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THE BLESSEDNESS OF THE HUMBLE
Matthew 5:1-4. And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: and he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
THERE is no portion of the Holy Scriptures for which mankind at large express so great a reverence, as that which is called the Sermon on the Mount. Some exalt it in opposition to the rest of the sacred volume, and affirm, that we need not attend to any other part. This is certainly wrong, since every part of that blessed book is given by inspiration from God. On the other hand, there are some who would get rid of it altogether, by supposing that it was addressed to the Apostles only, and that common Christians have nothing to do with it. But these also do greatly err: for, not to mention that the Apostles were not yet chosen from among the disciples; the very declaration of St. Matthew, at the end of this discourse, shews that it was spoken to all the people [Note: Matthew 7:28.]. The multitudes being too numerous to be accommodated in any house or synagogue, our Lord went up into a mountain, and sat down after the custom of the Jewish teachers, in order to instruct them. Those disciples who were most eager for instruction, drew nigh unto him; whilst those who were more indifferent about it, contented themselves with remoter situations: but, for the benefit of all, “he opened his mouth” with peculiar solemnity, and taught them.
His design in this sermon, was to open to them the nature of that kingdom which he had before announced as about to be established, and to rescue the moral law from those false glosses which the Pharisees had put upon it. The people in general had an idea, that their Messiah should establish a temporal kingdom, under which they were to enjoy the highest privileges and blessings. To counteract this vain expectation, he tells them, that his subjects would be indeed most blessed; but that their character and blessedness were widely different from any thing that they supposed. They dreamed of riches and mirth; but the persons whom he pronounced blessed, were the poor and mournful.
To illustrate and confirm the declarations of our Lord, we shall inquire,
Who are depicted under these characters—
[Poverty of spirit, if viewed in all its extent, will include a variety of dispositions and feelings, which will more properly fall under our consideration in other parts of the Sermon on the Mount. On this account, we shall confine ourselves to one view of it, which, however, we consider as most appropriate and most important. It is thought by many, to import a disregard of riches and honours: but we consider it as designating a far more peculiar state of mind, not specified in any other part of this discourse [Note: The parallel passage in Luke 6:20-21; Luke 6:24-25. cannot be understood of worldly poverty or sorrow, but of that which is spiritual.]. What poverty is, we need not be told. That man is poor who is destitute of all things needful for the body. From hence we may collect what poverty of spirit is: it is a sense of utter want and helplessness in relation to the soul.
All men by nature are poor, because they are destitute of every thing that is good — — — But many who are in this state, are far enough from poverty of spirit; they think they are “rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing” — — — When they are become poor in spirit they are of a very different mind; they know that “they are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” They feel themselves altogether destitute of wisdom [Note: Job 8:9; Job 11:12. They feel their want of spiritual discernment, 1Co 2:14 and pray, Psalms 119:18.] — — — goodness [Note: Job 40:4.Isaiah 6:5; Isaiah 6:5; Isaiah 64:6.] — — — strength [Note: John 15:5. 1 Corinthians 12:3. 2 Corinthians 3:5.] — — — and every good thing [Note: Romans 7:18. Isaiah 1:6.] — — —
Nearly allied to these are “they that mourn.” As poverty of spirit implies a sense of want and helplessness, so “mourning” implies a sense of guilt and corruption.
All men are guilty, and all corrupt — — — but, as in the former case, so in this, many are insensible of their state, and “think more highly of themselves than they ought to think.” Not so “the mourners in Zion:” they know their real character: they look back through their whole lives, and see that they have been altogether “alienated from God,” and have “lived without him in the world.” They see that their transgressions have been multiplied beyond the sands upon the seashore. They behold their iniquities set, as it were, in array against them; their rebellions against their God and Father — — — their contempt of Christ and his salvation — — — their resistance to all the motions of the Holy Spirit — — — the particular evils to which they have been more especially addicted — — — the evils that yet cleave to them, in spite of their better judgment, and repeated endeavours to east them off — — — the mixture that there is in all their principles—the defect in all their duties—and the iniquity even of their holiest actions—and, in the view of all these things, “they groan, being burthened;” they “blush and are confounded;” they “abhor themselves in dust and ashes;” they cry day and night, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me?” It appears to them a miracle of mercy, that they are out of hell; and that too, not only for the transgressions of their former lives, but for the opposition which their flesh, or corrupt nature, is daily and hourly making to “the spirit,” or heavenly principle, which has been imparted to them [Note: Galatians 5:17.].
These two characters, “the poor in spirit,” and “the mourners,” though distinguished in the text, are so nearly allied, that they are united by the prophet Isaiah [Note: Isaiah 66:2.], and therefore are united by us. In fact, they are never separate: they always participate in each other’s feelings, and always are subjects of the same blessedness.
Let us, in the next place, inquire,]
In what their blessedness consists—
Doubtless, to carnal eyes, there is little in such characters that can render them objects of envy: to a superficial observer, they appear rather to be in a most melancholy and pitiable condition. But they are truly blessed:
Their privileges are great—
[“The kingdom of heaven is theirs,”even that kingdom which Christ has established in the world, and maintains in the hearts of men. The blessings of that kingdom are precisely such as they want; and they are in the very state to which all those blessings are promised. The Lord Jesus Christ has come into the world, in order to seek and save them that were lost. In him is treasured up all that they can desire. “He is wisdom” to the blind, “righteousness” to the guilty, “sanctification” to the polluted, “redemption” to the enslaved [Note: 1 Corinthians 1:30.]. He addresses himself to the very persons who are thus mourning over their blind, naked, destitute condition; and bids them accept at his hands, “gold, that they may be enriched; raiment, that they may be clothed; and eye-salve, that they may see [Note: Revelation 3:17-18.].” To feel and to lament their need of these things, is all the qualification that he requires for the reception of them. To those who are insensible of their need he will impart nothing; but to the humble and contrite he will give more than they can either ask or think. Indeed the “kingdom of heaven” is theirs: they have not only a title to all its blessings, but an earnest of them already in their souls. Their poverty and contrition are evidences that the throne of Christ is already established in their hearts: and as certainly as they are made partakers of the kingdom of grace, so shall they in due time inherit the kingdom of glory.
And are not these persons justly called “happy [Note: μακάριοι.]?” Who are “happy, but they who have their unrighteousness forgiven, and their sin covered [Note: Psalms 32:1-2.]?” Who are happy, but they who have Christ for their friend, and heaven for their everlasting inheritance? — — —]
Their comforts are great also—
[Strange as it may appear, there is a comfort, an exceeding great comfort, in mourning for sin; insomuch that the true Christian reckons the seasons of his deepest humiliation among the happiest hours of his life. But view the penitent when applying to his soul the great and precious promises of the Gospel: feels he no comfort in this exercise? — — — View him when he obtains a glimpse of his Lord and Saviour, and a taste of his pardoning love: with what “unspeakable, and even glorified joy” is he filled! The admiration, the love, the gratitude which he feels on such occasions, sometimes overwhelm him; and he is silent, not for want of will, but for want of power, to declare what God has done for his soul — — — What views has he at times of that inheritance which is reserved for him! With what adoring thoughts does he contemplate it; with what ardent longings does he desire it; with what assured confidence does he expect it! — — — Yes, beloved; his poverty and mourning, so far from robbing him of these joys, are the means of obtaining, enhancing, and perpetuating them — — —
Tell me, then, whether these be not comforts far beyond all that the world can give? Yet these are but the beginnings of the Christian’s joy: for the cup which he but tastes of upon earth, he shall drink of to the full in heaven, where there are rivers of pleasure at God’s right hand for evermore.]
There are two descriptions of persons to whom we wish in few words to address this subject:
To those who seek after happiness, but are not religious—
[How long shall it be ere ye shall be convinced of your error? Have ye not had ample proof that Solomon’s verdict respecting all worldly enjoyments is true? Have ye not found them to be “vanity and vexation of spirit?” Is there one amongst you that has found the creature to be any thing better than “a broken cistern?” We appeal to the aged, who have had leisure to reflect upon their past experience: we appeal even to the young in the midst of all their gaieties; have ye found in earthly things any solid and permanent satisfaction? have ye found a portion suited to the desires and capacities of your immortal souls? Go, ask the rich, the great, the gay, Are ye happy? They must all tell you, that “in the fulness of their sufficiency they are in straits [Note: Job 20:22.].” Know ye then, that “God is the only fountain of living water:” in Christ only can ye “find rest for your souls.” Continue to seek happiness in the world, and you will only treasure up sorrow and disappointment: begin to seek it in the exercises of religion, and you will soon find that “her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.”]
To those who seek after religion, but are not happy—
[Whence is this? Has our blessed Lord deceived us? Has he talked so much about the blessedness of being poor in spirit, and of mourning for sin, and is it all a delusion? No, surely: if you find not happiness in these exercises, it is because you do not engage in them aright. You either will not endure to think so meanly of yourselves as you ought, or you are making your own vileness a reason for distrusting the tender mercy of your God. The reverse of this must be your conduct. You must endeavour to get the most humiliating views of your own guilt and helplessness; and must make that a reason not for staying away from the Saviour, but for going to him. The more you feel your need of a physician, the more earnest you should be in your application to him; and the more will he be glorified in your salvation. Only follow his direction in going to him weary and heavy laden, and you shall soon experience the truth of his promise in finding rest unto your souls.
Peradventure there is some hidden abomination that you do not see, or will not part with. If so, it is no wonder that you are not happy: you may as well expect to be at case whilst thorns are festering in your flesh, as to be happy while sin is harboured in your souls. But if it be indeed so, that you are upright before God, and are seeking the Saviour with true humility of mind, and yet, through the present clouds that encompass you, you are not happy, God directs you to “stay yourself on him,” and gives you this word for your encouragement, that “light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart:” it is sown, though at present it be under the clods; and in due time it shall assuredly spring up in your souls: your “heaviness may endure for a night; but joy shall come in the morning.”]
Matthew 5:5. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
WHILST it is acknowledged on all hands, that Christianity far surpasses all other religions in the sublimity of its doctrines, few are aware how much it excels them also in the purity of its precepts. But we need go no further than to the words before us, to illustrate the superiority of the Christian code above all others. Whatever might assimilate us to ferocious beasts, has been a subject of praise among the heathen world. To contend with enemies, to revenge affronts, to be foremost in deeds of heroism, this has exalted men to deities: but to be of a meek and yielding spirit has been deemed rather an indication of weakness, and a reason for contempt. Yet this is the spirit which our blessed Lord particularly commands, and declares to be intimately connected with true happiness.
In vindication of his assertions, we propose to set before you,
The character here specified—
The disposition which distinguishes the persons here spoken of, is not that natural mildness and gentleness with which some are favoured even from the womb: (persons of this description may be as far from true Christian meekness, as others who are of a more violent temper:) but a meekness founded “in poverty of spirit,” and in “mourning for sin,” a fruit of the operation of the Spirit of God upon the soul [Note: Galatians 5:22-23.]. To view the Christian in the exercise of this grace, let us look at him,
In his conduct towards God—
[He no longer, like others, disputes against the word of God, or murmurs on account of the dealings of his Providence. Whatever God requires, appears, in his eyes, to be right [Note: Psalms 119:128.]: and whatever he does, though for the present it may be dark and inexplicable, is considered as wise and good. He dares not on any account to “reply against God [Note: Romans 9:20.].” Instead of objecting to any declaration, command, or threatening, as “an hard saying,” he “trembles at it [Note: Isaiah 66:2.];” and receives it with meekness as an engrafted word, “able to save his soul [Note: James 1:21.].” He may have many and great trials; but instead of “fretting against the Lord,” he bows with humble submission, saying, “Not my will, but thine be done.” “He is dumb, and openeth not his mouth,” from the consideration that it is done by a loving and gracious Father [Note: Psalms 39:9.].]
In his conduct towards men—
[He is courteous. If in his unconverted state he has been rough, severe, and harsh, he will not appear to the same advantage as one whose temper and habits have been mild: but the operation of divine grace will be more conspicuous in him, by reason of the greatness of the change that has been produced. He is become a new man: all around him discern and feel the difference: as a husband, he is more tender; as a father, more kind; as a master, more gentle; as a member of society, more engaging. He is modest, affable, easy of access, and amiable in the whole of his deportment. There is nothing of an overbearing disposition in him, but a willingness that others should think and act for themselves as well as he. This is his character, as described by the pen of an inspired writer: he is “no brawler, but gentle, shewing all meekness to all men [Note: Titus 3:2.].”
He is patient. Many in their natural state are so irritable, that it is impossible to please them long together: they are like the sea, tossed and agitated by every breath of wind. Not so the person who has attained the character in the text. We say not, that he never speaks unadvisedly with his lips; for even Moses, the meekest of the human race, transgressed in this particular [Note: Psalms 106:33.]; and, if a man so bridled his tongue, as never in any instance to offend in word, he would be altogether perfect [Note: James 3:2.]. But the Christian has attained such a measure of self-government, as “not to be easily provoked.” He is “slow to wrath, knowing that the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God [Note: James 1:19-20.].” He accounts it “his glory to pass over a transgression [Note: Proverbs 19:11.].” Where the offence committed is of such a nature as to require an expression of his displeasure, he endeavours so to guard his anger, so to temper it with love and pity; and so to restrain it both in measure and duration, that he may fulfil the precept, “Be angry, and sin not [Note: Ephesians 4:26-27.].” He is particularly on his guard in relation to religious controversy. If his sentiments are represented as erroneous and absurd, instead of yielding immediately to vehemence and invective, he will “give a reason of the hope that is in him with meekness and fear [Note: 1 Peter 3:15.];” and will “instruct in meekness them that oppose themselves, if God peradventure may give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth [Note: 2 Timothy 2:25.].” If, on the other hand, it falls to his lot to reprove a fallen brother, he will endeavour to “restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering himself, lest he also be tempted [Note: Galatians 6:1.].”
He is forgiving. He may receive injuries like other men: but he will not resent them as others do. He knows that he is “not to recompense evil for evil unto any man,” but rather to “heap coals of fire on the head of his enemies,” if by any means he may at last melt them into love: “instead of being overcome of evil, he strives with all his might to overcome evil with good [Note: Romans 12:17-21.].” The rule to which he endeavours to conform, is that which is laid down by our blessed Lord; (and who might so well require it of us, seeing that he himself exemplifies it so wonderfully towards all his people?) it is that of forgiving, not once, or seven times merely, but seventy times seven [Note: Matthew 18:21-22.]. In this indeed he labours to resemble Christ himself, “forbearing and forgiving others, even as Christ hath forgiven him [Note: Colossians 3:13.].” He does not, it is true, receive to his bosom a person who is so constantly offending; nor is it necessary that he should, till the person himself be renewed in the spirit of his mind: but he will so far forgive, as to bear not the smallest ill-will towards him, but to be really glad of any opportunity to do him good.]
Such, though in different degrees, is the true Christian. All do not attain the same eminence in these virtues; but all are distinguished for them in proportion to the grace they have received; nor can any man be accounted a true Christian, unless he have “the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price [Note: 1 Peter 3:4.].”
If such a man is distinguished in the character he sustains, he is no less so in,
The blessedness he enjoys—
The New Testament encourages us principally by a hope of spiritual blessings: yet it sometimes gives us reason to expect also such as are temporal [Note: 1 Timothy 4:8. Matthew 6:33.]. That the promise here given to the meek is temporal, appears from the passage in the Psalms, from whence it is quoted [Note: Psalms 37:11.]: and it is indeed fulfilled to every one that answers to the character in the text.
He has fewer occasions of disquietude than others—
[Others, in addition to the common calamities of life, create trouble to themselves by their ungoverned tempers. When all would be peaceable and tranquil, they by their “grievous words stir up anger [Note: Proverbs 15:1.].” As, to a man in a fever, every posture is uneasy, every food insipid, every office troublesome; so, to an impatient fretful man, every thing becomes a source of trouble and vexation. Both the one and the other are ready to think that people are in league, as it were, against them: but the disease is within themselves; and it is the soreness of their own flesh, not the hardness of the touch, that is in reality the source of their pain. But the man that is truly meek, cuts off, instead of multiplying, occasions of pain. By kindness and courtesy he disarms his adversary; and “by his soft words, he turneth away wrath [Note: Proverbs 15:1.].” If he has himself inadvertently done wrong, he freely acknowledges his fault; and thus, by yielding, pacifieth even great offences [Note: Ecclesiastes 10:4.].” If he have received an injury, the same disposition leads him to accept an acknowledgment, and not to insist on all the reparation which perhaps he might be justified in requiring. In many cases, he turns away his eyes from the evil that is done, and lets it pass unnoticed. In this manner he is kept from a thousand disputes which agitate others, and passes through life with half the troubles that vex and harass the world around him,]
He is less affected by those which do occur—
[The sturdy oak has often its branches broken off by a storm, or perhaps is torn up by the roots, whilst the supple reed sustains no injury at all. Thus the meek submissive Christian bears up under those trials which the stoutest of ungodly men would be unable to endure. He receives them as from the hand of God, and says, “Shall a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins [Note: Lamentations 3:39.]?” “I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him [Note: Micah 7:9.].” Even when men are the immediate causes of his troubles, he still looks, through the second causes, unto God the first cause of all; and says with Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed is the name of the Lord [Note: Job 1:15; Job 1:17; Job 1:21.]!” How different is the state of such a man from one, who, “like a wild bull in a net,” foams and bellows with impotent unavailing rage! The world is not like the same place to the two characters: to the one it is as the confines of hell; to the other, the portico of heaven.]
He is more tranquil in his own mind—
[This necessarily arises from the two preceding considerations: but it is true in another point of view: the meek person has the testimony of a good conscience, and enjoys the presence of his God; whilst those who arc destitute of that holy disposition, are of necessity unacquainted with these sources of heavenly consolation. As it is not possible for an impenitent unbelieving soul to taste that peace which passeth all understanding; so neither can one who is morose, or irritable, or vindictive: “His sins will hide good things from him, and will separate between him and his God [Note: Isaiah 59:2.].
The promise in the text is supposed by many to refer to the land of Canaan; and to that as typical of heaven [Note: τὴν γῆν.]. And certainly in this sense also it is fulfilled to those who are truly meek. Often do they, (and never more than when suffering for righteousness’ sake,) obtain Pisgah views of that promised land; and often are refreshed with the grapes of Eschol, even when most destitute of earthly comforts. In a word, they have a joy with which the stranger intermeddleth not, and which is an earnest and foretaste of their heavenly inheritance [Note: Isaiah 29:19.].]
[Let St. Peter be heard in confirmation of all that has been said [Note: 1 Peter 3:9-11.]: “Good days” are “a blessing” which God designs us “to inherit:” and a meek demeanour is the means by which we are to obtain it. Let us not, however, put any Christian grace in the place of Christ: it is He, and he alone, that can give us either peace with God, or peace in our own consciences — — — Nevertheless, meekness, as a means, is conducive to happiness: and it is in vain to expect happiness, either in this world or in the next, if we do not attain it. “Who then is a wise man and endued with knowledge amongst you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom [Note: James 3:13.].”]
HUNGERING AND THIRSTING AFTER RIGHTEOUSNESS
Matthew 5:6. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled.
MEN naturally desire happiness: but they know not in what it is to be found. The philosophers of old wearied themselves in vain to find out what was man’s chief good. But our blessed Lord has informed us wherein it consists: it is found in holiness alone; which, when embodied, as it were, and exercised in all its branches, renders us completely blessed. In this sense we understand the words of our text; wherein are set forth,
The distinctive character of a Christian—
It is a gross perversion of Scripture to interpret this passage as relating to the righteousness of Christ: for though it is true that every Christian desires to be clothed in that righteousness, and shall, in consequence of that desire, obtain his wishes, yet it is not the truth contained in the words before us: they certainly relate to that inward righteousness which every Christian must possess, and to that “holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”
Now the character of every Christian is, that he desires holiness,
[Other desires are not eradicated from the human breast: the natural appetites remain after our conversion the same as before, except as they are restrained and governed by a higher principle. In proportion, indeed, as religion gains an ascendant in the soul, those words will be verified, “He that eateth and drinketh of the water that Christ will give him, shall never thirst [Note: John 4:14.].” But from the very commencement of the divine life, all earthly things sink in the Christian’s estimation, and are accounted as dung and dross in comparison of the Divine image. In this sense “Christ is all” to him [Note: Colossians 3:11. Christ here means the image of Christ. See Disc. on that passage.]: and he can say, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire in comparison of thee.”]
[While other desires remain in the heart, they will of course occasionally rise in opposition to the better principle: but the prevailing desire of the soul is after holiness. “The flesh may lust against the Spirit,” and seem for a moment to triumph over it: but “the Spirit will lust and strive against the flesh [Note: Galatians 5:17.],” till it has vanquished its rebellious motions. The needle may be driven by violence from its accustomed position: but its attractions are ever towards the pole; and it will never rest till it has resumed its wonted place. Its momentary diversion serves but to prove its fixed habitual inclination. In like manner, temptation itself, in rousing up the soul to action, calls forth its heavenly tendencies, and displays the holy energies with which it is endued.]
[Every other desire may be satiated; but the more of spiritual nourishment we receive, the more will our hunger and thirst after it be increased. St. Paul himself could not sit down contented; but forgetting what he had attained, he reached forth for higher degrees of holiness [Note: Philippians 3:13.]. It is only “when we awake up after the perfect likeness of our God, that we shall be satisfied with it [Note: Psalms 17:15.].”]
Truly enviable will this state appear, if we consider,
The blessedness annexed to it—
To be filled with good and nutritious food is the utmost that the bodily appetite can desire. It is in this sense that we are to understand the promise in the text. The person who hungers and thirsts after righteousness, shall be made,
[There is a negative kind of holiness, which is neither pleasing to God nor profitable to man: it consists merely in an abstinence from open sin, and a discharge of external duties. But real holiness pervades the whole man: it comprehends the whole circle of divine graces: it reaches to the thoughts and desires of the heart; and assimilates us to God in all his communicable perfections. Now this is that with which the true Christian shall be filled: in all his dispositions towards God and man, he shall be changed: he shall not only be delivered from all that would injure his character among men, but shall be “transformed into the very image of his God in righteousness and true holiness.”]
[That degree of perfection to which Christians may attain, is not gained at once. All the members of the new man, as well as of the material body, do indeed exist at the moment of our birth: but they are then in a state of infantine weakness: and their arrival at a state of maturity is a gradual work. Now this work shall be advanced in the souls of those who earnestly desire it: “they shall hold on their way, growing stronger and stronger [Note: Job 17:9.];” and, like the risen sun, “shine brighter and brighter unto the perfect day [Note: Proverbs 4:18.].” “The Lord will perfect that which concerneth them [Note: Psalms 138:8.],” and “carry on his work until the day of Christ [Note: Philippians 1:6.].”]
[Though absolute perfection is not to be attained in this life, yet every righteous person may expect it, as the completion of his wishes, and the consummation of his bliss. The moment that his soul is released from this frail tabernacle, it shall bid an everlasting farewell to sin and sorrow. The hunger and thirst which characterize him in this world, will then cease for ever: there will remain to him no heights unattained, no wishes unaccomplished: his soul will be “filled” with the desired good, yea, filled to the utmost extent of its capacity.]
[Are there those who, instead of hungering and thirsting after righteousness, despise it? Tell me, will ye despise it in the day of judgment? will ye despise it, when ye shall see the difference that is put between the godly and the ungodly? And what is that which ye prefer to it? Can ye say of your pleasures, your riches, or your honours, what our Lord says of righteousness? shall ye certainly be filled with those things? or if ye were, would they ever render you truly blessed? Go, ask of Solomon, or ask of any who have made the experiment; and see whether, in their sober moments, they will not confess those things to be “vanity and vexation of spirit?” O “spend not your money any more for that which is not bread, nor labour for that which satisfieth not; but eat ye that which is good, and let your soul be satisfied with fatness [Note: Isaiah 55:2-3.].”
Are there those who rest in a form of religion? Know that it is not the form, but the power, of godliness that God requires. The Pharisees of old abounded in outward duties; but “except your righteousness exceed theirs, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” That which you must desire, that which you must attain, is an universal change both of heart and life: you must become new creatures: old things must pass away, and all things become new.”
Are there any discouraged because of the small proficiency they have made in holiness? Doubtless this is a matter of lamentation to the best of men. If indeed we are excusing ourselves, and pacifying our consciences from the idea that in this frail state we cannot but commit sin, we are deceiving our own souls; for “he that is born of God, sinneth not [Note: 1 John 3:9.];” that is, he allows not himself in any sin, whether of excess or defect; whether of commission or of omission. But if “our souls are really athirst for God, and we are panting after him, as the hart after the water-brooks,” we need not fear. God will ere long “fill the hungry with good things;” “he will satisfy the longing soul, and replenish every sorrowful soul.” The very idea of hunger is a painful sensation of want; and if holiness be the object of that appetite, all shall be well, yea, and all is well: “that soul is blessed, and shall be filled.”]
THE REWARD OF MERCIFULNESS
Matthew 5:7. Blessed are the merciful; for they shall obtain mercy.
THERE can be no doubt but that every Minister should set forth the peculiar doctrines of the Gospel with frequency and firmness. If he lay not the foundation well, he can never hope to have his labours crowned with success. On the other hand, it becomes him very earnestly to inculcate the necessity of a Christian temper: and, if he be not attentive to this, he must expect, that, whilst his people are filled with head-knowledge, they will dishonour their profession both by their spirit and conduct. Our blessed Lord, throughout this whole discourse, shews us the importance of cultivating holy and heavenly dispositions: and, at the same time that he corrects the false notions which were entertained respecting the nature of his kingdom, declares unequivocally, that it is the practical Christian, and he only, that is truly blessed.
In considering the declaration before us, let us inquire,
Who are they that answer to the character in the text—
Love has respect to men universally, whatever their condition be; but mercifulness has respect to them as objects of pity and compassion. Now “the merciful” man sympathizes with persons in affliction, and desires to relieve them. He looks with an eye of pity,
Upon those who are bowed down under their troubles—
[If their trials be of a temporal nature, he longs to render them such service as their necessities require. Are they labouring under bodily diseases? he will rejoice to procure for them all necessary aid [Note: Job 30:25.] Are they oppressed with poverty, or in embarrassed circumstances? he will deny himself in order to impart to them [Note: Job 29:11; Job 29:16.]. Are they distressed on account of painful bereavements? he will labour to assuage the anguish of their minds by tender assiduities and suitable consolations [Note: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14; 1 Thessalonians 4:18.].
If their trials be of a spiritual nature, he will labour to bring them to that heavenly Physician, who will apply “the balm of Gilead” to their souls. If a sense of guilt appal them, he will lead them to “the fountain opened for sin,” and encourage them with assurances that “the blood of Jesus Christ will cleanse them from all sin [Note: Zechariah 13:1. 1 John 1:7.].” If they be sorely tempted by Satan, he will endeavour to counteract the wiles and devices of their great adversary, and to direct them to that adorable Saviour, whose “grace shall be sufficient for them [Note: Ephesians 6:10-18. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9.].” If they be dejected on account of the hidings of God’s face, he will “strengthen their weak hands, and confirm their feeble knees, and say unto their fearful hearts, Your God will come and save you [Note: Isaiah 35:3-4.].”]
Upon those who, though unconscious of their state, are really in a pitiable condition—
[Does he behold a poor drunken man staggering in the streets? he cannot laugh at his frantic gestures, but is ready to weep over him, as he would over a maniac or an idiot that was lacerating his own flesh, or beating his head against a wall. The scoffing infidel, the proud Pharisee, the profane sensualist, the self-deceiving professor, and the bitter persecutor, all in their turn call forth his compassionate regards. He mourns over them, well knowing the misery which they are bringing on themselves [Note: So did David, Psalms 119:136. Jeremiah, Jeremiah 9:1. Paul, Philippians 3:18-19. Christ himself, Luke 19:41.]: and, instead of despising them on account of the superiority of his own character, he longs, if possible, to “turn them from darkness unto light, and from the power of Satan unto God.” If he see any hopeful signs in them, “he travails in birth with them, till Christ be formed in them [Note: Galatians 4:19.].” Even if they be incorrigibly obstinate, he will not presently give up all hope, but will still watch for opportunities of doing them good. Filled with compassion towards them, he will, if possible, “save them with fear, pulling them out of the fire [Note: Jude, ver. 22, 23.].” If he himself be evil entreated by them, he is affected with pity rather than with anger; and laments, not so much the injury which he suffers from them, as the injury they do unto their own souls [Note: 2 Corinthians 12:15.Luke 23:34; Luke 23:34.].]
Such is the merciful man: O that there were in all of us such a heart!
To prove that all such characters are “blessed,” we shall proceed to inquire,
What is the reward promised to them—
“They shall obtain mercy,” says our blessed Lord. But from whom? from man? yes, from man. Good men universally will account it the joy of their hearts to administer to them, whenever occasion shall require it — — — And even bad men have within themselves such a conviction of the excellence of such characters, that they must do violence to themselves, before they can withhold that assistance which their necessities may require. Thus Job found it [Note: Job 42:11-12.], and so shall we [Note: Luke 6:38. Ecclesiastes 11:1.].
But supposing that men are ungrateful and unmerciful, still such characters shall be blessed; for God will be merciful unto them:
[He will rather feed them by the ministry of ravens, than suffer them to want. “The lions may lack and suffer hunger; but they shall not want any good thing.” “God will supply all their want according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus,” and “will bless them in all that they put their hand unto [Note: Philippians 4:17-19. Deuteronomy 15:10.].” But it is in their souls that they shall experience the richest blessings. Who can express the joy and delight which merciful men often experience in the exercise of their benevolence. It is no little joy that they diffuse; but infinitely more that they receive: they find the truth of that favourite saying of our Lord, “It is more blessed to give than to receive [Note: Acts 20:35.].” This, indeed, is promised to them [Note: Isaiah 58:10-11.] — — — and that God who cannot lie, will not fail to fulfil his word. In the time of their own greatest need, they shall find God’s mercy to them most abundant [Note: Psalms 41:1-3.].]
We make our appeal to all who have exerted themselves much in doing good, whether they have not found it incomparably “better to go to the house of mourning, than to the house of feasting.”
[Though no dispositions or actions of ours can merit any thing at the hands of God, he will give unto them “a reward of grace [Note: Romans 4:4.].” He would even account himself “unjust,” if he did not do so [Note: Hebrews 6:10.]. He considers himself as our dehtor for every thing that we do, provided we do it from a sense of gratitude to him, and of zeal for his glory; and “he will repay us [Note: Proverbs 19:17.].” Not even “a cup of cold water, given for his sake,” shall pass without a recompence [Note: Matthew 10:42.]. Our exertions in acts of mercy will be the peculiar subjects of his inquiry in the day of judgment, and will be considered as evidences either of our being meet for glory, or ripe for vengeance [Note: Matthew 25:34-46.]. And if we be found to have fulfilled his will in relation to them, our harvest shall be proportioned to the seed that we have sown [Note: 2 Corinthians 9:6.]. Certainly it becomes us to be jealous of ourselves, that we do not found our hopes of salvation upon our deeds of mercy: for Jesus Christ is the only foundation of a sinner’s hope [Note: 1 Corinthians 3:11.]: but if we look for happiness to arise from the employment of “the unrighteous mammon,” we must look for it, not in the hoarding of riches, nor in making them subservient to carnal gratifications, but in doing good with them [Note: Luke 16:9.]: and in that view, we do lay up a good foundation against the time to come, a foundation that shall stand for ever [Note: 1 Timothy 6:17-19.].]
We will subjoin for your use some salutary cautions:
Be careful to distinguish between mercy and piety—
[It is possible for persons to be of a merciful disposition, whilst they are utter strangers to real piety. Natural constitution has made some more tender than others; and education has formed some to better habits. But it often happens, that persons of benevolent minds imagine all religion to consist in acts of kindness to their fellow-creatures. They found this notion even on the word of God itself [Note: Micah 6:8.]: but they sadly misinterpret that passage, and entirely overlook the duty of “walking humbly with God.” But this is no less necessary than acts of justice and of mercy: yea, without it all our virtues will he no better than splendid sins [Note: Habakkuk 1:16.] — — —]
Be careful at the same time to combine mercy with piety—
[Piety cannot exist without mercy. “The wisdom that is from above is full of mercy and good fruits [Note: James 3:17.].” “The tree that bringeth forth not good fruit is fit only to be hewn down and cast into the fire.” It is by “bearing one another’s burthens that we fulfil the law of Christ [Note: Galatians 5:2.].” We may talk of love to God, but we cannot possess it, if we delight not in every act and exercise of love [Note: 1 John 3:17.]. We may give good words to our indigent neighbour; but, if we do not administer relief at the same time, he will be no better for us: and as our pretences to love will be of no benefit to him, so neither will our pretences to faith be of any benefit to ourselves [Note: James 2:15-16.]. If we have not learned to “weep with them that weep [Note: Romans 12:13.],” it is to no purpose to call ourselves Christians: we only deceive our own souls [Note: James 2:13.].”
But it may be said, We have not a capacity to instruct our fellow-creatures; nor have we ability to relieve them: must we therefore be excluded from the number of true Christians? No: “If there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not [Note: 2 Corinthians 8:12.].” But let us be sure that there is in us that willing mind, and that God sees “the yearning of our bowels” in secret prayer for the relief of those, whom, in other respects, we are unable to assist.]
Be on your guard against any declension in the exercise of this duty—
[We are changeable creatures; and they who “have run well” for a season, are sometimes “hindered” in a more advanced stage of their course [Note: Galatians 5:7.]. But let us be on our guard, that we “be not weary in well-doing [Note: Galatians 6:9.].” If we have learned how “to walk and to please God, we should then endeavour to abound more and more [Note: 1 Thessalonians 4:1.].” There is no limit at which we should stop. God himself is the pattern we should keep in view; and we should seek to “be merciful as our Father which is in heaven is merciful [Note: Luke 6:36.].” If we want motives to exertion, let us reflect on the mercy shewn to us by our adorable Lord and Saviour, “who gave his own life a ransom for us:” or let us consider what compassion he yet daily exercises towards us, “being touched with the feeling of our infirmities [Note: Hebrews 4:15.]:” and, as he has so loved us as to die for us, let us remember, that life itself is not too great a sacrifice for us to make, to promote the welfare of our fellow-creatures [Note: 1 John 3:16.].]
PURITY OF HEART
Matthew 5:8. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
THERE is nothing in which mankind more generally imagine happiness to consist than in the uncontrolled indulgence of their passions. It is probable that among those who looked for the establishment of the Messiah’s kingdom, many pleased themselves with the idea, that his victories would open to them a way for multiplying captives to any extent, and consequently for the unlimited gratification of their corrupt appetites. To counteract such absurd notions, and to evince the spiritual nature of his kingdom, our blessed Lord declared, that happiness was to be found, not “in assimilating” ourselves to the brute creation, but in purity of heart and life: “Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God.”
The character here mentioned, is that which first claims our attention—
Purity of heart may be considered as opposed to hypocrisy: in that sense it denotes a freedom from base and selfish ends in the whole of our transactions, both with God and man. Strange as it may seem, the duties of religion itself may be performed from very unworthy motives. Pride, ostentation, self-righteousness, self-complacency, may lie at the foundation of those very services whereby we pretend to honour God; and may render them, not only worthless, but hateful in his sight [Note: Zechariah 7:5-6.]. Our conduct also towards man may be very specious, and yet be full of dissimulation and craft. It is no uncommon thing, as all who are conversant with the world know, to see men, under the guise of friendship, aiming only at the advancement of their own interests. Such duplicity is hateful to a true Christian. He that is “an Israelite indeed, is without guile.” Purity of heart, in this sense, is beautifully exemplified in the Apostle Paul, whose ministrations had no other object than to advance the glory of God in the salvation of men [Note: 1Th 2:3-6 and 2 Corinthians 2:17.]. O that all of us possessed the same integrity; and could, like him, appeal both to God and man for the purity of our intentions, and the simplicity of our minds!
But purity may also be understood in opposition to uncleanness: and, if we suppose that our Lord designed to condemn the sensuality of those who expected the Messiah as a temporal Prince, we must of course annex that meaning to his words. Perhaps the more enlarged sense of the text, as comprehending both ideas, is the more just: but as the latter idea is of singular importance, we shall consider the character chiefly in reference to that.
We observe, then, that the person who is pure in heart,
Abstains from all acts of uncleanness—
[Others may make light of fornication and adultery: but he knows them to be ruinous and damning sins: and he abstains from them, not merely from the fear of detection and disgrace, but from a dread of displeasing Almighty God, and of plunging his soul into everlasting misery. He is well convinced, that “the body was not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:13.].” He considers “his body as a member of Christ himself:” and, if tempted to “take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot,” he exclaims with horror, “God forbi [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:15.]!”]
Harbours no evil desires in his heart—
[Being of like passions with others, he cannot but feel as others on some occasions: but he has learned through grace to counteract the propensities of nature, and to “crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts [Note: Galatians 5:24.].” He knows that “fleshly lusts war against the soul [Note: 1 Peter 2:11.];” and that, if not vigorously opposed in the first instance, they will soon gain the ascendant, and lead him captive. He sees how others are enslaved, “having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin [Note: 2 Peter 2:14.].” He has heard of that confession in the book of Proverbs, “I was almost in all evil in the midst of the congregation and the assembly [Note: Proverbs 5:14.]:” and he dreads lest he in like manner should become a prey to his evil passions. If evil thoughts or desires arise, he regards them as fire, which, if not extinguished speedily, will inflame and consume his soul. Hence lie prays day and night, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me [Note: Psalms 51:10.].” He is not contented with being “like a whited sepulchre, beautiful without, but full of all uncleanness within:” he is as attentive to “the inside of the cup and platter,” as he is to its exterior appearance [Note: Matthew 23:25-28.].]
Avoids the occasions of evil—
[Many who have a regard for their character, will yet make no scruple of reading books, or hearing songs, or attending scenes, which tend to vitiate the mind. They will even court occasions of evil, delighting in that company and conversation which they know by experience to produce bad impressions on their hearts.
Not so the person that is pure in heart: he stands at a distance from every polluting object [Note: Psalms 73:1.]: like Joseph, he flies from those who would corrupt him [Note: Genesis 39:9-10.]: like Job, he “makes a covenant with his eyes,” and with his heart, that he will neither look, nor think, upon an object that will ensnare him [Note: Job 31:1.]. He knows that “the very thought of foolishness is sin [Note: Proverbs 24:9.];” and he is determined through grace, that “vain thoughts shall not lodge with him.” He hates them: he lothes himself for his propensity to indulge them; and he longs to be “holy as God himself is holy [Note: 1 Peter 1:14-16.].”]
The blessedness of those who have attained this character, is the next point to be considered:
They shall enjoy a sight of God in this world—
[It is true, that “God dwelleth in the light which no man can approach unto,” and that, in strictness of speech, “no man hath seen him, or can see him.” But there were manifestations of him vouchsafed to his people of old, sometimes through the medium of the human or angelic form, and sometimes by a bright effulgence of his glory. There are also other manifestations which God still makes of himself to the souls of men [Note: John 14:21-23.]; and which he will vouchsafe to the pure in heart. It must not, however, be expected that, in speaking of these things, we can bring them down to the apprehension of the ungodly: they have no eyes to see them, no ears to hear them, no understandings to understand them: and it is as vain to speak of these things to them, as it would be to speak of colours to the blind, or sounds to the deaf, or tastes to those who had no palate. Nevertheless we must affirm, on the authority of God himself, that “the pure in heart shall see God.” They shall see him in his ordinances, whilst others are altogether unconscious of his presence. They shall see him in their secret chamber, where he will draw nigh unto them, and “say, Here I am [Note: Job 33:26. Isaiah 58:9.].” They shall see him in all the works of creation, and in all the dispensations of his providence. They shall see him in every comfort and in every cross. His wisdom, his goodness, his love, his mercy, his faithfulness, are ever before their eyes. They have such views of him and his perfections as words cannot describe; and such fellowship with him as a carnal man has no idea of [Note: 1 John 1:3.]. The impure may mourn, and even “howl upon their beds;” but the pure, like Moses of old, have near access to God, and see “him who is invisible [Note: Hebrews 11:27.];” and by this sight are strengthened, supported, comforted, and sanctified.]
They shall behold the beatific vision in heaven—
[Thither the unclean can never be admitted [Note: Ephesians 5:5.Hebrews 12:14; Hebrews 12:14.]. As well might “light have communion with darkness, or Christ with Belial,” as they participate the blessedness of heaven. If it be asked, “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord, and stand in his holy place?” the answer is, “He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart [Note: Psalms 24:4.].” To him a glorious inheritance is promised: for him a place in the heavenly mansions is prepared: a seat upon the very throne of God himself is reserved for him. There shall his organs of vision be strengthened to behold all the glory of the Godhead. At present he “sees God only as through a glass, darkly; but then will he behold him face to face. Now he knows God only in part; but then he will know him, even as he himself is known [Note: 1 Corinthians 13:12.].”]
The gay and dissipated—
[Perhaps you refrain from gross iniquity; and therefore “imagine yourselves pure, though you are not washed from your inward filthiness [Note: Proverbs 30:12.].” In this notion you are countenanced by the world at large: — — — but “let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of inward, as well as outward impurity, the wrath of God cometh upon all the children of disobedience [Note: Ephesians 5:6. 2 Peter 2:9-10.].” “Your bodies are the temples of the Holy Ghost; and if any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy [Note: 1 Corinthians 3:16-17.].” Nevertheless, if you deeply repent of your past sins, you shall be forgiven [Note: James 4:8-9.]; and if you believe in Christ, you shall be both sanctified and saved [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.].]
The professors of religion—
[How many who have run well for a season have been hindered and turned aside through the prevalence of their own evil passions! We need not go back to David and Solomon: there is not a place where religion has made any progress, but affords some lamentable proof of the influence of unsubdued lusts. A religious person first conceives a thought; and that thought is suffered to dwell upon his mind. The mind inflamed, yields to the impulse of desire so far as to court familiarity with the alluring object: conscience reproves; but the deceitful heart suggests, that, as no positive act of sin is intended, no evil will arise. Corruption now begins to work more strongly; and every renewed familiarity with temptation increases its power over us; so that we scarcely know how to keep from the place or person whom we ought to shun. Conscience remonstrates, but in vain; till at last the devil takes us in his snare, and we bring disgrace on our holy profession, and cause the name of God to be blasphemed [Note: See. James 1:14-15.]. This is the history of many a religious character. Would we avoid this melancholy end? let us avoid the means. Let us “keep our hearts with all diligence [Note: Proverbs 4:23.]:” let us live nigh to God, and beg of him to keep us. Let us beware how we “grieve his Spirit,” by tampering with sin, or parleying with temptation. Let us “walk in the Spirit; and then we shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh [Note: Galatians 5:16.].” Let us often ask ourselves, What we shall think of such things in a dying hour? Little dost thou think, whoever thou art that art yielding to the tempter, how thou art filling thy dying pillow with thorns; and wilt most probably bring on thyself a condemnation far heavier than that of Sodom and Gomorrha. O may God take you out of the horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set your feet upon a rock, and establish your goings [Note: Psalms 40:2.]!” But concerning this evil we may say, as our Lord said concerning a deaf and dumb spirit whom his disciples could not cast out, “This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting [Note: Matthew 17:21.].”]
The conscientious Christian—
[Blessed art thou, who art enabled to maintain “a conscience void of offence towards God and man.” Thou art blessed, and shalt be blessed. If thou dost not see so much of God as thou wouldst, thou hast far different views of him from what they have who give way to sin. And the time is fast approaching, when thou shalt no more complain of darkness and distance from God, but shalt “behold his face in righteousness, and be satisfied with it [Note: Psalms 17:15.].”
Yet even to thee must I say, Watch against the assaults of sin and Satan. It is not past experience that will keep thee: for Solomon fell “after God had appeared to him twice [Note: 1 Kings 11:9.].” Nor is it high attainments that will preserve thee: for the man after God’s own heart became a monument of human frailty and depravity. Nor is even marriage itself sufficient to extinguish the unhallowed flame. You may have, if I may so say, whole flocks at your command, and yet it will not keep you from coveting your neighbour’s ewe-lamb [Note: 2 Samuel 12:2; 2 Samuel 12:4; 2 Samuel 12:8-9.]. It is grace, and grace alone, that will enable you to hold on unto the end. In Christ you may trust with joyful confidence: “He is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy [Note: Jude, ver. 24.].” Moreover, he has promised that “you shall have no temptation without a way to escape, that you may be able to bear it [Note: 1 Corinthians 10:13.].” Apply this promise to your souls, and you shall be enabled to “cleanse yourselves from all filthiness, both of flesh and spirit, and to perfect holiness in the fear of God [Note: 2 Corinthians 7:1.].” Depend not for one moment on yourselves, but “be strong in the grace that is in Christ:” and may the very God of Peace sanctify you wholly! and I pray God that your whole body, soul, and spirit, may be sanctified wholly unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ [Note: 1 Thessalonians 5:23.]!]
Matthew 5:9. Blessed are the peace-makers: for they shall be called the children of God.
RELIGION is altogether a practical thing: it has its foundation indeed in principles; but it has a superstructure of dispositions and actions, which are necessary both to its completion and utility. Nothing can be a stronger proof of this than the discourse before us: for, however we may suppose it designed to rectify men’s notions respecting the nature of the Messiah’s kingdom, and to explain the law in opposition to the false glosses of the Scribes and Pharisees, its direct tendency is to raise the standard of morality both in the hearts and lives of men. The beatitudes which we have already considered, refer principally to the exercises of the heart: that which we propose to notice at this time, relates to the conduct: and, as our blessed Lord has counted it worthy of such a conspicuous place in his discourse, we may be well assured that it deserves from us the most attentive consideration.
Let us then, as on former occasions, consider,
The character here spoken of—
The term which we translate “peace-makers,” may be understood, like those which have preceded it, as marking only a pacific temper and conduct [Note: Compare 1 John 2:29; 1 John 3:4. with the text, in the Greek.]. But in that view it will correspond very nearly with “the meek,” whose character has been already considered. We therefore take the word agreeably to the sense in which it is translated; and observe, that the peacemakers are they who are studious,
To preserve peace where it is—
[View them in the whole of their conduct, and they will be found “following after the things which make for peace.”
View them in the State. They are not like many who take upon them to condemn every thing which their governors do: no: they see the evil of a murmuring, discontented, turbulent, and seditious spirit: they are “afraid to speak evil of dignities [Note: 2 Peter 2:10.]:” they bear in mind the command of God, “Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people [Note: Acts 23:5.]:” and, instead of “exercising themselves in matters that are too high for them [Note: Psalms 131:1.],” and presuming to judge of measures without having one half the grounds of judgment before them, and “meddling with those who are given to change [Note: Proverbs 24:21.],” they are characterized as people “quiet in the land [Note: Psalms 35:20.].”
View them in the Church. It is their constant endeavour so to walk as to “give no offence in any thing,” to “cast no stumbling-block before any,” but to edify all in faith and love. Many there are, so bigoted to their own sect or party, or so fond of some particular doctrines, that they can scarcely meet a brother or a sister without bringing forward their favourite opinions; and not at all concerned what perplexities they cause in the minds of individuals, or what divisions in the Church, provided they can but make proselytes, and increase their own party [Note: Titus 1:10-11.]. Such generally obtrude themselves wherever the Gospel is faithfully preached; and are but too successful in “beguiling unstable souls,” and in “corrupting them from the simplicity that is in Christ [Note: 2 Corinthians 11:3.].” This they do in direct opposition to the command, “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations [Note: Romans 14:1.].” The peace-makers, on the contrary, will “bear the infirmities of the weak [Note: Romans 15:1.];” will deny themselves many lawful things, rather than wound a tender conscience [Note: Romans 14:21. 1 Corinthians 8:13.]; and will “become all things to all men [Note: 1 Corinthians 9:19-22.]:” in short, they will do any thing, or forbear any thing, that they may “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace [Note: Ephesians 4:3.].”
View them in the family. Here they are conspicuous for their unremitting exercise of forbearance and love. They do not take offence at every trifle: and, instead of thwarting the little humours and peculiarities of those around them, they are happy to gratify them, and to win their affections by courtesy and condescension. They remember that wise proverb, “Where no wood is, the fire goeth out; so where there is no tale-bearer, the strife ceaseth [Note: Proverbs 26:20.]:” and, from a regard to this, they will not listen to tales and stories; much less will they contribute to the circulation of them. If constrained to hear one side of a question, they will suspend their judgment till they have heard the other: and will be studious to weaken, rather than confirm, the unfavourable impressions of the accuser’s mind. If a person seem determined to strive with them, they will rather yield their right, than maintain a controversy with him [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:7. See Genesis 13:8-9.]. Their conduct in their families may be briefly summed up in those words of David, “They keep their tongue from evil, and their lips from speaking guile: they depart from evil, and do good; they seek peace, and pursue it [Note: Psalms 34:13-14. with 1 Peter 3:8-11.].”]
To restore it where it is not—
[They do not impertinently obtrude themselves on others, or interfere in concerns which belong not to them: they are aware that “he who meddleth with strife belonging not to him, is like one who taketh a dog by the ears [Note: Proverbs 26:17.].” Yet, if they see an opportunity where they may properly interpose, they are willing, even at a considerable risk, to exert themselves to the utmost for the restoration of peace. If chosen, or permitted to arbitrate between parties, they will not undertake the office but in a spirit of love, and with an ardent longing to accomplish the desired end. In executing the office of an umpire, they guard against any undue bias; well knowing, that without the strictest impartiality they can never hope to bring over the contending parties to an acquiescence in their decisions. Having begun the good work, they will persevere in it, notwithstanding all the discouragements which they may meet with from the obstinacy of those whom they attempt to reconcile. The more blameworthy of the two will usually he found the more unreasonable and perverse [Note: Acts 7:27.]: but they will patiently bear with much opposition, if by any means they may attain the great object of their wishes.]
In the exercise of this benevolent disposition, the are sure to find,
The blessedness annexed to it—
When it is said that “they shall be called the children of God, we must understand, that,
They shall be so in reality—
[That this is the import of the expression, appears from the parallel passage in St. John’s Epistles; where, having represented believers as called the children of God, he immediately adds, “Now are we the sons of God [Note: 1 John 3:1-2.]:” and to the same effect he speaks in his Gospel; “To as many as believed, to them gave he power to become the sons of God [Note: John 1:12.].” Of course we must throughout all these beatitudes, guard against supposing that the reward annexed to the different dispositions is founded on any merit in man. The reward must always be considered as “a reward of grace, and not as a debt [Note: Romans 4:4.].” It is not to be conceived that there should be such merit in making peace between our fellow-creatures, as that it should deserve such a reward at the hands of God. If we only bear this in mind, we need not be afraid of expecting all the honour which God here promises to the peaceful man. It is taken for granted, that, in our offices of love to man, we are actuated by a sense of love to God: and that, whilst we labour to promote peace amongst our brethren, we are careful to have peace maintained between God and our own souls by the blood of Christ. Then shall we be “sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty [Note: 2 Corinthians 6:18.]:” yea, we shall “have a name given to us better than of sons and of daughters [Note: Isaiah 56:5.].” Together with this relation to God, the peace-makers shall possess all the exalted privileges connected with it: “being sons, they shall be heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ [Note: Romans 8:17.].” It does “not indeed fully appear what they shall hereafter be: but this we know, that when they shall see their heavenly Father, they shall be like him; for they shall see him as he is [Note: 1 John 3:2.].”]
They shall be reputed such by their fellow-creatures—
[It is true, that the world at large are not very ready to acknowledge the excellencies of believers, or to allow their claims of relationship to God. But there is something in a peaceful spirit, which carries its own evidence along with it, and constrains the beholder to do it homage. St. Paul particularly notices this; and declares, that he who acts under its influence for the honour of Christ, is both “accepted of God, and approved of men [Note: Romans 14:18-19.].” We know indeed that the enmity of the human heart against God is such, as to instigate men to persecute even unto death the very persons whom in their consciences they cannot but admire. We therefore do not mean to say that the peace-makers shall meet with no hostility from men; (for our blessed Lord and his Apostles were all crucified or slain:) but that the proper tendency of their conduct is, to conciliate the regard of men, and to impress them with the idea, that they are actuated by the grace of God, and honoured with his peculiar favour.
Surely this blessedness is worthy of our pursuit. To be Children of the Most High God is the great object to which we should continually aspire: and to approve ourselves such to others is also most desirable; because we shall thereby “silence the ignorance of foolish men,” and constrain them to “glorify our Father which is in heaven.”]
Let me, in conclusion, urge you to seek this blessed character—
[Think how happy you will be in the possession of it. “The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace [Note: James 3:18.].” It is not possible to engage much in such labours of love, without having our own souls refreshed and comforted with the heavenly employment. The sacred oil which you pour on the heads of others, will regale you with its odours; and the dews of divine grace, which, through your instrumentality, descend on others, shall enrich and fertilize your own souls [Note: Psalms 133:1-3.].
Consider further, how serviceable you will be in your day and generation. As one litigious or contentious person may be the means of producing incalculable evils to the Church and to society; (for a little fire is sufficient to destroy a whole town [Note: James 3:5.];) so one pious, discreet, and active peace-maker may extinguish flames, which might have spread desolation and misery all around. See an instance of this in Abigail, who, by her seasonable interposition, restrained the wrath of David, and saved the lives of Nabal and all his family [Note: 1 Samuel 25:18-31.]. Thus may you confer blessings on all around you, and heap blessings also on your own heads [Note: 1 Samuel 25:32-33.].
Lastly, consider what a recompence awaits you in the eternal world. There shall this promise be fulfilled to you in its utmost extent.
Cultivate then this amiable disposition, that you may be “sons of God, without rebuke, and shine as lights in a benighted world [Note: Philippians 2:14-15.].”]
PERSECUTION FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS’ SAKE
Matthew 5:10-12. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
CHRISTIANITY, to one who is not acquainted with its real nature, must appear full of paradoxes. In the preceding verses, we are informed what practical religion is; and, in the parallel passage in St. Luke’s Gospel, we have the same truths yet more plainly and explicitly declared [Note: Luke 6:20-26.]. Had any uninspired person avowed such sentiments, we should have been ready to pronounce him mad: for there is scarcely any thing which we regard with dread, but a blessing is annexed to it; or any thing which we consider as desirable, but a woe is denounced against it: the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the despised, are congratulated; and the rich, the full, the laughing, and the honoured, are represented as in a truly pitiable condition. But perhaps the greatest paradox of all is, that persons possessed of vital Christianity should be objects of persecution; that their piety should be the ground of that persecution; and that they should, on this very account, be esteemed happy. But so it is: and so it will appear; if we consider,
The case here supposed—
Our blessed Lord evidently supposes that his people will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. But,
This, it must be confessed, is a very improbable case—
[The very character of his people seems to preclude the idea. Were the disciples of Christ the very reverse of what they are, we might well expect them to be objects of hatred and contempt. But who can hate the humble, the meek, the pure, the peaceful, and those whose chief desire is to serve and honour God? — — — What connexion can there be between the verses of our text, and the whole preceding context? One would imagine that the declaration before us was altogether destitute of any foundation in fact.
That their very righteousness should be the ground of their suffering, appears still more strange. If they were obnoxious to the charge of sedition, or to any thing else that rendered them bad members of society, one would not wonder that they should be evil treated on those accounts, notwithstanding they might in other respects be eminently holy. But that their conformity to Christ should be the true reason of the world’s enmity against them, seems incredible.]
But we are taught to expect that it would exist—
[Our blessed Lord warned all his disciples, that they would receive, each in his appointed measure, the very same treatment as he received [Note: John 15:18-21; John 16:1-3.]. And his Apostles guard us against being surprised or offended at it [Note: 1Pe 4:12. 1 John 3:13.].
We must not indeed imagine that our enemies will avow the real ground of their aversion: they will not say, I hate you for your piety: they will give some other name to piety: they will call it fanaticism, or hypocrisy; and under that character will raise up their voice against it. When the Jews threatened to stone our Lord, he said to them, “Many good works have I done among you; for which of them do you stone me?” They replied, “For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God [Note: John 10:32-33.].” In like manner they sought to put him to death for violating, as they alleged, the sanctity of the Sabbath day [Note: John 7:19; John 7:23.]. But whence came all this zeal for God’s honour, and for the observance of the Sabbath? Were they all so holy and so righteous? No: in the midst of all their pretended concern for God’s law, they were ready enough to violate it themselves, and even to commit murder: which was a demonstration, that the reasons they assigned were mere pretexts; and that the sanctity of his character was the true ground of their opposition to him. Precisely thus must we expect persecution, ostensibly as evil-doers, but really as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.]
And experience proves that it does exist—
[Look at the holy men of old: where will ye find one who was not persecuted for righteousness’ sake? And are the descendants of Cain or of Ishmael extinct? Is not that which St. Paul spoke in reference to Ishmael, still found true? “As then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now [Note: Galatians 4:29.].” Christians are not indeed dragged, as formerly, to prison and to death: but shall we therefore say, that they are not persecuted? Are they not “reviled?” Have they not “all manner of evil spoken against them falsely?” Do not men “separate them from their company,” and “reproach them, and cast out their name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake [Note: Luke 6:22.]?” Yes truly: “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer, yea and do suffer, persecution [Note: 2 Timothy 3:12.].” There is not a single exception to be found. Times and circumstances may produce considerable difference in the nature or degree of opposition which may be made to the Lord’s people: but all will have to experience some. Christianity is the same in itself that it ever was: and it will be found the same in its effects. Christ “came not to bring peace, but a sword [Note: Matthew 10:34-36. Luke 12:51; Luke 12:53.]:” and whoever gives himself up to Christ, must expect to find, that “his greatest foes will be those of his own household.”]
Granting, then, that this case does exist, let us consider,
The light in which it should be viewed—
To the eye of sense it has a very terrific aspect: but to the eye of faith it is by no means formidable: on the contrary, the believer views his persecutions,
As a badge of honour—
[He looks back on all the prophets; he looks at Christ and his Apostles; and sees that they all trod the same thorny path before him, and “were made perfect through sufferings.” Hence he views persecution as “the reproach of Christ [Note: Hebrews 11:25-26.];” and, in submitting to it, considers himself as “a partaker of Christ’s sufferings [Note: 1 Peter 4:13.].” Whilst others consider him as degraded by the contempt cast upon him, he regards himself rather as exalted by it; he views it as “turning unto him for a testimony [Note: Luke 21:12-13.],” that he is indeed a faithful servant of his Lord. St. Paul, speaking of sufferings for Christ’s sake, represents them as a special gift of God, an honour bestowed upon us for Christ’s sake [Note: Philippians 1:29.]: and in this light all the Apostles regarded them: for when they had been imprisoned and scourged for their fidelity to their Divine Master, they went out of the presence of the Council, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for Christ’s sake [Note: Acts 5:41.].” Thus, Christian, shouldst thou do: thou shouldst “glory in the cross of Christ [Note: Galatians 6:14.];” thou shouldst “take pleasure in persecutions for Christ’s sake [Note: 2 Corinthians 12:10.]; and instead of being ashamed of the indignities which thou sufferest, thou shouldst glorify God on account of them [Note: 1 Peter 4:16.].]
As a means of good—
[Even at present the believer feels that his trials are subservient to his best interests [Note: Hebrews 12:11.]; that his tribulations tend to increase his “patience, experience, and hope [Note: Romans 5:3-5.];” and bring him a hundredfold of blessings into his soul [Note: Mark 10:29-30.]. And when he looks forward to the eternal world, and considers how rich “a recompence” he shall there receive for every sacrifice which he has here made for God [Note: Hebrews 12:26.], he “accounts himself happy” in being called to bear the cross [Note: James 5:11.]. He knows that “the trial of his faith will be found to praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ [Note: 1 Peter 1:7.];” and that “his afflictions, which are but light and momentary, will work for him a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory [Note: 2 Corinthians 4:8-11; 2 Corinthians 4:16-17.].” He expects assuredly “the kingdom of heaven,” because God has promised it to him [Note: 2 Timothy 2:12.]: yea, he expects more: he expects that “his reward shall be great in heaven,” and increased in proportion to his sufferings: he expects it also as a just retribution [Note: 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7.]: but still he does not expect it as merited by those sufferings: he makes the atoning blood of Christ the only foundation of his hope: and it is for Christ’s merits, and not his own, that he is thus exalted. This distinction is accurately marked by the Apostle John; who, seeing in a vision all the martyred saints who “had come out of much tribulation,” tells us, that “they had washed their robes,” not in their own tears or blood, but “in the blood of the Lamb; and that therefore they were before the throne of God [Note: Revelation 7:14-15.].” Bear this in mind, my brethren, and do not hesitate to expect all that God has promised.]
As a ground of joy—
[Our blessed Lord, in reference to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, says, “Blessed are ye;” and he calls upon them to “rejoice, and be exceeding glad.” To the same effect also his Apostles speak; congratulating every persecuted saint, and encouraging him to “glory in all his tribulations [Note: James 1:2; Jam 1:12. 1 Peter 3:14; 1 Peter 4:12-16.].” Doubtless, “afflictions are not joyous in themselves, but grievous:” but, when regarded in the preceding views, they become real sources and grounds of joy. St. Paul was certainly a very competent judge: and he, after a careful computation founded on actual experience, says, “I reckon that the sufferings of this present world are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us [Note: Romans 8:18.].” However painful therefore they may be, if only they conduce to our everlasting felicity, they must, and will, to every believing soul, be an occasion of joy. He will “take joyfully the spoiling of his goods [Note: Hebrews 10:34.];” and, if his blood be poured out as a drink-offering upon the sacrifice and service of the Church’s faith, he will congratulate himself on it as a happy event, for which he has reason to bless and glorify his God [Note: Philippians 2:17.].]
Let me however subjoin a word of caution—
[Take care that your cross is indeed the cross of Christ. If it be brought upon you by your own fault or imprudence, it is your own cross, and not the cross of Christ. See that you do not, from a pretended zeal for God, neglect or violate your duties to man. If you suffer, take care that it is for well-doing, and not for evil doing [Note: 1 Peter 3:17.].]
Let me add also a word of encouragement—
[God does not “send you on a warfare at your own charges.” He bids you to “commit your soul to him in well-doing,” with an assured hope that he will keep it [Note: 1 Peter 4:19.]. Your merciful Saviour, who has trod the way before you, will sympathize with you under your trials [Note: Hebrews 4:15.], and overrule them all for good [Note: Romans 8:28.], and in due time put you safely, and for ever, beyond the reach of all [Note: Revelation 7:16-17.].]
CHRISTIANS THE SALT OF THE EARTH
Matthew 5:13. Ye are the salt of the earth: but. if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
LITTLE do the world think how much they are indebted to those very saints whom they “revile and persecute for righteousness’ sake [Note: ver. 11.].” The extirpation of them (which is so much desired by many) would leave the world an entire mass of corruption, without any thing to heal its disorders, or to stop its progress towards utter destruction. Were they removed out of it, the rest would soon become as Sodom and Gomorrha [Note: Isaiah 1:9.]. The representation given of them in the text fully justifies this idea. They are called “the salt of the earth.” This, of course, must be understood of those only who have the spirit of religion in them: for all others, whatever they may possess, are as vile and worthless as the real Christians are good and excellent.
The words before us will lead us to consider,
The worth and excellence of truly spiritual Christians—
The use of salt, as intimated in this expression of our Lord, is to keep other things from putrefaction and corruption.
This is the office that has been executed by all the saints of old—
[View them from the beginning; and they will all be found active in their generation, and zealous in benefiting the world around them. Noah preached to the antediluvians an hundred and twenty years, indefatigably exerting himself to bring them to repentance. Lot, in Sodom, “vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds,” and strove to turn the people from their horrible abominations. All the prophets in successive ages laboured in the same blessed work, using all their efforts to lead their hearers to the knowledge of the only true God, and to an obedience to his holy laws. How the Apostles acted in relation to this, it is needless to observe. They lived for no other end, but to make known the way of life, and to “turn men from darkness unto light, and from the power of Satan unto God.”
All, indeed, were not favoured with the same success. Those who preceded the Saviour, rather sowed the seed, than reaped the harvest: but his disciples, through the influence of the Spirit of God upon their labours, were instrumental to the conversion of thousands and of millions; all of whom in their respective spheres endeavoured to disseminate the same principles, and to spread “the savour of the knowledge of Christ” wherever they went. Take only one man, the Apostle Paul; and who shall say how much corruption he was the means of preventing in the world? — — —]
This is the office which every Christian, according to his ability, still executes—
[Ministers labour for this end in the word and doctrine — — — and private individuals feel themselves bound to co-operate with them, yea, I may say, to be “fellow-workers also with God.” No one who has received the grace of God in truth, will “live any longer unto himself:” he will seek to glorify his God, and to do good to those around him. Has he any relations, a father, a mother, a wife, a child, going on in ignorance and sin? he will endeavour by all possible means to rectify their dispositions, and to guide their feet into the way of peace. He will not say with himself, I am but as a grain of salt, and therefore can do no good: he will thankfully employ his influence, how small soever it may be, for the benefit of those to whom it will extend. Even the poorest have access to some poor neighbour like themselves: and the resolution of the weakest will be like that of the Church of old, “Draw me, and we will run after thee [Note: Song of Solomon 1:4.];” that is, ‘Draw me, and I will not come alone, but will bring all I can along with me.’
And shall this be thought a small matter? No, surely: for if a Christian be instrumental, even in the course of his whole life, to convert one single person from the error of his ways, he has effected a good, which exceeds in value the whole material world: for he has “saved a soul from death, and covered a multitude of sins [Note: James 5:19-20.].”]
Thus is the truly spiritual Christian, a man of great worth and excellence: but all who profess religion are not of this stamp: the text itself declares that there are some of a very different character; and that nothing can exceed,
The worthlessness of those who have not the savour of religion in their souls—
Salt that has lost its savour is here said to be “good for nothing; but is trodden under foot of men.” This shews the desperate state of those who are not truly alive to God. Their prospects are indeed gloomy in relation to,
Their personal recovery—
[Salt that has lost its savour, cannot by any means be restored to its former pungency. And thus it is with those who, after some experience of the power of godliness, have made shipwreck of their faith and of a good conscience. Doubtless, “with God all things are possible;” and therefore He can restore the most determined apostate: but there is very little reason to hope that he ever will; since he has told us, that such an one shall be given over to final impenitence [Note: Hebrews 6:4-6; Hebrews 10:26-27. 2 Peter 2:20-22.] — — —
The state of one who has merely declined in religion is certainly not so desperate; but still it is truly deplorable. If a man had never known any thing of religion, it might be hoped that the truths of the Gospel would influence his mind; but if he be already acquainted with those truths, and they be not able to preserve him, how can it be hoped that they shall have efficacy to restore him? Whilst “the heart is yet tender,” the Gospel is mighty in operation; because God accompanies it with his power from on high: but when “the heart is hardened through the deceitfulness of sin,” and the Spirit of God has withdrawn his agency, there is great reason to fear that the man “will draw back unto perdition.” How solemn are the admonitions given on this subject to the Church at Ephesus [Note: Revelation 2:4-5.], and to that at Sardis [Note: Revelation 3:1-3.]! Let every one then who has declined in religious exercises and enjoyments, even though his declensions be ever so secret, tremble, lest that threatening be fulfilled in him, “The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways [Note: Proverbs 14:14.].”]
Their ministerial usefulness—
[“All who have received the gift, are bound to minister the same to others, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God [Note: 1 Peter 4:10.].” But the man that has lost the savour of religion in his own soul, is ill qualified for this: he has not inclination to do it, he has not courage, he has not ability. When religion flourished in his soul, he could converse upon it with pleasure: “Out of the abundance of his heart his mouth would freely speak.” But now he can converse on any other subject rather than that: he finds no satisfaction in maintaining fellowship even with the saints: it is not to be wondered at therefore that he has no disposition to instruct the ignorant, and reform the wicked. Indeed, he is afraid lest that proverb should be retorted upon him, “Physician, heal thyself:” and his own conscience will remonstrate with him in the energetic language of the Apostle, “Thou that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself [Note: Romans 2:21-24.]?” — — — And though no change has taken place in his intellect in reference to earthly things, his understanding becomes clouded in relation to spiritual things: his gifts in a great measure vanish together with his grace: he once could speak and pray with fluency; but now his mouth is shut; and he experiences the truth of that singular declaration, “From him that hath not (that hath not improved his talent) shall be taken away even that which he hath [Note: Matthew 13:12.].”
But it is observed of the salt, not only that it is “good for nothing,” with respect to its primary uses of keeping other things from putrefaction, but that it is “not fit for the land, nor yet for the dunghill [Note: Luke 14:35.].” The fact is, that salt, when destitute of its proper qualities, has a tendency rather to produce sterility than to promote vegetation, if it be cast upon the land. This is intimated in many passages of Scripture [Note: Judges 9:45.Jeremiah 17:6; Jeremiah 17:6. Eze 47:11 and particularly Psalms 107:34. the marginal reading. The Salt Sea is the Dead Sea.] — — — And such is the effect produced by those who have lost the power of godliness, and departed from God: they cast a stumbling-block before men, and “cause the way of truth to be evil spoken of.” The world may do what they please, and the individuals alone are blamed; but let any one who professes religion do any thing amiss, and religion itself must be accountable for it, and the name of God is blasphemed on his account. This indeed is most unreasonable and absurd: nevertheless so it is: and a most aggravated woe is thereby entailed on all who occasion such an offence [Note: Matthew 18:7.].]
Their final acceptance—
[Even here they are rejected both by God and man. Those who walk consistently, are hated and despised by the ungodly world; but those who walk inconsistently, are despised a thousand times more; and this God has ordained as a just punishment for their treachery [Note: Malachi 2:8-9.]. As for his own abhorrence of them, it is scarcely possible for language to express it more strongly than he has declared it [Note: Revelation 3:15-16.]. Moreover, if they repent not, the same indignation will pursue them in the eternal world. What reception they will then meet with at his hands, he has plainly warned them [Note: Psalms 50:16-22.].” And the saints with whom they associated here, will then disown them, and cast them out of their society [Note: Luke 13:28.]: yea, the very heathen who walked agreeably to the light that they enjoyed, will be admitted into bliss, whilst the lifeless professor of religion, who brought forth no fruit to perfection, will be banished from it with abhorrence [Note: Romans 2:27.]: so true is that expression in our text, “They shall be trodden under foot of men!”]
Seeing then that the power of godliness is of such importance, we call upon you all,
To seek it—
[It is not a lifeless formal religion that will avail for your salvation. The command of God to every one of us is, “Have salt in yourselves [Note: Mark 9:50.].” The distinction between the true Christian and the self-deceiver is, that the one “savours the things of the Spirit,” which the other does not [Note: Romans 8:5. φρονοῦσιν, sapiunt, Beza. See also Romans 2:28-29.].” We must “delight ourselves in God,” or it will be in vain to hope that ever He will delight in us.]
To preserve it—
[The “salt may soon lose its savour.” Religion is not like the sculptor’s work, which if left ever so long remains in the state it was: but like a stone rolled up a hill, which will descend again as soon as the impelling force is withdrawn. The stony-ground and thorny-ground hearers shew, that we are prone to depart from God, or to rest in a carnal state whilst maintaining outwardly a spiritual profession. It is a melancholy, and an undeniable fact, that many do “begin in the Spirit, and end in the flesh.” Let us then “stir up the gift of God that is in us,” as we would stir a languishing fire; that we “lose not the things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward [Note: 2 John, ver. 8.].”]
To diffuse it—
[We must never forget the office which God has assigned us in our respective spheres. The treasure committed to us earthen vessels, is not for ourselves only, but to enrich others. “Our speech should always be with grace seasoned with salt [Note: Colossians 4:6. Ephesians 4:29.].” Let us then exert ourselves to the utmost of our power to instruct the rising generation — — — to reform the habits of the world — — — to send the Gospel to the Heathen — — — and to impart to all within our reach the knowledge and salvation of God [Note: If this be a subject for Missions, or Bible Society, or Sunday Schools, or for Visiting the Sick, or Reformation of Manners, the appropriate idea should be exclusively insisted on.].]
CHRISTIANS THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD
Matthew 5:14-16. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
IF we had not been authorized by God himself, we should never have presumed to designate the saints by such honourable appellations as are unreservedly given to them in the Scriptures. Of all the objects in the visible creation, the sun is the most glorious; nor is there any thing, either in this terraqueous globe or in the firmament of heaven, which does not partake of its benign influence: yet even to that are the saints compared; “Ye are the light of the world.”
That all the parts of our text may come easily and profitably under our view, we shall consider,
The office to which God has destined his people—
Strictly speaking, neither Prophets nor Apostles could arrogate to themselves the honour which is here in a subordinate sense conferred on all the saints: it belongs exclusively to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is “the Sun of Righteousness [Note: Malachi 4:2.];” and who says of himself, “I am the light of the world [Note: John 8:12.].” St. John, speaking of the Baptist, (who was greater than all the prophets,) expressly declares, that “he was not that Light; but that Christ was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world [Note: John 1:8-9.].” In this view, the name of stars would rather befit us, because we shine only with a borrowed lustre; reflecting merely the rays which we have received from the Lord Jesus: but, as exhibiting to the world all the true light that is in it, God has been pleased to dignify us with that higher name, “The light of the world.” He has sent his people to fulfil that office in the moral, which the sun performs in the natural world.
He has qualified them for it—
[There is a light in their minds, which reason and philosophy cannot impart, and which no man can possess, unless it have been given from above [Note: 1 Corinthians 2:14.]. “God has shined into their hearts to give it them, even the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ [Note: 2 Corinthians 4:6.].” This is that mystery which was hid from ages and from generations, but is now made manifest to the saints [Note: Romans 16:25-26.]. The meanest of his people are in this respect wiser than the wisest of unenlightened men, because they are taught of God [Note: John 6:45.]. We are aware that this is an offensive truth; and that the learned will ever reply in the language of the offended Pharisees, “Are we blind also [Note: John 9:39.]?” But it is no less true at this day than it was in former ages, that “God has hid his Gospel from the wise and prudent, and revealed it unto babes; even so, for so it seemeth good in his sight [Note: Matthew 11:25-26.].”
Now this qualifies his people to instruct others. It is possible enough that they may be very ignorant in all other things; but of these things “they have the witness in themselves [Note: 1 John 5:10.],” and therefore are enabled to speak of them just as they do of the things about which they are daily conversant. They may not speak scientifically about their bodily feelings; but when they tell you of their wants and their supplies, or of the diseases and the remedies which they have found effectual to remove them, they know whereof they affirm. Thus respecting the great truths of the Gospel, they are enabled to speak from their own experience; and the greatest philosopher in the universe may sit at their feet and learn.]
He has ordained them to it—
[It is a favourite idea with many, that they are to be religious; but that their religion is not to be seen. Under the pretence of hating ostentation, they conform to every practice of the world, and are in no respect distinguishable from the mere decent moralist. But, when they think that a man may serve God faithfully, and yet avoid the notice of those around them, they only deceive their own souls. For,
In the first place, they cannot do it if they would. “A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.” If whilst the world around them are “living after the flesh,” and “walking in the broad road that leadeth to destruction,” they “walk after the Spirit,” and confine themselves to “the narrow way that leadeth unto life,” how can it be that they should escape notice? Their whole spirit and temper and conduct differ from the world, as much as light from darkness. We will suppose, their light is but small; and if exhibited before the meridian sun, it might easily be overlooked; but the smallest taper attracts notice when shining in the midst of darkness: and this is precisely their case: the splendour of their conduct may not be such as of itself to command admiration; yet it cannot but be seen by reason of the surrounding darkness. But,
In the next place, they ought not to do it if they could. “Men do not light a candle to put it under a bushel, but to give light to all that are in the house:” nor does God “bring his people out of darkness into his marvellous light” solely for their own sakes, but “that they may shew forth the praises of Him that hath called them [Note: 1 Peter 2:9.],” and diffuse the light which they have received. They are bound therefore, by every tie of duty and gratitude, to make him known to others, and to advance, as much as possible, his glory in the world. Moreover, their fellow-creatures also have a claim upon them. Who that should see a blind man walking on the brink of a precipice, would not feel himself bound to warn him of his danger; and account himself guilty of a murderous cruelty towards him, if the man should perish through his neglect? If then we should feel it a duty to give him the advantage of our superior light in relation to his bodily welfare, how much more ought we to do it in relation to his soul! The command given to every enlightened soul, is, “Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee [Note: Isaiah 60:1.].”]
This leads us to speak of,
The duty resulting from it—
[That we are not to do any thing from ostentation or vain-glory is certain: whatever proceeds from such a principle is altogether hateful in the sight of God, They who seek the applause of man must expect no other reward. But we are not to be so restrained by these considerations as to decline that course of action which will bring glory to God. On the contrary, we should “make our light to shine before men,” and “so” shine, as to compel all who behold it “to glorify our Father which is in heaven.”
It may be asked, How can any conduct of ours accomplish this? I answer,
First, it may skew men the unreasonableness of their prejudices. All manner of prejudices are entertained against the Gospel; and all that we can say is insufficient to remove them. But what we do has a very powerful effect: it will often “put to silence the ignorance of foolish men [Note: 1 Peter 2:15.],” and make them ashamed who falsely accuse our good conversation in Christ [Note: 1 Peter 3:16.]” — — —
Next, it may lead them to embrace the Gospel. The Apostle speaks of husbands, who never would have attended to the written or preached word, being won by the good conversation of their wives [Note: 1 Peter 3:1-2.]. From the history of the Church in all ages, we know that there are many who owe their first impressions of religion to the consistent conduct of some eminent saint; nor can we doubt but that if the dispositions and character of religious people more uniformly corresponded with their holy profession, “the word would have an abundantly freer course,” and would be much sooner glorified throughout the world.
Lastly, it cannot fail of stimulating many to increasing activity. The force of example is exceeding great. Many, for want of associates in well-doing, are discouraged, and attempt but little, because they think that but little can be accomplished. But, when they see a person more abundant in labours than themselves, they are stirred up to a holy emulation; they blush at the view of their own unprofitableness, and whilst they are thankful to God who has given such grace unto men, they strive with redoubled ardour to serve and glorify their God.]
We shall conclude this subject with shewing,
How we may become lights to the world—
[Simple as this question may appear, there are few who would answer it aright. Almost all would propose to attain this distinction by doing; and would be shocked at being told that it must be attained by believing: yet that is the very way by which our blessed Lord has taught us to seek it: “Believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light [Note: John 12:36.].” This, of course, is not to be understood as though a bare assent to any truths whatever would sanctify the soul: it is to be understood as directing us to the Gospel, and to the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in it. To believe in the light, is to look for salvation entirely through Him whom God has set forth to be a propitiation for sin; it is to live altogether by faith on him, and to make him our all in all. This would render our union with Christ productive; and would lead to our perfect renovation after the Divine image. Then should we “shine indeed as lights in a dark world [Note: Philippians 2:15-16.];” and God himself would be glorified in us.]
What we should do if we have already attained that honour—
[Remember that the eyes of all are upon you, and that God’s glory in the world is very greatly affected by your conduct. Any fault in you will soon be noticed by the world. They who pay little regard to the stars that shine in their orbits, will yet be observant enough of a falling star: and, in like manner, they who overlook the radiance of ten thousand saints, will mark with triumph the fall of a professor, and derive from it an argument against all serious religion. Be on your guard then against every thing which may either eclipse your light, or cause it to shine with diminished splendour — — — Be earnest also to get forward in your Christian course. The brightest of us emits only as yet the faint gleam of early dawn: “our profiting must continually appear;” and “our path be as the shining light, which shineth more and more unto the perfect day [Note: Proverbs 4:18.]” — — —]
THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS CONFIRMED BY CHRIST
Matthew 5:17-18. Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
TO have just sentiments on religion is a matter of incalculable importance. Whilst we are mistaken respecting any fundamental truths, we not only lose the benefit and comfort of those truths, but are in danger of rejecting them when proposed to our consideration, and enlisting ourselves amongst the avowed enemies of the Gospel. The Jews were almost universally expecting a temporal Messiah. Hence, when our blessed Lord appeared in such mean circumstances, and inculcated doctrines so opposite to their carnal expectations, the people thought either that he was an impostor who deceived them, or that he was come to subvert and destroy all that had been delivered to them by their forefathers. Our blessed Lord anticipated and obviated their objections: “Think not,” says he, “that I am come to destroy the law and the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”
By “the law and the prophets,” I understand, that system of religion which the moral law inculcated, and all the prophets enforced. To establish and confirm these was the great end of our Saviour’s advent. He has confirmed them as to the great scope of all that they have spoken in reference to,
The way of salvation—
The way of salvation, as revealed in the Old Testament, is by faith in the promised Messiah—
[The moral law proclaimed this. The moral law, it is true, said, “Do this and live [Note: Romans 10:5.].” But it was never the intent of the moral law to put men upon working out their salvation by their obedience to its commands. The law could never give life to man since the fall. It could only shew him his duty, and thunder out its curses against him for his manifold transgressions. It required perfect and perpetual obedience; in default of which, it doomed him to everlasting destruction [Note: Deuteronomy 27:26. with Galatians 3:10.]. Thus by its unbending severity it compelled every one that was under it to seek salvation in some other way. It shewed to men the necessity of a Saviour, and thus prepared them for the manifestation of Christ by the Gospel. This is the very account given of it by St. Paul, who sums up his testimony in these significant expressions, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith [Note: Galatians 3:21-24.].”
The ceremonial law held forth the remedy, of which the moral law declared our need. All its sacrifices directed men to that great Sacrifice which should in due time be offered on the cross: whilst the brazen serpent, the scape-goat, and all the various lustrations, displayed the efficacy of that remedy, and encouraged penitents to accept it. That the ceremonial law was intended to answer this end, we are sure; because our Saviour himself and his Apostles constantly appealed to it, as prefiguring Christ, who is expressly said to be “the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth [Note: Romans 10:4.].”
Precisely to the same effect is the testimony of all the prophets. Who can read the 53d chapter of Isaiah, and not see that salvation is to be obtained through the atoning blood of Christ? We see him “wounded for our transgressions,” and all “our iniquities laid on him,” in order that we may be “healed by his stripes.” Similar to this is the declaration of Daniel, who says, that Christ should “finish transgression, make an end of sin, and bring in an everlasting righteousness.” In a word, “To him,” says the Apostle, “give all the Prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins [Note: Acts 10:43.]:” and again, “The righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ, unto all and upon all them that believe [Note: Romans 3:21-22.].”]
And what, we ask, is the way of salvation in the New Testament?
[Has the Lord Jesus Christ put aside this way of salvation? Has he not rather established it beyond all possibility of doubt? Hear his own words: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me.” To cite all his declarations upon this subject would detain us too long: suffice it to say, that he speaks of his “blood as shed for the remission of sins,” and “his life as given to be a ransom for many;” and declares, that, by being “lifted up upon the cross,” he is qualified and empowered to “draw all men unto him.”]
Thus far then we have seen that Christ has confirmed the law and the prophets, as far as relates to the way of salvation. Let us now mark the same in reference to,
The path of duty—
The ten commandments were given as a rule of conduct to the Jews—
[This summary of religious duties is emphatically called, ‘The Law.’ It was given by God in the most solemn manner, and enjoined without exception on the whole nation. The prophets, in their respective ages and places, maintained the authority of this law, and laboured to bring the people into a conformity to its precepts.]
And what other rule is there prescribed to us?
[The Lord Jesus Christ has neither added to the Ten Commandments, nor taken from them. He has freed them from the corrupt glosses of the Scribes and Pharisees, and has explained them according to their spiritual import. He has also specified certain duties which were not so clearly seen under the Mosaic dispensation, and has added new motives to the performance of them. But he has enjoined nothing which is not comprehended in one of those two commandments, that of “loving God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength,” and that of loving our neighbour as ourselves. On the other hand, he has bound upon us these duties in the most solemn manner; and told us, that he will estimate our character, not by the zeal with which we “cry Lord, Lord,” but by the care and uniformity with which we keep his commandments [Note: John 14:15; John 14:21; John 14:23.].
Here then is proof sufficient, that our Lord has not destroyed the law and the prophets, or in the slightest degree weakened our obligations to obey them. There are some professors of religion, and indeed not a few, who think that Christ has set aside the law as a rule of life. But they labour under a dangerous, yea, a fatal error. When they say that we are released from the law as a covenant of works, they are right: but so were believers under the Old Testament. When they say that we are released from the whole ceremonial law, they are right: but we must still observe every part of it in a spiritual manner, presenting Christ as our sacrifice, washing daily in the fountain of his blood, and “cleansing ourselves from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit, that we may perfect holiness in the fear of God.” But when they speak of being released from the law as a rule of life, they open the floodgates of licentiousness [Note: Romans 3:31.]: and were it not that some of them, as we hope, have more piety in their practice than in their principles, they would have just reason to tremble for their state [Note: See ver. 19.]. The truth is, that the advancing of our souls in holiness was a very principal object of Christ’s incarnation and death [Note: Titus 2:14.]. And “that very grace of God which bringeth salvation,” so far from annulling any single command of God, itself “teacheth us, that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world.”]
This subject is of peculiar use,
To rectify our views—
[As for those who think that salvation is by the works of the law, we shall pass them over on the present occasion; praying only that God may open their eyes ere it be too late. But there are many thoughtful and intelligent persons, and not altogether destitute of piety, who imagine, that Christ has lowered the demands of the moral law, and purchased for us the liberty of being saved by a new law of sincere obedience: they think that for his sake our sincere obedience will be accepted, instead of perfect obedience: and that the defects of our obedience will be made up by the merits of Jesus Christ.
To such persons I would say, Read the words of our text. Christ says he did not come to destroy the law; and you affirm that he did; that he has softened its rigours, and dispensed with those high attainments which the perfect law of God requires. You will reply perhaps, If these things be not dispensed with, how are we to be saved? I answer, They are not dispensed with, no, not one of them: it is as much our duty to fulfil the whole law of God as it was Adam’s duty in Paradise: nor, if we would be saved by the law, can we be saved on any lower terms. But of salvation by the law we must not entertain a thought: we are condemned by the law, and must flee as condemned sinners to Jesus Christ, that he may wash us from our sins in his blood, and clothe us in his own unspotted robe of righteousness and salvation. Some will exclaim, What new doctrine is this? I answer, this was the way of salvation revealed to Adam after the Fall; and it has been continued in all successive ages, till Christ himself came. Then was this mystery more clearly revealed to the world; and from henceforth the voice of God to every human Being is, “He that believeth on the Son of God hath eternal life; but he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.”
Lay aside then your erroneous notions respecting a mitigated law and sincere obedience; and seek salvation in God’s only dear Son, in whom alone it can be found [Note: Acts 4:12. 1 Corinthians 3:11.].]
To regulate our lives—
[Whilst some persons object to salvation by faith alone as a licentious doctrine, others complain of us as raising the standard of holiness so high, that none, except a few devotees, can possibly attain it. But I would ask these objectors, Which of God’s laws are we authorized to set aside? Which are we even suffered to palliate and soften? Our blessed Lord has, with the strongest possible asseveration, said, that “not so much as a jot or tittle of the law shall ever pass away:” how then can we presume to say, It shall pass away? Suppose we do lower the standard of obedience in compliance with your wishes, what will it profit you, unless he do it also? We should only deceive you, and ruin ourselves together with you. But you will say, ‘It is hard to have so much required of us.’ Well, suppose it be hard; if it be required, we must do it: our only alternative is, to obey or perish. But “there is not any one of his commandments grievous:” on the contrary, they all together form “a light and easy yoke:” and so far are they from being deemed too strict by any real Christian, that there is not a true Christian in the world that would wish any one of the commandments to require less than it does. A spiritual man does not complain of the strictness of the law, but of the wickedness of his own heart: and his desire is, not to have the commandments of God lowered to his attainments, but his attainments elevated to the utmost height of God’s commandments.
Let this then be the desire and endeavour of us all: let there be no sin harboured, not even in thought; nor any duty neglected, whatever difficulties we may have to encounter, or whatever trials to endure. If we “have a hope of salvation through Christ, we must purify ourselves even as he is pure.”]
THE DANGER OF LITTLE SINS
Matthew 5:19. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
IT must be confessed, that amongst those who profess a high regard for the Gospel, there are some who speak of it in terms, which, to say the least, have an antinomian and licentious aspect. In their zeal against self-righteousness, they are apt to represent the law as altogether abolished: knowing that we are no longer under the law as a covenant, they express themselves as if we were freed from it also as a rule of life. But we must never forget that the Gospel is a “doctrine according to godliness;” and that “the law, so far from being made void through faith, is established by it.” In the words preceding the text, our blessed Lord had said, that “he came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them: and in the words before us, he teaches us to infer from thence the undiminished authority of the sacred code.
To elucidate his assertions, we observe,
That the commandments of God are universally to be obeyed—
It is certain that some commandments are of more importance than others—
[There can be no doubt but that the moral precepts, which are founded in our relation to God and to each other, are of more importance than the positive institutions, which are founded only in the sovereign will of God. Our Lord himself, comparing the divine institution of paying tithes with the exercise of judgment, mercy, and faith, calls the latter “the weightier matters of the law:” though at the same time he determines, “These ought ye to have done; and not to leave the other undone.”
The positive institutions may even be set aside, if they interfere with our discharge of moral duties. A strict observance of the Sabbath is enjoined: but, if a work of necessity or of mercy demand our attention, we are at liberty to engage in it, notwithstanding we thereby violate the sacred rest of the Sabbath: for God has said, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice.”
Indeed, even in the moral law itself, there is a difference between the duties of the first and of the second table; those which relate to God being more important than those which relate to man. Hence our Lord says, that “to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, is the first and great commandment.”]
But the authority on which every one of them stands is the same—
[God is the great lawgiver: and whatever his command be, it is, as long as it is in force, binding upon all to whom it is given. We are no more at liberty to abrogate one than to set aside another. If we allowedly violate any one of them, we do, in effect, violate them all [Note: James 2:10-11.]. If any two be absolutely incompatible, the positive precept, as I have observed, gives way, and ceases for the time to be a command. So if two moral precepts such as that of obeying a parent, and of obeying God, be irreconcileable, obedience to God is then of superior and paramount obligation. God himself has assigned limits to man’s authority, beyond which we are not commanded to obey him. Man cannot dispense with any of the divine commandments: they can be repealed by that authority only which first established them. Neither in theory nor in practice are we at liberty to make them void: we must both “do” them ourselves, “and teach” the observance of them to others. We must not add any thing to them, nor take any thing from them. The injunctions which God has given us on this head are strict and solemn [Note: Proverbs 30:5-6. Deuteronomy 12:22.]: and, if we presume to violate them, it is at the peril of our souls [Note: Revelation 22:18-19. Deuteronomy 27:26.].]
It is intimated that some will both “do and teach” them: which leads us to observe,
That an unreserved respect for all of them is characteristic of the true Christian—
Ungodly men have but little reverence for the divine commands—
[The Pharisees of old laid a far greater stress on ceremonial than on moral duties; on “washing pots and cups,” than on cleansing the heart: and they actually made void some of the commandments by their traditions [Note: Matthew 23:25-28; Matthew 15:3-6.]. The Papists do the same at this day, denying the sacramental cup to the laity, commanding the consecrated wafer to be worshipped, and granting pardons and indulgences to those who are able to pay for them. Would to God that there were no such impieties among Protestants also! It is true, we do not acknowledge any power in the Pope to dispense with the laws of God: but we take the power into our own hands, and deal as freely with the commands of God as ever the Pope himself can do. One commandment is deemed uncertain, another unreasonable, another unnecessary; and all are reduced to the standard which we ourselves approve. As for the penalties with which they are enforced, “we puff at them,” and assure both ourselves and others that they shall never be executed.]
But the true Christian dares not thus to insult his God—
[It is his habit to “tremble at the word [Note: Isaiah 66:2.].” When once he hears, “Thus saith the Lord,” his mouth is shut; and he sets himself immediately to obey the divine command. Instead of complaining that “any commandment is grievous [Note: 1 John 5:3.],” he loves the whole law; he accounts it “holy, and just, and good.” He would not have any part of it lowered in its demands on any account [Note: Psalms 119:128.]. His desire is rather to have his soul “cast into the very mould of the Gospel [Note: Romans 6:17. the Greek.],” and to be transformed perfectly into the image of his God. His prayer is, “Let my heart be sound in thy statutes, that I be not ashamed [Note: Psalms 119:80.]:” let me “stand perfect and complete in all the will of God [Note: Colossians 4:12. 2 Corinthians 7:1.]” — — —]
The Christian’s disposition towards the commands of God ought to be cultivated by every one of us, since it is certain—
That on such a respect for them depends our everlasting happiness—
Nothing less than this will suffice to prove our sincerity—
[It is allowed, without any great difficulty, that heinous violations of God’s law will affect our eternal state: but smaller transgressions are considered as of but little consequence. But this does not accord with our Lord’s assertions in the text. There we are told that the breach of one single law will be fatal, yea, though it be the least of all the commandments of God. We are not to understand that the unintentional and unallowed defects in our obedience will prove fatal to us: for who then could be saved? but any evil which we allow and justify, or, as the text expresses it, which we “do and teach,” will certainly exclude us from the kingdom of heaven. The text might seem to import that such conduct would only diminish the degree of our happiness in heaven: but our Lord elsewhere warns us, that it will entirely exclude us from heaven; and that our only alternative is, either to part with sin altogether, or to suffer the penalty of sin, eternal death [Note: Matthew 18:8-9.].]
But where obedience is unreserved, it will receive a glorious recompence from God—
[That there is no merit in our obedience, is allowed: but that our obedience shall receive a reward of grace, every page of the inspired volume declares — — — The more perfect our conformity to God’s law, and the more energetic our maintenance of its authority have been, the higher testimonies of God’s approbation we shall most assuredly receive; and our exaltation in heaven shall be proportionably “great.” Peculiar sanctity and zeal may subject us to reproach from men; but it will meet with honour from God: for he has said, “Them that honour me, I will honour.”]
Learn then from hence the importance of,
A renewed heart—
[The unregenerate heart “neither is, nor can be subject to God’s law [Note: Romans 8:7.].” We “must be born again,” and be “renewed in the spirit of our minds,” before we can truly say, “I delight to do thy will, O God; yea, thy law is within my heart [Note: Psalms 40:8.].” — — — Let us then seek to be made “new creatures in Christ Jesus.” Then shall we be prepared both to “do” the commandments ourselves, and to “teach” them to those around us.]
A faithful ministry—
[Many, in fact, say unto their ministers, “Prophesy not unto us right things; prophesy unto us smooth things; prophesy deceits [Note: Isaiah 30:10.].” But to what purpose would it be to comply with their wishes? In what could such ministrations end? “If the blind lead the blind, must they not both fall into the ditch?” On the contrary, if we “do” the whole revealed will of God, as far as we are enabled, “and teach” it faithfully unto others, we have reason to hope that we shall have many to be “our joy and crown of rejoicing” in the last day. Instead of complaining, then, that your minister is too strict either in his life or preaching, be thankful that you have a minister, who desires to live for no other purpose than “to save himself and them that hear him.”]
A pure conscience—
[“Who can understand his errors?” says David; “O cleanse thou me from my secret faults.” Truly it is no easy thing to be a Christian. Let us examine carefully whether there be not some secret unsubdued lust within us, some worm at the root of our gourd. If there be, woe unto us; “Except we repent, we shall surely perish.” If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our hearts, and knoweth all things: but if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence towards God [Note: 1 John 3:20-21.].” “Then shall we not be ashamed, when we have respect unto all his commandments [Note: Psalms 119:6.].”]
EVANGELIC AND PHARISAIC RIGHTEOUSNESS COMPARED
Matthew 5:20. For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
IT would be a gratification to many to know the lowest degree of piety that would suffice for their admission into the kingdom of heaven. But to have such a line drawn for us, would be by no means profitable: for it may well be doubted, whether any, who under present circumstances are slothful in their pursuit of holiness, would be quickened by it; and there is reason to fear that the zeal of many would be damped. Information, however, of a nature not very dissimilar, is given us; and it will be found of the highest importance to every child of man. Our blessed Lord has marked out for us a line, that must be passed by all who would be numbered amongst his true disciples. There were certain characters, very numerous among the Jews, characters much contemplated and much admired; these, he tells us, must be surpassed. To equal the most exalted among them will not suffice: our righteousness must exceed theirs, if ever we would enter into the kingdom of heaven. The persons we refer to were the Scribes and Pharisees; the former of whom were the learned teachers and expositors of the law; the latter were a sect who affected peculiar sanctity, and were regarded by the people as the most distinguished patterns of piety and virtue. The two were generally associated together in the Scriptures; because the Scribes, though not necessarily, yet, for the most part, belonged to the sect of the Pharisees: and, so united, they were considered as having all the learning and piety of the nation concentred in them. But, notwithstanding the high estimation in which they were held, our Lord most solemnly affirmed that none of them could, in their present state, be admitted into heaven; and that all who would be counted worthy of that honour, must attain a higher righteousness than theirs.
This information, I say, is valuable; because, though it is not so definite as to encourage any to sit down contented with their attainments, it serves as a standard by which we may try our attainments, and a criterion whereby we may judge of our real state.
In investigating the subject, there are two things to be considered;
Wherein our righteousness must exceed theirs; and,
Why it must exceed theirs.
To prepare the way for shewing wherein our righteousness is to exceed theirs, we must begin with stating, as clearly as we can, what righteousness they possessed. But in doing this, we shall be careful neither to exalt their character too much on the one hand, nor to depress it too much on the other. Indeed, precision in this part of our statement is of peculiar importance; for, as a comparison is instituted between their righteousness and ours, we are concerned to have the clearest knowledge of that by which our estimate must be formed. Their character was a mixture of good and evil. They had much which might be considered as righteousness; and at the same time they had great defects. Their righteousness, such as it was, was seen; their defects were unseen: their righteousness consisted in acts; their defects, in motives and principles: their righteousness was that which rendered them objects of admiration to men; their defects made them objects of abhorrence to God.
Let us begin with viewing the favourable side of their character. And here we cannot do better than refer to the account which the Pharisee gives of himself, when addressing the Most High God; and which our Lord particularly adverts to, as characterizing the more distinguished members of their community. After thanking God that he was “not as other men are,” he first tells us what he had not done: he was “not an extortioner,” nor could be accused by any man of demanding, on any account whatever, more than was his due. He was “not unjust” in any of his dealings, but, whether in commercial transactions, or in any other way, he had done to all as he would be done unto [Note: Such as “oppressing the hireling in his wages,” &c. The expression must of course be confined to acts of justice.]. “Nor was he an adulterer:” common as the crime of adultery was among the Jews, and great as his advantages had been for insinuating himself into the affections of others, he had never availed himself of any opportunity to seduce his neighbour’s wife. In short, he had avoided all those evils, which the generality of publicans and sinners committed without remorse.
He next proceeds to specify what he had done. He had “fasted twice every week,” in order to fulfil the duties of mortification and self-denial. He had been so scrupulously exact in paying his tithes, that not even “mint, or rue,” or the smallest herb in his garden, had been withheld from God: “he paid tithes of all that he possessed [Note: Luke 18:11-12.].”
From other parts of Scripture we learn, that the Pharisees were peculiarly jealous of the sacred rest of the Sabbath; insomuch that they were filled with indignation against any one, who, even by an act of the greatest necessity or mercy, should presume to violate it [Note: Mark 3:2; Mark 3:5-6.]. They prayed to God also, and that not in a mere cursory manner, hurrying over a form which they got through as quick as possible: no; “they made long prayers, as well in the corners of their streets, as in the midst of their synagogues [Note: Matthew 6:5; Matthew 23:14.]. As for the purifications appointed by the law, they were punctual in the observance of them: they even multiplied their lustrations far beyond what the law required; and were so partial to them, that they never came home from the market, or sat down to their meals, without washing their hands: they even wondered that any one who pretended to religion, could be so profane, as to eat without having first performed these important rites [Note: Mark 7:2-5.]. Nor must we forget to mention, that they abounded in almsgivings; regarding themselves not so much the owners, as the stewards, of the property they possessed [Note: Matthew 6:2.]. In a word, religion, in all its visible branches, was, in their eyes, honourable; and, in token of their high regard for it, they made their phylacteries broader than any other sect, and “enlarged the fringes of their garments;” thus displaying before all men their zealous attachment to the laws of God [Note: Matthew 23:5.]. Nor were they content with thus fulfilling their own duties: they were desirous that all should honour God in like manner: persuaded that they themselves were right, they strove to the uttermost to recommend their tenets and practices to others, and would even “compass sea and land to make one proselyte [Note: Matthew 23:15.].”
Of course, the attainments of all were not exactly alike: some would excel more in one branch of duty, and others in another branch. St. Paul himself was of that sect, as his parents also had been before him; and he was as fair a specimen of them, as any that can be found in all the records of antiquity. He was, “as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the Church, (whom he considered as enemies to God;) and, as touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.”
Having thus ascertained what their righteousness was, we can now proceed to point out wherein ours must exceed it.
But here it will be proper to observe, that as all were not equally eminent in what may be called their righteousness, so, on the other hand, all were not equally faulty in the vicious part of their character. We must take the Pharisees as a body, (for it is in that view that our Saviour speaks of them in the text;) and must not be understood to impute to every individual the same precise degree either of praise or blame. Nor must we be considered as saying, that no one of that sect was ever saved: because, previous to the coming of our Lord, there doubtless were many who served God according to the light that they enjoyed: but this we must be understood distinctly to affirm, that no person who enjoys the clearer light of the Gospel, can be saved, unless he attain a better righteousness than the Scribes and Pharisees, as a body, ever did attain, or than any one of them, while he rejected the Gospel, could possibly attain.
I am well aware, that, when we consider their fastings, their prayers, their alms-deeds, their strict observances of all the ritual laws, together with their zeal in promoting the religion they professed; and take into the account also, that they were free from many of the more gross and common sins; we shall seem to have left no room for superiority in our obedience. But, whatever may be thought of their attainments, our righteousness must exceed theirs: it must exceed theirs, first, in the nature and extent of it; and next, in the principle and end of it.
First, In the nature and extent of it—
From what has been already spoken, it sufficiently appears, that the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees was for the most part external and ceremonial; or, where it seemed to partake of that which was internal and moral, it was merely of a negative kind, and extremely partial in its operation. Now the Christian’s righteousness must be totally different from this: it must be internal and spiritual: it must descend into the heart, and have respect to the whole of God’s revealed will. The true Christian will affix no limits to his exertions; he will set no bounds to his heavenly desires. He does not limit the commandments to their literal sense, but enters into their spiritual import, and considers a disposition to commit sin as nearly equivalent to the actual commission of it. He considers himself as accountable to God for every inclination, affection, appetite; and endeavours not only to have their general tendencies regulated according to his law, but to have “every thought brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” In a word, he aspires after perfection of every kind: he desires to love God, as much as to be saved by him; and to mortify sin, as much as to escape punishment. Could he have his heart’s desire, he would be “holy, as God himself is holy,” and “perfect, as God himself is perfect.”
Thus, in the nature and extent of the two kinds of righteousness, there is an immense difference: nor is there a less difference in their principle and end.
Would we know what was the principle from which the Pharisaic righteousness proceeded? We can assert, on the most unquestionable authority, even that of Christ himself, that “all their works they did to be seen of men [Note: Matthew 23:5.].” And St. Paul no less strongly marks the end, to which all their zeal was directed. He confesses that “they had a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge: for, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, they went about to establish their own righteousness, and would not submit themselves unto the righteousness of God [Note: Romans 10:2-3.].” In these respects then we must differ from them. We should shun ostentation and vain-glory, as much as we would the most enormous crimes. We should bear in mind, that any thing done with a view to man’s applause, is altogether worthless in the sight of God: whatever it be, we have in the applause of men the reward we seek after, and the only reward that we shall ever obtain. We should also dread self-righteousness, as utterly inconsistent with a Christian state. St. Paul assures us, that “the Jews, who sought after the law of righteousness, did not attain to [any justifying] righteousness, because they sought it not by faith, but, as it were, by the works of the law; for they stumbled at that stumbling-stone [Note: Romans 9:31-32.].” The making of our own works the foundation of our hope towards God, argues a contempt of that “foundation which God has laid in Zion:” it thrusts out from his office the Lord Jesus Christ, “who of God is made unto us wisdom and righteousness,” and who, from that very circumstance, is called, “The Lord our Righteousness.” A truly Christian spirit will lead us, even “after we have done all that is commanded us, to say, We are unprofitable servants, we have done that [only] which it was our duty to do.” See this exemplified in the Apostle Paul, than whom there never was but one brighter example of piety in the world: he, after all his eminent attainments, “desired to be found in Christ, not having his own righteousness which was of the law, but the righteousness which is of God by faith in Christ [Note: Philippians 3:9.].”
Now then, compare the righteousness of the two parties; the one, “cleansing carefully indeed and superstitiously, the outside of the cup and platter, whilst within they were full of many unsubdued lusts;” the other, allowing not so much as an evil thought, but “cleansing themselves from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit, and perfecting holiness in the fear of God:” the one filled with a high conceit of their own goodness, and claiming heaven itself on account of it, whilst they aimed at nothing but the applause of man; the other, in the midst of their most strenuous exertions to serve and honour God, renouncing all dependence on themselves, and “glorying only in the cross of Christ:” the one, a compound of pride, unbelief, and hypocrisy; the other, of humility, and faith, and heavenly- mindedness. Whatever may be thought by those who know not how to appreciate the motives and principles of men, we do not hesitate to apply to these parties the distinctive characters assigned them by Solomon, and to say, that “Wisdom excelleth folly, as much as light excelleth darkness [Note: Ecclesiastes 2:13.].”
If now we proceed to the second point of our inquiry, and ask, Why our righteousness must exceed theirs? the text furnishes us with a sufficient answer: If we be no better than they, the Lord Jesus assures us, “that we shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Under the expression, “The kingdom of heaven,” both the kingdom of grace on earth, and the kingdom of glory in heaven, must be comprehended; for they are, in fact, the same kingdom; and the subjects in both are the same: only in the one, they are in an infantine and imperfect state, whereas, in the other, they have attained maturity and perfection: but from both shall we be alike excluded, if we possess not a better righteousness than theirs: the Lord Jesus will no more acknowledge us as his disciples here, than he will admit us into his beatific presence hereafter.
We cannot then without this be partakers of the kingdom of grace. The Lord Jesus Christ has told us plainly, that he does not regard those who merely “say unto him, Lord! Lord!” however clamorous they may be, or ostentatious of their zeal for him: he approves of those only “who do the will of his Father which is in heaven.” We may assume the name of his disciples, and be numbered amongst them by others; we may associate ourselves with them, as Judas did, and be as little suspected of hypocrisy as he; we may even deceive ourselves as well as others, and be as confident that we are Abraham’s children as ever the Pharisees of old were; we may, like them, be quite indignant to have our wisdom and goodness called in question; “Are we blind also?” “in so saying, thou condemnest us:” But all this will not make us Christians. A sepulchre may be whitened and rendered beautiful in its outward appearance; but it will be a sepulchre still; and its interior contents will be as lothesome as those of a common grave. It is to little purpose to “have the form of godliness, if we have not the power;” to “have a name to live, whilst yet we are really dead.” God will not judge of us by our profession, but our practice: “Then are ye my friends,” says our Lord, “if ye do whatsoever I command you.” To this effect is that declaration also of the Psalmist: having asked, “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place?” he answers, “He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart.” The truth is, that those whom Christ will acknowledge as his disciples, have been “born again,” they are “renewed in the spirit of their minds,” “they are new creatures; old things are passed away, and all things are become new:” they have been taught the spirituality and extent of God’s law; to know, that an angry word is murder, and an impure desire adultery; and in that glass they have seen themselves guilty, polluted, and condemned sinners: they have been stirred up by this view of themselves to flee unto Christ for refuge, as to the hope set before them in the Gospel: having “found peace with God through the blood of his cross,” they devote themselves unfeignedly to his service, and strive to “glorify him with their bodies and their spirits, which are his.” Here is the true secret of their obedience; “The love of Christ constraineth them; because they thus judge, that, if one died for all, then were all dead: and that he died for all, that they who live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him that died for them and rose again.” This is conversion; this is regeneration; this is what every Scribe and Pharisee must be brought to: even Nicodemus, “a master in Israel,” must become a disciple of Christ in this way: for our Lord declared to him in the most solemn manner, that, “unless he should be [thus] born again, he could not enter into the kingdom of God.”
The same is true in relation to the kingdom of glory. Whilst we are in this world, the tares and the wheat, which grow together, may so resemble each other, that they cannot be separated by human sagacity. The Jewish tares (as I myself know by ocular inspection) cannot, even when full grown, be immediately distinguished from wheat by a common observer [Note: The learned are not agreed what the ζιζάνιαwere. Parkhurst’s account of them, in his Lexicon, is, that they were “a kind of plant, in appearance not unlike corn or wheat, having at first the same kind of stalk, and the same viridity; but bringing forth no fruit, at least none good.” Macknight is precisely of the same opinion. Linnζus, speaking of that very species which the author here refers to, designates them as the zizania. Later botanists deny that that plant grew in Judζa; and represent it as of American growth. Whether Linnaeus was right, is no part of the author’s intention to discuss. He merely mentions the fact, that he has seen (in a green-house at Bristol), and had in his own possession an ear of it for some months, till incredulous persons rubbed it to pieces, that plant, which Linnζus identifies with the zizania of Judζa; which in our Translation of the Bible, is called tares; and which, though to all appearance useless and unproductive, may easily be mistaken for wheat in full ear. In this view, whatever it be called, it illustrates his subject: and, if it be the zizanion, it reflects a beautiful light also upon the parable of the tares, Matthew 13:0. Some indeed think, that because the servants distinguished the zizania from the wheat, there was no resemblance between them. But that argument is by no means conclusive: for the servants who were constantly habituated to the sight of tares and wheat, might easily discern that they were mixed in the field, whilst yet the difference might not be so great, but that a number of persons employed to pull them all up, might make innumerable mistakes, and root up much of the corn with them. The parable indeed may be explained without supposing any resemblance between the two; but such an interpretation destroys, in the author’s apprehension, much of the force, and beauty, and importance of the parable.]: the difference, however, is soon found by rubbing the ears, which in the one are nearly empty, and in the other are full of grain. The same may be noticed also in the religious world. Not only common observers, but even those who have the deepest insight into characters, and the best discernment of spirits, may be deceived; but God can never be deceived: however specious we may be in our outward appearance, he will discern our character through the thickest veil; “he searcheth the hearts, and trieth the reins;” or, as it is yet more strongly expressed, “he weigheth the spirits:” he knows exactly the qualities of which every action is compounded, and can separate, with infallible certainty, its constituent parts: and, when we shall stand before him in judgment, he will distinguish the upright Christian from the hypocritical and specious Pharisee, as easily “as a man divideth his sheep from the goats.” Then shall the final separation take place; “the wheat shall be treasured up in the garner, and the tares shall be burnt with unquenchable fire.” Here then is a further reason for the assertion in our text. If an outside religion would suffice, we might rest satisfied with it: but if we have a Judge, “whose eyes are as a flame of fire,” to whom the most secret recesses of the heart are “naked and open,” just as the inwards of the sacrifices were to the priest appointed to examine them; and if, as he has told us, “he will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the heart;” then must we be, not specious Pharisees, but real Christians, even “Israelites indeed, and without guile:” we must not be contented “with being Jews outwardly, but must be Jews inwardly, and have, not the mere circumcision of the flesh, but the inward circumcision of the heart, whose praise is not of men, but of God [Note: Romans 2:28-29.].”
The peculiar importance of the subject, we hope, will plead our excuse, if we trespass somewhat longer than usual on your time. In our statement we have been as concise as would consist with a clear exposition of the truth. In our application of it we shall also study brevity, as far as the nature of the subject will admit. An audience habituated to reflection, like this, will never grudge a few additional moments for an investigation so solemn, so weighty, so interesting as the present.
The first description of persons, then, to whom our subject is peculiarly applicable, and for whose benefit we are desirous to improve it, is that class of hearers who come short of the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees.
Many there are, it is to be feared, who, so far from “not being as other men are,” cannot at all be distinguished from the generality of those around them: who, instead of “fasting twice a week,” have never fasted twice, nor even once, in their whole lives, for the purpose of devoting themselves more solemnly to God: who, instead of “making long prayers,” never pray at all, or only in so slight, cursory, and formal a manner, as to shew that they have no pleasure in that holy exercise. Instead of keeping holy the Sabbath-day, they “speak their own words, do their own work, and find their own pleasure,” almost as much as on other days; or if, for decency’s sake, they impose a little restraint upon themselves, they find it the most wearisome day of all the seven. Instead of paying tithes with scrupulous exactness, they will withhold the payment both of tithes and taxes, if they can do it without danger of detection; thus shewing, that they have not even a principle of honesty to “render unto Cζsar the things that are Cζsar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Perhaps they may now and then give away somewhat in charity; but they do not consecrate a portion of their income to God as a religious act, nor even account it their duty so to do, notwithstanding “every man” is expressly commanded to “lay by him in store for charitable uses, according as God has prospered him.” Instead of being able to appeal to God that they have never been guilty of whoredom or adultery, they stand condemned for one, or both, of these things in their own consciences; or, if they do not, their chastity has proceeded from other causes, than either the fear of God, or the hatred of sin. Instead of honouring religion in the world, they have been ashamed of it, yea perhaps despised it, and held up to scorn and ridicule those who were its most distinguished advocates: thus, so far from labouring to proselyte people to righteousness, they have used all their influence to deter men from it.
What shall we say then to these characters? Shall we encourage them with the hopes of heaven? Must we not rather adopt the Apostle’s reasoning, “If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” Yes; if the Pharisees, with all their righteousness, could not enter into heaven, how shall they come thither, who are destitute of their attainments? If every one must perish who does not exceed their righteousness, what must become of those who fall so short of it? O that this argument might have its proper weight amongst us! O that men would not trifle with their souls, on the very brink and precipice of eternity! “Consider, brethren, what I say; and the Lord give you understanding in all things!”
Next we would solicit the attention of those who are resting in a Pharisaic righteousness. This is the kind of religion which is held in esteem by mankind at large. An outward reverence for the ordinances of religion, together with habits of temperance, justice, chastity, and benevolence, constitute what the world considers a perfect character. The description which St. Paul gives of himself previous to his conversion, is so congenial with their sentiments of perfection, that they would not hesitate to rest the salvation of their souls on his attainments. But what said he of his state, when once he came to view it aright? “What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ; yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.” He saw, that brokenness of heart for sin, a humble affiance in the Lord Jesus Christ, and an unreserved devotedness of heart to his service, were indispensable to the salvation of the soul. He saw, that, without these, no attainments would be of any avail; yea, that a man might have all the Biblical learning of the Scribes, and all the sanctified habits of the Pharisees, and yet never be approved of the Lord in this world, nor ever be accepted of him in the world to come. Is it not then desirable, that those who are in repute for wisdom and piety amongst us, should pause, and inquire, Whether their righteousness really exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees? Would they not do well to study the account which St. Paul gives of himself previous to his conversion, and to examine wherein they surpass him? Alas! alas! we are exceedingly averse to be undeceived; but I would entreat every one of my hearers to consider deeply what our blessed Lord has spoken of such characters: “Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God [Note: Luke 16:15.].”
Lastly, we would suggest some profitable considerations to those who profess to have attained that superior righteousness spoken of in our text.
You need not be told, that the examples of Christ and his Apostles, and indeed of all the primitive Christians, were offensive, rather than pleasing, to the Pharisees of old. The same disapprobation of real piety still lurks in the hearts of those who “occupy the seat of Moses [Note: By this expression is meant, Those who professing, like the Pharisees, to reverence the Scriptures as the word of God, expound them as they did, and make use of them to discourage, rather than promote, real piety. But it is not to be limited to any order of men whatever.]:” and you must not wonder if your contrition be called gloom; your faith in Christ, presumption; your delight in his ways, enthusiasm; and your devotion to his service, preciseness or hypocrisy. Well, if it must be so, console yourselves with this, that you share the fate of all the saints that have gone before you; and that your state, with all the obloquy that attends it, is infinitely better than that of your revilers and persecutors: you may well be content to be despised by men, whilst you are conscious of the favour and approbation of God.
But take care that “you give no just occasion to the enemy to speak reproachfully.” The world, and especially those who resemble the Scribes and Pharisees, will watch your conduct narrowly, just as their forefathers did that of our Lord himself; and happy will they be to find occasion against you. As for your secret walk with God, they know nothing about it: your hopes and fears, and joys and sorrows, are nothing to them: these are the things which they deride as airy visions and enthusiastic cant. They will inquire into those things which come more under their own observation, and on which they set an exclusive value: they will inquire how you demean yourselves in your several relations of life; whether you are temperate in your habits, modest in your demeanour, punctual in your dealings, true to your word, regular in your duties, and diligent in your studies. They will point to many of their own followers as highly exemplary in all these particulars; and if they find you inferior to them in any respect, they will cast all the blame upon religion, and take occasion from your misconduct to confirm themselves in their prejudices. Permit me, then, to say to all my younger brethren, and especially to all who shew any respect for religion, that religion, if true and scriptural, is uniformly and universally operative; and that it is a shame to a religious person to be surpassed by a Pharisee in any duty whatsoever. Though I would be far from encouraging any of you to boast, I would entreat all of you so to act, that you may, if compelled by calumnies, adopt the language of the Apostle; “Are they Hebrews? so am I: Are they Israelites? so am I: Are they of the seed of Abraham? so am I: Are they ministers of Christ? I speak as a fool; I am more; in labours more abundant.” Thus be ye also prepared to repel comparisons, or to turn them to your own advantage: and shew, that, in all the social and relative duties, and especially in those pertaining to you as students [Note: Preached before the University of Cambridge.], you are “not a whit behind the chiefest among them;” but even in the things wherein they most value themselves, “the righteous is more excellent than his neighbour [Note: Proverbs 12:26.].”
CHRIST’S EXPOSITION OF THE SIXTH COMMANDMENT
Matthew 5:21-22. Ye have heard that it was said by [Note: It should rather be “to.” See Whitby on the place.] them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raea, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
GENERAL statements, and general invectives, rarely carry any conviction to the mind: they must be supported by an induction of particulars, before they can produce any material effect. Assertions without proofs will be taken for calumny; but, when supported by fact, they will bear down all opposition. The assertions of our blessed Lord, indeed, needed no confirmation; because “he knew what was in man;” and because his miracles were a sufficient attestation to his word. Yet even He condescended to substantiate his accusations by appeals to fact.
He had intimated that the Scribes and Pharisees both did and taught many things contrary to his revealed will: and he had declared, that unless we have a better righteousness than theirs, we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. To evince the truth of his charge, and of the declaration founded upon it, he shews, that they had grossly perverted the sixth commandment: which on that account he proceeds to explain.
Let us consider,
His exposition of this commandment—
The commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” was one of those proclaimed from Mount Sinai, and written by the finger of God himself on tables of stone [Note: Exodus 20:13.]. An order was afterwards given, that the crime of murder should be invariably punished with the death of the offender [Note: Numbers 35:30-31.]. These two were by the Pharisees joined together, as though they had been one and the same commandment: “Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill, shall be in danger of the judgment.” The effect of this union was, that, first, the import of the commandment was thereby limited to actual murder; and, next, the sanction, with which it was enforced, was limited to a punishment inflicted by the civil magistrate. Hence all other violations of the commandment were either overlooked, as no offences at all, or were considered as of very light moment: and though God’s future judgment might not be expressly denied, it was at least kept very much out of sight, by this method of interpreting the word of God.
To rectify these errors, our Lord gave his exposition of the commandment. He explained,
[It had been thought to extend only to actual murder; but he declared, that it prohibited all causeless anger in the heart, and all outward expression of it with the lips.
In determining the sinfulness of anger, two things are to be considered, namely, the object, and the occasion of our anger. The only legitimate object of it is sin. The sinner himself should be regarded with love and pity; and his sin only should move our anger. Thus it was with our blessed Lord when he exercised anger; “He looked round about on the Pharisees with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts [Note: Mark 3:5.].” The occasion too must be just: our anger must not be causeless, or disproportionate to the offence, or of too long continuance. Where our anger is faulty in none of these respects, we observe the true medium; “We are angry, and sin not [Note: Ephesians 4:26.]:” but where any one of these barriers is broken down, there the anger becomes a violation of the sixth commandment.
Similar distinctions must be made respecting the outward expressions of anger. “Raca” was a term which indicated a contempt of the person to whom it was applied: it means, ‘Thou empty worthless fellow.’ “Thou fool,” was an expression that implied a great degree of indignation and abhorrence, ‘Thou reprobate villain.’ Such expressions therefore as these must of necessity be considered as violations of the commandment, because they manifest a total want of love and pity towards the person so addressed. But it is not every reproachful word that is sinful. St. Paul said, “O foolish Galatians:” “are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh [Note: Galatians 3:1; Galatians 3:3.]?” St. James makes use of a similar expression; “Wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” Our blessed Lord spake occasionally with far greater severity; “O fools, and blind;” “ye hypocrites;” “ye serpents and generation of vipers.” But in these things he spake as a prophet, bearing special authority; and consequently, unless specially authorized like him, we are not at liberty in these respects to follow his example. The rule for us is plain; we may, like the Apostles, designate the characters of men by appropriate epithets; but we must never use any expression which implies a hatred or contempt of the person to whom it is addressed. If we do not strictly adhere to this rule, we violate the commandment.
Thus you see the import of the commandment. Let us next consider our Lord’s explanation of,]
[We have observed, that the Pharisees, in their comments on this commandment, insisted almost exclusively on the temporal punishment annexed to the violation of it. Our Lord shewed them, that the principal judgments would be felt in the eternal world; and that not only the direct act of murder, but all those other evils which he had represented as breaches of the commandment, would there meet with deserved punishment. This he illustrated by a reference to the different kinds of punishment which were inflicted in their courts of justice. There were courts, established in different parts of the land, consisting of twenty-three members, who had power to try causes, and to inflict capital punishment on the guilty; and the persons condemned by them, were beheaded. There was also a great court or council, called the Sanhedrim, consisting of seventy-two members, who took cognizance of the greatest crimes; and the persons condemned by them were stoned. But there were some offences for which people were condemned to be burnt alive [Note: Leviticus 20:14; Leviticus 21:9.]: and these, it is thought, were executed in the valley of Hinnom. In that valley the people formerly had burned their children in sacrifice to Moloch; but, when the people were turned from that wicked idolatry, one method adopted for keeping them from returning to it was, to defile the place as much as possible, and to render it detestable in the eyes of the people. For this purpose, all the filth of the city was carried there to be consumed; and fires were kept there on purpose to consume it; and it is probable, that that spot was selected as the fittest place of execution for all who were sentenced to be burnt alive. Now it is plain, that, of these three kinds of death, the last is far the most terrible: stoning was a more lingering death than beheading, and burning was still worse than stoning. A similar kind of gradation there will be in the punishments inflicted in the eternal world. Death, eternal death, will be the portion of all who die in their sins: but some will have a lighter, and others a heavier, weight of misery to sustain, in proportion to their respective degrees of guilt. “Those who are angry with their brother without a cause, will be in danger of the judgment,” that is, of that lighter degree of misery, which may be compared to beheading. Those who suffer their anger to “break out into contemptuous expressions,” and “say to their brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council,” and sustain a heavier punishment, answerable to stoning. And if any person shall entertain such rancour in his heart as to “say to his brother, Thou fool, he shall be in danger of hell fire,” that is, of that heaviest of all punishments, answerable to the being burnt alive in the valley of Hinnom: hell fire being usually expressed, in the New Testament, by a word importing, “The fire in the land of Hinnom [Note: See Doddridge’s note on the text.].”
Thus our Lord shews what are to be regarded as violations of this commandment, and that every violation of it shall receive a recompence proportionable to its enormity.]
Having seen his exposition of the commandment, let us consider,
The general instruction which it conveys to us—
With the right exposition of the commandments every truth of the Gospel is intimately connected.
We may learn from this especially,
The spirituality of the law—
[The law is not a mere letter, which imports nothing beyond the literal import of the words, but extends to all the thoughts and dispositions of the heart. It prohibits all tendencies towards the sin forbidden, and enjoins every virtue that is opposed to it. St. Paul speaks of this as a tiling known and acknowledged; “We know that the law is spiritual [Note: Romans 7:14.].” In his unconverted state, indeed, he did not know it: he had the same view of the commandments as other Pharisees had, and thought he had never violated them, at least not so as to be condemned by them: but when God shewed him the meaning of those words, “Thou shalt not covet,” he saw that “the commandment” was, as David had long before represented it, “exceeding broad [Note: Psalms 119:96.]:” he saw that there was not an inclination of the mind, or an affection of the heart, which was not under its cognizance and controul; and, consequently, that he had violated it in ten thousand instances. This is the account which he himself gives us of his own experience: “I was alive without the law once; but, when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died [Note: Romans 7:7; Romans 7:9.];” that is, ‘Before I understood the law, I thought I had kept it, and should be saved by it; but when I saw its spirituality and extent, I was sensible that I was a condemned sinner, and could never be justified by my obedience to it.’
It is remarkable, that God has taught us this very lesson from the commandment before us. Moses was the meekest man upon earth: yet on one occasion he transgressed against this commandment, and spake unadvisedly with his lips: “Ye rebels, shall we fetch you water out of this rock?” and then, in his anger, he struck the rock twice. Now for this single transgression God excluded him from the earthly Canaan [Note: Compare Numbers 20:10-12. with Psalms 106:32-33.]. And what was the import of this dispensation? It was intended to teach us, that the law is violated as much by an angry word or temper, as by murder itself; that one single violation of it is sufficient to exclude us from the land of promise; and that, though it is of excellent use to conduct us through the wilderness, it can never bring us into Canaan: that is the work of Joshua, and of Joshua alone. Let us then learn this important lesson from the commandment before us; and be convinced, that there is no justification for us by the works of the law.]
The evil and danger of bad tempers—
[It is thought in general a sufficient excuse for passion, to say, that we are naturally quick and hasty; and, if a man do not long retain his anger, this hastiness of spirit is not considered, either by himself or others, as any great blemish in his character. But God does not judge so, when he tells us, that anger in the heart exposes us to his heavy displeasure, and that the saying to our brother ‘Raca’ puts us in danger of hell fire. Surely we must have very little considered the effects of anger, if we can think so light of the criminality attaching to it. See what murderous purposes issued from it in the heart of David [Note: 1 Samuel 25:32-33.]! — — — and what infernal acts were executed in consequence of it by the incensed sons of Jacob [Note: Genesis 34:13; Genesis 34:25-31. with 49:5–7.]! — — — Or let us look nearer home, and see how often it terminates in blows, in duels, and in death. Who will say, that “the feet of an angry man are not swift to shed blood?” If nothing but the declarations of God himself will satisfy us, let us attend to them: “He that hateth his brother, is a murderer; and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him [Note: 1 John 3:15.]:” and again, “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain [Note: James 1:26.].”
Hear ye then, ye “dealers in proud wrath;” hear what God himself speaks concerning you! Think it not a light matter to be angry with your wife, and children, and servants, on every occasion; and to be of such an irritable temper, that the smallest thing in the world suffices to put you in a passion. Whatever professions you may make of regard for religion, God tells you “not to deceive yourselves;” for that “no railer or reviler shall enter into his kingdom [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:10.]:” and such a disgrace does he consider you to his religion, that he bids his own people “not so much as to eat with you [Note: 1 Corinthians 5:10.].”
You will say, “It is only with the lower class of people that I am angry; to my equals I am courteous enough.” What then, is not one man your “brother,” as well as another? Go and murder a poor man; and see whether the laws of the land will make any distinction: and, if they will not, much less will “God, with whom there is no respect of persons.” If you indulge anger in your heart, and express it with your lips, “hell fire” will be your portion, whatever be your own rank, and whether the objects of your anger be poor or rich.
If you would be Christians indeed, your habitual conduct must be agreeable to that precept; “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil-speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you [Note: Ephesians 4:31-32.].”]
The greatness of the Gospel salvation—
[Let any one judge himself by our Lord’s exposition of this commandment, and see how often he has been “in danger of the judgment, and the council; yea, and of hell-fire itself.” Yet here is only one commandment; and that too considered only in a very partial way. What then must be the amount of our guilt, when tried by all the commandments? And if such be the guilt of every individual amongst us, what must be the guilt of the whole world? Yet this was the guilt which was laid upon the Lord Jesus Christ, and was expiated by his all-atoning sacrifice! How “mighty then must He be on whom such help was laid [Note: Psalms 89:19.]!” and how precious must that blood be which could wash away such loads of guilt! We do not in general consider this as we ought: if we did, we could not but be filled with wonder at the stupendous plan which the Father laid, the Son executed, the Spirit revealed.
It is the full view of this subject that animates the heavenly hosts to sing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing:” therefore, “blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto Him that sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever [Note: Revelation 5:12-13.].” And were we also to meditate more on these things, we should oftener catch the fire, and sing with enraptured hearts “the song of Moses and the Lamb [Note: Revelation 15:3.].”]
THE NECESSITY OF SEEKING RECONCILIATION WITH MEN
Matthew 5:23-24. Therefore, if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
THE explanation which our Lord has given us of the sixth commandment, shews, that we are not to confine the import of the commandments to the mere letter of them, but to regard them as extending to the words of our lips, and the dispositions of our hearts. Nor must we imagine that they are intended solely to prohibit sin: they must be understood as inculcating all those virtues which are opposed to the sin forbidden. This is evident from the connexion in which our text stands with the preceding context. Our blessed Lord had declared, that a wrathful word was in fact a species and degree of murder: and from thence he takes occasion to inculcate the necessity of exercising in every respect a spirit of love, so as, not only to entertain no anger in one’s own heart against others, but so as not to leave room for the exercise of it in the hearts of others towards us. The direction which he gives us respecting it will lead us to shew,
The duty of seeking reconciliation with men—
Wild beasts are scarcely more prone to injure their own species, than man is to oppress and injure his fellow-man. Indeed, considering what tempers we have, and what tempers exist in others, and what frequent occasions of interference with each other must of necessity arise, it would be a miracle if any of us had so conducted himself on all occasions, that no brother should on any account “have ought against him.” We apprehend that no one who knows any thing of his own heart, would profess himself so perfect, as never to have done towards another any thing differently from what he would have wished to be done towards himself. Supposing then that “a brother have ought against us,” what is to be done? I answer,
We should be willing to see our fault—
[There is in us a self-love, which blinds our eyes, and prevents us from seeing our own defects. Whatever relates to ourselves, we view in a partial light; so that we scarce ever attach any material blame to ourselves. Every one complains of the injuries he receives, but not of the injuries he commits. Take the report of mankind respecting each other, and the world is full of injuries; but take each person’s report of himself, and no occasion of complaint wall be found to exist. But it would be far better to put ourselves in the place of those who are offended with us; and, instead of extenuating our own offences and aggravating theirs, to view the extenuations of theirs, and the aggravations of our own. This would be doing as we would be done unto; and, if the habit of it were universal, it would soon root out all contention from the world.]
We should be ready to ask pardon for it—
[This is a condescension to which men in general are very averse to stoop. They would regard it as an act of meanness and cowardice; and therefore, even when conscious that they are wrong, they will rather risk the loss of their lives than submit to it. But no man should be ashamed to make a suitable apology for any offence he may have committed. When the friends of Job had, even with a good intention, criminated him on account of supposed hypocrisy, God was incensed against them for their uncharitable conduct, and ordered them to make their acknowledgments to Job himself, and to entreat his intercession in their behalf. It was no excuse for them that they had been mistaken, or that they had intended well, or even that they had been actuated by a zeal for God: they had wounded the feelings, and defamed the character, of Job; and if ever they would obtain forgiveness from God, they must first of all ask forgiveness from their injured friend [Note: Job 42:7-8.]. Thus must we do: it is an act of justice which we owe to man; and an act of obedience which we owe to God.]
We should be desirous to make reparation for it—
[This was expressly required under the law [Note: Leviticus 6:2-6.]: and it was practised under the Gospel. No sooner was Zaccheus converted to the faith, than he engaged to restore fourfold to any person whom in his unconverted state he had defrauded [Note: Luke 19:8.]. And it is in vain to affect penitence, if we be not unfeignedly determined to make reparation, as far as is in our power, for any injury we may have clone. Who would give credit to a man for penitence, whilst he wilfully retained the goods that he had stolen? Sincere contrition would urge him to undo whatever he had done amiss. And the same principle would produce the same effects in every person under heaven.]
Such is our duty towards an offended brother. We now proceed to state,
The importance of it in order to our acceptance with God—
The command here given, to suspend the exercise of a solemn duty to God till we shall have performed this duty to man, shews,
That no duties whatever can supersede the necessity of it—
[It is here taken for granted, that men will bring their gifts to God’s altar, or, in other words, will draw nigh to him in the use of all his appointed ordinances. But will works of piety procure us a dispensation from the duties of the second table? Will the making of long prayers be any compensation for devouring widows’ houses; or the paying tithe of mint and anise and cummin atone for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and truth? No such commutation will be admitted by God; no such reserves allowed: his word to us, under all such circumstances, is, “These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”]
That no duties whatever will be accepted without it—
[A person is represented here as already with his offering before God’s altar. But what says the word of God unto him? ‘Finish thine offering to me, and then go and be reconciled to thy brother?’ No: it is, “Go thy way;” depart from my altar; leave thy gift there, that it may be ready for thee to offer when thou art reconciled to thy brother: but do not for a moment think of approaching me with acceptance, whilst thy brother’s rights are overlooked. “The prayer of the upright is doubtless God’s delight:” but, when presented by one who “regards iniquity in his heart, it not only shall not be heard,” but it shall be held in utter “abomination [Note: Proverbs 15:8; Proverbs 21:27.].” Hear how solemnly God protests against all such hypocritical services [Note: Isaiah 1:11-15.Amos 5:21-24; Amos 5:21-24.] — — — It is not in the power of words to express more sovereign contempt, or more rooted abhorrence, of such services, than is conveyed in these passages: and we may be assured, that if we attempt to draw nigh to God, either at his table or at the footstool of his grace, he will spurn us from him with indignation. Let us be ever so urgent in our supplications, his only answer will be, “Go thy way.”
Let us not however be misunderstood on this subject: we are not to imagine, that the circumstance of our being at variance with a brother is any excuse for staying away from the Lord’s table: (it were strange indeed if a want of love to man would excuse a want of piety to God:) this is certainly not the meaning of our text: the meaning is, that, as we cannot be accepted of God in such a state, it becomes us without delay to seek reconciliation with our offended brother.
From this subject we may learn,
The necessity of frequent self-examination—
[It is here supposed that a person may be living in the exercise of religious duties, and, without being conscious of his danger, may be in a state wherein neither his person nor his services can be accepted of God: he goes to the altar of his God as usual, and there recollects that his brother has some cause of complaint against him. Alas! there are many such self-deceiving people in the Christian world at this time. But how terrible! and they continue in their delusions till God himself shall bring their sins to remembrance at his judgment-seat! How dreadful will it then be to be told, “Go thy way!” Let us then live in the habit of daily self-examination: let us not leave any of our ways unnoticed, lest some hidden evil remain unrepented of, and “separate between us and our God” for ever. Especially when about to come to the supper of our Lord, let us try our ways with more than common jealousy, according to that advice of the Apostle, “Let a man examine himself, and so let him come [Note: 1 Corinthians 11:28.].” Let us go back to our early days, and ask, Whom have we offended? whom defrauded? whom calumniated? whom encouraged in the ways of sin, or discouraged in the ways of piety and virtue? And, whilst we are careful to wash away our stains in the Fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness, let us be no less careful to obtain forgiveness of man, and to remedy the evils which we are unable to recall.]
The necessity of cultivating a humble spirit—
[It is pride which renders us so averse to ask forgiveness of a fellow-creature. But we have no alternative: if we will not seek reconciliation with an offended brother, we shall not obtain it with an offended God. Let us only get our spirits humbled with a sense of sin, and all the difficulty will vanish. We shall even feel a pleasure in making any acknowledgment which may tend to restore harmony and love. Even, if we are not conscious of having given any just occasion of offence, we shall not be satisfied, whilst we see a brother alienated from us: we shall be anxious to find the cause of his displeasure; to explain any thing which he may have misapprehended, and alter any thing he may have disapproved. In short, if the Gospel had its due effect upon us, we should, as far as our influence extended, convert this wilderness into another Paradise. Our “swords would immediately be turned into ploughshares;” and “the wolf and the lamb would dwell together” in perfect amity: there would be “none to hurt or to destroy in all God’s holy mountain.” O that we could see such a state existing all around us! Let us at least endeavour to produce it in our respective circles. Let us appreciate as we ought the comfort of love, and the excellency of a Christian spirit. And let us seek that “wisdom from above, which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy [Note: James 3:17.].”]
THE IMPORTANCE OF SEEKING RECONCILIATION WITH GOD
Matthew 5:25-26. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, thou shall by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.
IT is thought by many, that prudential considerations are unworthy the attention of a Christian. That he ought to be influenced by higher principles, we readily admit. The love of Christ should be to him in the place of all other incentives, so far at least that he should not need any other motive for doing the will of God. But Christians are men, and feel the force of every principle which can operate upon the human mind: and therefore subordinate motives may fitly be proposed to them in aid of those which are more worthy of their regard. Our blessed Lord, having explained the sixth commandment, inculcates the duties contained in it, particularly that of seeking reconciliation with an offended brother: and this he does, first from the consideration of the offence which a want of a conciliatory spirit gives to God, and next from a consideration of the danger to which it exposes ourselves. In the former view we have treated of it in the foregoing verses; in the latter view we are to speak of it at this time. But the peculiarly emphatic manner in which our Lord speaks in the words before us, will naturally, and almost necessarily, lead our thoughts beyond the mere concerns of time, to another tribunal before which we must all appear. We shall therefore consider our text,
In its primary and literal sense—
When we have by any means offended a brother, we should not defer the period of making proper concessions, but should make them “quickly:” the danger of delay is great: for,
The breach may become irreparable—
[When we have excited a painful feeling in the breast of another, or even injured him in a considerable degree, we may by instantaneous concessions abate at least, if not entirely remove, his anger. But the longer he is suffered to pore over the injuries he has sustained, the more his wound festers, and indignation rankles in his bosom. Continued pondering over the misconduct of the offending person brings to his recollection a multitude of incidents, which under other circumstances would have been overlooked, but, viewed through the medium of anger, are magnified into importance, and regarded as aggravations of the offence committed. Thus an aversion to make acknowledgments on the one side begets inflexibility on the other; and that which might have passed away as a slight and transient dispute, becomes a ground of bitter alienation and rooted aversion. To prevent this, we should strive to make up the matter “while we are in the way with him.” Instead of separating immediately, as is usually the case, and avoiding all means of friendly communication, we should labour to prevent matters from coming to an extremity: and set ourselves in the first instance to procure a reconciliation, precisely as we would to extinguish a fire that threatened to consume our house: we should not stop till the flames had gained an irresistible ascendant; but should set ourselves first to quench the fire, and afterwards guard against the occasions of future conflagration.]
The consequences may be fatal—
[Our Lord supposes a person so irritated as to have determined to prosecute us in a court of law: and he supposes that the offence has been such as, when judgment is given against us, will terminate in our ruin; the compensation awarded him, and the costs of the suit, exceeding our power to discharge, we shall be cast into prison, and be liberated from thence no more.
This is a consequence which not unfrequently happens for want of timely humiliation in the offending party. But where measures are not pursued to such an extent, the disagreement may yet be attended with most calamitous effects.And it will be well for us to remember, that, though the persons we may offend may not be able to avenge themselves in that precise way, there is no person who may not at some time or other have it in his power to do us an essential injury: and therefore, though it is but a poor motive for a Christian to act upon, we may not improperly bear it in mind, as a subordinate considertion, to keep us from giving offence to any, and to stir us up to adopt the most prompt and effectual means of reconciliation with any whom we may have chanced to provoke.]
That our subject may be more generally interesting, we shall consider the text,
In a secondary and accommodated sense—
Notwithstanding the Apostles occasionally quote the Scriptures in a secondary and accommodated sense, we would be very cautious in taking such a liberty with the word of God. But we can scarcely conceive that our Lord had not some reference to the future judgment, when the Supreme Judge of all will execute on every unhumbled sinner the punishment he deserves. Though our offences be primarily against our fellow-creature, he will take cognizance of them at the last day, if we have not sought forgiveness in this life, as well at the hand of our offended brother, as at his hands. But since we cannot absolutely affirm that this is the sense of our text, we are contented to call it an accommodated sense; more especially because, in this latter sense, we consider God as the offended party, no less than the Judge who takes cognizance of the offence. Let not this, however, be thought a great liberty, because he is really the offended party, whether our transgression be immediately against man or not; and, as we have observed, he will bring every work into judgment, whomsoever it might affect in the first instance.
With this apology we shall consider our text as prescribing a rule of conduct for us towards God no less than towards our fellow-creatures: and this we may well do; for,
Our duty is the same
[We have all offended God, and that in instances without number. To humble ourselves before him is our bounden duty. This would be our duty, though no means of reconciliation had been provided for us: but when God has sent his only-begotten Son to make an atonement for our sins, that so we might be brought into a state of reconciliation with him in a way consistent with the honour of his law and of his moral government, we should be inexcusable indeed if we should delay to seek him one single moment. The ingratitude which such conduct would argue, would aggravate our past offences beyond measure — — —]
The reasons for it are the same—
[“We are yet in the way with him.” Though we are hastening to the judgment-seat of Christ, we are not yet arrived there: and there is yet time for reconciliation with our offended God — — — This time however will be very short; how short we know not: we are advancing towards his tribunal every day and hour — — — But, if once the matter is brought before the Judge, all hope of mercy and forgiveness will be past: justice must then be dispensed according to the strict letter of the law — — — The sentence that will then be decreed will be unalterably fixed for ever: so far from “paying the last farthing” of our debt, we shall never be able to pay one farthing: and consequently must endure the penalty of our sins for ever and ever. Who can reflect on the awfulness of that prison, and yet continue one hour in an unreconciled state? — — — Consider the solemnity with which our Lord warns us against delay, and lose not another moment in imploring mercy at the hands of God.]
Of what value in the sight of God is brotherly love!
[If we were to judge by the little regard shewn to it by men, we should account it of no value: but God declares, that whatever we may have, or do, or suffer, if destitute of this, we are no better than sounding brass, or tinkling cymbals [Note: 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.]. As far as we are possessed of this, so far we resemble him [Note: 1 John 4:7-8; 1 John 4:16.]: as far as we are destitute of it, we resemble “the devil, who was a murderer from the beginning [Note: 1 John 3:14-15. with John 8:44.].” Let us cultivate to the uttermost this heavenly grace — — —]
How happy would the world be if Christianity universally prevailed!
[“Love is the fulfilling both of the law” and the Gospel too. If the Gospel reigned in the hearts of all, “Judah would no more vex Ephraim, nor would Ephraim envy Judah.” All would be harmony and peace throughout the world. To prove the blessedness of such a state, I need only appeal to those, who have felt at any time the disquietudes arising from anger and contention, and have at last been enabled to re-unite with their brother in cordial amity and affection. What a difference is there in your feelings! Instead of being harassed with incessant vexation, how are you now filled with tranquillity and joy! If then we have nothing more than our own happiness in view, we should, “as much as lieth in us, live peaceably with all men” — — —]
How earnest should we be in preparing for the future judgment!
[There, not overt actions only, but tempers and dispositions, will be strictly investigated: and a sentence will be passed upon us, founded on the moral state of our minds. Let us not trifle in a matter of such importance. Let us not be satisfied with saying, “I forgive all;” but let us inquire whether there be any person of whom we have not asked forgiveness? — — — Our proud hearts are very averse to stoop; but if we do not humble ourselves now before God and man, the time will come when we shall “find no place of repentance, though we should seek it carefully with tears [Note: Hebrews 12:17. Matthew 25:10-12.].”]
OUR LORD’S EXPOSITION OF THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT
Matthew 5:27-28. Ye have heard that it was said by [to] them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
THAT the Jews were unacquainted with the spiritual nature of their law, we do not wonder; because their authorized instructors were chiefly occupied in ceremonial observances; but that Christians should be ignorant of it, is astonishing, since the strongest light has been cast upon it in the New Testament, and every minister of Christ must make it known, in order to state with accuracy the scope and excellence of the Gospel. Yet it is certain that few Christians comparatively have just views of the law: and it is to be feared, that, in many instances, ministers themselves are not sufficiently aware of the importance of setting it before their people in all its spirituality and extent. The exposition of it which our Lord has given us in this sermon, precludes all possibility of doubt respecting its real import. In the words which we have now read, he interprets the seventh commandment: in discoursing upon which, it will be proper to consider,
Its true import—
The Scribes and Pharisees imagined that the prohibition reached no further than to the actual commission of adultery; but our Lord shews that it extended,
To mental as well as bodily impurity—
[The intent of God’s law is, to regulate our hearts. It can never be supposed that God should require us to “cleanse the outside of the cup and platter,” and leave us at liberty to retain all manner of uncleanness within. He surely will not be satisfied with seeing us like “whited sepulchres.” He forbids an evil desire no less than an evil act [Note: Romans 7:7.]: and especially in relation to the evil we are considering, he specifies every variety of it as alike hateful in his eyes: “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,” are all distinctly mentioned as “works of the flesh,” which equally exclude us from the kingdom of God [Note: Galatians 5:19; Galatians 5:21.]. Of course, the law does not condemn that attachment which is cherished in order to an honourable marriage; but all desires which have not respect to that, it does condemn.
We forbear to enlarge upon the subject, wishing rather to commend it to your consciences before God; but we entreat you all attentively to consider what have been the workings of your own hearts on different occasions, when perhaps you little thought what construction God put upon them, and in what light you were viewed by him [Note: On such a subject as this, the utmost possible delicacy must bo observed.].]
To the means and occasions of impurity, as well as to impurity itself—
[It is needless to observe, that the eye and the ear are inlets to evil, and that they need to be subjected to continual restraints. Our blessed Lord declares, that even a look, when employed for the purpose of exciting an impure desire, or when productive of that effect, involves the soul in guilt, no less than adultery itself. And St. Peter speaks of persons having “eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin.” If the eye then may bring so much defilement on the soul, what shall we say of frequenting those places of public amusement, where every thing that is seen and heard has a direct tendency to corrupt the mind? What shall we say of suffering our minds to be contaminated with light and frothy novels, with indecent pictures, with licentious conversation, or indeed with sensual thoughts? Can any one who allows himself in such liberties as these, acquit himself of the charge which is brought against him in the text? Nor are they less criminal, whose dress is framed for this unhallowed end, and who sacrifice both decency and health to the detested purpose of inflaming the appetites of men. It is obvious, that, whether we are the tempters, or the tempted, we are highly criminal: however the imagination becomes defiled, that defilement constitutes us guilty in the sight of God.]
Such being the view which our Lord himself gives us of the commandment, we proceed to consider,
The effect which our Lord’s exposition of it should produce upon us—
Were the commandment restricted to its literal meaning, we might find cause perhaps for self-complacency in relation to it. But when it is rightly interpreted, it affords to all of us abundant occasion for,
[“Who will say, My heart is clean, I am pure from this sin?” Who, if an adulteress were now to be stoned to death, would take up the first stone to cast at her? Who must not retire self-convicted, and self-condemned? If then we would know what ought to be our feelings before God, we have here an image whereby they may be illustrated in the clearest manner. Conceive a woman who has for many years maintained an honourable character, betrayed at last into a forgetfulness of her marriage vows, and exposed to all the shame which her misconduct has justly brought upon her: how degraded would she be in her own eyes! how ashamed would she be to appear in the presence of her injured husband! how would she even lothe her own existence, and hate the light which would expose her to public view! Such consciousness should we feel in the presence of our God, even when our conduct has been most blameless in the sight of men. We should take to ourselves our proper character; and, knowing what abominations the omniscient God has seen within us, we should humble ourselves before him, and lothe ourselves in dust and ashes. We should put our hands on our mouths, and “our mouths in the dust,” “crying, Unclean, unclean!”]
[Many instances there are of persons, who, in former times, have been as moral in their habits as any of us, who yet, through the violence of temptation, have fallen, and brought indelible disgrace upon their names and families. Whence is it, we would ask, that this has not been our lot? Is it that we have never found any disposition to commit the evils which have ruined them? Is it that we are not actually chargeable with those very evils in the sight of God, who identifies the desire with the act itself? Or rather, is it not owing to the kind providence of God, who has screened us from temptation, or interposed in some way to break its force and rescue us from its power? We may perhaps be ready to ascribe our safety to a good education, and other secondary causes: but, if the First Great Cause had not rendered them effectual, they would have been as unavailing for us, as they have been for thousands all around us. Doubtless we have reason to be thankful for the restraints of education, for a dread of public shame, yea even for the laws of the land also: all of these have had their weight, when perhaps other barriers might have been broken down: we have reason therefore to be thankful for them. But especially have we cause to bless our God for the checks of conscience, if at any time the progress of evil has been impeded by them. Whatever have been the means of preserving us from the actual commission of iniquity, the true source of our deliverance is the same: it must ultimately be traced to the providence or grace of God; and all the glory must be given to our heavenly Benefactor.]
[When we consider how many temptations to evil present themselves to us on every side, and what depraved appetites lurk within us, we shall see reason to maintain continual vigilance and circumspection. It was wise in Job, who “made a covenant with his eyes, that he would not even look upon a maid [Note: Job 31:1.].” And Solomon has wisely cautioned us to let our eyes look strait forward [Note: Proverbs 4:25.]. If we regarded only the danger of falling into open sin, this advice would be good: but when we reflect on our Lord’s assertion, that an impure look will be considered by Amighty God as actual adultery, we had need to be on our guard against the very first assaults of evil: we should “watch and pray, that we enter not into temptation:” we should “keep,” not our feet only, but “our hearts also, with all diligence; knowing that out of them are the issues of life.” Remember then what we have already spoken respecting the means and occasions of impurity. Guard against the books, the places, the company, the conversation, that you have at any time perceived to be defiling to your souls. Be as careful of catching infection from those around you, as you would be if they were disordered with the plague. Go not into the world, without carrying with you, as an antidote, the fear of God. Come not from your intercourse with the world, without washing away your defilements in “the fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness.” Be on your guard also against your secret thoughts; remembering, that God is “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of your hearts,” and that he will bring every secret thing into judgment, whether it be good or evil.” It is awful to reflect, what evils will be disclosed in the last day, and what fearful judgments will be denounced on many, who in this world were reputed chaste. May God enable us all to walk as in his immediate presence; and give us such a measure of his grace, as shall “sanctify us wholly,” and “preserve us blameless unto his heavenly kingdom!”]
THE NECESSITY OF MORTIFYING EVERY SIN
Matthew 5:29-30. If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
MANY of the precepts of our holy religion are so strict, that persons indisposed to obey them are ready to turn away from them in despair, exclaiming, “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?” But must we on that account keep back the truth, or lower the commands of God to the habits and inclinations of men? Must we not rather “declare the whole counsel of God,” and enforce to the uttermost the authority of his word? Our blessed Lord has set us an example in this respect; an example which all his servants must follow. He had declared, that an impure look was, in God’s estimation, constructive adultery. To this it might be objected, that our constitution, rather than our will, was chargeable with this offence. But our Lord shuts out at once all objections of this kind, by saying, that even a right eye or a right hand must be parted with, rather than that we should suffer them to lead us to the commission of any sin; and that, if we refuse to sacrifice any thing for his sake, eternal misery will be our merited and inevitable portion.
In his words there are two things to be noticed:
The alternative proposed—
It is here supposed, that we have, both within us and without, many things which may operate as incitements to sin. And experience proves that this is really the case: there is not a faculty of our minds, or a member of our bodies, which may not become an occasion of evil; nor is there any thing around us which may not administer fuel to the flames of corruption that are within us. Beauty has a tendency to create unhallowed desires; splendour, to call forth envy and ambition; and plenty, to promote intemperance.
But our Lord sets before us an alternative, either to turn away from those things which are occasions of evil, or to suffer the displeasure of an angry God in hell.
Now this is,
An only alternative—
[Nothing leas will suffice on our part; nor will any diminution of punishment be admitted on God’s part. It is to no purpose to urge, that the evil disposition which we harbour is but small, or that it is in a manner necessary to our happiness: if it is as dear as a right eye, or as necessary as a right hand, it must be sacrificed. Nor is there any intermediate state, like that of purgatory, to which small offenders can be consigned. As there is no medium between the renunciation of sin and the allowance of it, so there is no middle state between heaven and hell. The alternative is clear, definite, irreversible [Note: Romans 8:13.]. You cannot be “Christ’s, unless you crucify the flesh, with the affections and lusts [Note: Galatians 5:24.].”
It is worthy of observation, that our Lord does not affirm that the retaining of a right hand or eye will ensure eternal punishment; but he takes it for granted; he considers it as an acknowledged truth: yea, even before the resurrection of the body had been fully revealed, he considers that also as acknowledged; he takes for granted that the body, as well as the soul, shall be a subject of happiness or misery in the eternal world; and he assumes this truth as the ground of his argument. There can be no doubt therefore but that “the whole body will be cast into hell,” if any one member of it be made an instrument or occasion of sin.]
A desirable alternative—
[It may seem strange to represent such an alternative as desirable: but it is really so: for a permission to harbour one unmortified lust would be like a permission to drink so much poison, or to retain one disorder preying upon our vitals. But this is not all. Sin, if allowed any part in our affections, will strive for mastery, and never cease, till it has attained an undisputed dominion. It is a leprosy which will overspread the whole man; “a canker which will eat,” till it has consumed us utterly. Is it not desirable then to have it altogether eradicated, and to be compelled to wage incessant war against it? Were there any other alternative allowed us, we should want a sufficient stimulus to exertion: we should be apt to side with the traitor, and, for the sake of present ease or gratification, to neglect our true interests. But, when there is no other choice given us, but either to mortify every sinful propensity, or to suffer eternal misery in hell, we are constrained to gird ourselves to the battle, and to “fight without intermission the good fight of faith.”]
A necessary alternative—
[This alternative is no arbitrary imposition to which we are subjected without necessity: it arises out of the very nature of things. God himself could not alter it consistently with his own perfections: he could no more give license to his creatures to harbour sin, or decline punishing it if harboured, than he could cease to be holy, or to have a due respect for the honour of his law. But supposing he were to cancel this alternative, and to admit to the regions of bliss a person who retained one bosom lust, it would be of no avail; for heaven to such a person would not be heaven. Place a man here at a royal banquet; set before him every thing that can please the appetite; let him hear the sweetest melody that ever charmed the ear; let all around him be as full of happiness as their hearts can hold; what enjoyment of it would he have, whilst “a thorn was in his eye?” We do not hesitate to say, that darkness and solitude would to him be far preferable to all this gaiety and splendour. And precisely thus would it be to one who should be admitted into heaven, whilst one unmortified sin was yet rankling in his bosom.]
What to do under such circumstances we learn from,
The advice given—
The advice is simply this, To mortify sin without reserve—
[It is here allowed, that the mortification of sin is a difficult and painful work, like the destruction of an eye, or the excision of a hand. But still it must be done. Of course, the language of our text is not to be taken literally: the maiming of the body, though it might incapacitate that individual member for the commission of sin, would effect nothing towards the eradicating of sin from the heart. We must understand the text as referring to the dispositions of the mind, and to the things which cull forth those dispositions into exercise. Do our connexions draw us aside from the path of duty? Are we beguiled by their example, or intimidated by their authority? We must learn to withstand their influence, and to submit either to their hatred or contempt, rather than be betrayed by them into any thing that is displeasing to God. Doubtless, we should do every thing in our power to conciliate them; but if nothing but a dereliction of duty will satisfy them, we must be prepared with meekness to reply, “Whether it be right to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.” Do our interests betray us into sin? Are we engaged in a trade which we cannot carry on without doing things which our consciences condemn? Or have we prospects in life which must be sacrificed, if we will follow the Lord fully? There must be no hesitation on this point: we must pluck out the right eye, and cut off the right hand, and “cast them from us” with abhorrence, rather than suffer them to warp our judgment, and defile our conscience.
Are our passions the occasions of sin? We must learn to subdue them by fasting and prayer, and to restrain the gratification of them to the limits which God himself has assigned. We must “mortify our members upon earth,” and “crucify the whole body of sin [Note: Colossians 3:5.Romans 6:6; Romans 6:6.].”
Let it not be said, We require too much. It is not man, but God, that requires these things: and he has promised that “his grace shall be sufficient for us;” so that, however the work may exceed all human power, we need not be discouraged: we are authorized, every one of us, to say with the Apostle, “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me.” Only “walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh [Note: Galatians 5:16.].”]
The argument with which this advice is enforced, is such as no human being can withstand—
[We have before observed, that our Lord assumes this as an acknowledged and indisputable truth, namely, that eternal misery in hell must be the consequence of indulging one single sin. From hence he argues, that “it is expedient” to part with sin, rather than incur that tremendous punishment. The pleasure of sin will surely be too dearly purchased at such a price as this. Whatever we design to procure, we always consider what its value is: no man would give a large estate for a worthless insignificant bauble: nor would any man gratify his palate with a poisonous draught, which he knew would fill him with excruciating agony to the latest hour of his life. We grant then that sin is pleasant, just for the moment: but will that momentary enjoyment repay an eternity of misery, of such misery too as no imagination can conceive? We grant too that something may be gained by sin: but can the gain ever equal the loss that will be sustained? “If a man should gain the whole word, what would it profit him, if by that means he lost his own soul?”
Moreover, the pain of mortifying sin can never be compared with that which will follow from the indulgence of it. Be it so, the mortifying of sin is painful; but what are the sufferings of hell fire? Were the pain of self-denial a million times greater than it is, it is but for a moment: whereas the pains of hell are everlasting. Alas! who can think of them, and not tremble? Who can think of them, and hesitate one moment about the mortifying of sin? See what we do when informed that the retaining of a limb will endanger our lives: we suffer amputation, however painful it may be; and are glad to pay the person that will perform the operation for us. O let us be equally wise in relation to our souls!
From the contemplation of this argument then we most heartily concur in our Lord’s advice: If your connexions ensnare you, renounce them; if your interests, sacrifice them; if your passions, get them subdued and mortified. Having your choice given you, learn, with Mary, to “choose the better part.”]
We cannot conclude the subject without pointing out to you the importance,
Of ministerial faithfulness—
[It can be no pleasure to us to speak of “hell fire,” and to alarm you with denouncing it as the portion of so great a multitude of our fellow-creatures. But what are we to do? What did our Lord himself do in the words before us? If we are silent, we cannot alter God’s determinations: whether we tell you of it or not, this is the alternative which God has given you: we cannot reverse it; we cannot soften it; we cannot lower it to your wishes or attainments. We may deceive and ruin you by our silence; but we cannot benefit you at all: we shall only involve ourselves in your ruin. If indeed we have put a wrong construction on our text, then we are blameable for alarming you without reason: but yet, as long as we believe this to be the mind and will of God, we must declare it: “knowing, as we do, the terrors of the Lord, we must persuade men;” and you may at least derive this advantage from our warnings, namely, to be stirred up to a diligent inquiry after truth. But suppose our interpretation of the passage to be just, of what infinite importance to you is it to be rightly informed respecting it! How many of you may now escape the miseries of hell, who, but for this warning, might have been subjected to them for ever! Surely then, brethren, you are indebted to us for our fidelity. You cannot but know that such faithfulness is the parent of contempt and obloquy. But we would gladly endure infinitely more than ever we have endured, if only you would take heed to our words, and flee from the wrath to come. To all of you then we say, Be thankful for the ministry that probes you to the quick, and that consults your benefit rather than your approbation.]
Of personal integrity—
[Self-love inclines us always to view ourselves more favourably than we ought. If we are conscious of some secret evil, we excuse ourselves as much as possible, in order to dissipate all fear of future punishment. If we hear that evil exposed, we are rather led to contemplate it in others, than to view it in ourselves: or if constrained to advert to our own case, we condemn the minister, either as personal, or as too severe. But what folly is this! If we had reason to apprehend that we had caught the plague, should we not be anxious to ascertain the truth, in order that we might counteract the infection, and escape its baneful effects? Why then are we not equally solicitous to know the state of our souls before God? Why will we shut our eyes against the light? What harm can arise from knowing what God has said concerning us? O put not from you, brethren, the word of life! Rather come hither, in order that you may be probed; in order that there may be no evil in you undiscovered. Examine yourselves with all imaginable care. Be afraid of nothing so much as being left in ignorance, and deceiving your own souls. When we speak the severest truths, apply them, not to others, but yourselves: take them as a light wherewith to search your own hearts: and beg of God to aid you by his Holy Spirit. Let David’s prayer be ever on your lips: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me; and lead me in the way everlasting.”]
Matthew 5:31-32. It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: hut I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, committeth adultery.
THE laws of men cannot always proceed to the extent that might be wished in the support of truth and virtue. They must sometimes bend to circumstances, and tolerate evils which they cannot totally prevent. Even under the Theocracy itself this necessity was felt and admitted. The laws of Moses, as far as they were purely moral, were perfect and inflexible; but, as far as they were political, they yielded in a measure to the state and character of the people for whom they were made. The Jews were a hardhearted and stiffnecked people, and extremely licentious in their manners. They would multiply their wives to any extent that they chose, and put them away on the most frivolous occasions. Moses knew that an absolute prohibition of such practices would only render the men more ferocious, and the women more miserable: and therefore he contented himself with laying some restrictions on the men, that if divorces could not be prevented, they might at least be rendered less frequent, by being made more solemn, more deliberate, more manifest. He limited the permission to those instances wherein there was in the woman some moral, natural, or acquired defect, which was the ground of her husband’s alienation from her. He then ordered that a writing of divorcement should be drawn up, and in the presence of two witnesses be given to her; that so, if she were afterwards married to another man, she might be able to prove that she was not living in adultery, because her former marriage had been annulled [Note: Deuteronomy 24:1.]. This restriction, which was only a permission granted on account of the hardness of their hearts, was by the Scribes and Pharisees construed into a command to put away their wives, as soon as ever they ceased to love them: and, under cover of this law, the most licentious and cruel practices almost universally obtained. Our blessed Lord, who came to put all his followers under the authority of the moral law, and to reduce the world to its primeval sanctity, declared, that this license was contrary to the original institution of marriage; and that henceforth, as Adam and Eve were formed for each other, and united in marriage, without any latitude allowed to either of them to dissolve the connexion, or to admit any other to a participation of their mutual rights, so should every man and woman, when united in wedlock, have an inalienable right in each other, a right that should never be cancelled, but by a violation of the marriage vows [Note: Matthew 19:3-9.]. To this subject our Lord was led by his exposition of the seventh commandment. He had shewn, that that commandment was no less violated by an impure look than by the act of adultery itself: and now he proceeds to shew, that those practices, which were supposed to be sanctioned by the Mosaic law, were never to be tolerated amongst his followers, since they were directly contrary to the spirit of that commandment. There was one, and only one reason, which should henceforth be admitted as a proper ground of divorce: and if any one in future should put away his wife in defiance of this restriction, he should be dealt with as an adulterer in the day of judgment.
The restriction itself being so clear and simple, we shall not attempt any further elucidation of it, but shall rather point out the importance of the restriction to the welfare of mankind.
It raises the female sex from the lowest state of degradation—
[Whilst men were at liberty to take, and to repudiate, as many wives as they pleased, the female sex were viewed in no other light than as females are regarded by the brute creation. Their moral and intellectual qualities were overlooked. Whatever distinguished them as a higher order of beings, was disregarded: their beauty only was deemed of any essential consequence; and they were valued only as means and instruments of licentious gratification. Consider the state of those whom Solomon and Rehoboam selected as ministers to their pleasures. Rehoboam had eighteen wives and sixty concubines [Note: 2 Chronicles 11:21.]. Solomon had seven hundred wives, and three hundred concubines [Note: 1 Kings 11:3.]. What can be conceived more humiliating than the state of all those women? all cut off from converse with men; all precluded from a possibility of filling that station in life, to which, in common with other females, they had been ordained. View those also who are selected for the choice of king Ahasuerus. Officers were appointed to gather together all the most beautiful young virgins throughout the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of his empire: these were all to be purified with oil of myrrh and sweet odours for the space of a whole year; and then in succession to be admitted to the king for one night, and never afterwards to see him, unless called for by name [Note: Esther 2:3; Esther 2:12-14.]. Four years had the succession continued, before Esther’s turn for admission to him arrived; and she, pleasing him beyond all the rest, was appointed Queen [Note: Esther 2:15-17.]. How incredible does all this appear; that such a state of things should ever exist; that the parents should ever suffer it; and that the females should ever endure it! Were it reported in any other history than that which we know to be divine, we should never believe that the whole female sex would ever be reduced to such a state of horrible degradation as this.
But from this the Gospel raises them. By the restriction in our text, they are again elevated to the rank which the first woman sustained in Paradise. Though still inferior to the man in power and dignity [Note: 1 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Corinthians 11:7-10.], they possess equal rights with him. He has no more power to repudiate them, than they him. The wife has now the same property in her husband as he has in her [Note: 1 Corinthians 7:2-4.]: nor can any thing but a wilful alienation of it by infidelity on her part deprive her of it. If in one single instance he transfer to another those regards which by his nuptial vows were exclusively assigned to her, he shall be condemned for it by God, as certainly as she would be, if she were guilty of a similar transgression.]
It moderates the tempers and passions of men—
[Every one knows that power is a snare; and that it is difficult to possess unlimited authority without being sometimes led to exercise it in an unbecoming manner. Suppose a man at liberty to put away his wife whenever he chose, and to take whomsoever he would to fill her place; is it not probable that he would presume upon that power to tyrannize over her and oppress her? Is it not to be expected also that he would he easily captivated by youth and beauty, as soon as ever sickness or age should have robbed his wife of her former attractions? Under such circumstances, little could be hoped for, but inconstancy in affection, irritability in temper, licentiousness in manners, and cruelty in conduct. But by the restriction in our text all occasion for these things is cut off; and a necessity is imposed of cultivating dispositions directly opposite. A man when first he plights his troth to a virgin, knows that he takes her for better and for worse. He is aware that the knot can never be untied; and that his connexion with her forbids even a desire after any other. Hence then he sees the necessity of patience and forbearance towards her: he ieels the importance of gaining her affections by kind usage: and he determines, by contributing to her happiness as much as possible, to ensure his own. If any man think that the restriction operates unfavourably on him, let him compare the tumultuous passions of a lawless libertine with the chaste enjoyments of conjugal fidelity: and he will soon see the one is “like the crackling of thorns under a pot,” whilst the other is a source of steady and increasing comfort to the latest hour of his life.]
It provides for the happiness of the rising generation—
[What must be the effect of that licentious intercourse of which we have spoken? Would men feel much regard for children whose mothers they had ignominiously dismissed? Would even the mothers themselves feel that regard for their children, which they would have done, if they had still retained the affections of their cruel father? The women, reduced to great extremities, would doubtless in many instances leave their children to perish with cold and hunger, if not put a period to their existence with their own hands.
But how different the condition of children under the present system! Now both the parents become their guardians, and equally exert themselves to make provision for them. They look upon their children as their dearest treasure; and expect from them their richest comforts. Hence they feel interested in imbuing their minds with Christian knowledge, and in regulating their conduct according to the Christian code. In short, their happiness being bound up in their offspring, they, for their own comfort’s sake, instruct them in whatever is necessary to make them good members of society at least, if not also members of the Church above. We say not indeed that this effect is universally produced: but we do say, that the restriction in our text, if duly considered, has a direct tendency to produce it.]
From this view of our subject we may see,
How great are our obligations to Christianity!
[God, even under the law, bore strong testimony against the licentious cruelty of his people [Note: Malachi 2:13-16.]: but our Saviour has decided the point for ever. None can henceforth inflict, or suffer, such injuries as the Jews inflicted on their wives. Even those who have no regard whatever for religion, are partakers of these benefits, in common with the whole Church. Christianity has raised the tone of morals, and made those things infamous, which are approved and applauded where the light of the Gospel is not known — — — But if the ungodly and unbelieving are thus benefited by the Gospel, how much more are they who feel its influence on all their conduct and conversation! They, knowing that the marriage union is indissoluble, set themselves to fulfil its duties; and in fulfilling them, are made truly happy. Behold a Christian family conducting themselves after this manner, and then you will see what Christianity has done for an ungodly world.]
How studious we should be to adorn its doctrines!
[In nothing is Christianity more seen than in the deportment of its votaries in relative and social life. It is easy for men to be on their guard when they are in company, and to demean themselves reverently in the house of God: but it is not easy for persons to be consistent in all their conduct amidst the various occurrences of domestic life. Here the tempers, if not restrained by grace, will break out: the husband will be imperious and harsh; or the wife will be fretful, querulous, and disobedient. Feeling a confidence that their respective weaknesses will be hid from public view, they shew them to each other without restraint. Beloved brethren, inquire whether this be not the case with you; and, if it be, learn to mortify these unhallowed tempers. The true way to adorn religion, is to propose to yourselves that image by which the marriage state is represented in the Gospel. It is compared to that union which subsists between the Lord Jesus Christ and his Church. The Church renders unto him all grateful obedience; whilst he exercises towards it the most self-denying and endearing affection. Thus should the wife be cheerfully obedient to her husband, even as to the Lord Jesus Christ himself, in every thing which is not contrary to the will of God: and the husband should account it his joy to manifest towards her all possible love, never exercising authority over her but with a view to her best interests and her truest happiness. Only let this be the pattern for your imitation, and you will never wish for a relaxation of that law whereby you are united to each other in an indissoluble bond. You will rather bless God that he has made the bond so strict; and you will avail yourselves of your mutual influence to advance in each other your spiritual and eternal interest, that, “as fellow-heirs of the grace of life,” you may dwell together in heaven for evermore.]
Matthew 5:33-37. Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: but I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these, cometh of evil.
AMONGST persons unaccustomed to hear the peculiar doctrines of the Gospel, a kind of jealousy is often excited by the very recital of the text; especially if the preacher be known to be zealous for those doctrines, and the passage which he has selected evidently inculcates them. This feeling is manifestly wrong; and every one who loves the Gospel sees in a moment the evil of indulging it. But is this feeling peculiar to those who are ignorant of the Gospel? No; by no means: for religious people themselves are too apt to yield to it, when any text is announced which leads only to the discussion of some moral subject. But if this feeling be wrong in the unenlightened part of mankind, it is a thousand times more so in those who profess to be enlightened, and who ought on that very account to love every portion of the sacred volume, and gladly to hear every truth insisted on in its season.
The subject of swearing does not seem to promise much edification to an audience conversant with the sublimer mysteries of our religion: but, if our blessed Lord saw fit to speak of it so fully in his Sermon on the Mount, we may be sure that our time cannot be misspent in investigating, as we purpose to do,
The nature and extent of the prohibition before us—
You must be aware that there is a very respectable body of people in this kingdom, who not only deny the lawfulness of oaths altogether, but make the abstaining from them an essential part of their religion; insomuch that the legislature, which exacts an oath of all others, allows them to give their evidence in a way of simple assertion. Now these people understand the prohibition in ourtext as unlimited: whereas we consider it as limited.
To exhibit it in its true light, I shall shew,
To what it does not extend—
[It does not extend then to oaths taken in a court of judicature. This is evident from their being absolutely enjoined on many occasions by God himself [Note: Exodus 22:10-11.Numbers 5:19-22; Numbers 5:19-22.Deuteronomy 6:13; Deuteronomy 6:13.] — — — Moreover, our blessed Lord submitted to be examined upon oath; and, on being adjured by the living God, gave a reply, which nothing else could extort from him [Note: Matthew 26:63-64.]. And by his disciples also such an use of oaths is manifestly approved: it is said, that an oath for confirmation is an “end of all strife [Note: Hebrews 6:16.].” Now then I ask, would such kind of oaths have been commanded of God, taken by Christ, and approved by the Apostles, if there had been any thing necessarily and inherently wrong in them? We are well assured, that had they been in themselves morally evil, the use of them would never have been so sanctioned.
Nor does the prohibition absolutely extend to the use of them on any other solemn occasion. On some particular occasions they were imposed and taken by holy men of old. Abraham exacted an oath of his servant whom he sent to seek a wife for his son Isaac [Note: Genesis 24:2-3; Genesis 24:9.]. Jacob took an oath of Joseph, as Joseph also did of the children of Israel, that they would carry up his bones to Canaan, and bury them in the promised land [Note: Genesis 47:29-31; Genesis 50:25.]. And Jonathan made David swear to him to exercise tenderness towards his posterity, after that he should be seated on the throne of Israel [Note: 1 Samuel 20:14-17.]. Under the New Testament, the most distinguished of all the Apostles very frequently made an appeal to God, when the subject was such as needed a solemn confirmation, and could not be confirmed in any other way [Note: Romans 1:9; Rom 9:1. 2 Corinthians 1:18; 2Co 1:23; 2 Corinthians 11:31.Galatians 1:20; Galatians 1:20. Philippians 1:8.] — — —
Who that considers this statement can doubt for a moment the admissibility of oaths on such occasions as could not otherwise be satisfactorily determined?]
To what it does extend—
[The foregoing limitation is intimated even in the text: for though the words, “Swear not at all,” appear to be indefinite, yet it is plain that the prohibition was designed only to reach to such oaths as were used in common “conversation:” “Swear not; but let your conversation be Yea, yea, Nay, nay.”
Nevertheless the import of the prohibition is very extensive. It extends, first, to all irreverent appeals to God. The “taking of God’s holy name in vain” is forbidden in the third commandment; which our blessed Lord is here rescuing from the false glosses of the Scribes and Pharisees. They thought that nothing but perjury was a violation of that commandment: but he informs them that all light mention of the name of God, and all irreverent appeals to him, were sinful. Well would it be, if they who customarily curse and swear, and they also who occasionally use the words “God knoweth,” were sensible of the guilt which they contract!
The prohibition extends also to all swearing by the creature. The Jews had a much greater reverence for the name of God than the generality of Christians have. Being averse to mention that, they invented an inferior kind of oaths, and swore “by heaven, or by the earth, or by Jerusalem, or by their own heads.” To these they annexed less sanctity, and were therefore less scrupulous about the violation of them. But our Lord shews, that to swear by the creature was, in fact, to swear by the Creator himself; since every creature was his, and subsisted only by his providential care. On another occasion he entered more fully still into this argument, and shewed the folly of recurring to such subterfuges [Note: Matthew 23:16-22.]. In fact, if a separation could be made, there would be to the full as much guilt in swearing by the creature as in swearing by the Creator; since it would be an ascribing of omniscience and omnipotence to that which is incapable of knowing the things about which the appeal is made, or of executing judgment between the parties. This is idolatry; and, as idolatry, will be visited with God’s heaviest displeasure [Note: Jeremiah 5:7.]. This statement is abundantly confirmed by the Apostle James, who prohibits the same kind of oaths under the pain of eternal condemnation [Note: James 5:12.].
Once more, the prohibition extends to all unnecessary confirmation of our word. All vehement protestations are unbecoming the Christian character. Unless the urgency of the occasion require some additional testimony, a simple affirmation or negation is all that we should use: our “Yea should be yea, and our Nay, nay.” If questioned, we may repeat our answer; “Yea, yea,” or “Nay, nay;” but beyond that we ought not to go, except the authority of a magistrate, or the importance of the subject, absolutely require it.]
Having thus endeavoured to mark the extent of the prohibition, we will proceed to state,
The reasons of it—
Our Lord says, “Whatsoever is more than these, cometh of evil.” The words which are here translated “evil,” may also mean, “the evil one:” and in this sense many understand them. If we take them in the former sense, it relates to the source of such expressions; and if in the latter sense, it refers rather to their tendency: since Satan instigates men to swear, in order that he may accomplish by that means his own malevolent designs. Both senses being equally good and proper, we shall include both.
Our Lord then prohibits oaths, because they are evil,
In their source—
[Whence do they spring? Frequently from an undue vehemence of temper. Those who are irascible, almost always are intemperate in their expressions. They will swear, if not by God, yet by their life, their soul, their faith; or they will pledge their honour, which yet is God’s, as much as their “head” is God’s. In short, whether they affirm or deny, they will, directly or indirectly, make God a party in their cause. If reproved for this, they will urge their passion as an excuse; but this is to urge one sin as an excuse for another: and, if we grant that hasty expressions originate in hasty tempers, they are on that very account exceeding criminal. They “come of evil,” and are for that very reason to be condemned.
But they arise also from low thoughts of the importance of truth. A person duly sensible of the sacredness of truth will not hastily convey an idea that his simple assertions are unworthy of credit: he will be cautious what he affirms: and, having affirmed any thing, he will expect his word to be taken as much as his oath. If unreasonable persons require more, he will rather leave the confirmation of his word to other testimony, than admit, by unnecessary oaths or protestations, the existence of an intention to deceive. In direct opposition to such a character is he, who wantonly transgresses the commandment in our text: he proves by that very act, that he has no such high sense of honour, no such value for truth, no such disposition to maintain his character for veracity. What then must that habit be, which so degrades every one that yields to it; or rather, I should say, which marks him so destitute of the noblest attributes of man?
We may further add, that all violations of this commandment proceed from a disregard of God, and of every thing belonging to him. Who that had a reverence for the Divine Majesty, would dare to profane his name, and to appeal to him on every trivial occasion? People, when they take God’s name in vain, account it sufficient to say, “I did not think of it:” but what excuse is that? It says, in fact, ‘I have no reverence for God: he has forbidden such levity; but I have no fear of offending him: he is present when I profane his name; but I have no wish to please him. Were I in the presence of an earthly monarch, I could take heed to my words, and put a bridle on my tongue; but, though I know that God both sees and hears me, I regard him no more than if he did not exist. It is true, he declares, that, “if I take his name in vain, he will not hold me guiltless;” but “my lips are my own: who is he, that he should be Lord over me [Note: Psalms 12:4.]?” Let him say what he will, or do what he will, I am determined to have my own way, and to set him at defiance.’
Once more I ask, what must that habit be, which betrays such a disposition as this?]
In their tendency—
[Satan, “the god of this world,” is ever “working in all the children of disobedience.” As he put it into the hearts of Ananias and Sapphira to lie, so he puts it into the hearts of ungodly men to swear. By this he has several objects to accomplish.
By this he hopes, first, to eradicate truth and virtue from the world. When he has prevailed on men so to cast off the fear of God as to take his name in vain, he will easily instigate them to any thing else. Having already lowered their estimate of truth, he will soon lead them to overstep the bounds of truth, and occasionally to confirm their falsehoods also with oaths. Indeed he stirs up men to confirm with oaths that which is doubtful, more frequently than that which is true; and consequently to perjure themselves, without being at all aware what guilt they are contracting: and could he influence all, as he does the great mass of those who are under his dominion, there would be no longer any truth or virtue to be found. He was a liar from the beginning; and he would take care that all his children should be known by their resemblance to him [Note: John 8:44.].
By this too he hopes, in the next place, to bring God himself into contempt. How ardently he desires to attain this object, we need not say: but this is clear, that the means he uses to attain it are admirably adapted to the end proposed. Tell a person who is accustomed to swear, that God is displeased with him; and you make no more impression on him than if he had never heard of such a Being. Tell him that he shall be fined a few shillings, and he is all alive to the subject: but if you speak of “the judgments of God, he puffs at them” with perfect contempt [Note: Psalms 10:5.]. Nor is it in the speaker only that these effects are produced: the hearers of such conversation gradually lose their abhorrence of the sin, and their tender concern for the honour of their God: and the more this insensibility is diffused, the more does Satan exult and triumph.
Lastly, by this Satan aims to destroy the souls of men. What destruction he makes in this nation by means of oaths, none but God can tell. This appears to many to be a little sin; and Satan easily seduces men to the commission of it. But, even if it drew no other sins along with it, it would not be small, nor would the consequences of it be unimportant. God has said, that “he will not hold such persons guiltless.” They may hold themselves guiltless, it is true; but God will not form his judgment according to their estimate: he has fixed his determination, and will never reverse it. This Satan knows: and if he can but deceive us with vain hopes, he has gained his end. Yes, in truth, that roaring lion goeth about, seeking to devour us; and then does he most prosper in his endeavours, when he leads us to “sport ourselves with our own deceivings [Note: 2 Peter 2:13.].”]
Those who are addicted to the habit of swearing—
[I speak not to those who are familiar with oaths and imprecations (if their own consciences do not speak to them, all that I can say will be to little purpose) but to those who make only occasional appeals to God, or take his name in vain. View your sin as it has been set forth: view it in its source. What undue warmth of temper does it manifest! what insensibility to the value and importance of truth! and what a profane disregard of God! View it in its tendency: see how it tends to eradicate virtue from the world; to bring God himself into contempt, and to ruin the souls of men. Is this a habit that you will indulge? What do you gain by it? By other sins you obtain some kind of gratification; but by this, none at all: it brings no pleasure, no profit, no honour, along with it. In the commission of other sins you sell your souls for something; in this, for nought; you do not sell, but give, yourselves to your great adversary. O that God may impress this thought upon your minds, and that this word may be ever sounding in your ears, “Swear not at all!”]
Those who are free from that habit—
[Shall I tell you what the ungodly world are ready to say to you? “These people will not swear; but they will lie.” Dearly beloved, this would be a dreadful reproach indeed if it were true: and whosoever he be to whom this reproach attaches, that person has reason to tremble for his state before God. Tell me not of faith, or love, or any thing else; for this is certain, that “all liars shall have their part in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone [Note: Revelation 21:8.].” Christian tradesmen, consider this in your dealings with mankind; for “as the nail sticketh between the jointings of the stones, so doth lying between buying and selling [Note: Ecclesiasticus 27:2.].” Christian servants, remember this when tempted to conceal a fault, or to exculpate yourselves from some blame. Let all, of every class, and every degree, remember this. If ye be Christ’s indeed, ye will remember him “in whose lips there was no guile found.” Let truth be in your inward parts, and let it be ever dear to your souls. Set a watch before the door of your lips; for “of every idle word you shall give account in the day of judgment;” yea, “by your words you shall be justified; and by your words you shall be condemned [Note: Matthew 12:36-37.].”]
Matthew 5:38-41. Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: hut whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man trill sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
IF Christianity be worthy of admiration on account of the sublime mysteries it reveals, it is no less so on account of the pure morality it inculcates. Its precepts are as far above the wisdom of fallen man, as its doctrines. Search all the systems of ethics that ever were written, and where shall we find such directions as these? In vain shall we look for them in the productions of Greece and Rome: in vain shall we consult the sages and philosophers of any other nation: such precepts as these are found no where but in the inspired volume. The law of retaliation has in all nations been deemed equitable and right: but in the Christian code it is expressly forbidden.
In considering the subject of retaliation, we shall notice,
The errors which obtain in the world respecting it—
The Pharisees admitted of revenge; and grounded that license upon the word of God. The passages which they adduced in confirmation of their sentiments were strong; but they did not at all refer to the conduct of individuals towards each other, but of magistrates towards the community at large [Note: Exodus 21:22-25.Deuteronomy 19:16-21; Deuteronomy 19:16-21. These passages were to direct them in the administration of justice.]. To apply them to individuals, was a perversion of them, a perversion disgraceful to the teachers of such doctrines, and fatal to those who embraced them.
We, having our Lord’s own comment on those passages, cannot any longer justify our errors by an appeal to Holy Writ: but yet our sentiments in relation to the subject treated of in our text, are, for the most part, precisely similar to those which were maintained among the Jews. Two things in particular we will specify, which are universally applauded amongst us, yet are exceeding contrary to the spirit of Christianity:
A rigid maintenance of our rights—
[Doubtless our rights, whether civil or religious, ought to be dear to us: and a certain degree of watchfulness over them may well be admitted; because if our rights, whether public or private, be invaded by one person, they may by another; and if they be suffered to be curtailed, they may be altogether annihilated. But this will not justify that extreme jealousy which some express about their rights. There are many who will talk incessantly about the rights of man, who yet will trample without remorse on all the rights of God. They will not suffer the smallest infringement of their own liberty; whilst they themselves are the most oppressive tyrants, wherever their authority extends. These may boast of their firmness in maintaining what they think to be right: but “they know not what spirit they are of.” How unlike are they to Paul, who, rather than insist upon the support to which, as a minister of Christ, he was entitled, would work at his trade by night, after having been occupied in preaching all the day! How unlike to Christ also, who, when, as the Son of God, he might have claimed exemption from paying tribute to the temple, wrought a miracle to satisfy the demand, rather than put a stumbling-block in the way of any by a refusal? We do not undertake to say, that, in cases of great importance, a person may not expostulate with his oppressor, as Christ did [Note: John 18:22-23.]; or insist upon his right, as did the Apostle Paul [Note: Acts 16:37.]; but we are perfectly sure that a readiness to demand our utmost right on every occasion, argues a spirit very different from that which is inculcated in the Gospel of Christ.]
A keen resentment of wrongs—
[This is thought highly meritorious. A disposition to pass by an insult or an injury would be deemed meanness and cowardice; and the person who indulged it would be banished from society, and held up to universal scorn and contempt. Hence arise wars, duels, and domestic feuds without number. But is such a disposition agreeable to the word of God? Look at the conduct of David, when persecuted by Saul: he repeatedly had his adversary within his power, and could easily have killed him; but he would not: he preferred rather the committing of his cause to God; and rendered nothing but good, in return for all the evil that Saul had done unto him: and, to shew that he did not consider such conduct as a superfluous act of generosity, he brands the opposite conduct with the name of wickedness: “Thus saith the proverb of the ancients; Wickedness proceedeth from the wicked; but mine hand shall not be upon thee [Note: 1 Samuel 24:10; 1 Samuel 24:13. See also 26:7–12.].” Compare with this the conduct also of the saints in the New Testament: St. James, speaking of them to their proud oppressors, says, “Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you [Note: James 5:6.].”]
That the sentiments of the world on the subject of retaliation are quite erroneous, will appear yet further, by considering,
The line of conduct which Christianity requires—
The authoritative command of Jesus in the text, is this: “I say unto you, That ye resist not evil,” that is, that ye resist not the injurious person [Note: τῷ πονηρῷ]. This, especially taken in connexion with our Lord’s illustration of it, undoubtedly enjoins us to live in the exercise of,
A patient spirit—
[We are not to be inflamed with anger against those who treat us ill: but to bear their injuries with meekness and long-suffering. The direction of the Apostle is, “In your patience possess ye your souls:” and again, “Let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking nothing.” I am aware, that it is difficult to bear injuries, when we know them to be altogether unmerited. But to abstain from every thing vindictive was enjoined under the Old Testament [Note: Leviticus 19:18. Proverbs 20:22; Proverbs 24:29.]: and much more is it insisted on in the New Testament [Note: Romans 12:17; Romans 12:19. 1 Thessalonians 5:15.]. And the more undeserving we are of the injurious treatment, the more are we called upon to display our patience, after the example of our blessed Lord, who instead of rendering evil for evil, silently committed his cause to his righteous God and Father [Note: 1 Peter 2:20-23.].]
A yielding spirit—
Suppose a person were to carry the insult so far as to strike us a blow upon the face: what ought we to do then? Are we not at liberty to return the blow? No: we may expostulate with the injurious person as our Lord did; “If I have done evil, bear witness of the evil; but, if not, why smitest thou me?” but we must not for a moment think of avenging ourselves [Note: Isaiah 50:6. with Lamentations 3:30.]. It may be said, this would be an encouragement to him to strike us again: we hope not; but if it were, it were better to “turn the other cheek,” and be smitten again, than that we should resent the injury; for the blows only hurt our body; but the resentment would wound our soul.
Again, suppose any one were to injure us in our property, as well as our person, and, under colour of law, were to “take away our coat:” what shall we do? Shall we indulge a litigious spirit, in order to get it back again? No; rather let him “take our cloak also,” than induce us to gratify an angry or vindictive spirit [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:7.].
Once more;—Suppose any one, under pretence of some public emergency, were to infringe upon our liberty, and to compel us (as the Jews did Simon the Cyrenian, when they “compelled him to bear” our Saviour’s cross,) to carry a burthen for them “a mile:” what then? Must we submit? Whether in all cases, or not, I do not pretend to say: hut this is clear; that it is better to “go with him two” miles, than to vex ourselves, and quarrel about it. The man that yields, is always safe; he knows the extent of the injury which he receives: but he who once begins to contend, knows not where he shall stop, nor what injury he may suffer in his own soul, before the contention shall cease.]
A forgiving spirit—
[Forbearance and forgiveness are frequently united in the Holy Scriptures; nor should they ever be separated in our conduct [Note: Colossians 3:12-13.Ephesians 4:31-32; Ephesians 4:31-32.]. Nor would the exercise of forgiveness be so difficult, if only we considered how much greater injury people do to themselves, than they can possibly do to us. Do what they will, they can never injure us, except in mere external things: our souls are beyond their reach: but, whilst they endeavour to injure us, they do the most irreparable injury to their own souls. Let us suppose for a moment, that a person, robbing us of a little worthless fruit, were to fall down, and break every bone of his body; would not our pity for his misfortune swallow up all resentment for his fault? So then it should be with us towards all who injure us: there is no comparison at all between the injury they do to us and to themselves; and therefore we should be ready to exercise forgiveness towards them, and to implore forgiveness for them at God’s hands.]
Learn then, from this subject,
How rare a thing real Christianity is—
[This is Christianity: all, without this, is an empty sound. Look then through the world, and see how little there is of it any where to be found: yea, let the saints themselves see how little of true Christianity they possess. This view of Christian duty may well fill every one of us with shame and confusion of face.]
How necessary a renewed spirit is, either to a right discernment of religion, or to the practice of it—
[The precepts of religion are no less foolishness to the natural man, than the doctrines. What heathen ever inculcated such lessons? or what unconverted Christian ever thoroughly approved them in his heart. People fancy that they have power to do the will of God: but can they do these things? As well may they attempt to turn the course of the sun, as so to turn the current of corrupt nature. We must have an understanding given us that we may know these things [Note: 1 Corinthians 2:12.]; and strength, that we may do them [Note: 2 Corinthians 3:5.].]
How ornamental true religion is to every one that possesses it—
[Who can see a person acting up to the spirit of these precepts, and not admire him? Who can help admiring this spirit in Christ and in his holy Apostles? Surely, such are “beautified with salvation,” and God himself must admire them [Note: 1 Peter 3:4.].]
How happy the world would be, if vital Christianity universally prevailed—
[There would then be no scope for the exercise of these difficult graces, since no injuries would be committed upon earth — — — O that God would hasten that blessed time!]
Matthew 5:42. Give to him that asketh thee; and from him that would borrow of thee, turn not thou away.
TO render good for evil is a duty of indispensable obligation; and many commentators consider it as particularly enjoined in the words which we have just read. If we take the passage as connected with the directions which immediately precede it, its meaning will be, that we must not be contented with a patient submission to injuries, but must actively exert ourselves to render to our enemies any service which they may require. But, as this is plainly enjoined in the verses following our text, we rather understand the text as expressing in general terms the duty of liberality, without confining it to any particular description of persons: and in that light we propose now to insist upon it.
We shall inquire,
What is that spirit which is inculcated?—
Were we to adhere strictly to the literal meaning of the words, they would apply only to those whose circumstances in life empowered them to give and lend to their more necessitous brethren. Moreover, they might, as to the letter, be obeyed by a person of opulence, whilst he was far from yielding to God any acceptable obedience. We must therefore inquire, what that spirit is which they inculcate? They enjoin,
A spirit of compassion—
[It is to be supposed that those who make applications to us tor a gift or loan, are themselves in necessitous and distressed circumstances. And towards all such persons we should exercise unfeigned pity and compassion. We should consider them not merely as children of the same heavenly parent, but as members of our own body; and should have the same sympathy with them and desire to relieve them, as any one member of our body would feel towards any other that had sustained an injury. We should “look, not on our own things only, but every one also on the things of others;” “bearing their burthens,” and being as ready to participate their sorrows as their joys. The language of our hearts should ever be in unison with that of Job, “Did not I weep for him that was in trouble? was not my soul grieved for the poor [Note: Job 30:25.]?” This is a spirit which all must have, whatever be their situation and circumstances in life: and if we can “behold our brother in need, and shut up our bowels of compassion from him,” it may well be asked, “How dwelleth the love of God in us [Note: 1 John 3:17.]?”]
A spirit of benevolence—
[This is a disposition of a higher kind. There is a natural tenderness in many, and a susceptibility of impression from tales of woe, at the same time that they are not active in searching out opportunities of exercising their benevolent affections. But our feelings towards mankind should resemble those of a tender mother, who needs not to have her sensibilities called forth by any distressing accident: she loves her child, and delights in administering to its wants: her regards are spontaneously exercised towards it; and, if she see any occasion for more than ordinary attention, she finds her own happiness in contributing to the happiness of her child. Thus, if we saw one to whom a gift or loan was necessary, we should be ready, at the very first intimation of the case, to stretch forth towards him the hand of charity, conceiving ourselves more blessed in an opportunity of imparting good, than he can be in receiving it at our hands. In a word, we should tread in the steps of our adorable Lord, who “went about doing good;” and, like the sun in its course, should exist only for the benefit of others, and diffuse happiness wheresoever we come.]
A spirit of generosity—
[Particular occasions must be met with a zeal proportioned to them. It may be, that some urgent necessity has arisen, and that a great effort is requisite to sustain an afflicted brother. Or, it may be a season of general distress, when the multitude of those who need our assistance calls for more than ordinary exertions to relieve them. We have an instance of this in the primitive Church. The Jews were so inveterate against their brethren who embraced Christianity, that they would, if possible, have deprived them of all means of subsistence: but the richer converts, who had lands or houses, sold them, and put all their money into one common stock; thus reducing themselves to a level with the lowest, that all might be supplied with “food convenient for them [Note: Acts 4:32-35.].”
Another instance we have, in the churches of Macedonia, who, “in a trial of great affliction, and in the midst of deep poverty, abounded unto the riches of liberality,” exerting themselves, “not only according to their ability, but beyond it,” to supply their distressed brethren in Judζa [Note: 2 Corinthians 8:1-4.].
Thus should it be with us, when any great and extraordinary difficulty has arisen: our spirit should rise to the occasion: and, if we cannot emulate that glorious example, we should at least he ready to comply with the exhortation of the Baptist, “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise [Note: Luke 3:11. If the occasion of the sermon be very pressing, it might be here stated to advantage.].”]
Doubtless this disposition is amiable: but how shall we determine,
To what extent it should be exercised?—
With respect to the disposition itself we do not hesitate to say, that it admits of no limit whatever—
[There is not a person in the universe who is not called to exercise it. The mechanic, or the labourer, should exert himself, according to his ability, to relieve others; he should “labour, working with his hands, not to support himself merely, but that he may have to give to him that needeth [Note: Ephesians 4:28.].” Even the widow that has hut two mites, may yet exceed in her liberality all her opulent neighbours [Note: Mark 12:41-44.]. The very person that receives relief, may yet pant for an opportunity to afford it to others: and, in that case, God, who sees his heart, will accept the will for the deed: “for, if there be first a willing mind, it shall be accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not [Note: 2 Corinthians 8:12.].” Nor is there any assignable limit to the degree in which the disposition should be exercised. The only limit that can be mentioned (if it may be called a limit,) is, to be “merciful, even as our Father which is in heaven is merciful [Note: Luke 6:36.].”]
But the precise manner in which it should be exercised must be regulated by circumstances. It must vary according to,
Our own means and abilities—
[All persons have it not in their power to do good to the same extent: nor can all who have the same income, devote the same proportion of it to the poor: for a man who has a family, cannot possibly have so much to spare, as he who has none but himself to maintain: nor can it be reasonably expected, that one, who, from his rank in society, has a certain degree of dignity to support, can afford as much as another, who, with the same income, has no such necessity imposed upon him. Besides, persons may be very differently circumstanced. One may be able to afford a loan, when he is not able, with propriety, to give: and another may be able to give a smaller sum, when he cannot lend a larger. Persons therefore must judge for themselves in such particulars as these; and regulate their conduct according to their circumstances.]
The necessities of those who apply to us.
[To offer to a person who has been suddenly brought from affluent circumstances to poverty, such a pittance as we might give to a beggar, would be to mock and insult him: and, on the other hand, to bestow on a common beggar, what would be suited to the other case, would be most unpardonable profusion. Besides, we must judge whether there exist any necessity at all: for, if we will give to all who are willing to ask, and lend to all who are willing to borrow, we shall soon exhaust our own resources, however great they may be: and, by giving or lending where there is no necessity, we shall incapacitate ourselves for assisting those who are in real distress. Here then, doubtless, is scope for the exercise of discretion: and true liberality, instead of prohibiting such discretion, demands it at our hands.]
The prospect there is of our aid being effectual for the relief of him who asks it—
[Here is an idle man, who will do nothing for his own maintenance; a prodigal man, who never thinks of the use of money; a drunken and profligate man, who wastes all his substance in riotous living: to what purpose shall you exert yourself in any great degree for such persons? Give them all that you have, and they will soon be poor again. The best way to relieve such persons, is to provide labour for them, and to make a reformation of their conduct necessary for their own subsistence. Sometimes a seasonable loan may enable a person to provide for his family, when, without such aid, he could not attain the situation which is open for him. There, to strain a point for him, is both liberal and wise: but where the case is such as occurs daily all around us, we must so give, as that we may have a reserve to lend; and so lend, as that we may have a reserve to give. There are some cases, however, where we may well be absolved from either giving or lending, unless indeed just to supply the necessities of the moment; I mean, where a person’s circumstances are so involved, that all we can do for him would be only as a drop in the ocean. There, if by public contributions we can aid him, well: but, if not, to impoverish ourselves without benefiting him, would be, not piety, but folly.]
It will not be unprofitable to subjoin a few hints for the use of,
Those who want relief—
[Many will ask a gift or loan without any real necessity. But such persons should reflect, that whilst they trespass thus on the liberality of the rich, they are themselves oppressors of the poor. It is in no person’s power to give to every one that asketh, or to lend to every one that would borrow (for though St. Luke so expresses it, the direction must be limited in the nature of things [Note: Luke 6:30.]); and consequently, they who by unnecessary applications exhaust the funds of a liberal man, deprive him of the power of doing good to others who need it more. None therefore should take undue advantage of the piety of others, orseek from others what by increased activity they might furnish from their own resources.
Another point of great importance is, that they who borrow, should adhere strictly to their word, as to the season of repaying the loan. It is incredible, how much they who violate their engagements in this respect, discourage, and (I had almost said) harden the hearts of those who delight in doing good. I know it is said, “Do good and lend, hoping for nothing again [Note: Luke 6:35.]:” and, if we be told, that the prospect of repayment is distant and uncertain, the duty is comparatively easy: but, when we are told that at such a season the loan shall be repaid, and find that the borrower thinks no more of his promises, or (as is frequently the case) asks a little forbearance in the first instance, and then, on finding it kindly exercised, construes that kindness into a forgiveness of the debt, that conduct has a sad tendency to wound the feelings of the liberal, and to make them averse from lending. In this view, therefore, the injury which such wicked people do, is exceeding great. I call them “wicked;” for so the Psalmist designates them; “The wicked borroweth, and payeth not again [Note: Psalms 37:21.].” Nor is it their benefactors only whom they injure, but society at large; inasmuch as they prevent the exercise of benevolence towards many people far worthier than themselves. To all therefore who have contracted such obligations, I would recommend tenfold diligence and self-denial, till they have executed their engagements, and fulfilled their word.]
To those who impart it—
[It sometimes happens, that even in the generous mind a niggardly thought will arise, and a backwardness to exercise the benevolence that is called for. Against such thoughts God has very strongly cautioned us [Note: Deuteronomy 15:7-11.]: and we shall do well to be on our guard against them. We should be careful “not to be weary in well-doing.” We should remember, that God himself is pledged for the repayment of all that we either give or lend, provided we act from a principle of faith and love [Note: Proverbs 19:17.]. Thess best means of preventing such an evil thought is certainly to get the soul impressed with a sense of Christ’s love in dying for us [Note: 2 Corinthians 8:9.] — — — But, next to that, it will be well to reflect, that we are only stewards of what we possess; and that, though no individual has an absolute claim upon us, the poor at large have: a portion of our property is their “due,” and we ought to pay it without delay [Note: Proverbs 3:27-28.]. Let then every one lay by a portion of his income for benevolent uses [Note: 1 Corinthians 16:2.], and bear in mind, that both his present and future happiness will be augmented in proportion to his liberality [Note: 2 Corinthians 9:6-7.].]
LOVE TO ENEMIES ENJOINED
Matthew 5:43-48. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the Publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
IT is well said by the Psalmist, that “the commandment of God is exceeding broad;” since it reaches to every disposition of the mind, and requires infinitely more than man, in his present weak and degenerate state, can perform. Indeed, though many traces of the law still remain upon the heart, and are discoverable by the light of reason, there are depths in it which unaided reason could never have fathomed, and a breadth and length which it could never have explored. Amongst the precepts which we consider as known only through the medium of Revelation, we would particularly specify that which is contained in the text. Human nature would itself approve of love to friends; but our Lord commands us to love our enemies.
In discoursing on the text, we shall be led to consider,
The duty inculcated—
The Jewish teachers in general sanctioned the indulgence of hatred towards enemies—
[We must, in justice to them, acknowledge that they had some shadow of reason for their opinions: for God had commanded the Jews entirely to extirpate the Canaanites: and, though some little favour was to be shewn to the Edomites and Egyptians [Note: Deuteronomy 23:7.], the Ammonites and Moabites and Midianites were never to be treated with kindness [Note: Deuteronomy 23:3; Deu 23:6 and Numbers 25:16-18.]; and “the very remembrance of the Amalekites was to be blotted out from under heaven [Note: Deuteronomy 25:17-19.].” Moreover, the duty of love seemed to be restricted to those of their own nation [Note: Leviticus 19:17-18.]: and in case even a Jew should accidentally kill any person, the man who was the nearest relative of the deceased was at liberty to kill the man—slayer, in case he could overtake him before he could enter into a city of refuge, or should be able afterwards to find him without the gates of that city [Note: Numbers 35:26-27.].
But these mistaken teachers did not consider that a commandment given in relation to those devoted nations was not intended to be made a rule of conduct between individuals: nor did they recollect, that, whilst they restricted the word “neighbour” to those of their own nation, the Decalogue itself had taught them to comprehend the whole universe under that name [Note: Exodus 20:17.]: (for a Jew was no more at liberty to “covet the wife”of a Heathen, than he was of a Jew.) Nor, lastly, did they reflect, that the ordinance relative to the man-slayer was altogether typical of Christ and of his salvation [Note: Hebrews 6:18.].]
In opposition to such erroneous notions, our Lord enjoined, in the most authoritative manner, the love of enemies—
[He takes for granted, that his faithful disciples would be “hated, reviled, and persecuted:” and under all the evil treatment which they may receive, he commands them to return kind words for bitter, benevolent actions for spiteful, and fervent prayers for the most cruel oppressions. Not that this was any new precept: it was enjoined under the law as strongly as under the Gospel [Note: Compare Romans 12:20-21. with Proverbs 25:21-22.]; and was exemplified too under the legal dispensation, in almost as eminent a degree as even by the Apostles themselves [Note: 2 Chronicles 28:15.Psalms 35:12-14; Psalms 35:12-14.]. There is this difference, indeed, that the exercise of such heavenly tempers was less frequent among the Jews, because few of them comparatively attained to any high degrees of piety: whereas, now that “the Spirit is poured out more abundantly” upon the Church, this is a common attainment, or rather, I should say, an universal attainment, amongst all who are truly converted unto God. Our blessed Lord set us the example, “going as a lamb to the slaughter, and, as a sheep before her shearers, not opening his mouth,” either in threatenings or complaints [Note: Isaiah 53:7. with 1 Peter 2:21-23.]. Even in the agonies of crucifixion he prayed for his murderers [Note: Luke 23:34.], as Stephen also did in his dying moments [Note: Acts 7:60.], and thousands of others also have done amidst the flames of martyrdom. This is our duty, even in such extreme cases as are here supposed; and consequently must be so in all cases of inferior moment.]
However difficult this duty may appear, we shall address ourselves cheerfully to the performance of it, if only we consider,
The reasons for performing it—
The Lord’s people are represented by the Apostle as “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people, that they should shew forth the praises (or virtues) of him that hath called them [Note: 1 Peter 2:9.].” But how are they to answer this great end of their calling? It is very principally by attending to this duty. By their performance of it they are to mark,
Their resemblance to God—
[The whole race of mankind, with comparatively few exceptions, is up in arms against God. A very great proportion of them are bowing down to stocks and stones: and almost all, even of those who acknowledge the one true God, are yet denying him daily, and shewing their enmity to him by wicked works. But how does he requite them? Does he avail himself of his power to deprive them of every comfort, and to punish them all according to their deserts? No: with much long-suffering he endures all their provocations, notwithstanding they are “vessels of wrath already fitted for destruction:” he even loads them indiscriminately with all the bounties of his providence, “making his sun to rise equally on the evil and on the good, and sending rain equally on the just and on the unjust.” In like manner must we act towards those who injure us. We must bear with them, and do them good according to our ability: and it is by such conduct only that we can approve ourselves his children. Let us not, however, be misunderstood: it is not necessary that we should deal with such persons altogether as our friends: for even God himself does not do that: he comes to his own people in a more intimate manner, and “sups with them,” and “makes his abode with them,” and “manifests himself unto them as he does not unto the world.” Thus also may we do. There is a love of benevolence, a love of beneficence, and a love of complacency, if we may so speak: the two former must be exercised towards all: the last may fitly be reserved for those who alone possess the dispositions worthy of it. Such a preference God himself authorizes, when he says, “Do good unto all men, but especially unto them who are of the household of faith [Note: Galatians 6:10.].”]
Their superiority to an ungodly world—
[God will not be satisfied with seeing his people live after the manner of the ungodly. To what purpose have they been “redeemed,” if they are to retain the same “vain conversation” which those around them follow? To what purpose have “their eyes been opened to behold the wondrous things of God’s law,” to what purpose have they been adopted into his family, and been filled with his Spirit, and been made heirs of his inheritance, if they are not to walk worthy of their high calling? Are their superior knowledge, obligations, prospects, and assistances, to have no practical influence upon their lives? The vilest of publicans and sinners will love and benefit their friends; and is this a standard for God’s redeemed people? No: they must love their enemies: else, “What do they more than others?” Surely, if we are no better than others in our dispositions and conduct, we shall be no better than they in our eternal destiny.]
That we may have a more complete view of this duty, let us inquire into,
The extent to which it is to be performed—
The law of God is at once the rule and measure of our duty—
[The law is a perfect transcript of the mind and will of God. It was originally written upon the heart of man: and man’s perfect conformity to it constituted that image of God in which he was created. To have these dispositions restored, and thereby to regain that image, is the object which we are taught to aspire after with incessant ardour. God has promised to his people that they shall be “renewed after his image in righteousness and true holiness:” and of that promise we must seek the full accomplishment. To dream of a conformity to God’s natural perfections, were folly and madness: we cannot possibly be omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent: but his moral perfections we may and must attain: nor ought we to be satisfied with any precise measure of them; we should never think we have attained any thing whilst any thing remains to be attained.]
To a perfect conformity to that law we must be ever pressing forward—
[This was St. Paul’s mind. After he had preached the Gospel for twenty years, and had attained an eminence of piety which probably none but the Lord Jesus Christ himself ever surpassed, he said, “Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect, but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of God in Christ Jesus [Note: Philippians 3:12.].” Nor is this a pursuit proper for Apostles only; it is equally necessary for all. “Now are we the sons of God,” says St. John: “and every one that hath this hope in him purifieth himself even as he is pure [Note: 1 John 3:2-3.].” In a word, the model for our imitation is God: nor must we ever stop, till we are “holy as God is holy,” and “perfect even as our Father which is in heaven is perfect.”]
We cannot contemplate this subject without noticing,
What need we have of mercy at the hands of God—
[Let us look back through our whole lives, and see how numberless have been our transgressions against this holy law; and let us look into our own hearts, and see what a proneness there is in us yet daily and hourly to transgress it. Who does not find, that, when injured and insulted, his heart is ready to rise against his adversary in a way of retaliation and invective? Who does not feel, that, without the divine assistance, he can no more maintain the exalted spirit here spoken of, than he can create a world? — — — Let us then humble ourselves before God in dust and ashes. Let us acknowledge our desert of his heavy displeasure, and our need of pardon through the blood of Christ. Let us at the same time implore the assistance of his Holy Spirit, that we may be enabled to “walk as Christ walked,” and to exercise that kindness towards others which we desire and hope for when standing before his tribunal — — —]
What encouragement we have to expect mercy at his hands—
[Has God required us to love our enemies, even whilst they are manifesting towards us their enmity to the utmost of their power; and will not he himself shew mercy to us, when we lay down the weapons of our rebellion? Again; has he required of us such tempers as fruits of our conversion; and will he refuse us that grace which is necessary to produce them? Assuredly not. If he gives the bounties of his providence to his most inveterate enemies, he will surely give the blessings of his grace to his suppliant and repenting friends? Let not then a sense of past guilt appal us, or a sense of present weakness discourage us: but let us “go boldly to the throne of Grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help us in the time of need.”]
CHRISTIANS DO MORE THAN OTHERS
Matthew 5:47. What do ye more than others?
OUR Lord is here rescuing the law from the false glosses with which the Scribes and Pharisees had obscured it. It is quite a mistake to imagine that he extended the law beyond its original meaning. The law was perfect, being a perfect transcript of God’s mind and will. Had it required less than it now does, it would have been unworthy of God: in fact, unless its demands are now extended beyond what they ought to be (which we know is not the case,) it must have given men a license to love God and our neighbour less than we really ought: or, in other words, it would have given a license to sin. The particular command to which our Lord refers in the context was, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” This the Scribes and Pharisees interpreted as giving a liberty, if not an absolute command, to hate our enemies. But our Lord shews, that every man, whether friend or enemy, is comprehended in the term “neighbour,” and that every man therefore has a claim upon us to be loved by us as ourselves. If we extend our regards to friends only, “What,” says our Lord, “do ye more than others?.” This is a very pointed question, importing that the Lord’s people ought to do more than others, and may reasonably be expected so to do. In confirmation of this truth, I will,
Shew why the Lord’s people may reasonably be expected to do more than others—
The question is founded in reason and justice: for, if we be the Lord’s people in truth,
We are more indebted to him than others—
[All are indebted to him for the gift of a Saviour, and for the offer of eternal life through him. (Of temporal blessings such as the whole world partake of, I forbear to speak.) But true Christians are indebted not merely for a gift of the Saviour to them, but for having from eternity been given to the Saviour as his peculiar people, whom he should redeem from death, and enjoy for ever as “his purchased possession.” It is surprising how often our blessed Lord speaks of them under this character in his last intercessory prayer [Note: John 17:2; John 17:6; John 17:9-12; John 17:24.] — — — And it is always mentioned as a distinguishing mercy, that raises them far above the rest of the world, and entails the greatest obligations upon them. Moreover, the faith by which they are brought into this union with Christ is also the gift of God. “To them it is given in the behalf of Christ to believe in him [Note: Philippians 1:29.].” And this is no less a distinguishing mercy than the other: for the whole world, with the exception of this little remnant, are in unbelief. The peace too that flows from this union, O what an inestimable gift is that! “To the wicked there is no peace:” but these have “a peace which passeth all understanding,” and “a joy that is unspeakable and glorified.”
Say, whether this be not a very abundant reason for our shewing to God more gratitude than others, and labouring to serve him with every faculty both of body and soul?]
We have greater assistances from him than others—
[Every man has, more or less, what may be called the common influences of the Spirit. For there is no man who has not occasionally felt some compunction for his sins, and some desire of amendment. But whence do “these good thoughts and holy desires proceed, but from God?” They would no more arise in the heart of fallen man than of the fallen angels, if they were not suggested by the Spirit of God [Note: 2 Corinthians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 5:5.]. But believers have what may be called the special grace of God; by which I understand, not a different kind of grace, but a different degree, even such a degree as shall prevail over all the resistance which it meets with in the soul [Note: Psalms 110:3.Philippians 2:13; Philippians 2:13.]. Nor is it only in order to their first conversion to God that they are so wrought upon, but through the whole of their lives are they preserved and strengthened by the same Spirit, in order to their final salvation [Note: 1 Thessalonians 5:23.]. To what a degree this strength is communicated to them, may be seen in various passages of Holy Writ: it is equal to that which God exerted in raising up Jesus Christ from the dead, and setting him at his own right hand, above all the principalities and powers of earth and hell [Note: Ephesians 1:19-21.]. It is such as to display the powers of Omnipotence itself [Note: Eph 3:16 and Colossians 1:11.], and to approve itself the workmanship of Him who created the universe out of nothing [Note: Eph 2:10. 2 Corinthians 5:17.].
All this is unknown to others, who, having never earnestly implored this aid, are left under the power of Satan, and are “carried captive by the devil at his will.” And is not this a call upon them for exertion? And does it not afford a just ground of expectation, that they shall do more than others who have no such assistance?]
We make a greater profession of zeal for God than others—
[The generality not only make no particular profession of love to God, but account this very want of profession a sufficient reason for all the carelessness and indifference which they manifest. But the believer does not thus glory in his shame. He knows his obligations to God; nor is he ashamed to confess them. He knows that he has been redeemed by the blood of God’s only dear Son; and that, “having been bought with a price, he is bound to glorify God with his body and his spirit, which are God’s [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:20.].” He considers himself as called to die unto the world,” yea, to be “crucified unto it, and to have it crucified unto him, by the cross of Christ [Note: Galatians 6:14.].” He acknowledges that “his affections are to be set, not upon things below, but on things above [Note: Colossians 3:1.]:” and that he has nothing to do in this world but to prepare for a better. Hence, if occasion require, he speaks of himself as running in a race, wrestling for the mastery, and engaged in a warfare. These things he professes, not from vain ostentation, but from necessity; or rather, he does not so much profess them as do them: and the profession is rather the result of his efforts, than any declaration independent of them. As far as mere profession is concerned, he would rather be silent than talkative: but his life speaks; and he is content that it should speak, if only it may afford a light which may be instructive and animating to those around him.
But this profession, whether voluntary or not, calls for consistency in his conduct, and makes it indispensable for him, whilst calling himself “a child of light and of the day,” not to walk as those who are “children of darkness and of the night [Note: 1 Thessalonians 5:5.].”]
God’s honour is more involved in our conduct than in that of others—
[Others may do what they will, and no one thinks of reflecting on religion on their account. Nay, even the grossest immoralities may he committed by them, without exciting any surprise, or attracting any notice. But let a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ do any thing amiss, and the whole world hears of it: nor is he alone blamed, who commits the evil condemned, but all who are connected with him in the same religious society are blamed also; yea, and all religious persons generally, as being all alike. Even the Gospel itself too is condemned as sanctioning such conduct, and as having a natural tendency to produce it. The general feeling on such an occasion is that of exultation and triumph: “There, there, so would we have it [Note: Psalms 35:25.].” Had Saul committed the evils which David did, though the act might have been blamed, God’s honour would not have suffered. But when David sinned, “the name of God was everywhere blasphemed on his account [Note: 2 Samuel 12:14.].”
What an obligation then does this lay on Christians to “walk holily, justly, and unblameably” before men, that “the way of truth may not be evil spoken of through them [Note: 2 Peter 2:2.]!” If there is a “woe unto the world because of the offences” which are committed in the Church, and which harden multitudes in their infidelity, much more does woe attach to that man who commits the offences, and casts a stumbling-block in the way of others, to the destruction of their souls as well as of his own [Note: Matthew 18:7.]. In proportion therefore as any deviation from the path of duty in us may prove injurious to God’s honour and the interests of his Gospel, we are bound to “walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise [Note: Ephesians 5:15.];” that all who behold our light may be led rather to approve of our principles, and to glorify our God [Note: Matthew 5:16.].]
If our obligation to approve ourselves “more excellent than our neighbours” has been established [Note: Proverbs 12:26.], let us,
Inquire what we do more than others—
What do we more,
For our own souls?
[The world, alas! evince but little concern for their own souls. A formal round of duties is all that they judge necessary: and if they are observant of the outward decencies of religion, such as frequenting the House of God, attending upon the Lord’s table, maintaining family prayer, and repeating some form of devotion twice a day in their closets, they think they have done all that is required of them, and are ready to say, “What lack I more [Note: Matthew 19:20.]?” But all this may be only “a form of godliness, without the power [Note: 2 Timothy 3:5.],” and a service wholly unacceptable to the heart-searching God [Note: Matthew 15:7-9.].
“What then do ye more than this?” Are all of you doing even as much? Are not even these forms neglected by too many? But supposing you to be observant of these, what do ye more? Alas! the generality would be utterly at a loss to answer this question. But the true Christian shall answer it, even though he be only at present as “a babe in Christ.” Do you ask me, What I do more? (he may say,) I search out my sins yet daily, in order to humble myself before God on account of them. I mourn over all that I have seen amiss in my whole conduct through life. I sigh, I groan, I weep, I smite upon my breast from day to day, crying, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” I flee to the Lord Jesus Christ for refuge: I renounce utterly all other ground of hope: I trust altogether in his atoning sacrifice, as expiating my guilt, and reconciling me to my offended God. I set my face towards Zion: and, though I travel not so expeditiously as I could wish, I make it my daily labour to advance; and I make no account of any difficulties, if only I may get forward in my heavenly way. The one concern of my life from day to day is, how shall I save my soul? “What shall it profit me if I gain the whole world, and lose my own soul?”
Now, my dear brethren, is this your state? are you thus concerned about your souls? and does your conscience bear witness, that, whilst others are occupied chiefly about the things of time and sense, “you account the whole world but as dross and dung, that you may win Christ, and be found in him, not having your own righteousness, but his [Note: Philippians 3:7-9.]?” Is this, I say, your state? Is it the state of all amongst you? of all? O would to God it were! But, if the truth were known, and it is most assuredly known to God, there are but few who can truly declare this to be the daily habit of their minds: yet must it be your habit, if ever you would be Christians indeed, and behold the face of God in peace.]
For the honour of our God?
[Little is this thought of by the world at large. But the true Christians are not unconcerned about it. They know that God may be honoured by them: and it is their most anxious desire to bring glory to their God. There is not a perfection of the Deity which they do not endeavour to honour and exalt: his omniscience, by walking as in his immediate presence: his omnipotence, by committing altogether to him their every concern: his love, his mercy, his truth, his faithfulness, by embracing his gracious offers in the Gospel, and relying on his promises as a sure ground of their hope. They walk with him, as Enoch did: they maintain “fellowship with him and with his Son Jesus Christ” all the day long [Note: 1 John 1:3.]: accounting it their chief joy to have a sense of his presence, and the light of his countenance lifted up upon them. In their actions, they consider not what will advance their own honour or interests, but what will promote his glory: and, having ascertained that, they go forward in the prosecution of it, without any regard to consequences: a fiery furnace, or a den of lions, has no terrors for them: they fear nothing but sin: and account it an honour and a privilege to lay down life itself in His service, and for His glory [Note: Philippians 2:17-18.].
And now let me ask, is it thus with all of you? Are all of you thus studious to exalt, to honour, and to glorify your God? Have earthly things no value in your eyes, in comparison of God’s favour, and of his love shed abroad in your hearts? Yet without this you cannot be Christians indeed. Our blessed Lord has said, that “whoso loveth his life shall lose it; and that he only who is willing to lose it for his sake, shall find it unto life eternal [Note: Matthew 10:39.].”]
For the benefit of mankind?
[To this there is a special respect in my text. The Pharisees maintained, that we were at liberty to hate our enemies: but our Lord said, “If you love your friends only, what do ye more than others?” The loving of enemies is an attainment far above the reach of the world at large. If they abstain from revenge, it is quite as much as they ever aim at. And as for endeavouring to “win the souls” of their enemies, the thought never so much as enters into their minds. But the true Christian has a far higher standard of duty in reference to these things. He feels, indeed, that it is no easy thing to “love his enemies, to bless them that curse him, to do good to them that hate him, and to pray for them that despitefully use him and persecute him [Note: ver. 44.];” but he labours to do it, and implores grace from God that he may be able to do it; and determines, through grace, “not to be overcome of evil, but to overcome evil with good.” Nor is he forgetful of his obligation to seek the eternal welfare of mankind. Hence he labours for the diffusion of the sacred oracles throughout the world: he finds delight in aiding every effort that is made for the salvation both of Jews and Gentiles: and in his more immediate neighbourhood he strives to promote, as far as in him lies, the spiritual and eternal interests of all around him. In his relative duties also especially he endeavours to shew the influence of true religion: as a parent or child, as a husband or wife, as a master or servant, as a ruler or subject, he makes a point of fulfilling his duties, so that the most watchful enemy shall have no reason to speak reproachfully.
Once more then let me ask, is it thus with you? Is there amongst all of you such government of your own tempers, and such a victory over all your evil passions, as that you adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour, and exhibit in the whole of your deportment his blessed image? As followers of Christ, all this is required of you: you are called, “as the elect of God, holy and beloved, to put on bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering; and to be forbearing one another and forgiving one another, if you have a quarrel against any man, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you [Note: Colossians 3:12-13.]:” and if you will approve yourselves to be Christ’s, “your righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees.” You must take even God himself for your pattern, and seek to be “perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect [Note: ver. 20 and 48.].”]
How vain is that plea, that you are as good as others!
[Before that plea can be of any avail, you must inquire whether others are as holy as they ought to be: for if they be not, your equality with them can be no ground of satisfaction in the prospect of the future judgment. What consolation will it be to those who shall experience the wrath of God in hell, that they were as good as any who walked in “the broad road that led them to destruction?” It is not by any human standard that you will be judged in the last day, but by the standard of God’s unerring word: and whether you be as good or better than others, it will avail you nothing, if you be not found such as God requires, “Israelites indeed, and without guile” — — —]
How desirable is it to have our evidences of piety clear and decisive!
[The question put to us in the text, will be put to us in the last day; “What did ye more than others?” This question we ought to be able to answer now, in order that we may give a satisfactory answer then: and the more satisfactorily we can answer it now, the more comfort we shall have in looking forward to that day, and the more boldness when we shall stand at the judgment-seat of Christ [Note: 1 John 3:20-21; 1 John 4:17.]. Whatever then ye have attained, forget it all, and press forward for yet higher attainments [Note: Philippians 3:13-14.], that so, whenever the day of Christ shall arrive, ye may rejoice, “and not be ashamed before him at his coming [Note: 1 John 2:28.].”]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Matthew 5". Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26