E-text prepared by Fredric B. Lozo
SERMONS ON VARIOUS IMPORTANT SUBJECTS: WRITTEN PARTLY ON SUNDRY OF THE MORE DIFFICULT PASSAGES IN THE SACRED VOLUME.
Rev. ANDREW LEE, A.M.
This text has been transcribed from the original by Fredric Lozo, Mathis, Texas, January 2005.
The original text was typeset using the convention of the American Colonial Period with a second "s" symbol resembling the letter "f" which makes reading somewhat difficult for the modern reader. The text was thus transcribed using the modern single "s" symbol convention.
The original text was photographed and read with an OCR program and then transcribed word by word. An attempt was made to proofread the final text for transcription errors and wherever an mistake has not been corrected, the transcriber sincerely apologizes to the reader. As for the rest, the transcriber has endeavored to faithfully maintain as much of the historical record as the ASCII TEXT format permits, including the original spelling and grammar. Page numbering was omitted in keeping with e-book format conventions. The reader is encouraged to use the search feature of the text reader to locate chapters listed on the contents page.
The work was published by the son of Isaiah Thomas, who is known both as the father of American printing, and as a Minuteman at Lexington and Concord in the War of Independence.
Some of the thoughts expressed in these sermons are a refreshing return to an earlier time before American religious denominations became fixed in their particular "systematic theology."
Reverend Lee's language and logic give us a glimpse of the purity of mind and soul that followed in the wake of desperate revolutionary conflict and the tumultuous years following independence when the greatest minds of the time formulated the American Constitution and The Bill of Rights. These sermons seem to address the universal issues with which men of all times and places have also struggled, in times of peace as well as war. These issues are articulated here with a clarity that is perhaps only achieved in those times of great testing, tears, and tenuous victory that began in 1776 and that would remain tenuous until after the War of 1812.
Lee lived in a time of great intellectual pursuit and Lee's views of life and the Lord's Providence seem particularly blessed with illumination through the Holy Spirit.
Fredric Lozo, January, 2005
SERMONS ON VARIOUS IMPORTANT SUBJECTS: WRITTEN PARTLY ON SUNDRY OF THE MORE DIFFICULT PASSAGES IN THE SACRED VOLUME.
Rev. ANDREW LEE, A.M. Pastor of the North Church in Lisbon, Connecticut.
Printed at Worcester: By Isaiah Thomas, Jun. Sold by him, and by the AUTHOR, in Lisbon, Connecticut-Sold also by said Thomas & Whipple, at their Bookstore in Newburyport.
"I KNOW BUT ONE BOOK, THAT CAN JUSTIFY OUR IMPLICIT ACQUIESCENCE IN IT; AND ON THAT BOOK, A NOBLE DISDAIN OF UNDUE DEFERANCE TO PRIOR OPINION—CASTS NEW AND INESTIMABLE LIGHT."—Young.
That thick darkness overspread the church after the irruptions of the northern barbarians, and the desolations which they occasioned in the Roman empire, is known and acknowledged. Those conquerors professed the religion of the conquered; but corrupted and spoiled it. Like the new settlers in the kingdom of Ephraim, they feared the Lord and served their own gods. In those corruptions antichristian error and domination originated. The tyranny of opinion became terrible, and long held human minds enslaved. Few had sentiments of their own. The orders of the vatican were received as the mandates of heaven. But at last some discerning and intrepid mortals arose who saw the absurdity and impiety of the reigning superstition, and dared to disclose them to a wondering world! Among those bold reformers, LUTHER, CALVIN, and a few contemporary worthies, hold a distinguished rank. Greatly is the church indebted to them for the light which they diffused, and the reformation which they effected. But still the light was imperfect. Dark shades remained. This particularly appeared in the dogmatism and bigotry of these same reformers, who often prohibited further inquiries, or emendations! They had differed from Rome, but no body must differ from them! As though the infallibility which they denied to another, had been transferred to themselves!
Too many others, and in more enlightened times, have discovered a strand measure of the same spirit.....a spirit which hath damped inquiry and prevented improvement.
Hence, probably, the silence of some expositors on difficult scriptures, and the sameness observable in some others. For the complaint of the poet is not without reason,
"That commentators each dark passage shun, and hold their farthing candle to the fun."
And the sameness which we see in several writers is probably dictated by fear of singularity, and of incurring the charge of heresy. Minds are different. When a dozen expositors interpret a difficult text alike, they must, for some reason, have borrowed from one another.
The writer of the following pages claims no superiority to others, either in genius or learning; but he claims a right to judge for himself in matters of faith, and sense of scripture, and presumes to exercise it—calling no man master. He hath found the original scriptures, compared with the different translations, to be the best exposition. To these he early had recourse, and in this way formed an opinion of the meaning of sundry difficult passages in the volume of truth. But comparing them afterwards with several expositions, perceived their meaning to have been mistaken, either by those writers, or by himself. As they did not convince him that his constructions were erroneous, he now offers them to the public—Not as certainly devoid of error—He knows himself to be fallible—but as the result of some attention; and as that which he conceives their most probable meaning.
On the prayer of Moses to be blotted out of God's book—the wish of Paul to be accused from Christ, and the prevalence of infidelity before the coming of the Son of Man, he published a summary of his views, some years ago. By the advice of several respected literary friends, they are now corrected, enlarged and inserted. On the last of these he wrote A.D. 1785. Subsequent events tend to confirm him in the sentiments then entertained. Expositors generally consider the prayer of Moses and the wish of St. Paul to stand related as expressions of the same temper, and argue from the one to the other. The author conceives them perfectly foreign to each other, and totally mistaken by every expositor he hath consulted; as also several of the other scriptures on which he hath written.
A hint dropped, some years ago, in conversation, by a respected father,* gave an opening to the writer, relative to one+ of the following subjects, and occasioned his writing upon it. For the rest, he is conscious of having borrowed from no writer, except a few quotations, which are credited in their places. He doth not flatter himself that his co constructions of scripture will be universally received. Nor hath he a desire to dictate to others, or a wish that his own views only should see the light. The press is open to those who are otherwise minded. The author will read with pleasure, the different constructions of the candid and ingenuous. But should strictures of another description appear, they will be viewed with indifference, and treated with neglect.
* Rev. Dr. Cogswell, of Windham + On 2 Samuel xii. 13.
The Wisdom of God in the Means used to Propagate the Gospel. 1 Cor. i. 27, 28.—"But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise," &c.
The Subject Continued.
The Declensions of Christianity an argument of its truth. Luke xviii. 8.—"When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?"
The Subject Continued.
Abram's Horror of Great Darkness. Gen. xv. 12.—"And when the sun was going down a deep sleep fell upon Abram," &c.
Divine Impartiality Considered. Rom. ii. 11.—"For there is no respect of persons with God."
Moses' Prayer to be Blotted out of God's Book. Exod. xxxii. 31,32.—"And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said, 'Oh! This people have sinned,'" &c.
The Same Subject Continued.
St. Paul's wish to be Accused from Christ. Rom. ix. 3.—"For I could with that myself were accursed from Christ," &c.
David's Sin in the Matter of Uriah. 2 Sam. xii. 13.—"And David said unto Nathan, 'I have sinned against the Lord,'" &c.
The General Character of Christians. Gal. v. 24.—"And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its affections," &c.
The Aggravated Guilt of him who delivered Christ to Pilate. John xix. 10, 11.—"Then saith Pilate unto him, 'Speakest thou not unto me?'" &c.
The Trial of Peter's Love to Christ. John xxi. 15, 16, 17.—"So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, 'Simon,'" &c.
Gifts no Certain Evidence of Grace. Luke x. 20.—"In this rejoice not that the spirits are subject unto you, but," &c.
Human Characters Determined only by Divine Decision 1 Cor. iv. 3, 4.—"But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you," &c.
Characters will be Disclosed and Justice Awarded. 1 Cor. iv. 5.—"Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring," &c.
God Willing that all Men should be Saved. 1 Tim. ii. 4.—"Who will have all men to be saved."
Balak's Inquiries relative to the Service of God, and Balaam's answer briefly considered. Micah vi. 6,7,8.—"Wherewith shall I come before the Lord And bow myself before the high God?" &c.
Confessing Christ an Indispensible Duty. 2 Tim ii. 12.—"If We deny him, he will deny us."
The Fear which terminates in the Second Death. Rev. xxi.8.—"The fearful—shall have their part in the lake, which burneth with fire," &c.
The End of Family Institutions, with Observations on The Importance of Education. Mal ii. 15.—"And did he not make one? Yet had he the residue of the Spirit," &c.
Parental Duties Considered and Urged—from the same text.
The Blessing of God on Filial Piety. Jer. xxxv. 19.—"Therefore thus saith the Lord—'Jonadab, the Son of Rechab shall not want a man,'" &c.
The Character and Supports of Widows Indeed. 2 Tim. v. 5.—"Now she that is a widow indeed and desolate, trusteth in God," &c.
The Good Man Useful in Life and Happy in Death. Psalm xxxvii. 37.—"Mark the perfect man and behold the upright; for the end of that man is peace."
Departed Saints Fellow Servants with those on Earth. Rev. xxii. 9.—"I am thy fellow servant, and of thy brethren the prophets—."
The Subject Continued.
The Dangers of Deviating from Divine Institutions. Col. ii. 8—"Beware lest any man spoil you through Philosophy and vain deceit," &c. SERMON XXIX.
The Sins of Communities Noted and Punished. Mat. xxiii.36.—"Verily I say unto you, all these things shall come upon this generation."
* * * * *
The Wisdom of God in the means used to propagate the Gospel.
1 Corinthians i. 27, 28.
"But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and god hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, and things which are not, to bring to nought things which are." *
* The two discourses on this text were originally one, and preached before Windham Association, at Thompson, October Session, 1798. Probably some of the ideas which they contain, may have been suggested by reading Paley's Evidences of Christianity; but as the author had not that book in his possession when he wrote on this subject, he is not able particularly to give credit to that excellent writer, if here his due.
The mercy promised to the fathers was Christ, the Savior. That "the desire of all nations should come," was a prediction of his incarnation; and his entrance here was announced by a heavenly messenger, with, "Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy—to all people."
Yet "when he came to his own, his own received him not!" To many he hath been "a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense!"
The design and tendency of Christianity are most benevolent; but being opposed to men's lusts, which rule in their members, all the malevolence of depravity hath been excited against it. Jews and Gentile united in the opposition. "The kings of the earth stood up and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ—both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel." The Christian religion did not creep into the world in the dark. It first appeared at an enlightened period, and among the most enlightened of the nations. The sciences derived from conquered Greece, had been improved at Rome, and communicated to its dependencies. Syria was then a province of the Empire. Every movement in Judea was observed and reported at the metropolis. The crucifixion of our Savior was sanctioned by a Roman deputy; and the persecuted Christians were allowed an appeal to Caesar. Soon therefore, did the religion of Jesus make its way to Rome. The power of Rome had also reached its acme; and as the spirit of Christianity was diverse from that of the world, the learning and power of the Empire soon combined against it. That this religion would be crushed and vanish away as a dream of the night, was generally expected.
Every circumstance seemed to indicate such an event. Those reputed wise, considered the gospel scheme as foolishness; and the instrument which were chosen to propagate it were thought to be weak and contemptible. It was also observed to spread chiefly among the lower order of men, who had not the advantages of literature, nor been initiated in the mysteries of Judaism, all which served to inspire its enemies with confidence, that it would soon come to nought.
The apostle takes notice, in the context, of the contempt then so generally poured on Christianity, and declares the wisdom of God in the permission of it. He also predicts the triumph of the cross; especially over the powers then combined against it—predictions which afterwards fulfilled: For those powers were all subdued and humbled, and Christ and the gospel exalted. The Christian religion was openly professed, and became the most reputable religion in many countries; particularly in Syria and at Rome and its numerous provinces; and by the means then ordered of God. This is the spirit of the text—God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world to confound the mighty, &c.
In discussing the subject, we shall consider the means used to propagate the gospel—the opposition made against it—and the wisdom of God in the choice of the means; which will bring up to view some of the objections which have been made against the truth of the gospel.
In treating of the means used to propagate the gospel, we pass over the preaching and miracles of Christ, and the wonders which took place at his inexcuseable in neglecting so great salvation; but they preceded sending the gospel to the gentiles, and the means used to spread it among them. The apostle had no reference to Christ, or any thing done or suffered by him, when he spake of the foolish and weak, and base things, used of God, to confound those which are wise and mighty. He spake only with reference to the instruments which were chosen to carry the gospel abroad and persuade the nations of the earth to receive it.
God hath all creatures at his command; he hath power to press the most reluctant into his service, and to compel them to bear his messages and execute his orders; as we see in the case of Balaam and Jonah. God can make use of man to this end, either by reconciling them to himself, and attaching them to his interest or by overruling their corrupt and vicious designs to effect his holy purposes, without their consent or knowledge. Most of the prophets were brought into his view, and made desirous to honor him. Many pagan princes, and others, who knew him not were yet made instrumental in doing his pleasure and executing his designs. The divine sovereign never wants for agents to accomplish his purposes. He sitteth on the circle of the heavens, and orders the affairs of the universe in such a manner as to do his pleasure. "None can stay his hand." Whether the agents which he employs are willing or unwilling, mean so, or not, is of no importance relative to the event. "His purposes stand, and the thoughts of His heart to all generations." The attempts of creatures to reverse his orders, and defeat his decree only help to their accomplishment. This was particularly the case respecting the measures adopted by the enemies of Christianity to prevent its spreading in the world.
The persons chosen of God and sent forth to propagate the religion of Christ, were such as human wisdom would have judged very unsuitable. Twelve poor, despised, illiterate men, were called to be apostles; —most of them were fishermen. One was a publican; a collector of the Roman tribute, which had been imposed on the Jews as a conquered people. An employment so odious, that vile persons, regardless of character, would only accept it. Such men we should judge exceedingly unfit for ministers of religion, and not likely to succeed in making converts to it. Yet such were those who were appointed of God, to be prime ministers in the Christian church! Such the men who were sent forth to change the form and administration of Judaism, and overthrew the systems of Paganism, rendered venerable by a general establishment, and the religious reverence of ages. The Jews' religion was from God, who had given abundant evidence of its divine origin. This Christ came not to destroy. But its external administration was to be changed; and in apprehension of most of those who professed it, it was less opposed to the gospel scheme, than Paganism. No others had greater enmity to Christianity than the Jews, or entered into the opposition position with warmer zeal. They commonly stood foremost, and stirred up the Gentiles against it, and often with success.
In treating of the means used to propagate the gospel. We may observe the powers imparted to those who were employed in the work. These Were not such as human wisdom would have chosen. "Their weapons were not carnal, though mighty through God." They had none at their command, prepared to punish those who would not receive them, or the doctrines which they inculcated—none to retaliate injuries done them. To abuse they had nothing to oppose, except a patient exhibition of his temper, who "when he was reviled, reviled not again, when he suffered threatened not, committing himself to him who judgeth righteously," and praying for his murderers on the cross.
False religions have often been propagated with the sword —particularly that of Mahomet, and the Romish corruptions of Christianity. These, especially the latter, were urged with every species of cruelty—a mode of attempting to proselyte, evincive of human folly. Arguments totally diverse are requisite to enlighten the mind and produce conviction of a divine mission. With these came the apostles of the Lamb. They were "endowed with power from on high;" and forbidden of their Lord to enter on their ministry until it was conferred upon them. This was accomplished on the day of Pentecost.
They had been previously convinced of Christ's truth. They seemed indeed to waver when he suffered, but his resurrection, the opportunities which they had with him after that event, and his ascension, which they had witnessed, must have removed every doubt. But this did not quality them for their work. It did not furnish them with means to convince others, who had not witnessed those things. But when the Holy Ghost came upon them, on that memorable occasion, they were furnished. The gift of miracles was then, more abundantly than before, imparted to them. In some respects, new and very necessary communications were then made to them—particularly that of speaking in tongues, which at once carried evidence of their divine mission, and enabled them to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. This was the order of their Lord, but devoid of this gift they could not have obeyed it.
This gift, as imparted to them, seems to have carried greater evidence of their truth, than their barely speaking all languages. Men out of every nation heard them speak on the day of Pentecost, every man in his own tongue! Therefore were they amazed, and convinced that the apostles were sent of God and that the gospel was of heavenly derivation.
Those heralds of gospel grace were also inspired with courage to speak boldly in the name and cause of Christ, nothing terrified by their enemies; and "when brought before kings and rulers for his sake, a mouth and wisdom were given them, which all their adversaries were unable to gainsay or resist."
Such were the means used of God to propagate the gospel? such the agents whom he employed and such their qualifications.
We are next to consider the opposition which was made to its propagation.
Various circumstances combined the worlds against it. So far as Christianity prevailed, every other religion must fall. No other could stand in connexion with it. The Jewish was not to be overthrown; but such changes were to take place in its outward form, that those who did not know it to be typical of a better dispensation, considered it as included in the general proscription; as doomed to destruction if Christianity prevailed Against Stephen that was a principal charge —"We have heard him say, that this Jesus, shall change the customs which Moses hath delivered us."
The different systems of Paganism were not opposed to one another, as they were to that of the gospel. They admitted a plurality of God —some superior? others subordinate. They considered them not only as holding different ranks, but as reigning over different countries and nations. If one of their systems was true another might be so. But Christianity admitted only "one God and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus." It declared that all others who had been called Gods and worshiped as such, were not Gods—that those who sacrificed to them, sacrificed to demons—and it denounced utter, eternal ruin against those who did not forsake them and acknowledge Jehovah. Those peculiarities, apart from the nature of this religion, which is opposed to the lusts of men which rule in their members, would, of course, unite the world against it. Those of every other religion would make a common interest in opposing this, which had fellow-ship with none of them, but tended to their entire subversion and utter ruin. And it is a fact, that the world did unite against the religion of Jesus, and against those whom he had appointed to inculcate it. Christianity then appeared devoid of support—the opposition to have everything on its side. Christ's followers were a little flock, destitute of power or learning, and in the world's view utterly contemptible. Rome, the mistress of the world, had reached the summit of her greatness; and she soon turned all her power against the feeble band, who were laboring to diffuse the knowledge of Christ. and calling men from dumb idols, to serve the living God.
To the eye of man how unequal the conflict? Had not those followers of the Lamb been assured that their redeemer lived—that he was divine —that he was with them, and would be with them, they would have declined a contest with those before whom the world trembled. But they entered, un-dismayed on the work assigned them, went through With and completed it! They prospered in that to which they were sent. This had never been done had not God been with them; for none of the advantages possessed by their enemies were neglected. The first effects of enmity to Christianity were directed against Christ's person. He had been some time teaching and doing miracles in Judea, and numbers had attached themselves to him. They considered him as a prophet mighty in "word and deed." Some who witnessed his mighty works, exclaimed, "When Christ cometh will he do more miracles than this man hath done?" Others, "Is this not the Christ?"
These movements among the Jews drew the attention of their rulers, and raised them to opposition. A humble, suffering Savior, did not suit their pride and lust of power. They looked for a temporal deliverer, who would lead them to victory, and subdue under them, the powers which held them in subjection. No other would they receive as the Messiah. As soon, therefore, as the fame of Jesus began to spread abroad, and numbers treated him with respect, they resolved to destroy him. At the feast of the passover, which called all the males of Israel to Jerusalem, they caused him to be apprehended—tried him their great council—condemned him to death, and importuned the Roman governor to sentence him to the cross, as a rebel against Caesar. The charge was not supported—Christ did not aspire to temporal dominion—"his kingdom was not of this world." The governor declared him not guilty. Had Christ, like the Arabian deceiver, which afterwards arose, assumed the sword, marked his way with blood and carnage, the Jews would have bid him welcome, and flocked to his standard. Then he might have been denominated a rebel against Caesar. But nothing of this nature was found upon him. Therefore were the Jews his enemies; but the imperial magistrate "found no fault in him;" though persuaded to consent to his death.
But though such were the temper and views of the Romans respecting Christ, at the time of his sufferings, they were different when his ministers went forth to set up his religion. When the nature of Christianity was discovered, and it appeared opposed to Paganism, and tending to its destruction, the Roman chieftains, who had been taught to venerate their Gods, and claimed to be high priests of the national religion, entered with zeal into the views of Christ's enemies, and reared the standard against his followers. All their powers were exerted to crush, the cause of the divine Immanuel. Ten general persecutions are said to have been raised against the Christians; and myriads of the faithful to have been sacrificed to heathen malice and bigotry.
Neither were these the only enemies of Christ. The learning of the age was applied to confound his followers. The sophistry of Grecian metaphysics directed against his unlettered disciples. Who could have expected Christ's little flock, devoid of every worldly advantage, to have maintained their ground against such formidable enemies? Who, judging by the rules of man's judgment, have entertained a suspicion that they would not soon be driven from the field? But their cause was that of God. Heaven was on their side, "In vain did the heathen rage and the people imagine vain things. He who sitteth in the heavens, laughed; the Lord had them in derision."
* * * * * *
The Wisdom of God in the means used to propagating the Gospel.
1 Corinthians i, 27, 28.
"But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are."
In the preceding discourse we took a summary view of the means used of God to propagate the gospel, and of the opposition made to its propagation.
We are now to consider the wisdom of God in the choice of means to this end; which will bring up to our view some of the objections which have been made against the truth of the gospel.
That the gospel is from God, and the means used to propagate it of his appointment, are from sundry considerations, apparent—particularly from the miracles wrought by Christ and by his disciples, who went forth in his name. Conclusive was the reasoning of Nicodemus—"Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him." God, who is perfect in wisdom, would choose no improper or unsuitable means. Their wisdom might not at first appear to men. It did not at first appear. The world cried folly and weakness. But "The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men."
In God's hand any means are sufficient to effect his designs. The rod of Moses, when stretched out by divine order, availed to bring all those plaques on Egypt, by which God made himself known and feared. When Israel left that land, it availed to open them a passage through the sea; and afterwards to bring back its waters to the destruction of their enemies.
Could we see no fitness in divine appointments, we should remember that "we are of yesterday and know nothing," and not dare to arraign divine wisdom, or charge folly on God. But in the case before us, his wisdom is in many respects discernable, as will appear from a consideration of some of the objections which are made against the gospel, and against the means appointed of God to propagate it.
One of the objections is taken from the supposed unsuitableness of the means. Considered in itself this made an objection. It is said the all-wise God would not have appointed them—that to appoint a company of poor, despised, ignorant fishermen, as prime ministers of a religion, is sufficient to prove that it is not from God, who always useth the best means and most suitable instruments.
It is not strange that this should have been objected at the beginning of the gospel story, before any effects of the apostles labors appeared. It is a natural objection for the, proud, who thought themselves the best judges of wisdom and propriety, to have made at that day. But it comes with an ill grace from modern infidels, who cannot deny that Christianity triumphed over the power and learning of the world combined against it, though such means only were used to propagate it—such weak instruments employed in it. Naaman, the Syrian, reasoned at first like one of these objectors, but the success which attended the prophets directions convinced him of his error. Why has not the same the like effect on these? Surely, "had this counsel been of men, it would have come to nought." Under the circumstances in which Christianity made its appearance, it would have been easily overthrown; but the power of the world could not overthrow it, or prevent it from spreading far and wide. It continued—it prospered —and every opposing system fell before it. Means and instruments which human wisdom would have judged most suitable, could have done no more. The success of measures in a contest like this, proves their fitness.
Under this head it is further objected that the first ministers of the gospel were ignorant of the arts and sciences cultivated by the polished nations of the age—that therefore, they were despised, especially by the Greeks. Despised they might be by those who "professed themselves wise had become fools." Yet they had all the knowledge which their work required imparted to them from above. The language of the schools would have been ill adapted to the simplicity of the gospel. It would have been unintelligible to many of those to whom the gospel was sent. The gospel offers salvation to the unlearned, equally as to the learned—should be expressed, therefore, in language easy to be understood. Had the apostles and evangelists used the abstruse language of the schoolmen, to many they would have spoken in an unknown tongue. Had the scriptures been written in such language, they would have been much more obscure than they now are.
Though the gospel is plainly written, it may be rendered dark and mysterious, by a metaphysic dress, It is a peculiar excellency of the scriptures that they are mostly written in the plain language of common sense—so plainly, that "he may run who readeth them."
Two of the New Testament writers were men of letters, Paul and Luke; and we find more obscurity in their writings, especially those of the former occasioned by allusions to the sciences and usages of the age, than in the other writers of that holy book. The Apocalypse is indeed abstruse, but this is not occasioned by the language, which is plain, but by the subject. That book is chiefly prophetic; and therefore expressed in the metaphors of prophetic style. Prophecy is not generally designed to be fully understood, till explained by the accomplishment.
To take occasion from those who might object to the illiterate character of primitive gospel ministers, a Paul, and a Luke were found among them; but neither of them was among those first called to the Christian ministry. Those first sent forth to preach the gospel were unlearned men. The great truths of the gospel had been taught, and many had received them before these (especially St. Paul) had become believers—that the faith of the first followers of Christ, might appear, "not to stand in the wisdom of men, but in power of God."
Had the primitive ministry been learned philosophers, or renowned rhetoricians, suspicions might have arisen that mankind had been deceived, that they had been bewildered by the subtlety of science, or charmed by the fascinating power of eloquence, into the belief of a scheme which they did not understand. This cannot be suspected when the character of the first Christian ministers is considered, and the progress which Had been made in propagating the gospel, before any of the learned were joined as their assistants in the work.
The propriety of the gospel method, may be farther argued from the nature of the gospel. Wisdom of words is not necessary to communicate gospel truths, or deep penetration, sufficiently to understand them. It was a remark of the apostle "that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, were called." The same observation may yet be made. People of plain common sense more often receive the gospel, and favor the things of true religion, than those who affect superior powers, and to understand all mysteries. Those who are wise in their own imaginations, often reject the counsel of God against themselves, and put from them offered salvation. The manner in which the apostles and their fellow laborers preached the gospel, hath also been objected to as unwise. Their preaching was chiefly a plain unaffected exhibition of truth, laid before those who heard them, and left with them. To produce faith in Christ, they declared the time, place and circumstances of his birth, referring to the prophecies which foretold them—declared the concurring testimonies of angels and inspired persons, who gave witness for him—exhibited sketches of his life—his teaching—his miracles—declared his prediction of his own death, with the manner, time, and place—also of his resurrection on the third day, and the fulfillment of those predictions. They referred to his foretelling Peter's fall and recovery; Judas' treachery and end, with the events which followed—they referred also to Christ's teaching and miracles—to those which attended his sufferings and resurrection—they adduced the evidence which they had of his death and resurrection—declared the opportunities which they had with him after his passion—the instructions they received from him—the orders which he gave them, and his ascension from the mount of Olives, of which they were witnesses, "confirming their words with signs following."
To persuade men to receive and obey the gospel, they declared the consequences to those who received, and to those who rejected it —that the same Jesus who had died on the cross, was appointed by the Father, "to be the Judge of quick and dead—that he would come again in like manner as he had gone away—that all mankind must appear before his judgment seat to give an account of themselves, and receive the deeds done in the body," that those who flee for refuge to the hope of the gospel, will find mercy, and be made forever happy with God, but those who neglect the gospel will be sent away into everlasting punishment.
Such interesting truths, those ministers of Christ laid before mankind, and left with them for their consideration. But they used no rhetoric to impress them. Neither did they appeal to the passions of their hearers; in which they followed the pattern set them by their Lord, who "did not strive, nor cry, nor cause any man to hear his voice in the streets." With only a fair statement of those truths, accompanied with the offer of "mercy and grace to help in time of need," they left mankind to choose for themselves and abide the consequences.
This some have thought an improper manner of calling men into the kingdom of Christ; that had been more pathetic in their addresses, and more argumentative in their applications, they would have labored with more effect; that this plain and simple method is unworthy of God, and, not likely to be from him.
If we consider the nature and design of Christianity, such objections will have little weight. It is not the design of heaven to compel men to obey the gospel, or to drive them to an unwilling submission to Christ. If an exhibition of gospel truth and beauty, and the consequences of receiving or rejecting its overtures, are discarded; if men refuse, by these means to be persuaded, they are left, and the consequences follow. To People of sober sense, this method appears rational. It is not probable that those who are not thus prevailed with to embrace the gospel, would in any other way be made Christians indeed. People who are frightened into religion seldom persevere. Neither do those whose passions are so inflamed that they appear, for a time, in ecstasies. When their passions subside, they grow cool, and their religion dies. If the great truths of religion, laid before men, as was done by Christ and his apostles, do not avail to render them rationally and sincerely religious, little value is to be put on those heats of imagination, which produce temporary raptures, and set some on fire in religion. Such ardent love doth not abide; it soon cools, and commonly leaves those who had been the subjects of it no better than it found them, and but too often much worse.
But while some object to the simplicity of the gospel, and to the plain language and address of the primitive ministry, others are offended at the mysteries in the Christian system. Who can understand some things contained in what is called a revelation? And what valuable ends can be answered by a revelation which is unintelligible? say these objectors.
But, those points in the Christian scheme which are too deep for human comprehension, do not relate to practice. All required, in relation to them, is an assent to their truth, on the credit of God's word. This is neither difficult nor unreasonable.
Perhaps with only human powers, it may be impossible to comprehend those subjects which are left mysterious in divine revelation; but are they incredible if God hath declared them? Few would be the articles of our creed, did we admit the belief of nothing which we do not understand. We carry mysteries in ourselves. We are compounded of soul and body, but who explain the connexion; tell us the essence of either the one or the other, or define the principles on which the soul commands the body? We are lost in ourselves, and in all the objects which surround us.
Whatever God hath declared, we are bound to believe because he hath declared it; and whatever he hath enjoined, we are bound to do because he hath enjoined it, though the reasons of his injunctions may not be revealed. God is under no obligations to explain matters to us. "God is greater than man. Why dost thou strive with him? He giveth not account of his matters."
Others object because the Gospel is not sent to all nations. That God should be supposed to communicate to some, and not to others they allege to be unreasonable and sufficient to destroy its credit; especially, as the book which claims to be a revelation teacheth that "there it no respect of persons with God."
That God makes his creatures to differ respecting talents and advantages, is a truth not to be denied. Those who on this account, object to the truth of the gospel, will not deny it. If God makes differences respecting every thing else, why not respecting religion? Where is the injustice or impropriety of trying some with gospel advantages; others only with the light of nature? If requirements vary with betrustments, none have reason to complain; and that this is the case is plainly the language of revelation.*
With equal reason might the hand of God in creation be denied, because different grades are found among creatures, and some have greatly the advantage over others; and in providence because its distributions are unequal. That these inequalities are observable, and that they are the work of God, will be acknowledged by all who believe the being of a God, and his providential government. If any are disposed to call these in question, we turn from them. To reason with them would be in vain. "That which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse."
* Vid. Discourse on Romans, ii. 11.
A scoffing age may cry out against Christianity. To some it may be a "stumbling block; to others foolishness." Men may exclaim against the gospel, and against the doctrines and duties of it, and the means which have been used of God to propagate it. Still "the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." So it hath been in times past; so it will be in times to come. The foolish, the weak and base things of the world, have confounded and brought to nought, all the world termed wise, and great, and mighty.
Imperial Rome at the summit of her greatness, could not crush the cause of him who died on Calvary! "Had this counsel or work been of men, it would have come to nought." Probably the name of Jesus, would long ere now have perished from the earth. But all his enemies could do nothing effectually against him. They could only do what God's counsel had determined to be done.
Christianity hath still its enemies; of the same character with those of old. They have overthrown the faith of some. Others they may seduce. That "scoffers should arise, in the last days walking after their own lusts; that some should deny the Lord that bought them, and that many should follow their pernicious ways," were foretold by an inspired apostle, and "they turned to us for a testimony."
We are called a Christian people. "If we believe the gospel, happy are we if we obey it." The generality profess to believe it. But how is it received? Do not many neglect it? Do not some who assent to its truth, "go their way to their farms, or their merchandize," regardless of it, neither confessing Christ before men, nor seeking an interest in him?
If the gospel is from God, to such neglecters Of the grace it offers, it must be "a favor of death unto death!" And is not their number great? Doth it not increase from year to year, from age to age? To these who are taken up with sensual pleasures, and with minding only earthly things, St. Paul would say "even weeping you are enemies to the cross of Christ, and your end will be destruction."
Let us be persuaded to bring home these considerations to ourselves. We are deeply interested in them. "The secrets of our hearts will ere long be judged by the gospel of Christ." To those who will not receive and obey the gospel, we have only to say, "Notwithstanding, be ye sure of this, that the Kingdom of God is come nigh unto you."
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The Declensions of Christianity, an Argument of its Truth..
Luke xviii. 8.
When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?
"He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but be that believeth not shall be damned." So certified the risen Savior. Faith is made a condition of salvation. But God requires only a reasonable service. He must then have given evidence of the truth to which He requires assent. He hath given it abundantly; Christians "are compassed about with a cloud of witnesses."
The proofs of Christianity are of two kinds; external and internal. Both are strong. United they leave infidelity without excuse.
Of external, the chief are miracles and prophecy. Miracles carried conviction to beholders; and were designed to give credibility to special messengers. Prophecy is a standing evidence, by which testimony is borne to the truth of revelation; yea, it is a growing evidence, which gains strength by every fulfillment.
Some may envy those who lived in this age of miracles supposing them sufficient to banish every doubt. But the proof arising from the fulfillment of prophecy, which we enjoy above them, is equal if not superior to theirs.
The prophecies contain sketches of the history of man, and of the plan of providence, from their respective dates to the end of the world. Those which relate to the declensions of religion, which were to take place under the gospel dispensation, will now only be considered.
From those declensions, arguments are drawn against the truth of Christianity. Was Christianity from God, he would verify the declaration made by him who claimed to be his Son. The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. But they do prevail. What was once said of its author, Behold the world is gone after him, will now apply to its enemy. This religion is not therefore from God, but of man's device. Propt up as it is, by human laws, and supported by "the powers that be," it totters towards ruin. Left to itself, it would soon fall and come to nought.
Such are the proud vauntings of infidelity, when "iniquity abounds and the love of many waxeth cold." So when Christ hung on the cross, and when he slept in the tomb, ignorant of consequences, his disciples "wept and lamented, and the world rejoiced;" but the time was short. Soon the world was confounded and the "sorrow of his disciples was turned into joy." IF the declensions which we witness, are foretold in scripture, they are no occasion of surprize.
Yea, instead of weakening our faith, they may reasonably increase it. And when we consider the assurances given us, that these declensions were to antecede the universal prevalence of true religion; they may also serve to increase our hope.
To shew that these declensions are foretold, and that we may expect yet greater abominations, than have hitherto appeared, is attempted in the following discourse.
When the son of man cometh shall he find faith on the earth?
That Christ is here intended by the Son of man; and that faith will be rare among men at the coming of his, referred to, are not doubtful matters. But what coming of Christ is here referred to? This is first to be ascertained.
The coming of Christ refers in the scripture, to several events. Sometimes to his incarnation; sometimes to the destruction of Jerusalem, and the Jewish polity; sometimes to his coming to judgment; and sometimes to the beginning of that universal dominion which he is to exercise on earth in the latter days. Each of these is the subject of several prophecies.
Christ's incarnation, or his coming to dwell with men, and to obey and suffer for their redemption, was a principal subject of the old testament prophecies. "To him gave all the prophets witness."
The divine justice executed on the Jews, in the destruction of their chief city, and polity, is also termed Christ's coming. This was the subject of several prophecies of old. It was foretold by Moses, and sundry others who lived before the gospel day; but more particularly by Christ, in person just before his sufferings. To this event the desolations foretold in the twenty fourth of Matthew, and its parallels in the other gospels, had a primary reference. The metaphors used to describe it are strong. They have been supposed to refer to the general judgment; and they have, no doubt an ultimate reference to it. But they refer, more immediately to another coming of Christ; his coming to render to the Jews according to their demerits as a people, soon after they should have filled up the measure of their iniquity by his crucifixion; which by the circumstances attending it, became a national act.
That this coming of Christ was particularly intended in those predictions, is, from several considerations apparent. That the Christians of that age, who were conversant with the apostles, and instructed by them, received this to be the meaning of those prophecies, and that they fled at the approach of the Roman armies, and escaped the destruction which came on the Jews, are matters of notoriety. And that this was the primary meaning of those prophecies, is further evident from an express declaration which they contain; "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away till all these things be fulfilled." This closeth the prophecy. The whole must therefore have received a primary accomplishment, "before that generation did pass away." This was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus.
Christ's coming to judgment, is often foretold in every part of the new testament, to pass over the intimations given of it in the old. But none of these can be the coming of the Son of man, referred to in the text. That it cannot refer to his incarnation is evident, from the time in which the declaration in the text was made. His coming in the flesh had been then accomplished.
Neither can it refer to his coming to punish Jewish apostasy and ingratitude; or to his coming to judge the world in righteousness, because the moral state of the world at neither to those periods, answers to the description here given. Shall he find faith on the earth?
The ruin of the Jews by the Roman armies, happened about thirty six years after Christ's crucifixion. Long ere that time the spirit had been poured out, and many had embraced the gospel. The apostles and evangelists, had gone, not only to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but also into the way of the Gentiles;" had called "those who were afar off, as well as those who were near; their sound had gone into all the earth, and their words to the end of the world." Neither had they labored among the Gentiles in vain. St. Paul spake by the Spirit when he declared to the Jews that the salvation of God was sent unto the Gentiles, and they would hear it. His word was verified. "Many were added to the Lord, and the number of the disciples was multiplied."
Such was the state of the world, at that coming of the Son of man. Faith was then to be found on the earth, if not among Jews.
When Christ shall come to judgment, we have reason to believe, that faith will also be found on earth; and more than at that period we have now considered.
The scriptures of both testaments, abound with predictions of the universal prevalence of religion, in the latter days; of the whole worlds rejoicing under the auspicious government of the Prince of Peace; of restraints laid on the powers of darkness, that they should not deceive and seduce mankind. And though we are taught that "the old serpent will afterwards be loosed, for a little season, and go forth to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth," we have no intimation that the main body of the Church will be corrupted by his influence, or injured by his power. His adherents may "compass the camp of the saints, and the beloved city," but will make no attack upon them. "Fire will come down from God out of heaven, and destroy them." By some special, perhaps miraculous interpolation of providence, the people of God will be protected and delivered.
St. john, who gives more particulars of the latter day glory, than those who had gone before him, fixes the term Christ's reign on earth a thousand years, which he represents to be those next preceding the judgment. And agreeably to the statement which he hath made, a numerous body of saints will then be found to welcome their Lord, and rejoice before him at his coming.
To this agree the other prophets who treat of this subject. No other limits the term of Christ's reign; or mentions Satan's being enlarged and permitted any measure of deceptive influence, after the restraints laid upon him at the beginning Christ's reign. But others foretell the happy day, and several seem to dwell delightfully upon it, and represent it as continuing to the end of time; and none give the remotest hint that it is to terminate, and iniquity again to become universally prevalent.
Isaiah often mentions it, and dilates more largely upon it than any other who lived before the gospel day. From his representations we should expect it to terminate only with time. "I will make the an eternal excellency—violence shall no more be heard in thy land; wasting nor destruction within thy borders—the sun shall be no more thy light by day; neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee, but the Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory—the days of thy mourning shall be ended—thy people shall be all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever."
By the little horn in Daniel's vision, Antichrist is doubtless intended. When at his fall Christ is to take the kingdom; or it is to be given to his people, it is to be an abiding kingdom. "And there was given unto him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations and languages, should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, an his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed."
This is a prophecy of the universal prevalence of true religion in the last days, after the reign of Antichrist shall have come to an end. By the explanation in the latter part of the chapter, the saints are from that period to have the dominion. It is no more to be taken from them. "The saints of the most high shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even forever and ever—and the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most high, whose kingdom is an ever lasting kingdom, and all dominion shall serve and obey him."
These representations agree with that made to St. John, who saw the church guarded and protected from infernal power and influence, at the close of the millennium. The only difference consists in the mention of a few particulars by the apostle, which were not communicated to the prophets; such as the term of Christ's reign on earth; and some fruitless attempts of the powers of darkness against his people, after that term shall have expired.
The coming to judgment cannot therefore be intended in the text. There will then be faith on the earth. But if we consider "that which is noted in the scripture of truth," respecting the moral state of the world before and at the time of Christ's coming to reign upon it, we shall find it answering to this description.
We will therefore, first take a general view of the prophecies respecting the moral state of the world, under the gospel dispensation? Then a more particular view of the great declensions which were to take place, with a special reference to the state of religion at the approach of the latter day glory.
The Savior, in person, and by his Spirit, gave general intimations to the apostles, of the times which were to pass over them, and over his church. When they were ordered to preach the gospel in all the world, beginning at Jerusalem, they were forewarned that the Jews would reject their testimony, and persecute them, as they had persecuted their Lord—that soon after "there would be great distress in that land, and wrath upon that people—that they would fall by the sword; be led captive into all nations, and that Jerusalem would be trodden down of the Gentiles, till the times of the Gentiles should be fulfilled."
The comforter which was to "teach them all things," not only explaining the nature of Christianity, and causing them to understand it, but also to unveil futurity before them, taught them, that after the Jews had rejected the gospel, the Gentiles would receive it, and the church grow and become great; that a falling away would afterwards follow, which would spread wide, and continue for a longtime, till it became nearly total; that when such was the state of the church, Christ would come, take the kingdom, and reign on earth.
Such were the outlines of futurity, relative to Christianity, as sketched out before the apostles. But if we descend to particulars, and examine the prophecies with attention, we shall find that the defections, which were to take place antecedent to the reign of the Redeemer, were to be of two kinds—that they were to arise at different times, and from different sources—that one was to be a corruption of religion, the other a rejection of it—that the former was to antecede and prepare the way for the latter.
This will be the subject: of another discourse.
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The Declensions of Christianity, an Argument of its Truth.
Luke xviii. 8.
"When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?"
That the coming of the Son of man, is here intended of Christ's coming at the commencement of the latter day glory, hath been alleged in the preceding discourse, and several considerations adduced in proof. Additional evidence will arise from a view of the prophecies relative to the great declensions which were to take place in the church, during the gospel day. These, we observed, are of two kinds, one, a corruption of religion, the other its rejection.
The intimations given of them in the new testament, are chiefly found in the writings of St, Paul, Peter and John. They are noticed also by Jude. The two former suffered martyrdom under Nero. When the time of their departure drew nigh, they had separately a view of the then future state of the church; "particularly of the declension which were to take place in the kingdoms of this world, shall become the kingdom of our Lord and Christ." St. John had the same opened to his view in the isle of Patmos.
St. Paul in his second epistle to the Thessalonians, after rectifying the mistake of those who thought the day of judgment then at hand, proceeded to inform them that there would be great declensions in the church before the end of the world. "Let no man deceive you, by any means, for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth himself above all that is called God, or is worshipped; so that as God, he sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God." The antichristian defection is here evidently intended. The apostle toucheth on the same subject in his first epistle to Timothy, and directs him "to put the brethren in remembrance of these things," to prevent surprise when they should happen. This was the first great declension which was to be permitted in the church.
In his second epistle to the same Christian bishop, written not long before his death, he resumes the subject of the defections which were to happen in the church, but with a more particular reference to defections of a different kind, and of a latter date. Having exhorted Timothy to faithfulness in the discharge of official duty, he adds a reason; "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts, shall heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables."
This doth not answer to the Romish defection. It was never the character of that church to "heap to themselves teachers." They never ran after those of other persuasions, who brought new doctrines. Their errors were of the contrary kind. They rejected and persecuted every teacher who did not derive from their infallible head, and teach as he directed. But "itching ears" have misled many of those, who "are moved away from the hope of the gospel. By turning to fables they have made shipwreck of faith, and fallen a prey to those who lie in wait to deceive."
St. peter wrote with equal plainness of the general defections; but those of infidelity are the subject of his prophecies—"There shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heretics, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the truth shall be evil spoken of." The heresies here intended are depicted too minutely to be mistaken. The heresiarchs are described as immoral, vain and proud, pretending to superior knowledge and penetration, despising law and government, and trampling them under their feet.
Toward the close of his second epistle, the apostle remarks, that he "wrote to stir up pure minds by way of remembrance; that they might be mindful of the words spoken before, by the holy prophets"—that is, of the predictions of inspired men, who had forewarned them of those deceivers—"Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days, scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying where is the promise of his coming?" And he refers them to St. Paul, who had predicted their rise in the church—"Even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you: As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things"—He adds —"Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware, lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness."
The short epistle of St. Jude is little other than a prophetic description of the same apostasy and its leaders, whom he terms "ungodly men, turning the grace of God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ—These are murderers, complainers, walking after their own lusts, and their mouths speaking great swelling words—But beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; how they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own lusts."
The errors of Rome are not here intended. They are manifestly errors of a later date, which were to appear after those of Rome should subside, having lost their influence. It is repeatedly noted that they were to arise in the last days. They are errors of which this age is witness—errors which have spread, and are yet spreading? those of infidelity and atheism, with their usual attendants, immorality in every hideous form. We should therefore "remember the words which were spoken before"—the warnings which have been given us of those defections, which were to intervene those of Antichrist, and the coming of the Son of man.
The Apocalypse, though of more difficult interpretation, contains some particulars sufficiently intelligible and to our purpose. The writer enlarges on the Romish apostasy, which he describes more minutely than any who had preceded him, both in its rise and progress, and also in the circumstances which should attend its overthrow. He foretells the spirit, pride, riches, glare of ornaments, strange abominations, and unprecedented cruelties; the power, signs and lying wonders, which were to render Rome the wonder and dread of the whole earth. The portrait is in every part so exact and circumstantial, that none who are acquainted with the history of that church, can mistake it; unless blinded by interest or prejudice.
The apostle predicts also the other great defection which was to follow the antichristian, though in language more obscure and figurative, "And I saw three unclean spirits, like frogs, come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet for they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth, and the whole world, to gather them to the battle of the great day of God Almighty." *
* Vid. a discourse on this subject by Timothy Dwight, D.D. President of Yale College, printed at Newhaven, A.D. 1798.
It deserves particular notice that all these strange declensions, which were foretold, as to take place in the church, and world, are represented as antecedent to Christ's reign on earth, and terminating before the commencement of that blessed era.
It is farther to be observed that during the whole antichristian defection, God's "two witnesses were to prophecy clothed in sackcloth." God would have a small, but sufficient number of faithful servants, who, in low and humble circumstances, would maintain the truth and be witnesses for him during the reign of man of sin. But about the end of his reign, they will have finished their testimony. Their enemies will then prevail against them and destroy them, and for a short term there will be none to stand up for God —none to warn the wicked, or to disturb them in their chosen ways. And they are represented as exulting in their deliverance from the society of those who amidst their departures from the living God, had tormented them, by warnings of future wrath, and an eternity according to their works. For this is the way in which God's witnesses torment the wicked.
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+ Comparatively None. The number will be exceedingly small—the times resemble those just before the flood, when Noah was said to stand alone. The pageantry of Romish worship may be kept up in that church, till mystical Babylon shall be destroyed, in the awful manner foretold in the Revelation; but infidelity hath long since, tipped the foundation of catholic religion, being grafted on the ruins of superstition. The absurd doctrines, and legendary tales of popery, may have been credited in the dark ages, when many of the clergy were unable to write their names, or so much as read their alphabet; but the belief of them is utterly inconsistent with the light everywhere diffused since the revival of literature.
+ Tormented them. This language is remarkable. It intimates that the pains occasioned in the wicked, by the warnings of the faithful are the same, in kind, as those of the damned, and that they are often severe. This accounts for the mad joy of infidelity—for the frantic triumphs of those who have persuaded themselves that religion is a fable. It accounts for the representation here given of the conduct of an unbelieving world, when infidelity shall have become universal, and the dead body of religion lie exposed to public scorn. Such is the time here foretold—a time when the age of atheism may be vauntingly termed "the age of reason."
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God's witnesses testify not only against antichristian errors, but also against infidelity and the immorality it occasions. When he ceases to have witnesses there will be none to testify against either the one or the other. The world must then be deluged in infidelity and atheism. This agrees with the representation given by the apostle; who describes the enemies of God as refusing graves to his slaughtered witnesses, and causing their dead bodies to lie exposed to public view, that they may rejoice over them, and congratulate one another on their deliverance from the company of those who had disturbed them in their sinful indulgences; and such as continuing to be the state of "the people, and kindreds, and tongues, and nations," till the witnesses are raised from the dead and ascend to heaven in the presence of their enemies; when Christianity will revive, and Christ's reign on earth begin.
These representations may be designed to intimate that the term in which infidelity will appear to be universal, will be so short that the warnings of the faithful will not be forgotten—that they will be kept in mind by the exultations occasioned by deliverance from the fears of religion, and from the presence of those who had excited those fears, by exhibiting proofs of religion which they could not refute. And how natural and common are such exultations, with those devoid of religious fear? But agreeably to the view given by the apostle, when such shall have become the state of the world, and the nations shall be thus felicitating themselves in full persuasion that all religion is a dream, and death an eternal sleep, the signals of Christ's coming to take the kingdom, will be given, and witnesses of the truth of Christianity, which cannot be disputed, suddenly arise, to the surprize and confusion of scoffing sinners; multitudes of whom will be swept off by desolating judgments to prepare the way for "the people of the saints of the most high, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom." For that desolations are to close the sad scene of apostasy, and prepare Christ's way is clearly foretold; particularly by St. John, who beheld, in vision, "the kings of the earth, and of the whole world, gathered to the battle of the great day of God Almighty;" and saw such an effusion of their blood, that "the harvest of the earth might be considered as reaped, the vine of the earth as cut and cast into the great wine press of the wrath of God, whence flowed blood to the horses bridles." *
Thus from the general tenor of prophecy it appears that infidelity will have overspread the world when the Son of man shall come to reign upon it: And as this agrees to no other coming of his foretold by the prophets, there can be no reasonable doubt what coming is intended in the text. If we keep these things in mind, we will not wonder at the declensions of religion and prevalence of infidelity. They will remind us of the remark made by our Savior to his sorrowing disciples just before his sufferings, "these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them."
Before, or about the time of this coming of the Son of man, Antichrist will fall—Mahomedan delusion terminate—"The Jews look to him whom they pierced, and mourn—be gathered the second time" from their dispersions, and returned to their own land, and the fullness of the Gentiles be brought in. Perhaps these may be the signs of Christ's coming, intended by the resurrection of the witnesses, When these events shall take place "the Lord will be king over all the earth. In that day there will be one Lord and his name one."
* Revelation xiv. 15, 20.
If we do not mistake the coming of the Son of man, here referred to, gloomy is the prospect now immediately before us. Hitherto God hath had his witnesses; but ere long they will cease from their labors, and leave infidelity undisturbed.
That the cause of the redeemer was to be depressed, before its universal prevalence in the latter days, is plainly revealed. The only difficulty is to ascertain the manner. Bishop Newton expects another confederacy of the catholic powers to destroy the followers of the Lamb, which will so nearly succeed, that for a short term none will dare to appear as his followers. But if infidelity was to intervene the antichristian defection, and prevalence of religion in the latter days, is this hypothesis probable? Is it not more reasonable to expect that destruction of the witnesses in another way, and by other enemies—by the mockers and scoffers of the last times, who should be generated by papal error and superstition? And doth not the present state of the world confirm these expectations? The catholic religion hath been declining for several ages. It received a deadly wound from Luther and his associates, which hath not yet been healed. From that period it hath dwindled, and is now little more than a name. But infidelity hath been, for almost an equal term progressing, and already stalks out to public view: Yea, it vaunts with shameless pride, as though sure of victory. And we are constrained to acknowledge, that "of a truth, it hath laid waste nations and their countries!"
Our expectation is farther confirmed by observing the change which is made in the weapons of internal warfare. These are no longer bonds, imprisonments, tortures and death, but the shafts of ridicule, and sneers of contempt. "Trials of cruel mocking," now exercise the faith and patience of the saints. Religion, the dignity and hope of man, hath become the sport of stupid infidels! The jest of sorry witlings! These hissings of the serpent are every where to be heard!
Internal malice, never before made so general attack in this way. Perhaps, with all his sagacity the adversary did not suspect that creatures made for eternity could be driven from the way of peace by the derision of fools, till taught it by experience. But this hath been found his most successful weapon! It hath done greater mischief to Christianity, than all the rage of persecution!
Many account it honorable, to suffer, pain or loss, with patience, and to face danger and death with fortitude; but few think themselves honored by scorn and reproach. Human nature is here attacked on its weakest side.
Some European scoffers, of high rank, during the last age took the lead in this mode of attack on Christianity; and have been followed by a countless throng of noble and ignoble, learned and unlearned, down to this day. Few infidels are so modest as not to affect wit on the subject of religion; few witticisms so contemptible as not to meet the approbation and receive the applause of brother infidels.
That strong combinations have been formed against Christianity, and also against civil government, in the kingdoms of Europe, and that they have too successfully undermined both, is an acknowledged fact.
In the leaders of those conspiracies we discover all the traits of character, attributed in prophecy to the scoffers who should arise in the last days. When every circumstance, in events so remarkable agree with the predictions, can doubt remain whether the predictions are fulfilled?
There hath been faith in this land. It is not yet extinct. But we are importing the principles, and practices of Europe. "The Mockers of the last times" are now to be seen on this side the Atlantic. "Many follow their pernicious ways." We have reason to expect the evils to increase till "The godly cease and the faithful fail" from among us. For when the Son of man cometh shall he find faith on the earth? This land will also be overspread with infidelity! "The whole world lie in wickedness!"
There may be partial revivals of religion, but no general reformation is to be expected; and after every refreshing, the declensions will probably be greater than before. Fanatic emotions, here and there, may flatter some who are friends to religion, but they only serve to accelerate the spread of infidelity.
It is a gloomy thought! The serious soul saddens; sorrow fills the good man's heart, if, when he sees little regard paid to religion, he expects yet greater defections! If when he sees but few of those who are rising into life, paying attention to the best things, he expects still fewer of their descendants to be wise and good! Yea that the declensions will continue and increase, "till all flesh shall become corrupt, and the earth be filled with violence!" Would to God these expectations might not be realized; for they are exceedingly distressing. But they appear to us to be dictated by the spirit of truth, and confirmed by the history of the world, and by the progress of events opening to view.
One consideration, however, ministers consolation, shining through the gloom; namely, the long, holy, happy period, which may be expected to follow the dark term now approaching.
By dark we mean only in a moral view. Respecting arts and sciences, mankind may never have been more enlightened than at present. But this is foreign to religion. When Egypt, Greece, and Rome, were the seats of the muses, they remained as devoid of religious knowledge, as the most ignorant barbarians. Arts and sciences may still flourish, and yet deeper researches be made into the arcana of nature, while religion is dying and atheism succeeding in its place.
Some intervening links are necessary to connect present age with the happy times now distant. Who shall fill them, the divine sovereign will determine. An hour of temptation must try all who dwell upon the earth. These are the times in which we are tried.
Do we envy those who may live during the Peaceful reign of the Redeemer? Let us not forget that we are favored above many who have gone before us—above some of our contemporaries and probably above those who will succeed us, before the commencement of that happy era. Nothing necessary to salvation is denied us. If straitened it is in our own bowels. If faithful to improve the talents put into our hands, "our labor will not be in vain in the Lord"—God will keep us to his kingdom. There we shall see Christ's glory, though we may never see it here as some others who come after us.
Be it also remembered, that the rewards of the coming world, will be proportioned to the difficulties we may have to encounter here in this. Those who make their way to heaven through darkness and temptations, and force their way through hostile bands, will rise to greater honors there, than though they had ascended by an easier and a smoother road. Nothing done or suffered in the way of duty will loose its reward. God hath not said "seek ye my face in vain."
"Wherefore, brethren give diligence to make your calling and election sure; for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall; for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory, both now and forever. Amen."
* * * * * *
Abram's Horror of great Darkness.
Genesis xv. 12.
"And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him."
If we consider the sketch, given us in scripture, of the life of this patriarch, we shall find that few have had equal manifestations of the divine favor. But the light did not at all times shine on him. He had his dark hours while dwelling in this strange land. Here we find an horror of great darkness to have fallen upon him. The language used to describe his state, on this occasion, is strong. It expresses more than the want of God's sensible presence. It describes a state similar to that of the psalmist, "While I suffer thy terrors I am distracted." His sufferings probably bore an affinity to those of the Savior when the father hid his face from him; at which period there was more than the withdrawing of his sensible presence, the powers of darkness were suffered to terrify and afflict him—"It was their hour"—God had left him in their hands. So Abram on this occasion.
Just before God had smiled upon him—"Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward." Then all was light and love. "The candle of the Lord shone on his head." When he complained that he had no child to comfort him, or inherit his possessions, God promised him an heir, and countless progeny—"Look now toward heaven and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them—So shall thy seed be. And he believed the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness." What an occasion of joy? What strange manifestation of divine favor? They are scarcely paralleled in the history of man. But how sudden the reverse? The same day—when the sun was going down; lo! the brightness disappears, and an horror of great darkness fell upon him.
A deep sleep fell upon Abram. This was not a natural sleep. There is no probability that he would have given way to weakness, and fallen into a common sleep, while engaged in covenanting with God; binding himself with solemn engagements, and receiving tokens of the divine favor, and the promise of blessings for a great while to come. If he could have slept while receiving such manifestations of the divine friendship, it is not probable that his dreams would have been terrifying: His situation would rather have inspired joyful sensations, and exciting pleasing expectations. THAT which for want of language more pertinent and expressive, is here termed sleep, seems to have been divine ecstasy—such influence of the holy spirit operating in the soul, as locked it up from everything earthly, and shut out worldly things, as effectually as a deep sleep, which shuts up the soul and closeth all its avenues, so that nothing terrestrial can find admittance.
This was often experienced by the prophets, when God revealed himself to them, and made known his will. Thus Daniel, when the angel Gabriel was sent to solve his doubts, and let him into futurity—"Now as he was speaking with me, I was in a deep sleep on my face toward the ground." The holy prophet, filled with fear at the approach of the celestial messenger, could not have fallen asleep, like some careless attendant in the house of God. Yet such is the language used to express his situation at that time, and afterwards on a similar occasion.* The three disciples, who witnessed the transfiguration, experienced similar sensations—sensations which absorbed the soul, and shut out terrestrial objects, which the evangelist compares to sleep.
* Daniel viii. 18, x. 9.
But why was Abram's joy, occasioned by the communications of the morning, so soon turned to horror.
The reasons are with him "Whose judgments are unsearchable, and his ways past finding out." We may observe, however, that such is the way of God with man, while here on trial. If at any time a person seems peculiarly favored of heaven, something of a different nature is commonly set over against it. Perhaps to remind him that this is not his rest. We seldom enjoy prosperity without a sensible mixture of adversity; or without somewhat adverse following in quick succession. "Even in laughter, the heart is sorrowful, and the end of mirth is heaviness." Neither are special trials or sorrows sent alone; comforts and consolations are usually joined with the, or soon succeed them. If we consider the matter, we shall observe this in ourselves; and may often discover it in others. We see it in the history of this patriarch, and that of many of his descendants.
The pilgrimage of Jacob, how remarkably diversified with good and evil, with joy and sorrow? That also of Joseph—of Moses—of Daniel? At times each of these were raised high and brought low—sometimes found themselves at the summit of earthly honor and felicity; at other times, were cast down, and hope seemed ready to forsake them.
In the history of Job the same things are exemplified in still stronger colors. That holy man experienced the extremes of honor and infamy, joy and grief, hope and terror. The prophets and apostles, passed through scenes in many respects similar; their joys and sorrows were contrasted to each other. Daniel's mournings and fastings were followed with remarkable discoveries and cheering revelations; but the divine communications were almost too strong for frail humanity; they filled him with dismay, and had well nigh destroyed his mortal body. "He fainted and was sick certain days."
St. Paul was "caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words, which it was not possible for a man to utter"—had a view of the ineffable glory of the upper world; but trials no less remarkable, and very severe, were contrasted to those strange distinctions, and more than earthly joys! "Lest I should be exalted above measure, through the abundance of the revelations, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure." *
* 2 Corinthians xii. 4-7.
St. john suffered sore persecutions—was banished from the society of his fellow Christians, if not from the society of men. But divine discoveries repaid all his sufferings—heaven's ineffable glories were opened to his view! What he witnessed could be but very partially communicated. Language is weak; only faint hints and general intimations could be given of the "glory which is to be revealed." But the suffering apostle enjoyed it, and was supported, yea, enraptured by it.
This life is filled with changes. Good and evil, hope and fear, light and darkness, are set over against each other. The saints, while they dwell in the dust, sometimes walk in darkness, and have their hours of gloom and horror—"The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain until now—Even those who have the first fruits of the spirit, groan within themselves, waiting for—the redemption of the body. Those of whom the world is not worthy, are often in heaviness, through manifold temptations."
We may wonder at these things: but when we consider them as ordered of God, the consideration, should calm our minds, and bring us to say with the astonished Shunamite of old, "It is well." *
* 2 Kings iv. 26.
God doth not order sorrows to his creatures here, because he delights in their sufferings. "He grieves not willingly, neither afflicts the children of men. He doth it for their profit, that they may be partakers of his holiness." And which of the saints hath not received benefit from it? Who among them hath not sometimes been ready to adopt the language of the psalmist, "It is good for me, that I have been afflicted."
"Born of the earth, we are earthly"—our afflictions naturally descend. We are prone to set our affections on temporal things, and set up our rest where there is no abiding. Therefore do we need afflictions to keep us mindful of our situation. Such remains of depravity are left in the renewed, that prosperity often corrupts them. But for the sorrows and sufferings ordered out to them, they would forget God and lose themselves among the deceitful cares, and infatuating allurements of this strange land.
Intervals of comfort are also needful for them. Were these denied them, "the spirits would fail before God, and the souls which he hath made." And intervals of light and joy are given to refresh and cheer, and animate them to the duties required in this land of darkness and doubt. But they are not intended to satisfy. They answer like ends to the Christian during his earthly pilgrimage, as the fruits of Canaan, carried by the spies into the wilderness did to Israel while journeying toward the land of promise—serve to give them a glance of the good things prepared for them, to increase their longings after them, and animate them to press forward and make their way to the possession.
Such may be some of the reasons of those varied scenes through which the people of God are doomed to make their way to glory.
Often the saints find themselves unable to penetrate the design of heaven in the trials through which lies their way—especially in the hidings of God's face, so that they cannot discover him. This made no small part of Job's trial—"Behold I go forward but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him; on the left hand where he doth work, but I cannot behold him; he hideth himself on the right hand that I cannot see him." Could he have known the reasons of his trials it would have been a great consolations, but it was denied him, and the reasons of God's hiding his face from him, no less than those of his other trials.
So it is also with others. The darkness which involves them makes part of their trials. It is a common trial of the saints. God will have his people "live by faith and walk by faith." To live by faith, implies want of light, and ignorance of the designs of providence. A great part of the good man's trial here, consists in trusting God without knowing why such things are required, or such trails ordered out to him. In this way the saints had great trials under the former dispensations. A veil was then spread over the method of grace, or way in which God would bring salvation to men. Even the religious rites enjoined by the law, were not understood, though they made part of the duties of every day; they remained mysterious, till Christ removed the covering cast over them; made known the hidden mystery, and opened "the way into the holiest by his blood."
Under every dispensation religion greatly consists in referring every thing to God, and trusting in him, without being let into his designs, or knowing reasons of his orders. "Blessed is he who hath not seen and yet hath believed"—Blessed is he who without penetrating the designs of heaven trusts in God, and conforms to his requirements, not doubting but all will turn out right—that God will lead him in right ways, though they may be ways which he knows not.
Abram discovered much of this temper—in obedience to divine order he left his father's house, and "went forth, not knowing whither he went." And afterwards, when commanded of God, he took a three days journey, to offer his son, Isaac, at the place which should be shewn him.
The trial of this patriarch, recorded in the text, might be, at that time particularly necessary. God had then admitted him to special nearness; and special trials might be requisite to keep him humble, and prevent high thoughts of himself. For such is fallen human nature, that particular distinctions, even divine communications, though of grace, are apt to be abused; to foster pride! Though man is poor and dependant, pride is a sin which very easily besets him. If Paul needed something to keep him humble when favored with revelations, why not Abram? Abram was then in the body—compassed with infirmity—liable to temptation, and prone to seduction. God knew his state—corrected him therefore, to give him a sense of demerit, when he received him into covenant and engaged to be his God.
Another design of his darkness and horror at that time, might be to fill him with awe and reverence of the divine majesty. Had he experienced nothing of this kind, the strange familiarity to which he had been admitted of the most high, might have diminished his fear of God, and caused him to think lightly of the great supreme.