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Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn away from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again ; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.”
Even a careless hearer must perceive that these three passages speak the same language, and were designed to convey the same meaning. It becomes then a question for our consideration, what meaning they really do convey ? And then we may ask, Whether there may not be found something in the circumstances of the time when these passages were written, or in some of the expressions contained in them, which prevents the necessity of looking upon them as a general and unrestricted statement of Christian doctrine ?
In our endeavour to arrive at the exact meaning of these three passages, we observe that the one immediately before us employs the strongest expressions ; and, if we regard it as containing a formal statement of doctrine, is the most unqualified and the most terrific. The words of the text are, “it is impossible”; that is, if we take them in a strictly literal sense ; they make a positive assertion in the plainest terms. In the other chapter of this Epistle, and in that of St. Peter, the declaration is contained in a comparative form—" of how much sorer pu
nishment”-and-" It had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness”.
It has however been seen, from observations made in my last discourse, that the word “impossible” is not unfrequently employed to denote things very hard to be accomplished, yet not such, as cannot be effected at all. I gave you an instance, in which the term was so used by our Lord Himself. And if it be admitted that such is the signification in the text, the assertion which it makes is surely reconcileable with the principles, which operate upon human nature; not merely in questions of moral conduct, but throughout the whole of our existence. Such is the known effect of habit, that when we are once under its influence, we find a difficulty in extricating ourselves; and most unhappily for us, in cases, where it is most desirable that we should be freed from its dominion, the greatest exertions are required in order to our deliverance, and the most stubborn obstacles are placed in the way
of asserting our freedom. From the inherent corruption of our nature, we are disposed to attach ourselves most eagerly to those pursuits which are prejudicial, in preference to such as are salutary. In spite of the suggestions of reason and the warnings of religion, the snares of idleness are spread with success, while manly and virtuous exertion holds out the meed of praise in vain ; pleasure seldom fails to seduce her votaries into an oblivion of duty; while the straight but rugged path of honesty and industry is less frequented and less applauded. Hence, if a right course has been once pursued and at length forsaken, it has been exchanged for one more suitable to our fallen nature, more congenial to our depraved appetite. If the usual effects of virtuous conduct have failed to supply due encouragement to perseverance; if the ordinary aid of God's Holy Spirit has not imparted sufficient strength under temptation, nor the consciousness of pure motive and upright dealing supplied consolation under disappointment or affliction ;-if in such a case hope has been cast aside and duty abandoned ;-is it likely or has it often occurred, that a more resolute resistance has been opposed to evil, and an actual return to good achieved, when the moral strength has been impaired by continued. acquaintance with ungodliness, and a sense of moral degradation incurred by slavery to ambition or appetite ? Such are the general effects of habit, in respect to good and evil, as operating upon a depraved nature; and not only are they so represented by the uniform experience of the uninspired, but they are confirmed by the testimony of Holy Writ. “ Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots ? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.” a
Now if this appears to be a general law of our moral nature, that any continued indulgence in sin, any familiarity contracted with ungodliness, renders a return to the ways of goodness so extremely difficult, that it is represented by the Prophet under images, usually employed to denote an actual impossibility ; can we wonder that the Sacred Writer in the text should apply the very term “ impossible ' to such as “were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away;"— ?
a Jerem. xiii, 23.
In further considering what this passage really imports, we cannot pass over the term “ falling away”--but this part of the question will be resolved to more advantage, when we discuss the circumstances, under which the passage was written. In our present endeavour to ascertain what it is that the text does assert, I shall think it necessary only to draw your attention to one other expression, “renew them again unto repentance.”
It is clear that, whatever interpretation be put upon any other part of this very singular passage ; whatever offence may be supposed to be implied by the term “ fall away”; whatever deviation from rectitude may have incurred the just censure of the Sacred Writer ; the offence is supposed to be committed deliberately, and persisted in as obstinately. The
passage in the 10th chapter, which I consider in all respects identified with the text, says expressly; “ if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth”—and our text says, in a form of words not strictly grammatical, indeed, “to renew them again unto repentance ”; meaning to renew themselves, or to be renewed. This implies that the sin committed was not repented of; and if this be the case, surely it ought not to excite any surprise that in the 10th chapter it is added, “there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins.” This expression is strictly in unison with the whole tenor of the Epistle ; in which the death of Christ is shewn to be of efficacy, so much superior to the Levitical sacrifices ; but particularly in this respect, that the sacrifices under the Law had efficacy only for a time, and had need to be repeated every year-whereas our blessed Lord and Saviour offered Himself once only, and that for a perpetual remission of the sins of the whole world—that is, of such as comply with the conditions, upon which eternal life is proffered. Surely there is nothing new nor unreasonable in the position, that for sin wilfully committed, and not repented of, the Saviour of the world will not again offer Himself a sacrifice ; but for such obstinate and impenitent sinners there remaineth “a certain fearful looking for of judgement and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries."
I shall now consider what were the ideas, intended to be conveyed by the words “ falling away”, and “sinning wilfully"; and the result of this inquiry will be found materially to assist us in determining the question, whether there be not something in the circumstances, under which these passages were written, which prevents us from looking upon them as a general and unrestricted statement of Christian doctrine ?
The word, which stands in the original for falling away”, is παραπεσόντας. Now though παραπτώμα, which is derived from παραπίπτω, is used to denote “transgression ” in general, yet the verb has