Master, What shall I do to inherit eternal Life?
THIS is the Enquiry of one of the Students and Interpreters of the Law of Moses: who, hearing of our Lord's Behaviour, and Pretentions to so great a Character as that of the Messiah sent by God to instruct Mankind in the right way to Happiness, came, amongst others, either out of Curiosity, or some worse Principle, to try what Answer he would give to so important a Question as this in the Text, What shall I do to inherit eternal Life? i.e. What are the great Points of Practice which can recommend me, who am a Jew, and adhere to the Law of Moses, to the Favour of God? For by our Lord's Answer it is plain, that this Question related to the chief practical Duties of Religion; and that it was not our Lord's Design to give the Enquirer a particular Account of the Conditions of Justification, and Terms of Acceptance, which He, and his Apostles, were in due time to lay open to the World. He appeals, We see, to the Enquirer himself, what the great Precepts of the Law were; and afterwards declares that an exact observance of those two comprehensive Duties, of loving God, and our Neighbour, would entitle him to eternal Life Duties; so comprehensive indeed, that to them may be reduced all that is good in any Religion in the World, and all that can possibly render us acceptable to God. But though this summary Declaration answered well our blessed Lord's Purpose at that time, as it was a sufficient Reply to the present Enquirer: yet it was the great Business of his Divine Mission to enter more particularly into this grand Debate; to promulgate to the World more expressly, and more fully, those Terms and Conditions, upon which Almighty God, for the sake of what he undertook to do and suffer in this World, will accept Mankind, and make those happy, who cannot pretend to a sinless and perfect Obedience to his Laws, but stand conscious to themselves of many past Transgressions of them. Since therefore, this was the professed Business of Him, in whom we believe: it becomes us all, if we have any thoughts of Happiness, to address ourselves to the same Person, with a very serious Curiosity; and to enquire what it is that expected at our Hands, in order to our Justification, and final Acquittance from the guilt of our Sins, at the great Day. This is the Enquiry which is of the: utmost importance to us.
BUT it will be proper here to observe; that, with respect to such as have been educated in any other false Religion, or Worship, and have contracted the guilt of many Sins, the first part of the Enquiry; and of the Answer to it, will be somewhat different from what it must be, with respect to such as have been educated in the knowledge and belief of Christianity, and taken the Profession of it upon themselves; and after that contracted the guilt of wilful Sins: as may appear to any who seriously consult the New Testament. For the first Enquiry there made by such as were at any time touched to the Heart, and uneasy under the consciousness of their former Sins, was, how they should be saved from this guilt which they had already contracted; or what they should do to be acquitted from these Sins committed in their former State. And the Answer we find was, that their receiving Christ for their Master; their first Faith, and believing in him, should have that Efficacy with Almighty God, that all their past Sins, committed before this Faith, should be cancelled; and they looked upon as just persons, with respect to all that was past.
THIS matter of the Heathen and Jewish World being justified, or acquitted from all past guilt, by their Faith, or belief in Jesus Christ, having been strenuously asserted, and fully expressed by the Apostles, and especially St Paul; many weak and unstable Men have built such Notions upon this, as have been, and may be, of pernicious consequence to Christians, under the Gospel-State, and after they have receiv'd and professed this Faith in Christ: arguing as if a Faith or Confidence in Jesus Christ, and his Merits, would do all; acquit from all Sins; and render the wicked Christian spotless at last; and present him blameless before the Throne of God. Whereas it is manifest that, after this first Justification, and acquittance, was obtained by means of believing in Jesus Christ; this very believing, or Faith, brought the Believer under the most strict Obligations imaginable; more in Number, and severer in their Nature, than the Man was under before; and these bound upon him under the penalty of God's eternal Displeasure. This is as plain in the New Testament, as Words can make it. But of this Justification which professed Christians expect at any time to be wrought for them by Faith, or Confidence only, I, shall have occasion to speak more the farther prosecution of my present Design. At present I will only observe to you that, when it is enquired in the New Testament, What shall we do to be saved? and when it is answered to the Enquirers, or laid down, that to believe and to be baptised; or that Faith will save them, or the like, it is only meant, that they who do not believe already shall be acquitted from their past Sins, or saved from the Guilt of them, by believing, and coming into the Terms required by the Gospel; or that the first step to their Salvation, and that which will put them into a safe way, is Faith, or taking Christ for their Master, and being entered into his Religion. Or else, Faith is taken for the whole Gospel-method; for the whole of what is required in that: and so, it is the intent of these Expressions to signify that it is this method which only can save them; not the Law of Moses, or the Institutions of the Heathen World, in which they had before been educated. And it is plain that all this related to such only as had not before professed, or taken upon themselves, the belief of the Gospel; and toucheth not the Case in which we are concerned, who have been educated in this belief, or long professed it. Christians of later Ages are generally of this sort: and it is their own case and condition, not that of others, about which their Enquiry ought to be; and which it concerns the Ministers of the Gospel principally to consider.
THIS is my Design and what I propose to do as fully as I can: as well by laying down positively what is the true answer to this Enquiry; as by considering and refuting those false Answers which Men have framed to themselves, from their own vain Wishes, fortified with some mistaken and misapplied Passages in the Word of God. But, before I come to the main Design, it is very expedient,
I. To propose distinctly what the great Question, and Enquiry is, which concerns Us, who have taken upon ourselves the profession of the Christian Religion; and continue in that Profession: that so the Answer to it may be the better understood.
II. To consider the great importance of this Enquiry; and the hazard of mistaking in it: that we may be the more sollicitious to find out the only true account of this matter; and the more guarded against any Deceit, and Delusion in a business of such moment.
III. To shew the method of coming to a true Resolution of this Question; and where it is that we may expect such an account of this Affair, as we may safely, and securely, depend upon. Now,
I. THE great Enquiry, in which we are concerned, is this, What it is that the Gospel requires of Men, who believe in Jesus Christ, and profess his Faith, and own him for their Master; in order to their acquittance from the punishment of any wilful Sins, which they have at any time committed, during their profession of his Religion; and to their final Justification before God at the Day of Judgment; and to their eternal Happiness after this.
THAT many Christians do fall into great and wilful Sins after their Baptism; after their knowledge of the Truth; and after they have taken upon themselves the profession of their most holy Religion; is matter of daily Observation, and of daily. Experience. That the very best have not, in every part of their past Lives, done exactly what they know they ought to have done; that, in some past Instances or other, of Thought, Word, or Deed, they have had experience of some sudden Passion, or some latent Weakness, which by a greater degree of constant Watchfulness, might have been prevented; is likewise evident: and by themselves always made matter of Confession and Humiliation. That there is a method of Reconciliation proposed in the Gospel to both these sorts of Christians; and Terms laid down in it, on which Christian Sinners, if I may so speak, shall be accepted and acquitted, is plain from many Exhortations in the New Testament to such Christians as had sinned; and from the Behaviour of the Apostles with respect to such; as well as from the Absurdities following from the contrary Supposition; which would render the Gospel a most ineffectual Institution, debarring every individual professor of it, upon one single, sudden, wilful Transgression, from all future Hopes of Happiness; (and who then can be saved?) or a most pernicious Institution, turning every Christian into a desperate Sinner, by allowing no Hopes of any benefit from his recovering himself.
BUT whatever Terms, or Conditions are allowed us, after relapse into Sin, or continuance in it, we know they are granted for the sake of Jesus Christ; in consideration of what he did and suffered for this very purpose, that these Terms and Conditions might be granted to Christians. This therefore, I say, is the Question about which our greatest Concern is to be employed, What those Terms and Conditions are, on which, for the sake of Jesus Christ, God will acquit us of our Sins, and at last make us eternally happy. For tho' it be for the sake of Christ, that he will do this at all; yet he expects something at our own Hands: And it is upon such and such Conditions only, that for his sake He will accept us; without the performance of which He leaves us no room to hope for any Benefit from the Merits of Christ. All that Christ has done, and suffered, for our sakes, was only in order to the settling these Conditions: but what We are to do, according to this Treaty and Compact, in which he is the Mediator; This belongs to us chiefly to enquire after.
II. The importance of this Enquiry plainly appears from the account of it, which I have now given. Our acceptance with God; our Justification; our acquittance from the guilt of our Sins; our final and eternal Happiness, depend entirely upon our due Apprehensions, and effectual Sense, of this matter. If we employ our Minds seriously about it; and come to settle in them true Notions, and a just account of it: it will be the Fountain of all Happiness to us; by being the Foundation of such a Practice, and such a Conduct of our Lives, as will end in Glory, and Peace for ever. And the importance of it is enlarged, and heighten'd, when we consider the vast and unspeakable Danger of mistaking in this grand Enquiry; that if we do, through Prejudice; or Passion, or love to this World, or fondness for carnal Pleasure, entertain wrong Notions of this Affair, they will lead us into a wrong method of Action, and conclude us at last under inexpressible Misery: the Misery, not only of deprivation, or being debarr'd from the Happiness of Heaven, and the Communication's of God's Favour; but that of enduring positive Torments, the Wrath of God, and the Punishments threatened by his Son in the Gospel. The Consideration of this made our Lord so earnest to free the Minds of Men from all false Surmises about the great business upon which he came into the World; that neither Unbelievers, nor Believers, might mistake his Errand. The consideration of this made the Apostles, and particularly St Paul, so frequent in their Warnings against all Inclination to be deceived in this matter: well knowing that Christians, even in those first Days, were in great danger, from the inward Motions of their own Lusts and Passions, and the outward Hardships of Persecution, to be misled by such false Apostles, and false Teachers, as would sooth their present Inclinations, and flatter them into vain and delusive Hopes.
LET not therefore anything either within us, or without us; let not any thing of this World; (Profit, or Honour, or Pleasure,) lay a Biass upon our Minds in this Enquiry. Neither Profit, nor Honour, nor Pleasure can, in the least avail us, when we have made the fatal mistake: nor can any present Gratification countervail the loss of all Happiness to all Eternity. What therefore can induce us to be so careless, or so weak, as to be willingly imposed upon in a Question, upon the just Resolution of which Eternity depends; and the false account of which, once permitted to enter into our Minds, must draw after it more Misery, and Unhappiness than we can now conceive? Since therefore it is an Enquiry of such vast, and unspeakable importance; let us
III. CONSIDER the true Method of coming to a Resolution of this grand Question; and where it is that we may expect such an Account of this Affair, as we may safely and securely depend upon. Now it being a Matter of infinite Grace and Mercy that Almighty God will enter into any Treaty at all with a sinful World; or come to any Terms with his rebellious Subjects: it is very evident that the Persons immediately commission'd by him, or by the Person whom he sent into this World upon so good an Account, are those only, on whom we can safely and with Honour rely in this Affair. It depended on his Will, to make the Conditions what he should think agreeable to his own unalterable Perfections, and to the eternal and unvariable Nature of Just and Right. To promulgate these Conditions, and to give an Account of these Terms, He sent Jesus Christ into the World: who in his Life-time did it, as fully as was requisite to his present Design; and, for the same End, immediately commission'd his Apostles to preach the glad Tidings to the whole World, and to lay open more fully these Terms; and conducted them by an infallible Spirit, to secure them from all Error in this Matter. Whither then should we go but to him? for he hath the Words of eternal Life; and to his Apostles? for they were the immediate Embassadors of Christ, beseeching us to be reconcil'd to God, and preaching the Conditions of this Reconciliation. It is in the Preachings of Christ himself, and in the Writings of these Apostles, that we can securely hope to find the only Account of this Enquiry that will avail us any thing.
As for our selves, and all others, who succeed in teaching, and feeding the Flock of Christ; we cannot pretend to any new Revelations. It is our Business only to explain the old; to convince Men of any Errors disagreeable to the written Word of God; and to lay before them, in the best manner possible, what is contained, and proposed in it. We cannot make the Terms of Salvation what we, or many others, may wish. They are fix'd by those who only had Authority to fix them, from God, and his Holy Spirit: and we must not vary from those who have declar'd long ago the whole Will of God. Other Churches may pretend to be themselves, (consider'd distinctly from the Apostles and their Doctrine,) the Ground and Pillar of Truth; and not only the Keepers, and Guardians of the lively Oracles of God: but our Church declareth the contrary, and professeth to be only the Medium, and Interpreter, by which the Will of God already settled may be made known to the People; and openly proclaims that the Articles and Terms of Salvation are long ago fix'd and determin'd, in such sort, that it is an invading the Province of God himself to pretend to make new ones, or to alter them into what they were not, at the Beginning of the Gospel. Let that Unchristian Church, therefore, answer for it, that debars the People from consulting those Books which alone are able to make them wise unto Salvation; and imposeth upon them Traditions and Customs, and Doctrines of her own, which make void the Will of God, and render ineffectual all his gracious Offers of Salvation to the World; that hides the true Word of God from all Communication with the Light; and teacheth those who depend upon her, to seek Salvation, and to learn the Terms of it, from such as impose what they please instead of them. But let any Church upon Earth, or any Ministers of the Gospel, pretend to what they please: whether they speak Truth or Falshood; whether they lighten or increase the burthen of these Conditions, or fix them where they ought to be; the New Testament is the Standard to which all must be brought to be tried; and by which it is the Duty of all to examine, whether they be truly directed, or invited aside into paths of Darkness and Error.
THE great Lines of the Gospel, and those parts of it which declare the Terms of Salvation, have no obscurity in them, but lie level to all who have capacity to understand what God, and Salvation, and Happiness, mean. It will not therefore, in this grand Affair, be a sufficient Apology for any, at the great Day of Accounts, to say that they followed their Leaders; that they depended upon their Doctrine; and swallowed whatever they told them about the Will of God: because the New Testament hath been transmitted down for their Use; to teach all Christians what is their Duty, as well as to guide others in their Doctrine concerning it. The greatest part of it was preached, and written, to the Laity: from whence it appears, That they were thought Judges of what so much concerned them; and that it was their business to take their Notions of the Gospel, from Those who were immediately sent by God, and Christ, to propose it to the World. The utmost that can be said for depending on any other, since that time, is, that it is probable, or to be hoped, that they will not deceive or mislead us. But how weak an Excuse will this prove, when we know that our Eternity depends upon it; that there are Writings which cannot deceive us; and that, if we seriously and constantly advise with them, no human Error, which doth not arise from any wilful Crime in ourselves, shall be charged upon us? Could you not have consulted these Scriptures, and seen whether these things were so, as your Church, or your Leaders taught you? will be a very sufficient Reply to all who think to find Refuge, at last, in depending upon any other Authority in so weighty a matter. And were it not out of regard to some secular or By-end; from want of Desire to know the Truth, or an affected unwillingness to alter the accustomed methods of Action: no one could be so senseless as to depend upon the Word of any modern Authority; when it was in his Power to go himself to the original Covenant. No Man acts in this manner, in the Case of his worldly Concerns: or in any Point which may affect his Body, or his Estate, in this transitory World; and this will serve to condemn All who are guilty of so great a neglect, in a concern infinitely more weighty and important.
AND if it will not avail any at last, that they have depended upon the Word of any Church, or Churchman, upon Earth: much less will it avail them, that they have consulted with Flesh and Blood; and can plead the Dictates of them against the Dictates of God himself. And yet it is to be feared, that many Men, in this Question, upon which their eternal State depends, instead of consulting our Lord, and his Apostles, what is truly required of them in order to Justification and Salvation, turn their Thoughts another way: and consult their own Lusts and Passions, and Tempers, and Designs in this World, what will be the most consistent with them; and how far they will let them go towards a Resolution of this Enquiry. But this is even to advise with Satan himself, and with all the Enemies of God, and of a Man's own Happiness, what it is that Almighty God requires; and what it is that will bring him to that Happiness, which it is their Desire, he should never arrive at.
THUS have I gone over the three principal Points of which I thought it proper to speak, before we enter upon the Debate it self. There are some other Particulars, which are consequences from these: and which it is likewise highly useful for us to consider, in order to make our Enquiry the more effectual, and successful. But these I must reserve for another opportunity.