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PAUL BEFORE FESTUS AND AGRIPPA.
FELIX, whose character and conduct were reviewed in the last Lecture, was one of those in whom conscience has not entirely lost its authority, but whose sinful habits and propensities are so strong, as to counteract the force of its commands. He was convinced that Paul was innocent of the crimes laid to his charge, and was, therefore, bound in justice to set him immediately at liberty. But he retained him in bonds from a motive of avarice; and when he was recalled from the government of Judea, he left him in prison, in the hope that by this instance of complaisance to the Jews, he should prevent them from carrying their complaints of his cruelty and extortion to the emperor.
Felix was succeeded by Festus, who a few days after his arrival in the province, went up from Cesarea to Jerusalem. The hatred of the chief priests and rulers against Paul was implacable. Time had not abated its violence, nor had his sufferings during an imprisonment for at least two years, inclined them to relax the severity of their measures. Hence, they now endeavoured to persuade Festus to send for him to Jerusalem, that he might there undergo a trial; under this apparently reasonable and harmless request, concealing a most nefarious design. During the long interval which had elapsed since they resolved upon the assassination of Paul, they had not repented of their purpose. Often, we may believe, it had been the subject of reflection and conversation in their confidential meetings; but the only sentiment which ever arose in their minds was regret that they had been prevented from accomplishing it. A false zeal for God had perverted their moral judgment and feelings. Religion, misunderstood, and corrupted by the 378influence of human passions, justified, in their eyes, one of the most atrocious deeds of injustice and cruelty. In cases of this nature, no remedy can be expected from conscience, which sometimes arrests the wicked man in his career, because it is preoccupied by an erroneous idea of duty, and prescribes, in the name of God, actions which it ought, in the most explicit manner, to condemn. The chief priests and elders had concerted, that Paul should be murdered in the way; and they might have accomplished their design without detection, because the country was infested with bands of robbers and lawless persons, to whom the guilty deed would have been imputed.
With this request Festus refused to comply; and the enemies of Paul were obliged to repair to Cesarea, where he successfully defended himself against their accusations. As the governor, however, in consequence of fresh solicitations, or with a view to conciliate the favour of the Jews, at the commencement of his administration, now discovered an inclination to transfer the judgment of the cause to Jerusalem, the Apostle found it necessary to appeal to Cesar. This appeal to a foreign judge was not made with a view to reflect upon the laws of his country as insufficient for the security of innocence, but from his certain knowledge, that he had no justice to expect from the partial and hostile tribunal of the Sanhedrim. As a Roman citizen, he had a right to claim the protection of the Roman laws; and it was the privilege of a citizen, to carry his cause from an inferior judicatory to the emperor himself, not only when a sentence, by which he deemed himself aggrieved, had been pronounced, but at the commencement, or at any stage of the process. This expedient was calculated to secure an impartial execution of the laws. It was a check upon those magistrates of cities, and governers of provinces, who were disposed to abuse their power; and it afforded an accused person the benefit of a second trial, before a court where the partialities and prejudices arising from local circumstances, which frequently obstruct the course of justice, would not operate to his disadvantage. Paul expected fairer treatment from a heathen emperor than from, the supreme council of the Jews; and was willing to submit his ca ise rather to Nero than to the high priest.
By the appeal to Cesar, the proceedings were stopped; and the Apostle was remanded to prison, till an opportunity should occur of sending him to Rome. In the mean time, Agrippa and his sister 379Bernice came to Cesarea on a visit to Festus. Their father was the Herod, who killed James, the brother of John, with the sword, and died, as this historian relates, by the judgment of God. At the death of his father, Agrippa was too young to succeed him in the throne; but he received from the emperor Claudius the kingdom of Chalcis, which was afterwards exchanged for other dominions. Bernice was first married to her uncle Herod, king of Chalcis, and after his decease, to Polemon, king of Cilicia, with whom her connexion was not of long continuance; for she soon returned to her brother, and was now living with him, under suspicion of an unlawful familiarity between them.4848Joseph. Antiq. lib. xx. cap. 5. Festus having mentioned the case of Paul to Agrippa, the king expressed a desire to hear him. His curiosity would be gratified by seeing a man who had rendered himself so remarkable, first by his zeal for Judaism, and afterwards by his conversion to Christianity, and by receiving from him a true and particular account of the new religion, which was the subject of so much conversation and discussion.
When the court was assembled, Paul having been permitted to speak for himself, began by expressing his happiness in being called to plead his cause, before so competent a judge as Agrippa. He does not, indeed, insinuate, that he expected him to be more candid than Festus, nor does it appear, that the governor entertained any prejudice against him, and was disposed to favour his accusers. But, Agrippa, who had been educated in the knowledge of the law of Moses, and of the writings of the Prophets, was better qualified to decide upon the merits of the question than Festus, who had lately come into Judea, and was not acquainted with its religion and customs. “I think myself happy, king Agrippa, because I shall answer for myself this day before thee, touching all the things whereof I am accused of the Jews; especially because I know thee to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews.” The man who addresses an audience, to whom the subject of discourse is new, and who are ignorant of the principles, without which it cannot be understood, is placed in disadvantageous circumstances. When delivering the most important truths, he may seem to utter crude fancies, and the reveries of a disordered brain. Festus thought Paul mad, when he was stating 380some of the great doctrines and facts of Christianity. But, in the presence of Agrippa,. the Apostle could illustrate the harmony between the gospel and the law, with the hope of producing conviction, or at least of proving that the new religion was not so irrational and impious, as its malignant enemies represented it. Accordingly, the king acknowledged that the arguments had made a favourable impression upon his mind.
After this introduction, Paul proceeds to give an account of himself prior to his conversion, in order to pave the way for the relation of that event. “My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews which knew me from the beginning, (if they would testify,) that after the most straightest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.” The Jews were divided into several sects, differing widely in their sentiments and practices, although they were united in the same religious fellowship. Of all those sects the Pharisees were the strictest. Professing a sacred reverence for the law, they were scrupulously punctual in observing the ceremonial duties which it enjoined, and the traditions of the elders, in which religion was supposed chiefly to consist. Josephus informs us, that they were accounted more pious than others, and more exact in the interpretation of the laws. To this sect Paul was attached in the preceding part of his life. He adopted its peculiar tenets, rigidly conformed to its institutions, so that “touching the righteousness which was in the law, he was blameless,” and imbibed the vehement zeal, which distinguished the Pharisees, and usually characterises those sects, which affect pre-eminence in orthodoxy and purity.
His connexion with the Pharisees he had now renounced, as well as some of their tenets, which were contrary to the Christian faith; but he retained such of them as were agreeable to Scripture. For why did he now stand a prisoner at the tribunal of Festus? Had he committed any crime against the state, or was he guilty of any offence against religion? No; he was persecuted by his countrymen, for his steadfast adherence to the promises of God, which they also professed to believe. “And now I stand, and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God, unto our fathers: unto which promise our twelve tribes, constantly serving God day and night, hope to come; for which hope’s sake, king Agrippa, I am accused of the Jews.” The promise made to the fathers is the 381promise of the Messiah, or, as some suppose, that of the resurrection of the body to eternal life. Paul, however, was not blamed for simply teaching the resurrection of the dead, which was expected by all the Jews, with the exception of the Sadducees, but for asserting that it would be affected by the agency of Jesus of Nazareth, and that God had given an example and earnest of it, by restoring him to life. The subject of dispute, between him and his adversaries was confined to the ground of our hope; and in this discussion the truth of Christianity was involved.
If the question which follows, be considered as addressed to Agrippa, it is not easy to perceive the propriety of it. “Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?” The resurrection of the dead was not deemed incredible by the Jews, in whose Scriptures it is expressly taught, and who entertained such conceptions of the power of God, as removed the difficulties with which it seems to be encumbered. They did not disbelieve the resurrection of our Saviour, because they judged it to be impossible, but because they counted him an impostor, in whose favour it was absurd and blasphemous to suppose God to have exerted his miraculous power. I consider the question, therefore, as addressed to the Gentile part of the audience, to whom the resurrection did seem incredible. As it was a doctrine of great importance in the Christian system, Paul was careful in this stage of his discourse, to obviate an objection against it, which arises from the complete destruction of the body in the grave. How can it be believed that its parts, which are separated, decomposed, and in appearance annihilated, shall be collected together, and arranged in their original order; and that it shall live again, after an interval of hundreds or thousands of years? He reminds the Gentiles that, however strange it may seem, the event ceases to be improbable, as soon as we reflect upon the agent, to whose power no limits can be assigned. He who created the body of man, is undoubtedly able to restore it, after it had been blended with its native elements. Nothing which may be done, is impossible to omnipotence; no effect, how much soever it may surpass the common operations of nature, should be accounted too wonderful to be believed, when God has declared his intention to produce it. “Ye do err,” said our Lord to the Sadducees, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God.”
Paul returns to his own history. While he lived a Pharisee, he 382had conceived an implacable hatred against Jesus Christ, which was displayed in many acts of violence and cruelty, of which his disciples were the objects. He dragged them to prison, consented to their death, scourged them in the synagogues, in which the Jews were wont to inflict corporal punishment upon offenders against religion, compelled them to blaspheme, or made every effort to force them to deny Christ, and, perhaps, in some instances, succeeded through the frailty of the sufferers, and in the excess of his rage, pursued them to strange cities, to which they had fled for safety. In persecuting the Church, Paul acted from conscience. He never doubted that Jesus was an impostor, and consequently, that the means which he employed to check the progress of his religion, were acceptable to God. “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” We learn, by the way, that the standard of our duty is not conscience, which sometimes calls good evil, and evil good, but the perfect and unchangeable law of God; and that it will not be a sufficient apology for our errors of practice, that we can plead its dictates, because there is a higher authority, by which, its commands are controlled. We perceive, too, that sincerity, of which some men speak, as if it were the only virtue, or as if it would atone for almost every mistake, is of no value, unless we be sincere in what is right. No man was ever more sincere, or more fully convinced of the lawfulness of his proceedings than Paul, when he persecuted the disciples of Christ; but notwithstanding this persuasion, he afterwards reflected upon his conduct with shame and detestation, and pronounced himself to be the chief of sinners. We may farther see the difference between false and true zeal. False zeal is a hateful compound of pride, passion, and injustice. It seeks the injury and destruction of those against whom it is directed, and, like a torrent, sweeps away every thing before it. The man of enlightened zeal, entertains a much stronger hatred of sin than the false zealot, and opposes it with honest indignation; but he pities the sinner, is desirous to reclaim him, and is far from thinking, that to torture his body is the best expedient for saving his soul. Saul, the persecutor, is not, surely, a pattern to Christians, although many of them have found it more congenial to their proud and impatient temper, to imitate his furious zeal against the gospel, than to comply with the exhortation delivered by him, in the character of an Apostle, “in 383meekness to instruct those that oppose themselves, if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth.”
Paul proceeds to account for his subsequent conduct, in endeavouring to propagate the religion which he had laboured to destroy. “Whereupon as I went to Damascus, with authority and commission from the chief priests, at mid-day, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me, and them that journeyed with me. And, when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And I said, who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.” As the conversion of Paul was the subject of a former Lecture, it is not necessary now to give a particular illustration of it.4949Lect. xii. Yet, the repeated references to it in his speeches, and the miraculous manner in which it was accomplished, will justify me in making a few remarks in this place, upon an event, from which many important instructions may be drawn.
The first remark relates to its extraordinary nature. Paul was not brought to the knowledge of the truth, by the ordinary means, but by an unusual, and what we may strictly call a miraculous, dispensation. We do not know of a similar interposition in favour of any other person, although it would, perhaps, be presumptuous to affirm, that God has never again stept aside from his established method, for the salvation of a sinner; but we are certain, that it is not by visions and voices from heaven, that men are commonly converted. From his character and circumstances, Paul seems to have been beyond the reach of the ordinary means. Yet, it was not properly for his own sake, that this singular plan was adopted, for in the sight of God, Saul of Tarsus was of no more importance than any other Jew, but to make his conversion at once a striking proof of the truth of Christianity, and an illustrious display of the sovereignty of divine grace.
I remark, in the second place, that at the time of his conversion. his mind was in a state highly unfavourable to a change. Had he been a man of loose manners, an open transgressor of the law of God, his conscience might have been easily alarmed, so that he should have willingly listened to the gospel, proclaiming pardon to 384the guilty. But, he was a Pharisee, elated by a proud confidence in his own righteousness, who treated the humiliating doctrine of salvation by grace with contempt. Had he been a calm and moderate man, he might have candidly examined the evidence in favour of Christianity, and have been convinced by it. But, his prejudices were strong; they were wrought up, according to his own confession, to madness; and agreeably to the usual process of the passions, his hatred of the gospel became the more virulent, the more it was indulged. His case was hopeless without a moral miracle, analogous to the power displayed in making water flow from a solid rock, and life return to a dead body in the grave. The conversion of Paul demonstrates the immediate agency of God, “who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.”
In the third place, this event affords a striking illustration of the grace of God, or of the free, unconditional exercise of his mercy. It elucidates and confirms the doctrine, that salvation is not of works, but of grace. Much has been said concerning certain qualifications which a sinner must possess, that he may be a proper object of the favour of his Maker; but to this idea the case before us gives no countenance. In Paul, at the time of his conversion, there was no qualifications, which could recommend him to divine mercy, or render it congruous and equitable, that it should be extended to him in preference to others. He was actuated, in a high degree, by all those passions, which are just objects of abhorrence and punishment, pride, rage, enmity to the truth, and implacable hatred against good men. There was no relenting of heart, nor so much as a doubt in his mind with respect to the propriety of his conduct; he was decided in his opposition to the gospel, and bent upon the extirpation of it from the earth. It was at this moment, the most unlikely of all to be the season of gracious visitation, that Jesus whom he persecuted, chose to appear, not to punish but to pardon his crimes, and to employ the blasphemer and persecutor in his service. Was not Paul, without controversy, saved by grace? And with this example in his eye, why should any man, however unworthy, despair of obtaining salvation, when he seeks it by faith?
In the last place, the conversion of Paul was sudden and complete. It may be said, indeed, of every convert, that he passes at once from a state of nature to a state of grace, because a middle 385state between condemnation and pardon, between the bondage of sin and spiritual liberty, is inconceivable. But, in most cases, there is a previous process, of which the steps are distinctly marked. Serious thoughts arise in the mind of the sinner; remorse for past offences, and fear of punishment disturb his peace; tears are shed, and prayers are multiplied; and the duties of religion are diligently and anxiously performed. The conversion of Paul, like the creation of light, was accomplished in an instant. He who but a moment before breathed threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of Jesus, lies prostrate before him, and says, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” This was not the transient effect of a fit of terror, the deceitful language of distress, which is forgotten as soon as the cause which extorted it is removed. The sincerity of his conversion is manifest from his subsequent conduct. The conviction of the truth of Christianity which now took possession of his mind, lasted during the remainder of his life, and called forth his vigorous and well-supported exertions in its service. Jesus Christ did not appear to him, solely for his own salvation, but to employ him in preaching the gospel to the nations of the world; and, accordingly, he gave him the following commission. “But rise, and stand upon thy feet, for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; delivering thee from the people and from the Gentiles, unto, whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.”
The office with which Paul was invested was of the most honourable nature; and such it seems to every Christian. But, in the state of the world at that time, it subjected him to the contempt and hatred of all classes of men. By the Greeks he was accounted a babbler, and by the Jews an apostate and a heretic; and we shall, perhaps, form an idea of his situation tolerably exact, by supposing it to have been similar to that of the ringleader of some illiterate and enthusiastic sect in our own age, whom high and low, learned and unlearned, never mention but in terms of scorn and detestation, with this difference, however, that while our laws protect every man in the exercise of his religion, the life of the Apostle was exposed 386to perpetual danger. Paul was perfectly aware of the consequences of accepting the office; but he neither declined it at first, nor did he afterwards discover any inclination to resign it. “Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: but showed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance. For these causes, the Jews caught me in the temple, and went about to kill me. Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the Prophets and Moses did say should come: that Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should show light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.” The alacrity with which he engaged in the service of Christ, and the undaunted courage, which he displayed in performing his duty, are proofs of his full persuasion of the truth of the gospel, and of the complete change of views and principles which he had experienced, in consequence of the appearance of our Saviour, in the way to Damascus.
While the Apostle was relating the manner of his conversion, and the doctrines which he had since preached to Jews and Gentiles, he was interrupted by Festus, who exclaimed, “Paul, thou art beside thyself: much learning doth make thee mad.” If we reflect upon the character and circumstances of Festus, we shall not be surprised, that Paul appeared to him in the light of a madman. The governor was a heathen, who probably knew little about the Jewish religion, and had scarcely heard of Christianity, before he came into Judea. To such a man, how strange must every thing relative to it have seemed! What could he think of Paul’s miraculous conversion How different from his views of religion, was the account which the apostle gave, of the design of his ministry, to open the eyes of sinners, to deliver them from the dominion of Satan, and to sanctify them through faith and of the grand facts on which Christianity is founded, the death and resurrection of its Author! These were subjects which the governor could not comprehend, and which excited no distinct notions in his mind. The discourse which he had heard, seemed to be a jumble of waking dreams, a collection of extravagant fancies, more resembling the ravings of an insane person, than the thoughts of a man in his senses. At the same time, as Paul had referred to the writings 387of Moses and the Prophets, and had probably cited a variety of passages from them, Festus concluded, that he was a man of learning, whose mind intense study had disordered, and who was bewildered by the multitude of his ideas. “Much learning doth make thee mad.”
To this abrupt and indecent charge Paul replied with temper and politeness. He remembered the respect due to the supreme magistrate of the province, and displayed the meekness, which should characterise a Christian, upon every occasion. A passionate answer would have been unsuitable to his present circumstances, and to the spirit of religion, which he was endeavouring to vindicate and recommend. “I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.” In support of this assertion, he appealed to Agrippa. “For the king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I arn persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner.” To Agrippa, a professor of the Jewish religion, the writings of the Prophets, which foretold the sufferings and glory of the Messiah, were familiar. He could not be ignorant of the history of Jesus of Nazareth, and of the report of his resurrection, which was publicly and confidently asserted by his disciples. He had undoubtedly heard of the conversion of Paul, which, whether we consider the character of the man, or the suddenness of the change, must have been a subject of general conversation. With respect to both these events, it was true, “that this thing was not done in a corner.” The conversion of the Apostle was soon made known by his appearance in the character of a preacher of the gospel; and, besides, the men who accompanied him to Damascus, were witnesses of the miraculous interposition by which it was affected. The resurrection of Jesus was a fact of public notoriety. The Roman soldiers, who were stationed to watch the sepulchre, saw the angel descend, and roll away the stone which closed the entrance to it; the body could not be found; the disciples appeared in the streets and in the temple, affirming that their Master was risen; and many miracles were performed in confirmation of their testimony. It is an argument of great weight in favour of the gospel, that it was published at the time, when the events which it records, are said to have happened; that it was submitted to the examination of those, who, had it been a human contrivance, could have easily convicted it of imposture; and that it stood this severe 388test, and prevailed, in circumstances which would have proved fatat to every thing but truth.
After this indirect appeal to Agrippa, Paul turns from Festus to the king himself. “King Agrippa, believest thou the Prophets? I know that thou believest.” Agrippa and all the Jews, believed that the Prophets were divinely inspired, and consequently, that their predictions should be punctually fulfilled. But, no man who held this belief, and understood the prophetical writings, could refuse to acknowledge Jesus to be the Messiah, because his character and the events of his life are so clearly described in them. The argument from prophecy was sufficient for the conviction of the Jews; and accordingly, we observe, that the mind of Agrippa was strongly affected by it. He said to Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”
It is evident, that in this summary of his speech, Luke merely gives an account of the general source, from which the arguments were drawn. Paul had endeavoured to show the exact correspondence between ancient prophecy and the history of our Saviour; and Agrippa acknowledged that there was such a degree of probability in the reasoning, as almost induced him to admit the conclusion, that Jesus was the Christ. But he stopped here, either because his humble life and ignominious death were contrary to the notions of the pomp and splendour of the Messiah and his kingdom, which a Jew was accustomed to entertain; or because he was restrained, by worldly considerations, from candidly declaring his sentiments. The remains of his Jewish prejudices, or a dread of the consequences, if he should avow his convictions, and embrace Christianity, arrested his progress. It would have been no easy matter, in that age, for a king to profess the despised and offensive doctrine of the cross. The rage of the Jews against him would have been without bounds; and he would have incurred the displeasure of the Roman emperor, and probably have been degraded from his royal honours. Whatever was the motive which prevented him from becoming an entire convert to the religion of Christ, his conscience compelled him to acknowledge, that there were strong presumptions of its truth.
The reply of the Apostle breathes the spirit of benevolence, by which a genuine Christian is influenced even towards his enemies. “I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.” This wish or prayer might have seemed ridiculous to 389those, who considered only the external circumstances of the Apostle, a poor man and lightly esteemed, precluded by his character and profession from the pleasures of the world, and constantly exposed to its most formidable evils. But Paul makes an exception of the chain with which he was bound. He was content to be a solitary sufferer, and desirous that his hearers should participate in his advantages, without having a share in his troubles. He would have rejoiced to see them all enjoying the peace which dwelt in his own bosom, the consolation by which he was sustained, and the blessed hope, which cheered him in the dark scenes of adversity, and makes even the valley of death shine with celestial light. The best prayer which a Christian can offer up for another man, is, that he may be associated with him in his spiritual privileges. Let the men of the world wish health, long life, riches, and honours to their friends. These are the only blessings of which they know the value; and if they sincerely desire others to be as happy as themselves, possessed of all the good things which they so much esteem, what more can we expect from them? He who has tasted the higher pleasures of religion, will wish that grace, mercy, and peace may be multiplied to those in whom his heart is interested. He will say with the generous spirit of Paul, “May God make them what his grace has made me, and much better! May they have all my joys, without any of my sorrows!”
When Paul had closed his defence, his judges withdrew, and having consulted together, were unanimously of opinion, that he had done nothing “worthy of death or of bonds.” Agrippa was almost convinced of the truth of Christianity; and Festus regarded it as a harmless superstition. There was nothing, therefore, to hinder him from being set at liberty but his appeal to the emperor, which, perhaps, he had not power to withdraw, and an inferior court could not set aside. We may, therefore, be disposed to regret that Paul had made this appeal, as he might have been immediately dismissed from the bar of Festus, and have returned to the free exercise of his Apostolical office, which had been so long interrupted. It is evident, however, that it was a measure absolutely necessary at the time, to preserve him from falling into the hands of the Jews, who were resolved upon his destruction. By the Head of the Church, it was overruled as the occasion of sending him to Rome, the centre of concourse to all the nations of the earth, where he preached the gospel, which he had already published in many of 390the chief cities of the empire; and while this journey was subservient to the interests of religion, it was attended with no worse consequence to himself than his continuance for some time longer in bonds.
This chapter would furnish a variety of useful remarks; but I shall conclude with a few reflections, suggested by the impression which the speech of Paul made upon Agrippa. “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” We learn from this example, that there may be convictions of the truth, which are prevented by certain causes from terminating in conversion; or that particular persons may make such approaches towards religion, as in the language of our Saviour, “not to be far from the kingdom of heaven,” and yet may not fully submit to its authority.
Perhaps, there may be found, among professed infidels themselves, some persons, the state of whose minds much resembles that of Agrippa. They are secretly convinced that Christianity is true, or the evidence in its favour appears so strong, that they entertain suspicions and presumptions of its truth; but they are hindered from pursuing the inquiry, and avowing their sentiments, by pride, by the prevalence of corrupt propensities, by a dread of the reproaches of their companions in unbelief, or by some other base consideration, which counteracts the suggestions of conscience. Their hearts misgive them, when they seem to be boldest in expressing their contempt for religion, and they tremble while they pretend to set its awful sanctions at defiance. How unhappy must such persons be! There is a frequent and painful struggle in their breasts between inclination and a sense of duty; they are desirous to taste and they venture to pluck, the forbidden fruit; but they have not yet been able to fully persuade themselves, that the threatening is only an imaginary terror. Of religion they know as much as disturbs them in their pleasures, but not so much as to prevail upon them to give their cordial consent to it. While they hate the light and refuse to come to it, lest their deeds should be reproved, what a dreadful load of guilt do they accumulate? No man can despise religion without sin; but how great, how inexcusable is the sin of those, who affect to despise it, although their hearts secretly bear witness to its truth and excellence!
Again, Among the members of the Church, there are persons, who believe the gospel to be true, and profess an attachment to it, 391but, at the same time, are only almost persuaded to be Christians. Their faith is a cold and careless assent, which has little or no influence upon their hearts. They do not feel themselves interested in religion. They hear its awful and comfortable doctrines without emotions of fear or joy; they observe its institutions without devout affections; they obey its precepts without any liking to the duties which they enjoin. Conscience will not permit them to do less; but why are they content with so little? If the gospel is true, is it not worthy of all acceptation? If Jesus Christ is the Saviour of sinners, is he not entitled to their highest gratitude and love? Consider, ye lukewarm friends of Christianity, that if you are not in earnest about religion, it can serve no valuable purpose to make a profession of it. “I would,” said our Lord to the Church of Laodicea, “thou wert cold or hot.” He requires you to take a decided part, to be either for him or against him; and he would rather that you should openly avow your hostility, than that under a show of regard, you should harbour a contemptuous indifference.
Lastly, There is a third class of persons, to whom the words of Agrippa may be applied. They have not only the form, but they seem also to have experienced the power, of religion. They trust, as they flatter themselves, in the mercy of God, and hope for eternal life; they take delight in hearing the doctrines and promises of salvation; they engage in the exercises of devotion with fervour, and punctually perform many of the common duties of life. Yet, their religion is a false show; there is nothing real under those specious appearances. They are not, indeed, deliberate hypocrites, studying for fame or gain to impose upon others; but they are themselves imposed upon by their own feelings. There is no radical change of their principles; they are not new creatures in Christ Jesus; they are almost, but not altogether persuaded to be Christians. Remember the account given by our Saviour, in the parable of the sower, of some “who receive the word with joy, and continue for a season, but have no root in themselves.” It, therefore, deeply concerns the professors of religion to examine the emotions of their minds, and the attainments which they suppose themselves to have made, by the criterion of Scripture. No man should, upon slight evidence, or by a hasty induction, produce a sentence in his own favour. Let him reflect, that the heart is deceitful above all things; and that there may be a strong movement of the affections, and even a reformation of the conduct, while it remains under the 392dominion of sin. It is by the grace of God, that a man becomes altogether a Christian. This new character cannot be assumed at pleasure, nor produced merely by the force of arguments, and the influence of favourable circumstances. It is the image and superscription of our heavenly Father, impressed upon the soul by his own hand; for “we are born, not of blood; nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”393
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