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It yet remains to say something of the Nicolaitans, who are mentioned by our Lord, in Rev. ii. 6, 14, 15, and rebuked by Him for the laxity of their morals, their continuing to partake of meats offered to idols, and their indulging in fornication, contrary to the apostolic injunction, Acts xv. 29. But, as Mosheim has remarked, “Over every thing relating to this sect there hangs a degree of obscurity which we believe it will ever be found beyond the power of human ingenuity to dispel.” The generality of ancient writers consider the founder of this sect to have been Nicolas, one of the seven deacons of the church at Jerusalem (Acts vi. 5); but this opinion seems to be founded rather on uncertain report and conjecture than on any credible testimony. There appears to have been in the second century a numerous sect of Nicolaitans who were devoted to the Gnostic discipline and opinions, against whom Clement of Alexandria wrote his Stromata ; but whether they are the same class of persons with those spoken of in our Lord's epistle to the church at Pergamos is doubted by Mosheim, who inclines to the contrary opinion.
I have thus given you a brief account of the principal sects which rose up during the first century of the Christian era ; and, as the narrative seems to lay a foundation for a few profitable remarks, I shall close the present lecture by submitting them to your consideration.
I took occasion to mention at the beginning of this lecture that the existence of heresy, and even its prevalence in succeeding ages, was so far from being unexpected by the divine founder of our religion that he apprised his disciples of it, and pointed them to its source. In a parable, recorded Matt. xiii. 24—30, he compared his church, or kingdom, to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but, while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way: but when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field ? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this.”
I quote this passage for the purpose of impressing upon your minds the indisputable fact that "no lie is of the truth," and
that all heresy springs from the prince of darkness, "the god of this world,” your adversary, the devil, whose unwearied object it is, while professors sleep, to obscure the saving truth-propagate pernicious error-and thereby render the doctrine of the kingdom of none effect. The apostles of Christ were evidently much impressed with this subject, as appears from all their writings, some of which I have already quoted. They inform us whence these heresies originate—they speak of their certainty, and explain to us the end which the Lord has in permitting themthey have laid down rules in their writings for detecting them, and are most explicit in stating the sovereign antidote against them. These things show the subject to be of high importance to Christians in every age of the church, and will amply justify our dwelling a little upon it in this place.
Among the various sources of heresy which the Scriptures point out, the priniary one, no doubt, is ignorance, or disbelief of the saving truth, whatever profession men may have made of it in words. Persons may gain admission into Christian churches, by professing with their lips a form of sound words, while their hearts are strangers to the grace of the Gospel, as was evidently the case with Simon Magus, Acts viii. Such persons have never been duly convinced of their lost and perishing condition, so as to be shut up to the only sovereign remedy for a guilty conscience, the Divine blood of the sin-atoning lamb, the alone ground of hope revealed in the Gospel. They have never discerned the suitableness and excellency of the scheme of Salvation through Christ Jesus, so as to perceive the divine glory, centering in, or emanating from it—the glory of sovereign, rich, and free grace. The consequence is that they do not feel themselves deeply interested, or as having much at stake in the truth or falsehood of what the gospel declares, and therefore they are ready to embrace every delusion that strikes their fancy or gratifies a depraved taste. This is far from being a rare or uncommon case, and it will be found to apply to most of the heresies which have been adverted to in this Lecture.
Aversion to the saving truth is another fruitful source of heresy. It takes a great deal to reconcile the proud and selfrighteous heart of a sinner to the humbling doctrine of the
cross of Christ; to lead such a one to say, with the apostle Paul, “ God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Christ Jesus my Lord;” and to “count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of him,” &c. Among the numerous professors of the Gospel, how few are brought to see that there is nothing between them and the pit of destruction but the sacrifice of Christ ! and therefore they are only, as it were, half-sick: they do not see enough in the saving truth to excite their ardent love to it; in fact, their hearts remain disaffected to it—they hope to do very well without it, and hence their coldness and indifference about the form of sound words, the faith once delivered to the saints; they “receive not the love of the truth that they might be saved, wherefore God sends them strong delusions that they should believe a lie,” 2 Thess. ii. 10. This is evidently stated as the source of the great apostacy.
The pride of reasoning, also, leads many into heresy. The power or capacity of reasoning is the workmanship of God in the human mind; but, alas ! which of the gifts of his beneficent hand has been more abused than this? What led our first
parents into sin but the pride of reasoning-reasoning on the divine prohibition? And the same unhallowed use of it leads numbers of professors into heresies which subvert the Gospel of God and destroy the souls of men. Persons under the influence of this Satanic principle cannot be satisfied with the common faith of God's elect-the faith of the vulgar ; they cannot content themselves with the simple testimony of revelation ; they must try it by their own natural conceptions and reasonings, and adopt or reject it, according as it agrees with or differs from these : and thus, professing themselves to be wise, they manifest the most egregious folly. Christianity is a very plain and simple thing in itself; it consists in believing as we are taught by Jesus and his apostles, and practising as we are bidden or commanded, and our highest wisdom lies in bringing all our reasonings into snbjection to divine revelation ; but this is too humbling a task for many, and hence they depart from the faith and give heed to lying vanities; to which I may further add,
The pride of wisdom, or a fondness for singularity, is another fruitful source of heresies; and it is remarkable that this temper
of mind often manifests itself in connexion with conceited ignorance. Hence we find the apostle Paul connecting these opposites, pride and ignorance : “ If any man consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is proud—knowing nothing but doting about questions, and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth--from such withdraw thyself," 1 Tim, vi. 4. Individuals of this stamp want to make new discoveries for the display of their wisdom and skill; and instead of searching the Scriptures in the fear of God, with fervent prayer for divine illumination and a humble dependence on the teachings of the Holy Spirit, that they may be made wise unto salvation, they peruse them with all the self-sufficiency of the philosopher, in order to strike out some new hypothesis. Thus intruding into those things which they have not seen, and vainly puffed up by their carnal mind, they speedily make shipwreck of faith and a good conscience.
The considerations now offered, and which, indeed, may be said to lie upon the surface of the subject, will enable us to account for both the rise and the prevalence of error and heresy in the Christian church; they are applicable to all the heresies which sprang up during the period we have had under review; let us, before quitting the subject, turn our attention for a moment to the remedy which divine wisdom prescribes as an antidote to them, The only safe and effectual preservative from heresy, or
from being led away by the error of the wicked, is, to be found giving diligent heed to the writings of the holy apostles and prophets. These are the infallible standards of truth and error, to which we must bring all the doctrines and commandments of men, and receive or reject them accordingly, 1 John iv. 1-4. When Paul was about to leave the world, he gave a solemn charge to his son Timothy, to "preach the word in season and out of season,” assigning this as a reason, “ that the time would come when men would not endure sound doctrine, but, after their own lusts, heap to themselves teachers having itching ears, and they should turn away their ears from the truth, and be turned unto fables, 2 Tim. iv. 2, &c. He enjoins it upon him to “ hold
fast the form of sound words, 2 Tim. i. 13; to speak the things which become sound doctrine,” Tit. ii. 1. Now it is evident that what the apostle calls sound doctrine is the genuine doctrine of the gospel of Christ,—that which relates to his person, character, grace, and salvation ; and this he constantly exhibits as being healthful, pure, and unsophisticated, divinely adapted to heal all the maladies of the soul, and nourish the believer up into everlasting life. This genuine, unadulterated doctrine, he is at great pains to distinguish from the precarious opinions, the subtle explications and definitions, the ingenious speculations and refinements of uninspired men. He characterizes the primitive apostolic Gospel by its simplicity, in opposition to all human refinements and determinations—it is THE WORD-THE TRUTH, unmixt with
of the precarious or false opinions—the doubtful speculations, or disputable niceties, which he foresaw would arise in the Christian church. He characterizes it, too, by its moral tendency; it is a doctrine according to godliness,” Titus i. l; and ii. 12; and in this respect the very reverse of the Jewish fables and commandments of men, propagated by the corrupt teachers of his day, which not only turned off the attention of men from the saving truth, but also gendered strifes, contentions, and envyings, which “increased unto more ungodliness,” 2 Tim. ii. 16.
Happy had it been for the world, if professing Christians had rested satisfied with the form of sound words—the faith once delivered unto the saints—the pure and genuine doctrine of the gospel ; holding this firm and entire, without the omission of any part of it-unperverted, without being strained or wrested --sincere, unmixt with any thing else, either in the matter or manner of expression. But, alas ! what the apostles, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, foretold, we know actually came to pass. Controversies sprang up in abundance--heresies multiplied—and, as we shall presently see," the church was distracted, bewildered, and inflamed! Forgetting that the gospel was not given to exercise ingenuity, or gratify curiosity, and with the view of recommending it to the philosophers of the age, some Christians began very early to new-model the articles of their faith according to the Platonic system of philosophy- ~ to define them with scientific precision, and in the phraseology