« Prev Sermon XXVIII. Preached at St. Mary’s, Oxford,… Next »




DEUTER. xxix. 4.

Yet the Lord has not given you an heart to perceive, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear, unto this day.

TO complete the sense of the words, we must have recourse to the two precedent verses; which being compared with the text, present us with a description of such a brutish and irrational temper, such an invincible hardness, as is not to be found in any people mentioned throughout the whole book of God, or any history whatsoever. Israel, the peculiar in heritance of God, the darlings of heaven; yet by their strange deportment under God’s dealings, may leave this report of themselves, that they were the greatest enjoyers and the greatest abusers of mercy that ever lived. The whole story of the transactions between God and them is a continued miracle. On God’s side there is strange unheard of power and goodness, on theirs a prodigious unheard of stupidity. Here we have miracles of strength and wisdom, there we have miracles of disobedience. None ever possessed mercy so much to the reproach of mercy as they did. Miracles are the rarities and the reserves of Heaven, kept to bear testimony to the power of God, and to convince men, when 60a contemplation of his works in the ordinary course of nature will not serve turn. Yet God was pleased to make these common with his people, that he might engage their hearts to him beyond all plea of unbelief. He delivered them by miracles, in Exod. xiv. 29. He led and guided them by miracles, Exod. xiii. 21. He fed them by miracles, Exod. xvi. 13, 17. He clothed them by miracles, Deut. xxix. 5. And, what was the greatest and the crowning miracle of all, he did not consume them in the midst of their frequent rebellions. Yet they had hardness and unbelief enough to encounter all these dealings: they still remained the same, a perverse, obstinate people, whose neck (as the Spirit’s expression is) was an iron sinew, and their brow brass. In short, the bare report and fame of those miracles made many proselytes and converts, the very sight whereof could not convert them. It will not be amiss, to take a short survey of their strange, unreasonable unbelief in some particular passages of it. When God had delivered them out of Egypt by an outstretched arm, by such wonders as never were before, nor ever since; and while the memory of these was yet fresh upon their mind, even then, upon the pursuit of Pharaoh, they distrust and murmur, Exod. xiv. 11. Hence David puts such a repeated emphasis upon this, in Psalm cvi. 7, They provoked him at the Red sea, even at the Red sea. As if the same power that could deliver them from an enemy, when he actually possessed them, could not rescue them from him when he only pursued them. After this deliverance they murmur for meat: Can God furnish a table in the wilderness? Psalm lxxviii. 19. Can God? They 61question not only his will, but his power, of which they had an immediate experience. Well, God gives them meat, even the bread of angels, and then they murmur for flesh: Psalm lxxviii. 20, Can he provide flesh also for his people? Still they doubt of his power; they live upon it one day, and they question it the next. An interchange of mercies on God’s part, and murmurings on theirs, was the continual custom and manner of their whole life. But the most horrid, and almost incredible passage of their unbelief, was when, after all the. wonders, both in Egypt and out of Egypt, when Moses had but only turned his back; as if in Moses they had lost their God, as if he had been the only Deity they acknowledged; and all their worship and religion had been directed to his person: in his absence they address themselves to Aaron, with this impious, absurd argument; Moses is gone, therefore make us gods, Exod. xxxii. 1. I am confident, if an intelligent infidel should read this history, the miracles here mentioned would not seem so improbable to him, as their carriage and behaviour upon these miracles. From the consideration of this, Moses might here very well proem the repetition of the covenant with this upbraiding reprehension; The Lord hath not given yon an heart to perceive, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear. Which words are only an increpation of them, not any reflection upon God, as shall appear afterwards.

As for the explication of the words, I suppose I need not tell you, that they cannot be understood strictly according to the letter: for if God had given them no bodily eyes to see, nor ears to hear, they had not had sin: but because they saw bodily, and 62were blind spiritually, herein the sin of their obstinacy did consist.

We have here several phrases, but they all concentre in the same signification. A heart to perceive, eyes to see, and ears to hear. It is a pleonasm, a figure usual in scripture, by a multiplicity of expressions, to signify some one notable thing: so that from this congeries of similary words, we may collect the exceeding stupidity and total ignorance of the Jews, in apprehending the divine dispensations.

Or, secondly, we may refer these several expressions to those several means which God suited to every apprehensive faculty of their soul. He proposed an excellent law to their understanding or their heart: he declared himself in prodigious miracles visible to the eye. He spoke to them in a wonderful manner from mount Sinai in thunders, and a voice audible to the ear. He did (as I may so speak) lay siege to every faculty, if through any one of them he might force his convictions into the soul. He proposed that which might win the eyes and inform the ear, and that which might strike the understanding through both; but nothing could find entrance, where the doors both of sense and reason were shut through gross unbelief.

And thus we see the words have no difficulty in them. They will afford us these observations.

1 Observ. That the heart may remain unaffected and unconvinced in the midst of convincing means.

That this is so, scripture and experience leave it beyond dispute. But the reason why it is so, is this: because the clearness and perspicuity of the object does not at all supply or repair the defects of the faculty. 63The goodness and excellency of the things proposed to be understood and embraced do not give any ability to an hard heart to apprehend or embrace them; as the most visible, conspicuous thing contributes no power to a weak, indisposed eye to discern it.

Now I term these means convincing,

(1.) Because they do actually convince some, although they miscarry in others.

(2.) Because they have a fitness or aptitude to convince all.

2 Obsevr. issuing from the words is this:

That such a frame of spirit, such a perceiving heart, as enables the soul to apprehend and improve the means of grace, is totally and entirely the free gift of God: Yet the Lord hath not given you an heart to perceive. It is a product of that mercy which has no argument but itself.

I say, it is a free gift; and that,

1. In respect of the motive, which is the mere compassion of God: there is nothing in man that could engage God to bestow grace upon him. We are by nature wholly in a state of sin and enmity against God; and how these qualifications should merit grace at his hands, I know not, unless, by an unheard of, strange antiperistasis, the most hateful object should excite an act of the greatest love.

2. It is free, in respect of the persons upon whom it is conferred. When God comes first to work upon us, we are presented to him in the lump, all equally odious, equally desirable. And that God gives grace to one, and denies it to another, it is not from any precedent difference in them; for it is only the gift and grace of God which makes them to differ. But 64as God’s decree in choosing Jacob and rejecting Esau is most free, and without relation to any good or evil done by them; so the execution of that decree in conferring grace upon one, and withholding it from the other, is equally free and irrespective.

3 Observ. arising from the words, which I intend more fully to prosecute, is this:

That God’s denial of such a disposition of soul, such a perceiving heart, does certainly infer the unsuccessfulness of all the means of grace.

I say, it does infer it, not cause it, as I shall demonstrate by and by.

In the handling of this, I shall shew,

I. What is meant by God’s giving to the soul a perceiving heart.

II. Whence it is, that without this gift the soul cannot make any saving improvement of the means of grace.

III. I shall shew, that although, upon God’s denial of a perceiving heart, the soul does inevitably remain unprofitable under the means of grace, so as not to hear nor perceive, yet this hardness or unprofitableness cannot at all be ascribed to God as the author of it.

IV. I shall shew, how God can rationally reprehend a soul for not embracing the means of grace, when he denies it a heart, by which alone it can be enabled so to do. The necessity of clearing this I take from the strain of the words, which run in the nature of a reprehension; and this always supposes a fault as the ground and foundation of it. But if God denies a hearing ear and a perceiving heart, it may seem not to be the soul’s fault, if it does not hear nor perceive.


Having despatched these in their order, I shall proceed to the uses that may be drawn from hence.

I. Concerning the first; what is meant by God’s giving to the soul a perceiving heart. We have grace here set out by such acts as are properly acts of knowledge; as understanding, seeing, hearing; not because, as some imagine, grace is placed only in the understanding, which, being informed with such a principle, is able to govern, and practically to determine the will, without the help of any new principle infused into that. For grace is an habit equally placed in both these faculties, but it is expressed by the acts of the understanding.

1. Because the understanding has the precedency and first stroke in holy actions, as well as in others; it is the head and fountain from whence they derive their goodness, the leading faculty: and therefore the works of all the rest may, by way of eminence, be ascribed to this, as the conquest of an army is ascribed to the leader only, or general.

2. Because the means of grace are chiefly and most frequently expressed by the word of truth; 1 Tim. i. 15, This is a faithful (or a true) saying, that Christ came into the world to save sinners. And in John iii. 33, He that believeth hath set to his seal that God is true. And in John xvii. 17, Thy word is truth. Now, since the understanding is that faculty whose proper office it is to close in with truth as such, the receiving or embracing the means of grace, which are called truth, is most properly set forth by the acts of the understanding.

I shall now endeavour to shew, from some places in scripture, what is to be here understood by a perceiving heart and an hearing ear. John vi. 45, Every 66one that hath heard, and learned of the Father, cometh unto me. Such an hearing of God’s will as is attended with the learning of it, such a learning of it as powerfully brings the soul to God, is that alone which Christ esteems effectual. John v. 25, The dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. Such an hearing as enlivens a dead soul, as conveys into it a spiritual vigour, declaring itself in spiritual operations; this only, in God’s account, is hearing. Again, in Acts ii. 37, When they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said, Men and brethren, what shall we do? To hear, so as to be throughly and deeply affected with a sense of sin; so as to be put upon an immediate inquiry and endeavour for the securing our eternal state; this is properly to hear and to perceive. To hear, so as in practice to follow and prosecute the things we hear; this only is hearing in a scripture sense. Thus Moses is said to have hearkened to his father-in-law, because he followed his counsel; and Rehoboam is said not to have hearkened to his old counsellors, because he never practised their advice. In short, in Matthew xiii. we have an account of the nature of hearing, which then only is true and genuine, when it ends in the bringing forth of fruit. Wherefore so to hear God’s will, as spiritually to understand it; so to understand it, as to be really affected with it; so to entertain it in our affections, as to manifest it in our actions; and so to act, as to continue in a steady, fruitful perseverance, is that alone that can justly be reputed hearing; otherwise, upon a defect of these, it is all one to the soul, as if it had not heard at all; nay, in some respects much worse.


From hence, therefore, I collect,

1. That to understand and receive the word, according to the letter and notion, by a bare assent to the truth of it, is not to have an heart to perceive, nor an ear to hear: because it is evident, both from scripture and ordinary observation, that such a reception of the means of grace is not always attended with these spiritual effects: as for instance, the Jews heard Christ, and admired him, but afterwards they rejected his doctrine, and crucified his person. Who more versed in the law and the oracles of God than the scribes and pharisees? yet we may easily gather from the whole course of our Saviour’s carriage to wards them, that he looked upon them as men ignorant of God. The papists indeed make saving faith to be only an assent of the understanding to gospel-truths; according to whose tenets a man may believe like a saint, and practise like a devil. In short, there is nothing more common than to see men of rare knowledge and raised speculations in the things of God, yet not at all to have any relish and savour of them upon their hearts and affections. So that their practices oftentimes bid defiance to their knowledge; for they never knew God, so as to obey him; and therefore, in effect, never knew him at all. To hear the word of God, and to hear God speaking in his word, are things vastly different.

2. Therefore, in the second place, to have a perceiving heart and an hearing ear, is to have a spiritual light begot in the mind by an immediate, overpowering work of the Spirit, whereby alone the soul is enabled to apprehend and discern the things of God spiritually, and to practise them effectually: and without this, we may see and see, and never perceive, 68and hear again and again, and never under stand. Christ may discourse with us as he did with those two disciples going to Emmaus, and in the mean time our eyes may be so held, as not to discern him. For, as the apostle says, the natural man cannot apprehend these things, because they are spiritually discerned. And the reason of this is clear, even from nature; because, in order to apprehension, there must be a peculiar suitableness between the object and the faculty. Things sensible must be apprehended by sense; things intelligible, by the understanding and the reason: and so things spiritual, by some spiritual principle that is infused into the soul from above. And look, as the inferior faculty cannot apprehend the proper, formal objects of the superior, sense cannot reach up to the things of reason; so neither can reason take in or perceive those objects which properly belong to this spiritual principle. Hence it is, that some souls can discern that spiritual, secret, persuading force in the word, that shall strongly engage and almost constrain the affections to embrace and follow it: so that the whole man is insensibly fashioned and moulded into it, while others, void of this spiritual, discerning faculty, feel no such force and power in it. Some also, from the help of this, spy out that true loveliness and beauty in the ways of God, as to enamour them to a practice of them, and that even with delight: while others, void of this power, do indeed see and behold those ways, but see no beauty in them why they should desire them. Hence two sit together, and hear the same sermon; one finds an hidden, spiritual virtue in the word, by which he lives, and grows, and thrives: another finds no such extraordinary 69virtue in it; but if it be rationally and well composed, it pleases his reason, and there is an end. And this proceeds from the want of a spiritual, perceiving heart. As for instance, whence is it that a man is so affected with music, that all the passions of his mind and blood in his body is moved at the hearing of it, and the stupid brutes not at all pleased? but because in man there is a principle of reason concurring with his sense, which discovers that sweetness and harmony in those sounds, that bare sense is not able to discern. Thus it is proportionally between mere reason, and reason joined with a spiritual discernment in respect of spiritual things. And so I have endeavoured in some measure to display the nature of a perceiving heart and an hearing ear. But the truth is, when we have spoke the utmost concerning it that we can, yet those only can know what it is who have it: as he only knows what it is to see, who can see. As the groans, so also the graces of the Spirit are unutterable. Grace is known by its own evidence. It is the white stone shining to him only that does possess it; for a man is no more able to express this work, so as to convey a full notion of it to the mind of him that has it not, than by words and discourse to convey an idea of colours to him who was born blind, or the proper relish of meats to him who has no taste.

II. Whence it is, that without this gift of a perceiving heart, the soul cannot make any improvement of the means of grace. It arises from these two reasons.

1. From its exceeding impotence and inability to apprehend these things.

2. From its contrariety to them.


1. It cannot close with the means, because of its impotence to apprehend them. Reason attended with the highest improvements of art and endowments of nature, is not able to search into the things of God; it may indeed dive into them so as to drown itself, but never so as to find and apprehend them. For if it be so posed and nonplused, in pursuing the knowledge of natural causes, that the greatest philosophers, after all their search into these things, are forced to sit down in confusion and disagreement; I say, if nature thus falter in earthly things, how will it be able to reach heavenly, between which there is a greater distance than between earth and heaven? If it be also so much to seek in the disquisition of moral truths, that few can agree in stating what is the greatest good, but one says virtue, another pleasure; I say, how then can it be able to comprehend truth spiritual, which as far surpasses the most elevated morality, considered as such, as that transcends the gross dictates of the most swinish sensuality? Every spiritual truth, as spiritual, so far it is also mysterious. Nature is weak, and feeble, and blind, when it comes to the mysteries of faith; it never appears so weak, as when, by its own strength, it at tempts the understanding of these. Nature prying into spirituals, is like Pompey, an heathen, looking into the ark of God; seeing indeed, but not under standing. There is a certain secret of the Lord, locked up from the view of bare reason; and it is only with them that fear him. See in what a posture of weakness the Spirit presents a natural understanding, John i. 5, The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not. Let the light shine round about him who is blind, yet the darkness, 71which he carries about him, hinders him from perceiving it. Sooner may a dark room enlighten itself, without the irradiation of a candle or the sun, than a natural understanding work out its own ignorance in matters of faith. The Spirit says expressly, that a man in this state cannot know the things of God, 1 Corinth, ii. 14. There is an impotence rising into an impossibility. Again, in 2 Corinth, iii. 5. We are not sufficient of ourselves to think any thing. A good thought is the lowest strain of piety, but the first step to grace; yet we see it is higher than nature can rise unto. How is a natural understanding towering, and pleasing itself in the ornaments and riches of its own notions! yet represented by the Spirit as poor, and wretched, and blind, and naked. Revel. iii. 17. Come to Nicodemus with a gospel-mystery, make it out to him by the most obvious similitudes in nature, yet how is that great doctor void of an heart to perceive, and an ear to hear! Instead of understanding and assenting to it, he will reply upon you, How can these things be? They seem to him absurd, irrational, impossible: and whosoever searches into the great things of the gospel by the bare strength of reason, he will find that, like Nicodemus, he comes to Christ in the dark. Wherefore, if, in the judgment of the Spirit of truth itself, the best of human knowledge, when it ventures upon the things of God, is no more than weakness, insufficiency, and wretched blindness, then for ever let it sit down in its own darkness, and deplore its impotence and inability, and not wonder that it is unable savingly to perceive, hear, or see, the great depths of the gospel. Those expressions usual amongst us, strength of parts, force of reason, since 72the ruins of a broken, crippled nature, are solecisms in divinity, no where the language of the scripture. It was Adam’s doom to return to the earth, and his soul fell to the ground first. But now that our not perceiving nor discerning the things of God proceeds from the impotence of our own hearts, and not from any obscurity or unfitness to be understood in the things themselves, is apparent, and that from the forementioned John i. 5, where these things are called a light, a shining light, and therefore most easily to be seen, if it was not for our own darkness. The most refined and the sublimest beings are the most intelligible. It is God’s nature to dwell in light, but it is our weakness that makes that light inaccessible: as the fruit that grows upon the top branches, the highest boughs of all, is the fairest and the sweetest, if we could but reach it.

The great disproportion between our intellect and these things, is the cause that we cannot apprehend them. Every such truth has a brightness to dim, and a largeness to exceed the understanding; as the sun is both too bright and too great for the eye. What master of reason or subtlety is able to unriddle the mysteries of the gospel? to track the mysterious workings of the Spirit in conviction and conversion? Sooner may we spy out the motions of the wind, from whence it comes and whither it goes; and view the first conception, and observe the growth of an infant in the womb, which the Spirit mentions as a thing impossible; than to comprehend these wonders: things fitter to amaze, than to inform a natural understanding.

2. The second reason why the soul cannot make any saving improvement of the means of grace, 73without this special gift of a perceiving heart, is because of its contrariety to these things. And there are two things in the soul, in which this contrariety chiefly consists.

(1.) Carnal corruptions.

(2.) Carnal wisdom.

(1.) Concerning the contrariety that arises from carnal corruption, it is expressed in the scripture by the greatest that can be, namely, that contrariety which is between enemies; yea, and such an one as breaks out into an open war: I have a law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and leading me captive into the law of sin, Rom. vii. 23. Paul speaks this in his own person. Now if concupiscence is so strong as to captivate him at some turns, who was truly changed and sanctified, how then will it reign and rage, by a strong opposition of the things of God, in such a person as is yet unchanged and unsanctified? Concupiscence domineers in most men, and it is lively in the best. As for the seat of it, it is placed in the sensitive part of man, and therefore, according to the regular tenor and state of nature, was made to serve, and to be subject to reason: but we know that since sin entered into the world, it has got the dominion over it; and hence, as from a ruler, we read of its laws, the law of the members. Now there is no such tyrant as a servant, when he steps into dominion. Hereupon the sensitive appetite, with so much fury, commands the whole man to fulfil its lust; it outfaces and tramples upon all the commands of reason to the contrary. Whence we argue for the truth in hand thus: If concupiscence so much opposes the dictates of human reason, which are much inferior 74in purity and strictness to the spiritual injunctions of the gospel, then with how much stronger a prejudice must it resist these? For if the yoke that reason puts upon sin be heavy, that which the gospel puts upon it is much heavier. If reason prohibits the actions of concupiscence, upon the score of in convenience, the gospel does it upon pain of eternal damnation. As for the works of carnal concupiscence, the apostle gives us a catalogue of them in Galat. v. 19, 20, The works of the flesh are envyings, strife, and emulation; uncleanness, drunkenness, and the like. Now let us make a particular accommodation of gospel precepts to each of these, and see what an entertainment they are like to find, in an heart that is held in captivity under such lusts. Christ in the gospel says, Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, Matt. xi. 29. Bless them that curse you., do good to them that hate you, Matt. v. 44. Can we now imagine that this can suit the humour of a wrathful, contentious person, who is so far from blessing those who curse him, that he is often ready to curse those who bless and befriend him? Again, Christ says, How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another? John v. 44. And, Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your servant, Matt. xx. 26. Is it possible for an envious, emulous man, in his heart to approve, or in his practice to follow this precept of humility? Could he by a voluntary condescension stoop to be a servant, whose continual desire and restless endeavour it is, to be great in the world? Again, Christ enjoins watching and praying to such as are his disciples, Matt. xxvi. 41. For it is clear that this command is general, though delivered to particular persons, 75because the reason of it was general, that ye enter not into temptation, which equally concerns all. But can the unclean, sensual epicure brook the excellency of this precept? can he like the rigour of these duties? will he break his sleep, or spend any portion of the night in reading and wrestling with God in prayer, who never watches but to serve his cups and his intemperance? Every such precept proposed to concupiscence is a pearl cast before a swine: it can find no admission with such a man as is led and ruled by his corruption. It is above his principles, and so he cannot apprehend it. It is contrary to his appetite, and so he cannot receive it.

(2.) The second thing from whence this contrariety arises is carnal wisdom, which carries in it a greater opposition to the means of grace than the former; inasmuch as there is more hope of the conversion of a sensualist, than of a resolved atheist. For since the notions of carnal wisdom are more refined, and always seem to wear the face of reason, which has more to say for itself than concupiscence has or can have; hence it is, that one thus principled is more hardly convinced than another. In this chiefly are reared those strong holds and principalities which stand out against the workings of the Spirit: The carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be, Rom. viii. 7. The subtlety of the world loathes the simplicity of the gospel: hence, in the number of those who are to be saved, we have not many wise, not many great, not many noble, 1 Cor. i. 26. And for the most part these are the men who are so much acted by this carnal wisdom. 76Such men are usually too wise and politic to be saved. The cross of Christ is to the Greek, to the learned Athenian, foolishness, 1 Cor. i. 23. He can not find any convincing reason, why a man should prefer duty before interest; despise the splendor of worldly enjoyments, to assume a cross. Policy, the great idol of a carnal reason, is that which insensibly works the soul to a despisal of religion. We have an exact account of that temper of mind, that indifference in things spiritual, that it usually begets in the minds of its worldly-wise followers, Acts xviii. When a controversy about religion was brought before Gallic, a Roman deputy, it is said in the 17th verse, But Gallio cared for none of these things. Now that in which carnal wisdom and religion stand at an eternal distance is this, that the design of religion is continually to urge a denial of self; but all the maxims of carnal wisdom tend to and terminate in the advancement of self. It is this alone that is more amiable than either the practice or the rewards of holiness. Purity must here give place to profit: love of present possessions out weighs the hope of future felicity. From this principle also proceed those hideous maxims; that religion is only a politic invention, a lackey to government; that the appearance of it is advantageous, but the substance hurts. Hence are these expressions of a known author in his heathenish politics; that good men, advanced to government, must of necessity defend themselves, and those they govern, by deceit and violence: that a Christian, living under an heathen magistrate, may deny Christ in word, so he does acknowledge him in his heart; the nature of faith being internal, and lodged in the 77mind, and not at all depending on outward professions. These pestilent sayings, issuing from the fountain of carnal wisdom, sufficiently shew what a cursed abhorrence it has to a submission to spiritual gospel-truths. Now this principle is more or less in all men; every man is naturally wise to catch hold of any present enjoyment, rather than venture his happiness upon expectation. There is none that will forsake father or mother, the least piece of the world, the most inconsiderable profit or pleasure, that he may secure an interest in Christ, and in the great things of the gospel, if he should be ruled by the guidance of his carnal wisdom. From hence it is clear, that there is such a fixed antipathy in nature against the spirituality of the ways of God, that unless it be wrought out by the Spirit’s giving us a new heart to perceive, and eyes to see, there is no possibility of ever reconciling these together.

111. I proceed to the third thing, which is to shew, that although, upon God’s denial of a perceiving heart, the soul does inevitably remain unprofitable under the means of grace, so as not to hear nor perceive; yet this hardness, or unprofitableness, cannot at all be ascribed to God as the author of it. In order to the clearing of this, we must know, that God’s not giving an heart to perceive may admit of a double acceptation.

(1.) As it implies only a bare denial of grace.

(2.) As it does also include a positive act of induration.

(1.) Now as for the first, God cannot be said to cause our rejection of the means of grace, that ensues upon the denial of a perceiving heart; because this denial is not the cause of that rejection, but the 78immediate sinfulness of the heart that resists grace. This rejection, this not hearing, follows indeed upon the denial of grace, certainly, and of necessity; but then it follows only by way of certain consequence, and not of causal influence. As when a thing is falling, if nobody reaches forth, and stands to catch it, and stop the motion, it must of necessity fall to the ground; yet the not reaching out of the hand, is not the cause of its falling; it adds no impulse to it, but the inherent gravity of the thing is the only cause of the motion, which, if not hindered, will certainly carry it so far. In short, God’s denial of grace gives the same necessity to our not hearing, not perceiving the word of God, that the divine prescience, or foreknowledge, gives to free actions; that is, a necessity in respect of the event and future existence of the action, not in respect of the power producing it. That is, there is a certain connection between God’s denial of an heart to perceive, and our not perceiving: if he gives us not such an heart, the event and issue will certainly be, that we shall not perceive nor understand. But in the mean time, it puts no necessity upon the power, it does not by any physical influence determine that to a necessary suspension of the acts of perceiving and understanding. Wherefore, since the denial of grace does only infer, not cause the soul’s unprofitableness; God, who is the cause of this denial, is not also the cause of this unprofitableness.

(2.) And herein the chief difficulty does consist, how God can by a positive act harden the heart, and yet not be the cause of those sins that issue from that hardness. I shall here premise that for a truth, that a learned divine, in his treatise of predestination 79and the grace of God, lays down as a previous consideration to that work; That God is just, even when we are not able to comprehend the manner how he is just. His infinite justice is not to be measured by the standard of those frail shallow notions, which men have of justice; but it transcends them as far as his nature transcends ours. But to the matter in hand, we must here first note, that the not hearing, not perceiving, mentioned in the text, are not bare sins of omission, and a mere privation of these acts; but they are rather positive sins, implying an active resistance, a disapprobation, and a rejection of the means of grace. Now we are to shew, how the righteous God can actively harden the heart to a producing of such actions. Certain it is, that he does not infuse or beget any evil disposition in the heart, which may incline or determine it to such actions. We may observe therefore, that there are three ways, whereby God may be said to harden the heart to sin.

First, God affords a general influence or concurrence to those persuasions or suggestions, whereby Satan or sinful men may endeavour to bring others to sin, so far as those persuasions or suggestions are natural acts; there being no positive thing, in the production of which the first cause has not a share.

Secondly, God in his providential rule of all things disposes and offers such objects and occasions, which, though good in themselves, yet, concurring with a corrupt heart, have a fitness to educe that corruption into act. As his putting David into such a condition of misery, and by his providence causing him to pass that way where he should meet with 80Shimei. His low condition was a fit occasion to cause Shimei to vent his inveterate hatred in curses and railings. So by his providence disposing the children of Israel under such straits, where sometimes their enemies pursued them, and sometimes they wanted food; these calamities gave occasion to their infidelity to exert itself in murmurings and disregarding the testimony of God’s miracles; so as not to hear, nor see, nor perceive what God spoke in them.

Obj. But it may be objected here, if God propose such objects to men, as are fit to provoke and actuate their corruption, then God persuades to sin, and so is the moral cause of sin; since he that persuades only acts per modum objecti, by proposing such objects to the mind, as are apt to entice and gain upon it.

Ans. To this I answer, that God cannot be said to persuade to sin; because though he proposes such objects, yet he does not withal interpose his authority, so as to desire or command the soul, which carries a greater weight and moment with it to in duce to sin, than the provocation of any sinful object whatsoever. In short, for one to work in the nature of a moral cause, there is not only required a presenting of a suitable object that may affect a man’s mind; but there is required also that he who persuades, should so far own that object, as to desire or command him to comply with it, wherein the chief nature of persuasion consists; and it is far from the righteous God to do thus.

Thirdly, God hardens to sin by affording his influence and concurrence to those actions and motions, that such objects and occasions stir up in the 81soul, so far forth as they are positive and natural. And these ways concurring, God is said to harden the heart, not by creating any sinful dispositions in the heart, nor yet by affording a special influence to any sinful action as such; but by disposing of objects, and affording a general influence to the material part of the action, which is the subject-matter of that obliquity. It is not to be hoped, that these things can be so explained as to take off all cavils; but this may suffice to those who desire to be wise to sobriety, and had rather embrace than dispute the truth.

IV. The fourth thing is, to shew how God can justly reprehend men for not hearing nor perceiving, when, upon his denial of an heart, there is a necessity lying upon them to do neither. Now there can be no just reprehension, but for sin; and nothing can be sin, but that which is voluntary and free: and how can that be free for a man to do or not to do, which from necessity he cannot do?

For the clearing of this, I have already shewn that God’s denial of an heart is not the cause of the necessity of the soul’s not perceiving, but its own native hardness. But here then the question will be, how it can be blamed for this hardness which is not voluntary, but lies upon it by a necessity of sinful nature? Some here restrain that maxim (whatsoever is sinful is also voluntary) only to sinful actions; but it may be also true of sinful habits, which, though congenite with our natures, may be yet said to be free and voluntary. For a thing is said to be free, either formally, as an action produced by the free will; or by interpretation, as that which is consequent upon such an action. Now this general and native hardness upon all men’s hearts is the immediate 82product of the sin of Adam, which was most free and voluntary; and every man is as really guilty of this sin, as he was really represented in Adam. So that although at present he be naturally under a necessity of rejecting the means, yet this necessity is in effect voluntary; and therefore sin, inasmuch as it follows upon that which was properly so. If Jephthah by a rash vow bring himself under a necessity of one of these two sins, either to break his vow or kill his daughter; yet, inasmuch as he himself procured this necessity by his own voluntary vow, it is virtually, and by consequence, no less voluntary. He that freely brings upon himself a disability of embracing the means of grace, is liable to that reprehension and punishment which is due to a voluntary rejection of them. And thus much concerning the fourth thing.


Use 1. This doctrine speaks refutation to that opinion, that states a sufficiency of grace in the bare proposal of things to be believed and practised, with out a new, powerful work of the Spirit upon the heart, that may determine and enable it to believe and accept of these things. The assertors of this opinion hold, that the mind of God clearly revealed, and urged with due persuasions, is a suitable object to a rational understanding, which has power enough to close with every object agreeable to it. If this were true, why does the Spirit here give this as a reason of their not hearing nor perceiving, because God has denied them an heart to perceive, and an ear to hear. Certain it is, that the Israelites had the same abilities of a natural understanding and a will that others had; and if this had been able to do the 83business, they could not have been said to have wanted an heart to perceive. How hardly is proud nature convinced of its own weakness! Assuredly, if those scriptures, that so frequently inculcate the total blindness and darkness of a natural understanding, and the impotence of the will in things spiritual, be true, then this opinion must be false. Whatsoever in these things is attributed to mere nature, so much is derogated from God. Those who espouse the defence of nature in this particular, present their opinions, as to the manner of expression, variously; but the thing they drive at is still the same.

(1.) Some say, that nature of itself indeed is not able to apprehend or close in with these things; but there is an universal grace, that does generally repair and make up the breaches of nature, and enlightens every man that comes into the world, as they misapply that scripture. So that as Adam’s sin brought upon his posterity a total disability to apprehend the things of God, so Christ’s death, which was of an equal latitude, purchased that general assistance of the Spirit that should take oft that utter disability, and recruit nature so, as again to put it in a capacity of apprehending the things of God when discovered to it; of which things also there is a general discovery made in the sun, moon, and stars, preaching the gospel. But this opinion also directly contradicts the text: for if there was such an universal ability in men to conceive aright of things spiritual, why does the Spirit here say, that God had not yet given these men an heart to perceive? Therefore there was either no such universal grace bestowed upon all men, or the children of Israel were exempt from this general corporation of mankind. But that such men, 84when they use the word grace, intend not the thing, is clear, as from all their writings, so more particularly from a late author, who, in this case, expresses his mind to this effect: that when he says, reason is able to comprehend and comply with the things of God, reason is not to be understood as abstracted and separate from the concurrence of God, but as seconded and assisted by it: as the sun is said to know the time of its rising and going down; not that the sun abstracted from God’s concurrence can do this, but as directed by it. And he adds, that as this assistance never fails to direct the sun in his course, unless by a miracle, so neither does God ever fail to vouchsafe that assistance to reason, whereby it may be enabled to apprehend things spiritual. From hence it is clear, that the word grace is here used to express nature, as Pelagius used it, ad frangendam invidiam; that an opinion equally venomous might appear the less odious. For according to this assertion, it is no more supernatural for a soul to believe, than for the sun to rise and set in his appointed time.

(2.) There are others who say indeed, that it is not in the power of man’s will to believe; but they explain their meaning thus, that it is not in man’s power to believe when he will; that is, a man engaged and hardened in a way of sin, cannot immediately in that condition advance into such a spiritual act as believing, till he has gradually disposed himself to it. So that they hold, that a man, in the most sinful condition, may dispose himself to be better, and from thence arise to be yet better; and so lay such a series or train of good dispositions, that shall at length end in belief. And I think it is apparent to any ordinary reason, that, to assert this, is to strike in with 85the known enemies of God’s grace, who, by pretending to enlarge it, do indeed really subvert it.

But now, beside the conviction that these men might meet with in the clear current of the scriptures, certainly their own experience may convince them, that a perceiving heart is a new and special gift of God: for although at present they may find it in their power to believe, yet, if they reflect upon the former part of their life, they will find a time when they lay bound hand and foot; when they were no more able to get their heart throughly affected with the sense and hatred of sin. nor to believe and fasten their reliance upon Christ in the promises, than for a dead man to rise from the grave. And if they never found that it was thus with them, I believe there are few who understand these things, that for all the world would venture the eternal concernment of their souls upon such a faith. lint if their own experience will afford them no light, let them view the condition of some of God’s saints, who, when they have been in a state of grace, and the seed of faith has remained within them, yet, when God has hid his face, and suspended the fresh influence of his Spirit, they have been no more able to act, nor exercise that grace, nor excite their faith, when the promise has lain before them, than to remove mountains. Now hence we may argue thus: If holy men, endued with the principle and seed of faith, without a new gift from the Spirit, have lain as it were dead, not able to act suitably to that principle; how then will those, that are in a state of nature, and void of this principle, be able to hear or perceive the mind of God in the gospel?

Use 2. is of exhortation; that in the enjoyment 86of the means of grace, we should not terminate in the means, but look up to God, who alone is able to give an heart to improve them. This should make us not only pray, but also hear, with our eyes lift up to heaven. The greatest persuasions, the most melting and affectionate expressions, that can drop from man, cannot give an heart; every such gift is a little creation. But certainly, when we have got our hearts wrought upon and heated by the external preaching of the word, then we should be chiefly importunate with God to preach the same word over internally, that then he would strike the stroke, then he would make such an impression as should abide. For with out this, after the most powerful preaching of the word, nature will return to itself. Happy those, who do not only hear the report of the gospel, but to whom also the arm of the Lord is revealed. When we have heard the word, read the scriptures, and enjoyed the richest means of salvation, yet, in order to our believing, we should as much depend upon God, as if we enjoyed none of these at all. Still addressing ourselves unto him, as Jehoshaphat did upon another occasion; Lord, us for us, we know not what to do, but our eyes are upon thee.

« Prev Sermon XXVIII. Preached at St. Mary’s, Oxford,… Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection