Master, What shall I do to inherit eternal Life?
IN my former Discourse I observed to you, that this was the curious Enquiry of a Student of the Law of Moses, in order to try what Answer would be given to so important a Question, by our blessed Lord, who appeared in the World with the Character of the Messiah, sent by God into it, to instruct Mankind in the right way to Happiness; though not received or acknowledged as such by the Person who made this Enquiry: and that it was our Duty, and becoming our Professions, who believe in Jesus Christ, as one sent on so gracious an Errand, to make the same Enquiry, with all the serious Sollicitude which a Business of so vast importance requires. And, in order to proceed successfully in the Enquiry,
I. I LAID down carefully and distinctly the great Question, as it concerns us of later Ages; who are generally educated in the Knowledge, and continue long in the profession of the Christian Religion: viz. What are those Terms and Conditions, which are required on our Parts; and upon which, God Almighty will, for the sake of Jesus Christ, and of what he did and suffered to that End, forgive us our Sins, committed during this profession of the Christian Religion, and finally justify or acquit us at the great Day, and make us afterwards eternally Happy? This, I told you, is the Enquiry in which we are concerned: which it is of infinitely more importance to us to regard than any other thing in the World.
2. I URGED some Considerations proper to make us sensible of the great importance of this Enquiry; and the great hazard of being misled, and mistaken in it: and this in order to make us truly serious, and truly sollicitious not to be imposed upon, in this grand Affair.
3. I SHEWED you that the only secure Method of proceeding, and the only safe way of coming to a Resolution of this Question, is to consult the New Testament our selves; in which we have a plain and full Account of what our blessed Lord himself, and they who were immediately commissioned by Him, declared concerning this Matter; and that all other ways and methods are unsuccessful, and full of Danger. But I then told you likewise, that, in order to our arriving at a true account of the important Question now before us, there were some other particulars that deserve to be carefully observed: and though these be indeed but so many consequences from the forementioned Heads; yet, I cannot but think it very well worth our while distinctly to propose, and consider them. As
1. THAT the Terms of Salvation, and Acceptance with God, are what He hath made them; and of so inflexible a Nature, that it is not in our Power to bend, or alter them, as we please, into what Shape, or Nature, we think fit. And this is plain; because it did not belong to us to contrive or frame them; but to the Supreme Lord of all things. It is He, to whom it belongs to propose a method of Reconciliation to his Creatures; and He alone, whose Office it is to fix the Conditions of this Reconciliation: because He alone knows what is in all respects fitting, and agreeable to the eternal Laws of Reason, and Wisdom; of which we our selves could not be proper and impartial Judges. He hath, by Virtue of his Wisdom, Goodness, and Power, an undoubted Right to give us new Laws; and to lay upon us the Conditions of a Second Covenant, as well as of a First: But we have no Right, either from Wisdom, or Power, to give Laws to Him; or to fix the Terms proper for him to accept.
IF therefore he hath offered any particular Terms and Conditions, upon which he will accept us; if He hath sent his Son, and his Apostles to lay open these Terms: here we must rest, and remember that it is not our Business to attempt any alteration of these Terms; and that it is the most fruitless as well as arrogant Imagination to think of doing it. In vain doth any Mortal wish or desire them to be other than what they are determin'd to be in his Will: and in vain will it be for the greatest or wisest of us all to attempt to accommodate and bend them to our Schemes, or our Inclinations. The System of Christianity was long ago fram'd, and the Scheme of Salvation laid, in the Breast of the Almighty, as it was design'd in Time to appear: and this System hath long ago been written by the Evangelists and Apostles; and this Scheme hath long ago been proposed in the New Testament, for the Benefit of all who are in a Frame and Disposition of Mind capable of receiving Benefit. God hath there shewn us, which is the Way to the Salvation He promiseth. If, therefore, we will arrive at his Salvation; it must be in the Path which he hath mark'd out: and we must, indeed, either not think of going to Heaven; or we must go to it, in his Way, and not in our own.
IT is necessary to observe this, because the Generality of professed Christians, tho' they have Desire enough of being happy hereafter; yet it must be in their own Way: and they will not depart from their own Schemes, and their own Wishes. Nay, they seem to think it much more fit that God Almighty should come down to their Terms, than that themselves should go up to his. The Young Man, in the Gospel, was not far from the Kingdom of God, as our Lord thought: because he came to Him with some Disposition, and some Desire after Happiness. He was willing enough to be his Disciple, and to be saved by him; if the Terms of his Discipleship and Salvation should appear such as he could comply with. But when he found that the Circumstances of his professing the Gospel at that Time were such, that he must divest himself of his large Possessions; and follow our Lord with an entire Dependance upon him for the common Necessaries of Life; and share in common with him the Wants and Necessities to which he exposed himself: he went away sorrowful; griev'd to hear that he could not be made happy by Him at less expence, end that the Terms of his Salvation were so uneasy to be comply'd with. Thus it is with many Professors of Christianity in later Ages. They are, in this Sense, not far from the Kingdom of God, that they desire the Happiness of Christians, and of such as belong to that Kingdom: but then they are sorrowful to hear of the Terms plainly required; if they don't suit their present Inclinations, and Designs. And so they either depart from our Lord; and give up all Pretences to his Favour, and his Salvation: or else they lay hold of one Pretext or other, or alter those Terms; and amuse themselves with some sort of present Peace and Tranquillity, by making them consist and comply with their own Desires and Wishes. Let this therefore be always remembered, that our Fancies, or Tempers, or Desires, cannot make the Terms of our Acceptance other than what they are already; fix'd and determin'd by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom there is no Variableness, nor shadow of turning: who, after having view'd all Things relating to our Nature, and his own upon the Principles of unerring Wisdom, appointed the Bounds of his own Mercy, and the Conditions of our Happiness; neither of which it is in our Power either to enlarge or diminish.
NOR is it any other than egregious Folly for us to imagine that He himself will at last vary from his own Terms; and, after He hath declared and promulgated Rules, by which he assures us He will be govern'd in the Distribution of his Love and Favour, to flatter ourselves that he will depart from these Rules, for our Sakes, who would not depart from our own unreasonable Practices either for his Sake, or our own; and that he will adapt his Proceedings at last to our Practice, in Pity to us, who would not adapt our Practice to his Laws. And yet I know of but this one Way in which any Alteration or Abatement, or new Modification, of the Covenant of Grace can be hop'd for; viz. that God himself will at last new model it, and alter it into some other Form: The Weakness of which Imagination I shall have occasion hereafter more fully to lay open. At present I make this Observation, that the Terms of Acceptance are establish'd and unalterable; as God himself hath fixed them in the Gospel: because, unless we be persuaded of this, all our Enquiries after them will be only so many Speculations, and fruitless Searches; rather serving to satisfy Curiosity, than to direct Practice. For if we entertain a Thought, that those Terms, tho' solemnly settled, and solemnly promulgated, by the Son of God and his Apostles, may be again altered, and changed into something more agreeable to us, and more consistent with our Ways? the Gospel can have but little, very little, effect upon our Minds, under the powerful Assaults of any considerable Temptation. Pleasure, Honour, and Profit, will work strongly upon a Mind fluctuating in uncertainty about the Consequences of things or made unstable by the flattering Hope that the Consequences at last may not be found so terrible as they are represented in the Gospel. But if we be possess'd beforehand that such are the Terms of Acceptance, as the plain Declarations of the New Testament make them; and that such they will be found at last: then our serious Enquiries after them will have a great and powerful Influence upon our Conduct; and be of more force than the Efforts of Flesh and Blood, or the Insinuations of this transitory World. But,
2. ANOTHER very necessary Rule to be observed in this important Enquiry, is, that all preconceived Notions of our own; all the Impressions of Education; all the Inclinations of Sense; all the Influences of Temporal Interest, and every thing that may cast a Cloud before our Eyes, or prevent our seeing or receiving the Truth, must be disregarded, in comparison of any one plain Declaration of the New Testament upon this Head. This is so necessary, that it is in vain to search after any Truth; unless all Prejudices, and evil Habits of Thinking, or Acting, inconsistent with it, be laid aside, and for the present disregarded. And much more necessary is it in this most Important Enquiry, that our Minds should lay aside every weight which will incline them against Truth, and weigh up the contrary Balance in which that inestimable Jewel is tryed; that we should be perfectly willing to find that True, which is True, whether we find it or no; that we should be as free as possible from the Bias impress'd upon the Soul, by former Schemes received upon the Authority of others, or by Evil Habits built upon our own Sin and Folly; that we should go to those Books in which the Account of this is laid before us, with Hearts disposed to Truth; and indifferent whether this Account shall be found to contradict our former Notions, and Practices, or not.
THE force of Passion, and Prejudice, against Truth is so great, that Men tolerably well skill'd in that sort of Learning, may sometimes be hindred from seeing even the plain Truth of a Mathematical Demonstration, by some private Resentment, and secret Pique against others: in which Science there is no complaint of indeterminate Ideas, or obscure Expression. In like manner, set a Man about the Enquiry we are now speaking of, who hath been used to a way of thinking at second hand; and is in love with the Notions received from others, tho' never so false; his Labours shall be found to tend to little, unless it be to strain the obscure Passages into a Sense agreeable to his own Notions: whilst the plain ones are neglected. Or, set a Man about this Enquiry, immersed in this World; embarrass'd with a sordid love of Gain, or Honour; or captivated by Lust and sensual Pleasure; and how hardly will He, if at all, receive any thing, as the Will of God, inconsistent with his present Views? What a Bias will his own Wishes, and his perverted Will, clap upon his understanding? and how many Ways will He find, if He have any Thoughts of Religion at all, to reconcile the plainest contrary Declarations of God's Will to his own State, and his own Hopes? This makes me say that, if we would make the Enquiry with Success, we must be willing to find that true which is so; and that we must renounce to all our own Wishes, or Hopes, or Desires, whether founded upon former Notions infused into us by others; or upon former Practices indulged by ourselves.
NAY, how weak; how unreasonable; how injurious and pernicious a thing is it to be otherwise disposed? For we make not Truth: but it is what it is, and what it ever will be, whether we receive it, or not; and, when plainly propos'd to us, it is our Condemnation, if we reject it, or prefer any thing before it. And if we have been engag'd in such a Habit of Sin as may incline us to one side more than another: the farther we go in this Way, by establishing this Habit of Evil Practice by an Error fixed in the Understanding, we are so much the more deeply engaged in a Course of Ruin; and so much the more irrecoverably lost. For by this means we go not in the Dark; but do as it were light and direct ourselves all along the Paths of Misery. We go securely perhaps for the present, but at last the Sight and Sense of our wilful Error will be the most painful Horror, and insupportable Burthen. This should engage Sinners, that have any Thoughts of finding Mercy, to break off their evil Habits: because the longer they proceed in them, the more effectually will they blind their Eyes, and the more certainly will they indispose them, either to see the Truth of God's Covenant, tho' written in never so plain Characters; or to receive it to any purpose, if they should not avoid the seeing it. For nothing unqualifies Men for Divine Truths, of Importance to Happiness, so much as the Habit of Sin: nothing makes Men more afraid of, or unfit for, the Light, than their having exercised themselves in the Works of Darkness.
3. ANOTHER Particular I must mention, of great use in this Enquiry, is, that we must take all the Declarations of the New Testament upon this Head, into the Account; and not some only: and then that, if there be any seeming Variety in any of them; the more obscure must be interpreted so as to be agreeable to the most plain and repeated Declarations. This it is but reasonable to require: because neither our Saviour nor his Apostles, have in any one single Portion of the New Testament, laid down the several Branches of the New Covenant; but spoken of them, as distinct Occasions gave them Ground to do: sometimes of one, sometimes of another. Now all things, equally declar'd by Them to be Conditions of our pardon, or salvation, are with equal Willingness, and equal Regard, to be received by us. And this Rule will prevent all those Mistakes in us, which others have fatally run into, by attending to some single Declarations upon this Subject; to the Neglect and. Contradiction of others, perhaps more plain and intelligible. This will teach us that, if one Place of Scripture attributes Happiness to one Virtue, or one Act of the Mind; and another as plainly to another; and a third to a third: and a fourth to the Performance of the whole Will of God, without mentioning Particulars: I say, This will teach us not to overlook one Passage for the sake of another, not more plain, or more intelligible; when all have the same Stamp of Divine Authority; and when, without regarding all, we cannot pretend to know the whole of what Almighty God hath declared concerning this Affair. The acting contrary to this, is just as if the rebellious Subjects of a Prince, now to be restored to his Favour upon such and such Conditions, should attend only to one or two of these Conditions; and pass over all the rest, as if they were not of equal Importance, and had not the Sanction of the same Authority.
AND then, supposing there should be some Obscurity in one or more Passages relating to this Affair; there can be no Danger to Us, but in pretending to understand these, and at the same time understanding them so, as to invalidate the Design of the more plain and express Declarations: and this out of a Desire to reconcile our own Practices to the Hopes of Happiness. For it is no Crime in any Christian, not to understand an obscure or dubious Passage; provided he hath nothing wilful to accuse himself of, in this want of Understanding: But the Crime is, to resolve to understand it in such a Sense, as may best consist with his false Hopes; tho' it consists not at all with those plainer Texts, about the Meaning of which there can be no Doubt.
LET us, therefore, but take into the Account the Whole of what is, in several Places of the New Testament, made necessary to our obtaining God's Favour, and Eternal Happiness. And, if we meet with any thing which we do not perfectly understand upon this Head, let us but attend to the plain and repeated Declarations; and not presume to neglect them for the sake of those which are not so; or to interpret those which are not so, after such a manner as to contradict those which are so: and I dare say, we need not fear any Error in this great Enquiry. For the Terms absolutely required are plainly, and frequently, expressed: and what is so, is, in every sort of Writing, allowed to explain what is not so: but what is not so is never allowed to be interpreted so as to contradict what is so. And therefore it will be unjustifiable and inexcusable in any one, to lay hold on any part of the New Testament, or any Text in it, which is in any respect obscure; and to oppose this to the plainest and most repeated: in order to build a Doctrine, or a Scheme, upon it, not to be reconciled to these; or perhaps absolutely inconsistent with them. This is not to consult the Honour of God: nor is it the way to find out the Terms of our own Happiness.
THESE Rules, and Observations, which I have now laid down, are in order to your careful and exact Examination of what I design to say, when I come to lay before you the Terms of our Acceptance and Salvation, as they appear to me in the New Testament: to which I cannot now proceed for want of Time; but before which, it was necessary to commend to your Thoughts the Considerations before-mentioned; which will, I hope, be of great use in all your future Enquiries after the Way to Eternal Life. And all but little enough, or rather, I fear, too little, to make the Generality of Christians as sincere in their Enquiries, and as ready to embrace the true Answer to them, as they ought to be.
AND indeed I have mentioned, and insisted upon, all these Precautions; because it is Eternal Life we are enquiring after; and the Favour of that God, whose Favour is better than Life, and whose Displeasure is infinitely worse than Death. Were they the Concerns of this Life, that fleeth away like a Shadow, and is not to be stopp'd by all the Art, or all the Power of Man, about which we are enquiring; it would be of no such vast Importance to be sollicitious about the Matter. Let Passion, or Pride, or Covetousness direct us; Let Ambition, or Lust; blind our Eyes; an End would quickly come, when this World could have no part in us. But yet, behold the Perverseness of Mankind. Were the Enquiry after the Pleasures, or Riches; or Honours, of this World; had there any Person of great Sagacity, or uncommon Penetration; appeared in it, to direct them in the sure way to these Riches, or Pleasures, or Honours, that must end with this Temporal Life: how few Mistakes should we find made even by the weakest of Men? The Covetous would easily understand, and make themselves perfect Masters of the Way to Wealth; the Voluptuous would never miss the Path of Pleasure; nor the Ambitious, the Road to Preferment, and Honour, and Titles. None of them would trust any Direction at second hand, when they could consult the Oracle it self. None of them would be diverted from their Enquiry by any Impulse contrary to that by which they professed to be directed. None of them would hazard the Disappointment of their main end, by relying on any thing but what was plainly proposed by their Guide. And all of them would be Proof against every Attempt that could be used, either to deceive their Understandings, or to influence their Wills to contrary Ways:
BUT let it not always be said, that the Children of this World are wiser, in their Generation; wiser in their Pursuits and Enquiries after Trifles and Misery and Ruin; less capable of being imposed upon; more guarded and secure in their Way, than the Children of Light, who profess to have nobler Things in View; a State of unchangeable Happiness, Eternal in the Heavens, after this poor, uncertain State is at an End. If we be the Children of Light; if we have Eternal Life truly in View, and be truly inquisitive after the Way that leads to it; let us consider what Eternal Life is; how much it outweighs all that this Life can offer us; how much it exceeds all our present Conceptions which are formed upon very imperfect Ideas; how vastly it will recompense all the Pains, and Care, and Caution of the strictest Enquirer; how unconceivable an Happiness must be contained in the Favour of God, the Supreme and Original Father of all Things: and we shall think no Precaution too much to secure us from Mistake, whilst we are seeking our Way to it; no Care superfluous to defend us from the great Enemies of this Enquiry; no Pains, or Study, too great on our Parts, in order to be fully satisfied, What we must do to inherit Eternal Life.
To the Resolution of which grand Question I design to proceed the next Opportunity.