In August 1710, Thomas Boston preached a sermon entitled, “The Instability of Human Goodness” based upon the text of Hosea 6:4, “For your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away.” The text itself concerned the instability of the Israelites faced by the prophet Hosea. Boston takes the text, which first applied particularly to the Israelites as a common attribute of us humans. The fault of the Israelites was not unique to them:
Such is the instability of many in the good way of the Lord, that the goodness at which they sometimes arrive, passeth away as a morning cloud, and as the early dew.
He then begins to make observations on the good state of human beings. First, he notes that he often fails quickly after some good thing has come to them. The Israelites turned to the Golden Calf just after Mount Sinai. How quickly the disciples deserted Christ after the Last Supper. How quickly the disciples feared after the miracle of the loaves and fish.
Second, goodness often fails slowly,
The devil does not always act the part of a roaring lion when he intends to strip people of their attained goodness, but in this work advances with a soft pace. We may observe that men’s goodness ordinarily goes away by degrees, almost imperceptibly.
He goes on to note:
It is a piece of Satan’s policy to attack people with slender temptations at first, when he designs to rob them; for then they think they are strong enough for them, therefore they grapple with them on their own strength and are foiled. A small temptation will take off the chariot wheels of the soul. An unseasonable thought has sometimes proved a wide door, by which a good frame has escaped.
Third, goodness will fail when it is most needed:
As the heat of summer produces many insects which are not to be seen in the frost of winter; so the time of peace in the church produces many false friends who will never stand the shock of trouble for the gospel.
Why then does goodness fail? The primary reason he gives is that the one who fails truly does not know the Lord. He notes this in three ways: The Spirit does not dwell in them. They are not united to Christ. They may be frequent in a church, but that is not their real element.
He then addresses those who know the Lord, do show a loss of their goodness. And for this he gives four types.
First, they become discouraged; they will not seize heaven by force. They face a difficulty, a delay and they quit:
They cannot wait on at Christ’s gate. They know not what it is to have their appetite sharpened with disappointments; but as soon as they feel not that sweetness in religion which they imagined, they go directly to their old lusts; and find in them what they could not find in religion.
Second, they will not mortify their sin, but let it linger until it turns on them in force:
Another reason is, the entertaining of unmortified lusts, which are like the suckers that draw the sap from the tree and make it barren. It is hard to get wet wood to take fire, but harder to get it to keep in the fire, but hardest of all, to get a heart polluted with, and enslaved to vile affections, to retain any attained goodness. They that have many friends in the enemy’s camp will find their hands sore bound up in the day of battle. …That heart will not abide with God that has secret filthy lusts to nourish.
He then considers these two matters from a different angle; rather than consider them subjectively, he states them objectively: :The profits and pleasures of the world soon charm away men’s goodness.” He gives these in rather strking terms:
They are tenter hooks of the soul, the black devils that draw men from God, and from that sweetness that is in the enjoyment of him, and drive them like the demoniac among the tombs in the region of the dead. They are the wasps and flies that buzz about and sting the soul when it should rest in the bosom of God. And for the pleasures of the world, when they once get a hold of the heart, they quickly run away with it.
He gives a final statement which helps explain the whole, “Unwatchfulness over the heart and life. Our goodness is a tender bud that will easily be blasted if we do not take all possible care of it.” He turns this into a remarkable picture:
What wonder then, if in such a case our goodness goes away, when there is no watching; for such a soul is like a great fair, where some are going out, some entering, and those within are all in confusion.
He ends with an admonition to jealously protect what goodness we have. To this he provides practical direction:
Advices 1. Do not sit down contented with any measure that you have attained. Alas! little satisfies people in religion. He that does not exert himself to grow, will assuredly decay. “Do not think that you have already attained, or are already perfect; but follow after, if that you may apprehend that for which also you are apprehended of Christ Jesus.” Labour to make two talents of your one by industry. The fire will be extinguished by withholding fuel, as well as by throwing water upon it.
- Keep up a holy jealousy over your own hearts. You hear that the goodness of some is as the early cloud, and the morning dew, it passeth away. This should make us say, each for himself, Lord is it I? “He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool.” If you be saying with Hazael, “Am I a dog, that I should do this?” Look that you be not the dog, that will be among the first to do it.
- Put what you have in the Lord’s hand. Depend upon him and wait about his hand for more influences. For this purpose be much in prayer. You may come to get that in secret, which you have not got at the table.
Lastly, And what I say to one I say to all, watch. The time is short. Watch, and ere long you shall be in that place, where the gates are not shut by day, and there is no night there. But if any man draw back, the Lord’s Spirit will have no pleasure in him. Amen.