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1 JOHN II. 7, 8.
Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment, which
ye had from the beginning : the old commandment is the word, which
ye have heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write unto you : which
thing is true in him and in you ; because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth.
THESE words contain a very useful piece of instruction, expressed in a manner somewhat obscure and enigmatical, on purpose to excite that attention, which they will soon reward by the discovery of their meaning. Probably they were designed to be more especially understood of the great precept, inculcated immediately after them, of universal good-will: an original duty of mankind, but strangely forgotten throughout the earth, till our Saviour taught it more clearly and inforced it more strongly than had ever been done before. Yet they are equally applicable to the whole of Christianity: and it might very well be the Apostle's meaning to extend them so far, and set forth in them a truth, wonderfully fitted to give both a just and engaging notion of the Gospel : that its general purpose is to make men happy, by restoring amongst them the belief and practice of the primitive universal religion of rational beings; that its peculiar doctrines were all introduced by the change of human circumstances, and are the same in
substance with those, of which the Patriarchs and Jews received imperfect notices, and typical representations in ancient time; that being thus, in respect of God's early promulgation of it, an old commandment; it was yet, with respect to the age in which our Saviour republished it, a new one; as darkness had covered the world which by his means was driven away; and the light of truth displayed again, with a brightness and reviving warmth till then unknown. For Christianity added much evidence and distinctness to many important, and many comfortable articles of faith ; and then building on them the corresponding obligations of duty, completed on the old foundations a structure, only so far new as the state of mankind required it should be. This is, doubtless, an advantageous view of the Christian dispensation ; representing it as doing for us exactly what we needed to have done; and that it is likewise a just view of it, I shall endeavour to shew, by laying
The nature of religion as it stood at first.
The duty of man, so far as it was discoverable to him by reason, whilst he continued innocent, must consist in love, honour, and obedience, to his Maker, Benefactor, and Sovereign Lord, joined with the care of copying the divine goodness in his behaviour to his fellow-creatures, and the divine holiness in the rational government of himself. It is plain, that he could be obliged to no more, unless God was pleased, by revelation, to superadd more; and as plain, that he was obliged to the whole of this. For to pretend reverence to our Father in Heaven, yet to misuse his children and our brethren on earth : or to behave
with affection, dutifulness and gratitude amongst them, and yet shew none to him; and to profess both a righteous and godly life, yet to fail of the obligations of a sober one, contradicting and debasing reason by brutal excesses and irregularities, is evidently faulty and inconsistent. The same regard to truth and right, which requires any of these things, requires them all. So that neither piety and morals can be separated from each other, nor any part of either from the rest : but the whole hath one foundation : and is indeed one temper of mind, only exerted towards different objects. In this happy rectitude of heart and behaviour, consists the image of God, the perfection of man, the original religion of all creatures, capable of religion, throughout the universe.
Supposing, therefore, any creature fallen from this blessed state, restoring him to it again must be the only ultimate end to which any useful endeavours of his own, or any gracious designs of Heaven for his good, can be directed. Now, this is our case. We are fallen, by the fault of our first parents transgressing an easy revealed commandment, superadded very justly to the natural ones, as a further trial of their obedience: we are fallen, I say, thus from uprightness of nature and immortality : and we feel convincing effects of that melancholy change. We are also fallen, by our own fault, lower still, from personal innocence into personal guilt; and from this condition we want to be recovered. But that we cannot be, nor desire to be, till we are sensible of our misery and danger, and sorry for the sins that have reduced us to so wretched a condition. Here then begins the necessity of repentance: a duty for which there was no room in the primitive state of things; but in our ours, the ground-work of all that we have
to hope for. And this duty comprehends, not only that we condemn ourselves of folly, for having acted contrary to our interests; and of baseness, for having violated the dictates of our inward sense of virtue; but of ill desert in disobeying God. The grief and shame attending repentance will vary in their expression, according to the variety of mens natural constitutions. But disapprobation of sin, and care of amendment, are necessary proofs of its genuineness. And to these the offender is absolutely bound, how small soever his hope of pardon may be. For having done amiss can, in no circumstances, justify the neglect of doing better : and every increase of guilt must be expected to increase the punishment.
But, still, as our spirit and vigour in acting will be proportionable to the encouragement on which we act: without some good prospect of forgiveness and acceptance, men would have so little heart to go through the difficulties of reformation, that scarce any regard to religion would be preserved in the world. And therefore God hath enabled us, by the mere use of reason, to conclude it probable, that as goodness is always the object of his favour, so whenever we return to it really, though imperfectly, he will look on us anew, with tenderness and complacence. For like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him; for he knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are but dust*. But then, whenever it be consistent with the holiness of his nature, and the honour of his government, that repentance should obtain pardon in all cases, or in which ; and whether in any, without some admonitory and exemplary correction first; and how severe such correction may be ; though it nearly con
Psalm cii. 13, 14.
cerns us, who can say, unless knowledge be given him from above ?
Another point, of great importance to fallen and sinful man, is this. Partly by the original depravation of our nature, partly by our actual transgressions, the strength of the human mind is grievously weakened, and we find in ourselves a sad inability of doing what yet we know we ought to do, and were made for, and cannot become happy without doing. Now what shall relieve us here? When indeed we contemplate God's continual providence and care, even over the meanest of his works, and reflect that the improvement of his rational creatures in piety and virtue must be the principal end of his creation; we cannot but hope, that he will condescend to assist us in it; inspire us with good purposes, and direct and strengthen us in the execution of them. But still hope is not certainty: and the weaker our hope is, the fainter will our efforts be: and whether, after great and habitual sins, we may promise ourselves the aid of his spirit at all, though then we need it most, reason cannot judge on any certain grounds.
A third most material article, on which it throws a little light, but a light greatly overcast with clouds and doubts, is that of a future state. Considering the immortal nature of man's soul, the evident capacity it hath for much higher degrees of knowledge and virtue, than it ever attains here; and the earnest desires of a future being, which the wisest and best men feel beyond others : considering the many miseries to which we are subject in this life, the few and low enjoyments of which we are capable, and the strange disproportion with which both are divided ; while the good too frequently suffer every thing that is terrible for the sake of their goodness; and the bad