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Hitherto we have noticed only men's conduct in respect of theory; let us now behold it as it is manifest in their practice.
In the first place they magnify beyond all reasonable bounds the pursuits of time. From our earliest infancy we hear of little but getting forward in the world. To be rich, to be great, to be honourable, this is the chief good of man. All are aspiring after a higher place than they possess, and conceive that they shall catch the phantom of happiness when they have reached a certain point. Moreover, all are applauded in proportion as they succeed in this race; and no period but that of their departure from the body is thought a fit season for prosecuting their eternal interests.
But are the concerns of time really of such importance? When we have got forward in the world, what have we more than food and raiment, which we might have possessed with half the trouble? We do not mean to discourage industry; that is truly becoming in every person, and highly advantageous in every state. But if all our time and labour be occupied about this world, and the concerns of the soul be subordinated to those of the body, then is our conduct precisely such as is reprobated in the text.
In the next place, men extenuate sin as venial. There are some crimes which degrade human nature, or greatly disturb the happiness of society, which are therefore reprobated and abhorred. But a forgetfulness of God, a neglect of Christ, a resistance of the Holy Ghost, an indifference about the soul, with ten thousand other sins of omission or of commission, are considered as light and venial, and as affording no ground for sorrow and contrition. If the outward conduct have been decent, it is no matter what has been harboured within, or how much God has been disregarded and despised.
But is this the light in which the scriptures teach us to regard sin? What was it that cast angels out of heaven? the sin of pride. What drove our first parents from Paradise, and brought a curse on all their posterity? one single transgression; and that a breach, not so much of a moral precept, as of a positive institution. Whom is it
that according to God's declaration he will cast into hell? "the wicked, and all the nations that forget God." Does sin appear a light matter when we are told, that nothing but the sacrifice of the Son of God could make atonement for it? Or will it appear a light matter to ourselves, when we are suffering the vengeance due to it in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone? Surely, they are "fools who make a mock at sin," and blind, who doubt of its malignity.
To adduce only one instance more, they persuade themselves that their eternal state is safe. Men living in a direct violation of God's commandments, and in a perfect contrast with the example of Christ, imagine that they have nothing to fear: "they have done no harm; and God is very merciful; and if they were to perish, what must become of all the world?" These, and such like arguments, are considered as sufficient to invalidate every word that God has spoken, and to justify their hopes of eternal happiness.
But darkness and light are not more opposite than these sentiments are to the declarations of God. Where will they find one single passage that will warrant such expectations as these? They must indeed make "evil good, and good evil, and must change bitter to sweet, and sweet bitter," before they can have the smallest ground of hope in such a state as theirs.
We might easily prosecute this subject in a great variety of views: but enough has been spoken to elucidate the words before us: and we trust that no doubt can remain upon your minds, but that all who consider religion as superficial, melancholy, or contemptible, together with all who magnify the pursuits of time, and extenuate sin as venial, and at the same time persuade themselves that their eternal state is safe, are indeed obnoxious to the censure in the text.
We shall pass on therefore to shew
Secondly, The evil of their conduct.
But where shall we find words sufficient to declare its great enormity? It is in the first place, a contemptuous rejection of God's truth.
God has clearly marked the difference between good and evil in his word: and if the eyes of our understanding be not blinded by prejudice or passion, we may discern it as easily as we can discern by our bodily senses, light from darkness, or sweet from bitter. But when an appeal is made to the sacred records, their testimony is considered as of no account. Who has not seen the contempt with which God's word is treated, when it is brought forward to oppose some fashionable practice, some favourite lust? One would suppose that its import should be candidly examined, and carefully ascertained. One might expect that they who heard it, should act like mariners sailing by the compass; that they would endeavour to proceed, as much as possible, in the right direction; that they would deliberate, if at any time they had reason to think that they were out of their proper course; that they would be thankful for any information that might tend to rectify their mistakes: above all, they would not madly steer in direct opposition to the compass, and at the same time discard all doubts about their safe arrival at the place of their destination: that were a folly of which no man in his senses is capable. Yet this is the very manner in which men act with respect to the scriptures. There is no other directory than that; and yet they will not only not follow it, but will go on in wilful opposition to it, and still affirm that they are in the way to heaven. Do we speak too harshly of this conduct if we call it a contempt of God's truth? It is the very expression used by our Lord himself, "He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me." Indeed, the inspired writers speak in yet severer terms: they do not hesitate to affirm, that whosoever acts thus, makes God a liar; "he that believeth not God, hath made him a liar." What horrible iniquity is this! If an avowed infidel disregard the admonitions of scripture, he acts consistently, because he does not acknowledge them to be of divine authority. But if we despise them, we who profess to regard them as inspired of God, we who expect to be judged according to them in the last day, what can be said in extenuation of
our guilt? Even "Sodom and Gomorrah may well rise up in judgment against us."
2. In the next place their conduct is a wilful deluding. of those around them. Every man, whether he design it or not, has a considerable influence on his friends and neighbours. The rich and learned in particular, and more especially they who minister in holy things, are looked up to as examples; and their conduct is pleaded both as a precedent, and as a justification of those who follow it. "Can such learned men be deceived? Can they who have entered into the service of the sanctuary, and solemnly undertaken to guide us in the way of peace, can they be wrong? Can they be "blind, who are leaders of the blind?" If then they, who from their education, their office and profession, ought to understand the scriptures better than we, if they do not approve, either in theory or practice, the things which appear to be enjoined in the Bible, doubtless they have good reasons for their conduct: they would not proceed in a way which they knew to be wrong; we therefore may safely follow them."
By this mode of arguing, all persons lull themselves asleep in their evil ways. Every one upholds his neighbour in the sentiments he has embraced, and in the path he has marked out for himself: and all, instead of condemning themselves for not obeying the divine commands, unite in condemning the obedient as needlessly singular and precise.
Now we cannot but know that, though an individual has not this extensive influence, the collective body of individuals has; and that every member of society contributes his share according to the conspicuousness of his station, and the sanctity of his profession. Yet we persist in calling good evil, notwithstanding we know that, by so doing we encourage others to do the same. And is this no aggravation of our guilt? Are we not responsible to God for stirring up, according to our ability, an universal rebellion against him; and for contributing thus to the eternal condemnation, not of those only with whom we associate, but of thousands also whom we have not known?
Doubtless Jeroboam contracted peculiar guilt in "establishing iniquity by a law:" but did not exceeding great guilt attach also to those, who "willingly ran after his commandment?" Did not every one of them countenance idolatry, and render an adherence to the true God more difficult? They however might plead obedience to an established law: but there is no law, except the imperious law of fashion, to mislead us; and that we establish, while we follow it: we bind others, while we ourselves yield obedience to it. Would to God that men could consider their conduct in this view, as discouraging, and perhaps turning aside, the weak; as rendering odious the godly; and as hardening the wicked! Surely they would not then say, What harm have I done? but would be ready to confess themselves the very chief of sinners.
3. Lastly, the confounding of good and evil is an awful trifling with our eternal state. We profess to believe that there is "a day appointed of God, wherein he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained:" and that "every one of us shall stand at the judgment-seat of Christ to receive according to the things done in the body, whether they have been good or evil." Now in that day we shall not be judged by the opinions of men, but by the word of God. It will be no excuse to any one that such or such maxims were generally received, or that such practices were sanctioned by custom: there will be one standard to which every principle and every action will be referred. The sacred volume will lie open before the Judge: and every erroneous sentiment be confronted with the dictates of inspiration. The Judge himself will know no other rule of judgment: every thing that accorded with the scriptures will be approved; and every thing that contradicted them, will be condemned. To what end then is it to impose specious names on things, when they will so soon appear in their true light? Will God call evil good, and good evil because we have done so? Can we convince him that light was darkness, and darkness light, because we persuaded ourselves and others that it was so? What infatuation is it so to trifle with our eternal state! If our error could