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know, that one principal cause of that fury, which erected scaffolds, and lighted fires in the church, that ought to breathe nothing but peace and love, was a rash decision of some questions which it was impossible for sensible men to determine? Are you not aware that one of the most odious ideas that can be formed of God, one the least compatible with the eminence of his perfections, is, that God requires of us knowledge beyond the faculties he has given us? I declare I cannot help blushing for Christians, and especially for Christians cultivated as you are, when I perceive it needful to repeat this principle, and even to use precaution, and to weigh the terms in which we propose it, lest we should offend them. To what then are we reduced, Great God, if we have the least reason to suspect that thou wilt require an account, not only of the talents which it has pleased thee to commit to us? To what am I reduced, if, having only received of thee, my Creator, a human intelligence, thou wilt require of me angelical attainments?Whither am I driven, if, having received a body capable of moving only through a certain space in a given time, thou Lord, requirest me to move with the velocity of aerial bodies? At this rate, when thou in the last great day shalt judge the world in righteousness, thou, Judge of the whole earth, wilt condemn me for not preaching the gospel in Persia, the same day and the same hour in which I was preaching it in this assembly! Far from us be such detestable opinions! Let us adhere to the sentiments of St. Paul, God shall judge the Gentile according to what has committed to the Gentile; the Jew according to what he has committed to the Jew; the Christian according to what he has committed to the Christian. Thus Jesus Christ, "Unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more," Luke xii. 48. Thus again Jesus Christ teaches us, that God will require an account of five talents of him to whom he gave five talents, of two talents of him to whom he gave two, and of one only of him to whom he gave but one. What did our Redeemer me when he put into the mouth of the wicked servant this abominable pretext for neglecting to improve his Lord's talent? "Lord, I knew thee that thou art a hard man," or, as it may be better translated, a barbarous man, "reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed." I return to my subject. When we have examined two contradictory doctrines, and can obtain no reasons sufficient to determine our judgment, our proper part is, to suspend our judgment of the subject, and not to determine it at all.
It will be said, that, if this be possible in regard to speculative points; it is not applicable to matters of practice. Why not? Such cases of conscience as are the most embarrassing are precisely those which ought to give us the least trouble. This proposition may appear a paradox, but I think I can explain and prove it. I compare cases of conscience with points of speculation; difficult cases of conscience with such speculative points as we just now mentioned. The most difficult points of speculation ought to give us the least concern; I mean,
we ought to be persuaded that ignorance on these subjects cannot be dangerous. The reason is plain: if God intended we should see these truths in their full depth and clearness, he would not have involved them in so much obscurity, or he would have given us greater abilities, and greater assistances, to enable us to form adequate and perfect ideas of them. nlike manner, in regard to cases of conscience, attended with insurmountable difficulties, if our salvation depended on the side we take in regard to them, God would have revealed more clearly what side we ought to take. In such cases as these, intention supplies the place of knowledge, and probability that of demonstration.
So much for clearing the meaning of the Wise Man; now let us put his doctrine to proof. "Ponder the path of thy feet, and all thy ways shall be established." Wouldst thou take only sure steps, at least as sure as is possible in a world where "in many things we offend all," weigh all the actions you intend to perform first with the principle from which they proceed; then with the circumstances in which you are at the time; next with the manner in which you perform them; again with the bounds which restrain them; afterward with those degrees of virtue and knowledge at which you are arrived; and lastly, with the different judgments which you yourself form concerning them.
I. An action good in itself may become criminal, if it proceed from a bad principle.
II. An action good in itself may become criminal, if it be performed in certain circumstances.
III. An action good in itself may become criminal by the manner in which it is performed.
IV. An action good in itself may become criminal by being extended beyond its just limits.
V. An action good in itself, when performed by a man of a certain degree of knowledge and virtue, may become criminal, if it be performed by a man of inferior knowledge and virtue.
VI. In fine, an action good in itself now, may become criminal at another time.
These maxims ought to be explained and enforced; and here we are going, as I said at first, to apply the doctrine of the Wise Man to a few subjects, leaving to your piety the care of applying them to a great number, which will necessarily occur in the course of your lives.
I. We ought to ponder our steps in regard to the principle from which they proceed. An action good in itself may become criminal, if it proceed from a bad principle. The little attention we pay to this maxim is one principal cause of the false judgments we make of ourselves. Thus many, who allow themselves very expensive luxuries, say, they contribute to the increase of trade. To increase trade, and to employ artists, considered in themselves, are good works I grant; but is it a desire of doing these good works that animates you? Is it not your vanity? Is it not your luxury? Is it not your desire of sparkling and shining in the world?
Thus our brethren, who resist all the exhortations that have been addressed to them for many years, to engage them to follow Jesus Christ "without the camp," reply, that were they to obey these exhortations, all the seeds of truth now remaining in the land of their nativity would perish, and that the remnants of the reformation would be entirely extirpated. Diligently to preserve even remnants of the reformation, and seeds of truth, is certainly an action good in itself; but is this the motive which animates you when you resist all our exhortations? Is it not love of the present world? Is it not the same motive that animated Demas? Is it not because you have neither courage enough to sacrifice for Jesus Christ what he requires, nor zeal enough to profess your religion at the expense of your fortunes and dignities? Thus again they who are immersed in worldly care tell us, that were they to think much about dying, society could not subsist, arts would languish, sciences de-action, good or innocent in itself, may become cay, and so on. I deny this principle. I affirm, criminal in certain circumstances. This maxim society would be incomparably more flourish- is a clue to many cases of conscience, in which ing were each member of it to think continu- we choose to blind ourselves. We obstinately ally of death. In such a case each would con- consider our actions in a certain abstracted sult his own ability, before he determined what light, never realized, and we do not attend to employment he would follow, and then we circumstances which change the nature of the should see none elected to public offices except action. We think we strike a casuist dumb, such as were capable of discharging them; we when we ask him, what is there criminal in should see the gospel preached only by such as the action you reprove? Hear the morality of have abilities for preaching; we should see ar- the inspired writers. mies commanded only by men of experience, and who possessed that superiority of genius which is necessary to command them. Then the magistrate, having always death and judgment before his eyes, would think only of the public good. Then the judge, having his eye fixed only on the Judge of all mankind, would regard the sacred trust committed to him, and would not consider his rank only as an opportunity of making his family, accumulating riches, and behaving with arrogance. Then the pastor, all taken up with the duties of that important ministry which God has committed to him, would exercise it only to comfort the afflicted, to visit the sick, to repress vice, to advance the kingdom of that Jesus whose minister he has the honour to be, and not officiously to intrude into families to direct them, to tyrannize over consciences, to make a parade of gifts, and to keep alive a spirit of party.
It is allowable to attach ourselves to a pious prince, and to push for port. Yet when Barzillai had arrived at a certain age, he thought it his duty to flee from court, and to quit his prince, and he said to David, who invited him to court, "I am this day fourscore years old, and can I discern between good and evil? Can thy servant taste what I eat, or what I drink? Can I hear any more the voice of singing men, and singing women? Let thy servant, I pray thee, turn back again, that I may die in mine own city, and be buried by the grave of my father and of my mother," 2 Sam. xix. 35. 37.
It is allowable to erect houses proportional to our fortunes and rank. Yet the buildings of the Israelites drew upon them the most mortifying censures, and the most rigourous chastisements, after their return from captivity. This was, because, while their minds were all employed about their own edifices, they took no thought about rebuilding the temple. "Is it time for you," said the prophet Haggai, "Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled houses, and this house lie waste?" chap. i. 4.
But, not to carry these reflections any further, you say, society could not subsist, sciences would languish, and arts decay, if men thought much about dying. Very well. I agree. But I ask, is this the motive which animates you It is allowable, sometimes, to join in good when you turn away your eyes from this company, and to taste the pleasures of the object? Is it fear lest the arts should decay, table and society; yet Isaiah reproached the science languish, society disperse? Is it this Jews of his time in the most cutting manner, fear which keeps you from thinking of death? for giving themselves up to these pleasures, at Is it not rather because an idea of this "king a time when recent crimes, and approaching of terrors" disconcerts the whole system of calamities should have engaged them to acts your conscience, stupified by a long habit of of repentance. "In that day did the Lord sin; because it urges you to restore that ac- God of hosts call to weeping, and to mourncursed acquisition, which is the fund that sup-ing, and to baldness, and to girding with sackports your pageantry and pride; because it re- cloth; and behold, joy and gladness, slaying quires you to renounce that criminal intrigue oxen, and killing sheep, eating flesh, and drinkwhich makes the conversation of all compa- ing wine. And it was revealed in mine ears nies, and gives just offence to all good men? by the Lord of hosts; surely this iniquity shall not be purged from you till ye die, saith the Lord God of hosts," Isa. xxii. 12, &c.
My brethren, would you always take right steps? Never take one without first examin
ing the motive which engages you to take it. Let the glory of God be the great end of all our actions; "whether we eat or drink, or whatsoever we do, let us do all to the glory of God," 1 Cor. x. 31. A motive so noble and so worthy of that holy calling with which God has honoured us, will sanctify all our steps, will give worth to our virtues, and will raise those into virtuous actions, which seem to have the least connexion with virtue. A bustling trade, a sprightly conversation, a wellmatched union, a sober recreation, a domestic amusement, all become virtues in a man animated with the glory of God; on the contrary, virtue itself, the most ardent zeal for truth, the most generous charities, the most fervent prayers, knowledge the most profound, and sacrifices the least suspicious, become vices in a man not animated with this motive.
II. Let us ponder our steps in regard to the circumstances which accompany them. An
of their brethren.
It is allowable to eat any thing, without re- | in those of his children, and all in a million gard to the Levitical law. Yet St. Paul declares, "If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth," 1 Cor. viii. 13.
How many circumstances of this kind might I add? Let us retain what we have heard, and let us make these the basis of a few maxims.
verting an innocent to a criminal action. This Age, again, is another circumstance cona young man, just entering into trade, be all I conclude from the example of Barzillai. Let attention and diligence to make his fortune; man on the brink of the grave, and who has he should be so: but that an old man, that a already attained the age which God has marked for the life of man, that such a man should be all fire and flame for the success of his trade, that he should, so to speak, direct his last sigh just as he was the first day he entered on it; towards money and the increase of his trade, is the shame of human nature; it is a mark of reprobation, which ought to alarm all that bear it.
youth yet a novice in the world, and who may Let a young man in the heat of his blood, a promise himself, with some appearance of truth, to live a few years in the world, sometimes lay aside that gravity, which, however, so well becomes men whose eyes are fixed on the great objects of religion; let him, I say, I forgive him; but that an old man, whom long experience should have rendered wise, that he should be fond of pleasure, that he should make a serious affair of distinguishing himself by the elegance of his table, that he should go every day to carry his skeleton, wan and tottering, into company employed in the amusements of youth; this is the shame of human nature, this is a mark of reprobation, which ought to terrify all that bear it.
ed? Let us examine the manners that accomIII. Would we have all our ways establishlaw-more, the most essential duties of religion bepany them. An action good in itself, yea, come criminal, when they are not performed sential duties of religion is to assist the poor; with proper dispositions. One of the most esyet this duty will become a crime, if it be performed with haughtiness, hardness, and constraint. It is not enough to assist the poor; the duty must be done with such circumspection, humanity, and joy, as the apostle speaks of, when he says, "God loveth a cheerful giver," religion is to interest one's self in the happi2 Cor. ix. 7. Another most essential duty of ness of our neighbour; and if he turn aside from the path of salvation, to bring him back again. "Thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him:" thus God spoke by his servant Moses, Lev. xix. 17. of St. Paul, Heb. iii. 13. To this may be add"Exhort one another daily:" this is a precept ed the declaration of St. James: "If any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him, let him know, that he which converteth a soul from death, and hide a multitude of the sinner from the error of his way, shall save sins," chap. v. 19, 20. become a crime, were we to rebuke a neighbour with bitterness, were the reproof more But this duty would satire than exhortation, were we to assume airs of haughtiness and discover that we intended less to censure the vices of others, than to display our own imaginary excellencies. It is done with all those charitable concomitants, not enough to rebuke a neighbour; it must be which are so proper to make the most bitter censures palatable; it must be done with that
The case of scandal is a circumstance which makes a lawful action criminal. I infer this from the example of St. Paul just now mentioned. What is scandal? Of many definitions I confine myself to one.
A scandalous or offensive action is that which must naturally make a spectator of it commit a fault. By this touchstone examine some actions, which you think allowable, because you consider them in themselves, and you will soon perceive that you ought to abstain from them. By this rule, it is not a question only, when it is agitated as a case of conscience, Is gaming criminal or innocent? The question is not only, what gaming is to you, who can afford to play without injuring your family or fortune; the question is, whether you ought to engage another to play with you, who will ruin his. When a case of conscience is made of this question-Can I, without wounding my innocence, allow myself certain freedoms in conversation? The question is not only whether you can permit yourself to do so without defiling your innocence, but whether you can do so without wounding the innocence of your neighbour, who will infer from the liberties you take, that you have no regard to modesty, and who perhaps may avail himself of the license you give him.
Another circumstance, which makes a ful action criminal, is taken from the passage of Isaiah just now mentioned. I fear suppressing a sense of present sins and of approaching calamities. I wish, when we have had the weakness to commit such sins as suspend the communion of a soul with its God, I wish we had the wisdom to lay aside for some time, not only criminal, but even lawful pleasures. I wish, instead of going into company, even the most regular, we had the wisdom to retire. wish, instead of relishing then the most lawful I recreations, we had the wisdom to mourn for our offending a God whose law ought to be extremely respected by us. To take the opposite course then, to allow one's self pleasure, innocent indeed in happier times, is to discover very little sense of that God whose commands we have just now violated; it is to discover that we have very little regard for our salvation, at a time when we have so many just causes of doubting whether our hope to be saved be well-grounded.
The afflicted state of the church is another circumstance, which may make an innocent action criminal: So I conclude, from the passage just now quoted from Haggai. Dissipations, amusements, festivals, ill become men, who ought to be "grieved for the afflictions of Joseph;" or, to speak more clearly, less still become miserable people whom the wrath of God pursues, and who, being themselves" firebrands" hardly plucked out of the burning," are yet exposed to the flames of tribulation, one in the person of his father, another
modesty, or, may I say, with that bashfulness which proves that it is not a spirit of self-sufficiency that reproves our neighbour, but that it is because we interest ourselves in his happiness, and are jealous of his glory.
However, it is certain, some fears of God proceed rather from the irregularity of the imagination, than from a wise and well directed piety. Fear of the judgment of God is sometimes a passion, which has this in common with all other passions, it loves to employ itself about what favours, cherishes, and supports it; it is reluctant to approach what would diminish, defeat, and destroy it. Extremes of vice touch extremes of virtue, so that we have no sooner passed over the bounds of virtue, than we are entangled in the irregularities of vice.
IV. Our fourth maxim is, that an action good in itself may become criminal by being extended beyond its proper limits. It was said of a fine genius of the last age, that he never quitted a beautiful thought till he had entirely disfigured it. The observation was perfectly just in regard to the author to whom it was applied; the impetuosity of his imagination made him overstrain the most sensible things he advanced, so that what was truth, when he began to propose it, became an error in his mouth by the extreme to which he carried it. In like manner, in regard to a certain order of Christians, virtue becomes vice in their prac- V. We said in the fifth place, that each tice, because they extend it beyond proper ought to ponder his path with regard to that bounds. Their holiness ought always to be degree of holiness at which the mercy of God restrained, and after they have been exhorted has enabled him to arrive. An action good to righteousness and wisdom, it is necessary to in itself when it is performed by a man arrivsay to them with the Wise Man, "Be noted at a certain degree of holiness, becomes righteous overmuch, neither make thyself over-criminal, when it is done by him who has only wise," Eccles. vii. 17; an idea adopted by St. an inferior degree. There never was an opinPaul, Rom. xii. 3. ion more absurd and more dangerous than that of some mystics, known by the name of Molinists. They affirmed, that when the soul was lodged at I know not what distance from the body; that when it was in, I know not what state which they called abandonment, it partook no more of the irregularities of the body which it animated, so that the most impure actions of the body could not defile it, because it knew how to detach itself from the body.
"Be not righteous overmuch, neither make thyself over-wise" in regard to the mysteries of religion. As people sometimes lose their lives by diving, so sometimes people become unbelievers by believing too much. It is not uncommon to see Christians so eager to elucidate the difficulties of the book of Revelation, as not to perceive clearly the doctrine of evangelical morality.
the terror of the Lord, we persuade men," 2 Cor. v. 11. I know, the surest method to strengthen our virtue is to distrust ourselves, according to this expression. "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall," 1 Cor. x. 12.
"Be not righteous overmuch, neither make thyself over-wise" in regard to charity. The laws of equity march before those of charity; or rather, the laws of charity are founded on those of equity. To neglect to support a family and to satisfy creditors, under pretence of relieving the poor, is not charity, and giving alms; but it is rapine, robbery, and iniquity.
"Be not righteous overmuch, neither make thyself over-wise" in regard to closet devotion. So to give one's self up to the devotion of the closet, as to lose sight of what we owe to society; to be so delighted with praying to God as not to hear the petitions of the indigent; to devote so much time to meditation as to reserve none for an oppressed person who requires our assistance, for a widow who beseeches us to pity the cries of her hungry children; this is not piety, this is vision, this is enthusiasm, this is sophism of zeal, if I may express myself so. "Be not righteous overmuch, neither make thyself over-wise" in regard to distrusting yourselves, and fearing the judgments of God. I know, the greatest saints have reason to tremble, when they consider themselves in some points of light. I know Jobs and Davids have exclaimed, "If I should justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me. If thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?" Job ix. 20; Ps. cxxx. 3. I know, one of the most powerful motives which the inspired writers have used, to animate the hearts of men with piety, is fear, according to this exclamation of Solomon, "Happy is the man that feareth alway," Prov. xxviii. 14; and according to this idea of St. Paul, "Knowing
What kind of extravagance can one imagine, of which poor mankind hath not given an example? Yet the apostle determines this point with so much precision, that one would think it was impossible to mistake it. "Unto the pure, all things are pure; but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure," Titus i. 15. I recollect the sense which a celebrated bishop in the isle of Cyprus gave these words in the first ages of the church. I speak of Spiridion. A traveller, exhausted with the fatigue of his journey, waited on him on a day which the church had set apart for fasting. Spiridion instantly ordered some refreshment for him, and invited him by his own example to eat. No, I must not eat, said the stranger, because I am a Christian. And because you are a Christian, replied the bishop to him, you may eat without scruple; agreeably to the decision of an apostle, "Unto the pure all things are pure." We cannot be ignorant of the shameful abuse which some have made of this maxim. We know some have extended it even to the most essential articles of positive law, which no one can violate with out sin. We know particularly the insolence with which some place themselves in the list of those pure persons, of whom the apostle speaks, although their gross ignorance and novel divinity may justly place them in the opposite class. But the abuse of a maxim ought not to prevent the lawful use of it. There are some things which are criminal or lawful, according to the degree of knowledge and holiness of him who performs them. "Unto the pure all things are pure; but unto them that
are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure." | sin; they slew oxen, they killed sheep, they gave themselves up to unbridled intemperance, and they said, "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we shall die."
Would you then know how far to carry your
Do you inquire whether you may, without
tines. Youth is the season for pleasure, and This is precisely the maxim of our liberwe should improve it; opportunities of enjoyselves not to avail ourselves of them. Would not one say, on hearing this language, that an ment are rare; we should be enemies to ourold man, going out of the world, must needs regret that he did not give himself up to pleasure in his youth. Would not one suppose that the sick, in beds of infirmity and pain, must needs reproach themselves for not spending their health, and strength in luxury and debauchery? Would not one imagine, that the despair of the damned through all eternity, will proceed from their recollecting that they checked their passions in this world?
of your old age, should you arrive at it; what will aggravate the pains, and envenom the On the contrary, what will poison the disquietudes inseparable from old age, will be years the abuse you made of your youth.
Would you know whether you may, without scruple, mix with the world? Examine yourself."Unto the pure all things are pure." A man arrived at a certain degree of holiness, derives, from an intercourse with the world, only pity for the world. Examples of vice serve only to confirm him in virtue. If you answer this description, go into the world without scruple; but if your virtue be yet weak, if intercourse with the world disconcert the frame of your mind, if the pleasures of the world captivate your imagination, and leave impressions which you cannot efface; if, after you have passed a few hours in the world, you find it follows you, even when you wish to get rid of it, then what can you do so proper as to retreat from an enemy dangerous to virtue? "Unto the pure all things are pure; but unto them that are defiled, nothing is pure."
VI. In fine, if we wish our ways should be established, let us weigh them with the different judgments which we ourselves form concerning them. The meaning of the maxims, the substance of what we daily hear in the world, and which the writings of libertines have rendered famous, that youth is the season for pleasure, and that we should make the most of it; that fit opportunities should not be let slip, because they so seldom happen, and that not to avail ourselves of them, would discover ignorance of one's self; the substance of this sophism (shall I say of infirmity or impiety?) is not new. now, so did the Jews in the time of Isaiah. If some of you urge this This prophet was ordered to inform them, that they had sinned to the utmost bounds of the patience of God; that there remained only one method of preventing their total ruin, that was fasting, mourning, baldness, and girding with sackcloth; in a word, exercises of lively and genuine repentance. These profane people, from the very same principle on which the prophet grounded the necessity of their conversion, drew arguments to embolden them in
when you was well, and will change your So in sickness, reproaches and remorse will rise out of a recollection of crimes committed death-bed into an anticipated hell. Then, thou_miserable wretch, who makest thy belly thy God, the remembrance of days and nights consumed in drunkenness, will aggravate every pain which thine intemperate life has brought upon thee. Then, thou miserable man, who incessantly renderest an idolatrous worship to thy gold, saying to it, in acts of supreme adoration, will the rust of it be a witness against thee, and eat thy flesh, as it were with fire. Then, "Thou art my confidence," then unhappy man, whose equipages, retinue, and palaces, are the fruits of oppression and injustice, then "the hire of the labourers which have reaped down thy fields, which is of thee kept back by fraud, will cry, and the cries of the reapers will enter into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth;" then "the stone shall cry out of answer it." Then, miserable wretch, thou the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall who makest "the members of Christ the members of a harlot;" then, that Drusilla, who now fascinates thine eyes, who seems to thee to unite in her person all manner of accomplishments; that Drusilla who makest thee forget what thou owest to the world and the church, to thy children, thy family, thy God, and thy soul, that Drusilla will appear to thee as the centre of all horrors; then she, who always appeared to thee as a goddess, will become as dreadful as a fury; then, like that abominable man, of whom the holy Scriptures offer violence to a sister, whose honour ought speak, who carried his brutality so far as to to have been to him as dear as his own life; then will "the hatred wherewith thou hatest her, be greater than the love wherewith thou hadst loved her," 2 Sam. xiii. 15.
will give weight to the chains of darkness with