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It is most incongruous to delay our reconciliation with God till the time of
sickness. It is very uncomfortable to delay it till our declining time. The vanity of men's presuming to delay repentance, because some have been converted in their last hours. The instances of such are rare, and not to be drawn into example. Innumerable have died in their sins, deceived with hopes of repenting hereafter. Those who have delayed their repentance, are not utterly destitute of hopes, if they earnestly seek God at last.
(4.) How incongruous is it to delay the solemn work of reconciliation with God till the time of sickness. This is an affair wherein our transcendent interest is concerned, and should be performed in our most calm and sensible condition, when we are most capable of reflecting upon our ways, and making an exact trial of ourselves, in order to our returning to God by a holy change of our lives. Now that the time of sickness is not a convenient season for this work, is sadly evident; for some diseases are stupifying, and all the powers of the soul are benumbed in a dull captivity; so that the sick man only perceives with his animal faculties. Some diseases are tormenting, and cause a great disorder in the soul, and distract the thoughts from considering his spiritual state. When the storm is at the highest, and the pilot so sick, that he can give no directions, the ship is left to the fury of the winds, and escapes by miracle. When there is a tempest in the humors of the body, and the soul by sympathy is so discomposed, that it cannot apply to itself to prepare for its appearance before the divine tribunal, what danger of being lost, and passing from a short agony to everlasting torment?
Besides; suppose the sickness more tolerable, yet how unfit is a person weak and languishing, when sense and conscience are both afflicted, to encounter with the cruel enemy of souls ? All that sincerely seek peace with God, must expect fierce anger and war from Satan : Therefore it is a point of necessary wisdom, whilst our bodies and minds are in the best order, to be preparing against his assaults.
(5.) Consider how uncomfortable it is to delay repentance till
age and sickness, when the fruits of it are not so evident nor acceptable : In evil days, and the approaches of death, it is very hard to discover the sincerity of the heart; whether repentance proceeds from holy principles; whether the sorrow then ex
pressed be Godly, for sin, or merely natural, for punishment; whether the good resolutions be the effects of permanent fidelity, or of violent fear, that will vanish, the cause being removed. When the invitations to sin cease, there may remain a secret undiscerned love to it in the heart, which is the centre of corruption, and root of apostacy. The snake that seemed dead in the frost, revived by the fire. The inordinate affections, that seemed mortified when the sensitive faculties were disabled to carnal enjoyments, may have inward life, and will soon be active and vigorous in the presence of temptations. And that a death-bed repentance is usually deceitful, appears from hence, that not one of a thousand that recover from dangerous diseases, are faithful in performing their most sacred and solemn vows. How many having the sentence of death in themselves, and under the terrors of the Lord, have expressed the greatest detestations of their sins, and resolved, as they thought sincerely, if God would spare them, to reform their ways, to become new tures, exemplary in all holy conversation; yet the danger being over, their heats of devotion expire as they revive, and their lusts recover strength with their bodies, and being suppressed only by fear, are more fierce in their return. Their hearts were as marble, that in rainy weather seems dissolved into water; but it is only from the moisture of the air, and remains as hard as ever. When the fear of death is removed, all their promises of reformation are ineffective, as violent and void; all their religious affections vanish as the morning dew. Now if these persons had died before this visible trial and discovery, they had passed into the other world with the reputation of true penitents; deceiving others with their prayers and tears, and liberal promises, (the outward signs of repentance) and deceived themselves by the inward workings of an alarmed conscience. Therefore ministers should be very circumspect in applying the promises of mercy to persons in such a state; for an error in that kind has fearful consequences. A little opiate divinity may quiet the mind for a time, but the virtue of it will be soon spent, and the presumer perishes forever. But suppose a dying person with true tears, and unfeigned persevering affections, returns to God; can he have a comfortable assurance of his sincerity? Indeed, the searcher and judge of hearts will accept him ; but how doubtful and wavering are his hopes ? What anxious fears are in his breast, lest he builds upon a sandy foundation ? And how dreadful is it to appear before the tribunal of God, and expect an uncertain sentence ?
But sinners still please themselves in this, that God has effectually called some at the last hour, and they may find the same favor with others. To this I answer:
1. It is true, we have some rare admirable instances of God's mercy and grace, the dying thief, and some others; which shew,
it is possible with God to abolish the most confirmed habits in a short time, and by a swift conversion to prepare a sinner for heaven : but these miraculous examples are not to be drawn into consequence for the encouragement of any in their sins. A prince will not endure, that his free favors should be made a law to him, and the special privilege of some be extended to all. As Thales said, an old mariner, that has escaped the various dangers by rocks and storms at sea, was a new miracle : so that for one who has lived an obstinate sinner, to die a penitent believer, is very rare and extraordinary. What our Saviour said concerning the salvation of rich men, is justly applicable to this ease; " that it was as easy for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, as for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” This so astonished the apostles, that they cried, “who then can be saved ?” To mitigate the difficulty, he remembers them of the divine omnipotence: “all things are possible with God.” Thus, for one who has been hardened in a long course of sin, and making himself meet for the company of damned spirits in hell, to be at last suddenly prepared and received into the pure and glorious society above, is possible ; but possible only as miracles are, by the efficacy of infinite power; and we cannot reasonably expect such miracles. And are heaven and hell such trivial things as to be left to an uncertainty? Are not men concerned in another manner in the affairs of this world ? How careful to prevent the sentence of death, of imprisonment, of banishment ? How diligent to obtain some temporal advantage; yet how neglectful in things of highest importance? It may be, says the secure wretch, God will give me repentance at last, as he did to others. Remember you speak of that that most nearly concerns your soul; and dare you venture the salvation of an immortal soul upon a naked possibility of receiving grace : what reasonable person would neglect a disease that may prove deadly, and rely on extreme remedies ? And can you be guilty of such cruel indifference, such a desperate carelesness, as to leave eternal salvation and eternal damnation to a peradventure ?
2. Consider how many thousands have died in their sins, and of them great numbers cherished † fallacious hopes of repenting at last. Diagoras the atheist, that denied a governing providence of things in this lower world, the sphere of mutability, when one for his conviction shewed him in the temple of Neptune many votive tables, containing the grateful acknowledgments of those who by addresses to the Gods in dangerous storms, had arrived safe at their ports; and asked him, whether he had ob
*Quod alicui gratiose conceditur, trahi non debet ab aliis in exemplum. | Vix dici potest, quantos hæc inanis spei umbra deceperit. Aug.
served those numerous testimonies for divine providence? he replied, " I see them; but how many having invocated Neptune, yet perished in the ocean, and never came to pay their vows for deliverance ? It was impiety in him to argue so against God's. disposing providence; but it may be justly said to those who neglect their present duty, presuming upon some examples of his glorious goodness to those who were converted and saved in their approaches to death. How many have finally miscarried in shooting that gulph, to one that has arrived safe at heaven? How many that presume upon their youth and strength to delay repentance, are suddenly cut off? The first symptom of their sickness is death : and what the angel with such solemnity declared, that time should be no more, is verified concerning them by an unexpected dissolution. How many, when sick, hope either by the vigor of nature, or the virtue of medicines, to overcome the disease ? And this hope is cherished by the mortal kindness, the cruel deceit of friends, who are unwilling to discover their danger, lest their spirits should sink under the
apprehension of it: and thus deluded, may never see death till they feel it, and perish forever in their impenitence. How many that are guilty and graceless, when distant from death and hell but a few hours; yet from atheism, are as, secure as Jonah, who slept in the midst of a tempest at sea ? The tenor of their lives discovers this to be divine vengeance; they are seized by a spirit of slumber, and pass without fear into the state of everlasting desperation. How many are deceived with the appearance of repentance, and mistake a false peace for a true, and assuage the anguish of conscience by palliating remedies ? Their sorrow for sin, their prayers, their resolutions of reformation, are the product of servile fear, that is ineflectual to salvation : and as it is with crafty tradesmen, that take up much upon trust when near breaking ; so they are very liberal of the promises of amendment when they are near dying: From hence they vainly presume that God is reconciled to them, whose all-discerning eye sees the inward spring of their sorrows; and the principle of all their religious resolutions is the guilty fear of eternal judgment. Now a false tranquility is more terrible than the storms of a troubled spirit; for those who hope upon deceitful grounds, are in the most hopeless state, neglecting what is requisite in order to salvation. Thus innumerable pass in a cloud of delusion to the kingdom of darkness. And how many who have lived in careless security, as if they had made a covenant with death, when conscience is awakened, and looks into the depth of their guilt, when they see death before them attended with judgment, and judgment with an everlasting hell; as we read of Sisera, who from extreme fear passed to extreme security; so, on the contrary, these self-deceivers, from security, have fallen into despair. Then truth and conscience, that were so long under unrighteous
restraints, break the setters, and terribly charge the sinners : then innumerable acts, which they thought to be innocent, appear to be sins; and sin, that they made light of, to be infinitely evil, and in the highest degree hateful to God. And sometimes, by the suggestions of the enemy of souls, they are overwhelmed with despair, and their last error is worse than the first. The devil makes his advantage of the timorous conscience, as well as of the seared : solitude is his scene, as well as the noisy theatre; and by contrary ways, either presumption or despair, brings sinners to the same end. He changes his methods according to their dispositions ; the tempter turns accuser; and then such who had but a dim sight of sin before, have an over-quick sight of it, and are swallowed up in an abyss of confusion. The condition of such is extremely miserable. It is observed by those who are bitten with a mad dog, that their cure is extreme * difficult, if not impossible ; for being tormented with thirst, yet are so fearful of water, that the sight of it sometimes causes sudden convulsions and death. This is a significant emblem of a despairing soul : for when enraged conscience bites to the quick, the guilty person filled with estuations and terrors, ardently thirsts for pardon, yet fearfully forsakes his own mercies: whatever is propounded to encourage faith in the divine promises, he turns to justify his infidelity. Represent to him the infinite mercies of God, the unvaluable merits of Christ sufficient to redeem the lost world; it increases his despair, because he has perversely abused those mercies, and neglected those merits. The most precious promises of the gospel are killing terrors to him; as the sweet title of friend, wherewith our Saviour received Judas when he came to betray him, was the most stinging reproach of his perfidious villany. Thus it appears, how dangerous it is to delay repentance and reconciliation with God till sickness and a death-bed, when the remembrance or forgetfulness of sin, the sense or security of conscience, may be equally destructive.
The sum of what has been amplified in this part, is this : A vain hope of living long, and being reconciled to God when men please, is the fatal foundation of their sins and misery. They apply the word of God against the mind of God, and securely provoke him, as if they could take heaven by violence, in contradiction to the gospel : But they usually dispose of that time they shall never enjoy, and presume upon that mercy and grace they shall never obtain. We are commanded to “seek the Lord while he may be found ;” a sad intimation, that it is not in our power to find him to our comfort when we please. He spares long; but abused patience will deliver sinners to revenging justice. Sampson was three times in the chamber of his lust ex
* Miserrimum morbi genus, in quo æger et siti, et aquæ metu cruciatur, quorum spes in angusto est. Cels.