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THE VARIOUS USE OF AUTHORITY AND EXPERIENCE IN
MATTERS OF RELIGION:
S E R M ON
PREACHED TO THE
MINISTERS AND MESSENGERS
SEVERAL ASSOCIATED CHURCHES, AT HORSLEY, IN THE
COUNTY OF GLOUCESTER,
JUNE 13th, 1764.
THE VARIOUS USE OF AUTHORITY AND EXPERIENCE
IN MATTERS OF RELIGION.
JOHN iv. 41, 42.-- And many more believed, because of his
own word : and said unto the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying ; for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.
Religion, at least the profession of it, takes its rise either from Authority or Experience. By Authority is meant the opinion and testimony of others : and by Experience the dictate of a man's own judgment, and the feelings of his own heart. Each of these principles or evidences of religion, if they may be so called, it is proposed now to consider; to inquire into their various and proper use; and by comparing them, to shew the preference which should be given the latter before the former; and indeed the infinite importance, and indispensable necessity of it.-To this design the words of our text very naturally lead us.
The woman of Samaria, having it seems been converted by the preaching of Christ, hastens away to her neighbours and acquaintance, and reporting to them what had happened, intreats them to come immediately to hear him. The Samaritáns fell in with her request, and having themselves heard the Saviour, are also converted and become his disciples. Upon which they make the reflection in the text, Now we believe, not because of thy saying ; for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world. Here then we will briefly examine,
FIRST, The report which the woman makes to the Samaritans, and the attention they pay to it; which is what may be called Authority: And,
SECONDLY, The effect of this, their hearing Christ themselves, and so becoming his disciples; which is what answers to Experience.
First, As to the report the woman of Samaria brought, it was in short this: “ That having been to draw water at a well without the city, she had there met with a very extraordinary person a Jew; that he had entered into a long discourse with her, wherein, besides the account he had given her of the nature of religion, he had made such discoveries to her of the secrets of her heart and life, as abundantly convinced her that he was a prophet, yea no less a person than the Messiah or Saviour who should come; and that therefore she earnestly wished they would immediately go out of the town to him, as she made no doubt but they would reap the same salutary advantages from his instructions which she had done.” Now the question is, what regard did it behove the Samaritans, in their circumstances, to pay to this story? To have treated it with ridicule and contempt would certainly have been most irrational, not to say rude and indecent; since there were many high probabilities of the truth of it: and admitting it to have been true, it was manifestly an affair of the utmost importance. And on the other hand, to have so rested their faith on this woman's report, as implicitly to have believed what she said, avithout making any farther inquiry into it, would have been a temper and conduct equally absurd and dangerous: nay it would have been in effect to defeat the very end for which she brought them the story. A summary view then,
1. Of the probabilities of this extraordinary relation, will very well account for the attention they paid to it: and a view,
2. Of the difficulties that attended it, will sufficiently justify their withholding a full assent to it, till such time as they had themselves heard Christ, or had received the immediate and lively impressions of his grace on their hearts.
1. The probabilities of the story were very strong. The woman they know: she was their acquaintance, their neighbour, and their friend. That she had been at the well, and met with a Jew there, was not at all unlikely. That he was a prophet, yea the Messiah himself, was not impossible; for he was expected about that time, and it was the opinion of many, whatever might be their national prejudices, that he would come of the Jews. And moreover that he actually was the Messiah, seemed a natural inference from what the woman reported concerning him; provided her testimony was authentic, and might be depended upon. For though she pretended not that he had performed any external miracles; yet she affirmed that he had done what was perhaps more extraordinary, that he had told her all things that ever she did a. The conclusion therefore was just and natural, that he was a prophet, yea more than a prophet, even Christ the Son of God: for who can penetrate into the hearts of men, and bring to light all the secret actions of their lives, but he who possesses divine knowledge and perfection ? And of the truth of the fact, that he did tell her all things that ever she had done, whence she drew the inference, there was the highest probability, if not moral certainty. It was an affair in which she was neither likely to be deceived herself, or to have any intent to deceive others. She must know whether this person did or did not reveal to her what lay concealed in her breast : no great discernment was necessary to qualify her to become a proper witness of this. And that she had no design to deceive seemed as evident: for she could propose no advantage to herself by the imposition, but rather the reverse; since in giving this testimony concerning Jesus, she reflected highly on her own innocence and virtue, and humbly acknowledged herself one of the chief of sin
And then the manner of her relating the story, the surprise, eagerness, and concern that appeared in her countenance, all argued her sincerity. Nay what put it beyond any reasonable dispute, was her inviting them to come to the well to see him: for this was resting the trial of her testimony upon the fullest and fairest issue imaginable. Now these reflections, which the Samaritans could hardly avoid making, must have rendered her story highly probable.
What then was the proper use of it? Why, It prevented their treating her and the message she brought them with ri
a Ver. 29,