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ROMANS, CHAP. XIV. VERSE 16.
Let not then your good be evil spoken of.
In describing the condition of our Christian warfare, St. Peter tells us, If, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God:' to this, says he, you are called by the example of Christ, who suffered reproaches willingly, and when he was reviled, reviled not again. This is a duty in which one would think there should be no danger
any man's overacting his part. Reproach and contempt are not such desirable riches, that we need be warned against their temptations, or cautioned lest we too earnestly pursue after them. We are apt enough to shrink at the approach of calumny, and to invent plausible excuses for the neglect of a duty, which performed would expose us to envy or ill-will. What then means the Apostle by this exhortation, “Let not your good be evil spoken of? Are we called by Christ to suffer revilings and reproaches ? and are we called by his Apostle to fly from them and avoid them? Our Saviour seems to speak another language to us in his sermon on the mount: Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you :' and if it be our happiness to be reviled, how is it our duty to take care not to be evil spoken of for our good ?
But suppose, however, that it is no way inconsistent with our Christian duty to avoid the calumny and reproach of the world ; yet still is it in our power to stop the mouth of malice and wickedness ? When we do our duty, can we help it if others will speak evil of our good ? Why are not they rather exhorted not to speak evil of our good, than we not to let our
good be evil spoken of? It is not in our power to govern other people's tongues : is it not enough therefore that the thing we do is good, but must it likewise lie on us to secure our good from the attempts of malice and envy ? Is it not sufficient that we suffer patiently under the malice of wickedness, but must we partake in the guilt of it too; and shall it be imputed to us as a crime, that we let our good be evil spoken of?
Such reasonings as these perhaps the text may suggest at first hearing : but when maturely considered, it will afford excellent instruction for our conduct in the pursuit of those things which are in themselves truly good and praiseworthy; it will teach us not only how to be good in ourselves, but likewise how to be useful in the world, by exercising a truly Christian prudence and address in promoting the interest of virtue and religion.
To court oppression and persecution, to invite the world to misuse us for the sake of our profession, is far from being a duty to which the gospel has called us. It is neither for the interest of our religion, nor the glory of our Master, that we should voluntarily expose either ourselves or our doctrine to the hatred and contempt of the world: in both cases our Saviour has given other directions ; 'Give not,' says he, “that which is holy unto the dogs; neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you :' Matt. vii. 6. And when he sent his disciples forth to preach, he expressly commanded them to beware of men ;' not only allowing, but requiring them to have a regard to their own safety, and cautiously to shift the dangers to which they were necessarily to be exposed.
This may satisfy us of the lawfulness and expediency of guarding against the dangers that may attend the practice and profession of religion in an evil world, and clear our way to the understanding the extent and meaning of the Apostle's advice, Let not your good be evil spoken of.'
The rule is general, and extends itself to all parts of our Christian conversation : it stands applied indeed by the Apostle to a particular case, which was matter of controversy in the church of Rome at the time this letter was written to them : but as the rule does not arise out of the particular circumstances of that case, there will be no necessity of considering it with reference to the dispute which the Apostle had in his view; but we may deduce it from the general principles of Christian prudence and charity in which it is founded. And that we may proceed clearly to the point we aim at, I shall,
First, inquire what we are to understand the Apostle to mean by our good.'
Secondly, endeavor to show that our good' is often exposed to be evil spoken of' through our own indiscretion; and consequently, that it is often in our own power to prevent it: from whence,
In the last place, will appear the reasonableness of the duty enjoined us in the text.
First, we are to inquire what we are to understand the Apostle to mean by our good.' And here we may meet with different opinions : some, by our good,' understand our religion, which is indeed every Christian's chief good; and according to this sense of the words the Apostle must be understood to exhort us to have a regard to the honor of the gospel in all our actions, and to administer no occasion to the enemies of our religion either to deride or despise our holy calling. And thus the text amounts to an argument, or exhortation, to move us to a simplicity of manners and an inoffensive behavior, for fear lest we bring a reproach on our profession. But the Apostle seems to aim at something farther : his business here is not to deter us from the practice of evil, but to direct us in the use and practice of that which is good, that our virtue may be without offence, and secured from calumny and reproach : and
our good,' mentioned in the text, is not the topic from which the Apostle draws an argument or exhortation, but is the subject matter concerning which he is giving directions. According to this interpretation of the words, the text may be thus paraphrased : Be not content with merely doing that which is in itself good and commendable, but look forward to the consequences which are likely to attend it, and endeavor to prevent any mischief that may grow out of it to yourself or others, that your good may be inoffensive and irreproachable. In this sense it is that I propose to consider the text; and shall now. proceed,
Secondly, to show that our good is often exposed to be evil spoken of through our own indiscretion; and consequently that it is often in our own power to prevent it.
There is no such thing as being truly good and virtuous till we are got to be above the temptations of the world, and free from the servitude of courting its opinion : but then it is too common a mistake for men to think, that to be above the temptations of the world is the same thing as to despise the world and all that belong to it: and hence it is that virtue often contracts such a moroseness, and becomes so untractable, that it can be of no public use or benefit, but is confined to its own cell, the poor honest heart that possesses it.
Nor is this the only inconvenience : the cause of virtue itself often suffers by the zeal and indiscretion of such mistaken votaries: they look with disdain on all the prudent methods by which goodness may be advanced, and censure them as the effects of worldly wisdom and cunning; and provided the thing they do be in itself justifiable, they are above considering the consequences
may attend it: nay, the greater the inconveniences are which threaten them, the more eagerly they embrace them, esteeming it to be the most generous part of virtue to suffer for that which is good. This sort of inflexible goodness naturally runs out into disdain and aversion, and makes mèn value themselves more for hating a knave than they would do for reforming him, and to look on it as a higher degree of virtue to reproach men with their vices than it is to correct and amend them.
What success must attend this method of propagating virtue and religion may be soon known, by considering the temper and disposition of mankind. To vex and exasperate men can serve only to make them stubborn in their vices and obstinate in their opinions; and all that is got by it is to expose the good you do to reproach, and to give the enemies of religion occasion to blaspheme. Zeal is the noblest grace, when duly tempered with charity and prudence, and whilst it continues under their influence, it produces the noblest fruit; but when it breaks loose from these restraints, it grows wild and extravagant, and becomes the grief of wise men, and the sport and laughter of fools.
This is one way by which men expose their good to be evil spoken of. Their mistake lies in not rightly distinguishing between a servile compliance with the world, and a prudent behavior towards it; and yet there is as much difference between them as between virtue and vice: one is the way which men who sacrifice honor and conscience to their interest make use of; the other is the method which wise and good men take to recommend the practice of virtue and religion. And what a wide difference is this? In the first case, to comply with the world, you must be like it, you must conform yourself to it : in the other, you treat the world civilly, that it may
the more easily become like you ; that you may gain on it, and instil the principles of virtue, which may be infused by gentle degrees, but cannot be obtruded by noise and violence.
Those who are of too stiff a virtue to court the world into a compliance with that which is good, may do well to consider how our Apostle is to be justified in the character he has given us of himself: "Though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more, Unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews ; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law (being not without the law to God, but under the law to Christ), that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak : I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some :' 1 Cor. ix. 19. &c. Into what a variety of shapes did he turn himself, to gain on the affections of men, that he might the more easily gain admission for the gospel of Christ? Had he fallen directly on their infirmities and mistakes, he might have fired their minds, and stopped their ears to his instruction. He knew that patience and gentle teaching would by degrees get the mastery of their errors, and lead them, without tumult or opposition, to the acknowlegement of the truth; that their prejudices would wear out : and as the light of the gospel began to dawn in their hearts, their affections would take a new turn of themselves, which at present were not to be stemmed. He used the art of a skilful pilot, who chooses to coast it along the shore when the tide runs too high in the