"A bird that is tied by a string seems to have more liberty than a bird in a cage; it flutters up and down, and yet it is held fast."
When a man thinks that he has escaped from the bondage of sin in general, and yet evidently remains under the power of some one favored lust, he is woefully mistaken in his judgment as to his spiritual freedom. He may boast that he is out of the cage, but assuredly the string is on his leg. He who has his fetters knocked off, all but one chain, is a prisoner still. "Let not any iniquity have dominion over me" is a good and wise prayer; for one pampered sin will slay the soul as surely as one dose of poison will kill the body. There is no need for a traveller to be bitten by a score of deadly vipers, the tooth of one cobra is quite sufficient to insure his destruction. One sin, like one match, can kindle the fires of hell within the soul.
The practical application of this truth should be made by the professor who is a slave to drink, or to covetousness, or to passion. How can you be free if any one of these chains still holds you fast? We have met with professors who are haughty, and despise others; how can these be the Lord's free men while pride surrounds them? In will and intent we must break every bond of sin, and we must perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord, or we cannot hope that the Son had made us free. O thou who art the free Spirit, break every bond of sin, I beseech thee.
"How often do we mingle sulphur with our incense!"
A strong expression, but most sadly true. When we offer prayer, is there not at times a sorrowful mixture of self-will, petulance, and impatience? Does not unbelief, which is quite as obnoxious as brimstone, too often spoil the sweet odor of our supplications? When we offer praise, is it all pure spices after the art of the heavenly apothecary? Do not self-laudation and pride frequently spoil the holy frankincense and myrrh? Alas, we fear that the charge must lie against us, and force us to a sorrowful confession.
As the priests of God, our whole life should be the presentation of holy incense unto God, and yet it is not so. The earthly ambitions and carnal lustings of our nature deteriorate and adulterate the spices of our lives, and Satan, with the sulphur of pride, ruins the delicate perfume of perfect consecration.
What grace the Lord displays in accepting our poor, imperfect offerings! What rich merit abides in our Lord Jesus! What sweet savor beyond expression dwells in him, to drown and destroy our ill-savors, and to make us accepted in the Beloved! Glory be unto our glorious High Priest, whose perfect life and sin-atoning death is so sweet before the Divine Majesty that the Lord is well pleased for his righteousness' sake, and accepts us in him with our sweet savor.
"There is as much felony in coining pence, as shillings and pounds."
The principle is the same, whatever the value of the coin may be: the prerogative of the Crown is trenched upon by the counterfeiter, even if he only imitates and utters the smallest coin of the realm. He has set the royal sign to his base metal, and the small money-value of his coinage is no excuse for his offence.
Any one sin wilfully indulged and persevered in is quite sufficient to prove a man to be a traitor to his God. Though he may neither commit murder nor adultery—which would be like counterfeiting the larger coins, he may be as surely a felon in the sight of heaven if he deliberately utters falsehood or indulges pride—which some think as lightly of as if they were but the counterfeits of pence. The spirit of rebellion is the same whatever be the manner of displaying it. A giant may look out through a very small window, and so may great obstinacy of rebellion manifest itself in a little act of willfulness.
How careful should this consideration make us! How earnestly should we watch against what are thought to be minor offences. The egg of mischief is smaller than that of a midge; a world of evil lurks in a drop of rebellion. Lord, keep us from pence transgressions and then we shall not commit the pound offences.
"A sun-dial may be well and accurately set, and yet, if the sun shines not, we cannot tell the time of day."
Our evidences of grace are in much the same condition: they are good signs, but we cannot see them unless the grace of God shines upon them, and then we can almost do without them, even as an observant person can tell the time of day without a sun-dial, by looking to the sun itself. Present faith in a present Saviour is better than all the marks and evidences in the world. Yet let no man be content if the marks of a child of God are absent from his life, for they ought to be there, and must be there. The presence of sensible evidences must not be too much relied on; but the absence of them should cause great searching of heart. Our main concern should be to look daily and hourly unto Jesus, trusting in him, and not in evidences; judging the progress of our soul's day, rather by our view of the Sun of righteousness than by our own sun-dial. If Jesus be gone, all is gone: without his love we are darkness itself. What a sun-dial is without the sun, that is the fairest character, the choicest past experience, and the maturest knowledge without Jesus' fellowship. Rise, O Sun of my soul; end my doubts, if I have any; prevent them, if I have none.
"As precious liquors are best kept in clean vessels, so is the mystery of faith in a pure conscience."
Who, indeed, would knowingly pour a choice wine into a tainted cask? It would be no instance of his wisdom if he did so. When we hear of men living in sin and yet claiming to be the ministers of God, we are disgusted with their pretences, but we are not deceived by their professions. In the same manner, we care little for those who are orthodox Christians in creed if it is clear that they are heterodox in life. He who believes the truth should himself be true. How can we expect others to receive our religion if it leaves us foul, false, malicious, and selfish? We sicken at the sight of a dirty dish, and refuse even good meat when it is placed thereon. So pure and holy is the doctrine of the cross that he who hears it aright will have his ear cleansed, he who believes it will have his heart purged, and he who preaches it should have his tongue purified. Woe unto that man who brings reproach upon the gospel by an unhallowed walk and conversation.
Lord, evermore make us vessels fit for thine own use, and then fill us with the pure blood of the grapes of sound doctrine and wholesome instruction. Suffer us not to be such foul cups as to be only fit for the wine of Sodom.
"A man who is wounded, and cut through his clothes and skin and all, will be more anxious to have the wound closed up in his body than to have the rent in his garment mended."
His body is much more himself than the garment with which he covers it, and, therefore, he gives it his first attention. Now, on the same principle, we should take more care of the soul than of the body, for the soul is more truly the man than the mere flesh and blood which he inhabits. As a man may get a new coat, so shall he obtain a new body at the resurrection; but his spirit, which is his real self, abides the same as to identity, and should, therefore, be carefully guarded. Yet what fools the most of men are; they spend a lifetime in providing for a body which will soon be worms' meat, and their immortal soul is left uncared for, to go before God, naked, and poor, and miserable. If there were as much as a pennyworth of wisdom to be found among ten thousand sinners they would no longer neglect their own souls.
"Alexander, when his army grew sluggish because laden with the spoils of their enemies, to free them from this incumbrance, commanded all his own baggage to be set on fire, that when they saw the king himself devote his rich treasures to the flames they might not murmur if their mite and pittance were consumed also. So, if Christ had taught us contempt of the world, and had not given us an instance of it in his own person, his doctrine had been less powerful and effectual."
But what an example we now find in him, seeing he had not where to lay his head in life, nor a rag to cover him in death, nor anything but a borrowed grave in burial. What manner of persons ought we to be in all unselfishness when we have such a Lord! He hath not said to us in matters of self-denial, "Take up thy cross and go," but "Come, take up thy cross, and follow me." Fired by the heroic self-sacrifice of our King, the sternest abnegation of self and the severest renunciation of the world should become an easy matter. Well may the soldiers endure hardness when the King himself roughs it among us, and suffers more than the meanest private in our ranks.
My soul, I charge thee, endure hardness, and look not for ease where Jesus found death.
—Flowers from a Puritan's Garden