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OF THE MIRACLES WROUGHT IN CONFIRMATION OF CHRISTIANITY.
God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will.—Heb. ii. 4.
I HAVE begun to discourse upon these words, from which I told you three things offer themselves to our consideration.
First, That miracles are a Divine testimony to a person or doctrine. God is here said to “bear witness to the apostles, by signs, and wonders, and miracles.”
Secondly, That God gave this testimony to the apostles and first publishers of the gospel, in a very eminent manner; for so the phrase signifies, “God bearing them witness, with signs, and wonders, and miracles;” so many words to the same sense being purposely used to signify the greatness of the thing.
Thirdly, The reasons why miracles are now ceased in the church, and have been for several ages; so that there have been no footsteps of this miraculous power for several ages past. The first I have spoken to, and proceed now to the
Second thing which I proposed to consider, viz. That God gave testimony to the apostles and first publishers of Christianity, in a very eminent manner; for so the expression in the text signifies, 373where so many words are used for the same thing, to express, according to the manner of the Hebrew phrase, the greatness of the thing; “God bearing them witness, both with signs, and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost,” that is, with many and great miracles, καὶ μερισμοῖς, “and distributions of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will;” that is, God distributed these several miraculous powers and gifts among the apostles and first preachers of the gospel; not all to every one of them, but some to one, and some to another, as to him seemed best, and was most for the benefit and edification of the church.
The history of it, in short, is this. When our blessed Saviour ascended into heaven, he promised to send down his Spirit in miraculous gifts upon his apostles, to give credit to his doctrine, and to qualify them for the more speedy planting and propagating of it in the world; and accordingly, not many days after he was ascended into heaven, as an evidence of the power and glory he was invested withal, he, according to his promise immediately before his ascension, sent down the Holy Ghost upon the apostles in a visible manner, that is, in the form of fiery cloven tongues, as an emblem of one of the principal gifts they were endowed withal, viz. the knowledge and ability of speaking several languages, which they had never learned. And this happened upon the day of Pentecost, that so the gospel might exactly correspond to the dispensation of the law, which was the type and figure of it. And, therefore, as our Saviour died at the time of the Jewish passover, which was the type of his sufferings; so the gospel, which was the perfection and fulfilling of the law, began to be published at the very same 374time that the law was given from Mount Sinai, viz. at the end of the seven weeks after the passover. For, at this time the Holy Ghost descended upon the apostles in miraculous powers and gifts; when this new law was “to come forth out of Sion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
And among these gifts, the first we find mentioned was the gift of tongues; without which the gospel must of necessity have been very slowly propagated in the world: for had the apostles been first to learn the several languages of the nations they were to preach to, how tedious a work would that have been! it requiring the industry of some years, to gain so perfect a mastery of a strange language, as to be able to use it with that freedom and readiness which are necessary for such a work.
And this gift all the apostles had, because they all had occasion for it, being designed by our Saviour to be the chief publishers of his gospel to the world. And this gift did also continually reside upon them, and not only at some times, as some other gifts did, because they had constant use of this gift of tongues.
The interpreting of things spoken in a strange tongue, was also a gift distinct from the gift of tongues, though attending it; insomuch that some persons had one, and some the other. So the apostle tells us, (1 Cor. xii. 10.) “To one is given divers kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.” The occasion of which was plainly this; it might happen, and often did, that the auditory might consist of people of several nations; now because no man could speak more than one language at once, it was convenient others should have the gift of interpreting what was spoken, to those who 375understood not the language in which it was spoken, that so all might receive the benefit of what was delivered, and be edified thereby. So that here were two several gifts serving the same end, viz. the conveying of the knowledge of the gospel to mankind, in a more speedy way than it could have been done by ordinary means; and these were very plain and sensible miracles, unquestionably supernatural, and evident to the senses of all men. So that the gospel, wherever it was preached, carried its own testimony along with it, and was confirmed by the very manner of its conveyance and delivery: and well might men entertain it as a Divine doctrine, when the very manner, and the means whereby it was published, was a miracle.
And here I cannot but take notice, how contrary the arts and the ways of the church of Rome are to the methods of God, and that when he was at the expense of so many miracles to publish this doctrine to the world, they should use so much industry and violence to conceal it. God was pleased to endow the first preachers of it with the gift of tongues, that “their sound might go into all the earth, and their word to the end of the world,” that there might be no nation nor language where this saving knowledge might not come, that the sermons which they preached, and the prayers which they put up to God in public, for themselves and the people, and all the offices of religion which they performed, might be fully understood by all, and that all might join in them, and have the benefit and comfort of them; that their understandings might be informed and enlightened by what was spoken, and their affections raised and warmed by their understandings, and their wills excited by their affections, 376and that the effect of all this might appear in their lives and practice. Thus it was in the primitive Christian church; but in the church of Rome, things are managed in a quite contrary way, and have been for several ages. The doctrine of salvation, as it is contained and delivered in the Holy Scripture, is “a sealed book,” which the people are not thought “worthy to open or look into.” This “bread of life which came down from heaven,” is like the show-bread among the Jews, “which none may eat but the priest only,” unless it be by extraordinary favour, and particular licence from the bishop. The people indeed come together, and are present at the prayers and devotion of the priest; but the priest “that prays is a barbarian to them,” and all the while the understanding of the people is unfruitful, and “they cannot say Amen, because they understand not what he says.”
But let any man shew me the least intimation in Scripture or antiquity, that our Saviour or his apostles, or the primitive church, ever used this way; and yet the danger of error and heresy was as great then as it is now. So that the church of Rome must pretend themselves wiser than our Saviour and his apostles; and to be more careful to prevent heresy in the church, than they were. This they are loath to say; and yet they must say it, if they will justify their own doings. But the plain truth is, there is another and truer reason for it, though they are not willing to own it, and that is this; if the Scriptures were permitted to the people in a language which they understood, the errors of their church would be discovered and laid open, and men would plainly discern how contrary many of their doctrines and practices are, to those of our 377Saviour and his apostles: for “every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be discovered.”
Secondly, The next miraculous gift I shall mention after the gift of tongues, is the gift of prophecy, or foretelling things future, which was always looked upon as an evidence of inspiration. And this we find mentioned 1 Cor. xii. 10. “To another prophecy,” and in several other places; and to this gift the apostle gives a great pre-eminence. (1 Cor. xiv. 1.) “Covet spiritual gifts: but rather that ye may prophesy;” because foretelling of things to come, was always esteemed by mankind an evidence of a person divinely inspired, and consequently was one of the greatest testimonies of the truth of Christianity; and this the angel that appeared to St. John particularly takes notice of, (Rev. xix. 10.) “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” The prophecies of that book were to be a standing testimony of the truth of Christianity in all ages of the church.
Thirdly, The next gift is that of healing all manner of diseases. And this the apostles seem gene rally to have had, and the elders of the church also, whose peculiar office it was to pray over the sick, and to anoint them with oil; and upon their prayers, God was pleased to grant miraculous recoveries, as we find expressly promised, (James v. 14, 15.) “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up.”
This miraculous power we find likewise mentioned to be conferred on the apostles in our Saviour’s 378life-time, when he first gave them commission to preach the gospel to the Jews; (Mark vi. 12, 13.) where it is said, that “they went out, and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.”
And now that this miraculous gift is ceased, there is no reason why the mere ceremony of anointing with oil should continue; which yet is still used in the church of Rome, and made a sacrament; though it signify nothing: for they do not pretend to heal men by it; nay, they pretend the contrary, because they never use it, but in extremity, and where they look upon the person as past recovery; and if they did not think so, they would not use it.
But besides the healing, with this solemnity of anointing with oil, and with prayer, which seems to have been used by the elders of the church only upon those who were members of the church, there was likewise a general gift of healing, which the apostles exercised upon all occasions wherever they came; and this was performed only by laying their hands on the sick. And this we find promised by our Saviour to his apostles when he gave them commission to preach the gospel to all the world, immediately before his ascension; and not only to the apostles, but to those who should believe upon their preaching: (Mark xvi. 17, 18.) “These signs shall follow them that believe: in my name shall they cast out devils,” &c. And then it follows, “they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”
Fourthly, The power of raising the dead, which hath always been esteemed one of the greatest and most unquestionable miracles of all other. A principal 379part of the apostles’ office was to “be witnesses of our Saviour’s resurrection from the dead,” whereby he was so “powerfully demonstrated to be the Son of God.” But because this was a strange relation, and not easy to be credited, by those who were strangers to the apostles, and had never known them before; therefore, that they might witness this with more authority, God was pleased to endow them with a miraculous power of all kinds; and particularly with a power of raising the dead; and then there was no difficulty in receiving their testimony concerning our Saviour’s resurrection, when men saw them in his name raise others from the dead. And of this we have two instances in the Acts of the Apostles; of St. Peter’s raising Dorcas, (Acts ix.) and St. Paul’s raising Eutychus, (Acts xx.) And Irenæus, who lived in the age after the apostles, tells us, that in his time this power continued among Christians.
Fifthly, Another miraculous gift was that of discerning spirits; the principal use of which was, to try and judge who were true prophets. And of this the apostle speaks: (1 Cor. xiv. 29.) “Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.” And, (ver. 32.) “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” And this is likewise called by the same apostle, “the gift of discerning spirits,” (1 Cor. xii. 10.) “To another is given the discerning of spirits.” Those who pretended to this gift, were tried by the bishops and elders of the church, as the prophets were tried among the Jews by the Sanhedrin. And of these kinds of assemblies among the Christians, for the trial of prophets, Eusebius speaks particularly in his fifth book.380
And it should seem, likewise, that this gift of discerning spirits, extended also to the discovery of the secrets of men’s hearts; by the revealing where of, unbelievers were many times struck and convinced; as may very probably be collected from 1 Cor. xiv. 24, 25. “But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned; he is convinced of all, he is judged of all. And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face, he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.”
And upon this miraculous gift of knowing the secrets of men’s hearts, it seems to be very probable, that that which is commonly called the power of the keys did depend; I mean the power of remit ting or retaining sins: for they who had the privilege of knowing men’s hearts, might do this upon certain grounds, and were secured from mistake in the exercise of their power upon particular persons; which the priests and ministers of the church now are not, nor can be; because they cannot see into men’s hearts, whether they be truly penitent and qualified for forgiveness or not. For I cannot easily believe but that those words of our Saviour, “Whose sins ye remit, they are remitted; and whose sins ye retain, they are retained;” were intended to signify something more than a mere declaration of the promises and threatenings of the gospel, which any man might make as well as the apostles and ministers of the church. For that God will forgive the penitent, and that he will not pardon the sinner, except he repent, is as true from any man’s mouth, as from an apostle s: and as to the absolution of this or that particular person, though a minister by the skill and knowledge of his profession, is ordinarily 381and reasonably presumed, by virtue of his office, to be a better judge of a man’s repentance, than other persons are, and therefore may, with more authority and satisfaction to the penitent, declare his judgment and opinion concerning him; yet, not being able to see into his heart, he may be mistaken concerning him: and if he be, his declaring his sins to be forgiven, that is, his absolution of him, will do him no good: and, on the other hand, his refusal to absolve him, if he be truly penitent, will do him no harm. As the judgment of a skilful lawyer is of greater authority, and more satisfactory to us, concerning our title to an estate, than the opinion of another man who is not of the profession, nor presumed to have the like skill; but yet for all this, his judgment does not alter the case, and if in truth the law be otherwise, our title is bad for all this skilful man’s opinion of the goodness of it.
And thus much is granted by the church of Rome, that if the priest be mistaken in the use of the keys, and gives absolution to one that is not truly penitent, his sins are not remitted; or if a person be excommunicated that is not truly guilty, his sins are not retained; what “he binds on earth, is” not “bound in heaven; and he whom he looseth and absolves on earth, is” not “absolved in heaven.” But the protestants go farther, and do not only make a mistaken absolution or excommunication void in itself; but they do not make the absolution of the priest at all necessary to the forgiveness of sins, but only convenient for the satisfaction and comfort of the penitent. For which reason, our church does not require a formal absolution to be given to the dying penitent, unless he himself desire it; which is a certain argument, that, in the judgment of our 382church, the absolution of the priest is not necessary to the forgiveness and salvation of the penitent. For had they thought it necessary, they would have enjoined the priest to give it to every one whom he judged penitent, whether he desired it or not.
So that the absolution of the priest, having only the authority of a man, presumed to be skilful in the office, but no certain effect, in case he be mistaken (as he very easily may be, and if he be, as he ought to be, a charitable man, no doubt often is) I cannot think but that this power of remitting and retaining sins, so solemnly conferred on the apostles by our Saviour, had something in it that was miraculous, and extraordinary, and did suppose the knowledge of men’s hearts, and that they were not mistaken in the application of this power to particular persons; and consequently, that in that miraculous and extraordinary degree, it was peculiar to the apostles and their times. For I cannot easily be brought to believe, that the meaning of this great promise to the apostles should be only this, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth (if ye be not mistaken, as in many cases ye will be, and in any case ye may be) shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.” And if more be meant than this, it must suppose a miraculous power of discerning the sincerity of men’s hearts.
And, therefore, when the power of the keys is conferred on the ministers of the gospel, in our form of ordination, I suppose that only one or both of these two things is intended by it, viz. a power to admit persons into the Christian church by baptism, in which is sealed to them the remission of sins 383and to cast persons out of the communion of the Christian church, by excommunication and the censures of it; and an authority, by virtue of their office, to declare to men the terms of pardon and forgiveness, which cannot be that infallible power of absolving which the apostles had.
And I am the rather induced to think so, because I find it promised to the apostles, together with the miraculous power and efficacy of prayer, which St. Chrysostom reckons among the miraculous gifts, which he says were ceased in his time. That it was thus promised, you may see Matt. xviii. 18, 19. “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven. Again, I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” But surely, no man will pretend that any two Christians or ministers have now this power, that whatever they shall agree together to ask of God, which is fit and lawful in behalf of any person, God will certainly grant it upon their request. In the same sense I understand several other texts concerning the efficacy of the prayers of the apostles and first Christians, as in a great mea sure miraculous, and peculiar to the first times of Christianity. And, I think, any man that attentively considers them, will think that they cannot well be understood otherwise. Such as these: (Matt. xxi. 22.) “And all things whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” (Mark xi. 24.) “I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.” (John xiv. 14.) “If 384ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it:” and (chap. xv. 7.) “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” (1 John iii. 22.) “And whatsoever we ask we receive of him;” and, (chap. v. 14, 15.) “And this is the confidence which we have in him, that if we ask any thing, according to his will, he heareth us. And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.” These promises I take to contain something extraordinary, and peculiar to the first times of Christianity. And this will appear exceeding probable, if we consider the occasion and circumstances of these promises which are so often joined with the promise of a miraculous power, as in the place I mentioned before, (Matt. xviii. 18, 19.) where, after the power of binding and loosing, it immediately follows, that “if two of you shall agree on earth, touching any thing they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” Matt. xxi. 22. and Mark xi. 23. says our Saviour there to his disciples; “Have faith in God; for verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall say to this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea, and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass, he shall have whatsoever he saith.” And then immediately it follows: “Therefore, I say unto yon, Whatsoever things you desire, when you pray, believe that you receive them, and ye shall have them;” that is, Whatever ye desire of God to do, he shall miraculously do it, upon your prayers. So likewise, (John xiv. 12-14.) “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works 385than these shall he do, because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.” Still you see this extraordinary efficacy of prayer is joined with the power of miracles, as one part and branch of it. More particularly, we find the forgiveness of the sins of those whom they prayed for, expressly promised: (1 John v. 15.) “And if we know that he heareth us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions we desired of him.” And then it follows: “If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for the sin that is not unto death.” Where forgiveness of sins, upon the prayers of Christians for one another, is promised, except in the case of “a sin unto death,” by which is meant apostacy from Christianity to the heathen idolatry, which is the reason of the caution which follows: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” And this extraordinary efficacy of prayer, we find promised in a more special manner to the elders of the church: (James v. 14, 15.) “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.”
In comparing of all these texts, it seems plain, that both the power of remitting and retaining sins, and the strange efficacy of prayer, which were promised to the apostles and first Christians, had something miraculous and extraordinary in them, and were peculiar to the first ages of the church. I will not 386be peremptory in these things; but this seems to be the most genuine and reasonable interpretation of these texts.
Sixthly, And, besides these which I have mentioned, there was likewise a power of inflicting corporal punishments and diseases upon scandalous and obstinate Christians; which in Scripture is called, “a delivering men up to Satan, for the destroying or tormenting of their bodies, that their souls might be saved at last.” And of this kind were those diseases which befel the Christians, for their disorderly and irregular carriage at the sacrament, of which the apostle speaks; (1 Cor. xi. 30.) “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep:” that is, to some of them these distempers proved mortal. And we find that this power did in some cases extend to the inflicting of sudden and present death, as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira. And, indeed, considering that Christianity was at first destitute of any countenance from the civil power, some such power as this was necessary to maintain the authority of the apostles against the contumacious and disobedient.
And then, lastly, there was the power of casting out devils in the name of Christ, which was common to the meanest Christian, and continued in the church a long time after most of the other gifts were ceased, as Tertullian, Minucius Felix, and Arnobius, do most expressly testify concerning their times.
Thus you see that there were almost all imaginable kinds of miraculous powers conferred upon the apostles and first Christians, to give the greater establishment and confirmation to the Christian doctrine.
All the reflection I shall make upon what has 387been said, shall be this; since our religion comes down to us confirmed by such miraculous powers, we ought to take the more earnest heed to it, to believe it more steadfastly, and to practise it more carefully in our lives. “For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?”388
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