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shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching, ears ; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”*
Thirdly: The large portion of unsanctified wisdom found even in godly men. The wisdom of this world,” . as opposed to “ the wisdom of God,” is not confined to mere worldly men. The apostle, after speaking of spiritual men as “judging all things, and as “having the mind of Christ,” adds, “And í, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal ; even as unto babes in Christ.” And this, their carnality, is represented as rendering them unable to understand the great doctrines of christianity, which are compared to "meat;" and as leading them to build upon the gospel-foundation a mixture of “wood, and hay, and stubble;" all which shall be burnt up another day, though they themselves shall be saved.+
There is a slowness of heart, even in good men, to believe what God hath revealed, especially if it clash with their pre-conceived ideas. Such was the state of mind of the apostles themselves, previous to the resurrection of their Lord ; and such is the state of mind of great numbers amongst us.
We often hear men in controversy talk of being open to conviction, and willing to retract their sentiments, if but fairly confuted: but such professions either mean but little, or at best indicate a great want of self-knowledge. Those who are the most open to conviction, will commonly suspect themselves the most, and of course will not be very forward in the use of such language. If there were not a “slowness of heart” both in receiving truth, and relinquishing error, a large proportion of our controversies would soon be at an end.
REASONS WHY ERROR IS PERMITTED. The foregoing remarks may suffice to account for the prevalence of error, so far as man is concerned; but it may be farther enquired, Wherefore doth God
? Tim. iv. 3, 4. t 1 Cor. ii, 6, 7, 12, 15, 16, iii, 1, 2, 12-17,
permit it? Why is it that the beauty of the christian church is suffered to be marred, and its peace invaded by a succession of perpetual discords? This is an awful subject; and if we were left to our own conjectures upon it, it would be our wisdom to leave it to the great day, when all things will be made manifest: but we are not. The scriptures of truth inform us, that “there must needs be heresies, that they who are approved may be made manifest.” *
All the influences to which we are exposed in the present life, are adapted to a state of probation, and to do us good or harm, according to the state of mind which we possess. We are not only “fearfully made," but as fearfully situated. The evidence in favour of true religion is sufficient for a candid mind; but not for one that is disposed to cavil. If we attend to it simply to find out truth, and obey it, we shall not be disappointed; but if our souls be lifted up within us, the very rock of salvation will be to us a stone of stumbling. The jews required a sign in their own way: “ Let him come down from the cross, (said they) and we will believe him.” If he had publicly risen from the dead, (say modern unbelievers) none could have doubted it. Yet he neither came down from the cross, nor rose publicly from the dead; and let them say, if they please, he could not, and that all his miracles were the work of imposture. It may be our duty, as much as in us lies, to cut off occasion from them who desire occasion : but God often acts otherwise. They who desire a handle to renounce the gospel, shall have it. Thus it is that men are tried by false doctrine, and even by the immoralities of professing christians.
The visible kingdom of Christ is a floor containing a mixture of wheat and chaff; and every false doctrine is a “wind,” which he, whose fan is in his hand, makes use of to purge it. There is a great number of characters who profess to receive the truth, on whom,
1 Cor. xi. 19.
notwithstanding, it never sat easily. Its holy and humbling nature gall their spirits. In such cases the mind is prepared to receive any representation of the gospel, however fallacious, that may comport with its desires : and being thus averse to the truth, God frequently in just judgment suffers the wind of false. doctrine to sweep them away. Such is the account prophetically given of the chief instruments in the Romish apostasy. The introduction of that mystery of iniquity is thus described: “Whose coming is after the working of Satan, with all power, and signs, and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness, in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”*
Not only is false doctrine permitted, that it may, sweep away hypocritical characters; but the discordance which appears amongst the professors of christianity is itself a temptation to many, and that in divers ways. Some who consider themselves as almost, if not altogether, infallible, are hereby furnished with à plea for intolerance and persecution. In this way it operated much in former ages, and a portion of it is still prevalent amongst us.
You see (say they) whither this liberty of conscience will lead men. If they be left to themselves, and form their own notions of religion, there will be no end to their errors and divisions, and to the sects that will rise out of them.' Thus the catholics attempted to discredit the reformation; and thus some protestants have endeavoured to discredit congregational church-government, as fruit-' ful of sects and divisions. But if either of them were required to prove that there is less error or opposition amongst themselves than amongst their neighbours, they might find it a difficult task. On one side
2 Thess. ii. 9-12.
men find it necessary either not to think at all, or to conceal their sentiments; on the other, they speak and write their minds with greater freedom : but things are what they are, whether they be avowed or not. He who persecutes men for their errors, may at last be found equally erroneous himself: but allowing that he is not, and that his creed is orthodox; yet is he far from being sound in the faith, in the scriptural sense of the words. He “ knoweth not what manner of spirit he is of.” He may be willing to fight; but has yet to learn what are those weapons by which the soldiers of the Lamb are enabled to overcome.
Others, on the same ground, have rejected all religion. “You cannot agree (say they) as to what is truth : settle it amongst yourselves, before you attempt to trouble us with it. Very well : if you can satisfy your consciences with this evasion, do so. It will not avail you at death or judgment. You will then be reminded that you did not reason thus in things to which
your hearts were inclined; but applied with all your powers, and used every possible mean to ascertain the truth for yourselves, and acted accordingly. On your own principles, therefore, will you be judged.
Others, who have not gone these lengths, have yet been tempted to despair of finding out what is the true religion. Amidst the opposition of opinion which continually presents itself before us, (say they) how are we, plain people, to judge and act ? If you mean to intimate that it is vain for you to concern yourselves about it, that is the same as saying, it is vain to attempt any thing that is accompanied with difficulties, or to walk in any way that is attended with temptations; and this would lead you to stand still in other things as well as in religion. But if it be the real desire of your soul to know the right way, and walk in it, there is no reason to despair. Follow no man as your guide; but go to your bible, and your God, and there decide the question. You need not say in your heart, Who shall ascend into heaven; or
who shall descend into the deep? The word is nigh thee*... To read controversial books may, in many cases, be useful : but seldom, when it is done with a view to decide the great question, What is the right way to everlasting life? A book, as well as a sermon, may be the means of affording such direction. But when the mind is in a state of suspense, it is, beyond all comparison, the safest to consult the oracles of God. To launch into controversy; .without having obtained satisfaction on the first principles of the doctrine of Christ, is to put to sea in a storm, without a rudder. One great reason why men are carried about with divers and strange doctrines," is, their “ hearts are not established with grace.”+ They have no principles of their own, and therefore are carried away with any thing that wears the appearance of plausibility.
But one of the worst inferences that are drawn from the discordant doctrines which abound in the world, is, that doctrine itself is of little or no account. As intolerance and bigotry, under the specious name of zeal, distinguished former ages; so sceptical indifference, under the specious names of candour, liberality, and moderation, distinguishes this. This is the grand temptation, perhaps, of the present times. It would seem as if men mụst either fight for truth with carnal weapons, or make peace with error; either our reli. gious principles must be cognizable by human lagislators, or they are neither good nor evil, and God himself must not call us to account for them ; either we must call men masters upon earth, or deny that we have any master, even in heaven.
It is a favourite principle with unbelievers, and with many professing christians who verge towards them, that error not only has its seat in the mind, but that. it is purely intellectual, and therefore innocent. Hence they plead against all church censures, and every degree of unfavourable opinion, on account of doctrinal sentiments, as though it were a species of persecution. But if the causes of error be principally D
* Rom. x. 6-9. † lleb, xiii, 9.