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as these differed much from each other, they could not be the ground of that repentance, which, being generally taught, must respect some general law, which relates alike to all: and this can be no other than that which the Apostle has described in Rom. ii. 14. 15. However the light of reason and nature was darkened and obscured by ignorance and superstition, yet some remains of it were in all places to be found ; and the general principles of religion were so riveted in human nature, that she could not but start at any thing which directly contradicted them : thus atheism was as detested a crime in the heathen as in the Christian world; and some thought worthy of death for so unnatural an opinion: this point enlarged on; whence it appears that the gospel was a republication of the law of nature, and its precepts declaratory of that original religion which was as old as the creation.
That this must certainly be the case, will appear by considering the nature of the thing in itself. The notions of good and evil are eternally and unalterably the same; which notions are the rules and measures of all moral actions, and consequently necessary and constituent parts of religion; and therefore if the religion of nature was in its primitive state pure and uncorrupt, (which no one can well deny,) though there was sufficient reason for a republication of it, because of the great ignorance and superstition prevalent in the world, yet there could be none for any alteration of it. The duties of religion, considered as a rule of action, flow from the relation we bear to God and to each other; and religion must ever be the same as long as these relations continue unaltered.
That the case is so might be shown from the particular laws of the gospel, and their dependence on the maxims and principles of natural religion: this however would be too long a task. We may be content with one general proof, which reaches to every part of the Christian doctrine, and yet will not lead us beyond the bounds prescribed. Our Saviour in the
5th chapter of St. Matthew tells us, that he came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them. What his meaning was, he sufficiently explained in the following part of his sermon on the mount; in which, laying down first the old law, he showed in every instance what the true perfection of that virtue consisted of, which the law required : this point enlarged on. Since then it appears that the religion of the gospel is the true original religion of reason and nature, the second thing to be observed is, that it has, as such, a claim to be received independent of those miracles which were wrought for its confirmation.
This consequence will be admitted by all who allow the force and obligation of natural religion, and can be denied by none who know or understand themselves. The principles of religion are interwoven in the very frame of our minds; and we may as well run from ourselves, as from the sense of the obligations we are under : this point enlarged on.
But some one may perhaps ask, why he may not teach the religion of the gospel to the heathen, as well in his own name as in the name of Christ; since, being the very religion of reason, it wants no name to support it? To this we may reply, that if the heathen are such masters of reason as to want no teaching, the question is impertinent; and if they do want instruction, there is no comparison between the masters.
The truth is, that all the essentials of true religion are contained in that part of the gospel of which so much has been said; but how this religion came to need renewal by a special commission from heaven, how nature came to want that new light and additional assistance of the Holy Spirit which the gospel has given and promised, is a matter of another consideration; opening to us a new view, to see the reasonableness and necessity of the doctrines peculiar to Christianity ; which, though not different, are yet distinct from the principles of reason and
Had man continued in the purity of his first religion, he had wanted no second; the doctrine of nature had led him to the enjoyment of the glorious hopes of life and immortality to which he was born. But when he fell under the power of sin, he grew both blind and impotent, had but little knowlege left to find his duty, and still less his ability to perform it: this point enlarged on.
The Son of God came into the world not merely to restore the religion of nature, but to adapt it to the state and condition of man; to supply the defects, not of religion, which continued in its first purity and perfection, but of human nature, which was fallen from the original dignity of the creation. If death came in as the penalty of disobedience to the law of nature, it was an evil for which natural religion could afford no remedy; since no law provides a remedy against its own penalties : and though the world retained some notion of a future state, yet its hopes seemed to be rather the remains of that first state in which nature had the full prospect of life before her, and which subsisted when the blessing itself was forfeited, than any just assurance of a future life, to be purchased by virtue and obedience. To repair this breach, and to settle religion once more on the sure foundation of the hopes and fears of eternity, our blessed Lord brought life and immortality to light again by the gospel, &c.
But to what purpose was it to restore religion from the corruptions of ignorance and superstition ? to what end was this better hope brought in? Since our first parents, who wanted not this hope or this knowlege, yet fell wretchedly from both by transgression, what security can we, their sons, still worse than they, promise ourselves from these advantages ? It is we who are weak and degenerate, and who stand in need of restoration. Hence it is that our admission into the gospel is attended with a new birth unto righteousness; hence it is that we are put under the conduct and direction of the Holy Spirit,
who is always ready to comfort and support the faithful: this point enlarged on.
It is true, the gospel has taught us things which by nature we could not know; but they are all designed to confirm and strengthen our hope in God: it is true also, that some of its institutions are only necessary to supply us with spiritual strength to do our duty: these are the additions which it has made to natural religion ; and we may well forgive the injury. Our blessed Saviour saw that the hopes of nature were lost, and therefore he brought to light again life and immortality.
These considerations may suggest to us what probable ground there is for success in our endeavors to spread the gospel of Christ in the dark corners of the world ; and what is the true method of proposing it to the uninstructed part of mankind.
Preached before the Incorporated Society for the Propagation
of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, at St. Mary-le-Bow, Feb. 17, 1715.
MATTHEW, CHAP. IV.-VERSE 17.
From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the
kingdom of heaven is at hand.
The design of this meeting being to promote the propagation of the gospel in foreign parts ; and the success of this work depending on such methods as human prudence can suggest, now left destitute of those miraculous assistances which the church of Christ in her infancy enjoyed; the occasion will naturally suggest to your thoughts the consideration of the encouragements and difficulties which attend this undertaking ; and of the methods proper to attain this end, so much to be desired by every good and pious Christian : but yet, since I succeed much abler men, who have
before me in the performance of this duty, and have with great judgment considered these necessary points ; since also I stand at present before so many much abler, whose thoughts have long dwelt on this important subject; I beg leave to decline the unequal task, and to spend the time allotted me in considering on what foot the gospel first set out in the world, when it was published by our blessed Saviour and his Apostles; and what it had to recommend it to the reason of mankind, abstracted from those signs and wonders which were wrought by the hand of God for its confirmation.
The holy Evangelist tells us that the first doctrine which