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THE TRIAL OF RELIGIOUS TRUTH BY ITS MORAL
Preached at the opening of the Synod of Glasgow and Air,
MATTHEW vii. 20.
Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them.
VERY one who hath any acquaintance with the writings of infidels, must know that there is no topic on which they infist at greater length, or with more plaufibility, than the innumerable fects and parties into which the Chriftian world is divided. With what apparent triumph do they enlarge, on the contradictory tenets, which different perfons profefs to found upon the fame fcriptures, their violent oppofition one to another, and the great difficulty, or rather impoffibility of difcovering truth, among fo many, who pretend each to have the entire and exclufive poffeffion of it.
Having gone thus far, it is eafy and natural to proceed one step farther, and affirm, that the great plurality of every denomination, do not embrace religion in general, or the tenets of their own fect in particular, from rational or perfonal conviction, but from a blind imitation of ethers, or an attachment to one or a few diftinguished VOL. II. 3 C
leaders, whofe authority is ftronger than all other evidence whatever. Thus is religion, at once, fuppofed true; and yet destroyed; that is to fay, it is at one ftroke, as it were, annihilated, in almost all who profefs it, their opi nions, whatever they are in themselves, being no more than implicit faith and party prejudice in thofe who em brace them.
The fame vifible ftate of the world, which gives occafion of triumph to the enemies of religion, gives often, no fmall uneafinefs and anxiety to its friends, particularly to the best and moft difpaffionate of every party. Serious and confcientious perfons, when they reflect upon the divifions that prevail, when they are witneffes to the contention and mutual accufation of different parties, are ready to be overwhelmed with melancholy upon the profpect, a well as involved in doubt and perplexity, as to what course they themselves fhould hold. It is not uncommon to find perfons of every rank, in this fituation, not only thofe of better education, who are able to take an extenfive view of the ftate of things, in this and in preceding ages; but alfo thofe of lefs knowledge and comprehenfi on, when any violent debates happen to fall within the fphere of their own observation.
These reafons have induced me to make choice of the paffage now read as the fubject of difcourfe at this time. It contains the rule to which our Saviour appeals in his controverfy with the Pharifees, and by which he, once and again, defires that their pretenfions may be judged. I apprehend from the context, that it is equally applicable to their characters and their principles, their integrity before God in their offices of teachers of others, and the foundness of their doctrine as to its effects upon thofe who fhould receive it. Thefe two things are, indeed, in a great meafure connected together, or rather they are mutually involved in one another, though it is poffible, and, in fome few cafes, profitable, to make a diftinétion between them.
What is further propofed, through the affiftance of di vine grace, in the profecution of this fubjećt, is,
I. To fhow, that the rule here given by our Saviour is the best that could have been given, and that it is fufficient to diftinguifh truth from error.
II. That this is in fact the rule by which all good men, and, indeed, mankind in general, fo far as they are fincere, do judge, of religious principles and pretenfions.
III. To conclude with fome reflections on the fubject for the benefit both of minifters and people.
In the first place then it is propofed to fhow, That the rule here given by our Saviour is the best that could have been given, and that it is fufficient to diftinguifh truth from error. To lay a foundation for this, it will be neceffary to begin by fettling, in as precife a manner as poffible, the meaning of the rule, and to what cafes it can be justly applied. "Ye fhall know them by their fruits," faith our Saviour.-That is to fay, when any person affumes the character of a divine teacher, and proposes any thing to your belief, as from God, fee whether its fruits be really fuitable to its pretenfions: particularly you are to lay down this as a principle, that, as he is holy in his nature, every thing that proceeds from him must be holy in its tendency, and produce holiness as its fruit. In proportion as you fee this effect in him who teaches it, and those who embrace it, fo receive it as true, or reject it as falfe.
By laying down the rule in these terms, I do not mean to deny, that, when a revelation is firft propofed as from God, or when the credit of fuch revelation in general is examined, miracles are a distinct and conclufive proof of a divine commiffion. I am perfuaded that nothing is more vague and indeterminate, and at the fame time, a more manifelt inverting the natural order of things, than to fay with fome, We must judge of the truth of a miracle by the nature of the doctrine in fupport of which it is wrought; and, if this laft is worthy of God, we may then admit the honorary teftimony of the mighty work in its behalf.They do not attend to the great ignorance of man in all fpiritual and divine things without revelation, and to the
boldness of human pride, who fpeak in this manner. would rather include this as one of the proper fruits of a' divine commiffion to teach any new doctrine, that figns be given of a fuperior power accompanying the prophet. Thus we see the Jews made this demand of our Saviour, "What fign fheweft thou then, that we may fee and be"lieve thee? What doft thou work?"a It is true, in fome inftances, when, after many miracles, they persisted in afking new figns of their own devifing, he condemns their obflinacy and refufes to gratify it. Notwithstanding this, we find him often appealing to his works as an atteftation of the truth of his miflion: thus he fays, "Be"lieve me that I am in the Father and the Father in me, "or elfe believe me for the very work's fake."b And elsewhere,"If I had not done among them the works that "none other man did, they had not had fin: but now "they have both feen, and hated both me and my Fa"ther." Agreeably to this, we find Nicodemus drawing the conclufion, "Rabbi, we know thou art a teacher "come from God, for no man can do the miracles that "thou doft, except God be with him."d
There is no doubt, however, that this must be infepa, rably joined with a purity of character, and fanctity of purpose. When thefe are wanting, it gives the justest ground of fufpicion, leads to the ftricteft examination of miraculous pretenfions, and will certainly end in the difcovery of fuch as are falle. For this is the very excellence of the rule laid down by our Saviour, that, though reafon may be very unfit to pafs an independent judg ment upon truth and error, confcience may, with little danger of mistake, reject what is evil, and yield its ap probation to what is good.
But what I have chiefly in view is, that fuppofing the truth of the gospel in general, particular opinions and practices must be tried in this manner. As the gospel is allowed on all hands to be a drctrine according to godlinefs, when differences arife, and each oppofite fide pre
› @ John vi. 30.
John xv. 24,
b John xiv. 11.
tends to have the letter of the law in its favor, the great rule of decifion is, which doth most immediately and most certainly, promote piety and holiness in all manner of converfation. In this way every doctrinal opinion, every form of government, and every rite and practice in worhip, may be brought to the test, and tried by its fruits.
As opinions, fo characters, must be tried in the fame manner. The truth of this, though deferving particular mention, is included in, or is but a part and branch of the other. To pass a judgment on particular characters is of very small moment, or rather, a peremptory decifion of this kind is both unneceffary and improper, unless when it is of weight in a caufe. It is only prophets and teachers that fall to be fingly, or perfonally tried, because they are supposed to exhibit, in their own practice, an example of the force and influence of their principles. If on them they have no effect that is good, there is not the leaft pretence for infifting that others fhould embrace them.
Nothing farther feems neceffary by way of explication of this rule, fave to obferve from the context, that fair and plausible pretences, either of opinions or characters, must be examined with particular care, as being most ready to deceive; and the trial must be more by facts than by reafoning, as is implied in the very language used in the text, "By their fruits ye fhall know them."
The excellency of this rule may be comprehended un. der the two following particulars, 1ft, Its certainty. 2dly, Its perfpicuity.
The first of these will admit of little difpute. As God is infinitely holy in his own nature, every discovery that he has made to any of his creatures, muft carry this impreffion upon it, and have a tendency to promote holiness in them. And, as this is manifeftly the defign of the facred oracles, and that fyftem of divine truth which they contain, every thing by way of opinion, or practice, that pretends to derive its authority from them, may lawfully be tried by this rule, Will it make us more holy than before?
It is of moment here to obferve, that this rule hath a deep and folid foundation. It proceeds upon the fuppofi