« PreviousContinue »
GENERAL EPISTLE OF ST. JUDÉ, VERSE 3.
-It was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you, that ye
should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.
It is at all times the duty of the pastors and ministers of the Christian church to call on the people to be zealous to maintain, and by proper methods to propagate, the faith of the gospel ; but there are seasons in which it is more especially necessary for them to discharge this duty ; seasons which require that the pastors should be vigilant to prevent, and the people careful to avoid, the danger of growing errors and superstition.
Such was the season, and such the occasion of this Epistle. Some very dangerous errors, and some abominable practices, began to show themselves among the members of the church, and there was great reason to apprehend the infection would spread. • Certain men,' it seems, had crept in unawaresungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, , and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.' This it was that made it needful for the Apostle to exhort Christians every where to contend earnestly for the faith onoe delivered into the saints.'
If it was needful in the Apostle's times, when the mischief began first to show itself, what must it be in ours, when this evil seems to be at its full growth, and to surround us in different shapes on every side ? Superstition on one hand, and irreligion on the other, have left true Christians a narrow path to walk in : and though reason and reflexion will make men
sometimes sick of the extremes, yet the transition from one extreme to another is much easier, than from either to the truth that lies between them. From popery to no religion, and from no religion to popery, is a ready step; and when a man is tired of either extreme, it requires only a resolution to away from it as fast as he can, to get soon to the other ; whereas it requires a serious and a steady mind to stop at the right place.
Another difficulty there is, which distinguishes our times from that of the Apostles: St. Jude complains that some corrupt men, teaching perverse doctrines, had mixed with Christian societies ; but it was by stealth and unawares they had crept in: the churches themselves were pure and uncorrupt, and professed and taught the true faith of the gospel of Christ, But our case is far otherwise. There are, indeed, in all churches corrupt members, a calamity common to all times; but in these latter days the infection has spread so far and so wide, that whole churches are tainted with it. The errors we have to contend with are not such as creep in silently and unawares, but such as are taught by authority, and insisted on as necessary conditions of Christian communion : they are pressed on men by an application of all the promises of the gospel to those who receive them gladly, and of all the threats of the gospel to such as embrace them not. Is it not then now, more than ever, needful to exhort men to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered unto the saints ?'
But it is to little purpose to exhort men to be zealous for the Christian faith unless you can give them some sure and certain mark to know what the right faith is. If you inquire of particular churches, or societies of Christians, which is the true faith, each of them will answer, that the faith professed by them is the true one, and that other societies have fallen into errors and mistakes. In this divided state of things, therefore, no church has a right to be believed on its own word merely, without giving a reason of the faith which is in them; and yet this prétence of authority is the only thing that can be said, and therefore it always is said, to justify the dominion which the church of Rome has usurped over the faith of Christians. With how much better grace might St. Jude have dictated to
the Christians of his time, and told them, on his own authority, what the true faith was, in opposition to corrupt teachers ! But does he so ? By no means : so far from it, that he gives them another rule to examine the faith by, and sends them to inquire what the faith was, which was once or from the beginning delivered to Christians.
Church authority is one of those unhappy subjects which is seldom seen but from one of its extremes : in some places, and with some persons, it can do 'every thing ; in others, it can do nothing. I cannot propose to consider justly so copious a subject in the compass of a sermon; and therefore I shall content myself with laying before you some observations on the apostolic rule in the text, which may be of use if duly considered. And,
First, since an Apostle of Christ, in the early days of the church, sent Christians to inquire after the faith delivered from the beginning, it follows manifestly that the Apostles themselves were but teachers and witnesses of the faith, and had no authority or commission to make new articles of faith. Had it been otherwise, how absurd was it in St. Jude to send Christians to an inquiry after the faith once delivered,' when he and they could not but know that there was a standing authority to make articles of faith, and that no such inquiry was wanting.
The truth of this conclusion may be abundantly proved by considering the commission and authority the Apostles received from Christ, and their conduct in the execution of them : Go ye,' says our blessed Lord, ' into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature :' Mark xvi. 15. The gospel then was the thing committed to them to be taught to the world, and not to be made or to be altered by them ; which sense is delivered in terms more express in St. Matthew, for there the words are, · Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: ch, xxviii. 20. The promise annexed, · And lo, I am with you to the end of the world,' must be relative to their commission, and they could depend on it no longer than whilst they kept within the limits of their commission, which was to teach what Christ had commanded.
When the time of our Saviour's leaving the world drew near,
be told his Apostles he would not · leave them comfortless, but pray the Father to send them another Comforter, to abide with them for ever :' John xiv, 16. The office of this Comforter is described, ver. 26. The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.' If then the office of the Spirit was to o bring to their remembrance 'what Christ had said to them, their office, as teachers, could only be to publish the doctrine of Christ. The Spirit was likewise to teach them all things, that is, to teach them to understand rightly all things, and to preserve them from mistaking the meaning of what our Lord said to them, which was frequently their case whilst they con, versed with him on earth.
Let us consider, in the next place, the conduct of the Apostles, and how they executed the commission with which they were intrusted.
One of the first things they did was to elect an Apostle into the place of Judas. When they were to choose an Apostle, without doubt they considered the qualifications necessary to the office; and for that reason St. Peter declared that the choice was necessarily confined to such as had companied with them all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among them, beginning from the baptism of John, unto the same day that he was taken up from among us;' so that no man was capable of being an Apostle, who was not capable of þeing a witness of the doctrines and works of our blessed Lord; a plain evidence that their business was to report the doctrines of Christ, and not to deliv er doctrines of their own, Accordingly the four gospels, pub lished to instruct the world in the Christian faith, are an history of what our Saviour did, taught, and suffered : and St. Luke particularly tells us that he wrote his gospel, 'having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first.' So that St. Luke, in writing his gospel, followed the rule prescribed by St. Jude, and reported the • faith once delivered to the saints.'
St. John, in his first Epistle general, refers likewise to the beginning and first revelation of the gospel to show the authority of the doctrines which he delivered. Hear his own words ;
• That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked on, and our hands have handled of the word of life that which we have seen and heard, declared we unto you, that
may have fellowship with us.' St. John's referring in this manner to what he had heard and seen, to establish his authority as a preacher of the gospel, plainly shows that he thought himself bound to preach only what he had heard and seen, and that he had no authority to preach any other doctrine. It is observ- . able that St. John, in the passage before us, says expressly that he wrote the things he had heard and seen from the beginning, that those to whom his epistle came might have fellowship with the Apostles:' a plain proof that a right of fellowship with the Apostles, or, in other words, a right to church communion, depends on receiving and embracing the faith once Helivered to the saints,' and not on any other doctrines of later date, by what authority soever published or declared.
St. Paul's case was a singular one: he was not called in our Saviour's life-time, and consequently had not the qualification required in the first of the Acts, when a new Apostle was to be chosen: he was not one of those who had companied with the Apostles during the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among them: but if we consider how this defect was supplied in his case, it will justify the observation we are on in the strongest manner imaginable.
As St. Paul conversed not with Christ in the flesh, so neither did he receive the gospel from any of the Apostles, who did; but had it by immediate revelation from Christ himself: so that his preaching had this apostolical character, that he taught the things which he had seen and heard of Christ. When he was miraculously called to be an Apostle, to qualify him for the office Christ promised to be his instructor: I have appeared unto thee,' says our Lord, ' for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee :' Acts xxvi. 16. Accordingly St. Paul, speaking to the Galatians of his own authority as an Apostle, tells them that
an Apostle not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;'