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1st, That our great interest is to keep in with God, and approve ourselves to him in all our actions ; for God is the scope and end of our lives and actions, as the thing pressed “that we may walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing" (Col. i. 10). God being our chiefest good, must be our last end; therefore in every action there must be an habitual purpose; and in all actions of weight and moment, there must be an actual purpose to please God. Every ordinary affair must be carried forth in the strength of the habitual purpose; but in all actions we would make a business of, there must be an actual purpose. And because his authority alone can sway the conscience, which is under his dominion : therefore it concerns us in all things to exercise ourselves that we may have a good “conscience void of offence toward God, and toward man” (Acts xxiv. 16). And again, we are to approve our ways to God, and to keep in with him, because to him we are to give an account (2 Cor. v.9, 10). There will a time come when every action of ours shall be taken into consideration, and weighed in the balance of the sanctuary, with all our principles and ends ; therefore we strive, we are ambitious (so the word signifies); our great ambition should be, living or dying, to be accepted with God. Again, surely it should be our business to approve ourselves to God in every action, because all the success of our actions depends upon his concurrence and blessing. Now we shall find this often asserted in Scripture. When a man's ways are full of hazards, likely to be exposed to great opposition, your great work is to keep in with God, approve your hearts to him. “When a man's ways please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him” (Prov. xvi. 7). God hath a mighty power over the spirits of men, therefore this is to go to the fountain-head, to stop all opposition there, and (on the other side) without this care of pleasing God, all goes to loss. Counsels, though never so wisely laid, yet are blasted, if we do not make this our business to approve our hearts to God in those actions. Remember in one place it is said, “ The counsel of the froward is carried headlong," forward (Job. v. 13); and in another place : “ The counsel of the wise men he turneth backward” (Isa. xliv. 25). When men do not study to please God, and approve their hearts to him, God leaves them to precipitate counsels, sometimes they are carried forward, at other times they are carried backward ; the event is cross to their design. Sometimes, God lets them fall into precipitant counsels that they may undo themselves, at other times disappoints their counsels, and that which they have designed.
2ndly, Whosoever would keep in with God, he needs good counsel and direction in all his ways. Both in regard of the darkness of his understanding, his corrupt affections, and inordinate self-love, man is not able to rule and govern himself, but needs counsel : “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes ; but he that harkeneth unto counsel is wise” (Prov. xii. 15). When a man engageth in any action, such is the darkness and perverseness of man's heart, that he should not be over-confident of his own apprehensions, or of his own inclinations, but should harken after counsel, And again : “ He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool” (Prov. xxviii. 26). Both these proverbs are to be understood not so much of wise managing of civil affairs, as of spiritual direction. Surely it is ill-trusting ourselves and counsels, and inclinations of our own hearts. Blind affections usually govern a man's life ; and all sinners have an evil counsellor in their bosom, some lust or other, and therefore need to be directed. The counsel of the flesh is, 'favour thyself.' Every evil affection gives ill counsel. Covetousness saith, ‘Preserve thy worldly interest.' Voluptuousness saith, · You need not be so strict, and nice, and abridge yourselves of the comforts of the world.' Paul saith, “ I conferred not with flesh and blood" (Gal. i. 16). Flesh and blood are evil counsellors, and under pretence of safety will suggest what is for our ruin. What will the flesh say when it is to be denied ? and the blood say, when it is to be spilt and shed for God's sake? These will persuade us rather to please ourselves than please God. They will persuade us to desert our duty.
3rdly, The only good counsel that we can have, is from God in his word : “ Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterwards receive me unto glory” (Psalm lxxiii. 24). We have it from God, and we have it from his word; for there is a guide and a rule. Man is so weak, and so perverse, that he needs both a guide, and a rule; the guide is the Spirit of God, and the rule is the word of God: “ Thou shalt guide me,” but “ by thy counsel :" by these two alone can we be led in the way to true happiness. The Spirit, he is a sure guide; and the word, that is a clear rule. We are dark, but the Scriptures are not dark. I observed out of the 18th verse, when the saints called upon God, they do not say, 'Lord make a plainer law,' but ' Lord give me better eyes. We are dark, and need the illumination of the Spirit; the Scriptures are light : “ The commandment is a lamp and the law is light” (Prov. vi. 23). In all matters of practical obedience, it is clear and open.
4thly, The counsel that God hath given us in his word, is sufficient, and full out to all our necessities. Let me instance this in particulars :
1. The word gives us counsel for our general choice, it is the rule of all faith and obedience. The Scriptures are the counsel of God, sent to remedy the miseries of the fall; therefore it is said : “ I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God” (Acts sx. 27). It is God's counsel how man should be reconciled, how he should be converted, and come to the enjoyment of himself. David, when he had chosen God for his portion, he saith, “I will bless the Lord who hath given me counsel" (Psalm xvi. 7). In the word he gives us counsel how to come to him for our happiness; and by grace he sets it on upon the heart : this is the counsel of God concerning our salvation.
2. Not only in our general choice, but in all our particular actions, so far as they have a tendency unto that end : “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm cxix. 105). It is a lamp, and a light. We are full of darkness and error; but as we follow the direction of God, it is a lamp not only to our path, but to our steps, to our feet; not only to our path, to our general course, but it directeth us in every particular action.
3. In dark and doubtful passages, when a man multiplieth consultations and perplexed thoughts, and changeth conclusions as a sick man doth his bed, and knows not what course to take, whether this or that, then the word will direct him what to do, so as that a man may find quiet in his soul. Indeed here is the question, How far the word of God is a counsellor to us in such perplexed and doubtful cases ?
(1.) The word of God will help him to understand how far he is concerned in such an action in point of duty and conscience; for otherwise it were not able to make the man of God perfect, and “throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. iii. 17). Now it is a great relief to the soul, when a man understands how far he is concerned in point of duty. The conflict many times lies not only between light and lust, or light and interest (then a gracious man knows what part to take); but when it lies between duty and duty, then it is tedious and troublesome to him. Now the word clearly will tell you what is your duty in any action, what. ever it be.
(2.) As to the prudent management of the action in order to success ; the word will teach you to go to God for wisdom (James i. 6), and to observe his answer.
(3.) So in all actions, the word will teach you to ask God's leave, and God's blessing. Christians, it is not enough to ask God's counsel, but ask his leave in any particular action; in disposing our dwellings, or our concernments of children, and the like : “ Who shall go up and fight against the Canaanites?” (Judg. i.) They would fain have the Lord decide it. And again, “ Shall I go up to Ramoth Gilead ?" In all actions, our business is to ask God's leave. David always runs to the oracle and ephod : “Shall I go up to Hebron ?" And Jacob in his journeys would neither go to Laban, nor come from him, without a warrant and leave from God. So we ask God's leave in prayer, and observe the bent of our hearts after prayer.
(4.) The word of God teacheth a man when he understandeth his duly, and hath God's leave, to submit the event to God, and that easeth the heart, because he may be sure of success, comfort, and support : “ Commit thy way unto the Lord: trust also in him, and he shall bring it to pass (Psalm xxxvii. 5). And again : “ Commit thy work unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established" (Prov. xvi. 3). It easeth us of a great deal of trouble and care: so that when a man hath brought his affections to submit to whatever God should determine in point of success ; when he hath moderated and calmed his spirit, that he is resolved to bear the erent whatever it be ; this easeth the soul of a deal of trouble. Thus you see how we may make the statutes of God to be the men of our counsel.
USE I.- What a singular mercy is it, that God hath given us the Scripture, where we have counsel upon all occasions how to manage our affairs prudently, bear afflictions comfortably, and with composed hearts to get through all events and dangers that we meet with in our passage to Heaven! We should have groped up and down, as the Sodomites for Lot's door, if we had not this rule of faith and obedience. It is a rule that teacheth us how to think well, for it reacheth to the thoughts; to speak well, for it giveth a law to all our words; to do well in all our civil actions and trading; how to keep a good conscience, and approve ourselves to God; how, in natural actions, eating, drinking, to season them with God's fear; and religious actions, how we may pray and worship, how to govern ourselves, our own hearts and affections; to converse with others in all relations, as fathers, children, masters, servants, magistrates, ministers, people ; and how to hold communion with God : all which are demonstrations of the sufficiency of the Scripture for our direction, and what reason there is that we should take the testimonies of God to be the men of our counsel.
Use II.-For reproof to those that turn the back upon God's counsels. Who are those ?
1. Such as neglect the general duties of Christianity, as faith and re
pentance. God hath given us counsel what to do in order to eternal life, and we regard it not. The great quarrel between God and sinners, is about the neglect of this counsel which he hath given them for their souls' good : “They set at nought all my counsel" (Prov. i. 25); and, verse 30 : “ They would none of my counsel.” Oh! when your friends have advised you, and you despise it, and take another course, it troubleth them. You know now heinously Ahithophel took it when his counsel was despised. Equals, when their counsel is despised, take it very ill; much more superiors when they give counsel. The entreaty and advice of a superior carrieth the force of a command. So it is here with God; it is called counsel, not as if it were an arbitrary thing whether we did regard it or not; but because of God's mild condescension, when men are in danger of perishing for ever, the Lord gives us counsel. You are in a miserable estate, he is pleased to tell you how to come out of your misery; the word of God therefore is called the counsel of God. It is sad when we shall reject the counsel of God: “They rejected the counsel of God against themselves" (Luke vii. 30). There are two sentences, they rejected the counsel of God, and it was against themselves; it was to their own loss and destruction. God loseth nothing when we despise his counsel ; but you lose all, your eternal happiness. This is so great an evil, that God punisheth it with itself. When men will not take God's counsel, then it is the most dreadful judgment he can lay upon us, to give us up to our own counsel (Psalm lxxxi. 11). O what a heavy judgment was it, to be given up to the counsels of their own heart!
2. It reproves such as do not consult with God's word about their affairs, but merely live as they are acted by their own lusts, or walk at all adventures ; so the expression in the marginal reading is (Lev. xxvi. 21). It is as the action falls; they do not care whether it please God, or be the rule of their duty, yea or nay. These are far from the temper of God's children. It is sad in persons, much more in nations, when men run headlong upon all manner of disorders, against right and honesty, it tends to ruin : “ They are a nation void of counsel : neither is there any understanding in them” (Deut. xxxii. 28).
3. Such as go flatly against the counsel of God, and to gratify their own interest pervert all that is just and honest : “ They rebelled against the word of the Lord, and contemned the counsel of the most High”. (Psalm cvii. 11). These do but expose themselves to speedy ruin. Bildad said of the wicked: “His own counsel shall cast him down” (Job. xvii. 7). They need no other means to ruin them, than their own brutish course. When men dare break the commandment of God without any reluctancy, to gratify a worldly interest, though for the present no evil comes of it, yet afterwards they shall smart: “Hear counsel, and receive instruction, that thou mayest be wise for thy latter end“ (Prov. xix. 20). Consider what it will come to afterwards, when thou comest to die; then you will wish, O that I had taken God's counsel, that I had not gone with such a daring spirit against the plain counsel of God's word !
4. Such as pretend to ask counsel from the word, but it is according to the idol of their own hearts; that come with their own conclusions, and preconceptions, and prejudices, against God's counsel : “Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their heart," &c. (Ezek. xiv, 3, 4). Men will come and pretend to ask God's counsel and leave upon their undertakings; when they are resolved upon a wicked enterprise before, then
God must be called upon, and sought to, and so they make God's ordinance a lacquey, merely to be a covert to their evil practices; as those in Jer. xlii. that came to the Prophet, and they were prepossessed, and had their resolutions aforehand.
Use III.-To press us to this consulting with the word of God, to make the testimonies of the Lord the men of our counsel. There are many qualifications and tempers of heart necessary. .
1. Fear of God: “What man is he that feareth the Lord : him shall he teach the way that he shall choose” (Psalm xxv. 12). He that is in doubt, and perplexed, and would have counsel from God's word; who is the man that is like to have it ? He that feareth the Lord. There is a great suitableness between the qualification and the promise : partly, he that fears God hath a greater awe of the word than others have, and is loath to do anything contrary to God's will : he would fain know what is God's mind in every particular case : “My heart standeth in awe of thy word” (Psalm cxix. 161). To offend God, and to baulk the direction of God's word, that is the greatest terror to him, greater than all other dangers. Now such a man is less apt to miscarry by the rashness and impetuous bent of carnal affections. And he that fears God, he aims at God's glory rather than his own interest, and so is rather swayed by reasons of conscience and religion, than of carnal concernments. Many times the doubtfulness that is upon the spirit, is because of conflicts between lust and knowledge ; our light is weakened by an inordinate affection to our own interests, otherwise we would soon come to the deciding our case by the word of God. Now he that would fain know God's mind in everything, this is the man whom God will direct. The
2nd. Qualification is the meek : “ The meek he will guide in judgment, and the meek he will teach his way” (Psalm xxv. 9). By the meek is meant a man humble, that will submit himself to God whatever condition he shall appoint. This man God in his word will teach and direct. The
3rd. Qualification mentioned in order to this, is a constant dependence upon God: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart ; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths" (Prov. iii. 5, 6). O! when a man is brought off from this spiritual idolatry of making his bosom to be his oracle, and his own heart to be his counsellor; when he doth in the poverty of his spirit humbly and entirely cast himself upon the help of God, and acknowledge him in all his ways, then he shall see a clear direction what God would have him to do. You have another place to this purpose: “Cause me to know the way wherein I should walk: for I lift up my soul unto thee” (Psalm cxliii. 8). O! when a man goes every morning to God, and desires the direction of his Spirit, and professeth to God in the poverty of his own spirit, that he knows not how to guide his way for that day, then God will teach him the way he shall walk. So, “ Show me thy ways, O Lord, teach me thy paths :" what is his argument ? “ on thee do I wait all the day” (Psalm xxv. 4, 5). When you live in a constant dependence upon God, then will the Lord undertake to direct and guide you.
4. Obedience or Christian practice, that is one of the qualifications that make you capable for direction from the word of God: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God" (Jobn vii. 17). A man does not know whether this opinion, or that, be according to God's mind, when there are plausible pretences on every side; he