From “Sermon of Commemoration of the Lady Danvers” (1627)

I have nothing to plead with God, but only his own promises. I cannot plead birthright. The Jews were elder brothers, and yet were disinherited. I cannot plead descent: “My mother was a Hittite” as the prophet Ezekiel speaks (Ezek. 16:3). I am but of the half blood, at best. More of the first, than of the second Adam, more corporal than spiritual. I cannot plead purchase. If I have given anything for God’s sake, all that is so far from merit, as that it is not the interest of my principal debt. Nay, I cannot plead mercy, for I am, “by nature the child of wrath” too (Eph. 2:3).

All my plea is that to which he carries me so often in his word, “because the Lord is a faithful God.” So this apostle calls him a faithful creator (1 Pet. 4:9). God had gracious purposes upon me, when he created me, and will be faithful to those purposes. So St. Paul calls Christ “a faithful high priest” (Heb. 2:17). Graciously he meant to sacrifice himself for the world, and faithfully he did it. So Saint John calls him “a faithful witness” (Rev. 1:5) Of his mercy, he did die for me, and “his spirit bears witness with my spirit” that he did so. And in the same book (19:11), his very denomination, his very name, is faithful.

He is faithful to some contract, to some promise, that he hath made. And that promise is my evidence. But then, to any promise that is pretended, and not deduced from his Scriptures, he may justly plead that he made no such promise. For, as in case of diffidence, and distrust in his mercy, God puts us upon that issue, “produce your evidence” “Where is the bill of your mother’s divorce whom I have put away, or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you” (Isa. 50:1)?

So in cases of presumption in ourselves or pressing God with his promises (and so also, in cases of innovation in matter of doctrine in his Church) God puts us to the same issue, “produce your evidence.” Where in my Scriptures have I made any such contract, any such covenant, any such promise to you? My witness is in heaven,” says Job (16:9). But yet, my evidence is upon earth. God is that witness, but that witness hath been pleased, to be examined “ad perpetuam rei memoriam” [in perpetual memory of the thing]. And his testimony remains of record, in the Church. And there, from his Scriptures exemplified to me, by his public notary, the Church, I may lawfully charge him, with his promise, his contract, his covenant, and nothing else. If I may plead it, it is a promise. And if it be an issuable promise, it is in the Scriptures.

John Donne (1572-1631) was an English cleric, poet, and scholar, acclaimed as one of the finest preachers of his day. He is widely considered the preeminent metaphysical poet, prized for his inventiveness in the use of metaphor and his dramatic, vigorous style. He was ordained after a political and military career, serving as chaplain at Lincoln’s Inn, and for the last ten years of his life, as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. His Sermon of Commemoration of the Lady Danvers was preached in Chelsea Old Church on July 1, 1627, several weeks after the death of his friend Magdalen Newport Herbert Danvers. Danvers was the mother of the saintly poet and spiritual writer George Herbert, who first published the sermon, along with several Latin and Greek poems of his own composition. John Donne is commemorated on the liturgical calendar of several Anglican churches on March 31.