An educational look at how Christians used to think about natural disasters and judgments from God. Here is Thomas Brooks writing about the Great Fire of London, September 2–5, 1666:
By Thomas Brooks, 1670
A serious discourse concerning “The Great Fire”
which recently turned our once renowned City
into a ruinous heap. Also the several lessons
that are incumbent upon those whose houses
have escaped the consuming flames.
Question. But please, sir, what are those high and holy ends, in respect of the GODLY—which God aims at by his inflicting of great and severe judgments upon people, cities, and countries? I suppose they are such as follow:
Answer. (1.) First, To bring about those special favors and mercies, which God intends them. By the dreadful judgments that God inflicted upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians, God brought about the freedom and liberty of his people to worship him according to his own prescriptions. The great difference and contest between God and Pharaoh was, who should have their wills. God would have his people to worship him according to his own mind; but Pharaoh was resolved to venture his all before they should have their freedom and liberty to serve their God. Upon this, God follows him with plague upon plague, and never leaves spending of his plagues upon him until he had overthrown him, and through his ruin, brought about the freedom and liberty of his poor people. [Exod. 5:1-2, 7:16, 8:8, 20, 25, 27, 29, 9:1, 13, 10:3, 7-8, 11, 24, 12:31.]
The Babylonians were cruel enemies to God’s poor Israel, and kept them in bondage, yes, in a fiery furnace, seventy years. At last God stirs up the spirit of Cyrus of Persia, for his church’s sake, and he, by fire and sword, lays Babylon waste, and takes them captive, who had held his people in a long captivity, Jer. 11:4, and Dan. 9:12. Now he, by breaking the Babylonians in pieces like a potter’s vessel, brought about, as an instrument in the hand of God, the freedom and liberty of God’s poor people.
God stirs up the spirit of Cyrus to put forth a proclamation for liberty for the Jews to go to their own land, and to build the house of the Lord God of Israel; and then he graciously stirs up the spirits of the people wisely and soberly to improve the liberty he had proclaimed. [Turn to Obadiah, and read from verse 11 to the end of the chapter.]
Jer. 49:1, “Concerning the Ammonites: This is what the Lord says: “Has Israel no sons? Has she no heirs? Why then has Molech taken possession of Gad? Why do his people live in its towns?” When the ten tribes were carried away captive, the Ammonites who dwelt near the tribe of Gad intruded into it and the cities of it; but mark what God says in verse 2, “But the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will sound the battle cry against Rabbah of the Ammonites [that was their chief city]; it will become a mound of ruins, and its surrounding villages will be set on fire. Then Israel will drive out those who drove her out,” says the Lord.” [The Ammonites. who invaded the inheritance of others had their own invaded by them.] God, by fire and sword, would lay desolate the chief city of the Ammonites, and her towns and villages that did belong to her: and by these dreadful dispensations he would make way for his people, not only to possess their own land—but the Ammonites’ land also; and I will leave the prudent reader to make the application.
We have been under greater and more dreadful judgments than ever this poor nation has groaned under in former times; and who can tell but that the Lord by these amazing judgments may bring about greater and better mercies and blessings than any yet we do enjoy? The Rabbis say of civil liberty, that if the heavens were parchment, the sea ink, and every blade of grass a pen, the praises of it could not be comprised nor expressed. May we not say more of a holy liberty? Liberty to serve and worship the Lord according to his own prescriptions and directions laid down in his blessed word, by which all worship and worshipers must be tried at last, is a pearl of great price which none can sufficiently value. The emperor Justinus’ motto was, “Liberty is invaluable.” The Lord give his people holy, wise, prudent, sober, humble, and understanding hearts—that they may know both how to prize and how to improve those liberties and mercies that he has handed to them through dreadful dispensations! But,
(2.) Secondly, God inflicts great trials and severe judgments upon people and places—that he may awaken his own people out of that deep security which oftentimes seizes upon them. Psalm 30:5-9; Mat. 25:5; 2 Sam. 2:7, 15, and 24:15-17; 2 Kings 14:25; Mat. 12:40; Jonah 1:1-3. What deep security had seized upon David—God made use of the bloody sword and of the sweeping pestilence to awaken him!
Jonah was a prophet, he was a servant of the Lord, he was a type of Christ, he was a godly man. His name “Jonah signifies a dove, though he had but little of the dove in him, being as passionate a man as you have likely heard of,” says Luther. Now Jonah having contracted guilt upon his conscience by acting quite contrary to God’s royal call, what a desperate, senseless stupidity and security had seized upon him! what a spiritual lethargy was poor Jonah in! not much unlike that of the smith’s dog, whom neither the hammers above him, nor the sparks of fire falling round about him, can awake. Jonah was not in a mere slumber—but in a sound, heavy, deep, and dead sleep; and what a wonder, what a wonder was here, that in all this stir and tumult and danger, the winds whistling and roaring, the sea working, raging, swelling, frothing, foaming, and boiling like a pot, the waves mounting up to heaven and sinking down again to hell, as the psalmist speaks, the ship tumbling and tossing like a tennis-ball, the mariners, as stout fellows as they were, surprised with fear, and running up and down like men at their wits’ end, like men who could not look pale death in the face; that yet Jonah should sleep, and be as secure in that dreadful danger as if he had been in his own house sleeping on a bed of down! Oh the desperate security that may seize upon the best of saints! But this security God will cure in his Jonahs by some sharp trial, or by some heavy judgment or other. The lethargy is best cured by a burning judgment.
Absalom sends once or twice to Joab to come and speak with him; but when he saw that Joab would not come, he commands his cornfields to be set on fire, and this awakens him, and fetches him with a witness, 2 Sam. 14:30. Just so, God, by fiery afflictions, and by burning up our comforts round about us, awakens us, and brings us to himself with a witness. When iron grows rusty, we put it into the fire to purify it; and so when the people of God grow rusty and secure, then the Lord brings them under fiery trials to awaken them, and to purify them. If Nero was so angry with Vespasian because he slept at his music, how much more may the Lord be angry with all such as sleep and are secure under the most amazing and awakening judgments? But my hope and prayer is, that the Lord has, and will more and more graciously and effectually awaken all the wise slumbering virgins upon whom this fiery dispensation has passed. And therefore,
(3.) Thirdly, In respect of his people’s SINS, God has several special ends that he aims at by all the fiery trials and sharp providences that he exercises them with. As,
[1.] First, God by these sharp trials, designs a further and a fuller DISCOVERY of their sins. In standing waters you cannot see the mud which lies at the bottom of the pool or pond; but when once the water is drawn away, then it appears, Deut. 8:2. In times of prosperity there is a great deal of mud—a great deal of atheism, unbelief, discontent, murmuring, impatience, passion, pride, etc.—which lies at the bottom of men’s hearts undiscovered. Oh, but when God shall once empty them of their estates, and burn up all their outward comforts, and set them with Job upon the ash-heap, then the mud appears, then a whole army of lusts discover themselves, as we see in many this day. You shall rarely find one without tears in their eyes, sighs in their hearts, and complaints in their mouths. Severe providences are pills made purposely to clear the eyesight: 1 Kings 17:18, “And she said unto Elijah, What have I to do with you, O you man of God? are you come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?” If God had not taken away her son, her sin had not been brought to remembrance.
O sirs! if God by this recent dreadful fire had not taken away your houses, your goods, your estates, your trades—many of your sins had not been brought to your remembrance, though now you have lost most or all. You may say with the psalmist, “My sins are ever before me,” Psalm 51:3. My pride is ever before me, my unbelief is ever before me, my frowardness is ever before me, my murmuring is ever before me, my discontent is ever before me, and my impatience is ever before me, etc. [Turn to the scriptures, Gen. 42:21; Jonah 4:8-9; Jer. 9:7, seq.] Godly men never come to know how bad they are, until they come to be exercised with severe providences and sharp trials. It was the speech of a holy man in a great sickness, “In this disease I have learned how great God is, and what the evil of sin is; I never effectually knew what God was before, nor what sin was before.” Afflictions are a Christian’s mirror, in which they may run and read the greatness of God, and the vileness of sin. But,
[2.] Secondly, By severe providences and fiery trials, God designs the PREVENTING of sin. Paul was one of the holiest men on earth, called by some an earthly angel, and yet he needed a thorn in the flesh to prevent pride: 2 Cor. 12:7, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.” Paul was in very great danger of being exalted above measure. Witness the doubling of those words in one verse, “Lest I should be exalted, lest I should be exalted.” Prudent physicians sometimes give harsh medicines to prevent diseases; and so does the Physician of souls, as you may see by comparing these scriptures together. [Job 33:19, 17, 34:31-32, and 40:4-5; Hosea 2:6-7.] The burnt child dreads the fire. Sin is but a bitter sweet, it is an evil worse than hell itself. Salt brine preserves from putrefaction; and so sharp trials, severe providences preserve the saints from spiritual putrefying, and from spiritual rotting.
The Rabbis, to keep their scholars from sin, were accustomed to tell them that sin made God’s head ache; and saints under fiery trials do find by experience that sin makes not only their heads—but also their hearts ache; and by this means God preserves his people from many sins which otherwise they would certainly fall into. Beloved, God by his fiery dispensations has destroyed many or most of your outward comforts; but little do you know the horrible sins that by this means the Lord has preserved you from. A full estate lays men most open to the greatest sins, the worst of snares, and the deadliest temptations. The best of men have fallen foulest under their highest worldly enjoyments. Witness David, Solomon, Hezekiah, etc. Under your outward fullness, how low was your communion with God! how languishing were your graces! how lean were your souls! and how was your spring of inward comforts dried up! How little had God of your thoughts, your hearts, your time, your strength! O sirs! how bad would you have been by this time, if God had not removed those things, which were but fuel to your lusts, and quenchers of your grace! Well, often think of this: it is a greater mercy to be preserved from sin, yes, from the least sin—than it is to enjoy the whole world! But,
[3.] Thirdly, By severe providences and by fiery trials, God designs the EMBITTERING of sin to his people. When God shall come and burn up men’s comforts round about them, then they will cry out, “Ah! what a bitter thing is sin!” Sin puts God upon burning work! Then they will speak that language to their own souls that the prophet once spoke to the Jews: Jer. 15, “They made his land waste: his cities are burnt with fire.” Verse 17, “Have you not procured these things to yourself?” Verse 19, “Your own wickedness shall correct you, and your backslidings shall reprove you: know therefore and see, that it is an evil thing and bitter, that you have forsaken the Lord your God, and that my fear is not in you, says the Lord God Almighty.” So chapter 4:18, “Your way and your doings have procured these things unto you: this is your wickedness, because it is bitter, because it reaches unto your heart.”
Hosea 12:14, “Ephraim provoked him to anger most bitterly,” or “with bitternesses,” as the Hebrew has it. Relations and friends may tell us that sin is a bitter thing, and conscience may tell us that sin is a bitter thing, and good books may tell us that sin is a bitter thing, and men under terrors and horrors of spirit may tell us that sin is a bitter thing, and the severe and heavy judgments of God upon others may tell us that sin is a bitter thing, and the Spirit by his secret whispers may tell us that sin is a bitter thing, and ministers may tell us that sin is a bitter thing. They may tell you that it is bitter to God, it being the only thing in all the world that he has revealed his wrath against; and that sin is contrary to the nature of God, the law of God, the being of God, the glory of God, and the grand designs of God. They may tell you that it is bitter to Christ. Witness his crying out in the bitterness of his soul, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and witness the sorrows and heaviness of his soul, and his sweating clots of blood. When he hung upon the cross they gave him gall and vinegar to drink; but no gall was so bitter to him as your sins. They may tell you that sin is bitter to the Spirit of God; for nothing grieves him and provokes him and vexes him but sin, Gen. 6:3, and Eph. 4:29. They may tell you that sin is bitter to the holy angels. Every sin that you commit is as a dagger at their hearts: there is nothing in all the world so bitter to them as to see their Lord and Master daily, yes, hourly, crucified by sinners’ sins. They may tell you that sin is bitter to the evil angels, it being the only thing for which they were banished the court of heaven, and thrown down to the lowest hell, where they are kept in chains of darkness to the judgment of the great day, Jude 6. They may tell you that sin is bitter to the worst of men; witness Adam’s hiding of himself, and Judas his hanging of himself, and Cain’s crying out, “My burden is greater than I am able to bear,” Gen. 3:10; Mat. 27; Gen. 4:13. They may tell you that it is bitter to the creatures who “groan under their burdens, and who long to be delivered from that bondage which the sin of man has subjected them to,” Romans 8:20-22. And yet for all this we will not feelingly, affectionately, experimentally say that sin is bitter—until God comes and burns us up! Lam. 4:11, “And gives us gall and wormwood to drink.” Chapter 3:19-20, “Remembering my affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall. My soul has them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me.”
O sirs, how bitter should sin be to you—who have seen London all in flames! Certainly God, by burning up your sweet, pleasant, and delightful things, would teach you to taste a greater bitterness in sin than ever. O happy fire—which shall render God and Christ, and heaven, and promises, and ordinances more sweet; and sin more bitter to poor sinners’ souls!
Doubtless, one of God’s great designs by this recent judgment of fire is to embitter sin to all sorts of men. When judgments embitter our sins to us, then they work kindly, powerfully, effectually, and then we may conclude that there was a hand of divine love in those judgments, and then we shall justify the Lord, and say with the church, Lam. 1:18, “The Lord is righteous; for I have rebelled against him,” or as the Hebrew runs, because I have embittered him, he is righteous in all the severe judgments that he has inflicted upon me; for I have embittered him against me by my most bitter sins. But,
[4.] Fourthly, By severe providences and fiery trials, God designs the MORTIFYING and PURGING away of his people’s sins. Isaiah 1:25, “And I will turn my hand upon you,” [to correct or chastise you,] “and purely purge away your dross,” [or drosses,] “and take away all your tin,” or tins in the plural number. Some by dross understand gross iniquity; and by tin, glittering hypocrisy. For as tin is very like unto silver, so is hypocrisy very like unto piety. Others by dross understand people who are openly profane; and by tin, such as are inwardly unsound. The words are a metaphor taken from those who purify metals in the fire, purging from precious silver all dross and tin, Isaiah 31:9. [Dan. 11:35; Mal. 3:1-3. God’s fire is in Zion, and his furnace in Jerusalem.] The Jews, who were once silver, were now turned into dross and tin; but God by fiery trials would burn up their dross and tin, their enormities and wickednesses, and make them as shining Christians in grace and holiness as ever they were.
Just so, Isaiah 27:9, “By this therefore shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged; and this is all the fruit, to take away his sin.” God by the Babylonian captivity would as by fire purge away the iniquity of Jacob. And to show the certainty of it, he instances in their darling sin—namely, idolatry. Idolatry was the great sin for which God sent them into captivity. And how they were purged from this sin of idoolatry after their return out of captivity, appears by their history.
Take one instance for all: Pilate being appointed by Tiberius to be governor over the Jews, caused in the night-time the statue of Caesar to be brought into Jerusalem covered, which thing within three days after caused a great tumult among the Jews; for they who beheld it were astonished and moved as though now the law of their country were profaned, for they hold it not lawful for any picture or image to be brought into the city. At their lamentation who were in the city, there was gathered together a great multitude out of the fields adjoining, and they went presently to Pilate, then at Caesarea, beseeching him earnestly that the image might be taken away out of Jerusalem, and that the laws of their country might remain inviolated. [The Jews hated and feared idolatry as much as the burnt child dreads the fire!] When Pilate denied their suit, they prostrated themselves before his house, and there remained lying upon their faces for five days and nights, never moving. Afterwards Pilate, sitting in his tribunal-seat, was very careful to call all the Jews together before him, as though there he would have given them an answer, when suddenly a company of armed soldiers, compassed the Jews about with a triple rank. Then Pilate told them, that except they would receive the image of Caesar, he would kill them all, and to that end made a sign to the soldiers to draw their swords. The Jews, as though they had agreed thereto, fell all down at once, and offered their necks to the stroke of the sword, crying out that they would rather lose their lives than suffer their religion to be profaned. Then Pilate, admiring the constancy of the people in their religion, presently commanded the statue to be taken out of the city of Jerusalem.
All the hurt the fire did the three Hebrew children, or rather champions, was to burn off their cords, Dan. 3:23-24. Our lusts are cords of vanity—but by fiery trials God will burn them up. Zech. 13:9, “This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.” The best of men are but men at the best; they have much corruption and dross in them, and they need refining; and therefore God by fiery trials will refine them—but not as dross or chaff which are burnt up in the fire—but as silver and gold which are purified in the fire. He will so refine them as that they shall leave their dregs and dross behind them. Look! what the fire is to the gold, the file to the iron, the fan to the wheat, the soap to the clothes, the salt to the meat—that shall fiery trials be to the saints.
But what shall be the fruit of their refining? Answer: “They shall call on my name, and I will hear them. I will say, It is my people, and they shall say, The Lord is my God.” By fiery trials God will purge out our dross and make virtue shine. All the fiery trials which befall the saints, shall be as a medicinal potion to purge away our soul diseases, and as cold frosts to destroy the vermin, and as a tempestuous sea to purge the wine from its lees, and as the north wind that dries up the pestilential vapors, that purges the blood, and that quickens the spirits, and as a sharp corrosive to eat out the dead flesh. The great thing that should be most in every burnt citizen’s eye and heart and prayers and desires is—that the fire of London may be so sanctified as to issue in the burning up of their lusts, and in the purging away of the filth of the daughter of Zion, Isaiah 4:4. “Therefore this is what the Lord Almighty says—See, I will refine and test them, for what else can I do because of the sin of my people?” Jeremiah 9:7. “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.” Malachi 3:3.
Jerome reports of Plato, how he left that famous city of Athens, and chose to live in a little ancient village almost overturned with tempests and earthquakes, that, being often minded therein of his approaching dissolution, he might get more power over his strong lusts, and learn to live a more virtuous life than ever he had lived before. O sirs! if God by this fiery dispensation shall make you more victorious over your strong lusts, and help you to live more virtuous lives—you will have cause to bless him all your days, though he has turned you out of house and home, and burnt up all your comforts round about you! But,
(4.) Fourthly, By severe providences and fiery trials, God designs these four things, in respect of his children’s GRACES:
[1.] First, He designs the REVIVING, quickening, and recovering of their decayed graces. By fiery trials he will inflame that love which was ice-cold, and raise that faith which was fallen asleep, and quicken up those hopes which were languishing, and put life and spirit into those spiritual joys and comforts which were withering and dying, Rev. 2:4; James 1:2-12; 2 Cor. 12:10. God, under fiery trials, lets his poor children see how that by their spiritual decays—he has been dishonored, his Spirit grieved, religion shamed, the mouths of the wicked opened, weak saints staggered, strong saints troubled, conscience wounded, and their souls and graces impaired. And by these discoveries, he engages them to the use of all those holy and heavenly helps, whereby their decayed graces may be revived and recovered. Many creatures that have been frozen, and even dead with cold, have been revived and recovered by being brought to the fire. God by fiery trials, will unfreeze the frozen graces of his people, and put new life and spirit into them. As the air is sometimes clear, and sometimes cloudy; and as the sea is sometimes ebbing, and sometimes flowing; and as the trees of the field are sometimes flowering, green, and growing, and sometimes barren, withered, and as it were even dead: so it is sometimes with the graces of the saints. But the Lord by one fiery trial or another will revive, and recover, and raise their graces again.
Epiphanius makes mention of those who travel by the deserts of Syria, where are nothing but miserable marshes and sands, destitute of all commodities, nothing good to be had for love or money. Now if it so happens that their fire goes out by the way, then they light it again at the heat of the sun, by the means of a burning-glass. Just so, if the fire of zeal, if the sparks of divine grace, by the prevalency of some strong corruption, or by the violence of some dreadful temptation, should be put out, or dies as to its lively operations, by a burning-glass, or by one fiery dispensation or another, God will inflame the zeal, and enliven the dying graces of his poor people.
I know the saving graces of the Spirit—namely, such as faith, love, hope, etc.—cannot be finally and totally extinguished in the souls, when they are once wrought there by the Spirit; yet their luster, their radiancy, their activity, their shine and flame may be clouded and covered, while the season of temptation lasts; as living coals may be so covered with ashes, that neither light, nor smoke, nor heat may appear, and yet when the embers, the ashes, are stirred to the bottom, then live coals appear, and by a little blowing a flame breaks forth. [1 John 3:9, 11; Heb. 8; 1 Pet. 1:5; John 10:28-31.]
There are several cases wherein grace in a Christian’s heart may seem to be hidden, cold, dead, and covered over; as sap in the winter is hidden in the roots of trees; or as flowers and fruits are hidden in the seeds, or roots in the earth; or as sparks of fire are hidden in the ashes; or as bits of gold are hidden in a dust heap, or as pearls may be hidden in the mire. Yes, but God by one severe providence or another, by one fiery trial or another, will blow that heavenly grace, that divine fire, into a perfect flame: he will cause their hidden graces to revive as the grain, and grow as the vine, and blossom as the lily, and smell as the wine of Lebanon, Hosea 14:5-7.
O sirs! how many Christians were there among us, who were much decayed and withered in their graces, in their duties, in their converses, in their comforts, in their spiritual enjoyments, in their communions with God, and with one another; and yet they were not sensible of their decays, nor humbled under their decays, nor industrious to recover themselves out of their withering and dying condition! and therefore no wonder if the Lord, to recover them and raise them, has brought fiery trials upon them. [As a man may take infection, or get some inward bruise, or leak in a blood vessel, and yet not know of it.] But,
[2.] Secondly, God, by severe providences and by fiery trials, designs a further exercise of his children’s graces. Sleepy graces bring God no glory—nor do us any good. All the honor he has, and all the advantage we have in this world, is from the activity of our graces. Consult these scriptures. [Job 15:3; 2 Chron. 20:12-13; James 1:4, and 5:11; Hab. 2:3-4; Micah 7:7-9; Rev. 13:10 compared with chapter 14:12.] There is little difference—as to the comfort and sweet of grace—between sleepy graces, and no grace at all. A man who has millions—but does not use what he has—how is he any better, as to the comfort and sweetness of his life, than a man who has but a few pennies in the world? Eccles. 6:1-4. “How is it that you have no faith?” says Christ to his disciples, when they were in a dreadful storm, and in danger of drowning, and so stood in most need of their faith—yet they had then their faith to seek. They had faith in the habit but not in the exercise, and therefore Christ looks upon their faith as no faith, Mark 4:40. How is it that you have no faith? what is the sheath without the knife? the scabbard without the sword? the musket without the match? the cannon without the bullet? the grenade without powder? no more are all your graces when not in exercise.
The strongest creature, the lion, and the subtlest creature, the serpent, if they are asleep—are as easily surprised and destroyed as the weakest worm! Just so, the strongest saints, if grace is not in exercise, are as easily surprised and captivated by sin, Satan, and the world—as the weakest saints are. O sirs! if Christians will not stir up the grace of God that is in them, if they will not look to the daily exercise of grace, God, by some severe providence or other, by some fiery dispensation or other, will stir up their graces for them, Jonah 1:6.
Ah sluggish, slumbering Christians, who are careless as to the exercise of your graces, how sadly, how sorely do you provoke the Lord to let Satan loose to tempt you, and corruptions grow strong to weary you, and the world grow cross to vex you, and friends turn enemies to plague you, and the Spirit withdraw to discomfit you, Lam. 1:16, and fiery trials to break in to awaken you! And all this to bring you to live in a daily exercise of grace. God was glad to be a moth, a worm, a lion, yes, a young lion to Ephraim and Judah, before he could bring them up to an exercise of grace, Hosea 5:12-14; but when he was all this to them, then they fall roundly upon a lively exercise of grace.
Hosea 6:1-3, “Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.” Here you see their faith, their repentance, their love, their hope, all in exercise. When a soldier’s courage, mettle, and gallantry, lies as it were hidden, his captain will put him upon such hardships, hazards, and dangers, as shall rouse up his courage, mettle, and gallantry. If a scholar has excellent abilities, and will not use them nor improve them—his master will put him upon such tasks as shall draw out all his abilities to the height. Just so, when the Lord has laid into the souls of his people a stock of grace, and they grow idle and careless, and will not improve that stock for his glory and their own good—he will then exercise them with such severe providences and fiery trials, as shall put them to a full improvement of that blessed stock of grace that he has entrusted them with.
The fire that came from heaven was to be kept continually burning that it might never go out, Lev. 6:13. God loves to see the graces of his children in continual exercise. Neglect of our graces is the ground of their decrease and decay. Wells are the sweeter for drawing, and grace is the stronger for acting; we get nothing by dead and useless habits. Talents hidden in a napkin gather rust; the noblest faculties become withered when not improved in exercise: 2 Tim. 1:6, “Stir up the gift of God which is in you.” It is an allusion to the fire in the temple, which was always to be kept burning. All the glory which God has from us in this life, is from the actings of grace. It was Abraham’s acting of faith, which set the crown of glory upon the Lord’s head. O sirs! look narrowly to it, that you fail not in the activity and lively vigor of your graces. Look to it that your graces be still acted, exercised, and blown up, so that they may be still flaming and shining.
The more you exercise grace, the more you strengthen it, the more you increase it. Repeated acts strengthen habits; it is so in sin, and it is so in grace also. The more the little child exercises, the more strong it grows by exercise. The more a man plays upon an instrument, the more dexterous he grows. Money is not increased by lying in a chest—but by trading, Mat. 25:27. The more any bodily member is used, the stronger it is. As the right hand is most used, so it is commonly strongest. “The diligent hand makes rich,” Proverbs 10:4. A little stock, well nurtured, will daily increase; when a greater stock neglected, shall decay and come to nothing. The exercise of grace will best testify both the truth and the life of your graces. Grace is never more evident than when it is in exercise. When I see a man rise, and walk, and work, and exercise his arms—I know he is a real man, a living man. The more the fire is blown up the sooner it is seen to be fire. There are many precious Christians, who are full of fears and doubts that they have no love to God, no faith in God, no hope of glory, etc.—but the best way under heaven to put an end to these fears and doubts is to be fervent in exerting acts of love, of faith, of hope, etc.
The non-exercise of grace cast Adam out of paradise; it shut Moses and Aaron out of Canaan, Num. 20:12; it brought Jacob into fourteen years’ hard service and bondage; for had he exercised faith, hope, patience, etc., as he should have done, he would never have got the blessing by indirect means as he did; it provoked the Lord to strike Zacharias dumb, Luke 1:18-20; it shut thousands of the Jews out of the land of Canaan, Heb. 3:17-18. I dare not be so harsh, so rash, and so uncharitable, as to think that none of those who died in the wilderness had the habits of faith, the seeds of grace in their souls; but it was their non-acting of faith which kept them out of the Holy Land, as it did Moses and Aaron, according to what I hinted but now.
Beloved, by these instances, among many others that might be produced, you see that God has dealt very sharply and severely with his choicest servants for their not exercising of their graces as they ought to have done. And though I dare not, upon many accounts, say that for the saints’ not exercising and improving their graces, God has turned London into a heap of ashes; yet I dare say that this neglect of theirs may be one thing that added fuel to that fire. [Austin wrote upon that day wherein he showed no acts of grace, “I have lost a day!” Oh how many days have we lost then for which God might justly visit us!]
Well, sirs, you had not long since many outward comforts to live upon—but the Lord has now burnt them up, so that he might lead you forth to live in a daily exercise of grace upon himself, upon his power, upon his all-sufficiency, his goodness, his faithfulness, his fullness, his graciousness, his unchangeableness, his promises. And if this fiery dispensation shall be so sanctified to us as to work us to a further activity of grace, and to a further growth and increase of grace, we shall be holy Christians though we are burnt Christians. But,
[3.] Thirdly, By severe providences and by fiery trials, God designs the growth of his people in grace. “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” Hebrews 12:10. Usually the graces of the saints thrive best, when they are under a smarting rod. Grace usually is in the greatest flourish, when the saints are under the greatest trials, Romans 5:3-4; 2 Cor. 1:3-6. The trimming of the candle makes it burn the brighter. God beats and bruises his torches to make them burn the brighter; he bruises his spices to make them send forth the greater aromatic fragrance. Fiery trials are like the brush, which, though it is sharp and scratching, it makes the cloth more pure and clean. God would not rub so hard, were it not to fetch out the dirt and spots which are in his people. The Jews were always best when they were in their lowest condition. Well-waters arising from deep springs are hotter in the winter than they are in the summer. Stars shine brightest in the darkest nights; and so do the graces of the saints shine brightest in the darkest nights of affliction and tribulation. God will sometimes more carry on the growth of grace by a cross than by a blessing. Yes, the Lord will, sooner or later, more or less, turn all fiery trials into blessings for the helping on the growth of grace in his people’s souls, Heb. 12:10; James 1:3-4; 1 Pet. 1:6-7.
Look! as in the lopping of a tree, there seems to be a kind of reduction and destruction; yet the end and outcome of it is better growth. As the weakening of the body by surgery seems to tend to death—yet it produces better health and more strength. Just so, the saints’ spiritual growth in grace, is carried on by such divine methods and in such ways as might seem to deaden grace, and weaken it, rather than any ways to augment and increase it. We know that winter is as necessary to bring on harvest as the spring; and so fiery trials are as necessary to bring on the harvest of grace as the spring of mercy is. Though fiery trials are grievous—yet they shall make us more gracious. Though for the present we cannot see but that such and such severe providences and fiery trials as the loss of house, estate, trade, friends, will redound much to our harm and damage—yet in the outcome we shall find that God will turn them to the spiritual and eternal advantage of our precious souls, Heb. 12:11.
We may in a pang of passion say, as Jacob. “Joseph is not, and Simeon is not!” Gen. 42:36. [But yet as old as Jacob was, he lived to see all those things work for his good, which he concluded were against him.] “All these are against me”—children are not, honors are not, riches are not, habitations are not, credit is not. All these are against us; but in the close we shall find that promise made good in power upon us, Romans 8:28, “We know that all things shall work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.”
O sirs! all the power of heaven stands engaged to make good this promise to you; and if you would but live in the daily actings of faith upon this blessed promise, you would then be able to bear up bravely under all the troubles and trials, crosses and losses that you meet with in this world; and you would then experience the truth of Samson’s riddle—”Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.” Judges 14:14. What Paul said of his fiery trials, namely, “I know that this shall turn to my deliverance,” Phil 1:19, that may you safely say of all your fiery trials: “We know that they shall work for our good, we know that they shall turn to our deliverance!” Though wicked instruments might design our destruction—yet the wise God that sits at the helm will turn all into our salvation. Those severe providences which for the present may seem very harmful, in the outcome shall prove very beneficial.
Joseph’s brethren threw him into a pit, afterwards they sold him, then he is falsely accused, and as unjustly cast into prison and laid in cold iron, Psalm 105:17-18. Yet all this issued in his good; his abasement made way for his advancement; for his thirteen years’ imprisonment he reigned fourscore years like a king, Gen. 50:20, and 41:40. David, you know, had seven years’ banishment—yet it ended in a glorious reign of forty years’ continuance. Job lost all that he ever had in one day; he was a man under great calamity, he was a spectacle of the highest misery, he abounded only in boils, and sores, and rags; but all this issued in the trial of his grace, in the discovery of his grace, and in the improvement of his grace, and in the end, God did compensate his very great losses by giving him twice as much as ever he had before, Job 42:10.
Dear friends, that by all severe providences and fiery trials—God will turn your spark of grace into a flame, your mites into millions, and your drops into seas, is, and shall be the hearty desire of my soul. O sirs! if Christ is even ravished with one of his spouse’s eyes, and with one chain of her neck, Cant. 4:9, with the least grains of true grace—how will he be taken with abundance of grace! how will he be ravished with the flourishing estate of your souls in grace!
Well, remember this—the more under all your fiery trials grace is increased, the more God is honored, religion adorned, the mouths of the wicked stopped, the hands and hearts of weak saints strengthened and encouraged, the smarting rod sweetened, and threatened judgments prevented. Oh, that those two prophecies might be made good in power upon all the burnt citizens of London! Isaiah 32:15, “Until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field.” Isaiah 35:1-2, “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.” [Pliny speaks of a golden vine which never withers—but is always flourishing. Oh, that this might be the mercy of all those Christians who have been burnt up!] Thrice happy will the burnt citizens of London be, if under all their crosses and losses they grow into a more deep acquaintance with God, the world, and their own hearts; with God and his holiness, with the world and its vanity, mutability, impotency, and uncertainty; and with their own hearts, and the deceitfulness, vileness, baseness, and wretchedness of them. If under fiery dispensations we grow more holy than ever, and more humble than ever, and more heavenly than ever, and more meek and lowly than ever, and more tender and compassionate than ever, and more faithful and fruitful than ever, and more patient and contented than ever, then we may be confident that the grand design of God in bringing all those fiery trials upon us was for His glory, and our own spiritual and eternal good; and accordingly we may rejoice in the Lord, though we have nothing else to rejoice in, Hab. 3:17-18. But,
[4.] Fourthly and lastly, By severe providences and by fiery trials—God designs the trial of his people’s graces, and the manifestation of their sincerity and integrity to the world, 1 Pet. 1:6-7; Rev. 3:18. Deut. 8:2, “And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God led you these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you, and to prove you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not.” God knew them well enough before, without any experimental trial of them; but that he might the better make a discovery of themselves to themselves and to others, he led them up and down in the wilderness forty years.
Psalm 66:10-12, “For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver. You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs. You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance.” God proves his people, not thereby to better his own knowledge of them—but to bring them to a better knowledge both of their own vices and graces. It is not known what corn will yield—until it comes to the flail; nor what grapes will yield—until they come to the press. Grace is hidden in nature as sweet water in rose leaves; but fiery trials will fetch it out. Fire and water are merciless elements, and they note variety of sharpest trials. Now through these God led his people, so that he might discover to them and others, both the strength of their graces, and the strength of their sins.
God many times exercises his dearest children with fiery trials, that he may discover the sincerity and integrity of his people to the world. The profane atheistical world, is apt very boldly and confidently to conclude that the people of God are a pack of hypocrites and dissemblers, and that they serve God for a fee, for loaves—and not for love, John 6:26; and that they are selfish in all that they do, having more in their eye—the hedge that he has made around them, and the gold and silver that he has bestowed upon them, than the honor and glory of the great God; just as the devil objected against Job, chapter 1:9. Now God, to convince these men, these monsters, of the integrity and sincerity of his people, he breaks down the hedge that he had made aroound them, and turns the wheel upon them, and breaks them with breach upon breach; he strips them of all, and turns them out of house and home, as he did Job, chapter 20:21. And yet this people, with Job, will still worship the Lord, and bless a taking God, as well as a giving God. They will still keep close to the Lord and his ways, whatever God does with them or against them. Psalm 44:17-19, “All this is come upon us,” [it is a dreadful “all,” as you may see from the 9th to the 17th verse;] “though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant. Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path. But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals and covered us over with deep darkness.” In spite of all the wrath and rage of Antiochus Epiphanes, that cruel and bloody persecutor of the saints, these servants of the Lord show their sincerity by their constancy in keeping close to the Lord and his ways in the face of the greatest opposition and hottest persecution that they met with.
When the emperor sent a messenger to Basil to subscribe him to the Arian heresy, the messenger at first gave him promising speech, and promised him great preferment, if he would turn Arian; to which Basil replied, “Alas, these speeches are fit to catch little children with that look after such things; but we who are nourished and taught by the Holy Scriptures, are readier to suffer a thousand deaths than to suffer one syllable or tittle of the Scripture to be altered!”
Many of the heathens turned Christians, seeing the heroic zeal, courage, and constancy of the primitive Christians in the face of all oppositions and persecutions. Justin Martyr confesses that the constancy of the Christians in their sufferings was the chief motive that converted him to Christianity; “for I myself,” says he, “was once a Platonist, and did gladly hear the Christians reviled; but when I saw they feared not death, nor any of those miseries which most frighten all other men, I began to consider with myself that it was impossible for such men to be lovers of pleasure more than lovers of piety, and that made me first think of turning Christian.”
Now by these means and methods God convinces the blind world of the integrity and sincerity of his people. When they see those whom they have severely judged to be hypocrites—owning the Lord and his ways, and cleaving to the Lord and his ways, and continuing to follow the Lord and his ways, and holding on in a high honoring of the Lord and his ways, when their hedge is broken down, and God has stripped them as naked as in the day wherein they were born—oh now they begin to change their note, and to conclude, “surely these are the servants of the Most High God, Dan. 3:26, and Acts 16:17; these are no hypocrites nor dissemblers—but true Nathanaels in whom there is no deceit!” John 1:47.
How have the people of God in London been judged as hypocrites, dissemblers, deceivers, factious, and what not! Now God, by burning up their substance, and by turning them out of house and home, and destroying all their pleasant things, does certainly design to give those who have so deeply censured them, a proof of their integrity and sincerity, by letting them see that all the changes that have passed upon them can never work them to change their Master Christ, nor to change his ways for the ways of sin, nor to change his worship for the worship of the world, nor to change their religion for the religion of Rome. Certainly those who love the Lord, who delight in the Lord, and who highly prize the Lord for those infinite perfections, beauties, glories, and excellencies which are in him—they will own him, and cleave to him, and follow after him, when they have little—as when they had much; yes, when they have nothing of the world as when they had all the world! And by so doing, they put a padlock upon the lying lips of such, they button up the mouths of such who asperse and calumniate them as a people who only serve God upon the account of a worldly interest. There is nothing that does more amaze and astonish wicked men, than to see the people of God keeping close to him and his ways, when they are in a suffering estate, yes, when they have lost all but their God and their integrity.
The fire tries the gold, and diseases try the skill of the physician, and tempests try the skill of the pilot; and so do fiery trials try both the truth and the strength of a Christian’s graces.
Paulinus Nolanus, when his city was taken by the barbarians, prayed thus to God: “Lord, let me not be troubled at the loss of my gold, silver, honor, city, etc.; for you are all, and much more than all these to me!” Here was a heroic spirit, here was grace in strength, yes, in triumph. The spirits of the men of the world usually sink, under their losses. Menippus of Phenicia, having lost his goods, strangled himself. Dinarcus Phiton, after a certain loss, cut his own throat to save the charge of a halter. Another, being turned out of his estate, ran out of his wits. And another, for the death of his son, threw himself headlong into the sea. Augustus Caesar, in whose time Christ was born, was so troubled and astonished at a loss, that for certain months together he let the hair of his beard and head grow, and wore it long; yes, and at other times he would run his head against the doors. Henry the Second, who was none of the best of princes, hearing that his city Mentz was taken, used this blasphemous speech: “I shall never love God any more—who allowed a city so dear to me to be taken from me!”
Now by all these instances you may clearly and plainly see the different temper and carriage of wicked men, from the people of God—under their losses, crosses, trials, and sufferings. When they are under fiery trials, what an evil spirit, what a desperate spirit, what a sullen spirit, what a proud spirit, what a satanical spirit, what a hellish spirit, do they manifest! They show all the world that they are under the power and dominion of the devil; Phil. 2:2 and 2 Tim. 2:26. But when the people of God are under fiery trials, they make conscience of behaving so as to convince the world that God is in them of a truth, and that they are sincere and upright before the Lord, however they are judged and censured as hypocrites, deceivers, dissemblers, and what not.
Oh, that all who are sufferers by this fiery dispensation would make it their business, their work, their heaven—so to behave under their present trials, as to convince all gainsayers of the sincerity, integrity, and uprightness of their hearts, both towards the Lord, his people, his ways, his ordinances, his interest, and all his concernments in this world! And thus much for the gracious ends which God aims at in all those severe providences and fiery trials, which he has exercised his people with recently.