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To my dearly beloved and longed for, the flock of Jesus Christ in Dartmouth, over whom the Holy Ghost hath made me an overseer; sound judgment, true zeal, and unstained purity, are heartily wished.
My Dear Friends,
There are three sad sights with which our eyes should continually affect our hearts: the 1st, is to behold in every place, so many profane and dissolute ones, who bear the very image of Satan; the face of whose conversation plainly discovers what they are and whither they are going, Phil. iii. 18, 19. These look like themselves, the children of wrath. The 2d, is to see so many cursed hypocrites artificially disguising themselves, and with marvellous dexterity acting the parts of saints; so that even a judicious eye may 14sometimes mistake the similar workings of the spirit on them, for his saving workings on others: to hear such a person conferring, praying, bewailing his corruptions, and talking of his experiences; would easily persuade a man to believe that he hath the heart, as well as the face, of a sincere Christian: for, sic oculus, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat.
So the people of God do speak, so they pray, and even so they open their conditions: these look like saints, but are none. The 3d, is to see so many real saints, in whom the spirit of truth is, who yet, through the impetuous workings of their corruptions, and neglecting of the watch over their hearts, do often fall into such scandalous practices, that they look like hypocrites, though they are not so.
These are three sad sights indeed; and, Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes fountains of tears, that I might weep abundantly over them all!
For the second, I would both weep and tremble, considering that they (so abiding) must be damned doubly, Matth. xxiv. 51.
And for the third, no less than any of the rest, because, though they themselves may, and shall be saved, yet their examples make fast the bonds of death upon both the former, Matth. xviii. 7. 2 Sam. xii. 13, 14.
Alas! that ever they should shed the blood of other souls, for whom Christ shed his own blood! that ever they should be cruel to others, who have found Christ so kind to them! I know they dare not do it directly and intentionally, but so it proves occasionally and eventually. Suffer me here to digress a little, and expostulate with these prejudiced and hardened souls; I will presently return to you again. O why do you 16mischief your own souls by other men's examples? because they stumble and break their shins, will you fall, and break your necks? I desire all such as harden themselves by these things, and take up a good opinion of their own deplorable condition, would soberly consider, and answer these three queries.
Query 1. Doth religion any way countenance or patronize the sinful practices of its professors? Or doth it not rather impartially and severely condemn them? It is the glory of the Christian religion, that it is pure and undefiled, Jam. i. 27. No doctrine so holy, Psal. xix. 8. Nor doth any make more provision for an holy life, Tit. ii. 11, 12. Indeed there is a case wherein we may change the evil practices of men upon their principles; but that is, when their practices naturally flow from, and necessarily follow their principles: as for example, if I see a Papist sin boldly, I may charge it upon his principles, for they set 17pardons to sale, and so make way for looseness; if I see an Arminian slight the grace of God, and proudly advance himself, I may cry, shame upon his principles, which directly lead to it: but can I do so, where such practices are condemned and provided against, by their own avowed principles who commit them?
Query 2. Is it not a most irrational thing to let fly at religion because of the scandalous ways of some, whilst in the mean time you wholly slight and overlook the holy and heavenly conversation of many others? Are all that possess godliness loose and careless in their lives? no, some are an ornament to their profession, and the glory of Christ; and why must the innocent be condemned with the guilty? why the eleven, for one Judas?
Query 3. If you condemn religion because of the scandalous lives of some that profess it, must you not then cast off all religion in the world, and turn downright Atheists? Surely this is the consequence of 18it: for what religion is there, but some that profess it walk contrary to their professions? and then, as Constantine told the Novatian, you must set set up your ladder, and go to heaven by yourself. But, alas! it is not our printed apologies for religion, but the visible reformation of its professors, that must both salve its honour, and remove those fatal stumbling-blocks at which the blind world strikes, and falls into eternal perdition.
Now there are two ways by which this may be effected: First", by convincing the consciences of professors of their miscarriages; and the evil and aggravations of them. Secondly, by medicating the heart, and cleansing the fountain whence they proceed. In the first of these, a worthy and eminent servant of Christ has lately laboured, holding a clear gospel-glass before the faces of professors, which truly represents their spots and blemishes: if he that reads it will consider, apply, and practice, it shall doubtless turn to his salvation; but if it turn to 19no good account to him that reads it, I know it shall turn to a testimony for him that wrote it. The second is a principal design of this small treatise, the subject whereof is exceeding weighty, and of daily use to the people of God, though the manner of handling it be attended with many defects and weaknesses: every one cannot be excellent, who yet may be useful.
I will exercise your patience no longer than whilst I tell you,
1. Why I publish it to the view of the world.
2. Why I direct it particularly to you.
First, for the publication of it, take this sincere and brief account, that, as I was led to this subject by a special providence, so to the publication of it by a kind of necessity: the providence at first leading me to it, was this, a dear and choice friend of my intimate acquaintance, being under much inward trouble, upon the account of some special heart-disorder, opened the case to me; and earnestly requested some rules and helps 20in that particular: whilst I was bending my thoughts to that special case, divers other cases of like importance (some of which were dependent upon that consideration) occurred to my thoughts; and this scripture, which I have insisted upon, presented itself, as a fit foundation for the whole discourse; which being lengthened out to what you see, diverse friends requested me to transcribe for their use, divers of the cases here handled, and some others begged me to publish the whole; to which I was in a manner necessitated, to save the pains of transcribing, which to me is a very tedious and tiresome work: and just as I had almost finished the copy, and opportunity presented (and that somewhat strangely) to make it public. So that from first to last I have been carried beyond my first intentions in this thing.
Object. If any say, the world is even cloyed with books; and therefore, though the discourse be necessary, yet the publication is needless.
21Sol. I answer, There are multitudes of books indeed, and of them, many concern not themselves about root-truths, and practical godliness, but spend their strength upon impracticable notions and frivolous controversies; many also strike at root-truths, and endeavor to undermine the power of godliness; and some there are that nourish the root, and tend to clear and confirm, to prepare and apply the great truths of the gospel, that they may be bread for souls to live and feed on: now, though I could wish, that those who have handled the pen of the scribe, had better employed their time and pains than to obtrude such useless discourses upon the world; yet, for books of the latter rank, I say, that, when husbandmen complain of too much corn, let Christians complain of too many such books.
2. And if you be so highly conceited of your own furniture and ability, that such books are needless to you; if you let them alone, they will do you no hurt, and other 22poor hungry souls will be glad of them, and bless God for what you despise and leave.
Object. If it be said, that several of the cases here handled touch not your condition, I answer,
Sol. 1. That which is not your condition may be another's condition. If you be placed in an easy, full, and prosperous state, and so have no need of the helps here offered to support your heart under pinching wants, others are forced to live by faith for every day's provision: If you be dandled upon the knee of providence, some of your brethren are under its feet: if you have inward peace and tranquility of spirit, and so need not the counsels here given, to ward off those desperate conclusions that poor afflicted souls are ready to draw upon themselves at such a time; yet it may be a word in season to them, and they may say, as David to Abigail, blessed be thou of the Lord, and blessed by thy advice.
2. That may be your condition shortly, which is not your condition at present: say 23not, thy mountain stands strong, thou shalt never be moved: there are changes in the right-hand of the most High; and then those truths, which are little more esteemed than hedge-fruits, will be as apples of gold in pictures of silver. In Jer. 10, 11, the prophet there teaches the Jews (who then dwelt in their own houses) how to defend their religion in Babylon, and what they should say to the Chaldeans there, and therefore that verse is written in Chaldee. So much for the reasons of its publication. Next, for the dedication of it to you, I was induced thereto by the considerations,
1. Of the relation I have to you above all the people in the world: I look upon my gifts as yours, my time as yours, and all the talents I am intrusted with, as yours: it is not with you as with a woman whose husband is dead, and so is freed from the law of her husband; the relation still continues, and so do all the mutual duties of it.
2. By the consideration of my necessitated absence from you. I would not that 24personal absence should by insensible degrees untwist (as usually it doth) the cord of friendship; and therefore have endeavoured (as absent friends use to do) to preserve and strengthen it by this small remembrance. It was Vespasian's answer to Apollonius, when he desired access for two philosophers: my doors (said Vespasian) are always open to philosophers, but my very breast is open to thee. I cannot say with him, my doors are open for the free access of friends, being by a sad providence shut against myself; but this I can say, my very breast is still open to you; you are as dear to me as ever.
3. Another inducement (and indeed the main) was the perpetual usefulness and necessity of these truths for you, which you will have continual need of: and I know few of you have such happy memories to retain, and I cannot be always with you to inculcate these things, but litera scripta manet. I was willing to leave this with you as a legacy, as a testimony of sincere 25love for, and care over you: this may counsel and direct you when I cannot: I may be rendered useless to you by a civil or natural death; but this will out live me, and oh that it may serve your souls when I am silent in the dust!
To hasten now to a conclusion: I have only three requests to make to you, which I earnestly beseech you not to deny me; yea, I charge you, as ever you hope to appear with comfort before the great shepherd, do not dare to slight these requests;
1. Above all other studies in the world study your own hearts: waste not a minute more of your precious time about frivolous and sapless controversies. It is reported even of Bellarmine (how truly I examine not) quod a studiis scholasticae theologiae averteretur fere nause abundas, quonian succo carebant liquid pietatis, i.e. he turned with loathing from the study of school divinity, because it wanted the sweet juice of piety. I had rather it should be said of you, as one said of Swinkfeldius, he wanted a regular head, but not an honest heart, 26than that you should have regular heads, and irregular hearts. My dear flock, I have, according to the grace given me, laboured in the course of my ministry among you, to feed you with the heart-strengthening bread of practical doctrine; and I do assure you, it is far better you should have the sweet and saving impressions of gospel-truths, feelingly and powerfully conveyed to your hearts, than only to understand them by a bare ratiocination, or a dry syllogistical inference. Leave trifling studies to such as have time lying on their hands, and know not how to employ it: remember you are at the door of eternity, and have other work to do; those hours you spend upon heart-work in your closets, are the golden spots of all your time, and will have the sweetest influence to your last hour. Never forget those sermons I preached to you, upon that subject, from 2 Kings xx. 2, 3. Heart-work is weighty and difficult work; and error there, may cost you your souls: I may say of it, as Augustine speaks of the doctrine of the trinity, nihilo facilius aut periculosius 27erratur; a man can err in nothing more easily or more dangerously. O then, study your hearts.
3. My next request is, that you will carefully look to your conversations, and be accurate in all your ways; hold forth the word of life: be sure by the strictness and holiness of your lives, to settle yourselves in the very consciences of your enemies. Remember that your lives must be produced in the great day to judge the world, 1 Cor. vi. 2. Oh then, what manner of persons ought you to be! you have many eyes over you, the omniscient eye of God, that searches the heart and reins, Rev. ii. 23. the vigilant eye of Satan, Job. i. 7, 8. the envious eyes of enemies, that curiously observe you, Psal. v. 8. the quick and observant eye of conscience, which none of your actions escape, Rom. ix. 1.
O then be precise and accurate in all manner of conversation: keep up the power of godliness in your closets and families, and 28then you will not let it fall in your more public employments and conversations in the world. I have often told you, that it is the honour of the gospel, that it makes the best parents and children, the best masters and servants, the best husbands and wives in the world.
My third and last request is, that you pray for me: I hope I can say, and I am sure some of you have acknowledged, that I came at first amongst you, as the return and answer of your prayers; and indeed so it should be, Luke x. 2. I am persuaded also, I have been carried on in my work by your prayers; it is sweet when it is so, Eph. vi. 18, 19. And I hope by your prayers to receive yet a further benefit, even that which is mentioned, Heb. xiii. 18, 19. Philem. ver. 22. And truly it is but equal you should pray for me: I have often prayed for you: let the pulpit, family, and closet, witness for me: and God forbid I should sin against the Lord, in ceasing to pray for you.
29Yea, friends, your interest ought to persuade you to it: what mercies you obtain for me, redound to your own advantage; if God preserve me, it is for your use and service; the more gifts and graces a minister hath, the better for them that shall wait on his ministry: the more God gives in to me, the more I shall be able to give out to you. I will detain you no longer, but to intreat you to accept this small testification of my great love, and have recourse to it, according as the exigencies of your condition shall require: read it consideringly and obediently; judge it not by the dress and style, but by the weight and favour of what you read. It is a good rule of Bernard, in legendis libris, non quaeramus scientiam sed saporem, i.e. in reading books, regard not so much the science, as the favour. That it may prove the savour of life unto life to you, and all those into whose hands it shall come, is the hearty desire of,
Your loving and faithful pastor,
From my study at Ley in Slapton,
Oct. 7th, 1667.
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