Read Part 1 here
The events of late summer-early Fall in New England, described in Part 1 of this three-part essay, were fear-inducing to a high degree. The strange events culminated in an earth-shaking display of mighty power, ripping into the consciousnesses of thousands of slumbering Colonials at a quiet moment in the middle of the autumn night. People ran shrieking out of their homes in their night-clothes, never having experienced such an earthquake before.
Then as now, people try to make sense of the events. Many a preacher was spiritually burdened to preach about it on the next Sunday, and one such was the New England preacher, John Cotton. (1693-1757). The old Puritan preachers were learned, well-versed in the bible, and devout. Most importantly, they preached the correct response to an earth-shattering event: Holy Fear.
We don’t evidence much Holy Fear these days, it is not a popular topic. But Rev Cotton did, and here are a few excerpts to his eminently readable and wonderful sermon. I encourage you to read it in its entirety. Part 3 of this essay will examine how the people of today respond to a similar earth-shaking event. In his sermon, Rev Cotton lays out the procession of thought throughout:
DOCTRINE. The condition and circumstances of a people may be such that their flesh may well tremble for fear of God, and they may wisely be afraid of His judgments. In the prosecution of this doctrine I will show:
1. What is meant by the judgments of God and what judgments we are exposed to that we ought to be afraid of.
2. What is meant by trembling for fear of God and being afraid of His judgments.
3. That our condition and circumstance are such that we have abundant reasons and occasions to tremble and be afraid.
A Holy Fear of God and His Judgments
by John Cotton (1693-1757); Preached November 3, 1727
“My flesh trembleth for fear of Thee; and I am afraid of Thy judgments”
To fear God means that we adore His sovereignty and righteousness even in His awful dispensations and that we employ our serious, devout, and solemn thoughts on these an other glorious excellencies and perfections of Almighty God displayed in His judgments. They must be the subject of our frequent and solemn meditations so that we may always maintain in our hearts suitable apprehensions of the great God who sends His judgments upon us.
Surely the consideration thereof should fill us with the greatest fear and concern of spirit that God has been so provoked that He has had to come out against us in His anger and to threaten our utter ruin and desolation
Did we ever have more reason to stand trembling before God under fearful apprehensions of impending vengeance when we consider the many scandalous, provoking evils abounding among us including oppression, injustice, fraud, deceit, falsehood, evil speaking, pride contention, intemperance, drunkenness, unchastity, excessive and inordinate love of the world, and may I add, the rudeness and profaneness of young people? God Himself, and our duty to Him, is evidently neglected and forgotten by many, and a form of godliness is maintained and kept up without the life and power of it. The sacred and dreadful name of God is dishonored and blasphemed by profane cursing and swearing. His holy Sabbaths, instead of being strictly observed and sanctified, are very much profaned by idle, vain, trifling and unsuitable conduct. Some forsake the house of the Lord, frequently neglecting and needlessly staying away from the public worship of God. Has not manifold contempt been put upon the Lord’s holy ordinances and institutions? Are there not many who disregard coming to them in a serious and worthy manner? Must we not acknowledge that mutual Christian love and charity grow cold? Are not both the love of men to God and the love of men to their neighbors treated with a visible coldness and indifference that clearly mark the lack of the power of godliness? Alas, for this people!
Are not the iniquities I have just described, and many more, prevailing among us and testifying against us, loudly proclaiming our impiety and great degeneracy, declaring that we are an impenitent, incorrigible, and unreformed people still, ripening rapidly for a destruction without remedy? Surely then, if this is the case with us, we have reason to tremble for fear of God and to be greatly afraid of His judgments. We might wisely be afraid of temporal plagues and judgments of a far heavier and sorer nature than we have yet been visited with, for the transgressions of God’s covenant people are exceedingly provoking to Him and richly deserve to be severally punished. I beg of you, do not forget that our sins are the more offensive and provoking to God for we are a people in covenant with Him.
What awful symptoms there are of blindness and hardness of heart right in our midst. Ought we not to fear that men are dreadfully blinded and hardened in their sins when there is not so much as external reformation in connection with such an awful judgment of God as this earthquake?
We learn from this text that it is not cowardly to be afraid of God’s judgments but very agreeable to true Christian courage.
God is no fit match for us to contend with. No one has ever hardened himself against Him and prospered (Job 9:4). He is our Creator, we are His creatures. We are as clay in the hands of the potter. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. God cannot err on His end, as the princes of this world may in the execution of their displeasure through impotency or want of knowledge, for He is infinite in knowledge, wisdom, and power, and there in no comparison between infinite and finite. It is not cowardly then to fear God. Our Saviour advises us,
“Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
Such wise fear is agreeable to true Christian courage. This should be expressed in our lives by maintaining a reverential fear of God upon our minds, in fighting against the enemies of our salvation; in mortifying our lusts; in steadfastly persevering in all the duties of our holy religion; in not disobeying His commands, despising His judgments, scorning His rod or setting ourselves in opposition to His threatening, which is the most daring and prodigious folly and madness and will be found so in the end.
How very surprising and amazing was the first sudden shock and convulsion we felt! Our houses and beds were shaking, and the earth was trembling and reeling under us like, I suppose, none ever felt in this part of the world before. And how many times has the awful noise been repeated, though not to such a fearful degree? Well may the people in this city and in the country round about be filled with the surprise and consternation of which we see and hear. Multitudes seem to be under great conviction, distress, and concern about their soul and eternity. Oh, that the impressions might abide until conversion to God is accomplished and the great work of their salvation is completed.
Rev Cotton was fearful that the initial impressions regarding a just, angry, and powerful God would diminish in the light of day and diminish even further as time passed. How well the Reverend knew the sinful nature of craven men. But the response Cotton preached is the ONLY proper response to a God who is wroth with us. He is the Creator, we are His creatures! We are clay in the hands of the potter. We should fall down before Him, seeking forgiveness as we entreat Him to forgive our sins. But do we? Part 3 coming up.