A PRACTICAL VIEW OF THE PREVAILING RELIGIOUS SYSTEM OF PROFESSED CHRISTIANS, IN THE HIGHER AND MIDDLE CLASSES IN THIS COUNTRY, CONTRASTED WITH REAL CHRISTIANITY.
By WILLIAM WILBERFORCE, Esq; Member of Parliament for the County of York.
Search the Scriptures!—— JOHN, v. 39.
How charming is DIVINE PHILOSOPHY! Not harsh, and crabbed, as dull Fools suppose, But Musical as is Apollo's lute, And a perpetual feast of nectar'd sweets, Where no crude surfeit reigns. MILTON.
DUBLIN: Printed by Robert Dapper, FOR B. DUGDALE, NO. 6, DAME-STREET.
It has been, for several years, the earnest wish of the writer of the following pages to address his countrymen on the important subject of Religion; but the various duties of his public station, and a constitution incapable of much labour, have obstructed the execution of his purpose. Long has he been looking forward to some vacant season, in which he might devote his whole time and attention to this interesting service, free from the interruption of all other concerns; and he has the rather wished for this opportunity of undistracted and mature reflection, from a desire that what he might send into the world might thus be rendered less undeserving of the public eye. Meanwhile life is wearing away, and he daily becomes more and more convinced, that he might wait in vain for this season of complete vacancy. He must, therefore, improve such occasional intervals of leisure as may occur to him in the course of a busy life, and throw himself on the Reader's indulgence for the pardon of such imperfections, as the opportunity of undiverted and more mature attention might have enabled him to discover and correct.
But the plea here suggested is by no means intended as an excuse for the opinions which he shall express, if they be found mistaken. Here, if he be in an error, it is however a deliberate error. He would indeed account himself unpardonable, if he were to intrude his first thoughts upon the Public on a question of such importance; and he can truly declare, that what he shall offer will be the result of much reading, observation, and inquiry, and of long, serious, and repeated consideration.
It is not improbable that he may be accused of deviating from his proper line, and of impertinently interfering in the concerns of a Profession to which he does not belong. If it were necessary, however, to defend himself against this charge, he might shelter himself under the authority of many most respectable examples. But surely to such an accusation it may be sufficient to reply, that it is the duty of every man to promote the happiness of his fellow-creatures to the utmost of his power; and that he who thinks he sees many around him, whom he esteems and loves, labouring under a fatal error, must have a cold heart, or a most confined notion of benevolence, if he could refrain from endeavouring to set them right, lest in so doing he should be accused of stepping out of his proper walk, and expose himself on that ground to the imputation of officiousness.
But he might also allege as a full justification, not only that Religion is the business of every one, but that its advancement or decline in any country is so intimately connected with the temporal interests of society, as to render it the peculiar concern of a political man; and that what he may presume to offer on the subject of Religion may perhaps be perused with less jealousy and more candour, from the very circumstance of its having been written by a Layman, which must at least exclude the idea (an idea sometimes illiberally suggested to take off the effect of the works of Ecclesiastics) that it is prompted by motives of self-interest, or of professional prejudice.
But if the writer's apology be not found in the work itself, and in his avowed motive for undertaking it, he would in vain endeavour to satisfy his readers by any excuses he might assign; therefore, without farther preamble, he will proceed to the statement and execution of his purpose.
The main object which he has in view is, not to convince the Sceptic, or to answer the arguments of persons who avowedly oppose the fundamental doctrines of our Religion; but to point out the scanty and erroneous system of the bulk of those who belong to the class of orthodox Christians, and to contrast their defective scheme with a representation of what the author apprehends to be real Christianity. Often has it filled him with deep concern, to observe in this description of persons, scarcely any distinct knowledge of the real nature and principles of the religion which they profess. The subject is of infinite importance; let it not be driven out of our minds by the bustle or dissipations of life. This present scene, and all its cares and all its gaieties, will soon be rolled away, and "we must stand before the judgment seat of Christ." This awful consideration will prompt the writer to express himself with greater freedom than he should otherwise be disposed to use. This consideration he trusts, also, will justify his frankness, and will secure him a serious and patient perusal. But it would be trespassing on the indulgence of the reader to detain him with introductory remarks. Let it only be farther premised, that if what shall be stated should to any appear needlessly austere and rigid, the writer must lay in his claim not to be condemned, without a fair inquiry whether or not his statements accord with the language of the sacred writings. To that test he refers with confidence; and it must be conceded by those who admit the authority of Scripture (such only he is addressing) that from the decision of the word of God there can be no appeal.
CHAP. I. Inadequate Conceptions of the Importance of Christianity. 1
CHAP. II. Corruption of Human Nature. 14
CHAP. III. Chief Defects of the Religious System of the bulk of professed Christians, in what regards our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit—with a Dissertation concerning the use of the Passions in Religion. 43
CHAP. IV. On the prevailing inadequate Conceptions concerning the Nature and the Strictness of Practical Christianity. 100
CHAP. V. On the Excellence of Christianity in certain important Particulars. Argument which results thence in Proof of its Divine Origin. 252
CHAP. VI. Brief Inquiry into the present State of Christianity in this Country, with some of the Causes which have led to its critical Circumstances. Its Importance to us as a political Community, and practical Hints for which the foregoing Considerations give occasion. 262
CHAP. VII. Practical Hints to various Descriptions of Persons. 305
A PRACTICAL VIEW, &c.
INADEQUATE CONCEPTIONS OF THE IMPORTANCE OF CHRISTIANITY.
Popular Notions.—Scripture Account.—Ignorance in this Case criminal.—Two false Maxims exposed.
Before we proceed to the consideration of any particular defects in the religious system of the bulk of professed Christians, it may be proper to point out the very inadequate conception which they entertain of the importance of Christianity in general, of its peculiar nature, and superior excellence. If we listen to their conversation, virtue is praised, and vice is censured; piety is perhaps applauded, and profaneness condemned. So far all is well. But let any one, who would not be deceived, by these "barren generalities" examine a little more closely, and he will find, that not to Christianity in particular, but at best to Religion in general, perhaps to mere Morality, their homage is intended to be paid. With Christianity, as distinct from these, they are little acquainted; their views of it have been so cursory and superficial, that far from discerning its characteristic essence, they have little more than perceived those exterior circumstances which distinguish it from other forms of Religion. There are some few facts, and perhaps some leading doctrines and principles, of which they cannot be wholly ignorant; but of the consequences, and relations, and practical uses of these, they have few ideas, or none at all.
Does this seem too strong? View their plan of life and their ordinary conduct; and not to speak at present of their general inattention to things of a religious nature, let us ask, wherein can we discern the points of discrimination between them and professed unbelievers? In an age wherein it is confessed and lamented that infidelity abounds, do we observe in them any remarkable care to instruct their children in the principles of the faith which they profess, and to furnish them with arguments for the defence of it? They would blush, on their child's coming out into the world, to think him defective in any branch of that knowledge, or of those accomplishments which belong to his station in life, and accordingly these are cultivated with becoming assiduity. But he is left to collect his religion as he may; the study of Christianity has formed no part of his education, and his attachment to it (where any attachment to it exists at all) is, too often, not the preference of sober reason, but merely the result of early prejudice and groundless prepossession. He was born in a Christian country, of course he is a Christian; his father was a member of the church of England, so is he. When such is the hereditary religion handed down from generation to generation, it cannot surprise us to observe young men of sense and spirit beginning to doubt altogether of the truth of the system in which they have been brought up, and ready to abandon a station which they are unable to defend. Knowing Christianity chiefly in the difficulties which it contains, and in the impossibilities which are falsely imputed to it, they fall perhaps into the company of infidels; and, as might be expected, they are shaken by frivolous objections and profane cavils, which, had they been grounded and bottomed in reason and argument, would have passed by them, "as the idle wind," and scarcely have seemed worthy of serious notice.
Let us beware before it be too late. No one can say into what discredit Christianity may hereby grow, at a time when the free and unrestrained intercourse, subsisting amongst the several ranks and classes of society, so much favours the general diffusion of the sentiments of the higher orders. To a similar ignorance is perhaps in no small degree to be ascribed the success, with which Christianity has been attacked of late years in a neighbouring country. Had she not been wholly unarmed for the contest, however she might have been forced from her untenable posts, and compelled to disembarrass herself from her load of incumbrances, she never could have been driven altogether out of the field by her puny assailants, with all their cavils, and gibes, and sarcasms; for in these consisted the main strength of their petty artillery. Let us beware, lest we also suffer from a like cause; nor let it be our crime and our reproach, that in schools, perhaps even in Colleges, Christianity is almost if not altogether neglected.
It cannot be expected, that they who are so little attentive to this great object in the education of their children, should be more so in other parts of their conduct, where less strongly stimulated by affection, and less obviously loaded with responsibility. They are of course therefore, little regardful of the state of Christianity in their own country; and still more indifferent about communicating the light of divine truth to the nations which "still sit in darkness."
But Religion, it may be replied, is not noisy and ostentatious; it is modest and private in its nature; it resides in a man's own bosom, and shuns the observation of the multitude. Be it so.
From the transient and distant view then, which we have been taking of these unassuming Christians, let us approach a little nearer, and listen to the unreserved conversation of their confidential hours. Here, if any where, the interior of the heart is laid open, and we may ascertain the true principles of their regards and aversions; the scale by which they measure the good and evil of life. Here, however, you will discover few or no traces of Christianity. She scarcely finds herself a place amidst the many objects of their hopes, and fears, and joys, and sorrows. Grateful, perhaps, (as well indeed they may be grateful) for health, and talents, and affluence, and other blessings belonging to their persons and conditions in life, they scarcely reckon in the number this grand distinguishing mark of the bounty of Providence; or if they mention it at all, it is noticed coldly and formally, like one of those obsolete claims to which, though but of small account in the estimate of our wealth or power, we think it as well to put in our title from considerations of family decorum or of national usage.
But what more than all the rest establishes the point in question: let their conversation take a graver turn: here at length their religion, modest and retired as it is, must be expected to disclose itself; here however you will look in vain for the religion of Jesus. Their standard of right and wrong is not the standard of the gospel: they approve and condemn by a different rule; they advance principles and maintain opinions altogether opposite to the genius and character of Christianity. You would fancy yourself rather amongst the followers of the old philosophy; nor is it easy to guess how any one could satisfy himself to the contrary, unless, by mentioning the name of some acknowledged heretic, he should afford them an occasion of demonstrating their zeal for the religion of their country.
The truth is, their opinions on these subjects are not formed from the perusal of the word of God. The Bible lies on the shelf unopened; and they would be wholly ignorant of its contents, except for what they hear occasionally at church, or for the faint traces which their memories may still retain of the lessons of their earliest infancy.
How different, nay, in many respects, how contradictory, would be the two systems of mere morals, of which the one should be formed from the commonly received maxims of the Christian world, and the other from the study of the Holy Scriptures! it would be curious to remark in any one, who had hitherto satisfied himself with the former, the astonishment which would be excited on his first introduction to the latter. We are not left here to bare conjecture. This was, in fact, the effect produced on the mind of a late ingenious writer, of whose little work, though it bears perhaps some marks of his customary love of paradox, we must at least confess, that it exposes, in a strong point of view, the poverty of that superficial religion which has been above condemned; and that it every where displays that happy perspicuity, and grace, which so eminently characterize all the compositions of its author. But after this willing tribute of commendation, we are reluctantly compelled to remark, that the work in question discredits the cause which it was meant to serve, by many crude and extravagant positions; from which no one can be secure who forms a hasty judgment of a deep and comprehensive subject, the several bearings and relations of which have been imperfectly surveyed; and above all, it must be lamented, that it treats the great question which it professes to discuss, rather as a matter of mere speculation, than as one wherein our everlasting interests are involved. Surely the writer's object should have been, to convince his readers of their guilt still more than of their ignorance, and to leave them impressed rather with a sense of their danger than of their folly.
It were almost a waste of time to multiply arguments in order to prove how criminal the voluntary ignorance, of which we have been speaking, must appear in the sight of God. It must be confessed by all who believe that we are accountable creatures, and to such only the writer is addressing himself, that we shall have to answer hereafter to the Almighty for all the means and occasions we have here enjoyed of improving ourselves, or of promoting the happiness of others. And if, when summoned to give an account of our stewardship, we shall be called upon to answer for the use which we have made of our bodily organs, and of the means of relieving the wants and necessities of our fellow creatures; how much more for the exercise of the nobler and more exalted faculties of our nature, of invention, and judgment, and memory; and for our employment of all the instruments and opportunities of diligent application, and serious reflection, and honest decision. And to what subject might we in all reason be expected to apply more earnestly, than to that wherein our eternal interests are at issue? When God has of his goodness vouchsafed to grant us such abundant means of instruction in that which we are most concerned to know, how great must be the guilt, and how aweful the punishment of voluntary ignorance!
And why, it may be asked, are we in this pursuit alone to expect knowledge without inquiry, and success without endeavour? The whole analogy of nature inculcates on us a different lesson, and our own judgments in matters of temporal interests and worldly policy confirm the truth of her suggestions. Bountiful as is the hand of Providence, its gifts are not so bestowed as to seduce us into indolence, but to rouse us to exertion; and no one expects to attain to the height of learning, or arts, or power, or wealth, or military glory, without vigorous resolution, and strenuous diligence, and steady perseverance. Yet we expect to be Christians without labour, study, or inquiry. This is the more preposterous, because Christianity, being a revelation from God, and not the invention of man, discovering to us new relations, with their correspondent duties; containing also doctrines, and motives, and practical principles, and rules, peculiar to itself, and almost as new in their nature as supreme in their excellence, we cannot reasonably expect to become proficients in it by the accidental intercourses of life, as one might learn insensibly the maxims of worldly policy, or a scheme of mere morals.
The diligent perusal of the Holy Scriptures would discover to us our past ignorance. We should cease to be deceived by superficial appearances, and to confound the Gospel of Christ with the systems of philosophers; we should become impressed with that weighty truth, so much forgotten, and never to be too strongly insisted on, that Christianity calls on us, as we value our immortal souls, not merely in general, to be religious and moral, but specially to believe the doctrines, and imbibe the principles, and practise the precepts of Christ. It might be to run into too great length to confirm this position beyond dispute by express quotations from Scripture. And (not to anticipate what belongs more properly to a subsequent part of the work) it may be sufficient here to remark in general, that Christianity is always represented in Scripture as the grand, the unparalleled instance of God's bounty to mankind. It was graciously held forth in the original promise to our first parents; it was predicted by a long continued series of prophets; the subject of their prayers, inquiries, and longing expectations. In a world, which opposed and persecuted them, it was their source of peace, and hope, and consolation. At length it approached—the Desire of all Nations—The long expected Star announced its presence—A multitude of the heavenly host hailed its introduction, and proclaimed its character; "Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will towards men." It is every where represented in scripture by such figures as may most deeply impress on us a sense of its value; it is spoken of as light from darkness, as release from prison, as deliverance from captivity, as life from death. "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation," was the exclamation with which it was welcomed by the pious Simeon; and it was universally received and professed among the early converts with thankfulness and joy. At one time, the communication of it is promised as a reward; at another, the loss of it is threatened as a punishment. And, short as is the form of prayer taught us by our blessed Saviour, the more general extension of the kingdom of Christ constitutes one of its leading petitions.
With what exalted conceptions of the importance of Christianity ought we to be filled by such descriptions as these? Yet, in vain have we "line upon line and precept upon precept."—Thus predicted, thus prayed and longed for, thus announced and characterized and rejoiced in, this heavenly treasure poured into our lap in rich abundance we scarce accept. We turn from it coldly, or at best possess it negligently, as a thing of no account or estimation. But a due sense of its value would be assuredly impressed on us by the diligent study of the word of God, that blessed repository of divine truth and consolation. Thence it is that we are to learn our obligations and our duty, what we are to believe and what to practise. And, surely, one would think it could not be required to press men to the perusal of the sacred volume. Reason dictates, Revelation commands; "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God."—"Search the Scriptures,"—"Be ready to give to every one a reason of the hope that is in you." Such are the declarations and injunctions of the inspired writers; injunctions confirmed by commendations of those who obey the admonition. Yet, is it not undeniable that with the Bible in our houses, we are ignorant of its contents; and that hence, in a great measure, it arises, that the bulk of the Christian world know so little, and mistake so greatly, in what regards the religion which they profess?
This is not the place for inquiring at large, whence it is that those who assent to the position, that the Bible is the word of God, and who profess to rest their hopes on the Christian basis, contentedly acquiesce in a state of such lamentable ignorance. But it may not be improper here to touch on two kindred opinions, from which, in the minds of the more thoughtful and serious, this acquiescence appears to derive much secret support. The one is, that it signifies little what a man believes; look to his practice. The other (of the same family) that sincerity is all in all. Let a man's opinions and conduct be what they may, yet, provided he be sincerely convinced that they are right, however the exigencies of civil society may require him to be dealt with amongst men, in the sight of God he cannot be criminal.
It would detain us too long fully to set forth the various merits of these favourite positions, of which it is surely not the smallest excellence, that they are of unbounded application, comprehending within their capacious limits, all the errors which have been believed, and many of the most desperate crimes which have been perpetrated among men. The former of them is founded altogether on that grossly fallacious assumption, that a man's opinions will not influence his practice. The latter proceeds on this groundless supposition, that the Supreme Being has not afforded us sufficient means of discriminating truth from falsehood, right from wrong: and it implies, that be a man's opinions or conduct ever so wild and extravagant, we are to presume, that they are as much the result of impartial inquiry and honest conviction, as if his sentiments and actions had been strictly conformable to the rules of reason and sobriety. Never indeed was there a principle more general in its use, more sovereign in its potency. How does its beautiful simplicity also, and compendious brevity, give it rank before the laborious subtleties of Bellarmine! Clement, and Ravaillac, and other worthies of a similar stamp, from whose purity of intention the world has hitherto withheld its due tribute of applause, would here have found a ready plea; and their injured innocence shall now at length receive its full though tardy vindication. "These however," it may be replied, "are excepted cases." Certainly they are cases of which any one who maintains the opinion in question would be glad to disencumber himself; because they clearly expose the unsoundness of his principle. But it will be incumbent on such an one, first to explain with precision why they are to be exempted from its operation, and this he will find an impossible task; for sincerity, in its popular sense, so shamefully is the term misapplied, can be made the criterion of guilt and innocence on no grounds, which will not equally serve to justify the assassins who have been instanced. The conclusion cannot be eluded; no man was ever more fully persuaded of the innocence of any action, than these men were, that the horrid deed they were about to perpetrate was not lawful merely, but highly meritorious. Thus Clement and Ravaillac being unquestionably sincere, they were therefore indubitably innocent. Nay, the absurdity of this principle might be shewn to be even greater than what has yet been stated. It would not be going too far to assert, that whilst it scorns the defence of petty villains, of those who still retain the sense of good and evil, it holds forth, like some well frequented sanctuary, a secure asylum to those more finished criminals, who, from long habits of wickedness, are lost alike to the perception as to the practice of virtue; and that it selects a seared conscience and a heart become callous to all moral distinctions as the special objects of its care. Nor is it only in prophane history that instances like these are to be found, of persons committing the greatest crimes with a sincere conviction of the rectitude of their conduct. Scripture will afford us parallels; and it was surely to guard us against the very error which we have been now exposing, that our blessed Saviour forewarned his disciples: "The time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service."
A principle like this must then be abandoned, and the advocates for sincerity must be compelled to restore this abused term to its genuine signification, and to acknowledge that it must imply honesty of mind, and the faithful use of the means of knowledge and of improvement, the desire of being instructed, humble inquiry, impartial consideration, and unprejudiced judgment. It is to these we would earnestly call you; to these (ever to be accompanied with fervent prayers for the divine blessing) Scripture every where holds forth the most animating promises. "Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you; Ho! every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters;" such are the comfortable assurances, such the gracious encouragements to the truly sincere inquirer. How deep will be our guilt if we slight all these benevolent offers. "How many prophets and kings have desired to hear the things that we hear, and have not heard them!" Great indeed are our opportunities, great also is our responsibility. Let us awaken to a true sense of our situation. We have every consideration to alarm our fears, or to animate our industry. How soon may the brightness of our meridian sun be darkened! Or, should the long suffering of God still continue to us the mercies which we so much abuse, it will only aggravate our crime, and in the end enhance our punishment. The time of reckoning will at length arrive. And when finally summoned to the bar of God, to give an account of our stewardship, what plea can we have to urge in our defence, if we remain willingly and obstinately ignorant of the way which leads to life, with such transcendent means of knowing it, and such urgent motives to its pursuit?
CORRUPTION OF HUMAN NATURE.
Inadequate Conceptions of the Corruption of Human Nature.
After considering the defective notions of the importance of Christianity in general, which prevail among the higher orders of the Christian world, the particular misconceptions which first come under our notice respect the corruption and weakness of human nature. This is a topic on which it is possible that many of those, into whose hands the present work shall fall, may not have bestowed much attention. If the case be so, it may be requisite to intreat them to lend a patient and a serious ear. The subject is of the deepest import. We should not go too far if we were to assert, that it lies at the very root of all true Religion, and still more, that it is eminently the basis and ground-work of Christianity.
So far as the writer has had an opportunity of remarking, the generality of professed Christians among the higher classes, either altogether overlook or deny, or at least greatly extenuate the corruption and weakness here in question. They acknowledge indeed that there is, and ever has been in the world, a great portion of vice and wickedness; that mankind have been ever prone to sensuality and selfishness, in disobedience to the more refined and liberal principles of their nature; that in all ages and countries, in public and in private life, innumerable instances have been afforded of oppression, of rapacity, of cruelty, of fraud, of envy, and of malice. They own that it is too often in vain that you inform the understanding, and convince the judgment. They admit that you do not thereby reform the hearts of men. Though they know their duty, they will not practice it; no not even when you have forced them to acknowledge that the path of virtue is that also of real interest, and of solid enjoyment.
These facts are certain; they cannot be disputed; and they are at the same time so obvious, that one would have thought that the celebrated apophthegm of the Grecian sage, "the majority are wicked," would scarcely have established his claim to intellectual superiority.
But though these effects of human depravity are every where acknowledged and lamented, we must not expect to find them traced to their true origin.
Causa latet, vis est notissima.
Prepare yourself to hear rather of frailty and infirmity, of petty transgressions, of occasional failings, of sudden surprisals, and of such other qualifying terms as may serve to keep out of view the true source of the evil, and without shocking the understanding, may administer consolation to the pride of human nature. The bulk of professed Christians are used to speak of man as of a being, who, naturally pure, and inclined to all virtue, is sometimes, almost involuntary, drawn out of the right course, or is overpowered by the violence of temptation. Vice with them is rather an accidental and temporary, than a constitutional and habitual distemper; a noxious plant, which, though found to live and even to thrive in the human mind, is not the natural growth and production of the soil.
Far different is the humiliating language of Christianity. From it we learn that man is an apostate creature, fallen from his high original, degraded in his nature, and depraved in his faculties; indisposed to good, and disposed to evil; prone to vice, it is natural and easy to him; disinclined to virtue, it is difficult and laborious; that he is tainted with sin, not slightly and superficially, but radically and to the very core. These are truths which, however mortifying to our pride, one would think (if this very corruption itself did not warp the judgment) none would be hardy enough to attempt to controvert. I know not any thing which brings them home so forcibly to my own feelings, as the consideration of what still remains to us of our primitive dignity, when contrasted with our present state of moral degradation,
"Into what depth thou seest, From what height fallen."
Examine first with attention the natural powers and faculties of man! invention, reason, judgment, memory; a mind "of large discourse," "looking before and after," reviewing the past, and thence determining for the present, and anticipating the future; discerning, collecting, combining, comparing; capable not merely of apprehending but of admiring the beauty of moral excellence: with fear and hope to warn and animate; with joy and sorrow to solace and soften; with love to attach, with sympathy to harmonize, with courage to attempt, with patience to endure, and with the power of conscience, that faithful monitor within the breast, to enforce the conclusions of reason, and direct and regulate the passions of the soul. Truly we must pronounce him "majestic though in ruin." "Happy, happy world," would be the exclamation of the inhabitant of some other planet, on being told of a globe like ours, peopled with such creatures as these, and abounding with situations and occasions to call forth the multiplied excellencies of their nature. "Happy, happy world, with what delight must your great Creator and Governor witness your conduct, and what large and merited rewards await you when your term of probation shall have expired.
"I, bone, quo virtus tua te vocat, i pede fausto, Grandia laturus meritorum praemia."
But we have indulged too long in these delightful speculations; a sad reverse presents itself on our survey of the actual state of man, when, from viewing his natural powers, we follow him into practice, and see the uses to which he applies them. Take in the whole of the prospect, view him in every age, and climate, and nation, in every condition and period of society. Where now do you discover the characters of his exalted nature? "How is the gold become dim, and the fine gold changed?" How is his reason clouded, his affections perverted; his conscience stupified! How do anger, and envy, and hatred, and revenge, spring up in his wretched bosom! How is he a slave to the meanest of his appetites! What fatal propensities does he discover to evil! What inaptitude to good!
Dwell awhile on the state of the ancient world; not merely on that benighted part of it where all lay buried in brutish ignorance and barbarism, but on the seats of civilized and polished nations, on the empire of taste, and learning, and philosophy: yet in these chosen regions, with whatever lustre the sun of science poured forth its rays, the moral darkness was so thick "that it might be felt." Behold their sottish idolatries, their absurd superstitions, their want of natural affection, their brutal excesses, their unfeeling oppression, their savage cruelty! Look not to the illiterate and the vulgar, but to the learned and refined. Form not your ideas from the conduct of the less restrained and more licentious; you will turn away with disgust and shame from the allowed and familiar habits of the decent and the moral. St. Paul best states the facts, and furnishes the explanation; "because they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, he gave them over to a reprobate mind."
Now direct your view to another quarter, to the inhabitants of a new hemisphere, where the baneful practices and contagious example of the old world had never travelled. Surely, among these children of nature we may expect to find those virtuous tendencies, for which we have hitherto looked in vain. Alas! our search will still be fruitless! They are represented by the historian of America, whose account is more favourable than those of some other great authorities, as being a compound of pride, and indolence, and selfishness, and cunning, and cruelty; full of a revenge which nothing could satiate, of a ferocity which nothing could soften; strangers to the most amiable sensibilities of nature. They appeared incapable of conjugal affection, or parental fondness, or filial reverence, or social attachments; uniting too with their state of barbarism, many of the vices and weaknesses of polished society. Their horrid treatment of captives taken in war, on whose bodies they feasted, after putting them to death by the most cruel tortures, is so well known, that we may spare the disgusting recital. No commendable qualities relieve this gloomy picture, except fortitude, and perseverance, and zeal for the welfare of their little community; if this last quality, exercised and directed as it was, can be thought deserving of commendation.
But you give up the heathen nations as indefensible, and wish rather to form your estimate of man from a view of countries which have been blessed with the light of revelation.—True it is, and with joy let us record the concession, Christianity has set the general tone of morals much higher than it was ever found in the Pagan world. She has every where improved the character and multiplied the comforts of society, particularly to the poor and the weak, whom from the beginning she professed to take under her special patronage. Like her divine Author, "who sends his rain on the evil and on the good," she showers down unnumbered blessings on thousands who profit from her bounty, while they forget or deny her power, and set at nought her authority. Yet even in this more favoured situation we shall discover too many lamentable proofs of the depravity of man. Nay, this depravity will now become even more apparent and less deniable. For what bars does it not now overleap? Over what motives is it not now victorious? Consider well the superior light and advantages which we enjoy, and then appreciate the superior obligations which are imposed on us. Consider in how many cases our evil propensities are now kept from breaking forth, by the superior restraints under which vice is laid among us by positive laws, and by the amended standard of public opinion; and we may be assisted in conjecturing what force is to be assigned to these motives, by the dreadful proofs which have been lately exhibited in a neighbouring country, that when their influence is withdrawn, the most atrocious crimes can be perpetrated shamelessly and in the face of day. Consider then the superior excellence of our moral code, the new principles of obedience furnished by the gospel, and above all, the awful sanction which the doctrines and precepts of Christianity derive from the clear discovery of a future state of retribution, and from the annunciation of that tremendous day, "when we shall stand before the judgment seat of Christ." Yet, in spite of all our knowledge thus enforced and pressed home by this solemn notice, how little has been our progress in virtue? It has been by no means such as to prevent the adoption, in our days, of various maxims of antiquity, which, when well considered, too clearly establish the depravity of man. It may not be amiss to adduce a few instances in proof of this assertion. It is now no less acknowledged than heretofore, that prosperity hardens the heart: that unlimited power is ever abused, instead of being rendered the instrument of diffusing happiness: that habits of vice grow up of themselves, whilst those of virtue, if to be obtained at all, are of slow and difficult formation; that they who draw the finest pictures of virtue, and seem most enamoured of her charms, are often the least under her influence, and by the merest trifles are drawn aside from that line of conduct, which they most strongly and seriously recommend to others, that all this takes place, though most of the pleasures of vice are to be found with less alloy in the paths of virtue; whilst at the same time, these paths afford superior and more exquisite delights, peculiar to themselves, and are free from the diseases and bitter remorse, at the price of which vicious gratifications are so often purchased.
It may suffice to touch very slightly on some other arguments, which it would hardly be right to leave altogether unnoticed: one of these (the justice of which, however denied by superficial moralists, parents of strict principles can abundantly testify) may be drawn from the perverse and froward dispositions perceivable in children, which it is the business and sometimes the ineffectual attempt of education to reform. Another may be drawn from the various deceits we are apt to practice on ourselves, to which no one can be a stranger, who has ever contemplated the operations of his own mind with serious attention. To the influence of this species of corruption it has been in a great degree owing, that Christianity itself has been too often disgraced. It has been turned into an engine of cruelty, and amidst the bitterness of persecution, every trace has disappeared of the mild and beneficent spirit of the religion of Jesus. In what degree must the taint have worked itself into the frame, and have corrupted the habit, when the most wholesome nutriment can be thus converted into the deadliest poison! Wishing always to argue from such premises as are not only really sound, but from such as cannot even be questioned by those to whom this work is addressed, little was said in representing the deplorable state of the Heathen world, respecting their defective and unworthy conceptions in what regards the Supreme Being, who even then however "left not himself without witness, but gave them rain and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness." But surely to any who call themselves Christians, it may be justly urged as an astonishing instance of human depravity, that we ourselves, who enjoy the full light of revelation; to whom God has vouchsafed such clear discoveries of what it concerns us to know of his being and attributes; who profess to believe "that in him we live, and move, and have our being;" that to him we owe all the comforts we here enjoy, and the offer of eternal Glory purchased for us by the atoning blood of his own Son; ("thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift,") that we, thus loaded with mercies, should every one of us be continually chargeable with forgetting his authority, and being ungrateful for his benefits; with slighting his gracious proposals, or receiving them at best but heartlessly and coldly.
But to put the question concerning the natural depravity of man to the severest test: take the best of the human species, the watchful diligent self-denying Christian, and let him decide the controversy; and that, not by inferences drawn from the practices of a thoughtless and dissolute world, but by an appeal to his personal experience. Go with him into his closet, ask him his opinion of the corruption of the heart, and he will tell you that he is deeply sensible of its power, for that he has learned it from much self-observation and long acquaintance with the workings of his own mind. He will tell you, that every day strengthens this conviction; yea, that hourly he sees fresh reason to deplore his want of simplicity in intention, his infirmity of purpose, his low views, his selfish unworthy desires, his backwardness to set about his duty, his languor and coldness in performing it: that he finds himself obliged continually to confess, that he feels within him two opposite principles, and that "he cannot do the things that he would." He cries out in the language of the excellent Hooker, "The little fruit which we have in holiness, it is, God knoweth, corrupt and unsound: we put no confidence at all in it, we challenge nothing in the world for it, we dare not call God to reckoning, as if we had him in our debt books; our continual suit to him is, and must be, to bear with our infirmities, and pardon our offences."
Such is the moral history, such the condition of man. The figures of the piece may vary, and the colouring is sometimes of a darker, sometimes of a lighter hue; but the principles of the composition, the grand outlines, are every where the same. Wherever we direct our view, we discover the melancholy proofs of our depravity; whether we look to ancient or modern times, to barbarous or civilized nations, to the conduct of the world around us, or to the monitor within the breast; whether we read, or hear, or act, or think, or feel, the same humiliating lesson is forced upon us,
Juppiter est quodcunque vides, quocunque moveris.
Now when we look back to the picture which was formerly drawn of the natural powers of man, and compare this his actual state with that for which, from a consideration of those powers, he seems to have been originally calculated, how are we to account for the astonishing contrast! will frailty or infirmity, or occasional lapses, or sudden surprisals, or any such qualifying terms, convey an adequate idea of the nature, or point out the cause of the distemper? How, on any principles of common reasoning, can we account for it, but by conceiving that man, since he came out of the hands of his Creator, has contracted a taint, and that the venom of this subtle poison has been communicated throughout the race of Adam, every where exhibiting incontestible marks of its fatal malignity? Hence it has arisen, that the appetites deriving new strength, and the powers of reason and conscience being weakened, the latter have feebly and impotently pleaded against those forbidden indulgences which the former have solicited. Sensual gratifications and illicit affections have debased our nobler powers, and indisposed our hearts to the discovery of God, and to the consideration of his perfections; to a constant willing submission to his authority, and obedience to his laws. By a repetition of vicious acts, evil habits have been formed within us, and have rivetted the fetters of sin. Left to the consequences of our own folly, the understanding has grown darker, and the heart more obdurate; reason has at length altogether betrayed her trust, and even conscience herself has aided the delusion, till, instead of deploring our miserable slavery, we have too often hugged, and even gloried in our chains.
Such is the general account of the progress of vice, where it is suffered to attain to its full growth in the human heart. The circumstances of individuals will be found indeed to differ; the servitude of some, if it may be allowed us to continue a figure so exactly descriptive of the case, is more rigorous than that of others, their bonds more galling, their degradation more complete. Some too (it will be remembered that we are speaking of the natural state of man, without taking Christianity into question) have for a while appeared almost to have escaped from their confinement; but none are altogether free; all without exception, in a greater or less degree bear about them, more visible or more concealed, the ignominious marks of their captivity.
Such on a full and fair investigation must be confessed to be the state of facts; and how can this be accounted for on any other supposition, than that of some original taint, some radical principle of corruption? All other solutions are unsatisfactory, whilst the potent cause which has been assigned, does abundantly, and can alone sufficiently account for the effect. Thus then it appears, that the corruption of human nature is proved by the same mode of reasoning, as has been deemed conclusive in establishing the existence, and ascertaining the laws of the principle of gravitation: that the doctrine rests on the same solid basis as the sublime philosophy of Newton: that it is not a mere speculation, and therefore an uncertain though perhaps an ingenious theory, but the sure result of large and actual experiment; deduced from incontestable facts, and still more fully approving its truth by harmonizing with the several parts and accounting for the various phaenomena, jarring otherwise and inexplicable, of the great system of the universe.
Revelation, however, here comes in, and sustains the fallible conjectures of our unassisted reason. The Holy Scriptures speak of us as fallen creatures: in almost every page we shall find something that is calculated to abate the loftiness and silence the pretensions of man. "The imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth." "What is man, that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous." "How much more abominable and filthy is man, which drinketh iniquity like water?" "The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside; they are altogether become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no not one." "Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?" "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it." "Behold, I was shapen in wickedness, and in sin hath my mother conceived me." "We were by nature the children of wrath, even as others, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind." "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death!"—Passages might be multiplied upon passages, which speak the same language, and these again might be illustrated and confirmed at large by various other considerations, drawn from the same sacred source; such as those which represent a thorough change, a renovation of our nature, as being necessary to our becoming true Christians; or as those also which are suggested by observing that holy men refer their good dispositions and affections to the immediate agency of the Supreme Being.
Evil Spirit.—Natural State of Man.
But in addition to all which has been yet stated, the word of God instructs us that we have to contend not only with our own natural depravity, but with the power of darkness, the Evil Spirit, who rules in the hearts of the wicked, and whose dominion we learn from Scripture to be so general, as to entitle him to the denomination of "the Prince of this world." There cannot be a stronger proof of the difference which exists between the religious system of the Scriptures, and that of the bulk of nominal Christians, than the proof which is afforded by the subject now in question. The existence and agency of the Evil Spirit, though so distinctly and repeatedly affirmed in Scripture, are almost universally exploded in a country which professes to admit the authority of the sacred volume. Some other Doctrines of Revelation, the force and real meaning of which are commonly in a great degree explained away, are yet conceded in general terms. But this seems almost by universal consent to have been abandoned, as a post no longer tenable. It is regarded as an evanescent prejudice, which it would now be a discredit to any man of understanding to believe. Like ghosts and witches and other phantoms, which haunted the night of superstition, it cannot in these more enlightened times stand the test of our severer scrutiny. To be suffered to pass away quietly, is as much as it can hope for; and it might rather expect to be laughed off the stage as a just object of contempt and derision.
But although the Scripture doctrine concerning the Evil Spirit is thus generally exploded, yet were we to consider the matter seriously and fairly, we should probably find ground for believing that there is no better reason for its being abandoned, than that many absurd stories, concerning spirits and apparitions, have been used to be believed and propagated amongst weak and credulous people; and that the Evil Spirit not being the object of our bodily eyes, it would be an instance of the same weakness to give credit to the doctrine of its existence and agency. But to be consistent with ourselves, we might almost as well, on the same principle, deny the reality of all other incorporeal beings. What is there, in truth, in the doctrine, which is in itself improbable, or which is not confirmed by analogy? We see, in fact, that there are wicked men, enemies to God, and malignant towards their fellow creatures, who take pleasure, and often succeed, in drawing in others to the commission of evil. Why then should it be deemed incredible, that there may be one or more spiritual intelligences of similar natures and propensities, who may in like manner be permitted to tempt men to the practice of sin? Surely we may retort upon our opponents the charge of absurdity, and justly accuse them of gross inconsistency, in admitting, without difficulty, the existence and operation of these qualities in a material being, and yet denying them in an immaterial one (in direct contradiction to the authority of Scripture, which they allow to be conclusive) when they cannot, and will not pretend for a moment, that there is any thing belonging to the nature of matter, to which these qualities naturally adhere.
But to dilate no farther on a topic which, however it may excite the ridicule of the inconsiderate, will suggest matter of furious apprehension to all who form their opinions on the authority of the word of God: thus brought as we are into captivity, and exposed to danger; depraved and weakened within, and tempted from without, it might well fill our hearts with anxiety to reflect, "that the day will come," when "the Heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat;" "when the dead, small and great, shall stand before the tribunal of God;" and we shall have to give account of all things done in the body. We are naturally prompted to turn over the page of revelation with solicitude, in order to discover the qualities and character of our Judge, and the probable principles of his determination; but this only serves to turn painful apprehension into fixed and certain terror.—First of the qualities of our Judge. As all nature bears witness to his irresistible power, so we read in Scripture that nothing can escape his observation, or elude his discovery; not our actions only, but our most secret cogitations are open to his view. "He is about our path and about our bed, and spieth out all our ways." "The Lord searcheth all hearts, and understandeth all the imaginations of the thoughts."—"And he will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the heart."
Now, hear his description and character and the rule of his award: "The Lord our God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God."—"He is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity."—"The soul that sinneth, it shall die."—"The wages of sin is death." These positive declarations are enforced by the accounts which, for our warning, we read in sacred history, of the terrible vengeance of the Almighty: His punishment "the angels who kept not their first estate, and whom he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day:" The fate of Sodom and Gomorrah; the sentence issued against the idolatrous nations of Canaan, and of which the execution was assigned to the Israelites, by the express command of God, at their own peril in case of disobedience: The ruin of Babylon, and of Tyre, and of Nineveh, and of Jerusalem, prophetically denounced as the punishment of their crimes, and taking place in an exact and terrible accordance with the divine predictions. These are indeed matter of awful perusal, sufficient surely to confound the fallacious confidence of any who, on the ground that our Creator must be aware of our natural weakness, and must be of course disposed to allow for it, should alledge that, though unable indeed to justify ourselves in the sight of God, we need not give way to such gloomy apprehensions, but might throw ourselves, with assured hope, on the infinite benevolence of the Supreme Being. It is indeed true, that with the threatenings of the word of God, there are mixed many gracious declarations of pardon, on repentance, and thorough amendment. But, alas! which of us is there, whose conscience must not reproach him with having trifled with the long-suffering of God, and with having but ill kept the resolutions of amendment, which he had some time or other formed in the seasons of recollection and remorse?—And how is the disquietude naturally excited by such a retrospect, confirmed and heightened by passages like these? "Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; but ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof; I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh: when your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you: then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me: for that they hated knowledge, and did not chuse the fear of the Lord." The apprehensions, which must be excited by thus reading the recorded judgments and awful language of Scripture, are confirmed to the inquisitive and attentive mind, by a close observation of the moral constitution of the world. Such a one will find occasion to remark, that all, which has been suggested of the final consequences of vice, is in strict analogy to what we may observe in the ordinary course of human affairs, wherein it will appear, on a careful survey, that God has so assigned to things their general tendencies, and established such an order of causes and effects, as (however interrupted here below by hindrances and obstructions apparently of a temporary nature) loudly proclaim the principles of his moral government, and strongly suggest, that vice and imprudence will finally terminate in misery. Not that this species of proof was wanted; for that which we must acknowledge, on weighing the evidence, to be a revelation from God, requires not the aid of such a confirmation: but yet, as this accordance might be expected between the words and the works, the past and the future ordinations of the same Almighty Being, it is no idle speculation to remark, that the visible constitution of things in the world around us, falls in with the representations here given from Scripture of the dreadful consequences of vice, nay even of what is commonly termed inconsiderateness and imprudence.
If such then be indeed our sad condition, what is to be done? Is there no hope? Nothing left for us, "but a fearful looking for of judgment, and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries?" Blessed be God! we are not shut up irrecoverably in this sad condition: "Turn you to the strong hold, ye prisoners of hope;" hear one who proclaims his designation, "to heal the broken-hearted, to preach liberty to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind." They who have formed a true notion of their lost and helpless state, will most gladly listen to the sound, and most justly estimate the value of such a deliverance. And this is the cause, which renders it of such pressing moment not to pass cursorily over those important topics of the original and superinduced corruption, and weakness of man; a discussion painful and humiliating to the pride of human nature, to which the mind lends itself with difficulty, and hearkens with a mixture of anger and disgust; but well suited to our case, and like the distasteful lessons of adversity, permanently useful in its consequences. It is here, never let it be forgotten, that our foundation must be laid; otherwise our superstructure, whatever we may think of it, will one day or other prove tottering and insecure. This is therefore no metaphysical speculation, but a practical matter: Slight and superficial conceptions of our state of natural degradation, and of our insufficiency to recover from it of ourselves, fall in too well with our natural inconsiderateness, and produce that fatal insensibility to the divine warning to "flee from the wrath to come," which we cannot but observe to prevail so generally. Having no due sense of the malignity of our disease, and of its dreadful issue, we do not set ourselves to work in earnest to obtain the remedy, as to a business arduous indeed, but indispensable: for it must ever be carefully remembered, that this deliverance is not forced on us, but offered to us; we are furnished indeed with every help, and are always to bear in mind, that we are unable of ourselves to will or to do rightly; but we are plainly admonished to "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling."—Watchful, for we are encompassed with dangers; "putting on the whole armour of God," for "we are beset with enemies."
May we be enabled to shake off that lethargy which is so apt to creep upon us! For this end, a deep practical conviction of our natural depravity and weakness will be found of eminent advantage. As it is by this we must at first be rouzed from our fallacious security, so by this we must be kept wakeful and active unto the end. Let us therefore make it our business to have this doctrine firmly seated in our understandings, and radically worked into our hearts. With a view to the former of these objects, we should often seriously and attentively consider the firm grounds on which it rests. It is plainly made known to us by the light of nature, and irresistibly enforced on us by the dictates of our unassisted understandings. But lest there should be any so obstinately dull, as not to discern the force of the evidence suggested to our reason, and confirmed by all experience, or rather so heedless as not to notice it, the authoritative stamp of Revelation is superadded, as we have seen, to complete the proof; and we must therefore be altogether inexcusable, if we still remain unconvinced by such accumulated mass of argument.
But we must not only assent to the doctrine clearly, but feel it strongly. To this end, let the power of habit be called in to our aid. Let us accustom ourselves to refer to our natural depravity, as to their primary cause, the sad instances of vice and folly of which we read, or which we see around us, or to which we feel the propensities in our own bosoms; ever vigilant and distrustful of ourselves, and looking with an eye of kindness and pity on the faults and infirmities of others, whom we should learn to regard with the same tender concern as that with which the sick are used to sympathize with those who are suffering under the same distemper as themselves. This lesson once well acquired, we shall feel the benefit of it in all our future progress; and though it be a lesson which we are slow to learn, it is one in which study and experience, the incidents of every day, and every fresh observation of the workings of our own hearts, will gradually concur to perfect us. Let it not, after all then, be our reproach, and at length our ruin, that these abundant means of instruction are possessed in vain.
Corruption of Human Nature.—Objection.
But there is one difficulty still behind, more formidable than all the rest. The pride of man is loth to be humbled. Forced to abandon the plea of innocence, and pressed so closely that he can no longer escape from the conclusion to which we would drive him, some more bold objector faces about and stands at bay, endeavouring to justify what he cannot deny, "Whatever I am," he contends, "I am what my Creator made me. I inherited a nature, you yourself confess, depraved, and prone to evil: how then can I withstand the temptations to sin by which I am environed? If this plea cannot establish my innocence, it must excuse or at least extenuate my guilt. Frail and weak as I am, a Being of infinite justice and goodness will never try me by a rule, which however equitable in the case of creatures of a higher nature, is altogether disproportionate to mine."
Let not my readers be alarmed! The writer is not going to enter into the discussion of the grand question concerning the origin of moral evil, or to attempt at large to reconcile its existence and consequent punishment with the acknowledged attributes and perfections of God. These are questions, of which, if one may judge from the little success with which the acutest and profoundest reasoners have been ever labouring to solve the difficulties they contain, the full and clear comprehension is above the intellect of man. Yet, as such an objection as that which has been stated is sometimes heard from the mouths of professed Christians, it must not be passed by without a few short observations.
Were the language in question to be addressed to us by an avowed sceptic, though it might not be very difficult to expose to him the futility of his reasonings, we should almost despair of satisfying him of the soundness of our own. We should perhaps suggest impossibilities, which might stand in the way of such a system as he would establish: we might indeed point out wherein (arguing from concessions which he would freely make) his pre-conceptions concerning the conduct of the Supreme Being, had been in fact already contradicted, particularly by the existence at all of natural or moral evil: and if thus proved erroneous in one instance, why might they not be so likewise in another? But though by these and similar arguments we might at length silence our objector, we could not much expect to bring him over to our opinions. We should probably do better, if we were to endeavour rather to draw him off from these dark and slippery regions, (slippery in truth they are to every human foot) and to contend with him, where we might tread with firmness and freedom, on sure ground, and in the light of day. Then we might fairly lay before him all the various arguments for the truth of our holy religion; arguments which have been sufficient to satisfy the wisest, and the best, and the ablest of men. We should afterwards perhaps insist on the abundant confirmation Christianity receives from its being exactly suited to the nature and wants of man; and we might conclude, with fairly putting it to him, whether all this weight of evidence were to be overbalanced by this one difficulty, on a subject so confessedly high and mysterious, considering too that he must allow, we see but a part (O how small a part!) of the universal creation of God, and that our faculties are wholly incompetent to judge of the schemes of his infinite wisdom. This, if the writer may be permitted to offer his own judgment, is (at least in general) the best mode, in the case of the objection now in question, of dealing with unbelievers; and to adopt the contrary plan, seems somewhat like that of any one, who having to convince some untutored Indian of the truth of the Copernican system, instead of beginning with plain and simple propositions, and leading him on to what is more abstruse and remote, should state to him at the outset some astonishing problems, to which the understanding can only yield its slow assent, when constrained by the decisive force of demonstration. The novice, instead of lending himself to such a mistaken method of instruction, would turn away in disgust, and be only hardened against his preceptor. But it must be remembered, that the present work is addressed to those who acknowledge the authority of the holy Scriptures. And in order to convince all such that there is somewhere or other, a fallacy in our objector's reasoning, it will be sufficient to establish that though the word of God clearly asserts the justice and goodness of the Supreme Being, and also the natural depravity of man, yet it no less clearly lays down that this natural depravity shall never be admitted as an excuse for sin, but that "they which have done evil, shall rise to the resurrection of damnation."—"That the wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the people that forget God." And it is worthy of remark, that, as if for the very purpose of more effectually silencing those unbelieving doubts which are ever springing up in the human heart, our blessed Saviour, though the messenger of peace and good will to man, has again and again repeated these awful denunciations.
Nor (it must also be remarked) are the holy Scriptures less clear and full in guarding us against supposing our sins, or the dreadful consequences of them, to be chargeable on God.—"Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man:" "The Lord is not willing that any should perish." And again, where the idea is repelled as injurious to his character,—"Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God; and not that he should return from his ways, and live?" "For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God." Indeed almost every page of the word of God contains some warning or invitation to sinners; and all these, to a considerate mind, must unquestionably be proofs of our present position.
It has been the more necessary not to leave unnoticed the objection which we have been now refuting, because, where not admitted to such an unqualified extent as altogether to take away the moral responsibility of man, and when not avowed in the daring language in which it has been above stated; if may frequently be observed to exist in an inferior degree: and often, when not distinctly formed into shape, it lurks in secret, diffusing a general cloud of doubt or unbelief, or lowering our standard of right, or whispering fallacious comfort, and producing a ruinous tranquillity. Not to anticipate what will more properly come under discussion, when we consider the nature and strictness of practical Christianity; let us here, however, remark, that though the holy Scriptures so clearly state the natural corruption and weakness of man, yet they never, in the most minute degree, countenance, but throughout directly oppose, the supposition to which we are often too forward to listen, that this corruption and weakness will be admitted as lowering the demands of divine justice, and in some sort palliating our transgressions of the laws of God. It would not be difficult to shew that such a notion is at war with the whole scheme of redemption by the atonement of Christ. But perhaps it may be enough when any such suggestions as those which we are condemning force themselves into the imagination of a Christian, to recommend it to him to silence them by what is their best practical answer: that if our natural condition be depraved and weak, our temptations numerous, and our Almighty Judge infinitely holy; yet that the offers to penitent sinners of pardon and grace, and strength, are universal and unlimited. Let it not however surprise us, if in all this there seem to be involved difficulties which we cannot fully comprehend. How many such every where present themselves! Scarcely is there an object around us, that does not afford endless matter of doubt and argument. The meanest reptile which crawls on the earth, nay, every herb and flower which we behold, baffles the imbecility of our limited inquiries. All nature calls upon us to be humble. Can it then be surprising if we are at a loss on this question, which respects, not the properties of matter, or of numbers, but the counsels and ways of him whose "Understanding is infinite," "whose judgments are declared to be unsearchable, and his ways past finding out?" In this our ignorance however, we may calmly repose ourselves on his own declaration, "That though clouds and darkness are round about him, yet righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne." Let it also be remembered, that if in Christianity some things are difficult, that which it most concerns us to know, is plain and obvious. To this it is true wisdom to attach ourselves, assenting to what is revealed where above our faculties, we do not say contradictory to them, on the credit of what is clearly discerned, and satisfactorily established. In truth, we are all perhaps too apt to plunge into depths, which it is beyond our power to fathom; and it was to warn us against this very error, that the inspired writer, when he has been threatening the people, whom God had selected as the objects of his special favour, with the most dreadful punishments, if they should forsake the law of the Lord, and has introduced surrounding nations as asking the meaning of the severe infliction, winds up the whole with this instructive admonition; "Secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those which are revealed belong unto us, and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law."
To any one who is seriously impressed with a sense of the critical state in which we are here placed, a short and uncertain space in which to make our peace with God, and then the last judgment, and an eternity of unspeakable happiness or misery, it is indeed an awful and an affecting spectacle, to see men thus busying themselves in these vain speculations of an arrogant curiosity, and trifling with their dearest, their everlasting interests. It is but a feeble illustration of this exquisite folly, to compare it to the conduct of some convicted rebel, who, when brought into the presence of his Sovereign, instead of seizing the occasion to sue for mercy, should even neglect and trifle with the pardon which should be offered to him, and insolently employ himself in prying into his Sovereign's designs, and criticising his counsels. Our case indeed is, in another point of comparison, but too much like that of the convicted rebel. But there is this grand difference—that at the best, his success must be uncertain, ours, if it be not our own fault, is sure; and while, on the one hand, our guilt is unspeakably greater than that of any rebel against an earthly monarch; so, on the other, we know that our Sovereign is "Long-suffering, and easy to be intreated;" more ready to grant, than we to ask, forgiveness. Well then may we adopt the language of the poet:
What better can we do, than - - - prostrate fall Before him reverent; and there confess Humbly our faults, and pardon beg; with tears Watering the ground, and with our sighs the air Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign Of sorrow unfeign'd, and humiliation meek?
Chief defects of the Religious System of the bulk of professed Christians, in what regards our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit—with a Dissertation concerning the use of the Passions in Religion.
That "God so loved the world, as of his tender mercy to give his only Son Jesus Christ for our redemption:"
That our blessed Lord willingly left the glory of the Father, and was made man;
That "he was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief:"
That "he was wounded for our transgressions; that he was bruised for our iniquities:"
That "the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all:"
That at length "he humbled himself even to the death of the Cross, for us miserable sinners; to the end that all who with hearty repentance and true faith, should come to him, might not perish, but have everlasting life:"
That he "is now at the right hand of God, making intercession" for his people:
That "being reconciled to God by the death of his Son, we may come boldly unto the throne of grace, to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need:"
That our Heavenly Father "will surely give his Holy Spirit to them that ask him:"
That "the Spirit of God must dwell in us;" and that "if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his:"
That by this divine influence "we are to be renewed in knowledge after the image of him who created us," and "to be filled with the fruits of righteousness, to the praise of the glory of his grace;"—that "being thus made meet for the inheritance of the saints in light," we shall sleep in the Lord; and that when the last trumpet shall sound, this corruption shall put on incorruption—and that being at length perfected after his likeness, we shall be admitted into his heavenly kingdom.
These are the leading Doctrines concerning our Saviour, and the Holy Spirit, which are taught in the Holy Scriptures, and held by the Church of England. The truth of them, agreeably to our general plan, will be taken for granted. Few of those, who have been used to join in the established form of worship, can have been, it is hoped, so inattentive, as to be ignorant of these grand truths, which are to be found every where dispersed throughout our excellent Liturgy. Would to God it could be presumed, with equal confidence, that all who assent to them in terms, discern their force and excellency in the understanding, and feel their power in the affections, and their transforming influence in the heart. What lively emotions are they calculated to excite in us of deep self-abasement, and abhorrence of our sins; and of humble hope, and firm faith, and heavenly joy, and ardent love, and active unceasing gratitude!
But here, it is to be feared, will be found the grand defect of the religion of the bulk of professed Christians; a defect, like the palsy at the heart, which, while in its first attack, it changes but little the exterior appearance of the body, extinguishes the internal principle of heat and motion, and soon extends its benumbing influence to the remotest fibres of the frame. This defect is closely connected with that which was the chief subject of the last chapter: "they that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick." Had we duly felt the burthen of our sins, that they are a load which our own strength is wholly unable to support, and that the weight of them must finally sink us into perdition, our hearts would have danced at the sound of the gracious invitation, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." But in those who have scarcely felt their sins as any incumbrance, it would be mere affectation to pretend to very exalted conceptions of the value and acceptableness of the proffered deliverance. This pretence accordingly, is seldom now kept up; and the most superficial observer, comparing the sentiments and views of the bulk of the Christian world, with the articles still retained in their creed, and with the strong language of Scripture, must be struck with the amazing disproportion.
To pass over the throng from whose minds Religion is altogether excluded by the business or the vanities of life, how is it with the more decent and moral? To what criterion shall we appeal? Are their hearts really filled with these things, and warmed by the love which they are adapted to inspire? Then surely their minds are apt to stray to them almost unseasonably; or at least to hasten back to them with eagerness, when escaped from the estrangment imposed by the necessary cares and business of life. He was a masterly describer of human nature, who thus pourtrayed the characters of an undissembled affection;
"Unstaid and fickle in all other things, Save in the constant image of the object, That is beloved."
"And how," it may be perhaps replied, "do you know, but that the minds of these people are thus occupied? Can you look into the bosoms of men?" Let us appeal to a test to which we resorted in a former instance. "Out of the abundance of the heart," it has been pronounced, "the mouth speaketh."—Take these persons then in some well selected hour, and lead the conversation to the subject of Religion. The utmost which can be effected is, to bring them to talk of things in the gross. They appear lost in generalities; there is nothing precise and determinate, nothing which implies a mind used to the contemplation of its object. In vain you strive to bring them to speak on that topic, which one might expect to be ever uppermost in the hearts of redeemed sinners. They elude all your endeavours; and if you make mention of it yourself, it is received with no very cordial welcome at least, if not with unequivocal disgust; it is at the best a forced and formal discussion. The excellence of our Saviour's moral precepts, the kindness and simplicity, and self-denial and unblemished purity of his life, his patience and meekness in the hour of death, cannot indeed be spoken of but with admiration, when spoken of at all, as they have often extorted unwilling praise from the most daring and malignant infidels. But are not these mentioned as qualities in the abstract, rather than as the perfections and lineaments of our patron and benefactor and friend, "who loved us, and gave himself for us;" of him "who died for our offences, and rose again for our justification;" who is even now at the "right hand of God, making intercession for us?" Who would think that the kindness and humanity, and self-denial, and patience in suffering, which we so drily commend, had been exerted towards ourselves, in acts of more than finite benevolence of which we were to derive the benefit, in condescensions and labours submitted to for our sakes, in pain and ignominy, endured for our deliverance?
But these grand truths are not suffered to vanish altogether from our remembrance. Thanks to the compilers of our Liturgy, more than to too many of the occupiers of our pulpits, they are forced upon our notice in their just bearings and connections, as often as we attend the service of the church. Yet is it too much to affirm, that though there entertained with decorum, as what belong to the day and place, and occupation, they are yet too generally heard of with little interest; like the legendary tales of some venerable historian, or other transactions of great antiquity, if not of doubtful credit, which, though important to our ancestors, relate to times and circumstances so different from our own, that we cannot be expected to take any great concern in them? We hear of them therefore with apparent indifference; we repeat them almost as it were by rote, assuming by turns the language of the deepest humiliation and of the warmest thankfulness, with a calm unaltered composure; and when the service of the day is ended, they are dismissed altogether from our thoughts, till on the return of another Sunday, a fresh attendance on public worship gives occasion for the renewed expressions of our periodical gratitude. In noticing such lukewarmness as this, surely the writer were to be pardoned, if he were to be betrayed into some warmth of condemnation. The Unitarian and Socinian indeed, who deny, or explain away the peculiar doctrines of the Gospel, may be allowed to feel, and talk of these grand truths with little emotion. But in those who profess a sincere belief in them, this coldness is insupportable. The greatest possible services of man to man must appear contemptible, when compared with "the unspeakable mercies of Christ:" mercies so dearly bought, so freely bestowed—A deliverance from eternal misery—The gift of "a crown of glory, that fadeth not away." Yet, what judgment should we form of such conduct, as is here censured, in the case of any one who had received some signal services from a fellow creature? True love is an ardent, and an active principle—a cold, a dormant, a phlegmatic gratitude, are contractions in terms. When these generous affections really exist in vigour, are we not ever fond of dwelling on the value, and enumerating the merits of our benefactor? How are we moved when any thing is asserted to his disparagement! How do we delight to tell of his kindness! With what pious care do we preserve any memorial of him, which we may happen to possess? How gladly do we seize any opportunity of rendering to him, or to those who are dear to him, any little good offices, which, though in themselves of small intrinsic worth, may testify the sincerity of our thankfulness! The very mention of his name will cheer the heart, and light up the countenance! And if he be now no more, and if he had made it his dying request that, in a way of his own appointment, we would occasionally meet to keep the memory of his person, and of his services in lively exercise; how should we resent the idea of failing in the performance of so sacred an obligation!