THE GUILT AND DOOM OF IMPENITENT HEARERS.
" By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand, and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive."—Matt. xiii. 14.
This is a tremendous threatening of long standing, first denounced by Jehovah himself in the days of Isaiah, and frequently cited by Christ and his apostles in the New Testament, as being still in force and capable of application to various parts of the world. It is a threatening from God, not that he would recall the commission .of his ministers or remove them, but he would give them a commission in wrath, and continue their ministry as a judgment upon their hearers. It is a threatening, not of the loss of the means of salvation, but of their being continued as the occasions of more aggravated guilt and punishment; a threatening to those who have abused the means of grace; not that they shall attend upon them no more, but that they shall attend upon them, but receive no advantage from them; a threatening that they shall hear, that is, that their life and rational powers, the ministry of the word of God, and all things necessary for hearing, shall be continued to them; but by all their hearing they shall not understand any thing to a saving purpose. Their knowledge may be increased, and their heads filled with bright notions and speculations; but all their improvements will be of no solid
or lasting advantage to them; so that their hearing is . equivalent to not hearing and their understanding to entire ignorance. " Seeing ye shall see, and not perceive." You shall have your eyes open, or the usual exercise of your rational powers, and the sacred light of instruction shall shine around you; but even in the midst of light and with your eyes open, you shall perceive nothing to purpose; the good you see you will not choose, and the evil and danger you see you will not shun, but run into it willingly and obstinately.
The connection in which Christ introduces these words is this. As he had clothed his discourse in the Eastern dress of parables or allegories, his disciples, apprehending that this was not the plainest method of instruction, and that the multitude did not understand him, put this question to him, " Why speakest thou to them in parables ?" He answered and said unto them, " Because unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but unto them it is not given." This informs us there is a dreadful distinction made, even in this world, between the hearers of the gospel, though they mingle in the same assembly, hear the same preacher, and seem to stand upon the same footing. Thus the disciples of Christ and the unbelieving crowd were upon a par; but, says Christ, to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of -heaven, or the glorious doctrines of the gospel; and therefore you will easily perceive them through the veil of parables, which will be an agreeable medium of instruction to you. But to the unbelieving crowd it is not given to know these mysteries; though they attend upon my ministry, it is not intended that they should be made wiser or better by it. Alas! my brethren, what if such a distinction should be made between us who meet together for the worship of God from week to week in this place.
The reason of this distinction will show the justice of it, and that is assigned in the next verse: " For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance ; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath;" the meaning is, whosoever improves the privileges he hath, shall have those privileges continued to him with a blessed addition; whosoever makes a good use of the means of grace, he shall have grace given him to make a still better use of them: whosoever has opened his mind to receive the light from past instructions, shall have further light and further instructions; to him it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven; and they shall be conveyed to him in such forms of instruction as he shall be able to understand. "But whosoever hath not;" whosoever makes no more improvement of his privileges than if he had none given him to improve, from him shall be taken away those neglected privileges. He that has obstinately shut his eyes against the light of instruction in times past, shall be punished with the loss of that light in future; though the light still continue to shine round him, yet he shall be left in his own chosen darkness, and divine grace shall never more open his mind. He is given up as unteachable, though he may still sit in Christ's school. It is no longer the design of the gospel to show him the way to eternal life, though he may still enjoy the ministry of it, and God in his providence may order things so as to occasion, though not properly to cause, his continuance in ignorance and infidelity.
Here, by the by, I would make a remark to vindicate this dreadful instance of the execution of divine justice, which is more liable to the cavils of human pride and ignorance than perhaps any other. The remark is, that God may justly inflict private as well as positive punishment upon obstinate sinners; or, in plainer terms, he may with undoubted justice punish them by taking away the blessings they have abused, or rendering those blessings useless to them, as well as by inflicting positive misery upon them. This is a confessed rule of justice, and it holds good as to spirituals as well as temporals. May not God as justly take away his common grace, and deny future assistance to an obstinate sinner who has abused it, as deprive him of health or life ? Why may he not as justly leave him destitute of the sanctified use of the means of grace he has neglected and unimproved in this world, as of the happiness of heaven in the world to come ? This is certainly a righteous punishment, and there is also a propriety and congruity in it; it is proper and congruous that the lovers of darkness should not have the light obtruded upon them; that the despisers of instruction should receive no benefit from it; that those who improve not what they have should have no more, but should lose even what they have. Thus their own choice is made their curse, and their sin their punishment. But to return.
" Therefore," says Jesus, " I speak unto them in parables ;" therefore, that is, acting upon the maxim I have just laid down, that those who abuse the light they have shall have no more, I speak to them on purpose in this mystical form, that they may still remain in darkness, while I am communicating instruction to my teachable disciples; " because they seeing, see not, and hearing, they hear not, neither do they understand;" because, though they have the exercise of their senses and intellectual powers, and have enjoyed my instructions so frequently, they still obstinately persist in ignorance and infidelity, and in that let them continue; it is no longer the design of my ministry to teach or convert them. " And in them," says he, " is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive." And then follow the reasons of this tremendous judgment: " For this people's heart is waxed gross and insensible, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their hearts, and should be converted, and I should heal them;" they seem afraid of their own conversion, and therefore do all they can to prevent the efficacy of the means of grace upon them. Such must be given up as desperate; and though they may still live among the means of grace, it is no longer the design of them to be of any service to them.
You see, as I observed at first, this is a denunciation of long standing—.about two thousand five hundred years old. It was accomplished in Isaiah's time, when God looked out for a messenger to send to the Jews, not to convert them, but to leave them inexcusable in their impenitence, and so aggravate their guilt and punishment. " Whom shall I send ?" says Jehovah, V and who shall go for us ?" As if he had said, I do not intend to deprive this obstinate people of the ministry of my servants, but am about to send them another; and where shall I find one that will accept so thankless and fruitless an office? Isaiah offers his services as a volunteer. " Here am I;" says he, " send me." And then his commission is made out in these terrible terms—expressive rather of the office of an execu any efficacy upon them. Yet I must not entirely •ren of these; I have some little hope, sinners, t happy time is coming, when some word spoke by t ble breath, which has hitherto only reached your e be enforced with almighty power upon your hea bring you to the knee as broken-hearted penitents God. I cannot part with the little hope I have, shall yet see a day of the Son of Man in this pla then the old gospel, even from the lips of your usi iatar, will be quite a new thing—when the hardes among you will not be able to resist it with so mi as he does now, but will be constrained to yielc power, and be made a willing captive to the obed faith. Who could live without some little hope kind? For can any of you bear the thought, only veteran sinners should persist in their obstir jierish, but that a new set of immortals, I mean the of youth and children among us, should grow never see a day of divine power and grace ? Alas should be the case, they will only grow up in g ripen for punishment; and the religion that is to 1 among us, will die away with its present subjects. therefore not only wish and pray for such a visitati on high, but let us also humbly hope for it. W< do not deserve it, but oh! God is merciful and g and whenever he has bestowed this favor, it has been upon the undeserving. If such a happy perioi come, before my eyes are shut in death, I should 1 hands full of business once more—business of tl agreeable and benevolent kind; directing brokentrembling, desponding sinners to the all-sufficient! Jesus Christ, after whom but very few are now in as if he were antiquated, or become a superfluity.
But whatever hopes I entertain of this nature, ] but fear that my ministry will continue useless to you. I am afraid some of you will still have yo opportunity of attending upon it; or " that hear shall hear, and not understand; and seeing you s and not perceive." I know no better method to^gi; against this danger than to warn you of it in time,v ia in v principal design at present. For this purp'ot I shall mention the presages and symptoms of proach of this tremendous judgment—the judgm
—th\\ having the ministry of the gospel continued, not as the means of salvation, but as the occasion of more aggravated sin and punishment .
Now the presages and symptoms of the approach of this tremendous judgment are such as these: the abuse or neglect of the ministry of the gospel in times past—incorrigible obstinacy under chastisements—growing insensibility or hardness of heart—repeated violences to the motions of the Holy Spirit and convictions of conscience, or obstinate sinning against knowledge—the withdrawing of divine influences—and, as a consequence of all, a general decay of religion. In the first place,
One constant presage of this judgment is, the abuse or neglect of the ministry of the gospel in time past.
This is implied, as you have seen, in the maxim on which divine justice proceeds in the infliction of this judgment, namely, that " from him that hath not,"—who improves not what he hath—" shall be taken away even that which he hath." This was the character of the Jews, against whom this judgment was denounced ; they had long enjoyed the ministry of the prophets, of Christ and his apostles, but hardened themselves against the good effects of it, and continued unreformed and impenitent. In short, all the judgments of God, of every sort, are inflicted upon mankind only for their sin; and, consequently, this judgment in particular proceeds from this cause. But then it must be remembered that this particular judgment is not inflicted for every sin; for who then can escape ? but for one particular kind of sin, the neglect or non-improvement of the means of grace, and particularly the ministry of the gospel. It is because men have heard so often without advantage, that they are condemned to hear without understanding. It is because they have had the use of their eyes, and the light of divine instruction shining around them, a long time, without their becoming wiser or better, that they are doomed to see and not perceive. This in particular, and not their sins in general, is the cause of this tremendous curse.
And is there no such sin as this to be found among us ? Have not some of you been favored with the means of grace for a length of years, yet you are still unconverted, ignorant, and impenitent ? Do not your consciences tell you that you still persist in the neglect of those duties of which you have been convinced, and to which you have been persuaded a thousand times? And do you not still indulge some favorite sin though you have been warned, reproved, dissuaded, and reasoned with, for years together ? What repeated, lively representations have you had of divine things? and yet are you not still unaffected with them ? All that you have heard of the evil and danger of sin has not turned you from it nor struck you with a just abhorrence of it. All that you have heard of the reasonableness, obligation, happiness, and blessed consequences of the life of religion has not turned you to it; but you act as if you were afraid you should be converted and God should heal you. The very means which have broken the hearts of others into ingenuous repentance you have had as well as they, and yet your hearts are hard and insensible ; nay, are they not growing harder and harder every day ? The discoveries of Jesus Christ, made in the gospel, have attracted the love of thousands to him; and the very same discoveries have been exhibited to you, and
?et you remain thoughtless of him and disaffected to him. 'o be a little more particular: you have had sufficient means to convince you of the duty of family religion; of the evil of drunkenness, lying, sabbath-breaking, covetousness, pride, carnal security, indifferency in religion ; of the n depravity of your nature, and the absolute necessity of the righteousness of Christ for your justification, and of the influence of the Holy Spirit for your sanctification, and yet these means have had no suitable effect upon you—and have you not then reason to fear that this judgment hangs over your heads, "that hearing you shall hear, and not understand; and seeing you shall see, and not perceive? Perhaps the judgment, near as it is, may be averted, if you take warning, and now begin with all your might to improve the means of grace. But oh ! if you delay and trifle on, the curse may light upon you and never be removed, and then you are as certainly and irrecoverably undone, as if the gates of eternal despair were now shut upon you.
Secondly, Incorrigible obstinacy under the chastisements of the divine hand is another dreadful presage of the approach of this judgment.
The various afflictions—public, domestic, and personal, with which our heavenly Father chastises the sons of men, are excellent means of repentance and reformation, and they have often effect upon those with whom all other means had been used in vain. But when even these wholesome severities, which one would think would awaken the most secure to some sensibility, are obstinately disregarded, and men sin on still even under the angry hand of God lifted up to smite them, it argues an incorrigible hardness of heart, and they incur the same curse with those that misimprove the ministry of the gospel. The affliction may be removed; but it may be removed in judgment as a father gives over correcting an incorrigible child and leaves him to himself. But oh! how much better to lie under the rod, than to be given up as desperate, and for that reason dismissed from the discipline of our heavenly Father!
Growing insensibility or hardness of heart is, thirdly, a most threatening presage of the near approach of this awful judgment. This, indeed, is the very beginning of the judgment and the first perceivable effect of it; and as the sinner improves in hardness of heart, this curse falls heavier upon him and is the cause of this horrid improvement. Hence you find in Scripture, a hard heart, a stiff neck, a reprobate mind, a seared conscience, a soul past feeling, are mentioned as the dreadful characteristics of a soul judicially given up of God. And is every heart among us free from this alarming sympton ? Can every one among us say, " I am as easily and deeply affected with eternal things, and the ministry of the gospel has as much effect upon me now, as it had five or ten years ago ?" Alas! must not some of you say on the other hand, " Once I remember I was deeply concerned about my everlasting state; some years ago I was alarmed with a sense of my sin and danger, and earnestly used my utmost endeavors to obtain an interest in the Saviour; but now it is all over. Now I lie secure and unconcerned, except that now and then I am involuntarily seized with pangs of despairing horror, which wear off without any good effect. But though I am now so easy and careless, I cannot pretend that my state is really more safe now than it was when I was so anxiously concerned about it." May not this be the language of some of you ? If so, I most honestly tell you, you are near cursing. Your hearts are waxen fat, and your ears are dull of hearing; and therefore you have great reason to fear the dreadful God, whose grace and patience you have so long ungratefully abused, is about to pronounce the sentence upon you, " Hearing ye shall hear, and not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive:" you shall enjoy the means of grace as usual, but you shall receive no advantage from them. Must not your hearts meditate terror while this heavy curse hangs over you ? And will you not fly from it and use all means possible to escape ?
Fourthly, Eepeated violences of the Spirit of God and your own consciences, or an obstinate continuance in sin against knowledge, is an alarming symptom of the approach of this judgment. Though a distinction may be made in some instances between those restraints and good tendencies which proceed from your own consciences, it is not my present purpose to make the distinction. They both tend to restrain you from sin and excite you to a religious life, and therefore their tendency is the same. And I doubt not but the Spirit of God and your own consciences have repeatedly striven even with the most hardened sinner among you; and it has often cost you violent struggling to make effectual resistance. Have you not had some thoughtful, pensive, solemn intervals notwithstanding all your preposterous endeavors to live a life of dissipation and to continue in your thoughtless career? Have you not had strong convictions of your guilt and danger, and the necessity of a new heart and a new life, and dismal misgivings and forebodings of heart as to the consequences of your present conduct? Have you not in these solemn moments formed many good resolutions and vows, and determined you would live no longer as you have done? Have you not found yourselves, as it were, weary and surfeited with a course of sin, and your desires going after Christ ? Has not some sermon, or passage of Scripture, or alarming providence, roused you for a while out of your security, and had a strange, irresistible force upon your hearts? Well, in such seasons as these, the Holy Spirit and your own consciences were striving with you; and had you cherished those sacred motions you might ere now have been sincere converts and heirs of Heaven. But, alas! have you not rebelled and grieved the Holy Spirit, and done violence to your own consciences? Have you not talked, or laughed, or trifled, or labored away these thoughtful hours, and done your utmost to recover your stupid security again? Alas! in so doing you trod in the very steps of those desperate sinners who have been abandoned of God, and sealed up under his irrevocable curse. Many, indeed, who have done this have at length been subdued by the power of God and happily constrained to forego all their resistance; but oh! this has not been the blessed end of all who have thus fought against God; no, many of them have been given up and allowed to gain a victory ruinous to themselves. Therefore, as you have reason to hope, you have also reason to fear; and you have undoubtedly good reason to give over your resistance and submit to God and conscience, lest he abandon you to yourselves. And then, though you may still enjoy the gospel and its ordinances, they will be of no service to you; nay, this will not be the end God has in view in continuing these privileges; his design is the benefit of others who mingle with you in the same assembly, and enjoy these means in common with you. They may be converted and healed by them. But as for you, " hearing ye shall hear, and not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive;" and this will be " your condemnation, that light is come into the world, and you have loved darkness rather than light."
Under this head I must add, that every instance of willful sinning against knowledge is the most dangerous and provoking manner of sinning. The language of such a practice is, " Lord, I know this is displeasing to thee; and yet I will do it." What insufferable insolence is this in a worm of the earth! How provoking must it be to the supreme Majesty! and what ravages must it make in the conscience! The wretch that can venture upon this, may venture upon any thing. Surely such a course of willful sinning against knowledge, must expose the daring sinner to the heaviest judgment of Heaven. And according to the course of nature, it tends to harden him in impenitence; for the only way in which a sinner may be wrought upon for his conversion is by letting him know his duty; but when he puts this knowledge at defiance, and obstinately does his pleasure in spite of it, what service can instruction do to him ? What benefit can he receive from the ministry of the gospel ? It is time such a one should be left "to hear and not understand, and see and not perceive." Indeed this is in a great measure his character already. He runs into ruin with his eyes open, and wittingly rejects the means of salvation.
Fifthly, The withdrawal of divine influence is a dismal symptom of this judgment.
Whatever proud and self-conceited notions men entertain of their sufficiency for the purposes of religion, it is a certain truth, confirmed by the testimony of Scripture and the experience of near six thousand years, that the blessed Spirit of God is the sole author of all that little religion that has been among men in every age; and when he withdraws, then religion withers like the fruits of the earth without air and rain. It is also evident, both from Scripture and the history of the church, that there are certain seasons in which the Spirit is plentifully poured out; and then multitudes of sinners that had sat under the gospel unmoved from year to year, are converted; and religion wears another aspect in a country or a congregation, according to the extent of the showers of divine influences. Then the case of sinners is hopeful; for God works effectually within, and there are many peculiar helps and advantages for conversion without; then ministers preach and Christians pray, converse, and do every thing in another manner: a manner peculiarly adapted to strike conviction, to lead the convinced to Christ, and to bring down blessings upon the world. But when the abuse of so great a blessing provokes a jealous God to withdraw his influences, then the affairs of religion put on another face : offences happen; a spirit of contention begins to rise; sinners grow insolent; the gospel loses its force upon the consciences of men; ministers grow languid and faint-hearted, and though their compositions may be even more judicious and masterly than when they had more effect, yet the spirit, the life, the energy, the unknown something, that gave them their irresistible efficacy, is wanting. But few sinners are awakened; and the impressions of such are superficial, and they seem to halt and make but slow progress in returning to God; and as to the crowd of sinners, they go on careless, unawakened, and unreformed under the preaching of the gospel, and harden themselves more against it. It is comparatively an easy thing for them to keep down conscience, to resist the Spirit, and to sin away the week, though they have heard the gospel on Sunday. Now in such a season the case of sinners is very discouraging; there is but a very dull chance, if I may so speak, for their conversion. They may "hear indeed, but they do not understand; they may see indeed, but not perceive." And from the brief description I have given you of such a season, have you not reason to fear that it is your lot to live in such a time? a time when the blessed Spirit, that has long been striving with Hanover, has, in a great measure, left it in displeasure and in j udgment: he has left it, you may be sure he has left it in displeasure and in judgment: he has left it, because he has been ill-treated, and could bear it no longer. And he is gone! Then the glory is departed! You may still have your favorite minister; you may still have sermons and all the ordinances of the gospel ; but, alas! " hearing you shall hear, and not understand; and seeing you shall see, and not perceive." And the very means that ripen others for heaven will only cause you to rot and putrefy till you drop, as it were by your own weight, into hell.
When the Spirit is withdrawn, it is not only a sign that the judgment threatened in my text is near, but that it is actually executed; for the absence of the Spirit is the reason why sinners attend upon the ministry of the gospel without any real advantage. The curse is actually fallen; but, oh! I hope it may be removed, at least from some of you; and now is the time for you to make the trial.
Lastly, A general decay of religion is a symptom, and indeed a part, of this judgment.
This is the consequence of the foregoing particulars; and when this is the case, it is evident the judgment has fallen upon some and is likely to fall upon many. When a people enjoy the ministry of the gospel, and yet religion does not gain ground, but declines, then it is evident, some " hearing, hear not, and seeing, see not."
And I leave you to judge whether this alarming symptom be not upon us. Religion is evidently declining among us in some instances; and how little ground does it gain in others ?
To conclude. Let such of you as have reason to apprehend that you are " near unto cursing," pay a proper regard to this consideration, that if it be possible to escape it, now is the most likely time you will ever see, and the longer you delay the greater will be your danger. Therefore, now endeavor with all your might to hear to purpose when you do hear, and to see to advantage when you do see. " Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation."