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miracles of the Holy Ghost, to an unclean | fences, "a sin unto death;" but the Spirit of
The second text we shall explain, occurs in the fifth chapter of the first epistle of St. John. "If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death: there is a sin unto death; I do not say ye shall pray for it." On this question there are, as we usually say, as many opinions as parties.
Consult the doctors of the Romish church, and they will establish, on these words, the frivolous distinction between venial and mortal sins; a conjecture both false, and directly opposed to the design of those from whom it proceeds. Because, if this sense be true, the moment a man commits a mortal sin, prayer must cease with regard to him; and he who commits a venial sin, will still need the prayers of saints to avoid a death he has not deserved; this is not only indefensible, but what the Catholics themselves would not presume to maintain.
Waving the various glosses of the Novatians, and other commentators, do you ask what is the idea we should attach to these words of the apostle, and what is the sin of which he here speaks? We repeat what we have already intimated, that it is difficult to explain. However, on investigating the views of the apostle throughout the chapter, we discover the sense of this text. His design was, to embolden the young converts in the profession of the religion they had so happily embraced. With this view, he here recapitulates the proofs which established its truth: "There are three that bear witness on earth, the water, and the spirit, and the blood. It is the innocence of the primitive Christians, which is called the water; the miracles which are called the spirit; and martyrdom, by which the faithful have sealed their testimony, and which is called the blood: attesting that those three classes of witnesses, demonstrate the truth of the Christian religion, and render its opposers utterly inexcusable.
These observations lead to the illustration of the two passages yet to be explained: the one is in the tenth chapter to the Hebrews; the other is our text. In both these passages, it is obvious the apostle had the second class of apostates in view. This is very apparent from our text. Throughout the whole of this epistle, it is easy to prove, that the apostle's wish was the prevention of apostacy. He especially designed to demonstrate, that to renounce Christianity, after attesting its confirmation by miracles, here denominated "distributions of the Holy Ghost," was a crime of the grossest enormity. He has the same design in the text. Let us examine the terms.
After these and similar observations, the apostle says expressly, that he wrote for the confirmation of their faith, and closes with this exhortation: "Little children, keep yourselves from idols." Between these two texts, occur the words we wish to explain: "There is a sin unto death: I do not say that ye shall pray for it." Must not "the sin unto death," be that, against which he wished to fortify the saints; I mean apostacy?
1. "They were once enlightened;" that is, they had known the truth. They had coinpared the prophets with the apostles, the prophecies with the accomplishment; and by the collective force of truth, they were fully persuaded that Jesus was the Messiah. Or, if you please, "they were once enlightened;" that is,
they were baptized;" baptism, in the primitive church, succeeding instruction, according to that precept of Christ, "Go ye and teach all nations, baptizing them," &c. St. Paul, at the beginning of this chapter, speaking of baptism, expresses the same sentiment. So also we are to understand St. Peter, when he says, that "the baptism which now saves us, is not the putting away the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience." The answer of a good conscience, is the rectitude of conduct, resulting from the catechumen's knowledge and What! you will say, is a man lost without faith. Hence they commonly gave the appelremedy who has denied the truth; and is every lation of illuminated to a man after baptism. one in the sad situation of those for whom the "The washing of baptism," says Justin Martyr, apostle prohibits prayer? God forbid, my bre-"is called illumination; because he who is inthren, that we should preach so strange a doc- structed in these mysteries, is enlightened." trine; and once more renew the Novatian se- Hence also the Syriac version, instead of enverity! There are two kinds of apostates, and lightened, as our reading which follows the two kinds of apostacies: there is one kind of Greek, has rendered it baptized. apostacy into which we fall by the fear of punishment, or on the blush of the moment, by the promises Satan makes to his proselytes. There is another, into which we fall by the enmity we have against the truth, by the detestable pleasure we take in opposing its force. It were cruel to account the first of these ofVOL. II.-42
2. "They had tasted of the heavenly gift;" that is, they had experienced the serenity of that peace, which we feel when we no longer fear the punishment of sin: having passed, if I may so speak, the rigorous road of repentance, into favour with God.
3. "They were made partakers of the Holy
Ghost, they had relished the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come." All these various expressions may be understood of miracles performed in their presence, or achieved by themselves. The Holy Ghost himself has assumed this acceptation, in various parts of the Scriptures, as in that remarkable passage in the nineteenth chapter of the Acts, Have ye received the Holy Ghost?"-We have not so much as heard, whether there be any Holy Ghost. The good word, says Grotius, is the promise of God, as in the twenty-ninth of Jeremiah, "I will-perform my good word towards you;" that is, my promise; and one of the greatest promises made to the primitive Christians, was the gift of miracles. "These signs," says Jesus, "shall follow them that believe; in my name they shall cast out devils, they shall speak with tongues, they shall take up serpents." In fine, the powers of the world to come," were, likewise, the prodigies to be achieved during the gospel economy; which the Jews call the age, or world to come; prodigies elsewhere called, the "exceeding greatness of his power, and the mighty working of his power."
These are the endowments, with which the persons in question were favoured; their crime was apostacy. "It is impossible, if they fall away, to renew them again unto repentance."
To fall away, does not characterize the state of a man, who relapses, after having obtained remission. How deplorable soever his situation may be, it is not without resource. The falling away in our text signifies a total defection; and entire rejection of Jesus Christ, and of his religion. The falling away, according to St. Paul, in the ninth chapter of his epistle to the Romans, marks the first stage of obduracy in the Jewish nation. But the falling away in our text, is not only a rejection of Christ, but a rejection after having known him: it is not only to reject, but to outrage and persecute him with malice and enmity of heart. Here is all the information we can derive from the text. The unpardonable sin, in these words, is that of apostates; and such as we have characterized in the preceding remarks.
This also is the genuine import of the tenth chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews, "If we sin wilfully, after having received the knowledge of the truth," as would be easy to prove., Now, if you have been attentive to all the considerations we have just advanced: if you have understood the explanations we have given of the several texts, you may form a correct idea of the unpardonable sin. You may know what this crime was, at least, in the time of the primitive church. It was denying, hating, and maliciously opposing the truth, at the moment they were persuaded it proceeded from God. Two classes of men might commit this crime in the apostolic age.
First, those who had never embraced Christianity; but opposed its progress in defiance of rational conviction, and the dictates of conscience. This was the sin of the Pharisees, who maliciously ascribed to the devil miracles, which they knew could have God alone for their author.
the gift of miracles, and experienced all the graces enumerated in the text. This was the sin of those, who, after conversion, abjured the truth, and pronounced against Jesus Christ the anathemas which his enemies, and particularly the Jews, required of apostates. These St. Paul had in view, in the words of our text, and in the tenth chapter of this epistle. Of this St. John also spake, when he said, "there is a sin unto death." Hence the sin described in these three passages, and the sin against the Holy Ghost, is the same in quality, if I may so speak, though diversified in circumstances: we have, consequently, comprised the whole under the vague appellation of unpardonable sin.
After these considerations, perhaps, you already rejoice. This sermon, designed to inspire the soul with sanctifying fear, has, perhaps, already contributed to flatter your security: you no longer see any thing in the text, which affects your case; nor any thing in the most disorderly life, connected with a crime, peculiar to the primitive Christians. Let us dissipate, if possible, so dangerous an illusion. We have done little, by tracing the manner in which the first witnesses of the gospel became guilty of the unpardonable sin; we must also inquire, what relation it may have to us.
In general, it is not possible to hear subjects of this nature discussed, without a variety of questions revolving in the mind, and asking one's self, have I not already committed this sin? Does not such and such a vice, by which I am captivated, constitute its essence? Or, if I have never committed it yet, may I not fall into it at a future period? It is but just, brethren, to afford you satisfaction on points so important. Never did we discuss more serious questions; and we frankly acknowledge, that all we have hitherto advanced, was merely introductory to what we have yet to say; and for which we require the whole of the attention, with which you have favoured us.
Though truth is always the same, and never accommodates itself to the humours of an audience, it is an invariable duty to resolve these questions according to the characters of the inquirers. The questions amount in substance to this: Can a man in this age commit the unpardonable sin? And, I assure you, they may be proposed from three principles, widely dif ferent from each other: from a melancholy, from a timorous, and a cautious disposition. We shall diversify our solutions, conformably to this diversity of character.
1. One may make this inquiry through a melancholy disposition; and mental derangement is an awful complaint. It is a disease which corrupts the blood, stagnates the spirits, and flags the mind. From the body, it quickly communicates to the soul; it induces the sufferers to regard every object on the dark side; to indulge phantoms, and cherish anguish, which, excluding all consolation, wholly devotes the mind to objects, by which it is alarmed and tormented. A man of this disposition, on examining his conscience, and reviewing his life, will draw his own character in the deepest colours. He will construe his weakness into wickedness, and his infirmities into crimes; he will magnify the number, and aggravate the atrocity of his sins; he will class himself, in
Secondly, those who had embraced the gospel, who had been baptized, who had received
short, with the worst of human characters. | admit that it is not totally extinguished. I And, our reasons for self-condemnation and would assist this man to enter more minutely abasement before God, being always too well into his state; to consider the holy fears which founded, the person in question, proceeding fill, the terrors which agitate, and the remorse on these principles, and mistaking the causes which troubles his heart; and in such a way as of humiliation and repentance, for just subjects to derive from the cause of his grief, motives of horror and despair, readily believes himself of consolation. We should never stretch our lost without resource, and guilty of the unpar- subjects, nor divide what Jesus Christ has joindonable sin. ed by a happy temperature. If you look solely at the mercy of God, you will unavoidably form excuses to flatter your security; if you confine your regards to his justice, you will fall into despair. It is this happy temperature of severity and indulgence, of mercy and justice, of hope and fear, which brings the soul of a saint to permanent repose; it is this happy temperature which constitutes the beauty of religion, and renders it efficacious in the conversion of mankind. This should be our method with persons of a doubtful disposition.
Without doubt, it is highly proper to reason with people of this description. We should endeavour to compose them, and enter into their sentiments, in order to attack their arguments with more effect; but, after all, a man so afflicted has more need of a physician than a minister, and of medicine than sermons. If it is not a hopeless case, we must endeavour to remove the complaint, by means which nature and art afford; by air, exercise, and innocent recreations. Above all, we must pray that God would "6 cause the bones he has broken to rejoice;" and that he would not abandon, to the remorse and torments of the damned, souls redeemed by the blood of his beloved Son, and reconciled by his sacrifice.
2. This inquiry may also be made through a timorous disposition. We distinguish timidity from melancholy; the first being a disposition of the mind, occasioned by the mistaken notions we entertain of God and his word; the second, of the body. The timorous man fixes his eye on what the Scriptures say of the justice of God, without paying adequate attention to what is said of his mercy. He looks solely at the perfection to which a Christian is called, without ever regarding the leniency of the gospel. Such a man, like the melancholy person, is readily induced to think himself guilty of the unpardonable sin. Should he flatter himself with not having yet perpetrated the deed, he lives in a continual fear. This fear may, indeed, proceed from a good principle, and be productive of happy effects, in exciting vigilance and care; but, if not incompatible with the liberty of the children of God, it is at least repugnant to the peace they may obtain; which constitutes one of the sweetest comforts of religion, and one of the most effectual motives to conciliate the heart.
If a man of this description should ask me, whether one may now commit the unpardonable sin? I would repeat what I have just said, that this sin, in all its circumstances, has peculiar reference to the miracles by which God formerly confirmed the evangelical doctrine; and consequently, to account himself at this period guilty of the crime, is to follow the emotions of fear, rather than the conviction of arguinent. I would compare the sin which alarms his conscience, with that of the unhappy man of whom we spake. I would prove by this comparison, that the disposition of a man, who utters blasphemy against Jesus Christ, who makes open war with the professors of his doctrine, has no resemblance to the style of another, who sins with remorse and contrition; who wrestles with the old man; who sometimes conquers, and sometimes is conquered: though he has sufficient cause from his sin to perceive, that the love of God by no means properly burns in his heart; he has, however, encouragement from his victories, to
But wo unto us, if under the pretext of giving the literal import of a text of Scripture, we should conceal its general design; a design equally interesting to Christians of every age and nation, and which concerns you, my brethren, in a peculiar manner; wo unto us, if under a pretence of composing the conscience of the timorous, we should afford the slightest encouragement to the hardened, to flatter their security, and confirm them in their obduracy. of heart.
3. This inquiry,-Whether we can now commit the unpardonable sin?-may likewise be made on the ground of caution, and that we may know the danger, only in order to avoid it. Follow us in our reply.
We cannot commit this sin with regard to the peculiar circumstances of those who lived in the first ages of the church. This has been proved, I think, by the preceding arguments; no person having seen Jesus Christ work miracles, and, like the Pharisees, having called him Beelzebub; nor has any one received the gift of miracles, and afterwards denied the truth, as those apostates, of whom we spake. But a man may commit the crime, with regard to what constitutes its essence, and its atrocity. This also we hope to prove. For, I ask, what constituted the enormity of the crime? Was it the miracles, simply considered? Or was it the conviction and sentiments which ensued, and which proceeded from the hearts of the witnesses? Without a doubt it was the conviction and the sentiments, and not the miracles and prodigies, separately considered, and without the least regard to their seeing them performed, or themselves being the workers. If we shall, therefore, prove, that the efforts which Providence now employs for the conversion of mankind, may convey to the mind the same conviction, and excite the same sentiments afforded to the witnesses of these miracles, shall we not consequently prove, that if men now resist the gracious efforts of Providence, they are equally guilty as the ancients; and, of course, that which constitutes the essence and atrocity of the unpardonable sin, subsists at this period, as in the apostolic age.
1. A man, at this period, may sin against the clearest light. Do not say that he cannot sin against the same degree of light, which irradiated the primitive church. I allow that
To collect the whole in two words, and in a yet shorter way to resolve the question, "Is it possible now to commit the unpardonable sin?" I answer: We cannot commit it with regard to every circumstance; but, in regard to what constitutes its essence and atrocity, it may be committed; and though men seldom fall so deeply, yet it is not impossible. Few complete the crime; but many commit it in part, and in degree. Some imagine themselves to be guilty by an ill-founded fear; but a much greater number are daily going the awful road, and, through an obstinate security, unperceiv
They ought, of course, to reject the thought of having proceeded to that excess; but, at the same time, to take precaution, that, in the issue, the dreadful period may never come, which is nearer, perhaps, than they imagine.
none of you have seen the miracles performed for the confirmation of our faith; but I will venture to affirm, that there are truths as palpable, as if they had been confirmed by miracles; I will venture to affirm, that if they collect all the proofs we have of our Saviour's mission, there will result a conviction to the mind as clear, as that which resulted to the Pharisees, on seeing the demoniac healed.
2. What constituted the atrocity of the crime in the first ages, was attacking this religion, whose evidence they had attested. This may also be found among men of our own time. A man, who is convinced that the Christian reli-ed. gion was revealed from heaven;-a man who doubts not, among all the religious connexions in the Christian world, that to which he adheres is among the purest;-a man who abandons this religion;-a man who argues, who disputes, who writes volume upon volume, to vindicate his apostacy, and attacks those very truths, whose evidence he cannot but perceive; such a man has not committed the unpardonable sin in its whole extent; but he has so far proceeded to attack the truths, of whose veracity he was convinced.
3. What farther constituted the atrocity of the crime, was falling away; not by the fear of punishment, not by the first charms Satan presents to his proselytes, but by a principle of hatred against truths, so restrictive of human passions. This may also be found among men of our own age. For example, a man who mixes in our congregations, who reads our books, who adheres to our worship; but who, in his ordinary conversation, endeavours to discredit those truths, to establish deism or impiety, and abandons himself to this excess, because he hates a religion which gives him inquietude and pain, and wishes to expunge it from every heart; this man has not committed the unpardonable sin in all its extent, but he has so far proceeded as to hate the truth.
4. What, lastly, rendered the crime atrocious with regard to apostates, was their running to this excess, after having tasted the happiness, which the hope of salvation produces in the soul. This may, likewise, be found among Christians of our own age. For example a temporary professor;-a man (to avail myself of an expression of Jesus Christ) who "receives the word with joy;"—a man, who has long prayed with fervour, who has communicated with transports of delight;—a man of this description, who forgets all these delights, who resists all these attractive charms, and sacrifices them to the advantages offered by a false religion; he has not yet committed the unpardonable sin, but he surely has the characteristic" of falling away, after having been once enlightened, and tasted of the heavenly gift." You now perceive, my brethren, that all these characteristics may be found separately among men of our own age. But should there be a man in whom they all unite; a man who has known and abjured the truth; who has not only abjured, but opposed and persecuted it, not in a moment of surprise, and at the sight of racks and tortures, but from a principle of enmity and hatred; do you not think he would have just cause to fear, that he had committed the "unpardonable sin."
What effects shall the truths we have delivered, produce on your minds? Shall they augment your pride, excite vain notions of your virtue, and suggest an apology for vice, because you cannot, in the portrait we have given, recognise your own character? Is your glory derived from the consideration, that your depravity has not attained the highest pitch, and that there yet remains one point of horror, at which you have not arrived? Will you suffer the wounds to corrode your heart, under the notions that they are not desperate, and there is still a remedy? And do you expect to repent, and to ask forgiveness, when repentance is impracticable; and when all access to mercy is cut off?
But who among our hearers can be actuated by so great a frenzy? What deluded conscience can enjoy repose under a pretext, that it has not yet committed the unpardonable sin?Whence is it, after all, that this crime is so dreadful? All the reasons which may be assigned, terminate here, as in their centre, that it precipitates the soul into hell. But is not hell the end of every sin? There is this difference, it must be observed, between the unpardonable sin, and other sins, that he who commits it is lost without resource; whereas, after other sins, we have a sure remedy in conversion. But, in all cases, a man must repent, reform and become a new creature; for we find in religion, what we find in the human body, some diseases quite incurable, and others which may be removed with application and care: but they have both the similarity of becoming incurable by neglect; and what, at first, was but a slight indisposition, becomes mortal by presumption and delay.
Besides, there are few persons among us,there are few monsters in nature,-capable of carrying wickedness, all at once, to the point we have described. But how many are there who walk the awful road, and who attain to it by degrees? They do not arrive, in a moment, at the summit of impiety. The first essays of the sinner, are not those horrid traits which cause nature to recoil. A man educated in the Christian religion, does not descend, all at once, from the full lustre of truth, to the profoundest darkness. His fault, at first, was mere detraction; thence he proceeded to negli
gence; thence to vice; next he stifles remorse; | overturn these pulpits? Must we exile these and, lastly, proceeds to the commission of enor- pastors? And making that the object of our mous crimes: so he who, in the beginning, prayer, which ought to be our justest cause of trembled at the thought of a weakness, be- fear, must we say, Lord, take away thy word; comes insensible of the foulest deeds, and of a take away thy Spirit; and remove thy candleconduct the most atrocious. stick; lest, receiving too large a portion of grace, we should augment the account we have to give, and render our punishment more intolerable.
There is one reflection with which you cannot be too much impressed, in an age in which Jesus Christ approaches us with his light, with his Spirit, and with all the advantages of the evangelical economy; that is, concerning the awful consequences of not improving these privileges, according to their original design. You rejoice to live in the happy age, which "so many kings and prophets have desired to see." You have reason so to do. But you rejoice in these privileges, while each of you persist in a favourite vice, and a predominant habit; and because you are neither Jews nor heathens, you expect to find, in religion, means to compose a conscience, abandoned to every kind of vice: this is a most extraordinary, and almost general prejudice among Christians. But this light, in which you rejoice, this Christianity, by which you are distinguished, this faith, which constitutes your glory, will aggravate your condemnation, if your lives continue unreformed. The Pharisees were highly favoured by seeing Jesus Christ in the flesh, by attesting his miracles, and hearing the wisdom which descended from his lips; but these were the privileges which caused their sin to be irremissible. The Hebrews were happy by being enlightened, by tasting of the heavenly gift, and the powers of the evangelical economy; but this happi-afflictions, partly whilst you were made a ganess, on their falling away, rendered their loss zing-stock, both by reproaches and afflictions, irreparable. and partly whilst ye became companions of them that were so used. Cast not away, therefore, your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward," Heb. x. 32, 33. 35. We address the like exhortation to each of our hearers. We remind you of whatever is most to be admired in your life, though weak and imperfect, the communions you have celebrated, the prayers you have offered to Heaven, the tears of repentance already shed.
Apply this thought to the various means, which Providence affords for your conversion; and think what effect it must produce on your preachers. It suspends our judgment, and ties our hands, if I may so speak, in the exercise of our ministry. We are animated at the sight of the blessing which the gospel brings; but, when we contemplate the awful consequences on those who resist, we are astonished and appalled. Must we wilfully exclude the light? What effects have the efforts of Providence produced upon you? What account can you give of the numerous privileges with which Heaven has favoured you? Think not that we take pleasure in declamations, and in drawing frightful portraits of your conduct. Would to God that our preaching were so received, and so improved, as to change our censures into applause, and all our strictures into approbation. But charity is never opposed to experience. So many exhortations, so many entreaties, so many affectionate warnings, so many pathetic sermons, so many instructions, so many conflicts to save you from vice, leave the proud in his pride, the implacable in his hatred, the fashionable woman in full conformity to the world, and every other in his predominating sin. What line of conduct shall we consequently adopt? Shall we continue to enforce the truth, to press the duties of morality; and to trace the road of salvation, in which you refuse to walk? We have already said, that these privileges will augment your loss, and redouble the weight of your chains. Must we shut up these churches? Must we
And you, my brethren, my dear brethren, and honoured countrymen, I call to your recollection, as St. Paul to the Hebrews, the earth strewed with the bodies of your martyrs, and stained with your blood; the desert populated with your fugitives; the places of your nativity desolated;-your tenderest ties dissolved;--your prisoners in chains, and confessors in irons;your houses rased to the foundation; and the precious remains of your shipwreck scattered on all the shores of Christendom. Oh! "Let us not cast away our confidence, which hath great recompense of reward." Let not so many conflicts be lost; let us never forsake this Jesus to whom we are devoted; but let us daily augment the ties which attach us to his communion.
But why abandon the soul to so tragical a thought? Lord, continue with us these precious pledges "of thy loving-kindness, which is better than life," and give us a new heart. It is true, my brethren, a thousand objects indicate, that you will persist in impiety. But I know not what sentiment flatters us, that you are about to renounce it. These were St. Paul's sentiments concerning the Hebrews: he saw the efforts of the world to draw them from the faith, and the almost certain fall of some; in the mean time he hoped, and by an argument of charity, that the equity of God would be interested to prevent their fall. He hoped farther; he hoped to see an event of consolation. Hence he opened to the Hebrews the paths of tribulation in which they walked with courage. He called to their remembrance so many temptations refuted, so many enemies confounded, so many conflicts sustained, so many victories obtained, so many trophies of glory already prepared; and proposing himself for a model, he animated them by the idea of what they had already achieved, and by what they had yet to do. "Call to remembrance," says he, "the former days, in which ye endured so great a fight of
If these are your sentiments, fear neither the terrors nor anathemas of the Scriptures. As texts the most consolatory have an awful aspect to them who abuse their privileges, so passages the most terrific, have a pleasing aspect to those who obey the calls of grace. The words we have explained are of this kind; for the apostle speaking of a certain class of sinners, who cannot be "renewed again unto repentance," im