SERMON BY CHARLES FINNEY
"He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed and that without remedy." --Proverbs xxix. 1.
There is nothing in the connection in which these words stand that require explanation; I shall, therefore, at once give you the outline of thought which I design to pursue.
I. NOTICE THE TRUE IDEA OF REPROOF
II. SOME OF THE WAYS IN WHICH GOD ADMINISTERS REPROOF
III. THE DESIGN OF REPROOF
IV. WHAT IT IS TO HARDEN THE NECK, UNDER REPROOF
V. WHAT IS INTENDED BY BEING SUDDENLY DESTROYED
VI. WHAT IS INTENDED BY BEING DESTROYED WITHOUT REMEDY
I. I am to notice the true idea of reproof. First, it does not necessarily enter into the idea of reproof that the individual reproved regards it, or look upon the events or circumstances which are designed to reprove, as a divine rebuke from God. Whatever is calculated in its own nature or relations to arrest the attention of the mind, and call men to a neglect of duty, or the obligation they owe to God, and the danger of their present condition, involves undoubtedly the true idea of reproof, whatever this may be.
II. With respect to the ways in which God administers reproof. I observe first, that both the Bible and nature teaches that God exercises a universal providence. If it be true that God created the universe, he had a design in creating it; and if a design in its creation, it follows that he has made provision for the accomplishment of the design[,] what he had in its original construction--that he has made provision for securing the end which he originally had in view. This is the true idea of divine providence. There have been started two or three different theories of divine providence. One is, that in the original creation both of matter and mind, God furnished them with such laws as in their development should secure the great end for which he created the universe. Another theory of divine providence is, that God constantly superintends, and either by his own direct agency and superintendence, or through other agencies, to overlook and control and bring about what he designs and wills. Both these, however, agree in this, that the providence of God is universal. Both admit that God has control in some sense, if not in the same sense. In fact, God could not exercise control over the great events of the world, if he did not over the smaller ones also--seeing that the one is made up of the others. Great events are made up of innumerable smaller ones; and if the smaller things are not under the divine direction, in such a sense as to be controlled by him, of course the great events made up of these smaller ones could not be either. The first system that I named is that of a general providence, which regards the whole universe as a vast machine, which having a law impressed upon it at its creation to work out its results, does not need the divine superintendence. The second theory regards God as superintending and adjusting all the laws of the universe, whether of matter or mind, and are thus made to work out those great results at which God aims. This latter theory regards God as constantly interfering in the spiritual world, and often in the natural world, making such arrangements and adjustments to avert certain results which would certainly come to pass. Those who hold this latter theory believe also that with respect to moral agency it is free, and that God never interferes with man's will by his superintendence. Another theory supposes that the universe is partly governed by irresistible laws, impressed upon it at the beginning, and partly by direct superintendence; yet all admit that the providence of God is in some sense universal--that God is immediately concerned in all that occurs, or knows what is about to occur; and he does not prevent it, because he knows it is wiser to let the law take its course. Now, when God created Adam and Eve he knew what would afterwards occur; and though he did not prevent their fall, he took care that their conduct should not defeat the great end for which he created the universe. Thus God suffers everything to be done that is done, in the sense that he knows it is about to occur; or he is actively employed by positive agency in bringing everything about. God, in fact, has some design in everything that occurs in the whole universe, whether he actually originates it by positive and direct means, or only suffers it to occur, and so overrules it as to bring good out of it. Now, observe, God ofttimes administers reproof in his providential government. For example, the favours which he bestow upon those who are wicked, what are they but reproofs. Suppose a man should injure you, and you should show him some great kindness, would he not understand it to be a reproof? Suppose you met a man in the street that had done you some great injury, and you should show him some great favour, would he not regard it as a reproof? Take the case of Mr. Whitfield. When he was preaching on one occasion, an individual rose up and accused him of a great crime--a thing of which he had never been guilty--but the individual desired to injure him, and ruin his character in the eyes of the people. Well, what did he do? Why, when he came out of the pulpit, he called the individual to him and gave her a guinea and turned away. This was intended to be a reproof; and doubtless it made such an impression as she never got over. What did Christ say? "If thine enemy hunger feed him, and if he thirst give him drink; for by so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head." Now, whether it was wise in Mr. Whitfield to act as he did or not, it was evidently intended as a reproof?[.] And does not God intend the favours which he bestows upon the wicked as reproofs? They may think that they receive them because they are deserved: their self-righteousness may say this; but who does not see that this is not true? "He makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, on the just and on the unjust." How can men prowl about at night in the dark, and not feel ashamed and rebuked when the sun shines upon them in the morning? I knew a man once who had been quarrelling all night, and when the sun shone upon him in the morning, he was so cut to the heart, that he was led to repent of his sins. He felt astonished that God should suffer his sun to shine upon such a wretch as he knew himself to be. It is wonderful that when men have been engaged in some great wickedness, and God comes right out and shows them some great favour, that they do not feel infinitely ashamed of themselves, and blush and hang their heads down for very shame. The fact is--although some men may, on account of their self-righteousness, suppose that these things are given as a reward for their goodness--that all God's favours are so many reproofs; as if God should say, you have refused to obey my commands, you have broken my law, you have taken my name in vain, you have profaned my Sabbaths, while I have fed you, and clothed you, and given you a home and friends; what do you think of yourself? you live in sin and yet I keep you alive; I watched over you in the dark, and then you rise up in the morning and rebel against me. I have done all this for you and yet you abuse me still; what do you think of yourself? See how much love I have shown towards you, how many good things I have done for you, how I have persevered in doing you good, and yet you have rebelled against me; are you not ashamed of yourself? Now God does not bestow his favours without some design; and that is to lead the sinner to repentance. "Knowest thou not that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance." He gives sinners such a look sometimes that one would suppose would kill them, and break their hearts, and make them burst out into loud weeping. When they abuse him he steps up to them with his hands full of blessings, but says nothing. How many times has he done so to sinners in this house. What do you think of it? You have forfeited your life and exposed it to eternal death. Have you not had reason to suppose that a thunderbolt would fall upon your head? But instead of that, God opens your hand and supplies you with all needful good. Do you suppose that he does this because he approves of what you have done? You did not understand it so, but that he meant to reprove you for what you had done. By these gifts he meant to reprove you for your ingratitude and your sin; just as you by the same conduct would have meant to reprove an individual who had done you some great injury. You tried to shame him out of his bad conduct, to break his heart, and to make him feel how wrong and wicked his conduct was.
Again: by judgments God ofttimes administers reproof. By judgments, I mean those things that are not regarded by men as merciful dispensations, but as very untoward circumstances. Now, they are designed, every one of them to administer reproof--and when mercy fail, judgment shall take its place. God interposes in a great many ways to save men. Sometimes persons are, no doubt, warned by dreams, although I do not think that dreams can be relied on, because they are very generally occasioned by the state of the health or the nervous system; yet it is manifest that they are ofttimes providential, and have been so in every age of the world. There have been striking instances in which persons have been warned by dreams; I have heard many such things related myself, as no doubt other persons have also; and sometimes, doubtless they are to be received as warnings. President Edwards relates a very remarkable and striking instance of warning given to a man by means of a dream. In his congregation there was a notorious drunkard, who had for many years absented himself from the house of God and given himself up to strong drink. One night this man had a dream, and he dreamed that he went to hell. I need not enter into the circumstances as to what he saw there, because that would take too long, and be quite unnecessary. However, he was greatly agonized, and prayed to the Lord to give him one trial more, and let him return to earth: well, the Lord gave him leave to do so for one year, and if he was not reformed in that time, he should surely return to hell. The man, as might be supposed, was greatly distressed about this dream, and he went to President Edwards in the course of a few days and related it to him. President Edwards told him that he ought to regard it as a providential warning from God, and that it was unwise not to regard it as such. For a time the man broke off his old vice, and betook himself to the house of God. A few months only, however, passed away before he went on in his old career, till he became as bad, if not worse than ever. One day he had been drinking a great deal, and became very intoxicated, and being unable to get home, he was carried into a carpenter's shop, and laid down among the shavings: in the night he awoke, and attempted to go down the stairs, when he fell and broke his neck. As this dream had seemed very remarkable to President Edwards, he noted it down in his common-place book at the time that it was related to him, and when he heard of the man's death, he referred to the entry, and found to his amazement that it was just a year that very night. I mention this fact for the purpose of illustrating what I mean, that ofttimes, God in dreams, as well as various other ways, reproves persons for their sins. He does it by his Word, his writings, by sermons, and indeed by every way this is calculated to remind the sinner that he is not doing his duty.
Again: the Holy Spirit reproves, by convincing the sinner of his sins, and producing in his mind visitations of remorse. But I cannot enter further upon this, and show how the Holy Ghost works upon the conscience by every means likely to wake the sinner up to a knowledge of what he is about. I come then, in the next place to inquire--
III. The design of reproof.--Undoubtedly it is designed to effect a reformation. He means to secure this end by forbearance. By reproof he tries to convert and save him if he can; he uses every means to make men trophies of mercy; he intends to leave all men without excuse. I may appeal to every sinner in this house, if God has not pursued a course with you calculated to leave you without excuse! At one time, perhaps, he pursued you, or is pursuing you with loving-kindnesses and tender mercies, as if he would melt you down by acts of forbearance and love. But when he finds that will not do, then he uses the rod. When you resist his mild reproof he will turn and smite you. By all means he reproves you. But are you reformed? For that is his great object. In the next place--
IV. What is intended by hardening the neck under Divine reproof?--You observe the language is figurative. Reference is made by it, you observe, to the bullock working with a yoke upon his neck. The practice of using bullocks in this manner is not, I find, so common here as it is in America and some other lands. When they are so employed the neck becomes callous. The yoke often produces a very hard substance upon the neck, by the constant pushing against it. The men that are spoken of here are represented as constantly pushing against God's providence, and thus making their necks hard. The figure is very striking. The bullock when it first wears the yoke becomes sore-necked; sometimes quite unable to bear it on for days, but by degrees it becomes so accustomed to it that its neck gets completely hardened. And thus the conscience of the sinner becomes quite callous under reproof if he does not yield to it. Reproof may be administered, but he does not feel it any more than the bullock does the yoke.
V. But what is intended by being suddenly destroyed?--Opposition and destruction will always go together. The Bible teaches this in every place. "When they shall cry peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, like travail upon a woman with child, and they shall not escape." By resisting reproof men become hardened, so that they do not fear the Divine judgments. The conscience becomes so stupefied, that men lose the sense of danger; and it is just then that the danger in reality becomes greater. But although men have been heedless of danger, yet "damnation slumbereth not," and therefore it is that God says, they shall be suddenly destroyed.
But let me say again: it shall come upon them sooner than they expect. "God is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but he is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance;" and therefore he uses means so long as there is any hope; yet after destruction will come "suddenly," and much sooner than they expect. This was the case with the old world. God warned them by Noah for one hundred and twenty years, but they took no heed, and the flood came suddenly, when they did not expect it. But I must pass over this, and inquire--
VI. What it is to be destroyed "without remedy?" --How often I have been reminded of this text when I have stood by the dying bed of not a few individuals. It was no use trying to help them, for God had determined to destroy them. The minister is sent to pray for the dying man. He cannot pray: God will not hear. No matter if the entire universe interposes: he will not alter his purpose. How often have I felt shocked and horrified under such circumstances. When God makes up his mind to destroy a man, every chance of his being saved has passed away. Having been often reproved he is suddenly destroyed, and that without remedy. All the means that men can employ will be without avail. There is no help for such a man in the whole universe.
But I must pass to make a few remarks.
First: it should always be understood that there is a relation between every part of the Divine economy; and sometimes indeed things in providence occur under such circumstances, that even infidels will say it is the work of God; and not infrequently these providential dispensations will make the ears of good men to tingle. God will reveal himself in such a manner as to shock them.
Again: it is often very affecting to see how God will interpose to save several by the destruction of one. He takes away one of a circle, that those who remain may take warning. I have often noticed such things myself. One member of the family is a great stumbling block to the others; God steps in and cuts him down in order that he may save the rest. How striking such providences are. Several such cases have occurred in my own experience since I have been in the ministry, and many others have been repeated to me. Individuals have given themselves up to oppose revivals of religion; have agreed to resist and stand out against all efforts to revive the cause of God, and have been cut down in a most signal and awful manner. I could name cases, but it is not important to do so, as such events are by no means uncommon.
But again: every sermon you hear is designed to be a reproof to you if you are in an impenitent state. And let me say, reproof will have some effect--it will either make you better or worse. Always understand this. Every word of God and every providence, will either be a savor of life or death to the soul. It should be remembered that the whole system of providence is but a vast system of Divine instruction. Some people try to make a distinction between the word of God and the providence of God; but they should understand that the lessons taught are the same, and that the God who created the universe is the same that dictated the Bible. Every event in providence is teaching men lessons just the same as the Bible; "Whether they will hear or whether they will forbear." If men will not receive the truth of God's word, they cannot help being instructed as they pass along under his providence and works. Everything speaks to them and reproves them. "He speaketh once, yea twice," whether men regard it or not. Men are therefore preparing for either heaven or hell. Every step each of you take is conducting you nearer and nearer to the solemn judgment, and every thing cries out, "Prepare to meet thy God!" Sinner! beware, you are passing on to the judgment, and God's voice is everywhere loudly calling upon you to be ready to meet him: let the voice be heard!
Once more: the danger of men is great, just in proportion as they cease to be effected by a sense of it, and reproofs cease to be regarded as Divine admonitions--just in that proportion is their destruction hastening. When men feel the most secure, if they are living in sin, then destruction is most certain; and of course when it does come it will be sudden, because they do not expect it at all.
Now mark, this is not arbitrary on the part of God: it is a natural consequence of the sinner's conduct. God admonishes and warns, in a thousand ways; and he tells men if they will not give heed he will surely punish them; and if he did not they would despise him themselves. He does not lead men to expect one result, and then bring about another: he is honest with them, and what he says, he will do, depend upon it. It is often very affecting to see what a state of mind men will manifest sometimes when they have found themselves being drawn into the vortex. The providence of God in its dealings with men, has sometimes seemed to me like the Niagara Falls in America. The water of this immense cataract pours over the rocks in one great broad, mighty fall, as smooth as glass; and comes down upon the water below with such wonderful force as to cut right into it. No foam is visible at the place where it enters, but it rushes along under the surface, and then rises again at about a mile and a half distant, and rolls itself up in mighty masses of spray and foam. The water thus form an eddy of vast extent. Towards the edges of the circle the power is not very great, but increases every inch as you near the centre, where everything that reaches it is instantly engulphed.[sic.] The sinner has got into such a circle, you call and tell him that he is in danger, but he does not believe it. As you see the dangers increase, you raise the voice still higher, but he regards it not. By and by he hears the mighty roar: he then sees his danger, but it is too late, he is swallowed by the mighty vortex; "suddenly destroyed." The whole universe may call, but his soul will be lost though black as hell!
Sinner! O sinner! How long shall God warn you? How long will you despise reproof? Be admonished: be warned: be intreated: be persuaded. Cast away your sins: put away your rebellious heart and your neck of iron. Sinner, make up your mind to give your heart to God. Let your language be, "Speak, Lord; thy servant heareth." Will you say, O my Father, my God, I will sin against thee no more: I am ashamed; I am confounded; I have received good things, from thee, and have abused thee for them. Thou hast offered me salvation, but I have refused it! Can I hope for forgiveness? Can I be forgiven? But forgiven or not, I will not go on in this way any longer: God being my helper, I will not. I will renounce my rebellion against God this night: now in this house: this shall be the last hour that God shall have to complain of me, for I will no longer harden my neck against the calls of his providence. I now yield myself up to God, I give up all my sins, I consecrate myself to him; the rest of my life shall be the Lord's. My time, talents, property, everything I have shall be yielded up to his honour and glory. Will every sinner now in this house, thus renounce their sins, and give themselves up to God, and say, here we are, Lord, at thy feet; O write thy name upon our hearts, and let us henceforth live entirely to thee?
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