The Severity of God
Hebrews 12:29
For our God is a consuming fire.

I. WE WILL ENDEAVOUR TO GIVE YOU DISTINCT NOTIONS OF THAT WHICH THE SCRIPTURE CALLS THE WRATH, THE ANGER, THE VENGEANCE OF GOD. Recollect that when the Scripture speaks of the perfections and operations of God it borroweth images from the affections and actions of men. Things that cannot be known to us by themselves can be understood only by analogy. Divine things are of this kind. From this remark follows a precaution — that is, that we must carefully lay aside every part of the emblem that agreeth only to men from whom it is borrowed, and apply only that part to the Deity which is compatible with the eminence of His perfections.

II. Observe THAT THOSE EMBLEMS OF WRATH AND VENGEANCE UNDER WHICH GOD IS REPRESENTED TO US HAVE ONE PART THAT CANNOT BE ATTRIBUTED TO HIM, because it is not compatible with the eminence of His perfections, and another that must be applied to Him because it is.

1. It is a consequence of the frailty or of the depravity of men that their anger inclines them to hate those whom they ought to love, and in whose happiness they ought to interest themselves as far as they can without violating the laws of equity. Such a hatred cannot be attributed to God; He loves all His intelligent creatures.

2. It is a consequence of human frailty or depravity that men's wrath makes them taste a barbarous pleasure in tormenting those who are the objects of it, and in feasting, as it were, on their miseries. This is incompatible with the eminence of the perfections of God.

3. It is a consequence of the frailty or of the depravity of men that their anger disorders their bodies and impairs their minds. See, the eyes sparkle, the mouth foams, the animal spirits are in a flame; these obscure the faculties of the mind, and prevent the weighing of those reasons that plead for the guilty offender; anger prejudgeth him, and, in spite of many powerful pleas in his favour, his ruin is resolved. All these are incompatible with the eminence of the perfections of God. God is a spirit; He is not subject to revolutions of sense; reasons of punishing a sinner never divert His attention from motives of pardoning the man or of moderating his pain.

4. It is a consequence of the frailty and depravity of men that their anger makes them usurp a right which belongs to God. God useth His own right when He punisheth sin.

5. It is a consequence of the frailty and depravity of men that time doth not abate their resentment, and that the only reason which prevents the rendering of evil for evil is a want of opportunity; as soon as an opportunity offers they eagerly embrace it. This is incompatible with the eminence of the perfections of God; He hath at all times the means of punishing the guilty.

6. It is a consequence of the frailty and depravity of men that their anger puts them upon considering and punishing a pardonable frailty as an atrocious crime. This is incompatible with the eminence of the Divine perfections. If we imagine that God acts so in any cases, it is because we have false notions of sins, and think that a pardonable frailty which is an atrocious crime.

III. We are to conciliate WHAT THE SCRIPTURE SAITH OF THE GOODNESS OF GOD WITH WHAT IT SAITH OF HIS ANGER OR VENGEANCE; and as the two subjects never appear more irreconciliable than when, having used all our endeavours to terrify people who defer their conversion till a dying illness, we actually take pains to comfort those who have deferred it till that time, we will endeavour to harmonise the goodness and justice of God in that particular point of view.

1. First, let us endeavour, in a general view, to reconcile the goodness of God with His justice by laying down a few principles.

(1) To speak properly, there are not several perfections in God; but there is one single excellence, inclusive of every other, that ariseth from all His perfections, but of which it is not possible that we can either form any complete ideas or easily express by any name: in general, it may be called order, or love of order.

(2) Although God hath only a general excellence, yet it is necessary for us to divide it into several particular excellencies in order to the obtaining of some knowledge of an object, the immensity of which will not allow us to comprehend it at once.

(3) The general excellence of God being thus divided into parts, each part becomes what we call a perfection, or an attribute, of God, as vengeance or justice and goodness; but each particular attribute will be still mistaken unless we subdivide it again into other and still more contracted spheres. Thus, when God sendeth rain and fruitful seasons, we call the blessing simply bounty. When He delivereth us out of our afflictions we call it compassion. When He pardoneth our sins we call it mercy. But as all these particular excellencies proceed from that general attribute which we call goodness, so that attribute itself proceedeth, as well as His justice, from an excellence more general still. which we have denominated order or love of order.

(4) Perfections that proceed from the same perfection, or, rather, which are the same perfections applied to different subjects, cannot be contrary to each other. Strictly speaking, God is no more just than good, no more good than just. His goodness is restrained by His justice, His justice by His goodness.

(5) God is as amiable and adorable when He exerciseth His justice as when He exerciseth His goodness. That which makes me adore God, believe His word, hope in His promises, and love Him above all things, is the eminence of His perfections.

2. Let us now apply this general harmony of the goodness and severity of God to the removing of a seeming inconsistency in the conduct of your preachers and casuists, who first use every effort to alarm and terrify your minds with the idea of a death-bed repentance, and afterward take equal pains to comfort you when ye have deferred your repentance to that time, and when your case appears desperate. Why do we not despair of a man who delays his conversion till the approach of death? Because that order, which constitutes the eminence of the Divine perfections, doth not allow that a sincere conversion, a conversion that reforms the sin and renews the sinner, should be rejected by God. Now we cannot absolutely deny the possibility of a sincere death-bed conversion for the following reasons.

(1) Because it is not absolutely impossible that a violent fit of sickness or an apprehension of death should make deeper impressions on the mind than either sermons, or exhortations, or books of devotion could ever produce.

(2) Because we are neither so fully acquainted with other people's hearts, nor indeed with our own, as to determine whether sin have so entirely depraved all the faculties of the soul that it is past remedy; or whether it have arrived at that precise degree of corruption to which the eminence of the Divine perfections doth not allow a display of that efficacy which is promised to those who desire the grace of conversion.

(3) Because we find in the Holy Scriptures that some have obtained mercy after they had committed the very crimes, the remembrance of which, we have said, ought not to drive any to despair.

(4) Because we still see people who, having lived thirty, yea, fifty, years in sin, have been converted in a time of sickness, and who, being restored to health, give full proof of the reality of their conversion.

(5) Because God worketh miracles in religion as well as in nature; and because no man hath a sufficient knowledge of the nature of God's perfections to enable him to affirm that a miracle cannot or ought not to be wrought in behalf of such a sinner.

(6) Because we cannot find that your pastors have any authority from their Bibles to say to a penitent sinner at any time, There is no more hope for thee; thou hast exhausted the mercy of God.

3. It is true God's thoughts are not our thoughts; and it is possible that the approach of death may make deeper impressions on you than either sermons or pious books have made: but yet our God is a consuming fire. What a time is a dying illness for the receiving of such impressions! Ah! what obstacles! What a world of obstacles oppose such extravagant hopes and justify the efforts of those who endeavor to destroy them! Here is business that must be settled; a will which must be made; a number of articles that must be discussed; there are friends who must be embraced. There the illness increaseth, pains multiply, agonies convulse, the whole soul, full of intolerable sensations, loseth the power of seeing and hearing, thinking and reflecting. It is true God's thoughts are not our thoughts; and we have neither a sufficient knowledge of other people's hearts, nor of our own, to affirm with certainty when their faculties are entirely contaminated: but yet our God is a consuming fire. We know men to whom the truth is become unintelligible, in consequence of the disguise in which they have taken the pains to clothe it, and who have accustomed themselves to palliate vice till they are become incapable of perceiving its turpitude. God's thoughts are not our thoughts, it is true; and we have seen some examples of people who have proved, since their recovery, that they were truly converted in sickness, and on whose account we presume that others may possibly be converted by the same means: but yet our God is a consuming fire. How rare are these examples! Doth this require proof? Must we demonstrate it? Ye are our proofs; ye yourselves are our demonstrations. It is true God's thoughts are not our thoughts; and God worketh miracles in religion as well as in nature: but yet our God is a consuming fire. Who can assure himself that, having abused common grace, he shall obtain extraordinary assistances? It is true God's thoughts are not our thoughts: and there is nothing in the Holy Scriptures which inpowers us to shut the gates of heaven against a dying penitent; we have no authority to tell you that there is no more hope for you, but that ye are lost without remedy: but yet our God is a consuming fire. There are hundreds of passages in our Bibles which authorise us — what am I saying? there are hundreds of passages that command us — not to conceal anything from the criminal; there are hundreds of passages which empower and enjoin us to warn you, you who are fifty years of age, you who are sixty, you who are fourscore, that still to put off the work of your conversion is a madness, an excess of inflexibility and indolence, which all the flames of hell can never expiate.

(J. Saurin.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: For our God is a consuming fire.

WEB: for our God is a consuming fire.

The Fire of God
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