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SERMON LXXXVIII.

HONESTY THE BEST PRESERVATIVE AGAINST DANGEROUS MISTAKES IN RELIG1ON.

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.

WHEN I made entrance into these words, I proposed from this text:—

First, To shew that an honest and sincere mind, and a hearty desire and endeavour to do the will of God, is the greatest security and best preservative against dangerous errors and mistakes in matters of religion.

In the next place, I proceeded to remove an objection to which my discourse upon this subject might seem liable. Some, perhaps, might ask, Is every good man then secure from all error and mistake in matters of religion? This is a mighty privilege indeed. But do we not find the contrary in experience, that an honest heart and a weak head do often meet together? For answer to this, I laid down several propositions.

By the last of which I shewed, that God hath made abundant provision for our security from fatal and dangerous errors in religion, both by the infallible rule of the Holy Scripture, and by sufficient means of instruction to help us to understand this rule, and by his infallible promise of assisting us, if, with honest minds and a due diligence, we apply ourselves to the understanding of this rule, and 52the use of these means. And this, I told you, was in all respects a better security, and more likely to conduct us safe to heaven, than any infallible church whatsoever; and that for five reasons, four of which I have already treated of, and now proceed to the fifth, and last, viz.

Because this provision which I have shewn God hath made, is both as good a security against fatal errors and mistakes in religion, as an infallible church could give, if there were one: and it is likewise as good a way to prevent and put an end to controversies in religion, so far as it is necessary they should be prevented, or 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 two points distinctly and severally.

First, Because this is as good a security against fatal errors and mistakes in religion, as an infallible church could give, if there were one. For an infallible church, if there were such an one upon earth, could not infallibly secure particular Christians against errors in faith any other way than by the definition and declaration of those who are infallible in that church. And there are but three that pretend to it: either the pope, or a general council, or the pope and a general council agreeing in the same definitions. Not the pope by himself, nor the general council without the pope; because the church, which pretends to infallibility, is not agreed that either of these alone is infallible, and therefore their definitions can be no certain, much less infallible, foundation of faith; no, not to that church which pretends to infallibility. So that, if there be an infallible oracle in that church, it must 53be the pope and council in conjunction, or the definition of a council confirmed by the pope. Now in that case, either the council was infallible in its definitions, before they had the pope’s confirmation, or not. If the council was infallible in its definitions, before they had the pope’s confirmation, then the council alone, and of itself, was infallible (which a great part of the church of Rome deny), and then it needed not the pope’s confirmation to make it infallible: or else a general council is not infallible in its definitions before they receive the pope’s confirmation, and then the pope’s confirmation cannot make it so; for that, which was not infallibly defined by the council, cannot be made infallible by the pope’s confirmation.

But there is another difficulty yet: it is a maxim generally received, and that even in the Roman church, “That the definitions of a general council, confirmed by the pope, are not obligatory, unless they be received by the universal church;” from whence these two great inconveniences will unavoidably follow:—

I. That no man is obliged to believe such definitions, till he certainly know that they are received by the universal church; which how he should certainly, much less infallibly, know, I cannot understand; unless he either speak with all the Christians in the world, or the representatives of all particular churches return back and meet again in council, to declare, that the universal church hath received their definitions; which, I think, was never yet done.

II. It will follow, that the definitions of a general council, confirmed by the pope, are not infallible till they be received by the universal church; for if they were infallible without that, they would be 54obligatory without it; because an infallible definition, if we know it to be so, lays an obligation to believe it, whether it be received by the universal church or not. And if such definitions are not infallible till they be received by the universal church, they cannot become infallible afterwards; because, if the definitions were not infallible before, they cannot be received as such by the universal church, nor, by the mere reception of them, be made to be infallible definitions, if they were not so before.

But if we should pass, over all these difficulties, there is a greater yet behind, and that is, supposing the definitions of general councils confirmed by the pope to be infallible, particular Christians cannot be secured infallibly from error without the knowledge of those definitions. And there are but two ways imaginable of conveying this knowledge to them: either by the living voice of their particular pastors, whom they are implicitly to believe in these matters; but particular pastors are fallible (as they themselves grant), and therefore their words can neither be an infallible foundation of faith, nor an infallible means of conveying it; and it is unreason able, they say, for men that own themselves to be fallible, to require an implicit belief to be given to them; or else the knowledge of the definitions of councils must be conveyed to particular Christians by writing; and if so, then there will only be an infallible rule, but no living infallible judge. And if an infallible rule will serve the turn, we have the Scriptures, which we are sure are infallible, and therefore at least as good as any other rule. But they say that the definitions of councils give us an infallible interpretation of Scripture, and therefore are of greater advantage to us. But do not the definitions 55of councils sometimes also need explication, that we may know the certain sense of them, with out which we cannot know the doctrines defined? Yes, certainly, they need explication as much as Scripture, if there be any difference about the meaning of them; and there have been, and still are, great differences among those of their own church about the meaning of them. And if the explications of general councils need themselves to be explained, then there is nothing got by them, and we are but where we were before: for differences about the meaning of the definitions of general councils, make as great difficulties and uncertainties in faith as the differences about the meaning of Scripture:

Well, but the people have the living voice of their particular pastors to explain the definitions of councils to them. But this does not help the matter neither; for these two reasons.

1. Because particular pastors have no authority to explain the definitions of general councils. The council of Trent hath, by express decree, reserved to the pope, and to him only, the power to explain the definitions of the council, if any difference arise about the meaning of them. So that, if there be any difference about the true sense and meaning of any of the definitions of the council, particular pastors have no authority to explain them; and where there is no doubt or difference about the meaning of them, there is no occasion for the explication of them.

2. But suppose they had authority to explain them, this can be no infallible security to the people, that they explain them right; both because particular pastors are fallible; and likewise, because we see, in experience, that they differ in their explications; witness the bishop of Condom’s exposition of the 56catholic faith, and of the definitions of the council of Trent, which is, in many material points, very different from that of Bellarmine, and many other famous doctors of that church. And, which is more, witness the many differences betwixt Ambrosius, Catharinus, and Dominicus à Soto, about the definitions of that council, in which they were both present and heard the debates, and themselves bore a great part in them. Now if they, who were present at the framing of the definitions of that council, cannot agree about the meaning of them, much less can it be expected from those that were absent.

Secondly, This provision which I have mentioned, is likewise as good a way to prevent and put an end to controversies in religion, so far as it is necessary they should be prevented, or have an end put to them, as any infallible church would be, if there were one: and this is another reason why an infallible church is so much insisted upon, that there may be some way and means for a final decision of controversies, which the Scriptures cannot be, because they are only a dead rule, which can end no controversy without a living judge ready at hand, to interpret and apply that rule upon emergent occasions.

It is not necessary that all controversies in religion should either be prevented or decided: this the church, which pretends to be infallible, cannot pretend to have done; because there are manifold controversies, even in the church of Rome herself, concerning matters of religion, which still remain undecided; and, in their commentaries upon Scripture, many differences about the sense of several texts concerning which she hath not thought fit to give an infallible interpretation. And where their popes, and several of their general councils, have thought 57fit to meddle with Scripture, they have applied and interpreted texts more improperly and absurdly than even their private doctors. And which is more, in differences about points of faith, which are pretended on both sides to be fundamental, this church hath not thought fit to put an end to them by her infallible decision, after two hundred years brandling about them. For instance, in that fierce and long difference about the immaculate conception of the blessed Virgin, which, on both sides, is pretended to be an article of faith, and for which contrary revelations of their canonized saints are so frequently pretended; and yet neither pope, nor general council, have thought fit to exert their infallibility for the decision of this controversy. So that if their church had this talent of infallibility ever committed to them, they have with the slothful servant laid it up in a napkin; and, according to our Saviour’s rule, have long since forfeited it, for not making use of it.

And whereas it is pretended that the Scripture is but a dead rule, which can end no controversies without a living judge ready at hand, to interpret and apply that rule upon emergent occasions; the same objection lies against them, unless a general council, which is their living judge, were always sit ting. For the definitions of their councils in writing are liable to the same and greater objections, than the written rule of the Scriptures.

The sum of all is this. In differences about lesser matters, mutual charity and forbearance will secure the peace of the church, though the differences remain undecided; and in greater matters, an infallible rule searched into with an honest mind and due diligence, and with the help of good instruction, is more 58likely to extinguish and put an end to such differences than any infallible judge, if there were one; because a humble and honest mind is more likely to yield to reason, than a perverse and cavilling temper is to submit to the sentence of an infallible judge, unless it were backed with an inquisition. The church of Rome supposeth herself infallible, and yet, notwithstanding that, she finds that some question and deny her infallibility, and then her sentence signifies nothing. And of those who own it, many dispute the sense and meaning of her sentence; and whether they deny the infallibility of her sentence, or dispute the sense of it, in neither of these cases will it prove effectual to the deciding of any difference.

But after all this provision which we pretend God hath made for honest and sincere minds, do we not see that men fall into dangerous and damnable errors, who yet cannot, without great uncharitableness, be supposed not to be sincerely desirous to know the truth, and to do the will of God?

To this I shall briefly return these two things.

I. That the same errors are not equally damnable to all. The innocent and (humanly speaking) almost invincible prejudices of education in some persons even against a fundamental truth; the different capacities of men, and the different means of conviction afforded to them; the greater and lesser degrees of obstinacy, and a faulty will in opposing the truths proposed to them; all these, and perhaps several other considerations besides, may make a great difference in the guilt of men’s errors, and the danger of them.

II. When all is done the matter must be left to God, who only knoweth the hearts of all the children 59of men. We cannot see into the hearts of men, nor know all their circumstances, and how they may have provoked God to forsake them, and give them up to error and delusion, “because they would not receive the truth in the love of it, that they might be saved.” And as, on the one hand, God will consider all men’s circumstances, and the disadvantages they were under for coming to the knowledge of the truth, and make allowance to men for their invincible errors, and forgive them upon a general repentance: so, on the other hand, he who sees the insincerity of men, and that the errors of their understandings did proceed from gross faults of their lives, will deal with them accordingly. But if men be honest and sincere, God, who hath said “if any man will do his will he shall know of the doctrine,” will certainly be as good as his word.

It now remains only to draw some inferences from this discourse, and they shall be these three:

First, From this text, and what hath been discoursed upon it, we may infer how slender and ill-grounded the pretence of the church of Rome to infallibility is; whether they place it in the pope, or in a general council, or in both. The last is the most general opinion; and yet it is hard to understand how infallibility can result from the pope’s confirmation of a general council, when neither the council was infallible in framing its definitions, nor the pope in confirming them. If the council were infallible in framing them, then they needed no confirmation: if they were not, then infallibility is only in the pope that confirms them, and then it is the pope only that is infallible. But no man that reads these words of our Saviour, “if any man will do his will he shall know of the doctrine,” would ever 60imagine that the bishop of Rome (whoever he shall happen to be) was secured from all fatal errors in matters of faith, much less that he were endowed with an infallible spirit, in judging what doctrines are from God, and what not. For it cannot be denied, but that many of their popes have been notoriously wicked and vicious in their lives: nay, Bellarmine himself acknowledged), that, for a succession of fifty popes together, there was not one pious and virtuous man that sat in that chair; and some of their popes have been condemned and deposed for heresy; and yet, for all this, the pope, and the governing part of that church, would hear the world in hand that he is infallible. But if this saying of our Saviour be true, that “if any man will do his will, he shall know of his doctrine, whether it be of God;” then every honest man, that sincerely desires to do the will of God, hath a fairer pretence to infallibility, and a clearer text for it, than is to be found in the whole Bible for the infallibility of the bishop of Rome. What would the church of Rome give, that there were but as express a text in Scripture for the infallibility of their popes, as this is for the security of every good man in his judgment of doctrines; which makes infallibility needless? What an insufferable noise, and what endless triumphs would they make upon it, if it had been any where said in the Bible, that if any man be bishop of Rome, and sit in St. Peter’s chair, he shall know of my doctrine whether it be of God? Had there been such a text as this, we should never have been troubled with their impertinent citation of texts, and their remote and blind inferences, from Pasce Oves, and super hanc petram; “Feed my sheep;” “and upon this rock will I build my church;” to prove the pope’s 61infallibility. And yet no man of sense or reason ever extended the text I am speaking to, so far as to attempt to prove from it the infallibility of every good man, but only his security from fatal errors and mistakes in religion. The largest promises that are made in Scripture of security from error and mistake about Divine things, are made to good men, who sincerely desire to do the will of God. And if this be so, we must conclude several popes to have been the farthest from infallibility of any men in the world. And, indeed, there is not a more compendious way to persuade men that the Christian religion is a fable, than to set up a lewd and vicious man for the oracle of it.

Nay, I will go farther yet; that there are no other promises made in Scripture of direction or assistance, or security from mistake, to any church; but the same are made in as full and express terms to every good man that sincerely desires to know the truth, and to practise it. Is it promised to the church, or to the pastors of it, “I will be with you always?” And hath not our Saviour promised the same to every one that is obedient to his word? (John xiv. 23.) If any man love me, he will keep my words; and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him?” And does not the apostle apply the same promise to every good Christian: (Heb. xiii. 5.) “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee?” For where is the difference between these expressions, “I will be with you,” and “I will make my abode with him;” “I will be with you always,” and “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee?” Is it not promised to the church, that “the Spirit shall lead her into all truth?” And is not the same promise made to 62every good man? (John xiv. 21.) “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me, shall be loved of my Father; and I will love him, and I will manifest myself to him;” that is, God will reveal his will to those that love him, and keep his commandments. Hath God promised to build his church upon a rock? And doth not our Saviour use the same metaphor concerning every man that doth the will of God? (Matth. vii. 24.) “Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doth them, is like a wise man that built his house upon a rock.” So that if to be built upon a rock signifies infallibility, it belongs to every good man who sincerely practiseth what he knows, as much as to any church.

When men are enabled by God to work miracles for the confirmation of the doctrines which they deliver, there is great reason to believe that they are infallibly assisted in the delivery of those doctrines; but without this, it is the vainest thing in the world for any person or church to pretend to it, because they offer no evidence fit to satisfy any man that they are so assisted: and I do not hear that the pope, among all his privileges, does pretend to the power of miracles.

Secondly, From hence, likewise, we may infer the great reason of error and infidelity in the world. If any man be an infidel, it is not the fault of his understanding, but of his will; it is not because there is not sufficient evidence that the Christian religion is from God, but because men’s interests and lusts make them partial and incompetent judges of matters of religion. The evidence of the Christian religion is such as recommends it to every man’s reason and conscience; so that (as St. Paul argues) 63 “If the gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost; in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them that believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.” (2 Cor. iv. 3, 4.)

If men did but stand indifferent for the entertainment of truth, and were not swayed by the interest of any lust or passion, I am confident that no man that hath the gospel fairly proposed to him would continue an infidel. If men did but truly live up to the principles of natural religion, they would easily be convinced that the Christian religion, which is so suitable thereto, is from God.

Thirdly and lastly, What hath been said is a great argument and encouragement to obedience and holiness of life. Do we desire not to be mistaken about the mind of God? let us heartily endeavour to do his will. If we would not be seduced by the error of the wicked, let us take heed of their vicious practices. The best way certainly to preserve a right judgment in matters of religion, is to take great care of a good life. God’s goodness is such, that he will not suffer any man’s judgment to be betrayed into a damnable error, without some vice and fault of his will. The principles of natural religion are born with us, and imprinted upon our minds, so that no man can be ignorant of them, nor need to be mistaken about them; and as for those revelations which God hath made of himself to the world, he hath been pleased to accompany them with so much evidence, that an honest and sincere mind may easily discern them from error and imposture. So our Saviour hath assured us, that if any man desire to do his will, “he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God.”

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On the other hand, if we see any oppose the clear truth, or depart from it, and embrace gross errors and delusions, we may almost certainly conclude that there is some worldly interest or lust at the bottom of it. So our Saviour has likewise told us, that the reason why “men love darkness rather than light,” is, “because their deeds are evil; and every one that doth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.” I will conclude this whole discourse with St. Peter’s exhortation, the 2d of Pet. iii. 17, 18. “Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, be ware, lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness. But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory, both now and for ever. Amen.”

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