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noral government, a nation is as one man, and one man as a whole nation. He punishes vice, and he rewards virtue, n both; and whatever is agreeable to wisdom and equity in the case of a nation, is likewise agreeable to wisdom and equity with respect to individuals. Supposing, therefore, that the cases are exactly similar, I shall, in discoursing from these words,
1. State the case with as much exactness as I can;
2. Show the probability and danger of it with respect to
human nature; and,
3. Consider the equity and propriety of it with respect to
to God, applying the whole doctrine to the cases of individuals.
In the first place, I am to state this case with as much exactness as I can.
In general, when any person is in the condition of Ephraim, in my text, so that God shall, as it were, say of him, "he is joined to idols," (he is joined to his lusts and vices,) " Let him alone," his day of trial and probation may be said to be, to all important purposes, expired. He is no longer a subject of moral government, because he is utterly incapable of amendment, which is the end of all moral discipline; and though, through the goodness of God, which is over all his works, he may live many years longer, yet his final doom is in reality fixed; his sentence is irrevocable, and the execution of it only deferred.
Not that the reformation of any sinner is ever naturally impossible, or that, if he truly repent, he shall not find favor at the hand of God: for " nothing is impossible with God," and "a truly humble, penitent, and contrite heart he will never despise, whenever, and wheresoever he finds it. But the change may be morally impossible, or not to be expected according to the usual course of things; and this is sufficient to authorize us to make use of the language. »
Supposing a man to have lived so long in the habits of vice, as to have lost all relish for every thing that is good, that he has no pleasure in the company of the sober, the virtuous, and the pious, but only in that of those who are as abandoned as himself, and that the greatest satisfaction he has is in corrupting others, (and farther than this depravity cannot go;) supposing that, in the course of his life, this man, besides every advantage for instruction, had experienced a great variety of prosperity and adversity; and yet that prosperity, instead of making him more thankful and obedient to God, made him forget him the more; and that afflictions, instead of softening and bettering his heart, only served to harden it and make it worse. Do I say that this abandoned wretch cannot be reformed, that God cannot, by any methods whatever, work upon his heart, and bring him to serious thought and reflection? By no means. That would be to limit the power of God, to whom all things are possible. He can work miracles, if he should think proper so to do. But then I say this would be a proper miracle, such as, at this day, we are not authorized to expect. And judging by what we see actually to take place, and what we must conclude to be just and right, God may, and probably will, leave such a one to himself. He may determine to try him no longer by any of those methods of his providence which are usually employed for the purpose of reclaiming sinners.
For instance, afflictions, and especially bodily sickness, are a great means of softening and bettering the minds of men; but God may resolve that he shall be visited with no remarkable sickness, till he be overtaken with his last; or he may cut him off by a sudden and unexpected death, in the midst of his crimes. The death of our friends, or any calamities befalling them, have often been the means, in the hands of Divine Providence, of bringing to serious thought and reflection those who have survived those strokes; but God may resolve never to touch him in so tender a part, but rather make use of his death as a warning and example to others.
Now when a man is thus left of God, and no providential
nethods are used to reclaim him, we may conclude that he is irrecoverably lost. It is, in fact, and according to the course if nature, (and we know of no deviations from it since the age of the apostles,) absolutely impossible that he should repent, or be reformed. And though he should continue to live ever so long after God has thus forsaken him, he is only, in the awful language of Scripture, treasuring up " wrath against the day of wrath;" and there remains nothing for him but "a fearful looking-for of judgment," and of that " fiery indignation" which shall consume the adversaries of God.
Having thus stated the nature of this awful case, and shown in what sense, and on what account, it may be said that it is quite desperate and hopeless, viz. because it may be morally impossible that he should ever truly repent and be reformed, by reason of God's withdrawing those providential methods by which he uses to work upon men's hearts, and to bring them to serious thought and reflection; I come, 2dly. To consider the probability and danger of the case with respect to human nature; how far men are liable to fall into this fearful condition, and by what means they fall into it. A man's case may be pronounced to be thus desperate, when his mind is brought into such a state, as that the necessary means of reformation shall have lost their effect upon him; and this is the natural consequence of confirmed habits of vice, and a long-continued neglect of the means of religion and virtue; — which is so far from being an impossible or improbable case, that it is a very general one.
In order to be the more sensible of this, you are to consider that vice is a habit, and therefore of a subtle and insinuating nature. By easy, pleasing, and seemingly harmless actions, men are often betrayed into a progress which grows every day more alarming. Our virtuous resolutions we may break with difficulty. It may be with pain and reluctance that we commit the first acts of sin, but the next are easier to us; and use, custom, and habit, will at last reconcile us to any thing, even things the very idea of which might at first be shocking to us.
Vice is a thing not to be trifled with. You may, by the force of vigorous resolution, break off in the early stages of it; but habits, when they have been confirmed and long continued, are obstinate things to contend with, and are hardly ever entirely subdued. When bad habits seem to be overcome, and we think we have got rid of our chains, they may perhaps only have become, as it were, invisible; so that when we thought we had recovered our freedom and strength, so as to be able to repel any temptation, we may lose all power of resistance on the first approach of it.
A man who has contracted a habit of vice, and been abandoned to sinful courses for some time, is never out of danger. He is exactly in the case of a man who has long labored under a chronical disease, and is perpetually subject to a relapse. The first shock of any disorder a man's constitution may bear; and, if he be not naturally subject to it, he may perfectly recover, and be out of danger. But when the general habit is such as that a relapse is apprehended, a man's friends and physicians are alarmed for him.
The reason is, that a relapse does not find a person in the condition in which he was when the first fit of illness seized him. That gave his constitution a shock, and left him enfeebled, so as to be less able to sustain another shock; and especially if it be more violent than the former, as is generally the case in those disorders.
In the very same dangerous situation is the man who has ever been addicted to vicious courses. He can never be said to be perfectly recovered, whatever appearances may promise, but is always in danger of a fatal relapse. He ought, therefore, to take the greatest care of himself. He is not in the condition of a person who has never known the ways of wickedness. He ought, therefore, to have the greatest distrust of himself, and set a double watch over his thoughts, words, and actions, for fear of a surprise. For if once, through the force of any particular temptation, he should fall back into his former vicious courses, and his
former disposition should return, his case will probably be desperate. He will plunge himself still deeper in wickedness; and his having abstained for a time, will only, as it were, have whetted his appetite, and make him swallow down the poison of sin by larger and more eager draughts than ever.
Such persons may be so entirely in the power of vicious habits, that they shall be in no sense their own masters. They may even see the danger they are in, wish to free themselves from the habits they have contracted, and yet find they have no force, or resolution, to relieve themselves. They are not to be rescued from the snare of the destroyer, and brought to their right mind, but by some uncommon and alarming providence, which is in the hands of God, and which he may justly withhold, when his patience and longsuffering have been much abused. Justly may he say to such an habitual sinner, as he did to Ephraim in my text, he is joined to idols, he is joined to his lusts, let him alone. He is determined to have the pleasure of sin, let him receive the wages of sin also.
This brings me to the third head of my discourse, in which I propose to consider the equity of the proceeding with respect to God.
It may be said that it is not agreeable to equity, for God to favor some with the means of improvement, and suffer others to abandon themselves to destruction, without a possibility of escaping. But I answer, that the persons whose case I have been describing, have had, and have outlived, their day of grace. God has long exercised forbearance towards them, but they have wearied it out; and it could not be expected to last for ever. They have had gracious invitations to repentance, but they have slighted them all: they stopped their ears, and refused to return. They have been tried with a great variety both of merciful and of afflictive providences, but they made no good use of them. "Why 3