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If there are found professors of Christianity, in whom the truths of the Gospel have failed to produce a holy conversation, we may take it for granted that such persons are infidels in disguise, and totally unacquainted with the Gospel, except it be in theory. The faith which is common to these nominal Christians is purely speculative, not differing less from the solid faith of a true believer than a sun upon canvass differs from that which spreads light and heat among surrounding worlds. As a plant cannot be nourished by the superficial application of strange sap to its rind, but by a sap peculiar to its own nature, which flowing beneath its bark, penetrates, enlivens, and nourishes every part of the plant: so the conduct of a man cannot possibly be reformed by notions of doctrines collected from books, but by those which, penetrating beyond his judgment, insinuate themselves into his heart, and become incorporated with his very being.
This answer cannot justly be regarded as a vain subterfuge. To be convinced of its solidity, it will be sufficient to consider how the soul is affected according to the different degrees of any impression that is made upon it. While Jacob was still lamenting the supposed death of Joseph, Reuben informed him that his beloved son was yet alive, and enjoying the second place of dignity in Egypt. These tidings at first appeared delusive to the good old man, who was no otherwise affected by them than by some extravagant relation. But when the affirmations of Reuben were seconded by the joint testimony of his other sons, his earnest attention was immediately excited, his incredulity was gradually overcome, and his fainting heart began to revive. The wagons and presents of Joseph now appearing in confirmation of his children's report, his doubts were entirely dissipated. "My son," cried he, "is yet alive! I will go and see him before I die." This animating persuasion, Joseph is yet alive, seemed to restore the languishing patriarch to all the vigour of former years. He renounced a terrestrial Canaan; he turned his back upon the tombs of Isaac and Rachel; and with all the courage of youth set forward to embrace his newly-discovered son in Egypt. So certain it is, that a truth in which we are deeply interested, will change in some degree our very nature, and modify the soul itself.
Thus the Gospel of God our Saviour affects every true believer. And why should Egypt have greater charms than heaven? Or why should an invitation from the virtuous son of Rachel have greater weight than that which comes from the Divine Son of Mary? Were the fruits which Joseph sent his father to be preferred before those of the Spirit, with which Christ replenishes his favoured Israel 1 Gal. v, 22, 23: or did the dissembling sons of Jacob merit greater credit than the apostles of our exalted Lord, though seconded by that noble army of martyrs, who have sealed with their blood the truths of the Gospel? Alas! if the fundamental doctrines of this Gospel (for we speak not here of those human additions by which it is too frequently disfigured and weakened) had but deeply penetrated our hearts, we should bear testimony, by our conduct, to the truth of the following assertion: "If any man be [indeed a Christian,] he is a new creature; old things are passed away; all things are become new," 2 Cor. v, 17.
But why should we go back to the times of Jacob to prove that
doctrmes have an influence upon the conduct of men in proportion to the degree of faith with which they are received? Let us return and cast a retrospective view upon the various circumstances of our past life. If we have at any time felt a lively persuasion of the truth of the Gospel; if at our first approaching the sacramental table, or after hearing some pathetic sermon, we have really believed "that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself," 2 Cor. v, 19, and promising his people, in return for their temporary labours, everlasting rewards; have we not, at such a moment, perceived the love of God and man springing up in our hearts? Now, if this partial persuasion had spread itself through the whole soul, would not our devotion, our humility, and our charity have been carried to a much higher degree of perfection than we have hitherto experienced? Would not our good works, of every kind, have been abundantly more excellent and numerous than we can now possibly pretend to?
On the other hand let us look back to the days of youth, and we shall recollect a time in which the doctrines of the Gospel began to lose the little influence they had once maintained over our conduct: we shall remember, at least, when the licentious principles of worldly men and the false maxims of infidel philosophers insinuated themselves into our corrupted hearts. And have we not, since that time, experienced that the strictest connection subsists between those maxims and immorality? llave we not, from that unhappy period, become more debauched in sentiment, less circumspect in our outward behaviour, and more disposed to trample upon the principles of natural religion, as well as upon evangelical precepts? From these observations we shall proceed to draw the following inferences :—
1. If morality may be compared to a tree, whose fruit is for the nourishment of mankind, true doctrines may be considered as the roots of this tree. Take away these doctrines, under pretence that they embarrass morality, and you ridiculously cut away the roots of this sacred plant, lest they should prove an impediment to its rising perfection. Now he who thus seeks the morality of the Gospel by reprobating evangelical doctrines, would act entirely consistent with his character, were he to plant his orchards with trees deprived of their roots in order that they might produce the more excellent fruit.
2. As in the vegetable kingdom fruits are nourished and matured by that vegetative energy which draws the sap from the root, refining, and distributing it among the several branches; so in the moral world, charity and good works can only be produced by that living faith which first receives the doctrines of truth, and then becomes a kind of vehicle to their invigorating virtue. This faith was rightly characterized by Christ and his apostles, when they represented it as the grace by which we are principally saved; since this grace alone is capable of producing in us that lively hope, that ardent charity, and that universal obedience, which will ever distinguish the believer from the infidel. He, therefore, who declaims against this Scriptural faith, whether he be a novice or a philosopher, indirectly pleads the cause of vice, and gives sufficient proof of his spiritual ignorance.
3. From what has been advanced, we may infer the necessity there is of avoiding the mistakes of the Gnostics on the one hand, and the error of incredulous sages on the other: the former of whom, contending for a speculative faith, salute Christ as their Lord, though they refuse to obey his commands; while the latter, holding faith in the utmost derision, and dependmg upon their own power for the performance of every good work, pollute, by unworthy motives, the most excellent of their actions. m the same purity by those who receive them. Our Lord makes this solemn declaration to sinners: "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." Yet how is it that many thousand Christians who admit this important truth, remain in the present day in a state of impenitence? It is because they mingle with it the following pernicious error: though I spend the present moment in sin, God will assuredly give me grace to repent in the latter part of my life. Hence that lamentable inattention to the duties of religion which is so universal among us at this day.
CHAPTER XI. The same subject continued.
As many have taken great offence in observing how little effect the doctrines of the Gospel have upon the lives of Christians, so called, it becomes us here to inquire into the causes of this grand evil.
The doctrines which distinguish Christianity from Theism have this peculiarity, that no man can possibly receive them unless he has first sincerely embraced the doctrines of Theism. He must believe in God before he can believe in Christ; he must have the sincerity of an honest heathen before he comes to the possession of Christian charity. It is usual with the whole multitude of outward professors to cry out in their public services, "We believe in Jesus Christ; we believe in the Holy Ghost," &c, though their faith, it may be, is not equal to that of devils, who believe in the existence of a rewarding and avenging God, with sincerity sufficient to make them tremble before him. These hypocrites can no more be said to believe, from the heart, the latter articles of the apostles' creed, than those children who are yet unacquainted with the alphabet may be said to have perused and digested the most profound authors. The higher doctrines of the Gospel must necessarily appear both useless and absurd to those whose faith in God is not sufficient to penetrate them with a holy fear; for as we cannot arrive at manhood without first passing through the state of infancy, so we cannot cordially receive the latter part of the apostles' creed, till we have first embraced the former part by a lively and steadfast faith. Why did Caiaphas refuse to believe in Christ? Because he was but a hypocrite with respect to the Jewish faith. On the contrary, why did Cornelius, the centurion, so readily believe? It was, undoubtedly, because the sincerity of his faith in God had prepared his heart for the reception of faith in Christ. "Every man," saith this Divine Saviour, "that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me," John vi, 45. "Ye who believe in God, believe also in me: and I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, even the Spirit of truth," John xiv, 1, 16, 17.
These fundamental doctrines compose the ladder of evangelical truth, in which he who takes offence at any single step, runs a double hazard; that of ascending no higher, and even that of falling from the step where he has obstinately determined to take up his rest. "He that doeth truth, cometh to the light," John iii, 21; but he that refuses the first truths, places himself beyond the possibility of receiving those which are of a more sublime nature. If he has not first observed the dawn of the Gospel day, he can never contemplate our Divine Sun, when shining in his meridian brightness.
The articles of the Christian faith may be compared to a course of
geometrical propositions, the last of which always suppose a perfect knowledge of the first. To require of spiritual infants any high and important acts of faith in Jesus Christ, or in the Holy Spirit, before they are taught to entertain just notions of the Supreme Being, would be equally unreasonable as for a man to pretend that it is possible to make a good geometrician of an ignorant peasant, by instructing him to repeat the terms of Euclid's last propositions, without ever bringing him to a true understanding of the first. If, then, the generality of Christians are contented with learning merely to repeat our doctrinal terms, we must expect to see them as far from manifesting the virtues of St. Paul, a* the superficial peasant from possessing the solidity of Euclid.
Other reasons given for the little influence which the foregoing doctrines are observed to have upon Christians in general.
Profitarly to teach the doctrines of the Gospel, there are certain rules necessary to be observed; and where these rules are either unknown or neglected, the Gospel becomes of little importance.
1. A true doctrine, in order to have its due effect, must be announced with purity. It should neither be mutilated by hasty contractions, nor corrupted by vain additions. The prince of error equally serves his own interest by perplexing the truth, as by spreading a falsehood: and when errors are added to evangelical truths, those truths may be compared to excellent medicines unhappily mingled with dangerous poisons. Thus the doctrine of future punishments is not only deprived of its utility, but becomes really pernicious, by the addition of another doctrine, which teaches that a sum of money, left as the price of prayer for a departed soul, will effectually soften, and even terminate its pains.
2. A doctrine should not only be delivered in the purest manner, but they who announce it should study to demonstrate its excellency and power by the whole course of their conduct. Were leprous physicians to cry up a specific against the leprosy, it cannot be imagined that lepers in general would anxiously adopt a remedy which had been attended with so little effect upon the recommenders of it. We here intimate, not without the utmost regret, that too many of the clergy destroy the effect of their doctrines by the immorality of their conduct.
3. To give Scriptural doctrines their full effect, it is necessary to make them pass from the understanding to the will, or from the judgment to the heart of those who admit them. It would be in vain to procure for a patient the most efficacious remedy, if, instead of applying it according to the method prescribed, he should think it sufficient to touch it with his lips, or should content himself with drawing in the grateful odour exhalmg from it. To such a patient, however, the greater part of Christians bear a strict resemblance, who speculate upon the Gospel without ever embracing it with that lively "faith which worketh by love," Gal. v, 6.
4. It is not sufficient that these doctrines should be preached in their native purity; but it is equally necessary that they should be preserved
5. Very frequently the doctrines of the Gospel are attended with no considerable effect upon those who admit them, because the salutary operation of these truths is counteracted by the powerful influence of earthly desires indulged in the heart. Thus, in a disordered stomach, the most wholesome food is deprived of its virtue. To remedy this evil, it is necessary to enter upon a regimen too severe to be regarded by an obstinate patient, and upon the absolute necessity of which an inattentive physician will not peremptorily insist.
6. Where the doctrines of the most humiliating tendency have not first made a deep impression, there the consolatory doctrines of the Gospel tend only to uphold the sinner in a course of impiety. Those preachers who favour the false judgment of worldly men, wanting either courage or experience wisely to administer the doctrines of the Gospel so that they may alarm the impenitent and console the dejected; these preachers, instead of eradicating, do but increase the evil we lament. It cannot, indeed, be denied, that they offer many sacred truths to the world; but, while they do not nicely distinguish and apply them to the diflerent states of their hearers, as they only draw their bow at a venture, it is no wonder that their arrows so frequently fall beside the mark. These perplexers of truth contribute as little to the conversion of sinners, as a physician would contribute to the recovery of the sick, who, without any prudent selection, compounding together all the drugs of an excellent pharmacopoeia, should indiscriminately offer the same confused recipe to every patient.
7. The doctrines of Christianity are frequently delivered as the opinions of men, rather than as the declarations of God, founded upon events much better attested than the most certain historical facts: and to this single error the inefficacy of those doctrines may, in a good degree, be imputed. Were reason and conscience made to walk in the front of the Gospel, the want of a Redeemer would be more universally experienced in the world than it has hitherto been. But while the preachers of that Gospel neglect to assert the depravity of human nature; or while they omit, in confirmation of so melancholy a truth, to make the most solemn appeals to the consciences of men, so long we may expect to see their ill-directed labours universally unsuccessful. Had these teachers in Israel an experimental acquaintance with those truths upon which they presume openly to descant, their word would speedily be attended with unusual efficacy; their example would give it weight; and in answer to their fervent prayers, the God of all grace would set his seal to the truth of the Gospel.
Whenever the messengers of religious truth shall become remarkable for the purity of their lives, and the fervency of their zeal, their doctrines will soon be attended with sufficient influence in the Christian world to