This may serve to teach us the danger of allowing to any mortal man an inordinate measure of power to speak great things: to allow to any man uncontrollableness of speech; you see the desperate danger of it.
Let all the world learn to give mortal men no greater power than they are content they shall use -- for use it they will. And unless they be better taught of God, they will use it ever and anon: it may be, make it the passage of their proceeding to speak what they will. And they that have liberty to speak great things, you will find it to be true, they will speak great blasphemies. No man would think what desperate deceit and wickedness there is in the hearts of men. And that was the reason why the beast did speak such great things; he might speak and nobody might control him: "What," saith the Lord (in Jer. 3. 5), "thou hast spoken and done evil things as thou couldst." If a church or head of a church could have done worse, he would have done it. This is one of the strains of nature: it affects boundless liberty, and to run to the utmost extent. Whatever power he hath received, he hath a corrupt nature that will improve it in one thing or other; if he have liberty, he will think why may he not use it?
Set up the Pope as Lord Paramount over kings and princes, and they shall know that he hath power over them; he will take liberty to depose one and set up another. Give him power to make laws, and he will approve and disapprove as he list: what he approves is canonical, what he disapproves is rejected. Give him that power, and he will so order it at length, he will make such a state of religion, that he that so lives and dies shall never be saved; and all this springs from the vast power that is given to him and from the deep depravation of nature. He will open his mouth: "His tongue is his own, who is Lord over him" (Psal. 12. 3, 4).
It is therefore most wholesome for magistrates and officers in church and commonwealth never to affect more liberty and authority than will do them good, and the people good: for whatever transcendent power is given will certainly overrun those that give it and those that receive it. There is a strain in a man's heart that will sometime or other run out to excess, unless the Lord restrain it; but it is not good to venture it.
It is necessary, therefore, that all power that is on earth be limited, church-power or other. If there be power given to speak great things, then look for great blasphemies, look for a licentious abuse of it. It is counted a matter of danger to the state to limit perogatives; but it is a further danger not to have them limited. A prince himself cannot tell where he will confine himself, nor can the people tell; but if he have liberty to speak great things, then he will make and unmake, say and unsay, and undertake such things as are neither for his own honor nor for the safety of the state.
It is therefore fit for every man to be studious of the bounds which the Lord hath set: and for the people, in whom fundamentally all power lies, to give as much power as God in His word gives to men. And it is meet that magistrates in the commonwealth, and so officers in churches, should desire to know the utmost bounds of their own power, and it is safe for both. All intrenchment upon the bounds which God hath not given, they are not enlargements, but burdens and snares; they will certainly lead the spirit of a man out of his way, sooner or later.
It is wholesome and safe to be dealt withal as God deals with the vast sea: "Hitherto shalt thou come, but there shalt thou stay thy proud waves." And therefore if they be but banks of simple sand, they will be good enough to check the vast, roaring sea. And so for imperial monarchies: it is safe to know how far their power extends; and then if it be but banks of sand, which is most slippery, it will serve as well as any brazen wall. If you pinch the sea of its liberty, though it be walls of stone or brass, it will beat them down. So it is with magistrates: stint them where God hath not stinted them, and if they were walls of brass, they would beat them down, and it is meet they should; but give them the liberty God allows, and if it be but a wall of sand it will keep them.
As this liquid air in which we breathe, God hath set it for the waters of the clouds to the earth; it is a firmament, it is the clouds, yet it stands firm enough; because it keeps the climate where they are, it shall stand like walls of brass. So let there be due bounds set -- and I may apply it to families: it is good for the wife to acknowledge all power and authority to the husband, and for the husband to acknowledge honor to the wife; but still give them that which God hath given them, and no more nor less. Give them the full latitude that God hath given, else you will find you dig pits, and lay snares, and cumber their spirits, if you give them less; there is never peace where full liberty is not given, nor ever stable peace where more than full liberty is granted. Let them be duly observed, and give men no more liberty than God doth, nor women, for they will abuse it. The devil will draw them, and God's providence lead them thereunto; therefore give them no more than God gives.
And so for children and servants, for any others you are to deal with: give them the liberty and authority you would have them use, and beyond that stretch not the tether; it will not tend to their good nor yours. And also, from hence gather and go home with this meditation: that certainly here is this distemper in our natures, that we cannot tell how to use liberty, but we shall very readily corrupt ourselves. Oh, the bottomless depth of sandy earth! of a corrupt spirit, that breaks over all bounds, and loves inordinate vastness! That is it we ought to be careful of.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
John Cotton on Limited Government
John Cotton, An Exposition Upon the Thirteenth Chapter of the Revelation: