Lee Gatiss preaches Part 2 of “How Dangerous a Thing it is to Fall from God”, from the First Book of Homilies.
In the first part of this sermon, you have learned how many sorts of ways people fall away from God: some by idolatry, some for lack of faith, some by neglecting their neighbours, some by not hearing God’s word, and some by the pleasure they take in the vanities of worldly things. You have also learned about the miserable condition of those who have gone from God; and how God, of his infinite goodness, to call people back from that his misery first uses gentle warnings from his preachers, and afterwards lays on terrible threatenings.
God’s frightening face
Now if this gentle warning and threatening together does not work, then God will show his frightening face to us. He will pour intolerable plagues on our heads, and afterwards he will take away all his aid and assistance from us, with which he used to defend us from all such calamities. As the evangelical prophet Isaiah teaches us, agreeing with Christ’s parable, God had made a great vineyard for his beloved children, and he hedged it, walled it round about, planted it with chosen vines, and made a turret in the midst of it, and also a winepress. And when he looked for it to produce good grapes, it brought forth wild grapes.
And afterwards it follows, “Now I will show you (says God) what I will do with my vineyard: I will pluck down the hedges, that it may perish. I will break down the walls that it may be trampled down. I will let it lie waste. It shall not be cut; it shall not be dug; but briers and thorns shall overgrow it, and I shall command the clouds that they shall no more rain upon it” (Isaiah 5:1-6. Matthew 21: 33-41).
By these threatenings we are admonished and warned that if we, who are the chosen vineyard of God, do not produce good grapes (that is to say, good works that may be delectable and pleasant in his sight) when he looks for them and sends his messengers to call on us for them, but rather bring forth wild grapes (that is to say, sour works, unsavoury, and unfruitful): then he will pluck away all our defences, and permit grievous plagues of famine, battle, food shortages, and death, to come upon us.
Finally, if these do not work, he will let us lie waste; he will give us over; he will turn away from us; he will dig and clear no more around us; he will leave us alone, and allow us to produce whatever fruit we will — to bring forth brambles, briars, and thorns, all wickedness, all vice — and that so abundantly, that they shall completely overwhelm us, choke, strangle, and utterly destroy us.
But those who do not live for God in this world, but for their own carnal liberty, do not perceive this great wrath of God towards them, that he will not dig or clear any more around them, and that he leaves them alone even to themselves. But they take this for a great benefit from God, to have all the freedom they like: and so they live, as if carnal liberty were the true liberty of the gospel. But God forbid (good people) that we should ever desire such liberty. For although God sometimes allows the wicked to have their pleasure in this world, yet the final end of ungodly living is eventually endless destruction.
The murmuring Israelites had what they longed for: they had quails enough, even until they were weary of them. But what was the end of the story? Their sweet meat had sour sauce: even while the meat was in their mouths, the plague of God came upon them, and suddenly they died (Numbers 11:4-6, 31-33; Psalm 78:30-31). So if we live in an ungodly way, and God allows us to follow our own wills, to have our own delights and pleasures, and does not correct us with some plague: he is undoubtedly almost utterly displeased with us.
Although God may take a while before he strikes, yet many times when he strikes such people he strikes them at once for ever. So that when he does not strike us, when he ceases to afflict us, to punish or beat us, and permits us to run headlong into all ungodliness and the pleasures of this world that we delight in, without punishment and adversity — it is a dreadful token that he loves us no longer, that he cares for us no longer, but has given us over to our own selves.
As long as someone prunes their vines, digs at the roots, and lays fresh earth around them, they are mindful of them and perceive some token of fruitfulness that may be recovered in them. But when he will no more lavish such cost or labour on them, then it is a sign that he thinks they will never be good. And a father, as long as he loves his child, is angry and corrects them them when they do something wrong; but when that does not work, and so he ceases correcting them and allows them to do whatever they want — it is a sign that he intends to disinherit them and to cast them away for ever.
So surely nothing should pierce our heart so much, and make us feel so horribly afraid, as when we know in our conscience that we have grievously offended God, and continue to do so, and yet he strikes us not, but quietly allows to continue in the wickedness that we delight in. Then especially it is time to cry and cry again, as David did: “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:11); “Lord, do not turn away your face from me, do not cast your servant away in displeasure” (Psalm 27:9); “Hide not your face from me, or I will become like those who go down to hell” (Psalm 143:7).
These prayers of lament certify for us what horrible danger those people are in, from whom God turns away (for the time being, and as long as he does so). They should also move and stir us to cry to God with all our heart, that we may not be brought into that state, which doubtless is so sorrowful, so miserable, and so dreadful, as no tongue can sufficiently express, nor any heart can think.
For what deadly grief may we suppose it is, to be under the wrath of God, to be forsaken by him, to have his Holy Spirit (the author of all goodness) taken away — to be brought to so vile a condition, that one shall be left fit for no better purpose than to be forever condemned in hell? For these Psalms of David show that when God turns his face away from anyone, they shall be left devoid of all goodness, and far from any hope of remedy. So also do the verses we saw before from Isaiah, which show that God, in the end, forsakes his unfruitful vineyard, and that he will not only permit it to bring forth weeds, briars, and thorns, but also punish the unfruitfulness of it. He says he will not prune it, he will not clear it, and he will command the clouds that they shall not rain upon it.
By this is signified the teaching of his holy word, which St. Paul, in a similar way, expressed by planting and watering (1 Corinthians 3:6-8), meaning that he will take that away from them, so that they shall no longer be part of his kingdom. They shall no longer be governed by his Holy Spirit, and they shall be removed from the grace and benefits that they had, and ever might have enjoyed through Christ. They shall be deprived of the heavenly light and life which they had in Christ, while they remained in him.
They shall be (as they were once) like people without God in this world (Ephesians 2:12), or rather in a worse condition. In short, they shall be given over to the power of the devil, who rules in all those who are cast away from God, as he did in Saul (1 Samuel 15:23-35, 16:14) and Judas (Luke 22:3; John 13:2, 27), and generally in all those who work after their own wills, the children of disobedience and unbelief (Ephesians 2:2; Colossians 3:6 KJV).
Desperation and presumption
Therefore, let us beware (good Christian people) in case we reject or cast away God’s word (by which we obtain and retain true faith in God) and are not eventually cast off so far ourselves, that we become like children of unbelief. There are two kinds of such unbelief, quite different, indeed, almost complete opposites, and yet both are very far from returning to God.
The first sort of people, only weighing their sinful and detestable living with the right judgment and straightness of God’s righteousness, are so without counsel, and are so comfortless — as everyone from whom the Spirit of counsel (Isaiah 11:2) and comfort has gone must be — that they will not be persuaded in their hearts, but think that God cannot or will not take them again into his favour and mercy.
The others, hearing the loving and large promises of God’s mercy, but not properly understanding them, make those promises larger then God ever did, trusting that although they continue for a long time in their sinful and detestable living yet God, at the end of their life, will show his mercy to them, and that then they will return. And both of these two sorts of people are in a damnable state. And yet God (who does not desire the death of the wicked) has revealed the means by which both (if they take heed in good time) may escape (Ezekiel 18:23, 32, 33:11).
The first sort of people dread God’s rightful justice in punishing sinners, by which they should be dismayed, and should indeed despair with regard to any hope that may be in themselves. But if they constantly or steadfastly believe that God’s mercy is the remedy appointed for such despair and distrust, not only for them but generally for all who are sorry and truly repentant and will, through it all, stick to God’s mercy, then they may be sure that they shall obtain mercy, and enter into the port or haven of safety. Whoever comes into this haven, however wicked they were before, they shall be out of danger of everlasting damnation, as God says by Ezekiel, “Whenever the wicked sinner returns in earnest and true repentance, I will forget all their wickedness” (Ezekiel 33:12, 14-16, 19).
The other sort of people are ready to believe God’s promises, so they should be just as ready to believe the threatenings of God. They should believe the Law as well as the gospel, and that there is a hell and everlasting fire, as well as a heaven and everlasting joy. They should believe damnation is threatened to the wicked and evildoers, just as salvation is promised to the faithful in word and works, and that God is true in both of these things. And the sinners who continue in their wicked living ought to think that the promises of God’s mercy and the gospel do not apply to them in that state, but only the Law and those scriptures which contain the wrath and indignation of God, and his threatenings. This should convince them that they too boldly presume on God’s mercy and live over-indulgently, and so God more and more withdraws his mercy from them, and is eventually so provoked by them to wrath that he destroys such presumers, many times suddenly. For St. Paul said this about such people: “When they say ‘There is peace, there is no danger,’ then sudden destruction shall come upon them” (1 Thessalonians 5:3).
Let us beware therefore of such wicked boldness to sin. For God, who has promised his mercy to those who are truly repentant (even at the very end) has not promised to the presumptuous sinner, either that they shall have long life, or that they shall have true repentance at the end. For that reason, he has made everyone’s death uncertain, so that we should not put our hope in the hour of our death, and meanwhile (to God’s high displeasure) live an ungodly life.
Therefore, let us follow the counsel of the wise man, let us “not wait to turn back to the Lord”, and let us “not postpone it day after day, for suddenly his wrath shall come, and in time of vengeance he will destroy the wicked.” Let us therefore turn now, and when we turn let us pray to God, as Hosea teaches, saying, “Forgive all our sins, and receive us graciously” (Hosea 14:2). And if we turn to him with a humble and a very penitent heart, he will receive us to his favour and grace, for his holy name’s sake, for his promise’s sake, and for the sake of his truth and mercy promised to all faithful believers in Jesus Christ his only natural Son — to whom, the only Saviour of the world, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all honour, glory, and power, forever and ever. Amen.