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in the seventeenth century, published against the Scriptures, and with a design to show the insufficiency of natural religion. The articles of his creed were those which follow, viz., "There is one supreme God; He is chiefly to be worshipped; piety and virtue are principal parts of his worship; we must repent of our sins, and if we do, God will pardon them; there are rewards for good men, and punishments for bad men in a future life."* Whether the difference between this system of natural religion and the opinions of some, who believe the resurrection of Christ, is nearly as great as the difference between the latter, and that theology, exhibited by the articles of the church of England, the church of Scotland, by the synod of Dort, and by a majority of the churches of America, is a question too plain to require an answer. Of course, if all differences among Christians are unimportant, that which subsists between Christians and certain of the better kind of infidels, is more obviously so.
There is one observation relating to the subject before us, which must not be passed without notice. It is, that nothing in religion can be important, which is not very clearly revealed; or concerning which great and good men have been divided. This remark is respectable both on account of the character of many by whom it is made, and the kind intention, with which it is sometimes repeated. So far, as it is just, it will not fail to appear so, when examined. That the guilt of rejecting truth, when other things are equal, is proportionate to the evidence accompanying truth, cannot be denied. Nor is it ever to be forgotten, that this evidence may, for reasons already mentioned, be far greater to one, than to another. Yet can we by no means conclude, that a doctrine is unimportant, because the evidence, on which it rests, is not so plenary and overbearing, as might be desired. Whatever the Son of God revealed, was once hid from the children of men. Will it be denied that he revealed some things of importance?
Now, if some impor
* Leland's view of deistical writers, Vol. I. Lect. I.
tant truths were not revealed to the world, in any degree, until the coming of Christ, how can we certainly infer, that they were made known with the greatest possible clearness, at the time of his coming? If it were consistent with his goodness not to reveal them for many ages, it cannot be inconsistent with the same goodness to do it with a greater or less degree of perspicuity. "We cannot," says Bishop Butler, "argue, that this cannot be the sense or intent of such a passage of Scripture, for if it had, it would have been expressed more plainly, or have been represented under a more apt figure or hieroglyphic -for this reason, that in Scripture, we are not competent judges, as we are in common books, how plainly it were to have been expected, what is the true sense that should have been expressed, or under how apt an image figured. The only question is what appearance there is that this is the sense? and scarce at all, how much more determinately or accurately it might have been expressed or figured ?"*
We are now to make a few remarks on the latter part of the observation; viz. that no sentiment in religion can be of much importance, concerning which great and good men are divided.
That great men have erred on subjects of high moment, cannot be doubted without denying that title to Hobbes, Hume and Gibbon. If the matter be less obvious with regard to good men, this very want of certainty would tend much to injure the value of the remark, if true. Men are not always, in reality, what their external deportment would seem to indicate. Suppose now, that you have, by a careful and devout perusal of Scripture, adopted a number of sentiments which appear to you, not only to be taught in Scripture, but to occupy a very important place among the instructions, which are there given. These you consider as constituting that hidden wisdom, which none of the princes of this world knew. At this time, you become acquainted with a man of eminent talents, whose deportment is such, as to induce you to believe him upright and pious. Yet
his ideas of Christianity are in almost all points different from those, which from careful investigation, you had imbibed. Suppose the maxim true, "Good men never err in things of much moment." You immediately relinquish, as not valuable, those doctrines which an attentive perusal of Scripture had induced you to believe were so. You represent them as matters of mere speculation, and are instrumental of spreading this opinion among others. It is discovered, however, either by the subsequent conduct of this eminent man, or by the decisions of the last day, that you were deceived as to his character; a supposition, which cannot be thought to imply any absurdity. Will it satisfy the divine Judge to say, that you verily thought the man was good? Should you not expect to be told immediately, that the word of God was your rule, and not the opinion of any human instructor; that the question for your determination was not, whether that man were good or bad; but in what light the Scripture represented the opinions, which he rejected?
It is further to be noticed concerning this maxim, "Good men never err in things of much moment," that its claims to catholicism are very equivocal. Those, who believe it more easy to determine from Scripture what is important, than to determine who are good men, may use the maxim to different purpose, and reason in the following manner: The divine word attaches great importance to such and such principles; but in all principles of importance good men are agreed; therefore, those who reject these principles are not good men.
Another inference of a singular aspect might be made from the maxim in question; viz. that to prove the insignificance of any theological controversy, nothing is necessary but to ascertain the piety of the parties, engaged in it.
The truth is that the maxim is neither capable of proof nor does it rest on probability. Good men may commit errors in practice; it is strange if they may not err in opinion. Sentiments, in general, have an influence on practice and character. Particular sentiments have their appropriate tendencies. These tendencies are not varied, because the opinions may be em
braced by good men. Could it be proved, that the disbelief of all future punishment were consistent with moral goodness, the pernicious influence of that error on society, on personal religion and consequently on the eternal state of man, would not thereby be rendered in any measure, questionable.
It is not to be doubted, that there were good men in the church of Galatia; perhaps the members were generally of that description: yet that church embraced errors, which St. Paul labored with great zeal to correct; conceiving that the tendency of these errors was to subvert the Christian religion.
That portion of Scripture, from which we have been discoursing, affords a general specimen of that variety of feelings, with which the Gospel is regarded. While Paul was hazarding his life for its propagation, the Jews were no less zealous for its suppression, and Festus cared for neither. His indifference if continued was as certainly ruinous, as their hostility. It is not enough, that you do not oppose the great principles of Christianity; it is not enough that you hear them patiently; you must likewise feel their transforming power. When he therefore, who is set over you, as a watchman and spiritual guide, displays and enforces the truths of our religion, do not with fastidiousness or indifference, denominate these speculative opinions, which whether true or false, can be of no serious moment. not speak of the doctrines of Jesus Christ, with that heedless contempt, which the governor of Judea manifested on the subject of his resurrection. The Son of God and his inspired messengers were surely the best judges not only of the truth of doctrines, but of their utility. The human character has not since the era of their ministry, suffered any alteration. Your souls will be condemned by the same law, or saved by the same gospel, which they proclaimed. You must be sanctified by the same divine power, by which, under their preaching, thousands were raised to newness of life. The vast crowds both of their admirers and enemies have, for many centuries, been slumbering in the dust. They know, by long experience, the truth or falsehood of Christian doctrines. To them it is a matter of no uncer
tainty, whether the preaching of Christ and him crucified were justly an object of reverence or scorn. It is not now, even by Festus, considered a trivial question, whether Jesus, whom Paul preached, were indeed raised from the dead.
My brethren, the current of time is not arrested. It has borne all preceding generations into the ocean of eternity. You are now passing down on its broad surface, and will soon be mingled with the ancient dead. That religion which you now contemplate on earth, you will soon contemplate in the world of spirits; nor will you do it either with credulity or indifference.
We have been speaking of those, who, for almost two thousand years, have been suffering or enjoying a retribution. Ah, what pains must those have endured! what pleasures must these have felt! But to an immortal soul, this is scarce a beginning. When we shall have spent as many centuries in a retribution, undiminished eternity will still remain.
In view of these objects study the divine oracles and attend on the preaching of him, who is set over you in the Lord; and remember, that if he discharge, with religious integrity, the duties of a Christian pastor, he will be "a sweet savor of Christ, both in them, who are saved, and in them, who perish. To the one, he will be a savor of life unto life, and to the other he will be a savor of death unto death."
And now, brethren, we commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory forever and ever. AMEN.