THE obstacles to the success of the gospel, when it was first published, were of too formidable a nature, to have been surmounted by human courage and prudence. It was encountered by the prejudices and bigotry of the Jews; by prejudices the more obstinate, as they were founded in reverence for the religion which their ancestors had received from God himself; by bigotry originating in the distinction which had long subsisted between them and the Gentiles, and anxious to secure the perpetual monopoly of the blessings of the covenant. But, it was not in the moral state of the Jews alone, that Christianity met with opposition, which no imposture, however dexterously managed, could have overcome. The age in which it appeared, was an age of learning and science. The boundaries of knowledge were extended; the human mind was highly cultivated; and the mythological tales of antiquity were despised, and openly derided. A new system of falsehood had no chance of eluding the test of severe examination, and could not have defended itself, against the arguments and the scorn of philosophical inquirers. We have already seen the gospel triumphing over the hostility of the Jews, many of whom embraced it as the completion of their law, and became the disciples of Him, whom their rulers had rejected and crucified. We are now to observe the issue of its conflicts with the philosophy of Greece. By some men, whose minds the pride of wisdom had elated, Paul was treated with great contempt; but even in Athens, the school of science and refinement, Christianity could boast of its success; and we know, that before three centuries had elapsed, it trampled in the dust the sophistry and eloquence of the heathen world.
The Apostle having been compelled, by the arts of the Jews, to leave Berea, was conducted to Athens, where he remained for some time expecting the arrival of Silas and Timotheus. Athens was the most celebrated city of Greece. Originally the capital of a small and barren principality, it rose to distinction, not only by the number of its inhabitants, and the magnificence of its buildings, but by the influence which it acquired over the counsels and affairs of the Greeks, by its extensive commerce, its numerous and flourishing colonies and dependencies, the wars in which it was engaged, and the exploits of its statesmen and generals; but, above all, by the unrivalled eminence which it attained, in the arts and sciences. In this city, genius, taste, and skill in the elegant and ornamental studies, seemed to be assembled, as in their favourite residence. Here, philosophy carried on its profound and subtile researches into the nature of man, and the constitution of the universe; here, eloquence rose to a degree of excellence, which has seldom been equalled, and never surpassed; here, architecture and statuary displayed those exquisite productions, the remains of which are beheld with admiration, and present the finest models to modern artists. But, while we fondly cherish the memory of the polite and ingenious Athenians. how mortifying is it to reflect, that when Paul visited the city, it was |wholly given to idolatry!| We perceive the strength of our faculties contrasted with their weakness; and the melancholy conviction is forced upon us, that the highest cultivation of reason, unassisted by revelation, is insufficient to preserve us from the utmost extravagance and folly in religion. The most enlightened city in the heathen world, was full of idols. It was crowded with images, and temples, and altars. The Athenians were more addicted to idolatry, and had multiplied the objects of it more than any of their neighbours. |In this city,| says an ancient writer, |It is easier to find a God than a man.| How just is the account given by Paul of the Gentile philosophers! |Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools: and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.|
|The spirit of Paul was stirred in him,| by the idolatry of the Athenians. The indignity offered to the true God, by the worship of his unworthy rivals, roused his zeal, and he felt the most lively pity for a people, who, notwithstanding their distinguished attainments, were, in the language of the Scriptures, |sitting in darkness, and in the region and shadow of death.| |He therefore disputed in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily, with them that met with him.| In the synagogue, he had no occasion to dispute upon the subject of idolatry, because it was abhorred by the Jews, and the devout persons, or proselytes, had renounced it; but agreeably to his usual practice, he addressed himself first to his countrymen, proving that Jesus of Nazareth whom he preached, was the Messiah. His labours, however, were not confined to the synagogue. In the market, the place of public resort, he entered into conversation with the Gentiles; and although the subject is not particularly mentioned, yet it is evident, from what follows, that he endeavoured to convince them of the folly and impiety of their religion, and declared to them the living God, and his Son the only Mediator.
The attention of the Athenians was excited by this new system, so different from their own religion, and from all the modifications of polytheism, with which they were acquainted. The philosophers were surprised and displeased, that a barbarian, for such they accounted Paul, should presume to appear in Athens, and publish doctrines contrary both to the established faith, and to their peculiar dogmas. We are informed, that |certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoics encountered him.| It was natural that these should be the first to contend with him, because among all the sects of philosophy, there was none, to whose tenets Christianity was more adverse. The Epicureans were Atheists. According to them the world was formed by chance, out of materials which had existed from eternity. Acknowledging from complaisance, the Gods, who were publicly worshipped, they excluded them from any concern in human affairs, and affirmed, that regardless of the prayers and actions of men, they contented themselves with the enjoyment of indolent felicity. They pronounced pleasure to be the chief good, and the business of a wise man to consist, in devising the means of spending life in ease and tranquillity. All the genuine motives to the practice of virtue, and all just ideas of virtue itself, were banished from the philosophy of the Epicureans, which made self love the sole spring of our actions, and gave loose reins to the sensual appetites. The system of the Stoics was of a different character. They believed the existence of God, his government of the universe, and the subsistence of the soul after the death of the body. But they confounded the Deity with his own works, and supposed him to be the soul of the world. If on the subject of providence they expressed many just and sublime sentiments, they connected with it the doctrine of fate, or of an inexplicable necessity, the immutable decrees of which God; as well as man, was compelled to obey. Their notions respecting the soul were very different from the Christian doctrine of immortality; for they imagined, that in the future state it should lose all separate consciousness, and be resolved into the divine essence. Unlike the herd of Epicureans, they placed the happiness of man in the practice of virtue, and inculcated a comparatively pure and exalted morality; but the praise to which this part of their system entitled them, was forfeited by a spirit of pride, strained to the most audacious impiety. |Between God and the good man,| they said, |there is only this difference, that the one lives longer than the other.| They proceeded still farther, and dared to maintain, |that there was one respect in which the wise or good man excelled God; the latter was wise by nature, but the former, from choice.| It is not easy to determine, whether the self-sufficient Stoics, or the profligate disciples of Epicurus, were less disposed to lend a favourable ear to the gospel. On the one hand, it commanded the lovers of pleasure to renounce the impure gratifications of sense, and to seek happiness in the favour of God and the cultivation of holiness; and, on the other, it humbled the proud moralists, by mortifying descriptions of human depravity, by referring them not to their own merit, but to the divine mercy, for the hope of immortality, and by the unwelcome information, that they must be indebted for true virtue, and should ascribe all the praise of it, to supernatural assistance.
|The Stoics and Epicureans, therefore, encountered him: and some said, what will this babbler say?| It is unnecessary to detail the criticisms of learned men upon the word rendered |babbler.| The term employed in our translation, probably conveys with sufficient accuracy the idea which was entertained of Paul, by those haughty philosophers. They considered him as a contemptible prating fool; a man who would speak, and at the same time, had nothing to bring forward, but the extravagant and incoherent fancies of an ignorant mind. To the learned Greeks, the doctrine of Christ crucified appeared to be foolishness. In Christian countries, where better opportunities of perceiving its truth and excellence are enjoyed, the sentiments of the learned and the unlearned, prior to the supernatural illumination of their minds, are not more favourable, although, in consequence of their education and their habits, they may speak of it in terms of respect. In their eyes, it is folly, and those who preach it, are babblers. |The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.| |Others said, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange Gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.| When Paul affirmed that Jesus was the Son of God, and that having been exalted to the right hand of the Father, and invested with authority over all persons and things, he was entitled to the religious homage and obedience of mankind, he proclaimed a God, of whom the Athenians had never before heard even the name. The idea of a resurrection was not absolutely new to the Gentiles, but it was the object neither of their belief nor of their hopes. Some are of opinion, that those hearers of Paul were guilty of a gross mistake, and supposed, that the resurrection was the name of a person, or a female Divinity, to whom, in conjunction with Jesus Christ, religious honours should be paid. Paul seemed to them to be a setter forth of strange |Gods,| of more than one new object of adoration. And, indeed, as some of the heathens had erected temples to Honour, Piety, Hope, and Concord, or to abstract ideas and qualities, which fancy had deified, we can conceive them to have imagined, that there might be a goddess called Resurrection. By the laws of the Athenians, and of other ancient nations, all attempts by private persons, to make any innovation in the religion of the state, were strictly prohibited. It was one of the charges against Socrates, |that he did not acknowledge the Gods whom the city acknowledged, and that he introduced new Gods.|
|And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus.| The Areopagus was a court of great authority, which derived its name from the place where its meetings were held, a hill in the city sacred to Mars. It was composed of a considerable number of judges, who were persons of experience, integrity, and blameless reputation, and had power to superintend the manners of the people, and to punish offences against religion and the state. Paul does not seem to have been brought into this court in the character of a criminal, but for the purpose of explaining his doctrine in the presence of men, who were deemed capable to judge of it, and could publicly admit or reject the new religion which he published. The Athenians were influenced, on this occasion, more by curiosity, than by zeal for their own religion, or by a disposition candidly to examine the claims of Christianity. When Paul came before the court, they said, |May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?| They did not expect, and they were not disposed to receive, instruction from a person, whom they reputed a babbler; but they hoped to be entertained with his novel and extravagant opinions. Novelty, indeed, had irresistible charms in the eyes of that people, in whose character there seems to have been a mixture of lightness and fickleness. |For all the Athenians, and strangers which were there, spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing.| This unfavourable account of the inhabitants of Athens, was not dictated by partiality, on the part of the sacred historian, or by resentment at their usage of Paul. The same account is given by other writers; and their celebrated orator, Demosthenes, has reproached them with idle curiosity at a time, when the danger which threatened their country, demanded serious deliberation, and active exertions for the public safety.
Having been requested to explain the nature of his doctrine, Paul addressed the Court of Areopagus in a speech, which consisted of two parts, in one of which he exposed the folly of heathen idolatry, and, in the other, announced the most important articles of the Christian faith. |Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars hill,| or Areopagus, |and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive, that in all things ye are too superstitious.| There is an inaccuracy in the translation of this verse. Superstition conveys the idea of something wrong in religion. It originates in misconceptions of the object of worship, which give rise to a multiplicity of arbitrary and fanciful observances, with a view to appease his anger, and conciliate his favour. The Apostle might have justly accused the Athenians of superstition, or rather of idolatry; but it may be doubted, whether, at this time, he intended to bring forward either the one charge or the other. To call a man too superstitious implies, that he might, without a fault, be superstitious in a moderate degree. It is not the thing itself, but its excess, which is blamed. But, in the opinion of Paul, the religious system of the Athenians was essentially erroneous. The Greek word rendered, superstitious, denotes a fearer or worshipper of demons, who were conceived to be a class of intermediate beings between the Gods and men, but sometimes in Scripture signify the Gods themselves, who were adored by the heathens. By the Athenians, it was used to describe a devout or religious person. It is probable, that it is employed by the Apostle in the same sense, and that this is his meaning; |I perceive, that in all things ye are more devout than the inhabitants of other cities.| He gave them this character, because he had observed that their city was |wholly given to idolatry.| The objects of worship were more numerous in Athens, than in any other place which he had visited; and the people displayed peculiar zeal and assiduity, in performing the rites of their religion.
In proof of their uncommon devotion, Paul appeals to an altar, which he had seen in the city, with this inscription, |To the unknown God;| and which afforded decisive evidence of the extraordinary piety of the Athenians. It discovered so anxious a desire to leave no Divine Being without his due honours, and to secure the favour of all who might have influence over human affairs, that rather than be guilty of an omission, they would pay homage to a Deity, with whose name and attributes they were not acquainted. Different accounts have been given of the occasion on which this altar was erected. We are told, that during a pestilence, which desolated the city, the Athenians having in vain applied for relief to their national Gods, were directed, by the philosopher Epimenides, to offer sacrifices to the unknown God, as alone able to remove the calamity. There is another opinion, which is the more probable, because the words of Paul seem to import, that this altar was dedicated to the God of the Jews. In consequence of the dispersion of that people, the Gentiles had obtained some notices of him, but still he was to them an unknown God, because their information respecting him was very limited and indistinct. Among the Jews themselves, he dwelt in thick darkness, and was sometimes addressed as a God that |hid himself;| the symbols of his presence were confined to the recesses of the sanctuary, into which, none but the high-priest, once a year, was permitted to enter; and they carefully concealed his name, Jehovah, from the Gentiles, and superstitiously avoided pronouncing it in common conversation. It was called the ineffable name. It is no wonder that a God, who withdrew from the sight of his own worshippers, should have been characterized by strangers as The Unknown. An obscure rumour of his divinity had reached the ears of the Athenians; and that devout people, dreading his power, and eager to gain his patronage, had consecrated an altar to his honour, and performed such rites as they supposed would be pleasing to him. But they worshipped him ignorantly, having no knowledge of his real character, nor of his sacred institutions. In answer to the question, |May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?| Paul informed the Areopagites, that he had come to declare this unknown God, and to teach them to worship Him, in an intelligent and acceptable manner. |Whom ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.| This is the design of the subsequent part of his speech, in illustrating which, I shall point out the several particulars contained in it, without exactly attending to the order, in which they are delivered.
The Apostle begins with informing his audience, that the unknown God was the Creator of the world, and of all the orders of beings which inhabit it. |God made the world, and all things therein.| In particular, he asserts that he was the Maker of man. |He hath made of one blood all nations of men, for to dwell on all the face of the earth.| Concerning the origin of the universe, different opinions were entertained by the Gentile philosophers. The Epicureans taught, that it was formed by chance, or by a fortuitous concourse of atoms, and pretended to account for the production of men and other animals, without the interposition of the Gods, in a manner not more creditable to their understandings than to their piety. Others believed the world to be eternal; or holding the preexistence of matter, assigned to the Deity merely the office of giving it its present form and arrangement. By all the philosophers, the idea of a proper creation was rejected, as being contrary to their established maxim, that out of nothing, nothing could be made. In opposition to this fundamental principle of Heathenism, Paul declared that God had called the heavens and the earth into existence by his almighty word.
He proceeds to lay down, in the next place, the doctrine of providence. God who made the world is |the Lord of heaven and earth: He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things: He hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of our habitation.| The Apostle adds, |In Him we live, and move, and have our being;| and quotes the saying of the poet Aratus, |For we are also his offspring.| The doctrine of providence was not new to the Gentiles, like that of creation. It was, indeed, denied by the followers of Epicurus, who represented the Gods as indifferent spectators of what was passing on the earth, and the Stoics, notwithstanding their fine sayings on the subject, may be charged with having virtually overthrown it, by their notions of fate; but other philosophers, and the common people, believed, that the Divine government extended to this world, and regulated the affairs of individuals, and nations. Hence, the supplications, thanksgivings, and sacrifices, which were offered up on public and private occasions. Our views of providence have been enlarged and corrected by revelation, which informs us, that God is constantly present with his works; that he cares for all his creatures, and for the individual, as well as the species; that our situation in life, and the changes in our condition, are determined and disposed by his wisdom; and that the laws of nature are the operations of his power, by which the order of the universe is maintained. |All things,| said a heathen poet, |are full of God.| The enlightened eye perceives him, not only in that majestic orb of light, which blazes in the heavens, but in the meanest reptile, and in the humblest weed which springs from the earth. We feel him stirring within us. It is by his secret influence, that our blood circulates, our stomach digests its food, and our lungs perform their important functions; it is by him, that our spirit thinks, and wills, animates our bodies, and receives impressions from the organs of sense. The universal Parent sustains and nourishes every being, to whom he has imparted life, and exercises a particular care towards men, |for we are also his offspring.|
From these principles Paul draws the following inferences.
First, God is not confined to a particular place. |Seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, he dwelleth not in temples made with hands.| The Gentiles believed, that, by the performance of certain ceremonies, the Gods were induced to descend into the temples which had been erected to their honour, and that they resided in the images by which they were represented. Their deluded worshippers. therefore, resorted to the temples, in the persuasion, that their devotions would be more acceptable there than in any other place; and sometimes, they contended who should sit nearest the images, that their prayers might be better heard. In opposition to these gross conceptions, Paul declared, that the Most High is not a local Deity, but a great and incomprehensible Being, whose essence fills heaven and earth. Once, indeed, there was a temple, in which he dwelt by a glorious symbol, and received the oblations and prayers of the Israelites; but they were too well instructed to suppose, that Jehovah himself was confined within the walls of a house. The whole earth exhibited signs of his presence; and his gracious aid was obtained in every place, where his name was devoutly invocated.
Secondly, He is independent and self-sufficient. |Neither is he worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing.| Although the more enlightened Heathens were convinced, that the Gods were not in want of any thing, which it was in the power of men to bestow, yet the common people believed, that in presenting costly oblations, they conferred a favour upon them which they were bound to repay; and, hence, they reproached them with ingratitude, and treated them with indignity, when they were disappointed of the blessings which they expected to obtain. Some were even so gross as to imagine, that their Deities were gratified with the smell of the incense and the sacrifices which were burnt upon the altars. But, to what want can he be subject, who |giveth to all life, and breath, and all things?| The bounty of his providence is a proof, that his stores are inexhaustible. He who sustains from day to day, and from year to year, millions of creatures, can stand in no need of foreign supply. It is the duty of men to adore him with reverence and gratitude, and by performing this reasonable and delightful service, their own happiness will be promoted; but the praises, the obedience, and the gifts of all orders of beings in the universe, would make no addition to his infinite and immutable felicity.
Thirdly, He is a spiritual and invisible being. |Forasmuch then, as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone graven by art and man's device.| The Heathen Deities were supposed, by their votaries, to have bodies, which, although immortal, were, like ours, nourished with food and drink, might suffer weariness and pain, and needed to be refreshed by rest and sleep. The images which they formed of gold, silver, and stone, were conceived to be true representations of them. But, more exalted conceptions of the Father of their spirits, should have been entertained by his rational offspring. A corporeal being is necessarily limited in his essence, and in all his perfections. How could such a being, circumscribed in place and in power, have given existence to the immense system of creation; and how could he superintend its affairs! The living soul in man is the more excellent part of his compound nature; and the heathens themselves regarded the body as its prison. Why did they admit the thought, that what they felt to be an incumbrance, constituted a part of the nature of the Gods, who were so much exalted above them? Man, indeed, is prone to believe, that the object of his worship is such a one as himself. But, when we elevate our minds to the Greatest and Best of all beings, it is surely more consonant to reason, to remove from the idea of him all the imperfections of creatures; to attribute to him every possible excellence in the highest degree; to conceive of him as independent upon time and place, and comprehending in his mysterious existence all space, and all duration. This sublime conception accords only with a spiritual being. The pure spirituality of the divine essence, however, is a discovery which we owe solely to revelation. When our Saviour said, |God is a spirit,| he expressed a truth, unknown to the wise men of the ancient world.
With these reasonings, Paul intermixes an observation upon the duty of men in reference to their Maker, the knowledge of whom they should have exerted the utmost diligence to acquire; for he had revealed himself in the works of creation and providence, with a design, |that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us.| Reason, the distinguishing attribute of man, finds its noblest employment, in tracing the power, and goodness, and wisdom of its Author, in the frame and constitution of the Universe. Before the eyes of all nations the book of nature is unfolded, in which the existence and attributes of God are written in legible characters. His works were the only means of knowing him, which the Gentiles possessed. The Apostle represents those means as not the most favourable to the success of their inquiries, because the information which they communicated was imperfect, and the conclusion to which they led was uncertain. He compares the Gentiles to a blind man, or to a person in the dark, groping for an object, which he does not well know where to find. The description is just and striking. How many have been their mistakes, and how gross their errors, in both ancient and modern times! Unable to determine, whether there is one God or a thousand, whether he governs the world, or neglects it, what is the nature of his government, what homage he demands from his creatures, and what expectations they should entertain in reference to a future state, do they not present the melancholy spectacle of men, whose spark of reason was insufficient to dispel the gloom, in which they were enveloped? The cause, however, of their ignorance is to be found, not so much in the obscurity of nature, as in the weakness and depravity of the human understanding. Our intellectual powers were enfeebled by the fall; our minds are perverted by prejudice, and misled by the imagination and the passions. The characters in the book of nature are as distinct as ever, but our mental sight is impaired, so that we read with difficulty, and commit many errors, till Jesus Christ, by the gospel, restore clearness and vigour to our eyes.
Although it was the will of God, that men should seek after him, yet the Gentiles had not found him. They had embraced the illusions of fancy for truth, and had adored the creature in the room of the Creator. God had left them to the swanderings of their vain minds, and had not interposed to check the progress of error. |The times of this ignorance he winked at.| This is an allusion to a person who intending not to intermeddle with what is transacting around him, closes his eyes, that he may seem not to observe it. God gave no revelation of his will to the Gentiles; he sent no inspired messenger to reclaim them from idolatry. Does it appear strange, that he should have neglected so great a portion of his rational offspring, although he beheld them engaged in pernicious errors, and departing farther and farther from his ways? Let it be considered, that he was under no obligation to interpose in favour of persons, who had already disregarded the voice of nature, and had voluntarily permitted their reason to be warped and blinded by their passions. Besides, it seems to have been his intention in leaving men to multiply follies and crimes from age to age, till religion and virtue were utterly lost, to demonstrate the necessity of revelation, and to prepare the world for gratefully receiving that discovery of his will, which he purposed to make in the fullness of time. |For after that, in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.|
But the season of dereliction was past. God had remembered his forlorn creatures, and mercifully provided means for reclaiming them from ignorance and impiety. |But now he commandeth all men every where to repent.| These words do not imply, that the former idolatry of the Gentiles was innocent, and that now only it was their duty to forsake it; but they obviously signify, that the plan of the divine procedure towards them was changed. God had sent forth his ministers to convince them of their wickedness, in apostatising from their Maker and Benefactor, and to command them to return to his service. This command was enforced by one of the most awful doctrines of our religion, that of the future judgment, in its circumstances more solemn than the judgment which the Gentiles expected; not a private inquiry into the actions of each individual at his death, but a public trial of the human race, assembled together to hear the sentence, which will consign them to everlasting happiness, or misery. |Because he hath appointed a day in the which he will judge the world in righteousness, by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.| The mention of the judgment, led the Apostle, by a natural transition, to the grand subject of his mission. It does not appear, whether he was permitted to illustrate the topics, introduced in the conclusion of his speech; but it is not improbable that the Athenians, from curiosity, would listen for some time, to his account of Jesus and the resurrection.
The curiosity of a part of the audience was soon satisfied; and the doctrine of Paul seemed to them to be less deserving of patient attention, than of ridicule. |When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked.| By the Gentiles, a resurrection was accounted neither credible nor desirable. They believed that at death, the body mingled for ever with its native earth; and that, if the soul was not extinguished with the breath, it subsisted in an unembodied state, or was clothed with a new and purer vehicle. They laughed, therefore, when Paul assured them, that, at some distant period, the dust lying in the grave should resume its original form, and be again endowed with life and sensation. |And others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.| They were neither prepared to assent to what he had told them, nor disposed to reject it, without examination. Although strange, it might be true; and it was therefore entitled to another hearing. Their language indicated a state of mind, which, upon reflection, and more ample information, would probably terminate in conviction.
There were a few, however, to whom his doctrine seemed not only curious and probable, but true. Among these, were Dionysius, a member of the court of Areopagus, and a woman called Damaris, and some others, whose names are not mentioned. The number of converts was small, but they were the first-fruits of an abundant harvest. The philosophical pride of Athens ere long humbled itself before the cross of Christ; and Jehovah reigned alone, amidst its deserted temples, and its idols laid prostrate in the dust.
Let the boast of reason cease. Let infidels no longer dare to decry revelation as unnecessary, and to extol the powers of the human mind as a sufficient guide in religion. The strength of reason has been tried; and the experiment was made in the most favourable circumstances. You have not been hearing of barbarous tribes, among whom intellect had received no cultivation, and we perceive rather the instincts of the lower animals, than the nobler faculties of man. You have been introduced to the Athenians, the most enlightened and refined people of antiquity. And what were the achievements of reason, in the seat of elegance and philosophy? Did it discover the unity of God, and present to him a pure and rational worship? Do we find in the writings of those polished Greeks, a complete system of natural religion? Alas! we see in Athens, not only the common idolatry of heathen cities, but its utmost extravagance, as if unassisted reason, the more it was improved, had served the more, by its false lights, to lead mankind astray. Let us learn from this memorable example, that we stand in need of a surer and a more perfect guide; let us rejoice, that the gospel, like |the day-spring from on high,| has arisen upon us, to conduct us in the way of truth and peace. Infidels themselves are indebted to it, although they disdain to acknowledge the obligation. By its aid, they see farther and more distinctly than the greatest philosophers of ancient times, whom they do not surpass in intellectual vigour, nor equal in diligence of research. Yet, with base ingratitude, they turn the benefit which they have derived from revelation, into an argument against it; and exclaim, that the glorious luminary, from which they have stolen their light, is useless, and should be blotted out of the heavens.
Let us remember, that great privileges infer high responsibility. |The times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent.| At no time, indeed, did he tolerate idolatry, for it was impossible, that he should have ever approved of those who worshipped and served the creature, instead of the Creator. In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul asserts, that the Gentiles were |without excuse.| But, our Saviour has shown, that the punishment inflicted upon sinners in the future state, will bear an exact proportion to their means of information, and their excitements to duty.
Speaking of the city, by the inhabitants of which his Apostles should be rejected, he says, |It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city.| He selects the worst of the heathens, and declares, that their doom shall be less severe than that of the despisers of the gospel. Our privileges are greater than even those of the hearers of Christ, during his ministry upon earth. Revelation is completed; it is confirmed by ample and luminous evidence; and the Holy Ghost is sent forth to enlighten our minds. If, after all, we remain ignorant of the true God, or form false and dishonourable conceptions of his attributes and dispensations; if we neglect to worship him, or content ourselves with offering to him only bodily service; if we give that obedience to the world and the flesh, to which he alone is entitled, what apology can we plead for our conduct? Are we not the most ungrateful and perverse of men? What then can we expect, but that in the day of retribution, our privileges, of which we vainly boast, shall each of them have a voice to accuse us, and shall demand our condemnation, for the glory of divine justice? Happy are they who live in a Christian land, if they only prize and improve their advantages. But as for those by whom they are neglected, it would have been better for them, that they had lived and died among heathens. They should have perished by a milder doom. |For this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world; and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.|