There is a time when the spirit of error is going abroad, and truth is questioned, and many are led away with delusions. For Satan can change himself into an angel of light, and make many great and fairlike pretensions to holiness, and under that pretext usher in untruths, and gain the consent of many unto them; so that in such a time of temptation many are stolen off their feet, and made to depart from the right ways of God, and to embrace error and delusions instead of truth. Now the question is, how a poor believer shall make use of Christ, who is the truth, for keeping him steadfast in the truth, in such a day of trial, and from embracing of error, how plausible soever it may appear. For satisfaction to this we shall propose these few things:
1. In such a time, when a spirit of error is let loose and rageth, and carrieth several away, it were good for all who would be kept straight and honest, to be walking in fear. It is not good to despise such a sly and subtle enemy, especially in the hour and power of darkness. Then all are called to be on their guard, and to stand upon their watch-tower, and to be jealous of their corrupt hearts, that are ready enough of their own accord to drink in error, and to receive the temptation at any time; and much more then.
2. They should not think that their knowledge and ability to dispute for truth, will keep them steadfast, if there be not more; for if the temptation grow, they may come to reason and dispute themselves out of all their former knowledge and skill. The father of lies is a cunning sophister, and knoweth, how to shake their grounds and cast all loose.
3. They should renew their covenant grips of Christ, and make sure that main business, viz. their peace and union with God in Christ, and their accepting of Christ for their head and husband. They would labour to have the foundation sure, and to be united unto the chief corner-stone, that so blow the storm as it will, they may ride safely; and that hereby they may have access to Christ with boldness, in their difficulty, and may with confidence seek light from him in the hour of darkness.
4. To the end they may be kept more watchful and circumspect, they should remember, that it is a dishonourable thing to Christ, for them to step aside, in the least matter of truth; the denying of the least point of truth is a consequential denying of him who is the truth; and to loose a foot in the matters of truth is very dangerous; for who can tell when they who once slip a foot shall recover it again? And who can tell how many, and how dreadful errors they may drink in, who have once opened the door to a small error? Therefore they should beware of tampering in this matter, and to admit any error, upon the account that it is a small and inconsiderable one. There may be an unseen concatenation betwixt one error and another, and betwixt a small one and a greater one, so as if the little one be admitted and received, the greater shall follow; and it may be feared that if they once dally with error, and make a gap in their consciences, that God will give them up to judicial blindness, that, ere all be done, they shall embrace that opinion which sometime they seemed to hate as death.
5. They should eye the promises suiting that cause; viz. the promises of God's guiding |the blind by a way which they know not: of making darkness light before them, and crooked things straight,| Isa. xlii.16; and of |guiding continually,| Isa. lviii.11; see also Isa. xlix.10.; lvii.18.; and they would act faith on these and the like promises, as now made sure by Jesus.
6. Particularly, they should fix their eye upon that principal promise, of the Spirit of truth, to guide into all truth, John xvi.13.
7. With singleness of heart they should depend on Christ, and wait for light from him, and beware of prejudice at the truth; with singleness of heart they should lie open to his instructions, and to the influences of his light and direction, and receive in the beams of his divine light; and thus go about duties, viz. prayer, conference, preaching, reading, &c. with an eye fixed on him, and with a soul open to him, and free of all sinful pre-engagement and love to error.
8. With singleness of heart, they should give up their souls to Christ, as the truth, that he would write the truth in their souls, and frame their souls unto the truth, and unto that truth which is most questioned, and by which they are most in hazard to be drawn away; and urge and press him by prayer and supplication to do the duty of a head, a husband, guide and commander, &c. unto them; and that he would be a light unto them in that day of darkness, and not suffer them to dishonour him or prove scandalous to others; by departing from the truth and embracing error. A serious single-hearted dealing with him upon the grounds of the covenant promises and his relations and engagements, might prove steadable in this case, if accompanied with a lying open to the influences of truth and to the light of information which he is pleased to send by the Spirit of truth.
CAUTIONS AND DIRECTIONS.
For further clearing of this matter, we shall hint at some cautions and further directions useful here: such as,
1. They should beware of thinking that God should come to them with light and instruction in an extraordinary manner, and reveal the truth of the question controverted somewhat immediately: for this were a manifest tempting and limiting of the Holy One of Israel. We must be satisfied with the means of instruction which he hath provided, and run to the law and to the testimony. We have the Scriptures, which are able to make the man of God perfect and |thoroughly furnished unto all good works,| 2 Tim. iii.16, 17; and to |make wise unto salvation,| ver.15. There must we see light; and there must we wait for the breathings of his Spirit with life, and coming with light to clear up truth to us: for they are the scriptures of truth, Dan. x.21; and the law of the Lord, which is |perfect, converting the soul;| and the commandment of the Lord, that is pure, |enlightening the eyes,| Psalm xix.7, 8. We have the ministry which God hath also appointed for this end, to make known unto us his mind; there must we wait for him and his light. Thus must we wait at the posts of wisdom's doors; and wait for the king of light in his own way wherein he hath appointed us to wait for him. And if he think good to come another way more immediate, let him always be welcome; but let not us limit him nor prescribe ways to him, but follow his directions.
2. When any thing is borne in upon their spirit as a truth to be received, or as an error to be rejected, more immediately, they should beware of admitting of every such thing without trial and examination; for we are expressly forbidden to believe every spirit, and commanded to try them whether they are of God or not, 1 John iv.1. The Lord will not take it ill that even his own immediate motions and revelations be tried and examined by the word; because the word is given us for this end, to be our test and standard of truth. The way of immediate revelation is not the ordinary way now of God's manifesting his mind to his people. He hath now chosen another way, and given us a more sure word of prophesy than was, |even a voice from heaven,| as Peter saith, 2 Pet. i.18, 19. It is commended in the Bereans, Acts xvii.11, who upon this account were |more noble than those of Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so.| Even Paul's words, though he was an authorised and an infallible apostle of Christ's, are here put to the touch-stone of the word. |Many false prophets may go out, and deceive many, and speak great swelling words of vanity,| 1 John iv.1; 2 Pet. ii.18; and the devil can transchange himself into an angel of light, 2 Cor. xi.14; and though an angel out of heaven should preach any other thing than what is in the written word, we ought not to receive his doctrine, but to reject it, and to account him accursed, Gal. i.8. So that the written word must be much studied by us; and by it must we try all motions, all doctrines, all inspirations, all revelations, and all manifestations.
3. Much more, they should beware of thinking that the dictates of their conscience obligeth them, so as that always they must of necessity follow the same. Conscience, being God's deputy in the soul, is to be followed no further than it speaketh for God and according to truth. An erring conscience, though it bind so far as that he who doth contrary to the dictates thereof sinneth against God, in that, knowing no other than that the dictates of conscience are right and consonant to the mind of God, yet dare counteract the same, and thus formally rebel against God's authority; yet it doth not oblige us to believe and to do what it asserteth to be truth and duty. It will not then be enough for them to say, my conscience and the light within me speaketh so, and instructeth me so; for that light may be darkness, and error, and delusion, and so no rule for them to walk by. |To the law and to the testimony,| and if their conscience, mind, and light within them |speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them,| Isa. viii.20. I grant, as I said, they cannot without sin counteract the dictates even of an erring conscience, because they know no better but that these dictates are according to truth; and thus an erring conscience is a most dangerous thing, and bringeth people under a great dilemma, that whether they follow it or not, they sin; and there is no other remedy here, but to lay by the erring conscience, and get a conscience rightly informed by the word; putting it in Christ's hand to be better formed and informed, that so it may do its office better. This then should be especially guarded against, for if once they lay down this for a principle, that whatever their conscience and mind, or inward light (as some call it) dictate, must be followed, there is no delusion, how false, how abominable soever it be, but they may be at length in hazard to be drawn away with; and so the rule that they will walk by be nothing in effect but the spirit of lies and of delusion, and the motions and dictates of him who is the father of lies, that is, the devil.
4. Such as pretend to walk so much by conscience, should take heed that they take not that for the dictate of conscience, which really is but the dictates of their own humours, inclinations, pre-occupied minds, and biassed wills. When conscience speaketh, it groundeth on the authority of God, whether truly or falsely, and proposeth such a thing to be done, or to be refrained from, merely because God commandeth that, and forbiddeth this, though sometimes it mistaketh. But though the dictates of men's humours, inclinations, pre-occupied judgments, and wills, may pretend God's authority for what they say, yet really some carnal respect, selfish end, and the like, lieth at the bottom, and is the chief spring of that motion. And also the dictates of humour and biassed wills are usually more violent and fierce than the dictates of conscience; for wanting the authority of God to back their assertions and prescriptions, they must make up that with an addition of preternatural force and strength. Hence, such as are purely led by conscience, are pliable, humble, and ready to hear and receive information; whereas, others are headstrong and pertinacious, unwilling to receive instruction, or to hear any thing contrary to their minds, lest their conscience, receiving more light, speak with a higher voice against their inclinations and former ways, and so create more trouble to them; while, as now they enjoy more quiet within, so long as the cry of their self-will and biassed judgments is so loud, that they cannot well hear the still and low voice of conscience.
5. They should labour for much self-denial and sincerity; and to be free from the snares and power of selfish ends, as credit, a name, and applause, or what of that kind, that may be like |the fear of man that bringeth a snare,| Prov. xxix.25; for that will be like a gift that blindeth the eyes of the wise, Exod. xxiii.8. Love to carry on a party, or a design to be seen or accounted somebody, to maintain their credit and reputation, lest they be accounted changelings and the like, will prove very dangerous in this case; for these may forcibly carry the soul away, to embrace one error after another, and one error to strengthen and confirm another, that it is hard to know where or when they shall stand. And these, by respects, may so forcibly drive the soul forward, that he shall neither hear the voice of conscience within, nor any instruction from without.
6. They should study the word of truth without prejudice and any sinful pre-engagement, lest they be made thereby to wire-draw and wrest the word to their own destruction, as some of whom Peter speaketh, 2 Pet. iii.16. It is a dangerous thing to study the word with a prejudicate opinion; and to bow or wire-draw the word and make it speak what we would have it speak, for the confirmation of our opinions and sentiments. For this is but to mock God and his law, and to say, let his law speak what it will, I will maintain this opinion, and so make the word speak as we would have it, or else lay it by. This is to walk by some other rule than the word, and to make the word serve our lusts and confirm our errors, than which a greater indignity cannot be done to the Spirit of truth speaking in the word.
7. In reading and studying of the word there should be much single dependence on the Spirit for light; waiting for clearness from him whom Christ hath promised to lead us into all truth. An earnest wrestling with him for his assistance, enlightening the mind with divine light to understand the truth, and inclining the soul to a ready embracing and receiving of the truth declared in the word.
8. Though one place of scripture be enough to confirm any point of truth, and ground sufficient for us to believe what is there said, there being nothing in scripture but what is truth; yet, in such a time of abounding errors, and when many are going abroad speaking perverse things to lead the simple away, it were spiritual wisdom to be comparing scripture with scripture, and not be lightly embracing whatever may seem probable, and fairly deducible from some one passage or other of scripture, but to be comparing that with other passages and see what concord there is; for this is certain, whatever point contradicteth other clear and manifest testimonies of scripture cannot be true; however a cunning sophister may make it seem very probably to flow out of such or such a passage of scripture. The testimony of the Spirit is uniform, and free from all contradictions; and therefore we must see, if such an assertion, that some would draw from such a passage, agree with other plain passages, and if not, be sure that is not the meaning of the place. When the devil did wrest and abuse that passage of truth, Ps. xci.11. |He shall give his angels charge concerning thee,| &c, and from thence would infer, that Christ might cast himself down, Matt. iv.6, Christ shews that this inference was bad, because it did not agree with other divine testimonies, particularly not with that, Deut. vi.16, |Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.| And thereby he teacheth us to take this course in times of temptation, and so compare spiritual things with spiritual, as Paul speaketh, 1 Cor. ii.13. Especially they should beware of expounding clear scriptures by such as are more dark and mysterious; see 2 Pet. iii.16. It is always safer to explain darker passages by such as are more clear.
9. Let them guard against an humour of new-fangledness, nauseating old and solid truths, and seeking after something new, having ears itching after new doctrines, yea, or new modes and dresses of old truths. For this is provoking to God, and proveth dangerous; for such turn away their ears from the truth, and are turned into fables, as Paul telleth us, 2 Tim. iv.3, 4. |For the time will come,| saith he, |when they will not endure sound doctrine, but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.| This savoureth of a spirit of levity and inconstancy, which is dangerous.
10. They should labour to have no prejudice at the truth, but receive it in the love of it; lest, for that cause, God give them up to strong delusions, to believe lies, and to be led with the deceivableness of unrighteousness, as we see, 2 Thess. ii.10-12, |And. with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish, because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved; and for this cause God shall send them strong delusion that they should believe a lie, that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.|
11. So should they beware of stifling the truth, of making it a prisoner, and detaining it in unrighteousness, like those spoken of, Rom. i.18. |For which cause God them up to uncleanness and vile affections, and they became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened, yea, professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,| ver.21, &c. They should let truth have free liberty and power in the soul; and should yield up themselves to be ruled and guided by it; and not torture with it, lay chains upon it, or fetter it, and keep it as a prisoner that can do nothing.
12. For this cause, they should hold fast the truth which they have learned, and have been taught by the Spirit out of the word. When Paul would guard and fortify Timothy against seducers, that crept into houses, leading captive silly women, &c., among other directions gave him this, 2 Tim. iii.14, 15, |But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned, and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned; and that from a child thou hast known the Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation,| &c. So he would have the Colossians walking in Christ, rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith as they had been taught, Col. ii.6, 7.
13. Especially they would be holding the groundwork fast, -- faith in Christ. It were good in such a time of erring from the way of truth, to be gripping Christ faster, and cleaving to him by faith, and living by faith in him. This is to hold the foundation fast; and then let the tempest of error blow as it will, they will ride at a sure anchor, and be safe, because fixed upon the Rock of Ages; and further, living near Christ in such a dangerous day, would be a noble preservative from the infection of error. The soul that is dwelling in Christ and gripping to him daily by faith, and acting love on him, dwelleth in light, will discover error sooner than another, because living under the rays of the Sun of Righteousness, which discovereth error.
14. They should labour to learn the truth, as it is in Jesus; and the truths which they have heard of him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in him, will abide, when other truths that have been learned but of men, and heard of men, and as it was in the preaching of men, and in books, shall soon evanish in a day of trial. This is to learn Christ, as the apostle speaketh, Eph. iv.20, 21, |But ye have not so learned Christ, if so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus.| When we learn the truth, as it is in Jesus, it bringeth us always to him, and hath a tendency to fix our hearts on him, and is a piece of the bond that bindeth us to him and his way: we receive it then as a piece of his doctrine, which we must own, and stand unto. O if we learned all our divinity thus, we would be more constant and steadfast in it than we are!
15. When controversies arise, and they know not which side to choose -- both seemeth to them to be alike well founded on the word -- they should exercise their spiritual sagacity, and set their gift of discerning a work, to see which of the two tendeth most to promote piety and godliness, and the kingdom of Christ, and so see which of the two is the truth, |which is after godliness,| as the apostle speaketh, Tit. i.1; they must look which of the two is the doctrine which is according to godliness, I Tim. vi.3. That is the truth which is Christ's, and which should be owned and embraced, viz. which floweth from a spirit of godliness, and tendeth to promove godliness, and suiteth with the true principles of godliness, even gospel godliness, wrought according to the tenor of the covenant of grace; that is, by the strength of the Spirit of Jesus, dwelling and working in us, and not according to the tenor of the covenant of works, that is, wrought by our own strength, &c.
16. Yet withal they should take heed that they mistake not here; for they may look upon some ways and doctrines as having a greater tendency to promove godliness than others; which indeed have not, but only seem so. They should therefore consider well what is the way of godliness laid down in the noble device of the gospel, which is the way that only glorifieth God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and see what suiteth most with that, according to the word, and not what seemeth most suitable to godliness in their apprehension. The word is the best judge and test of true godliness; and in the word we have the only safest mean of true godliness held forth: therefore we should see what doctrine tendeth most to promote godliness according to the way held forth in the word, and choose that.
17. They should guard against pride and self-conceit, as thinking they are wise enough, and understanding enough in those matters, and so need not take a lesson of any. This may be of great prejudice; for |it is the meek that God guideth in judgment; and to the meek will he teach his way,| Psalm xxv.9. Therefore it were good for his people in such a day, to be meek and humble, willing and ready to learn of any person, how mean soever, that can teach the ways of God. The Lord may bless a word spoken by a private person, when he will not bless the word spoken by a minister; for his blessings are free. And it is not good to despise any mean. Apollos, though instructed in the way of the Lord, mighty in the Scriptures, fervent in spirit, and teaching diligently the things of the Lord, Acts xviii.24, 25, yet was content to learn of Aquila, and of his wife Priscilla, when they expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly, ver.26.
18. In such a time, it is not unsafe to look to such as have been eminent in the ways of God, and lie near to him; for it is probable they may know much of the mind of God in those questioned matters. Hence we find the apostle putting Timothy and others to this duty in a time when false teachers were going abroad, saying, 2 Tim. iii.10, |but thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life;| and 1 Cor. iv.16, |wherefore I beseech you to be followers of me;| and 1 Cor. xi.1; and again, Phil. iii.17, |brethren, be followers together of me.| All which say, that though we should call no man Rabbi, as hanging our faith absolutely on him, yet in such a time of prevailing error and of false teachers going abroad, some respect should be had to such as have found grace of the Lord to be faithful in times of trial, and have maintained truth, and stood for it, in times of persecution, and have with singleness of heart followed the Lord; it not being ordinary with God to leave such as in sincerity seek him, and desire to follow his way in truth and uprightness, and to give the revelation of his mind and the manifestation of his Spirit to others, who have not gone through such trials.
19. They should also at such a time be much in the sincere practice of uncontroverted duties, and in putting uncontroverted and unquestionable and unquestioned truths into practice; and this may prove a notable mean to keep them right: for then are they in God's way, and so the devil hath not that advantage of them that he hath of others who are out of the way of duty. David understood more than the ancients, because he kept God's precepts, Psal. cxix.100.
20. It were good and suitable at such a time, to be much in the fear of God, remembering what an one he is, and how hazardous it is to sin against him, by drinking in the least point of error. The promise is made to such, Psalm xxv.12, |What man is he that feareth the Lord, him shall he teach in the way that he shall choose.|
21. Finally, at such a time they should be much in communion with Jesus, lying near him; much in prayer to him, studying his relations, offices, furniture, readiness to help with light and counsel; and they should draw near to him with humility, boldness, faith, confidence, love, tenderness, and sincerity; and then they shall not find that he shall fail them, or disappoint them.
Enough of this. I proceed therefore to another case, which is: