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THE SIN AND DANGER OF ADDING TO THE DOCTRINE OF THE GOSPEL.
But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you, than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you, than that ye have received, let him be accursed.—Gal. i. 8, 9.
BEFORE I come to handle the words, for the better understanding of them, I shall give a brief account of the occasion of them, which was this:—some false apostles had made a great disturbance in the churches planted by the apostles of Christ, by teaching that it was necessary for Christians, not only to embrace and entertain the doctrines and precepts of the Christian religion, but likewise to he circumcised, and keep the law of Moses. Of this disturbance, which was raised in the Christian church, yon have the history at large, Acts xv. and as in several other churches, so particularly in that of Galatia, these false apostles and seducers had perverted many, as appears by this Epistle; in the 2beginning whereof St. Paul complains, that those who were seduced into this error, of the necessity of circumcision, and keeping the law of Moses, had, by this new article of faith, which they had added to the Christian religion, quite altered the frame of it, and made the gospel another thing from that which our Saviour delivered, and commanded his apostles to teach all nations.
For he tells us (ver. 6. of this chapter), that he “marvelled, that they were so soon removed from him that called them by (or through) the grace of Christ, unto another gospel,” that is so different from that which they had been instructed in by those who first preached the gospel unto them: for the making of any thing necessary to salvation, which our Saviour in his gospel had not made so, he calls another gospel. “I marvel, that ye are so soon removed from him that called you by the grace of Christ, unto another gospel; which is not another,” ὃ οὐκ ἔστιν ἄλλο, which is no other thing, or by which I mean nothing else, “but that there are some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ;” as if he had said, When I say that ye are removed to another gospel, I do not mean that ye have renounced Christianity, and are gone over to another religion; but that ye are seduced by those who have a mind to pervert the gospel of Christ, by adding something to it, as a necessary and essential part of it, which Christ hath not made so: this the apostle calls a perverting or overthrowing of the gospel; because, by thus altering the terms and conditions of it, they made it quite another thing from what our Saviour delivered it.
And then at the eighth and ninth verses he denounceth a terrible anathema against those, whoever 3they should be, yea, though it were an apostle, or an angel from heaven, who by thus “perverting the gospel of Christ” (that is, by making any thing necessary to be believed or practised, which our Saviour in his gospel hath not made so), should in effect “preach another gospel;” “but though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you, than that which we have preached unto you, let him be anathema,” an accursed thing. And then, to express his confidence and vehemency in this matter, and to shew that he did not speak this rashly and in a heat, but upon due consideration, he repeats it again in the next verse, “As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you, than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”
From the words thus explained by the consideration of the context, and of the main scope and design of this Epistle, these following observations do naturally arise:
First, That the addition of any thing to the Christian religion, as necessary to be believed and practised in order to salvation, is a perverting the gospel of Christ, and preaching another gospel.
Secondly, That no pretence of infallibility is sufficient to authorize and warrant the addition of any thing to the Christian doctrine, as necessary to be believed and practised in order to salvation.
Thirdly, That Christians may judge and discern when such additions are made.
Fourthly, and consequently, That since the declaration of the gospel, and the confirmation of it, there is no authority in the Christian church to impose upon Christians any thing as of necessity to salvation, which the gospel hath not made so.4
Fifthly, That there is no visible judge (how infallible soever he may pretend to be) to whose definitions and declarations in matters of faith and practice, necessary to salvation, we are bound to submit, without examination, whether these things be agreeable to the gospel of Christ, or not.
Sixthly, and lastly, Whosoever teacheth any thing as of necessity to salvation, to be believed or practised, besides what the gospel of Christ hath made necessary, doth fall under the anathema here in the text, because, in so doing, he perverteth the gospel of Christ, and preacheth another gospel. Now the apostle expressly declares, that “though we (that is, he himself, or any of the apostles), or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you, than what we have preached unto you, let him be accursed; as we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you, than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”
I. That the addition of any thing to the Christian religion, as necessary to be believed or practised in order to salvation, is a perverting of the gospel of Christ, and preaching another gospel.
This is evident from the instances here given in this Epistle; for the apostle chargeth the false apostles with perverting the gospel of Christ, and preaching another gospel, upon no other account, but because they added to the Christian religion, and made circumcision, and the keeping of the law of Moses, an essential part of the Christian religion, and imposed upon Christians the practice of these things, and the belief of the necessity of them, as a condition of eternal salvation.
That this was the doctrine of those false teachers, we find expressly: (Acts xv. 1.) “And certain 5men which came down from Judea, taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved;” and (ver. 24.) in the letter written by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem, to the churches abroad, there is this account given of it; “Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us, have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying ye must be circumcised, and keep the law, to whom we gave no such commandment.” Where you see that this doctrine is declared to be of pernicious consequence, tending to subvert the souls of men, and likewise to be an addition to the doctrine of the gospel which was delivered by the apostles, who here with one consent declare, that they had given “no such commandment;” that is, had delivered no such doctrine as this, nor put any such yoke upon the necks of Christians; but on the contrary had declared, that the death of Christ having put an end to the Jewish dispensation, there was now no obligation upon Christians to observe the law of Moses.
And from the reason of the thing it is very plain, that the addition of any thing to the Christian religion, as necessary to be believed or practised in order to salvation, which the gospel hath not made so, is preaching another gospel; because it makes an essential change in the terms and conditions of the gospel-covenant, which declares salvation unto men upon such and such terms, and no other. Now to add any other terms to these, as of equal necessity with them, is to alter the condition of the covenant of the gospel, and the terms of the Christian religion, and consequently to preach another gospel, by declaring other terms of salvation, than Christ in his 6gospel hath declared, which is to pervert the gospel of Christ.
II. No pretence of infallibility is sufficient to authorize and warrant the addition of any thing to the Christian doctrine, as necessary to be believed or practised, in order to salvation. After the delivery of the gospel by the Son of God, and the publication of it to the world by his apostles, who were commissioned and inspired by him to that purpose, and the confirmation of all, by the greatest and most unquestionable miracles that ever were, no person whatever that brought any other doctrine, and declared salvation to men on any other terms than those which are declared in the gospel, was to be credited, what pretence soever he should make to a Divine commission or an infallible assistance. The apostle makes a supposition as high as can be: “Though we (says he) or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you, than that which we have preached unto you, let him be an anathema.” If the apostles themselves, who were divinely commissioned, and infallibly assisted in the preaching of the gospel, should afterwards make any addition to it, or declare any other terms of salvation, than those which are declared in the gospel which they had already published to the world, they ought not to be regarded.
And the reason is plain; because, what claim soever any person may make to infallibility, and what demonstration soever he may give of it, we cannot possibly believe him, if he contradict himself, and deliver doctrines which do plainly clash with one another: for if he spake true at first, I can not believe him, declaring the contrary afterwards: and if he did not speak true at first, I cannot believe 7him at all; because he can give no greater proof of his Divine commission, and infallible assistance and inspiration, than he did at first.
And the reason is the same, if an angel from heaven should come and preach a contrary doctrine to that of the gospel, he were not to be believed neither; because he could bring no better credentials of his Divine commission and authority, than those had who published the gospel; and, consequently, he ought not to be credited in any thing contrary to what they had published before. For though a man were never so much disposed to receive a revelation from God, and to submit his faith to it, yet it is not possible for any man to believe God against God himself; that is, to believe two revelations, plainly contradictory to one another, to be from God; and the reason of this is very obvious, because every man doth first, and more firmly, believe this proposition or principle, that contradictions cannot be true, than any revelation whatsoever; for if contradictions may be true, then no revelation from God can signify any thing, because the contrary may be equally true, and so truth and falsehood be all one.
The apostle indeed only makes a supposition, when he says, “though we or an angel from heaven preach any other doctrine unto you;” but by this supposition he plainly bars any man, or company of men, from adding to the Christian religion any article of faith, or point of practice, as of necessity to salvation, which the gospel hath not made so: I say, any man, or company of men, whatever authority or infallibility they may lay claim to; because they cannot pretend to a clearer commission, and greater evidence of infallible assistance, than an 8apostle, or an angel from heaven, and yet the text tells us, that would not be a sufficient warrant to preach another gospel; it might, indeed, bring in question that which they had preached before, but could not give credit and authority to any thing plainly contrary to it, and inconsistent with it.
III. Christians may judge and discern when another gospel is preached, when new articles of faith, or points of practice not enjoined by the gospel, are imposed upon Christians. This the apostle supposeth every particular church, and, for aught I know, every particular Christian, that is duly instructed in the Christian religion, to be a competent judge of, and to be sufficiently able to discern when another gospel is preached, and new terms and conditions, not declared in the gospel, are added to the Christian religion; for if they be not able to judge of this, the apostle does in vain caution them against the seduction of those who perverted the doctrine of Christ, and endeavoured to remove them from him that had called them by the grace of Christ, unto another gospel.
It may perhaps be said, that there was no need that they should be able to discern and judge of the doctrines of those false teachers; it was sufficient for them to believe the apostle concerning the doctrines of those seducers, when he declared to them the falsehood and pernicious consequence of them. But the apostle speaks to them upon another supposition, which does necessarily imply, that they were able to discern and judge what doctrines were agreeable to the gospel, and what not; for he puts the case, that if he himself, or any of the apostles, or an angel from heaven, should preach to them another doctrine, contrary to that of the gospel, they 9ought to reject it with detestation; but this doth necessarily suppose them able to judge, when such doctrines were preached, and consequently, that all things necessarily to be believed and practised by all Christians, are clearly and plainly declared in the gospel; all the doctrines whereof are now contained in the Holy Scriptures, in which all things necessary to faith and a good life are so plainly delivered, that any sober and inquisitive person may learn them from thence: and the meanest capacity, by the help and direction of their guides and teachers, may be instructed in them.
And this is not only the principle of protestants, but the express and constant doctrine of the ancient fathers of the church, whatever the church of Rome, for the maintaining of her usurped authority over the consciences of men, pretends to the contrary. And if this were not so, that men are able to discern and judge which are the doctrines of the gospel and what is contrary to them, the doctrine of the gospel was in vain preached, and the Holy Scriptures containing that doctrine were written to no purpose.
Some things in Scripture are granted to be obscure and difficult, on purpose to exercise the study and inquiries of those who have leisure and capacity for it; but all things necessary are sufficiently plain; otherwise it would be impossible to judge when another gospel is preached, which the apostle here supposeth the Galatians capable of doing. For if the revelation of the gospel be not sufficiently plain, in all things necessary to be believed and practised, then Christians have no rule whereby to judge what doctrines are agreeable to the gospel, and what not, for an obscure rule is of no use; that is, in truth, is no rule to those to whom it is obscure.10
I proceed to the fourth observation, which is plainly consequent from those laid down before; namely, that since the declaration of the gospel, and the confirmation given to it, there is no authority in the Christian church to impose upon Christians any thing, as of necessity to salvation, which the gospel hath not made so.
The commission given by our Lord and Saviour to his apostles, was to preach the gospel to all nations (or, as St. Matthew expresses it), to go and teach all nations to observe all things whatsoever he had commanded them; and this is that which we call the gospel, viz. that doctrine which Christ commanded to preach and publish to the world; and, if the apostles themselves had exceeded their commission, and added any other points of faith or practice to those which our Saviour gave them in charge to teach and publish to the world, they had, in so doing, been guilty of that which St. Paul here in the text chargeth the false apostles with, viz. of preaching another gospel. And if the apostles had no authority to add any thing to the gospel, much less can any others pretend to it, since they have neither so immediate a commission, nor such a miraculous power to give testimony to them, that “they are teachers come from God.”
Now this doctrine of the gospel, which the apostles preached to the world, is that which Christians are so often, and so earnestly by the apostles in all their epistles, exhorted to continue in, and not to suffer themselves to be shaken in mind by every wind of new doctrine; because that which the apostles had delivered to them, was the entire doctrine of the gospel, which was never to receive any addition or alteration. This is that which St. Peter 11calls “the holy commandment which was delivered unto them.” (2 Pet. ii. 21.) “It had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them;” speaking, in all probability, of those who were seduced by the errors of the Gnostics, from the purity of the Christian doctrine delivered to them by the apostles. This, likewise, St. Paul calls “the common faith;” (Titus i. iv.) and St. Jude, (ver 3.) “the common salvation;” that is, the doctrine which contains the common terms of our salvation, and “the faith which was once delivered to the saints;” that is, by the apostles of our Lord, who published the gospel; once delivered, that is, once for all, so as never afterwards to admit of any change or alteration. This faith he exhorts Christians “earnestly to contend for,” against those several sects of seducers, which were crept into the Christian church, and did endeavour, by several arts, to pervert the gospel of Christ, and to deprave the faith delivered by the apostles.
So that the doctrine of the gospel published by the apostles is fixed and unalterable; and there can be no authority in the church to make any change in it, either by taking from it, or adding any thing to it, as necessary to be believed or practised in order to salvation.
5. It follows likewise from the foregoing observations, that there is no visible judge (how much soever he may pretend to infallibility), to whose determination and decision, in matters of faith and practice necessary to salvation, Christians are bound to submit, without examination, whether those things be agreeable to the doctrine of the gospel, or not.12
When our Saviour appeared in the world, though he had authority enough to exact belief from men, yet, because there was a standing revelation of God made to the Jews, he appeals to that revelation, as well as to his own miracles, for the truth of what he said, and offered himself and his doctrine to be tried by the agreeableness of it to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and the predictions therein concerning him. And this was but reasonable; it being impossible for any man to receive two revelations, as from God, without liberty to examine whether they be agreeable to, and consistent with, one another. In like manner the apostles of our Lord and Saviour, though they were guided and assisted by an infallible Spirit, and had an immediate commission from Christ to preach the doctrine of the gospel, did not require from men absolute submission to their doctrines and dictates, without examination of what they delivered, whether it were agree able to that Divine revelation which was contained in the ancient Scriptures.
This was St. Paul’s constant custom and way of teaching among the Jews, who had received the revelation of the Old Testament; he did not dictate to them by virtue of his infallibility, “but reasoned with them out of the Scriptures,” and required their belief no further than what he said should, upon examination, appear agreeable to the Scriptures. So we find, Acts xvii. 2, 3. “And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them (speaking of the Jews), and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures, opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered and risen again from the dead, and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is the Christ.” And (chap. xviii. 28.) “he 13mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, shewing, by the Scriptures, that Jesus was the Christ.” And St. Paul was so far from reproving them for examining his doctrine by the Scriptures, that he commended it, as an argument of a noble and generous mind in the Bereans, that they did not give full assent to his doctrine, till, upon due search and examination, they were satisfied that what he had said was agreeable to the Scriptures, (chap. xvii. 11, 12.) where, speaking of the Bereans, it is said, “That these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word, with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so; therefore many of them believed;” that is, because upon search they found what he delivered to be agreeable to the Scriptures; and it was not a slight, but diligent and deliberate search, they took time to examine things thoroughly; for it is said, “they searched the Scriptures daily.” And here, in the text, St. Paul puts the case, that if he, or any other of the apostles, concerning whose Divine commission and assistance they were so fully satisfied, should deliver any thing to them contrary to the gospel, which they had formerly preached, they were to reject it with the greatest abhorrence and detestation; and this necessarily supposeth a liberty to examine what was delivered, even by those whom they believed to be infallibly assisted, and a capacity to discern and judge whether what they said was agreeable to the gospel at first delivered to them or not.
And, after this, shall any person or church (what claim soever they may make to infallibility), assume to themselves an authority to dictate in matters of faith, and that their dictates ought to be received 14with an absolute submission, and without liberty to examine whether they be agreeable to “the faith once delivered to the saints;” and though they add new articles to the Christian faith, and of which there is not the least footstep or intimation in any of the ancient creeds of the Christian church, and do plainly impose upon Christians the practice and belief of several things as necessary to salvation, which the gospel never declared to be so, yet no body shall judge of this, but every man ought, with out more ado, to believe blindfold, and to resign up his understanding and judgment to the directions of this infallible judge?
But surely this is not the reasonable obedience of faith, but the forced submission of slaves to the tyranny of their masters. Christians are expressly forbid to call any man father or master upon earth, because we have one Father and Master in heaven. Now to make an absolute submission of our understandings to any upon earth, so as, without examination, to receive their dictates in matters of faith, is surely, if any thing can be so, to call such a person father or master, because a greater submission than this we cannot pay to our Father who is in heaven, even to God himself. I come now to the
Sixth and last observation from the text; that whosoever teacheth any thing, as of necessity to salvation to be believed or practised, besides what the gospel of Christ hath made necessary, does fall under the anathema here in the text; because they that do so, do, according to the mind of St. Paul, pervert the gospel of Christ, and preach another gospel. For the reason why he chargeth the false apostles with preaching another gospel, and those that were seduced by them, as being “removed from 15him that called them by the grace of Christ unto another gospel,” is plainly this—that they had changed the terms of the Christian religion, by adding new articles to it which were not contained in the gospel; that is, by making it necessary to believe it to be so, because they taught so. Now St. Paul expressly declares this to be “preaching another gospel,” because they plainly altered the terms of salvation declared in the gospel, and made that to be necessary to the salvation of men, which the gospel had not made so.
And whatever person or church does the same, does incur the same guilt, and falls under the anathema and censure here in the text; yea, though he were an apostle, or an angel; and I am sure no bishop or church in the world can pretend either to an equal authority or infallibility with an apostle, or an angel from heaven.
Let us then hear what St. Paid declares in this case, and consider seriously with what earnestness and vehemency he declares it: “Though we (says he) or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you, than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you, than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” St. Paul, you see, is very earnest in this matter, and very peremptory; and therefore I cannot but think this declaration of his to be more considerable, and every way more worthy of our regard and dread, than all the anathemas of the council of Trent, which, in direct affront and contempt of this anathema of St. Paul, hath presumed to add so many articles to the Christian religion, upon the counterfeit warrant of tradition, for which there is 16no ground or warrant from the Scripture, or from any ancient creed of the Christian church.
And, for the truth of this, I appeal to the creed of Pope Pius IV. compiled out of the definitions of the council of Trent; by which council, the pope only is authorized to interpret the true sense and meaning of the canons and decrees of that council; and, consequently, his interpretations must be of equal force and authority with that of the council itself. So that whatsoever he hath put into his new creed for an article of faith, ought to be received with the same pious affection and veneration, as if the creed had been compiled by the council itself; because the pope, it seems, and nobody else, understands the true meaning of that council, at least is thought fit to declare it. And therefore one may justly wonder at the presumption of those, who, after this declaration of the council, have taken upon them to expound the catholic faith, and to represent that religion to us as it is defined in that council; because if there be any controversy about the meaning of its definitions (as there have been a great many, even betwixt those who were present at the council when those definitions were made), none but the pope himself can certainly tell the meaning of them.
Now in this creed of Pope Pius, there are added, to the ancient creed of the Christian church, twelve or thirteen new articles; as concerning purgatory, transubstantiation, the worship of images, the invocation of saints, the communion in one kind, and that the church of Rome is the mother and mistress of all churches, and that there is no salvation to be had out of it, and several other points; all which have either no foundation in Scripture, or are plainly contrary to it, and none of them ever esteemed 17as articles of faith in the ancient Christian church for the first live hundred years; and yet they are now obtruded upon Christians, as of equal necessity to salvation, with the twelve articles of the Apostles Creed; and this under a pretence of infallibility, which St. Paul tells us would not have justified an apostle, or an angel from heaven, in making such additions to the Christian religion, and the imposing any thing as necessary to salvation, which is not so declared by the gospel of Christ.
And all that they have to say for this, is, that we do not pretend to be infallible: but there is a necessity of an infallible judge to decide these controversies, and to him they are to be referred. Which is just as if, in a plain matter of right, a contentious and confident man should desire a reference, and contrive the matter so as to have it referred to himself, upon a sleeveless pretence, without any proof or evidence, that he is the only person in the world that hath authority and infallible skill to decide. all such differences. Thus the church of Rome would deal with us in things which are as plain as the noon-day; as, whether God hath forbidden the worship of images in the second commandment? whether our Saviour did institute the sacrament in both kinds? whether the people ought not to read the Scriptures, and to have the public service of God in a known tongue? these, and the like, they would have us refer to an infallible judge; and when we ask who he is, they tell us that their church, which hath imposed these things upon Christians, and made these additions to the gospel of Christ, is that infallible judge. But if she were as infallible, as she pretends to be, even as an apostle, or an angel from heaven, St. Paul hath denounced an 18anathema against her for preaching another gospel, and making those things necessary to the salvation of men which are not contained in the gospel of Christ.
The inference from all this discourse, in short, is this; that we should “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints, “and not suffer ourselves, by the confident pretences of seducers, to be removed from him that hath called us through the grace of Christ unto another gospel. The necessary doctrines of the Christian religion, and the common terms of salvation, are so plain, that if any man be ignorant of them it is his own fault; and if any go about to impose upon us any thing as of necessity to be believed and practised in order to salvation, which is not declared to be so in the Holy Scriptures, which contain the true doctrine of the gospel, what authority soever they pretend for it, yea, though they assume to themselves to be infallible; the apostle hath plainly told us what we are to think of them; for he hath put the case as high as is possible here in the text, when he says, “though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you, than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.”
I will conclude all with that counsel which the Spirit of God gives to the churches of Asia: (Rev. iii. 3.) “Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast;” and, (chap. ii. 10.) “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: be thou faithful unto the death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”19
HONESTY THE BEST PRESERVATIVE AGAINST DANGEROUS MISTAKES IN RELIGION.
If any man do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.—John vii. 17.
SINCE there are so many different opinions and apprehensions in the world about matters of religion, and every sect and party does with so much confidence pretend, that they, and they only, are in the truth; the great difficulty and question is, by what means men may be secured from dangerous errors and mistakes in religion. For this end, some have thought it necessary that there should be an infallible church, in the communion whereof every man may be secured from the dangers of a wrong belief. But it seems God hath not thought this necessary; if he had, he would have revealed this very thing more plainly than any particular point of faith what soever. He would have told us expressly, and in the plainest terms, that he had appointed an infallible guide and judge in matters of faith, and would likewise have told us as plainly who he was, and where we might find him, and have recourse to him upon all occasions; because the sincerity of our faith depending upon him, we could not be safe from mistake in particular points, without so plain and clear a revelation of this infallible judge, that there could be no mistake about him; nor could there be an end of any other controversies in religion, 20unless this infallible judge (both that there is one, and who he is) were out of controversy. But neither of these are so: it is not plain, from Scripture, that there is an infallible judge and guide in matters of faith; much less is it plain who he is: and therefore we may certainly conclude, that God hath not thought it necessary that there should be an infallible guide and judge in matters of faith; because he hath revealed no such thing to us: and that bishop, and that church, who only have arrogated infallibility to themselves, have given the greatest evidence in the world to the contrary; and have been detected and stand convinced in the greatest errors: and it is in vain for any man, or company of men, to pretend to infallibility, so long as the evidence that they are deceived is much greater and clearer than any proof they can produce for their infallibility.
If then God hath not provided an infallible guide and judge in matters of faith, there is some other way whereby men may be secured against dangerous and damnable errors in religion, and whereby they may discern truth from imposture, and what doctrines are from God, and what not; and this our Saviour declares to us here in the text, namely, that an honest and sincere mind, and a hearty desire to do the will of God, is the best preservative against fatal errors and mistakes in matters of religion; ἐάν τις θέλῃ ποιεῖν. “If any man desire to do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.”
There are two dangerous mistakes in religion: to reject any thing which really comes from God; and to receive and entertain any thing which comes front God, which doth not really come from him.21
First, To reject any thing which really comes from God. This mistake the Jews frequently fell into, when they rejected the true prophets which God from time to time sent to them, slighting their message, and persecuting their persons: but they miscarried most fatally and remarkably in their contempt of the true Messias, that great prophet whom they had so long expected, and whom God sent, at last, to bring salvation to them; but when he came, they knew him not, nor would receive him, but used him with all the despite and contempt imaginable, not as a teacher come from God, but as a deceiver and imposter.
Now the danger of rejecting any thing that comes from God consists in this, that it cannot be done without the highest affront to the Divine Majesty. To reject a Divine message or revelation is to op pose God, and fight against him. So our Saviour tells the Jews, that in despising him, they despised him that sent him.
Secondly, There is also another dangerous mistake, on the other hand, in entertaining any thing as a revelation from God, which is not really from him. And this likewise the Jews were frequently guilty of, in receiving the false prophets, which spake in the name of the Lord, when he had not sent them. And this is commonly the temper of those who reject the truth, greedily to swallow error and delusion. So our Saviour tells us of the Jews: (John v. 43.) “I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not; if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive.” This prediction of our Saviour’s concerning the Jews was fully accomplished; for, after they had rejected him, who gave such abundant evidence that he was the true Messias and a teacher 22sent from God, they received others who really came in their own names, and ran after those who pretended to be the Messias, and were, in great numbers, destroyed with them. And this is very just with God, that those who receive not the truth in the love of it, should be given up to strong delusions, to believe lies.
Now these being the two great dangerous mistakes in religion which men are liable to, my work at this time shall be to shew, how a sincere desire and endeavour to do the will of God, is a security to men against both those dangers; and it will appear to be so, upon these two accounts:
I. Because he, who sincerely desires and endeavours to do the will of God, is hereby better qualified and disposed to make a right judgment of spiritual and Divine things.
II. Because God’s providence is more especially concerned to secure such persons from dangerous errors and mistakes in things which concern their eternal salvation. These shall be the two heads of my following discourse.
First, Because he, who sincerely desires and endeavours to do the will of God, is hereby better qualified and disposed to make aright judgment of spiritual and Divine things, and that for these two reasons:
1. Because such a person has a truer notion of God and Divine things.
2. Because he is more impartial in his search and inquiry after truth.
1. Because such a person hath a truer notion of God and Divine things.—No man is so likely to have clear and true apprehensions of God, as a good man, because he hath transcribed the Divine perfections 23in his own mind, and is himself in some measure and decree what God is. And for this reason it is, that the Scripture so often lays the foundation of all Divine knowledge in the practice of religion: (Job xxviii. 28.) “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil, is understanding:” and, (Psal. cxi. 10.) “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” that is, the principle and foundation of it; “a good understanding have all they that do his commandments:” whereas the vice and lusts of men darken their reason and distort their understandings, and fill the mind with gross and sensual apprehensions of things, and thereby render men unfit to discern those truths which are of a spiritual nature and tendency, and altogether indisposed to receive them. For though the vices of men be properly seated in their wills, and do not possess their understandings, yet they have a bad influence upon them; as fumes and vapours from the stomach are wont to affect the head.
Nothing, indeed, is more natural to the mind and understanding of men, than the knowledge of God; but we may abuse our faculties, and render them unfit for the discerning even of their proper objects.
When men, by wicked practices, have rendered themselves unlike to God, they will not love to retain the knowledge of him in their minds, but will become vain in their imaginations concerning him. What clouds and mists are to the bodily eye, that the lusts and corruptions of men are to the understanding: they hinder it from a clear perception of heavenly things; the pure in heart, they are best qualified for the sight of God.
Now, according as a man’s notions of God are, such will be his apprehensions of religion. All religion 24is cither natural, or revealed: natural religion consists in the belief of a God, and in right conceptions and apprehensions concerning him, and in a due reverence and observance of him, and in a ready and cheerful obedience to those laws which he hath imprinted upon our nature; and the sum of our obedience consists in our conformity to God, and an endeavour to be like him. For, supposing God to have made no external revelation of his mind to us, we have no other way to know his will, but by, considering his nature and our own; and, if so, then he that resembles God most is like to understand him best, because he finds those perfections in some measure in himself, which he contemplates in the Divine nature; and nothing gives a man so sure a notion of things as practice and experience. Every good man is, in some degree, partaker of a Divine nature, and feels that in himself which he conceives to be in God: so that this man does experience what others do but talk of; he sees the image of God in himself, and is able to discourse of him from an in ward sense and feeling of his excellency and perfections.
And as for revealed religion, the only design of that is, to revive and improve the natural notions which we have of God, and all our reasonings about Divine revelation are necessarily gathered by our natural notions of religion: and therefore, he that sincerely endeavours to do the will of God, is not apt to be imposed upon by the vain and confident pretences of Divine revelation; but if any doctrine be proposed to him, which pretends to come from God, he measures it by those steady and sure notions which he hath of the Divine nature and perfections; and by those he will easily discern whether 25it be worthy of God or not, and likely to proceed from him: he will consider the nature and tendency of it, and whether it be (as the apostle expresses it) “a doctrine according to godliness;” such as is agree able to the Divine nature and perfections, and tends to make us like to God: if it be not, though an angel from heaven should bring it, he will not receive it: if it be, he will not reject it upon every idle pretence and frivolous exception that prejudiced and ill-minded men may make against it; but, after he is satisfied of the reasonableness and purity of the doctrine, he will accept of such evidence and confirmation of it, as is fit for God to give to his own revelations; and if the person that brings it hath an attestation of miracles (which is necessary in case it be a new doctrine), and if he carry on no earthly interest and design by it, but does by his life and actions make it evident that he aims at the glory of God and the good of men; in this case a good man, whose mind is free from passion and prejudice, will easily assent that this man’s doctrine is of God, and that he does not speak of himself. This was the evidence which our Saviour offered to the Jews in vindication of himself and his doctrine: (John vii. 18.) “He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him;” as if he had said, hereby may you distinguish one that really comes from God from an impostor—if any man seek his own glory, you may conclude that God hath not sent him, but whatever he pretends that he speaks of himself; but he who, by his life, and the course of his actions, demonstrates that he seeks the honour of God, and not any interest and advantage of his own, the same is true, and there is 26no unrighteousness in him; that is, no falsehood or design to deceive (for so the word ἀδικία does some times signify), you may conclude such an one to be no deceiver or impostor. And if any man sincerely desires and endeavours to do the will of God, he may, by such marks and characters as these, judge of any doctrine that pretends to be from God, whether it be so or not. This is the first reason; because he that sincerely desires and endeavours to do the will of God, hath the truest notion of God and of Divine things.
2. Such a person is more impartial in his search and inquiry after truth, and therefore more likely to find it, and to discern it from error. He that hath an honest mind, and sincerely endeavours to do the will of God, is not apt to be swayed and biassed by any interest or lust: for his great interest is to please God, and he makes all his other interests and concernments to stoop and yield to that. But if a man be governed by any earthly interest or design, he will measure all things by that; and is not at liberty to entertain any thing that crosses it, and to judge equally of any doctrine that is opposite to his interest. This our Saviour gives for a reason, why the great rabbies and teachers among the Jews did not believe and embrace his doctrine: (John v. 44.) “How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another?” If men have any other design in religion than to please God, and to advance his honour and glory in the world, no wonder if they be apt to reject the most Divine truths; because these are calculated not to approve us to men, but to God.
And as vain-glory, and a desire of the applause of men, so likewise doth every other lust make a man partial in his judgment of things, and clap a 27false bias upon his understanding, which carries it off from truth, and makes it to lean towards that side of the question which is most favourable to the interest of his lusts. A vicious man is not willing to entertain those truths which would cross and check him in his course: he hath made the truth his enemy, and therefore he thinks himself concerned to oppose it, and rise up against it: the light of it offends him, and therefore he shuts his eyes that he may not see it. Those holy and pure doctrines, which are from God, reprove the lusts of men, and discover the deformity of them; and therefore no wonder if bad men be so hard to be reconciled to them. This account our Saviour likewise gives of the fierce enmity of the Jews to him, and his doctrine: (John iii. 19, 20.) “Light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil; for every one that hath done evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.”
The vicious inclinations of men are a dead weight upon their understandings, and able to draw down the scales against the clearest truths: for though it be absolutely in no man’s power to believe, or to disbelieve what he will, yet men’s lives have many times a great influence upon their understandings, to make assent easy or difficult; and as we are forward to believe what we have a mind to, so are we very backward and slow in yielding our assent to any thing that crosseth our inclinations. Men that allow themselves in ungodliness and worldly lusts, will not easily believe those doctrines which charge men so strictly with all manner of holiness and purity.
This is the way which the devil hath always used 28to “blind the eyes of men, that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ might not shine into them.” And certainly the most effectual way to keep men in infidelity is to debauch them in their lives; therefore the apostle gives this as the reason of the infidelity of men in the last times: (2 Thess. ii. 12.) “They believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” When men once abandon themselves to lewd and vicious practices, infidelity be comes their interest, because they have no other way to defend and excuse a wicked life, but by denying the truth which opposeth it and finds fault with it.
That man only stands fair for the entertainment of truth, who is under the dominion of no vice or lust; because he hath nothing to corrupt or bribe him, to seduce him, or draw him aside in his inquiry after truth; he hath no interest but to find the truth, and follow it; he is inquiring after the way to heaven and eternal happiness, and he hath the indifferency of a traveller which is not inclined to go this way rather than another; for his concernment is to find out the right way, and to walk in it: such an indifferency of mind hath every good man, who sincerely desires to do the will of God; he stands ready to receive truth, when sufficient evidence is offered to convince him of it; because he hath no manner of concernment that the contrary proposition should be true. As in mathematics, a man is ready to give his assent to any proposition that is sufficiently demonstrated to him, because he hath no inclination or affection to one side of the question more than to the other; all his design and concernment is to find out the truth on which side soever it lies; and he is like to find it, because he is so indifferent and impartial. But if a man be biassed by any lust, and 29addicted to any vicious practice, he is then an interested person, and concerned to be partial in his judgment of things, and is under a great temptation to infidelity when the truths of God are proposed to him; because, whatever the evidence for them he, he cannot but be unwilling to own the truth of that doctrine which is so contrary to his inclination and interest. If the affections and interests of men were as deeply concerned, and as sensibly touched, in the truth of mathematical propositions, as they are in the principles of morality and religion, we should find, that, when a proposition stood in their way and lay cross to their interest, though it were never so clearly demonstrated, yet they would raise a dust about it, and make a thousand cavils, and fence even against the evidence of a demonstration; they would palliate their error with all the skill and art they could; and, though the absurdity of it was never so great and palpable, yet they would hold it fast against all sense and reason, and face down mankind in the obstinate defence of it; for we have no reason to doubt, but that they, who in matters of religion will believe directly contrary to what they see, would, if they had the same interests and passions to sway them in the case, believe contrary to the clearest mathematical demonstration; for where there is an obstinate resolution not to be convinced, all the reason and evidence in the world signifies nothing.
Whereas he that is biassed by no passion or interest, but hath an honest mind, and is sincerely desirous to do the will of God, so far as he knows it, is likely to judge very impartially concerning any doctrines that are proposed to him: for, if there be not good evidence that they are from God, he hath 30no reason to deceive himself in giving credit to them; and if there be good evidence that they are Divine, he hath no interest or inclination to reject them; for it being his great design to do the will of God, he is glad of all opportunities to come to the knowledge of it that he may do it.
Thus you see how a sincere desire and endeavour to obey the will of God does secure men against fatal errors and mistakes in matters of religion; because such persons are hereby better disposed to make a right judgment of Divine things, both because they have truer and surer notions of God and religion, and are more impartial in their search and inquiry after truth. This is the first account.
II. Another reason why they, who sincerely desire to do the will of God, have a great security in discerning truth from error, is, because the providence of God is more especially concerned to preserve such persons from dangerous errors and mistakes in things which concern their eternal salvation. When men are of a teachable temper, God loves to reveal himself and his truth to them; and such is an humble and obedient frame of mind: (Psal. xxv. 9.) “The meek will he guide in judgment; the meek will he teach his way.” The proper disposition of a scholar is to be willing to learn; and that which in religion we are to learn is, “what is the good and acceptable will of God,” that we may do it, for practice is the end of knowledge. “If you know these things (says our blessed Lord), happy are ye if ye do them.” It is necessary to know the will of God; but we are happy only in the doing of it: and if any man be desirous to do the will of God, his goodness is such, that he will take effectual care to secure such an one against dangerous and fatal 31errors. he that hath an honest mind, and would do the will of God if he knew it, God will not suffer him to remain ignorant of it, or to be mistaken about it, in any necessary points of faith and practice.
St. Paul is a wonderful instance of the goodness of God in this kind. He was undoubtedly a man of a very honest mind; he had entertained the Jewish religion, as revealed by God, and been bred in it; and out of a blind reverence and belief of his teachers, who rejected Christ and his doctrine, he likewise opposed and persecuted them with a mighty zeal and an honest intention, being verily persuaded (as he himself tells us), that he ought to do what he did against the name of Jesus of Nazareth; he was under a great prejudice upon account of his education, and, according to the heat of his natural temper, transported with great passion: but because he did what he did ignorantly and in unbelief, God was pleased to shew mercy to him, and, in a miraculous manner, to convince him of the truth of that religion which he persecuted. He was sincerely desirous to do the will of God, and therefore God would rather work a miracle for his conversion, than suffer him to go on in so fatal a mistake concerning the Christian religion.
And as the providence of God doth concern itself to secure good men from dangerous errors and mistakes in matters of religion; so by a just judgment he gives up those, who allow themselves in vicious practices, to error and infidelity. And this is the meaning of that passage of the prophet, (Isa. vi. 10.) so often cited by our Saviour, and applied to the Jews, of “making the heart of that people fat, and their ears heavy, and closing their ryes, lest they should understand and be converted.” So again, 32(Isa. lxvi. 3, 4.) God threatens the people of Israel, that, because they were wicked and abominable in their lives, he would abandon them, and give them over to a spirit of delusion; “they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations; I also will choose their delusions.” God is said to choose those things for us, which he permits us to fall into: so (Rom. i. 28.) God is said to give over the abominable heathen to a reprobate mind. “As they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over, εἰς ἀδόκιμον νοῦν, to an injudicious and undiscerning mind.” When men abandon themselves to wickedness and impiety, God withdraws his grace from them; and, by his secret and just judgment, they are deprived of the faculty of discerning between truth and error, between good and evil. 2 Thess. ii. 10, 11, 12, it is said, that “the man of sin should come with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish, because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved:” and that “for this cause God would send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie; that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” And it is just with God, that men of vicious inclinations and practices should be exposed to the cheat of the grossest and vilest impostors. God’s providence is concerned for men of honest minds, and sincere intentions: but if men take pleasure in unrighteousness, God takes no further care of them, but delivers them up to their own hearts lusts, to be seduced into all those errors into which their own vain imaginations, and their foolish hearts, are apt to lead them.
Thus have I endeavoured, as briefly as I could, 33to shew, that an honest mind, that sincerely desires and endeavours to do the will of God, is the best security against fatal errors and mistakes in matters of religion; both because it disposeth a man to make a true judgment of Divine things, and because the providence of God is more especially concerned for the security of such persons.
There remains an objection to be answered, to which this discourse may seem liable; but this, together with the inferences which may be made from this discourse, I shall refer to another opportunity.34
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