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UPON OUR LORD'S SERMON ON THE
"Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
"But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;
"Thai thou appear not unto men to fast, hut unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, tvhich seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly." Matt. vi. 16—18.
1. It has been the endeavour of Satan, from the beginning of the world, to put asunder what Ciod hath joined together; to separate inward from outward religion; to set one of these at variance with the other. And herein he has met with no small success, among those who were "ignorant of his devices."
Many, in all ages, having a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge, have been strictly attached to the "righteousness of the law," the performance of outward duties, but in the mean time wholly regardless of inward righteousness, " the righteousness which is of God by faith." And many have run into the opposite extreme, disregarding all outward duties, perhaps even " speaking evil of the law, and judging the law," so far as it enjoins the performance of them.
2. It is by this very device of Satan, that faith and works have been so often set at variance with each other. And many who had a real zeal for God, have, for a time, fallen into the snare on either hand. Some have magnified faith to the utter exclusion of good works, not only from being the cause of our justification, (for we know that a man is "justified freely by the redemption which is in Jesus,") but from being the necessary fruit of it, yea, from having any place in the religion of Jesus Christ. Others, eager to avoid this dangerous mistake, have run as much too far the contrary way j and either maintained that good works were the cause, at least the previous, condition, of justification,—or spoken of them as if they were all in all, the whole religion of Jesus Christ.
3. In the same manner have the end and the means of religion been set at variance with each other. Some well-meaning men have seemed to place all religion in attending the prayers of the Church, in receiving the Lord's-Supper, in hearing sermons, and reading books of piety; neglecting, mean, time, the end of all these, the love of God and their neighbour. Aud this very thing has confirmed others in the neglect, if not contempt, of the ordinances of God,—so wretchedly abused, to undermine and overthrow the very end they were designed to establish, , , , , ,
- 4. But of all the means of grace there is scarce any concerning which men have run into greater extremes, than that of which our Lord speaks in the above-mentioned words, I mean Religious Fasting. How have some exalted this beyond all Scripture and reason ;—and others utterly disregarded it; as it were, revenging themselves, by undervaluing, as much as the former had overvalued it! Those have spoken of it, as if it were all in all; if not the end itself, yet infallibly connected with it: These, as if it were just nothing, as if it were a fruitless labour, which had no relation at all thereto. Whereas it is certain the truth lies between them both. It is not all, nor yet is it nothing. It is not the end, but it is a precious means thereto; a means which God himself has ordained, and in which therefore, when it is duly used, he will surely give us his blessing.
In order to set this in the clearest light, I shall endeavour to show, First, What is the Nature of Fasting, and what the several sorts and degrees thereof: Secondly, What are the Reasons, Grounds, and Ends of it: Thirdly, How we may answer the most plausible Objections against it: and, Fourthly, In.what Planner it should be performed. . .
,1. 1. I shall endeavour to show, First, What is the Nature of Fasting, and what the several sorts and degrees thereof. As to the Nature of it, all the inspired writers, both in the Old Testament and the New, take the word, to fast, in one single sense, for not to eat, to abstain from food. This is so clear, that it would be labour lost to quote the words of David, Nehemiah, Isaiah, and the Prophets which followed, or of our Lord and his Apostles; all agreeing in this, that to fast, is, not to eat for a time prescribed.
12. To this, other circumstances were usually joined by them of old, which had no necessary connection with it. Such were the neglect of their apparel; the laying aside those ornaments which they were accustomed to wear; the putting on mourning; the strewing ashes upon their head; or wearing sackcloth next their skin. But we find little mention made iu the New Testament of any of these indifferent circumstances. Nor does it appear, that any stress was laid upon them by the Christians of the purer ages; however some penitents might voluntarily use them, as outward signs of inward humiliation. Much less did the Apostles, or the Christians cotemporary with them, beat or tear their own flesh: such discipline as this was not unbecoming tlie priests or worshippers of Baal. The gods of the heathens were but Devils; and it was doubtless acceptable to their Devil-god, when his priests (1 Kings xviii. 28) "cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner, till the blood gushed out upon them:" but it canuot be pleasing to Him, nor become His followers, who "came rpt to destroy men's lives, but to save them."
3. As to the degrees or measures of fasting, we have instances of some who have fasted several days together. So .Moses, Elijahj and our blessed Lord, being endued with supernatural strength for that purpose, are recorded to have fasted without intermission, "forty days and forty nights." lint the time of fasting, more frequently mentioned in Scripture, is one day, from morning til! evening. And this was the fast commonly observed among the ancient Christians. Hut beside these, they had also their half-fasts (Semijejunia, as Tertnllian styles them) on the fourth, and sixth days of the week, (Wednesday and Friday,;, throughout the year; on which they took no sustenance till three in the afternoon, the time when they returned from the public service.
4. Nearly related to this, is what our Cbui.cn serins peculiarly to mean by the term Abstinence; which may be u»cil when we cannot fast entirely, by reason of sickness or bodily weakness. This ii the eating little; the attaining in part; the taking a smaller quantity of food than usual. I do wot remember ar:,y scriptural instance of this. Hut neither can I condemn it; for the Scripture docs not. h may have its use, and receive a blcsiin;; from God,
5. The lowest kind of fasting, if it can be called by that name, is the abstaining from pleasant food. Of this, we have several instances in Scripture, besides that of Daniel and his brethren, who from a peculiar consideration, namely, that they might " not defile themselves with the portion of the King's meat, nor with the wine which he drank," (a daily provision of which the King had appointed for them,) requested and obtained, of the prince of the eunuchs, pulse to eat and water to drink. (Dan. i. 8, &c.) Perhaps from a mistaken imitation of this might spring the very ancient custom of abstaining from flesh and wine, during such times as were set apart for fasting and abstinence;—if it did not rather arise from a supposition, that these were the most pleasant food, and a belief that it was proper to use what was least pleasing, at those times of solemn approach to God.
6. In the Jewish Church, there were some Stated Fasts. Such was the fast of the seventh month, appointed by God himself to be observed by all Israel, under the Severest penalty. "The Lord spake unto Moses, saying, On the tenth day of this seventh mouth, there shall be a day of atonement: and ye shall afflict your souls,—to make an atonement for you before the Lord your God. For whatsoever soul it shall be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from among his people." (Lev. xxiii. 26, &c.) In after ages, several other stated fasts were added to these. So, mention is made, by the Prophet Zecliariah, of the fast not only "of the seventh, bat also of the fourth, of the fifth, and of the tenth month.'* (Chap.viii. 19.)
In the ancient Christian Church, there were likewise StatedFasts, and those both annual and weekly. Of the former sort was that before Easter; observed by some for eight and forty hours; by others, for an entire week; by many, for two weeks; taking no sustenance till the cveniug of each day. Of the latter, those of the fourth and sixth diiys of the week, observed, (as Epiphauius writes, remarking it as an undeniable fact,) tv oXin rri wxhynvn,—m the whole habitable earth; at least iu every place where any Christians made their abode. The annual fasts in our Church are, "The forty days of Lent, the Ember days at the four seasons, the Rogation days, and the Vigils or Eves of several solemn festivals:—the wieklv, all Friday* iu the year, except Christmassy?"
But beside those which were fixed, hi every nation fearing God there have always been Occasional Fasts, appointed from time to time as the particular circumstances and occasions of each required. So, when " the children of Moab, and the children of Amnion, came against Jehoshaphat to battle; Jehoshaphat set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah." (2 Chron. xx. 1—3.) And so, "in the fifth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, in the ninth month," when they were afraid of the King of Babylon, the Princes of "Judah proclaimed a fast before the Lord, to all the people in Jerusalem." (Jer. xxxvi. 9.)
And, in like manner, particular persons, who take heed unto their ways, and desire to walk humbly and closely with God, will find frequent occasion for private seasons of thus afflicting their souls before their Father which is in secret. And it is to this kind of fasting, that the directions here given do chiefly and primarily refer.
II. 1. I proceed to show, in the Second place, What arc the Grounds, the Reasons, and Ends of Fasting.
And, first, men who are under strong emotions of mind, who arc affected with any vehement passion, such as sorrow or fear, are often swallowed up therein, and even forget to eat their bread. At such seasons they have little regard for food, not even what is needful to sustain nature, much less for any delicacy or variety; being taken up with quite different thoughts. Thus, when Saul said, "I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me;" it is recorded, "He had eaten no bread, all the day, nor all the night." (1 Sam. xxviii. 15—20.) Thus those who were in the ship with St. Paul, "when no small tempest lay upon them, and all hope that they should be saved was taken away," "continued fasting, having taken nothing,"—(Acts xxvii. 33,) no regular meal,—for fourteen days together. And thus David, and all the men that were with him, when they heard that the people were fled from the battle, and that many of the people were fallen and dead, and Saul and Jonathan his son were dead also; "mourned, and wept, and fasted until even, for Saul and Jonathan, and for the house of Israel." (2 Sam. i. 12.)
Nay, many times they whose minds are deeply engaged, are impatient of any interruption, and even loathe their needful food, as diverting their thoughts from what they desire should engross their whole attention. Even as Saul, when on the