own utter unworthiness, that God is no debtor to them, be wholly resigned to the divine pleasure, and become as a weaned child. And that may cost much hewing; but it is the way they are prepared for mercy; Psalm 10:17.
(4.) Lastly, A time wherein the mercy may come most seasonably for God's honour and their comfort, Gal. 6:9, "In due season we shall reap, if we faint not," The husbandman expects to reap his crop in the harvest, for that is the most proper season. Our God is the best judge of time for this or that purpose, and he does all in judgment, Deut. 32:4. So that the petitioner shall be fully satisfied as to the delay of the answer, and the whole steps of providence in the matter, and be made to sing as Rev. 15:3, saying "Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints.
2. In eternity, when the believing petitioner is got into another world, then will be a season of answers of prayer, Mal. 3:17, 18, "They shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels, and I will spare them as a man spareth his own son that serveth him. Then shall ye return and discern between the righteous and the wicked; between him that serveth God, and him that serveth him not." I do not say, they will pray in another world, but prayers poured out in this world will be answered in another world, partly after death, and fully and completely at the resurrection. For consider,
(1.) There are accepted and granted prayers that are never answered on this side of time; yet they cannot miss to be answered, Psalm 9:18, "For the needy shall not alway be forgotten; the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever." Therefore they are answered in eternity. Such is that prayer of all the children of God, Rom. 7:24, "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death? The complete victory over all their enemies, and being set beyond their reach, which is delayed till the resurrection, 1 Cor. 15:26, "The last enemy that shall be destroyed, is death."
(2.) There are prayers that are answered here in part, but are not fully answered till the petitioner comes into another world. The prayers for the coming of Christ's kingdom are begun to be answered now, but they will not be fully answered till the last day. Petitions for deliverance from temptation, the power of lusts and corruptions, are answered so as an earnest is given, but the full answer is till then in reserve, Rom. 16:20, "The God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly."
(3.) Lastly, All the accepted prayers of those that wait for the Lord, whether for their souls or their bodies, will be at once answered in heaven fully; there the promises will be told out to them for ever in full tale. There are many prayers for deliverance from temptations, trials, and troubles, which God sees not meet to answer now; but they will be all answered at once then, Rev. 21:4, "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall so no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away."
Therefore, let none think that all the prayers are lost that are not answered during this life; for prayers here made in faith, may be delayed as to their answer, till the petitioner come home to his Father's house; and there will be a second crop there of prayers here answered.
QUEST. When an answer of prayer comes, how shall it be known to be an answer of accepted and granted prayer, and not come in the way of common providence?
ANSW. 1. Mercies that come so make the soul more holy, tender, and watchful, whereas others prove snares and fuel to men's lusts, Psalm 6:8, "Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity; for the Lord hath heard the voice of my weeping." Common providence filled the rich man's barns, then said he, "Soul take thine ease."
2. They enlarge the soul in thankfulness to God, Psalm 116:1, 12, "I love the Lord, because he hath heard my voice, and my supplications. What shall I render unto the Lord, for all his benefits towards me?" And they make it to rejoice more in the Giver, than in the gifts, 1 Sam. 2:1, "My heart rejoiceth in the Lord." The signature of God's good will that is upon the mercy, makes it of a great bulk, though it may be a small thing in itself, Gen. 33:10, "I have seen thy face, said Jacob to Esau, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me." Thus coming from God in the way of the covenant, it leads back to God; but others not so.
3. Lastly, They come seasonably, the heart being in some measure prepared for the receipt. Psalm 10:17, when the soul is moulded in a submissive disposition. Exercised souls will be afraid of a mercy coming too soon.
Fifthly, God answers prayer, either by giving the very thing itself asked, or the equivalent of it. As a man may pay his bond, either in money, or money worth. So there are two ways of God's fulfilling his promises, and answering his people's prayers.
1. Sometimes God answers prayer by giving the very thing desired. So he answered Hannah's prayer for a child, and Solomon's prayer for wisdom. And what comes that way will bear much bulk in the eyes of a gracious soul, because of the good will of God that is stamped on it, whereby it is distinguished from what comes in the common road.
And what comes that way, readily comes with a good incast to it, especially if the petitioner has been kept long hanging on for it. Such an incast got Solomon, 2 Chron. 1:12, "Wisdom and knowledge is granted unto thee, and I will give thee riches, and wealth, and honour, such as none of the kings have had, that have been before thee, neither shall there any after thee have the like." They that wait long for their answer, ordinarily get as it were both the stock and interest together. So Abraham and Sarah waited long for the promised seed, even till they were come to extreme old age; and then they got it with a renewing of their age.
2. Sometimes by giving, though not the thing itself, yet the equivalent of it, that which is as good; as one may pay his bond, by giving, though not money, yet what is as good as money. Thus though God did not give David the child's life, yet he gave him a Solomon, a mercy as good and better. Paul, though he got not free of the temptation at his asking, yet he got grace sufficient to bear him up under it, 2 Cor. 12:9.
And God's as-good that he gives his people, will readily be found better, all things considered. That is best which is best for God's honour and our good, and God knows better than we what is most suitable to these purposes. It would have been more easy for Paul, to have been freed from the messenger of Satan; but it was more for God's honour and his spiritual good, to be helped to fight that messenger and overcome.
Learn then, that your prayers may be answered, though ye get not the very thing ye ask. Though God answer you not in kind, if he answer you in kindness, you have no reason to say your prayer is not heard. If he take not off your burden, yet if he gives you support, he hears you, Psalm 138:3. There are two ways how God gives his people as good.
(1.) Sometimes he gives them as good in the same kind: though he gives them not the same temporal mercy they would have had, he gives them another of the same kind as good as it. Though he gave not David the life of the child he asked, he gave him a Solomon. So God reserves to himself the choosing.
(2.) Sometimes he gives them as good in another kind; as not giving them such a temporal mercy, he gives them a spiritual mercy and enjoyment in the room of it; and surely there is no loss there.
QUESTION, How may one know that God answers his prayer, by giving him the as-good.
ANSWER 1. When that which is given answers or serves the purpose as well as the thing desired would have done. David desired the child's life as a token of God's reconciliation with him; but Solomon's birth answered the same purpose, 2 Sam. 12:24, 25. So there was no loss as to the main thing in view.
2. When the heart is brought to rest contented with what is given in the room of what was desired. So Moses was sufficed with a sight of the land from Pisgah, instead of entering into it. When the thing given takes the heart off what is withheld, it is a sign it comes as an answer of prayer by the way of an as-good.
3. When a person is to his own conviction a gainer by the choice God makes for him. Thus the Lord sometimes answers his people's prayers in trouble for deliverance, by giving them manifestations of his love and mercy, which they would not have gotten if the trouble had been removed, Lam. 3:57, "Thou drewest near in the day that I called upon thee; thou saidst, Fear not."
Sixthly, God's answer of prayer sometimes agrees with the expression used in prayer, though not with the preconceived design and desire of the petitioner. There is a special help of the Spirit allowed God's people in prayer, beyond what they have otherwise, Rom. 8:26. Hence going to God on such a particular errand, they are sometimes carried so to express their desire, that the answer agrees exactly to the expression used in the petition, though the petition as expressed doth swerve somewhat from what they intended.
It will therefore be profitable on the receiving an answer of prayer, to compare it with the expression in which the petition was made; and the harmony betwixt them being observed, will set the matter of the answer in a clear light.
Lastly, One mercy may be the answer of the prayers of many.Whether it be a public mercy to a society, or a private mercy to a particular person, it may be given in answer to the prayers of many, and many may take the comfort of that answer. As when the prayers of a congregation are heard, or a mercy is given which many have privately prayed for, though the answer is one, it may belong to many.
QUESTION, How may one know that in such a case there has been any regard had to his prayer for the mercy?
ANSWER 1. If thy heart did join in prayer for the mercy, with others, thy affections being touched with earnest desire of the mercy, thy soul lifted up to depend on the merit and intercession of Christ for the granting it, thou needest not doubt but it is an answer to thy prayer as well as to others, Matth. 18:19, "I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth, as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven."
2. If thou findest thy heart enlarged in thankfulness to God for the mercy when it is obtained, that is another evidence that it is an answer to thy prayer as well as others, 2 Cor. 4:15, "For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might, through the thanksgiving of many, redound to the glory of God." Many a prayer had been put up for the coming of the Messiah; Simeon when he saw him is transported with thankfulness of heart, as having obtained his desire, Luke 2:29.
I shall now shut up this subject with some practical improvement.
USE I. of information. Hence see,
1. How much we poor sinners stand indebted to free grace providing a Saviour for us. We could have had no access with our prayers to an absolute God; justice would have barred our acceptance. So fallen angels have no access to God allowed them; for Christ took not on their nature. But great is our privilege in this point; 1 John 2:1, "For if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
2. The heinousness of the sin of neglecting prayer. A price is put in men's hands to get wisdom, but they have no heart to it. The door of mercy and grace stands open, but they will not come to it; God sits on a throne of grace, ready to answer petitions; but they have none to put in his hand.
3. The impiety and profaneness that is in abusing of prayer, making a scorn of it in ordinary conversation, as "God pity you, help you, bless us, save us," &c. How lamentable is it, that the name of God, and the ordinance of prayer, should be thus prostituted to the lusts of men at every trifle! The day will come, when God's pity, help, &c., which ye make so light of now, will appear more valuable than ten thousand worlds, and ye shall not have them, if ye repent not of that contempt which ye now treat them with.
4. The folly of those who are in no concern for the hearing of their prayers. Surely, they forsake their own mercy. Ye would have little satisfaction in your meat, if it did not feed you; in your clothes, if they did not keep you warm. What satisfaction then can ye have in your praying, if ye cannot find it is heard?
5. Lastly, This shews why serious souls do so much value prayer, and betake themselves thereto in all their straits. Slight it who will, it will not be slighted by those who have experience of the Lord's hearing their prayers, Micah 7:7, "I will look unto the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me." Daniel was such a man; and he would rather venture on the den of lions, than forego his praying to God. The neglect of it, is a sign of unacquaintedness with that.
USE II. Of direction and comfort to the people of God, in all the trials and troubles they meet with in the world. Here is your course ye should take, go to God with your case, whatever it be, and make your prayer to him about it, Phil. 4:6, "Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God." Here is your comfort, God is the hearer of prayer, Isa. 45:19, "I said not unto the seed of Jacob, Seek ye my face in vain." There are four things I would suggest to you here for your direction and comfort.
1. God has made the way to heaven lie through many tribulations, that his children might have the more errands to his throne of grace. That this is the path-road to the kingdom of God, is clear from scripture testimony, Acts 14:22, "we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God; John 16 ult, "In the world ye shall have tribulation;" and the experience of Christ the Head, and the saints in all ages. That this is the design of it, appears also from the word, Hos. 5 ult. "I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face; in their affliction they will seek me early." Prosperity seldom fails to issue in forgetting of God, Deut. 32:15. Adversity causes to feel a need of his help, Zeph. 3:12. So God keeps the thorn of affliction at the breast of his people, to keep them waking, and sends the cross to invite them to the throne of grace.
2. The way to heaven in that respect never alters, though the external circumstances of the church in the world do alter. Sometimes there is persecution in the church, sometimes peace; but in the most peaceable time of the church, God's people shall go through the world to the kingdom through much tribulation. The seed of the serpent will vent their enmity one way or other against the people of God, though they have not law on their side to bear them out in persecuting them. God will have his people tried, and caused to suffer in their bodies, goods, liberty, and life, if not by the hands of persecutors, yet by his own hand one way or other. For that is a perpetual rule, Matth. 16:24, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." Luke 14:26, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." So there is no change, but only as to the means and instruments of trial.
3. Whatever be your trial, whether it be in temporal or spiritual things, ye are welcome to the throne of grace with it, Phil. 4:6, forecited. Whether it come on you immediately from the hand of God, or men, ye may carry it to God by prayer, and pour out your heart before him as a prayer-hearing God, in confidence that he can help you, and will do it in due time.
4. The more trials and afflictions God's people meet with, the more experience readily they will be found to have of God's hearing prayer; Rom. 5:3, 4, "And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also, knowing that tribulation worketh patience, and patience experience; and experience, hope." Of all the patriarchs Jacob had the most trials, and accordingly was richest in experiences. The more battles the Christian soldier is engaged in, the more is he enriched with spoil. The Israelites had not sung that triumphant song recorded Exod. 15, had they not been in that great strait at the Red Sea.
USE last, of exhortation. Then,
1. Improve your privilege of access to God through Christ in prayer. Since God has cast open the gates of mercy, come enter in by them; since he is saying to you, "What is thy petition and it shall be granted thee?" slight not the golden season of petitioning. Consider,
(1.) Your need is great. Whatever ye have or want in temporals, surely ye need a resting place for your conscience and for your heart; you need something to make you happy in time and eternity.
(2.) The whole creation cannot answer your needs. There is an emptiness in every creature, that it cannot be a resting place to you, Isa. 55:2. The soul is of such a make, that no less than an infinite good can satisfy it. Only God in Christ can make you happy.
(3.) He offers to supply all your needs; Psalm 81:10, "I am the Lord thy God; open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it." Ask in faith, and ye shall receive.
(4.) Lastly, This door of access will not always stand open; Matth. 25:10, 11, 12, "And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage, and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not." Now is the accepted time.
2. Be concerned for God's hearing of your prayers; look after them and see what speed they come. There are two things wherein this concern should appear.
(1.) In making your addresses to the throne of grace, being careful so to manage that, as ye may be accepted. They who are rash in their approaches to God, and careless how their petitions are formed and presented, cannot be duly concerned for a hearing of them. Labour, therefore, so to pray, as your prayers may be heard and accepted.
(2.) In depending and waiting on after prayer for an answer; Psalm 5:3, "My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up." Do not drop your suits, but insist for an answer, depending for it on the promise of God in his word.
Thus far of God's hearing of prayer. I shall shut up this with a word to another doctrine for the use of the whole.
DOCTRINE. Such is the glory of God as the hearer of prayer in Christ, that it will make all flesh that discerns it come unto him.
Here I shall shew,
I. What is that glory of God as the hearer of prayer in Christ, that is so attractive.
II. How this glory of God in Christ is discerned by a sinner.
III. What that coming unto God is, that is the effect of discerning that glory.
IV. Lastly, Deduce an inference or two.
I. I am to shew what is that glory of God as the hearer of prayer in Christ, that is so attractive. It is twofold.
1. The glory of his all-sufficiency; Gen. 17:1, "I am God all-sufficient." He is not only all-sufficient for himself, but for his creatures; if he were not so, he could not be the hearer of prayer. But sinners in the darkness of their natural state discern it not; they cannot comprehend what way he can be so, and therefore they traverse the round of the creation, seeking in the creature that sufficiency; till the light of the glory of God's all-sufficiency shine into their hearts in Christ. Then it shines unto them with a threefold ray of glory.
(1.) An absolute suitableness to their case, which must needs be very glorious in their eyes, since that is what they were always seeking, but could never find before, according to that; Isa. 55:2, "Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness." Therefore with the wise merchant they "sell all to buy the one pearl," Matth. 13:45, 46. The heart of man is an empty, hungry thing, going among the creatures seeking a match for itself, in which it may rest; but there they cannot find it; but discovering it in a God in Christ, they are attracted with the glory of that sight.
(2.) A complete fulness for them; Col. 1:19, "For it pleased the Father, that in him should all fulness dwell." In his all-sufficiency the soul sees the fulness of a Godhead, an infinite boundless fulness, to answer and satisfy the boundless desires of an immortal soul. That is a fountain for the thirsty soul to drink at to the full; a treasure to enrich the soul oppressed with poverty; a salve for all its sores, and a remedy for all its wounds. So it cannot miss to attract.
(3.) An ability to help in all possible incidents, Heb. 7:25, "Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost, that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them." The arm of the creature is weak in all cases, and quite too short in many cases; but so is not the arm of an all-sufficient God; Isa. 59:1, "Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear." There is nothing too hard for him, there is nothing that Omnipotency can stick at. Who can but draw towards such a one for a Friend?
2. The glory of his free grace and good-will to poor sinners; hence the heavenly host sang; Luke 2:14, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will towards men." When the Lord would shew Moses his glory, he proclaimed the name of the Lord before him; Exod. 34:6, 7, "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin." The glory of all-sufficiency may attract the desire of sinners; but the sinner cannot come to him, while that treasure appears to be locked up from him, a gulf fixed betwixt him and it. But when once an all-sufficient God appears in the glory of his free grace in Christ, the treasure appears open to the sinner, there is a bridge for him laid over the gulf; and so he comes freely away to God in Christ. This shines to the coming sinner with a threefold ray of glory.
(1.) Readiness to forgive sin; Psalm 130:4, 7, 8, "But there is forgiveness with thee; that thou mayest be feared. Let Israel hope in the Lord; for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities." He is gracious to pardon the sins for which he might justly condemn the sinner; he is willing to be reconciled to offenders, and receive them into peace, 2 Cor. 5:19. This is an attractive glory where the conscience is awakened.
(2.) Willingness to give and communicate all that is needful to make the sinner happy; Rev. 21:7, "He that overcometh shall inherit all things, and I will be his God, and he shall be my son." He is gracious to give, as well as to forgive; Hos. 14:2; not only to lay by his wrath against the sinner, but to load him with benefits.
(3.) And all this freely, without any view to any worth in the creature, as Isa. 55:1, "He, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat, yea, come, buy wine and milk without money, and without price." No condition, no qualification is required; only the sinner is welcome to take and have, whatever he has been.
II. The next thing is to shew, how this glory of God in Christ is discerned by a sinner.
1. The mean of discerning it is the gospel; 2 Cor. 3 ult., "Beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord." As by means of light in the air we discern bodily objects, so by the means of the gospel we discern this glory of God, 2 Cor. 4:4. By the law we discern the glory of an absolute God terrifying and confounding to a sinner, but by the gospel the glory of God as in Christ, attracting and refreshing to a sinner. It is as a looking-glass wherein we see the image of things; 2 Cor. 3 ult. It brings before us the lovely image of a God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
2. The organ or instrument of discerning it is faith, Hab. 2:4. Though there be full light in the air, and the looking-glass presenting the beautiful image of a person, be set before one's face, if the man's eyes be out, he cannot discern it. So the glory of God in Christ is held forth unto men in the gospel; but they are spiritually blind who are unbelievers, they perceive it not; 1 Cor. 2:14, "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." But faith sees the glory; John 1:14, "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth."
3. The author of sinners discerning it is the Spirit, 2 Cor. 3 ult. It is he that illuminates the dark mind, that cures sinners of their natural blindness. He works faith in the soul, brings home the gospel-report to the sinner in particular, demonstrating it to be the word of God, and God's word to him in particular, and so makes the soul embrace it by believing it, Isa. 53:1.
III. The third head is to shew what that coming unto God is, that is the effect of discerning that glory. The sinner discerning the glory of God in Christ as the hearer of prayer,
1. He comes away from all other doors, which before he used to hang about for supply. He despairs at length of coming speed there, Jer. 3:22, 23, "Return ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings; behold, we come unto thee, for thou art the Lord our God. Truly in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills, and from the multitude of mountains; truly in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel." The light of the glory of God shining into his heart, discovers the emptiness of all the poor shifts the sinner makes to get supply in his natural state of blindness.
(1.) He comes away from the door of the empty creation, where he had long laboured to find a rest; and despairs of finding it there any more. The profits, pleasures, comforts, and conveniences of this world, appear lying vanities that can never give rest to the heart; and they must have another portion; Jer. 16:19, "O Lord, my strength and my fortress, and my refuge in the day of affliction, the Gentiles shall come unto thee from the ends of the earth, and shall say, Surely our fathers have inherited lies, vanity, and things wherein there is no profit."
(2.) From the door of sin, where he expected a satisfaction in the fulfilling of his lusts; and he despairs of ever finding it there, Job 33:27. He finds that puddle-water will not quench his thirst, that the pleasure of it is but short, but the pain and sting of it lasting.
(3.) From out of the world lying in wickedness, 2 Cor. 6:17, as he would escape away from lions' dens and mountains of leopards, Cant. 4:8. He despairs of ever finding his account in the way of the world.
2. He comes away unto God in Christ, for all, and instead of all; Jer. 3:22, "Behold, we come unto thee, for thou art the Lord our God." And he comes unto him,
(1.) As a Saviour, that will save his submissive supplicants, Jer. 3:22, 23. Faith apprehends him as God our Saviour, and so comes to him and trusts on him for salvation from sin and from wrath, Matth. 1:21, "Thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from their sins."
(2.) As a portion, that will eternally make up impoverished and ruined creatures, Psalm 142:5, and in which the poor petitioner may find what he has so long sought for in vain, in the world and the way of sin.
(3.) As his resort for ever in all his needs, whatever they shall be, Psalm 71:3. The soul coming unto God, comes to him as one that will never go back to another, but will hang on about his door, though he should die at it.
I conclude with an inference or two.
1. Whoso come not unto God in Christ, as a Saviour, &c., are certainly ignorant of him, and see him not in his glory; "For they that know thy name," says the psalmist, "will put their trust in thee," Psalm 9:10.
2. Great and powerful must that glory be, which draws sinners from all other doors unto God. By nature we are backward to come unto God; it must be a very ravishing glory that has such an effect on perverse sinners.
3. Lastly, Be concerned to discern that glory; to discern it by faith, and by experience, in order to your coming to him as your Saviour, portion, and continual resort.
ON ACCEPTANCE WITH GOD:—THE DOCTRINE OF THE ACCEPTANCE OF MEN'S WORKS EXPLAINED, AND A PRACTICAL REGARD THERETO IN ALL THE DUTIES OF LIFE INCULCATED
2 COR. 8:12
For if there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not.
THE Christians in Judea being in much distress and poverty, there was a contribution through the churches of the Gentiles for them. The communion of saints extends not only to spiritual, but temporal things too; that they be ready to help one another out of their substance. And this communication of worldly things to the supply of the saints, is not confined to those of our own church; but is to be extended to strangers on occasion, at the greatest distance. The gospel came from Judea to the Gentiles; and now money must go from the Gentiles for the relief of those of Judea. Hereby God took a trial of the Gentile churches, their love to, and esteem of, the gospel. Many will pretend to great esteem of the gospel, but they must have it for nothing. Any of their money that is desired for any public use, for the furtherance of the gospel, it is all accounted lost.
This contribution is here recommended to the Corinthians. They readily fell in with the proposal, ver. 11. Now they are desired to perform, each according to his ability.
In the text, an objection of the poorer sort is answered, who might fear that any thing they had to give was so little, that it would not be accepted. In answer thereto, they are told that God regards men's works rather by the quality than the quantity; by the mind it is given with, rather than by the thing given.
1. The case of acceptance is put, "If there be first a willing mind, it is accepted." The acceptance here is of a man's work, not of his person; though the former always presupposeth the latter, in the gospel way. And it refers to God, for he only can judge with what mind a thing is done. Now God accepts a man's service, if there be first a willing mind; that is, a readiness and good will to the work of his service. If the heart go before and lead the hand, it is accepted; otherwise it is not.
2. What regard is had in this acceptance of one's work to the quantity of it. (1.) That it be according to one's ability, that it be done to his power. Some are able to do more, and be more useful than others; but if men have a willingness to the work, and do what they are able accordingly, it is accepted through Christ; his that can do but little, as well as his that can do much. But this cuts off the pretences of those who content themselves with lazy wishes, and lay not out themselves to do what they may do. (2.) That want of power to do more, shall not mar the acceptance of what is done according to power with a willing mind, Mark 12:43. The Lord will take the little piece of service off his people's hand, when the heart is right; as well as the great service of those of his that have great abilities. Not but that where the inability is brought on by people's own fault, it is their sin that they do not do more; but that sin shall be forgiven them, and what they do be accepted, "if there be first a willing mind."
The scope and substance of the text may be taken up in the following doctrines.
DOCTRINE I. Works may be done in service to God, that are not accepted of him.
DOCTRINE II. It should be our main concern in our works, that they may be accepted of God.
DOCTRINE III. Where there is a willing mind carrying out a man to do and serve the Lord to his ability, what is so done is accepted of God.
DOCTRINE IV. Want of power to do more, shall not mar the acceptance of what is done from a willing mind according to one's power. In that case, God will accept of his people's will for the deed.
I shall speak to each of these doctrines in order.
DOCTRINE I. Works may be done in service to God, that are not accepted of him.
In treating this point, I shall,
I. Confirm the doctrine.
II. Assign the reasons thereof.
III. Make some improvement.
1. In order to confirm the doctrine, consider,
1. Oft-times God hides his face from the man and his work too, and people have no communion with God in their services to him; Hos. 5:6, "They shall go with their flocks and with their herds to seek the Lord; but they shall not find him, he hath withdrawn himself from them." When a master will not look on his servant's work, it is an evidence he is not pleased with him, nor it, Isa. 1:15. This may be the case of the godly sometimes, and it is the case of the wicked always. O how many lost services are there this way.
2. Such services may be so far from being accepted, that they are really loathsome to a holy God; Prov. 15:8, "The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord." He reckons them to be to no purpose, he is full of them, they are vain in his esteem, he cannot endure them, they are a trouble, a burden, and a weariness to him, Isa. 1:11–14. So it is often fulfilled in this case, "That which is highly esteemed amongst men, is abomination in the sight of God," Luke 16:15. The man thinks highly of his own work, and others do so too; but in the mean time God abhors it.
3. God may put such services out of the roll of services to him, and set them down in the roll of sins against him. That is a terrible word, Jer. 7:21, "Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, put your burnt-offerings unto your sacrifices, and eat flesh;" i.e., Put your sacrifices that should be all burnt on the altar, to your other sacrifices, and eat all together as common flesh to fill your bellies; q.d., Let your prayers, and your common discourse, your hearing of sermons and your idle tales go together; I esteem the one no more than the other. And that is another dreadful word; Amos 4:4, "Come to Bethel and transgress, at Gilgal multiply transgression; and bring your sacrifices every morning, and your tithes after three years;" q.d., Go to your knees now, and take the name of God in vain; go to the church, and put off a little time of a Sabbath day.
4. They may bring a curse and a stroke on men, instead of a blessing and token of God's favour; Hos. 8:13, "They sacrifice flesh for the sacrifices of mine offerings, and eat it; but the Lord accepteth them not; now will he remember their iniquity and visit their sins." Nadab and Abihu were consumed by a fire that came out from the altar they were serving at; Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead on occasion of selling their land for the service of the church; and men may be smothered with the dung of their sacrifices spread on their faces, Mal. 2:3.
5. Lastly, This may take place while the service stands the man both cost and pains. The Israelites were at cost for spices for the altar, but all was rejected, Jer. 6:20; they were at pains in attending ordinances, and endured a stress in fasting, but all to no purpose, Isa. 58:2, 3. Bodily exercise profiteth little before God, who is a Spirit, and must be worshipped in spirit and in truth.
II. I am next to render the reasons of the point, That works may be done in service to God, that are not accepted of him. God is no austere master, but very indulgent to his servants, and will take a very small service kindly off their hands; but men often serve him in a way that is provoking to him, and to his dishonour; and thence are the reasons why their services are not accepted.
1. Sometimes that is offered for service to God, that is forbidden by him, John 16:2, "They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doth God service." A blinded conscience gets the leading of a man, and leads him out of the way of God; it dictates what is sin to be duty, and what is duty to be sin; so that the man thinks he is serving God, while he is really serving his own corruptions; and so instead of a "Well done, good and faithful servant," he meets with a "Wo unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness," Isa. 5:20; and "lies down" at length "in sorrow," Isa. 50 ult.
2. Sometimes that is offered that is not commanded or required; Matth. 15:9, "In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." Nothing can be acceptable to God, but what is required by some one or other command of his; "for whatsoever is not of faith, is sin," Rom. 14 ult. See Isa. 1:12. Horrid idolatry is condemned on that very ground, that it was uncommanded service, Jer. 7:31. It is an affront to the sovereignty of God, and his mastership, for men to order his service according to the devices of their own hearts, and not to keep precisely to his orders. Hence are the superstitions of Popery, and the uninstituted ceremonies of the Church of England, which are the product of human device, without any countenance from the word of God.
3. Ofttimes, though the work be commanded of God, yet it is marred in the making. There is something about the person, or the work, that ruins all.
1st, About the person, that mars the acceptance. As,
(1.) He may be in a state of separation from Christ, not united to him by faith, and so not accepted of God, John 15:5. No acceptable work can be done by any man while he is out of Christ; Eph. 2:10. For a man's person must be accepted, before his work can be accepted, since his work being imperfect, cannot procure the acceptance of his person. Now no sinner's person is accepted but in Christ, Eph. 1:6, and we come to be in Christ by faith; therefore faith in Christ must go before acceptable obedience, Heb. 11:6. Faith makes the tree good, ere it can bring forth good fruit, Matth. 7:17. And no fruit of obedience is accepted of God, but what grows on a branch of Christ the true vine. The blasting curse lies on all other. See Gen. 6:9.
(2.) He may be in a state of enmity with God; and as no man will like the services of his enemies, so God will not accept the services of one not reconciled to him; Amos 3:3, "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" Every unbeliever is an enemy to God, Rom. 8:7, for his sin remains unpardoned, and his nature unchanged; and therefore his best works are but splendid sins, himself but a whited sepulchre; and when he speaks and acts fairest, there are seven abominations in his heart. How then can an all-seeing God accept such services?
(3.) He may be an unregenerate man, and so like Simon "in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity," Acts 8:23. Whosoever are out of Christ, are unregenerate; for it is by being in him, and so partaking of his Spirit and fulness, that we become new creatures, 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 1:13. Now how can the corrupt tree bring forth good fruit? or the old nature acceptable obedience? If the fountain be poisoned, can the streams be wholesome? Could one like the best liquor in a vessel wherein there is no pleasure?
(4.) He may be habitually unholy or profane in his life, or as to the body of his conversation; Prov. 28:9, "He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination." So the Lord rejects the sacrifices of the Israelites, Isa. 1:15, 16 The Psalmist tells us, that "the man who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord, and stand in his holy place," must "have clean hands, and a pure heart," Psalm 24:3, 4. The apostle wills to "lift up holy hands, without wrath and doubting;" 1 Tim. 2:8, if we would be accepted. Their conversation must be of a piece, whose works will be accepted; for God will never accept the services of men, that for the most part serve the devil, the world, and their lusts. Many are like the harlot; Prov 7:13, 14, as if they thought their duties would purge away their sins. Nay but their sinful courses otherwise will pollute and render abominable their duties, Hag. 2:11–14.
2dly, About the work, that may mar its acceptance.
(1.) It may be none of the work of the Spirit of Christ in the man, but proceeding from a man's self allenarly. All good works accepted of God are the product of the Holy Spirit in believers, as the sap which the vine-stock communicates to the branches. Therefore to "the works of the flesh;" Gal. 5:19, are opposed "the fruits of the Spirit;" ver. 22. And "all goodness is the fruit of the Spirit;" Eph. 5:9, and a Christian's life is "a walking after the Spirit;" Rom. 8:1, as a borrowed life. And as no common hearth-fire could be accepted at the altar, but only the holy fire that came from heaven; so no work will be offered to the Father for acceptance by the Son, but what is the work of his own Spirit; and no work will be accepted by the Father, but what is offered by the Son as intercessor. See Eph 2:18. See what prayer is accepted, Jam. 5:16. Not the prayer of every one, but of a "righteous man;" not every prayer of a righteous man neither, but "the inwrought" (Gr.) "prayer" of his, viz. that which is inwrought by the Spirit.
(2) It may be no work of love to God, or of a willing mind; but done awkwardly and against the grain; 1 Tim 1:5; some bye-considerations moving the man to serve the Lord; and no liking of him or his service. Forced service can never be accepted, that which people are constrained to. It is the obedience of slaves, not of sons, that natural men do perform; and flows from a spirit of fear, more than a spirit of love; 2 Tim. 1:7. See Isa. 64:5.
(3.) It may be not done in faith, and so cannot be accepted; Heb. 11:6. Acceptable service is done in the faith of the command, having authority on the man's conscience; and in the faith of the promise, the promise of strength to perform, and the faith of the reward of grace, believing the labour shall not be in vain in the Lord, 1 Cor. 15 ult. But instead of that, most of our good works are done without any regard to God's authority, without any dependence on him for strength, and without the true hope of the gratuitous reward of grace won by Christ to be communicated to us.
(4.) It may be done selfishly; men seeking their own profit in them, more than God's honour; seeking to please their own conscience that otherwise will not let them rest, rather than to please God; seeking a name to themselves, rather than to glorify his name; and to save their own souls from hell by them, rather than to testify their thankfulness to the Saviour, who has purchased salvation by his blood. This is to pervert the end of duties, to use them for unhallowed ends; in a word, to serve ourselves, and not God; and therefore no more to be accepted than a servant's working his own instead of his master's work, Hos. 9:4; Zech. 7:6. Yea good things may be done downright to serve a lust, or to satisfy a passion, Matth. 23:14; 2 Sam. 3:9.
(5.) It may be done by chance rather than design; Lev. 26:21; (Heb.) There are who are chance-customers to religion, who fall in with a good work, rather because it falls in their way, than because God lays it in their way; as the Danites, Judg. 18:5. God looks to the heart, and undesigned service to him will be reckoned no serving of him, but serving one's own fancy. This is another thing than one's embracing an opportunity which the Lord puts in his hand; Gal. 6:10, wherein one is glad of an occasion of serving God.
(6.) It may be done by the power of custom, rather than of conscience. Custom, fallen into by education, or otherwise, is the spring of many duties done by men; wherein men move, by that, as a clock by the weights; rather than from an inward principle; which can never be acceptable to the heart-searching God, who requires reasonable service.
(7.) It may be done in a slighting manner, dealing scrimply and grudgingly with God. As when there is no proportion between the work and one's ability, as in the rich men casting in their little piece of brass-money, Mark 12:41; when men offer to God, not the best, but the most worthless they have; so did Cain, Gen. 4:3, 4. Thus men by thinking any thing may serve in the service of God, pour contempt on the holy One, and bring on themselves a curse instead of a blessing; Mal. 1:14.
(8) Lastly, When it is not offered to God for acceptance through Christ. It is God's appointment; Col. 3:17, "Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus." A young pigeon would have been accepted on the altar of Jerusalem, when a bullock would not have been accepted on the altar of Bethel. If the service of men be never so great and costly, if it is offered to God otherwise, and the acceptance of it looked for because of its own worth, it will be rejected, Rev. 7:14. No works savour with God, but as they savour of Christ, 2 Cor. 2:15.
I now proceed to make some short improvement of what has been said,
1. People may do much in the service of God, and yet do nothing to purpose, Eccl. 10:15. A man may go many a weary foot, and yet never come to the place he designed, while he wanders from the right way, 2 John 8. Such wanderers in religion are all unregenerate men, who set about duties; they are busy doing nothing. They do many good things like Herod, and yet they never do one thing acceptably. For their persons are not accepted; and so their works cannot be so.
2. Even among the duties of a godly man, there may be much refuse; many unaccepted duties. A believer's person is always accepted of God, Eph. 1:6, for the state of justification is perpetual. But such may be the prevalence of faithlessness, selfishness, &c., in some particular works of his, that they may never come to be accepted of God; for sanctification has its ups and downs, being liable to many changes.
3. How little reason is there to boast of our works! There is nothing we can do, can be accepted for its own worth. If it be accepted, the meanness of it is seen, the soul is humbled, and no acceptance of is looked for, but for the sake of Christ. If we be so conceited of our work, as to boast of it; it is an evidence that God accepts it not; hence said our Lord unto the Pharisees, Luke 16:15, "Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed amongst men, is abomination in the sight of God."
4. What will come of them that do nothing in the service of God at all; but live in the habitual neglect of known duties, are prayerless, slighters of the means of grace, &c.? 1 Pet. 4:18. If they that set off to the heavenly city may miss the way, and never reach it; sure those that sit still, and never move that way, will never see it. Many soothe themselves in the neglect of duties, because some that do them walk so unlike them; but the case of such is very dangerous; for no habitual neglecters of duties can be saved; and it is in vain for men to make the practice of others an excuse for evil doing.
5. Lastly, Take heed how ye perform duties, and satisfy not yourselves with the bare performance, without being solicitous as to the manner, Luke 8:18. Better is one duty so managed as to be accepted than a hundred otherwise; as one piece of gold is more worth than a hundred counters. But this brings me to
DOCTRINE II. It should be our main concern in our works that they may be accepted of God.
In handling this point, I shall
I. Shew what is the acceptance of our works with God.
II. Give the reasons of the doctrine.
III. Make improvement.
I. I shall shew what is the acceptance of our works with God. It lies in these two things.
1. His being pleased with them; Col. 1:10, "That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing." The accepted work God approves of, and is well pleased with. Though the saints do no works that they are every way pleased with themselves; yet there are some works of theirs that are very pleasing to God. He delights in them, Prov. 15:8. They are sweet to him, as honey to the mouth, Cant. 5:1. They are sweet as music to the ear, and as beauty to the eye, Cant. 2:14.
This pre-supposeth them to be good, and agreeable to his will. For evil cannot be pleasing to him, Psalm 5:4. He who is goodness itself, can never be pleased but with what is good, Heb. 13:16. The unregenerate do nothing good, Psalm 14:2, 3, and so nothing they do is accepted, Heb. 11:6. The saints do some things good, some things evil; the good is accepted, and the refuse is cast away.
2. His taking them off their hand, as service done to him. God testified his acceptance of the sacrifice by fire, Lev. 9 ult. for the fire made them go up in flames towards heaven, Judg. 13:20. See Psalm 20:3, Gen. 4:4, 5. So he received them off their hand. He reckons such a work a piece of service done to him, sets it down as it were in his book, in due time to give it a reward of grace, Lev. 7:18, Mal. 3:16.
Hence is the after-notice God takes of the good works of his people;—in time, as it fared with Moses, who, refusing to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, was afterwards advanced to be king in Jeshurun;—in eternity, as Matth. 25. He will not forget any of them, Heb. 6:10, but a plentiful sowing of them will have a plentiful reaping. So they are the surest riches, 1 Tim. 6:18. Not that the reward is given for their sake, but for Christ's sake; and such is the covenant connection.
QUESTION. How can any of our works be accepted of a holy God, or he be well pleased with them, &c., since there is so much sinfulness attending the best of them?
ANSWER 1. In point of justification they are not, nor cannot be accepted; i. e. our persons cannot be accepted as righteous for our works, since they are not legally perfect, perfect in every point. In the way of the covenant of works, the work was first to be accepted for its own sake, as absolutely perfect; and then the person for the works' sake. So that whosoever seek by their works to be accepted of God, they go back to the covenant of works; and must either bring works every way perfect, or be rejected; and because they cannot do such works, "therefore by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified," Gal. 2:16.
2. In point of sanctification the good works of the justified may be accepted; i. e. one's person being accepted, his works may be accepted, being evangelically perfect, though not legally; being perfect in parts, though not in degrees. For in the way of the covenant of grace, the person is first accepted in Christ, and then his work though imperfect. Hence it appears,
(1.) That to a person's being accepted of God in Christ, there is no working, but believing required; Mark 5:36. For till the person be accepted of God in Christ, he can do no acceptable work. He can yield no savoury fruit till he be ingrafted by faith in Christ.
(2.) That the way to bring sinners to good works, is to bring them to Christ in the first place by faith, that they may be justified and accepted in him. Men may be made proud legalists otherwise, but not evangelical Christians; whited sepulchres, but still full of rottenness.
(3.) That there is very good reason why the good works of unbelievers are rejected, because they are imperfect; and yet the good works of believers are accepted, though they be imperfect. For besides that the principle, motives, and ends of their works are vastly different, there is a great odds between,
[1.] Their states. The one is the King's friend, the other an enemy; the one the King's son, the other but his hired servant. If a man is pleased with a little piece of service that his own child does him, can the hired servant expect that as little will be taken off his hand? Can our enemy expect the same acceptance of his service, as our friend?
[2.] The desired acceptance. The unbeliever desires his work may be accepted for his salvation; but the believer desires his work may be accepted as only a token of his gratitude to his Saviour, who has saved him already. Can any man rationally think, that as little can be accepted at his hand, for the price of salvation, as may be accepted for an acknowledgment of salvation received?
But further to clear this question, consider,
1. Even the acceptance in point of sanctification, is not for the sake of the work itself, nor for the worker's sake neither; but for Christ's sake, and by the means of his intercession. This is clear from the necessity of Christ's intercession to the acceptance of our works; and that intercession being a pleading of the merit of his own obedience and death; Col. 3:17; Rev. 7:14, and 8:3. It is for the same merit of Christ, that first the believer himself, and then his imperfect works are accepted of God.
2. The sinfulness and imperfections that attend the works of the believer, are not, nor cannot be ever accepted. God is displeased and angry with the dross of sin that cleaves to the believer's best performances; and he never is so well pleased with the good in them, as to accept the ill too. Yea, he may write his indignation against these, when he is pleased with the substance of the work.
3. The main of the accepted work is good, however sinfulness attends it. For the matter of it, it is commanded; for the form of it, it proceeds from a right principle, the love of God; it is done in faith, and to the glory of God. And this is the work of God's own Spirit in the believer; the weaknesses that attend it, proceed from the believer himself. And such works as are good in the main, God will not reject, for the infirmities that attend them. As for those works even of believers that are not thus good in the main, they are not at all accepted.
4. Christ separates the precious from the vile part, and offers the former perfumed with his merit, unto the Father for acceptance, Heb. 10:21, 22; Rev. 8:3. In every sacrifice there were two very different things, the flesh and the skin and dung. The former came to the altar, the latter never. So Christ separates in a believer's duties that which is from his own Spirit, and that which is from the believer himself puts away this, and presents that to his Father. This was lively represented in the burning of the incense, where the fire being set to it, the finer part went up in flame and smoke, towards heaven; and the gross part, the ashes, remained, and a priest came and carried them away in a golden dish. So is the case here,—the finer part in the saints' services, that which is done by the assistance of the Spirit and in faith, ascends to heaven for acceptance; and the ashes that remain are carried away, in virtue of the free promise, Ezek. 36:25.
5. Lastly, The Father then accepts the precious part for the Son's sake, and for the same sake pardons the guilt of the vile part, the infirmities attending it, Rev. 8:4; Psalm 141:2. The accepted duties go through two hands, first the believer's, then Christ's; their prayers are first said on earth by themselves, then they are repeated in heaven by the Mediator. It is from the second hand only, and on the repetition only, that they are accepted, 1 Kings 8:32; and in the second hand, and on the repetition, they are not so bulky, but better.
II. I shall next give the reasons of the point, That it should be our main concern in our works that they may be accepted of God. Because,
1. As God is the first cause, so he is the chief end of all things; Rom. 11 ult., "For of him, and through him, and to him are all things." So as we are his creatures, our chief end in all our duties should be to please him; as all the waters coming from the sea do return to it again. This was the duty of Adam in the covenant of works, as sure as he was not to have another God, as in the first command; though he was to gain life by his works, which we are not, and therefore it is surely ours much more.
2. Our duties are a matter of gratitude; we owe them to God, not only in point of justice, but thankfulness, for benefits received, creation, preservation, and redemption; Exod. 20:2, "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house bondage." We are in debt to him, and we cannot pay, but only acknowledge by small tokens, Hos. 14:2. If we are to offer to a fellow creature a token of our obligation to him, the first question is, What is it that I can give that will be most acceptable to him? How much more should the first question be, What is it that I can give that will be most acceptable to God?
3. God looks mainly to the heart with which a duty is done, and knows whether he gets it or not, 1 Chron. 28:9. Though a servant do well, yet if he hath no regard to his master's pleasure in what he does, it is disobliging; and whatever men do, if it is not their main aim to please God, it is provoking. Our aims may be hid from men; but they are as open to God as our overt actions.
4. Lastly, It is a necessary ingredient in a good work, so that a work cannot be good without it, 1 Cor. 10:31. For such a work is pointed wrong as to the end of it, Zech. 7:5. It is a sacrifice wanting the heart, the thing that God mainly requires and delights in, Prov. 23:26. So whatever we may account it, God will not account it a good work.
I come now to the practical improvement of this doctrine, which I shall discuss in a twofold use, viz., of conviction, and of exhortation.
USE I. This doctrine may serve for conviction, humiliation, and reproof to men, who generally are strangers to it, and at best very defective in it. It may convict men,
1. In point of ill works. These are fruitful in the world, things that are altogether evil, and cannot be good, Gal. 5:19. In the midst of gospel-light they overflow, and there is no true repentance for them, because there is no reformation. To such workers I would say,
(1.) How far are ye from regarding at all God's acceptance of your works, who take the liberty to do against the letter of his law, what ye know his soul abhors? The drunkard, swearer, sabbath-breaker, or unclean person, is not so abandoned as to think that these his actions can please God. But the truth is, the pleasing of God is what he is not anxious about, but he is resolved to please himself in his lust, let his Maker take it as he will. What must be the end of these things? Rom. 1:18, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness, and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness."
(2.) Ye thereby evidence, that it is not the pleasing of God, but yourselves, that ye seek in your good works; and that therefore your ill works and your good works will all go one way, being rejected of God; your swearing and your praying, &c. will be reckoned all one. If it were your main design in one thing to please God, it would be so in all, Jam. 2:10, 11; and therefore since ye do not endeavour to please him in all, know that ye can please him in nothing; Psalm 125 ult., "As for such as turn aside unto their crooked ways, the Lord shall lead them forth with the workers of iniquity."
2. In point of good works, namely, those that for the matter of them are good, wherein men may be accepted of God, if they rightly manage them. These are of three sorts:—
1st, Natural good works, such as eating and drinking, sleeping, &c. I call them good works, because they are commanded of God, are necessary to be done, and it would be sin to omit them. They are duties of the sixth command, the neglect whereof is sinful, Col. 2 ult., and one may be accepted of God in them, Rom. 14:3, or rejected of him, Zech. 7:6. Bring these works of ours to this rule, That it should be our main concern in our works, that they may be accepted of God; and how may we stand convicted of,
(1.) Regardlessness of God's approbation and acceptance in these things; having no eye to God in them, but going about them as men without God in the world, or as beasts, Matth. 24:38, without any regard to God's command requiring our use of them, dependence on God for the benefit of them, or design to be strengthened by them for serving God in the duties of religion and our particular calling.
(2.) Dishonouring of God in them. In the way of purchasing them, many an ill shift is made for the belly; and if men can get it, to satisfy the appetite, they are not anxious about their right to it before God, whether it be with a good conscience their own bread, got with honest labour and industry, 2 Thess. 3:12; or whether doing their utmost with their industry, they have a right to it as charitable supply. In the way of using them, without conscientious moderation, by gluttony or drunkenness; a sinful eagerness to satisfy a lust for them; and unfitting themselves for the service of God by them.
It is but a little the time of eating and drinking will last; there is an eternity to be spent without them. If we endeavour to be accepted of God in them while they last, it will be our comfort when we shall for ever lay them aside; if not, the regardlessness and dishonouring of God in them, will be an eternal sting in the conscience.
2dly, Civil good works, which are the duties of men's station, in the common affairs of this life; such as the management of family affairs, the duties of service, of a man's lawful trade or employment. These are good works on the matter, being commanded of God, and in which one is to walk with God, 1 Cor. 7:24; and therein one may be accepted, Eccl. 9:7, or rejected, Prov. 21:4. Here again men may be convicted of,
(1.) Regardlessness of God's acceptance, Luke 17:28. These things mostly are managed without any eye to God, or to be accepted of him in them. His command and call by his providence unto them is not waited for; or if men have it, yet they do not regard it, to go about their business under a sense of God's command, Eph. 6:7. The Lord is not looked to for direction, but men trust themselves for conduct in these matters, Prov. 3:5, 6. He is not depended on for success, but men are either flushed with presumptuous confidence, or tormenting anxiety as to events, Psalm 127:1. And not God's word is the rule they act by in them, but their own worldly interest or ease.
(2.) Dishonouring God in them. As by pride, passion, and selfishness, which are to be found in people's managing of their family affairs; if they get their business done, there is no concern how their families should serve the Lord. He is dishonoured by the unfaithfulness, dishonesty, eye-service, and perverseness of servants; and dishonoured by the lying, cheating, and injustice used by men in their dealings in their several employments.
These things are but time things either; and all the hurry of worldly business will be hushed ere long; and death will draw the busiest man out of the throng, as clean as if he had never been in it, Eccl. 9:6. It will be your interest to seek to be accepted of God in them; otherwise ye will lay up bitterness from them, that will be lasting when they are gone for ever.
3dly, Religious good works, the duties whether of the first or second table, which are duties of our Christian calling, such as prayer, giving alms, &c. In them also men may here be convicted of,
(1.) Regardlessness of God's acceptance in them. Men proclaim this by their rash approaching to them, without considering what they are to be about, Eccl. 5:1; by their formality in them, satisfying themselves with the doing of the thing, without any anxiety to get their hearts up to the duty, to do it in a right manner, which is mere bodily exercise, 1 Tim. 4:8; and their carelessness after them, unconcernedness as to their success, when once the task is off their hand, Psalm 5:3.
(2.) Making other things our main concern in them: As, [1.] A name for religion, Matth. 6:2. An unholy heart, that is an enemy to religion at bottom, may be very fond of a name for it. And to advance this empty name, many times good gifts are prostituted, and enlargements in duty, and great performances for God; all of them running in that channel of ambition, to be highly esteemed of men as religious. [2.] Some worldly interest, John 6:26, 27. So it was with Jehu. They will please men for their carnal interest, and do religious duties to please men. Often doth the fear of men go deeper here than the fear of God; and the loss of some worldly interest deeper than the loss of the soul. [3.] Peace in their own minds. There is a conscience within men that will drive to duty, when there is no love to God drawing; so men by such duties rather seek to please themselves than to please God. And, (1.) To keep conscience quiet, while it is quiet; so duties are made a bribe to cause conscience hold its tongue. And certain it is, that many could not live so quietly in their sins as they do, were it not for their duties, as appears from the case of the adulterous whore, Prov. 7:14, 15. This is the reason that publicans and harlots enter into the kingdom of heaven before Pharisees; and Laodicea's case was the most hopeless of all the seven churches. (2.) To still it again when it is roused, Psalm 78:34. Men may be very anxious for comfort by duty, that have no concern for sanctification thereby. [4.] Salvation from hell and wrath, Matth. 19:16–20. One may follow duties on this account, without any love to God, as appears ver. 22, "But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions." Self is a strong motive, and heaven and hell are strong arguments for duty; but the misery is, they seek not God for himself, but for themselves, and so are rejected, 2 Tim. 1:7.
In these duties we are now on our trials for heaven; in a little the sentence will be passed, according to our works. And those who are not now accepted of God in their duties, will then be rejected of God for ever.
USE II. Let it be your main concern in your works, that they may be accepted of God; whether they be natural, civil, or religious. For motives, consider,
1. This is a distinguishing character of one's state, whereby ye will prove yourselves either gracious or graceless. It is a native result of justification and acceptance of one's person with God, to be mainly concerned for God's acceptance of them in their work, 2 Cor. 5:9. So Noah's integrity and uprightness is traced to his justification as the source, Gen. 6:9. For so the love of Christ constrains. Whereas the soul being in a state of enmity with God, natively issues in no concern to please him.
2. God is a great God and King, infinitely above the greatest on earth; he cannot be profited by our services, but requires us to labour to please him in them, Mal. 1:14. He gave us our being, and hath put each of us in our station, and carved out our work for us; whence it necessarily follows, that it should be our main concern to please him, 2 Tim. 2:4. And would men more narrowly consider this, that it is God that has set them their business and station, and consequently, that he will call for the account of our work, it would stir them up to make it their main care in their works, that they may be accepted of him.
3. There is a costly provision of an altar on which our sacrifices of praise may be accepted, Heb. 13:10, 15. There was nothing a sinner could have done, that could have been accepted, had there not been an altar to sanctify the gift. Now it is provided, a crucified Christ is that altar; he by his death has become a proper intercessor for acceptance, both of our persons and our works. How heinous will our sin be, if we seek not to bring our gift to this altar, for acceptance with God?
4. Whatever good work, natural, civil, or religious, we do, may be accepted of God, as pleasing service to him through Christ, Heb. 13:15, 16. Men are hugely mistaken to think that it is only works strictly called religious, that God accepts as service to him; nay, whatever God calls for at thy hand, as to tend the sheep, as well as to attend his worship, if thou act in it to please him, and offer it to him for acceptance through Christ, it will be accepted, Col. 3:23, 24. It is observable, that the apostle having given that general direction, ver. 17, "Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus," &c. falls immediately on relative duties, ver. 18, "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands," &c.
5. The example of Christ may be very moving here, Rom. 15:3, "For even Christ pleased not himself." His work was heavy work, but to please his Father he undertook it, set about it, and went through with it, John 8:29, Psalm 40 and John 4:34. And shall not we be concerned to please him in our imperfect works, to please whom Christ laid down his life?
6. If ye be mainly concerned for acceptance with God in your work, ye may expect help from the Lord in it. The waters and rivers run all to the sea, and so they are fed again by the sea, that they never run dry. That work that has God's pleasure for its end will get God's hand to it for its help, Phil. 2:12, 13, Prov. 3:6. The man that slights God in his natural and civil actions, provokes God to leave him in them, Josh. 9:14, and then his own understanding that he leaned to, proves folly. And he that slights God in his religions duties does the same, and his gifts prove a broken reed.
7. Whatever be the success of your work, ye will have solid peace, satisfaction, and comfort, in your having been mainly concerned in your works for God's acceptance, Isa. 49:4. Men are great fools, to promise themselves success on their own wise management of their natural and civil actions. It has been a truth from the beginning, and will be to the end of the world, that "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill, Eccl. 9:11. And it is equally foolish to expect the world's thanks for doing them a good turn; for ye will be fair to be disappointed, 2 Tim. 3:1, 2, and look blunt on the disappointment. Nay, such an ill-natured world it is, that it is one to a thousand if they be not heavy on you for it. For, says Solomon, Eccl. 4:4, "I considered all travel, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbour." But when this is one's main concern, he has what he looked for; 2 Cor. 1:12, "For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you-wards."
8. If ye do not thus, your works will be lost; lost with God, and lost for eternity; and if that be, all that ye will find of them in the world, will be little worth, Matth. 6:2. This is our sowing time, good works are the seed; will it not be sad to lose all, so as in the harvest ye have nothing to reap? So it will be, if in this your sowing time ye do not throw in the seeds of good works, and make it your principal concern to look for acceptance with God in them; all ye do will be lost for ever, ye will have nothing to reap in the harvest at the last day.
9. Lastly, If ye do not, your best works will be turned to sin, Prov. 15:8, and ye will be surprised to find so many actions of yours that ye set down in the roll of good works, appear in God's book in the roll of sins; as cockle instead of barley. There is such a thing, Psalm 109:7, "Let his prayer become sin."
For direction in this point, we proceed to
DOCTRINE III. Where there is a willing mind carrying out a man to do and serve the Lord, to his ability, what is so done is accepted of God.
Here I shall shew,
I. What sort of works they are that are accepted of God.
II. How or in what respect they are accepted.
III. Why they are so.
IV. Lastly, Apply.
I. I am to shew what sort of works they are that are accepted of God.
FIRST, They are works done with a willing mind. Wherein we are to consider,
1. What this willingness relates to.
2. What it is.
First, Let us consider what this willingness relates to. This willingness of the soul respects the will of God, as that which the soul is willing to comply with. The will of God is contained in his commands, summed up in a word, 1 Thess. 4:3, "This is the will of God, even your sanctification;" and it is the duty of all of us to be willing to that will of God, 1 Chron. 28:9, and to say as Psalm 40:8, "I delight to do thy will, O my God." Hence,
1. A work accepted of God is a commanded work, required of us by God himself, and not an unrequired work, Rev. 22:14, "Blessed are they that do his commandments." Matth. 15:9, "In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." Therefore,
(1.) Nothing in itself sinful can ever be accepted of God; though people may pretend they have no ill in their mind against God in doing it; yea though they may have a good intention in it to serve God by it, John 16:2. Yet how many do, on these pretences, lie without any check, and do other ill things? Prov. 26:18, 19, "As a madman who casteth firebrands, arrows, and death; so is the man that deceiveth his neighbour, and saith, Am not I in sport?"
(2.) Nothing, that is not required of God, though it be not in itself sinful, can be accepted of him, Matth. 15:9. For there can be no obedience, where there is not a command; these are relatives. If God command us not, we cannot be said to obey him, nor be accepted of him. Hence, [1.] Will-worship is false worship, and service to God just of men's own devising is not, nor can be accepted; Col. 2:21–23, "Devised of one's own heart," is a brand of rejection fixed on a work, that is not in itself evil, 1 Kings 12 ult. And Saul lost the kingdom on such a work, 1 Sam. 15:21. [2.] Doing a duty not the duty of one's station cannot be accepted, 1 Cor. 7:24. It was a duty to sacrifice, and to burn incense; yet Saul provoked the Lord by his doing the one, and Uzziah was smitten with leprosy for doing the other; because though they were duties, yet they belonged not to their stations. In a well-ordered family, one servant must not take his neighbour's work and post.
2. The command of God requiring the work must be known to the doer; for otherwise men serve the Lord but at a venture, not knowing whether it be his will or no, which can never be accepted, Lev. 26:21. The acceptable work must be done in faith, faith of the command of God, implying knowledge of it, Rom. 14 ult.
The sum of the whole lies here. If ye would have your work accepted of God, ye must (1.) Know it to be a commanded duty. (2.) Commanded to you. The want of either will mar the acceptance, as a duty not proceeding from a willing mind.
Secondly, Let us consider what this willingness of mind is. It is twofold, habitual and actual.
1. Habitual; which is a disposition of the soul to comply with the will of God's commands, arising from the new nature given in regeneration or the saving change; Heb. 8:10, "I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts." Psalm 110:3, "Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning." The carnal unrenewed mind is enmity against God and his law, Rom. 8:7. And while that corrupt set abides on the heart predominant, as in all natural men, there can be no true willingness to comply with the will of God. Hence, that any work of ours may be accepted of God, we must be,
(1.) United to Christ by faith, John 15:5. While we continue in our natural state, growing on the old stock of the first Adam, we can bring forth no fruit acceptable to God; for the whole nature is corrupt according to the stock, and so must the fruit be, Rom. 7:5. Particularly there is a reigning refractoriness in the will, whereby the soul is as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke of God's will. Whereas the soul being in Christ is changed, according to the nature of the new stock, and made willing, 2 Cor. 5:17, and gets his image, opposed to Adam's, 1 Cor. 15:49.
(2.) We must be regenerated, and have our nature changed. The tree must be made good, before the fruit can be so, Ezek. 36:26, 27. How can there be a willing mind for duty, while the will is unrenewed? How can there be new obedience, while one is not partaker of the new nature? The dark mind, the perverse will, and disorderly affections, not rectified by regenerating grace, being all of them opposite to good, shew the want of a willing mind.
(3.) We must have a predominant love to God, 1 Tim. 1:5. This disposeth the soul, by a constraining force, to fall in with whatsoever the Lord requires; and constitutes one's obedience labour of love. And where it is wanting, good things may indeed be done, for some by-ends, and from some by-principles; but there is not first a willing mind.
This is the habitual willing mind, whereby the soul being in Christ, regenerated, and having the love of God dwelling in it, is in such a disposition to fall in with the will of God, that getting a touch of a particular command, it readily complies therewith in obedience.
2. Actual; which is an actual compliance of the heart, with such and such a particular duty, laid before one at such a time and in such a place; and ariseth from the habitual disposition. The one looks to the whole law; the other to particular commands requiring such and such a particular duty, as of the Corinthians to help the poor saints of Judea. And it implies,
(1.) An approbation of the command of God for the duty. What the Lord by his word and providence requires of the man as duty, he has a love and liking of it from the heart, Rom. 7:12. The carnal heart rises against this and the other command laying such a duty on the man; and he takes it on as a slave does his burden, because he cannot help it. But the willing mind has a liking of it, 1 John 5:3, as the little child has a liking of being bid do any little piece of service for his father.
(2.) A sincere resolution to set to the work in the season thereof, Josh. 24:15; Psalm 119:106. The willing mind goes not about to seek how to shift obedience to the divine call; nor does it seek offputs and delays, till the season of the duty is away; nor does it muster up difficulties, saying, "There is a lion in the way," to palliate disobedience; but resolves to put to hand timely; Psalm 119:60," I made haste, and delayed not to keep thy commandments."
(3.) A compliance of the heart with the command to the duty, because it is God's command, Psalm 119:4. The authority of God has weight with the man's conscience; and the love of God inclines his heart to obey. So the will of God is the reason, as well as the rule, of his obedience. As he believes the promise, because God has said it; so he obeys the command, because God has bid it. So the man's great aim is to answer the call of God, and please him.
(4.) A delight and cheerfulness in the duty, Isa. 64:5; 2 Cor. 9:7. Love to the Lord oils the wheels of the soul, and the work goes on, not as of necessity, but as of choice, 1 John 5:3. The awfulness of the command is vailed with prevailing love; take off the threatening of wrath from the command, and the willing soul would not stop for all that; for the love of God in the heart is a law, and a powerful one too, Cant. 8:6. Terror drives to duty, but weakens; love draws to duty, and strengthens, 2 Tim. 1:7. Terror will make men find their hands, but they lose heart; but love gives heart and hand too.
(5.) A design to honour God by the duty. The general direction is plain; 1 Cor. 10:31, "Whether ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God;" and thereto the willing mind echoes back, "To me to live is Christ, Phil. 1:21. The willing mind is not obtained but by faith, whereby the conscience is made good, and the soul put in a state of salvation; hence natively follows the design of glorifying God by good works, and by them adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour, 1 Pet. 2:9. The faith of Christ's salvation makes a powerful impression of gratitude on the soul, that it is glad of an occasion to glorify him, and express its love; Psalm 116:12, "What shall I render unto the Lord, for all his benefits towards me?"
(6.) Lastly, A looking-out for promised help to the duty, by faith, Heb. 12:1, 2. The willing mind is not blind to its own weakness, but sees that better than others. But what one is really willing and hearty for the doing of, he will use all means for reaching his end. Carnal men say they are willing but they cannot; in that they deceive themselves, for if they were really willing they would go to the fountain of strength for help. So do they with whom is first a willing mind, they set about the duty in the faith of the promise. Hence they will go forward on God's call, however difficult the work be, and get through too; as the women came to the sepulchre, though not knowing how the stone would be rolled away.
Secondly, They are works that from a willing mind are done to their ability. We may take up this in these four things.
1. They are works which people having ability for, are done; they are not merely wished and woulded to be done, as the sluggard uses to wish well with folded hands, Prov. 21:25. For where the heart is to a work, the hand will be put to it, so far as in them lies. Men do but deceive themselves, who please themselves with good desires and wishes, without endeavours backing them; Matth. 7:21, "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doth the will of my Father which is in heaven." Jam. 1:22, "But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves."
2. They are done according to the ability they could get in. That is, not only according to the ability in hand, but the man labours to get more ability for the work, whereby he may be fitted for it. We are naturally impotent for any good work; but there is a storehouse of strength opened to us in Christ, to be brought in by faith, Isa. 45:24. "Wherefore they that are not concerned to fetch in strength for duty, but are unable for duty, and hold themselves so, will not be accepted; for there is no willing mind there.
3. They are not done quite below what they might have done, and was in the power of their hand, Isa. 32:5. Where there is an utter disproportion betwixt one's ability and service, it cannot be accepted but that service brings a curse instead of a blessing, Prov. 11:24. Hence a certain quantity of service may be accepted off one's hand that will not be accepted off another's, Luke 12:48. Where God gives much, he requires the greater returns.
4. Lastly, They are works wherein the willingness of the mind carries out the hand to do, as far as it can reach, 2 Cor. 8:3. The willing mind loves to serve the Lord, and to serve him liberally; and so carries a man to do to his power.
II. The next general head is to shew how or in what respect such a work is accepted. God accepts such works,
1. As obedience to him and a doing of his will, Matth. 25:21. As the willing mind is peculiar to those within the covenant of grace, so it is the privilege of those in that covenant to have their works so done, accepted, though imperfect. There is not one piece of obedience they can do that is perfect, or could be sustained as obedience according to the covenant of works; but God in Christ, in virtue of the covenant of grace, accepts such imperfect works as obedience pleasing to him, Acts 13:22.
2. As a token of their love to God, Heb. 6:10. A love-token is accepted, though not great, if according to the ability of the giver; especially with God, who looks more to the heart it is given with, than the gift. Some offered gold and precious stones for the service of the tabernacle; some but goats' hair and rams' skins; the latter as well as the former was accepted, where they gave according to their ability with willingness.
3. So as to be rewarded, 1 Cor. 15 ult. As believers' good works are tokens of their love to God, so God gives them tokens of his good pleasure with their works, not of debt, but of grace. To those that improve the abilities they have, he oft-times gives more ability, "To him that hath shall be given." However, accepted good works are a seed that will never miss a rich harvest sooner or later.
III. I proceed to shew why such works are accepted. It is not for their own worth; for the best works of the saints are attended with such sinfulness, that they could not be accepted in the eye of the law; but have in them more than sufficient matter of condemnation, Isa. 64:6. But they are accepted through special privilege.
1. Being sanctified through the Spirit, Rom. 15:16. Every work of ours is defiled by us, being in ourselves unclean creatures; but the Spirit works in believers, sanctifying them and their works. And he sanctifies their works, by influencing them to work, and in their work exciting them, giving gracious abilities; particularly working in them that approbation and liking of the command, that resolution to set about the work, that compliance of the heart with it, that delight and cheerfulness in the duty, that design to honour God by it, and that looking out for promised help, which I have spoken of before, and causing them to offer their works to God through Christ.
2. They are presented for acceptance, by the Mediator to the Father. Christ is the believers' resident in the court of heaven, managing all their matters there by his intercession, Heb. 7:25. He takes their imperfect works, perfumes them with the merit of his obedience and death, and gains their acceptance with the Father, according to the covenant of grace, Rev. 8:3, 4. The sum of the matter lies here; they are the work of his own Spirit in his children, presented for acceptance by the Son, and so they are accepted of the Father, Eph. 2:18.
USE. From what is said, we may draw the two following inferences:—
1. See here of what concern it is to get the heart up to every duty, 1 Chron. 28:9. The doing of the bare work is of small account with God; and where there is not a heart to it, God regards it not. A good work done grudgingly, whatever use it may be for among men, is an ill work in God's sight.
QUESTION. How may one get up his heart to every duty?
ANSWER (1.) Accept of Christ's free salvation by faith, that ye may be brought into a state of salvation. We have a spirit of slaves, a backwardness to good, derived from Adam. It is from Christ we must get the spirit of sons, and the willing mind, uniting with him by faith, John 1:16. Faith trusting on Christ for salvation to be received freely, works that willingness of mind.
(2.) Exercise faith for every duty anew. Believe the promise, [1.] Of assistance by the Spirit, Ezek 36:26, 27. In the covenant of grace commands are turned to promises, as Deut. 10:16, "Circumcise the foreskin of your heart." Compare Deut. 30:6, "The Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart." Every call to duty implies a promise of assistance. The belief of this makes willing, Phil. 2:12, 13. [2.] Of acceptance through Christ. The apostles' work was heavy, but that made them willing, 2 Cor. 2:15, "For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish." It is hard to be willing to a work, which one does not believe will be accepted.
2. See of what concern it is to put hand to every duty commanded us, and to do in it according to one's power; and not to content ourselves with lazy wishes as some do, and slack and scrimp performances as others, Eccl. 9:10. Neither will to wish and do nothing be accepted; nor to do, but do niggardly. It is not in every case that God will accept the will for the deed.
1st, God will not accept the natural or unregenerate man's will for the deed, in any case. For such a one is under the covenant of works, and no less than works every way perfect can be accepted off his hand, Gal. 3:10. But this is a privilege of the covenant of grace, which they are not under, not being in Christ. It is the privilege of sons, but they are but at best hired servants, working for hire, nay slaves, as under the curse. Their persons are not accepted; therefore nothing they are, have, or can do, can be accepted. Therefore deceive not yourselves, looking for this benefit, while ye are out of Christ.
2dly, God will accept no man's will for the deed,
(1.) When they content themselves with wishing only they could do a duty commanded them, but yet never essay it, nor put hand to it, Prov. 21:25. The sluggard unwilling to obey, makes a cover for his sloth, of the difficulty and his inability for duty, Prov. 22:13. But God will rend off that cover, and shew them in their own, colours, Matth. 25:24–30. Men cannot deny but that such a thing is their duty, and they wish they could, but that is all.
(2.) When they do not what is really in their power to do, Rom. 1:20, 21. Men's power is indeed little, but their doing is far less. Men are not as stocks and stones, but there are many things acts of moral discipline, that they may and can do, but they will not. But they grasp at the principle, that they can do nothing, and so fold their hands, sitting down contented. They cannot do all, therefore they will do nothing. But will that be accepted? No, Exod. 14:15. The women did not so, Mark 16:2, 4.
(3.) Lastly, When they do not by faith fetch in grace from the Lord Jesus to strengthen them to duty, 2 Tim. 2:1, compared with John 5:40. Many a good work is laid by, because of inability, and marred because we can carry it no further; but God will take notice what course is taken for getting in strength for duty. There are full promises lying between us and the fall fountain, as the conduit-pipes at which faith is to suck and draw, Isa. 40:29–31. Assure yourselves that the will will not be accepted for the deed, while this is neglected. And why should it? Is that man willing to pay his debt, who though he has nothing in hand, yet has a gift lying in a rich friend's hand, but he will not lift it? See the decision; Matth. 25:27, "Thou oughtest to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury."
I shall now consider in a few words the last doctrine I offered from the text, viz.
DOCTRINE IV. Want of power to do more, shall not mar the acceptance of what is done from a willing mind according to power. In that case, God will accept of his people's will for the deed.
Here I shall shew,
I. In what particular cases God accepts his people's will for the deed.
II. Why he does so.
I. I am to shew in what particular cases God accepts his people's will for the deed.
1. Where there is a sincere will to serve him in a piece of work, requiring some external abilities which are wanting. If it be hindered only by such want, the will is accepted. The disciples would fain have watched more, but the weak body could not bear up with their mind; and Christ kindly takes notice of it; Matth. 26:41, "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation; the Spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." Sometimes Satan makes a rack here to God's children; such a duty they would do, but bodily strength will not answer, and hereupon they are disquieted; but that is from Satan, and their own weakness; for God does not require that external duty from us, that we have no bodily strength for. That is a sweet word, 1 Cor. 6:13, "The body is—for the Lord, and the Lord for the body." Peter would fain have given to the poor man, but had it not, and it was accepted in the will, Acts 3:6.
2. When doing the best we can through grace, our work after all is attended with many blemishes; the Lord will not reject it for these blemishes, but accepts the will to do better for the deed, Cant. 5:1. There is a broad cover of Christ's righteousness cast over the believer's spots, that they appear not, Cant. 4:7; and the Lord accepts of the will to that perfection they would be at.
3. Going as far as we have access in a work, but meeting with a providential stop, the will to complete it is accepted for the deed, as if it had been fully done, as in the case of Abraham's offering up Isaac, Heb. 11:17. There is a great difference betwixt the stops men make in these, and those which God makes; the former argues an unwilling mind, but the latter not so.
4. Services that one really desires, and fain would perform for God, but have not opportunity; the will to them is accepted for the deed, as in the case of David's purposing to build a house for the Lord, 2 Chron. 6:8; and the Philippians care about supplying Paul's wants, Philip. 4:10. Some have opportunities of usefulness, but slight them; that is their sin; others may have a heart to be so and so useful, but they cannot have the opportunity; this God accepts.
5. Lastly, In services performed with a real desire of success for God's honour and men's good; the Lord accepts the good will to the success denied, as if it had succeeded according to their wish, Isa. 49:4; 2 Cor. 2:15. The want of success may mar their present comfort, but neither the acceptance nor reward.
II. Why does God accept such will for the deed?
1. The sincere will to a work is present, which God mainly regards. The person sincerely aims at doing such a piece of service. for God, but not attaining what he really desires, his good will thereto being present before the Lord, it is accepted, as if the work had been done.
2. We have a merciful High Priest to present that will for acceptance, notwithstanding all the weaknesses, blemishes, providential hindrances, want of opportunity, and failure of success, that it may be attended with, Heb. 4:15, 16.
3. We have a merciful Father to deal with, Psalm 103:13, 14, who pities the weaknesses and infirmities of his people, and graciously accepts of their upright designs to serve and honour him.
USE 1. If the Lord accepts the will for the deed in his own people, then men must answer for the ill they had a will to have done, as if they had done it, Numb. 14:42–45. A will and intention to do an evil action, though it be not actually done, is in God's account the same thing with doing it, and will be resented and punished accordingly.
2. God is a gracious master to his servants, taking kindly off their hands through Christ their sincere will to his service, giving them ample testimonies of his regard in all circumstances, and bestowing upon them the special comforts of his grace here, as pledges of the full reward laid up for them in glory hereafter.
Source: Discourses on Prayer by Thomas Boston