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OF CONSTANCY IN THE PROFESSION OF THE TRUE RELIGION.
Let us holdfast the profession of our faith without wavering; for he is faithful that hath promised.—Heb. x. 23.
THE main scope and design of this Epistle to the Hebrews is to persuade the Jews, who were newly converted to Christianity, to continue steadfast in the profession of that holy and excellent religion which they had embraced; and not to be removed from it, either by the subtle insinuations of their brethren the Jews, who pretended that they were in possession of the true ancient religion, and the only true church of God upon earth; or by the terror of the heathen persecution, which was so hot against them at that time. And to this end the author of this Epistle doth by great variety of arguments demonstrate the excellency of the Christian religion above the Jewish dispensation; and shews at large, that in all those respects upon which the Jews valued themselves and their religion (as, namely, upon the account of their lawgiver, their high-priests, and their sacrifices) the Christian religion had every way the advantage of them.
And having made this clear, he concludes this with an earnest exhortation to them to continue steadfast in the profession of this excellent religion, which was revealed to them by the Son of God, the true propitiatory sacrifice, and the great high-priest 74of their profession, and into which they had solemnly been initiated and admitted by baptism. Ver. 19, 20, 21, 22. “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest, by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an High-priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith;” that is, let us sincerely serve God with a firm persuasion of the truth and excellency of this holy religion, into the profession whereof we were solemnly admitted by baptism; for that is undoubtedly the meaning of the following words: “having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water;” the water with which our bodies are washed in baptism, signifying our spiritual regeneration, and the purging our consciences from dead works, to serve the living God. From all which he concludes, “let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering.” This refers to that solemn profession of faith, which was made by all Christians at their baptism, and which is contained in the ancient creed of the Christian church, called by the ancient fathers, “the rule of faith.”
Let us hold fast, κατέχωμεν, “let us firmly retain;” the same with κρατῶμεν τῆς ὁμολογίας. (Chap. iv. 14.) “Seeing then we have a great High-priest which is passed into the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us take fast hold of our profession.” So here in the text, the apostle upon the same consideration exhorts Christians to retain, or hold fast, τὴν ὁμολογίαντῆς ἐλπίδος, “the confession, or profession of their hope;” that is, the hope of the resurrection of the dead, and everlasting life, which was the conclusion of that 75faith or creed, whereof in baptism they made a solemn profession. “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith or hope, without wavering;” the word is ἀκλινῆ, inflexible, unmoveable, steady, and not apt to waver and be shaken by every wind of contrary doctrine, nor by the blasts and storms of persecution.—“For he is faithful that hath promised.” If we continue faithful and steady to God, he will be “faithful,” to make good all the promises he hath made to us.
In the words, thus explained, there are two things which I shall distinctly consider.
First, The exhortation: “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith, without wavering:” and,
Secondly, The argument or encouragement used to enforce it; “He is faithful that hath promised.” I begin with the
First, The exhortation to be constant and steady in the profession of the Christian religion: “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering.” In the handling of this, and that we may the better understand the true meaning of this exhortation here in the text, I shall do these two things:
I. I shall shew negatively, wherein this constancy and steadiness in the profession of the true religion does not consist. And here I shall remove one or two things, which are thought by some to be inconsistent with constancy and steadfastness in religion.
II. I shall shew positively what is implied in a constant and steady profession of the true religion.
I. I shall shew negatively, what constancy and steadfastness in the profession of the true religion does not imply. And there are two things which are thought by some to be implied in “holding fast the profession of our faith without wavering.”76
First, That men should not take the liberty to examine their religion, and inquire into the grounds and reasons of it.
Secondly, That men should obstinately refuse to hear any reasons that can be brought against the true religion, as they think, which they have once entertained.
First, That men should not take the liberty to examine their religion, and inquire into the grounds and reasons of it. This, I think, is so far from being forbidden in this exhortation, that, on the contrary, I doubt not to make it appear, that a free and impartial inquiry into the grounds and reasons of our religion, and a thorough trial and examination of them, is one of the best means to confirm and establish us in the profession of it: I mean, that all persons that are capable of it, should do it, and that they will find great benefit and advantage by it. For I do not think, that this is a duty equally and indifferently incumbent upon all; nor indeed fit and proper for all persons; because all are not equally capable of doing it. There are two sorts of persons that are in a great measure incapable of doing it:
2. Such grown persons as are of a very mean and low capacity and improvement of understanding.
Children are not fit to examine, but only to learn and believe what is taught them by their parents and teachers. They are fit to have the fear of God, and the principles of the true religion, instilled into them; but they are by no means fit to discern between a true and false religion, and to choose for themselves, and to make a change of their religion; as hath of late been allowed to them in a nation not 77far from us, and by public edict declared, that children at seven years old are fit to choose and to change their religion: which is the first law I ever heard of, that allows children at that age to do any act for themselves, that is of consequence and importance to them, for the remaining part of their lives, and which they shall stand obliged to perform and make good. They are indeed baptized, according to the custom and usage of the Christian church, in their infancy: but they do not enter into this obligation themselves: but their sureties undertake for them, that when they come to age, they shall take this promise upon themselves, and confirm and make it good. But surely, they can do no act for themselves, and in their own name, at that age, which can be obligatory. They can neither make any contracts that shall be valid, nor incur any debt, nor oblige themselves by any promise, nor choose themselves a guardian, nor do any act that may bring them under an inconvenience, when they shall come at age. And can we think them of discretion sufficient at that time, to do a thing of the greatest moment and consequence of all other; and which will concern them to all eternity; namely, to choose their religion? There is indeed one part of one religion (which we all know) which children at seven years of age are fit (I do not say to judge of, but) to be as fond of, and to practise to as good purpose, as those of riper years; and that is, to worship images, to tell their beads, to say their prayers, and to be present at the service of God in an unknown tongue; and this they are more likely to choose at that age, than those who are of riper and more improved understandings; and if they do not choose it at that time, it is ten to one they will not choose 78it afterwards. I shall say no more of this, but that it is a very extraordinary law, and such as perhaps was never thought of before from the beginning of the world. Thus much for children.
As for grown persons, who are of a very low and mean capacity of understanding, and either by reason of the weakness of their faculties, or other disadvantages which they lie under, are in little or no probability of improving themselves: these are always to be considered as in the condition of children and learners, and therefore must, of necessity, in things, which are not plain and obvious to the meanest capacities, trust and rely upon the judgment of others. And it is really much wiser and safer for them so to do, than to depend upon their own judgments, and to lean to their own understandings; and such persons, if they be modest and humble, and pray earnestly to God for his assistance and direction, and are careful to practise what they know, and to live up to the best light and knowledge which they have, shall not miscarry merely for want of those farther degrees of knowledge, which they had no capacity nor opportunity to attain, because their ignorance is unavoidable, and God will require no more of them than he hath given them, and will not call them to account for the improvement of those talents which he never committed to them. And if they be led into any dangerous error, by the negligence or ill conduct of those under whose care and instruction the providence of God permitted them to be placed, God will not impute it to them as a fault; because in the circum stances in which they were they took the best and wisest course that they could, to come to the knowledge of the truth, by being willing to learn what 79they could of those whom they took to be wiser than themselves.
But for such persons, who, by the maturity of their age, and by the natural strength and clearness of their understandings, or by the due exercise and improvement of them, are capable of inquiring into, and understanding the grounds of their religion, and discerning the difference betwixt truth and error (I do not mean in unnecessary points, and matters of deepest learning and speculation, but in matters necessary to salvation), it is certainly very reason able, that such persons should examine their religion, and understand the reasons and grounds of it.
And this must either be granted to be reasonable, or else every man must continue in that religion in which he happens to be fixed by education, or for any other reason to pitch upon, when he comes to years, and makes his free choice: for if this be a good principle, that no man is to examine his religion, but take it as it is, and to believe it, and rest satisfied with it; then every man is to remain in the religion which he first lights upon, whether by choice or the chance of his education. For he ought not to change but upon reason; and reason he can have none, unless he be allowed to examine his religion, and to compare it with others, that by the comparison he may discern which is best, and ought in reason to be preferred in his choice. For to him that will not, or is not permitted to search into the grounds of any religion, all religions are alike; as all things are of the same colour to him that is always kept in the dark; or if he happens to come into the light dares not open his eyes, and make use of them to discern the different colours of things.
But this is evidently and at first sight unreasonable; 80because at this rate, every man that hath once entertained an error, and a false religion, must for ever continue in it: for if he be not allowed to examine it, he can never have reason to change; and to make a change without reason, is certainly unreason able, and mere vanity and inconstancy.
And yet, for aught I can see, this is the principle which the church of Rome doth, with great zeal and earnestness, inculcate upon their people; discouraging all doubts and inquiries about their religion, as temptations of the devil; and all examinations of the grounds and reasons of their religion as an inclination and dangerous step towards heresy: for what else can they mean by taking the Scriptures out of the hands of the people, and locking them up from them in an unknown tongue, by requiring them absolutely to submit their judgments, and to resign them up to that which they are pleased to call the catholic church, and implicitly to believe as she believes, though they know not what that is? This is, in truth, to believe as their priest tells them; for that is all the teaching part of the church, and all the rule of faith that the common people are acquainted with.
And it is not sufficient to say in this matter, that when men are in the truth, and of the right religion, and in the bosom of the true church, they ought to rest satisfied, and to examine and inquire no farther. For this is manifestly unreasonable, and that upon these three accounts:
1. Because this is a plain and shameful begging of the thing in question; and that which every church, and every religion, doth almost with equal confidence pretend to; that their’s is the only right religion, and the only true church. And these pretences 81are all alike reasonable to him that never examined the grounds of any of them, nor hath compared them together. And therefore, it is the vainest thing in the world for the church of Rome to pretend, that all religions in the world ought to be examined but their’s; because their’s, and none else, is the true religion. For this which they say so confidently of it, that it is the true religion, no man can know till he hath examined it, and searched into the grounds of it, and hath considered the objections which are against it. So that it is fond partiality to say, that their religion is not to be examined by the people that profess it, but that all other religions ought to be examined, or rather, be cause they are different from that which they presume to be the only true religion, ought to be condemned at all adventures, without any farther inquiry: this, I say, is fond partiality; because every religion, and every church, may (for aught that appears to any man that is not permitted to examine things impartially) say the same for themselves, and with as much reason; and, if so, then either every religion ought to permit itself to be examined; or else no man ought to examine his own religion, whatever it be: and, consequently, Jews, and Turks, and heathens, and heretics, ought all to continue as they are, and none of them to change; because they cannot reasonably change without examining both that religion which they leave, and that which they embrace instead of it.
2. Admitting this pretence were true, that they are the true church, and have the true religion; this is so far from being a reason why they should not permit it to be examined, that, on the contrary, it is one of the best reasons in the world why they 82should allow it to be examined, and why they may safely suffer it to be so. They should permit it to be tried, that men may upon good reason be satisfied that it is the true religion: and they may safely suffer it to be done; because, if they be sure that the grounds of their religion be firm and good, I am sure they will be never the worse for being examined and looked into. But I appeal to every man’s reason, whether it be not an ill sign that they are not so sure that the grounds of their religion are solid and firm, and such as will abide the trial, that they are so very loath to have them searched into and examined? This cannot but tempt a wise man to suspect, that their church is not founded upon a rock, and that they themselves know some thing that is amiss in their religion, which makes them so loath to have it tried, and brought to the touch.
3. It is certain among all Christians, that the doctrine preached by the apostles was the true faith of Christ; and yet they never forbade the Christians to examine whether it was so or not: nay, on the contrary, they frequently exhort them to try and examine their religion, and whether that doctrine which they had delivered to them was the true faith of Christ. So St. Paul, (2 Corinth. xiii. 5.) “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your ownselves.” And, again, (1 Thess. v. 21.) “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good;” intimating to us, that in order to the holding fast the profession of our faith, it is requisite to prove and try it. And so likewise St. John’s 1st Ep. iv. 1. “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” And he 83gives a very notable mark whereby we may know the Spirit of truth, and the spirit of error. The spirit of error carries on a worldly interest and design, and the doctrines of it tend to secular power and greatness: (ver. 5.) “They are of the world; therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them.” (Acts xvii. 11.) St. Luke commends it, as an argument of a more noble and generous spirit in the Bereans, that they examined the doctrine which the apostles preached, whether it were agreeable to the Scriptures; and this without disparagement to their infallibility: “These (saith he,) were more noble than those of Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily whether those things were so.” They were ready to receive the word; but not blindly, and with an implicit faith, but using due care to examine the doctrines which they were taught, and to see if they were agree able to that Divine revelation of the Holy Scriptures which they had before received. It seems they were not willing to admit and swallow contradictions in their faith. And we desire no more of the church of Rome, than that they would encourage the people to search the Scriptures daily, and to examine whether their doctrines be according to them. We would be glad to hear the pope, and a general council commend to the people the searching of the Scriptures, and to try their definitions of faith and decrees of worship by that rule, to see whether what they have defined, and decree to be believed and practised, be agreeable to it—their worship of images; their solemn invocation of angels, and of the blessed Virgin, and the saints departed; the sacrament under one kind only; the public prayers 84and service of God in an unknown tongue; the frequent repetition of the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood in the mass. Had the Bereans been at the council of Trent, and pleaded their right to “search the Scriptures, whether these things were so,” I doubt they would have been thought very troublesome and impertinent, and would not have been praised by the pope and council for their pains, as they are by St. Luke.
You see then, upon the whole matter, that it is a very groundless and suspicious pretence of the church of Rome, that, because they are infallibly in the right, and their’s is the true religion, therefore their people must not be permitted to examine it. The doctrine of the apostles was undoubtedly the true faith of Christ; and yet they not only permitted the people to examine it, but exhorted and encouraged them so to do, and commended them for it: and any man, that hath the spirit of a man, must abhor to submit to this slavery, not to be allowed to examine his religion, and to inquire freely into the grounds and reasons of it; and would break with any church in the world upon this single point; and would tell them plainly, If your religion be too good to be examined, I doubt, it is too bad to be believed.
If it be said, that the allowing of this liberty is the way to make people perpetually doubting and unsettled; I do utterly deny this, and do on the contrary with good reason affirm, that it is apt to have the contrary effect; there being in reason no better way to establish any man in the belief of any thing, than to let him see that there are very good grounds and reasons for what he believes; which no man can ever see, that is not permitted to examine whether there be such reasons or not. So that, besides 85the reasonableness of the thing, it is of great advantage to us; and that upon these accounts:
1. To arm us against seducers. He that hath examined his religion, and tried the grounds of it, is most able to maintain them, and make them good against all assaults that may be made upon us, to move us from our steadfastness: whereas, he that hath not examined, and consequently does not understand, the reasons of his religion, is liable to be “tossed to and fro, and to be carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and the cunning craftiness of those that lie in wait to deceive.” For when he is attempted, he will either defend his religion, or not: if he undertake the defence of it, before he hath examined the grounds of it, he makes himself an easy prey to every crafty man that will set upon him; he exposeth at once himself to danger and his religion to disgrace. If he decline the defence of it, he must be forced to take sanctuary in that ignorant and obstinate principle—that, because he is of an infallible church, and sure that he is in the right, therefore he never did nor will examine whether he be so or not. But how i he, or can he, be sure that he is in the right, if he 1 have no other reason for it, but his confidence, and his being “wiser in his own conceit, than seven men that can render a reason?” It is a shameful thing in a wise man, who is able to give a good reason of all other actions and parts of his life, to be able to say nothing for his religion, which concerns him more than all the rest.
2. To examine and understand the grounds of our religion, will be a good means (by the assistance of God’s grace) to keep us constant to it, even under the fiery trial. When it comes to this, that a man 86must suffer for his religion, he had need to be well established in the belief of it; which no man can so well be, as he that in some measure understands the grounds and reasons of his belief. A man would be well assured of the truth and goodness of that for which he would lay down his life; otherwise, “he dies as a fool dies”—he knows not for what. A man would be loath to set such a seal to a blank, I mean to that which he hath no sufficient ground and reason to believe to be true; which, whether he hath or not, no man that hath not examined the grounds of his religion can be well assured of. This St. Peter prescribes, as the best preparative for suffering for righteousness sake, in his first Epistle, iii. 14, 15. “But, if ye suffer for righteousness sake, happy are ye; and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled; but sanctify the Lord God in your hearts (that is, make him the great object of your dread and trust), and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.”
Secondly, “The holding fast the profession of our faith without wavering,” doth not imply, that men should obstinately refuse to hear any reason against that religion, which they have embraced, and think to be the true religion. As men should examine before they choose; so, after they have chosen, they should be ready to be better informed, if better reason can be offered. No man ought to think himself so infallible as to be privileged from hearing reason, and from having his doctrines and dictates tried by that test.
Our blessed Saviour himself, the most infallible person that ever was in the world, and who “declared the truth which he had heard of God,” yet 87he offered himself and his doctrine to this trial. (John viii. 46.) “Which of you convinceth me of sin?” that is, of falsehood and error? “And if I speak the truth, why do ye not believe me?” He was sure he spake the truth; and yet, for all that, if they could convince him of error and mistake, he was ready to hear any reason they could bring to that purpose. Though a man be never so sure that he is in the true religion, and never so resolved to continue constant and steadfast in it; yet reason is always to be heard, when it is fairly offered. And as we ought always to be “ready to give an answer to those who ask a reason of the hope and faith that is in us,” so ought we likewise to be ready to hear the reasons which others do fairly offer against our opinion and persuasion in religion, and to debate the matter with them; that if we be in the right, and they in the wrong, we may rectify their mistake, and “instruct them in meekness, if God peradventure may give them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth.”
We are not only to examine our religion, before we peremptorily fix upon it; but after we are, as we think upon the best reason, established and settled in it. Though we ought not to doubt and waver in our religion upon every slight and trifling objection that can be brought against it; yet we ought always to have an ear open to hear reason, and consider any thing of weight and moment that can be offered to us about it. For it is a great disparagement to truth, and argues a distrust of the goodness of our cause and religion, to be afraid to hear what can be said against it; as if truth were so weak, that in every conflict it were in danger to be baffled and run down, and go by the worst; and 88as if the reasons that could be brought against it, were too hard for it, and not to be encountered by those forces which truth has on its side.
We have that honest confidence of the goodness of our cause and religion, that we do not fear what can be said against it; and therefore, we do not forbid our people to examine the objections of our adversaries, and to read the best books they can write against it. But the church of Rome are so “wise in their generation,” that they will not permit those of their communion to hear or read what can be said against them: nay, they will not permit the people the use of the Holy Scriptures, which they, with us, acknowledge to be at least an essential part of the rule of faith. They tell their people, that after they are once of their church and religion, they ought not to hear any reasons against it; and though they be never so strong, they ought not to entertain any doubt concerning it; because all doubting is a temptation of the devil, and a mortal sin. But surely that church is not to be heard, which will not hear reason: nor that religion to be much admired, which will not allow those that have once embraced it, to hear it ever after debated and examined. This is a very suspicious business, and argues, that either they have not truth on their side; or that truth is a weak, and pitiful, and sneaking thing, and not able to make its party good against error.
I should wow have proceeded, in the second place, to shew positively what is implied in “holding fast the profession of our faith without wavering;” and then to have considered the argument and encouragement hereto—“because he is faithful that promised.” But I shall proceed no farther at this time.89
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