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THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES - Chapter 4 - Verse 20
Verse 20. For, etc. This is given as a reason why they should obey God rather than man. They had had so clear evidence that God had sent the Messiah, and they had received so direct and solemn a command (Mr 16:15) to preach the gospel, that they could not be restrained. There was a necessity laid on them to preach the gospel. See 1 Co 9:16; comp. Jer 20:9; Ac 18:5; Job 32:18,19; Ps 39:1-3.
It has already been remarked, that these two verses contain an important principle in favour of religious liberty —the liberty of conscience, and of private judgment. They contain the great principle of the Christian, and of the Protestant religion, that the responsibility of men for their religious opinions is direct to God, and that other men have no power of control. The opposite of this is tyranny and oppression. It may be proper, in addition, to present some further remarks, involved in the principle here stated.
(1.) Religion, from the commencement, has been favourable to liberty. There was no principle more sacred among the Jews, than that they were to be independent of other nations. Perhaps no people have ever been so restive under a foreign yoke, so prone to rebel, and so difficult to be broken down by oppression and by arms, as were the Jews. So true was this, that it appeared to other nations to be mere obstinacy. They were often subdued, but they rose against their oppressors, and threw off the yoke. No people has been found who were so difficult to be reduced to slavery. It is well known that the Romans were accustomed to subject the captives taken in war to perpetual servitude; and commonly the spirit of the captive was broken, and he remained quietly in bondage. But not so the Jew. Nothing ever tamed his spirit. No bribes, or threats, or chains could induce him to violate the laws of his religion. Even in captivity, we are told that the Jewish slaves at Rome would observe the Sabbath, would keep the feasts of their nation, and never would conform to the customs of an idolatrous people. To the Romans this appeared to be mere obstinacy. But it was the genius of their religion. The right of liberty of thought was one which they would not surrender. The spirit of the patriarchs was favourable to liberty, and implied responsibility only to God. Familiarity with the sacred books had taught them these lessons; and neither time nor distance could obliterate them. In the time of Christ, the great mass of the nation were evidently opposed to the tax paid to the Roman nation, and sighed under this burden, until they rose and attempted to assert their rights; and their city, and temple, and land were sacrificed, rather than yield this great principle.
(2.) This same principle was evinced by the apostles and by the early Christians. With this doctrine fresh upon their hearts, they went forth to other lands. They maintained it at the expense of their blood; and thousands fell as martyrs in the cause of liberty and of private judgment in religion. No men evermore firmly defended liberty than the early martyrs; and each one that died, died in defence of a principle which is now the acknowledged right of all men.
(3.) The designs of tyranny and superstition have been to destroy this principle. This was the aim of the sanhedrim; and yet, when Peter and John appealed to their consciences, they did not dare to avow their purpose. This has been the aim of all tyrants; and this the effect of all superstition. Hence the church of Rome has taken away the Scriptures from the people; and has thus furnished incontestable evidence that in its view the Bible is favourable to liberty. For centuries tyranny reigned in one black night over Europe; nor was the darkness dispelled until the Bible, that taught men the principles of freedom, was restored to them.
(4.) The effect of the principle avowed by the apostles has been uniform. Luther began the Reformation by finding in a monastery a copy of the Bible, when himself more than twenty years of age—a book which till that time he had never seen. The effect on the liberties of Europe was immediately seen. Hume admitted, that whatever liberty England possessed was to be traced to the Puritans. Our own land is a striking instance of the effect of this great principle, and of its influence on the rights of man. And just in proportion as the New Testament is spread abroad will men seek for freedom, and break the chains of oppression. The best way to promote universal liberty is to spread the Bible to the ends of the earth. There is not a precept in it that is not favourable to freedom. It tends to enlarge and liberalize the mind; to teach men their rights; to put an end to ignorance, the universal stronghold of superstition and tyranny; and to diffuse the love of justice, truth and order. It shows man that he is responsible to God, and that no one has a right to ordain anything which contravenes the liberty of his fellow.
If it be asked here what the principle is, I answer,
(1.) that men have a right to their private judgment in matters of religion, subject only to God. The only restraint which, it is now settled, can be imposed on this is, that no man has a right, under pretence of conscience, to injure or molest his fellow-men, or to disturb the peace and harmony of society.
(2.) No magistrate, church, council, or parent has a right to impose a creed on others, and to demand subscription to it by mere authority.
(3.) No magistrate, church, or parent has a right to control the free exercise of private judgment in this case. The power of a parent is to teach, advise, and entreat. The duty of a child is to listen with respect, to examine with candour, to pray over the subject, and to be deliberate and calm, not rash, hasty, impetuous, and self-willed. But when the child is thus convinced that his duty to God requires a particular course, then here is a higher obligation than any earthly law and he must obey God rather than man, even a father or a mother, Mt 10:37,38.
(4.) Every man is responsible to God for his opinions and his conduct. Man may not control him, but God may and will. The great question before every man is, What is right in the sight of God? It is not what is expedient, or safe, or pleasurable, or honourable among men; but what is right in the sight of God. Neither in their opinions nor their conduct are men free from responsibility. From this whole subject we see the duty of spreading the Bible. If we love liberty; if we hate tyranny and superstition; if we wish to extend the knowledge of the rights of man, and break every arm of oppression, let us spread far and wide the Book of God, and place in every palace and every cottage on the globe a copy of the sacred Scriptures.
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