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The Nature and Danger of presumptuous Sins.
Psalm xix. 13.
Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins ; let them not
have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be
innocent from the great transgression. THES "HESE are the words of pious David, the undoubted author
of this religious song or psalm. In the verse going before, he had put up his petition for pardon of all the failures and errors of his life past, even of such as had escaped his notice, or had slipped out of his memory: “Who can understand his “ errors ? cleanse thou me from secret faults.” But besides those slighter offences, he was aware also of the offences of a more heinous kind; and therefore immediately subjoins a prayer against them likewise : “ Keep back thy servant also from pre
sumptuous sins ; let them not have dominion over me: then “ shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great “ transgression."
The words, as they run in our new translation, are not difficult to understand, and so will need the less opening. Indeed the words of the original have been thought capable of a very different version, and consequently of as different a sense : but I shall not take notice of niceties of that kind, which would be both dry and useless. The sense which they bear in our translation is a very good one, and is judiciously preferred before any other. I proceed therefore to consider the matter contained in it. In discoursing hereupon I shall take this method.
I. To treat of sins in general, their nature, kinds, and
II. To treat of presumptuous sins in particular, with the ma
lignancy and danger of them, and the concern we ought to
have to stand clear of them. III. To close all with proper advice and directions how to avoid them.
I. I propose to treat of sins in general, their nature, kinds, and
Sin is rightly defined, a transgression of God's law; and is either the doing of something which God has forbidden, or the leaving undone what God has commanded. The doing what we ought not to do is called a sin of commission ; and the not doing what we ought is styled a sin of omission. In the one, we commit a trespass; in the other, we neglect a duty; and either way we sin. Sins of either kind may differ in their degrees of greater and less, according to their different matter, circumstances, and aggravations.
The Stoic philosophers, and some few of the less considerate Christians, have pretended, that all sins are equal. Their reasons for it are not worth the mentioning; for the conceit is so groundless, and so repugnant to the common sense of mankind, that barely to speak of it is to expose it, and it carries its own confutation with it. For a man must be very weak to imagine that theft, suppose, is as great a sin as murder ; or fornication as high a crime as adultery; or telling a lie as wicked a thing as robbing a house, or plundering a church, or firing a town. Every body is sensible of a difference between high crimes and trivial trespasses; between sins of the first magnitude and slight offences : our Lord therefore compares some to gnats, while he compares others to camels; some to motes in the eye, others to beams.
Seeing therefore that sins are not equal, but differing in degree, as the text also intimates; the next inquiry is, what makes the difference, or by what rules or measures we may judge of it.
There are two considerations to be taken in, which seem to be the principal in determining of the greatness of any sin. One is, the matter of the sin itself, or the mischievous tendency of it: the other is, the degree of malice or wilfulness in the person committing it.
Moral evil, the same with sin, is the choosing something which is naturally evil, or is of mischievous tendency. The case is plain in all instances prohibited by the law of nature : and as to cases prohibited by the positive law of God, the prohibition brings them under the same rule: for then a man cannot break through the prohibition, without affronting, contemning, disobeying Almighty God; and that is naturally evil, and of evil tendency; it is rebellion against the Creator, which is of pernicious example, and carries many mischievous consequences in it, with respect both to man's temporal and eternal welfare. I say then, first judge we of the heinousness of a sin by the mischievous tendency of it. Thus, to instance in matters of a moral nature, stealing is not so hurtful as maiming ; nor is maiming so mischievous as murder; nor is murder of an equal so mischievous as the murder of a superior, a magistrate, a father, or the prince we are subject to.
In matters of a positive nature, neglecting to defend or to maintain the Gospel, when commanded, is a grievous sin; because the salvation of thousands may be concerned in it: but the opposing the Gospel is much worse, and is of yet greater malignity. Neglecting the Sacraments, or other solemn ordi. nances of God, is a great sin, as it is slighting God's goodness, affronting his authority, and setting a very ill example: but rejecting them utterly, or contemning them, is high profaneness, and of most pernicious tendency, as it is striking at all instituted religion directly, and at morality in consequence; and so, in the last result, at the general happiness of mankind, here and hereafter. This may serve to explain what I mean by the evil tendency of any sin.
The other consideration is, the degree of wilfulness in the person committing it. Whatever mischief a man may do, he is no further chargeable with it than as he made it his choice ; no further than he knew what he was doing, and wilfully chose it. A madman may do a great deal of mischief, but in him it is no sin : the like may be said of a natural fool, or idiot. Where there is no reason nor choice, there can be no sin.
And suppos ing a man, under the use of reason, to do mischief, either being compelled to it, or not knowing that it is mischief, or not considering it, or not designing it ; these will be all so many arti
cles in his favour, either to acquit him entirely of blame, or to excuse and extenuate, in proportion to the degree of the necessity he was under. Hence it is that Divines have distinguished sins into three kinds ; called sins of ignorance, sins of infirmity, and sins of presumption. The will is supposed to concur more or less in all, otherwise they could not be sins; but they have their names from what is most prevailing and predominant in each. If there be more of ignorance than wilfulness in it, it is a sin of ignorance ; if there be more of infirmity than wilfulness in it, it is a sin of infirmity: but if there be more of wilfulness than of either or both the former, it is then a wilful sin ; and that is what my text calls presumptuous sin. To say something more particular of each :
1. Of the sin of ignorance : such was the sin of Abimelech, when he took unto him Abraham's wife, not knowing her to be his wife, but supposing her to be his sister only. What he did was with an upright heart, so far; ignorantly consenting to adultery: but yet, because he might have made further inquiry, and might have informed himself better, if he had had patience, and had not been too precipitate; he was therefore not wholly innocent: a sin he was guilty of, but a sin of ignorance ; and therefore he found mercy at the hands of God.
A second example, but more approaching to a sin of presumption, was St. Paul's “ persecuting the Church of Christ.” He did it ignorantly, and in unbelief, out of an honest and well-meant zeal : but he sinned in so doing, and grievously too; because he had had several opportunities of knowing better; and he had seen enough of the miraculous powers of the Church, to convince a man of his education and abilities, if he had duly attended to them. However, because his ignorance in that case was not entirely affected, nor owing to envy, malice, or other corrupt principle; his sin, in that instance, may pass among the sins of ignorance, rather than among the sins of presumption : it was blameable, but pitiable at the same time; for ignorance lessens and extenuates a fault, more or less, according as the ignorance was more or less wilful. If the ignorance had been perfectly involuntary and unavoidable, it would have entirely acquitted him of all blame : “ If you were blind,” says our Lord to the Pharisees, " you should have no sina." But when the ignorance is
a John ix. 41.
in some measure voluntary, and in some measure involuntary, there it does not take off the guilt entirely, but lessens and extenuates it in proportion : “He that knew not his lord's will, “ and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten “ with few stripes b.” Such is the nature and description of a sin of ignorance.
2. Next to which is the sin of infirmity, owing to the frailty of the flesh, or impetuosity of the affections, as the former is to the blindness of the understanding. Our blessed Lord well describes the nature of it, where he says; “ The spirit truly is willing, " but the flesh is weak." Sins of infirmity are mostly seen in sins of omission; in our neglect of duties or our defects in performing them ; owing to forgetfulness, inadvertency, heaviness, listlessness, and the like. But there are other cases where sins of infirmity steal in, by surprise, by sudden passion, by the vehemence of a temptation, which overpowers the mind before the person has time to consider or recollect. I suppose, Peter's denial of his Lord may be an instance of such a sin. His heart was very sincere and honest; he was suddenly set upon by an unlooked for temptation; he fell unexpectedly, and that but once, against his usual courage and his repeated resolutions ; and he no sooner recollected himself, but he repented in a flood of tears. All these circumstances shew, that there was a great deal more of infirmity than of wilfulness in it; and we may add, that there seems to have been a more than ordinary desertion brought upon him, in that instance, to check the over great confidence he had reposed in himself, and to teach him humility and caution for the future.
Much might be usefully said about sins of infirmity, to distinguish them from sins of presumption, and to prevent people's deceiving themselves with the plea of infirmity, where they have really no right or title to it. But the subject is copious, and would lead me too far. It may be sufficient just to have hinted what the name imports; and I pass on to the third kind of sins, sins of a scarlet dye,
3. Sins of presumption; such as have more of wilfulness and malice prepense, than of ignorance or infirmity in them; when a man sing with a high hand, against the dictates of reason, and the checks of conscience; not merely through ignorance or
b Luke xii. 48.