|« Prev||Sermon CXVII. The Prejudices Against Christianity…||Next »|
THE PREJUDICES AGAINST CHRISTIANITY CONSIDERED.
And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me.—Matt. xi. 6.
I. Those prejudices and objections which the world had against our Saviour and his religion at their first appearance; as also to inquire into those which men at this day do more especially insist upon, against the Christian religion; and to shew the unreasonableness of them.
II. How happy a thing it is to escape and overcome the common prejudices which men have against religion.
I have entered upon the first of these; the prejudices which the world had against our Saviour and his religion. When this great teacher of mankind came from God, though he gave all imaginable testimony and evidence that he was sent from heaven, yet the greatest part of the world, both Jews and gentiles, were mightily offended at him, and deeply 2prejudiced against him and his doctrine; but not both upon the same account.
I have already given you an account of the chief exceptions which the Jews made against our Saviour and his doctrine, and have shewn the unreasonableness of them.
I proceed now to consider the principal of those exceptions, which the gentiles and heathen philosophers took at our Saviour and his doctrine. I shall mention these four:
First, That Christianity was a great innovation, and contrary to the received institutions of the world.
Secondly, They objected against the plainness and simplicity of the doctrine.
Thirdly, That it wanted demonstration.
Fourthly, That the low and suffering condition of our Saviour was unsuitable to one that pretended to be the Son of God, and to be appointed by him for a teacher and reformer of the world. These are the chief exceptions which the heathen, and especially their philosophers, took at our Saviour and his doctrine.
First, That the Christian religion was a great innovation, and contrary to the received institutions of the world; and consequently that it did condemn the religion which had been so universally received and established in the world by so long a continuance of time. And no wonder if this made a great impression upon them, and raised a mighty prejudice in the minds of men against the Christian religion; no prejudices being so strong as those that are fixed in the minds of men by education: and of all the prejudices of education, none so violent and hard to be removed, as those about religion; 3yea, though they be never so groundless and unreasonable. “Hath a nation changed their gods, which yet are no gods?” Intimating to us, that men are very hardly brought off from that religion which they have been brought up in, how absurd soever it be. When Christianity was first propounded to the heathen world, had men been free and indifferent, and not prepossessed with other apprehensions of God and religion, it might then have been expected from them, that they should have entertained it with a readiness of mind proportion able to the reasonableness of it. But the case was quite otherwise; the world had for many ages been brought up to another way of worship, and inured to rites and superstitions of a quite different nature. And this sways very much with men; Sequimur majores nostros, qui feliciter sequuti sunt suos; as one of the heathens said in those clays; “We follow our ancestors, who happily followed theirs.” Men are hardly brought to condemn those opinions and customs in religion, which themselves and their forefathers have always embraced and followed. And wise men especially are loath to admit so great a change in a matter of so great concernment as religion is. So that this must be acknowledged to have been a considerable prejudice against the Christian religion at its first appearance. But yet, upon a thorough examination, this will not be found sufficient in reason to withhold men from embracing Christianity, if we consider these four things:
1. No prudent person thinks that the example and custom of his forefathers obligeth him to that which is evil in itself, and pernicious to him that does it; and there is no evil, no danger, equal to that of a false religion; for that tends to the ruin of 4men’s souls, and their undoing for ever. A man might better allege the example of his forefathers to justify his errors and follies in any other kind than in this, which is so infinitely pernicious in the consequences of it.
2. In a great corruption and degeneracy, it is no sufficient reason against a reformation, that it makes a change. When things are amiss, it is always fit to amend and reform them; and this cannot be done without a change. The wisest among the heathens did acknowledge that their religion was mixed with very great follies and superstitions, and that the lives and manners of men were extremely corrupt and degenerate; and they endeavoured, as much as they could, and durst, to reform these things. And therefore there was no reason to oppose an effectual reformation, for fear of a change; a change of things for the better, though it be usually hard to be effected, being always a thing to be desired and wished for.
3. The change which Christianity designed, was the least liable to exception that could be, being nothing else, in the main of it, but the reducing of natural religion, the bringing of men back to such apprehensions of God, and such a way of worshipping him, as was most suitable to the Divine nature, and to the natural notions of men’s minds; nothing else but a design to persuade men of the one true God, maker of the world, that he is a Spirit, and to be worshipped in such a manner as is suitable to his spiritual nature. And then, for matters of practice, to bring men to the obedience of those precepts of temperance, and justice, and charity, which had been universally acknowledged, even by the heathens themselves, to be the great duties which men 5 owe to themselves and others. And that this is the main design of the Christian religion, the apostle hath told us in most plain express words: (Tit. ii. 11, 12.) “The grace of God (that is, the doctrine of the gospel) which hath appeared to all men, and brings salvation, teacheth us, that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, and righteously, and godly, in this present world.”
And all that the Christian religion adds beyond this, are means and helps for our direction, and assistance, and encouragement in the discharge and performance of these duties. For our direction, God hath sent his Son in our nature, to declare his will to us, and to be a pattern and example of holiness and virtue. For our assistance, he hath promised the aids of his Holy Spirit; and for our encouragement, he offers to us pardon of sin in the blood of his Son, and eternal life and happiness in another world. This is a short sum and abridgment of the Christian religion, and there is nothing of all this that can reasonably be excepted against.
4. God, considering the prejudice of the heathen against Christianity, by reason of their education in a contrary religion, was strong and violent, was pleased to give such evidence of the truth of Christianity, as was of proportionable strength and force to remove and conquer this prejudice. He was pleased to give testimony to the first founder of this religion, by mighty miracles, and particularly by his resurrection from the dead; but because the report of these things was only brought to the heathen world, and they had not seen these things themselves; therefore, he enabled those who were the witnesses of these things to the world, to work as great miracles as he had done. And when they 6saw those who gave testimony to our Saviour’s miracles, do as great and strange things themselves, as they testified of him, there was no reason any longer to doubt of the truth of their testimony. So that though the prejudice of the heathen against Christianity was very great, yet the evidence which God gave to it was strong enough to remove it. The doctrine of Christianity was such as might have recommended itself to impartial men, by its own reasonableness: but meeting with violent prejudices in those to whom it was offered, God was pleased to give such a confirmation to it as was sufficient to bear down those prejudices.
Secondly, Another objection against Christianity was the plainness and simplicity of the doctrine. They expected some deep speculations in natural or moral philosophy; they made full account, a teacher sent from heaven would have instructed them in the profoundest points, and discoursed to them about the first principles of things, and the nature of the soul, and the chief end of man, with a subtilty and eloquence infinitely beyond that of their greatest sophisters, and able to bear down all opposition and contradiction: but, instead of this, they are told a plain story of the life and miracles of Jesus Christ, and of his dying upon the cross, and rising from the dead, and ascending into heaven; and a few plain precepts of life; and all this delivered without any ornaments of art, or insinuation of eloquence, to gain the favour and applause of those to whom they related these things.
But now this, truly considered, is so far from being any real objection against the Christian doctrine, that it is one of the greatest commendations that can be given of it: for matter of fact ought to be 7related in the most plain and simple and unaffected manner; and the less art and eloquence is used in the telling of a story, the more likely it is to gain belief. And as for our Saviour’s precepts, how plain soever they might be, I am sure they are a collection of the most excellent and reasonable rules of a good life, and the freest from all vanity and folly, that are to be met with in any book in the world. And can any thing be more worthy of God, and more likely to proceed from him, than so plain and useful a doctrine as this? The language of the law is not wont to be line and persuasive, but short, and plain, and full of authority. Thus it is among men: and surely it is much fitter for God to speak thus to men, than for men to one another.
Thirdly, It is objected, that the doctrine of our Saviour and his apostles wanted demonstration; they seemed to impose too much upon the understandings of men, and to deliver things too magisterially, not demonstrating things from intrinsical arguments, but requiring belief and assent without proof.
This the apostle St. Paul readily acknowledged, that, in preaching the gospel to the world, they did not proceed in the way of the heathen orators and philosophers. (1 Cor. ii. 4.) “My speech and my preaching was not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom: but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power;” that is, they did not go in the way of human eloquence and demonstration; but yet their doctrine did not want its evidence and demonstration, though of another kind. They did not go about to bewitch men by eloquence, nor to entangle their minds by subtle reasonings, the force of which very few are capable of: but they offered to men a sensible proof find demonstration of the truth of what they delivered, 8in those strange and miraculous operations, to which they were enabled by the Holy Ghost. And this was a sensible evidence, even to the meanest capacity, of a Divine assistance going along with them, and giving testimony to them. I appeal to any man, whether the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and his ascending into heaven, be not a clearer demonstration of another life after this, and more level to the capacities of all mankind, than the finest and subtilest arguments that can be drawn from the immaterial nature of the soul, its power of reflection upon itself, and independency upon the body as to some of its operations; which yet are some of the chiefest arguments that philosophy affords to prove the immortality of our souls.
Fourthly, The heathens objected, that the low and mean condition of our Saviour was unsuitable to one that pretended to be the Son of God, and to be appointed by God to be a teacher and reformer of the world. This, to the heathen philosophers, did not only appear unreasonable, but even ridiculous. So St. Paul tells us: (1 Cor. i. 23.) “We preach Christ crucified; to the Jews a stumblingblock, and to the Greeks foolishness:” to think that a man who appeared in such mean circumstances should be fit to reform the world; and one, who himself was put to death, should be relied upon for life and immortality.
This objection I have heretofore considered at large, and therefore shall now speak but very briefly to it.
Besides those excellent reasons and ends which the Scripture assigns of our Saviour’s humiliation: as, that he might be a teacher and example to us; that he might make expiation for our sins; that by 9suffering himself he might learn to commiserate us; that “by death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is the devil, and might deliver those who, through fear of death, were all their lives subject to bondage;” I say, besides these, it was of great use that he should live in so mean and afflicted a condition, to confront the pride, and vanity, and fantastry of the world, and to convince men of these two great truths—that God may love those whom he afflicts; and, that men may be innocent, and virtuous, and contented in the midst of poverty, and reproach, and suffering. Had our blessed Saviour been a great temporal prince, his influence and example might possibly have made more hypocrites and servile converts; but would not have persuaded men one jot more to be inwardly good and virtuous. The great arguments which must do that, must be fetched, not from the pomp and prosperity of this world, but from the eternal happiness and misery of the other. Besides, had he appeared in any great power and splendour, the Christian religion could not have been so clearly acquitted from the suspicion of a worldly interest and design, which would have been a far greater objection against it, than this which I am now speaking to.
Add to all this, that the wisest of the heathen philosophers did teach, that worldly greatness and power are not to be admired, but despised by a truly wise man; that men may be virtuous, and good, and dearly beloved of God, and yet be liable to great miseries and sufferings; and that whoever suffers unjustly, and bears it patiently, gives the greatest testimony to goodness, and does most effectually recommend virtue to the world; that a good man under the hardest circumstances of misery, and reproach, 10and suffering, is the fittest person of all other to be the minister, and apostle, and preacher of God to mankind; and surely they who say such things (which the heathens have done) had no reason to object to our blessed Saviour, his low and suffering condition.
As to that part of the objection, that he, who promised immortality to others, could not save himself from death and suffering: considering that he, who was put to death, rescued himself from the power of the grave; it is so far from being ridiculous, that no thing can be more reasonable, than to rely upon him for our hopes of immortality, who, by rising from the grave, and conquering death, gave a plain demonstration that he was able to make good what he promised.
I have done with the exceptions which were made against our Saviour and his doctrine at their first appearance in the world. I proceed, in the
Second place, To consider the prejudices and objections which men at this day do more especially insist upon, against our Saviour and his religion; and they are many.
First, Some that relate to the incarnation of our Saviour.
Secondly, To the time of his appearance.
Thirdly, That we have not now sufficient evidence of the truth of Christianity; the main arguments for it relying upon matters of fact, of which, at this distance, we have not, nor can be expected to have, sufficient assurance.
Fourthly, That the terms of it seem very hard, and to lay too great restraints upon human nature.
Fifthly, That it is apt to dispirit men, and to break the vigour and courage of their minds.11
Sixthly, The divisions and factions that are among Christians.
Seventhly, The wicked lives of the greatest part of the professors of Christianity. In answer to all which, I do not propose to say all that may be said, but as briefly as I can to offer so much, as may, if not give full satisfaction, yet be sufficient to break the force of them, and to free the minds of men from any great perplexity about them.
As to the first, which relates to the incarnation of our Saviour; and the second, to the time of his appearance; I know that these, and most of the rest I have mentioned, were urged by the heathen against Christianity: but they are now more especially insisted on, both by the secret and open enemies of our religion.
Secondly, As to the time of our Saviour’s appearance, it is objected, if he be the only way and means of salvation, why did he come no sooner into the world; but suffer mankind to remain so long with out any hopes or means of being saved? this was objected by Porphyry of old, and still sticks in the minds of men. To this I answer,
1. It is not fit for creatures to call their Creator to too strict an account of his actions. Goodness is free, and may act when and how it pleaseth; and as “God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy,” so he may have mercy at what time he pleaseth, and is not bound to give us an account of his matters. This is much like the objection of the atheist against the being of God; that if there were such au infinite and eternal Being he would surely have 12made the world sooner, and not have been without all employment for so long a duration; such another objection is this against our Saviour, that, if he had been the Son of God, he would have begun this great and merciful work of the redemption of mankind sooner, and not have delayed it so long, and suffered mankind to perish for four thousand years together.
But it seems, in the one as well as the other, God took his own time, and he best knew what time was fittest. The Scripture tells us, that, “in the fulness of time, God sent his Son:” when things were ripe for it, and all things accomplished that God thought requisite in order to it. In judging of the actions of our earthly governors, those who are at a distance from their counsels, what conjectures soever they may make of the reasons of them, will nevertheless, if they have that respect for their wisdom which they ought, believe, that how strange soever some of their actions may seem, yet they were done upon good reason, and that they themselves, if they knew the secrets of their counsels, should think so. Much more do we owe that reverence to the infinite wisdom of God, to believe that the counsels of his will are grounded upon very good reason, though we do not see many times what it is.
2. It is not true that the world was wholly destitute of a way and means of salvation before our Saviour’s coming. Before the law of Moses was given, men were capable of being received to the mercy and favour of God, upon their obedience to the law of nature, and their sincere repentance for the violation of it, by virtue of “the Lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world.” Men were saved by Christ, both before and under the law, without 13any particular and express knowledge of him. There were good men in other nations, as well as among the Jews, as Job, and his friends also, seem to have been. In all ages of the world, and “in every nation, they that feared God and wrought righteousness were accepted of him.” The sacrifice of Christ, which is the meritorious cause of the salvation of mankind, looks back as well as forward; and God was reconcilable to men, and their sins were pardoned, by virtue of this great propitiation that was to be made. In which sense, perhaps, it is, that Christ is said to be “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (Heb. ix. 25, 26.) The apostle intimates to us, that if this sacrifice, which was offered in the last ages of the world, had not been available in former ages, “Christ must have often suffered since the foundation of the world; but now hath he appeared once in the conclusion of the ages, to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
3. He did appear at that time in which the world stood most in need of him; when the whole world, both Jews and gentiles, were sunk into the greatest degeneracy both in opinion and practice, and the condition of mankind seemed to be even desperate and past remedy. This was the needful time, when it was most seasonable for this great physician to come, and shew his pity and his skill in our recovery. God could have sent his Son many ages before; but he thought fit to try other ways first, and to reserve this powerful remedy to the last; “last of all he sent his Son.”
4. The time of our Saviour’s appearing was of all ages of the world the fittest season for his coming; whether we consider,
1. That the world was at that time best prepared 14and disposed for receiving the Christian religion: or,
2. That this was the fittest season that ever had been, for the easy diffusing and propagating of this religion. I assign these reasons as tending to give men some satisfaction, why this great blessing was delayed so long; it being rather an argument of wisdom and goodness, than of the want of either, to defer things to that time, in which they are most likely to have their effect. Not but that perhaps other and better reasons may be given. To be sure, God had very good reasons for this dispensation, whether we can hit upon them or not. In the mean time, these seem not to be altogether inconsiderable:
1. That the world was at that time best prepared and disposed for receiving the Christian religion. All the while our Saviour’s coming was delayed, God’s providence was disposing things for it, and training up mankind for the entertaining of this great blessing. The Jewish religion was always very burdensome, but much more so towards the expiration of the Jewish state; partly by the intolerable multitude of external observances, which were daily multiplied upon them, under pretence of traditions from their fathers; and partly by reason of their subjection to the Romans, which made the exercise of their religion, in many respects, more difficult.
And the heathen world was in a very good mea sure prepared for Christianity, by being civilized. About the time of our Saviour’s coming into the world, philosophy and learning had been so diffused by the Roman conquests, as had brought a great part of the world from barbarism to civility. Besides that, their philosophy had this effect upon 15men, to refine then reason, and, in a good degree, to detect the follies of the heathen idolatry and superstition.
It is true, indeed, learning and philosophy flourished a great while before, in the time of the Grecian empire, and, perhaps, before that in some other nations; and the conquests of the Grecians were very speedy and of vast extent: but yet they were neither so universal, nor so well settled; nor did they propagate their philosophy and civility together with their conquests, as the Romans did. So that there was no age of the world, wherein mankind were so generally prepared and disposed for the receiving of the gospel, as that wherein our Saviour appeared.
2. This was likewise the fittest season for the easy diffusing and propagating of the Christian religion. The Romans, together with their conquests, did very much propagate their language, which made the ways of communication far more easy; and by the long and frequent correspondence of the several parts of that empire one with another, the ways of travel and passage from one country to another were more ready and open. So that no age can be instanced, in all respects so convenient for the speedy propagating of a new religion, as that wherein our Saviour appeared; viz. when the Roman empire was at its height. And it was very agreeable to the goodness and wisdom of the Divine Providence, that the bravest and most virtuous people in the world (infinitely beyond either the Persians or Grecians) should be chosen by God, as one of the chiefest means for the spreading of the best and most perfect revelation that ever God made to the world.
Thirdly, It is objected, that we have not now sufficient evidence of the truth of Christianity, the 16main arguments for it relying upon matters of fact, of which, at this distance, we have not, nor can be supposed to have, sufficient assurance. To this I answer,
1. That men not only may have, but have an undoubted assurance of matters of fact, ancienter than these we are speaking of; and the distance of them from our times creates no manner of scruple in the minds of men concerning them. That there was such a man as Alexander the Great, and that he conquered Darius and the Persians; that Julius Caesar invaded our nation, and in some measure subdued it; and that he overcame Pompey in the battle of Pharsalia; and innumerable other things which I might instance in, that were done before our Saviour’s time, are firmly believed without any manner of doubt and scruple by mankind, notwithstanding they were done so long ago. So that ancient matters of fact are capable of clear evidence, and we may have sufficient assurance of them. And where there is equal evidence, if we do not give equal belief, the fault is not in the argument, but in the passion or prejudice of those to whom it is proposed.
2. We have every whit as great assurance (nay, greater if it can, or needed to be) of the matters upon which the proof of Christianity relies, as of those which I have mentioned. The matters of fact, upon which the truth of Christianity relies, are, that there was such a person as Jesus Christ; that he wrought such miracles; that he was put to death at Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate; that he rose again from the dead, and was visibly taken up into heaven; that he bestowed miraculous gifts and powers upon the apostles, to make them competent witnesses of his resurrection, and of the truth of that doctrine, which they published in his name; that 17accordingly they preached the gospel to the world, and in a abort space, without any human advantages, did propagate it, and gain entertainment for it, in most parts of the then known world.
Now, these matters of fact have the same testimony of histories, wrote in those times, and conveyed down to us, by as general and uncontrolled a tradition, as the conquests of Alexander and Julius Caesar. So that, if we do not afford equal belief to them, it is a sign that we have some prejudice or interest against the one more than against the other, though the evidence for both be equal. Nay, I go farther, that the evidence for these things, which are the foundation of Christianity, is so much the greater, because that which depended upon it was of far greater concernment to the world, and consequently mankind were more obliged to search more narrowly into it.
For our Saviour’s life, and death, and resurrection, we have the testimony of a great number of eye-witnesses, who have wrote the history of these things. And though they were truly extraordinary persons, and gave testimony to themselves by miracles; yet, at present, I desire no more, but that they be looked upon as knowing and honest relators of what they heard and saw; and that the same credit be given to them, which we give to Livy, and Arrian, and Q. Curtius, for plain events, and matters of fact.
But yet I must add withal, that, besides the miracles which they wrought, they gave greater testimony of their integrity, than any historian in the world ever did. For they willingly suffered the greatest persecution and torment, yea, and death itself, in confirmation of the truth of what they delivered. And for the propagating of the Christian religion 18through so great apart of the world, it is evident by the effect beyond all denial.
So that for the matters of fact, upon which the truth of Christianity does depend, here is greater and more advantageous evidence of history, than for any other matter of equal antiquity whatsoever.
3. As to the substance of these matters of fact, we have the concurring testimony of the greatest enemies of the Christian religion. That there were such persons as our Saviour and his apostles, that they preached such a doctrine, that they wrought such miracles; for this we have the acknowledgment of the Jews, and the testimony of the heathen historians, and particularly Celsus, and Porphyry, and Julian, who were the particular and most learned adversaries of the Christian religion. So that as to the matters of fact, there is no objection against them, whatever use we may make of them, or whatever consequences we may draw from them. And I presume it agreed by all objectors, that, if these matters of fact be true, they are a sufficient foundation of the truth of our religion; and we are very unequal to our religion, if we make a doubt of these things, which the greatest enemies of Christianity never had the face to deny.
4. And besides all this, to recompense the disadvantage which we have of those who saw the miracles of our Saviour and his apostles, we have the testimonium rei, the evidence of the effects of these things, to confirm our belief of them; and this is an advantage which the first ages of Christianity could not have. We see our Saviour’s predictions of the success of his religion in the world, in the propagating and establishing of it, fully accomplished, not withstanding the tierce opposition and resistance 19that was made against it by the greatest powers of the world. We see the dispersion of the Jews in all nations, and the misery and contempt which they every where suffer; and that now, for above sixteen hundred years, they have continued a distinct people, and a spectacle of the Divine justice and severity, for rejecting and crucifying the Son of God, and for a lasting and standing testimony of the truth of our Saviour’s prediction, and of the Christian religion.
So that, though we live at this distance from the first rise and beginning of Christianity, yet we have the relation of those things, which give confirmation to it, conveyed down to us in as credible a manner, as any ancient matter of fact ever was; and the effects of things remaining to this day, do give testimony of the truth of it.
Fourthly, It is objected, that the terms of Christianity seem very hard, and to lay too great restraints upon human nature. It commands us to mortify our lusts, and subdue our passions, and “deny ungodliness, and to live soberly, and righteously, and godly, in this present world: to be holy in all manner of conversation; to have respect to whatever things are honest, and true, and just, and virtuous, and of good report; and to deny ourselves;” and to part with the dearest enjoyments of this life, “yea, and with life itself, for the sake of Christ, and his gospel.” Now these seem to be very hard terms; to forego all the present pleasures and enjoyments of this life, in hopes of a future happiness which we are less assured of.
To this I answer,
1. That this is a greater objection against religion in general, than the Christian religion. For natural religion requires of us all the main duties that 20Christianity docs, and gives us far less assurance of the reward of our obedience. Natural religion requires piety, and justice, and charity, the due government of our appetites and passions, as well as Christianity does; but does not discover to us the rewards of another world, by many degrees, so clearly, as our Lord and Saviour, who hath “brought life and immortality to light by the gospel;” and by his resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven, hath given us full assurance of another life after this, and of a glorious immortality. So that though we have not, nor can have, the evidence of sense, for a future state, yet we have all the rational evidence for it, that can be wished or expected; and much more than men have for those adventures of their lives and fortunes, which they frequently make in this world, and think themselves reasonable in so doing.
2. The restraints which Christianity lays upon men, are, in the judgment of mankind, so far from being an objection against it, that they are highly to the commendation of it. Nay, it were the greatest objection that could be against our religion, if it did set us at liberty from those restraints. What can be more to the credit of any religion, than to command men to be just, and charitable, and peaceable? and what more to the advantage of the professors of it? and, on the contrary, what can reflect more upon any religion, than to indulge and allow men in any vice contrary to these? It shews men are glad to make any thing an objection against Christianity, when they lay hold of that, which, if it had been otherwise, they would have made ten times more clamour against it for the contrary.
3. As for most of those restraints which Christianity 21lays upon us, they are of that nature, so much both for our private and public advantage, that, setting aside all considerations of religion, and of the rewards and punishments of another life, they are really good for us; and if God had not laid them upon us, we ought, in reason, in order to our temporal benefit and advantage, to have laid them upon ourselves. If there were no religion, I know men would not have such strong and forcible obligations to these duties; but yet, I say, though there were no religion, it were good for men, in order to temporal ends, to their health, and quiet, and reputation, and safety, in a word, to the private and public prosperity of mankind, that men should be temperate, and chaste, and just, and peaceable, and charitable, and kind, and obliging, to one another, rather than the contrary. So that religion does not create those restraints arbitrarily, but requires those things of us, which our reason, and a regard to our advantage, which the necessity and conveniency of the things themselves, without any consideration of religion, would in most cases urge us to.
4. As to the case of persecution for religion; be sides that it does not now happen so frequently as it did in the beginning of Christianity, nay, very seldom, in comparison, if all things be considered, it cannot be thought unreasonable; both because religion offers to us, in consideration of our present sufferings, a happiness unspeakably greater than that which we forego for the sake of religion; and because, when it happens, God does extraordinarily enable men to go through it with courage and comfort, as we see in the examples of the primitive Christians; who, in great numbers of all tempers and ages, did voluntarily choose to give up themselves 22to these sufferings, when there was no necessity laid upon them, but fair terms of retreat were offered to them by their enemies. It is one thing when a man suffers by the law, and cannot help it; and another thing when men may avoid suffering. In the former case, men submit to necessity, and bear it as well as they can; in the latter case, if men suffer, it is a sign they firmly believe the reward of it; and, if they suffer cheerfully, and with joy, as most of the martyrs did, it is a plain evidence that God affords them extraordinary support in their sufferings; and then the case is not very hard, when religion puts them upon nothing but what it gives them cause, and enables them, to rejoice in the doing of it.
Fifthly, It is objected that the Christian religion is apt to dispirit men, and to break the courage and vigour of their minds, by the precepts of patience, and humility, and meekness, and forgiving injuries, and the like. This objection hath made a great noise in the world, and hath been urged by men of great reputation, and a deep insight into the tempers of men, and affairs of the world. It is said to be particularly insisted upon by Machiavel, and very likely it may, though I think that elsewhere he is pleased to speak with terms of respect, not only of religion in general, but likewise of the Christian religion; and (which seems very much to contradict the other) he says, in the first book of his discourses upon Livy, (chap. 11.) that the greatness and success of Rome is chiefly to be ascribed to their piety and religion; and that Rome was more indebted to Numa Pompilius for settling religion among them, than to Romulus, the founder of their state; and the reason he gives is much to our present purpose; 23for, says he, without religion there can be no military discipline; religion being the foundation of good laws and good discipline. And particularly he commends the Samnites, who betook themselves to religion, as their last and best remedy to make men courageous, nothing being more apt to raise men’s spirits than religion.
But howsoever this objection be, I dare appeal both to reason and experience for the confutation of it.
1. To reason, and that as to these two things: (1.) That the Christian religion is apt to plant in the minds of men principles of the greatest resolution and truest courage. It teacheth men, upon the best and most rational grounds, to despise dangers, yea, and death itself, the greatest and most formidable evil in this world; and this principle is likely to inspire men with the greatest courage; for what need he fear any thing in this world, who fears not death, after which there is nothing in this world to be feared? And this the Christian religion does, by giving men the assurance of another life, and a happiness infinitely greater than any that is to be enjoyed in this world. And, in order to the securing of this happiness, it teacheth men to be holy and just, and to exercise a good conscience both toward God and man, which is the only way to free a man from all inward and tormenting fears of what may happen to him after death. “This makes the righteous man” to be (as Solomon says) “bold as a lion.” Nothing renders a man more undaunted as to death, and the consequences of it, than the peace of his own mind; for a man not to be conscious to himself of having wilfully displeased Him, who alone can make us happy or miserable in the other 24world. So that a good man, being secure of the favour of God, may, upon that account, reasonably hope for a greater happiness after death than other men: whereas a bad man, if he be sober, and have his senses awakened to a serious consideration of things, cannot but be afraid to die, and be extremely anxious and solicitous what will become of him in another world. And surely it would make the stoutest man breathing afraid to venture upon death when he sees hell beyond it. Possibly there may be some monsters of men who may have so far sup pressed the sense of religion, and stupified their consciences, as, in a good measure, to have conquered the fears of death, and of the consequences of it. But this happens but to a very few, as the poet tells us in the person of an Epicurean:
Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas,
Atque metus omnes et inexorabile fatum
Subjecit pedibus, strepitumque Acherontis avari.
There are very few that attain to this temper, and but at some times: so that, if vice and wickedness do generally break the firmness of men’s spirits, it remains, that nothing but religion can generally give men courage against death. And this the Christian religion does eminently to those who live according to it; our blessed Saviour having delivered us from the fear of death, by conquering death for us, and giving us assurance of the glorious rewards of another life.
(2.) Meekness, and patience, and humility, and modesty, and such virtues of Christianity, do not, in reason, tend to dispirit men, and break their true courage, but only to regulate it, and take away the fierceness and brutishness of it. This we see in experience, 25that men of the truest courage have many times least of pride and insolence, of passion and fierceness. Those who are better bred, are commonly of more gentle and civil dispositions: but yet they do not therefore want true courage, though they have not the roughness and fool-hardiness of men of ruder breeding. So, in a true Christian, courage and greatness of mind is very consistent with meekness, and patience, and humility. Not that all good men are very courageous; there is much of this in the natural temper of men, which religion does not quite alter. But that which I am concerned to maintain is, that Christianity is no hinderance to men’s courage, and that, caeteris paribus, supposing men of equal tempers, no man hath so much reason to be valiant, as he that hath a good conscience; I do not mean a blustering, and boisterous, and rash courage; but a sober, and calm, and fixed valour.
2. I appeal to experience for the truth of this. Did ever greater courage and contempt of death appear in all ages, and sexes, and conditions of men, than in the primitive martyrs? were any of the heathen soldiers comparable to the Christian legion, for resolution and courage, even the heathens themselves being judges? The religion of Mahomet seems to be contrived to inspire men with fierceness and desperateness of resolution, and yet I do not find, but that generally, where there hath been any equality for number, the Christians have been superior to them in valour, and have given greater in stances of resolution and courage, than the Turks have done. So that I wonder upon what grounds this objection hath been taken up against Christianity, when there is nothing either in the nature of 26 this religion, or from the experience of the world, to give any tolerable countenance to it. And surely the best way to know what effect any religion is likely to have upon the minds of men, is to consider what effects it hath had in the constant experience of mankind. There remain the other two objections which I mentioned, but I must reserve them to another opportunity.27
|« Prev||Sermon CXVII. The Prejudices Against Christianity…||Next »|