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Directions to avoid the power of a prevailing apostasy.
Unto the warnings given in the precedent chapter some directions may be added, perhaps not unuseful unto them who would be preserved from the occasions, causes, and danger, of the apostasy thus far inquired into; for although, as hath been declared, a watchful attendance unto all gospel duties, and a vigorous exercise of all gospel graces in general, are required unto our preservation, yet there are some things which have an especial respect unto the present state of the causes and circumstances of the evil insisted on, which ought in an especial manner to be remembered. And that things of this nature are by many despised is no argument why we should not be diligent in our attendance unto them; for if they are such things as the Scripture prescribeth in the like cases, the contempt of them proceeds only from that pride and security which are no small part of the apostasy complained of.
Our first direction of this kind is, that we should all labour for a true, real sense of the concernment of the glory of God in this matter, and what is our duty with respect thereunto. Where this is not, men are under the power of that security which is the broad way and wide gate leading unto apostasy; yea, where this is not the first 242and principal thing wherewith we are affected in any evil that falls out in the world, our hearts are not upright in what we profess.
When God threatened to disinherit the Israelites and destroy the whole congregation as one man, in the wilderness, because of their provoking rebellion, that wherewith Moses, in all the circumstances of his relation unto them and interest in them, was affected withal, was the concernment of the glory and name of God therein, Num. xiv. 11–19. And it was so with Joshua in the sin and punishment of the same people. “What wilt thou do,” saith he, “unto thy great name?” chap. vii. 8, 9; words which have been made a public derision in the days wherein we live.
We cannot but have thoughts about these things, for they are the common subject of many men’s discourse: but if our thoughts about them are confined unto a narrow compass, and, so that it be well with us and some few others in whom we are peculiarly concerned, the evil that is come on the world in other places is lightly set by; if we are sensible of no interest of the glory of God, of the honour of Christ and the gospel therein, or are regardless of them, — we are scarce likely to be delivered from that fatal issue whereunto all these things are in an open tendency.
Is it nothing unto us that so many nations in the world, where the profession of the gospel and an avowed subjection of soul and conscience unto Jesus Christ did flourish for some ages, are now utterly overrun with Mohammedanism, paganism, and atheism? Do we suppose these things are fallen out by chance, or come to pass by a fatal revolution of affairs, such as all things in this world are obnoxious unto? Did ever any nation or people under heaven lose the gospel as unto its profession, who did not first reject it as unto its power, purity, and obedience? And is not the glory of God, is not the honour of Christ, peculiarly concerned herein?
Is it nothing unto us that innumerable souls, who yet continue to make an outward profession of the name of Christ, have so degenerated from the mystery, holiness, and worship of the gospel, as to provoke the holy God to give them up for so many generations unto the most woful bondage and slavery that ever any of the children of men were cast under from the foundation of the world, without the least hopes or appearance of relief? And is it not to be bewailed that, such is the power of that apostasy which brought all this evil upon them, as that they have not to this day accepted of the punishment of their sins, nor been bettered by all that they have undergone! And doth not that holy name whereby we are called suffer in these things? Is it not on their account evil spoken of? for do not the miseries, the long-continued, woful calamities and oppressions of innumerable multitudes of great nations, outwardly professing 243the Christian religion, become a snare to the world and a temptation against the truth of the gospel and the power of Jesus Christ The Jews themselves are not left unto more distresses, nor are more destitute of any pledges of divine protection, nor are more unreformed under their miseries, than many who are called Christians, upon the account of their apostasy from the gospel. It is true, great distresses and sore persecutions may befall the church in its best state and condition, but then God doth so dispose of all things as that their trials shall evidently tend both unto his own glory and their spiritual advantage who are exercised with them; and in the issue the gospel itself shall never be a loser by the suffering of its sincere professors. But in those horrible judgments which have befallen many parts of the apostatized Christian world, nothing offereth itself unto our minds but what is matter of lamentation and temptation.
Is it nothing to us that the greatest number of those who are called Christians, and enjoy prosperity in the world, do live in open idolatry, to the unspeakable scandal of Christian religion and imminent danger unto themselves of eternal ruin? — nothing that so many do openly renounce the humble, meek spirit of Christ and the gospel, endeavouring to persecute, ruin, and destroy other Christians, perhaps better than themselves, because they cannot captivate their souls and consciences in obedience unto their impositions? — nothing to see and hear of all those dreadful effects of this apostasy in all manner of outrageous sins that the world is filled withal?
Certainly, if we are not greatly affected with these things, if our souls mourn not in secret about them, if we are not solicitous about the small remainders of the interest of truth and holiness in the world, we are in no small danger ourselves of being, one time or other, carried away with the deluge.
If we are sensible of the concernment of the glory of God in these things, it may not be amiss to consider what is our duty with respect thereunto.
1. And the first thing required of us is, that we mourn in secret for that sad issue which the profession of Christianity is come unto in the world. God puts an especial mark on them who mourn for the prevalency of sin and the apostasy of the church in any season, Ezek. ix. 4; neither will he have regard unto any others when he comes to execute judgments on ungodly apostates. Men may suffer with them with whom they will not sin; for where we are unconcerned for the sins of men we shall not be so in their sufferings. It is therefore those alone who, out of a sense of the dishonour of God, and compassion towards the souls of perishing sinners, do sigh and cry over these abominations, that shall be either preserved from those public calamities wherein they may issue, or be comfortably 244supported under them. And there is nothing of a more ominous presage that things are yet waxing worse, than that general regardlessness about them that is among the best of us. Whose “eyes run clown with waters because men keep not the law?” Who doth sufficiently bewail the decays of faith, truth, and holiness, that are in the earth? Most men, like Gallio, either “care for none of these things,” or at best design to save their own houses in the general conflagration. Many measure all things by their own advantage, and can see nothing amiss in the profession of religion but only in the complaints that any things are so. And although the degeneracy of Christianity, in the present professors of it, be grown a common theme in the mouths of most, yet very few are affected with it in a due manner in their hearts.
2. It is in this state of things required of us to pray continually, pleading those promises which are recorded in the word of God for the restoration of the pristine glory, power, and purity of Christian religion. This was the way and means whereby the church was recovered of old, and the same duty is still enjoined unto us, Isa. lxii. 6, 7; and hereunto are all our present hopes reduced. There is nothing too hard for God. If he will work herein, none shall let him. Things are not gone beyond his cure. He can send peace, and truth, and righteousness from above, and cause them to prevail on the earth. Were all things left absolutely unto the wills of men, in that depraved state whereunto they are arrived in the world, nothing but an increase of overspreading abominations might be expected. Sovereign and effectual grace can yet give relief, and nothing else can so do. Truly in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills and the multitude of mountains; truly in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel; — but for all these will God be sought unto. And constancy in this duty for others, out of a deep sense of the concernment of the glory of God and zeal for the honour of the gospel, is the most effectual means of our own deliverance and preservation.
3. Constancy in our testimony against the prevalency of this apostasy is required of us. And hereof there are two parts:— (1.) An open, avowed profession of and contending for the faith and troth of the gospel. The public contempt and scorn that is by a prevalent vogue cast on some important evangelical truths is ready to discourage many from the owning and profession of them. Men, for the most part, have so many things to take into consideration before they will undertake the defence of the truth that they can find no season for it, whilst noisome errors are vented every day with confidence and diligence. It is therefore now, if ever, a time for all those in whose hearts are the ways of God to “contend earnestly 245for the faith once delivered unto the saints.” And if either sloth, or self-love, or carnal fears, or earthly, ambitious designs, do betray any into a neglect of their duty in this matter, it will at one time or other give them disquietment and trouble. But, (2.) Exemplary holiness, righteousness, and fruitfulness in good works, belong unto this testimony against the prevalent apostasy which is required of us. As this is our constant duty at all times, so the progress of the fatal evil complained of renders the doubling of our diligence herein at present necessary, and puts a lustre on it.
Secondly, Those who would be preserved in such a season must keep a due and careful watch over their own hearts with respect unto their duty and danger: for although temptations do abound, and those attended with all sorts of circumstances increasing their efficacy, and the outward means and causes of this evil are multiplied, yet the beginnings of all men’s spiritual declensions are in their own hearts and spirits; for the different effects that these things have upon the minds and lives of men is principally from themselves. As they are careful, diligent, and watchful over themselves in a way of duty on the one hand, or slothful, careless, negligent on the other, so are they preserved or prevailed against. The advice, therefore, I intend is that given by the Holy Ghost in this case: Prov. iv. 23, “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life;” or, as it is emphatically expressed in the original, “Above all keeping, keep thy heart.” The greatest exercise of men in the world is about keeping what they have, what they esteem their own; wherewith the desire of adding unto it is of the same nature. What belongeth hereunto, what care, what watchfulness, what diligence, what exercise of their utmost wisdom and industry, all men know, unless it be such as by the power of their lusts are given up unto prodigality and profuseness. But the care and diligence in keeping of our hearts (the Holy Ghost being judge) ought to exceed whatever of that kind is employed about other things; and it is too evident that there is much want of this wisdom amongst us in the world. Of all things, the least diligence is used by many in keeping of their hearts. So they can safeguard their other concerns, the heart may be left to take its own course: yea, the heart is never so much neglected usually, nor more lost, than in the use it is put unto in keeping other things; for whilst it is employed to keep our lives, to keep the world and the things of it, it is lost itself in worldliness, covetousness, carnal wisdom, negligence of holy duties, and barrenness in the fruits of righteousness. That this is no good bargain, that nothing is got hereby, yea, that all will be lost by it at last, heart and world, and every thing wherein we are concerned, the Holy Ghost plainly intimates in this direction, wherein we are commanded above all 246things to keep our hearts. And we are not only laid under this command, but a cogent reason is added to enforce our obedience: “For out of it are the issues of life.” Hereon do all events depend. The heart being kept, the whole course of our life here will be according unto the mind of God, and the end of it will be the enjoyment of him hereafter. This being neglected, life will be lost, beth here as unto obedience, and hereafter as unto glory. This, therefore, is that which in the first place is to be applied unto the present case. Would any not be overtaken with the power and prevalency of any of the causes of apostasy mentioned before, let them look well unto their own hearts, seeing that from thence are the issues of life.
By the “heart” the Scripture understandeth all the faculties of our souls, as they are an entire rational principle of all moral and spiritual operations; and so do we also. The preservation of them in their due order, acting in all things according unto their distinct powers, and the duty of the whole soul with respect unto God, is that which is intended by this keeping of the heart. And hereunto, with reference unto the present duty, sundry things do belong in an especial manner; as, —
1. That the heart be kept awake and attentive unto its own deceitfulness. The wise man tells us that “he that trusteth in his own heart is a fool,” Prov. xxviii. 26. The beginning of all security, — which is an assured entrance into all evil, — lies in men’s leaving their hearts unto themselves and trusting in them. He is no wise man (the Holy Ghost being judge) who, after so many instructions and warnings given us in the Scripture of the deceitfulness of our hearts, or the deceitfulness of that sin which is bound up in them (which is all one), will carelessly trust it with his eternal concernments. The apostle Peter did so once, upon a strong confidence that his heart would not fail him; but we know what was the issue of it. It is apt to be so with most men in this matter. They think, and do really judge, that if all men should fall off and forsake the gospel, either wholly or as unto the degrees in obedience which they have attained, yet they would not so do; but all things are filled with visible examples of their disappointment. There are no apostates but once thought they would not be so; for we speak only of them who had light into and conviction of their duty, and who had therefore necessarily resolutions to continue therein. Wherefore, a constant, watchful jealousy over our own hearts, as to their deceitfulness, their readiness to be imposed on, and secret pretences to countenance themselves in compliance with temptations, is the foundation of all other duties necessary unto our preservation.
Even this also is by some despised. They know of no deceitfulness in their own hearts, nor think there is any such thing in the 247hearts of others. They cannot but acknowledge that there is mutual deceit enough amongst mankind in the world; but that there should be deceit and treachery in men’s hearts with respect unto themselves, their own actions, duties, and ways, with respect unto God and their own eternal condition, that they cannot apprehend: for what or whom should a man trust unto, if he may not safely repose his confidence in his own heart that it will be always true unto its spiritual and eternal interest? Happy men, were such apprehensions as these to be the rule of their present duty or future judgment! But is it not possible there may be in the hearts of men a blind self-love, so far predominant as practically to impose false apprehensions and notions of things upon the mind and affections with respect unto sin and duty? Is there no disorder in the faculties of our souls, nor confusion in their operations thereon? Are there no remainders of sin inseparable from them in this life, accompanied with all mariner of spiritual deceitfulness? no corrupt reasonings for the procrastination of the most important duties? no inclinations unto undue precedences and presumptions? no vanity or uncertainty in the mind? Or can these things, with the like innumerable, be supposed without any deceit in them or accompanying of them? What one said of old to the Druids, —
“Solis nosse Deos et cœli Numina vobis
Aut solis nescire datum,” —
may be applied unto the men of this persuasion: either they alone know the state of the heart of man with respect unto God, evangelical obedience, and their own eternal interest, or they alone are ignorant thereof. Until, therefore, we have more satisfaction in this novel pretended discovery, we dare not cease the pressing of men to be diligently attentive unto the deceits of their own hearts. If this be neglected, we shall labour in vain, whatever else we do. Blessed is he who thus feareth always! This will make men carefully and conscientiously avoid all occasions of all things, whether in their inward frames or outward practice, that may on any account have a tendency unto a declension from the gospel. A bold, hazardous, careless frame of spirit, venturing on all companies and temptations, complying with vanities and profane communications, offering itself with a fearless confidence unto ways of seduction, through “the cunning sleights of men that lie in wait to deceive,” is that which hath ruined innumerable professors. Self-distrust, humility, fear of offending, with the like soul-preserving graces, will be kept up unto exercise only where men are awake unto the consideration of the deceitfulness of their own hearts.
2. We must keep our heart awake and attentive unto its help and relief; and this lies only in Christ Jesus, the captain of our 248salvation. After all Peter’s confidence, it was the interposition of Christ alone that preserved him from utter ruin: “I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not.” And if any can once prevail so far as to deter men from looking for all spiritual help and relief from Christ, for daily supplies of grace and strength from him alone; from a continual application unto him for directing, assisting, preserving, establishing grace (which they variously attempt), — there is no need to fear but they will easily follow them into whatever else either they, or Satan, or the world shall have a mind to draw them. But in all our discourses we proceed on other principles. We look on Jesus Christ as the spring and fountain of all grace, as him who alone is able to preserve us in faith and obedience, and doth communicate supplies of effectual grace unto believers for that purpose. Unto him, therefore, are we to make our applications continually, by faith and prayer, for our preservation, as we are directed, Heb. iv. 15, 16. It is he alone who can “keep us from the hour of temptation, which is come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth,” Rev. iii. 10. Whosoever, therefore, would be kept from the power of the temptations unto apostasy which every way encompass us, and threaten to bear down all before them, let them keep their hearts continually attentive unto their only help and relief. Those who have not taken in a sense of their danger will see little reason to concern themselves in these directions. But as for such as are affected with the visible ruin of multitudes and their own apparent hazard, from prevailing causes and innumerable occasions thereof, — whose eyes are in any measure opened to see the general inclination that is in the world unto a relinquishment of all the principal concerns of the gospel, and by what various ways that inclination is furthered, followed, and pursued, — they will not think it unneedful to be minded of a help and refuge whereunto they may betake themselves and be preserved.
3. Let the heart be kept attentive unto its own frames, its progress or decay in holiness. How secret, and even ofttimes imperceptible, the beginnings of spiritual declension are in many, with the reasons and causes thereof, hath been declared in our exposition of Heb. iv. 12, 13, whither the reader is referred. I shall here only offer, that he who, in such a season as that which is passing over us, cloth not often call himself unto an account how things stand with him as to the inner man, — what is the state of his spiritual life, whether his faith and love do thrive or decay, whether God or the world gets ground in his affections, — will be exposed unto more dangers than it may be he is readily able to deliver himself from. These things are all of them useful, yea, needful unto the course of our obedience at all times. That which is here intended is, their exercise and discharge 249with respect unto the evil and danger under consideration. When we have done the utmost of our duty, we shall have cause to rejoice in the grace of God if we are preserved and delivered. But if we be found slothful, negligent, and secure, what hopes can we have that we shall withstand the evil that doth on every side beset us? There is not any way of fraud or force wherein we either are not or may not be assaulted. The secret ways whereby this apostasy puts forth its efficacy are so various as not to be enumerated. The current, furthered by the winds of all sorts of temptations, lies strongly against us. New accessions are made unto it every day. New pretences against the truths and holiness of the gospel are sought out and made use of. By some they are secretly undermined, by others openly despised; and the hand of Satan is in all these thing. If we should now neglect a watchful care over our own hearts, and a diligent attendance unto all means of their preservation in soundness of doctrine and holiness of life, what assurance can we have that we shall finally escape?
Having premised these directions in general, those which ensue must have a particular respect unto some of the especial ways and means whereby this declension hath been carried on and promoted, peculiarly such as the present age and season are most obnoxious unto. And because this discourse is drawn forth to a length beyond my first design, I shall name a few things only, to intimate of what sort those directions are which might be more largely insisted on; and two only shall be named. Wherefore, —
Thirdly, Take heed of resting in or trusting unto the outward privileges of the church, and a participation of the dispensation of the ordinances of the gospel therein. It is known what various apprehensions as to the especial ways of outward solemn worship and the state of the church there are among all sorts of men. But whereas all men do approve of and adhere unto one church-state or other, one way of worship or other, I intend no one more than another in particular, but would speak unto all with respect unto that way which themselves do approve and practice. And it was before declared how greatly the world was deluded by a pretence of them. And we may not think to excuse the necessity of watchfulness in this matter, because all the good things of the church and all the ordinances of the gospel were then abused, corrupted, and defiled, whereas we now all of us, in our own apprehensions, enjoy their administration in purity, according unto the institution of Christ; for they are all of them no less liable to be abused in this kind when duly administered than when most corrupted: yea, in some cases they are more apt so to be, seeing there is a greater appearance of reason why we should place our confidence in them.
250It is indeed an especial mercy for any to be intrusted with the privileges of the church and institutions of the gospel; yea, it is the greatest outward dignity and pre-eminence that any can be advanced unto in this world, however by the most it be lightly set by Theodosius, one of the greatest emperors that ever were in the world, affirmed that he esteemed his being a member of the church a greater dignity than his imperial crown. And although the ruin of the Jews arose principally from their carnal confidence in their spiritual or church privileges, yet the apostle doth acknowledge that they had great pre-eminence and advantage, and might have had great profit thereby, Rom. iii. 1, 2, ix. 4, 5. And theirs must be granted more excellent in every kind who enjoy that administration of holy things in comparison wherewith that committed unto the Jews had neither beauty nor glory, 2 Cor. iii. 10. By whomsoever, therefore, these things are despised or neglected, under whatever pretences they countenance themselves, they are utter strangers unto gospel holiness; for what holiness can there be where men live in an open disobedience unto the commands of Christ, and in a neglect of the use of those means which he hath appointed to beget and preserve it in our souls? Nothing, therefore, must be spoken to take off from the excellency, dignity, and necessity, of the privileges and ordinances of the church, when we would call off men from placing that confidence in them which may tend unto their disadvantage. And if persons can find no medium between rejecting all the ordinances of the gospel and trusting unto the outward performance or celebration of them, they have nothing but their own darkness, pride, and unbelief, to ascribe the ruin of their souls unto.
Again; there is not any thing in the whole course of our obedience wherein the continual exercise of faith and spiritual wisdom, with diligence and watchfulness, is more indispensably required than it is unto the due use and improvement of gospel privileges and ordinances; for there is no other part of our duty whereon our giving glory to God and the eternal concern of our own souls do more eminently depend. And he is a spiritually thriving Christian who knows how duly to improve gospel institutions of worship, and doth so accordingly; for they are the only ordinary outward means whereby the Lord Christ communicates of his grace unto us, and whereby we immediately return love, praise, thanks, and obedience unto him; in which spiritual intercourse the actings of our spiritual life principally do consist, and whereon, by consequence, its growth doth depend. It is therefore certain that our growth or decay in holiness, our steadfastness in or apostasy from profession, are greatly influenced by the use or abuse of these privileges.
That, therefore, which, in compliance with my present design, I 251intend, is only a warning that we do not rest in these things, the name, title, privilege, and outward observance of them, seeing so many have thereby been deluded into security and apostasy. Some there are (and of them not a few) all whose religion consists in going to church, and abiding there during the celebration of that sort of worship which they approve of. Herewith they satisfy their consciences as unto all that they have to do with God, especially if they are admitted unto a participation of the sacraments in the appointed seasons. And many others, it is to be feared, content themselves with a bare hearing of the word, and do treat their consciences into a quietness and security thereby. It were otherwise impossible that, among so great multitudes as crowd after the preaching of the word, so few should be brought over unto sincere and universal obedience. But I intend those in particular who make a profession of giving themselves up unto gospel obedience, and are thereon made partakers of all gospel privileges according to the rule. Let them take heed that they do not too much rest in nor too much trust unto these outward things, for so they may do sundry ways unto their disadvantage.
1. Men may herein deceive themselves by spiritual gifts, which may be reckoned in the first place among the privileges of the church. Some rest in the gifts of others, and the satisfaction they receive thereby; for by the use and exercise of them men’s affections may be greatly moved, as also temporary faith and evanid joy be greatly excited. These things, it is to be feared, some live upon, without farther care after a spring of living water in themselves. Others may rest in their own gifts, their light, knowledge, ability to pray or speak of the things of God. But it is the design of the apostle, in the context before insisted on, to declare that the most eminent spiritual gifts, with all their effects, either in the souls or lives of them who are made partakers of them, or in the church for edification, will not secure any persons from total apostasy. So also some shall be utterly rejected at the last day, who were able to plead their prophesying and casting out of devils in the name of Christ, and that in his name they had done “many wonderful works,” Matt. vii. 22, 23. And therefore, when his disciples (who were true but as yet weak believers) were greatly affected, and it may be lifted up, with the success they had had in casting out of devils in his name, he recalls them from any confidence therein, as unto their eternal concernment, unto a trust in God’s free electing grace, with the fruits thereof, Luke x. 20; and the reason hereof is, because these gifts have no inseparable relation unto any of the especial and peculiar causes of salvation. That which seemeth to be of any difficulty is, that they are an especial fruit of the mediation of Christ, purchased by his 252death, given into his power upon his resurrection, and first communicated on his ascension. But all that followeth from hence is, that they are good and holy in themselves, and designed unto good and holy ends or uses, — namely, the confirmation of the gospel and edification of the church. But it doth not thence follow that they are saving unto them that do receive them, unless they are accompanied with especial grace towards them and holy obedience in them; from both which they are separable. It is therefore greatly incumbent on all those who have received of these spiritual gifts to take care they be enlivened and acted by especial grace; for if they are not careful, they will give them a pretence and apprehension of what they have not, and set a greater lustre upon what they have than it doth deserve; — for in their actings, because the objects of them are spiritual and heavenly things, the same with that of especial grace, men are apt to suppose that grace is exercised when it may be far from them; and as to the profession that men make, these gifts will set it off with such beauty as shall render it very acceptable unto others and very well-pleasing unto themselves. Both these tend evidently unto the ruin of the souls of men, if not wisely managed and improved. Wherefore, by the way, to help us unto a right judgment in this matter, we may observe one certain difference between the operations of spiritual gifts which are solitarily so on the one hand, and saving grace on the other. Gifts have their especial works, which they are confined unto, according as their especial nature is. In them they act vigorously; out of them they influence not the soul at all. But the work of saving grace is universal, equally respecting all times, occasions, seasons, and duties; and although it may be acted more eminently at one time than another, in one instance of duty than another, yet it enliveneth and disposeth the heart alike unto all obedience. But of the difference that is between spiritual gifts and saving grace, as also concerning their whole nature and use, I shall, God assisting, treat at large in another discourse.1414 In his Discourse on Spiritual Gifts, vol. iv., which was not published till 1693, ten years after the death of the author. — Ed. At present I intend only this caution, that men countenance not themselves by them, nor resolve a peace (or rather security) into their exercise, under real spiritual decays of grace and obedience.
2. Too high an estimation of any peculiar way of worship is apt to entice the minds of some into a hurtful confidence in these things. Having an apprehension that they alone have attained unto the right way of gospel worship and the administration of its ordinances, and that, perhaps, on such accounts as wherein they are eminently deceived, they begin first greatly to value themselves, and then to despise all others, and, if they can, to persecute them. This insensibly 253works them into a trust in that which they esteem so excellent, and that unto an open neglect of things of a greater weight and moment. Thus is it not unusual to see persons who are under the power of some singular opinion and practice in religion to make one thing almost their whole business, the measure of other things and persons, the rule of communion and of all sincere love; — to value and esteem themselves and others according unto their embracing or not embracing of that opinion. There is here something of that which God complains of in the prophet, Isa. lxv. 5. And it were to be wished that such principles and practices were not visibly accompanied with a decay of love, humility, meekness, self-diffidence, condescension, and zeal in other things, seeing where it is so, let men’s outward profession be what it will, the plague of apostasy is begun. Wherefore, although we ought greatly to prize and to endeavour after the true order of the church of Christ, the purity of worship, and regular administration of ordinances, yet let us take heed that we prize not ourselves too much on what we have attained; for if we do so, we shall be very apt to countenance ourselves in other neglects thereby, which will certainly bring us into a spiritual sickness and declension. And, one way or other, there is an undue confidence placed in these outward privileges, when either any or all of the things ensuing are found among us:—
(1.) A neglect of private duties. This ruinous event never falls out among professors, but it proceeds either from an over-fulness of the world and its occasions, or the prevalency of some predominant lust, or a sinful resting in or trusting unto the duties of public worship. When all these concur (unless God effectually awaken the soul), it is in a perishing condition. In particular, when men are satisfied, as unto religious worship, with that which is public or in communion with others, so as to countenance themselves in a neglect of the duties of their private retirements, they are in a high road unto apostasy.
(2.) The indulgence of any private lust, unto the satisfaction of the flesh. This great defect in the power of godliness is frequently countenanced by strictness in the form thereof. And a great effect it is of the deceitfulness of sin when it can delude the minds of men to justify themselves in any one sin, with the names, titles, reputation, and privileges of the church, or the ordinances whereof they are made partakers; and the secret efficacy of this deceit is not easy to be detected.
(3.) It is so, also, when a loose and careless frame in our walking is indulged unto on the same account. It is hard, indeed, to know directly whence this is come to pass, that so many professors of the gospel should give up themselves unto a negligent and careless walk, but that it is so come to pass is certain. There is no truth more 254acknowledged than that a strict and close walk with God, an attendance thereunto on all occasions with diligence and circumspection, with a continual conscientious fear of sin, is indispensably required unto acceptable, evangelical obedience or holiness; yet so it is, that many professors walk with that looseness and carelessness, that venturous boldness, with respect unto the occasions of sinning, that liberty or rather licentiousness of conversation, as are utterly inconsistent therewithal. As there are many causes hereof, so I fear this may be one among them, that they too much satisfy themselves with their interest in the church and its privileges, and with their observance of public worship and the ordinances thereof, according to their respective stations and capacities.
Wherefore, the sum of this direction is, that if we would be preserved from the prevalency of the present apostasy, we must have a strict regard unto our principles and practice with respect unto the privileges of the church and ordinances of gospel worship. If we neglect or despise them, we cast off the yoke of Christ, and have no ground to look for his acceptance of us or concernment in us. It is but folly for them to pretend a hope in his mercy who defy his authority. And if, on the other hand, we so rest in them as to countenance ourselves in any of the evils mentioned, we shall succeed into their room who, under the name and pretence of the church and its privileges, fell into an open apostasy from Christ and the gospel; for the same causes will produce the same effect in us as they did in them. There is a middle way between these extremes, which whoso are guided into will find rest and peace unto their souls; and this is no other but an humble, careful, conscientious improvement of them all unto their proper ends. And it may not be amiss to name some of those things whereby we may know whether our hearts are upright and rightly disposed in the use of gospel ordinances. And we may judge of ourselves herein:—
1. If our hearts are bettered by them, or humbled for it if they are not. Their end, with respect unto us, is to excite and put forth all grace into exercise. When, therefore, we find faith and love, delight in God, longing after an increase of grace and holiness, with a detestation of sin, fruitfulness in good works and all duties of obedience, joy in spiritual things, self-abasement, and admiration of grace, stirred up in us by them, our hearts need not condemn us as to want of sincerity in these duties, though we are sensible of many weaknesses and imperfections. And whereas, through the power of corruptions and temptations, through the weakness of the flesh and prevalency of unbelief, we come sometimes short of a sensible experience of this effect on our souls by and under them, there may yet remain a relieving evidence of some sincerity in what we do; and 255this is, if, rejecting all other pretences and prejudices, we charge ourselves alone with our unprofitableness, and be humbled in a sense thereof. Want hereof hath been the reason why some have rejected the ordinances of the gospel as dead and useless, and others have grown formal, careless, and barren, under the enjoyment of them. When all veils and coverings shall be taken away and destroyed, these things will appear to be the fruits of pride and of the deceitfulness of sin.
2. It is so when, in the dispensation of the ordinances, spiritual things are realized and made nigh unto us. When in the preaching of the word we find Jesus Christ “evidently set forth, crucified before our eyes,” Gal. iii. 1; when the form of the things delivered is brought upon our minds, Rom. vi. 17; when we do, as it were, feel and handle the word of life, and the things hoped for have some kind of subsistence given them in our souls, as Heb. xi. 1, — then are we exercised in a due manner in this part of our obedience. To this purpose our apostle discourseth, Rom. x. 6–9. The word as preached and other ordinances do not direct us unto things afar off, but bring the Lord Christ with all the benefits of his mediation into our hearts. But if we content ourselves with empty light, with unaffecting notions of spiritual things, if we rest satisfied with the outward performance of our own duty and that of other men, we have just cause to fear that our hearts are not right in the sight of God in this matter.
3. When we find that a conscientious attendance on all the ordinances of instituted worship doth quicken our diligence and watchfulness unto all other duties of obedience that are required of us, we are conversant in them in a due manner. When under a pretence of them, and a mistaken satisfaction in them, men countenance themselves in the neglect of other duties, how way is made for farther apostasy from holiness hath been declared. Wherefore there can be no greater evidence of our due attendance unto them than when we axe excited, quickened, enlarged, and confirmed by them unto and in all the ways of universal obedience. Those, therefore, who most conscientiously make use of church privileges and gospel ordinances are they whose hearts are most engaged unto all other duties by them.
Lastly, It is an evidence of the same importance when we have that experience of Christ and his grace in the administration of gospel ordinances according unto his will, as that we are strengthened thereby to suffer for him and them when we are called thereunto. The time will come when neither mere light and conviction of truth nor the gifts of the ministry will secure men unto their profession. But he who hath tasted how gracious Christ is in the ways of his appointment 256will not easily be removed from his resolution of following him whithersoever he goeth.
Fourthly, Take heed of the infection of national vices. What I intend hereby hath been before declared. And this caution is most necessary when they are most prevalent among any people; for commonness will take off a sense of their guilt, and countenance will insensibly take away shame. Besides, when some go out unto an open excess, others are apt to justify themselves in vain practices and sinful miscarriages, because they rise not up unto the same height of provocation with them. This makes lesser vanities, in habits, attires, pleasures, misspense of time in talking-houses,1515 The author seems to allude to the coffee-houses, which, established in the time of the commonwealth, soon became a distinctive feature of London life. When no public meetings were allowed, and no public journals existed, the only method by which the news of the day could be learned was by a visit to a coffee-house; in which, besides the information reciprocated in private talk, there were leading orators who harangued the crowd on the current topics of public interest. So powerful was the expression of public opinion through the imperfect channel of these coffee-houses, that the government at one time attempted to suppress them; but the system had become so popular and so interwoven with the habits of the Londoners, that no enactment against it could be enforced. Much time, doubtless, would be wasted in these “talking-houses,” and it is against this sin that the remarks of Owen are directed. — Ed. excess in eating and drinking, corrupt communication, and careless boldness in common converses, whereby persons tread in the steps, and sometimes on the very heels, of the predominant sins of the place and age, so to abound among us. Some openly show what they have a mind to be at, if they durst, and that it is more reputation and the power of convictions than the love of gospel holiness that restrain them from running forth into the same excess of riot with others. Israel of old “dwelt alone, and was not reckoned among the nations,” Num. xxiii. 9; and “the remnant of Jacob is to be so in the midst,” in the bowels “of many people,” as to be a blessing unto them, Mic. v. 7, not to be corrupted by them. If professors will so immerse themselves into the body of the people as insensibly to learn their manners, they will be carried down the stream with them into perdition; and the danger hereof is beyond what most men conceive. Grace was but sparingly administered unto the community of the people under the old testament, and therefore, after the giving of the law, God would not trust them to live among other people, nor other people to live among them, as knowing how unable they were to withstand the temptations of conformity unto them. Hereon he appointed that all the nations should be utterly extirpated where they were to inhabit, that they should not learn their customs, Lev. xviii. 30. The neglect of this wisdom of God, the transgression of his will herein, by mixing themselves with other nations and learning their manners, was that which proved their ruin. Under the gospel there is a more plentiful 257effusion of the Spirit. God now intrusts all that are called unto the obedience of it to live in the midst of all nations under heaven; yet he so cloth it as to warn them of their danger thereby, and to require them to stand upon their guard herein continually. This is that part of true religion which the apostle James calls the “keeping of ourselves unspotted from the world,” chap. i. 27. Most men think it enough that no more can be required of them nor expected from them than that they wallow not in the mire and pollutions of it. If their practice be free from actual open sins, they care not what spots of a worldly conversation are upon them; but they know not what will be the end thereof.
It may be it will be said, that unless we do conform ourselves in some things unto the customs that are prevalent among us, as in habit, and fashion, and way of converse, we shall be despised in the world, and neither we nor ours be of any regard.
I answer, — 1. That I am not contending about small things, nor prescribing modes of attire or manner of deportment unto any. There is none who doth more despise the placing of religion in clothes, in gestures, in the refusal of civil and just respects, than I do; nor have I any severity in my thoughts against a distinction in these things among persons, according to their degrees and conditions in the world, though apparently there be an excess in all sorts herein. But that which I intend is, a compliance with the world in those things which border on and make some kind of representation of the predominant vices of the place and age wherein we live; and if you think you shall be despised if you come behind the rest of your rank and quality in the world in these things, still you will be so unless you come up unto them in all abominations, 1 Pet. iv. 3, 4; — and whether it be fit to relinquish God, and Christ, and the gospel, all holiness and morality, to have the friendship of the world, judge ye. And, — 2. Be sure to outgo them in fixed honesty, kindness, benignity, usefulness, meekness, moderation of spirit, charity, bowels of compassion, readiness to help and relieve all men according unto your power, and you will quickly find, even in this world, how little you are concerned in that contempt of the vilest part of mankind whereof you seem to be afraid.
Fifthly, Carefully avoid all those miscarriages of professors which alienate the minds of men from the gospel, and countenance them in the contempt of the profession of it. Some of them we have mentioned before, and many of the like nature might be added unto them. As the scandalous, profligate lives of those in general who are called Christians give that offence unto Jews, Mohammedans, and Gentiles, all the world over, that hardens them unto a contempt and detestation of Christianity, and bath brought the whole matter 258of religion in the world unto force and the sword, so the miscarriages of the strictest sort of professors do greatly countenance others in their dislike of and enmity against the power of godliness which they profess; and so far as we continue in them, we have a share in the guilt of the present defection. Not to insist on particulars, the things of this nature that are charged on them may be reduced unto three heads:— 1. Want of love and unity among themselves; 2. Want of usefulness and kindness towards all; 3. Spiritual pride and censoriousness, or rash judging of other men.
These are the things which are commonly charged on some professors; and although, it may be, they are but few who are guilty of all or any of these things, at least not as they are charged and reproached by others, yet they may all learn what in an especial manner to avoid, that they give no advantage unto those who seek for it and would be glad of it. It is our duty, by a watchful, holy conversation in all things, to “put to silence the ignorance of foolish men,” and so universally to approve our sincerity unto God and men, that whereas we are, or may be at any time, “evil spoken of, as evil-doers, they may be ashamed, beholding our good conversation in Christ, and glorify God in the day of visitation.” This is the law that we have brought ourselves under, not to fret and fume, and in our minds seek for revenge, when we are traduced and evil spoken of, but by a “patient continuance in well-doing,” to overcome all the evil that the malice of hell or the world can cast upon us; and if we like not this law and rule, we had best relinquish our profession, for it is indispensably required of all the disciples of Jesus Christ, And he whose heart is confirmed by grace to do well whilst he is evil spoken of will find such present satisfaction, in a sense of his acceptation with Christ, as to make him say, “This yoke is easy, and this burden is light,” Especially ought we carefully to avoid the things mentioned and appearances of them, whereby public offence is taken, and advantage made by evil men to countenance themselves in their sins. You are but few unto whom these things are communicated, and so may judge that all your care in and about them will be of little significancy to put any stop unto the general declension from gospel holiness; but it is hoped that all others are warned in the same manner, yea, and more effectually than you are. However, every vessel must stand on its own bottom; “the just shall live by his” own “faith;” “every one of us shall give account of himself to God;” and no more is required of you but your own personal duty.
It is true, you cannot put an end unto those differences and divisions, that want of love and agreement, that is among professors; but you may take care that the guilt of none of these things may 259be justly charged on you. Love unto the saints without dissimulation; readiness to bear in meekness with different apprehensions and palpable misapprehensions, not intrenching on the foundation; freedom from imposing your sentiments on those who cannot receive them, and from judging rashly on supposed failures; readiness for universal communion in all religious duties with all that “love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity,” — as they are our duties, as they are some of the principal ways whereby we may truly represent the Lord Christ and the doctrine of the gospel unto others, so they will disarm Satan and the world of a great engine whereby they work no small mischief unto the whole interest of religion.
Again: were all professors meek, quiet, peaceable, in their societies and among their neighbours; sober, temperate, humble in their personal conversation in the world; useful, kind, benign, condescending towards all; cheerful in trials and afflictions, always “rejoicing in the Lord,” — men not given up to a reprobate sense ([men] who are [so, are] not to be regarded) would at length be so far from taking offence at them as to judge that they should not know what to do without them, and be won to endeavour a conformity unto them. In like manner, were those rules more diligently attended unto which are prescribed unto all believers as unto their conversation in this world, it would be of no small advantage unto religion. See Phil. iv. 8; 1 Pet. ii. 12; 2 Cor. xiii. 7; Rom. xiii. 12, 13; 1 Thess. iv. 11, 12; Heb. xiii. 18. Did honesty, sincerity, uprightness in all the occasions of life, in the whole converse of professors in the world, shine more brightly and give more evidences of themselves than at present among many they seem to do, it would undoubtedly turn unto the unspeakable advantage of religion.
And, lastly, for that judging or condemning of others wherewith they are so provoked, there is but one way whereby it may be done so as to give no just offence, and this is in our lives. The practice of holiness judgeth all unholy persons in their own breasts; and if they are provoked thereby, there is nothing in it but a new aggravation of their own sin and impiety.
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