Wilhelmus a’Brakel reflects upon man’s miserable condition before his conversion, with respect to his sinfulness, his deserving of punishment, and his impotency. Guaranteed not to be a best seller.
Our Misery: A Reflection upon our Sinfulness
Thus we have demonstrated to you the misery of man from various perspectives. We have done so in reference to the fall of Adam, original sin, actual sin, man’s impotency, and punishment upon sin. Do not rest in a mere external knowledge of all this, but make practical use of it, applying it all to yourself, and view yourself as such. Be it known to you, and impress it upon your heart, that you are the most miserable creature upon the face of the earth. If you could but perceive a glimmer of your misery, your hair would stand up straight from terror, your eyes would never fail to weep, and you would continually gnash your teeth and wring your hands. Therefore listen attentively to me as I address you. May the Lord cause you to see and feel all this, for you are miserable in many respects.
First, you are miserable in respect to your sinfulness. Go to Paradise and behold how ingeniously and gloriously you were created in Adam, enjoying sweet communion between God and your very own nature. Behold how willfully you have fallen away from God and have joined ranks with the devil. Having thus sinned, you have forfeited the glory of God. The image of God in which you were created in Adam has departed from you. Neither life, truth, love, holiness, nor glory are to be found in you. Instead, the appearance of a wretched black devil is within you.
Your soul is in an evil, devilish condition, and is blind and unable to receive the things of the Spirit of God. It is alienated from the life of God through ignorance, dead in sin, capable of devising and committing all manner of evil, having no other desire but for that which God hates, and having no contempt for anything but that which God delights in. Your soul wallows in filth, stench, abomination, and in that which is despicable and intolerable. Your soul is a pool teeming with all manner of hateful, envious, wrathful, evil, impure, unrighteous, deceitful, and proud thoughts—thoughts by which you forget, depart from, and despise God, all of which are abominable in nature. Your throat is an open sepulcher; with your tongue you use deceit. The poison of asps is under your lips, and your mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Your eyes, ears, hands, feet, and all the members of your body are instruments of unrighteousness; you are a servant of sin in the fullest sense of the word. You are of your father the devil, a prisoner of Satan, and the property of the devil. You are thus separated from God, desiring also to remain separated from Him, finding delight in your evil frame and deeds. In one word, inwardly and outwardly you are in a state of direct opposition and enmity towards the high, holy, and glorious God.
What aggravates the abominable nature of your existence, however, is that there is not one honest person to be found in your generation, but rather you belong to a generation which is despicable, hateful, evil, and impure. There is not one single individual in your entire genealogy—even if you trace back your genealogy for five thousand years, and thus to Adam— who by nature is not a liar, a murderer, a thief, a fornicator, and a horrendous monstrosity at heart. You are an unclean thing out of an unclean (Job 14:4), of the earth earthy (1 Cor. 15:47), by nature a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3), evil from your youth (Gen. 8:21). Give careful attention to these and similar passages of Scripture, and come into the presence of God. Hear these words as coming from the mouth of the Lord, hearing Him declaring you to be such a person.
Impress this upon your heart, and be convinced beyond any doubt that this is descriptive of you, since He declares you to be such. It is necessary that the view of your sinfulness exceeds that view which is the result of a mere believing in the Word of God. In order to be truly humbled and to be a suitable recipient of grace in Christ, there must be a sensible perception of this. For this purpose it is essential that you do not merely examine yourself in the mirror of the law of nature, measuring your deeds by that which nature teaches to be good or evil, but that you seek to acquire a thorough knowledge of your virtues and vices in light of the law of the ten commandments. For this purpose you should carefully read Lord’s Days 34 through 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Do not merely seek to acquire an extensive knowledge of the subject matter itself—that is, do not merely seek to discern what are good or evil thoughts, words, and deeds—but also consider their very nature as commandments, and consider that every deed must proceed:
(1) from a consciousness of being reconciled and united to God, so that one does not serve Him as a strange God and provoked Judge, but rather as an appeased Father;
(2) from a conscious submission of one’s self as creature to Him who only is Lord, who by virtue of His and our natures obligates us to be subject to Him in all things;
(3) from joyful willingness and obedience;
(4) from pure love;
(5) from a view and consciousness of His supremacy and majesty, and thus in the fear of His Name;
(6) from a joyful embracing of His will, solely because it is His will, so that our will is also swallowed up in His will;
(7) from an intense yearning that He alone be glorified, and that He alone is worthy of all honor and service, this being our sole objective;
(8) from an earnest zeal and devotion, until each deed be accomplished in all its particulars.
In one word, all things must be performed as proceeding from God, in dependence upon Him, and as before His countenance; and all must end in Him. With this in mind one will not be satisfied with the mere performance of one good deed, but will perceive how dreadfully one has fallen short—even in his best deeds, and thus how dreadful every sin is.
Be frequently engaged in this fashion, and examine your entire conversation both as to its internal and external dimensions. During the entire day give heed to your thoughts, words, and deeds, and sit down every evening to review the history of your behavior on that particular day. Proceed from hour to hour, from place to place, from one person to the next person with whom you have been in contact, from incident to incident as it occurred, and then consider your behavior in all these circumstances in view of each commandment. Identify the corruption of your nature as the fountain of all these things, and consider all that would have proceeded from this fountain if opportunity and inclination had given occasion for this. Add to this the aforementioned qualifications which are required for every action, in order that you may become acquainted with yourself. However, even that will not engender a truly perplexed, sensitive, and contrite frame, unless the Lord were to give you a view of His majesty, holiness, righteousness, and truth. He must cause you to see that sin is an act of denial, rejection, and contempt towards God, while simultaneously giving you an impression of the dreadfulness of its punishment. Only then will sin truly become a reality, and the sinner be perplexed. Only then will he need help and be driven to the Mediator, Christ. Behold, thus you are a horrendous and abominable monstrosity smothered in your sins.
Our Misery: A Reflection Upon the Punishment to Which We Are Subject
Secondly, you are miserable in view of being deserving of punishment. Proceed further to the consideration of the temporal and eternal punishments which are the consequences of sin. Contemplation upon the state in which you have come due to sin ought to make you shudder and tremble, considering that therefore you are not worthy to walk upon the face of the earth. It is a wonder that the earth still bears you and does not open its mouth to devour you alive. It is a wonder that fire does not come down from heaven to consume you with Sodom and Gomorrah and that the devil is not permitted to tear you to pieces and to drag your soul to hell. You are not worthy of inhaling air through your nostrils, of seeing the sun, and of having the canopy of heaven stretched out over you. You are not worthy of having a piece of bread to put in your mouth, nor a thread to cover your skin.
Lift up your eyes and think for a moment about God, the majestic, holy, and glorious God who is a terror to the sinner. Consider what David said regarding Him: “For Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with Thee. The foolish shall not stand in Thy sight: Thou hatest all workers of iniquity. Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing: the LORD will abhor the bloody and deceitful man” (Ps. 5:4–6). Paul spoke likewise: “But unto them that . . . do not obey the truth . . . indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish [shall come] upon every soul of man that doeth evil” (Rom. 2:8–9). Hear the thundering declaration in Galatians 3:10, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written . . . to do them.” Consider also 2 Thessalonians 1:8, “In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Oh my unconverted fellowman who does not wish to be drawn and wooed by the goodness of God, may God once cause you to perceive what His wrath is, to which you are subject, in order that you may be saved with fear!
Let me present this in more detail to you, hoping that in some measure it may move you.
(1) Take note of God’s own expressions in this regard. “Thou, even Thou, art to be feared: and who may stand in Thy sight when once Thou art angry?” (Ps. 76:7); “Who knoweth the power of Thine anger? even according to Thy fear, so is Thy wrath” (Ps. 90:11); “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). (2) Consider the anxiety of the saints when God hides His countenance from them and when He causes but a glimpse of His anger to be seen by them. David feared this and therefore prayed, “O LORD, rebuke me not in Thine anger, neither chasten me in Thy hot displeasure” (Ps. 6:1). Jeremiah could endure anything, but he feared the wrath of God, for he said, “Be not a terror unto me” (Jer. 17:17). How Job complained of this! “For the arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit: the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me” (Job 6:4). Heman expressed his anxiety as follows, “Thy fierce wrath goeth over me; Thy terrors have cut me off” (Ps. 88:16).
(3) Observe and consider how the Lord Jesus, the Surety of the elect, became a curse, and how He endured all misery and anxiety. Consider how He was assaulted by the devil, was rejected, despised, and mocked of men, was condemned and put to death on the cross. Consider how the wrath of God pressed Him down and caused Him to be sorrowful unto death. He was engaged in a fierce battle, and was sorrowful and very heavy. He sweat an abundance of blood which fell in drops from His face to the earth; He crawled as a worm upon the earth. He prayed and mourned, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Such was the heaviness of His task in atoning for the sins of His elect.
(4) If this does not move you, proceed to observe the dreadful pit of damnation, and listen to the gnashing of teeth, the weeping, the frightful shriek, “Woe, woe, woe,” the terror, and the violent raging of the conscience of the damned in the eternal fire. Consider that to all eternity they will never enjoy one beam of light, nor one quiet moment, but will eternally be overcome with inexpressible despair knowing they will never be delivered as well as be subject to an inexpressible perception of the wrath of God.
In all quietness you ought to meditate upon the state of damnation. First of all, what will it be to have a soul and body which cannot find fulfillment within itself and thus cannot be satisfied unless this fulfillment comes from elsewhere, which, however, will be lacking to all eternity. There will not be the least refreshment, neither will there be food, drink, light, sleep, nor companionship by which one could find some delight in conversation. On the contrary, there will be an infinite separation from God, angels, the godly, joy, and glory. At the present time one may be able to forget his unhappiness and sorrow by a variety of means and thus feel no sorrow concerning that of which he is deprived. Then, however, it will be unbearable when these various means are removed. What dreadful despair will this yield for the unfulfilled and sorrowing soul!
Secondly, consider how the soul, against its will, will continually be compelled to think upon all the benefits which it had received of God in this life as far as the body is concerned. He will also be compelled to think upon the means of grace received, and the sermons and ministers by which he was admonished and rebuked, exhorting him to repent, and indeed, constraining him to do so. The soul will think upon all divine conviction within the conscience, as well as the deliberate rejection, despising, opposition towards, and contradiction of all the means of grace, as well as towards those who with words and deeds convicted them.
Thirdly, consider how dreadful it will be when all committed abominations will continually come to mind, and when these, one by one, will be vividly recalled together with all the abominable circumstances attending each of them.
Fourthly, consider what it will be when the ungodly will blame God for not having converted them as others, and for not having ushered them into heaven as others, but instead depriving them eternally of all grace. Consider what it will be when, in their wickedness, they will lash out at God with every imaginable blasphemy.
Fifthly, consider how dreadful and terrifying it will be when the eternal wrath of God will continually overwhelm the soul, causing it unbearable pain, and all the perfections of God will simultaneously manifest themselves against the soul. How dreadful and terrifying this will be! What eternal despair this will engender!
Behold, you who hear or read this, you have deserved all this. Perhaps many of you, due to your failure to repent and the hardness of your hearts, will experience this and have your portion in this lake which burns with sulfur and brimstone. Perhaps this will be your portion within a few days. Be alarmed, tremble, and repent, in order that you may escape the manifestation of this wrath. Perhaps all of this may not even affect you. This one or that one may perhaps think that he is too strong mentally to be seriously disturbed by all these things.
Perhaps such a person can rationally respond to all this and quiet his conscience. I assure you, however, that when God causes one’s heart to tremble, he most certainly will become aware that a terrified conscience alone will cause him unbearable distress. Even a rustling leaf will cause him to tremble. Oh that you would quietly and intelligently consider and believe these things, applying all this to yourself if you are still unconverted—in order that your heart might be appalled by all this, as to whether it would please the Lord to grant you conversion!
Perhaps someone else, in response to the presentation of these matters, may think, “since God is gracious and merciful, I hope for better things. I hope that He will keep me from hell.” My response to this is that, first of all, mercy must have an object which is pitifully miserable. You, however, are hatefully miserable, and there is nothing in you which would move God to be merciful. You are Lo–ruhamah: no more to have mercy (Hosea 1:6), hateful (Titus 3:3), “the generation of His wrath” (Jer. 7:29), to be loathed and not to be pitied by anyone (Ezek. 16:5), an abhorrence (Ps. 5:6), and a generation of vipers (Mat. 3:7). Who would have compassion upon an injured toad or snake? Man either continues to kill them or at least gets rid of them. In like fashion you are hateful and abominable, and therefore you are not to comfort yourself with the mercy of God. God is just and cannot allow any sin to go unpunished. God’s grace does not consist in permitting any sin to go unpunished. Grace is God’s ordination and sending forth of a Surety whom He has punished in the stead of His elect. It is grace that He, by means of the gospel, causes this Surety to be proclaimed and offered. It is grace that He bestows the gift of faith on someone, enabling him to receive this Surety. It is grace when He converts someone and sanctifies him. It is grace when He, by virtue of the merits of this Surety, leads someone to eternal felicity in the way of sanctification. Therefore you who are not upon this way have no reason to comfort yourself with grace, for that is deceiving yourself to your eternal damnation. In addition to your hatefulness, God can also not tolerate you because you neither cease from sinning, nor from provoking, reviling, and despising Him continually. Furthermore, you also exalt yourself above God. By all this you demonstrate that you ignore God’s threatenings, and rather continue boldly in sin. It is as if you are saying, “God may do whatever He wishes, but I don’t care. I will live as I please, and I will refrain from or do whatever I wish.” In addition to this you show that you desire to be honored, feared, loved, obeyed and served by men—desiring that with all these deeds they would end in you. Do not you thus establish yourself as a god? Therefore, abominable and intolerable creature, do not imagine that your misery will move God to be merciful.
Secondly, God’s justice will not permit sin to go unpunished. God’s majesty, which you have trampled under foot, His holiness, and His truth demand satisfaction by the bearing of punishment. Therefore the sinner can neither hope for grace, nor for mercy—and he will certainly find himself deceived in his hope—unless he has an interest in the Surety Jesus Christ. Therefore, oh man, be alarmed about your condition and be convicted of your abominable and damnable nature, for to be sensible of this is the initial manifestation of grace.
Our Misery: A Reflection upon our Impotency
Thirdly, you are miserable in view of your impotency . Your condition is that you are abominable, condemnable, and forsaken of God and all creatures. Come then, be a hero and save yourself if you can. This is, however, absolutely impossible, for your salvation requires the perfect satisfaction of God’s justice by the bearing of all temporal and eternal punishments, and a perfect holiness. This the justice of God requires, for God can only justify a just man and can by no means clear the guilty. He cannot grant the right to eternal life to a man unless the conditions of the covenant, upon which eternal felicity was promised, have been fulfilled. And now, oh miserable one, what will you do? What can you give as a ransom for your soul? You cannot bring that which is eternal to a conclusion, neither by suffering punishment can you make full satisfaction and be acquitted as one who has satisfied the requirements of justice. You are not able to deliver yourself from the pollution of your sinful state and adorn yourself with internal and external holiness which is both perfect and pure. Thus you cannot present yourself before God as pleasing in His sight, saying with boldness, “Here I am; enter into judgment with me and judge me according to Thy justice.” If only you may perceive this to some degree (I do not even mention the things which precede this), you must be convinced of your impotency and cry out, “Oh, wretch that I am! I cannot help myself, and I sink away in my misery. Where must I go? Woe unto me!”
Now consider all this together, and take some time to meditate on how completely abominable, condemnable, and hopeless your situation is. If you are unconverted, it may be a means to stir you up to seek and to ask, “Is there yet help? Is there no hope? Is there yet a way whereby I may be saved?” If you are then directed to Jesus Christ as the way, He will become precious, and you will earnestly seek to become a partaker of Him by faith. If you are converted, the contemplation upon the state of sin, no matter what it may have been for you prior to your conversion, will make and keep you humble; it will teach you to esteem Christ highly and to make use of Him continually. It will motivate you to glorify God, this being an expression of gratitude for sending His Son to deliver poor sinners through Him and to lead them to eternal felicity.
(From Wilhelmus a’Brakel, "The Christian's Reasonable Service"
, pp. 417-425)