ŇMoreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.Ó Matthew 6:16-18.
ŇMoreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.Ó (v.16)
Our Saviour Christ, having rectified the abuses in alms-giving, and in prayer, doth here come to a third Christian duty, namely, fasting, wherein as in the former, first He seeks to reform abuses, and then prescribes the true manner thereof. But before we come to these particularly, I will in general handle the doctrine of fasting, for the better understanding of this text, and exercise of this duty.
1. And first we must know that Christ here speaks not of a civil fast, appointed by magistrates in their dominions for civil respects; but of a religious fast, respecting the worship of God; which appears by this: that He joineth the doctrine of fasting to the doctrine of prayer, which is a special part of GodŐs holy worship.
Now touching a religious fast, I will here handle six points:
(1) First, What kind of work a fast is. The Scripture speaks of two kinds of works: some commanded by God, others left indifferent. Works commanded be good works, and parts of GodŐs service, because He commandeth them, as prayer, thanksgiving, alms-deeds, etc. Works indifferent be in themselves neither good nor evil, because they be neither commanded of God, nor forbidden; as to eat, drink, buy, sell etc. And to this kind of works must we refer fasting; for it is not simply commanded of God, and so no part of His worship in itself, more than eating is. And yet consider fasting in its circumstances, to wit, as a means to further and to testify our humiliation in repentance, and our zeal in prayer, and so it is a good work; for in that use and to that end God commandeth it, and it is a part of His worship. If it be said, there is no commandment for it in the New Testament, I answer, if we consider it in the forenamed use and end, there is; for the same commandment that enjoineth prayer, and humiliation, enjoineth fasting; because it is a means to further them both. For every commandment includeth all necessary furtherances to the main duty. Again we have in the New Testament examples of ordinary fasting, which are without all exception, in our Saviour Christ and His apostles, with the occasions thereof set down, whereupon they fasted. Now this is a rule in divinity: that the ordinary examples of the godly approved in Scripture, being against no general precept, have the force of a general rule, and are to be followed.
(2) How a religious fast is to be performed. In a religious fast, three things are required:
(i) First, Abstinence from meat and drink for one day, at least till the evening; for abstinence from morning till noon is no fast. When Esther required the Jews to fast for her, she forbids them to eat or to drink during the fast (Esth. 4:16). And when David fasted and prayed for his child begotten in adultery (2 Sam. 12:16,17,20), he would eat nothing till he had ended his humiliation, perceiving that the child was dead. This is a thing granted by all Protestants. And the very names of fasting used in the Old and New Testaments, import a total abstinence for that time; which must be observed to discover the absurdity of popish fasts, wherein they allow men to drink oft if they will, and eat also, so it be not flesh. But in fasting, abstinence must be used from all meat and drink, so far as health and strength will suffer.
(ii) Secondly, Abstinence from all delights of nature whereby the outward man may be cheered and refreshed, as music, sweet smells, soft apparel, recreations, and such like. This Daniel observed for three weeks of days: I ate (saith he) no pleasant bread, neither came flesh or wine in my mouth, neither did I anoint myself at all (Dan. 10:3). And the like may we see in many examples of the Old Testament. They cast dust and ashes upon their heads (Ezek. 27:30) instead of anointing themselves with oil, and for soft apparel they put on sackcloth next their skin (Neh. 9:1), they waked when they should have slept (Joel 1:13) and lay upon the ground instead of beds (2 Sam. 12:16), the bridegroom went out of his chamber, and the bride out of her bride chamber (Joel 2:16), for mirth there was mourning, and howling instead of singing (Joel 1:11,13).
(iii) Thirdly, a man must humble and afflict his body in fasting; and therefore must be sparing in his diet and delights before the day of fasting; for a man may so pamper and fill himself that he shall not need to eat or drink for the whole day; but such persons fast not. The time of our fast must be a time of our humiliation; men must afflict themselves therein (Lev. 16:29; Ezra 8:21), as Ezra saith. They must beat down the body and bring it into subjection, as Paul did (1 Cor. 9:17). For though AhabŐs fasting was but outward, yet thus he humbled himself before the Lord (1 Kin. 21:27,29). GodŐs children therefore must see in their religious fasts that their bodies be humbled with their souls. Here indeed care must be had that in humbling our bodies we destroy not nature, or so weaken our strength, that we disable ourselves to serve God in our callings afterward; such afflicting of the body the apostle disalloweth (Col. 2:23).
(3) Touching the right ends of a religious fast; which be four especially:
(i) To be a spur and provocation to the humiliation and repentance. For this cause the Ninevites (Jon. 3:7) did not only fast themselves, but caused their beasts to be without food and water, that by hearing that lowing and bleating for meat, they might more deeply be humbled by the consideration of the desert of their own sins, and so more unfeignedly repent. This stands with good reason; for a manŐs abasing and pinching of his body, shews him his unworthiness of the comforts of GodŐs creatures by reason of his sins. It leads him to see his desert of GodŐs wrath by reason of his transgressions; and so his heart is more deeply stricken with conscience of his own sins; whereupon he doth more freely confess them unto God, and more carefully turn from them afterward.
(ii) A religious fast serves as an outward testimony and profession of our humiliation and repentance; for by our abstinence from the delights of nature, and the comforts of the creatures, we solemnly profess our unworthiness thereof, and of all GodŐs blessings; for this the Lord bids: (Joel 1:14), when He would have His people to testify their humiliation.
(iii) It serves to subdue the flesh and the corruption of nature. This end is necessary, for the soul worketh by the body, the inclination of the affections is greatly swayed by the bodily constitution, and the soul is stained by many sins by reason of the distemper of the body. But yet this end is not so general as the two former; for there be two sorts of men in GodŐs church; some of so weak a constitution of body that their ordinary sobriety and temperance in diet doth sufficiently subdue the rebellion of their flesh; now these need not to fast for this end. Others there be, whom ordinary temperance and sobriety will not serve to tame the rebellion of their flesh, and these are they that must use religious fasting for the subduing of the flesh to the spirit, besides their ordinary moderation in diet.
(iv) Fasting serves to prepare us unto prayer, and to further us therein; for first, it causeth watchfulness, and so makes a man the more lively and fresh in prayer; whereupon our Saviour often joins these together (Mark 13:33), Watch and pray. Secondly, it makes us feel our wants and miseries, and so brings us to some conscience of our sins; whereupon the heart is more deeply humbled, and so stirred up more fervently to call for mercy. And for this cause, the Scripture many times joins prayer and fasting together.
(4) The causes or occasions of a religious fast, which may partly move us thereunto; and they be seven:
(i) When we ourselves have fallen into any grievous sin or sins, whereof our conscience accuseth us, and whereby we procure the wrath of God against us; then to reform ourselves, and to escape the wrath of God, we have need to give ourselves to prayer and fasting. (1 Sam. 7:6) The Israelites, having fallen to idolatry, put away their strange gods, and turn unto the Lord with weeping and fasting. And when they kept the Day of Atonement, which was a type of their forgiveness by the Messiah, then they humbled themselves by fasting before the Lord (Lev. 16:29).
(ii) Secondly, when some among us fall into any grievous sin, though we ourselves be clear from it, yet then we must fast, because for the sins of others, GodŐs judgments may justly fall upon us. Hence it was that Paul blames the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:2), because they sorrowed not for the sin of incest committed among them. And in this regard, every godly person ought to humble himself because of the grievous sins of atheism, blasphemy, oppression etc., which abound among us.
(iii) Thirdly, when the hand of God in any judgment lies upon us. So did the Israelites (Jud. 20:26) when they fell in battle before the Benjamites. And so ought we to do for many judgments of God that have lain long upon us.
(iv) Fourthly, when the hand of God in any fearful judgment lies heavy on others among whom we live, though we ourselves be free. In this case David oftentimes humbled himself, not only when his child gotten in adultery was sick (2 Sam. 12:16), but even when his enemies were sick he fasted (Psa. 35:13).
(v) Fifthly, when GodŐs judgments are imminent, and as it were hang over our heads. So did Jehosaphat when his enemies came against his country (2 Chr. 20:3). And in this regard, we ought to humble ourselves, for the professed enemies of GodŐs grace are daily plotting our subversion.
(vi) Sixthly, when we stand in need of some needful blessing of God, especially such as concern salvation. Thus Cornelius (Acts 10:30) besought the Lord in prayer and fasting, when he desired true resolution concerning the Messiah. And so ought we to do, to get assurance of our reconciliation with God in the pardon of our sins.
(vii) Seventhly, for GodŐs blessing and good success upon the ministry of the gospel. So did the church for Paul and Barnabas when they sent them to preach (Acts 13:3). And so ought we to do this day. These be the just occasions of fasting mentioned in the Word, whereto we may refer the rest. And when any of these befall particular persons, families, congregations, cities, countries or kingdoms, then they ought to humble themselves in fasting before the Lord.
(5) The time of a religious fast. This now is free in regard of conscience. Indeed in the Old Testament (Lev. 16:29), they had a set time of fasting, to wit, the tenth day of the seventh month; but in the New Testament there is no set time which binds the conscience; only men must fast as just occasion is offered. If it be said that diverse reformed churches have set times of fasting; I answer, these fasts are set for orders sake, and not to bind conscience; and they are civil fasts and not religious, for the church may alter them at her pleasure. The time of a religious fast is the time of mourning, which is uncertain unto any church, and therefore the time thereof cannot be set; which must be marked because the church of Rome doth herein err, in that they bind menŐs consciences to their set times of religious fasts.
(6) The kinds of a religious fast. And they are two: private and public.
(i) A private fast is that which is performed privately, either by one man alone, for some of the forenamed occasions peculiar to himself, as Cornelius did (Acts 10:33) when he desired to know the true Messiah; or by private family, upon peculiar causes moving them thereto, and so did Esther fast with her maids (Esther 4:16). This fast was foretold by Zechariah (Zech. 12:12,13), The land shall bewail, every family apart, the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart, etc.
(ii) A public fast is that which is performed publicly, by divers families assembling in one or many congregations. And this public fast is appointed partly by the church and partly by the magistrate. The church must judge of the time and occasion thereof, and the magistrate must authorise and proclaim it.
Again, a religious fast may be distinguished other ways, in respect of the time of continuance, and manner of abstinence therein; for sometimes a religious fast is only from one meal for one day (as Jud. 20:26). Sometimes it is from one meal for many days together (as 1 Sam. 31:13). They fasted seven days together for Saul and Jonathan; abstaining from their dinners, and taking some time refreshing in the evening. And so Daniel fasted for three weeks of days, that is, each day from morning until night (Dan. 10:3). And sometimes it is from all kinds of sustenance for many days together, so Esther and her maids fasted three days (Esth. 4:16). Now the two former may be used of us as occasion serveth; but this last is very dangerous, for it is not with us in this regard as it was with the Jews. They lived in hot countries, and so had cold stomachs, by reason whereof they might fast three days without any great inconvenience. But we that live in colder climates have hotter stomachs, and so have need of more and oftener refreshing than they had. Neither can we fast so long without endangering life and health. Now fasting must be to humble and afflict the body, but not to destroy it.
2. Thus much of fasting in general. Now I come to ChristŐs doctrine of fasting here propounded.
And first, of His reformation of the abuses thereof then used among the Jews. When ye fast, look not as the hypocrites etc.
Question: How doth this agree with the commandment of God (Joel 1:13,14), where He bids them howl and cry in their fast, which cannot be without a mournful countenance; and indeed in a true fast rightly celebrated, the sorrow of the heart must needs be testified by some convenient signs and gesture in the body? Answer: Christ doth not here simply condemn a sorrowful countenance in fasting whenas just occasion of sorrow is therein offered; for Nehemiah looked sad (Neh. 2:2); but only the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who when they fasted had a sad countenance, without a sorrowful heart. For all their heavy looks, they had no broken spirits. This therefore Christ saith: Carry not a sad and heavy look, when thou hast no sorrowful mourning heart. Mind not thine outward countenance in respect of thy heart and conscience.
For they disfigure their faces etc.
They also may seem not blameworthy, for GodŐs children have in their fasts divers ways disfigured their faces, and been approved. Ezra (Ezra 9:3) plucked off the hair of his head, and of his beard; and Joshua (Josh 7:6) and the Israelites fell to the ground upon their faces, and put dust upon their heads, which could not but disfigure their faces? Answer: The Pharisees are blamed for disfiguring their faces, in divers respects, and that justly; for, first, this was the chief and only thing they looked to in their fasts, even the outward shew thereof, which God hateth. Again, the word translated disfigure, signifieth the very abolishing of their favour and visage, which is far more than the ancient Jews ever used to do. They indeed humbled their bodies, and testified their sorrow which God approved; but they sought not to deform their natural complexion, they pined not themselves to make their faces pale, that so men might the better take notice of their much fasting, as these Pharisees did. And such were they in PaulŐs time, who spared not their bodies (Col. 2:23). Thus much for the meaning.
The words thus explained contain two parts, a commandment and a reason thereof. The commandment forbiddeth feigned mourning in fasting, Look not as the hypocrites; as if He should say, The hypocritical scribes and Pharisees when they fast, make an outward shew of contrition and sorrow, whenas indeed their hearts are no whit humbled; but you shall not do so. The reason of the former prohibition, is drawn from the practice of hypocrites, which is set out by the end and fruit thereof. Their practice is to disfigure their faces, therein is all their sorrow. Their end is ostentation, that they might be seen unto men to fast. And the fruit is answerable, Verily, I say unto you, they have their reward; that is, reputation and praise of men. Thus when we see that Christ condemns not religious fasting, nor godly sorrow therein, no nor yet the seemly signs of godly sorrow; but only hypocritical fasting, when men have mournful looks without humble and contrite hearts.
1. Here observe the practice of these Scribes and Pharisees in ChristŐs time. They did not only fast often, as twice a week, but they were careful in observing all outward rites and signs pertaining to a religious fast. Yet as in the two former duties of alms-deeds and prayer, so in this, the principal thing is wanting; that is, truth and sincerity of heart; for their sour looks came not from sorrowful hearts; they were whole and righteous in their own conceit, and so needed not the Physician Christ Jesus, nor amendment of life. Now in them we may see a true pattern of the property of natural men in matters of religion: they more busy themselves about the outward work than inward truth; they content themselves with outward rites and ceremonies, and little regard the true worship of the heart. See this in Ahab (1 Kin. 21:27), who humbled himself outwardly in great measure, for fear of punishment; but he contented himself therewith, and never came to true humiliation of heart , in sorrow for sin, for he continued still in his old sins; and the Israelites, both in the wilderness, and in the land of Canaan, when God afflicted them, would humble themselves and seek His favour; but yet not in constant sincerity and truth. For as David saith (Psa. 78:34-37), They flattered Him with their mouthÉ. For their heart was not upright with Him. They performed the outward ceremonies, and (Isa. 29:13) so drew near to God with their lips, but their heart was far from Him. And thus it goeth generally, with natural men. The whole religion of the papists stands in outward ceremonial actions, partly Jewish and partly heathenish; and when they have observed them, they look no further. And so it fareth with many among us that profess true religion. For the ignorant sort (which are very many everywhere) content themselves with the outward actions of religion; as coming to church, hearing the Word read, and sometimes preached, and receiving the sacrament once or twice a year; and when the work is done (though without understanding) yet all is well, they think God is served well enough. Yea, many that have knowledge do yet rest in the outward actions of religion; for do not some esteem the conscionable endeavour of moral obedience to be but preciseness? And so though they bear some shew of religion, yet they reproach the power of it in others. And another sort do only so far forth maintain and profess religion, as it standeth with the good of their outward estate, and their peaceable fruition of wealth, honour and delights, and so make a policy of religion and piety. But let all these take heed unto their souls, and betime repent, for these practices make them hypocrites in religion, whose end will be damnation. And therefore bring thy heart to God with thy outward worship, and content not thyself with the shew of godliness, but get the power of it, and shew it in thy conversation; and embrace religion for it, and not for the world.
2. Secondly, is the Pharisees falling condemned of Christ, because they rested in outward work and did it in ostentation, for the praise of men? Then doubtless popish fasting is abominable, because it aboundeth with mere abuses; for:
(1) In their religious fasts they allow one meal, so long as it be not flesh; and besides that, drinking of any kind of wines, or drinks, taking of electuaries, and strong waters, conserves and such like, at any time of the day; which is a mock fast, and nothing else.
(2) They make distinctions of meats necessary to a fast, and that not for evil ends, as magistrates may do; or for temperance sake, as private men may do; but for conscience sake, which is a doctrine of devils, as the apostle saith (1 Tim. 4:1).
(3) They bind men in conscience to many set days of fasting, and make the omission thereof a deadly sin; wherein they take away our Christian liberty; for there was no want of care in our Saviour Christ, to appoint all good means for mortifying of the flesh, and yet he prescribed no set fasts in the New Testament.
(4) They make fasting meritorious, teaching that a man thereby may satisfy GodŐs justice; whereby they do blasphemously derogate from the all-sufficiency of ChristŐs obedience and passion.
Now sith they have thus defaced religious fasting, let us learn by ChristŐs command, not to fast as the papists do.
3. Thirdly, Christ saying to His disciples, When ye fast, takes it for granted that sometimes they fasted, and so ought to do. And here he blames the Pharisees, not for fasting simply, but for their hypocrisy therein. Whereby we see that Christ requires of all the godly, that when just occasion is offered, they should fast, either publicly or in private. And if Christ blames the Pharisees for their bad manner of fasting, then much more will He blame them that fast not at all, though never so just occasion be given unto them. For in this case it is not a thing indifferent, but necessary; for the want whereof, God doth many times renew and increase His judgments, as we may see (Isa. 22:12-14). Wherefore to move our hearts hereunto, let us consider these reasons:
(1) First, we have herein the worthy precedent of most holy men in times past, who carefully performed this duty when occasion was offered; as David, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, our Saviour Christ, and His apostles, especially Paul, who fasted often. Now their examples must be a cloud of witnesses unto us, for we come far short of them in many graces of God, and in obedience, and therefore had more need to humble ourselves.
(2) Secondly, we have among us continual occasions of fasting, both in public and private; as:
(i) GodŐs judgments present; for when have we been free from some one of these, either famine or pestilence or unseasonable weather?
(ii) GodŐs judgments imminent and hanging over our heads; for our professed enemies watched for our subversion, and we are in danger to have the kingdom of heaven taken from us in the power of the gospel, the comfort of prayer, and of the sacraments, because we do not bring forth the fruits thereof.
(iii) We have our own corrupt natures to subdue, and many sins to break off, with particular judgments upon ourselves to remove; for any one whereof we have great need to fast often.
(iv) Though we had no such cause in regard of ourselves, yet the horrible sins that abound in our land, are cause sufficient to bring us on our knees. Paul (2 Cor. 12:21) feared he should be humbled at Corinth, in bewailing many that had sinned. And shall not the common atheism, the contempt of GodŐs Word and judgments, the blasphemies, oppression, and fearful security of this age cause us to wail and mourn?
(v) We should oft humble ourselves for the church of God; and for the continuance of the gospel in sincerity among us, and to our posterity. Hereby we shall best express zeal for GodŐs house, which should eat us up, as it is said of Christ (John 2:17), and David (Psa. 69:9). GodŐs Jerusalem should be our chief joy (Psa. 137:6); and we must testify it by praying for the peace thereof (Psa. 122:6). Christ prayed and fasted (Luke 6:12,13) when he chose His apostles for the planting of His church. Much more therefore must we do it for the continuance of it.
4. Fourthly, Christ here disallows not only the affectation of praise in these Pharisees, but the disfiguring of their faces by a kind of pining of themselves. Whereby He would teach us that a true fast stands not in the afflicting and weakening of the body. Now albeit few offend this way at this day, for most are given too much to pamper the flesh; yet here may fitly be shewed what care men ought to have of their bodies. And first of all, a twofold care must be avoided; (1) as well an immoderate care to pamper the body with meat and drink, for that makes the heart heavy, and the head drowsy, and hereby lust is kindled and sin cherished; which the apostle forbids (Rom. 13:14); (2) as also too little care, whereby the body is pined and pulled down to overmuch weakness, which is one thing here reproved. The care required is that moderate regard unto the body, whereby it is so sustained by meat and drink, that it may always become the temple of the Holy Ghost, and a fit instrument for the soul unto works of righteousness, and the worship of God. Now he that would thus order his body must do two things: (1) First, he must observe perpetual temperance in food and raiment, taking that which may well suffice nature, but not fulfil the lusts thereof. (2) Secondly, if this will not serve to subdue the flesh, but that it will still rebel against the law of the spirit of life (as in some it will not), then fasting must be used, in which the body is to be afflicted, and the soul humbled, for the subduing of the rebellious flesh. But yet herein we must beware that we destroy not our health, our strength, or our constitution; for thus we neglect our life, which is a sin of murder; wherein (though few) yet some do offend, who in the meantime live in the practice of foul and gross sins otherwise.
5. Fifthly, here note how far the Pharisees go in outward humiliation. They are content to afflict their bodies, even to the disfiguring of their complexion; but yet they will not repent and leave their sins, no though John Baptist and Christ preach repentance unto them. Wherein behold the property of our corrupt nature in GodŐs service. If outward actions and bodily exercises will serve the turn, we can be content to bestow much cost, to take great pains, and to endure some affliction; but yet still we desire to live in our sins. This is evident in popery, for who are more austere to their own bodies, in watchings, wanderings, in whipping themselves, fasting etc.? And yet where is more abominable filthiness than among them? And this makes that religion so embraced, because in dispensing with sin, for the performance of these bodily actions, it fits so well to our corrupt nature. Wherefore let us take notice of this our corruption, and though we must not neglect the humbling of the body upon just occasion; yet let us principally look to the mortifying of sin, and the obedience of the heart.
ŇBut thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.Ó vv.17-18.
Christ, the true doctor of His church, having in the former verse sought to reform the exercise of fasting from Pharisaical abuses, doth in these two verses seek to restore the same to its right use; not so much intending to command us to fast, as to bring us to the right manner of fasting.
When thou fastest.
It seemeth that Christ here speaketh especially of a private fast; for besides that He useth words of the singular number, Thou, Thine etc., He enjoineth for concealing of it from others, which cannot be done in a public fast. And yet the main thing here enjoined is the approbation of the heart unto God, which must be observed in all religious fasts, as well public as private.
Anoint thy head, and wash thy face.
Here Christ alludeth to the custom of the Jews, who to shew their cheerfulness, used to anoint their heads with sweet ointments, and to wash their faces; as we may see by NaomiŐs command to Ruth (Ruth 3:3), and by DavidŐs practice (2 Sam. 12:20), when he perceived his child was dead, and would testify that he had ceased from mourning for it. As also by the speech of Christ, testifying the woman that anointed His feet with ointment (Luke 7:36-50), Mine head thou didst not anoint, but she hath anointed my feet with ointment. For, as David saith (Psa. 104:15), God gives oil to make the face to shine. But yet these words are not to be taken properly, neither do they bind us to anoint our heads when we fall, as may appear by these reasons:
(1) If the words should be taken properly, then should Christ condemn all the fasts of holy men in the Old Testament, who used neither ointments nor washings, but abstained from all such bodily delights for that time.
(2) Christ should command contraries, namely, the use of such things in fasting as were more appropriate to feasting, wherein men used to be joyful and cheerful.
(3) He should enjoin that to some countries, which were not in their power, or at least could not be used of them without excessive charges; as in this or other cold countries, where sweet oils are rare and costly.
The true meaning therefore must be gathered out of the circumstances of the place. Now ChristŐs intent is here, as in the former points of alms-deeds and prayer, to prescribe unto man the approving of their hearts unto God in fasting, by avoiding ostentation therein, and desire of the praise of men. And therefore He names such behaviour, as doth no way intimate a fast unto others; meaning thereby that we should conceal our private fasts from men; as if He should say, When thou fastest privately, so carry thyself, that it may not appear to men thou fastest, and in all thy fasts seek only to approve thy heart unto God.
The words thus explained contain two parts; a commandment and a reason thereof.
1. The commandment is twofold: First that we should conceal our fasts from men, intimated by wash thy face, and anoint thy head; secondly, that we should seek to approve ourselves, not to men, but to God in our religious fasts, in these words: That thou seem not to men to fast, but to thy Father which is in secret.
(1) In this first branch of this commandment we may learn that the private worship of God must be performed privately unto God, and concealed from men; for that which is here said of private fasting, which is a means to further our prayers, is true of prayer itself, and of every part of GodŐs private worship, for there is the same reason of all. As may thus appear:
(i) First, in all actions of GodŐs worship, there must be observed an holy comeliness and decency, which is then done, when they be performed with fit and convenient circumstances; that is, public actions of worship with public circumstances; and private actions with private circumstances. As public prayer must be made by a public person in a public place, with an audible and loud voice; and private prayer must be made in a private place, by private persons, with a still and low voice, and other seemly private gestures.
(ii) Secondly, when private worship is performed with public circumstances, there are many occasions given to ambition, pride and hypocrisy; but being done privately, these occasions are prevented, and the heart is more free to seek the approbation of God only.
This doctrine serves to direct our practice in GodŐs worship; as:
(i) First, that we must not reserve our private preparation to GodŐs public worship, till we come to the public congregation; but prepare ourselves at home privately in our chamber or closet. For though to pray everywhere be lawful, yet because convenient circumstances must be observed in all our actions of worship, therefore private prayer in a public place is not so seemly nor convenient; for public circumstances do not beseem private worship.
Question: What if a man wanted time, or had forgotten to prepare himself beforehand? Answer: Slight pretences cannot justify any disorder in GodŐs worship; and yet if a man will needs there perform his private preparation, he must conceal all outward signs of prayer, and only lift up his heart unto God; for a good duty may become offensive by inconvenient circumstances.
(ii) Secondly, this shews how Christian families must order their private exercises of religion, namely so privately for voice and gesture, that they may conceal the same from others, beside their family present. And so must particular persons praying alone observe such circumstances as may conceal their prayers from others; for all occasions of ostentation must be avoided, that so the heart may apply itself wholly towards the Lord.
(2) That thou seem not to men to fast.
This is the second branch of ChristŐs commandment, wherein we learn a second duty in a religious fast; namely, that therein we seek to approve ourselves and our actions only to God. For which end, we may observe three things:
(i) With our fasting we must join a conversion of our heart from sin unto God. (Joel 2:12) Turn you unto me with all your heart, and with fasting. There God hath joined them together, and they may not be severed. Now that our hearts may turn to God in fasting, we must have special regard to our behaviour both before, in and after our fast, whether public or private. Before the fast, we must prepare ourselves thereto in an holy manner, by a serious consideration of the causes and occasions of our fast. A worthy example hereof we have in Jehosaphat (2 Chr. 20:3), who considering a fearful judgment to be at hand in the approaching of his enemies, was sore afraid, and thereupon set his heart to seek the Lord, and proclaim a fast. In fasting, we must labour to have more tender affections, and deeper humiliation than ordinary. (1 Sam. 7:6) The Israelites humbling themselves in fasting for their idolatry in Mizpeh, drew water, and poured out before the Lord; which words import their deep humiliation, whether it were by abundant weeping (as some expound the place), or by pouring out water indeed, to signify that they poured out their souls before the Lord. After the fast, we must labour for amendment and reformation of life, that our behaviour both towards God and man, may be every way better than before. A notable example hereof we have in the Jews, who having renewed their covenant with God, upon their humiliation (Neh. 9:1), did not only write it (Neh. 9:38), and seal unto it (Neh. 10:1); but bound themselves thereto by curse and oath (Neh. 10:29).
(ii) That we approve ourselves and our action to God in fasting, we must be sure we propound unto ourselves therein the right ends of a religious fast, which we have before propounded. For if we fail therein, and propound other ends unto ourselves, we corrupt the whole action unto ourselves.
(iii) With our fasting we must join the duties of the second Table, in the works of justice, mercy and love to our brethren. For without these, our love to God is not sincere; nay, God rejects that bodily humiliation, which is severed from the exercise of mercy and compassion, as we may see at large (Isa. 58:3ff.). I shewed before that we had just cause to humble ourselves; which when we do, we must be careful thus to approve our hearts unto God.
2. Thus much of the commandment; now followeth the reason thereof, drawn from the promise of GodŐs reward to them that fast in an holy manner.
And thy Father which seeth in secret, will reward thee openly.
That is: Seeing thee intend only to approve thine heart and action unto God in fasting, will give thee an open reward at the last day.
This text the papists do notably abuse, to prove two heretical conclusions touching fasting:
(1) First, that fasting in itself for any good end, is a part of GodŐs worship, because it hath a promise of open reward, even life everlasting, made unto it, as before was made to prayer and alms-deeds; and therefore must needs be of the same nature with them. For things indifferent and bodily exercises profit little; that which hath the promise is a part of godliness (1 Tim. 4:8). Answer: This promise is made to him that fasteth, not to the work; and that not simply for his exercise of fasting, but for his repentance, conversion and invocation, which go with fasting, and are furthered thereby. But they allege (Luke 2:47) that Anna served God with fasting and with prayer. Answer: In the Old Testament, fasting was a part of GodŐs worship; for it was commanded to be performed the tenth day of the seventh month. And then also was the making and performing of vows, a part of religious worship commanded of God. Now in all likelihood, Anna had bound herself by a vow to God, to that course of prayer and fasting, and therefore was approved of God therein. But now in the New Testament, we have no commandment for set fasts or vows; and therefore the case is not the same, and so her example cannot prove the thing for which they allege it. Indeed we have the vow of moral obedience made in baptism, but that everyone is bound to perform that takes God for his God, though he should not vow it. Again, a man may be said to serve God in prayer and fasting as Anna did, because prayer is a true part of GodŐs worship; and though fasting in itself be not the worship of God, yet being joined with prayer, it is a notable furtherance thereunto; and being so performed upon just occasion, it is a part of His worship, because He requires it.
(2) The second conclusion which the papists would gather hence is; that fasting satisfieth GodŐs justice, and merits remission of sins and life everlasting; because this promise of open reward is here made unto it. Answer: We must know that the promises of God for remission of sins and life everlasting, being grounded upon Christ, are only made to them that be regenerate and believe in Christ; and so they are not made to him for his workŐs sake, but for his faith whereby he is in Christ, and so indeed are made unto him for ChristŐs sake only, in whom we grant that God of His free grace makes Himself by His promise to every believer that doth any good work. Yet the debt is not due to us for anything we do, but due to Christ who hath merited it, and in Christ due to us. But it will be said that works are often mentioned with GodŐs promises, and especially faith, which is a work. Answer: True; but yet the reward promised is not given for workŐs sake, nor yet for faith; but for ChristŐs sake, whose merit imputed to us is received by faith, which faith we testify by works. And so according to our faith and works, we receive a reward of God, but not for them; as Christ said to the Centurion (Matt. 8:13), As thou hast believed, so be it unto thee. Thus then must we conceive of this promise made to fasting; though in itself it be a bodily exercise; yet being done in obedience to God upon just occasion, by him that believeth in Christ, and being joined with prayer and conversion to God, it is a work of faith, and shall have a reward.
Now this gracious promise made to fasting in this holy manner, must stir us up to a love of this exercise, and to the practice of it, so oft as just occasion is given. And undoubtedly one special cause of the continual renewing of GodŐs judgments among us is because we humble not ourselves by prayer and fasting under GodŐs mighty hand. It were therefore to be wished, in regard of the manifold just occasions, that public fasts were more often commanded by public authority, and private fasts more conscionably used in every family.
And thus much of the fourth part of ChristŐs sermon, containing a reformation of abuses in alms, prayer and fasting; out of all which we must learn this one thing which Christ principally intends; to wit, in all holy duties to avoid hypocrisy, endeavouring to do them with that simplicity and sincerity of heart whereby we truly desire to have God and not man the seer and approver of them. And so shall our works be not only good in themselves, but in us, and acceptable unto God. Otherwise, if we do them in ostentation, or for other sinister respects, the hypocrisy of our hearts defiles our good works, and so makes them unacceptable unto God, and unprofitable to ourselves.