A man may maintain a strife and combat against sin

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Blueridge Believer

Puritan Board Professor
Section VII. A man may maintain a strife and combat against sin in himself—and yet be but almost a Christian. So did Balaam; when he went to curse the people of God, he had a great strife within himself. "How shall I curse," says he, "those whom God has not cursed? or how shall I defy those whom the Lord has not defied?" And did not Pilate strive against his sin, when he said to the Jews, "Shall I crucify your king? what evil has he done. I am innocent of the blood of this just man."

Objection. But you will say, "Is not this an argument of grace, when there is a striving in the soul against sin? for what should oppose sin in the heart, but grace? The apostle makes "the lusting of the flesh against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh," to be an argument of grace in the heart. Now I find this strife in my heart, though the remainders of corruption sometimes break out into actual sins, yet I find a striving in my soul against sin.

Answer. It is true, there is a striving against sin, which is only from grace, and is proper to believers. But there is also a striving against sin, which is not from grace, and therefore may be in those who are not true believers. There is a strife against sin in one and the same faculty; the will against the will—the affection against the affection; and this is that which the apostle calls "the lusting of the flesh against the spirit;" that is, the striving of the unregenerate part against the regenerate; and this is ever in the same faculty, and is proper to believers only.

An unbeliever never finds this strife in himself. This strife cannot be in him; it is impossible while he not a state of grace. But then there is a striving against sin in divers faculties; and this is the strife that is in those who are not believers. There, the strife is between the will and the conscience; conscience enlightened and terrified with the fear of hell and damnation, then the conscience is against sin; but the will and affections, not being renewed, they are for sin. And this causes great tugging and combats many times in the sinner's heart.

Thus it was with the Scribes and Pharisees. Conscience convinced them of the divinity of Christ, and of the truth of his being the Son of God. And yet a perverse will, and carnal affections, cry out, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Conscience pleaded for him—it had a witness in their bosoms; and yet their wills were bent against him. Therefore they are said "to have resisted the Spirit;" namely, the workings and convictions of the Spirit in their consciences. And this is the case of many unconverted sinners: when the will and affections are for sin, and plead for it—and conscience is against it, and many times fights the soul away from the doing of it. And hence men take that which opposes sin in them, to be grace—when it is only the work of a natural conscience. They conclude the strife is between grace and sin—the regenerate and unregenerate part; when, alas! it is no other than the contention of a natural conscience against a corrupt will and affections! And if so then, a man may have great strifes and combats against sin in him; and yet be but almost a Christian.

A man may desire grace—and yet be but almost a Christian. So did the five foolish virgins, "Give us of your oil." What was that but true grace? It was that oil which lighted the wise virgins into the bridegroom's chamber. They do not only desire to enter in—but they desire oil to light them in. Wicked men may desire heaven—desire a Christ to save them; there is none so wicked upon earth—but desire to be happy in heaven. But here are those who desire grace as well as glory—and yet these are but almost Christians.

Objection. But is it not commonly taught that desires for grace, are grace? Nay, does not our Lord Christ make it so? "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled."

Answer. It is true, that there are some desires of grace which are grace—as,

1. When a man desires grace from a right sense of his natural state; when he sees the vileness of sin, and the woeful, defiled, and loathsome condition he is in by reason of sin; and therefore desires the grace of Christ to renew and change him—this is true grace. This some make to be the lowest degree of saving faith.

2. When a man joins proportionable endeavors to his desires; does not only wish for grace—but work for grace; such desires are grace.

3. When a man's desires are constant and incessant, which cease not but in the attainment of their object; such desires are true grace. They are a part of the special work of the Spirit. They do really partake of the nature of grace. Now it is a known maxim, "that which partakes of the nature of the whole, is a part of the whole;" the filings of gold are gold. The sea is not more really water, than the least drop; the flame is not more really fire than the least spark. But though all true desires for grace, are grace; yet all desires for grace, are not true. For,

1. A man may desire grace—but not for itself—but for somewhat else; not for grace's sake—but for heaven's sake. He does not desire grace, that his nature may be changed, his heart renewed, the image of God stamped upon him, and his lusts subdued in him. These are blessed desires, found only in true believers. The true Christian only can desire grace for grace's sake; but the almost Christian may desire grace for heaven's sake.

2. A man may desire grace, without proportionable endeavors after grace. Many are good at wishing—but bad at working; like him who reposed in the grass on a summer's day, crying out, "O that this were to work!" Solomon says, "The desire of the slothful kills him." How so? "For his hands refuse to labor!" He perishes with all his good desires. The believer joins desires and endeavors together, "One thing have I desired of the Lord—and that will I seek after."

3. A man's desires of grace may be unseasonable. Thus the foolish virgins desired oil when it was too late. The believer's desires are seasonable; he desires grace in the season of grace, and seeks grace in a time when it may be found. "The wise heart will know the proper time and procedure." He knows his season, and has wisdom to improve it. The silly sinner does all his works out of season; he sends away the seasons of grace—and then desires grace when the season is over! The sinner does all too late; as Esau desired the blessing when it was too late, and therefore he lost it; whereas, had he come sooner, he would have obtained it. Most men are wise too late—they come when the market is closed; when the shop is closed, then they have their oil to get. When they lie upon their death-beds, then they desire holy hearts.

4. Desires of grace in many, are very inconstant and fleeting, like the "morning dew, which quickly passes away;" or like Jonah's gourd, which springs up in a night—and withers in a night. They have no root in the heart—and therefore quickly perish.

Now, if a man may desire grace—but not for grace's sake; if desires may be without endeavors; if a man may desire grace when it is too late; if these desires may be but fleeting and inconstant; then may a man desire grace—and yet be but almost a Christian.

A man may tremble at the Word of God—and yet be but almost a Christian, as Belshazzar trembled at the handwriting upon the wall.

Objection. But is not that a note of sincerity and truth of grace—to tremble at the Word? Does not God say, "I will look favorably on this kind of person: one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and who trembles at My Word."

Answer. There is a two-fold trembling.

1. One is, when the Word discovers the guilt of sin—and the wrath of God which that guilt brings; this, where conscience is awake, causes trembling and astonishment. Thus, when Paul preached of righteousness and judgment, it is said that Felix trembled.

2. There is a trembling which arises from a holy dread and reverence of the majesty of God, speaking in his Word. This is only found in true believers, and is that which keeps the soul low in its own eyes. Therefore mark how the words run, "I will look favorably on this kind of person: one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and who trembles at My Word." God does not make the promise, merely to him who trembles at the Word; for the devils believe and tremble; the Word of God can make the proudest, stoutest sinner in the world to shake and tremble. But it is "to the one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and who trembles at My Word." Where trembling is the fruit of a spirit broken for sin, and humble in its own eyes; there will God look.

Now many tremble at the word—but not from poverty of spirit, not from a heart broken for sin, and low in its own eyes; not from a sense of the majesty and holiness of God: and therefore, notwithstanding they tremble at the Word, yet they are but almost Christians.

3. A man may delight in the Word and ordinances of God—and yet be but almost a Christian. "They take delight in approaching to God." And it is said of that ground, that it "received the Word with joy," and yet it was but "stony ground."

Objection. But is it not made a character of a godly man, to delight in the Word of God? Does not David say, "He is a blessed man—who delights in the law of the Lord."

Answer. There is a delighting in the Word—which flows from grace, and is a proof of blessedness.

1. He who delights in the Word, because of its spirituality—he is a Christian indeed. The more spiritual the ordinances are, the more does a gracious heart delight in them.

2. When the Word comes close to the conscience, rips up the heart, and discovers sin—and yet the soul delights in it notwithstanding; this is a sign of grace.

3. When delight arises from communion with God—this is from a principle of grace in the soul.

But there may be a delight in the Word—where there is no grace.

1. There are many who delight in the Word because of the eloquence of the preacher. They delight not so much in the truths delivered, as in the dress in which they are delivered. Thus it is said of the prophet Ezekiel, "You are very entertaining to them, like someone who sings love songs with a beautiful voice or plays fine music on an instrument. They hear what you say, but they don't do it!"

2. There are very many who delight to hear the Word, that yet take no delight to do it. So says God of them, "They delight to hear my words—but they do them not."

Now then, if a man may delight in the Word, more because of the eloquence of the preacher, than because of the spirituality of the matter; if he may delight to hear the word—and yet not delight to do it—then he may delight in the word—and yet be but almost a Christian.

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