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Natural Religion, without Revelation, shewn
only sufficient to render a Sinner
PREACHED BEFORE THE UNIVERSITY,
AT CHRIST-CHURCH, OXON,
Nov. 2, 1690.
—So that they are without excuse.
THIS excellent epistle, though in the front of it it bears a particular inscription, yet, in the drift and purpose of it, is universal; as designing to convince all mankind (whom it supposes in pursuit of true happiness) of the necessity of seeking for it in the Gospel, and the impossibility of finding it elsewhere. All without the church, at that time, were comprehended under the division of Jews and Gentiles, called here by the apostle, Greeks; the nobler and more noted part being used for the whole. Accordingly, from the second chapter, down along, he addresses himself to the Jews, shewing the insufficiency of their law to justify, or make them happy, how much soever they doated upon it. But here, in this first chapter, he deals with the Greeks, or 54Gentiles, who sought for and promised themselves the same happiness from the dictates of right reason, which the Jews did from the Mosaic law. Where, after he had took an account of what their bare reason had taught them in the things of God, and compared the superstructure with the foundation, their practice with their knowledge, he finds them so far from arriving at the happiness which they aspired to by this means, that upon a full survey of the whole matter, the result of all comes to this sad and deplorable issue, that they were sinful and miserable, and that without excuse. In the words, taken with the coherence of the precedent and subsequent verses, we have these four things consider able.
I. The sin here followed upon a certain sort of men, with this so severe a judgment; namely, that knowing God, they did not glorify him as God, ver. 21.
II. The persons guilty of this sin; they were such as professed themselves wise, ver. 22.
III. The cause or reason of their falling into this sin; which was their holding the truth in unrighteousness, ver. 18. And,
IV. and lastly, The judgment, or rather the state and condition, penally consequent upon these sinners; namely, that they were without excuse, ver. 20.
Of each of which in their order: and first, for the first of them.
The sin here followed with so severe a judgment, and so highly aggravated, and condemned by the apostle, is, by the united testimony of most divines upon this place, the sin of idolatry: which the apostle affirms to consist in this; That the Gentiles 55glorified not God, as God. Which general charge he also draws forth into particulars; as, that they changed his glory into the similitude and images of men, and beasts, and birds; where, by glory, he means God’s worship, to wit, that by which men glorify him, and not the essential glory of his nature; it being such a glory, as was in men’s power to change and to debase; and therefore must needs consist, either in those actions, or those means, which they performed the divine worship by. I know no place, from which we may more clearly gather what the scripture accounts idolatry, than from this chapter. From whence, that I may represent to you what idolatry is, and wherein one sort of it, at least, does consist, you may observe, that the persons who are here charged with it are positively affirmed to have known and acknowledged the true God. For it is said of them, that they knew his eternal power and godhead, in this twentieth verse; nay, and they worshipped him too. From whence this undeniably and invincibly follows, that they did not look upon those images, which they addressed to, as gods, nor as things in which the divine nature did or could inclose itself; nor, consequently, to which they gave, or ultimately designed their religious worship. This conclusion therefore I infer, and assert, that idolatry is not only an accounting or worshipping that for God which is not God, but it is also a worshipping the true God in a way wholly unsuitable to his nature; and particularly by the mediation of images and corporeal resemblances of him. This is idolatry: for the persons here spoken of, pretended to glorify the true God, but they did not glorify him as God, and upon 56that account stand arraigned for idolaters. Common sense and experience will and must evince the truth of this. For can any one imagine, that men of reason, who had their senses quick, and their wits and discourse entire, could take that image or statue, which they fell down before, to be a god? Could they think that to be infinite and immense, the ubiquity of which they could thrust into a corner of their closet? Or, could they conceive that to be eternal, which a few days before they had seen a log, or a rude trunk, and perhaps the other piece of it a joint-stool in the workman’s shop?
The ground and reason of all worship is, an opinion of power and will in the person worshipped to answer and supply our desires; which he cannot possibly do, unless he first apprehend them. But can any man, who is master of sense himself, believe the rational heathens so void of it, as to think that those images could fulfil the petitions which they could not hear, pity the wants they could not see, do all things when they could not stir an hand or a foot? It is impossible they should; but it is also certain, that they were idolaters.
And therefore it is clear that their idolatry consisted in something else, and the history of it would demonstrate so much, were it proper to turn a sermon into an history. So that we see here, that the sin condemned in the text, was the worshipping of the true God by images. For the defence of which, there is no doubt but they might have pleaded, and did plead for those images, that they used them not as objects, but only as means and instruments of divine worship, not as what they worshipped, but as that, by which they directed their worship to 57God. Though still, methinks it is something hard to conceive, that none of the worship should fall upon the image by the way, or that the water can be conveyed into the sea, without so much as wet ting the channel through which it passes. But however, you see it requires a very distinguishing head, and an even hand, and no small skill in directing the intention, to carry a prayer quite through to its journey’s end: though, after all, the mischief of it is, that the distinction, which looks so fine in the theory, generally miscarries in the practice; especially where the ignorant vulgar are the practisers, who are the worst in the world at distinguishing, but yet make far the greatest part of mankind, and are as much concerned and obliged to pray, as the wisest and the best; but withal, infinitely unhappy, if they cannot perform a necessary duty without school-distinctions, nor beg their daily bread without metaphysics. And thus much for the first thing proposed; namely, the sin here spoken against by the apostle in the text; which was idolatry.
2. The second is the persons charged with this sin. And they were not the Gnosticks, as some whimsically imagine, who can never meet with the words γινώσκοντες, γινώσκειν, γνῶσις, or γνωστὸν, but presently the Gnosticks must be drawn .in by the head and shoulders; but the persons here meant were plainly and manifestly the old heathen philosophers; such as not only in the apostles, but also in their own phrase, professed themselves to be wise. Their great title was σοφοὶ, and the word of applause still given to their lectures was σοφῶς. And Pythagoras was the first who abated of the invidiousness of 58the name, and from σοφὸς brought it down to φιλόσοφος, from a master to a lover of wisdom, from a professor to a candidate.
These were the men here intended by St. Paul; men famous in their respective ages; the great favourites of nature, and the top and masterpiece of art; men, whose aspiring intellectuals had raised them above the common level, and made them higher by the head than the world round about them. Men of a polite reason, and a notion refined and enlarged by meditation. Such, as with all these advantages of parts and study, had been toiling and plodding many years, to outwit and deceive themselves; sat up many nights, and spent many days to impose a fallacy upon their reason; and, in a word, ran the round of all the arts and sciences to arrive, at length, at a glorious and elaborate folly; even these, I say, these grandees and giants in knowledge, who thus looked down, as it were, upon the rest of mankind, and laughed at all besides themselves, as barbarous and insignificant, (as quick and sagacious as they were to look into the little intrigues of matter and motion, which a man might salva scientia, or at least, salva anima ignorare,) yet blundered and stumbled about their grand and principal concern, the knowledge of their duty to God, sinking into the meanest and most ridiculous instances of idolatry; even so far, as to worship the great God under the form of beasts and creeping things; to adore eternity and immensity in a brute or a plant, or some viler thing; bowing down, in their adoration, to such things as they would scarce otherwise have bowed down to take up. Nay, and to rear temples, and make altars to fear, lust, and 59revenge; there being scarce a corrupt passion of the mind, or a distemper of the body, but what they worshipped. So that it could not be expected, that they should ever repent of those sins which they thought fit to deify, nor mortify those corrupt affections to which they ascribed a kind of divinity and immortality. By all which, they fell into a greater absurdity in matter of practice, than ever any one of them did in point of opinion; (which yet certainly was very hard;) namely, that having confessed a God, and allowed him the perfections of a God, to wit, an infinite power, and an eternal godhead, they yet denied him the worship of God: thus reversing the great truths they had subscribed to in speculation, by a brutish, senseless devotion, managed with a greater prostration of reason than of body.
Had the poor vulgar rout only, who were held under the prejudices and prepossessions of education, been abused into such idolatrous superstitions, as to adore a marble or a golden deity, it might have been detested indeed, or pitied, but not so much to be wondered at: but for the stoa, the academy, or the peripaton to own such a paradox; for an Aristotle or a Plato to think their Νοῦς ἀΐδιος, their eternal mind or universal spirit, to be found in, or served by, the images of fourfooted beasts; for the Stagirite to recognise his gods in his own book de Animalibus; this, as the apostle says, was without excuse: and how will these men answer for their sins, who stand thus condemned for their devotions? And thus, from the persons here charged by the apostle with the sin of idolatry, pass we now to the
3d thing proposed; namely, the cause or reason 60of their falling into this sin; and that was their holding of the truth in unrighteousness. For the making out of which, we must inquire into these two things.
1. What was the truth here spoken of.
2. How they held it in unrighteousness.
For the first of them; there were these six great truths, the knowledge of which the Gentile philosophers stood accountable for: as,
1. That there was a God; a being distinct from this visible, material world; infinitely perfect, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, transcendently good and holy. For all this is included in the very notion of a God. And this was a truth wrote with a sun beam, clear and legible to all mankind, and received by universal consent.
2. That this God was the maker and governor of this visible world. The first of which was evident from the very order of causes; the great argument, by which natural reason evinces a God. It being necessary, in such an order or chain of causes, to ascend to, and terminate in, some first: which should be the original of motion, and the cause of all other things, but itself be caused by none. And then, that God also governed the world, this followed from the other; for that a creature should not depend upon its Creator in all respects, in which it is capable of depending upon him, (amongst which, to be governed by him, is certainly one,) is contrary to the common order and nature of things, and those essential relations which (by virtue thereof) they bear to one another; and consequently absurd and impossible. So that upon a bare principle of reason, creation must needs infer providence; and God’s 61making the world, irrefragably prove that he governs it too; or that a Being of a dependent nature remains nevertheless independent upon him in that respect. Besides all which, it is also certain that the heathens did actually acknowledge the world governed by a supreme mind; which knowledge, whether they had it from tradition, or the discourses of reason, they stood however equally accountable for upon either account.
3dly, That this God, or supreme Being, was to be worshipped. For this was founded upon his omni potence, and his providence. Since he, who could preserve or destroy as he pleased, and withal governed the world, ought surely to be depended upon by those who were thus obnoxious to his power, and subject to his government; which dependence could not manifest itself but by acts of worship, homage, and address to the person thus depended upon.
4thly, That this God was to be worshipped, or addressed to, by virtuous and pious practices. For so much his essential holiness required, and those innate notions of turpe et honestum, wrote in the consciences of all men, and joined with the apprehensions they had of the infinite purity of the divine nature, could not but suggest.
5thly, That upon any deviation from virtue and piety, it was the duty of every rational creature so deviating, to condemn, renounce, and be sorry for every such deviation: that is, in other words, to repent of it. What indeed the issue or effect of such a repentance might be, bare reason could not of itself discover, but that a peccant creature should disapprove, and repent of every violation of, and declination 62from, the rules of just and honest, this, right reason, discoursing upon the stock of its own principles, could not but infer. And the conscience of every man, before it is debauched and hardened by habitual sin, will recoil after the doing of an evil action, and acquit him after a good.
6thly and lastly, That every such deviation from duty rendered the person so deviating liable and obnoxious to punishment. I do not say, that it made punishment necessary, but that it made the person so transgressing worthy of it; so that it might justly be inflicted on him, and consequently ought rationally to be feared and expected by him. And upon this notion, universally fixed in the minds of men, were grounded all their sacrifices, and rites of expiation, and lustration. The use of which has been so general, both as to times and places, that there is no age or nation of the world in which they have not been used as principal parts of religious worship.
Now these six grand truths were the talent en trusted, and deposited by God in the hands of the Gentiles for them to traffick with, to his honour, and their own happiness. But what little improvement they made of this noble talent, shall now be shewn in the next particular; namely, their holding of it in unrighteousness: which they did several ways. As,
1. By not acting up to what they knew. As in many things their knowledge was short of the truth, so, almost in all things, their practice fell short of their knowledge. The principles by which they walked, were as much below those by which they judged, as their feet were below their head. By the 63one they looked upwards, while they placed the other in the dirt. Their writings sufficiently shew what raised and sublime notions they had of the divine nature, while they employed their reason about that glorious object, and what excellent discourses of virtue and morality the same reason enabled them to furnish the world with. But when they came to transcribe these theories into practice, one seemed to be of no other use to them at all, but only to reproach them for the other. For they neither depended upon this God as if he were almighty, nor worshipped him as if they believed him holy; but in both prevaricated with their own principles to that degree, that their practice was a direct contradiction to their speculations. For the proof of which, go over all the heathen temples, and take a survey of the absurdities and impieties of their worship, their monstrous sacrifices, their ridiculous rites and ceremonies. In all which, common sense and reason could not but tell them, that the good and gracious God could not be pleased, nor consequently worshipped, with any thing barbarous or cruel; nor the most holy God with any thing filthy and unclean; nor a God infinitely wise with any thing sottish or ridiculous; and yet these were the worthy qualifications of the heathen worship, even amongst their greatest and most reputed philosophers.
And then, for the duties of morality; surely they never wanted so much knowledge as to inform and convince them of the unlawfulness of a man’s being a murderer, an hater of God, a covenant-breaker, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful. These were enormities branded and condemned by the first and most natural verdict of common humanity; 65and so very gross and foul, that no man could pretend ignorance that they ought to be avoided by him: and yet the apostle tells us, in the last verse of this chapter, that they practised so much short of their knowledge, even as to these particulars, That though they knew the judgment of God, that those who committed such things were worthy of death, yet not only did the same themselves, but also had pleasure in those that did them. Which certainly is the greatest demonstration of a mind wholly possessed and even besotted with the love of vice, that can possibly be imagined. So notoriously did these wretches balk the judgment of their consciences, even in the plainest and most undeniable duties relating to God, their neighbour, and themselves; as if they had owned neither God nor neighbour, but themselves.
2dly, These men held the truth in unrighteousness, by not improving those known principles into the proper consequences deducible from them. For surely had they discoursed rightly but upon this one principle, that God was a being infinitely perfect, they could never have been brought to assert or own a multiplicity of gods. For can one god include in him all perfection, and another god include in him all perfection too? Can there be any more than all? and if this all be in one, can it be also in another? Or, if they allot and parcel out several perfections to several deities, do they not, by this, assert contradictions, making a deity only to such a measure perfect; whereas a deity, as such, implies perfection beyond all measure or limitation? Nor could they, in the next place, have slid into those brutish immoralities of life, had they duly manured 65those first practical notions and dictates of right reason, which the nature of man is originally furnished with; there being not any one of them, but what is naturally productive of many more. But they quickly stifled and overlaid those infant principles, those seeds of piety and virtue sown by God and nature in their own hearts; so that they brought a voluntary darkness and stupidity upon their minds; and, by not exercising their senses to discern between good and evil, came at length to lose all sense and discernment of either: where upon, as the apostle says of them in the 21st verse of this chapter to the Romans, their foolish heart was darkened: and that, not only by the just judgment of God, but also by the very course of nature; nothing being more evident from experience, than that the not using or employing any faculty or power, either of body or soul, does insensibly weaken and impair that faculty; as a sword by long lying still will contract a rust, which shall not only deface its brightness, but by degrees also consume its very substance. Doing nothing, naturally ends in being nothing.
It holds in all operative principles whatsoever, but especially in such as relate to morality; in which, not to proceed, is certainly to go backward; there being no third estate between not advancing and retreating in a virtuous course. Growth is of the very essence and nature of some things. To be, and to thrive, is all one with them; and they know no middle season between their spring and their fall.
And therefore, as it is said in Matt. xiii. 12. that from him who hath not, shall be taken away even 66that which he hath: so he, who neglects the practice, shall, in the end also, lose the very power and faculty of doing well. That which stops a man’s actual breathing very long, will, in the issue, take away his very power of breathing too. To hide one’s talent in the ground is to bury it; and the burial of a thing either finds it dead, or will quickly make it so.
3dly, These men held the truth in unrighteousness, by concealing what they knew. For how rightly soever they might conceive of God and of virtue, yet the illiterate multitude, who, in such things, must see with better eyes than their own, or see not at all, were never the wiser for it. Whatsoever the inward sentiments of those sophisters were, they kept them wholly to themselves; hiding all those important truths, all those useful notions from the people, and teaching the world much otherwise from what they judged themselves. Though I think a greater truth than this cannot well be uttered; That never any thing or person was really good, which was good only to itself. But from hence it was, that, even in a literal sense, sin came to be established by a law. For amongst the Gentiles, the laws themselves were the greatest offenders. They made little or no provision for virtue, but very much for vice: for the early and universal practice of sin had turned it into a custom, and custom, especially in sin, quickly passed into common law.
Socrates was the only martyr for the testimony of any truth that we read of amongst the heathens, who chose rather to be condemned, and to die, than either to renounce or conceal his judgment touching the 67unity of the Godhead. But as for the rest of them, even Zeno and Chrysippus, Plato and Aristotle, and generally all those heroes in philosophy, they swam with the stream, (as foul as it ran,) leaving the poor vulgar as ignorant and sottish, as vicious and idolatrous, as they first found them.
But it has been always the practice of the governing cheats of all religions, to keep the people in as gross ignorance as possibly they could; for, we see, the heathen impostors used it before the Christian impostors took it up and improved it. Si populus decipi vult, decipiatur, was ever a gold and silver rule amongst them all; though the pope’s legate first turned it into a benediction: and a very strange one it was, and enough, one would think, to have made all that heard it look about them, and begin to bless themselves. For as Demetrius, a great master in such arts, told his fellow-artists, Acts xix. 25. it was by this craft that they got their wealth: so long experience has found it true of the unthinking mobile; that the closer they shut their eyes, the wider they open their hands. But this base trade the church of England always abhorred; and for that cause, as to its temporal advantages, has fared accordingly; and, by this time, may be thought fit for another reformation.
And thus I have shewn three notable ways, by which the philosophers and learned men amongst the Gentiles held the truth in unrighteousness: as first, That they did not practise up to it: 2dly, That they did not improve it: and 3dly and lastly, That they concealed and dissembled it. And this was that which prepared and disposed them to greater enormities: 68for, changing the truth of God into a Iie, they became like those, who, by often repeating a lie to others, came at length to believe it themselves. They owned the idolatrous worship of God so long, till, by degrees, even in spite of reason and nature, they thought that he ought so to be worshipped. But this stopped not here: for as one wickedness is naturally a step and introduction to another; so, from absurd and senseless devotions, they passed into vile affections, practising vices against nature, and that in such strange and abominable instances of sin, that nothing could equal the corruption of their manners, but the delusion of their judgments; both of them the true and proper causes of one an other.
The consideration of which, one would think, should make men cautious, and fearful, how they suppress or debauch that spark of natural light, which God has set up in their souls. When nature is in the dark, it will venture to do any thing. And God knows how far the spirit of infatuation may prevail upon the heart, when it comes once to court and love a delusion. Some men hug an error, because it gratifies them in a freer enjoyment of their sensuality: and for that reason, God in judgment suffers them to be plunged into fouler and grosser errors; such as even unman, and strip them of the very principles of reason and sober discourse. For surely it could be no ordinary declension of nature, that could bring some men, after an ingenuous education in arts and philosophy, to place their summum bonum upon their trenchers, and their utmost felicity in wine and women, and those lusts and 69pleasures, which a swine or a goat has as full and quick a sense of, as the greatest statesman or the best philosopher in the world.
Yet this was the custom, this the known voice of most of the Gentiles; Dum vivimus vivamus; Let us eat and drink to-day, for to-morrow we must die. That soul which God had given them comprehensive of both worlds, and capable of looking into the great mysteries of nature, of diving into the depths beneath, and of understanding the motions and influences of the stars above; even this glorious, active thing did they confine within the pitiful compass of the present fruition; forbidding it to take a prospect, so far as into the morrow; as if to think, to contemplate, or be serious, had been high treason against the empire and prerogative of sense, usurping the throne of their baffled and deposed reason.
And how comes it to pass, that even nowadays there is often seen such a vast difference between the former and the latter part of some men’s lives? that those who first stepped forth into the world with high and promising abilities, vigorous intellectuals, and clear morals, come at length to grow sots and epicures, mean in their discourses, and dirty in their practices; but that, as by degrees, they remitted of their industry, loathed their business, and gave way to their pleasures, they let fall those generous principles, which, in their youthful days, had borne them upon the wing, and raised them to worthy and great thoughts; which thoughts and principles not being kept up and cherished, but smothered in sensual delights, God, for that cause, suffered them to flag and sink into low and inglorious satisfactions, and to enjoy themselves more in a revel or a 70merry-meeting, a strumpet or a tavern, than in being useful to a church or a nation, in being a public good to society, and a benefit to mankind. The parts that God gave them, they held in unrighteousness, sloth, and sensuality; and this made God to desert and abandon them to themselves; so that they have had a doating and a decrepit reason, long before age had given them such a body.
And therefore I could heartily wish, that such young persons as hear me now, would lodge this one observation deep in their minds; viz. that God and nature have joined wisdom and virtue by such a near cognation, or rather such an inseparable connection, that a wise, a prudent, and an honourable old age, is seldom or never found, but as the reward and effect of a sober, a virtuous, and a well-spent youth.
4. I descend now to the fourth and last thing proposed; namely, The judgment, or rather the state and condition penally consequent upon the persons here charged by the apostle with idolatry; which is, That they were without excuse.
After the commission of sin, it is natural for the sinner to apprehend himself in danger, and, upon such apprehension, to provide for his safety and defence; and that must be one of these two ways: viz. either by pleading his innocence, or by using his power. But since it would be infinitely in vain for a finite power to contend with an infinite; innocence, if any thing, must be his plea; and that must be, either by an absolute denial, or, at least, by an extenuation or diminution of his sin. Though indeed this course will be found altogether as absurd as the other could be; it being every whit as irrational for a sinner to plead his innocence before omniscience, as it would 71be to oppose his power to omnipotence. However, the last refuge of a guilty person, is to take shelter under an excuse; and so to mitigate, if he cannot divert the blow. It was the method of the great pattern and parent of all sinners, Adam, first to hide, and then to excuse himself; to wrap the apple in the leaves, and to give his case a gloss at least, though not a defence. But now, when the sinner shall be stripped of this also, have all his excuses blown away, be stabbed with his own arguments, and, as it were, sacrificed upon that very altar which he fled to for succour, this surely is the height and crisis of a forlorn condition. Yet this was the case of the male factors who stand here arraigned in the text; this was the consummation of their doom, that they were persons, not only unfit for a pardon, but even for a plea.
Now an excuse, in the nature of it, imports these two things.
1. The supposition of a sin.
2. The extenuation of its guilt.
As for the sin itself, we have already heard what that was, and we will now see how able they are to acquit themselves in point of its extenuation. In which, according to the two grand principles of human actions which determine their morality, the understanding and the will, the excuse must derive either from ignorance or unwillingness.
As for unwillingness, (to speak of this last first,) the heathen philosophers generally asserted the freedom of the will, and its inviolable dominion over its own actions; so that no force or coaction from without could entrench upon the absolute empire of this faculty.72
It must be confessed indeed, that it hath been something lamed in this its freedom by original sin; of which defect the heathens themselves were not wholly ignorant, though they were of its cause. So that hereupon, the will is not able to carry a man out to a choice so perfectly, and in all respects good, but that still there is some adherent circumstance of imperfection, which, in strictness of morality, renders every action of it evil; according to that known and most true rule, Malum ex quolibet defectu.
Nevertheless, the will has still so much freedom left, as to enable it to choose any act in its kind good, whether it be an act of temperance, justice, or the like; as also to refuse any act in its kind evil, whether of intemperance, injustice, or the like; though yet it neither chooses one, nor refuses the other, with such a perfect concurrence of all due ingredients of action, but that still, in the sight of God, judging according to the rigid measures of the law, every such choice or refusal is indeed sinful and imperfect. This is most certain, whatsoever Pelagius and his brethren assert to the contrary.
But however, that measure of freedom which the will still retains, of being able to choose any act materially, and in its kind good, and to refuse the contrary, was enough to cut off all excuse from the heathen, who never duly improved the utmost of such a power, but gave themselves up to all the filthiness and licentiousness of life imaginable. In all which it is certain, that they acted willingly, and without compulsion; or rather indeed greedily, and without control.
The only persons amongst the heathens who sophisticated nature and philosophy in this particular, 73were the Stoicks; who affirmed a fatal, unchangeable concatenation of causes, reaching even to the elicit acts of man’s will. So that according to them there was no act of volition exerted by it, but, all circumstances considered, it was impossible for the will not to exert that volition. But these were but one sect of philosophers; that is, but an handful in comparison of the rest of the Gentiles: ridiculous enough, for what they held and taught, and consequently not to be laid in the balance with the united judgment of all other learned men in the world, unanimously exploding this opinion. Questionless therefore, a thing so deeply engraven upon the first and most inward notions of man’s mind, as a persuasion of the will’s freedom, would never permit the heathens (who are here charged by the apostle) to patronize and excuse their sins upon this score, that they committed them against their will, and that they had no power to do otherwise. In which, every hour’s experience, and reflection upon the method of their own actings, could not but give them the lie to their face.
The only remaining plea therefore, which these men can take sanctuary in, must be that of ignorance; since there could be no pretence for unwillingness. But the apostle divests them even of this also: for he says expressly, in verse 19, that what might be known of God, that famous and so much disputed of τὸ γνωστὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ, was manifested in them; and in verse 21, their unexcusableness is stated upon the supposition of this very thing, that they knew God, but, for all that, did not glorify him as God. This was the sum of their charge; and how it has been made good against them we have already 74shewn, in what we have spoken about their idolatry, very briefly, I confess, but enough to shew its absurdity, though not to account for its variety, when Vossius’s very abridgment of it makes a thick volume in folio.
The plea of ignorance therefore is also taken out of their hands; forasmuch as they knew that there was a God; and that this God made and governed the world; and upon that account was to be worshipped and addressed to; and that with such a worship as should be agreeable to his nature, both in respect of the piety and virtue of the worshipper, and also of the means of the worship itself. So that he was neither to be worshipped with impious and immoral practices, nor with corporeal resemblances, For how could an image help men in directing their thoughts to a Being which bore no similitude or cog nation to that image at all? And what resemblance could wood or stone bear to a spirit void of all sensible qualities and bodily dimensions? How could they put men in mind of infinite power, wisdom, and holiness, and such other attributes, of which they had not the least mark or character?
But now, if these things could not possibly resemble any perfection of the Deity, what use could they be of to men in their addresses to God? For can a man’s devotions be helped by that which brings an error upon his thoughts? And certain it is, that it is natural for a man, by directing his prayers to an image, to suppose the Being he prays to represented by that image. Which how injurious, how contumelious it must needs be to the glorious, incomprehensible nature of God, by begetting such false and low apprehensions of him in the minds of 75his creature, let common sense, not perverted by interest and design, be judge. From all which it follows, that the idolatrous heathens, and especially the most learned of them, not being able to charge their idolatry either upon ignorance or unwillingness, were wholly without excuse. So that it is to be feared, that Averroes had not the right way of blessing himself, when, in defiance of Christianity, he wished, Sit anima mea cum philosophis.
And now, after all, I cannot but take notice, that all that I have said of the heathen idolatry is so exactly applicable to the idolatry of another sort of men in the world, that one would think this first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans were not so much an address to the ancient Romans, as a description of the modern.
But to draw towards a close. The use and improvement of the foregoing discourse shall be briefly to inform us of these two things.
1st, The signally great and peculiar mercy of God to those to whom he has revealed the gospel, since there was nothing that could have obliged him to it upon the account of his justice: for if there had, the heathens, to whom he revealed it not, could not have been thus without excuse, but might very rationally have expostulated the case with their great Judge, and demurred to the equity of the sentence, had they been condemned by him. But it appears from hence, that what was sufficient to render men inexcusable, was not therefore sufficient to save them.
It is not said by the apostle, nor can it be proved by any one else, that God vouchsafed to the heathens the means of salvation, if so be the gospel be the only means of it. And yet I will not, I dare not affirm, 76that God will save none of those to whom the sound of the gospel never reached: though this is evident, that if he does save any of them, it must not be by that ordinary, stated, appointed method, which the scripture has revealed to us, and which they were wholly ignorant of. For grant that the heathens knew that there was a God, who both made and governed the world, and who, upon that account, was to be worshipped, and that with such a worship as should be suitable to such a Being; yet what principle of mere reason could assure them, that this God would be a rewarder of such as diligently sought and served him? For certain it is, that there is nothing in the nature of God to oblige him to reward any service of his creature; forasmuch as all that the creature can do is but duty; and even now, at this time, God has no other obligation upon him, but his own free promise to reward the piety and obedience of his servants; which promise reason of itself could never have found out, till God made it known by revelation. And moreover, what principle of reason could assure a man, that God would pardon sinners upon any terms whatsoever? Possibly it might know, that God could do so; but this was no sufficient ground for men to depend upon. And then, last of all, as for the way of his pardoning sinners, that he should do it upon a satisfaction paid to his justice by such a Saviour as should be both God and man; this was utterly impossible for all the reason of mankind to find out.
For that these things could be read in the book of nature, or the common works of God’s providence, or be learned by the sun and moon’s preaching the gospel, as some have fondly (not to say profanely) 77enough asserted, it is infinitely sottish to imagine, and can indeed he nothing else but the turning the grace of God into wanton and unreasonable propositions.
It is clear therefore, that the heathens had no knowledge of that way by which alone we expect salvation. So that all the hope which we can have for them is, that the gospel may not be the utmost limit of the divine mercy; but that the merits of Christ may overflow, and run over the pale of the church, so as to reach even many of those who lived and died invincibly ignorant of him.
But whether this shall be so, or no, God alone knows, who only is privy to the great counsels of his own will. It is a secret hid from us; and therefore, though we may hope compassionately, yet I am sure we can pronounce nothing certainly: it is enough for us, that God has asserted his justice, even in his dealing with those whom he treats not upon terms of evangelical mercy. So that such persons can neither excuse themselves, nor yet accuse him; who, in the severest sentence that he can pronounce upon the sinner, will (as the Psalmist tells us) be justified when he speaks, and clear when he is judged.
2dly, In the next place, we gather hence the unspeakably wretched and deplorable condition of obstinate sinners under the gospel. The sun of mercy has shined too long and too bright upon such, to leave them any shadow of excuse. For, let them argue over all the topics of divine goodness and human weakness, and whatsoever other pretences poor sinking sinners are apt to catch at, to support and save themselves by; yet how trifling must be their plea! how impertinent their defence!78
For admit an impenitent heathen to plead, that, albeit his conscience told him that he had sinned, yet it could not tell him that there was any provision of mercy for him upon his repentance. He knew not whether amendment of life would be accepted, after the law was once broke; or that there was any other righteousness to atone or merit for him, but his own.
But no Christian, who has been taken into the arms of a better covenant, and grown up in the knowledge of a Saviour, and the doctrine of faith and repentance from dead works, can speak so much as one plausible word for his impenitence. And therefore it was said of him who came to the marriage-feast without a wedding-garment, that, being charged, and apprehended for it, ἐφιμώθη, he was speechless, struck with shame and silence, the proper effects of an overpowering guilt, too manifest to be denied, and too gross to be defended. His reason deserted, and his voice failed him, finding himself arraigned, convicted, and condemned in the court of his own conscience.
So that if, after all this, his great Judge had freely asked him, what he could allege or say for himself, why he should not have judgment to die eternally, and sentence to be awarded according to the utmost rigours of the law, he could not, in this forlorn case, have made use of the very last plea of a cast criminal: nor so much as have cried, Mercy, Lord, mercy. For still his conscience would have replied upon him, that mercy had been offered and abused; and that the time of mercy was now past. And so, under this overwhelming conviction, every gospel-sinner must pass to his eternal execution, taking the 79whole load of his own damnation solely and entirely upon himself, and acquitting the most just God, who is righteous in all his works, and holy in all his ways.
To whom, therefore, be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.80
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