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prevails among many, that moral virtue may subsist, with equal advantage, independent of religion. For moral principles great regard is professed; but articles of religious belief are held to be abstract tenets, remote from life; points of mere speculation and debate, the influence of which is very inconsiderable on the actions of men. The general conduct, it is contended, will always proceed upon views and principles which have more relation to the present state of things; and religious knowledge can therefore stand in no necessary connection with their happiness and prosperity.
How adverse such opinions are, both to the profession and practice of religion, is abundantly evident. How adverse they are to the general welfare and real interests of mankind, I hope to make appear to candid minds.
By the knowledge of the Lord, in the text, is not to be understood the natural knowledge of God only. It is plain that the Prophet speaks of the age of the Messiah, when more enlarged discoveries should be made to mankind of the Divine perfections and government, than unassisted reason could attain. The knowledge of the Lord, therefore, comprehends the principles of Christianity, as well as of natural religion. In order to discern the importance of such knowledge to general happiness, we shall consider man, I, as an individual; II. as a member of society.
I. CONSIDERING man as an individual, let us inquire how far the knowledge of true religion is important, first, to his improvement; next, to his consolation.
First, With respect to the improvement of man; the advancement of his nature in what is valuable and useful, the acquisition of such dispositions and habits as fit him for acting his part with propriety on this stage, and prepare him for a higher state of action hereafter; what benefit does he receive, in these respects, from religious knowledge and belief? It is obvious, that all increase of knowledge is improvement to the understanding. The more that its sphere is enlarged, the greater number of objects that are submitted to its view, especially when these objects are of intrinsic excellence, the more must those rational powers, which are the glory of man, be in the course of attaining their proper strength and maturity. But were the knowledge of religion merely speculative, though the speculation must be admitted to be noble, yet less could be said of its importance. We recommend it to mankind, as forming the heart, and directing the life. Those pure and exalted conceptions which the Christian religion has taught us to entertain of the Deity, as the universal Father and righteous Governour of the universe, the standard of unspotted perfection; and the Author of every good and perfect gift; conducting his whole administration with an eternal regard to order, virtue, and truth; ever favouring the
cause, and supporting the interests, of righteous men; and applying in this direction, the whole might of omnipotence, and the whole council of unerring wisdom from the beginning to the end of things; such conceptions both kindle devotion, and strengthen virtue. They give fortitude to the mind in the practice of righteousness, and establish the persuasion of its being our highest interest.
All the doctrines peculiar to the Gospel are great improvements on what the light of nature had imperfectly suggested. A high dispensation of Providence is made known, particularly suited to the exigencies of man; calculated for recovering him from that corrupted state into which experience bears witness that he is fallen, and for restoring him to integrity, and favour with his Creator. The method of carrying on this great plan is such as gives us the most striking views of the importance of righteousness or virtue, and of the high account in which it stands with God. The Son of God appeared on the earth, and suffered as a propitiation for the sins of the world, with this express intention, that he might bring in everlasting righteousness; that he might purge our consciences from dead works to serve the living God; that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify unto himself a peculiar people zealous of good works. Such a merciful interposition of the Creater of the world, while it illustriously displays his goodness, and signalizes his concern for the moral interests of mankind, affords us at the same time the most satisfying ground of confidence and trust. It offers an object to the mind on which it can lay hold for the security of its future hopes; when, with a certainty far beyond what any abstract argument could yield, it appeals to a distinguished fact; and is enabled to say, He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us uall, how shall le not with him also freely give us all things ?
While the Divine government is thus placed in a light the most amiable, and most encouraging to
Rom. viii. 32.
every virtuous mind, there is, at the same time, something extremely awful and solemn in the whole doctrine of redemption. It is calculated to strike the mind with reverence for the Divine administration. It points at some deep malignity in sin, at some dreadful consequences flowing from guilt, unknown in their causes and in their whole effects to us, which moved the Sovereign of the world to depart from the ordinary course of Providence, and to bring about the restoration of his fallen creatures by a method so astonishing. Mankind are hereby awakened to the most serious reflections. Such views are opened of the sanctity of the Divine laws, of the strictness of the Divine justice, of the importance of the part which is assigned them to act, as serve to prevent their trifling with human life, and add dignity and solemnity to virtue. These great purposes are farther carried on, by the discovery which is made of the fixed connection in which this life stands with a future eternal state. We are represented as sowing now, what we are to reap hereafter; undergoing a course of probation and trial, which according as it terminates in our improvement, or leaves us unreforined and corrupted, will dismiss us to lasting abodes, either of punishment or reward. Such a discovery rises far above the dubious conjectures, and uncertain reasonings, which mere natural light suggests concerning the future condition of mankind. Here we find, what alone can produce any considerable influence on practice, explicit promise and threatening; an authoritative sanction given to a law, the Governour and Judge revealed; and all the motives which can operate on hope and fear, brought home to the heart, with, Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, In a word, a great and magnificent plan of Divine administration is opened to us in the Gospel of Christ; and nothing is omitted that can impress mankind with the persuasion of their being all, in the strictest sense, subjects of the moral government of God.
THOUGH the bounds of this Discourse allow us to take only an imperfect view of the principles of Christian doctrine, yet the hints which have been given lay a sufficient foundation for appealing to every impartial mind, whether the knowledge and belief of such principles be not intimately connected with the improvement, and, by consequence, with the happiness of man? I reason now with such as admit, that virtue is the great source both of improvement and happiness. Let them lay what stress they please upon the authority of conscience, and upon the force and evidence of its dictates; can they refuse to allow that the natural tendency of the principles which I have mentioned, is to support those dictates, and to confirm that authority ; to excite, on various occasions, the most useful sentiments; to provide additional restraints from vice, and additional motives to every virtue? Who dares pronounce, that there is no case in which conscience stands in need of sucli assistance to direct, where there is so much uncertainty and darkness; and to prompt, where there is so much feebleness and irresolution, and such a fatal proneness to vice and folly?
But how good soever the tendency of religious principles may be, some will still call in question their actual significancy, and influence on life. This tendency is by various causes defeated. Between the belief of religious principles, and a correspondent