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KNOWLEDGE AND PRACTICE NECESSARY IN RELIGION.
If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.—John xiii. 17.
Two things make up religion, the knowledge and the practice of it; and the first is wholly in order to the second; and God hath not revealed to us the knowledge of himself and his will, merely for the improvement of our understanding, but for the bettering of our hearts and lives: not to entertain bur minds with the speculations of religion and virtue, but to form and govern our actions. “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.”
In which words our blessed Saviour does, from a particular instance, take occasion to settle a general conclusion; namely, that religion doth mainly consist in practice, and that the knowledge of his doctrine, without the real effects of it upon our lives, will bring no man to heaven. In the beginning of this chapter, our great Lord and Master, to testify his love to his disciples, and to give them a lively in stance and example of that great virtue of humility, is pleased to condescend to a very low and mean office, such as was used to be performed by servants to their masters, and not by the master to his servants; namely, to wash their feet: and when he had clone this, he asks them if they did understand the meaning of this strange action. “Know ye what I have done unto you? ye call me Master, and Lord, and ye say well, for so I am. If I then, 473your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet; for I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, the servant is not greater than the Lord, neither he that is sent, greater than he that sent him; if ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.” As if he had said, This which I have now done, is easy to be understood; and so likewise are all those other Christian graces and virtues, which I have heretofore, by my doctrine and example, recommended to you; but it is not enough to know these things, but ye must likewise do them. The end and the life of all our knowledge in religion is to put in practice what we know. It is necessary, indeed, that we should know our duty, but knowledge alone will never bring us to that happiness which religion designs to make us partakers of, if our knowledge have not its due and proper influence upon our lives. Nay, so far will our knowledge be from making us happy, if it be separated from the virtues of a good life, that it will prove one of tin heaviest aggravations of our misery; and it is as if he had said, “If ye know these things, woe be unto you, if ye do them not.”
From these words, then, I shall observe these three things, which I shall speak but briefly to.
First, That the knowledge of God’s will, and our duty, is necessary to the practice of it; “If ye know the these things,” which supposeth, that we must know our duty, before we can do it.
Secondly, That the knowledge of our duty, and the practice of it, may be, and too often are, separated. This likewise the text supposeth, that men may know their duty, and yet not do it; and that 474this is very frequent, which is the reason why our Saviour gives this caution.
Thirdly, That the practice of religion, and the doing of what we know to be our duty, is the only way to happiness; “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.” I begin with the
First of these; namely, That the knowledge of God’s will and our duty is necessary, in order to the practice of it. The truth of this proposition is so clear and evident, at first view, that nothing can obscure it, and bring it in question, but to endeavour to prove it; and therefore, instead of spending time in that, I shall take occasion from it justly to reprove that preposterous course which is taken, and openly avowed and justified by some, as the safest and best way to make men religious, and to bring them to happiness; namely, by taking away from them the means of knowledge; as if the best \\ay to bring men to do the will of God, were to keep men from knowing it. For what else can be the meaning of that maxim so current in the church of Rome, that “ignorance is the mother of devotion?” or of that strange and injurious practice of theirs of locking up from the people that great storehouse and treasury of Divine knowledge, the Holy Scriptures, in an unknown tongue?
I know very well, that, in justification of this hard usage of their people, it is pretended that knowledge is apt to puff men up, to make them proud and contentious, refractory and disobedient, and heretical, and what not; and, particularly, that the free and familiar use of the Holy Scriptures permitted to the people, hath ministered occasion to the people of falling into great and dangerous errors, and of making great disturbance and divisions among Christians. 475For answer to tins pretence, I desire these four or five things may be considered.
First, That unless this be the natural and necessary effect of knowledge in religion, and of the free use of the Holy Scriptures, there is no force in this reason; and if this be the proper and natural effect of this knowledge, then this reason will reach a great way farther, than those who make use of it are willing it should.
Secondly, That this is not the natural and necessary effect of knowledge in religion, but only accidental, and proceeding from men’s abuse of it; for which the thing itself is not to be taken away.
Thirdly, That the proper and natural effects and consequences of ignorance, are equally pernicious, and much more certain and unavoidable, than those which are accidentally occasioned by knowledge.
Fourthly, That if this reason be good, it is much stronger for withholding the Scriptures from the priests and the. learned, than from the people.
Fifthly, That this danger was as great, and as ell known in the apostles times, and yet they took quite contrary course.
First, I desire it may be considered, that, unless this be the natural and necessary effect of knowledge in religion, and of the free use of the Holy Scriptures there is no force in this reason, for that which is necessary, or highly useful, ought not to be taken away, because it is liable to be perverted, and abused to ill purposes. If it ought, then not only knowledge in religion, but all other knowledge ought to be restrained and suppressed; for all knowledge is apt to puff up, and liable to be abused to many ill purposes. At this rate, light, and liberty, and reason, yea, and life itself, ought all to 476be taken away, because they are all greatly abused, by many men, to some ill purposes or other; so that unless these ill effects do naturally and necessarily spring from knowledge in religion, the objection from them is of no force; and if they do necessarily flow from it, then this reason will reach a great way farther than those that make use of it are willing it should; for if this be true, that the knowledge of religion, as it is revealed in the Holy Scriptures, is of its own nature so pernicious, as to make men proud, and contentious, and heretical, and disobedient to authority; then the blame of all this would fall upon our blessed Saviour, for revealing so pernicious a doctrine, and upon his apostles for publishing this doctrine in a known tongue to all mankind, and thereby laying the foundation of perpetual schisms and heresies in the church.
Secondly, But this is not the natural and necessary effect of knowledge in religion, but only accidental, and proceeding from men’s abuse of it, for which the thing itself ought not to be taken away. And thus much certainly they will grant, because it cannot with any face be denied; and if so, then the means of knowledge are not to be denied, but only men are to be cautioned not to pervert and abuse them. And if any man abuse the Holy Scriptures to the patronizing of error or heresy, or to any other bad purpose, he does it at his peril, and must give an account to God for it, but ought not to be deprived of the means of knowledge, for fear he should make an ill use of them. We must not hinder men from being Christians, to preserve them from being heretics, and put out men’s eyes, for fear they should some time or other take upon them to dispute their way with their guides.477
I remember that St. Paul, (1 Cor. viii. 1.) takes notice of this accidental inconvenience of knowledge, that it puffeth up; and that this pride occasioned great contentions and divisions among them: but the remedy which he prescribes against this mischief of knowledge, is not to withhold from men the means of it, and to celebrate the service of God, the prayers of the church, and the reading of the Scriptures in an unknown tongue, but, quite contrary (chap. xiv. of that Epistle), he strictly enjoins that the service of God in the church be so performed as may be for the edification of the people; which, he says, cannot be, if it be celebrated in an unknown tongue; and the remedy he prescribes against the accidental mischief and inconvenience of knowledge is not ignorance, but charity, to govern their knowledge, and to help them to make right use of it; (ver. 20. of that chapter,) after he had declared that the service of God ought to be performed in a known tongue, he immediately adds, “Brethren, be not children in understanding; howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be ye men.” He commends knowledge, he encourageth it, he requires it of all Christians; BO far is he from checking the pursuit of it, and depriving the people of the means of it. And indeed there is nothing in the Christian religion, but what is fit for every man to know, because there is nothing in it, but what is designed to promote holiness and a good life; and if men make any other use of their knowledge it is their own fault, for it certainly tends to make men good; and being so useful and necessary to so good a purpose, men ought not to be debarred of it.
Thirdly, Let it be considered, that the proper 478and natural effects and consequences of ignorance are equally pernicious, and much more certain and unavoidable, than those which are accidentally occasioned by knowledge; for so far as a man is ignorant of his duty, it is impossible he should do it. He that hath the knowledge of religion, may be a bad Christian; but he that is destitute of it, can be none at all. Or if ignorance do beget and promote some kind of devotion in men, it is such a devotion as is not properly religion, but superstition; the ignorant man may be zealously superstitious, but without some measure of knowledge no man can be truly religious. “That the soul be without knowledge it is not good,” says Solomon, (Prov. xix. 2.) because good practices depend upon our knowledge, and must be directed by it; whereas, a man that is trained up only to the outward performance of some things in religion, as to the saying over so many prayers in an unknown tongue, this man cannot be truly religious; because nothing is religious that is not a reasonable service, and no service can be reasonable that is not directed by our understanding. Indeed, if the end of prayer were only to give God to understand what we want, it were all one what language we prayed in, and whether we understood what we asked of him or not; but so long as the end of prayer is to testify the sense of our own wants, and of our dependance upon God for the supply of them, it is impossible that any man should, in any tolerable propriety of speech, be said to pray, who does not understand what he asks; and the saying over so many pater-nosters by one that does not understand the meaning of them, is no more a prayer, than the repeating over so many verses in Virgil. And if this were good 479reasoning, that men must not be permitted to know so much as they can in religion, for fear they should grow troublesome with their knowledge, then certainly the best way in the world to maintain peace in the Christian church, would be to let the people know nothing at all in religion; and the best way to secure the ignorance of the people would be to keep the priests as ignorant as the people, and then, to be sure, they could teach them nothing; but then the mischief would be, that, out of a fondness to maintain peace in the Christian church, there would be no church, nor no Christianity; which would be the same wise contrivance, as if a prince should destroy his subjects to keep his kingdom quiet.
Fourthly, Let us likewise consider, that if this reason be good, it is much stronger for withholding the Scriptures from the priests and the learned, than from the people; because the danger of starting errors and heresies, and countenancing them from Scripture, and managing them plausibly and with advantage, is much more to be feared from the learned than from the common people; and the experience of all ages hath shewn, that the great broachers and abetters of heresy in the Christian church, have been men of learning and wit; and most of the famous heresies, that are recorded in. ecclesiastical history, have their names from some learned man or other; so that it is a great mistake to think that the way to prevent error and heresy in the church, is to take the Bible out of the hands of the people, so long as the free use of it is permitted to men of learning and skill, in whose hands the danger of perverting it is much greater. The ancient fathers, I am sure, do frequently prescribe to the 480people the constant and careful reading of the Holy Scriptures, as the surest antidote against the poison of dangerous errors, and damnable heresies; and if there be so much danger of seduction into error from the oracles of truth, by what other or better means can we hope to be secured against this danger? if the word of God be so cross and improper a means to this end, one would think that the teachings of men should be much less effectual; so that men must either be left in their ignorance, or they must be permitted to learn from the word of truth; and whatever force this reason of the danger of heresy hath in it, to deprive the common people of the use of the Scriptures, I am sure it is much stronger to wrest them out of the hands of the priests and the learned, because they are much more capable of perverting them to so bad a purpose.
Fifthly, and lastly, This danger was as great and visible in the age of the apostles, as it is now; and yet they took a quite contrary course: there were heresies then as well as now, and either the Scriptures were not thought, by being in the hands of the people, to be the cause of them, or they did not think the taking of them out of their hands a proper remedy. The apostles, in all their epistles, do earnestly exhort the people to grow in knowledge, and commend them for searching the Scriptures, and charge them that the word of God should dwell richly in them. And St. Peter takes particular notice of some men wresting some difficult passages in St. Paul’s epistles, as likewise in the other Scriptures, to their own destruction, (2 Pet. iii. 16.) where, speaking of St. Paul’s epistles, he says, “there are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also 481the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” Here the danger objected is taken notice of; but the remedy prescribed by St. Peter, is not to take from the people the use of the Scriptures, and to keep them in ignorance; but, after he had cautioned against the like weakness and errors, he exhorts them to grow in knowledge; (ver. 17, 18.) “Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before (that is, seeing ye are so plainly told and warned of this danger), beware 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;” (that is, of the Christian religion;) believing, it seems, that the more knowledge they had in religion, the less they would be in danger of falling into damn able errors. I proceed to the
Second observation; viz. That the knowledge of our duty, and the practice of it, may and often are separated. This likewise is supposed in the text; that men may, and often do, know the will of God, and their duty, and yet fail in the practice of it. Our Saviour, elsewhere, supposed] that many know their Master’s will, who do not do it; and he compares those that hear his sayings, and do them not, to a foolish man that built his house upon the sand. And St. James speaks of some, who are “hearers of the word only, but not doers of it;” and for that reason fall short of happiness. And this is no wonder, because the attaining to that knowledge of religion which is necessary to salvation is no difficult task. A great part of it is written in our hearts, and we cannot be ignorant of it if we would; as, that there is a God, and a Providence, and another state after this life, wherein we shall be 482rewarded or punished, according as we have lived here in this world; that God is to be worshipped, to he prayed to for what we want, and to be praised for what we enjoy. Thus far nature instructs men in religion, and in the great duties of morality, as justice and temperance, and the like. And as for revealed religion, as, that Jesus Christ the Son of God came in our nature to save us, by revealing our duty more clearly and fully to us, by giving us a more perfect example of holiness and obedience in his own life and conversation, and by dying for our sins, and rising again for our justification; these are things which men may easily understand; and yet, for ail that, they are with difficulty brought to the practice of religion.
I shall instance in three sorts of persons, in whom the knowledge of religion is more remarkably separated from the practice of it; and, for distinction’s sake, I may call them by these names—the speculative, the formal, and the hypocritical Christian. The first of these makes religion only a science; the second takes it up for a fashion; the third makes some worldly advantage of it, and serves some secular interest and design by it. All these are, upon several accounts, concerned to understand some thing of religion; but yet will not be brought to the practice of it.
The first of these, whom I call the speculative Christian, is he who makes religion only a science, and studies it as a piece of learning, and part of that general knowledge in which he affects the reputation of being a master; he hath no design to practise it, but he is loath to be ignorant of it, because the knowledge of it is a good ornament of conversation, and will serve for discourse and entertainment among 483those who are disposed to be grave and serious; and because he does not intend to practise it, he passeth over those things which are plain and easy to he understood, and applies himself chiefly to the consideration of those things which are more abstruse, and will afford matter of controversy and subtle dispute; as the doctrine of the trinity, predestination, free-will, and the like. Of this temper seem many of the schoolmen of old to have been, who made it their great study and business to puzzle religion, and to make every thing in it intricate, by starting infinite questions and difficulties about the plainest truths; and of the same rank usually are the heads and leaders of parties and factions in religion, who, by needless controversies, and endless disputes about something or other, commonly of no great moment in religion, hinder themselves and others from minding the practice of the great and substantial duties of a good life.
Secondly, There is the formal Christian, who takes up religion for a fashion. He is born and bred in a nation where Christianity is professed and countenanced, and therefore thinks it convenient for him to know something of it. Of this sort there are, I fear, a great many, who read the Scriptures some times as others do, to know the history of it; and go to church, and hear the gospel preached, and by this means come, in some measure, to understand the history of our Saviour, and the Christian doctrine; but do not at all bend themselves to comply with the great end and design of it; they do not heartily endeavour to form and fashion their lives according to the laws and precepts of it; they think they are very good Christians, if they can give an account of the articles of their faith, profess their belief 484in God and Christ, and declare that they hope to be saved by him, though they take no care to keep his commandments. These are they of whom our Saviour speaks, (Luke vi. 46.) who call him, “Lord, Lord; but do not the things which he said.”
Thirdly, Hypocritical Christians, who make an interest of religion, and serve some worldly design by it. These are concerned to understand religion more than ordinary, that they may counterfeit it handsomely, and may not be at a loss when they have occasion to put on the garb of it. And this is one part of the character which the apostle gives of those persons, who he foretels would appear in the last days: (2 Tim. iii. 2.) he says they should be “lovers of their own selves, covetous, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God, having a form of godliness, but denying the power of it.”
Now these men do not love religion, but they have occasion to make use of it, and therefore they will have no more of it than will just serve their purpose and design. And, indeed, he that hath any other design in religion than to please God, and save his soul, needs no more than so much knowledge of it, as will serve him to act a part in it upon occasion. I come to the
Third and last observation; viz. That the practice of religion, and the doing of what we know to be our duty, is the only way to happiness; “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them;” not “if you know these things happy are ye;” but “if ye know and do them.” Now to convince men of so important a truth, I shall endeavour to make out these two things:485
First, That the gospel makes the practice of religion a necessary condition of our happiness.
Secondly, That the nature and reason of the thing makes it a necessary qualification for it.
First, The gospel makes the practice of religion a necessary condition of our happiness. Our Saviour, in his first sermon, where he repeats the promise of blessedness so often, makes no promise of it to the mere knowledge of religion, but to the habit and practice of Christian graces and virtues, of meekness, and humility, and mercifulness, and righteousness, and peaceableness, “and purity, and patience under sufferings, and persecutions for righteousness sake.” And (Matt. vii. 22.) our Saviour doth most fully declare, that the happiness which he promises did not belong to those who made profession of his name, and were so well acquainted with his doctrine, as to be able to instruct others, if themselves in the mean time did not practise it; “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say unto me in that day, Lord, Lord, have wo not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name cast out devils, and done many wondrous works? and then will I profess unto them, I never knew you, depart from me, ye workers of iniquity.” Though they profess to know him, yet, because their lives wire not answerable to the knowledge which they had of him and his doctrine, he declares that he will not know them, but bid them depart from him. And then he goes on to shew, that though a man attend to the doctrine of Christ, and gain the knowledge of it; yet, if it do not descend into his life, and govern his actions, all that man’s hopes of 486heaven are fond and groundless; and only that man’s hopes of heaven are well grounded, who knows the doctrine of Christ and does it: (ver. 24.) “Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house upon a rock; and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock: and every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall he likened to a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand; and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” Though a man had a knowledge of religion as great and perfect as that which Solomon had of natural things, large as the sand upon the sea-shore, yet all this knowledge separated from practice would be like the sand also in another respect, a weak foundation for any man to build his hopes of happiness upon.
To the same purpose St. Paul speaks: (Rom. ii. 13.) “Not the hearers of the law are just before God; but the doers of the law shall be justified.” So likewise St. James: (chap. i. 22.) “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves;” and, (ver. 25.) “Whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, (that is, the law or doctrine of the gospel,) and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed;” and therefore he adds, that the truth and reality of religion are to be measured by the effects of it, in the government of our words, and ordering of our lives: (ver. 26.) “If any man among you seem to be religious, and 487bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion, and undefiled before God and the Father is this; to visit the fatherless and widow in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” Men talk of religion, and keep a great .stir about it; but no thing will pass for “true religion before God,” but the virtuous and charitable actions of a good life; and God will accept no man to eternal life upon any other condition. So the apostle tells us most expressly: (Heb. xii. 14.) “Follow peace with nil men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”
Secondly, As God hath made the practice of religion a necessary condition of our happiness, so the very nature and reason of the thing makes it a necessary qualification for it. It is necessary that we become like to God, in order to the enjoyment of him; and nothing makes us like to God, but the practice of holiness and goodness. Knowledge, indeed, is a Divine perfection; but that alone, as it doth not render a man like God, so neither doth it dispose him for the enjoyment of him. If a man had the understanding of an angel, he might for all that be a devil; “he that committeth sin is of the devil,” and whatever knowledge such a man may have, be is of a devilish temper and disposition: “but everyone that doeth righteousness is born of God.” By this we are like God, and only by our likeness to him, do we become capable of the sight and enjoyment of him; therefore every man that hopes to be happy by the blessed sight of God in the next life, must endeavour after holiness in this life. So the same apostle tells us, (1 John iii. 3.) “Every man that hath this hope in him, purifieth 488himself, even as he is pure.” A wicked temper and disposition of mind is, in the very nature of the thing, utterly inconsistent with all reasonable hopes of heaven.
Thus I have shewn that the practice of religion, and the doing of what we know to be our duty, is the only way to happiness.
And now the proper inference from all this is, to put men upon the careful practice of religion. Let no man content himself with the knowledge of his duty, unless he do it; and to this purpose I shall briefly urge these three considerations:
First, This is the great end of all our knowledge in religion, to practise what we know. The knowledge of God and of our duty hath so essential a respect to practice, that the Scripture will hardly allow it to be properly called knowledge, unless it have an influence upon our lives: (1 John ii. 3, 4.) “Hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”
Secondly, Practice is the best way to increase and perfect our knowledge. Knowledge directs us in our practice, but practice confirms and increaseth our knowledge: (John vii. 17.) “If a man will do the will of God, he shall know of the doctrine.” The best way to know God, is to belike him ourselves, and to have the lively image of his perfections imprinted upon our souls; and the best way to understand the Christian religion, is seriously to set about the practice of it; this will give a man a better notion of Christianity, than any speculation can.
Thirdly, Without the practice of religion, our 489knowledge will be so far from being any furtherance and advantage to our happiness, that it will be one of the unhappiest aggravations of our misery. He that is ignorant of his duty, hath some excuse to pretend for himself: but he that understands the Christian religion, and does not live according to it, hath no cloak for his sin. The defects of our knowledge, unless they be gross and wilful, will find an easy pardon with God: but the faults of our lives shall be severely punished, when we know our duty, and would not do it. I will conclude with that of our Saviour: (Luke xii. 47, 48.) “That servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes: for unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required.” When we come into the other world, no consideration will sting us more, and add more to the rage of our torments than this, that we did wickedly, when we understood to have done better; and chose to make ourselves miserable, when we knew so well the way to have been happy.490
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