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HONESTY THE BEST PRESERVATIVE AGAINST DANGEROUS MISTAKES IN RELIGION.
If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.—John vii. 17.
I MADE entrance into these words the last day; in which our Saviour declares to us, that an honest and sincere mind, and a hearty desire and endeavour to do the will of God, is the best security and preservative against dangerous 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.”
Now there are (I told you) two great mistakes in religion: to reject any thing which really is from God; and to receive and entertain any thing as from God, which is not really from him. And therefore, I proposed, from this text, to shew how a sincere desire and endeavour to do the will of God, is a security to men against both these dangers; namely, upon these two accounts.
First, 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; and that for these two reasons.
I. Because such a person hath a truer notion of God and Divine things. He that resembleth God most is like to understand him best, because he 35finds 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.
II. Because 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. That man only stands fair for the entertainment of truth, who is under the power and dominion of no vice or lust, because he hath nothing to corrupt or bribe him, to seduce him and draw him aside in his inquiry after truth: he hath no manner of concernment that the contrary proposition should be true, having the indifferency of a traveller, and no other interest but to find out the right way to heaven, and to walk in it. But if a man be biassed by any lust, and addicted to any vicious practice, he is then an interested person, and concerned to make a partial 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 be, he cannot but be unwilling to own the truth of those doctrines which are so contrary to his inclination and interest.
Secondly, Another reason why they, who sincerely desire to do the will of God, have a greater 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, of a humble and obedient frame of mind, God loves to reveal himself and his truth to them; (Psal. xxv. 9.) “The meek will he guide in judgment, and the meek will he teach his way.” The proper disposition 36of 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 ye know these things (saith our Saviour) happy are ye if ye do them.” It is necessary to know the will of God, but we are only happy 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 errors. 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 point of faith or practice. Thus far I have gone.
I shall now proceed to remove an objection, to which this discourse may seem liable, and then draw some inferences from the whole.
After all that hath been said, some, perhaps, may ask, Is every good man secure from all error and mistake in matters of religion? This is a mighty privilege indeed: but do not we find the contrary in experience? that an honest heart and a weak head do often meet together?
For answer to this, I shall lay down these following propositions:
First, That if there were any necessity that a good man should be secured from all manner of error and mistake in religion, this probity of mind, and sincere desire to do the will of God, is the best way to do it; because such a temper and disposition of mind gives a man the best advantages to discern betwixt truth and error, and God is most likely to reveal his will to such persons. But there is no necessity of this, because a man may be a good man, 37and go to heaven, notwithstanding a great many mistakes in religion about things not necessary. For while we are in this imperfect state, “we know but in part,” and see many things very imperfectly: but when we shall come into a more perfect state, “that which is imperfect shall be done away;” the light of glory shall scatter all those mists and clouds which are now upon our understandings, and hinder us from a clear sight and judgment of things: we shall then see God, and other things, as they are; and be freed from all that ignorance, and those many childish mistakes, which we are liable to here below; and till then, it is not necessary that we should be secured from them. Humility, under a sense of our ignorance, is better for us than infallibility would be.
Secondly, This temper and disposition of mind which I have been speaking of, is a certain security against fatal mistakes in religion, and a final continuance in such errors as would prove damnable; and this is all that this discourse pretends to, or our Saviour hath promised in this text. And considering the goodness of God, nothing is more improbable, than that an honest mind that seeks impartially after truth should miss of it, in things that are fundamentally necessary to salvation. And if we could suppose such a man to fall into such an error, either it would not be fundamental to him, having not been, perhaps, proposed to him with sufficient evidence, and would be forgiven him upon a general repentance for all sins and errors known or unknown, or he would not be permitted to continue in it; but the providence of God would find out some way or other to convince him of his error, and to bring him to the acknowledgment of the 38truth, that he might be saved. God would rather speak to him immediately from heaven (as he did to St. Paul), than suffer him to continue in such an error as would infallibly carry him to hell.
Thirdly, There is no such depth of judgment and subtilty of wit required, to discern between gross and damnable errors in religion, and necessary and saving truth, but that an ordinary capacity may be able to do it. There is so plain a line drawn between great truth and gross errors, that it is visible to every capacity; and an ordinary understanding, that is not under a violent prejudice, or blinded by some vice or fault of the will, may easily discern it. Indeed, in matters of lesser moment or concernment, and which have no such considerable and immediate influence upon the practice of a holy life, the difference betwixt truth and error is not always so gross and sensible as to be obvious to every unprejudiced eye. But we have all the reason in the world to believe, that the goodness and justice of God is such, as to make nothing necessary to be believed by any man, which, by the help of due instruction, may not be made sufficiently plain to a common understanding. God hath so tender a care of good men, who sincerely love him and his truth, that we may reasonably presume, that he will not leave them under an unavoidable mistake concerning those matters upon which their eternal salvation does depend. The Judge of all the world will do right; and then we may certainly conclude, that he will not condemn any man for no fault, and make him for ever miserable, for falling into an error, which, with all his care and diligence, he could not possibly either discern or avoid.
Fourthly, God hath made abundant provision for 39our security from fatal and dangerous errors in religion, by these three ways:
I. By an infallible rule, sufficiently plain in all things necessary.
II. By sufficient means of instruction to help us to understand this rule.
III. By an infallible promise of security from dangerous errors and mistakes, if, with an honest mind and due diligence, we apply ourselves to understand this rule, and make use of the means of instruction which God hath provided for that purpose.
I. God hath given us an infallible rule, sufficiently plain in all things necessary. He hath given ns the Holy Scriptures, which were given at first by Divine inspiration; i. e. by men infallibly assisted in the writing of them, and therefore must needs be an infallible rule; and all Scripture divinely inspired, “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” as St. Paul tells us, 2 Tim. iii. 16. speaking there of the books of the Old Testament; and there is the same reason as to the inspired writings of the New.
Now, if the Scriptures be an infallible rule, and “profitable for doctrine and instruction in righteousness;” i. e. to teach us to believe and do; it follows of necessity that they are sufficiently plain in all things necessary to faith and a good life, other wise they could not be useful “for doctrine and instruction in righteousness;” for a rule that is not plain to us in these things, in which it is necessary for us to be directed by it, is of no use to us; that is, in truth, it is no rule. For a rule must have these two properties; it must be perfect, and it must be plain. The Scriptures are a perfect rule, because 40the writers of them, being Divinely inspired, were infallible. And they must likewise be plain; other wise, though they be never so perfect, they can be of no more use to direct our faith and practice, than a sun-dial in a dark room is to tell us the hour of the day; for though it be never so exactly made, unless the sun shine clearly upon it, we had as good be without it. A rule that is not plain to us, what ever it may be in itself, is of no use at all to us, till it be made plain and we understand it.
II. God hath likewise provided sufficient means of instruction to help us to understand this rule. It is not necessary that a rule should be so plain that we should perfectly understand it at first sight; it is sufficient, if it be so plain that those of better capacity and understanding may, with due diligence and application of mind, come to the true knowledge of it, and those of a lower and more ordinary capacity by the help and instruction of a teacher. Euclid’s “Elements” is a book sufficiently plain to teach a man geometry; but yet not so plain that any man at first reading should understand it perfectly; but that, by diligent reading, by a due application, and steady attention of mind, a man of extraordinary sagacity and understanding may come to understand the principles and demonstrations of it; and those of a more ordinary capacity, with the help of a teacher, may come to the knowledge of it. So, when we say that the Scriptures are plain, in all things necessary to faith and a good life, we do not mean that every man, at first hearing or reading of these things in it, shall perfectly understand them; but, by diligent reading and consideration, if he be of good apprehension and capacity, he may come to a sufficient knowledge of them; and if he 41be of a meaner capacity, and he willing to learn, he may, by the help of a teacher, be brought to under hand them without any great pains; and such teachers God hath appointed in his church for this very purpose, and a succession of them to continue to the end of the world.
In a word, when we say the Scriptures are plain to all capacities, in all things necessary, we mean, that any man of ordinary capacity, by his own diligence and care, in conjunction with the helps and advantages which God hath appointed, and in the due use of them, may attain to the knowledge of every thing necessary to his salvation; and that there is no book in the world more plain, and better fitted to teach a man any art or science, than the Bible is, to direct and instruct men in the way to heaven; and it is every man’s fault if he be ignorant of any thing necessary for him to believe, or do, in order to his eternal happiness.
III. Good men are likewise secured from fatal errors in religion, by the infallible promise of God, if so be that, with honest minds and due diligence, they apply themselves to the understanding of this rule, and make use of the means of instruction which God hath provided for that purpose. God hath promised to guide and “teach the humble and meek;” that is, such as are of a submissive and teachable temper, desirous and diligent to be instructed in the truth. (Prov. ii. 2, 3, 4, 5.) “If thou incline thine ear to wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding; if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; if thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures, then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.” 42And here, in the text, our Saviour assures us, that if any man be desirous to do his will, “he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether he spake of himself;” i. e. he shall be able to discern the doctrines which are from God.
This is the provision which God hath made for our security from fatal mistakes in religion; and this is, in all respects, a better security, and more likely to guide and conduct us safely to heaven, than any infallible church; and that for these reasons.
First, Because it is much more certain that God hath made this provision which I have mentioned, than that there is an infallible church appointed and assisted by him to this purpose. That the Scriptures are an infallible and adequate rule, and sufficiently plain in all things necessary, I have already proved; and I add further, that this was the constant judgment of the ancient church, and so declared by the unanimous consent of the fathers of it for many ages; and that all councils, in their determinations of faith, proceeded upon this rule, till the second council of Nice.
I have likewise proved, that God hath provided a succession of pastors and teachers in his church, to instruct us in this rule; and that we have God’s infallible promise for our security from dangerous errors and mistakes, if, with an honest mind and due diligence, we apply ourselves to understand this rule, and make use of the means of instruction which God hath provided for that purpose.
But that there is an infallible church, appointed and assisted by God, to declare and determine matters of faith, and to be an infallible interpreter of Scripture, is not certain; because there is no clear and 43express text of Scripture to that purpose, that any church whatsoever, much less that the church of Rome, hath this power and privilege.
Nay, I add further, that it is impossible, according to the principles of the church of Rome, that this should be proved from Scripture; because, according to their principles, we cannot know either which are the true books of Scripture, or what is the true sense of Scripture, but from the authority and infallible declaration of that church. And if so, then the infallibility of the church must be first known and proved, before we can either know the Scriptures or the sense of them; and yet till we know the Scriptures, and the sense of them, nothing can be proved by them. Now, to pretend to prove the infallibility of their church by Scripture, and at the same time to declare, that which are the true books of Scripture, and what is the true sense of them, can only be proved by the infallible authority of their church, is a plain and shameful circle, out of which there is no way of escape; and, consequently, that God hath appointed an infallible church is impossible, according to their principles, ever to be proved from Scripture, and the thing is capable of no other proof. For that God will infallibly assist any society of men, is not to be known, but by Divine revelation. So that, unless they can prove it by some other revelation than that of Scripture (which they do not pretend to), the thing is not to be proved at all. Yes, they say, by the notes and marks of the true church; but what those marks are must either be known from Scripture, or some other Divine revelation, and then the same difficulty returns: besides that, one of the most essential marks of the true church must be the profession of the true faith; 44and then it must first he known which is the true faith, before we can know which is the true church; and yet they say, that no man can learn the true faith but from the true church; and this runs them unavoidably into another circle as shameful as the other. So that which way soever they go to prove an infallible church, they are shut up in a plain circle, and must either prove the Scriptures by the church, and the church by the Scriptures; or the true church by the true faith, and the true faith by the true church.
Secondly, This provision and security which I have mentioned is more human, better accommodated and suited to the nature of man; because k doth not suppose and need a standing and perpetual miracle, as the other way of an infallible church doth. All inspiration is supernatural and miraculous; and this infallible assistance which the church of Rome claims to herself, must either be such as the apostles had, which was by immediate inspiration, or something equal to it, and alike supernatural: but God does not work miracles without need, or continue them when there is no occasion for them. When God delivered the law to the people of Israel, it was accompanied with miracles, and the prophets, which he sent to them from time to time, had an immediate inspiration; but their supreme judicature, or their general council, which they call the Sanhedrin, was not infallibly assisted in the expounding of the law, when doubts and difficulties arose about it; no, nor in judging of true and false prophets; but they determined this, and all other emergent cases, by the standing revelation and rule of their written law; and that they were not infallibly assisted, is evident from the great errors they 45 fell into, in “making void the commandments of God by their tradition,” and in their rejecting and crucifying the true Messias and the Son of God.
In like manner the apostles and first teachers of the Christian religion were immediately inspired and assisted in the publishing of the Christian doctrine, and for the speedy and more effectual propagating and planting of it in the world, in despite of the violent prejudices that were against it, and the fierce opposition that was made to it. But when this was done, this miraculous and extraordinary assistance ceased, and God left the Christian religion to be preserved and continued by more human and ordinary ways; the doctrines of it being committed to writing, for a standing rule of faith and practice in all ages, and an order of men appointed to instruct people in those doctrines, with a promise to secure both teachers and people, that sincerely desire to know and do the will of God, from all fatal errors and mistakes about things necessary to their eternal salvation; and this is a provision more likely to be made by God, and better suited to the nature of man, than the perpetual and needless miracle of an inspired, or any otherwise infallible church.
Thirdly, This way is likewise more agreeable to the nature of religion and the virtue of faith. The design of an infallible church is to secure all that continue in the communion of it, against all possibility of error in matters of faith. The question now is not, whether an infallible church would do this? but whether that church which arrogates infallibility to itself does not pretend to do this? And if they could do it, it would not be agreeable to the nature of religion and the virtue of faith. For faith, which is 46the principle of all religious actions, would be no virtue, if it were necessary. A true and right belief can be no virtue, where a man is infallibly secured against error. There is the same reason of virtuous and criminal actions; and as there can be no crime or fault in doing what a man cannot help, so neither can there be any virtue. All virtuous actions are matter of praise and commendation; and therefore it can be no virtue in any man, because it deserves no commendation, to believe and own that the sun shines at noon-day when he sees it does so. No more would it be a virtue in any man, and deserve praise, to believe aright, who is in a church wherein he is infallibly secured against all errors in matters of faith. Make any thing necessary, and impossible to be otherwise, and the doing of it ceases to be a virtue. God hath so framed religion, that the evidence of truth, and the means of coining to the knowledge of it, as to be a sufficient security to men of honest minds and teachable tempers against all fatal and final mistakes concerning things necessary to salvation; but not so, that every man that is of such a church should be infallibly secured against all errors in matters of faith; and this on purpose to try the virtue and disposition of men, whether they will be at the pains to search for truth, and when it is proposed to them with sufficient evidence, though not by an infallible hand, they will receive it in the love of it, that they may be saved.
Fourthly, This is as much security against errors in matters of faith, as God hath provided against sin and vice in matters of practice; and, since a right belief is only in order to a good life, a man would be hard put to it, to give a wise reason why God 47should take greater care for the infallible security of men’s faith than of their obedience. The reason pretended why God should make such infallible provision for a right faith, is, for the better security of men’s eternal salvation and happiness. Now the virtues of a good life have a more direct and immediate influence upon that than the most orthodox belief. The end of the commandment (i. e. of the declaration of the gospel) is charity. In the Christian religion, that which mainly avails to our justification and salvation is, “a faith that worketh by charity,” and the keeping of the commandments of God. “He that heareth these sayings of mine and doth them (saith our blessed Lord), I will liken him to a wise man that built his house upon a rock;” and again, “not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, (i. e. makes profession of faith in me) shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doth the will of my Father which is in heaven;” and again, “if ye know these things, happy are ye, if ye do them.” And the apostle St. Peter exhorts Christians to “add to their faith knowledge, and virtue, and godliness, and brotherly kindness, and charity, that so an abundant entrance may be ministered to them, into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” So that the virtues of a good life have the greatest influence upon our salvation, and the main stress of Christianity is to be laid there. And, therefore, whatever reason can be as signed why God should provide for the infallible security of our faith, is much stronger why an equal provision should be made to secure holiness and obedience of life; because, without this, faith cannot infallibly attain its end, which is the salvation of our souls. But this, it is granted, God hath 48not done, and experience shews it; and therefore it is unreasonable to suppose that he hath done the other. It is sufficient that, in both kinds, he hath done that which is sufficient to make us capable of happiness, if we be not wanting to ourselves; the rest he hath left to the sincerity of our endeavours; expecting we, on our part, “should work out our salvation with fear and trembling, and give all diligence to make our calling and election sure.” And if God hath made such provision by the gospel for all that enjoy the light and advantage of it, that none can miscarry without their own fault, then both his goodness and wisdom are sufficiently acquitted, without an infallible guide and judge in matters of faith; and that irreverent way of arguing in the canon law might well have been spared—that of necessity there must be an infallible judge of controversies in religion; aliter dominus non videretur fuisse discretus, “otherwise God would not seem to have ordered matters discreetly,”
But what infallible security soever they have, in the church of Rome, as to matters of faith, they are certainly the worst provided, of wholesome and safe directions for the consciences and lives of men, of any church in the world. No religion, that I know of in the world, ever had such lewd and scandalous casuists. Witness the moral divinity of the Jesuits, which hath been so exposed to the world, not only by those of our religion, but by their own writers also. Nor is this mischief only confined to that order; their casuists in general, and even the more ancient of them, who writ before the order of Jesuits appeared in the world, have given such a liberty and loose to great immorality in several kinds, as is infinitely to the reproach of the best and purest religion in the 49world. Insomuch that Sir Thomas More himself, who was a great zealot for that religion, could not forbear to make a loud complaint of it, and to pass this severe censure upon the generality of their casuists: “That their great business seemed to be, not to keep men from sin, but to teach them quam prope ad peccatum liceat accedere sine peccato: how near to sin they might lawfully come without sinning.” In the mean time the consciences of men are not like to be well directed, when, instead of giving men plain rules for government of their hearts and lives, and clear resolutions of the material doubts which frequently occur in human life, they entangle them in niceties and endless scrupulosities, teaching them to split hairs in divinity, and how, with great art and cunning, they may avoid the committing of any sin, and yet come as near to it as possible. This is a thing of a most dangerous consequence to the souls of men; and if men be but once encouraged to pass to the utmost bounds of what is lawful, the next step will be into that which is unlawful.
So that unless faith without works will save men, notwithstanding the infallible security which they pretend to give men of a sound and right belief (if it were really as much as they talk of), the salvation of men would still be in great hazard and uncertainty, for want of better and safer directions for a good life, than are ordinarily to be met with in the casuistical writings of that church; especially if we consider that the Scriptures are locked up from the people in an unknown tongue, where the surest and plainest directions for a good life are most plentifully to be had; insomuch, that a man had better want all the volumes of casuistical dignity, that 50ever were written in the world, than to be without the Bible; by the diligent studying of which book alone, he may sooner learn the way to heaven than by all the books in the world without it.
Fifthly and lastly, This provision which God hath made, is, when all is done, as good a security against fatal errors and mistakes in religion, as an infallible church could give, if there were one; and it is as good a way to prevent and put an end to controversies in religion, so far as it is necessary that they should be prevented, and have an end put to them. And these are the two great reasons why an infallible judge is so importunately demanded and insisted upon. I shall speak to these distinctly and severally; but, because they will require a longer discourse than the time will allow, I shall not enter upon them at present, but refer them to another opportunity.51
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