An interesting aspect of Puritan Preaching is much of it was deeply, if you will, psychological. An earlier post on this can be found here.
It routinely probed the heart of the hearers, picking apart the mechanisms and relationships between affections, behavior and thought in a way that rarely happens afterwards. It works at the human heart more like a novelist (at their best, novelists are far better psychologists than academic psychologist). Anyway here is Manton teasing out the relationships between fear, conscience, the Gospel, sin, et cetera.
Here, Manton tackles two issues: (1) What is the reason that human beings care not for the proclamation of the Gospel, (2) what lies behind fear. Manton relates the two issues in one paragraph:
Whose nature engageth him to hate sin and sinners: Hab. 1:13, ‘He is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.’
I urge this for a double reason: partly because I have observed that all the security of sinners, and their neglect of seeking after pardon by Jesus Christ, it comes from their lessening thoughts of God’s holiness; and if their hearts were sufficiently possessed with an awe of God’s unspotted purity and holiness, they would more look after the terms of grace God hath provided; Ps. 50:21, ‘Thou thoughtest I was altogether such an one as thyself.’ Why do men live securely in their sins, and do not break off their evil course? They think God is not so severe and harsh, and so all their confidence is grounded upon a mistake of God’s nature, and such a dreadful mistake as amounts to a blasphemy: ‘Thou thoughtest I was altogether such an one as thyself.’
Sin has as a primary mechanism, the ability to reject the knowledge of God’s holiness and wrath. In making this point, Manton is echoing Romans 1: First we reject the knowledge of God’s hold wrath against sin; then we fall into every sort of sin.
Well, if rejecting knowledge of God’s holy wrath leads to such ill, why do we do it: because we are afraid to consider the alternative:
The other reason is this, particularly because I observe the bottom reason of all the fear that is in the hearts of men is God’s holiness: 1 Sam. 6:20, ‘Who is able to stand before this holy God?’ and ‘Who would not fear thee? for thou art holy,’ Rev. 15:4. We fear his power; why? because it is set on work by his wrath. We fear his wrath; why? because it is kindled by his justice and righteousness. We fear his righteousness, because it is bottomed and grounded upon his holiness, and upon the purity of his nature.
Manton seems to be making a broader point, however. He speaks of all fear having as its base the fear of God’s holiness. This then creates a prison:
I observe, that the law-covenant is in the scripture compared to a prison, wherein God hath shut up guilty souls, Rom. 11:32, ‘He hath concluded or shut them up, that he may have mercy upon them;’ Gal. 3:21, ‘He hath shut them up under sin.’ The law is God’s prison, and no offenders can get out of it till they have God’s leave; and from him they have none, till they are sensible of the justice and righteousness of that first dispensation, confess their sins with brokennness of heart, and that it may be just with God to condemn them for ever.
This creates an interesting series of conflicting motives and irrationalities within the human heart. On one hand there is the fear of God exposing one’s sin — because such exposure is dreadful: it is the door to all doom and thus creates a constant fear. Yet, to not expose that sin creates a prison in the other direction.
This precarious position is made worse by the “danger” of a tender conscience:
What kind of hearts are those that sin securely, and without remorse, and are never troubled? Go to wounded consciences, and ask of them what sin is: Gen. 4:13, ‘Mine iniquity is greater than I can bear;’ Prov. 18:14, ‘A wounded spirit, who can bear?’ As long as the evil lies without us, it is tolerable, the natural courage of a man may bear up under it; but when the spirit itself is wounded with the sense of sin, who can bear it? If a spark of God’s wrath light upon the conscience, how soon do men become a burden to themselves; and some have chosen strangling rather than life. Ask Cain, ask Judas, what it is to feel the burden of sin. Sinners are ‘all their lifetime subject to this bondage;’ it is not always felt, but soon awakened: it may be done by a pressing exhortation at a sermon; it may be done by some notable misery that befalls us in the world; it may be done by a scandalous sin; it may be done by a grievous sickness, or worldly disappointment. All these things and many more may easily revive it in us. There needs not much ado to put a sinner in the stocks of conscience. Therefore do but consider to be eased of this burden; oh the blessedness of it!
That last bit could lead to a fascinating psychological question: what sort “ado” must be kept in place to protect the conscience from sin?
But there is another problem with sin: not only is it dangerous to be exposed, but it is loathsome. Manton proves this by an interesting point: we despise sin when we see it in another — but we do not want to see it ourselves:
a wicked person is a vile person in the common esteem of the world: horrible profaneness will not easily down. Nay, it is loathsome to other wicked men. I do not know whether I expound that scripture rightly, but it looks somewhat so, ‘Hateful and hating one another.’ We hate sin in another, though we will not take notice of it in ourselves. The sensuality and pride and vanity of one wicked man is hated by another; nay, he is loathsome to himself. Why? because he cannot endure to look into himself. We cannot endure ourselves when we are serious. ‘They will not come to the light, lest their deeds should be reproved.’ And we are shy of God’s presence; we are sensible we have something makes us offensive to him, and we hang off from him when we have sinned against him; as it was David’s experience, Ps. 32:3. That was the cause of his silence: he kept off from God, having sinned against him, and had not a heart to go home and sue out his pardon. Oh, what a mercy is it, then, to have this filth covered, that we may be freed from this bashful inconfidence, and not be ashamed to look God in the face, and may come with a holy boldness into the presence of the blessed God! Oh, the blessedness of the man whose sin is covered!
Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, vol. 2 (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1871), 185. This makes an interesting bit of comparison with Nietzsche’s ressentiment (but that is for another time). There is also an interesting question here about those who are peculiarly offended by another’s pride, or envy, or anger (even when it is not directly directed to them).