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RELIGION MAN'S GREAT CONCERN.
DEUTERONOMY VI. 6-9.
These words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thy heart; and thou shalt
teach them diligently to thy children; and thou shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up: and thou shalt bind them as a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes; and thou shalt write them upon the posts of thine house, and on thy gates.
The observation is not more common than just, “ that if religion be any thing, it is every thing.". If Christianity be true, the consequences of our present conduct are infinitely important: and while the infidel may be more atrociously criminal and extensively mischievous, the professed believer, who lives like other men, is the most inconsistent character in the world. The language of Scripture does not accord to that of modern times : wicked Christians, and irreligious believers, are never mentioned in the sacred volume: faith is never supposed to be separable from a holy life: all worldly men are represented as unbelievers, or as only possessing a dead faith ; and all believers are spoken of as the servants of God, who live to his glory, and are distinguished from other men by the whole tenor of their conduct, and not merely by their principles. These things are as observable in the Old, as in the New Testament : for true religion has been essentially the same, ever since the fall of Adam ; though many circumstantial alterations have taken place: and indeed the perfections of God, the wants of a sinner, and the nature of holiness and happiness, are in themselves immutable.
I shall therefore, without further introduction, proceed to discourse on the words of the text, as applicable to Christians, with an authority proportioned to their peculiar advantages. “These words which I command thee this day,” even the great doctrines and precepts of the Bible, “ shall be in thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently to thy children: and thou shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up: and thou shalt bind them upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes : and thou shalt write them upon the posts of thine house, and on thy gates.” It is, alas ! too obvious, that professed Christians do not generally observe either the letter or the spirit of this exhortation: nay, that numbers of them would censure or ridicule any of their acquaintance, who should manifest a disposition to practise according to it! Whether this prove that most men among us are Christians only in name, or whether some more satisfactory account can be given of the undeniable fact, every one must be left to determine for himself.
I shall endeavour from the words of the text,
I. To point out some of the leading principles of our holy religion, which especially demand our unremitted attention.
11. Explain and illustrate the exhortation, and suggest the most effectual methods of reducing it to practice. III. Shew the reasonableness of such a conduct.
may the Lord vouchsafe us his special help and blessing, while we meditate on this important subject! For it is astonishing and lamentable to observe, how slightly even they who seem to be religious pass over such urgent exhortations! So that while a vast majority of mankind are altogether asleep in sin, the rest seem not to be half awake to matters of infinite and eternal importance.
I. In pointing out some of the leading principles of our holy religion, which especially demand our unremitted and most earnest attention, we cannot begin more properly, than with the perfections and authority of God, and our relations and obligations to him. However men may allow these truths, it will yet be found, that their conduct in this respect marks very strongly the distinction between the religious and irreligious part of mankind. Who can imagine, that the gay, the sensual, the covetous, or the ambitious have a constant and serious recollection of that holy, omnipresent, omniscient, and almighty God, in whom we all profess to believe? May we not rather conclude, that "God is not in all their thoughts ;” at least, that they do not willingly and deeply consider his character and perfections, as described in the sacred Scriptures. Do such men habitually recollect the majesty and authority of the Lord, their obligation or accountableness to the Creator and Judge of the world? Do they act under a constant sense of his all-seeing eye? Do they endeavour to please him in their most secret and common actions; or by their inmost thoughts and motives ? Do they seek happiness in his favour, and liberty in his service? Or do they, when conscious of having offended, rely on the mercy of God, and seek an interest in the salvation of his Son, as the grand object of their deliberate choice, and most fervent desires ? I apprehend that the most admired and applauded characters, in Christian countries, are as entire strangers to this course of life, as the very pagans themselves. But the true believer walks with God; the thoughts of his presence and perfections frequently possess his mind, and habitually influence his conduct; and in his various occupations and pursuits, he seeks “ not to please men, but God that trieth the heartsi"
It is indeed one great end of our preaching, to convince men, that religion does not consist in coming once or twice a week to public worship, or at stated seasons to the Lord's table ; but that these are merely appointed means of bringing them habitually to acknowledge God in every part of their conduct; that their actions, conversation, and dispositions may be influenced by a sense of his presence and authority; that pious meditations, ejaculations, and praises, may continually spring from the temper of their minds, as occasion requires; and that their daily employments, regulated by genuine piety, may be a constant succession of services to their Master who is in heaven. Who can deny that the law of God requires this at our hands? that the example of Christ recommends and enforces it? or that the apostle inculcates it, when he says, “ Whether ye eat, or whether ye drink, or whatever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” Perfection indeed cannot here be attained ; nor can we say what measure of this habitual recollection is essential to genuine piety; but if this be the nature of true religion when perfected, it must proportionably be the same in its lowest degrees. If we do not propose to ourselves a high standard, our actual attainments will be very low; and if the nature of our religion differ from all our ideas of the worship and holinesss of angels, we shall doubtless be finally excluded from their society, as incapable of their holy felicity.
The eternal world is another subject, which demands our unremitted attention. Death and its important consequences; and the awful realities of that solemn season, when “all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God and shall come forth ; they that have done good to the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil to the resurrection of damnation," should be familiar to our thoughts, and frequently be made the subject of our conversation. Eternity! the shortness of time! the uncertainty of life!
the importance of this fleeting season of preparation for the tribunal of God! the sin, the folly and infatuation, of wasting it in the eager pursuit of perishing things, or in frivolous and pernicious amusements! By frequently recurring to these topics, we should endeavour to excite ourselves, and to " exhort one another, while it is called to-day; lest any of us should be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” A misspent day, or even an idle hour, must, on reflection, give pain to the man who duly considers the words of Christ, “ Watch and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all those things which are coming on the earth, and to stand before the Son of man.' “ Let your loins be girded about and your lamps burning, and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their Lord.” “Be ye, therefore, ready also : for in an hour that ye think not the Son of man cometh."
Our chief business is not with men: our grand interest is not placed in earthly objects. The Lord himself is “he with whom we have to do ;” and if we be indeed believers, “ we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen : for the things which are seen are temperal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” This was the peculiar disposition and practice of all that cloud of 'witnesses which have gone before us. “ Enoch walked with God and was not, for God took him." Moses preferred the reproach of Christ, and the sufferings of God's people, to the riches, honours, and pleasures of Egypt :-for he“ had respect to the recompence of reward.” The Old Testament saints “all died in faith, not naving received the promises, but having seen them afar off ; and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims upon the earth.” The primitive Christians “suffered joyfully the spoiling of their goods, knowing that they had in heaven'a better and a more enduring substance.” They counted not the sufferings of this present time worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed;" and many of them considered death as their gain, that “ being absent from the body, they might be present with the Lord.” Yet, in these days, this kind of life not only appears visionary to profane scoffers and infidels; but many who profess and contend for the peculiar doetrines of the gospel, seem nöt at all aware, that one grand difference between a believer and other men, consists in the decided preference which he gives to eternal things, above all the interests and enjoyments of this sublunary world. “To be carnallyminded is death, but to be spiritually-minded is life and peace.”
The law of God is another of those interesting subjects, which ought to occupy a large share of our thoughts and conversation. This law, which is spiritual, holy, just, and good, is given to be the rule of our conduct, and the standard of our judgment, and it is written in the hearts of all true believers. Thus Darid exclaims, “ Oh how I love thy law! it is my meditation all the day.” “I esteem all thy precepts in all things to be right.” “I love thy commandments above gold, yea above much fine gold ;" and, “ I will walk at liberty, for I seek thy precepts.”
Numbers of men, called Christ:ans, prescribe to themselves no other rule than the law of fashion, custom, honour, or trade; that is the law of their own peculiar circle. Others judge of their conduct by some scanty maxims of morality, or their own notions of right and wrong: and few, even of those who profess to believe, seem willing to use the commandments of God for these important purposes.-" Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, thy mind, thy soul, and thy strength; and thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” These are the two great commandments, in which the whole law is briefly comprehended. But who can fully explain such extensive precepts, or speak of them in terms of commendation equal to their excellency? There can be no part of our conduct, or desire of our hearts; no thought, word, or action whatever; which does not either agree or disagree with these two grand branches of that “ holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” With these, the believer, as far as he acts in character, compares himself continually; and thus determines whether he hath
acted right or wrong in the various circumstances and relations of life. By this rule he learns to decide in doubtful cases; and he keeps it in constant view, while he considers how he should spend his time, use his substance, or employ his talents; what connections he should forin; whether he should contract or extend his acquaintance; what business or situation he should prefer; or how he should regulate his methods and habits of living. In short, he endeavours to conform himself to the law of God, as the man of fashion or of business does to the rules of the circle with which he is connected.
But when we have seriously considered the comprehensive, spiritual, and holy requirements of this perfect standard, we shall proportionably be convinced of numberless transgressions, and of immense deficiencies even in our best services: for “ by the law is the knowledge of sin.” We shall judge very differently of our own characters, than other men do; or than even we did, before we began to weigh ourselves in this balance of the sanctuary. When each successive hour, and all that passes in our imaginations and conduct, is tried by the law of loving God with all our minds, and our neighbour as ourselves, the boasted goodness of our hearts, the imagined innocency of our lives, the compensating efficacy of our meritorious actions, and the whole fabric of our self-complacency, vanishes as a dream when one awaketh. Then we readily understand that “ by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified in the sight of God;" and there no longer appears to be either paradox or absurdity in this part of the apostolical doctrine. That question becomes important to us, which perhaps we once deemed insignificant or speculative,“ How shall man be just before God?” We inquire with increasing solicitude, “ What must we do to be saved ?" And we are prepared to welcome information on the method, in which the most perfect justice and holiness of God can consist with his abundant mercy, in pardoning and saving transgressors; without excepting even those who have committed the most numerous and heinous offences. Thus the peculiar doctrines of the blessed Gospel of God our Saviour, come regularly under our consideration, and open to our view, in their nature, glory, and value, in proportion as we judge ourselves by the holy commandment; and anxiously seek deliverance from the wrath to come.
It is very affecting to the serious mind to reflect on the supercilious disdain, with which men in general treat such inquiries, and those who are engaged in them. The natural philosopher, with an air of self-importance, considers his experiments on the properties of material substances, as an employment of superior excellency: and, after having spent many months in most exact and minute investigations, he will smile, with mingled pity and contempt, at the folly of his neighbour, who hath occupied a few weeks in studying the way of eternal salvation! Metaphysicians frequently deride all those, as discarding the use of their reason, who decide such questions according to the sure testimony of God! Cold formalists obviate all inquiry by saying, that' a good life is every thing in religion:' and even men of business and pleasure suspend their eager pursuits to join the ridicule, to which those humble penitents are exposed, who seriously attend to this disregarded subject! Yet surely it is most reasonable for a condemned criminal to inquire in the first place, how he may obtain a pardon : and who can doubt, but that person will be most secure from the danger of a fatal mistake, who learns the way of approach and success from the Sovereign himself?
The subjects, that have been considered, directly make way for the right understanding of evangelical truth: the man, whose views have been described, will perceive that the gospel exactly suits his case, and is worthy of his most cordial reception. He will not object to the truths of Christianity because they are mysterious; he will neither despise them, under pretence of attending exclusively to practice, nor abuse the mercy of God as an encouragement to sin: he will perceive the connection and harmony of evangelical doctrines with the whole system of revelation ; and will seek the pre
mised blessings in the appointed way: his repentance and works meet for repentance will connect with the life of faith in the Son of God; while his faith will work by love, and love will sweetly constrain him to live to the glory of “ him, who died for him and rose again." These truths will be the nutriment of his faith and hope; he will meditate on them from day to day ; thence he will derive all his strength, motives, and encouragement for obedience: nor would his knowledge of the rule of duty suffice even for practical purposes, were he not influenced by the principles of the gospel.
These are some of the most important subjects to which we may suppose, that the exhortation of the text calls our peculiar attention, and did time permit, many others might be adduced. But we must proceed,
II. To explain and illustrate the exhortion itself, and suggest the most effectual methods of reducing it to practice.
These things must be in our own hearts, before we can properly teach them to others, or make them the subject of our' frequent conversation. We should therefore apply ourselves, with persevering assiduity, to obtain a comprehensive acquaintance with the doctrines of revelation ; that we may understand them according to their connection, harmony, proportion, and practical tendency. Our memories
should be stored with the precepts, examples, warnings, and promises of the Bible.“ Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. This cannot be done, unless we carefully attend to our Lord's exhortation. “ Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life.”. “ The hand of the diligent maketh rich :" and the man, whose “ delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates in his law day and night, shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of waters, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season ; his leaf also shall not wither, and whatsover he doeth
This man shall be blessed, and shall be a blessing to others. Labour then, my brethren, to get thoroughly acquainted with the oracles of God: let your judgment be formed according to them: proportion your approbation of characters and actions by this divine standard. In this manner judge of your acquaintance, connections, and friends; and above all, judge thus of yourselves. Try by this rule every pursuit, attainment, or distinction among men: let your fears, hopes, desires, joys and sorrows be regulated according to it; that all the affections of your souls may be excited and influenced by the pure and animating principles of our holy religion. Thus, when fatigued with business or disgusted with the world, you will have a never failing source of refreshment, and a most salutary relaxation, to invigorate your weary powers, and recruit your 'exhausted spirits.
When the word of God is thus treasured up and ingrafted in our hearts, we shall be disposed and qualified to teach his truths and precepts to our relations, to speak of them among our friends, and to diffuse the knowledge of them in the circle of our acquaintance. This is strenuously enforced by the exhortation of our text. « Thou shalt teach them diligently to thy children ; and thou shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” In reducing these rules to practice, much will be found to depend on various external circumstances. When the Christian possesses wealth or influence, and hath extensive connections, he ought to attempt great things: while a little may be done in a more obscure situation, by edifying discourse, letters, or the distribution of books; provided opportunities be watched and diligently improved. We allow, indeed, that conceited disputatious talkers, whose conduct does not consist with their principles, or who grossly violate the proprieties of relative life, are often a disgrace to religion: but when divine truth occupies the heart and influences the conduct, a man's ordinary conversation may be rendered very useful, in diffusing religious knowledge, and making others wise unto salvation.
They, however, who are placed at the head of families, should deem themselves peculiarly called upon to teach their children or servants. The ex