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RELIGION, OUR FIRST AND GREAT CONCERNMENT.
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.—Matt. vi. 33.
THESE words, which I began to discourse upon the last day, are a strict charge and command to all Christians, to mind the business of religion in the first place, and to take all imaginable care to secure the happiness of another life; “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” In the handling of which argument,
First, I explained what is meant by “the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.”
Secondly, I shewed what is meant by seeking these, and what by seeking them first.
Thirdly, I laid down some rules for our direction and furtherance in this great business.
I shall now proceed to represent to you, in the
Fourth and last place, some of the most proper and powerful arguments and encouragements, to engage us to the minding of this great interest and concernment; amongst which I shall, in the last place, particularly consider the encouragement here given in the text, “Seek ye first the kingdom; of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
First, My first argument shall be from the worth excellency of the things we seek, “the kingdom 146of God and his righteousness,” which are certainly the greatest and best things we can seek. “The kingdom of God” is the eternal salvation of our souls, everlasting life and happiness in another world, which, to animate our endeavours, and to tempt our ambition the more, are set forth to us under the notion of a kingdom. And what will not men do to obtain that? what pains will they not take? what hazards will they not run? what difficulties will they not grapple with and break through, if they can, to come tea kingdom? which, when they have obtained, they are exposed to as many, and commonly to more cares and fears, to greater difficulties and dangers in the keeping, than they were for the getting of it: and yet all this men will do for a corruptible crown, for one of the petty kingdoms and principalities of this world, which are continually tottering and ready to be overturned by open violence, or to be undermined by secret treachery. But “the kingdom” which I am speaking of, and persuading you and myself to seek after, is not like the kingdoms of men, and of this world; it is called “the kingdom of God,” to signify to us the excellency and stability of it; as much beyond any of the kingdoms of this world, as the heavens are high above the earth, and as God is greater than man; “a kingdom which cannot be shaken, a crown which fadeth not away,” a sceptre which cannot be wrested from us.
But to quit the metaphor, and speak to the thing: “The kingdom of God” imports the eternal salvation of our souls; I say of our souls, which, both in respect of the dignity of their nature and I heir immortal duration, are infinitely more valuable than any of the perishing things of this world, and ought 147to be Hindi dearer to us. Other things art; without us, they neither constitute our being, nor are essential to our happiness; but our souls are ourselves, and the loss of them is our utter ruin and destruction. So that nothing is to be regarded by us with equal care and concernment as the salvation of our immortal souls; that is, that we may be rescued from eternal misery, and everlastingly happy in another world. And can we be at too much cost and pains upon such a design, to escape so dismal a condition, so dreadful a ruin, as that of body and soul to all eternity? Can any man be concerned enough to bring about so great a good to himself? or, can he purchase it too dear, whatever he give or part with for it? a good so desirable and so durable as our being happy for ever. When we purchase the things of this world, the riches and honours of it, at the expense of so much time, and care, and trouble, we pay dear for trifles and fancies; but eternal happiness is a jewel of so inestimable a price, that a wise merchant will have it at any rate, and sell all that he hath to purchase it.
Of such value is “the kingdom of God;” and next to it is righteousness, which is the only way and means whereby this kingdom is to be attained, and therefore to be sought by us with the greatest diligence and earnestness: for that which is the only means to a great and desirable end, and which alone can make us capable of that end, and which in truth is a degree of it, is valuable next to the end, and almost equally with it; and such is righteousness in respect of “the kingdom of God;” it is the only means to it, it is that alone which qualifies us, and makes us capable of happiness; nay, it is an essential ingredient into it, and that which does in a 148great measure constitute the happiness of heaven; for that temper of mind, that conformity and likeness to God, which holiness and righteousness brings us to, is the true foundation of our happiness, and, according to the best apprehensions we have now of it, is the very formal cause and essence of our blessedness. So St. John tells us: (1 John iii. 2.) “It doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him;” that is, we do not now distinctly understand wherein the happiness of the next life consists, we are not able to frame a clear and perfect idea of it; but this we know, in general, that it consists in our likeness to God, in a conformity to the moral perfections of the Divine nature, which are expressed by the name of purity and holiness; and therefore every one that hopes for the happiness of heaven must endeavour after holiness: “Every man that hath this hope in him must purify himself, oven as he is pure.”
So that the things which I am pressing you to seek after are most effectually recommended, by telling you what they are; “the kingdom of God” is eternal life and happiness, and “his righteousness” is universal holiness and goodness, without which no man is qualified for this blessed state. Now if there be any thing better than goodness, any thing more desirable than a happiness which hath no bounds, nor no end; do not mind them, nor look after them; but if there be not, then certainly these are worthy of the care and endeavour of our whole life.
Secondly, Another consideration that should very much excite, and quicken our endeavour and diligence, in seeking these things, is the difficulty of 149obtaining them.. This, I confess, is no encouragement, but it is a very good motive and argument to whet our industry in seeking these things, when we plainly see that they are not to be had upon other terms. And this consideration our Saviour useth to quicken us to strive and to contend earnestly for eternal life: (Matt. vii. 14.) “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth to life, and few there be that find it.” And, (Luke xiii. i24.) “Strive to enter in at the strait gate; for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.”
Seeking here, in opposition to striving;, is a faint and weak endeavour, which will not carry us through this narrow and difficult passage; and this is the reason why many miscarry, who made some attempts towards heaven; but they do not strive, they do not put forth any vigorous endeavours to get thither.
Now the difficulty of attaining eternal happiness ariseth from the difficulty of the way and means to it; and it is then fore hard to attain “the kingdom of God,” because it is hard to attain “his righteousness.” As desirable as it is, it must be acknowledged very difficult for a man to raise himself to that temper and disposition of mind, so to subdue his lusts, and govern his passions, to bridle his tongue, and order all the actions of his life, as is necessary to qualify him for happiness, and to make him fit to be admitted into “the kingdom of God.”
And this difficulty is chiefly in ourselves, but greatly increased by temptation and opposition from without. Chiefly, I say, in ourselves, from the strong bias of our evil and corrupt inclinations, and the strong power of vicious habits and customs, 150which, when they are grown inveterate, do tyrannize over us, and make us perfect slaves, and lead ns captive at their pleasure; so that our nature must be quite changed, and, as the apostle expresseth it, we must be “renewed in the spirit of our minds,” our souls must be new moulded and fashioned, we must be, as it were, created and born again, before we can “enter into the kingdom of God.” In this our Saviour is positive and peremptory: (John iii. 3.) “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This difficulty, indeed, is greatest at first, but it is considerable afterwards, until a thorough change be made, and new inclinations planted in us, and the contrary habits of grace and virtue be superinduced.
And that which increaseth the difficulty is out ward temptation and opposition from the world and the devil; which to withstand and resist, requires great courage and resolution, great watchfulness and guard over ourselves. But yet, for our comfort, these difficulties are not insuperable to that grace and assistance which God is always ready to afford to us upon so good an occasion, and to so good a purpose; “greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world.” And this, I am sure, is matter of great encouragement to us, that, though the difficulty of working out our salvation be great, yet, if we do in good earnest set about it, God is ready to assist and second our sincere endeavours, “to work in us both to will and to do of his own goodness,” and so to prevent us with his gracious favour, and to further us with his continual aid, that finally by his mercy we may obtain eternal life.
Thirdly, Another powerful argument to care and 151diligence, is, the fatal danger of miscarriage in a matter of so great concernment. We may do many things in religion, and take some pains to get to heaven, and yet fall short of it. The rich young man in the gospel, our Saviour tells us, was “not far from the kingdom of God;” and he broke with our Saviour only upon one point—he was too much addicted to the world, and loath to part with his great possessions, and distribute them in charity to the poor; and thereupon he left our Saviour, and, for any thing we can find, never returned to him again.
If the world govern and bear sway in our hearts, if we mind earthly things first, and make these our chief care and design, the kingdom of God and his righteousness shall not be added unto us; if we will not mind them in the first place, they are too good to be accessaries.
And if upon any one point we miscarry, either out of love to the world, or affection to any other lust or vice that we are loath to part withal, our miscarriage is fatal, and the ruin which we bring upon ourselves irreparable; for the soul once lost, is lost for ever. If we have neglected the opportunity of working out our own salvation, while we are in this world, it will never return into our power again; death will shut the door against us, and we shall never see the kingdom of God.
Fourthly, It is a mighty encouragement to us to consider, that, if we sincerely seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness, there is not only a fair probability of obtaining them, but all the security We can desire. Men may be in good earnest for the things of this world, may love them with nil their hearts and souls (as we see too many do) and seek them with all their might and strength; and yet, after 152all their endeavours, may be shamefully frustrated and disappointed of their end. There are many examples of this kind daily before our eyes, and yet men are not discouraged from seeking these things. A fair probability, nay, almost a possibility of attaining them, is enough to a worldly-minded man to drudge and toil for them. Why, the same affection, the same zeal, the same unwearied endeavour to please God, and to save our souls, would infallibly bring us to heaven. It was a sad but true saying of Cardinal Wolsey, when he was leaving the world, “Had I been but as careful to please God, as I have been to serve my prince, he would not have forsaken me now in the time of my grey hairs.”
Nay, it is to be hoped, that less diligence and care about the concernments of our souls and another life, than many men use about the things of this life, will secure our eternal happiness, or else it is to be feared that but very few would be saved: and who would not place his industry, and endeavour upon a design in which he is sure not to miscarry, if he do but heartily and in good earnest pursue it? especially when it will be of infinite greater advantage to him, than any design he can propound to himself for this world. If a man may be certainly happy for ever, upon the same or easier terms, than he can ordinarily compass any of those little designs which men propose to themselves in this world, who would not seek that which is most worthy the having, and which he is surest to maintain?
Fifthly and lastly, The encouragement here in the text is not inconsiderable; that if we “seek the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, all these things shall be added unto us.” This certainly is a very tempting consideration; for who would not be 153glad to reconcile the enjoyment of this world with the hopes of heaven and eternal happiness? But men do not generally like our Saviour’s method—they would seek the things of this world in the first place, and get to heaven at last; they would be content to seek the one, and have the other cast in and conferred upon them without their seeking. But this will not be granted, this way will not do. And yet our Saviour has gone as far as one would think could in reason be desired; he hath promised, that if we will make religion, and the salvation of our souls, our first and chief care, that “all these things shall be added unto us.” So that the design of going to heaven, and being happy for ever, is no ways inconsistent with a competent portion of the things of this life. Godliness (the apostle tells us) “hath the promise of this life, and of that which is to come.” The business of religion, the practice of a holy and virtuous life, is no hinderance to a man’s thriving in his temporal estate: nay, in many respects, it is apt to promote and advance it; by engaging us to diligence in our calling, and by deriving the blessing of God upon our honest and lawful endeavours; by obliging us to the strict and constant practice of truth, and justice, and fidelity, in all our dealings and commerce, which are the best way to establish a clear and solid reputation, and good esteem among men, which is an unspeakable advantage in business, and, at the long run, one of the best and most lasting instruments of prosperity and success.
Besides that, religion frees a man from those passions and vices which do naturally tend to dissipate and ruin men’s estates; as intemperance and lewdness, which are every way chargeable vices, and do not only take men off from business, and render them 154unfit for it; but waste their estates, and bring many other inconveniences upon their persons and families. Religion makes men meek and peaceable, and inoffensive in word and deed, which is a great security against chargeable suits and contentions, and all sorts of injuries and affronts from others. Among all the beatitudes of our Saviour, he only promiseth temporal happiness to meekness: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” They who provoke and offend nobody, are likely to be least disturbed and disquieted by others in their possessions and enjoyments; “Who will harm you, (saith the apostle, 1 Peter iii. 13.) if ye be followers of that which is good?” Some may be so perverse as to persecute a man for his goodness; but it rarely happens; most men have not only a kindness, but a veneration for true goodness.
By all these ways religion naturally tends to the temporal prosperity of men, and the promoting of their welfare and happiness even in this world; besides that, the providence of God is very peculiarly concerned for good men, and a special blessing at tends them in all their undertakings. So that, excepting the case of persecution (which God will particularly consider and reward in another world), the religious and good man, who sincerely “seeks the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” stands as fair, and is upon as good terms for all the lawful enjoyments of this world, as he that makes it his only design to be rich and great in this world; nay, as to the necessaries of this life, and a competency of outward things, he hath a much greater and better security from the providence and promise of God, than the men of the world have by all their care and pains.155
Besides that, he hath this considerable advantage, by minding these things only as accessaries, that, if he miss of them, he hath something better to support him in the want of them; being secure of a happiness which this world can neither give nor take from him. But now the worldly man, if he be defeated in his designs, is of all men most miserable, because he hath nothing else to comfort him, nothing else to trust to; he fails of his hopes as to this world, and hath done what in him lies to make his case desperate as to the other.
Upon all these considerations and encouragements, you see how reasonable it is that we should make religion, and the concernment of another life, our great care and business. And yet, how are these neglected by the greatest part of mankind! and by the best of us (God knows) not minded as they ought, and as they deserve! What can we say for ourselves in excuse of so intolerable a folly? There are two or three things which men commonly pretend, if not in justification, yet in mitigation and excuse, of this great neglect.
First, They pretend great difficulties and discouragements in the ways of religion. This I have already acknowledged to be true, so far as to awaken our care, and to whet our industry; but by no means to make us despond and give over all care of so great a concernment, because of the difficulties it is at tended withal. Men who have no mind to a thing, are apt to imagine great difficulties in the attaining of it, and to magnify them in their fancies beyond reason. As the people of Israel, when they were to enter into Canaan (which was the type of the kingdom of heaven), represented the inhabitants of the land, whom they were to conquer, more terrible than 156in truth they were; reporting to one another, that the land was full of giants, and sons of Anak, men of prodigious stature, and cities walled up to heaven. And this the wise man observes to be the perpetual excuse of the slothful; when they have no mind to a thing, they say “there is a lion in the way;” that is, they fancy to themselves dangers and terrors which are not. Thus men who are averse from religion, and have no mind to be at the trouble and pains to get to heaven, are apt to complain of the monstrous and insuperable difficulties of religion, and how hard it is for a man to mortify his lusts, and subdue his appetites, and govern his passions, and to do all those things which are necessary to bring him to heaven. Well! it is acknowledged to be difficult, and is it not so to get an estate, and to rise to any thing in this world? The true pains which men take about these things, shew that they are difficult; only when men have a mind to a thing, and their heart is set upon it, they do not stand to complain of the difficulty, but buckle to it, and grapple with it.
Is religion difficult? And what is not so, that is good for any thing? Is not the law a difficult and crabbed study? Does it not require great labour, and perpetual drudging, to excel in any kind of knowledge, to be master of any art or profession? In a word, is there any thing in the world worthy the having, that is to be gotten without pains? And is eternal life and glory the only slight and inconsiderable thing that is not worth our care and industry? Is it fit that so great a good should be exposed to the faint and idle wishes, to the cheap and lazy endeavours of slothful men? For, what reason, nay, with what conscience, can he bid less for heaven and eternal life, 157than men are contented to give for the things of this world; things of no value in comparison, not worthy the toiling for, not sure to be attained by all our endeavours; things which perish in the using, and which, when we have them, we are liable to be deprived of by a thousand accidents? One fit of a fever may shatter our understandings, and confound all our knowledge, and turn us into fools and idiots; an inundation or a fire may sweep away and devour our estates; a succession of calamities may, in a few hours, make the richest and greatest man as poor as Job, and set him upon a dunghill.
But be the difficulty what it will of attaining “the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” they are to be sought at any rate; because they are absolutely necessary, and we miserable and undone if we have them not. And therefore, not to dissemble in the matter, the difficulties of religion are considerable; but then they are much greater at first, and will every day abate and grow less, and the work by degrees will become easy, and turn into pleasure and delight: a pleasure so great, as none knows but he that hath it; and he that hath it, would not exchange it for all the sensual pleasures and enjoyments of this world.
Secondly, Others pretend want of time for the minding of so great a work. And it is very true, that all persons have not equal leisure for this purpose; some are much more straitened than others, and more taken up with the necessary cares of this life; but God hath put no man upon this hard necessity, that for want of time he shall be forced to neglect his body and his health, his family and estate, to save his soul. And yet, if any man were brought to this distress, it were well worth his while 158to secure his eternal salvation, though it were with the neglect and loss of all other things. But those who are most straitened for time, have so much as is absolutely necessary; for there is a considerable part of religion which does not require time, but resolution and care: not to commit sin, not to break the laws of God, not to be intemperate, “to make no provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof,” does not spend time, but saves it for better purposes; so that every man hath time not to do that which he ought not to do: and for the positive part of religion, whether it consists in the exercise of our minds, or in the external acts of religion, no man is so distressed, but he hath time to think of heaven and eternity; time to love God, to esteem him, and delight in him above all things. And this a man may do very frequently, and very acceptably, while he is labouring and travailing about his worldly affairs, while his hand is upon the plough his heart may be with God; and while he converseth here upon earth, his thoughts and affections may be in heaven. Every man hath time to pray to God every day, for his mercy and forgiveness, for his grace and assistance, for his preservation and support, and to thank him heartily for all his blessings and benefits. And a little time seriously employed in this kind, would have the same acceptance with God, as the more solemn and longer devotions of those who have more leisure and opportunities for them. To be sure, we have all of us time to serve God upon his own day, and to employ it wholly in the exercises of piety, and the care and consideration of our souls.
But this, when all is said, is the case but of a very few; most of us have no colour for this complaint; 159 Non inopes temporis, sed prodigi sumus (as Seneca says), “We are not poor, but prodigal of our time, and lavish it away profusely upon folly and vanity.” Our vices and lusts, our pleasures and diversions, consume and divert those precious hours, which should be employed to these better purposes; nay, many times time oppresseth us, and is a burden to us, and lies upon our hands, and we know not how to get rid of it; and yet we choose rather to let it run waste, than to bestow it upon religion, and the care of our souls; insomuch, that I fear this will be the condition of many, that when they were at a loss what to do with their time, and knew not how to spend it, they would not lay it out upon that which was best and most necessary; for this surely is the very best use that can be made of time, to prepare and provide for eternity.
Thirdly, Others pretend it will be time enough to mind these things hereafter. But this (as bad excuses seldom hang together, and agree with one another) directly contradicts the former pretence, which supposeth so much time necessary, and more than many have to spare; and yet now they would make us believe that a very little time will suffice for this work, and that it may be done at any time, even just when we are going out of this world. But this, of all other, is the strangest interpretation of seeking “the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” first, to put it off to the very last. This surely is a greater error on the other hand, to think that the business of religion is so quickly to be dispatched, and that the great work of our lives can be crowded into so narrow a corner of it, that the time of sickness and old age, nay, the hour of death, well employed to this purpose, will be sufficient. 160Alas! what can we then do that is good for any thing? that can in reason be thought either acceptable to God, or available for ourselves? When we have not sense and understanding enough to dispose of our temporal concernments, and to make our wills, do we think we shall be fit to repent of the sins and miscarriages of our whole lives, and to make our peace with God? Every man must not expect to have Saul’s fortune, who, when he was wearied with seeking his father’s asses, met with a kingdom. We must not think, when we are tired with pursuing the follies and vanities of this world, to retire into heaven, and to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.
Our Saviour hath taken care to caution us against this desperate folly, by a parable to this very purpose, of the foolish virgins; who, having trifled away their time till the bridegroom was coming, and neglected to get oil into their lamps (by which we are to understand all those good preparations and dispositions which are necessary to qualify us for the kingdom of God); I say, having neglected their opportunity of getting this oil, while they were looking after it too late, the door was shut against them; they thought to have repaired all at last, by borrowing of others, and supplying themselves that way.
And thus many deceive themselves, hoping to be supplied out of another store, when they have no grace and goodness of their own; out of the treasure of the church, from the redundant merit of the saints, and their works of supererogation; of which some believe (I know not for what reason) that there is a great stock which the pope may 161dispose of, to supply those who have taken no care to get oil into their lamps. But I know not for what reason works of supererogation are supposed; the wise virgins knew not of any merit they had to spare; it was the foolish virgins only that entertained this senseless conceit. I am sure the parable insinuates the quite contrary; that the best and holiest persons (which are represented by the wise virgins) have nothing to spare for the supply of others, who have been careless of their souls; “the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out; but the wise answered, saying, Not so, lest there be not enough for us and you; but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. It seems they had no works of supererogation that they knew of; but they do ironically send them to a market that was set up somewhere, and where these things were pretended to be sold: but how they sped the conclusion of the parable tells us, that, whilst they were running about in great haste to make this purchase of the merits and good works of others, the bridegroom came, and the wise virgins that were ready went in with him to the marriage, and the rest were shut out.
And there are those likewise among ourselves, who, having been careless to qualify themselves for the kingdom of God, hope to be supplied out of the infinite treasure of Christ’s merits: but this also is a vain hope. For though there be merit enough in the death and sufferings of Christ to save all mankind, yet no man can lay claim thereto who does not perform the conditions of the gospel.
Others think, by sending for the minister, when the physician hath given them over, to receive in a 162few hours such advice and direction, as will do their business as effectually as if they had minded religion all their lives long; and that a few devout prayers said over them, when they are just embarking for another world, will, like a magic wind, immediately waft them over into the regions of bliss and immortality.
But let us not deceive ourselves; we may defer the business so long, till we shall get nothing by our late application to God, and crying to him, “Lord, Lord, open unto us,” but that severe answer, “Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity, I know not whence ye are.” If we would not have this our doom, let us “first seek the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” that so, “having our fruit unto holiness, our end may be everlasting life.”163
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