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[Preached on All Saints Day, 1684.]
THE DUTY OF IMITATING THE PRIMITIVE TEACHERS AND PATTERNS OF CHRISTIANITY.
Whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.—Heb. xiii. 7.
The verse runs thus:
Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.
THE great scope and design of this Epistle, is to persuade the Jews, who were newly converted to Christianity, to continue steadfast in the profession of it, notwithstanding all the sufferings and persecutions it was attended withal; and to encourage them hereto, among many other arguments which the apostle makes use of, he doth several times in this Epistle propound to them the examples and patterns of saints and holy men, that were gone before them; especially those of their own nation, who, in their respective ages, had given remarkable testimony of their faith in God, and constant adherence to the truth. (Chap. vi. 11, 12.) “And we desire, that every one of you do shew the same diligence, to the full assurance of hope, unto the end; that ye be not slothful, but followers of them, who through faith 419and patience inherit the promises.” And (chap. xi.) he gives a catalogue of the eminent heroes and saints of the Old Testament, who by faith had done such wonders, and given such testimony of their patience and constancy, in doing and suffering the will of God; from whence he infers, (chap. xii. 1.) that we ought to take pattern and heart from such examples, to persevere in our Christian course: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of (martyrs, or) witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us;” especially since they had greater examples than these, nearer to them, and more fresh in memory; the great example of our Lord, the founder of our religion; and of the first teachers of Christianity, the disciples and apostles of our Lord and Saviour. The example of our Lord himself, the captain and rewarder of our faith (ver. 2, of that twelfth chapter): “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame: (ver. 3.) for consider him, who endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. This indeed is the great pattern of Christians, and, in regard of the great perfection of it, surpasseth all other pat terns, and seems to make them useless; as having in it the perfection of the Divinity, not in its full brightness (which would be apt to dazzle rather than direct us), but allayed and shadowed with the infirmities of human nature; and, for that reason, more accommodate and familiar to us than the Divine perfections abstractedly considered.
But yet, because our blessed Saviour was God as 420 well as man, and clear of all stain of sin (for though he was clothed with the infirmities, yet he was free from the corruption of human nature), therefore the examples of mere men, liable to sin as we are, may in many respects be more suitable and accommodate to encourage us to the imitation of those virtues, which are attainable by us, in this state of imperfection; for which reason the apostle hath thought fit likewise to propose to us the highest examples of that kind, the first teachers of our religion; for of these he seems to speak here in the text, namely, those apostles, or apostolical men, by whom they had been instructed in the faith of Christ, but who were now departed this life; it being very probable, that the apostle here speaks of such as were dead, when he says, “Remember them which have the rule over you, (or, those that have been your guides) who have spoken to you the word of God, whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.”
I say this is very probable, because he minds them to remember, which supposeth them to be absent; but especially, because he minds them to “consider the end of their conversation;” by which, surely, he means the blessed state of those good men after death; which is elsewhere called “the end of our faith, even the salvation of our souls.” (1 Pet. i. 9.) So, likewise, (Rom. vi. 22.) this is said to be the end of a holy life: “Ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.” And it very much favours this interpretation, that the apostle afterwards speaks of the living guides and governors of the church: (ver. 17.) “Obey them which have the rule over you, and submit yourselves, for they watch for your souls.”421
So that it is highly probable, that the apostle here speaks of such guides and governors of the church, as had once been over them, but were now departed this life; and therefore he might, with more freedom and less envy, recommend their example to them, and bid them call to mind their faith and exemplary conversation among them, and propose it for a pattern to themselves, considering the happy end of it, viz. the blessed state they were now in, and the glorious reward they were made partakers of in another life.
In the words thus explained, you have,
I. A duty enjoined; which is, to propose to ourselves, for our imitation, the examples of good men that have gone before us; especially the primitive patterns of Christianity, and the first teachers of our religion. “Remember them which have been your guides, and have spoken. to you the word of God, whose faith follow.”
II. The motive or encouragement to it, from the consideration of the reward of it; “considering the end of their conversation.”
I. The duty enjoined; which is, to propose to ourselves, for our imitation, the example of good men that have gone before us; especially the primitive patterns of Christianity, and first teachers of our religion. “Remember them that have had the rule over you, that have been your guides, and have spoken to you the word of God, whose faith follow.” In which words the apostle bids them call to mind their first guides and instructors in Christianity, whom they had known, and heard, and conversed with in this world, but who were now rested from their labours, and were receiving the reward of them; to remember the doctrines they had heard 422from them, and the virtues they had seen in them; and to embrace the one, and imitate the other.
Thus we cannot remember the primitive teachers, and patterns of Christianity, the apostles of our Lord and Saviour; because we did not personally know them, and converse with them, living at the distance of many ages from their time; but we may do that which is equivalent, and a kind of remembrance of them; we may commemorate their faith, and the virtue and holiness of their lives; and, what we hear and read of them, we may propose for pat terns to ourselves, and copy them out in our lives and actions: and this is our duty, and the same in Substance with theirs, who had the happiness to know and converse with those excellent persons, to hear them preach, and to see the rules and precepts of that holy doctrine, which they taught, exemplified in their lives.
In the handling of this argument, I shall do these three things:
First, Shew why, amongst all the examples of good men, we should more especially propose to our imitation the primitive teachers and patterns of our religion.
Secondly, Wherein we should imitate them. The apostle expresseth it in one word, in their faith; “whose faith follow.”
Thirdly, The encouragement to this, from the consideration of the happy state they are in, and the glorious rewards they are made partakers of; “considering the end of their conversation.”
First, I shall endeavour to shew why, among all the examples of good men, we should more especially propose to our imitation the primitive teachers and patterns of our religion; I mean, the holy 423apostles of our Lord and Saviour, whose faith we should endeavour to follow, and to imitate the holiness and virtue of their conversation. For these certainly come nearest to that most perfect and excellent pattern of all goodness, our blessed Saviour, and are the fairest transcripts of that unblemished original. Hence it is that St. Paul so frequently exhorts Christians to imitate his example, and the example of the other apostles; it being reasonable to presume, that they came nearest to the pattern of our Lord: (1 Cor. xi. 1.) “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” (Phil. iii. 17.) “Brethren, be ye followers together of me, and mark them which walk so, as ye have us for an ensample. For our conversation is in heaven.”
And this is reasonable, that the first in every kind should be the rule and pattern of the rest, and of all that follow after, because it is likely to be most perfect. In process of time, the best institutions are apt to decline, and by insensible degrees to swerve and depart from the perfection of their first state; and therefore it is a good rule, to preserve things from corruption and degeneracy, often to look back to the first institution, and by that to correct those imperfections and errors, which almost unavoidably creep in with time.
If we would preserve that purity of faith and manners, which our religion requires, we should have frequent recourse to the primitive teachers and patterns of Christianity, and endeavour to bring our belief and lives to as near a conformity with theirs as is possible. Who so likely to deliver the faith and doctrine of Christ pure, and uncorrupted, as the primitive teachers of it, who received it from our Lord himself; and were, by an extraordinary assistance 424of the Holy Spirit, secured from error and mistake in the delivery of it? And who so likely to bring their lives and conversations to an exact conformity with his holy doctrine, as they, who were so thoroughly instructed in it by the best Master, and shewn the practice of it in the most perfect example of holiness and virtue? Great reason there is, therefore, why all Christians should follow their faith, and make their conversation more especially the patterns of their lives.
The want of a due regard to these fountains of Christian doctrine, and the first and best patterns of Christian practice, hath been the great cause of that foul degeneracy of the Romish church, both in the doctrine and practice of Christianity—they do not follow the faith of the apostles, the first fathers and teachers of Christianity; but of the fathers of the council of Lateran and Trent. Thus have they “forsaken the fountain of living waters,” the Holy Scriptures, “and have hewn to themselves broken cisterns, that will hold no water;” the doctrines and traditions of men. Nay, they have stopped up this “fountain of living waters” from the people, and forbid them to come to it; and forced them to drink of those impure and puddled streams, which they let out to them; and, instead of the lives of the holy apostles, and those eminent graces and virtues which shined forth in them, they represent to them the patterns of new saints; some of which neither they nor their fathers knew, and indeed never were in being; as St. Almanach, and St. Synoris, and several others; many of them so far from being saints, that they may be reckoned among the worst of men; (for instance, our countryman Thomas a Becket, who for pride and rebellion may almost 425vie with Lucifer himself; and yet this ill man, and worst of subjects, was canonized to that height, as for two hundred years together to engross the worship of these western parts of the world, and to impoverish the shrines of all other saints, even of the blessed Virgin herself:) others, such idiots, or hot-headed fanatics, that he that reads their lives would take them to be fools and madmen rather than saints (as Francis and Dominic, and Ignatius Loyola, and several others of the same stamp; and many, the very best of them, so disguised by their legends, that instead of the substantial virtues of a good life, their story is made up of false and fantastical miracles, and ridiculous freaks of superstition.
All which considered, there is great reason why we should have recourse to the primitive patterns of faith and holiness, and be followers of them, who we are sure were followers of Christ. I proceed to the
Second thing I proposed, namely, Wherein we should imitate these patterns. And the apostle expresseth it in one word, in their faith, “whose faith follow.” And the word faith is frequently in the New Testament used so largely, as to comprehend the whole condition of the gospel; a firm belief of the doctrine of it, and the fruit and effect of this belief, in a good conversation. And that faith here in the text, takes in a holy life, is evident from what follows: “whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation;” from whence it is evident, that the apostle speaks of such a faith, as shews forth it self in a good conversation.
So that we may very well suppose the apostle 426hereto recommend the primitive faith to our imitation in these four respects.
1. In regard of the sincerity and purity of it.
2. In regard of the firmness and stability of it.
3. Of their constancy and perseverance in it.
4. Of the efficacy and fruitfulness of it, in a good conversation. All these may be collected from the expressions and circumstances of the text.
1. We are to imitate these primitive patterns, in the sincerity and purity of their faith; i mean, that the faith which we profess be the sincere doctrine of Christianity, and the pure word of God, free from all mixture of human additions and inventions, and not made up, as the faith of the Pharisees was among the Jews, and theirs of the church of Rome is at this day, of the word of God and the doctrines and traditions of men; not like the Creed of Pope Pius IV. (which is now the standard of the Roman faith) consisting of the twelve old articles of the Christian faith, delivered to us by Christ and his apostles, and as many new ones, coined and stamped by their later councils. This is not to follow the faith of the apostles, and first patterns of Christianity, the faith once delivered to the saints, as St. Jude calls it. This is to have our faith stand upon the authority of men, and not on the word of God; whereas we are to follow the faith of the first guides of the Christian church, who spake unto them the word of God, as the apostle expressly chargeth here in the text.
2. We are to imitate them, in the stability and firmness of our faith, and not suffer ourselves to be shaken, and removed from it, by every wind of new doctrine; the faith of Christ being unchangeable as Christ himself. 427And that by following the faith of the primitive guides and teachers of Christianity, the apostle here means, that we should be steadfast and unmoveable in it, is plain from what follows immediately after the text; “whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation, Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever. Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines: for it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace,” that is, in the doctrine of the gospel, which is frequently called the grace of God.
3. We are to imitate them, in the constancy and perseverance of their faith; and that notwithstanding all the discountenance and opposition, the persecution and suffering, which attend the profession of this faith; which the apostle sufficiently intimates in this Epistle, to have been the condition of those Christians, to whom he wrote; and therefore he proposeth so many examples to them, of constant and patient suffering for God and his truth; and it is probable enough, that the apostle here recommends the example of those who were the primitive martyrs, as well as teachers of Christianity. He had before proposed to them the living examples of those, who were under actual persecution and sufferings for the gospel: (ver. 3.) “Remember those that are in bonds, and those that suffer adversity;” and here, in the seventh verse, he seems to propose the pattern of those, who had laid down their lives and died for the faith: “Remember those who have been your guides, and have spoken to you the word of God, whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation,” τὴν ἔκβασιν τὴς ἀναστροφῆς, which may be rendered, the last act of their lives, the manner of their going out of the world, perhaps by 428martyrdom; as if he had said, imitate them in their constancy and perseverance in the faith, even to the last, in laying” down their lives for it. And thus we should be ready to do, if God calls us to it. How ever, it is certain the apostle meant their constancy and perseverance in the faith to the last, and their dying in, if not for the faith of Christ. And this is necessary, if we expect the crown of life, and hope for the same happy end, which they had; for none but they, that continue to the end, shall be saved.
4. We should imitate them in the efficacy and fruitfulness of their faith, in the practice and virtues of a good life; “whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation,” that is, their perseverance in a holy course to the end. And these must never be separated; a sound faith, and a good life. With out this our faith is barren and dead, as St. James tells us, chap. ii. ver. 17. Our knowledge and belief of the Christian doctrine, must manifest itself in a good conversation. “Who is a wise man (says the same St. James, chap. iii. ver. 13.) and endowed with knowledge amongst you? Let him shew out of a good conversation his works.”—“This is a faithful saying (saith St. Paul to Titus, chap. iii. ver. 8.) and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they who have believed in God, be careful to maintain good works.”
And herein the apostles of our Lord and Saviour were eminent examples. They lived as they taught, and practised the doctrine which they preached. So St. Paul strictly chargeth Timothy, (1 Tim. iv. 12.) “Be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in faith, in purity.” And our Saviour tells us, that hereby chiefly false prophets and teachers might be known from the true 429 apostles of Christ. (Matt. vii. 20.) “By their fruits ye shall know them.” And indeed we do not follow the faith of those excellent persons, if we do not abound in all the fruits of righteousness, which by Jesus Christ are to the praise and glory of God. I come now to the
Third and last thing I proposed, viz. the encouragement to this, from the consideration of the happy state of those persons, who are proposed to us for patterns, and the glorious reward which they are made partakers of in another world. “Considering the end of their conversation,” τὴν ἔκβασιν, their egress or departure out of this life into a blessed and glorious state, where they have received the crown and reward of their faith and patience, and pious conversation in this world; or else (which comes much to one) considering the conclusion of their lives, with what patience and comfort they left the world, and with what joyful assurance of the happy condition they were going to, and were to continue in for ever.
And this is a great encouragement to constancy and perseverance in faith and holiness, to see with what cheerfulness and comfort good men die, and with what a firm and steady persuasion of the happiness they are entering upon. For who would not be glad to leave the world, in that calmness and serenity of mind, and comfortable assurance of a blessed eternity? Bad men wish this, and are ready to say with Balaam, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.” But if we would have the comfort of such a death, we must live such lives, and imitate the faith and good conversation of those whom we desire to resemble in the manner of their death, and to go into the same 430happy state that they are in after death. If we do not make their lives our pattern, we must not expect to be conformable to them, in the happy manner of their death. When we hear of the death of an eminently good man, we do not doubt but he is happy; and are confident that he will meet with the reward of his piety and goodness in another world. If we believe this of him, let us endeavour to be like him; that we may attain the same happiness, which we believe him to be possessed of, and, as the apostle exhorts, (chap. iv. 12.) “Let us not be slothful; but followers of them, who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Let us shew the same diligence that they did; that we may have the same full assurance of hope unto the end, which they had.
The inference from this discourse, which I have made upon this argument, is, to shew what use we ought to make of these excellent examples, which are set before us, of the first founders and teachers of our religion, and what is the proper honour and respect, which we ought to pay to their memory: not invocation and adoration; but a zealous imitation of their faith and good conversation. The greatest honour we can do them, the most acceptable to God, the most grateful to them, and the most beneficial to ourselves, is to endeavour to be like them: not to make any images and likeness of them, to fall down before them, and worship them; but to form the image of their faith and virtues upon our hearts and lives: not to pray to them; but to praise God for such bright and glorious examples, and to endeavour with all our might to imitate their faith and patience, and piety, and humility, and meekness, and charity, and all those other virtues which were 431so resplendent in them. And this is to remember the founders of our religion as we ought, to follow their faith, and to consider “the end of their conversation.”
Had the Christian religion required, or intended any such thing, as of later times hath been practised in the world, it had been as easy for the apostle to have said,—Remember them that have been your guides, and have spoken to you the word of God, to erect images to them, and to worship them with due veneration, and to pray to them, and make use of their intercession. But no such thing is said, or the least intimation given of it, either in this text, or any other in the whole Bible; but very much to the contrary.
Their example, indeed, is frequently recommended to us, for our imitation and encouragement; and, for this reason, the providence of God hath taken particular care, that the memory of the apostles, and so many primitive Christians and martyrs, should be transmitted to posterity; that Christians in all succeeding ages might propound these patterns to themselves, and have perpetually before their eyes the piety and virtue of their lives, and their patient and constant sufferings for the truth; that when God shall please to call us to the like trial, we may not be wearied and faint in our minds; but being compassed about with such a cloud of witnesses, having so many examples in our eye of those, “who through faith and patience inherit the promises,” and do now as it were look down from their happy state upon us here below, who are combating with manifold temptations, to see how we behave and acquit ourselves in our Christian course, we may take encouragement to ourselves from such 432examples, and such spectators, to run with patience the race which is set before us.
I know indeed that other use than this hath been, and is at this day, made of the memory of the saints and martyrs of former ages, very dishonourable to God, and very grievous to them, if they be sensible of what is done here below; I mean, to worship them, and to pray to them, and (to the great disparagement of the powerful intercession of our great High Priest, Jesus, the Son of God) to make them the mediators and intercessors in heaven with God for us. Of this the Scripture hath no where given us the least intimation; but hath expressly commanded the contrary, to worship the Lord our God, and him only to serve; and to pray to him alone, in the name of Jesus Christ, who is the only “mediator betwixt God and man.” Nor are there any footsteps of any such practice in the primitive church for the first three hundred years; as is acknowledged by our most learned adversaries of the church of Rome.
The Scripture no where propounds the saints to us for objects of our worship; but for the patterns of our lives. This is the greatest respect and veneration that we candor ought to pay to them; and, what ever is beyond this, is a voluntary humility, injurious to God and our blessed Saviour, and most certainly displeasing to those whom they pretend to honour; if they know how men play the fool about them here below.
Let us then endeavour to be like them, in the holy and virtuous actions of their lives, in their constant patience and suffering for the truth, if God shall call us thereto. And we may be like them, if we do but sincerely endeavour it, and pray to God for his grace and assistance to that end. For these 433examples were not left for our admiration only, but for our imitation. We frequently read the lives of the apostles and first founders of our religion: but I know not how it comes to pass, we choose rather lazily to admire them, than vigorously to follow them; as if the piety of the first Christians were miraculous, and not at all intended for the imitation of succeeding ages; as if heaven and earth, God and men, and all things were altered, since that time; as if Christianity were then in its youthful age and vigour, but is since decayed and grown old, and hath quite lost its power and virtue. And indeed the generality of Christians live at such a faint and careless rate, as to make the world believe, that either all the Tories of the primitive Christians are fables; or else, that the force of Christianity is strangely abated, and that the Holy Spirit of God hath forsaken the earth, and is retired to the Father. But truth never grows old, and those laws of goodness and righteousness, which are contained in the gospel, are still as reasonable, and apt to gain upon the minds of men, as ever. God is the same he was, and our blessed Saviour is still at the right hand of God, interceding powerfully for sinners, for mercy and grace to help in time of need. The promises and threatenings of the gospel are still as true and powerful as ever; and the Holy Spirit of God is still in the world, and effectually works in them that believe.
Let us not then deceive ourselves in this matter. The primitive Christians were men like ourselves, subject to the same passions that we are, and compassed about with the same infirmities; so that al though that extraordinary spirit and power of miracles, which God endowed them withal, for the first 434planting and propagating of the gospel in the world, be now ceased, yet the sanctifying power and virtue of God’s Holy Spirit does still accompany the gospel, and is ready to assist us in every good work.
In a word, we have all that is necessary to work the same graces and virtues in us, which were in them; and if we be not slothful, and wanting to ourselves, we may follow their faith, and at last attain the end of it, even the salvation of our souls.
Let us, then, from an idle admiring of those excellent patterns, proceed to a vigorous imitation of them, and be so far from being discouraged by the excellency of them, as to make even that matter and ground of encouragement to ourselves; according to that of Tertullian, Admonetur omnis aetas fieri posse, quod aliquando factum est—all ages to the end of the world may be convinced, that what has been done, is possible to be done. There have been such holy and excellent persons in the world, and therefore it is possible for men to be such.
Let us not, then, be slothful, but “followers of them, who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Since we are compassed about with such a “cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily besets us, and let us run with patience the race which is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, and despised the shame, and is now set down at the right hand of God.”435
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