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professes may be true: but he is possessed of no rational principle or consideration to assure him it is so. He enters not into the thing itself; only infers the truth of it from the reverence, he hath some how or other contracted, for those who affirm it. But is this a foundation sufficient to support so important a superstructure, as religion is confessed to be by every considerate person? Can I persuade myself to think, that because this or that man is intitled to my esteem on account of his wisdom and probity, therefore I am obliged to yield to his decisions, in points of such moment as affect my everlasting interests? If this be a just way of reasoning, then two principles which are directly opposite to each other, must both of them be true. For with the same reason that one man takes up his religion on such authority, another of a contrary religion may likewise. Whereas it is most evident, that nothing can make the wisdom and learning of him to whom I thus submit my conscience, a sufficient ground of my faith, unless I am satisfied he is infallible. Nor can his goodness be a warrantable motive with me to follow him in his profession; unless I can be morally sure that he is what I take him to be, and that his goodness is the fruit of his principles. So that you see such a faith stands upon the most precarious and uncertain foundation and however the object of it may happen to exist, yet the mind cannot be so satisfactorily assured of it, as to give it the force of a principle or spring of action. Which leads me to observe,
2. That a religion which owes its origin to authority, must needs be ineffectual to any truly good and valuable purposes. It can never be acceptable to God: for it arises not out of any reverence for him, but out of a servile dread, or at best an undue affection for a fellow-creature; and of consequence the main end it proposes, is to flatter the pride of men, and thereby to gain their favour and esteem. So that, like rivers which empty themselves again into the sea whence they came, it returns back in every expression of it to this corrupt fountain, and is wholly absorbed and lost there. Surely then that which neither comes from God, nor hath any just regard to him, can have no ground to expect his approbation. Nay it is as useless to ourselves, as it is unacceptable to God. That can never make men wise,
which exists in profession only, and not in the understanding: nor can a superstructure, which hath no foundation in conviction and evidence, be ever supposed to rise by the aid of true wisdom, or thence receive any accession of strength or ornament to it. The heart is likewise very little benefited by it: for the powers of such a faith are too feeble to master the inordinate desires and affections of the soul, and absolutely insufficient to afford any real pleasure and satisfaction to it. And the least reflection must convince every considerate man, that he who assumes the character of a Christian upon these principles, is not likely to maintain it any longer than custom, prejudice, and interest are favourable to his profession. With truth therefore may such persons say to their boasted religion, as the Jews once profanely said to God, It is vain to serve thee, and what profit is it to keep thy ways a?' But the most important consideration of all is,
3. That this kind of faith is exceeding hurtful and dangerous. If indeed neutrality or indifference in matters of religion were the only ill effect of it, it were more to be lamented than dreaded. But it is far otherwise. Sad experience has in many instances proved it to be a principle as operative as the faith of the real Christian; with this material difference, that while the fruits of the one are grateful and salutary, those of the other are most hurtful and poisonous. Nay it is oftentimes of wild and luxuriant growth; like noxious plants which usually spread faster and wider, than those which are innocent and useful. Ignorance, obstinacy, pride, and malevolence are the genuine and hasty product of it: and that not only when the things received and professed are essentially false and erroneous, but even when they are most true and scriptural,
Here I might shew you this wretched credulity, in all its sad and dangerous process on the heart. Springing originally from ignorance, you easily see how it tends to increase and promote it, by precluding all occasion for a diligent inquiry into the word of God, and a severe examination of the heart. For he who holds his religious principles, not upon the sense and feeling of his own breast, but purely upon the authority
a Mal. iii. 14.
of others, considers himself as excused, by their wisdom, learning and integrity, of all the painful anxiety of consideration. It is not his business to think and judge; but barely to pronounce. Thus every avenue to conviction is close shut and guarded; and the consequence is the most confirmed obstinacy and self-conceit. And how easy the transition is from hence to pride and insolence, the least reflection will shew. For being fully satisfied that he is right, he begins insensibly to frame the like venerable idea of himself, as of those from whom he has derived his faith. This puffs up his foolish heart with intolerable vanity: whence of necessity proceeds impatience of contradiction; which violently impels him to the gratification of the still more fierce and diabolical passions of cruelty and revenge. And thus a religion, taken up purely upon the testimony of others, and out of an undue regard to their authority, almost necessarily makes men worse than they are by nature. It enables them securely to indulge the lusts of their hearts, under the specious pretence of exalted piety; and so does infinite dishonour to the cause of real truth, and in the end brings the heaviest weight of vengeance on their own guilty heads.
The proper use of authority, and the mischiefs resulting from an abuse of it, having been thus briefly considered, we
SECONDLY, To an examination of the other, and indeed the only sufficient test of religion: and that is experience.
By experience is meant the bringing a thing to the trial, in order to ascertain the true nature and true value of it. So the goldsmith tries his metals; to know their quality, whether they have any alloy or base mixture in them; and to know their weight, whether they rise to the right and current standard. To this the words of the apostle allude, where he speaks of the trial of our faith being much more precious than of gold which perisheth a. Experience therefore, when applied to the common affairs of life, signifies a clear, full and sensible demonstration of what we had before only a general, abstracted and confused idea. In like manner when applied to religion, a 1 Pet. i. 7. Saximov, exploratio.
it intends the being rightly instructed in the knowledge of di vine things, and the feeling their natural and genuine influence on our hearts and lives. In the former view of it, it respects more immediately the judgment: and so it stands directly opposed to the taking things upon trust, or merely on the credit of those around us. The Samaritans believed not for the saying of the woman; but went themselves and heard Jesus, and so became satisfied that he was the Christ. And without doubt it is the indispensable duty of every one, who would be honest and happy in his profession, to do as these primitive Christians did, and to make diligent inquiry into the things of God. Search the Scriptures, says our Saviour to the Jews a: and it is mentioned to the honour of the Bereans, that as they received the word with all readiness of mind, so they searched the Scriptures daily, whether the things which the apostles preached were as they reported b. And the meacures by which the word of God directs us to pursue our inquiries, are founded in the truest reason; while they check that pride and forwardness, which are too apt to challenge a kind of evidence, which the nature of some truths will not admit of. But we are here considering experience, not so much in reference to the understanding and judgment, as to the temper of the heart and the conduct of the life. It will be necessary therefore,
I. To inquire how it operates in this view of it, so as to furnish a rational and satisfactory proof, in concurrence with Scripture, of the main truths of religion;
II. To shew wherein the faith which arises out of this sort of evidence, differs from that which is built alone on human authority; and,
III. To point out the several ways, in which this evidence may be abused or perverted.
I. Let us inquire how experience operates, when considered as a practical principle, so as to furnish a satisfactory and convincing proof of the great truths of religion.
Now there are many points, I am sensible, which are not in their own nature capable of being reduced to this test, and b Acts xvii. 11.
a John v. 39.
so of furnishing in this way an adequate proof of their divinity. As for instance, the resurrection of the body, though a doctrine clearly revealed in the word of God, yet has not such an immediate connection with the inward sense and feeling of the heart, otherwise than that the contemplation of it yields pleasure, as to be capable of being proved thereby. And this is perhaps the case, with respect to what may be called the circumstantial parts of some other doctrines. But be that as it may, it is certain that many of the great principles of religion, whence others are very naturally to be inferred, do so enter into the genius and spirit of a Christian, and so interweave themselves with his most intimate experience, as to demonstrate to himself their truth. Not to speak here of the principles of mere natural religion, of which every man hath sufficient testimony in his own conscience; we will just instance two particulars of revealed religion, in the firm belief of which the life of godliness consists. And they are on the one hand, the guilt in which sin hath involved our natures; and our restoration to the favour of God by the mediation of Christ and on the other, the depravity of the human heart; and its renovation by the influence of the Holy Spirit.
1. As to the guilty state to which he is reduced by sin, and his recovery by the Lord Jesus Christ, the Christian can infer these truths, and that with the greatest reason, from what hath passed in his own heart. Men do in general acknowledge themselves sinners; though alas it is too evident, that they have only superficial notions of the evil nature and just demerit of sin! But the good man confesses himself a sinner, not merely upon the general principles that others do, uo nor only upon the testimony of his Bible; but from a conviction of this matter, impressed in a lively and awakening manner upon his heart. Of his lost and miserable condition he has been made truly sensible. Sin he has beheld in its just colours, by the light of the pure and perfect law of God, and through the mirror of the sufferings of Christ his Son. Real grief and compunction of heart he has endured on account of it: nay he has been deeply affected, as well with the disingenuity and baseness of sin, as with an apprehension of