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[Preached at Whitehall, 1686.]
THE WISDOM OF RELIGION JUSTIFIED, IN THE DIFFERENT ENDS OF GOOD AND BAD MEN.
The wicked is driven away in his wickedness: but the righteous hath hope in his death.—Prov. xiv. 32.
SOLOMON, all along this Book of the Proverbs, doth recommend to us religion and the fear of God, by the name, and under the notion of wisdom. (Chap. i. 7.) “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” (Chap. ix. 10.); “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and the knowledge of the Holy is understanding.” Hereby signifying to us, that religion is the fundamental principle of wisdom, by which our whole life, and all the actions of it, ought to be conducted rand governed; and that all wisdom which doth not begin here, and lay religion for a foundation, and which doth not act upon supposition of the truth of the principles of religion, viz. the belief of a Gad, and his providence, of the immortality of our souls, and the rewards and punishments of another life, is but wisdom falsely so called; because it is preposterous, and begins at the wrong end, and proceeds upon a false supposition, and wrong schema of things; and consequently our whole life, and all the actions and designs of it, do run upon a perpetual mistake, and false statings of our own case; and whatever we do pursuant to 181this mistake, is foolish in itself, and will be fatal in the issue and consequence of it.
For he that takes it for granted that there is no God, and that the world is not governed by the providence of any superior being, but by chance; that his soul dies with his body, and that there is no life after this: he that proceeds upon these principles, is free from all fetters and obligations of conscience, and hath no reason to regard any rule of right and justice, of virtue and goodness, farther than they conduce to his own ease and pleasure, his convenience and safety in this world; he hath nothing to do, but to contrive his own present happiness, and to live as long as he can; and because he knows he must die, to compose himself to undergo it as contentedly, and to bear the pain of it as cheerfully and patiently, and to act this last part as decently, as he can, being secured by his own principles against all future misery and danger, because death makes an utter end of him.
This is a very consistent theory, and hath but one fault—that it is not true at the bottom, and will fail us when we come to lay our whole weight upon it. It is just as the prophet describes “the staff of the broken reed of Egypt, whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand and pierce it.” Such are the principles of infidelity, to all that trust in them; when they should stand us in most stead, and when we come to lean hard upon them, they will not only fail us, but go into our very heart, and pierce it with sharp pain and anguish. In the days of our health and prosperity, the spirit of a man may bear up itself by its own natural force and strength; and false principles are like antics in a building, which seem to crouch under the weight of an arch, as if 182they bore it up, when in truth they are borne up by it. But when these men fall into any great calamity, or death makes towards them in good earnest, then is the trial of these principles, of what strength they are, and what weight they will bear; and we commonly see, that they do not only fail those who trust in them, but they vanish and disappear like dreams and mere illusions of the imagination, when a man awakes out of sleep; and the man that was borne up by them before with so much confidence, can now feel no substance and reality in them; he cannot now be an atheist if he would; but God, and the other world, begin to be as great realities to him, as if they were present to his bodily eye. And now the principles of infidelity are so far from ministering any comfort and good hopes to him, that they fill him with horror, and anguish, and despair; and are so far from quieting his mind, that there is nothing but storm and tempest there. “The wicked is driven away in his wickedness: but the righteous hath hope in his death.” “The wicked;” that is, the sinner, the hardened and impenitent sinner is driven away; which may either signify the sudden and violent end many times of bad men, they are carried away as it were by a tempest, answerable to that expression, (Prov. x. 25.) “As the whirlwind passeth, so the wicked is no more:” or else the word may signify, to be cast down and dejected; and then it imports that trouble and despondency of mind, that anguish and despair, which ariseth from the guilt of a wicked life. “Is driven away in his wickedness;” the word in the original is, “in his evil,” which may either refer to the evil of sin, or of affliction and calamity, and it will come much to one in which sense we take it. According to the 183first sense of the word evil, the meaning will be, that the sinner, when he comes to die, is in great trouble and despondency of mind, because of his wicked life; hath no comfort, no good hopes concerning his future state, according to that other saying of Solomon, (Prov. xi. 23.) “The expectation of the wicked is wrath.” If we take the word evil in the latter sense, for the evil of affliction and calamity, then the meaning is, that bad men, when they fall into any great evil and calamity, more especially upon the approach of death, (for that, as the last and greatest of evils, is probably intended, as appears by the opposition in the next words, “the righteous hath hope in his death;”) I say, that bad men, when they fall into any great evil or calamity, especially upon the approach of death, are full of trouble and disquiet, by reason of their guilt, and destitute of all comfort and hope in that needful time. And this is most agreeable to the opposite part of this proverb or sentence, “but the righteous hath hope in his death;” that is, the good man, when any evil and calamity overtakes him, though it be the most terrible of all, death itself, is full of peace, and comfort, and good hopes; when there is nothing but storms without, all is calm within, he hath some thing which still supports him and bears him up.
So that Solomon, in this sentence or proverb, seems to design to recommend religion and virtue to us, from the consideration of the different ends of good and bad men, so obvious to common observation, and generally speaking, and for the most part, which (as I have often observed) is all the truth that is to be expected in moral and proverbial speeches; that, for the most part, the end of good men is full of peace and comfort, and good hopes of their future 184condition: but the end of bad men quite contrary, full of anguish and trouble, of horror and despair, without peace or comfort, or hope of any good to befal them afterwards. The righteous man hath great peace and serenity in his mind at that time; is not only contented, but glad to die; does not only submit and yield to it, but desires it, as much better. And so some read the words, “the righteous desires,” or “hopes to die:” but the wicked man and the sinner dreads the thoughts and approaches of death, quits life with great reluctancy, clings to it, and hangs upon it as long as he can, and is not without great violence parted from it. The good man goes out of the world willingly and contentedly: but the wicked is driven away, not without great force and constraint, with much reluctancy, and in great trouble and perplexity of mind, what will become of him for ever.
You see the meaning of the words; that they contain a great truth, and very well worthy of our most attentive regard and consideration; because, if this be generally, and for the most part, true, which Solomon here asserts, then this is a mighty testimony on the behalf of piety and virtue; and plainly shews, that the principles of religion and virtue are proof against all assaults to which human nature is liable, and that the principles of infidelity and vice do shrink and give back when it comes to the trial. And this, to any wise and considerate man, is as good as a demonstration, that the religious man is in the right, and proceeds upon principles of sound and true wisdom, and hath chosen the better part: but that the infidel and the wicked man is in the wrong, and under a fatal mistake, which he seldom? discerns till it be too late to rectify it.185
Now in the handling of this argument, I shall do these three things:
First, I shall shew that this observation of Solomon, concerning the different end of good and bad men, and the final issue and event of a virtuous and vitious course of life, is generally true, and that the exceptions, on either side, to the contrary, are but few, and not of force to infringe the truth of the observation.
Secondly, I shall consider whence this difference proceeds, and I shall endeavour to shew that it is founded in the true nature and reason of things. And,
Thirdly, That if this be true, it is a demonstration on the side of religion, and does fully justify the wisdom of it.
First, I shall endeavour to shew, that this observation of Solomon, concerning the different end of good and bad men, and the final issue and event of a virtuous and vitious course of life, is generally found true, and that the exceptions, on either side, to the contrary, are but few in comparison, and by no means of sufficient force to infringe the general truth of this observation; I say, that this observation of the wise man is generally, and for the most part true, which (as I mentioned before) is all the truth that is to be expected in moral and proverbial sentences. And for this I appeal to the common and daily experience of mankind, whether we do not generally see religious and good men to have great ease and comfort, and sometimes great joy and transport in their minds, from the reflection, upon an innocent and useful, a holy and virtuous course of life. David was so confident of this, that he appeals to common observation and experience for the truth of it: (Psal. xxxvii. 37.) “Mark the 186perfect man, and behold the upright; for the end of that man is peace.” Or, as this text is rendered in our old translation, “Keep innocency, take heed to the thing that is right; for that shall bring a man peace at the last.” And he gives the reason of this, (ver. 39.) because God stands by them to support them in this needful time, with the comfortable hopes of his salvation; “the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord, he is their help in the time of trouble.” As they have sincerely endeavoured to serve God, so they have great hopes and confidence of his mercy and goodness to them, that he will stand by them, and support them in their greatest distress, and guide and conduct them to happiness at the last; and in this confidence they can say with David: (Psal. xvi. 8, 9, 11.) “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope.” For “thou wilt shew me the path of life; in thy presence is fulness of joy, at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” And (Psal. xxxi. 5.) “Into thy hand I commit my spirit, O Lord God of truth.” And (Psal. xlviii. 14.) “This God is our God for ever and ever, he will be our guide even unto death.” And again, (Psal. lxxiii. 23-26.) “Nevertheless, I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.” Thus a good man, not only in the contemplation of death, and upon the approach of it, but even under 187the very pangs of it, is apt to comfort himself, in the Divine mercy and goodness, and to rejoice in the hopes of the glory of God.
But the wicked, on the contrary, when death makes its approach towards them, the guilt of their wicked lives flies in their faces, and disturbs their minds, and fills them with horror and amazement, with “a fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation to consume them.” “The expectation of the wicked is wrath,” saith Solomon, (Prov. xi. 23.) “What is the hope of the hypocrite (that is, of the wicked man), when God shall take away his soul?” (Job xxvii. 8.) In their life-time they neglected God and religion, and perhaps denied him, or said unto him with those in the 21st chapter, ver. 14. “Depart from us, for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways;” and when they come to die, they find that God is departed from them. They have not the confidence to look up to him, or to expect any mercy or favour from him, being conscious to themselves that they have denied the God which is above, or at least neglected and despised him; and now “the terrors of the Almighty take hold of them, and his arrows stick fast in them,” and wound their consciences, and they cannot pluck them out, or get rid of them; their spirits are ready to sink with in them, and the principles of infidelity which they once relied upon now fail them; and, instead of ministering any comfort and confidence to them, they pierce them to the heart, and are the greatest ground of their trouble and despair.
So that here is a very visible and remarkable difference between good and bad men when they come to die. Good men have commonly a great calm and serenity in their minds, are full of good hopes of the 188mercy and favour of God to them, and of the sense of “his loving-kindness, which is better than life itself;” and are willing to leave this world, in the comfortable expectation and assurance of a better condition after death; and not only willing, but many times heartily glad, that they are going out of this vale of tears, out of this sink of sin and sorrows; that they are quitting these drooping mansions, and exchanging these earthly tabernacles, for “a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens:” whereas the wicked is full of trouble and anguish, and his mind in greater pain and disorder than his body; all storm and tempest, “like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest:” “There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.” And how can there be peace, when his whoredoms and adulteries, his repeated acts of drunkenness and in temperance, his profane oaths and blasphemies, have been so many? When he is conscious to himself what a life he hath led, and is thoroughly awakened to a just sense of the evil of his doings? And when death makes up to him, how does he dread the sight and thoughts of it, and how does he hanker after life, as if all his happiness depended upon it and ended with it? And at last, like the young man in the gospel, he goes away sorrowful; because, perhaps, he had great possessions in this world, and hath no hopes at all in the other. “This is the portion of a wicked man from God, and the heritage appointed to him by God.”
There are, I confess, some exceptions to the contrary on both sides; but they are but few in comparison, and by no means sufficient to infringe the general truth of this observation.
On the one hand, some good men are very melancholy 189and dispirited, when they come to die, and leave the world full of fears and jealousies concerning their future condition; and this may proceed from several causes. Perhaps they are naturally of a dark and melancholy temper, which is usually heightened and increased by bodily weakness and distemper; and in this case it is no wonder, if the considerations of religion be not sufficient to scatter these clouds, and to overrule and correct the irregularities of our bodily temper; because the principles and considerations of religion do not work naturally and by way of physic, but morally and by way of conviction and counsel. Sometimes this fear and dejection of mind in good men, proceeds from mere lowness and faintness of spirit, naturally caused by the load and continuance of the distemper which they labour under, and by which the mind is likewise, in some degree, weakened and broken; and when this happens, it is usually very visible, and consequently the account of it easy and obvious; and sometimes, perhaps, we are charitably mistaken in our good man, and either he is not a sincerely good man, or not so good as we took him to be; perhaps his life hath been very unequal, and full of great failings: and, in either case, it is no wonder if the man have not that peace and comfort, which is answerable to our good opinion of him; if the man be not sincerely good, there is no real foundation of peace and comfort; for “the hope of the hypocrite shall perish: whose hope shall be cut off, and whose trust shall be as a spider’s web. He shall lean upon his house, but it shall not stand; he shall hold it fast, but it shall not endure,” as one of Job’s friends speaks: (Job viii. 14, 15.) And (ver. 20.) “Behold, God will not cast away a perfect (or sincere) man; 190neither will he help (or support) the evil doers.” Or, though he have been in the main a good man, yet perhaps with a great mixture of imperfection, and many great failings and neglects; and then it is no wonder, if his mind be not so cairn, and clear of doubts and jealousies concerning his condition: for proportionably to the breaches and inequalities of our obedience, and our more and greater failings, will our peace and comfort, living and dying, be naturally abated and interrupted. But these cases are not many; it is sufficient that it is generally other wise with good men, and that their end is peace. And this is so remarkable, that Balaam, when he was reckoning up the blessings and privileges of the people of Israel, the type of good men in all ages, he takes particular notice of their happy end, as a most signal and invaluable blessing; which made him break out into that wish, (Numb. xxiii. 10.) “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.”
And, on the other hand, it cannot be denied, but that some very bad men (as bad as we can well imagine) have passed out of this world, not only quiet and? undisturbed, but with a great deal of courage and resolution. And this I believe in fact and experience, at least according to my best observation, is the more rare case of the two; for a notorious bad man to die in perfect peace, than for a good man to die in great trouble and perplexity of mind. But this, when it happens, may probably enough be ascribed to one or more of these causes—either to the mistake of the by-standers, who take silence for peace; and because the man is of a strong resolution, and hath a good command of himself, and does not think fit to trouble others, 191in a mutter in which he thinks they can give him no comfort and relief, they interpret this to be tranquillity of mind; because he holds his peace and says nothing, they think he hath peace, and that all is quiet within. But I remember the observation of a very wise historian, Phil. Comines, who says, that he knew in his time several great persons, who, in ordinary conversation, and to a superficial view, seemed to be very happy and contented; but yet to them who knew them more intimately, and in their private freedoms and recesses, were the most miserable and discontented persons in the world. This I confess is very rare, for men to conceal a very great trouble, and more yet for a man to dissemble when dying; and yet there is reason to believe it sometimes happen.
Sometimes, the quiet death of a very bad man proceeds from stupidity, and want of a just sense of the danger of his condition, and this from want of discipline and instruction in the nature and principles of religion: this temper looks like courage, because it is fearless of danger; but this fearlessness is founded in great ignorance and want of apprehension; whereas a true courage discerns the danger, and yet thinks it fit and reasonable to venture upon it. Now this stupidity of dying men, who have lived very ill, is commonly the case of such as have been brought up in great ignorance, and have lived in great sensuality, by which means their spirits are immersed, and even stifled in carnality and sense; and no wonder, if they who live like beasts, die after the same manner. And thus our Saviour represents the rich glutton in the parable, as never coming to himself, and a sense of his condition, till he was awakened by the flames of hell; 192(Luke xvi. 22, 23.) “The rich man also died, and Was buried; and in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torment.” As if he had never been awakened till then, his voluptuous and sensual course of life rendering him insensible of another world.
Or else this false peace may be ascribed to the delusion of false principles, by virtue whereof it is often seen, that men die in a very bad cause, not only without any regret and trouble, but with cheerfulness and satisfaction: and this is not to be wondered at, because every man’s conscience is a kind of god to him; and whether a man be in the right or wrong, so long as he thinks he does well, “and his heart condemns him not/ he is apt “to have confidence towards God;” but for all that it greatly concerns every man to take great care to in form his conscience. For if men will not be impartial in their inquiry after truth, and be not ready “to receive it in the love of it,” St. Paul tells us, “that for this very cause, God may send them strong delusions, that they should believe a lie, and that they might be damned, because they believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness;” (2 Thess. ii. 11, 12.) that is, in falsehood and imposture: for so the word ἀδικία, which is here rendered “unrighteousness,” is sometimes used in the New Testament.
And this is the last cause I shall mention, to which the false peace of wicked men when they come to die, is to be ascribed, viz. to the just judgment of God, who permits great sinners to be so hardened in an evil course, as neither living nor dying to be awakened to a sense of their condition; such as the apostle speaks of, (1 Tim. iv. 2.) who said to have “their consciences seared, as it 193were, with a hot iron.” This, it is to be hoped, is but the case of a few, that are thus utterly forsaken of God, and left to perish in their own hardness and obstinacy. This is like a gangrene in the body, which mortifies the part, and leaves it without sense, and thereby incapable of recovery. I proceed, in the
Second place, to shew whence this difference between good and bad men, when they come to die, does proceed. And here I shall endeavour to shew, that this difference is founded in the true nature and reason of the things themselves; in the nature of religion and virtue, and of impiety and vice, in the different ways and courses of good and bad men, which do naturally tend to these different ends.
And to make out this more clearly and distinctly, I shall endeavour to manifest these two things:
I. That a religious and virtuous life is a real ground of peace and serenity of mind, of comfort and joy, under all the evils and calamities of life, and especially at the hour of death.
II. That impiety and wickedness is a real foundation of guilt and fear, of horror and despair, in the day of adversity and affliction, and more especially in the approaches of death.
I. That a religious and virtuous life is a real ground of peace and serenity of mind, of comfort and joy, under all the evils and calamities of life, and especially at the hour of death.
Under the evils and calamities of life, innocency is a great stay and support to our minds under sufferings, and will bear up our spirits when nothing else can; especially if a man suffer for a good conscience, “and for righteousness sake;” because 194then, beside the comfort of innocency, we are entitled in a special manner to the favour of God, and the comforts of his Holy Spirit, and the hopes of a glorious reward from that God, for whose sake and in whose cause we suffer. All trouble is tolerable to him who hath no burden of guilt upon his mind, to him who is at peace with his own conscience, and at peace with God, and is assured of his favour and friendship, of his providence and care, of his approbation and reward; this is a firm ground, not only of patience, but of joy to a good man, in the saddest and most dismal condition he can fall into. “Unto the upright (saith the Psalmist) there ariseth light in darkness,” (Psal. cxii. 4.) And no wonder, because he that fears God, and serves him faith fully, and suffers for him patiently, hath laid a sure foundation of comfort to himself, hath sown the seeds of contentment and peace, of joy and gladness in his own mind, which will spring up and flourish most, when we are in the most destitute and afflicted condition: “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart,” says David, (Psal. xcvii. 11.) “The work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance for ever,” saith the prophet, (Isa. xxxii. 17.)
And more especially at the hour of death, then the comfort of a good man overflows, and “he lifts up his head with joy, because his redemption draweth nigh:” then the reflection upon a well-spent and unspotted life fills his soul with abundant consolation, with “joy unspeakable and full of glory:” for God, and the things of another world, appear more real and substantial to him, as he draws near to them, and his faith begins to be turned into sight 195and fruition; he now stands upon the confines of both worlds, and discerns more clearly the vanity and emptiness of that which he is going from, and the substantial and durable happiness of that which he is entering into. Here is the trial of our faith, and the proof of religion, by the real fruits and effects of it, in the peace and comfort which it gives to a good man, when he is leaving this world; so that, “when he walks through the valley of death, he fears no ill,” and his hopes are then most lively and vigorous, when he is ready to give up the ghost; the voice of nature, and of every man’s reason and conscience, as well as Scripture, says to the righteous, “it shall be well with him, for he shall eat the fruit of his doings; but woe unto the wicked, it shall be ill with him, for the reward of his hands shall be given him.” Which brings me to the
II. Second thing; namely, That impiety and wickedness is a real foundation of guilt and fear, of honor and despair, in the day of adversity and affliction, and especially in the approaches of death.
And how can it be otherwise, when all inward support and comfort fail him, and all sorts of evil and calamity, inward and outward, assault him, and break in upon him at once? When the principles of infidelity fail him, and what he hath made out so speciously to himself, vanisheth into nothing, “as a dream when one awakens, and as a vision in the night?” For when any great calamity befals this man, God, who was not before in all his thoughts, then begins to appear terrible to him, and he cannot banish, the thoughts and fear of him out of his mind. But how uncomfortable is this—to be convinced there is a God, when a man hath most need of him, and can least hope for his favour and pity?196
But especially at the approach of death, what a sad preparation for that is an impious and wicked life! how does his conscience then fly in his face, and how bitter is the remembrance of those sins which he committed with so much pleasure and greediness? What a terror is the Almighty to him, and the apprehension of that vengeance that threatens him, and that eternal misery which is ready to swallow him up? And in the midst of all this anguish and horror, which naturally spring from an evil conscience, and the guilt of a wicked life, he is destitute of all comfort and hope; he hath denied the God that is above, and now he dares not look up to him: his whole life hath been a continued affront to the Divine Majesty and an insolent defiance of his justice; and what hopes can he now reasonably have of his mercy? “Of the God that formed him, he hath been unmindful,” and hath used him with all the despite he could; and, there fore, he hath all the reason in the world to conclude that “he that made him will not save him, and he that formed him will have no mercy on him.” And this is the natural consequence of impiety and wickedness, it fills the soul of a dying sinner with trouble and anguish, with guilt and despair, when he is leaving the world, and puts him into the most dismal condition that can be imagined on this side hell, and very like to it, without comfort and without hope. I proceed to the
Third and last thing I proposed; viz. That if this be true, it is a demonstration on the side of religion, and doth fully justify and acquit the wisdom of it; and that upon these three accounts:
I. Because the principles of religion, and the practice of them in a virtuous life, when they come 197to the last and utmost trial, do hold out, and are a firm and unshaken foundation of peace and comfort to us.
II. That they minister comfort to us in the most needful and desirable time.
III. That when men are commonly more serious, and sober, and impartial, and when their declarations and words are thought to be of greatest weight and credit, they give this testimony to religion and virtue, and against impiety and vice.
I. That the principles of religion, and the practice of them in a virtuous life, when they come to the last and utmost trial, do hold out, and are a firm and unshaken foundation of peace and comfort to good men, at that time. The belief of a God, and of his providence and care of good men, and that “he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him;” the persuasion of our own immortality, and of the eternal recompence of another world; that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners,” and to purchase eternal life and happiness for those who, “by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for glory, and honour, and immortality:” I say, the belief of these things is commonly most strong and vigorous in the minds of good men when they come to die; and they have then a more clear apprehension, and firm persuasion of the truth and reality of these things, than ever they had in any time of their lives, and find more comfort from them, more peace and joy in the belief of them. And this is the great time of trial, when death presents itself to us, and the terrors of it compass us about, whether upon occasion of persecution or sickness. These are the rains, and storms, and winds, which will try upon what foundation our peace and comfort is 198built; and nothing but the principles of religion, sincerely believed and practised, will make us firm and impregnable against these assaults. So our Saviour assures us: (Matt. vii. 24, 25.) “Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them,” that is, believes and practiseth my doctrine, “I will liken him to a wise man, which built his house upon a rock; and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock.”
And, on the contrary, the principles of infidelity and vice are most apt to shrink and give back at such a time: nay, for the most part, they vanish and disappear, and, upon the apprehension of death, a new light, as it were, springs up in their minds, and things appear quite contrary to that scheme which they had formed, and which they had taken so much pains to maintain and make probable to themselves; and that hypothesis which they had been so long a-building, appears now to have no foundation, and falls at once, and all their hopes together with it. And now the infidel believes and trembles, is sensible of his wicked life, and of the vengeance that hangs over him, and was never in his life half so well satisfied of the principles of infidelity, as he is now convinced of the contrary, to his infinite trouble and confusion that there is a God, and another life after this, and a terrible punishment to the workers of iniquity.
And daily experience confirms to us the certainty and truth of this matter, and that there is this difference, for the most part, very visible in the temper and carriage of good and bad men when they come to die.
II. The principles of religion and virtue do minister 199comfort to us in the most needful and desirable times; and, on the contrary, the principles of infidelity and vice do not only fail us in the day of distress, but give great trouble to us at the most un seasonable time.
And this makes a mighty difference between the condition of these two sorts of persons: for when would a man desire to be at peace and quiet in his mind, but when his body is restless and in pain? When would a man wish for “strong consolation and hope,” that “anchor of the soul sure and steadfast,” as the apostle to the Hebrews calls it, but in that last and terrible conflict of nature, with the last of enemies, which is death? And when would a man dread trouble and anguish of mind, but at such a time, when he is hardly able to sustain his bodily pains and infirmities? If it be true of every day of our lives, “sufficient for the day is the evil thereof,” much more of the day of death: it is enough surely to have that one enemy to encounter, at which nature startles, and our best reason can hardly furnish us with force enough for the conflict, even when the sting of death is taken away—I mean the guilt of an evil conscience: but when all evils assail a man at once, pains without, and terrors within, a weak body, and a wounded spirit, an in curable disease, and intolerable despair, death ready to assault us, and hell following it; how unseasonable is the conjuncture of so many and so great evils! Wise men are wont to provide with great care against such a time, that they may not be op pressed with too many troubles at once; and, there fore, in the time of their health, they settle their worldly concernments, and make their wills, that when sickness or death comes, they may have no 200care upon them, nothing to do but to die. This is a time, when all the force of our reason, and all the comfort and hope that religion can give, will be little enough to give us a quiet and undisturbed passage out of this world into the other: and we shall be very miserable, if the terrors and stings of a guilty conscience, and the pangs of death, do seize upon us at once. And therefore a wise man would make it the business of his whole life, to prevent this unhappy concurrence of evils, so insupportable to human nature; and to render death, which is grievous and terrible enough of itself, as comfortable and easy as it is possible. For if there were nothing beyond this life, yet it were worth the while to provide for a quiet death; and if men were sure to be possessed of these passions of hope and fear, of comfort and despair, which usually attend good and bad men when they come to die, there is no man, that calculates things wisely, would, for all the pleasures of sin, forfeit the peace and comfort of a righteous soul, going out of the world full of the hopes of a blessed immortality, and endure the anguish and torment of a guilty conscience, and the amazing terrors of a despairing and dying sinner. This is a condition so sad and fearful, that a wise man would avoid it upon any terms.
III. When men are commonly more serious, and sober, and impartial, and their declarations and words are thought to be of greatest weight and credit, they give this testimony to religion and virtue, and against impiety and vice.
It is generally seen, when men come to die, that the manner of their death is answerable to the course of their life; that the reflection upon a holy and virtuous life, is a great ease and comfort to men’s 201minds: and, on the contrary, the guilt of a wicked life is apt to fly in their faces, and to disturb their minds, and fill them with horror. And this is a critical time, when the consciences of men are usually awake, and apt to pass an impartial judgment and censure upon themselves. And for this, the infidel may believe one of his own great authors, I mean Lucretius, who observes, that when men are in distress, and the apprehensions of death are upon them, religion does then shew its force:
Acrius advertunt animos ad religionem,
“The thoughts of it are then more pungent and powerful upon their minds.”
Nam veræ voces turn demum pectore ab imo
Eliciuntur, et eripitur persona, manet res:
“Men’s words then come from the bottom of their hearts, the mask is taken off, and things then appear to them as indeed they are.”
Now, that when men are so impartial and in good earnest, when they stand upon the confines of both worlds, and can view them at once, when they are leaving this world, and are now no longer in danger of being blinded or flattered, or tempted by it, and are just ready to pass into the other world, and so much the more likely to discern the reality of it, as they approach nearer to it: I say, that, in these circumstances, men generally declare on the side of piety and virtue, and declaim most vehemently against their sins and vices; that, generally speaking, and according to what is commonly seen in experience, the man who hath led a religions and virtuous life, is, when he comes to die, quiet and easy 202to himself, hath no regret at what he hath done, no severe and angry reflections upon the strict course of a virtuous life, his conscience doth not accuse, or upbraid, or terrify him, for having lived “soberly, and righteously, and godly in this world;” nay, so far from this, that if he have any trouble, it is not because he hath lived piously and virtuously, but because he hath not lived more so, because he hath come short of his duty, and hath been so imperfectly and inconstantly good: that generally dying men repent of their evil actions, and are troubled for them; but no man ever repented himself of serving God, and doing good. This surely is a great testimony on the side of religion and virtue, because it is the testimony, not only of the friends to religion, but of those who have been the greatest enemies to it, and at a time when they are most likely to declare the inward sense of their minds, and to speak most impartially, without design or disguise. When the ungodly man and the sinner comes to lie upon a death-bed, he hath then other apprehensions of things than he had, or would own to have, in the days of his health and prosperity, and his soul is full of sadness and trouble, of perplexity and anguish, of fear and despair, because of the wicked and lewd life which he hath led. But why art thou so dismayed, man? why so troubled and cast down, so restless and unquiet, so wretched and miserable in thine own thoughts?
If thou hast not done well in renouncing the principles of religion, and breaking loose from all obligations of duty and conscience, in gratifying thine inclinations and lusts, why art thou now troubled at it? If thou wert in the right all the while, why dost thou not now stand to it, and justify thy actings, 203and bear up like a man? If the principles thou wentest upon were sound and firm, why dost thou not still take comfort and support from them? why does thy heart faint, and thy spirit sink within thee? how comes thy imagination to be so disturbed with such frightful appearances, and to haunt thee continually with such vain and groundless terrors? whence is it that those who have taken a contrary course, and lived a quite different life, have so much the advantage of thee, in the comfort, and peace, and tranquillity of their minds when they come to die?
But if thou hast been in the wrong, and dost now discern real cause for so much trouble and fear, why didst thou not consider in time? why wast thou not troubled sooner, when trouble would have done thee good, and a great part of the anguish which thou now feelest, and all the misery thou art so afraid of, might effectually have been prevented?
I think it is said, by those who are concerned to take off the force of this terrible objection against infidelity and a wicked life, that when men are in a dying condition their spirits are low, and their understandings weak and disturbed, and their minds thrown off the hinges; and therefore it is no wonder if they want that firmness and resolution of spirit, that consideration and courage, which they had in the time of their health.
This is speciously said, and with some show and appearance of reason: but it does by no means answer and take off the objection. For if this were a true reason at the bottom, why is it not true on both sides? why are not both sorts of men, when they are sick and near to die, those who have lived 204piously and virtuously, as well as the loose and wicked livers, equally troubled? why are they not disturbed and afraid alike? hath not sickness the same natural effect upon them, and does it not equally weaken and disorder their minds? but we see generally in experience a plain and remarkable difference between these two sorts of men, when they come to die; so plain, that it is not to be denied; and so remarkable, that there must be some considerable cause of it; and so general and constant, that it cannot without great folly and perverseness be imputed to chance. Now what can we imagine should be the reason of this palpable difference between good and bad men, when they are under the apprehensions of death, but this: that a pious and virtuous life is a real ground of peace and joy, of comfort and confidence at that time; and that impiety and wickedness are a real foundation of guilt and fear, of horror and despair, in a dying hour: in a word, that the different ways and courses of good and bad men, do naturally lead to these different ends, and produce these different effects?
Either this must be granted, and then the whole cause of infidelity and vice is yielded and given up at once; or .else men must fly to that which seems the most unreasonable and extravagant paradox in the world, and does effectually give up the cause another way; viz. That a false opinion of things, and a mere delusion, is more apt to support the fainting spirits of a dying man, and to give him more comfort and hope in the day of distress, than aright and well-grounded persuasion.
But this (as I said before) does effectually give up the cause another way: for if this be true, then certainly 205they are rightest that are in the wrong; and religion, though it were a mistake, ought to be embraced and entertained by a wise man, because of this great benefit and comfort of it. If this be truly the case, then every wise man must say, Let me be so deceived; let it be my lot and portion, to live and die in so pleasant, and comfortable, and happy an error, as that of religion is.
So that, whether religion be true or false, it must, according to this reasoning, be necessarily granted to be the only wise principle, and safe hypothesis for a man to live and die by. And this very thing, that it is so, is a strong evidence of the truth of religion, and even a demonstration of the real excellency of virtue; because no other supposition but that of religion, does so clearly solve all appearances, and so fully and exactly answer the natural desires, and hopes, and fears of mankind. If the being of God, and the obligations of religion and virtue, be admitted, this gives an easy account of the whole matter, and shews us, that sin and vice are the foundation of guilt and trouble; and that religion and virtue do naturally produce peace and comfort: for that is to be esteemed and reckoned the natural effect of any thing, which doth generally belong to the whole kind. If those who live religiously and virtuously, have generally peace and comfort when they come to die, and those who live wickedly are commonly full of guilt and remorse, of fear and perplexity, at that time; this is reason enough to believe, that these are the natural effects of those causes: and that men when they come to die, are, according as they have lived, afraid of the Divine justice, and of the vengeance of another world, or confident of God’s goodness, and the rewards of another life, is a 206strong argument of a superior Being that governs the world, and will reward men according to their works; because no supposition but this doth answer the natural hopes and fears of men. And this likewise is an argument of the immortality of our souls, and of the rewards and punishments of another life; and as good a demonstration of the reality and excellency of religion and virtue, from these happy effects of it, as the nature of the thing is capable of.
And now to make some reflections upon what has been said upon this argument.
First, The consideration of the different ends of good and bad men, is a mighty encouragement to piety and a good life. Nothing in this world shews us so remarkable a difference between the righteous and the wicked, as a death-bed. Then a good man most sensibly enjoys the comfort of a good life, and “the peaceable fruits of righteousness;” and the sinner then begins to reap the bitter fruits of sin. What a difference is there then between the comfort and trouble, the composure and disturbance, the hopes and fears, of these two persons? And, next to the actual possession of blessedness, the comfortable hopes and expectation of it are the greatest happiness; and the next to being plunged into it, the fearful apprehensions of eternal misery are the greatest torment. “The wicked is driven away in his wickedness;” is violently hurried out of the world full of guilt and trouble. What storms and tempests are then raised in his mind, from the fear of God’s justice, and the despair of his mercy? But “the righteous hath hope in his death.” The reflection upon a holy and virtuous life, and the conscience of a man’s uprightness and sincerity, are a spring of joy and peace to him, which refresheth his mind 207with unspeakable comfort and pleasure, under the very pangs of death. With what triumph and exultation of spirit cloth the blessed apostle St. Paul, upon the review of his labours and sufferings for God and his truth, speak of his dissolution? (2 Tim. iv. 6-8.) “For I am now ready to be offered up, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day.” He speaks with such a lively sense of it, as if he had his crown in his view, and were just ready to take hold of it. And what would not a man give, what would he not be contented to do and suffer to be thus affected, when he comes to leave the world, and to be able to bear the thoughts of his death and dissolution with so composed and cheerful a mind? And yet this is the natural and genuine effect of a holy and useful life. And that which the same apostle tells us was the ground of his rejoicing under sufferings, is likewise the comfort and support of good men at the time of their death: (2 Cor. i. 12.) “Our rejoicing (saith he) is this: the testimony of our conscience, that, in simplicity and godly sincerity, we have had our conversation in the world.” Ail the holy and virtuous actions of our lives, are so many seeds of peace and comfort to us at the hour of our death, which we shall more sensibly enjoy when we come to depart this life. For then the consciences of men are apt to deal most freely and impartially with them: and “if our hearts do not then condemn us, we may have comfort and confidence towards God.”
I believe there are some very pious and good souls, 208who have lived very disconsolate and full of doubtings, and been under a cloud the greatest part of their lives, who yet, upon the approach of death, and just as they were leaving the world, have broken forth, as the sun sometimes doth just before his setting. I know it is not always thus; there are, I doubt not, some good men who go out of this world with little or no comfort; and yet, so soon as they step into another world, are encompassed with “joy unspeakable rind full of glory:” and though the comfort of such persons be not so early and forward, yet it cannot choose but be extremely welcome: and it must needs put a doubting and trembling soul into a strange kind of ecstasy and ravishment, to be thus unexpectedly surprised with happiness.
Secondly, Since this is so great and evident a testimony of the truth and goodness of religion, is it not a strange thing, and to be wondered at, that true religion and virtue should be so little practised, and impiety and vice should so generally prevail in the world, against so many bars and obstacles, and against such invincible objections to the contrary? Not only against our inward judgment and conscience, but against the general sense and experience of men in all ages, the constant declarations and testimonies of dying men, both good and bad, when they are most serious, and their words are thought to be of greatest credit and weight; against the best and soberest reason of mankind, and their true interest and happiness; against the health of men’s bodies, and, which is the most dear and valuable thing in the world, the peace and quiet of their minds; and that, not only in the time of life and health, but in the hour of death, when men stand most in need of comfort and support: in a word, 209against the grain of human nature, and in despite of men’s natural fears of Divine vengeance, and to the defeating of all our hopes of a blessed immortality in another world, and against the inflexible nature and reason of things, by no art or endeavour of man, by no colours of wit, or subtilty of discourse, by no practice or custom to the contrary, by no conspiracy and combination of men, ever to be changed or altered? So that we may say with David, “Have all the workers of wickedness no knowledge,” no consideration of themselves, no tenderness and regard to their present and future interest? Nay, if there were no life after this, setting aside the case of extreme suffering and persecution, religion and virtue are certainly to be chosen, not only for our contentment in life, but for our comfort in death: and if there be a state of happiness or misery remaining for men after death, as most assuredly there is, much more in order to the attaining of that endless happiness, and the avoiding of that eternal and in tolerable misery. “Oh that men were wise, that they understood this, and would consider their latter end!”210
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