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PRACTICE IN RELIGION NECESSARY IN PROPORTION TO OUR KNOWLEDGE.
And that servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes: but he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.—Luke xii. 47, 48.
IN prosecution of the argument which I handled in my last discourse; namely, that the knowledge of our duty, without the practice of it, will not bring us to happiness, I shall proceed to shew, that if our practice be not answerable to our knowledge, this will be a great aggravation both of our sin and punishment.
And to this purpose, I have pitched upon these words of our Lord, which are the application of two parables, which he had delivered before, to stir up men to a diligent and careful practice of their duty, that so they may be in a continual readiness and preparation for the coming of their Lord. The first parable is more general, and concerns all men, who are represented as so many servants in a great family, from which the lord is absent, and they being uncertain of the time of his return, should always be in a condition and posture to receive him. Upon the hearing of this parable, Peter inquires of our Saviour, whether he intended this only for his disciples, 491or for all? To which question our Saviour returns an answer in another parable which more particularly concerned them; who, because they were to be the chief rulers and governors of his church, are represented by the stewards of a great family: (ver. 42.) “Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season?” If he discharge his duty, blessed is he; but if he shall take occasion in his lord’s absence to domineer over his fellow-servants, and riotously to waste his lord’s goods, his lord, when he comes, will punish him after a more severe and exemplary manner.
And then follows the application of the whole in the words of the text: “and that servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” As if he had said, and well may such a servant deserve so severe a punishment, who having such a trust committed to him, and knowing his lord’s will so much better, yet does contrary to it; upon which our Saviour takes occasion to compare the fault and punishment of those who have greater advantages and opportunities of knowing their duty, with those who are ignorant of it; “that servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to it, shall be beaten with many stripes: but he that knew not, but did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes.” And then he adds the reason and the equity of this proceeding: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”492
The words in general do allude to that law of the Jews, mentioned Deut. xxv. 2. where the judge is required to see the malefactor punished according to his fault, by a certain number of stripes; in relation to which known law among the Jews, our Saviour here says, that “those who knew their lord’s will, and did it not, should be beaten with many stripes: but those who knew it not, should be beaten with few stripes.” So that there are two observations lie plainly before us in the words.
First, That the greater advantages and opportunities any man hath of knowing his duty, if he do it not, the greater will be his condemnation; “the servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to it, shall be beaten with many stripes.”
Secondly, That ignorance is a great excuse of men’s faults, and will lessen their punishment; “but he that knew not, but did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes.
I shall begin with the latter of these first, because it will make way for the other; viz. that ignorance is a great excuse of men’s faults, and will lessen their punishment; “he that knew not, but did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes.”
For the clearing of this, it will be requisite to consider what ignorance it is which our Saviour here speaks of; and this is necessary to be inquired into, because it is certain that there is some sort of ignorance which doth wholly excuse and clear from all manner of guilt; and there is another sort, which doth either not at all, or very little, extenuate the faults of men; so that it must be a third sort, different from both these, which our Saviour here means.493
First, There is an ignorance which doth wholly excuse and clear from all manner of guilt, and that is an absolute and invincible ignorance, when a person is wholly ignorant of the thing, which, if he knew, he should be bound to do, but neither can nor could have helped it, that he is ignorant of it; that is, he either had not the capacity, or wanted the means and opportunity, of knowing it. In this case a person is in no fault, if he did not do what he never knew, nor could know to be his duty. For God measures the faults of men by their wills, and if there be no defect there, there can be no guilt; for no man is guilty, but he that is conscious to himself that he would not do what he knew he ought to do, or would do what he knew he ought not to do. Now, if a man be simply and invincibly ignorant of his duty, his neglect of it is altogether involuntary; for the will hath nothing to do, where the understanding doth not first direct. And this is the case of children who are not yet come to the use of reason; for though they may do that which is materially a fault, yet it is none in them, because, by reason of their incapacity, they are at present invincibly ignorant of what they ought to do. And this is the case likewise of idiots, who are under a natural incapacity of knowledge, and so far as they are so, nothing that they do is imputed to them as a fault. The same n ay be said of distracted persons, who are deprived either wholly, or at some times, of the use of their understandings: so far, and so long as they are thus deprived, they are free from all guilt; and to persons who have the free and perfect use of their reason, no neglect of any duty is imputed, of which they are absolutely and invincibly ignorant. For instance, it is a duty incumbent upon all mankind, 494to believe in the Son of God, where he is sufficiently manifested and revealed to them; but those who never heard of him, nor had any opportunity of coming to the knowledge of him, shall not be condemned for this infidelity, because it is impossible they should believe on him of whom they never heard; they may, indeed, be condemned upon other accounts, for sinning against the light of nature, and for not obeying the law which was “written in their hearts;” for what the apostle says of the revelation of the law, is as true of any other revelation of God. “As many as have sinned without law, shall also perish without law; and as many as have sinned under the law, shall be judged by the law:” (Rom. ii. 12.) in like manner, those who have sinned without the gospel, (that is, who never had the knowledge of it) shall not be condemned for any offence against that revelation which was never made to them, but for their violation of the law of nature; only they that have sinned under the gospel shall be judged by it.
Secondly, There is likewise another sort of ignorance, which either does not at all, or very little, extenuate the faults of men; when men are not only ignorant, but choose to be so; that is, when they wilfully neglect those means and opportunities of knowledge which are afforded to them; such as Job speaks of: (Job xxi. 14.) “Who say unto God, Depart from us, for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways.” And this sort of ignorance many among the Jews were guilty of when our Saviour came and preached to them, but they would not be instructed by him; the light came among them, but they loved “darkness rather than light,” as he himself says of them; and, as he says elsewhere of the pharisees, “they rejected the council of God against themselves;” 495they wilfully shut their eyes against that light which offered itself to them; “they would not see with their eyes, nor hear with their ears, nor understand with their hearts, that they might be converted and healed.” Now an ignorance, in this degree wilful, can hardly he imagined to carry any excuse at all in it. He that knew not his Lord’s will, because he would not know it, because he wilfully rejected the means of coming to the knowledge of it, deserves to be beaten with as many stripes, as if he had known it; because he might have known it, and would not. He that will not take notice of the king’s proclamation, or will stop his ears when it is read, and afterwards offends against it, does equally deserve punishment with those who have read it, and heard it, and disobey it; because he was as grossly faulty in not knowing it; and there is no reason that any man’s gross fault should be his excuse.
So that it is neither of these sorts of ignorance that our Saviour means, neither absolute and invincible ignorance, nor that which is grossly wilful and affected: for the first, men deserve not to be beaten at all, because they cannot help it; for the latter, they deserve not to be excused, because they might have helped their ignorance, and would not.
But our Saviour here speaks of such an ignorance as does in a good degree extenuate the fault, and yet not wholly excuse it; for he says of them, that they knew not their lord’s will; and yet that this ignorance did not wholly excuse them from blame, nor exempt them from punishment, but they should “be beaten with few stripes.” In the
Third place, then, There is an ignorance which is in some degree faulty, and yet does in a great measure excuse the faults which proceed from it; and 496this is when men are not absolutely ignorant of their duty, but only in comparison of others, who have a far more clear and distinct knowledge of it; and though they do not grossly and wilfully neglect the means of further knowledge, yet, perhaps, they do not make the best use they might of the opportunities they have of knowing their duty better; and therefore, in comparison of others, who have far better means and advantages of knowing their Lord’s will, they may be said not to know it, though they are not simply ignorant of it, but only have a more obscure and uncertain knowledge of it. Now this ignorance does in a great measure excuse such persons, and extenuate their crimes, in comparison of those who had a clearer and more perfect knowledge of their Master’s will; and yet it does not free them from all guilt, because they did not live up to that degree of knowledge which they had; and perhaps if they had used more care and industry, they might have known their Lord’s will better. And this was the case of the heathens, who, in comparison of those who enjoyed the light of the gospel, might be said not to have known their Lord’s will; though as to many parts of their duty, they had some directions from natural light, and their consciences did urge them to many things by the obscure apprehensions and hopes of a future reward, and the fear of a future punishment. But this was but a very obscure and uncertain knowledge, in comparison of the clear light of the gospel, which hath discovered to us our duty so plainly by the laws and precepts of it, and hath presented us with such powerful motives and arguments to obedience in the promises and threatenings of it. And this, likewise, is the case of many Christians, who, either through 497the natural slowness of their understandings, or by the neglect of their parents and teachers, or other circumstances of their education, have had far less means and advantages of knowledge than others. God does not expect so much from those as from others, to whom he hath given greater capacity and advantages of knowledge; and when our Lord shall come to call his servants to an account, they shall be beaten with fewer stripes than others; they shall not wholly escape, because they were not wholly ignorant; but by how much they had less knowledge than others, by so much their punishment shall be lighter.
And there is all the equity in the world it should be so, that men should be accountable according to what they have received, and that, to whom less is given, less should be required at their hands. The Scripture hath told us, that “God will judge the world in righteousness;” now justice does require, that, in taxing the punishment of offenders, every thing should be considered that may be a just excuse and extenuation of their crimes, and that, accordingly, their punishment should be abated. Now the greatest extenuation of any fault is ignorance, which, when it proceeds from no fault of ours, no fault can proceed from it; so that so far as any man is innocently ignorant of his duty, so far he is excusable for the neglect of it: for every degree of ignorance takes off so much from the perverseness of the will; et nihil ardet in inferno, nisi propria voluntas. “Nothing is punished in hell but what is voluntary, and proceeds from our wills.”
I do not intend this discourse for any commendation of ignorance, or encouragement to it. For knowledge hath many advantages above it, and is 498much more desirable, if we use it well; and if we do not, it is our own fault; if we be not wanting to ourselves, we may be much happier by our knowledge than any man can be by his ignorance; for though ignorance may plead an excuse, yet it can hope for no reward; and it is always better to need no excuse, than to have the best in the world ready at hand to plead for ourselves. Besides that, we may do well to consider, that ignorance is no where an excuse where it is cherished; so that it would be the vainest thing in the world for any man to foster it in hopes thereby to excuse himself; for where it is wilful and chosen it is a fault, and (as I said before) it is the most unreasonable thing in the world, that any man’s fault should prove his excuse. So that this can be no encouragement to ignorance, to say that it extenuates the faults of men: for it does not extenuate them whenever it is wilful and affected; and whenever it is designed and chosen it is wilful; and then no man can reasonably design to continue ignorant, that he may have an excuse for his faults, because then the ignorance is wilful; and, whenever it is so, it ceaseth to be an excuse.
I the rather speak this, because ignorance hath had the good fortune to meet with great patrons in the world, and to be extolled, though not upon this account, yet upon another, for which there is less pretence of reason; as if it were the mother of devotion. Of superstition, I grant it is, and of this we see plentiful proof among those who are so careful to preserve and cherish it: but that true piety and devotion should spring from it, is as unlikely as that darkness should produce light. I do hope, indeed, and charitably believe, that the ignorance in which some are detained by their teachers and governors, 499will be a real excuse to as many of them as are otherwise honest and sincere: but I doubt not, but the errors and faults which proceed from this ignorance will lie heavy upon those who keep them in it. I proceed to the
Second observation, That the greater advantages and opportunities any man hath of knowing the will of God, and his duty, the greater will be his condemnation if he do not do it. “The servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to it, shall be beaten with many stripes. Which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself;” the preparation of our mind to do the will of God, whenever there is occasion and opportunity for it, is accepted with him; a will rightly disposed to obey God, though it be not brought into act for want of opportunity, does not lose its reward: but when, notwithstanding we know not our Lord’s will, there are neither of these, neither the act nor the preparation and resolution of doing it, what punishment may we not expect?
The just God, in punishing the sins of men, proportions the punishment to the crime, and where the crime is greater, the punishment riseth; as amongst the Jews, where the crime was small, the malefactor was sentenced to a “few stripes,” where it was great, he was “beaten with many.” Thus our Saviour represents the great Judge of the world dealing with sinners; according as their sins are aggravated, he will add to their punishment. Now after all the aggravations of sin, there is none that doth more intrinsically heighten the malignity of it, than when it is committed against the clear knowledge of our duty, and that upon these three accounts:500
First, Because the knowledge of God’s will is so great an fed vantage to the doing; of it.
Secondly, Because it is a great obligation upon us to the doing of it.
Thirdly, Because the neglect of our duty in this case cannot be without a great deal of wilfulness and contempt. I shall speak briefly to these three:
First, Because the knowledge of God’s will is so great an advantage to the doing of it; and every advantage of doing our duty is a certain aggravation of our neglect of it. And this is the reason which our Saviour adds here in the text: “For to whom soever much is given, of them much will be required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” It was, no doubt, a great discouragement and disadvantage to the heathens that they were so doubtful concerning the will of God, and in many cases left to the uncertainty of their own reason, by what way and means they might best apply themselves to the pleasing of him; and this discouraged several of the wisest of them from all serious endeavours in religion, thinking it as good to do nothing as to be mistaken about it. Others, that were more naturally devout, and could not satisfy their consciences without some expressions of religion, fell into various superstitions, and were ready to embrace any way of worship which custom prescribed, or the fancies of men could suggest to them: and hence sprang all the stupid and barbarous idolatries of the heathen. For ignorance growing upon the world, that natural propension which was in the minds of men to religion, and the worship of a Deity, for want of certain direction, expressed itself in those foolish and abominable idolatries which were practised among the heathens.501
And is it not, then, a mighty advantage to us, that we have the clear and certain direction of Divine revelation? We have the will of God plainly discovered to us, and all the parts of our duty clearly defined and determined, so that no man that is in any measure free from interest and prejudice, can easily mistake in any great and material part of his duty. We have the nature of God plainly revealed to us, and such a character of him given, as is most suitable to our natural conceptions of a Deity, as render him both awful and amiable; for the Scripture represents him to us as great and good, powerful and merciful, a perfect hater of sin, and a great lover of mankind, and we have the law and manner of his worship (so far as was needful), and the rules of a good life clearly expressed and laid down; and as a powerful motive and argument to the obedience of those laws, a plain discovery made to us of the endless rewards and punishments of another world. And is not this a mighty advantage to the doing of God’s will, to have it so plainly declared to us, and so powerfully enforced upon us? so that our duty lies plainly before us; we see what we have to do, and the danger of neglecting it; so that, considering the advantage we have of doing God’s will, by our clear knowledge of it, we are altogether inexcusable if we do it not.
Secondly, The knowledge of our Lord’s will is likewise a great obligation upon us to the doing of it. For what ought in reason to oblige us more to do any thing than to be fully assured that, it is the will of God, and that it is the law of the great Sovereign of the world, who is able to save or to destroy? That it is the pleasure of him that made us, and who hath declared that he designs to make us 502happy by our obedience to his laws? So that if we know these things to be the will of God, we have the greatest obligation to do them, whether we consider the authority of God, or our own interest; and if we neglect them, we have nothing to say in our own excuse. We knew the law, and the advantage of keeping it, and the penalty of breaking it; and if, after this, we will transgress, there is no apology to be made for us. They have something to plead for themselves, who can say, that though they had some apprehension of some parts of their duty, and their minds were apt to dictate to them that they ought to do some things, yet the different apprehensions of mankind about several of these things, and the doubts and uncertainties of their own minds concerning them, made them easy to be carried off from their duty, by the vicious inclinations of their own nature, and the tyranny of custom and example, and the pleasant temptations of flesh and blood; but had they had a clear and undoubted revelation from God, and had certainly known these things to be his will, this would have conquered and borne down all objections and temptations to the contrary; or, if it had not, would have stopped their mouths, and taken away all excuse from them. There is some colour in this plea, that in many cases they did not know certainly what the will of God was; but for us who own a clear revelation from God, and profess to believe it, what can we say for ourselves, to mitigate the severity of God towards us; why he should not pour forth all his wrath, and execute upon us the fierceness of his anger?
Thirdly, The neglect of God’s will, when we know it, cannot be without a great deal of wilfulness and 503contempt. If we know it, and do it not, the fault is solely in our wills, and the more wilful any sin is, the more heinously wicked is it. There can hardly be a greater aggravation of a crime, than if it proceed from mere obstinacy and perverseness; and if we know it to be our Lord’s will, and do it not, we are guilty of the highest contempt of the greatest authority in the world. And do we think this to be but a small aggravation, to affront the great and sovereign Judge of the world? not only to break his laws, but to trample upon them and despise them, when we know whose laws they are? “Will we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” We believe, that it is God who said, “Thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour; thou shalt not hate, or oppress, or defraud thy brother in any thing; but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself:” and will we notwithstanding venture to break these laws, knowing whose authority they are stamped withal? After this contempt of him, what favour can we hope for from him? What can we say for ourselves, why any one of those many stripes which are threatened should be abated to us? Ignosci aliquatenus ignorantia potest; contemptus veniam non habet. “Something may be pardoned to ignorance; but contempt can expect no forgiveness.” He that strikes his prince, not knowing him to be so, hath something to say for himself, that though he did a disloyal act, yet it did not proceed from a disloyal mind: but he that first acknowledged him for his prince, and then affronts him, deserves to be prosecuted with the utmost severity, because he did it wilfully, and in mere contempt. The knowledge of our duty, and that it 504is the will of God which we go against, takes away all possible excuse from us; for nothing can be said, why we should offend him who hath both authority to command us, and power to destroy us.
And thus I have as briefly as I could, represented to you the true ground and reason of the aggravation of those sins, which are committed against the clear knowledge of God’s will, and our duty; because this knowledge is so great an advantage to the doing of our duty; so great an obligation upon us to it; and because the neglect of our Lord’s will, in this case, cannot be without great wilfulness, and a downright contempt of his authority.
And shall I now need to tell you, how much it concerns every one of us, to live up to that knowledge which we have of our Lord’s will, and to prepare ourselves to do according to it; to be always in a readiness and disposition to do what we know to be his will, and actually to do it, when there is occasion and opportunity? And it concerns us the more, because we, in this age and nation, have so many advantages above a great part of the world, of coming to the knowledge of our duty. We enjoy the clearest and most perfect revelation which God ever made of his will to mankind, and have the light of Divine truth plentifully shed amongst us, by the free use of the Holy Scriptures, which is not a sealed book to us, but lies open to be read and studied by us; this spiritual food is rained down like manna round about our tents, and every one may gather so much as is sufficient: we are not stinted, nor have the word of God given out to us in broken pieces, or mixed and adulterated—here a lesson of Scripture, and there a legend; but whole and entire, sincere and uncorrupt.505
God hath not left us, as he did the heathens for many ages, to the imperfect and uncertain direction of natural light: nor hath he revealed his will to us, as he did to the Jews, in dark types and shadows; but hath made a clear discovery of his mind and will to us. The dispensation which we are under hath no veil upon it, “the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth; we are of the day, and of the light;” and therefore it may justly be expected that we should “put off the works of darkness, and walk as children of the light.” Every degree of knowledge which we have, is an aggravation of the sins committed against it, and when our Lord comes to pass sentence upon us, will add to the number of our stripes. Nay, if God should inflict no positive torment upon sinners, yet their own minds would deal most severely with them upon this account, and nothing will gall their consciences more than to remember against what light they did offend. For herein lies the very nature and sting of all guilt, to be conscious to ourselves, that we knew what we ought to have done, and did it not. The vices and corruptions which reigned in the world before will be pardonable, in comparison of ours. “The times of that ignorance God winked at; but now he commands all men every where to repent.” Mankind had some excuse for their errors before, and God was pleased, in a great measure, to overlook them; but “if we continue still in our sins, we have no cloak for them.” All the degrees of light which we enjoy are so many talents committed to us by our Lord, for the improving whereof he will call us to a strict account: “for unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required; and to whom he hath committed much, of him he will ask the 506more.” And nothing is more reasonable, than that men should account for all the advantages and opportunities they have had of knowing the will of God; and that as their knowledge was increased, so their sorrow and punishment should proportionably rise, if they sin against it. The ignorance of a great part of the world is deservedly pitied and lamented by us; but the condemnation of none is so bad, as those who, having the knowledge of God’s will, neglect to do it; “how much better had it been for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them!” If we had been born, and brought up in ignorance of the true God and his will, we had had no sin, in comparison of what now we have: but now that we see, our sin remains. This will aggravate our condemnation beyond measure, that we had the knowledge of salvation so clearly revealed to us. Our duty lies plainly before us; we know what we ought to do, and what manner of persons we ought to be, in all holy conversation and godliness. We believe the coming of our Lord to judgment, and we know not how soon he may be “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels,” not only “to take vengeance on them that know not God,” but on them that have known him, and yet obey not the gospel of his Son. And if all this will not move us to prepare ourselves to do our Lord’s will, we deserve to have our stripes multi plied. No condemnation can be too heavy for those who offend against the clear knowledge of God’s will, and their duty.
Let us then be persuaded to set upon the practice of what we know; let the light which is in our 507understandings descend upon our hearts and lives; let us not dare to continue any longer in the practice of any known sin, nor in the neglect of any thing which we are convinced is our duty; and if our hearts condemn us not, neither for the neglect of the means of knowledge, nor for rebelling against the light of God’s truth shining in our minds, and glaring upon our consciences, “then have we confidence towards God: but if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts, and knows all things.”508
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