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Chapter I.

What sin is consistent with the state of grace, and what not — Sin’s great design in all to obtain dominion: it hath it in unbelievers, and contends for it in believers — The ways by which it acts.

The psalmist, treating with God in prayer about sin, acknowledgeth that there are in all men unsearchable errors of life, beyond all human understanding or comprehension, with such daily sins of infirmity as stand in need of continual cleansing and pardon: Ps. xix. 12, “Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.” But yet he supposeth that these things are consistent with a state of grace and acceptation with God. He had no thought of any absolute perfection in this life, of any such condition as should not stand in need of continual cleansing and pardon. Wherefore, there are or may be such sins in believers, yea, many of them, which yet, under a due application unto God for purifying and pardoning grace, shall neither deprive us of peace here nor endanger our salvation hereafter.

But he speaks immediately of another sort of sins, which, partly from their nature, or what they are in themselves, and partly from their operation and power, will certainly prove destructive unto the souls of men wherever they are: Verse 13, “Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.”

This is the hinge whereon the whole cause and state of my soul doth turn: Although I am subject to many sins of various sorts, yet under them all I can and do maintain my integrity, and covenant uprightness in walking with God; and where I fail, am kept 506within the reach of cleansing and pardoning mercy, continually administered unto my soul by Jesus Christ: but there is a state of life in this world wherein sin hath dominion over the soul acting itself presumptuously, wherewith integrity and freedom from condemning guilt are inconsistent.

This state, therefore, which alone is eternally ruinous unto the souls of men, he deprecates with all earnestness, praying to be kept and preserved from it.

What he there so earnestly prays for, the apostle in the words of the text promiseth unto all believers, by virtue of the grace of Christ Jesus administered in the gospel. Both the prayer of the prophet for himself, and the promise of the apostle in the name of God unto us, do manifest of how great importance this matter is, as we shall declare it to be immediately.

There are some things supposed or included in these words of the apostle. These we must first a little inquire into, without which we cannot well understand the truth itself proposed in them; as, —

1. It is supposed that sin doth still abide in and dwell with believers; for so is the meaning of the words: “That sin which is in you shall not have dominion over you;” that is, none of them who are not sensible of it, who groan not to be delivered from it, as the apostle doth, Rom. vii. 24. Those who are otherwise minded know neither themselves, nor what sin is, nor wherein the grace of the gospel doth consist. There is the “flesh” remaining in every one, which “lusteth against the Spirit,” Gal. v. 17; and it adheres unto all the faculties of our souls, whence it is called the “old man,” Rom. vi. 6, in opposition unto the renovation of our minds and all the faculties of them, called the “new man,” Eph. iv. 24, or “new creature” in us; and there is πρόνοια τῆς σαρκὸς εἰς ἐπιθυμίας, Rom. xiii. 14, — a continual working and provision to fulfil its own lusts: so that it abides in us in the way of a dying, decaying habit, weakened and impaired; but acting itself in inclinations, motions, and desires, suitable unto its nature.

As Scripture and experience concur herein, so a supposition of it is the only ground of the whole doctrine of evangelical mortification. That this is a duty, a duty incumbent on believers all the days of their lives, such a duty as without which they can never perform any other in a due manner, will not be denied by any, but either such as are wholly under the power of atheistical blindness, or such as by the fever of spiritual pride have lost the understanding of their own miserable condition, and so lie dreaming about absolute perfection. With neither sort are we at present concerned. Now, the first proper object of this mortification is this sin that dwells in us. It is the “flesh” which is to be “mortified,” the “old man” which is to be 507“crucified,” the “lusts of the flesh,” with all their corrupt inclinations, actings, and motions, that are to be destroyed, Col. iii. 5; Rom. vi. 6; Gal. v. 24. Unless this be well fixed in the mind, we cannot understand the greatness of the grace and privilege here expressed.

2. It is supposed that this sin, which, in the remainders of it, so abides in believers in various degrees, may put forth its power in them to obtain victory and dominion over them. It is first supposed that it hath this dominion in some, that it doth bear rule over all unbelievers, all that are under the law; and then that it will strive to do the same in them that believe and are under grace: for, affirming that it shall not have dominion over us, he grants that it may or doth contend for it, only it shall not have success, it shall not prevail. Hence it is said to fight and war in us, Rom. vii. 23, and to war against our souls, 1 Pet. ii. 11. Now, it thus fights, and wars, and contends in us for dominion, for that is the end of all war; whatever fights, it doth it for power and rule.

This, therefore, is the general design of sin in all its actings. These actings are various, according to the variety of lusts in the minds of men; but its general design in them all is dominion. Where any one is tempted and seduced of his own lusts, as the apostle James speaks, be it in a matter never so small or so unusual, the temptation whereunto may never occur again, the design of sin lies not in the particular temptation, but to make it a means to obtain dominion over the soul. And the consideration hereof should keep believers always on their guard against all the motions of sin, though the matter of them seem but small, and the occasions of them such as are not like to return; for the aim and tendency of every one of them is dominion and death, which they will compass if not stopped in their progress, as the apostle there declares, James i. 14, 15. Believe not its flatteries:— “Is it not a little one?” “This is the first or shall be the last time;” “It requires only a little place in the mind and affections;” “It shall go no farther.” Give not place to its urgency and solicitations; admit of none of its excuses or promises; it is power over your souls unto their ruin that it aims at in all.

3. There are two ways whereby, in general, sin acts its power and aims at the obtaining this dominion, and they are the two only ways whereby any may design or attain an unjust dominion, and they are deceit and force, both of which I have fully described in another discourse;22    See his discourse on Indwelling Sin, vol. vi. — Ed. with respect whereunto it is promised that the Lord Christ shall “deliver the souls of the poor that cry unto him from deceit and violence,” Ps. lxxii. 12–14.

These are the two only ways of obtaining an unjust dominion; and where they are in conjunction they must have a mighty prevalency, 508and such as will render the contest hazardous. There are few believers but have found it so, at least in their own apprehensions. They have been ready to say, at one time or another, “We shall one day fall by the hand of this enemy;” and have been forced to cry out unto Jesus Christ for help and succour, with no less vehemency than the disciples did at sea when the ship was covered with waves, “Lord, save us; we perish,” Matt. viii. 24–26. And so they would do did he not come in seasonably to their succour, Heb. ii. 18. And herein the soul hath frequently no less experience of the power of Christ in his grace than the disciples on their outcry had of his sovereign authority, when “he rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.”

This dominion of sin is that which we have here security given us against. Though it will abide in us, though it will contend for rule by deceit and force, yet it shall not prevail, it shall not have the dominion.

And this is a case of the highest importance unto us. Our souls are, and must be, under the rule of some principle or law; and from this rule our state is determined and denominated. We are either “servants of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness,” Rom. vi. 16. This is the substance of the discourse of the apostle in that whole chapter, — namely, that the state of the soul, as unto life and death eternal, follows the conduct and rule that we are under. If sin have the dominion, we are lost forever; if it be dethroned, we are safe. It may tempt, seduce, and entice; it may fight, war, perplex, and disquiet; it may surprise into actual sin: yet if it have not the dominion in us, we are in a state of grace and acceptation with God.

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