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INSTITUTED RELIGION NOT INTENDED TO UNDERMINE NATURAL.
But go ye and learn what that meaneth; I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.—Matt. ix. 13.
ONE of the most successful attempts that have been made upon religion, by the devil and his instruments, hath been by setting the laws of God at variance with themselves, and by dashing the several parts of religion, and the two tables of the law against one another, to break all in pieces, and, under a pretence of advancing that part of religion which is instituted and revealed, to undermine and destroy that which is natural, and of primary obligation.
To manifest and lay open the mischievous consequences of this design, I shall at this time (by God’s assistance) endeavour to make out these two things:
First, That natural religion is the foundation of all instituted and revealed religion.
Secondly, That no revealed or instituted religion was ever designed to takeaway the obligation of natural duties, but to confirm and establish them.
And to this purpose, I have chosen these words of our Saviour for the foundation of my following discourse: “But go ye and learn what that meaneth; I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.” The occasion of which words was briefly this: the pharisees found fault with him for keeping company, and eating with publicans and sinners. He owns the 299thing which they objected to him, and endeavours to vindicate himself from any crime or fault in so doing; and that these two ways:
1. By telling them that it was allowed to a physician, and proper for his office and profession, to converse with the sick, in order to their cure and recovery. He may abstain, if he pleaseth, from the conversation of others; but the sick have need of him, and are his proper care, and his business and employment lies among them: “he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance: they, who were already good, needed not to be called upon to amend and reform their lives; and they that were so conceited of their own righteousness, as the pharisees were, and so confident that they were sound and whole, would not admit of a physician, and thereby rendered themselves incapable of cure; and therefore he did not apply himself to them; but to the publicans and sinners, who were acknowledged, on all hands, both by themselves and others, to be bad men; so that it could not be denied, to be the proper work of a spiritual physician to converse with such persons.
2. By endeavouring to convince them of their ignorance of the true nature of religion, and of the rank and order of the several duties thereby required; “But go ye and learn what that meaneth; I will have mercy, and not sacrifice;” which saying is quoted by him out of the prophet Hosea, (chap. vi. 6.) “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings;” which text our Saviour cites and applies upon two several occasions; the considering and comparing 300of which will give full light to the true meaning of it.
The first is here in the text, upon occasion of the pharisees finding fault with him, for conversing with publicans and sinners; the other is, (Matt. xii. 7.) where the pharisees blaming the disciples of our Saviour for plucking the ears of corn on the sabbath-day, our Saviour tells them, “If ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless;” that is, if they had understood the true nature of religion, and what duties of it are chiefly and in the first place to be regarded, they would not have been so forward to censure this action of his disciples.
So that the plain meaning of this saying is this: that, in comparing the parts of religion and the obligation of duties together, those duties which are of moral and natural obligation are most valued by God, and ought to take place of those which are positive and ritual. “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice;” that is, rather than sacrifice, according to the true meaning of this Hebrew phrase, which is to be understood in a comparative sense, as is evident from the text itself, in Hosea—“I desired mercy, and not sacrifice: and the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings;” if they cannot be observed together, let sacrifice be neglected, and the work of mercy be done.
And the reason of this seems very plain; because shewing mercy, or doing good in any kind, is a prime instance of those moral duties, which do naturally and perpetually oblige; but sacrifice is an instance of positive and ritual observances, and one of the chief of the kind: so that when moral duties and ritual observances come in competition, and do 301clash with one another, the observation of a rite, or positive institution, is to give way to a moral duty; and it is no sin, in that case, to neglect the observation of such a rite, yea, though it were commanded and appointed by God himself. And though this may seem to be a breach of the letter of the law, yet it is according to the true mind and meaning of the law; it being a tacit condition implied in all laws of a ritual and positive nature, provided the observance of them be not to the hinderance and prejudice of any duty, which is of a higher and better nature; in that case, the obligation of it does for that time give way and is suspended.
And this will appear to be the true meaning of this rule, by comparing more particularly the in stances to which our Saviour applies it. His disciples passing through the corn on the sabbath-day, and being hungry, plucked the ears and did eat: this our Saviour doth justify to be no breach of the law of the sabbath; because, in that case, and in such circumstances, it did not oblige: for the disciples being called to attend upon our Saviour, to be instructed by him in the things which concerned the kingdom of God; that is, in the doctrine of the gospel, which they were to publish to the world this attendance hindered them from making necessary provisions against the sabbath, they, in obedience to their Master, being intent upon a better work; but that they might not starve, the necessities of nature must be provided for; and therefore it was fit, that the law of the sabbath, which was but positive and ritual, should give way to an act of mercy and self-preservation: “if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice , ye would not have condemned the guiltless.”302
And the reason is the same as to any instrumental part of religion, by which I mean any thing which may be a means to promote piety and goodness; as prayer, hearing the word of God, keeping good company, and avoiding bad; the duties of this kind, our Saviour here in the text (where he likewise applies this rule), compares with moral duties. To avoid the company of vicious and wicked persons, is a good means to preserve men from the contagion of their vices, and was always esteemed a duty among prudent men, both Jews and heathens, and is no wise disallowed by our Saviour: but yet not so a duty as to hinder a greater duty, nor so strictly and perversely to be insisted upon, as if one ought not to converse with bad men in any case, or upon any account, no not for so great and good an end as to reclaim them from their vices. In this case we ought to consider, that our first and highest obligation is to moral duties, comprehended under the love of God and our neighbour; among which, one of the chief is to do good to men, and to shew mercy and pity to those that are in misery; and the greatest good that one man can do to another, is to be instrumental to reclaim him from the evil and error of his way; because this is “to save his soul from death;” and we cannot imagine that God ever intended, by any rule of prudence or positive constitution of the Jewish law, so to forbid their accompanying with bad and scandalous men, that it should be unlawful to converse with them in order to their recovery and amendment; “Go ye and learn what that meaneth; I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.”
And St. Paul was of the same mind in the precepts he gives concerning avoiding the company of 303scandalous Christians: (2 Thess. iii. 14, 15.) “And if any man obey not our word by tins epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed; yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” St. Paul qualifies his precept, lest Christians should mistake it, and fall into the Jewish extreme, not to converse with those whom they esteemed scandalous and wicked, upon any account whatsoever, no not in order to their amendment and reformation. The bond of intimacy and friendship with bad men ought to be broken, and yet the bond of common humanity may be as strong as ever. It is one thing to discountenance bad men, to bring them to shame, and a sense of their fault; and quite another thing to abandon them to ruin: and, even in case of notorious heresy, or wickedness of life, it is one thing to cut them off from the society and communion of Christians; and quite another, to cut them off from human society, to cut their throats, and to extirpate them out of the world.
And yet the matter was carried thus far by the furious zeal of the Jews, when Christianity first appeared in the world; they thought that no mercy in such cases was the best that could be done, and the best sacrifice that could be offered to Almighty God; and this pattern hath been since not only closely followed, but out-done by the doctrines and practices of the church of Rome; as we have too much reason to remember upon this day.33 Preached on Nov. 5, 1688.
But to proceed in the farther explication of the text, the meaning whereof, in short, is this: that the ritual and instrumental parts of religion, and all 304laws and duties concerning them, are of less value and esteem with God, than those which are of a moral nature, especially the great duties and offices of piety and humanity, of the love of God and of our neighbour. And, if we consider the matter well, we shall see the reason of it to be very plain; because natural and moral duties are approved of God, for themselves and for their own sake, upon account of their own natural and intrinsical goodness; but the ritual and instrumental parts of religion are only pleasing to God in order to these, and so far as they tend to beget and promote them in us; they are not naturally good in themselves, but are instituted and appointed by God for the sake of the other; and therefore great reason there is that they should be subordinate, and give way to them, when they come in competition with one another.
For this is a known rule, which takes place in all laws, that laws of less importance should give way to those that are of greater; quoties leges ex circumstantia colliduntur, ita ut utraque servari non potest, servanda est lex potior: “Whenever two laws happen to be in such circumstances as to clash with one another, so that both of them cannot be observed, that law which is better and of greater consequence is to be kept.” And Tully gives much the same rule in this matter: “In comparing of laws (says he) we are to consider which law is most useful and just, and reasonable to be observed.” From whence it will follow, that when two laws, or more, or how many soever they be, cannot be observed, because they clash with one another; ea maxime conservanda putetur, quae ad maximas res pertinere videatur: “It is reasonable that that law should be observed, which is of greatest moment and concernment.”305
By what hath been said, we may learn what is the meaning of this saying, which our Saviour more than once cites out of the prophet; “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.”
From the words thus explained, I shall take occasion to prosecute the two propositions which I mentioned before; namely,
First, That natural religion is the foundation of instituted and revealed religion.
Secondly, That no instituted religion was ever designed to take away the obligation of natural duties; but is intended to establish and confirm them. And both these are sufficiently grounded in the reason of our Saviour’s discourse from this rule, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.”
I. That natural religion is the foundation of instituted and revealed religion; and all revealed religion does suppose, and take for granted, the clear and undoubted principles and precepts of natural religion, and builds upon them. By natural religion, I mean obedience to the natural law, and the performance of such duties as natural light, without any express and supernatural revelation, doth dictate to men. These lie at the bottom of all religion, and are the great and fundamental duties which God requires of all mankind; as, that we should love God, and behave ourselves reverently towards him; that we should believe his revelations; and testify our dependance upon him, by imploring his aid and direction in all our necessities and distresses; and acknowledge our obligations to him for all the blessings and benefits which we receive; that we should moderate our appetites, in reference to the pleasures and enjoyments of this world, and use them temperately and chastely; that we should 306be just and upright in all our dealings with one another; true to our word, and faithful to our trust, and in all our words and actions observe that equity towards others, which we desire they should use towards us; that we should be kind and charitable, merciful and compassionate, one towards another; ready to do good to all, and apt not only to pity, but to relieve them in their misery and necessity. These, and such like, are those which we call moral duties; and they are of eternal and perpetual obligation, because they do naturally oblige, without any particular and express revelation from God. And these are the foundation of revealed and instituted religion, and all revealed religion does suppose them, and build upon them; for all revelation from God supposeth us to be men, and alters nothing of those duties to which we were naturally obliged before. And this will clearly appear if we consider these three things:
1. That the Scripture every where speaks of these as the main and fundamental duties of the Jewish religion.
2. That no instituted service of God, no positive part of religion, was ever acceptable to him, when these were neglected.
3. That the great design of the Christian religion, was to restore and reinforce the practice of the natural law.
1 . That the Scripture every where speaks of these as the main and fundamental duties of the Jewish religion. When our Saviour was asked, which was the first and great commandment of the law; he answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength; and thou shalt love thy neighbour 307as thyself.” One would have expected he would have given quite another answer, and have pitched upon some of those things which were so much magnified among the Jews, and which they laid so much weight upon; that he should have instanced in sacrifice, or circumcision, or the law of the sabbath: but he overlooks all these as inconsiderable in comparison, and instances only in those two great heads of moral duty—the love of God and our neighbour; which are of natural and perpetual obligation, and comprehend under them all other moral duties.
And these are those which our Saviour calls “the law and the prophets,” and which he says he came not “to destroy, but to fulfil.” (Matt. v. 17-20.) “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil: for verily I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, that, except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
That our Saviour doth not here speak of the judicial or ceremonial law of the Jews, but of the duties of the moral law, will, I think, be very plain, from these following considerations:
First, That the judicial or ceremonial laws of the Jews were to pass away, and did so, not long after; but this law which our Saviour speaks of, was to be 308perpetual, and immutable; for he tells us that heaven and earth should pass away, but one jot or one tittle of this law should not pass.
Secondly, The observation of the law our Saviour speaks of, consisted in such things as the scribes and pharisees neglected; for he tells his disciples, upon this occasion, that except their righteousness did exceed the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees, they should “in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” But now the scribes and pharisees were the most accurate and punctual people in the world, in observing the precepts of the judicial and ceremonial law; they were so far from taking away any thing from these observances, that they had added to them, and enlarged them, by in numerable traditions of their own; so exact were they, that they would “pay tithe of mint, and anise, and cummin,” as our Saviour observes; but then they were extremely defective in moral duties: they were unnatural to their parents, and would pretend that their estates were consecrated to God; that, under this pretence of positive religion, they might excuse themselves from a natural duty, and let their parents starve for God’s sake; they were covetous, and unjust, and devoured widows houses; in a word, our Saviour tells us, they neglected “the weightier matters of the law, mercy, judgment, and the love of God,” and keeping faith with men: so that it is in these things, that our Saviour means, that our righteousness must” exceed the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees,” viz. in the practice of moral duties, which were neglected by them; and, consequently, it is the moral law which our Saviour came to confirm and establish.
Thirdly, If we consider the instances which our 309Saviour gives in his following discourse, by which we may best judge what he means. He instances in murder, and adultery, and perjury, which are undoubtedly forbidden by the natural law; and then he instances in several permissions which were indulged to them for the hardness of their hearts, but yet did intrench upon the dictates of right reason, and the first and original constitution of things; as the permission of divorce upon every slight occasion, and of revenge, and retaliation of injuries.
Fourthly, If we consider that, by “the law and the prophets” our Saviour means that which was principally designed and ultimately intended by them; which was the observation of moral duties; which as they were written in the two tables by the immediate finger of God himself, so are chiefly inculcated by the prophets. And so we find this phrase of “the law and the prophets” elsewhere used by our Saviour, when he mentions that great rule of equity, that—we should do to others as we would have them do to us. (Matt. vii. 12.) “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” But how was this “the law and the prophets,” when this rule was never so much as mentioned in either? our Saviour means, that this is the foundation of all those duties of justice and mercy, which are so much inculcated in “the law and the prophets.”
So that our Saviour makes the observation of moral duties to be the principal design of the Jewish law, and as it were the foundation of it; and therefore he calls moral duties, τὰ Βαρύερα τοῦ νόμου, “the weightier matters of the law.” (Matt. xxiii. 23.) “But ye (says he to the scribes and pharisees) have 310neglected the weightier things of the law, judgment, and mercy, and fidelity.” The scribes and pharisees busied themselves chiefly about ritual observances; but our Saviour tells them, that those other were the most considerable and important duties of the law, and lay at the bottom of the Jewish religion. And much the same enumeration the prophet makes, where he compares sacrifices and these moral duties together: (Mic. vi. 6, 7, 8.) “Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thou sands of rivers of oil? shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, Oman, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” He had required sacrifices, but had no regard to them in comparison with these.
2. No instituted service of God, no positive part of religion whatsoever, was ever acceptable to God, when moral duties were neglected; nay, so far from being acceptable to him, that he rejects them with disdain and abhorrence. To this purpose there are almost innumerable passages in the prophets, (Isa. i. 11, &c.) “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hands, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination to me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting; and when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: when ye make many prayers, I will 311not hear.” What is the reason of all this? because they were defective in the moral duties of religion; so it follows; “your hands are full of blood; wash ye, make ye clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow; come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord;” implying that, till they had respect to moral duties, all their external worship and sacrifices signified nothing. And so likewise, (Isa. lxvi. 3.) he tells them that nothing could be more abominable than their sacrifices, so long as they allowed themselves in wicked practices; “he that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrificeth a lamb, as if he cut off a dog’s neck; he that offereth an oblation, as if he offered swine’s blood; and he that burneth incense, as if he blessed an idol; yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations.” And to mention but one text more out of the Old Testament, (Jer. vii. 4, 5.) “Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these. Throughly amend your ways and doings, throughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbour; oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood.” If they did not practise these duties, and forbear those sins, all the reverence for the temple and worship of God signifies nothing. You see, in the Jewish religion, what it was that was acceptable to God for itself and its own sake; viz. the practice of moral duties; and that all instituted religion, that did not promote and further these, or was destitute of them, was abominable to God. And under the gospel our 312Saviour prefers a moral duty before any gift we can offer to God, and will have it to take place, (Matt. v. 23, 24.) “If thou bring thy gift unto the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.”
But it should seem by this, and what hath been said before, that God prefers goodness and righteousness to men, before his own worship: and obedience to the precepts of the second table, before obedience to those of the first.
But this does but seem so; all that can be collected from this passage of our Saviour, or any thing that hath been already said, are only these two things.
1. That God prefers the practice of the moral duties of the second table, before any instituted worship, such as sacrifice was; and before obedience to the laws of religion, which are merely positive, though they do immediately concern the worship of God.
2. That if we neglect the duties of the second table, of goodness and righteousness towards men, God will not accept of our obedience to the precepts of the first, nor of any act of religious worship that we can perform. This our Saviour means when he says, “Leave there thy gift before the altar; first be reconciled to thy brother, then come and offer thy gift;” intimating that, so long as we bear a revengeful mind towards our brethren, God will not accept of any gift or sacrifice that we can offer to him; or, indeed, of any act of religious worship that we can perform.
3. The great design of the Christian religion is to restore and reinforce the practice of the natural 313law, or, which is all one, of moral duties; and therefore our Saviour begins his first sermon, by promising blessedness to the practice of these duties; of purity, and meekness, and righteousness, and peaceableness, and mercifulness, and patience, and submission to the will of God, under persecutions and sufferings for righteousness sake; and tells us (as I shewed before) that he came not to release men from the practice of these duties, but to oblige them thereto more effectually; and that as these were “the law and the prophets,” that is, the main duties and the foundation of the Jewish religion, so were they much more to be so of the Christian. This the Scriptures of the New Testament do every where declare to be the great design of the gospel, and the Christian religion, to instruct us in these duties, and to engage us effectually to the practice of them. In that known and excellent text, (Tit. ii. 11, 12.) “The grace of God (which is in and by the doctrine of the gospel) hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world.” And herein St. James tells us, the true nature, and the force and virtue of the Christian religion doth consist: (James i. 27.) “Pure religion, and undefiled before God and the Father, is this, to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction, and to keep ourselves unspotted from the world.” And, (chap. iii. 17.) “The wisdom which is from above (that is, that heavenly and Divine knowledge revealed to us by the gospel) hath these properties, and is apt to produce these effects; it is first pure, and then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and of good fruits.
And the planting of these dispositions in us is that 314which the Scripture calls the new creature, and the image of God. (Eph. iv. 20, &c.) The apostle, speaking there of the vices and lusts wherein the gentiles lived, tells Christians that they were otherwise instructed by the gospel: “But you have not so learned Christ, if so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: that ye put off, concerning the former conversation, the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness;” or (as the words perhaps may be better rendered )in the holiness of truth; for it immediately follows: “Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour.”
And this is that which the apostle elsewhere makes to be all in all in the Christian religion. “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.” (Gal. vi. 15.) Which the apostle in the chapter before expresseth thus: “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh (or is inspired) by charity.” And yet more expressly: (1 Cor. vii. 19.) “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but the keeping of the commandments of God.” By the comparing of which texts, it appears that the main thing in Christianity is the practice of moral duties; and this is the new creature, and this the proper effect of the Christian faith, to produce these virtues in us. And, indeed, the great design of the Christian religion, and every thing in it, of the love of God in giving his Son to die for us, of the pardon of our sins and justification in his blood, of all the promises 315and threatenings of the gospel, and of the assistance therein promised, is to engage and encourage, and enable to the practice of moral duties.
And thus I have done with the first thing I proposed to speak to; namely, that natural religion is the foundation of instituted and revealed religion; and all revealed religion does suppose it, and builds upon it. I proceed to the
II. Second, namely, That no revealed and instituted religion was ever designed to take away the obligation of natural duties, but was intended to confirm and establish them. And this also will be evident, if we consider these three things:
1. That all revealed religion calls men to the practice of natural duties. This the Jewish religion did. The first laws which God gave them, and which he distinguished from the rest, by writing them in tables of stone with his own finger, were the precepts of the moral law. And the great business of the prophets, whom God raised up among them, from time to time, was to reprove not so much their defects in their sacrifices, and in the duties of instituted worship, as the breach of the natural law by their vices and immoralities; and to threaten them with the judgments of God, if they did not reform and amend their faults.
And now, under the gospel, the preceptive part of it is almost wholly made up of moral duties; namely, those which are comprehended under those two great commandments, of the love of God and our neighbour. In the Christian religion there is very little that is merely positive and instituted, besides the two sacraments, and praying to God in the name and mediation of Jesus Christ.
2. The most perfect revelation that ever God made 316to mankind (I mean that of the Christian religion), doth furnish us with the best help and advantages for the performance of moral duties; it discovers our duty more clearly to us; it offers us the greatest assistance to enable us to the performance of it; it presents us with the most powerful motives and arguments to engage us thereto; so that this revelation of the gospel is so far from wakening the obligation of natural duties, that it confirms and strengthens it, and urgeth us more forcibly to the practice of them.
3. The positive rites and institutions of revealed religion are so far from intrenching upon the laws of nature, that they were always designed to be subordinate and subservient to them; and, whenever they come in competition, it is the declared will of God, that positive institutions should give way to natural duties; and this I have shewn to be plainly the meaning of this saying in the text, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.” If circumstances be such that one part of religion must give place, God will have the ritual and instituted part to give way to that which is natural and moral.
It is very frequent in Scripture, when the duties of natural religion and rites of Divine institution come in competition, to slight and disparage these in comparison of moral duties, and to speak of them as things which God hath no pleasure in; and which, in comparison with the other, he will hardly own that he hath commanded. “When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hands?” (Isa. i. 12.) “Thou desirest not sacrifice, thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.” (Psal. li. 16.) “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or ten thousands of rivers of oil? He hath shewed 317thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy?”
But God no where makes any comparison to the disadvantage of natural duties; he never derogated from them in any case; he never said he would have such a thing, and not mercy; or that he had rather such a rite of religion should be performed, than that men should do the greatest good, and shew the greatest charity to one another. It is no where made a question, will the Lord be pleased that we deal justly every man with his neighbour, and speak the truth one to another? that we be kind and tender-hearted, and ready to forgive? that we be willing to distribute and give alms to those that are in need? There is no question as this put in Scripture; nay, it is positive in these matters, that “with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” I instance in this virtue more especially of kindness and compassion, because it is one of the prime instances of moral duties; as sacrifice is put for all the ritual and instituted part of religion, and this disposition of mind our Saviour makes the root of all moral duties; “love is the fulfilling of the law:” and the apostle speaks of it as the great end and scope of the gospel; “the end of the commandment is charity.” And this temper and disposition of mind he advanceth above knowledge, and faith, and hope; “the greatest of these is charity;” and without this he will not allow a man to be any thing in Christianity: this he makes our highest perfection and attainment, and that which abides and remains in the future state: “charity never fails.”
This our Saviour most effectually recommends to us, both in his doctrine and by his example; this 318he presseth as a peculiar law of his religion, and the proper mark and character of a disciple. This he requires us to exercise towards those who practise the contrary towards us; “to love our enemies, and to do good to them that hate us.” And of this he hath given us the greatest example that ever was: “when we were enemies to him,” he loved us so as hardly ever any man did his friend, so as “to lay down his life for us;” and he instituted the sacrament for a memorial of his love to mankind, and to put us in mind how we ought to love one another.
And now the application of what hath been said upon this argument, to the occasion of this day, is very obvious; and there are two very natural inferences from it.
First, From what hath been said upon this argument, it plainly appears what place natural and moral duties ought to have in the Christian religion: and, of all natural duties, mercy and goodness. This is so primary a duty of human nature, so great and considerable a part of religion, that all positive institutions must give way to it; and nothing of that kind can cancel the obligation of it, nor justify the violation of this great and natural law. Our blessed Saviour, in his religion, hath declared no thing to the prejudice of it; but, on the contrary, hath heightened our obligation to it as much as is possible, by telling us, that “the Son of man came not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”
So that they know not what manner of spirit they are of who will kill men to do God service; and, to advance his cause and religion in the world, will break through all obligations of nature, and civil society, and disturb the peace of mankind.319
Nor did our Saviour, by any thing in his religion, design to release men from the obligation of natural and civil duties. He had (as one would imagine) as much power as the pope, but yet he deposed none of the princes of this world, nor did absolve their subjects from their fidelity and obedience to them, for their opposition to his religion: he assumed no such power to himself (no, not in ordine ad spiritualia), nor, that ever we read of, did he give it to any other. Whence, then, comes his pretended vicar to have this authority? And yet the horrid attempt of this day was first designed, and afterwards carried on, in prosecution of the pope’s bull of excommunication; and was not so much the effect of the despair and discontent of that party, here in England, as the natural consequence of their doctrines of extirpating heretics and deposing kings, and absolving subjects from their allegiance to them.
No zeal for any positive institution in religion can justify the violation of the natural law, the precepts whereof are of primary and indispensable obligation. The pope’s supremacy is not so clear as the duty of obedience to civil government; nor is transubstantiation so plainly revealed in Scripture, as it is, both in nature and Scripture, that we should “do no murder.” And yet how many thousands have been put to death, because they could not understand this hard word, and believe this impossible thing! And yet, if the supremacy of the pope were clearly of Divine right, and the doctrine of transubstantiation as plain as the institution of the sacrament, yet, these being but positive matters in religion, there would be no reason to kill men for not understanding and believing these things; nay, it would be contrary to religion to do it; because the law of 320mercy and humanity, which is the law of nature, ought not to be violated for the promoting of any positive institution; and God hath plainly said, that “he will have mercy rather than sacrifice;” yea, rather than the sacrifice of the mass, if it were, what they pretend it is, the offering of the natural body and blood of Christ; because it would be needless: for propitiation of sin being once made by Christ’s offering himself once for all upon the cross, there needs no more sacrifice for sin. Nay, I will go further yet: I had rather never administer the sacrament, nor ever receive it, than take away any man’s life about it; because the sacrament is but a positive rite and institution of the Christian religion, and God prefers mercy, which is a duty of natural religion, before any rite or institution whatsoever. Besides that, all acts of malice and cruelty are directly contrary to the particular nature and design of this blessed sacrament, which is to commemorate the sufferings of the Son of God for our sakes, and to give us an example of the greatest love that ever was, and thereby to excite us to the imitation of it.
2. What hath been said, gives us a right notion and character of that church and religion, which prefers the positive rites and institutions of religion, and the observance of them, to those duties which are of natural and eternal obligation, mercy and goodness, fidelity and justice; and which, for the sake of a pretended article of religion, or rite of worship (which, if it were certain that they were revealed and instituted by God, are yet merely positive), will break the greatest of God’s commandments, and teach men so.
It is too plain to be denied, that the principles and precepts of natural religion were never so effectually 321undermined, and the morality of the Christian religion never so intolerably corrupted and debauched, by any thing that ever had the face of religion in the world, as by the allowed doctrines and practices of the church of Rome; and this out of a blind and furious zeal for some imaginary doctrines and rites of the Christian religion; which, at the hot, are of mere positive institution, and of the same rank among Christians, that sacrifices were in the Jewish religion. For which we need go no further for an instance, than in the occasion of this day’s solemnity; upon which day (about fourscore years ago), there was designed a mighty sacrifice indeed, the greatest and richest burnt-offering that ever was pretended to be offered up to Almighty God, by those of any religion whatsoever; not the blood of bulls and goats, but of king, and princes, and nobles, more in value than “thousands of rams, and ten thousands of rivers of oil;” than “all the beasts of the forest, and the cattle upon a thousand hills.”
Here was a prodigious sacrifice indeed; but w here was mercy? the thing God chiefly desires, and which, above all other things, is acceptable to him: no mercy, not even to those of their own religion, whom these nice and tender casuists, after a solemn debate of the case, had resolved to involve in the same common destruction with the rest;—rather no mercy, than that this sacrifice, which their mad zeal had prompted them to, should be omitted.
To conclude: they that can do such inhuman things, and think them to be religion, do not understand the nature of it, but had need to be taught the first rudiments of natural religion; that natural duties are not to be violated upon pretence; no, not for the sake of positive institutions; because natural 322religion is the foundation of that which is instituted; and, therefore, to violate any natural duty, for the sake of that which is instituted, is for religion to undermine and blow up itself! Let those who do such things, and teach men so, go and learn what that meaneth “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.”323
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