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BEFORE THE INCORPORATED SOCIETY FOR THE PROPAGATION OF THE GOSPEL IN FOREIGN PARTS,
At their Anniversary Meeting in the Parish Church of
On Friday, February 16, 1738-9.
MATTHEW Xxiv. 14.
And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations.
THE general doctrine of religion, that all things are under the direction of one righteous Governor, having been established by repeated revelations in the first ages of the world, was left with the bulk of mankind, to be honestly preserved pure and entire, or carelessly forgotten, or wilfully corrupted. And though reason, almost intuitively, bare witness to the truth of this moral system of nature, yet it soon appeared, that "they did not like to retain God in their knowledge," as to any purposes of real piety. Natural religion became gradually more and more darkened with superstition, little understood, less
*Rom. i. 28.
regarded in practice; and the face of it scarce discernibleat all, in the religious establishments of the most learned, polite nations. And how much soever could have been done towards the revival of it by the light of reason, yet this light could not have discovered what so nearly concerned us, that important part in the scheme of this world which regards a Mediator; nor how far the settled constitution of its government admitted repentance to be accepted for remission of sins, after the obscure intimations. of these things, from tradition, were corrupted or forgotOne people, indeed, had clearer notices of them, together with the genuine scheme of natural religion, preserved in the primitive and subsequent revelations committed to their trust; and were designed to be a witness of God, and a providence to the nations around them: but this people also had corrupted themselves and their religion to the highest degree, that was consistent with keeping up the form of it.
In this state of things, when infinite wisdom saw proper, the general doctrine of religion was authoritatively republished in its purity; and the particular dispensation of Providence, which this world is under, manifested to all men, even "the dispensation of the grace of God towards us,' 99% as sinful, lost creatures, to be recovered by repentance through a Mediator, who was "to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness," and at length established that new state of things foretold by the prophet Daniel, under the character of " a kingdom which the God of heaven would set up, and which should never be destroyed." This, including a more distinct account of the instituted means, whereby Christ the Mediator would "gather together in one, the children of God that were scattered abroad,"§ and conduct them to "the place he is gone to prepare for them;" is the gospel of the kingdom, which he here
Dan. ii. 44.
* Eph. iii. 2. § John xi. 52.
† Dan. ix. 24.
|| John xiv. 2, 3.
own w among unto the When derful uni
pure and g
with mankin ference, that for all men, ( worship, toget and discipline, munities or vi them, over a gre ate a general pu munities, which church, are, Firs of God; and, in lished them in e Christianity has o and it is a thing ver ment of Providenc ties, as, in a long Christianity the mo gether with their co for they have every standard of it, the have been had, both
in every successive
foretells, and elsewhere commands, should "be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations. And it first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will: by which means it was spread very widely among the nations of the world, and became a witness unto them.
When thus much was accomplished, as there is a wonderful uniformity in the conduct of Providence, Christianity was left with Christians, to be transmitted down pure and genuine, or to be corrupted and sunk; in like manner as the religion of nature had been before left with mankind in general. There was, however, this dif ference, that by an institution of external religion fitted for all men, (consisting in a common form of Christian worship, together with a standing ministry of instruction and discipline,) it pleased God to unite Christians in communities or visible churches, and all along to preserve them, over a great part of the world; and thus perpetuate a general publication of the gospel. For these communities, which together make up the catholic visible church, are, First, The repositories of the written oracles of God; and, in every age, have preserved and published them in every country, where the profession of Christianity has obtained. Hence it has come to pass, and it is a thing very much to be observed in the appointment of Providence, that even such of these communities, as, in a long succession of years, have corrupted Christianity the most, have yet continually carried, together with their corruptions, the confutation of them: for they have every where preserved the pure original standard of it, the Scripture, to which recourse might have been had, both by the deceivers and the deceived, in every successive age. Secondly, Any particular
* Heb. ii. 3, 4.
church, in whatever place established, is like "a city that is set on a hill, which cannot be hid,"* inviting all who pass by to enter into it. All persons to whom any notices of it come, have, in Scripture language, the "kingdom of God come nigh unto them." They are reminded of that religion, which natural conscience attests the truth of; and they may, if they will, be instructed in it more distinctly, and likewise in the gracious means whereby sinful creatures may obtain eternal life; that chief and final good, which all men, in proportion to their understanding and integrity, even in all ages and countries of the heathen world, were ever in pursuit of. And, lastly, Out of these churches have all along gone forth persons, who have preached the gospel in remote places, with greater or less good effect: for the establishment of any profession of Christianity, however corrupt, I call a good effect, whilst accompanied with a continued publication of the Scripture, notwithstanding it may for some time lie quite neglected.
From these things, it may be worth observing, by the way, appears the weakness of all pleas for neglecting the public service of the church. For though a man prays with as much devotion and less interruption at home, and reads better sermons there, yet that will by no means excuse the neglect of his appointed part in keeping up the profession of Christianity amongst mankind. And this neglect, were it universal, must be the dissolution of the whole visible church, i. e. of all Christian communities; and so must prevent those good purposes which were intended to be answered by them; and which they have, all along, answered over the world. For we see, that by their means the event foretold in the text, which began in the preaching of Christ and the apostles, has been carried on, more or less, ever since, and is still carrying on; these being the providential means of its progress. And it is, I suppose, the completion of this event,
*Matt. v. 14.
which St John had a representation of under the figure of "an angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people."*
Our Lord adds in the text, that this should be "for a witness unto them;" for an evidence of their duty, and an admonition to perform it. But what would be the effect, or success of the general preaching of the gospel, is not here mentioned. And therefore the prophecy of the text is not parallel to those others in Scripture, which seemed to foretell the glorious establishment of Christianity in the last days; nor does it appear that they are coincident, otherwise than as the former of these events must be supposed preparatory to the latter. Nay, it is not said here, that God willeth all men should "be saved, and come unto the knowledge of the truth," though this is the language of Scripture elsewhere. The text declares no more, than that it was the appointment of God, in his righteous government over the world, that the "gospel of the kingdom should be preached for a witness unto it."
The visible constitution and course of nature, the moral law written in our hearts, the positive institutions of religion, and even any memorial of it, are all spoken of in Scripture under this, or the like denomination: so are the prophets, apostles, and our Lord himself. They are all witnesses, for the most part unregarded witnesses, in behalf of God, to mankind. They inform us of his being and providence, and of the particular dispensation of religion which we are under: and continually remind us of them; and they are equally witnesses of these things, whether we regard them or not. Thus, after a declaration that Ezekiel should be sent with a divine message to the children of Israel, it is added, "and they, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they
* Rev. xiv. 6.
† Tim. ii. 4.