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ON THE NATURE OF TRUE RELIGION
Romans xiv. 17.
The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but right
eousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. WHEREIN does true religion consist? No inquiry is more important than this; for it involves our happiness, not only in the present life, but in that eternal state into which we must soon enter. Now, independently of the knowledge of the character of God which we derive from the Scriptures, it might reasonably have been concluded from the relation which he bears to us as our Creator, that he would not leave a subject so important to his creatures in uncertainty. The most important truths are generally the most simple and plain; and that which materially concerns the happiness of mankind, it seldom requires great attention or unusual discernment to discover. Yet, although God has given to us a revelation to ascertain the real nature of religion, no subject has been the occasion of greater doubt and controversy. Religion was supposed by many, in the time of the Apostles, to consist chiefly in oblations in abstaining
from the use of several kinds of food, or from the touch of various unclean things. “Touch not, taste not, handle not;" were with them some of the most essential precepts in religion; and it is in opposition to their opinions that the Apostle declares the kingdom of God not to consist in meats and drink-in the using of them, or in the abstaining from them.
The most frequent error, respecting the nature of religion, has consisted not so much in proposing something which is essentially contrary to it, as in selecting a part of it, and substituting that part for the whole. No one ever thought that religion consisted in lying, swearing, or stealing. There must be something plausible, something resembling the truth in any error which is long or widely received. Now, in fixing upon some part of religion, and magnifying its importance till the rest appear of little account, there is a foundation on which the fabrick of error may rest. In the case before us, the legal oblations, abstinence from particular kinds of food, the observance of new moons and sabbaths, and of various other rites and ceremonies, had been ordained by God: they constituted a part, and only a part, of true religion under the Levitical dispensation: they were rather means to religion than religion itself. Yet, from an undue estimate of the importance of these duties, which they diligently practised, many of the Jews were led to flatter themselves with a persuasion of their own superior sanctity, though they neglected the weightier matters of the Law-justice, mercy, and faith.
Their error, and the absurdity of it, we now clearly discern.
We perceive that they had formed unworthy conceptions of the character of God, who they imagined would take pleasure in vain and useless ceremonies. They had narrow notions of religion itself; for they did not perceive that it consisted in the reformation of the heart, and in purity of life. They confounded the means with the end, not observing that all ceremonies are useful only as promoting some fur
ther object, and that the end itself must be more important than the means by which it was to be pursued. They entertained confused ideas of the proportionate value of duties, unreasonably exalting those of the lowest kind, and depreciating some of the highest value. In all these respects we discover their gross mistake, and wonder they should have overlooked such obvious truths. We see that the nature of true religion resembles that of its great Author, that it glorifies God and sanctifies man; that whatever falls short of this, falls short of religion; and that whatever is substituted in the room of it, be it even a part of religion itself, ought to be rejected as unworthy of that sacred name.
But in this, as in most other cases, we are more clearsighted in discovering the errors of others than of ourselves. Many, whocondemn the Jews for having thought religion to consist in meats and drink, are themselves condemned in their own practice by the very principles upon which their censure of the Jews proceeds.
How many, at present, mistake the forms of religion for religion itself. They are punctual in their attendance at the house of God; they abstain from labour on the Sabbath; they repeat with regularity some forms of prayer, and therefore they doubt not of the genuineness of their religion. These are undoubtedly observances enjoined by God, and are therefore essential to real piety. The house of God was erected, the Sabbath set apart, and prayer appointed, in order that by those means man might obtain the grace of God in the heart. Yet these outward acts of worship constitute the forın only of religion: the power of it consists in the purification of the heart, and in deliverance from evil dispositions. How many are constantly at the house of God on the Sabbath, who through the week are fretful and peevish, worldly and covetous, slothful and selfish, void of Christian love, heavenly mindedness, and holy affections! Yet they observe the forms of Christian worship, and are therefore satisfied with themselves, The very religion of such men at once tranquilizes their
consciences and hardens their hearts. Alas! of what use are the forms they practise, unless they produce the power of godliness in the soul. That worship which does not erect the kingdom of God and the law of God in our hearts, is in truth nothing better than a mere bodily exercise.
There are other persons, of upright and even of pious intentions, who seem to mistake the means of religion for religion itself. They are not, indeed, formalists: they are deeply sensible of the folly of resting in the mere outward acts of worship; but still they suppose, religion to consist in babits and practices which are really important, only as they are made subservient to the growth of true piety. Such persons confine their views of religion to long and fervent prayer in public and in private, to the study of the word of God, to the perusal of religious books, and devout conversation with Christian friends. In these things they are frequently and deeply engaged. And greatly, indeed, is it to be lamented, that these important duties have fallen into so general a neglect. To this cause much of the wickedness of the present day must be attributed. Yet while I admit, in the amplest terms, the necessity of these habits, it must, at the same time, be observed, that they are but means by which we are to obtain an end; and that the end, of course, is more important than the means. · Prayer may be considered either as an act of homage to God, or as an act of supplication to him for the grace we need. In the former sense, it is an act of religion; in the latter, but a means of receiving grace. Now wherein does that grace consist? In purity, in meekness, in charity, in love to God and man, and in the zealous discharge of the duties of our station. Yet how many imperious masters, idle servants, unkind husbands, undutiful children, and unfaithfui oriends, are zealous in their prayers, in attendance !pon preaching, in reading the Scriptures, and in religious discourse, without, perhaps, a doubt of the genuine nature of the religion in which they confide.
There are others, whose religion consists in the belief of the doctrines of Christianity. They are diligent to know the whole system of the Gospel, zealous to propagate truth, and eager in combating false opinions. But why? Is it because they have experienced in their own souls the sanctifying influence of the truths they believe? Is it because they have themselves become more humble: meek, patient, gentle, and heavenly minded? Alas! it is often forgotten that these are the dispositions which the Gospel was intended to produce; and that the faith which does not produce them is dead, however orthodox it may be. The articles of our creed are doubtless of the greatest importance, and ought to be zealously maintained. But why? Because no others produce such excellent fruit in the life. Thus the doctrine of our depravity has an evident tendency to keep us humble; that of our weakness to make us watchful against sin, and stedfast in adherence to Christ; the love of Christ giving himself for sinners, constrains us to live in strict obedience to him: his free forgiveness implants a spirit of mildness and compassion in our hearts. Thus every doctrine is to be brought into action, and is important and valuable to us only as it produces corresponding and appropriate dispositions. Yet how large is the number of those who are more solicitous to have their faith sound than their hearts
purewho thus make the kingdom of God to consist in doctrines, which through our abuse of them, may be as unedifying as the traditions of the Jews about washing of hands and purifying of vessels, or their ordinances respecting abstinence from meats!
We have made no inconsiderable advance in Christian knowledge when we are fully persuaded of a truth so simple, that we might expect the most ignorant to know it—that real religion is seated in the heart, and not in the understanding; in the power rather than in the form of godliness. “Knowledge and faith are in order to practice: and we neither know nor believe to any good purpose, unless our knowledge and faith in