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From William Spurstowe’s The Spirit Chymist, 1666

Upon a Chancery Bill

[Note: A chancery bill would be a pleading in a court; a request for some redress from the court. The plaintiff begins the lawsuit by filing a bill which accuses the defendant of many wrongs. It is common for plaintiffs to accuse the defendant of many things which the plaintiff does not reasonably believe the defendant to have done. The plaintiff does this so that the plaintiff can conduct discovery [seek evidence] on the matters accused in the bill. A chancery court also permits the judge to act with “equity”; the judge can do things which are not precisely specified in the law. Here, Spurstowe uses that power to show that God may show mercy.]

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One cause and original can have but one orderly and genuine birth, for else what means our Savior’s question, Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

Or that of St. James, Does a fountain at the same time send forth water sweet and bitter?

May it not then justly be the opinion and mind of many, that the least fruit of any holy meditation can never grow from such a bramble of contention is a Chancery bill? And that from such a spring of march [Exodus 15:23; marah means “bitter”], a sweet and delightful stream can never issue?

Yea, who will not be ready to take up Nathanael’s question, Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? And then, what better answer can I return to such then Phillip’s, Come and see? [John 1:46]

And now let me say what I have often thought, that between such a bill and most men’s confession of sin in prayer, in which they implead [a legal term, state the charges, thus here, confess/accuse] themselves to God, there is too great a likeness in this respect, that the complaints in both have more of course and form than truth and reality.

In the one it is the usage in custom of the court for the plaintiff to pretend fraud, rate, combinations [conspiracy], concealments done and made to the prejudice of his right, which yet he never intends to prove against the defendant, but only to make use of it as a ground of discovery.

And is it not thus also in the other? Are there not in prayer large catalogues and enumerations of sin which many charge themselves with before God in their self condemnation? Pride, wantonness, hypocrisy, contumacy, are the black, shall I say, or scarlet sins that are among others instanced in [set forth in the prayer]?

And yet what other thing is intended by them than to make up the outside of their prayer? The sins are only placed in it, as dark shadows in a picture to set it off with more advantage, and to commend it rather to mend them to God.

In the doing of the duty they think not in the least the worst of themselves or what they say against themselves, nor would have others so say to do, else how comes it to pass that in charging themselves so deeply at God’s Tribunal, there is as little appearance of shame or sorrow in their face as there was of a cloud in the heavens
when Elijah servant returned his answer, there was nothing? [1 Kings 18:23]

Now that would be no part either of my work or purpose to justify or condemn the practices of humane judiciaries, which admit new suggestions [I am not talking about how courts conduct themselves], which admit loose suggestions, that are ours arrow shot at random, because that now and then they may serve there discovery.

Yet I cannot but condemn and abhor that the confession of sin in prayer should be as slight and overly as the complaints of a chancery bill, and that particular sins specified in it, and aggravated and heinous circumstances, should be no other than things of course, done rather to length out the duty than affect the heart? To discover quickness of parts rather than truth of grace.

What is this but to make prayer in itself, which should be as sweet as incense burning up on the golden altar, to be as an offering of sulfur? What is this but to mock God, the great searcher of the heart, with vain words, and to publish to the world how little they fear his anger or value is pardon?

For if the confession of sin be formal, how can the seeking of forgiveness be real?

O Holy lord preserve me from such hypocrisy,
and remember not what in this kind I have been guilty of
my desire is to judge myself,
not in word,
but in truth,
and unfeigningly to beg,
That I, who am in the court of thy justice wholly inexcusable,
may in the Chancery of a mercy become altogether inaccusable.