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MATTHEW, CHAP. XXVI.-VERSE 41.
Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed
is willing, but the flesh is weak.
For the better understanding of these words, I must desire you to reflect a little on what occasion they were spoken, and in what circumstances our Saviour was when he made this exhortation to his disciples. The time of his crucifixion was now near at hand, and he had foretold his disciples that they should all be offended because of him ; on which St Peter made a very forward profession of constancy, as did likewise all the disciples. But it does not appear that they clearly understood our Saviour, or were apprehensive that they should so soon lose their Master; if they had, they could not have been so supinely negligent and unconcerned for his welfare, as immediately to fall asleep, as we read they did. But our Saviour, as he had a different sense of what he was to undergo, so was he differently affected : he began to be sorrowful and very heavy; and expressed himself to his disciples, that his soul was exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” He began to feel the weakness and infirmities of human nature on the approach of death, and the terror and apprehension of it increased so fast, as to draw that petition from him, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.' In which prayer be was so earnest, and his agony so great, that the 'sweat fell from him like drops of blood.'
No one was ever more willing to fulfil the will of God than he was : he came into the world to do the will of his Father, and was ready to finish the work set before him. But yet, in this last and sharp trial, he found how great the weakness of
the-flesh was, and how powerful impressions it had on him : from whence probably arose the reflexion mentioned in the text, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak;' which he makes the ground of his exhortation to his disciples, "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation.' When he returned from prayer to them, he found them asleep, and, after expostulating with them for the unconcernedness it betrayed towards him in his distress and affliction, he exhorts them rather to employ their time in watching and praying; for though they had made a very forward and bold resolution rather to die with him than deny him, yet he knew that a resolution and willingness to obey were not a sufficient support against the weakness of human nature, but that they stood in need of all the advantages that might be reaped from watchfulness and prayer. If he himself found difficulties from the weakness of the flesh, he might well conclude how unable his disciples would be, when their time of trial should come. So that the words of the text, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak,' seem rather founded on what our Saviour experienced in his late agony, than from any thing that was criminal in his disciples. They were asleep indeed, which was an unkind part when they saw in how great distress their Master was, but otherwise it was not faulty in itself. They did not apprehend the imminent danger their Lord was in ; if they had, their fear and anxiety would have interposed to disturb their rest. Nor did our Saviour blame their sleep otherwise than as unseasonable at that time, when the danger that attended them required them to be otherwise employed. There was a great storm ready to break, in which he foresaw they must bear a part as well as himself; and therefore there was a necessity they should arm and prepare themselves against it. • Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation :' which is a warning for them to strengthen themselves against future evil; and he does not much blame their carriage as yet, but rather tacitly acknowleges the great forwardness they expressed to suffer with him and for him; “ The spirit indeed is willing.' But then he knew the greatness of the temptation they were to undergo, and had lately himself experienced the weakness and
inability of human nature, and therefore recommends watchfulness and prayer to them, because the flesh is weak.'
The words thus explained contain a very proper and suitable exhortation to the season in which they were spoken, and to all men in general: and the reason of them is a powerful excitement to us to pray continually for the grace
and assistance. of God's good Spirit, knowing, how ready and willing soever we may be to obey, that we are beset with too many and too strong enemies to permit us long to continue in our good resolutions; which should make us look about for help, and, if I may so speak, enter into new alliances with heaven for greater supplies of spiritual strength to oppose the common enemy of mankind.
But this explication of the text, how worthy soever of its Author, and agreeable to the circumstances in which it was delivered, will not easily be digested ; because it undermines the foundation of the favorite doctrine of sins of infirmity, which, on the slender encouragement of this text of Scripture, has thriven wonderfully, almost to the exclusion of all other sins out of the world. For men are very willing to list all their sins under the colors of infirmity, and so leave them to, shift for themselves : which, whatever else it signifies, has this. present effect, it rids them of the trouble and pains of repentance and amendment, and eases them of the terror and apprehension of guilt, which would otherwise be very unwelcome companions to the pleasures of sin.
The text, when used to this purpose, is thus explained: the disciples are supposed to have committed some great fault, for which our Saviour rebukes them; · W’hat, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation :' but then, checking himself, he makes this excuse for them, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak :' absolving them for the willingness that was in them, and throwing all the blame and guilt of sin on the weakness of the flesh. Now to make the most of this : the fault which the disciples were guilty of could be no other than falling asleep, and that after long and tedious watching; so that if the weakness of the fesh was applied as an excuse to the Apostle's case, nothing
else can be understood by it but the natural wants and cravings of nature, which are necessary to the support of life; such as sleepiness, hunger and thirst, which no one doubts but may be so strong, without any fault of ours, as to interrupt us when we might be better employed; and whenever they are so, are without question very pardonable infirmities. But if this were the only use made of this notion, no one would think it worthy of a dispute.
But as some men of melancholic tempers and dispositions have fancied every sin they have been guilty of to be the sin against the Holy Ghost, and themselves irrecoverably rejected, and incapable of the mercy and favor of God; so others of a different temper have reckoned all their sins to be sins of infirmity, and themselves secure enough from the anger of God and danger of punishment. The one pays dear for his mistake in this world, by the fears and apprehensions under which he continually suffers : and the other will have no reason to be proud of his contrivance, when his error comes to be rectified by the impartial judgment of God in another. It is a false security men gain to themselves by these little shifting tricks in religion; and there is just as much policy in this conceit, as in his who shut his own eyes fast, and thought nobody else could see him. For however men darken and blind their own judgment, there is who sees through all their pretences, and will judge a righteous judgment:
But the better to enable us to judge of this matter, it may be proper to inquire what are sins of infirmity, and what value there is in the excuse. And though there is no ground in the words of the text for this distinction, yet, since they have been so often applied to this purpose, I hope it will not be thought an unseasonable deviation to endeavor to rectify the mistakes in this case, which are but too general, and of too fatal consequence to the souls of men.
In this inquiry I shall confine myself to the following method ;
First, to consider what is the Scripture sense of infirmities.
Secondly, what sort of sins they are, which will admit of an excuse, because of the infirmity from which they proceed.
· The state of human nature is such, as to be liable to many pains, diseases, and at last to death : and though all are not equally affected, some having a less share of these evils than others, yet all, by the weakness of nature, are equally liable and exposed to these miseries: this is the first and proper notion of infirmity. In this sense Christ is said “to bear our infirmities;' being, by the necessary law of his human nature, subject to the like miseries and afflictions with us. St. Paul says, “ he was crucified through weakness ;' that is, he was by the condition of his humanity liable to death, which exposed him to the death of the cross, through the malice and power of his enemies. Under this sense are contained, as particulars in a general, all the natural wants and weaknesses of nature; such as hunger, thirst, sleepiness, the fear and dread of pain, and the aversion and horror of death : which iņfirmity our blessed Saviour himself was not free from, as appears by what has been already said.
But men are not more weak and imperfect in their bodies than in their minds, nor more exposed to bodily pains than to the impressions of sin, which is our spiritual disease: and though all are not sinners alike, yet all are alike weak, and subject to the temptations of sin: and this is the general sense of infirmity, when applied to our spiritual condition. St. Paul
• the law was weak through the flesh :' and the author to the Hebrews to the same sense, “ There was a disannulling of the commandment going before, for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof: for the law made nothing perfect.' Which is not to be understood, as if the law was weak, carnal, and unprofitable, considered in itself; for St. Paul says, the law is holy, and the commandment holy, just, and good :' but men were so weak and carnally minded, the disposition to evil was so great, for which the law had not provided a sufficient cure, that the holy, just, and good commandment was made ineffectual. Agreeable to this, St. Paul, in the person of an unregenerate man, says, “The law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin; for in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not.' This, and more to the same purpose, you will find in Rom. vii. This incapacity St. Paul