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fair excuse upon the score of infirmity; it was no wilful sin. But Eli's indulgence and remissness towards his sons, whom he as a magistrate ought to have corrected, being more deliberate, and of much worse tendency, that was charged upon him as a heinous crime, and both he and his posterity remarkably suffered for it.
To this head I may refer credulity, or over-hasty belief, as being often a sin of infirmity, and pertaining only to the mind. Many an honest and good man may be too credulous in believing idle stories and false reports; when he ought to be upon his guard. Thus the man of God suffered himself to be deceived by the lying prophet of Bethel, and paid dear for his credulity ; though, as I conceive, his sin was no more than a sin of infirmity: he meant well, and had an honest mind.
To the same head may be referred over great carefulness, or anxiety, in respect of worldly things. It is to be hoped, that much of this kind may be allowed to pass among our pitiable failings, and bear no harder a name than that of sins of infirmity. Martha, a very good woman in the main, was yet careful and cumbered about many things, more than she should have been ; and she received a gentle rebuke for it from our blessed Lord. It was a sin to be so over-careful and anxious for trifles, to the neglect of better things: but she did not consider it; she intended well, and thought even her sister to blame for not doing as she did, though she was much better employed.
Hitherto I have been considering sins of infirmity as reaching no further than the mind, resting in thought only. I proceed now to a second article, or head of discourse, respecting our speech.
2. Many are our sins of infirmity reducible to this head. "If
any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man,” a very saint upon earth, as St. James justly observes a. But where shall we find such a person? or has there ever been such an onc, our blessed Lord only excepted, who had no sin, nor was “guile “ found in his mouth ?" Many are the offences of the tongue: our greatest comfort is, that several of them may pass for frailties only; and happy will it be for us, if we go no further. Moses, one of the best men that ever lived, stands charged in scripture, as one speaking“ unadvisedly with his lips b,” in an affair of high consequence. It was a sudden passion that betrayed him into it, and he had no ill meaning : it was a sin of infirmity. I am persuaded that even Peter's denial of his Lord was rather weak, than wilful : he was surprised into it, had forgot himself, and had not yet time to recollect. He had a very honest heart, and had courage enough even to fight or die for his Lord at another time: and as soon as ever he perceived how meanly he had behaved in denying his Lord, he was sadly struck with it, and “wept bitterly” for it. All these circumstances plead in his favour, and make his sin appear rather as a sin of infirmity, than a presumptous sin.
a James üi. 2.
b Psalm cvi. 33.
I should be willing to hope that hasty, heedless swearing, or taking God's name in vain, in those who had unhappily got a habit of it from their childhood, may be but a sin of infirmity, for some time : but to such as perceive it, and continue it, and use not all proper means and care to get the better of it, and to break the evil habit, to them it is wilful and deadly sin.
Telling of lies I do not reckon among the sins of infirmity ; it is, generally, at least, a voluntary, chosen thing: but varying a little from strict truth, or adding to it, as is sometimes done, undesignedly, hastily, forgetfully, in the making a report, if it be in things of slight consequence ; that may be numbered among human frailties.
Angry and passionate speeches may mostly fall under the head of infirmities : but bitter invectives, and irritating, injurious reflections, made in cold blood, made deliberately, are without
There are sometimes sharp contentions between very good men and very good friends, where both sides mean well, but differ in opinion or judgment. Such was the sharp contention between Paul and Barnabas, recorded Acts xv. in which Barnabas appears to have been blameable, in favouring his kinsman Mark more than became him to do, where the public interest of the Church lay at stake : but this was his infirmity ; and even the best of men will be subject to human frailties.
It would be endless to enumerate all the offences of the tongue, which men are liable to. It is a difficult matter to talk much and well: great talkers offend often ; and they who say the least are generally the most innocent.
Yet there may be a fault sometimes in being too reserved, shy, and silent: as when a man neglects to exhort or reprove his
neighbour, as occasions offer, or when he can patiently sit by, and hear the name of God dishonoured, or an innocent absent man abused, without opening his mouth in defence of either. Such reservedness, in some cases, may rise no higher than a sin of infirmity: but for the most part, we may more justly call it a wilful neglect; betraying meanness of spirit, at least, or something worse.
But enough hath been said of sins of infirmity, so far as relates to speech.
3. I come now in the third place to the most material article of all, which concerns our outward actions : and here also we may offend two ways ; either as neglecting to do what we ought, or as doing what we ought not.
Sins of infirmity are mostly seen in our manifold omissions and neglects, either forgetting what duties are incumbent upon us, or performing them but in part. Who can say how oft he offendeth in this kind? Who can say that he hath acquitted himself perfectly in every instance of duty towards God and towards his neighbour? to his king or to his country, to his family or relations, to his friends and to his enemies, to high and low, to rich and poor, to every man he has
any relation to or concern with ? Hard would be our circumstances, were we to give a strict account of all our omissions ; or if much the greater part of them were not kindly overlooked by an all-merciful God, as pitiable frailties. Yet let not any man set light by omissions. Wilful omissions of known duties are wilful and presumptuous sins : and there are some kinds of omissions which will be always charged as wilful, and will be enough to exclude us from the kingdom of heaven : particularly, if we omit or neglect to worship God, or to do good to man, as our opportunities and abilities permit. If we neglect to “ feed the hungry,” or to “ clothe the naked,” or to 6 visit the sick,” or to “ comfort the afflicted ;” our blessed Lord himself hath told us, that we shall not be admitted into the kingdom of heaven: and further, if we neglect or omit to “ forgive our enemies," we can have no forgiveness at the hands of God. Briefly then, though many of our omissions, or neglects, amount only to sins of infirmity; yet there are sins of omission which are both wilful and dangerous, as any other sins are, and which will admit of no excuse upon any pretence of human frailty.
I come next to speak of sins of commission, the doing what we
ought not to do. Sins of this kind are mostly wilful : but some there are which may be justly looked upon as sins of infirmity. Drunkenness in righteous Noah, once only, might be a sin of infirmity. He was not aware of the effects of wine: he had not till then had experience of it: he was overtaken unawares, and surprised into it. I know not whether the like favourable excuse may not be admitted for others who may once unhappily fall into the like excess unawares. But, generally speaking, as the world now stands, a man can scarce be surprised into such excess, or overtaken without his fault. Many perhaps will say, that they did not, or do not, design to drink so far as to be drunken: that may be true; but still they are wilful sinners and drunkards, for not designing and resolving to be constantly sober, and for not using the proper means to avoid the temptation.
Some have been weak enough to plead human frailty even for crying and scandalous sins ; such as fornication or adultery, or other sinful lusts : but all such pretences are vain. Sins of that kind never are, never can be, committed without great degrees of wilfulness. It is not surprise nor inadvertency which brings a man into the commission of such offences; but they are chosen and premeditated sins, and a man is drawn into them through lust and wantonness, by several steps and degrees, with full consont of a depraved will. Slight offences a man may be drawn into by surprise or incogitancy; but hardly into the great ones. The mind starts, and conscience generally gives the alarm beforehand, that a man must take some pains with himself, generally, before he can reconcile himself to any great and scandalous vices. Such offences, therefore, are not sins of infirmity, but they are deliberate, presumptuous, damning sins. If it be pleaded, that the object is inviting, and the temptation strong, violent, irresistible; that is just such a plea as any common thief or robber might make for invading property or making an assault. No doubt but that such persons are violently tempted to commit such outrages, or they would not do them : the temptation, probably, in that case, is stronger than in the other; for a thief or a robber does it at the utmost peril, and ventures his life in it; whereas it is more than probable, that if fornication or adultery were as severely prohibited, and punishable by the laws of the land, it would be found that the men of pleasure could command themselves, and resist the temptation : but they are encouraged, after they have laid aside the fear of God, by the hopes of impunity from man; and then being got above restraint, they commit all uncleanness with greediness.
There are some other kinds of sins for which human infirmity is sometimes pleaded, and with very littlo reason. Acts of hostility, assaults, beating, striking, wounding, and the like. It is said by way of excuse, that they were procoked to it, and that flesh and blood could not forbear in such cases. But these are pretences only of vain men, who have not yet learned any thing of Christian meekness, but who have hearts too proud and stubborn to submit to the rules of the Gospel. Sins of infirmity, properly so called, are sins of quite another kind than those I have now mentioned. Good men run sometimes into excessive
armth and zeal in the discharge of a duty, or execution of an office : they may be guilty of indiscreet rigours, and push things too far; may be so afraid of not doing enough, that they will even over-do, and be too officious or too severe, exceeding the bounds of Christian prudence, and doing hurt, when they intended good.
These and other the like indiscretions of good men are properly sins of infirmity, owing to inadvertency, or surprise, or to some natural weakness adhering to their particular temper, complexion, and constitution.
From what hath been said, every intelligent hearer may competently judge which are sins of infirmity, and which not: and I thought it of moment, to be as distinct and particular as possible on this head, to prevent mistakes ; by which means this part has been drawn out into a greater length than I at first supposed ; and I have no room left for the two other articles I proposed to treat of. I shall therefore break off for the present, and, with your good leave, defer the remainder to another opportunity.