THE DIVINE HUSBANDMEN
“Behold, a sower went forth to sow; and when he sowed, some seeds fell by the wayside, and the fowls came and devoured them up.”
The words that have been now read is the beginning of the parable of the sower and the seed, which you are all well acquainted with. I propose, by the help of God, to raise several observations from this parable and make some improvement of each of them.
Those that God sends forth to preach the gospel, may fitly be compared to husbandmen going forth to sow their seed.
Christ has probably special respect to himself in this parable, who is the lord of the harvest, the owner of the field. He went forth unto all parts of the land of Canaan, preaching the gospel of the kingdom. Multitudes were wont to resort to him. He was continually preaching the gospel of the kingdom from town to town, and wherever he went the multitude thronged him, and he preached the Word to all sorts of persons.
But Christ has respect not only to himself but to others that are sent by him, that come to preach the Word in his name. Ministers of the gospel are the servants of the owner of the field, that are sent forth to sow his seed. And when such a one comes to a people, either as being regularly called to office among them as their settled pastor, or is providentially sent among them, they ought to be looked upon as sent by the owner of the field of the world to sow his seed.
When a sower goes forth to sow, there are four things: there is the husbandman, and the seed that he bears, and the ground in which it is sown, and his work, which is to sow.
There is the husbandman. The work of ministers of the gospel is often in Scripture compared to the work of a husbandman. So they are called, Matt. 21:34 and 2 Tim. 2:6. Ministers are not called to be idle but to labor. The husbandman’s calling is a laborious calling: he eats his bread with the sweat of his face. And so is the business of a faithful minister; ’tis a business of great and continual labor. In a husbandman is required not only hard labor but constant care and continual oversight of his fields and the state of his husbandry, and also a great deal of prudence in the management of his business, improving the proper season for plowing, sowing, reaping, etc.; and so it is also with the work of a gospel minister.
There is the seed that they bear, which is the Word of God. Sometimes ministers of the gospel are compared to vessels that contain a precious treasure, as 2 Cor. 4:7. They are earthen vessels in which God sends and offers inestimable treasures to the children of men. This treasure is the Word of God. The glorious gospel of Christ contains many glorious doctrines, excellent counsels, gracious calls and inclinations and precious promises, which are all as so many precious jewels. But in this parable the Word of God is compared to seed that they go forth with; this is that precious seed spoken of, Ps. 126:6.
The Word of God is fitly compared to seed in the heart, as its end is bringing forth fruit. And this fruit is not brought forth any otherwise than by abiding in the ground in which it is sown, and taking root there; being well-received, making a deep impression, being understood, taking hold of the affections, having a durable effect on the temper and disposition of the soul. And it is like seed in this respect: that seed sown in the ground finally produces perfect fruit.
The first thing is, the seed begins to be warmed and quickened by the beams of the sun, and to be expanded by being moistened by the rain; and then it begins a little to put forth sprouts, and these grow at first underground; then, as it grows bigger, it appears plainly above ground. And so by the beams of the sun and the benefit of the rain it gradually grows more and more, puts forth leaves, appears more and more conspicuous and beautiful, grows taller and spreads more; and then the tender fruit is put forth, till at length it is ripened, and then gathered in.
So it is with the seed of the Word. It is first quickened in conversion by the blessed beams and warming influences of the Sun of righteousness, and by the Spirit of God, as the dew of heaven, and poured out on the soul like a spiritual shower on the dry and thirsty ground. Then the seed begins to put forth roots and sprouts. And oftentimes at first conversion, grace is very small—like the sprouts in a seed, when it first begins to sprout. And grace, when it is small, is difficultly seen and leaves persons in doubt whether they have any grace or no: like the small sprouts of the seed when first quickened, they are not big enough to get above ground, and so they are not seen. But grace in the hearts of the saints grows more and more; the new creature grows fuller and taller and at length is very conspicuous and plain to be seen, and the fruit ripens more and more till it is gathered into Christ’s barn.
Here is the ground in which the seed is sown, viz., the hearts of the hearers. The hearts of men are fitly compared to the earth. They are fitly compared to the earth because of men’s mean original, which is of the dust of the ground. For we are made of the dust of the earth; dust we are, and unto dust we must return [Gen. 3:19]. The first man was of the earth, earthy [1 Cor. 15:47].
And then this fitly represents the state of the hearts of all men by nature. They are earthly, they are debased from their primitive excellency and sink down to the earth, are of earthly dispositions, are cold and stony and lifeless like the earth, and naturally inclined to bring forth ill weeds, briars, and thorns—a useless and evil growth earth is. The earth without tillage will be dreadfully overrun with every manner of thing that is unprofitable and detrimental in a field; so will the soul of man if neglected and let alone.
Here is the work of the husbandman which bears the seed, which is to sow the seed in that ground. The work of a minister of the gospel in preaching the Word is very fitly compared to sowing of seed: he delivers that precious Word of God, which he brings unto the people he is sent to, as the husbandman scatters the seed forth out of his hand. A faithful minister is careful to give everyone his portion of meat, and to accommodate his instructions and exhortations to all sorts of persons, persons in all circumstances, as the husbandman endeavors to scatter his seed equally all over his field.
He that sows the seed is not the author of the fruit that the field brings forth. All that he can do, is but to cast forth the seed out of his hand; but he is not the author of the effect there is of the seed. When he has sown the seed he must leave it, and ’tis not he but the sun and the rain that cherishes and enlivens the seed and causes it to put forth roots and sprouts, and afterward to grow and come to perfection.
All this is what the husbandman has no hand in; it is not he that quickens the seed and makes it grow, so far forth that he don’t so much as know how it is done. So it is with the preachers of the gospel. Mark 4:26–28, “And he said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.” Ministers can but deliver their message.
Hence ministers should be faithful in their work, and should leave the event with God. He should do as the prudent husbandman, who is careful to observe the proper season of sowing his seed, and is careful to sow the seed well, to scatter it equally in his field, and then to leave to the sun and rain and influences of the heaven to make it spring and grow and bring it to perfection. So ministers must do their work and be prudent and diligent in it, should labor to observe the circumstances of his hearers, and to watch for the most opportune and advantageous seasons of setting home such and such warnings and counsels, and to give everyone his portion of meat. And this he must not forbear to do, whatever discouragement he labors under and however dark things appear; when he has done his duty, he must leave the rest with God.
The husbandman can’t command the rain or the sun. He may sometimes sow the seed, and the seed may rot in the ground with the cold for want of the warm influences of the sun to cherish it, or the produce of the field may perish through drought and for want of the dews and showers of heaven upon it. But yet the husbandman, if he is unsuccessful sometimes for want of his seed’s being thus blessed and prospered, yet won’t leave off his husbandry, but will still continue to sow his field at the return of the proper season. A minister must deliver the message with which God has sent him, whether they will hear or whether they will forbear.
They are called to be fishers of men, and though it may sometimes be so that they may toil all night and catch nothing, may let down the net and draw it up again empty time after time, yet at Christ’s command they must still let down the net. And though it may seem long before they have a harvest, yet they must do as the husbandman does after he has sown his seed: he waits patiently for the harvest till God’s time comes. Jas. 5:7, “Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.”
What has been said holds forth that which ought to be a matter of humbling to us, as it teaches what our hearts are by nature. They are like the earth. Our souls at first were noble and excellent; they shone in the image of God, and then they were full of light and heat. The soul of man then was like a star of heaven glittering in its brightness. Our hearts then were full of a holy fervor and a divine flame. But we have lost all that heat and brightness. Our souls are dreadfully debased and have become as the vile dirt of the earth, having nothing in them of any heavenly light or warmth or glory.
What is esteemed more vile than the ground? But the vile dirt, the dark, cold, stony ground, is not more destitute of life, heat, and light in itself than our hearts naturally are. They are altogether dead, senseless of spiritual things, wholly unfit for spiritual and vital acts, wholly dark, wholly without any form or comeliness. Such are we by nature. What reason, therefore, have we to abhor ourselves! How unbecoming a sight is it to see the vile dust of the earth lifting up itself in pride, extolling itself as though it were something very worthy and precious and self-sufficient.
Hence a people that hear the Word preached, should earnestly pray for the warm influences of the Sun of righteousness and spiritual showers to prosper the seed sown. It was the manner of the heathen to worship the sun, and this kind of idolatry is supposed to be the first idolatry that ever was in the world. They worshipped the sun because they found they very much depended upon it. They saw that all their tillage, their plowing, and sowing was in vain without its influences. They saw that it was the benign influences of the sun that caused their seed to sprout and the corn to grow, and that brought it to perfection.
That was an unreasonable kind of worship because the material sun is but a creature of God and an instrument in his hand to cherish the fruits of the earth and cause ’em to grow. But we ought to worship the Sun of righteousness, for on that we absolutely depend; that Sun is indeed the highest fountain of light and heat and the fountain of life; in vain are all means and all instruments without it. When the seed is sown, we should look up to this spiritual Sun and beg its blessed influences to quicken it, to cause it to bud forth, for otherwise, it will as it were rot in the ground.
Hither ministers should have their eye. Some of them in Scripture are called burning and shining lights John 5:35, but they have neither light nor heat any further than as they derive it from the Sun of righteousness, and can communicate no light, nor life, nor fruitfulness to their hearers, any further than they are made use of as glasses to convey and reflect the beams of the Light of the World. Hither it is that a people should look when they have heard the Word preached, especially after they have heard it powerfully preached after God has sent a messenger with extraordinary fervency to deliver his message to them.
A people in such a case should cry earnestly to that glorious Sun, who is the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of his person, who is full of light and divine heat, in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and is more full of spiritual light and of grace than the sun is of light. We see that the sun, though it has been shining for many ages, has every day and every moment been pouring forth of its bright light and warm beams upon all the world, yet the fountain is not exhausted; there is enough still. For aught appears, there is as much light and heat in the sun now as there was the first day it was made, and such is its fullness that there is enough for all.
There are thousands and millions of fields that are made fruitful by it, and because one field receives so much, there is never the less for another. This is some image of the fullness of Christ, where there is power and light and grace and love enough for all. Which should encourage us to look up to him and pray that he would send down of his blessed influences, and cherish the seed that is sown in our hearts, and make it to grow and become fruitful there.
We often pray for rain to water the seed that we sow in our fields because we know that our sowing will be in vain without; if there be not showers of rain upon our fields, all the seed sown there will come to nothing. How much should we pray for heavenly showers to water the seed of the Word sown in our hearts! Is it not of greater importance that our hearts should be fruitful than our fields? Shall we lament it when we see our fields barren, and shall we be easy when we carry about with us barren hearts, hearts that bring forth nothing but briars and thorns, an unprofitable and noxious growth fit for nothing but to be burnt?
When rain is withheld in the summertime but for a few weeks, and the produce of our seed begins to languish and wither, what concern are we in? How do we wish for rain and keep observing every cloud that rises, hoping that we shall have some rain from it? And we are forward in such a case to set apart some time to pray to God for rain because we see that if we have none, we are like to go hungry and we shall pinch for want of the comforts of this life. And shall we be easy when we see that spiritual showers are withheld not only for some weeks, but year after year? Shall we be sensibly grieved and concerned when we see the leaves of the corn turn yellow and wither up, and shall we not be grieved when we see our souls perishing and languishing, and appearing as if they were almost dead?
When you go forth into the fields at the time of harvest, and find your crops very thin and light, and bring but a little home, with what grief of heart do you bring home your few blasted sheaves? And shall it be with no great concern that you see very little fruit of the Word brought forth in your hearts and lives? If it should be so at any time that your fields should bring forth so little that you should not have enough for your families, and at the end of the year you know not which way your children should be provided for and kept from starving, would not this be a great exercise to you? Would not the bowels of parents yearn towards their children in such a case? And yet, can you that are parents see the souls of your children in a famishing, languishing condition, and ready to sink into eternal perdition for want of spiritual showers, and yet be easy without those spiritual showers?
Let the consideration of these things set us up in this place earnestly to seek to God for those heavenly influences of his Spirit, that we need to give success to the preaching of the Word.
How lamentable have been our circumstances of late. The circumstances of them that look upon themselves to be godly have, many of them, yea, most of them, been very lamentable: dead and cold and dry like the dust of the earth. Their hearts have had very little of the showers of heaven, very little of the warmth of the Sun of righteousness in them when we consider what profession they have made. ’Tis a most lamentable thing to think of it; ’tis lamentable for them and lamentable for the interest of religion, wounding to its reputation and wounding and ruinous to the souls of others.
And the case of those that are yet in a natural condition has been very lamentable, exceeding hard. Nothing that can be said or done is sufficient to move. They are dreadfully hardened. There are great numbers amongst us that we have no reason to think any other of them, than that they are “in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity,” Acts 8:23. How many of the young people, how many of our poor children are out of Christ, and in a damnable state and condition? The seed has been sown, the Word has been preached again and again, but to what purpose?
Where have been any that have been really awakened that the Word has taken fast hold of? Never was so dark a time in Northampton, since I dwelt in it, upon that account! And what will become of us, unless God is pleased to return to us and shower down his Spirit? What can we expect, but awful judgments of heaven upon us, and a more dreadful damnation for multitudes.
Our hearts have been so destitute of the warmth of the Sun of righteousness of late years, that it has been a kind of winter with us for several years. Our hearts haven’t only been like the vile earth, the cold ground, but like the frozen ground. And the preaching of the Word, here, has for a long time been very much like a man’s going forth from time to time, sowing seed upon the frozen ground. It has not sunk in at all but has rebounded as from a rock.
Had not we need therefore earnestly to cry to the Sun of righteousness that it would return again to us, that it would come back to us as the sun comes back after its withdrawment in the winter and thaws the frozen ground, and warms and quickens the seed that lies buried in it? The Sun of righteousness, now, by what we hear, shines in the southern regions, in the plantations that are south of us, while it is winter with us. Let us cry that it may come here and shine upon us also, that we may not be all shut up as with frost, and our climate disturbed with jangling and contention like the air by the violent storms of the winter season.
And let us not only pray. Prayer alone, without a behavior answerable, will signify nothing. But let us remove those things that have long grieved and quenched the Holy Spirit, such as our pride, our affecting to adorn ourselves with gay clothing, and our covetousness and our contentions, and keeping up two parties, as we have done in this town year after year.
We can remove those things: there needs nothing but a real, thorough disposition to peace and a suitable abhorrence of contention, in order to remove, though the case may seem difficult. We find that those difficulties that have been amongst us, keeping up a party spirit in the town, has been a wall between us and God for several years. And if we were but violent, we should break down that wall or get over, though it be high, as resolute soldiers that are resolved to take a city, and take it by violence.
Let me in the name of Christ beseech you to hearken to this exhortation, that we may have the presence of God with us. We can’t do without the presence of God. We can do better a thousand times without our land, without our farms and merchandise, about which we contend. Let the things that have been now spoken, sink down into us. Let not the seed that has now been sown be rejected from our hearts as from frozen ground, as the Word preached has done of late.
Let us all consider where we have been going, how very [wrong] we have steered our course; and let us all with one consent turn about and set our faces another way, and for the time to come seek God and not the world.
It now remains that we consider the different consequences of the labors of the gospel ministers in the different kinds of hearers.
In the former part of the day, we considered in what respects one that goes forth in Christ’s name to preach the gospel, might fitly be compared to a husbandman that went forth to sow seed in the field. It now remains that we consider the different consequences of the labors of the gospel ministers in the different kinds of hearers, which is represented by the different consequences of the husbandman sowing his seed, according to the different sorts of ground that the seed falls upon.
In considering that verse that has been now read, I would show two things:
I. I would show how that there are some kinds of hearers of the Word preached whose hearts are like the wayside.
II. I would show how the devil immediately catches away that which such men hear in the preaching of the Word.
I. I would show how that there are some hearers of the Word whose hearts are like the wayside. They are so in the following respects:
They are like the wayside, in that Christ only passes by them and never abides with them. The sower more immediately meant in the text, is Christ. When Christ says, “A sower went forth to sow,” he has a more immediate respect to himself, whom God sent forth as his great prophet to preach the everlasting gospel, and who went about daily preaching the Word to the multitudes. And though the parable is applicable to others that are ministers of Christ, that preach his gospel, yet they preach in his name. And when the ministers of Christ come to us in the name of Christ, we ought to receive ’em as Christ himself coming to us by them and in their word.
Christ is the great sower of the seed and lord of the harvest. And there are some hearers that are no more than the ground of the wayside by which he passes.
There is a great deal of difference between a path by which a man passes, and the house in which he dwells. The hearts of those that give good entertainment to the word of Christ do become his habitation, his temple in which he makes his settled abode. But there are others that hear the Word that may fitly be compared to a spot of ground in the path over which the sower goes. It is far from being the place of his abode; he never tarries there; he does but just pass over it, makes no tarrying: as soon as he is come, he is gone again. It is but a step, and away.
Which is a lively representation of the hearts of many hearers of the Word.
Let them hear the Word never so often, there is nothing of it abides, i.e., there is no good of it abides. The Word of God dwells in the godly. Col. 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom.” But in the minds of those that I am now speaking of, there is nothing remains of any good effect. They hear it indeed, and that is all; they don’t regard: they hear it with as much carelessness, and as if they were not very concerned in what is spoken, any more than would a man that is passing by in the street.
The notice that we take of persons passing by in the highway is very transient; we do but salute them, and then we have done with them. So it is that many treat the Word of God, that they hear time after time; they show it an outward transient respect as it passes by, sitting and hearing it, and that is all. But as soon as they have done hearing it, they have done regarding it, and go out of the meetinghouse, not one whit instructed or convinced or affected, or in any respect in better circumstances than they came in.
They come to hear only out of custom, and they hear the preaching of the Word as a customary thing; ’tis the custom for ministers to preach on sabbath days. They are agreed with it to that end, and so they regard it not—as it is no strange thing to see a man passing by on the highway—and therefore men take little notice of it when they see it.
Their hearts are like a path that is become hard by being often trodden. The sower has gone over it so often, that it is become exceeding hard. They have been long used to the preaching of the Word, whereby their hearts have become abundantly harder than those that never have heard the Word at all, immensely harder than the hearts of idolaters, harlots, whoremongers, murderers, and Sodomites among the heathen.
When they were young, when they first began to hear the Word preached, their hearts were as the ground in its natural state: when any passed over it, it yielded something; there was some impression of the footsteps. But since they have been long used to be called upon and counseled and warned, the ground doesn’t yield at all to the impression. Now, the most awful and solemn things in the Word of God, and declared in the most awakening manner, don’t at all sink into them. The more those things are inculcated upon them, the harder their hearts grow, and the harder and heavier the steps of the sower are, the more still do they harden the walk.
Christ and the devil do, both of them, in different respects, frequently pass over this ground that we are now speaking of. And the ground is more and more hardened in consequence of both. Christ frequently passes over it in the instructions, calls, and warnings of his Word, and that, through their neglect and contempt, does nothing but harden the heart more and more. And the devil, he frequently passes over it by often-repeated acts of sin, often committing sin against light, often quenching the Spirit, often resisting his motions, often giving way to sensuality, against inward and outward rebukes, whereby they are dreadfully hardened; their hearts by this means become the devil’s beaten path. Thus it is with multitudes of souls; they become like the ground of the devil’s highway.
The ground being thus hard, the seed of the Word won’t at all sink into it. The seed, when it is sown, let it be never so good seed, takes no root at all there, nor does it spring or sprout in the least, but lies upon the surface of the ground, exposed to anything that will devour it. Thus it is with the great doctrines of the gospel, let them be never so clearly explained and clearly set forth in their greatness and new fullness.
They can hear of the incarnation of the Son of God—how he became man and how he laid down his life; how he that was infinitely glorious, equal with God, humbled himself, became a child in swaddling clothes; how he that was infinite in honor and glory became one despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief—can hear of his dying love to sinners; so they can hear the awful threatenings of hell and eternal damnation; glorious promises; the preemptory and repeated commands, the sweetest and most willing invitations; histories of God’s terrible judgments and most wonderful mercies: and whatever kind of seed is sown by the sower, still it is all one; nothing sinks, but all rebounds as from a rock and lies on the top of the ground. Hence,
There is no more fruit brought forth, than in a beaten path. A beaten road is perfectly barren. So it is with the hearts of those that we are speaking of: they bring forth no fruit to God. Not only does the seed that is sown in their hearts not continue, but in time of temptation withers away, as ’tis with the seed sown in stony ground, who may have convictions and common illuminations and great affections for a while, and may for a while be reformed and religious. But in those that we are now speaking of, there is not so much as the fruit of a temporary reformation. They don’t at all reform, for all that they see.
Before, some of them lived in malice and envy, and so they do still; before, some of them lived in a way of secret indulgence, some lust, and so they do still; before, they lived in some secret way of uncleanness, in some corrupt, abominable practice or other, feeding the lust of the flesh in secret: and they go away from hearing the Word of God, in the solemn warnings against such sins and being shown the dreadful danger of them, and go and commit them again, it may be that very night after, and live in it in the week’s time. Before, they lived in injustice, withholding from their neighbors their just due; and so they do still. Before, they lived in great security, going on merrily in the broad way to destruction; and so they do still.
Thus I have shown how there are some of the hearers of the Word, whose hearts are like the wayside. I come now to the
II. The second thing in the verse we are upon, viz., that the devil immediately catches away that which such persons hear in the preaching of the Word. ’Tis said in the text, the fowls of the air came and devoured up the seeds; which Christ himself interprets of the devils, v. 19.
Here several things may be noted, for illustrating this.
This lower world is full of devils. In that respect, the devils are fitly compared to the fowls of the air. The air in the summertime is full of various kinds of fowls flying hither and thither, and sometimes in flocks. They fly everywhere so that nothing that is food for them can be safely in the open air, but ’tis exposed to them. So it is with devils: they are everywhere flying about in the air to seek something to devour. And on this account, the devil is called “the prince of the power of the air,” Eph. 2:2.
As the birds of the air are very busy creatures, are here and there and everywhere seeking their food, so are the unclean spirits of the air. And we had need to watch against them, and to fray them away as Abraham did the fowls that came to devour his sacrifice, Gen. 15:11.
They are eager to catch away the Word of God out of men’s hearts, as the birds of the air are eager to devour the corn that is sown in the field if it is not buried in the ground. They are present in our public assemblies, without doubt, multitudes of them. The Scripture seems to hold forth as though the good angels were there, Eccles. 11:10. And when the sons of God come to present themselves before the Lord, Satan comes also among them. He intrudes himself and is very busy in our assemblies, as busy with one and another. If our eyes were opened that we could see spirits as well as bodies, we should doubtless see ’em continually busy, now at this time, about hundreds that are here present, standing at their elbow, and as it were whispering one and another in the ear, that so he may make the Word that is now preached ineffectual.
The devils catch away the Word that is sown in those hearts that are at the wayside. He blinds their minds and senses, that they don’t understand. Men don’t understand nor believe the gospel that is preached to ’em, because the devil blinds. 2 Cor. 4:3–4, “But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them.”
He hardens their hearts. He, by some secret, invisible influence, prevents the Word’s taking impressions upon them, let it be never so affecting and never so awakening; has various means by which he does it. He diverts their minds, keeps their thoughts great part of the time that they sit under the preaching of the Word busily engaged about something else, very foreign to the subject of the Word preached; their thoughts are on the ends of the earth, while their minds should be intent on the things that are delivered, and their hearts engaged. He at that juncture will bring some other object and set it before their view.
He at that time sets before them some worldly concerns or business that they have been engaged in the week before, or that they have intended to be concerned in the week after; or he brings to their minds the object of some lust, to stir up lust at that time, to harden their hearts against the Word that is preached. And there are many that in the midst of the most solemn and awakening preaching are, at that very juncture, spending their time in wallowing in the mire of some lust; or the very moment wherein some awful word is delivered or some gracious invitation offered, are committing adultery or fornication in their hearts; or acting over in their minds some unclean dalliance or other, acting over again in their minds some act that they have committed before, or some act that they desire to commit.
Some, while the Word is preached, are led by the devil at that time into contentious thoughts; they at that juncture contriving ways how they shall successfully manage some scheme against some of their neighbors; how they shall continue to gain their point, or to get their wills of them; or pleasing themselves with something that is past—thinking how those they oppose were disappointed at such a time and in such an enterprise, how they overshot themselves in this and that—or are thinking of the ill qualities or injurious behavior of their neighbors, with an ill-spirit rising in them and bitter invectives against them in their own minds: they think it over with indignation, how injuriously such a one spoke or acted at such a time, and with contempt in their minds they think what fools they were in such and such and such things.
Before some, the devil sets the objects of their covetousness, and they are contriving how they shall [seal] their bargains, and how they shall advance themselves in their estate. Before the minds of many young persons, the devil sets their lewd companions, and all their transactions of a pleasant frolic are acted over in their minds, while the great things of God’s Word are set before them. And sometimes the devil hardens their hearts against what they hear, by fixing their minds upon some object that is there in the assembly: viewing such and such persons that they see there, observing where they sit or how they are dressed, gazing upon such and such strangers that are in the congregation. By this means, a great deal that the minister says is not so much as heard, and they hadn’t so much as a notional knowledge, and so is shut out. The seed is not really sown in their hearts at all, and that [that] is heard and in some measure observed is in a very careless, regardless manner.
Sometimes, if their minds are drawn to take some notice of what the minister says, whether by the unusualness of the subject, or the unusual manner of treating it, or the loudness of his voice, or his extraordinary earnestness, or anything that is new and extraordinary, then the devil also has his contrivances to harden the heart against any effect. He so much engages the curiosity, that the Word is not at all regarded as something that concerns the interest of the soul of him that hears, but only to take notice of it as something new and strange and entertaining to a curious mind. Sometimes he hardens the heart against the Word by promoting a very dull and sleepy frame.
And sometimes he hardens the heart against the Word preached by soothing and flattering the soul; sometimes with a vain hope that it is well with him already, whereby that which is most proper for his case is rendered wholly ineffectual; and sometimes, by flattering them with the hope of long life and time enough hereafter. And many other flatteries Satan makes use of to harden the hearers of the Word. And by such means as these, the Word is caught away. It goes in at one ear and out at the other, and there is no effect at all of it.
Use I may be of Warning to those that are very young, to take heed that their hearts don’t, by often hearing and rejecting the Word of God, become as a beaten path that the seed of the Word won’t sink into.
I speak to such as are children, and so have but lately begun to hear the Word preached so as to be capable of understanding it. Take heed you don’t slight the Word of God. Mind what is said to you from one sabbath day to another. Do as you are directed: now take care of your precious soul, now seek an interest in Christ that you may be converted while young, otherwise you will be more wicked, and your hearts will be harder, than the hearts of the children of Indians that never heard the gospel preached in their lives.
The longer you hear the Word preached, and yet you live in sin, the more does your heart become hard like a path that is often trodden. The devil is very busy with your souls that are now children. You would be afraid to meet the devil in the night: but when you sit at a meeting and hear the preaching of the Word, and don’t mind what is said to you, the devil is with you, yea, he is in you. The devil gets into you and fills your mind full of wicked thoughts, and makes you, when you go away, live wickedly all the week, and so he is hardening you more and more.
Wicked children that won’t heed what they hear at a meeting, and live wickedly without seeking God in the week: the devil is with you here at the meeting, and the devil is with you at home when you lie down in your beds. The devil is close by you, as much as if you see him there; and he intends to have you. He catches away the Word and persuades you to sin for that end, that he may carry your soul to hell when you die. And he surely will, unless you get an interest in Christ, and become truly and savingly converted. He will certainly carry your soul down into the fire of hell, that is a fire that never will be quenched. Therefore, now mind what you hear, and don’t let the devil catch away what is said to you at this time from the Word of God.
Use II may be of Awakening to sinners of this congregation, if anything will awaken them, with whom this is the case.
They have sat so long under means of grace, and have rejected them and disregarded them, that their hearts have become as the ground of a beaten path, who have so often heard; who have given up their hearts so long to the influences of the devil, that they have become like ground that the devil has trodden into a dreadful hardness. God says of some, 2 Cor. 6:16, “I will dwell in them and walk in them”; but this is not the case with you. You have sinned so often against light, that your hearts have become hard. And now when you hear the Word of God, nothing is regarded, nothing remains; you spend your time while you are hearing as has been represented. And when you go away, you forget what you heard. Your case is indeed very dreadful; your guilt is above that of other men’s, as much as high mountains are above little hills. And there is no sort of persons that seems to be so hardened against any saving effect of the Word of God.
How loud have been the calls of God’s Word, and also of his providence to you. If I were to choose the place where I would preach with the greatest probability of success, and Sodom was now standing, I had rather go into Sodom and preach to the men of Sodom than preach to you—and should have a great deal more hopes of success. And if I were to choose whose guilt I would appear in at the day of judgment, the guilt of those men that beset Lot’s house and were so impudent and audaciously wicked as to use such violence to gratify their worse-than-beastly lusts upon the angels, or to have your guilt, I should choose theirs.
Neither should I now think it worth my while to preach to you, or say anything more to you to move you, were it not that I know that God is almighty, and he can make the Word pierce your hearts, though it be harder than a rock; and that his mercy has no bounds, and that he is sometimes pleased to show mercy to some of the most hardened, wretched sinners.
Let me entreat you, as you have souls infinitely precious, and souls that are in danger of being extremely miserable beyond the far greater part of the world, to say what is said to your heart, to give diligent heed to the things that are spoken, that the devil may not, as he has been wont, immediately catch hold of your soul. Watch against Satan, and strive against him when hearing the Word, and he, in the meantime, is casting in worldly thoughts. Don’t yield yourself up prey to those fowls of the air, which delight to feed on such dead, rotten souls that are more loathsome in your sins than the most rotten, stinking corpse. I say, those fowls of the air delight to prey upon such dead souls, as ravens and eagles delight in nothing more than to feed on dead, loathsome carcasses.
Take heed that you aren’t, at last, some of that great multitude whose flesh those fowls shall be called to prey upon, as in Rev. 19:17–19. “And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God; that ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great. And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army.”
See what follows, 20th and 21st verses: “And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh.”
Matthew 13:5–6. “Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.”
We have already considered one of those sorts of ground that the seed, that the Savior sowed, fell upon, viz., the wayside, and what became of the seed that fell there. I have now come to the second sort of ground mentioned in the parable, which is spoken of in the two verses that have been now read. And therefore, in these words may be observed:
I. The description of the ground.
’Tis said to be stony ground or stony places, where there is not much earth; i.e., the ground was nothing but a rock, excepting a thin covering of earth, which is one degree beyond the former sort of ground that the seed fell upon, viz., the wayside, which was hard both above and beneath, like a path that had been trodden upon so long that the very surface was become exceeding hard. But the ground spoken of here is a little different. ’Tis as hard as that, but the hardness is not on top; but underneath there is a thin covering or sprinkling of earth here upon the rock, so that just at the top of the ground it is not so hard, though underneath it is a mere rock.
II. We may observe how the seed grows, that is sown in such ground.
It sprung up forthwith, because it had not deepness of earth, “and when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.”
III. What becomes of that growth at last.
I would insist on each of these in their order, insist on the description of the ground. And from this, first, I would raise this Proposition, viz.: That the hearts of some of the hearers of the Word preached, are like a rock with a thin covering of earth. That which here in Matthew is expressed “stony places,” is in Luke called “a rock.” Luke 8:6, “And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered, because it lacked moisture.”
There are many of the hearers of the Word preached, whose hearts are like a rock with a very thin covering of earth. Because however they have some superficial impressions made upon them and the hardness of their hearts are as it were hid, yet their hearts indeed remain as hard as a rock. And therefore in speaking to this Proposition, I would observe,
First. How the minds of such hearers may be impressed and affected.
Second. That the impressions are superficial, and not deep so as to reach the bottom of the heart.
Third. That notwithstanding those impressions, their hearts still remain as hard as a rock.
Fourth. How their hardness of heart is covered and hidden from observation.
I would observe how the minds of such hearers may be impressed and affected.
1. They may have a sort of belief of the things that they hear.
’Tis said in Christ’s explanation of this parable, that they receive the Word, they hear the Word, and even will say, “I receive it.” They do in some sort receive the Word as true in the explanation of the same parable in the 8th chapter of Luke. ’Tis said, “they believe for a while.” There are three sorts of belief that men have of the truth of the things they hear in the Word: two of ’em false, and one true.
(1) There is that assent that men give to the doctrines of the Word of God as true, merely from education or tradition from their forefathers, not from any proper conviction, or because they see the evidence of the truth of those doctrines. But they are told by their parents that they are true, and they are told so by ministers, and that is the voice of all about them. And that is what they have heard ever since they can remember, and therefore, they assent to it; they never look into it to see whether it be so or no, but customarily allow it.
(2) There is a further degree of assent that persons may give to the truth of the Word, from the natural force of arguments and persuasions set before them. They may hear the Word powerfully preached with strong arguments, set forth in a very forcible manner that may naturally prevail upon them to assent to the things that are spoken as true. And,
(3) There is a conviction of the truth of the things of the Word arising from a spiritual understanding of them in their divine authority and excellency, which is a saving belief.
’Tis the second of these three kinds of belief that is ascribed to the stony-ground hearers, of whom Christ says, “they believe for a while.” The wayside hearers may have the first sort, viz., that assent or belief of the truth of the gospel which men have merely by tradition or education. But the stony-ground hearers have a belief that is something beyond, that there is something set before them in the preaching of the Word that gains their assent a degree beyond what they yielded from education.
It may be the preacher makes use of very plentiful arguments, he seems to reason very strongly, and his arguments are set forth in a very earnest and forcible manner, so that they are overpowered for the present and can’t but say, “These things must be true.” And sometimes the air of sincerity and fervency that is in the preacher, his positiveness and the authority with which he seems to speak, overcomes them and makes them think that these things that he speaks are not mere fables and fancies. This man, that speaks with such positiveness and fervency, sees and knows ’em to be true.
There were many such kinds of believers in Christ’s time. When they heard Christ preach with such authority and see his miracles, they could not but confess that the things he spake were true, and yet, never were true believers. John 2:23–24, “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man.”
Oftentimes there is a degree of the common influence of the Spirit of God assisting men’s natural reason, to impress a common conviction of the truth of the great things of religion with the greater power upon the mind. And the consequence of such a common conviction? Oftentimes, the hearers’ being awakened and made considerably sensible of their sin and misery. The awakenings that persons have, before their conversions, are always attended with this sort of belief of the truth of the doctrine of the Word of God.
2. They may have joy in the hearing of the Word preached.
This is the other thing that Christ mentions in his explication of the parable. They hear the Word, and even with joy receive it. They may have rejoicing of two sorts:
(1) They may be greatly pleased and delighted with the preaching, and yet have no joy in the things preached. They may be taken with the manner of preaching. They may admire the clearness of illustration; it may be very pleasing to them to have things well cleared up, that before were matters of difficulty to them. They may be greatly taken with the clear interpretation of Scripture, to hear difficult and obscure passages of Scripture plainly opened to their understanding, and to hear a satisfying interpretation given.
They may be greatly pleased with the strength of reason; they may admire the clear way of arguing that is used. They may be exceedingly taken with the eloquence of the preacher, and may be ready to cry out concerning him, “Never man spake like this man!” They may be pleased with the aptness of expression, and with the fervency, and liveliness, and beautiful gestures of the preacher and his becoming manner of address; they may be very greatly taken with those things, especially when they are new.
A preacher may be to them, on these accounts, as an excellent musician, one that is an admirable singer with a sweet, melodious voice, or an excellent player on an instrument. So of old, the Jews were taken with Ezekiel’s preaching. Ezek. 33:32, “And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not.”
This sort of hearers we are speaking of may be greatly affected by the manner of preaching and may shed many tears. They may be filled with admiration, and may be elevated almost beyond themselves, may never have enough of commending the preacher, may be almost ready to follow the preacher to the ends of the earth, and to come and say, as some of Christ’s hearers did, “Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest” Luke 9:52. Men may admire excellent preaching, as they may admire excellent handwriting or the work of an excellent carpenter or joiner, and yet, one is as much the mere working of nature as the other.
(2) They may have a sort of joy in the things preached. They may have, from mere natural principles, a kind of delight in many things that we are instructed in the Word of God. It can as easily be explained how a natural man shall be affected and moved with the wonderful account of Christ’s sufferings, and in having his wonderful love to sinners in it livelily set forth, as it can be explained how a man should be moved and much pleased with an affecting romance.
Men may be pleased and delighted to hear many things that do concern the glory of heaven. Men may be very much raised with joy in things that they hear preached from a mistaken notion they have, that they have an interest in them. A man that thinks that he is dear to God may be very much raised with joy when he hears preaching about the wonderful love of God to his saints. A man that thinks that Christ died for him may be elevated with hearing of the dying love of Christ, and may in hearing those things have a kind of affectionate gratitude or love stirred up in them towards God and Christ.
We see that natural men sometimes are really much affected with the kindness that other men show to them. And it can as easily be explained how they may, only from the principles of nature, be affected with the kindness that they think God or Christ have shown to them. If there be any men of mean condition, that is much taken notice of by some great man that is much above him, and he looks on that great man as his entire friend, this will wonderfully tend to win the heart of the mean man. And so, if a man thinks that the great God loves him and that Christ has died for him, his heart may be much affected with gratitude and a kind of love.
The Pharisees of old that had that thought, that they were very dear to God, had a great zeal for God in their way. The Galatians were ready to cry out when they heard Paul preach, “O, what a blessedness is it,” and were so moved that they could e’en be willing to pluck out eyes, etc. “Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? for I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me,” Gal. 4:15. And yet, the Apostle was after that in doubt concerning ’em, v. 11. Men may be in a kind of rapture, and find great inclination to praise God, and yet it may be the mere workings of nature. And so we read of the Jews, “when the multitude saw it, they glorified God,” Matt. 9:8 and Mark 2:12. Thus the minds of those hearers spoken of in the text may be impressed and affected in hearing the Word.
But those impressions are superficial and don’t reach the bottom of the heart. As the seed that was sown in the stony ground, sunk in but a very little way, before it came to a rock, that it could go no further. Though it was not just there, as it was with the seed that fell by the wayside, or on the hard path, where it made no impression at all; yet here, the seed lay very near the surface. The wayside hearers aren’t affected at all by what they hear. The stony-ground hearers are affected, but their affections are only as it were in the surface of their hearts and don’t reach the bottom of the heart, and therefore are really hypocritical affections.
Like Saul’s affections towards David, when [he] seemed to be so much moved with David’s kindness in sparing his life, when he had a fair opportunity to kill him and cried and lift up his voice, and wept out, “Is this thy voice, my son David?” 1 Sam. 24:16. Saul was really affected, but yet it was an hypocritical affection, for it was superficial. There were not only affectionate words, calling him his son, but many tears with his words. The affection was not deep, for it did not at all remove the old leaven of hatred that was in Saul’s heart against David; that remained whole in him. Still, the wound was not cured, it was only palliated and skinned over, and therefore it soon broke out again, and Saul was soon after seeking David’s life again.
So the affections that natural men have in hearing the Word, are only as it were on the outside of the heart; they don’t penetrate it very far to remove the old and rooted enmity against God, the pride, the carnality that they brought into the world with them. Natural men sometimes are in a tender frame: they are apt to be affected with what they hear in preaching, and they are apt to be affected too with what they hear in private conversation about the things of religion, and they are apt to be affected in their secret prayers, and tears flow very easy. This looks as if they had a very soft heart, and as though the ground was mellow. But the yieldableness of the ground is on the surface only; if you pierce it, you presently come to hard rock.
The faith or holiness of such hearers of the Word is superficial. They seem for the present to give a free assent to the things that they hear, that they are true. They can’t but acknowledge that they are true, but yet they have no belief that is to be depended on; they aren’t thoroughly convinced of their truth, they don’t believe with all their hearts, and so their joy and their gratitude, and admiration and their tears, are all flashy outside things that [are] not arising from the innermost parts of the heart.
Notwithstanding those superficial impressions, their hearts still remain as hard as a rock. They come into the world with hearts of stone, and those impressions are far from turning their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. A man’s being much affected is no certain sign that his heart is broken; men’s hearts are oftentimes like a rock in the midst of tears. Their hearts remain as a rock with respect to the following things:
1. They are so as to any spiritual sense of divine things. Notwithstanding all their affections, they are destitute of any spiritual knowledge of God, any real insight into the glorious nature of the things of the gospel, as a stone that perceives nothing at all. They hear of the excellency and glory of God’s holiness, but they see no glory or beauty in it. They hear of the glorious way of salvation by Christ that abases man and exalts free grace, but they see no glory in it. Though the excellency of Christ is so exceeding great to ravish the soul, yet they know not what it means.
They see no form or comeliness or beauty, wherefore they should desire him Is. 53:2. They perceive nothing of the sweet and excellent savor of divine things, whereby they are as the most refreshing and nourishing, strengthening food to the gracious soul. They have no taste to relish that sweetness, any more than an image of stone could taste honey. If you should put it into its mouth, it perceives nothing [of] that fragrant odor of the sweet ointments of Christ Jesus, any more than images of stone that have noses and smell not.
They perceive no more of that divine luster that is in the gospel of Christ than an image with artificial eyes of glass would perceive the sun’s brightness if you should bring it and sit it in the sunshine.
2. The heart still remains hard as to any true love to God. The hearts of the saints are sometimes filled with the love of God, as with an inward divine flame that causes them to burn within them. And this holy flame does, as it were, dissolve and melt the heart. The heart at sometimes as it were melts with complacence and delight in God, and is drawn forth in love to him. But the hearts of this sort of hearers are not dissolved and drawn; they are as cold as a stone as to any true love and remain obstinate in their enmity against God.
3. They are hard as to any godly sorrow and mourning. They may have tears of a kind of sorrow for sin, but they aren’t with any true brokenness of heart and poverty of spirit. They see nothing of the great evil of sin as committed against God, and their hearts are as hard as a rock as to any mourning for it upon that account.
4. Their hearts remain as hard as a rock in their pride and self-exaltation. They are stiff-necked, and will not bow and humble themselves before God; though they have affections, yet they exalt themselves in these affections and make a righteousness of them. They are self-sufficient and self-dependent, and will not abase themselves at God’s feet as they ought to do.
5. Their hearts remain as a rock with respect to the unsuitedness of their wills to God’s will: and that both with respect to submission to God’s disposing will, and obedience to his commanding will. They are far from being brought to a disposition to deny and renounce themselves for God and to yield themselves entirely to God. They stiffly oppose the sovereignty of God; they can’t find a heart to yield, that God should be the sovereign disposer of all things, to do with all according to his own good pleasure. It is a lesson that they can’t learn; it can’t be beaten into them, anymore than into a stone, that ’tis man’s reasonable duty in everything to submit to God, nor can they be induced to embrace God’s whole law without exception of any one command.
I come now to the Fourth thing, viz., that though the hearts of such hearers remain thus hard, yet their hardness of heart is commonly inward and hidden.
As the rock in the parable that we are upon was not seen because it was skinned over with earth, so this temporary faith and those superficial affections that have been spoken of do commonly hide the hardness of men’s hearts.
1. They hide them from themselves, so that they can’t see the hardness of their own hearts. When they have no affections at all, then, it may be, they will allow that their hearts are hard. But when they seem to be in a tender frame and can shed tears, they don’t see how their hearts can be said to be so hard. They are pleased and taken then, that their hearts are melted and dissolved. Their superficial affections in hearing the Word, and their tears in private duty, do dreadfully blind and make ’em have a wrong thought of themselves.
It looks to them that others that they see, that seem not to be at all affected, are very hard-hearted, and they are ready to wonder how they can be so: but they have quite other thoughts of themselves. They can look back and remember when they were unaffected, and are ready to wonder at their former hardness, but now it seems to them they are much mended, and that they have better hearts than they used to have. Their affections are as it were the skin with which their wound is skinned over and makes ’em think it is cured, or at least that it is in a much better state than it used to be.
They make a righteousness of their affections. They are the fig leaves with which they hide their nakedness from themselves, though they can’t hide them from God. And so their hearts, instead of being broken and melted with those superficial affections, are prevented from being broken, for the hardness of their hearts is hid by it. It is needful in order to the hardness of heart’s being removed, that it should first be known: the disease must be perceived before it is cured. This outside softness, this thin layer of earth, does defend the rock and deadens the stroke of the hammer of God’s law, which otherwise might break the rock in pieces.
And if oftentimes persons are deceived by those superficial affections, and think ’em true grace, and go away with that opinion of themselves that they are saints, and their condition is safe, then they dreadfully harden the heart, and above all things make it unyieldable to the force of the hammer that should break it.
2. These affections oftentimes hide men’s hardness of heart from others. When men see others that seem to be wholly unaffected with the great things they hear in the preaching of the Word, they are ready to call ’em poor, hard-hearted wretches. But when we see [them] affected from time to time, we are ready to have a high opinion of ’em.
Some, with their temporary faith and their superficial affections, make a shining profession. They go forth with the wise virgins with a shining lamp to meet the Bridegroom, and others mistake ’em for real saints, and sometimes for eminent saints; and it may be are never discovered till the midnight cry is heard, till the great Judge comes, whose eyes are a flame of fire, who can’t be deceived, and will search the heart and will see not only its outside but search it to the bottom, and will know the ground, whether it be earth or rock, and will see through all false coverings, and will strip off the fig leaves and will bring to light the innermost recesses of his soul, and show what every man is indeed in the sight of all angels and men.
Use I of Self-Examination.
Let what you have heard under this Proposition put you upon examining yourselves as to the following particulars.
Let it put you upon examining your belief of the doctrine of the gospel. We all know that men can’t be saved unless they are believers, and that in order to that, they must believe that the gospel is true. They must believe that the Scriptures are the Word of God, and they must believe that Christ is the Son of God and that the accounts that we have of his incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension in heaven are true.
Let this put you upon examining the joy you have in the hearing of the Word. There are many of you, I doubt not, but have had joy in the hearing the Word preached. You have felt well under the preaching of it, and it may be sometimes have been so moved that the tears have flowed freely.
Examine and try whether or no your joy has only been that sort of joy that is in stony-ground hearers. Has it not been more delight in the manner of preaching, than rejoicing in the thing preached? Was the pleasure you had principally in the eloquence and aptness, fervency and becoming delivery of the speaker, more than in the divine excellency of the things that were spoken? Some men, when they hear preaching concerning God and Christ, are filled with affections and admiration, but ’tis the preacher and not God that it terminates upon. They are filled with admiration of the minister, but are not filled with admiration of joy [in] Christ. If there be a religious joy in them, it is joy in the minister more than rejoicing in God.
And then, if you have had some joy in the things preached, strictly examine what kind of joy that is. And particularly, examine your joy in the things preached in two particulars:
1. Whether your joy be the joy of faith, i.e., whether you rejoice in the great things of the gospel that you hear, as being convinced of the truth of them. Men may have a great deal of pleasure in reading or hearing a pleasant fable, and yet think it a fable at the same time, and many may have a great deal of affection in hearing the gospel preached, and yet have no sound conviction of the certain truth and reality of what he hears. Such joy is very flashy and superficial, and very different from that joy that a person has in hearing the Word when it is mixed with faith in the hearing when he sees the truth of what he hears.
2. Whether your joy be, firstly, from the sense of the divine excellency of the things you hear, or only from the consideration of your interest in them. This is a very great and main difference between the joy of true saints and the joy of hypocrites. Hypocrites, when they hear of the wonderful things of the gospel, of God’s great love in sending his Son, of Christ’s dying love to sinners, and the great things that he has purchased and promised to the saints, they very much rejoice and be lighted up with what they hear. If their joy is examined, it will be found to have no other foundation but this, that they look upon these things [as] theirs. They rejoice in hearing of the wonderful love of Christ, but ’tis not on the account of the excellency and glory of his love in it, but only as they are the objects of it. They find a kind of love to Christ, but ’tis only as they conceive of him as making much of them.
But a true saint rejoices in the glorious things of the gospel as glorious in themselves, though the consideration of his interest in them is not excluded. The saint may and ought to rejoice in his interest in them, but this is not the first spring of his joy, but ’tis the innate excellency of the things in themselves considered. The first foundation of the delight he has in God is His own perfection. The first foundation of the delight he has in Christ is His own beauty; he appears in Himself the chief among ten thousands, and altogether lovely.
The way of salvation by Christ is a delightful way to him. He loves it, he loves to hear of it, loves to contemplate the holiness, the wisdom, the fitness, and wonderful and sovereign grace of this way. The doctrine of the gospel about Christ and free grace through him, about Christ’s satisfaction and righteousness, about men’s emptiness and Christ’s fullness, are delightful, glorious doctrines in his eye: and this is the reason that he has joy in hearing them preached.
The joy of the stony-ground hearers is joy in themselves and not joy in God. They rejoice that they are well in it, that ’tis not with them as ’tis with others. They rejoice that God has such respect to them and makes so much of them, and so they can hear Christ’s dying love, and the joys of heaven, and the sovereign grace of God to sinners livelily and eloquently set forth with a great deal of pleasure, for all this exalts them. Who are all these great things for, but themselves? Certainly ’tis enough to make ’em feel well, to think that they are made so much of—and so their joy is really joy in themselves.
But the saints’ joy is in God. Indeed, they rejoice in their interest in God, and that Christ is theirs, and so they have great reason to: but their joy doesn’t begin here. This is not the first spring of their joy; they first rejoice in God as excellent and glorious in himself, and then, secondarily, rejoice in it that this glorious God is theirs. They first have their hearts filled with joy: from the view of Christ’s excellency, the wonderfulness of his grace and the gloriousness of the way of salvation; and then they have a secondary joy in that, that so excellent a Savior, such excellent grace, is theirs.
The joy of the stony-ground hearers is in a contrary order.
They first conceive of God and Christ as being theirs, and loving them for some of their good qualities or good deeds; and that after they conceive them as loving them, and making much of them, they fancy they can see loveliness in them. They first imagine that the dying love of Christ is to them, and then upon that foundation they can see an excellency in that dying love. And no wonder at all that they can see an excellency in that love, that is so well-placed to suit them.
That joy of the saints that they have in hearing the Word is from an inward savor of the Word of God, the word of the gospel, as the excellent food of their souls.
They have a new nature in them that relishes it and has a continual appetite after it, and is refreshed and strengthened and nourished by it, and is satisfied in it as its proper food. Set what you will before it, if you deny this food, you can’t satisfy or content it. The Word of God is to them a savor of life unto life; ’tis a refreshing, life-giving savor, ’tis a sweet odor that revives the drooping spirit, restores the fainting soul.
Oftentimes, when the soul seems to languish and is almost ready to faint, this savor will at once put new life and strength into it. Such a kind of rejoicing in the Word of God is an exceeding different thing from the joy of those whose hearts are as the stony ground. Men may shed a great many tears, and yet be wholly ignorant of this inward, refreshing, life-giving savor of the Word of God. They may know no more what it means than a man born blind knows what you mean when you tell him of the pleasantness and beauty of the colors of the rainbow.
A heart that is as stony ground knows not what is the sweetness that a soul enjoys, that has the love of God shed abroad in it by the Holy Ghost. This is a very different thing from those superficial raptures that hypocrites sometimes may have, as the children of Israel at the Red Sea when they sang God’s praise, and the Jews when they glorified God, that had given such power unto men. The false-hearted professor knows not what inward burning of heart is with a holy and divine fervor, a pure flame of love to Christ—sometimes from one sweet word dropped in manifesting the excellent holiness and grace of God, or some other divine perfection.
Another thing, with respect to which you should take occasion to examine yourself from what has been said, is whether your religious affections are only superficial, or whether they reach the bottom of the heart.
This is to be tried by two things: the one is the cause, and the other the effect.
1. You may try whether your affections are more than superficial by the cause, by inquiring whether they come in by the conviction of the understanding. Are you affected with the things that you hear, because you have [been] let into an understanding of them as certainly true?
Inquire what is the foundation of your sorrow and repentance. Is it that you are convinced of the great evil of sin against God, that it is above all things unreasonable and hateful?
Inquire what is the foundation of your affections of love and joy. Is it because you are convinced that God is the most excellent being, and that he is the best portion, that there is happiness to be found in him and in no other?
2. You must try whether your affections are only superficial, or whether they reach the bottom of your heart by their effect, by inquiring whether they have such power upon your heart as to dispose it to give up yourself to God without reserve. Do your affections of sorrow for sin go so deep into your heart, as thoroughly to dispose you to renounce and forsake all sin, and utterly deny every lust?
Does your affection of love go so deep into your heart, as thoroughly to incline your heart to forsake all for God—all your worldly pursuits, pleasures, and the esteem of men, and every temporal thing? And does it so prevail in your heart as to incline it fully to give yourself up to God’s service, and to follow Christ wherever he goes? Does your affection of joy go deep into your heart, as to cause your heart to take up its rest in Christ, as being contented in him for your portion?
If your religious affections go to the bottom of your heart, they will get possession of your whole heart; otherwise, they will leave your heart divided between God and mammon, between Christ and your own righteousness. You will be willing to forsake some sin, but not all; you will be willing to be partly God’s, but not wholly; you will be willing to be his a little while, but not forever; you will be willing to take up with Christ as part of your portion, but not your whole portion, without having the world too along with him. You will be willing to have heaven as one part of your inheritance, but not all, but will insist upon having heaven and the world too. And so your affections will come to nothing; they will have no saving effect at all upon you.
Use II is of Exhortation, in two branches:
Not to trust to your superficial religious affection. There are two ways of trusting to those affections that men are commonly guilty of, both which are very dangerous and have proved the ruin of many souls.
1. Some [are] deceived by them, and take them to be evidences of true grace in their heart. When persons are thus deceived about [their affections], they trust in them in the highest degree. That natural man that has anything that he mistakes for true grace, he will depend [on it], he will make a righteousness of it. If he thinks he has true holiness of his own, this will be righteousness enough with him; he’ll look no further; he’ll never seek after the righteousness of Christ.
There is no creature in the world so self-righteous as he that thinks himself godly, when he is not—none are so proud of their righteousness.
He thinks he has good warrant to depend upon it, for God has promised his favor to those that are truly gracious. True holiness is God’s own image, and God has abundantly declared his delight in sincere holiness. And therefore, can an unhumbled heart do any other than trust in that which he thinks is true holiness? Such as are thus deceived, are wont so to depend on their supposed holiness as to look very excellent in their own eyes upon the account of it; and not understanding the way of salvation by Christ’s righteousness, they depend on it. [It] is that which they suppose firstly recommends ’em to the favor of God.
And they depend upon it so as to neglect so much as to seek after anything further. Yea, they are wont to depend upon it so as to encourage themselves in a wicked life by it, and to presume on the foundation of their hope to allow themselves in neglect of known duty and the commission of known sins. Therefore, beware of this way of trusting in superficial affections.
2. Another way of trusting in such affections is trusting in them to move God to give ’em grace. Many that seek conversion do thus trust in their religious affections. When they can be affectionate in their prayers, they take great encouragement from it, really hoping that now God’s heart will be moved. They think, when they pray affectionately, that they pray very acceptably, and can’t but think that it will move open the bowels of a merciful God to compassionate their case. And so, upon the same account, they are taken with it when they find themselves affected in hearing the Word.
And there is nothing that natural persons are more strongly inclined to make a righteousness of, than their religious affections. But you must consider that those affections don’t make you a whit the better in God’s sight. Though the rock is hidden from your sight and from the sight of your neighbor, by the sprinkling of dirt there is over it, yet it is not at all hidden from God’s sight. It doesn’t look like good ground in his eyes, who sees through the covering.
Your most affectionate duties are an abomination to God. He abhors those prayers that you make the most of; for that which is highly esteemed amongst man, is an abomination in the sight of God. If you should bring a piece of carrion as a present to a king or some great man, and offer it to him to eat, it would not be the more acceptable to him for being painted over with fine colors. The religious affections of natural men is but a painting of their own dung, or a sweetening of their own vomit, which can never make it acceptable food to God. God sees the rotten heart; he knows there is no sincerity. Persons are very often deceived with their own tears; men are ready to make much of them through the ignorance of their own hearts, that at the same time their eyes pour forth tears, do pour out their filthiness as a fountain castest forth her waters.
The second exhortation is to seek that you may have a soft and tender heart.
The hearts of some natural men are more stupid than others: some of them are without any religious affections and are like the wayside, and some have great religious affections. But the heart of every natural man is a heart of stone. The heart is not changed from being a heart of stone, till God takes away the heart of stone and gives a heart of flesh in the new birth. The heart of every natural man is like a rock; all the difference is that in some natural men the rock lies bare, and in others, it is thinly sprinkled over with earth.
1. A truly soft and tender heart has life in it. A heart of flesh may have life, but ’tis impossible that a heart of stone should, which is more dead than a stone. So dead is the heart of every natural man: it is dead as to any spiritual perceptions; it has no sight or taste or feeling or understanding of spiritual things, and it is dead as to spiritual action: it is not able to put forth one vital act.
It is a great calamity and misery to carry about a dead heart in one’s breast. A man can’t be more effectually dead than to have his heart dead. The heart is one of the most vital parts; out of that are the issues of life. The life of the whole body proceeds from the heart. And when a man is a dying man, life holds in the heart longest of all. The extreme parts grow stiff and old before the heart, and the last vital act that ceases in the body is the beating of the heart. But he that has a dead heart is dead with a witness; he is effectually dead. And so is every natural man that carries about with him a heart of stone.
But he that has a tender heart has a living heart; he has a principle of divine life in his heart. There are vital acts in his heart; his heart beats and pants after God, and from thence proceeds life to the whole man.
2. A tender heart has a yieldable heart. A heart of stone won’t yield; it won’t yield to any impressions, it won’t comply with calls and counsels. Those whose hearts are like a rock, are stiff and incorrigible; nothing will win or draw them, nothing will persuade them. But they that have a heart of flesh, have a heart pliant to the commands of God, susceptible of good impressions; a heart that may be molded and fashioned according to the gospel mold; a heart ready to yield to God’s authority and ready to bow to his sovereignty.
3. A soft and tender heart is susceptible of divine comforts. A rocky heart is not it. Though it may have false joys, as the stony-ground hearers had, yet no divine joy and comfort can enter into it. The dews and pleasant showers of heaven won’t enter into a rock. It receives no moisture from it but remains as dry within as ever. As ’tis said, the seed that was sown on the stony ground withered because it lacked moisture, Luke 8:6. So a heart of stone lacks moisture. It can’t receive divine comforts; it will not receive the refreshing showers of divine consolation; it won’t drink in the dews that descend on the mountains of Zion. But when the rock is turned into mellow ground, then it will receive the rain and dew. When God has broken the heart, then he is wont to pour in the oil of divine comfort, the sweet ointment of the graces of his Spirit.
4. A tender heart is a fruitful heart. In vain was the seed sown upon a rock; no fruit was brought to perfection. But when the heart is softened and become tender, it receives the seed and brings forth the fruit of a holy conversation, fruit that is acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.
I conclude with mentioning two or three things that are needful in order to the changing of a rocky heart, that may be of direction to you in seeking it.
1. ’Tis needful that you should be sensible of the hardness of your hearts. In order to have your heart truly softened, you should see feel that your hearts are like a rock. Therefore, take heed that you aren’t deceived, that you don’t imagine your hearts to be soft, when indeed they are not.
Consider how unmoved your heart has been, how incorrigible and obstinate, how senseless and obstinate to this day.
2. ’Tis needful that this rock should be broken with the hammer of the law. When God is about to soften a hard heart, ’tis his manner first to begin upon it with the hammer of his holy law. He brings home the awful threatenings and denunciations of wrath in his holy law, as so many hard blows of a hammer upon a rock. The hard heart oftentimes long resists those blows, but when God uses the hammer, the rock, hard as it is, can’t always resist it. Though it won’t yield to its blows as a soft or malleable substance, yet at last it will break.
You need to have your heart thus broken. Therefore don’t go about to defend the rock from the blows of this hammer, or to deaden the blow by a covering of earth, but lay your heart open to the law. Persons, when they begin to feel the painful blows of this hammer, are wont to contrive all ways in the world to defend themselves from it, by their duties and affections, and excuses and self-flatterings; but you must have done with those things. The hammer must come home with full force, and you must beg of God to strike home, and never leave till he has broken the rock in pieces.
3. Your heart must be melted with the love of the gospel. The law alone never will soften the heart; the law prepares the way for the gospel. The Word of God is said to be as a fire and as the hammer, Jer. 23:29.
The fire and hammer both work together. One doesn’t produce the effect alone; the hammer of the law to break, and then the fire to melt. There is first the hammer of God’s wrath, and then the flame of his love, which indeed is the main thing that gives a true softness of heart. It is properly the thing that gives the effect. The law never converts men; it prepares men for conversion. But ’tis the gospel that, in the hands of God, does the effect the gospel is the power of God to salvation. ’Tis the flame of God’s love in Christ’s heart that melts the hard heart, and truly turns it into a soft and tender heart, to be to God’s calls and commands and counsels as wax to the seal. Therefore, earnestly pray that your heart may [be] melted in this divine and holy flame.
“And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them.”
We have already insisted upon what is said in this parable of the two sorts of ground on which the seed fell, viz., the wayside and the stony ground. We come now to a third sort, and in the text may be observed two things:
1. The quality of the ground. It was thorny ground.
Not that the thorns were already grown up, but it was ground that was full of the seeds and roots of thorns. When it is said, “some fell among thorns,” it is as much as to say, “they fell upon uncultivated ground,” ground that never had been plowed and fitted for the seed. Thorns are the spontaneous growth of the ground, that come up of themselves in land that is not tilled; and it seems to have been especially so in that country, that land that lay fallow and was not plowed, would of itself be quickly overrun with briars and thorns. And therefore it is said in the 4th chapter of Jeremiah, 3rd verse, “Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns”; which seems to imply as much as that ground that lay fallow, was not plowed, was wont to be overgrown with thorns. And therefore when it is said in the text, that “some of the seed fell among thorns,” it is as much as to say that “some fell on uncultivated, unplowed land.”
2. We may observe by what means the seeds, sown in this ground, come to nothing. The thorns sprang up and choked them.
From this text I would speak to these two Propositions:
I. That the hearts of some of the hearers of the Word are so carnal and worldly, that they appear to be as ground that was never plowed, and so is overgrown with thorns.
II. Though such hearers may seem to show considerable regard to the Word of God for a while, yet these thorns do at length prevail and choke the Word, so that it never brings forth any saving fruit.
Prop. I. Some of the hearers of the Word are so under the power of a carnal, worldly spirit, that they are as ground that has never been plowed, and so is overgrown with thorns. Here,
They are under the power of a carnal, worldly spirit.
They are of an earthly mind, and earthly-mindedness has the dominion in their hearts. It has fast rooting in it, and overspreads it as briars and thorns that have always grown upon the land, and never were rooted up or disturbed.
Worldly-mindedness, as the phrase is more commonly used nowadays, is restrained to an inordinate love of the profits of the world. But the Scripture notion of it is of larger extent, and signifies as much as inordinate affection to whatsoever is in the world, and of an earthly nature, whether the profits of the world, or the pleasures of it, or the honors of it. 1 John 2:15–16, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” There we are warned against worldly-mindedness, and in the next verse we are told what is meant by it: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.”
These three things are implied in worldly-mindedness: the lusts of the flesh, or a love of worldly pleasures; and the lust of the eyes, or a love of worldly profits; and the pride of life, or an affecting worldly honor. So by the thorns in the text is not meant only affections and cares about the profits of the world, but also the pleasures of it; as appears by Christ’s interpretation of it in Luke 8:14, “And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.” In Mark 4:19, it is expressed thus: “And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the Word, and it becometh unfruitful.”
The hearts of many of the hearers of the Word are under the dominion of an earthly mind. Worldly lusts reign in their heart, and have the strong possession of them, as much as ever you saw a piece of ground that never was subdued, is possessed and overrun with wild growth. They are carried away with their lusts, and swallowed up in them—the world is their god; ’tis the idol that they worship, and that rules over them and governs them in all their conduct, and that shuts out everything of a spiritual nature—or if there be anything of a religious nature, it will soon drive it away.
Of those that are under the dominion of a carnal, earthly mind, in some this spirit is more especially exercised in one way, and in some in another. Some are exceeding ambitious and eager for advancement, and have their minds swollen with an affectation of superiority over their neighbors. Some are under the power of a covetous spirit or greediness after gain; are like earthworms, always groveling and buried in the earth, having their backs bowed down always towards the earth, panting after the dust of it, or like the serpent that goes on his belly and eats dust all the days of his life. Others are like dogs and swine, greedy of carnal pleasures, never well but when wallowing in the mire of sin, or greedily drinking at those filthy puddles.
So, some in one way, and some in another, are altogether carnal and earthly. They are earthly in their affections. Those carnal objects are the best things they see. They know of no better happiness than what consists in them, and therefore they place their happiness in them. And their thoughts and cares are earthly: these things are what they employ their thoughts about everywhere; these things take up their thoughts a-weekdays, and these things take up their thoughts on sabbath days. These are the main things about which they are exercising their contrivance, as though the faculty of understanding was given ’em for no other end, but only to get much of those things. And those things are the main objects of their pursuit. They seek ’em much more than they do the salvation of their souls.
These worldly and carnal affections and cares are fitly compared to thorns, and that upon several accounts:
1. As thorns are what the earth brings forth of itself, so those things are the natural produce of the heart. The ground need not be plowed and sowed in order to bring forth briars and thorns; they are the spontaneous growth of the earth; they will come up and grow of themselves without cultivation, as the fruit of the curse that [was] denounced upon the earth after the fall of man. Gen. 3:17–18, “Cursed be the ground; for thy sake, … thorns and thistles shall it bring forth unto thee.” And since that curse, thorns and thistles are the natural produce of the earth.
And as the fruit of the same fall of man, the same curse has come upon the heart of man in a spiritual sense that is come upon the ground in a literal sense. Ever since the fall, the heart of man naturally brings forth thorns and thistles; worldly affections and cares and pursuits are its natural growth.
2. Thorns are a useless growth of the earth; so are carnal affections and cares the useless produce of the heart. They bring forth no fruit, either to the glory of God or to their own benefit. Those that are under the power of a worldly spirit, are a useless kind of persons; they are barren trees in God’s vineyard, mere cumberers of the ground; they live to no purpose; they don’t answer the end of their creation. God can have his glory of such persons no other way but in their destruction.
And those carnal affections and cares are useless to themselves. They get nothing by them; they are always pursuing after satisfaction, but never obtain. They are forever crying, “Who will show us any good?” [Ps. 4:6], but they get nothing; they spend their money for that which is not bread, and their labor for that which satisfieth not [Is. 55:2]. The expectation of the wicked perishes; he never obtains those things that he seeks; they are like a partridge that sitteth on eggs, and hatcheth them not [Jer. 17:11]. It may be said to all them that have been violently upon seeking after happiness in the things of the world, “What fruit have you had of all those things?” As the Apostle says to the Christian Romans after their conversion, Rom. 6:21, “What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.” That which such men swallowed down, they shall vomit up again, and God shall cast it out of their belly, Job 20:15.
3. Thorns are not only a useless, but a pernicious growth. It was a curse upon Adam when God said that the ground should bring forth thorns and thistles to him. Thorns are what are hurtful to men, and what they had need to beware of, lest they are wounded with them; ’tis very troublesome walking or being amongst them.
So it is with those worldly affections and cares that are the natural growth of the hearts of men. They are of an exceeding pernicious nature; they wound the souls of men, and cause to them abundance of trouble and vexation. They afford the mind no true peace, though they promise it; yea, they won’t suffer the mind to rest or have quietness. What is that keeps the world in a continual tumult and uproar, and what makes mankind so restless? What is that makes the souls of the wicked like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest? But worldly lusts are those violent, carnal affections and desires that reign in their hearts.
The Wise Man says, Eccles. 5:12, “The abundance of the rich won’t suffer him to sleep.” And so men’s ambition and their lust after pleasure, they are things that disturb and disquiet the soul. By worldly lust men disquiet themselves, and by these, they also disturb the peace of their neighbors. ’Tis from hence that men can’t live quietly one by another, without making each other’s lives miserable. From hence come all those broils and contentions that the world is full of: contentions between nation and nation; contentions in counties and provinces; and contentions in towns, and contention in churches, contention between neighbors, and contention in private families. Jas. 4:1, “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” The world is the great home of contention: sometimes for] worldly preferment, sometimes money, sometimes land, sometimes worldly pleasures.
The lusts of those things make men like briars and thorns one to another. As it was said of old concerning the children of Israel in its degenerate times, Mic. 7:4, “The best of them is a briar: the most upright is sharper than a thorn hedge.” So wicked, worldly-minded men are commonly compared to thorns in Scripture. 2 Sam. 23:6–7, “but the sons of Belial shall be all of them as thorns thrust away, because they cannot be taken with hands: but the man that shall touch them must be fenced with iron and the staff of a spear; and they shall be utterly burned with fire in the same place.”
Thus worldly affections and cares in the heart, are fitly compared to thorns that grow in the ground.
The reason why the heart is overrun with such thorns, or under the dominion of such worldly lusts, is because the ground has never been plowed.
The ground is fallow, it never has been broken up, and therefore it has nothing but the natural growth, briars, and thorns, that the earth brings forth of itself; as in that aforementioned place in the third chapter of Jeremiah.
The ground of the heart is as it were plowed by two things:
1. By being convinced of sin. In the soul’s being made sensible of its sinful, miserable condition by nature, the fallow ground is broken up, and is as it were plowed in repentance. ’Tis the same work of God by which the heart becomes a broken heart, and the spirit becomes a contrite spirit, that this ground, that is naturally overrun with briars and thorns, is subdued and becomes mellow ground.
This repentance is legal, or evangelical. Legal repentance consists in a sense of the great guilt of sin and the wrath of God for sin. Evangelical repentance consists in a sense of the vile and hateful nature of sin, as against a glorious and gracious God, and forsaking sin; and by this means, the hard and stubborn heart is subdued, and broken up, and becomes as mellow ground.
2. By being convinced of the vanity of the world, and broken off from it. God is oftentimes custom, in order to this, is to make use of some sore temporal affliction, whereby he, as it were, plows up the fallow ground of the heart and embitters the world to them.
But more especially is it convictions of conscience, under which men are suffered to find no rest in the things of the world, and so are beat off from them. And God uses both to convince ’em of sin, and also to convince ’em of the vanity of the world; uses the plow of his law—the threatenings of the law cut the heart, as the unsubdued earth; the fallow ground, that is full of rocks and briars and thorns, is cut and broke up with a plow.
And so the sinner is brought, or at least prepared, to renounce his own righteousness, and renounce the world both together: in which two consists the great duty of self-denial. And therefore this matter might have been explained in one word: the plowing up this fallow ground is effected by bringing the sinner to deny and renounce himself. And this is that which kills the briars and thorns; this makes the heart as mellow ground so that the seed of the gospel shall flourish and be fruitful in it.
Prop. II. Though such hearers, whose hearts are as fallow ground and overgrown with thorns, may seem to show considerable regard to the Word of God for a while, yet these thorns do at length prevail and choke the Word, that it never brings forth any saving fruit.
There are three things contained in this Proposition:
Such hearers of the Word as have been spoken of, may seem to show considerable regard to the Word preached for a while.
They may for a while appear affected with what they hear, and may show regard to the Word in their practice; may for a while be religious, may pray and read and ask counsel of others, and may, with Herod, do many things. In a time of awakening, they may be moved with what they hear and see; when they hear of others being converted, they may be considerably stirred up by it to feel conversion themselves. They may have a great many thoughts about the concerns of their souls when alone, and may for a while be very conscientious in their behavior amongst men. But,
The thorns having never been rooted up, do at length prevail.
Their lusts, that were under some restraint and were kept down for a while, having never been mortified, do at length revive and exert themselves. In some that before were addicted to youthful pleasures, their carnal appetites and sinful inclinations do at length prevail, and they return again to the same youthful follies and sinful pleasures and diversions that they were before addicted to. In others, whose iniquity was covetousness, a craving desire after the profits of the world again revives after they have for a season been affected with the Word, and concerned about their salvation, and they again return to a life of worldliness.
They are swallowed up in the world; their hearts are full of nothing but worldly inclinations and worldly care. Their time is all spent in groveling in the earth. The vanities, pleasures, and cares of the world do by degrees creep into the minds of many persons that have for a season been affected by the Word, till they get full possession of the heart.
By this means the Word of God is hindered from ever having any saving effect upon their hearts.
They prevent their being thorough in seeking salvation. While the impressions last that are made by the Word, their hearts are so divided between the world and the concern of their souls, that they make but a poor head of seeking their salvation.
Very often persons, after they have heard some awakening sermon, take up resolutions that they will be more thorough in the business of their souls. They will be violent for the kingdom of heaven and do according to the directions that are given them. But they go away, and the world comes in upon them and takes up their minds, and they soon lose their resolutions and are no more thorough than they used to be. Some seem to be under some convictions a long time together, and no saving effect appears of their convictions; and the reason for it is, they are entangled and ensnared in the worldly cares and worldly appetites, and vanities weaken all their resolution and enervate their endeavors, so that they never do anything to purpose.
The world clogs them and weakens them in everything they do in religion. It hinders them in their attendance on religious duties, and causes them to attend them in a poor, listless, lifeless manner. It hinders them in their prayers, and makes them cold and heartless in their addresses to God, very formal in their attendance on ordinances.
It prevents their seeing their own undone state, and the absolute necessity they stand in of a Savior. And it is often an occasion of persons wholly losing their convictions; their worldly desires and cares and delights do at length quite overwhelm and drown them, and quench the Spirit of God. And by means of these things they are again led into sinful ways, after they have been for a while reformed; the world leads them into abundance of wickedness, and very often keeps them in stupidity and wickedness all the days of their lives. Worldly cares and desires and vanities are of a very stupefying nature; they benumb the soul as to its apprehension of spiritual objects.
This world and the other world are two rivals for the heart, and ’tis impossible that the heart should be given to both, so that it should be strongly engaged in pursuit of both at the same time. If one be violently pursued, the other will be proportionably neglected. The world so takes up most men’s thoughts, that there is but little room left for serious consideration of the things of eternity. Their time is all taken up in contriving how to get the world and in putting those contrivances in execution, in pleasing and entertaining themselves with worldly enjoyments, or bewailing their worldly losses and disappointments. They have no leisure to dwell much upon those great things that are held forth in the Word of God.
And if at sometimes they find leisure, that there might be time to think of these things, yet they are very ill-disposed to it. ’Tis so out of their way in that which they make their main business, and so much beside the stream and channel of their usual predominant affections and thoughts, that they have no inclination but on occasion to it.
The mind that is all involved and overwhelmed in worldly things, is but poorly prepared for religious exercises. And if it should be forced sometimes into exercises, the thoughts will be miserably broken and shattered, and it will be difficult to hold the mind in any considerable degree of fixedness.
And then the world tends to stupefy the soul, as it disposes it to call in question the being of those things that are spiritual and invisible. The mind being so much swallowed up with those things that are visible and sensitive, it is disposed to think those things the only real things, and disposes the mind to look upon other things as fabulous. Experience witnesses, that a great eagerness after the world and a deep concern about salvation, are not consistent one with another. When was it ever seen that a person was violent for heaven and engaged after this world at the same time? Thus the cares and desires and delights of the world make the Word of God ineffectual and forever hinder its having any saving effect on many that all their lifetime sit under the preaching of it.
Use I may be of Self-Examination, in three branches:
Let this put those that have formerly had convictions, and lost them, upon examining themselves, whether or no their convictions were not choked and stifled by these thorns.
You that had convictions in the last time of general awakening here, consider how you came to lose them. Were they not the vanities of this world that gradually came in and thrust out religious concerns? It may be in some, it was the pleasures and diversions of the world, the things that young people usually set their hearts upon. When the extraordinary work of God, that was here six years ago, was a new thing, you were affected; to hear the news of others’ conversion moved you; and while all the conversation seemed to be about such things, you continued under concerns: but afterward, as other things came more in view, as worldly things became more the subject of conversation, your religious concern began to die away, and your heart began to go out after the vanities of youth, till you had wholly lost your convictions. Was not this the very case with many of you?
And are there not others that find their conviction choked with cares about the profits and honors of the world? What were the things that crowded into your mind, that occasioned your convictions by degrees to die away? Were they not the pains and business of the world? There are a great many ways that the minds of men are exercised about the things of the world: sometimes they are exercised in studying how to get the world, sometimes how to save it; sometimes they are filled with anxious concern at the worldly losses they meet with, or with fears of losses yet to come; sometimes their minds are taken up with their bargains, sometimes with some change in their worldly circumstances, with building or removing; sometimes with marrying or giving in marriage; sometimes with contention with their neighbor about the things of this world; sometimes with exercise about public affairs.
Examine yourself, whether they are such things as these that have been a snare to your soul, that have stifled conviction and hardened and stupefied your heart. Is it not probable that you might before now have been converted, and been a holy and happy person, had it not been for such things?
Let those that have long been seeking salvation, and haven’t obtained, inquire whether they haven’t reason to think those thorns aren’t the very cause that the Word has never brought forth any saving fruit.
There are some that have been a great many years uneasy in their minds about the condition of their souls and have been, after a sort, seeking salvation, and especially at turns have taken a great deal of pains; but yet are not converted to this day. And it may be some of them are ready to wonder what the matter is. Others are converted that have been seeking but a little while, but they are left behind still; and though they have had so many thoughts, and have taken so many pains and have done and suffered so much, yet they see no prospect of their obtaining mercy.
Let such inquire, whether or not our text doesn’t give a true account of the matter. The seed that has been sown in your heart has always been kept down; it always appears languid and poor; it never grows up nor brings any ripe fruit. Consider, is not this the very cause that it is choked with thorns? Has it not been so, that though you have for a long time had some concern about the state of your soul, yet your mind and heart have for the most part been very much filled up with the things of the world?
Haven’t worldly thoughts and worldly desires and worldly cares overcharged you? And hasn’t this been manifest in your conversation? Has not that very much savored of a worldly spirit, and haven’t you from time to time been contending about the world? Hasn’t your spirit been often engaged and heated, and your will set up in temporal affairs? And hasn’t this led some of you to a great deal of backbiting and evil-speaking?
If this has been the case, you need not wonder that you have been seeking salvation so long and haven’t yet obtained. You need not wonder that others, time after time, step in before you, that have sought but a little while. You need not wonder that little children are converted, and you left behind still. Many such seekers as you are, seek to enter in and never are able.
’Tis not the way to have success, to seek after such a manner, to have the heart so divided between this world and another; to worship the God of Israel and serve your own gods at the same time; to seek heaven and pursue after the world as much, or more; to pray to God and at the same time to quarrel with men, and sit and spend away one evening after another in talking against these and those neighbors, be engaged in public and private contention, and go about with a spirit of envy and malice, setting up your will, striving for the mastery in worldly affairs.
Striving to enter in at the strait gate, and being violent for the kingdom of heaven, is quite a different thing from this. It is to make seeking salvation the one thing that you do, that your whole heart is engaged in and taken up with, as setting aside all other things. If you had been truly violent for the kingdom of heaven, you would have had no heart to do as you have done: you would have had no heart to be striving about the world; you would not have been at all disposed to spend time in judging and backbiting others; you would have had business enough of your own, of a quite different nature, to have taken up your mind.
The world would have been a little thing in your eyes; you would not have much cared what became of it so that you could have obtained the kingdom of God and his righteousness. If you had sought salvation thus, you might have entered in the kingdom of heaven as well as others; you would not [have] been left behind as you are to this day, it may be, much further from the kingdom of God than you were twenty years ago.
You need not wonder at all at your having been so unsuccessful. You may go on and seek salvation as you have done to the age of Methuselah, if you should live so long, and be never the nearer; but on the contrary, your heart all the while grow harder and harder, and your case more and more deplorable.
You may possibly think with yourself, how you have sought salvation so long, and taken so much pains: but you make too much of what you have done; no such great matters, all that you have done, is not worth mentioning. ’Tis true, you have taken pains sometimes, but you han’t been steady in it; you have proceeded by fits and starts. You have sought deliverance from hell, but you have sought the world as much, if not a great deal more. You think it hard that God han’t given you the kingdom of heaven for your seeking it so much, whereas in your very seeking heaven in the way that you have done, you have cast contempt upon that which you have sought. To seek eternal life after such a manner as you have done, is really to trample upon eternal life, and to reproach the salvation that Christ offers you. You have indeed despised and neglected this great salvation. No wonder that God han’t bestowed it upon you.
And you are never like to obtain salvation, unless you seek it in a quite different manner than ever yet you have done.
Let those that now are without any great awakenings, inquire whether those thorns that you have heard of are not the cause.
You have heard a great deal to awaken you and make you sensible of the miserable condition you are in, and the necessity you are in of an interest in Christ. Besides what you have heard in the preaching of the Word, God has in His providence set before you those things that have been of the most awful nature and awakening tendency. Now, what is it owing to, that under all this you remain so senseless?
Consider, is it not owing to your heart’s being overcharged with the vanities of this world? Do you not give way to a covetous spirit, or don’t you indulge some inordinate worldly appetite, or are not the briars and thorns of contention and ill-will still remaining, rooted in your heart? Though for the present it may be those things may be a little restrained and hidden, yet are not the roots of those thorns still left whole in the ground, ready to spring up as soon as ever the restraint is taken off, and a new occasion offers? And is not this one reason that the Word of God takes no more rooting in your heart, and has no more effect upon you?
Use II may be of Exhortation.
First, to all in general, to root up out of their hearts the briars and thorns that choke the seed of the Word.
You that would be saved, attend to that exhortation of God to the men of Judah and Jerusalem, in Jer. 4:3, “Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.” You have, many of you, been preached to a long time; the Sower has often sown seed in the ground, but there never has been any fruit of it; and the reason has been, the ground has never been broken up, and so is as it is naturally, overgrown with a wild and pernicious growth, which chokes the seed of the Word that it can’t bring fruit to perfection.
Therefore, seek that the ground may be broken up, that the thorns may be rooted out, and that your heart may become as ground that is plowed and mellowed and fitted for the seed. As long as the thorns remain, they will suck out all the fatness and sweetness of the ground to nourish them; there will be nothing left to nourish the good seed. They will drink up the rain that falls upon it. Let the sun shine never so pleasantly upon it, and the rain descend never so plentifully, all the effect will be only to nourish the briars and thorns and make them grow the faster.
The sunshine of the gospel and the dews and showers of the Word that, it is said, drops as the rain and distills as the dew [Deut. 32:2], however beneficial they are in themselves, yet they will do no good to the heart that is as thorny ground, but on the contrary will do it hurt. Instead of causing the good seed to grow and bring forth fruit there, they’ll make that mischievous, pernicious growth that is natural to it to flourish the more, and the roots of the thorns will fill the ground, so that the good seed will find no place; neither will there be any room for the seed of the Word to shoot forth its branches above ground, for all space will be filled up with thorns.
Therefore, this is what you have to seek: even that those thorns may be cut up by the roots, and the ground plowed and this pernicious growth utterly destroyed. Which must be by your being convinced of the miserable condition that you are in by nature, and being made thoroughly sensible that none of the enjoyments of this world can make you happy, give you any relief, or make you any other than miserable. You must see that whatever of this world’s enjoyments you are possessed of, you are a miserable wretch without Christ. Such must be your sense of your misery, that all the silver and gold in the world, yea, and the pleasures and honors, the palaces and thrones, and robes and dainties of princes, would not relieve or give you ease without Christ.
Your heart must be broken off from those things, and you must be brought to be willing to sell all for the pearl of great price, to part with those lusts that have been dearest and sweetest of all, if by any means you may obtain peace with God. You must have that sense of your sins, that your heart must be broken off from sin and off from the world. It doubtless seems hard to you to forsake the world, which has been your god. Micah said, Judg. 18:24, “Ye have taken away my gods which I made, and what have I more?”
Men can’t bear to part with their gods. Laban complained most bitterly of the loss of his gods, Gen. 31:30. If you take away men’s gods from ’em, they look upon themselves undone; but yet you must part with your gods, or you must lose your soul. You must be brought to cast away your idols to the moles and to the bats. Moles and bats are wont to lurk and hide themselves in heaps of rubbish.
You must cast forth your gods as heaps of rubbish, yea, though they seem precious to you, precious as gods of silver and gold. Your dear lusts you must part with, your right hands you must cut off, and your right eyes you must pluck out. For want of this, you hitherto remain in a miserable condition, and are like to remain so till you come to this. Because you hadn’t come to this, others have entered into the kingdom of God before you, time after time. Little children have entered into the kingdom of God, while you have been left behind.
They have been much more in the way of a saving effect of the Word of God upon their hearts than you, for they hadn’t been in the way of having their hearts so entangled in the thorns of worldly cares and pursuits as you have; and there has not been need of that force and violence in order to a breaking up the fallow ground of their hearts as yours, where the thorns have been growing undisturbed for so long a time, and have been strongly rooted and have grown so stiff and stubborn. It will be hard to you to have the fallow ground of your heart broken up, to have all its natural growth cut up by the roots.
You don’t love to feel the plow on your hearts, among the roots, but you must feel it, and must be willing to have it cut deep, and to be plowed all over without sparing one thorn bush there, destroying both root and branch: and then, and not till then, will the seed of the Word have effect. Therefore, you must not resist the plow of God’s holy law: when you feel it cutting and breaking up the ground and violently tearing up the natural growth of it, when you feel the plow coming hard at the roots of the thorns, let it come and cut them in pieces. You must yield to it, however painful. It is your heart must be thus wounded in order to its being healed.
Here consider, to enforce this exhortation, two or three things:
1. Consider the experience you have had of those thorns, effectually hindering any good effect of the Word. I now appeal to your own experience: how has it been, time after time, when you have heard sermons on the most important and awakening subjects, and have been warned and counseled in the most solemn manner, and your mind has been something impressed—how quickly and easily has all been choked by the vanities of the world? It is said in the parable, Luke 8:14, they “go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life.”
And has it not been so with you hundreds of times, when you have heard the most affecting truth, have you not gone forth out of the meeting house and returned to the world, and all impressions have been presently erased out of your mind, so that by that time you have entered into worldly talk and worldly pursuits a few hours, all seemed to be gone?
2. If you don’t comply with this exhortation, you will take less care of your souls than you do of your fields.
The husbandman knows that, unless he cuts up the natural wild growth of his field and breaks up his fallow ground, it will be in vain to expect any good fruit of it. The husbandman that should be seen going forth sowing his seed in unplowed and unsubdued ground, would be thought to act like a madman. And yet how many are [there] that make a show, as though they were concerned for their salvation, and ready to hear and do the will of God, and come to hear the Word preached time after time with that pretense, and yet never break up the fallow ground of their hearts, never cut up the thorns of worldly affections, never consent to part with the world for Christ.
You that live by husbandry know that when you plant your corn in your field, it will come to nothing unless it is weeded. The weeds will soon get above it and choke it, and it will languish and dwindle, and no fruit will be brought forth. And therefore you are willing to take a great deal of pains to subdue and till your lands. And is it not of infinitely greater concern, that you should take pains to subdue and weed out worldly lusts out of your hearts? If your fields don’t bring forth fruit, you may want bread and be reduced to beggary; but if your souls remain unfruitful, you are lost forever. You are like to perish miserably, and will beg in vain for the least help or relief.
But this brings me to a third motive:
3. Consider, if this thorny ground is not broken up now, its end shall be to be burned in unquenchable fire.
The ground that has the influences of the sun and rain, and brings forth nothing but briars and thorns, is nigh unto cursing, and its end is to be burned, Heb. 6:8. God will go through the briars and thorns, and burn them together. The Sun of righteousness shall not always continue to shine upon such ground in vain. Instead of its pleasant beams to cherish the growth of the ground, shall, at last, come down a scorching, consuming fire; instead of refreshing dews and showers of the Word, God shall at last rain fire and brimstone, which shall continue in an everlasting storm.
And then it shall be with such ground as is said in the 34th chapter of Isaiah, [vv.] 9 and 10, “And the streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever: from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever.” Thus shall it be with all those hearts that remain under the power and dominion of worldly affections.
I would particularly exhort those that are now under some convictions and have lately begun to seek their salvation, to take care that the thorns don’t hereafter spring [up] and stifle their convictions, and make [them] ineffectual. This there is great danger of. Thus it has been before with many persons: many that were under convictions, as you are, and had begun to seek salvation, as you have heard, after they had continued a while, the thorns sprung up at last and all came to nothing.
The time will probably come when you will have a far greater trial than now you have. There will be a great deal more to cherish the thorns, and make them to grow than there is now. Now you see and hear many things to stir you up, that it may be by and bye you won’t see and hear. Times may be greatly altered, and you may have many temptations to set your heart on worldly vanities that you haven’t now. Therefore beware, now you are forewarned. Be exhorted now to make thorough work. Throw by worldly concerns. Let ’em be esteemed as dirt and dung, and let your heart finally part with them. Sell all for Christ, and satisfy yourself with resolutions, watchfulness, and prayer against backsliding.
It is for your own sake. If you hearken to this counsel, you will be wise for yourself. If you refuse, you alone must bear it. No doubt but some of you will be such sorts, after you have had the Spirit of God striving with you, and after you have taken pains for a while, as to lose all the pains you have taken, and all the benefit of your convictions. Let everyone look to himself and take heed to his own heart, and consider these two things:
1. If you now seek your salvation as you may do, and continue so doing, there is a very great probability that you will obtain.
We see that now God is on the giving hand. We see that at such times as this is, a very earnest, constant seeking salvation is not wont to be in vain. We see by much experience, that ’tis not a vain thing to call upon God while he is near [Is. 55:6]. In all probability, if you are but willing to be at the pains and trouble of a thorough use of means for your salvation now, and do but hold a resolution that you won’t leave off, you will have success. And though it would be a great thing if you should be converted, though it would be a wonderful infinite mercy, and would be more than if you were made the biggest prince on earth; yet in all likelihood you may obtain this mercy, though you may be a very great sinner.
In all probability, if you thus take pains and don’t backslide, you may be delivered from everlasting burnings—and how great a thing will that be! Yet you may be a child of God and an heir of eternal glory, may be in such a state that death can’t hurt you, and in such a state that you may have reason to rejoice at the thought of the day of judgment.
And how happy will you be then! No man nor angel can set forth your happiness; ’tis beyond the power of numbers to declare. No arithmetic, no rule of multiplication can measure it. O then, is it not worth your while to improve your present opportunity? And is [it] not worth your while to continue steadfast and constant in striving to enter in at the strait gate?
2. Consider, if it should be so, that the thorns of worldly lusts and affections should at last so prevail as to stifle your conviction and put an end to your striving, there is very great danger that [you] will never be saved.
It will dreadfully harden your heart, and if you should live long after it, there is great danger that you never will be converted. To obtain conversion is comparatively an easy thing to them that never quenched conviction, as we see in children. But how hard a thing does it commonly prove to those that are past their youth, and have stood it out through times of the pouring out of God’s spirit, and have quenched convictions, and in whose hearts the thorns have long been growing, and getting deeper and stronger root.
And then consider how uncertain is life.
You see by the late awful instances of sudden death, that when you go to bed well, ’tis uncertain whether you shall live till morning; and when you close your eyes to go to sleep, you are uncertain whether it is not your last sleep. You know not but your first waking will be in eternity. And you moreover see that when you go about, though in health, and are taking your steps on the ground, you are uncertain but that the next step will be into eternity. You don’t know how near you are to the edge of the precipice; the very next step you take, for ought you know, your footing may fail, and if you are unconverted you may sink down into the bottomless pit.
Therefore, how can you have any rest in such a condition, and how can you ever entertain a thought of leaving off crying and striving for salvation anymore, till you have obtained an interest in Him who has satisfied for sin, and in whom, and whom alone, you may be safe, delivered from the sting of death, and be safe from that eternal hell that follows after.
A sermon delivered by Jonathan Edwards.
Edited and formatted by Lawrence Blair