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Personal Covenanting by Thomas Manton Part 1

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Personal Covenanting by Thomas Manton Part 1

Sermon 114 on Psalm 119

Verse 106, “I have sworn, and I will perform it, that I will keep thy righteous judgments.”

IN the former verse, David had commended the word for a sure direction: it is a light and a lamp; how so? Not only by God’s designation and appointment, but by David’s choice: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Now, in this verse, he speaks of his firmness and constancy to that choice, ‘I have taken thy word for my guidance and direction,’ and there he did resolve to stick; his constancy was grounded upon a vow, or upon a promissory oath, which he saw no cause to retract, or repent of; “I have sworn, and I will perform it,” &c.

In which words, you may observe,—

1. The strength of David’s resolution and purpose, expressed in his oath; not, I must, or I will keep; but, “I have sworn,” &c. {410}

2. The matter of this purpose, or oath; and that was to keep God’s judgments.

3. One great motive and reason that inclined him so to do, in the words, “Thy righteous judgments;” the marvellous equity that was to be observed in the things commanded by God.

4. The conscience that lay upon him of observing this oath, “I will perform it.” As if he had said, ‘I saw a great deal of reason to make the promise so solemnly to God; and I see no reason at all to retract it.’

Four points I shall observe:—

1. That it is not only lawful, but good and profitable, to bind ourselves to our duty, by a vow, solemnly declared purpose, and holy oath; so David, “I have sworn.”

2. That this help of an oath or vow should be used in a matter lawful, weighty, and necessary: “I have sworn,” saith David; but what hath he sworn? To “keep thy righteous judgments,”—a great duty which God had enjoined him in his covenant.

3. Those that are entered in the bond of a holy oath, must religiously observe and perform what they have sworn to God, “I have sworn, and I will perform.”

4. That we may perform our oaths, and lie under a sense and conscience of our engagements to God, it is good that they should be often revived and renewed upon us; for so doth David here recognize his oath, “I have sworn,” &c.

DOCTRINE I.—That it concerns us sometimes to bind ourselves to God, and the duty that we owe to him, by an oath.

First, That it is lawful so to do, appears from God’s injunction and the practice of the saints.

1st, From God’s injunction. He hath commanded us to accept of the Gospel-covenant; and not barely so, but to submit unto the seals and rites by which it is confirmed; which submission of ours implieth an oath made to God. Baptism is our sacramentum militare, sacramental vow, our oath of allegiance to God, and therefore it is called, επερωτημα, “the answer of a good conscience towards God” (1 Peter 3.21), an answer upon God’s demands in the covenant. God does, as it were, in the covenant of grace, put us to the question, ‘Will you renounce all your sins, and all the vanities you have doted upon?’ And we answer to God, enter into a solemn oath, that we will renounce sin, that we will accept of Christ as our Saviour, and will walk before him in all holy obedience. Among the Romans, when any soldier was pressed for war, he took an oath to serve his captain faithfully, and not to forsake him; and then he was called miles per sacramentum, a soldier by sacrifice, or by oath; and sometimes one took an oath for all the rest, and the others only said, ‘The same oath he took, the same do I;’ and these were called milites per conjurationem et milites evocati. Thus every Christian is a professed soldier of Christ; he hath sworn to become the Lord’s, to cleave faithfully to him; and this oath, that it may not be forgotten, is renewed at the Lord’s Supper, where again we solemnly engage, by the public rites that are there used, to stand to our covenant. We do not only come and take God’s enfeoffment,[1] take a pledge out of God’s hands, to be assured of the privileges of the covenant; but we bind ourselves to perform the duty thereof: for, as the blood of the beast that was offered in the sacrifice, which is called there the {411} blood of the covenant, was sprinkled, not only upon the altar, to show that God was engaged to bless, but sprinkled half upon the people, to show they were engaged to obey; there was a confirmation of that promise made to God, “All that the Lord hath said will we do” (Exod. 24.6-8). Well now, if God thought such a course necessary and profitable for us, certainly we may, upon occasion, use the like means for our confirmation, for our strengthening in the work of obedience. That there is such a vow expressed, or implied, in every prayer, may be easily made good in the whole tenour of our Christianity; therefore, certainly, it is lawful so to do, to make our duty more urgent and explicit upon our souls, by solemn vow and serious oath of dedication of ourselves to God’s use and service.

2ndly, The practice of the saints who have publicly and privately engaged themselves to God, doth show the lawfulness of it. Public instances: “They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord God of their fathers, with all their heart and with all their soul, &c. And they sware unto the Lord,” &c. (2 Chron. 15.12-14.) So in Josiah’s time: “And the king stood in his place, and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep his commandments,” &c. (2 Chron. 34.31.) So, they entered “into an oath to walk in God’s law” (Neh. 10.29). And for private oaths; we have David’s instance here in the text; and, “I made a covenant with mine eyes” (Job 31.1). He had bound himself by a holy vow and purpose, to guard his senses, and take heed his heart did not take fire by the gazing of his eye, that it was not inflamed with lust and sin.

Secondly, That it is convenient so to do.

1st, To answer God’s love and condescension to us in the covenant. God thinks he can never be bound fast enough to us, and therefore interposeth by an oath. An oath is properly conversant about a doubtful matter, of which there is some question or scruple, which cannot otherwise be decided: then, the law saith, he should give his oath to his neighbour. Why, then, doth the Lord swear? is there any doubtfulness in his promises? No; the Apostle saith, the Lord swears, being willing over and above to give the heirs of promise ample satisfaction (Heb. 6.18). Now, for God that cannot lie, and whose word is above all assurance, to stoop to us, and put himself to an oath, certainly this should work upon our hearts, and draw from us some answerable return on our part, there being great and visible danger of our breaking with God, none of God’s breaking with us: therefore, that we may not play fast and loose with him, we should come under this engagement to him of vow and public promise to God.

2ndly, To testify our affection to his service, we should put ourselves under the highest and most sacred bonds that can be found out. Many have some slight and wandering motions towards God, and cold purposes of serving him, which soon vanish, and come to nothing; but now, it argueth the heart is more thoroughly bent and set towards God, and that we have a deep sense of our duty, when we seriously confirm our purpose by a vow and holy oath. There are divers sorts of men in the world, some that are of that spirit as to break all bonds, cast away all cords, and think they can never be loose enough in point of religion (Psalm 2.3): they seek to deface and blot out of their conscience the natural sense which they have of religion, and of their duty to God, and so give up themselves headlong to all manner of impiety. There are others have some cold approbation {412} of the way of God, and which manifests itself by some faint, weak, and wavering purposes, and slight attempts upon religion, but are soon discouraged, and never come to a fixed resolution, or serious dedication or surrender of themselves to the Lord’s use. Now, a gracious heart thinks it can never be bound fast enough to God; therefore doth not only approve the ways of God, or desire to walk therein, but issues forth a purpose, a practical decree in his soul. Besides the approbation of conscience, there is a desire of heart; and this desire backed with a purpose, and this promise backed with an oath, which is the highest way of obligation; and thus doth he dedicate himself to the Lord and his service, in the strictest way of expressing his consent; for an oath binds more than a promise.

Thirdly, It is very profitable so to do, because of our backwardness, laziness, and fickleness.

1st, Because of our backwardness, we need to thrust forth the heart into the ways of obedience; for we hang off from God. Though we are his by every kind of right and title, yet we are very slow of heart to do his will; and therefore an oath is profitable to increase the sense of our duty. A threefold cord is not easily broken. Now, there is a triple tie and bond upon a man.

1. There is God’s natural right that he hath over us and to our service, the sovereignty and dominion that he hath over us. We are not free, as to obedience, before the oath, but are bound by creation; for God hath created us, not only as he created other things, ultimately and terminatively, but immediately for his service. All things were created for his glory, so that ultimately they are for his use; but the proper end and use wherefore man was created, was for the immediate service of God. He that planteth a vine, expecteth fruit from it. By continual preservation, he giveth us maintenance, and therefore justly expecteth service. By redemption, as having bought us with a dear price (1 Cor. 6.20). From all which there resulteth a natural duty which we owe to him as our sovereign, and he may command us what he will.

2. There is the bond of voluntary consent, that our duty may be more active and urging upon our hearts. God doth not only interpose his own authority, and command us to keep his laws diligently (Psalm 119.4); but requires a consent on the creature’s part. All treaties and tenders of grace are made to draw us to this consent, that we may voluntarily and by the inclination of our own hearts present ourselves before the Lord, and yield up ourselves to his service (Rom. 6.13).

3. Besides this, there is the bond of an oath, which is the strictest way of voluntary resolution, and highest engagement that a man can make; therefore, when the heart is so backward, and hangs off from God and duties we owe to him, it is good to declare our assent in the most solemn way. That the saints have made use of purposes thus solemnly declared in case of backwardness, appears in Scripture. David, when his heart was shy of God’s presence, and had sinned away his liberty and peace, and so could not endure to come to God, what course doth he take? He issues forth a practical decree in his soul, and bound his heart by a fixed purpose that he would come to God (Psalm 32.5). So, Acts 11.23, he exhorteth them with full purpose of heart to draw nigh to God; it should be the fixed resolution of the soul; and, “Who is this that engaged his heart to approach unto me, saith the Lord?” (Jer. 30.21.) We {413} should lay the strongest bonds and engagements we possibly can, whereby God’s authority may be backed, and his right confirmed, by the most solemn assent that we can make.

2ndly, In regard of our fickleness and inconstancy; we are slippery, off and on with God: “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (James 1.8). We have unsettled hearts; and, when we meet with temptations from without, we shall soon give up the first assault, and so be now for God, anon for Satan; therefore, this is a lawful and sanctified means to help us to constancy. Indeed, before we come to this fixed, settled purpose, we lie open to temptation; and, when our first heats are spent, we tire and wax weary in the Lord’s service: therefore we had need make the most sacred engagements to God, that we may keep to God, and persist in our duty. Now, a solemn oath seems to be most serviceable for this use; why? For it implies a severe and dreadful imprecation. In an oath, God is not only invoked as a witness, but as a judge. We appeal to his omnisciency for the sincerity of our hearts in making promise, and to his vindictive power as a judge, if we shall act contrary to what we have sworn. Saith Plutarch, Every oath implies a curse, or a desire of vengeance, in case of the breach of that oath; therefore it is said, They “entered into a curse, &c., to walk in God’s law” (Neh. 10.29); that is, a curse in case of disobedience. And this was supposed to be the meaning of that rite by which they were wont to confirm their covenants. When the calf was cut in twain (Jer. 34.18), they did, as it were, devote themselves thus to be cut in twain, and torn in pieces, and to be destroyed as that creature was, if they violated the covenant thus solemnly sworn; and, though this imprecation or execration should not be expressed, yet every promissory oath necessarily implies a curse in case of unfaithfulness. Well now, this is a good means to keep us constant, when we have bound ourselves to God upon such strict terms; therefore some derive ορκος from ειργω, a hedge, because it is as a hedge to keep us within the compass of our duty, and confirm our hearts in that which is good. Well then, because of our fickleness, it is not enough to leave the soul to the mere bonds of duty, but confirm our resolution by an oath. I may illustrate this by that passage, when Hooper, the blessed martyr, was at the stake, and the officers came to fasten him to it, saith he, ‘Let me alone; God, that hath called me hither, he will keep me from stirring; and yet, because I am but flesh and blood, I am willing, tie me fast, lest I stir.’ So we may say in this case, though the authority of God, commanding his right in us and sovereignty over us, is reason enough to enforce the duty we owe to him, and bind the heart, and sway the conscience; yet, because of the weakness of our hearts, we should make this bond the more urging upon us, by a solemn consent thus ratified and confirmed by the solemnity of an oath, vow, or promise made to God.

3rdly, It will be very profitable, because of our laziness. By resolution we are quickened to more seriousness and diligence. When a man hath the bond of an oath upon him, then he will make a business of religion; whereas, otherwise, he will make but a sport, and a thing he only regards by-the-by. Oh! but, when his heart is fixed, this is the thing he will look after (Psalm 27.4). When our heart is set upon a thing, we follow it close; and, when it is so set upon a thing as that we have bound ourselves by the strictest bonds we can lay upon our heart, it will engage us more seriously. {414}

DOCTRINE II.—This help of an oath, or holy vow, should be used in a matter lawful, weighty, necessary.

First, In a matter lawful. There is a vow and covenanting in that which is evil, as those that bound themselves with a curse, that they would not eat or drink until they had killed Paul (Acts 23.12). And many will make a vow and promise with themselves, that they will never forgive their neighbour such an offence; and we read of a covenant made with death and Hell; whether it be meant of the king of Babylon or not, as he is called death and Hell by the Prophet, some evil covenant is intended thereby; and thus a vow is made the bond of iniquity, and must be broken rather than kept, or, indeed, it must not be made. To vow that which is sinful, this is like the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, offered to the Lord for a vow (Deut. 13.18).

Secondly, It must be in a matter weighty, necessary, and acceptable unto God. There are two things come under our vow and oath.

1st, That which is our necessary work, religious obedience to God in the way of his commandment; for this is not a rash and unnecessary vow, but that we were sworn to in baptism: this is that which David promiseth here, “I have sworn, and I will perform it, that I will keep thy righteous judgments.” And this is the vow which Jacob made, though there was something of a particularity, he adds to it; but the substance of it was this, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, &c., then shall the Lord be my God” (Gen. 28.20,21). There are many that will vow and promise trifles, and so infringe their own Christian liberty, and needlessly bind themselves in chains of their own making, where God hath left them free. This help is for the weighty things of Christianity, not for by-matters. Those monkish by-laws have filled the world with superstition, not with religion; while they have been only conversant about some indifferent things, as pilgrimages, abstinences from meats, and marriages, wherein they place the height of Christian perfection.

2ndly, Helps to obedience. Such things as we shall find to be helps, and do conduce to the removal of impediments, such should come under a vow and solemn promise to God: “I made a covenant with my eyes” (Job 31.1); that was a help to the preserving of his chastity, that he would not allow himself to gaze, to take a view of the beauty of others. And the Apostle, when it was for the glory of God, makes a vow, or kind of solemn promise, that he would take no maintenance in Achaia (2 Cor. 11.10); he solemnly binds himself, that he might not hinder the progress of the Gospel. So, when we find our heart ready to betray us by this or that evil occasion, we may in this case interpose a vow and promise; but then with this caution, that we do not unreasonably destroy our Christian liberty, and so occasion a snare to our souls; and that we do not think this to be a perfect cure of these distempers, while we neglect the main things; as many will make a vow to play no more at such a game, or drink no more at such a house, or use such a creature, or come into such a particular company; and so place all their religion in these things. This is but like cutting off the branches, when the root remains; or stopping one hole in a leaky or ruinous ship and vessel, when everywhere it is ready to let in water upon us, and to be broken in pieces. Therefore, when you rest in those by-matters, without resolving to cleave to God in a course of obedience, it is but like mending a hole in the wall of a house, when the {415} whole building is on fire; or troubling ourselves with a sore finger, when we are languishing of a consumption: it is but stopping this or that particular sin, when the whole soul lies under the power and slavery of the kingdom of Satan.

OBJECTION.—But here is a doubt may arise, ‘How can I promise to keep God’s laws, since it is not in my power to do it exactly, it is impossible?’

ANSWER.—1. When David saith, “I have sworn,” &c., he speaks not from a presumption of his own strength, but only declareth the sense of his duty, and useth his oath as a sanctified means to bind his heart to God; and therefore it is not to exclude the power of God’s grace, or to presume of his own strength: God’s assistance is best expected in God’s way.

2. Such vows and promises, they are always to be interpreted to be made in the sense of the covenant of grace; for no particular voluntary or accessary covenant of ours, can take away the general covenant wherein we stand engaged to God, but rather it must be included in it: therefore, when David saith, “I will keep thy righteous judgments,” he means according to the sense of the covenant of grace; that is, expecting help for duties, and pardon for failings.

(1.) As expecting help from God; for so the new covenant gives strength to observe what it requires. Lex jubet, Evangelium juvat; the law enforceth duty, the covenant of grace helps us to perform the duty required of us. The Gospel, it is a “ministration of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3.8); and therefore promissory oaths, according to the sense of the new covenant, are made with a confidence upon the Lord’s strength and assistance.

(2.) Seeking pardon for his failings. Infirmities may stand with the covenant of grace, provided we crave mercy, and recover ourselves by repentance, and so make no final breach with God; therefore this is a keeping according to the measure of grace received, and as human frailty will permit.

Briefly then, When are sins to be looked upon as infirmities, and not as perjuries and breach of covenant?

ANSWER: When we would not voluntarily yield to the least sin; but in case of great sin, we grow more watchful, more humble, more holy; when our falls are such as David’s, when he had fallen foully: “Thou shalt make me to know wisdom” (Psalm 51.6). When upon our failings we are more ashamed of ourselves, more afraid of our weakness, more earnest to renew our former resolutions, more careful to wait upon God for grace to perform what he hath required of us, more watchful, more circumspect; when we begin to grow wise by our own smarting,—in such cases an oath is not broken. Look, as every failing of the wife doth not dissolve the marriage covenant, so every failing on our part doth not dissolve the covenant between God and us; and therefore, though there will be some infirmities, yet, when we are careful to sue out our pardon in the name of Christ Jesus, and you shall by your failings be more watchful, circumspect, then we keep the covenant in a Gospel sense.

DOCTRINE III.—That, when we have sworn obedience to God, we must religiously perform and observe what we have sworn to God.

So, “Vow, and pay unto the Lord” (Psalm 76.11). When we come under the bond of a vow, we must be careful to make payment; it is a binding upon the heart. See how it is expressed: “If a man vow a vow {416} unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word” (Numb. 30.2). When we have bound ourselves with a bond; that is, when we have increased our bonds (for the ingeminating words in the Hebrew do exceedingly increase the sense), when a man is bound upon a bond, he should not play fast and loose with God, but be very careful to perform what he hath sworn. God, on his part, hath sworn to the covenant, and he is constant in all his promises; and certainly he expects the like constancy from us, especially when we are so deeply bound, not only by his laws and obligation of his mercies, but by the solemn consent of our own vows; we have bound ourselves then to keep them, whether we will or no. Now, what reasons are there why we must perform?

First, The same motives that inclined us at first to take our oath, should persuade us to keep it, whatever falls out. After trial, we shall see no cause to repent of our resolution; for God is ever the same that he was, and his commands are ever the same in all his righteous judgments, holy, just, good, profitable to the creature. Christians! if we meet with any change in our outward condition, any new impediments, oppositions, and discouragements, that we were not aware of when we first entered into our oath, it was our rashness; for we should sit down and count the charges, we should allow for it. The first article of the new covenant was, that we should deny ourselves (Matt. 16.24), and after vows we should not make inquiry, but before (Prov. 20.25). When we are bound, we must take our lot and hazard; and, whatever comes, we must perform them to God.

Secondly, Because our oath is a further aggravation of our sin, therefore better never swear than not to keep it: “Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow, and not pay” (Eccl. 5.5). God is mocked by an oath and a covenant, when it is not observed. A man that refuseth to be listed, doth not meet with the like punishment as he that runs from his colours; so he that never came under the oath of God, doth not sin so much as he that hath sworn to his covenant: that which is but simple fornication in the Gentiles, in Christians it is adultery, breach of vow. Indeed, in things that are absolutely and indispensably necessary to salvation, we are bound to consent. Ay; but, when a consent, thus solemnly made, is broken, it aggravates the sin, but, when we shall be like the man in the Gospel that was possessed with the Devil, whom no chains could hold fast, when neither the bond of duty nor the bonds of our own oaths and engagements will hold us, but we break all cords, the greater is our rebellion and disobedience to God.

Thirdly, Therefore must we perform the obedience that we have sworn to God, because God hath been ever a severe and just avenger of breach of covenants: by way of argument, a minori ad majus, [from the lesser to the greater], those made with man; and therefore certainly he will avenge his covenant so solemnly made with himself; and everywhere in Scripture you will find it is propounded as a sure mark of vengeance. When one man hath sworn to another, and hath called upon the Most High God to confirm that covenant that he makes with him, if there be a failure, a trespass, though it be in point of omission, God hath avenged that covenant. An instance of this you have Amos 1.9, “For three transgressions of Tyrus, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they delivered up the whole captivity of Edom, and remembered not the brotherly covenant.” Tyrus and Judah, they were in covenant one with another, a mutual league offensive and defensive that was solemnly sworn: now, though God had many {417} causes of his vengeance, and many quarrels with Tyrus, because of their idolatries, but chiefly because of breach of covenant, they forgat the friendship that was between the children of Israel and Judah, and did not assist the people of Judah as they should, and were bound to do, but suffered them to be led into captivity, and spoiled by the Edomites and other nations. So for a sin of commission: it is spoken of as a mark of sore vengeance: “He hath put forth his hand against such as be at peace with him: he hath broken his covenant” (Psalm 55.20). In those federal transactions and oaths that pass between man and man, God takes himself to be specially interested, and will see that the breach of them be severely punished. The next step is, not only between equals, but when a covenant hath been made with servants and poor underlings, and [their superiors] would not set them free at the year of jubilee, see how severely God threatens them for the breach of it (Jer. 34.16-18); nay, a covenant made with enemies (Ezek. 17.18,19): nay, carry it one gradation higher; though the covenant were extorted by fraud, as the covenant made with the Gibeonites (Josh. 9.19,20). They were part of the Canaanites, and God severely enjoined the Israelites that they should cut off all those nations; yet, when they craftily got them into covenant, when this people were wronged by Saul, the Lord takes notice of it (2 Sam. 21.1-3). See how God judgeth for them: there were three years’ famine and pestilence which was not appeased, until Saul’s sons were hanged before the sun. Now, the Lord hath ever been such a severe avenger of an oath between man and man, between his people and their servants, between his people and their enemies, and when extorted from them: certainly, in such a solemn covenant as he hath made between us and himself, and that in things absolutely necessary, in things enjoined before the covenant was made, it is not safe to break with God. Ananias, when he vowed a thing to the Lord, though he was free before, God strikes him dead. It is not free with us whether we will obey, yea or nay, what is enjoined upon us; therefore, when we will break with God, what can we expect, but that he will avenge the quarrel of his covenant?

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