"Doubtless thou art our Father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our Father, our Redeemer; thy name is from everlasting."—ISA. lxiii. 16.
ISAIAH, by the spirit of prophecy, foreseeing the woful captivity that was to come not many years after his death, is here anticipating the due exercise of the godly under it, and wrestling with God for the removal of his wrath, and returning of his merciful favour towards them. His prayer is most fervent (ver. 15), and in this is an argument made use of for pressing the same. The verse contains a confident asserting of God’s special interest in that people, even in the view of a formidable-like objection; for understanding whereof, we are to canvass two senses put upon the words. One is, that this hints at the saints in heaven,—their ignorance of what is done below, and how it fareth with God’s church. This is ordinarily in this sense used for refuting the fond foundation of prayer to saints in heaven, from their alleged particular knowledge of the state of those on earth; the falsehood of which doctrine, with that of its sandy foundation, may otherwise be solidly concluded, without the drawing of this scripture to a sense that doth not very natively agree with its scope and drift. The other sense, which we shall confirm, is this,—that the prophet here, in the name of the church, asserteth by faith a gracious interest in God, even when conscience convicteth of a sad unlikeness to their forefathers, to whom this relationship was first graciously granted, and in them to their seed. And that this, and not the other, is consonant to the place is evident, from the pertinency of this sense unto the scope, and the necessity of drawing the other to any convenient sense by some force; for what sense can the latter part have commodiously as an objection against their faith, that they are not acknowledged by Israel? But the conviction of unlikeness to their predecessors in their grace and actings for God, is a strong and forcible objection, which nothing but a strong faith well managed can overcome. This sense agreeth with the acknowledgments of guilt made before and immediately after (ver. 17).
Or we may take both as hinted, and containing this sense: 1. "Thou art our Father; though the worthies with whom thou enteredst first into covenant, and who were faithful therein, are now ignorant and unmindful of us, yet the relation between thee and us stands;" 2. "And though they, if they were alive and saw us, would disown us as their children, because of our great unlikeness to them." (See John viii. 39, 40.) And since the two words of "ignorance" and "not acknowledging of them" give some ground for this larger sense, we shall take it.
In the verse there is, 1. A confident assertion of an interest in God as our Father, made by the prophet in his own name and in that of the people of God. 2. The objections in the said passage, whereof this assertion is owned, "Though our worthy forefathers be both ignorant of us, and if they knew us would disown us, for our unlikeness to them." 3. A returning to the former assertion of faith, with further enlargement and confirmation from this,—"Our Redeemer," and his "everlasting name."
We shall briefly touch at something, from the general scope and connection of the words with the preceding and following.
Observ. A special interest in God is a sufficient warrant for asking of him any suitable and needful blessing. If you ask the prophet’s reason for his bold-like expostulation and prayers (ver. 15), his answer is here: "What wonder that children expect the sounding of their father’s bowels toward them in distress?" (See Psalm xviii. 1, 2, 3, 6.) Christ’s preface to the pattern of prayer hints this.
We need not stand to shew what is a special interest in God, especially, being to speak of the nature of that particular expression of it which is here used. It is a covenant relation. But to prove and confirm you in the faith of this, is our first work.
1. This special interest in God secures by promise and right all that is needful for his people; nay, I may say, by begun possession; for, 1st, He that hath an interest in God hath an interest in all blessings, for all are in him as the fountain, and all stream natively from him. He is all in all; he alone makes up all wants, (Psalm lxxiii. 26). 2d, This interest is yet further secured in all blessings, by the large promises of that covenant whereof this interest in God is the main and fundamental article. 3d, And this is yet further secured by the infinite faithfulness and power of the Promiser.
2. The Lord commands and allows this improvement of an interest in him, and commends it when done. He reveals himself in all his excellencies, that his people may live upon him, and giveth the pledge of his promises that they may live by them, and gain by trading on them. (See Jer. iii. 19.)
USE.—1. Then this interest is of exceeding value, since it is a relevant warrant for such pleadings. How would men value such an interest in a king as might warrant them to ask any thing within the compass of his limited power? If they that want it knew its value, they would not live without it; and if they that have it knew it better, they would lead a better life, and a more comfortable.
2. Labour to keep the faith of this clear, if you would be in a good case for prayer, and prevailing with God therein. I shall name now only this good help to keep the faith of an interest clear, and it is, a constant diligence in the study of walking suitably to an interest in him. Nay, suppose there were unbelieving doubtings about our interest in him, yet this care of performing the duties lying on one who hath an interest, will be found a safe, ready, and speedy way for putting an end to such unbelieving debates. As, for instance, suppose thou question thy interest in God as thy Father, yet study to render him that love, reverence, and obedience that a child oweth, and it will not be long a dispute with thee.
Two things may be objected against this practice: one, against its lawfulness; another, against the hopefulness of its succeeding. And though it may anticipate what is to be spoken on this purpose, yet it is not impertinent to the clearing up of this offered help, especially since we cannot reach the subject at this time.
First, For its lawfulness.
1. Commands of God clear it up. Love, and fear, and all due obedience, are exacted lawfully and by divine authority of them that are not in a gracious relation to him. All that the godly ought to do by virtue of their gracious relation to God, the ungodly are under commands to do them also, though in the due order and method of divine prescription; otherwise, want of an interest in God should be an excuse for the greatest part of the bold rebellions of sinners against God.
2. Common relations to God exact, as due from men, the same dutiful behaviour towards God, which a more special interest hath a more effectual way of obliging the godly unto. And, therefore, we find the Lord pressing men to their duty from such common relations, and the godly making special use of such sometimes, when a more special interest hath been darkened, (Job x. 8, 9; Psalm cxix. 93): sometimes in a holy delightful reckoning of all their relations to God; for a wise believer looks on none of them as contemptible, (Psalm cxxxix. 14).
Secondly, For its hopefulness of succeeding to the clearing up of a gracious interest in God, these things make somewhat:
1. That walking answerably unto a common relation or an honest study thereof, can hardly be found in any who hath not a special interest in God. The Lord will have a fair quarrel even with them that have no other relation to him, but as he is their maker and maintainer, that they have not duly obeyed him, (Rom. i. 20, 21).
2. Commonly the darkness of our knowledge of our special interest in God proceeds from the feebleness of our endeavours to answer the duties of such a relation, as the sad experience of many on the one hand doth confirm it; and, on the other, the experiences of the diligent hand testify, that it was the way to enrich them with assurance of their interest, as well as with the possession of other special blessings.
In handling of the words, we shall first handle the objection that the prophet’s faith triumphs over, in itself: and so, the order of our discourse shall be on these heads—1. The deceased godly are unacquainted with the state of the survivors. 2. The posterity of them whose privileges they enjoy, may be very unlike their predecessors. 3. Convictions of both may stand with a strong faith. 4. Assurance of a special interest in God may be attained by the people of God.
Observ. 1. The godly deceased are ignorant of the state of the survivors. It is said of the wicked, that they know not the lot of their posterity, (Job xiv. 21). Concerning the godly, the scripture speaks not expressly. But the truth of this may be confirmed,
1. From the silence of scripture about their knowledge of affairs done below, which at least should limit the vanity of men in asserting the contrary as an article of faith, especially, on so fond a foundation as that "glass of the Trinity" that the Papists talk of, wherein they behold such things, and for so idolatrous an end, as the giving them the worship due to God and Jesus Christ.
2. It may be hinted and guessed at by their happy state, wherein they are settled. If the knowledge of the sins of others, especially of their relations and posterity, was so grievous to them when on earth, and encompassed with sin, how probable is it that this knowledge would be far more grievous to them, when perfectly sanctified? But if it be said, that sanctified and pure affection would allay this grief, as it will in the day of judgment, when they see vengeance executed on them; the answer is, that the cases are not alike, since there is a difference between sin, and acts of justice for it; God’s glory is in the one, and his dishonour in the other.
3. This their ignorance may be concluded, from the probable incapacity they are at for knowing it. Their distance from, and want of converse with the inhabitants of the world, and the inability of the soul for attaining such knowledge without nearness and converse, may say more against it, than can be said for it; for the alleging of any extraordinary mean of knowing, ought not to be produced without warrant from the word, or sound reason deduced from thence. Hence it cannot be so denied of angels, who are often about their Master’s work on earth.
4. This their ignorance of the state of survivors may be guessed at, by the impertinency and uselessness of such a sort of knowledge. If it can be proved that such a knowledge is useless, there is good reason to deny it. Now, it cannot be useful to them, for their work and labour ceaseth, (Rev. xiv. 13); and so, interceding with God for the survivors, since it is evidently a labour, is not probably their exercise; and unprofitable knowledge is not suited to their state. Yet to speak on such a dark subject with sobriety and moderation, without any peremptory determination, since the scripture’s voice is not peremptory therein, these things we offer to your thoughts:
1. It is probable that what the saints knew when in life, of the state of the church and people of God, they remember in heaven, since it is unreasonable to think, that by the glorified state of the godly there is any impairment in their natural faculties, but rather an increase.
2. They know certainly, that they, and the rest of the people of God with them in heaven and on earth, are not yet full partakers of all the blessings that their Lord purchased for them; and it is likely that they want not holy and happy desires of full faith, for the perfection thereof, both in themselves and others, and in vengeance on their enemies, (see Rev. vi. 9, 10); though it be not safe to build doctrines peremptorily on such dark prophetic places, (see Rom. viii. 19, 22); albeit that also is a dark place.
3. It is not improbable that the bright displaying of the glory of Christ’s kingdom, in some eminent acts of mercy to his church, and judgment on his enemies, may be manifest to them, (See Rev. xviii. 20, and xix. 1, 6, 8), and the way that this hastens the wished-for day of the Lord. But these are but conjectures, and as such I deliver them, leaving to every one a liberty to dissent according as they apprehend the foundation to be weak on which they are built. But the former grounds against any particular knowledge of particular persons and states, have more solidity.
USE.—1. You that have relations whose special welfare you desire, labour now to know their state, and to be helpful to them; for death will put you out of the reach of knowing how it is with them, or of helping them if you knew it.
2. Then look upon your godly friends deceased as lost to you, as to any immediate usefulness; their example, and their precepts, and warnings, may still have force; but as to them, you now stand on your own legs, and want the props of the help and comforts of their sympathy.
3. Then learn to lament the more the loss of godly men. It is a gain to themselves, for they exchange earth for heaven; a sort of gain to Jesus Christ (if we may so speak of him), who is our only gain in life and death, (Phil. i. 21), who gains a glorified holy member, for a sinful defiled one; a gain to the church invisible, in that its number is the nearer being filled up. But to the church militant, it is a loss, and a considerable one; which should stir us up to turn our complaints into prayers, that God would fill up the want, by the converting of others, and increasing his grace on the survivors.
Observ. 2. The posterity of them whose privileges they enjoy, may be so unlike their predecessors, as that they may deserve to be disowned by them: though Israel be the "prince with God," he might disown us, as being not Israel, though of Israel. (See Rom, ix. 6, 32, 33).
In handling of this sad truth, the multitudes of instances of unlikeness will go far to prove it. And this we shall confirm, not so much from the unlikeness of Israel or Judah at this time that the prophet speaks of, but of our unlikeness to our predecessors whose privileges we enjoy. Amongst these predecessors of ours, we shall—l. Name the worthies in the text and the Old Testament saints; for we Gentiles are their posterity, not by natural generation (and if so, it were a very small matter, if it go alone,) but by a gracious implantation. (See Rom. xi. 17, 22, 24, and Rom. iv. 11.) Abraham is called the Father of all believers, by the eminent room he had in the church, as a pattern of faith.
2. The primitive Christians are our predecessors, whose privileges we enjoy, and the same administration of the gospel that was first delivered unto them.
3. Our predecessors are the generation of Christians in these lands, the fruits of whose blood, and sufferings, and venturous actings for the gospel, we now enjoy in some measure.
And we shall compare ourselves with them for these ends:
1. That there may be some mention unto the Lord’s praise of his mighty acts, and effects of his grace on the generation foregoing. And it is a great part of our work to shew forth his praise this way. (See Psalms, clxv. 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12.)
2. To preserve and send forth the savour of the name of the righteous, that it may be had in everlasting remembrance, (Heb. xi. 4).
3. Because such comparisons are very humbling, as well as chastening and convincing.
4. To stir up and encourage from this conviction unto more faithful and painful walking with God, since attainments of saints do hold forth what is attainable.
To begin then with the first sort—the Old Testament saints—and to clear up how justly we may be disowned by them as their successors; before we speak of our unlikeness to them as to duty, we must shew their unlikeness to us as to privileges—and this will aggravate the case to our disadvantage sadly.
1. The revelation of the mind of God was far more sparing and dark to them, than to us, (Heb. i. l, 2). Here a little, and there a little, did they receive thereof: but the water of the sanctuary, which to them was by showers, or a little river, is to us a sea of knowledge of God’s will.
2. Their ordinances were far more dark and carnal than ours, so that it is called "the letter," (2 Cor. iii.), and ours that "of the Spirit."
3. The church made up of them, was a little enclosure of a few Jewish families at first—at best and greatest, but of one nation, and a few proselytes out of the heathen—whereas the church is now diffused through many nations, and many benefits flow from its multitude. For all these their disadvantages in point of privilege, we are at more disadvantages in point of duty and attainments, and sadly unlike to them in these particulars.
4. The scope of the historical part of the Bible, is not to give us any full account of the graces and excellencies of the Old Testament saints, but only in occasional hints now and then (except in the book of Psalms); whereby we may charitably conclude, that there were many more excellent things found with them, than are recorded. But for ourselves, we may know all.
5. In the deep providence of God, they were winked at in many things, which now, the express revelation of God’s will makes intolerable. This I name, for the obviating of the prejudice that is usually entertained, by reading of their failings, especially in polygamy, and in marrying of near relations. It may be almost said, that uncharitable undervaluing of them on the account of such weaknesses, proceeding mainly from the ignorance of God’s mind in them, is a greater guilt in us, than their falling was to them.
6. In general, the church was then a minor, and in bondage, (Galat. iv. 1, 2, 3).
Our sad unlikeness to them, I shall branch it forth, first from the two in the text; and then, from some others elsewhere famous in the word.
Abraham. This is the father of the faithful, honoured with the name of "the friend of God;" whose children we may be ashamed to reckon ourselves, for our unlikeness to him,
1. In his faith and confidence in God’s promise, (Rom. iv. 19, 20). His faith was seen in his obedience in going out of his own land, to a strange country; in expecting posterity, when, by the course of nature, it was impossible; in his universal obedience unto divine commands that crossed the promise; But for us, we are commonly in this case; 1. A promise, with a great prop from sense, is some stay to the soul, but none without it. 2. Hence is our obedience as narrow, as our faith is feeble. Let it not be said that he was sure the promise was made to him, whereas our doubting proceeds from our questioning our right to the promise; for this is but a delusion of Satan and of our own hearts, as is proved, first, In that general and unlimited promises in the word, are as good as the most particular that can be desired; and, secondly, The trial, when seriously managed, will produce a discovery, that it is the truth of the promise that is the real question in the heart, whatever else for the fashion be pretended. And though serious searching may discover this to any, yet I add these confirmations of it; 1. Probabilities of accomplishment satisfy the soul in its alleged faith, more than discoveries of our right to the promise, or of the faithfulness of the promise; and when these are wanting, ofttimes nothing can stay the heart. 2. There is ofttimes gross unbelief felt in resting on promises of outward provision, when the right to them is not so much in question. What the causes of this treachery are, deserveth a more exact inquisition: but we shall not insist further on it at this time, than this—that the grounds of unbelief are here most visible, and the desires of the heart most fervent; and therefore, it is the harder to be stayed. 3. That promises which have a general reference to the church, and Christ its head, and exaltation of his kingdom, are hardly satisfying to many, though they be most clear, (Psalm cx.), when outward appearances are wanting. Yea, in this, eminent saints have failed, as Baruch and Elijah, (Jerem. xlv, 1 Kings xix).
2. We are unlike to Abraham our father, in his bold and reverent familiarity with God. He walked with him, and dealt with him, with a most sweet mixture of these true qualities: witness that brave pleading for Sodom, (Genes. xviii). But we are commonly on the one or other extreme, of presumption or discouraging diffidence, and are commonly tossed from the one to the other in our exercises, and rarely preserve both in an equal mixture. Witness, 1. Our common strange way of approaching to him, either as a terrible adversary, or one so high above us, that there is no sort of familiarity allowable. Men oftentimes in the beginning of their prayers, use such prefaces, as if their acquaintance with God were just then a making. 2. The predominion of fear, of unbelieving fear, when the heart is in any serious temper; as of vanity and lightness at other times.
Object. 1. But the Lord conversed with Abraham ofttimes in a visible shape, (as Gen. xviii.), and therefore his boldness was better founded. Ans. 1. Do you think that that shape, and manner of appearance, did abate aught in that holy man of the reverent awe of God which was on his heart, in more special approaches to him? 2. We have God dwelling in our nature in Jesus Christ, whereof that was but a prelude—which warrants this familiarity in a high measure of faith. (See Gal. iv. 1,6,) This makes a great change to our advantage, and gives great ground for familiarity.
Object. 2. But is it not evident that God calls for fear and awe; and his excellency and his holiness are enough to make us keep at a great distance? Ans. Since it is so, he is so great and glorious, that unless he had prepared a way for coming to him, and obliged us by his command to take and use it, it had been presumption to have approached with this familiarity. But there is little true reverence in making respect a plea for disobedience. Think you that God’s dwelling in our nature in Christ—that the privilege of adoption to which we are brought by him—that the free spirit of children in our hearts, and the Lord’s express commands to boldness and freedom, in improving of his usefulness for us engaged by promises—that these are not warrants sufficient to embolden us?
Object. 3. But how shall we mix them? 1. Mix them often in your meditations and thoughts of God, and you will find such a mixed frame. 2. Give the predominant care to keep from that extreme to which, by nature, or temptation, or special weakness, you are most inclined. 3. Do what you can to maintain such thoughts of God which you are helped unto, when admitted most into his fellowship—such thoughts as influence grace most, and render your pleadings most savoury to yourself, when in a specially reflecting frame, and most acceptable to him. 4. Study faith and tender walking. It is an evil conscience that makes men entertain strange thoughts of God oftentimes.
The second instance is Israel: Jacob, that man of manifold afflictions and trials, forced to flee from his father’s house, afflicted by his father-in-law, pursued by his brother, grieved about his children, and at length driven to Egypt with his family, and there dieth. The Lord’s people from him are commonly called Israel. This holy man is eminent for his wrestling with God. Gen. xxxii. 26; Hos. xii. 3, 4, where it seems he was so mighty in bodily and spiritual exercise combined. He hath his refuge unto God in a great strait; and when opportunity is offered, he behaveth princely (as the word is) in it—not like unto our faint, cold, languid desires, scarcely worth the name of prayers, let alone of wrestlings. 1. We, if there be difficulty in the work, are ready to give over, and to wait for a better time. It is special valour to wrestle, which implies opposition. 2. A few cold wishes will serve the turn with us, but he could spend a night in wrestling. 3. Opposition from our own unbelieving hearts will discourage us; but such, from God himself, doth not put him off his duty. 4. If we perform the duty in any tolerable manner, we are satisfied; but nothing but a blessing will satisfy him. Oh! who is it that wrestles long, and gives not over, if it were a whole night, till he get the blessing?
I shall now add unto these two famous instances, some few things, wherein we are far inferior to the saints of old.
1. In living as strangers and pilgrims, albeit the promises of the future life after death were more shadowy than they are unto us. (See Heb. xi. 9, 10, 13.) This continued in Jacob (Genes. xlvii. 9), and even in David’s time, when God’s people were settled in Canaan (Psalm xxxix. 13, and cxix. 19; 1 Chron. xxix. 15). But we are as settled inhabitants, with fond hearts, purposes, hopes, and endeavours, laid out on worldly things.
2. We are unlike them in zeal for God, and his glory, word, ordinances, sabbath, and worship. How bitter were their lamentations for the Lord’s withdrawing; how bold their testifyings against all courses of defection from God, often with great danger to themselves! As for us, we are well satisfied with dishonour done to God, if there be no real immediate hurt to ourselves: yea, if our own petty enjoyments be secured, there is little moan made for the calamity of others, and the uncertainty of the case of posterity.
3. We are unlike to them in longing for the Messiah’s coming. They longed, watched, and prayed for his first coming; but we, little, for his second coming. Though that degenerate generation amongst whom he came did not know him, and handled him as a deceiver, yet many and fervent were the longings of their fathers for him.
Our next predecessors are the primitive Christians, whose posterity we are yet unworthy to be reckoned, though we enjoy their privileges; yea, in that point, have advantages above them.
1. In the first age, immediately after Christ’s ascension, there was the great affliction of Christ’s removal from them, the greatest trial that ever a poor company of believers were tried with, as may be guessed at, by Christ’s using so many words of comfort against it. Whereas it is long since he went away, and it is the nearer by so much to his second coming.
2. They had the Jewish temple and ceremonies yet standing, though dead, yet not decently buried; which bred them no small temptations and trials amongst themselves and from enemies. (See Rom. xiv.)
3. The New Testament dispensation of the gospel and the doctrines thereof, delivered to them by word of mouth from the apostles and evangelists, and all the proofs thereof drawn from the Old Testament, which needed a great portion of the Spirit in the dispensers, as it was afforded to them. Whereas we have their doctrine consigned to writing by themselves, and that through the Spirit’s direction.
4. And then, and immediately after, there was the great scandal of the cross of Christ—a man lately put to death as a malefactor! Whereas we have this confirmed to us by all the wonderful effects that, by the power of the Holy Ghost, this doctrine hath since had in the world.
5. A most stubborn hatred against the very name of Christianity, rooted by the devilish idolatry of the world and the power of the Roman monarchy arrayed against them. Whereas now it is not so in any place, though the purity and reality of profession be yet persecuted, and it is likely will ever be in some measure.
It is true they had advantages above us in other respects, which did help sufficiently to balance these disadvantages. But we are sadly unlike them,
1. In their wonderful charitableness to their poor brethren, (Acts ii. 44, 45). Great were their expenses in supplying the apostles and others, in their great travels in advancing the gospel; many strong proofs did they give that their hearts were detached from this world, and bound in love to the brethren. But for our charity, it is evident, that, take away the laws of a well-governed land for the provision of the poor, and the reputation of the profession which stands in giving somewhat on charitable occasions, if all were left to free-will offerings, charity would amount to a small sum.
2. Their mutual love, and harmony, and union, which, considering all things, was a wonderful grace; to-wit, the great extent the church was speedily enlarged into, the diversity and multitudes of nations and languages of professors, and the great line of separation which God himself had made, and for many ages continued between Jew and Gentile. But now, not only Christians of one nation, but of one congregation, do rarely live in love and peace.
3. Their great, and cheerful, and patient sufferings, and their forgiving spirit. Persecutors themselves were sometimes wearied with them for the cheerfulness of their sufferings: they were often in an excess about it, and rushed upon death through the faith of the glory and reward of sufferings. But for us, a little fining is more heavily taken than death was by them; and suffering even for a good cause, is commonly reckoned no small calamity.
4. Their great and constant pains in promoting the gospel, and spreading the name of Jesus through the world, which the Lord blessed with a wonderful success. But these advents are gone. Nations professing Christianity even in some purity, manage trade with the heathen and infidels, for advancing the interest of riches; but how little that of religion is minded, no man can be so blind as not to see it, and every tender heart ought to regret it as a sad degeneracy.
Not to bring in the instances of the apostles, in one of whom—Paul—we may find enough to put us all to the blush; whose pains, and prayers, and tears, and travels, and work, and sufferings, in advancing the gospel as a minister, and honouring it as a Christian, are so high, that many may think them rather matter of admiration than of imitation, though he expressly, by the Holy Ghost, enjoins this last, (1 Cor. xi. 1)—predecessors are nearer to us—the worthies that lived before us in this land, about the time of the Reformation from Popery, who were also under great disadvantages in respect of us, though they also have gone far beyond us. As, 1. The darkness they were in as to many points of doctrine, and especially about the worship and government of God’s house, which the Lord hath since clearly revealed from the word. 2. The smaller measure of the gifts of praying and preaching which were then dispensed, as it may be evident, in comparing what is on record of their labours, with what is common now. 3. The great and universal opposition of the church in those days, unto the truths they professed, and to themselves, the preachers and professors thereof. The Popish doctrines then were but a coming to the light, and the light but a growing for the discovery thereof. 4. The rareness of the scriptures themselves, which were kept from the people by unworthy bishops, and bloody laws. Yet under all these disadvantages, we are far outstripped by them,
1. In their steadfast suffering for such truths as were neither so much cleared up as either they are now, or as such are which have been the trial of this generation, neither were always fundamental; yet they did adhere to them at all hazards, and many, to the loss of their lives in a cruel manner.
2. In their great valuing of the smallest means of grace, even, the bare reading of the word. Oh! if there were such an edge on professors as was then, ministers would have other sort of congregations to preach unto.
3. In their honest plainness and sincerity in walking up to their light. They were not detainers of the truth of God in unrighteousness, as so many are, who are owners of knowing heads, and unholy hearts; heads full of light, but hearts void of true spiritual life, and sense, and tenderness. Oh, how many apes are there, and imitators of these worthies in the land! How many counterfeiting their outward carriage, while crossing their doctrine; and most professing their doctrine, while hating their practice.
One great objection I must remove for the rendering this sad comparison the more humbling and convincing, and for preparing our way for application; and it is this, That all these predecessors of ours had singular helps and advantages above us, which make the case very different: As, 1. The Old Testament saints had extraordinary means of converse with God, whereof we are now deprived. 2. The New Testament saints had an extraordinary measure of the Spirit. 3. Our immediate predecessors had also a great measure of this, suited to their emergencies and work.
I answer, as to the 1st, Extraordinary manifestations of God by visions, dreams, and oracles, are no such great advantages as we commonly think, who are deprived of them. 1. Ungodly men had them, so that they are not in themselves sanctifying things: Cain, Balaam, Saul, a number of the most ungodly had them. 2. They were not constant, but now and then. 3. Oftentimes they were attended with great terrors on the godly that met with them, and terrible fears of death; and therefore, were nothing comparable to that soft and calm voice of the Spirit speaking clearly in the word.
2nd. As to that extraordinary measure of the Spirit that the New Testament saints had, a great part of it was for the increase of gifts, and giving other gifts of tongues and miracles useful in that age. But true holiness was still conveyed in the same way, and increased by the same means that now it is. And thereof further we find, that there were no small numbers of hypocrites and apostates found amongst them, even in the best of those days which the church ever beheld.
So that take all things together, and we shall find, 1. That the advantages that Christians had of old, are balanced by others which we possess. 2. That the main grounds on which they walked, and by which they attained to such eminency, are the same that we have: God himself to study, and know, and converse with—the covenant of peace between him and them that emboldened them in all their addresses to him—means especially of prayer, whereby to obtain all blessings from him, according to his promises—a rule of his will for a rule of their walk, wherein we may say, by reason of the great light we enjoy, that we are not inferior unto any of the generations of the saints—the same grace to animate and strengthen—and the same recompense of reward.