In the previous part of this sermon we saw how many ways men fall from God; some by idolatry, some through lack of faith, some by neglecting their neighbors, some by not hearing God’s Word, some by taking pleasure in the vanities of worldly things. We also saw the depth of the misery of the man who has strayed from God; and how God of His infinite goodness, to call again man from that his misery, first uses gentle admonitions by His preachers, and afterward He sends terrible judgment. Now, if gentle admonition and threatening together do not produce repentance, then God will show His terrible countenance upon us; He will pour intolerable plagues upon our heads; and afterwards He will take away from us all the aid and assistance with which He previously defended us from all such manner of calamity. As the evangelical Prophet Isaiah, agreeing with Christ’s parable, teaches us, God made an excellent vineyard for his beloved children. He hedged it, He walled it round about, He planted it with chosen vines, and made a tower in the midst of it, and therein also a winepress; and when He looked for it to produce good grapes, it brought forth wild grapes [Isaiah 5]. And here is what follows: “Now shall I show you,” says God, “What I will do with my vineyard. I will pluck down the hedges so that it may perish; I will break down the walls so that it may be trodden under foot: 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 5:5-6].
By these judgments we are warned that if we who are the chosen vineyard of God do not bring forth good grapes—that is to say, good works—which are delectable and pleasant in His sight, when He looks for them, when He sends His messengers to call upon us for them, but rather bring forth wild grapes, that is to say works that are sour, unsavory, and unfruitful, then He will pluck away all defense and allow severe plagues of famine and battle, dearth and death to light upon us. Finally, if these do not serve the purpose, He will let us lie waste; He will give us over; He will turn away from us; He will dig and delve no more about us; He will let us alone, and allow us to bring forth whatever fruit we will: brambles, briers, and thorns, all naughtiness, all vice, and so abundantly that they shall completely overtake us, and shall choke, strangle, and utterly destroy us.
But those in this world who live not for God but for their own carnal liberty do not perceive how great God’s wrath is towards them when He will not dig nor delve any more about them, when He leaves them alone. Instead, they consider it a great benefit to be left to their own devices; and so they live as though 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, ungodly living results in endless destruction. The murmuring Israelites received what they longed for: they had quails enough, even until they were weary of them. But what was the result? Their sweet meat had sour sauce: even while the meat was in their mouths, the plague of God fell upon them, and suddenly they died. So, if we live wickedly and God allows us to follow our own wills, to have our own delights and pleasures, and does not correct us with some plague, there is no doubt that He is almost utterly displeased with us.
And, although it may be long before He strikes, many times when He strikes such persons, He strikes them at once forever. So that when He does not strike us, when He ceases to afflict us, to punish or beat us, and allows us to run headlong into all ungodliness and pleasures of this world that we delight in, without punishment and adversity, it is a dreadful sign that He no longer loves us, that He no longer cares for us, but has given us over to our own selves. As long as a man prunes his vines, digs at the roots, and lays fresh earth to them, he sees some evidence of fruitfulness that may be recovered in them. But when he ceases spending such cost and labor on them, it is a sign that he thinks they will never be good. And as long as a father loves his child, he looks angrily and corrects him when he misbehaves, but when he sees that those measures are ineffective and ceases from correction of his son and allows him to do what he wants to do, it is a sign that he intends to disinherit him and to cast him away forever.
So surely nothing should pierce our hearts so deeply, as well as put us in horrible fear, as when we know in our conscience that we have grievously offended God and continue in disobedience, and yet He strikes not, but quietly allows us to remain in the wickedness that we delight in. Then especially is it time to cry, and to cry again, as David did, “Do not cast me away from Your presence, And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me” [Psalm 51:11]. “Do not hide Your face from me; Do not turn Your servant away in anger” [Psalm 27:9]. “Do not hide Your face from me, Lest I be like those who go down into the pit” [Psalm 143:7]. Such prayers of lamentation, as they confirm to us the horrible danger in which men remain when God turns His face from them, should move and stir us to cry out to God with all our hearts so that we may not be brought into such a state, which is so sorrowful, so miserable, and so dreadful that no tongue can sufficiently express nor any heart think. For what deadly grief may a man suppose it is to be under the wrath of God; to be forsaken of Him; to have His Holy Spirit, the Author of all goodness, to be taken from him; to be brought to so vile a condition that he is suitable for no better purpose than to be forever condemned to hell! For not only do various passages written by David show that upon the turning of God’s face from any persons they shall be left bare from all goodness and far from hope of remedy, but also the passage cited from Isaiah 5 indicates the same: God at length so forsakes His unfruitful vineyard that He will not only allow it to bring forth weeds, briers, and thorns, but also, further to punish the unfruitfulness of it, He says He will not cut it, He will not deliver it, and He will command the clouds not to rain upon it. By this is signified the teaching of His Holy Word which St. Paul expresses in terms of planting and watering [I Corinthians 3:6-8], meaning that he will take that away from them so that they shall be no longer of His kingdom; they shall no longer be governed by His Holy Spirit; they shall be separated from the grace and benefits that they had, and might have continued to enjoy through Christ; they shall be deprived of the heavenly light and life they had in Christ while they abode in Him; they shall again be as they were once, men without God in this world [Ephesians 2:12], or rather, even worse off; and, in sum, they shall be given into the power of the devil, who rules all those who are cast away from God, as he did Saul and Judas, and generally all who operate by their own will, the children of mistrust and unbelief.
Therefore, good Christian people, let us beware lest we, rejecting God’s Word, by which we obtain and retain true faith in God, be not at length cast off so far that we become as the children of unbelief. They are of two sorts, which are quite different—in fact, almost total opposites—and yet both equally far from returning to God. The first sort, only comparing their sinful and detestable living with the right judgment and perfection of God’s righteousness, are so without counsel and so comfortless, (as is everyone from whom the Spirit of counsel [Isaiah 11:2] and comfort is gone,) that they will not be persuaded that God either can or will restore to them His favor and mercy. The second sort, hearing the loving and large promises of God’s mercy, yet not understanding the true nature of faith, make those promises larger than God ever did; trusting that, although they continue in their sinful and detestable living, God will at the end of their life show His mercy upon them, and then they will return. Both of these two sorts of men are in a damnable state: and yet nevertheless God, who wills not the death of the wicked, has shown means whereby both the same, if they take heed in time, may escape.
The first, as they dread God’s rightful justice in punishing sinners (whereby they should indeed be dismayed and should despair regarding any hope that may be in themselves), so if they would steadfastly believe that God’s mercy is the remedy appointed against such despair and distrust, not only for them, but generally for all who are sorry and truly repentant and will cling to God’s mercy, they may be sure they shall obtain mercy, and enter into the haven of safeguard. Those who enter this haven, regardless of how wicked they once were, shall be out of danger of everlasting damnation. According to God’s message delivered by Ezekiel, the very moment that the wicked turns from his sin and shows earnest and true repentance, God will forget all his wickedness [Ezekiel 33:12, 14-16, 19].
The second, as they are ready to believe God’s promises, so should they be just as ready to believe the judgment of God. They should believe the Law as well as the Gospel. They should believe both that there is a hell and everlasting fire and that there is a heaven and everlasting joy. They should believe damnation to be threatened to the wicked and evildoers, as much as they should believe salvation to be promised to the faithful in word and works. They should believe God to be true in the one as much as in the other. And sinners who continue in their wicked living ought to realize that the promises of God’s mercy and the Gospel do not pertain to them while they remain in that state, but only the Law and those Scriptures which speak of the wrath and indignation of God and His judgment. These passages should attest to them that as long as they presume upon God’s mercy and live dissolutely, God will gradually withdraw His mercy from them. Furthermore, He is eventually so provoked to wrath that He often destroys such presumptive people suddenly. For of such St. Paul said, “When they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them” [I 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 near the end of their life, has not promised to the presumptuous sinner either that he shall have long life or that he shall have true repentance at the end. For that purpose He has made every man’s death uncertain, so that he should not put his hope in returning in the end, and in the meantime, to God’s great displeasure, live an ungodly life.
Therefore let us all follow the counsel of the Wise Man:
Do not delay to turn back to the Lord, and do not postpone it from day to day; for suddenly the wrath of the Lord will come upon you, and at the time of punishment you will perish. [Ecclesiasticus 5:7]Let us therefore turn immediately: and, when we turn, let us pray to God as Hosea teaches, “Take away all iniquity; receive us graciously” [Hosea 14:2]. And, if we turn to Him with a humble and very penitent heart, He will receive us to His favor and grace for the sake of His holy Name, of His promise, of His truth and mercy promised to all faithful believers in Jesus Christ His only natural Son. To whom, the only Savior of the world, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, be all honor, glory, and power world without end. Amen.