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Other causes and occasions of the decay of holiness.
II. Multitudes are led into and countenanced in the ways of sin and profaneness, freely indulging unto their lusts and corrupt affections, by a false appropriation of justifying names and titles unto them, in ways of sin and wickedness. This was one principal means of old whereby the Jews were hardened in their impieties and flagitious lives; for when the prophets told them of their sins, and warned them of God’s approaching judgments, they opposed that outcry unto their whole ministry, “The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are these;” — “Say what you please, we are the only posterity of Abraham, the only church of God in the world.” This contest they managed with the prophet Jeremiah in an especial manner. Chap. vii., he saith unto them in the name of the Lord, “Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place,” verse 3. Their reply and defence is, “The temple of the Lord,” etc., verse 4. Whereunto the prophet makes that severe return, verses 9, 10, “Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not, and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name?” — “Will ye give up yourselves unto all manner of wickedness, and countenance yourselves therein by being a people unto whom the temple and the worship of it are appropriated?” And this, in like manner, was the great prejudice which the Baptist had to contend withal when he came to call them to repentance. Abraham’s children they were, and by virtue of that relation had right unto all the privileges of the covenant made with him, whatever they were in themselves, Matt. iii. 9. And it is evident in these examples that the nearer churches or persons are unto an utter forfeiture of all their privileges, and to destruction itself, for their sins, the more ready they are to boast of and support themselves with their outward state, as having nothing else to trust unto. But if men were able to countenance themselves 197in their sins on this pretence against that extraordinary prophetical ministry which endeavoured to discard them of it, and called them unto the necessity of personal holiness, how much more will they be able to shelter themselves under its shades when they shall be taught so to do!
When men who have given up themselves unto a vicious, sensual, worldly course of life, having either fallen into it by the power of their lusts and temptations, or were never brought into a better course by any means of correcting the vices of nature, shall find that notwithstanding what they are, what they know themselves to be, and what judgment others must needs pass of them, yet they are esteemed to belong to the church of Christ, and are made partakers of all the outward privileges of it, it cannot but greatly heighten their security in sin, and weaken the efficacy of all means of their reformation. And when others, not so engaged in the ways of sin and profaneness, shall see that they may have all the external pledges of divine love and favour communicated unto them, although they should run into the same compass of riot and excess with others, it cannot but insensibly weaken their diligence in duty, and render them more pliable subjects of temptations unto sin; for they are but few who care to be better than they judge they must be of necessity. When the church of Sardis was really dead, the principal means of keeping it in that condition was the name it had to be alive.
Let us, therefore, consider how it hath been in the world in this matter. Whilst these things have been communicated promiscuously unto all sorts of men, yea, to the worst that live on the earth, is it not evident that the name of the church and the administration of its ordinances would be made use of to countenance men in a neglect of holiness, yea, a contempt and hatred of it? Whilst these sacred names, titles, and privileges, these pledges of the love of God, and of all the benefits of the mediation of Christ, are forced to lackey after men into the most provoking courses of flagitious sins, what can put a stay to the lusts of men? If the church be that society in the world which is alone the object of God’s especial love and grace, if the principal end of the administration of its ordinances be to confirm unto men their interest in the benefits of the mediation of Christ, how can the lusts of men be more accommodated than by the application of these things unto them, whilst they are flagrant in their pursuit? It may, indeed, be supposed that the Lord Jesus Christ hath made evangelical obedience to be the immovable rule of an interest in his church; indeed, whether obedience unto the precepts of the gospel be not the only and indispensable condition of a participation of the privileges of the gospel, ought to be out of dispute with them that own the truth of its doctrine. And whereas 198all that is required of us that we may be eternally saved is contained in the precepts of the gospel, men can have no other outward security of their souls’ welfare than what doth accompany the church and its rights. When, therefore, they do find on what easy terms they may hold an indefeasible interest in them, so as that, by a compliance with some outward forms or constitutions, they may secure their right from any impeachment or forfeiture by the most profligate course of life which, for the satisfaction of their lusts, they can betake themselves unto, what remains of outward means that can put a restraint upon them.
This was the engine whereby Satan promoted that general apostasy from evangelical obedience which befell the church of Rome, in all its branches, members and adherents. For after that innumerable multitudes were brought unto the profession of Christianity, not through a conviction and experience of its truth, power, holiness, and necessity unto the present peace and eternal welfare of the souls of men, but in compliance with the rulers of the nations and their own secular interest, being once safely lodged (on most easy and gentle terms) in the church, they were quickly secured from all apprehensions of the necessity of that holiness which the gospel doth require: for being assured that although their lives were worse than those of the heathen; were they never so lewd, filthy, and wicked; did all manner of sins that may be named, or ought [not] to be named, abound among them; yet that they, and they alone, were the church of Christ, and could not be otherwise, — to what purpose should they trouble themselves with mortification, self-denial, purity of heart and hands, and such other ungrateful duties? What ground is there to expect the same course of obedience from them who engage into a profession of Christianity on these terms, with those who in the primitive times embraced the truth in the love of it, for its own sake, with a deliberate resolution to forego all things rather than forsake its profession or decline from its commands?
Especially were men confirmed in their security when they saw others condemned body and soul unto hell, and consumed with fire and sword in this world, for not being what they were, — that is, the church! They could not choose but applaud their own happiness, who on such easy terms were certainly freed from present and eternal flames. When hereunto, for the necessary satisfaction of some convictions, the reliefs of confession, penances, commutation, and redemption of sins by outward works of supposed piety or charity, were found out, with the great reserve of purgatory in all dubious cases, the generality of men bade an open farewell unto the holiness of the gospel, as that wherein they were not concerned and wherewith they would not be troubled.
199In these things consisted the mystery of iniquity, the springs and occasions of that great apostasy which was in the world under the Papacy.
1. The doctrine of the gospel (as to its peculiar nature, the causes, motives, and ends of it) was generally lost, partly through the horrible ignorance of some, and partly through the pernicious errors of others, whose duty it was to have preserved it. And how impossible it is to maintain the life and power of obedience when this spring of it is dried up or corrupted, when this root is withered and decayed, is not hard to apprehend. Sometimes truth is lost first in a church, and then holiness, and sometimes the decay or hatred of holiness is the cause of the loss of truth; but where either is rejected, the other win not abide, as we have declared. And so it fell out in that fatal apostasy; these evils promoted and furthered each other.
2. The ground got by the loss of truth was secured by the application of the name, title, privileges, and promises of the church unto all sorts of men, though living impenitently in their sins; for there was and is virtually contained therein an assurance given unto them that they are in that condition wherein the Lord Christ requires they should be, which he accepts, approves, and hath annexed the promises of the gospel unto. When men are declared to be in this estate, what need they be at any pains or charge to have it changed or bettered? Certainly, in general, they are too much in love with their lusts, sins, and pleasures, to part with them, unless they see a greater necessity for it than such a condition would admit. And for their farther security herein, they were informed that the sacraments of the church did, by virtue of their administration alone, confer unto them all the grace which they do signify. Particularly, they were taught to believe that every one who had a mouth, whatever villainies his heart and life were filled withal, might eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus Christ (at least by concomitancy); which himself hath assured us that “whoso doeth hath eternal life,” John vi. 53, 54. And other ways almost innumerable there were whereby, through their pretended interest in the church and its privileges, even flagitious sinners were secured of immortality and glory.
3. For the increase of their satisfaction, for the confirming of their security, they found that hell and destruction were denounced only against them who were not of the church. For besides one great maxim of truth which passed current amongst them, but [was] falsely applied unto their advantage, namely, that out of the church there was no salvation, which church they were; and one also of no less use to them, though of less truth in itself, that the church was like Noah’s ark, all were saved that were in it, and all drowned that were out of it, with others of an alike encouraging nature; they saw 200the truth of them exemplified before their eyes: for if it so fell out that there were any who did not belong unto the church as they did, nor would comply with it, although they were evidently in their ways and lives more righteous than themselves, they saw them, by the authority of the church, cursed, condemned unto hell, cast into dungeons, and consumed with flames. And herewith they could not but be fully satisfied that there was no fear of danger and trouble, in this world or another, but only in not being of the church; which sin they were resolved not to be guilty of, seeing they could avoid it on so easy terms. And it will be found always true, that as persecutions, with the sufferings of the saints of God, do tend to the brightening of the grace of some, and the confirmation of the faith of others who really believe, so they do greatly unto the obdurateness and impenitency of wicked men in their sins. Never was there a more pernicious engine against the glory of the gospel invented, than for professed Christians to persecute, hurt; and destroy others, in like manner professing Christian religion with themselves, who visibly excel them in a holy, fruitful conversation, because in some things they dissent from them; for what can more secure men in their impieties than to persuade them that they are justified in them by the rule of the gospel, above those who in all duties of morality do really excel them? Certainly, for swearers and drunkards, profane persons and unclean, to persecute such for religion as are visibly pious, sober, temperate, given unto prayer and good works, is no useful representation of Christianity. But, —
4. These privileges and these attestations were not absolutely and always such armour of proof unto sinners, but that some arrows of conviction would ever and anon pierce into their minds and consciences, giving them no small disquietment and trouble. One thing or other, either in some beam of truth from the gospel or from conscience itself, on the occasions of new surprisals into actual sin, or from fear, or an apprehension of some public judgments, would ever and anon befall them, and that unto an inward disturbance beyond what the advantages mentioned could reduce them from; and this was the most likely way of awaking them out of their security, and causing them to inquire what God yet required of them. In this case were the other helps and supplies mentioned found out and proposed unto them. “If it be so that you are not absolutely satisfied with your interest in the advantages of the church in general, if sin will yet give you any disquietment, then you must to confession, and penances, and works of redemption, with the like approved medicines and remedies for troubled minds. But if the conscience of any prove so stubborn or inflexible after all these mollifying and suppling medicines, that the wound will not be skinned over, all that is yet wanting 201shall be well issued and secured in purgatory, wherein it is most certain that never any soul did miscarry.”
By these and the like means, the generality of mankind were brought into an utter unconcernment with gospel holiness. They neither understood it, nor found any need of it, nor did like what by any means they might hear of it, until at length a blind devotion, deformed with various superstitions, obtained the reputation of it, the world in the meantime being drenched in ignorance, profaneness, and all manner of wicked conversation. So, under the name of the church and its privileges, were Christ and the gospel almost utterly lost amongst men.
It will not be otherwise where the same principles are entertained, according unto the degrees of their prevalency. And were it not that the minds of men are powerfully influenced with reserves from these things, it were impossible that so many called Christians should in their lives and conversations exceed heathens and Mohammedans in wickedness. The commands of the gospel are most holy, its promises great, and its threatenings most severe; and yet, under a profession of owning them all, men lead lives worse than the heathens, who know nothing of that holy rule, or of those promises and threats of eternal things wherein the highest blessedness and utmost misery of our nature do consist, which these profess to be regulated by.
To suppose really the least countenance to be given hereunto by any thing that belongs unto the gospel, is to exercise against it the highest despite imaginable. This event, therefore, must and doth principally follow on the undue application of the outward tokens of God’s favour and pledges of eternal blessedness unto men in their sins, by those unto whom the administration of them is supposed to be committed by Jesus Christ. And let none expect a return of a conversation becoming the gospel among Christians until things are so ordered in the church as that none may flatter themselves with a supposed interest in the promises and privileges of the gospel, who live not in a visible subjection unto and compliance with all the precepts of it. But whilst all things are huddled together promiscuously, and there is no more required to make a Christian than for him to be born in such a place or nation, and not to oppose the customs and usages in religion which are there established, we must be content to bear the evils of that defection which the world groans under.
III. Great examples of persons exalted in places of eminency giving up themselves unto boldness in a course of sinning, — which have fallen out in all the latter ages of the church, — have had a signal influence into the increase and furtherance of this apostasy; 202especially they have had so where the persons giving such examples have been such as pretended unto the conduct of religion. See Jer. xxiii. 15. It cannot with any modesty be denied but that the flagitious, scandalous lives of many popes and other great prelates of the court of Rome have hurried many into the very depths of atheism, and countenanced multitudes in a careless, voluptuous, sensual course of life. And if at any time a man whose ways are made conspicuous by the eminency of his employment, — being, as it were, at the head of all the religion that is publicly professed, and having the chief conduct of it in his hand, as it is in the Papacy in many places, — be vain in his communication, profane in his principles, sensual in his course of life, negligent in the duties of his office, no way rebuking open sins, but taking pleasure in them that do them, it is incredible how soon a whole age or generation of professed Christians will be influenced, corrupted, and debauched thereby; for what is the family like to be, when the stewards are such as the evil servant described Matt. xxiv. 48–51? As men are warned every day not to be wiser than their teachers, but duly to obey their guides; so they either cannot or will not, for the most part, see any reason why they should be better than they, or walk in any other paths than what they tread before them. When the sons of Eli, the sons and successors of the high priest, actually exercising the priests’ office in their own persons, gave the people an open example of profaneness and lewdness of life, the body of the nation was quickly so far corrupted as that the judgments of God in the first captivity of the land ensued thereon. The world at present is so precipitate and headstrong in a course of sin, that the best examples are not able in any measure to stem the torrents of it. But if in any place, at any time, encouragements are given unto men by any eminent examples in sinning, helping to remove the remaining curbs of fear, shame, and reputation, impudence in sinning will rise unto an exorbitant and uncontrollable outrage. Hereby, then, hath the defection from holiness complained of been greatly promoted in all ages, for few or none of them have wanted plenty of these examples. Indeed, the first visible degeneracies of Christianity, as they accompanied, so they were occasioned by the open pride, ambition, strife, contentions, and conformity unto the world, that possessed the minds and stained the lives of far the greatest part of the prelates and principal leaders of the church, after it came under the protection of the Roman empire, and men thought to purchase an interest in the good things of religion, or at least a representation of them, by giving power, wealth, and honour, unto persons no way better than themselves, who had got the name and title of the “clergy,” or “guides of the church;” for about these things they contended endlessly, to the shame of 203Christian religion, and the utter loss in the most of the true real power and virtue of it. And in following ages, as things grew worse and worse, the lewd and wicked lives of popes, prelates, and others, signalized unto the world by their power and dignity, did by their examples insensibly bring about a public conformity unto their vices, according as the concurrence of opportunity and ability did enable men thereunto. Wherever, therefore, persons fall within the compass of the ministry of the church, or, as guides thereof, are on that account (on what principles soever) exalted into places of eminence or dignity, whereby they are made conspicuous and observable, if they do not proportionably excel others in visible exemplary holiness, at least if they be not unblamable in such a godly conversation as truly expresseth the grace of the gospel, in humility, meekness, contempt of the world, of sensual pleasures, and of the pride of life, zeal and diligence in the dispensation of the word, it cannot be but that apostasy from the gospel, as to its power and holiness, will be kept up and promoted.
IV. This apostasy hath been very much promoted by persecution. I mean not that persecution which hath befallen the sincere, constant professors of Christianity from the avowed enemies thereof, upon the account of their profession of it. This is so far from being any cause or occasion of a defection from the holiness of the gospel as that it hath been the peculiar glory of our religion, and a notable outward means of the increase of it. So hath it been with respect unto the whole doctrine of the gospel in general, and so it is with respect unto any especial branch or part of it. It was the primitive glory of Christian religion that it set out in the face of a universal opposition from the whole world, and not only made good its station, but increased under the fiercest persecutions, until it had finished that glorious conquest which it was designed unto. And not only did it preserve its being and enlarge its extent under them, but they were means also to preserve its purity, and to exert its power in the hearts and lives of its professors. The church never lost finally either truth or holiness by the violent persecutions of its avowed enemies. But I speak not of the outrages committed on the flock of Christ by wolves in their own skins, but by such as have got on sheep’s clothing; for these things, in whomsoever they are, proceed from the uncured, wolfish nature in persons on whom the gospel hath not obtained its promised efficacy, Isa. xi. 6–9. It is professing Christians persecuting one another, about some differences among themselves concerning their apprehensions of spiritual things and practice of divine worship, that I intend. And this hath been so great, especially in the latter ages of the church, that it is questionable whether there hath not greater effusion of the blood of 204Christians, ruin of families, and devastation of nations, been made by them who have professed the same religion in general, than by all the Pagans in the world since the first promulgation of it. He that shall impartially read the Gospel will not be able to discern how it was possible that any such things should ever fall out among those who pretend to avow it as their rule and guide in any measure; for the whole design and all the rules of it are so expressly contradictory unto any such practice, as that no man who had not learned the contrary from the event could possibly conjecture that any persons could ever fall into it without an antecedent renunciation of the gospel itself. But thus in process of time it did fall out, unto the irreparable scandal and detriment of Christian religion. And that so it would do was foretold; for the principal design of the book of the Revelation is, to foretell and delineate such an apostate state of the church as wherein the external power prevailing in it should persecute, destroy, and kill those who would not comply in the apostasy; for which reason, together with idolatry, that state is called Babylon. And we all know how it came to pass under the power and prevalency of the Roman church. And we may observe, that upon the destruction of Babylon, it is said that “in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth,” Rev. xviii. 24, — that is, for the gospel and the profession thereof. Whoever, therefore, offereth violence unto the life of any on the account of their profession of the gospel and religion of Christ, be it under what pretence it will, he doth therein and so far join himself unto that apostate state which shall be destroyed. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to restore that love of God which was departed from our nature, and thereon that love unto and among mankind which the law of creation originally required, and that advanced unto a higher degree of worth and excellency by an addition of new motives, duties, and ends, unto it. He came to save the lives of men, and not to destroy them, — to deliver them out of a state of enmity and mutual hatred into that of peace and love; and can any sober man imagine that the hurting, imprisoning, fining, banishing, killing, and destroying of men, for no other reason or cause in the world but for believing in Christ, and worshipping of him according, as they are invincibly convinced they ought to do, is a good and due representation of this design of Christ? nay, is it not evident that this practice draws a veil over the glory of it, obscuring the principal attractive beauties of the gospel, and teaching the world a Christian religion, fierce, cruel, oppressive, vindictive, bloody, to the utter exclusion of that which is so indeed? There is therefore no more expedient course to draw off the minds of men from the due consideration of one principal end 205of the mediation of Christ (which is to turn them from the gospel, and to substitute another gospel in the room thereof, which yet is not another, because it is none, whatever it pretends), than for those who profess Christian religion to persecute others of the same profession for their profession, pleading this to be a duty of that religion. Wherefore, when the generality of mankind, by what they heard and saw, were persuaded that this was the true religion, — namely, variously to persecute, and at length to destroy others, who professing it did yet in some things dissent from them in power, — they had lost the true gospel and the benefits of it.
Besides, that religion is alien from the gospel, at least includes a notable defection from it, whose avowed profession doth not represent the spirit, graces, and virtues of Him who was its author; yea, conformity unto him in all things is the sum and substance of that obedience which it doth require. But in this way of external force and persecution, there seems to be an appearance of the spirit of Mohammed and Antichrist rather than of our Lord Jesus Christ. And hereby are the minds of men infected with false notions and apprehensions of the nature of Christian religion; which whilst they conform themselves unto, they depart from the glory and power of it. It hath been sufficiently elsewhere evinced how contrary also this practice is to the most plain rules and principal ends of the gospel. And when at any time there is this kind of persecution prevailing among Christians, there is not so much as the form, face, or appearance, of Christianity left amongst men. All that love, charity, peace, meekness, quietness, condescension, mercy, compassion, benignity, towards mankind, which belong essentially unto Christian religion, are forced to give way to wrath, strife, revenge, evil surmises, false accusations, tumults, disorder, force, rapine, and every thing that is evil. Whereas, therefore, this course hath been steered in many places of the world, and yet continueth so to be, the generality of men must needs be much untaught the truth of religion thereby; for that kind of profession thereof which is consistent with such practices is not directed in the least by the gospel. And when the minds of men are hereby unframed, they are unsuited unto all other evangelical duties Whatever advantages may shall pretend to have by this means accrued unto the truth (as they suppose) in some few instances, yet as none can be so immodest as to deny but that it hath been a thousand times more subservient unto the interests of error, so no pretended advantage of truth can countervail that corruption of Christian morality which hath been introduced and countenanced by it.
V. Want of watchfulness against the insinuation of national vices and the prevailing sins of any present age, hath effectually promoted an apostasy from evangelical holiness among the generality 206of Christians. There are some vices, crimes, or sins, that particular nations (on what grounds I shall not now inquire) are peculiarly inclined unto, which therefore abound in them; for it is evident what great advantages those vices must have on the minds of men, and how easy it is to have their practice imposed on them. All men are continually encompassed with them in their occasions, and commonness takes off the sense of their guilt, That which would be looked on in one nation as the greatest debauchery of human nature, is, through custom, in another passed by without any animadversion. Hence the prevalency of the gospel in any nation may be measured by the success it hath against known national sins. If these are not in some good measure subdued by it, if the minds of men be not alienated from them and made watchful against them, if their guilt appear not naked, without the varnish or veil put upon it by commonness or custom, whatever profession is made of the gospel, it is vain and useless. Thus the apostle allows that there were national sins prevalent among the Cretians, Tit. i. 12, 13, “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, The Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies. This witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.” Whatever their profession were, if they were not delivered by the gospel from the power and practice of these national sins which they were so prone unto, they would not long be sound in the faith nor fruitful in obedience. So among the Jews there was a peculiar kind of stubbornness and obstinacy, above any other nation under heaven, which God complaineth of in their successive generations from first to last, and which continueth to be their characteristical evil unto this day. Hence Josiah was eminently commended, “because his heart was tender,” 2 Chron. xxxiv. 27. He was not under the power of the common sin of that people, which indeed includes all other evils whatever. It was a rare thing to find one of a tender heart among them.
And we may observe (it being easily demonstrable), that the great apostasy which is at this day among the nations which have received the Christian religion consists in a degeneracy into those customs, manners, humours, and courses of conversation, which were common among them and national before the entrance of Christianity. Set aside an outward profession and formality of worship, and the generality of men in most nations live as they did formerly, and are given up greatly unto those vices which were prevalent among them in their heathenism. A full evidence this is that the power of evangelical truth is lost among them, the efficacy thereof consisting in curing the vices of nature and those evils which men have been most habituated unto, as the prophet at large declares, Isa. xi. 6–9.
207Thus the sin of this nation hath been always esteemed sensuality of life, in an excess of eating and drinking, with the consequents thereof. Hereunto of late have been added vanity in apparel, with foolish, light, lascivious modes and dressings therein, and an immodest boldness in conversation among men and women. These are corruptions, which, being borrowed from the neighbour nation, and grafted on crab-stocks of our own, have brought forth the fruit of vanity and pride in abundance. And it is the most manifest evidence of a degenerate people, when they are prone to naturalize the vices of other nations among them, but care not to imitate their virtues, if in any kind they do excel. But thus the lust of the eyes and the pride of life are joined unto the lust of the flesh, to give the world, as opposite unto God, a complete interest among us. It may be these things are restrained in some by contrary vices, as covetousness, and an earnest desire or ambition to enrich a family, and leave a name amongst men; — a vanity infused amongst mankind from the great design of the builders of Babel; which was, to “make unto themselves a name,” Gen. xi. 4. This is but another way of the exercise of the same sin.
Now, where sins are thus national and common, it is easier for men to preserve themselves from the most raging epidemical disease than from being, in one degree or other, tainted with the infection of them. It is almost inexpressible how efficaciously they will insinuate themselves into the minds and lives of men. They are so beset on every side with the occasions of them and temptations unto them, they offer themselves continually with so many specious pretences, as that there is no security against them but by being encompassed with “the whole armour of God;” a matter that few understand or apply themselves unto. But it is not [possible] on any other grounds or by any other means for single persons to hold out and prevail against a national confederacy in sin; for they who will not say “A confederacy” to them, or in those things wherein a whole people shall say “A confederacy,” must be content to be for “signs and wonders,” to be despised, and even hooted at, Isa. viii. 11, 12, 18. However, it is apparent that by them the general apostasy we treat of is visibly and openly promoted. Some are engaged in them by a corrupt course of education, and some are betrayed into the entrances of them by sloth, negligence, and security; some lose a sense of their guilt by their commonness; some yield to the arguments that are pleaded, if not in their justification, yet in their excuse or for their extenuation. One way or other, multitudes of all sorts are by them turned away from gospel obedience. Hence it is come to pass that Christianity is, as unto customs, manners, vanities, vices, and way of conversation, sunk down into heathenism; or prevalent national sins 208have drowned the power and left little but the outward form of it in the world. And where it is so, the life, substance, and all the real benefits of the gospel, are renounced; for it doth not design only to turn men in their outward profession from “dumb idols to serve the living God,” to change the form and outward state of religion, — as the Roman missionaries have made conversions of the Indians, giving them new images instead of their old idols, and new saints for their former Zemes, — but to turn men also from “all ungodliness and worldly lusts, to live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world.” Where this is not effected, either the gospel never really prevailed among men, or they are fallen away from it. And where men do engage into a profession of religion, disallowing and condemning such national vanities, vices, and customs, if they are publicly countenanced they occasion particular apostasies every day. This is that which, on the one side and the other, hath almost lost the protestant religion in some neighbour nations; for, not being able to hold out against those national vanities and vices which are publicly countenanced, they find no relief unto their minds but in a renunciation of that religion by which they are condemned. And this I look upon as the principal means of that general defection from evangelical holiness which prevails in most nations The gospel comes upon a nation as on a wilderness or forest that is full of such wood, thorns and briers, as the soil of itself is peculiarly disposed to produce. These it cuts down to the ground, planting good and noble plants in their room, whereby the barren wilderness becomes for a season a fruitful field. But in process of time, if continual care and culture be not used about it, the earth pours out of its own accord the weeds and briers which are natural unto it. These springing up abundantly choke the other plants and useful herbs, whereby the fruitful field is turned again into a wilderness There needs no more unto this apostasy but that national vices, for a time suppressed by the power of the word, should overgrow the generality of any people, whereby the graces of the gospel will be certainly stifled and choked.
VI. Mistakes about the beauty and glory of Christian religion have been no small cause of apostasy from its power and holiness. That it should have a glory, somewhat that might render it honourable in the eyes and esteem of men, was always thought unquestionable; and it is certainly true, provided that we suppose those with whom we have to do have eyes to see that glory, and minds enlightened to make a true judgment of it. In compliance here-withal was religion outwardly figured and represented among the Jews. And as the apostle declares that the worship of God in the administration of the gospel is truly glorious, and eminently so above what was to be found in the administration of the law; so Christian 209religion is in itself truly honourable, and contains in it every thing that is so, in the judgment of God and the rectified reason of mankind. But about the true notion and apprehension of that glory and honour which is proper unto religion and suited unto its nature, men have fallen into many woful mistakes; for whereas it principally consists in the glorious internal operations of the Holy Spirit, renewing our nature, transforming us into the image and likeness of God, with the fruits of his grace in righteousness and, true holiness, in a meek, humble, gracious conversation, and the performance of all duties according to the rule, few are able to discern beauty or glory or honour in these things. But yet where there is not an eye to discern them, the gospel must of necessity be despised and abandoned, and somewhat else substituted in the room thereof. This therefore also proved a great furtherance of the general apostasy, and continues an efficacious means of keeping multitudes under the power of it unto this day; for, —
1. Through the loss of spiritual light and neglect of the grace of God, things were come to that pass in the world, that those who had the conduct of religion saw no real glory themselves in the things wherein all the glory of the religion taught and appointed in the gospel doth consist. And they are but few that do so at this day. Therefore the profession that is made of them by any is generally looked on as hypocrisy, mixed with a certain kind of superstition, and is accordingly despised; yea, nothing is more contemptible in the world than the possession and profession of those ways which are truly, if not only, noble. Their view, therefore, being lost in the eyes of the leaders of the church, it could not be expected that they should be instrumental to open the eyes of others, or careful to instruct them how to look after what themselves did not discern.
2. They were fully satisfied that there was in these things no evidence of glory unto the eyes of the generality of mankind, whereunto they thought it wisdom to accommodate themselves and the notions of religion. Men naturally can see no more beauty in the spiritual power of Christianity than the Jews could see in the person of Christ when they rejected him, because unto them he made no appearance thereof, Isa. liii. 2. That religion should be set off and represented as truly glorious and honourable in the eyes of men, they thought it incumbent on them to take care; but leaving herein the judgment of God, of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, as declared in the Scripture, they accommodated themselves unto the carnal apprehensions of them with whom they had to do, which were also suited unto their own. Wherefore, that this glory of religion consisted in a ministry in the church humble, holy, laborious, eminent in the graces and gifts of the Spirit, looking for no honour or 210respect but for their work’s sake; in a worship plain, unadorned, spiritual, whose life and excellency consist in the invisible, effectual administrations of the Spirit of God; in meekness, self-denial, mortification of sin, and the fruits of righteousness, proceeding from the grace of the Holy Ghost, — they neither did apprehend themselves nor could imagine that others would be of that mind: for the world generally supposeth the direct contrary unto all these to be honourable and glorious. Things which have a pretence of height and gallantry of spirit, a religions worship set off with such ornaments and modes as to affect the outward senses, with somewhat that may give satisfaction unto lust and conscience at the same time, are the things which unto the most are alone desirable. Wherefore, all pretence unto the power of religion dwindling away into an empty, jejune form and appearance of it in monkery, the supposed glory of Christianity in the world issued in these three things:—
(1.) The secular pomp and grandeur of the rulers of the church, This was designed to beget a reverence unto their persons and offices, without which religion itself would be despised. And it is easily conceivable how by this means their minds were drawn off from a due consideration of all those things which are truly honourable in them, and the neglect whereof will be the loss of the power of religion in the most at any time; for when they had secured unto themselves that honour, respect, and reverence which they esteemed needful unto the glory of religion, and found very suitable unto their own desires and ends, to what purpose should they trouble or perplex themselves with those hard duties of exemplary mortification, self-denial, and painful labour in the work of the ministry, when the whole of what they aimed at or needed was prepared for them? And how corrupt a spring of apostasy brake forth hereon hath been before declared.
(2.) A pompous, ceremonious worship, which began to be introduced by a pretence of outward solemnity, and ended in plain superstition and idolatry. And hereby were the minds of men diverted and taken off from inquiring after that spiritual exercise of the graces and gifts of the Spirit, wherein alone the beauty of evangelical holiness doth consist.
(3.) In works of magnificence and bounty, wherewith the clergy were enriched, and the consciences of men pacified in a course of sin or an unholy lithe. When the world was once persuaded that in these things consisted the glory and beauty of religion, and found them all readily compliant with their lusts and darkness, that real holiness and obedience which is required in the gospel was every day more and more neglected and despised. Besides, it is not expressible what wicked, scandalous practices, in pride, ambition, divisions, and contentions 211among the leaders of the church, did spring from and ensue on these principles. Henceforward no small part of ecclesiastical story is taken up with fierce contentions and quarrels about the pre-eminence, dignities, privileges, and jurisdiction of the prelates. Those who were wise and sober among the heathen observed this evil among Christians, reporting it as that whereby their religion was debased and corrupted. Such is the account given by Ammianus Marcellinus of that bloody and scandalous conflict between Damasus and Ursicinus whether of them should be bishop of Rome, lib. xxvii. cap. 6.
VII. During these seasons, Satan (as he will never be) was not wanting unto his own occasions and advantages; and they are altogether ignorant of his devices who discern him not at work even at present unto the same end and purpose. Nor is it possible that in any age, time, or place, the glory of the gospel should be abated, and the principal endeavour therein not belong to him. He is the head and leader of every apostasy from God. Therein he began his work in this world, and in the promotion of it he will finish it. And as he engaged all his power and art against the Head of the church, so by his total defeat in that attempt, wherein he made the clearest discovery of his pride and malice against God that it is possible for him to do, he is not discouraged from pursuing the same design against the whole church itself. And the way now insisted on hath been the chiefest path that he hath beaten in his course; for from the very entrance of Christianity, he Began to immix himself with all those lusts of men whereby a defection from its power and purity might be set on foot and effected. And he engaged against it in both his capacities, as a lion and as a serpent. As a lion he stirred up, acted, and animated all those bloody persecutions whereby the Jews and Pagan world attempted for three hundred years to exterminate the Christian profession. But herein his success was answerable to that of his attempt against the Head of the church, and ever will be so, by virtue of the victory the Lord Christ had over him in the same kind of conflict. The force of the devil and the world having been once fully broken and subdued by Christ, it shall never prevail in the issue against his followers. Satan, in a confederacy with the world, may as a lion, through rage and blood, make a great bluster, and scatter the churches of Christ for a season, but prevail unto the ruin of the church in this way he never did, nor shall. And if at any time, by national devastations, he do so far succeed as to expel the gospel from any place or country for a season, it shall be evident unto all that it shall turn greatly unto its advantage in general and in other places. Let not, then, any fear his bloody fury as to the interest of Christ and the gospel in the world. As sure as 212he was conquered and triumphed over in the cross of Christ, he shall finally be so in all such attempts. Happy and blessed are they, and shall they be, by whose blood and temporal ruin his power at any time is or shall be broken. So I say it fell out in his first attempt in this way against Christian religion; for through the efficacy of the grace of Christ, and by virtue of the victory obtained against him in his own person, he was overcome by the blood and constancy of innumerable holy souls, until he was cast out of the havens of the world, and an end was put unto his rage. But, in the meantime, whilst this sworn enemy of the church made all this bluster as a lion, and raised all these storms of persecution, which the minds of all the professors of Christianity were intent upon, and generally much fortified against, he was secretly at work as a serpent also. Herein he secretly and gradually infected the minds of many with ambition, worldliness, superstition, and a neglect of the power and simplicity of the gospel That this is his work as a serpent our apostle declares, 2 Cor. xi. 2, 3. And herein sometimes “he transformed himself into an angel of light,” as he speaks in that place, verses 14, 15; for he not only poisoned and inflamed the lusts of men, but drew them aside from the gospel by suggestions and pretences of more piety and devotion, or at least of other outward modes and means of their expression, than it did require. So did the “mystery of iniquity” work in the days of the apostles themselves, 2 Thess. ii. 7. He was at work secretly, by ways and means not easy to be discovered, to draw off the minds of men from evangelical truth and holiness, by sowing the seeds of that ambition and superstition which afterward spread themselves over the face of the whole visible church. So was he the spirit which animated the apostasy which by various and insensible degrees prevailed in the following ages. Those who acted in it and promoted it never knew any thing of the design, but added one thing unto another, as occasion was offered, which gave it increase; but in him the projection was designed, and regularly carried on from the beginning. Hence had it the name of “The mystery of iniquity,” as being insinuated and promoted by such unsearchable methods or depths of Satan, that those, for the most part, who were subservient to his design, knew not what they did, though sufficiently warned in the Scripture of what he would do and what should come to pass. Wherefore, being disappointed, as was said, in his endeavours by outward force and persecution (as he will ever be), leaving the name, power, and advantage of the church unto them that professed Christianity, he made use of all the darkness, ignorance, errors, ambition, and lusts of men, gradually to draw them from the truth and holiness of the gospel. And he ceased not until he had brought Christian religion to be looked on as made up principally, if not only, of 213those things which by his craft and the lusts of men were introduced into it. So did he pursue his work, almost undiscovered, until the generality of those who professed Christian religion were given up to the power of sensual lusts on the one hand, or brought under the power of superstition on the other. All this he attempted, and in a great measure effected, of his own accord. But after that men had voluntarily given up themselves unto his delusions, rejecting the truth and holiness of the gospel, as unto their love to them and delight in them, God in his righteous judgment gave them up unto his power, to be infatuated by him, and hardened to their eternal ruin. So the apostle expresseth it, 2 Thess. ii. 11, 12, “For this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie; that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” Thus was the apostasy completed under the Papacy; and by the same artifices is Satan still at work among us unto the same ends and purposes.
VIII. Moreover, among the occasions of the present decay of holiness and the power of Christianity in the world, we may reckon the scandal that hath been given by or is justly taken at those who have professed the most strict obedience unto the rules of the gospel. There is nothing difficult herein but only to choose out the most pregnant instances in the multitudes which offer themselves to evidence this occasion. Nor do I intend such offences as some men will enviously seek after, and sometimes causelessly create, but such as are really given, and offer themselves unto the consideration of all sorts of men. Of these I shall mention two only, which are the most obvious and extensive; and, —
1. Offence hath been taken at the divisions that have been among them, and continue so to be, with the management of them in an evil, contentious frame of spirit. The Lord Christ hath declared and appointed that the mutual love of his disciples should be the great testimony of the truth of his doctrine and the sincerity of their obedience. He hath also commanded them to be one in heart, mind, and affection, praying for them also that so they might be. His commands and directions unto this purpose are known unto all who know the gospel, and so need not here to be repeated or insisted on. The blessed effects and fruits of them were eminent for a season among the professors of the gospel, and their mutual love was a convincing argument of the truth, efficacy, and holiness, of the doctrine which they did profess: for where there is oneness and love thereon, there is peace, order, usefulness to mankind, and every good work; whereas the want of them is attended with strife, envy, confusion, disorder, and every evil work whatever. Some divisions, indeed, happened among the primitive Christians, but were quickly healed 214by the spirit of apostolical authority, and that love which was yet prevalent among them. But afterward all things grew worse, and the first visible degeneracy of Christianity consisted in the strifes, divisions, and contentions of its professors, especially of their leaders. And these in no long process of time proceeded unto that excess, and were acted with such an evil spirit of pride, ambition, envy, and malice, that the very heathens made themselves sport with their contentions, and observed that there were no sort of men in the world so ready for them and implacable in them as the Christians of those days were. But when once one or other party of them got into power, and, snatching that sword of force and violence out of the hands of Pagans which had been imbrued in the blood of the holy martyrs, began, in the pursuit of their divisions, to persecute one another (which way carnal men having tasted the sweetness and advantage of, as that which, gratifying their envy, malice, and ambition, doth also, as they suppose, secure all their earthly concerns, they would not forego, nor have so done until it is become the top-stone of many men’s religion), it was merely from the unspeakable care and mercy of God that they made not the gospel an abhorrence unto all flesh; for who, not yet endued with that light and grace which might secure him from the power of such temptation, could look on the fierce, devouring, bloody contentions of its professors, and that solely on its own account, and not suppose that itself proceeded from a spirit of malice, strife, and disorder? But the truth and faithfulness of God preserved it against all the oppositions of its adversaries, and in the midst of the treacheries of its avowed friends. Thus was it in the primitive times; which as it was the first considerable stop unto the progress of the gospel, so it was one principal cause of corrupting the conversation of many, filling them with a frame of spirit in all things directly opposite unto that of the gospel. The differences, with their untoward management, which fell out among the first reformers, was the chief means that hindered their work from a universal success.
Is it much otherwise among the strictest sorts of professors at this day? Do not some seem to aim at nothing more than to multiply and increase divisions, and to delight in nothing more than to live and dispute in the flames of them? There is not the least different apprehension of men’s minds about any thing in religion, but such persons suppose it a sufficient ground to quarrel and contend about it forever. By such ways and means scandals are given unto the world in its proneness unto apostasy, and seeking occasions for it or countenance unto it, which is its present posture; for these things are not done in a corner. Men who know nothing of the inward power and virtue of that religion which is in such professors, as it is 215hoped, seeing and observing those other distempers among them, are really alienated from all the good they do profess; and not only so, but do from thence justify and approve themselves in their immorality and profaneness, as those which allow them a better condition than such wranglers can afford them. By this means hath religion lost much of that awful authority in the world whereby it ofttimes put a restraint on the minds and consciences of men who were never acted by its power. What are the rules whereby we ought to walk under the continuance of these differences, and what are the best means to put an issue unto them, I have inquired in a treatise unto that purpose.1212 See vol. xv., in his treatise on Evangelical Love, Peace, and Unity. — Ed. But it must be acknowledged that for the most part attempts for the rebuking of these distempers, the reconciliation of dissenters, and the uniting of professors, have been managed from such principles and in such a frame of spirit as have heightened and increased rather than allayed or diminished them.
2. Great offence is given to the world by the uselessness of professors, and in that they are not, what they ought to be, the common good and blessing of mankind. There is a selfish spirit on many of them, whence, contenting themselves with abstinence from known sins, and the performance of the religious duties of divine worship, they are of little or no use unto others. Some will be kind, benign, helpful, good, in some measure unto other men, but yet will and do give undue bounds and limits unto their actings in this kind. Their own household, and the household of faith, according unto that measure which from opinion or prejudice they take of it, they will alone regard. As for love, condescension, benignity, kindness, readiness to help, assist, and relieve all mankind, yea, the worst of men, as they have opportunity, they understand them not, yea, have many pretences that they are not required of them. But if we are Christians, it is required of us to “abound in love toward all men,” 1 Thess. iii. 12; and our doing good unto all, being useful unto all, exercising loving-kindness in the earth towards all, is the principal way whereby we may express our sincere obedience unto the gospel. One professor that is kind, benign, condescending, charitable, useful, ready to become all things unto all men for their good, brings more glory to the gospel than a hundred who are looked on as those who live too much unto themselves. When the old saying was, “Bonus vir Caius Sejus, sed malus quia Christianus,” — “Such an one is a good man, evil only in this, that he is a Christian,” religion did by such convictions insensibly get ground amongst men. If the world cannot see that it hath any advantage by professors, but hath trouble on the other hand by the hatred which it cannot but have of their profession, it is no wonder if it desire to have no more to do with 216them. Did men find that so soon as any gave themselves unto the strictest ways of profession, therewithal they became benign, kind, merciful, charitable, useful, and helpful unto all men, it could not but give an honourable reputation in their minds unto that religion which they do profess; but an observation of a contrary frame and temper in such persons, and of how little use they are in the world, must needs produce contrary effects. By reason of such miscarriages as these, and others of an alike nature, whereby some professors are so far from adorning the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ as that they cast, what lies in them, a blemish and reproach upon it, others are every day hardened in their alienation from all its concerns.
These few instances have I given of the means and ways whereby a general apostasy from the holy precepts of the gospel, as the rule of our obedience, hath been begun and carried on. Many others of an alike nature might be added unto them; but it is to no purpose to insist long on the nature of a disease when we find it to despise all possible remedies. Sovereign grace yet remaineth, whereunto this state of things is referred.
And this apostasy, in its measure and proportion, partakes of the guilt of that described in the text, which we made the foundation of this discourse: for therein also is Christ “crucified afresh, and put to an open shame;” for, —
1. All persons who profess the Christian religion, and yet are thus fallen off or alienated from its holiness, do really renounce and forego the commands of Christ, and those as enlivened by his promises, for the pleasure and wages of sin. And herein do they openly declare and avow, as the judgment and resolution of their minds, that there is not that excellency in his precepts, nor that goodness, beauty, desirableness, or satisfaction in obedience unto them, or not that assurance in his promises, or worth in the things promised, as that they ought to be preferred before the course of the world and the pleasures of sin. Hence some commands of the gospel (and those of no small importance unto the furtherance of holy obedience) are neglected and cast from among the generality of Christians. Such are the commands for mutual love, whereof there is scarce any shadow left in the world: for that pretence of it which some seem to rest in and plead for as satisfactory, in the peaceable, and, as they say, loving converse of persons in their civil and ecclesiastical distributions, is no other than what is found among Mohammedans and Pagans on the like occasion; which, as it is good and commendable so far as it proceeds from and is suited unto the light of nature, so it no way answers, either in the kind of it or in its acts and fruits, unto that evangelical love which the Lord Christ requires among his 217disciples. That watchfulness over one another with love, care, and tenderness, those mutual admonitions, exhortations, and consolations, which the gospel so frequently and diligently prescribes unto us, are not only neglected, but so far despised that the very naming of such duties is made a matter of scorn, as a pretence of hypocritical preciseness; and no better entertainment have many other of the commands of Christ among the generality of them that are called Christians. So do many, on all accounts, openly profess in their walkings and conversation that they see no cogent reason why they should comply with him in his commands; and it is not easily to be conceived how they can cast a greater dishonour or contempt upon him.
2. By continuing in the outward profession of Christianity, they do most falsely represent Christ and the gospel unto the world, and thereby, what lies in them, “put him to an open shame;” for, pretending to yield obedience unto him, and to place their hope for life and blessedness in him by the gospel, they profess withal that he is a person that will approve of such ways as they walk in, and his gospel a doctrine that gives countenance unto all manner of licentiousness in sin. Who would judge otherwise who had no knowledge of him or it but by the representation that is made of them in the profligate conversation of such apostates? But this argument I have elsewhere insisted on.
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