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CONCERNING OUR IMITATION Of THE DIVINE PERFECTIONS.
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.—Matt. v. 48.
IN these words we have, First, The absolute perfection of the Divine nature supposed, not only in those beforementioned, of goodness, and mercy, and patience; but in all other excellences whatsoever.
Secondly, The perfection of God is propounded as a pattern for our imitation.
In the handling of these two particulars I propounded to proceed in this method:
I. To shew how we are to conceive of the Divine perfection.
II. To lay down some rules, by which we may rectify and govern our opinions concerning the at tributes and perfections of God.
III. To shew how far we are to imitate the perfections of God, and particularly what those Divine qualities are which our Saviour doth here more especially propound to our imitation.
IV. To clear the true meaning of this precept; and to shew that the duty here intended by our Saviour is not impossible to us; and then to draw some useful inferences from the whole.
The two first I have already spoken to. I now proceed to the third particular, which is, To shew how far we are to imitate the perfections of God, and 300particularly what those Divine qualities are which our Saviour doth here more especially propound to our imitation. For though these words do suppose the absolute perfections of God, which are incommunicable, and a creature, as such, is utterly incapable of them, these cannot be supposed to be intended for a pattern to us. As, the necessity and independency of the Divine nature; and the self-sufficiency of it to his own happiness; to be the original cause of all things; and consequently, supreme Lord and Governor; the immensity and eternity of his being: these, and perhaps several other perfections, are in communicable to a creature; and it would be an insufferable pride, and a kind of high treason against the Divine Majesty, and a sottish ignorance of the necessary bounds and limits of our own state, as we are creatures, to think to resemble God in those excellences, of which the condition of a creature is utterly incapable. This was the sin of Lucifer: an ambition to step into the throne of God, and to belike the Most High.
So that, in our imitation of the Divine perfection, we are to keep within the station of creatures, not affecting an independency and sovereignty like the Most High, and to be omnipotent as he is, “to have an arm like God, and to thunder with a voice like him,” as the expression is in Job; but to endeavour to resemble him, pro modulo creaturae, according to the rate and capacity of a creature, in those Divine qualities, and in such measures and degrees, as our finite and dependent nature is capable of.
More especially and chiefly in the moral perfections of the Divine nature, such as are his goodness, and mercy, and patience, his justice, and truth, and faithfulness; these, and only these, the Scripture 301seems to comprehend under the name of holiness; not all the excellences of the Divine nature in general; but those which we call moral excellences and perfections, such as those which I have named; for with these, and hardly with any other, is the holiness of God joined in Scripture, as “holy and righteous—holy and true,” &c. And therefore, when God says, “Be ye holy, for I am holy;” it signifies, that we are to imitate God in his goodness, and mercy, and patience, and righteousness, and faithfulness, and truth; for these are the holiness of the Divine nature, which set him at the greatest distance from that which we call moral impurity and sin.
For that which our Saviour, here in the text, more peculiarly recommends to our imitation, is the goodness of God, of which his mercy and patience are two eminent branches. The mercy of God, is his goodness to those that are in misery, or are liable to it. The patience of God, is his mercy in sparing those who have deserved punishment, and are liable to it. And the goodness of God is then greatest, when it is exercised towards the evil and unthankful; those who are so far from deserving it, that they have given great and just provocations to the contrary. And this affectionate temper of mind, which is so remarkable in God towards the unworthy and unthankful sons of men, our Saviour recommends to our imitation, here in the text, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” “Be ye therefore——” this particle of inference, therefore, hath a plain relation to something spoken before; and if we look back to ver. 44. we shall find our Saviour there enjoining his disciples to “love their enemies; to bless them 302that curse them; to do good to them that hate them; and to pray for those that despitefully use them, and persecute them.” And by what other argument doth he enforce the practice of this difficult duty, but by telling us, that this is to be like God, to be good to the evil and unthankful? (ver. 45.) “That ye may be the children of your heavenly Father, who maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and his rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” God is good to all, and exerciseth great mercy and patience even towards the evil and unjust. And then he concludes, that if perfection itself be fit to be a pattern, we should labour after these qualities; “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” So that though the universal perfection of the Divine nature be here supposed, yet the attributes of his goodness, and mercy, and patience are here particularly pointed at, and propounded to us for our pattern; and the precept of imitating the Divine perfection is more especially to be understood of those perfections which our Saviour had been discoursing of before; viz. the goodness and mercy of God. And that this is undoubtedly so, is evident from St. Luke’s rendering this precept, (chap. vi. 36.) “Be ye therefore οἰκτίρμονες, benefici, ready to do good, full of kindness and benignity; merciful, as your Father which is in heaven is merciful;” that is, endeavour you to be such as I have described God to be. And this St. Matthew calls perfection; because the goodness of God is his great perfection; and the glory of the Divine nature, that which reflects a lustre and beauty upon all his other attributes, and takes off the terror of them. From all which it is plain, what those perfections of the Divine nature 303are, which our Saviour doth here particularly recommend to our imitation. I come now, in the
Fourth and last place, To clear the true meaning of this precept; and to shew, that the duty here required, and intended by our Saviour, (when he says, “Be ye perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,”) is not impossible to us. And to this purpose, be pleased to consider these three or four things:
1. That our imitation of God is certainly restrained to the communicable perfections of God, and such as creatures are capable of; as I have shewn before. For it is so far from being a duty to affect or attempt to be like God in his peculiar perfections, that it was probably the sin of the apostate angels.
2. Our imitation of the Divine perfections, which are communicable to creatures, is likewise to be restrained to such degrees of these perfections, as creatures are capable of. For no creature can ever be so perfectly good as God is; nor partake of any other excellency, in that transcendant degree, in which the Divine nature is possessed of it.
3. But there is no manner of inconvenience in having a pattern propounded to us of so great perfection, as is above our reach to attain to; and there may be great advantages in it. The way to excel in any kind, is, optima quaeque exempla ad imitandum proponere, to propose the highest and most perfect examples to our imitation. No man can write after too perfect and good a copy; and though he can never reach the perfection of it, yet he is like to learn more, than by one less perfect. He that aims at the heavens, which yet he is sure to come short of, is like to shoot higher than he that aims at a mark within his reach.304
Besides that, the excellency of the pattern, as it leaves room for continual improvement, so it kindles ambition, and makes men strain and contend to the utmost to do better: and though he can never hope to equal the example before him, yet he will endeavour to come as near it as he can. So that a perfect pattern is no hinderance, but an advantage rather, to our improvement in any kind.
4. If any thing can be supposed to be our duty, which is absolutely beyond our power, a precept of this nature may with as much reason be supposed to be so, as any thing that can be instanced in: because, in such a case, if we do our best, and be continually pressing forward towards the mark, though we can never reach it, yet we do very commendably; and whatever the law may require to try and raise our obedience, yet in all equitable interpretation, such a will and endeavour will be acceptable with God for the deed. For, if the perfection of the law do really exceed our ability, and be beyond the possibility of our performance, the assurance we have of God’s goodness will sufficiently secure us from any danger and prejudice upon that account. And we may reasonably presume, that to do all we can towards the fulfilling of this precept, will be as acceptable to God, and as beneficial to ourselves, as if our power had been greater, and we had perfectly fulfilled it. If our heavenly Father, to try the readiness and cheerfulness of our obedience, bid us do that which he knows we cannot do, though we can do something towards it, we maybe sure that he will be very well pleased when he sees, that in obedience to him we have done all that we could. And we may, in this case, reason as our^Saviour does; “If we that 305are evil would deal thus with our children, how ranch more shall our heavenly Father?” The goodness of God signifies very little, if it does not signify this—that, in any instance of real and unquestionable goodness, God is much better than any father upon earth.
However, at the worst, that wherein we fall short of the perfection of the law, may be supplied, on our part, by a humble acknowledgment of our own weakness and imperfection; and on God’s part, by mercy and forgiveness, for the sake of the perfect obedience of our blessed Redeemer. This is the least benefit we can expect in this case from the grace, and mercy, and equity of the gospel.
5. And lastly, Which will fully clear this matter; this precept doth not oblige us to come up to a perfect equality with the pattern propounded to us, but only imports a vigorous imitation of it; that we be perpetually ascending and climbing up higher, still advancing from one degree of goodness to another, and continually aspiring after a near resemblance to God: and this certainly is possible to us, to endeavour to be as like God as we can, in this weak and imperfect state.
Whereas any equality with God, even in the communicable attributes of his goodness, and mercy, and patience, is not only impossible to us in this state of sin and imperfection, but above the condition of a creature, even of the spirits of just men made perfect, and of the highest angels in glory; for their perfection is not absolute, but in comparison with our present state. And, I think, there is no great reason to doubt, but that the blessed spirits above, who continually behold the face of their Father, are still writing after this copy, 306which is here propounded to us; bud endeavouring to be “perfect, as their Father which is in heaven is perfect;” still aspiring after a nearer and more perfect resemblance of God, whose goodness and mercy is so far beyond and before that of any creature, that they may be for ever approaching nearer to it, and yet never overtake it.
And this seems to be no inconsiderable ingredient and enhancement of the happiness of heaven, that the holiness of good men (which is the similitude of God) is never at a stand, nor at its full growth and period; but that the glorified saints (yea, and blessed angels too) may be continually growing and improving, and they themselves still become better and happier to all eternity. And this, in my apprehension, is no undervaluing the happiness of heaven, that it is not so perfect at first, as it shall be afterwards; because it is granted, on all hands, that the happiness of those good souls, who are already in bliss, shall be more perfect and complete at the resurrection. And why may it not then be continually increasing, and be augmented still more and more, without any stint or final period of its perfection? In this world we are apt to faint in a long course of goodness, and to be weary of well doing: but, in the other state, when men should be strongly biassed to goodness, and having no thing to pull them back, it will then be so far from being a trouble, that methinks it should be a mighty pleasure to the blessed, to find that there is no end of doing good and becoming better. For if conformity to God be the ground and foundation of all happiness, then our blessedness will advance proportionably, as we grow more and more like to him. This, I confess, were a dismal consideration, 307to think that in heaven we should be liable to relapse, to go backward, or fall from that holy and happy state. But this is a comfortable consideration, that our holiness and happiness shall never be at a stand, that it is secure so far as it goes, and that we cannot lose what we have once attained, as we may do in this world. This, methinks, should be a trouble to no man, that, as good and happy as he is at first, he shall still be better and better, more and more happy without end.
But be that as it will, and as God pleaseth (for we do but talk in the dark about our future state), this is certain—that an equality with God, in any of his perfections, is not to be attained by any creature; and, therefore, cannot be thought to be the meaning of this precept: but that which our Saviour requires, is a vigorous imitation of this pattern; that we have this example of the Divine perfection always before us, and that we be continually endeavouring, as much as in us lies, to bring ourselves to the nearest resemblance of God, that possibly we can. And if this be our sincere care and study, we need not doubt but that it will find acceptance with God, and that he will be graciously pleased to esteem us for his children; and, if there need a pardon for it, that God will forgive us where we fall short of the perfection of that pattern, which we can never imitate to perfection.
And happy were it for us, if this were all the ground of our fear and trouble, that when we had done all we could, we must still fall much short of the perfection of God’s law, and the duty therein laid upon us. Alas! which of us does near so much as we can, and is not conscious to himself that it is through his own fault and neglect that he 308is so unlike his heavenly Father in goodness and mercy, in righteousness and true holiness; and that he still partakes in so great a measure of those, not only unreasonable and brutish, but even devilish passions of malice and hatred, of rage and cruelty, of impatience and implacable revenge; and that these ungodlike qualities do so frequently prevail upon us, and have so much dominion over us.
We are so far from being what we ought, in these and many other respects, that we are far from what we might be, if we would mind our duty with care and conscience, and make it our sincere endeavour to subdue ourselves to a conformity to God, and to a perfect holiness in his fear.
Would we but often set God before our eyes, and represent to ourselves those excellent and amiable perfections of the Divine nature, which are so comfortable and beneficial to us, and to which we stand so infinitely obliged, his goodness, and mercy, and patience, upon which all our hopes of happiness do depend, and to which we are indebted, that we are not miserable past recovery; that goodness and patience which he continually exerciseth towards us (for we provoke him every day), and exerciseth towards us, on purpose to endear those perfections to us, from which we reap so much comfort and advantage; that by the pattern of perfection itself, and the example of him who is so much above us, no ways obliged to us, nor tied by any interest to be concerned for us; and who, being happy in himself, neither hopes nor fears any thing from us: I say, by an example that has all these advantages, we might be provoked to be so affected towards one another (who have mutual obligations one to another, and mutual expectations of good or evil 309one from another) as we have always found God to be towards us, and as we desire he should still continue; and miserable creatures are we, whenever he ceaseth to be so: and we have reason to fear he will cease to be so, if this example of his goodness and patience towards us do not transform us into the image of the Divine perfections, and prevail upon us to imitate those excellences which we have so much reason to approve and admire, and be in love withal.
These considerations, taken both from ingenuity and interest, should awaken our sloth, and stir up our most resolute and vigorous endeavours after that perfection which our Saviour here requires, and make us ashamed of our lazy complaints, that our duty is set so high, that the endeavours of our whole life cannot reach it; when yet we have hardly made one step towards it, and are so remiss and unconcerned about it, as if we could do it at any time with the greatest ease, and, at an hour’s warning, before we leave the world, could fulfil this precept of our Lord, of being “perfect, as our Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
And yet, let me tell you, so far as any of us are from resembling our heavenly Father in some good degree and measure, so far are we distant from heaven, and the temper of the blessed; so far are we utterly unqualified for the blissful sight and enjoyment of God: for unless we be first “like him,” we cannot “see him as he is: “only “the pure in heart shall see God;” and therefore “every man that has this hope in him,” should purify himself “even as he is pure.”
And thus I have, as briefly as I could, dispatched the four things I propounded for the explication of 310this text; namely, how we are to conceive of the Divine perfections, and to give some rules to regulate and govern our opinions concerning the attributes and perfections of God; to explain the extent of this duty, and vindicate the possibility of it.
All that now remains, is to draw some useful inferences from this discourse which I have made; and they shall be these two:
I. That the strongest and surest reasonings in religion are grounded upon the essential perfections of God.
II. That the truest and most substantial practice of religion, consists in the imitation of God.
I. That the strongest and surest reasonings in religion, are grounded upon the essential perfections of God; so that even Divine revelation itself doth suppose these for its foundation, and can signify nothing to us, unless these be first known and believed. Unless we be first persuaded of the providence of God, and his particular care of mankind, why should we believe that he would make any revelation of himself to men? Unless it be naturally known to us, that God is true, what foundation is there for the belief of his word? And what signifies the laws and promises of God, unless natural light do first assure us of his sovereign authority and faithfulness? So that the principles of natural religion are the foundation of that which is revealed; and therefore, in reasoning, nothing can be admitted to be a revelation from God, which plainly contradicts his essential perfection; and, consequently, if any pretend Divine revelation for this doctrine, that God hath from all eternity absolutely decreed the eternal ruin of the greatest par* of mankind, without any respect to the sins and demerits of men, I am as 311certain that this doctrine cannot be of God, as I am sure that God is good and just: because this grates upon the notion that mankind have of goodness and justice. This is that which no good man would do, and therefore cannot be believed of infinite goodness; and therefore, if an apostle or “angel from heaven” teach any doctrine which plainly overthrows the goodness and justice of God, “let him be accursed.” For every man hath greater assurance that God is good and just, than he can have of any subtle speculations about predestination and the decrees of God.
And for the same reason, I cannot believe, upon the pretended authority or infallibility of any man or church in the world, that God would not have men understand their public prayers, and the lessons of Scripture which are read to them. A lesson not to be understood, is nonsense: a lesson is some thing to be learned; which how it can be without being understood, is hard to comprehend.
And as little can I believe, upon the authority of any person or church whatsoever, that God should reveal his will to men in the Holy Scriptures, with a design to have it hid, and locked up from the generality of mankind in an unknown tongue. And much less can I believe (which yet is the express doctrine of the council of Trent), that the saving efficacy of the sacrament depends upon the intention of the priest: which is to say, that though people believe, and live never so well, they may be damned by shoals and whole parishes together, at the pleasure of the priest; and for no other reason, but because he is so wicked as not to intend to save them. Can any man believe this, that hath any tolerable notion of God’s goodness? May we not in 312this case appeal, as Abraham did, to the goodness and justice of God, and expostulate with greater reason than he did, much after the same manner—“Wilt thou destroy the righteous for the wicked? That be far from thee to do after this manner.” To damn the righteous for the wicked, and that righteous people should lie at the mercy of a wicked priest, to be damned or saved at his pleasure, ”that be far from thee: shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” And can there be a greater affront to the goodness and justice of God, than to imagine he should deal with men after this manner? If this be to do right, there is no possibility of doing wrong.
And to give but one instance more; I can never believe, upon the authority of any man or church whatsoever, that our Saviour, in the celebration of his last supper, did with his own hands give away his own natural body into the hands of his disciples; and give his blood shed, before it was shed; that the whole doctrine of Christianity should mainly rely upon the evidence of miracles, the assurance of which depends upon the certainty of sense; and yet that an essential part of that doctrine should overthrow the certainty of sense. I can never while I live believe these two things, that the last thing our Saviour did before his death, should be to teach his disciples not to believe their own senses, as he must do if he taught them transubstantiation; and that the very first thing he did after he was risen from the dead, should be to teach them the quite contrary, by appealing to the certainty of sense for the proof of his resurrection; for when they doubted of his resurrection, (Luke xxiv. 38.) “He said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, 313that it is I myself: handle me, and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” If this be a good argument, that it was a real body which they saw, because they saw and felt flesh and bones; is it not as good an argument, on the other side, that what they saw in the sacrament was not his real and natural body, because they could neither see nor handle flesh and bones? So that I can not believe transubstantiation, unless I can believe that truth itself can contradict and destroy itself.
You see of what use it is to have right and steady apprehensions of the Divine perfections; that, these being laid for a foundation, we may, upon all occasions, have recourse to them, and govern our opinions and reasonings in religion, about all doubtful matters, by such principles as are clear and unquestionable. The
II. Second inference is, That the truest and most substantial practice of religion consists in the imitation of the Divine perfections, especially the moral perfections of the Divine nature, which the Scripture is wont to comprehend under the name of holiness; and such are the goodness, and mercy, and patience of God, his justice, and truth, and faithfulness. To imitate God in these, is true religion; or, as St. James expresses it, “pure religion, and undefiled,” ἀμίαντος, without any flaw or blemish; alluding to precious stones, the greatest commendation of which is to be clear, and without flaw. Religio est, imitari quem colis; “That is religion, to imitate him whom we worship.” This the heathens, by the light of nature, did discover to be the great end of religion, and the best worship of the Deity, to be like God. Pythagoras was wont to say, “That we honour God most, when we are most like him in the 314temper and disposition of our minds.” And Plato to the same purpose, “That the height and perfection of goodness is to resemble God as near as is possible; and that we resemble God, in being just, and holy, and wise.” So likewise Hierocles, “That a good man imitates God, in the measures of love and friendship, who hates no man, and extends his benignity to all mankind.” Plutarch hath an excellent discourse about the patience of God towards sinners, and gives this as one reason why God doth not presently punish offenders, “That he might give an example to us of gentleness and patience, and check the fury and violence of men in revenging injuries upon one another: which nothing will do more effectually, than to consider that gentleness and forbearance are an imitation of the Divine perfection:” and then he cites an excellent saying of Plato, “That God manifested himself, and displayed his perfections in the world, for our imitation: true virtue being nothing else but an imitation of the Divine nature.” For there is no greater benefit man can receive from God’s hand, than to become virtuous by the imitation and pursuit of those excellences and perfections which are in God. Seneca, likewise, hath many passages to this purpose: Inter viros bonos ac Deum amicitia est, imo etiam necessitudo et similitudo; “Between God and men there is a friendship, yea, and an intimacy and likeness:” and that a virtuous man is discipulus amulatorque et progenies Dei, “a disciple and imitator, and the very genuine offspring of God.” So that the light of nature and the reason of mankind, have always placed the perfection of religion in the imitation of the Divine excellences and perfections.
And this is very agreeable to the language and 315 sense of the Holy Scriptures, which every where make the practice of religion to consist in our conformity to God, and the laws which he hath given us; which are nothing else but a transcript of his nature. The great business of religion is to do the will of God; and “this is the will of God our sanctification;” and our sanctification is our conformity to the holiness of God; and this is the scope of the general exhortations of Scripture, to persuade us to holiness; that is, to an imitation of the moral perfections of the Divine nature. (2 Cor. vii. 1.) “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, and perfect holiness in the fear of God.” (1 Pet. i. 15, 16.) “As he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy, for I am holy.” (2 Pet. i. 3, 4.) Speaking of the Christian religion, which he calls “the knowledge of him who hath called us to glory and virtue, whereby also (says he) are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, that by these we might be partakers of a Divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” So that the holiness the gospel designs to bring us to, is a participation of the Divine nature, which we can no otherwise partake of, but by an imitation of the Divine perfections. This is that which the Scripture expresses to us by the terms of regeneration, the new man, and the new creature. And, therefore, those who are converted from a wicked and sinful state, and reclaimed to goodness, are said to “put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness, and the holiness of truth.” (Eph. iv. 23.) “To be renewed after the image of him that created us.” 316(Colos. iii. 10.) This is to be the sons and children of God, to imitate “and resemble God in our dispositions and manners.” (Eph. v. 1.) “Be ye therefore, μιμηταὶ τοῦ Θεοῦ, imitators of God, as dear children.” (Phil. ii. 15.) “That ye may be blameless and sincere, the sons of God without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.” (1 John iii. 10.) “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil; whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God.” There have been great inquiries concerning the marks of a child of God; this is the true character, and that which in effect comprehends all others, our imitation and resemblance of God in those perfections, wherein he is set forth for a pattern to us. And in this mainly consists the practice both of natural religion, and of true Christianity.
But does not religion consist very much in the duties of God’s worship, in the exercise of piety and devotion, in constant and frequent prayers to God, and in the celebration of his goodness by praise and thanksgiving, in reading and hearing, and meditating upon God’s word, in fasting and abstinence, and keeping our bodies in subjection to our spirits, and in frequent receiving of the holy sacrament? To this I answer, that religion doth consist very much in the due performance of these duties, and they are unquestionable and necessary parts of religion, and the means appointed by God for the begetting and increasing in us such dispositions of mind, as render us most like to God, and for the production of all the fruits of goodness, and holiness, and righteousness in our lives.
But then it is to be considered, that these exercises of piety and devotion are but the means of religion, 317and not the ultimate end and design of it. All these do but serve to bring us to a nearer resemblance of God; and where they fail of this end, and are performed for their own sakes only, and we rest in them, without aiming at any thing farther, they lose their nature; because they are not used as means, but rested in, as if they were the end of religion. And it is to be feared there are many which fall into this fatal mistake about religion, and think that if they do but serve God in their families, and go to church, and behave themselves there with devotion and reverence, and at certain seasons receive the sacrament, they are truly religious, and very good Christians; when all this while they take no care to improve themselves in real goodness, by an inward conformity of their minds to God, and the real reformation and amendment of their lives; by mortifying their lusts, and subduing their appetites and passions to the laws of reason and religion; by “putting on, as the elect of God, bowels of kindness; by being true and faithful, righteous and just, patient and merciful, “as their Father which is in heaven is” so; and by “forbearing one another,” in case of provocation, and “forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven us;” by “purifying themselves as God is pure,” and endeavouring to “be holy in all manner of conversation, as he who hath called them is holy:” when all this while they areas covetous, and earthly-minded, and, to serve their covetousness, will strain a point of truth or justice, and hardly do an act of charity in their whole lives, but what is extorted from them by mere importunity, or some such urgent necessity, in point of decency and reputation, that for shame of the world they know not how to avoid it; when 318their passions are as fierce and ungoverned, their hearts as full of gall and bitterness, their tongues of slander and evil-speaking, their humours as proud, and surly, and censorious, as theirs can be who are openly profane, and seem to neglect and despise all religion: and yet, because they serve God (as they call it), and make an external appearance of piety and devotion, are good churchmen, and attend upon the ordinances of God, they think they have discharged the whole business of religion admirably well, and are very good “children of God,” and in a state of great grace and favour with him. Whereas the performance of all these duties, and the use of all these means, separated from that which is the great end of religion, the conformity of ourselves to God, in those qualities and dispositions which I have mentioned, is so far from finding acceptance with God, that it is an abomination to him. So God every where declares in Scripture, telling us, that “the prayer of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord;” and that he disdains to be praised by men of unhallowed lips and lives; and that unless with “the praises we offer to him, we order our conversation aright, we shall not see the salvation of God.” With what contempt does he speak of this formal external religion, without the power of it upon our hearts and lives! “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, and ten thousands of rivers of oil? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good: and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? Is not this the fast which I have chosen, to break the bands of wickedness, and to let the oppressed go free; to 319deal thy bread to the hungry; and that thou bring the poor, that are cast out, to thine house; when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?”
Nor is it “hearing of the word” that will avail us, unless “we be doers of it.” “Blessed are they (says our Saviour) that hear the word of God, and keep it. He that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, shall be likened to a wise man, who hath built his house upon a rock.” Nor will bare receiving the sacrament recommend us to God; but performing the obligation, which thereby we take upon ourselves, to abstain from all sin and wickedness; otherwise “we tread under foot the Son of God, and profane the blood of the covenant, where by we should be sanctified, as if it were an unholy thing.” Can any man think that to be religion, which has no effect upon the lives of men, which does not teach them to govern their words and actions, who reads those plain words of St. James—“If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, that man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this; to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” When religion produceth these real effects, then the means of religion do truly serve the end of it; and we are not only “hearers of the word, but doers of it, and shall be blessed in our deed.”
So that, as there is an obligation upon us to use the means of religion, which God hath instituted, with great care and conscience, so we should chiefly mind that which is the end of all religion, which is to 320make us “partakers of a Divine nature,” and make us like to God, especially in those amiable and excellent qualities, which are the glory and beauty of the Divine nature, his benignity and goodness, his mercy and patience. These, because they are the primary perfections of God, are the principal duties both of natural and revealed religion, and of an eternal and indispensable obligation; because they have their foundation in the nature of God, which is fixed and unalterable: and all positive institutions, when they come in competition with these, are to stoop and veil to them. Natural and moral duties, especially those of goodness, and mercy, and charity, are so strongly bound upon us, that nothing in any revealed religion can cancel the obligation of them, or justify the violation of these great and in dispensable laws. Our Saviour, in his religion, has declared nothing to the prejudice of them: but. on the contrary, has straitened our obligation to them as much as is possible: “The Son of man came not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them;” so that they “know not what manner of spirit they are of,” who think to please God by hating men, who are made after the image of God, and “by killing one another, to do him good service;” who, to advance his cause and religion in the world, will break through all the obligations of nature and civil society, undermine government, and disturb the peace of mankind.
Whereas our Saviour did not, by any thing in his religion, design to alter the civil government of the world, or to lessen and diminish the rights of princes, or to set men loose from allegiance to them, or to make treason and rebellion, bloody wars and barbarous decrees lawful, for the propagating of his 321faith. He had (as any one would imagine) as much power as the pope; but yet he deposed no princes, nor excommunicated and discharged their subjects from their fidelity and obedience to them, for their opposition to his religion: he hath assumed no such power to himself. By what authority then doth his vicar do these things; and who gave him this authority? Our Lord tells us plainly, his kingdom was “not of this world;” and that without any distinction of in ordine ad spiritualia, and therefore he wrested no prince’s kingdom out of his hands, nor seized it as forfeited to himself.
But this power the pope claims to himself, and hath exercised it many a time, disturbing the peace of nations, and exercising the most barbarous cruel ties in the world, under a pretence of zeal for God and religion; as if, because religion is so very good a thing in itself, it would warrant men to do the very worst things for its sake; which is the ready way to render religion contemptible and odious, and to make two of the best things in the world, God and religion, good for nothing.
If we would preserve in the minds of men any reverence and esteem for religion, we must take heed how we destroy the principles of natural religion, and undermine the peace and happiness of human society, for the glory of God, and under pretence of following Divine revelation, and being led by a church that cannot err: for every church doth certainly err, that teacheth any thing plainly contrary to the principles and dictates of natural religion, and utterly inconsistent with the essential perfections of God, and with the peace and order of the world; “for God is not the God of confusion, but of order;” which St Paul appealeth to, as a principle 322of eternal truth, and naturally known: but they that pretend that religion prompts men to sedition and cruelty, do represent God as the God of confusion, and not of order.
Therefore, whatever men may, through an ignorant zeal, or for ambitious ends, pretend to be religion, let us place it in that which is unquestionable, the imitation of the Divine perfections, and let us, (as the apostle exhorts) “put on, as the elect of God, bowels of mercy, kindness, meekness, longsuffering, and, above all, let us put on charity, which is the very bond of perfection.” The great perfection of the Divine nature, or rather the very essence of God, is love. So St. John speaks, “God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.” And it is very remarkable, that in these very qualities of charity, and kindness, and compassion, which we peculiarly call humanity, we approach nearest to the Divinity itself, and that the contrary dispositions do transform us into wild beasts and devils.
And yet, as severely as I speak against these principles and practices, I have a hearty pity and compassion for those who are under the power of so great a delusion, and, upon a pretence of being made the only true Christians in the world, are seduced from humanity itself; and so far from being made good Christians by these principles, that they are hardly left to be “men, being blinded, and led by the blind, they fall into the ditch” of the grossest and foulest immoralities: such as are plainly enough condemned by the light of nature, if there were no Bible in the world.
Not but that we protestants have our faults and our follies too, and those (God knows!) too many 323and too visible; we possess more truth, but there is little peace among us; and yet God is as well and as often in Scripture called “the God of peace,” as “the God of truth.” In this great light and liberty of the reformed religion, we are apt to be wanton, and to quarrel and fall out; we are full of heats and animosities, of schisms and divisions, “and the way of peace we have not known.” God grant that at last “in this our day,” (when it concerns us so much) we may “know the things that belong to our peace, before they be hid from our eyes!”
You see in what things the practice of religion mainly consists—in our likeness to God, and resemblance of him in holiness and goodness; and with out this, we are utterly incapable of happiness; we cannot see God unless we be like him. The presence of God can administer no pleasure, no felicity to us, till we be changed into his image; till we come to this temper, to hate sin, and delight in purity and holiness, we can have no delightful communion with the holy God; till our passions be subdued, and our souls dispossessed of those devilish and ungodlike qualities of hatred and malice, of revenge and impatience; and till we be endued with the spirit of universal goodness and charity, we are not fit company for our heavenly Father: we are not qualified to dwell with God, who is love, and dwells in love. So far as we are defective in these Divine qualities and perfections, so far we fall short of the temper of happiness.
There is a direct and eternal opposition between the holy and good God, and the evil dispositions of wicked men; and till this opposition be removed, it is impossible we should find any felicity in the enjoyment of God. Now the nature of God is fixed 324and unchangeable; God cannot recede from his own perfection, and therefore we must quit our sins: thou canst not change God, therefore change thyself; and rather think of putting off thy corrupt nature, which may he changed, than of altering the Divine nature, “with whom is no variableness nor shadow of turning.” God condescended to take our nature upon him, to make us capable of happiness; but if this will not do, he will not put off his own nature to make us happy.325
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