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SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY.
CHRIST DESTROYS THE WORKS OF SATAN. 1 John iii. 8. — For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that
he might destroy the works of the Devil.
[Text taken from the Epistle for the Day.] That the great purport of our Saviour's coming was to destroy out of mankind all sin and wickedness, and in place thereof, to substitute all holiness and virtue; will clearly appear, if we advert, I. To the life which he led; II. To the precepts which he delivered ; and III. To the doctrines which he taught.
The life that our blessed Lord led upon earth, was full of innocence and simplicity, free from all manner of guile, and from the least suspicion of vice, or any thing that looked like it. There was nothing in his temper, or in his conversation, that savoured of sourness, or churlishness; of vain glory, or ambition, or self-seeking; of the love of pleasure, or of the love of the world. On the contrary, he was the reverse of all these; being the most modest, the humblest, the best natured, the most self-denying, and disinterested man that ever appeared in the world. He had no views in any of his actions, but the pure glory of God, and the good of mankind. He was dead to the world, while he lived in it; very well pleased and contented with his low condition ; extremely devout towards God, and conversing much with him by prayer and me ditation, and yet making that no pretence of neglecting the business of his calling. He bore injuries and affronts with the greatest meekness, though he was a person of the highest quality in the world. Patient he was, to admiration, under unheardof sufferings, and not only ready to forgive his enemies, but to oblige them by all the ways of which they were capable.
It would be endless to pursue all the instances of that glorious virtue, in which our Saviour shined forth as a light to the paths, and a lantern to the feet of all the ages and generations of the world. I shall, therefore, here take notice, only in two particulars, how exquisitely the circumstances of our Saviour's life were contrived, for the rendering him every way a complete and proper example of virtue to the sons of men.
First, His choosing the life of a private ordinary person. Had he appeared in the quality, and with the equipage of a prince, or some such illustrious personage (as indeed the Jews expected such a one for their Messiah), and framed his manners and conversation according to that character, the virtues and graces he must then have chiefly exercised, would not have been imitable by much the greater part of mankind; who, being placed in a quite different spherc, must also have different patterns and precedents to frame their lives by; and consequently, the benefit of his example would have redounded, comparatively, but to a few. Besides, that state of life would not have led him to opportunities of exemplifying several virtues, for which the generality of mankind have the most frequent occasions; and for the obtaining of which, by reason of their extreme difficulty, they most stand in need of the guidance and encouragement of an example. Such, for instance, are, contentedness in a mean fortune ; a continual dependence on God's providence; patient suffering of injuries and persecutions, with several of the like nature. But now our Saviour appearing as he did, in lowly and common circumstances, in that rank and quality, into which the lot of the greatest part of men is cast; and therein continually conflicting with all those difficulties and temptations, to which the condition of human life is most exposed; he rendered himself hereby an example of the most universal influence, such a copy of virtue, as the necessities of mankind did most require should be given them to write after.
Again, secondly, what I have observed as to the outward condition of our Saviour's life, the same, and to the same purposes,
I observe of his virtues. They were, indeed, perfect in the highest degree; but yet the instances of them were very ordinary and very familiar, complying with human society, and proportioned to the strength and capacities of all men. There was nothing of prodigy in his conversation : nothing that, by its greatness and too much lustre, might rather dazzle our eyes
than guide us; rather scare our endeavours than encourage them. And herein differs the story of our Lord from that of several of his followers and disciples in after-times; whose lives, as they are related to us, are rather fit to fright and amaze us, to ensnare and create scruples in us, than to conduct us in the ways of an even and regular piety. But our Saviour's life was nothing so. We do not find him forward in those prodigious mortifications, those long and tedious abstrac, tions of spirit, those strange instances of uncommanded charity, with which the legends of the saints are stuffed: but in all the actions, in which he did propose himself imitable by us, he did so converse with men, that men might with ease and pleasure and without the least prejudice to their secular affairs, converse in the world after his example. In a word, his whole life was perfectly framed to a conformity with his doctrine, and articles of faith. As these were fitted to every man's understanding, so was that fitted for every one's imitation.
Nay, let me add this further, His very miracles and inimitable actions were also framed, as much as was possible, for the carrying on this design : for they were all of such a quality, that they did not only evidence the Divine authority of his religion to men's understandings, which was one great end of them, but did also powerfully recommend goodness and charity to their practice. We might in them, at the same time, discover both the truth of Christianity, and the spirit and temper of it: for, it is observable of all the great and wonderful works that our Saviour wrought, that they were not mere signs and prodigies, such as the carnal Jews hankered after, but actions of beneficence to mankind ; illustrious expressions of the most large and diffusive charity. He never exerted that divine power that was in him, but to the ends of benefiting some person or other. His constant course of miracles was but a continual going about doing good.
And herein remarkably appears the difference between our Saviour's miracles, and those of Moses and Elias; the one the author, the other the great restorer, of the Jewish law. Theirs were for the most part vindictive and destructive; dreadful plagues and judgements upon gainsayers; waters from the deep to drown them, and fire from Heaven to consume them ; and this, suitably enough to the nature and genius of that dispensation, to which they did hereby gain authority. But our Saviour, who came to infuse another kind of spirit into mankind, chose to confirm his religion by miracles of mercy; by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, opening the eyes of the blind, casting out devils, and raising dead people to life again ; plainly
hereby making us to understand, that the great business of his religion was, to make men kind and good-natured; and to produce in them all the fruits of a useful and charitable conversation ; and this in a degree far higher than either the law of Moses, or any other religion in the world, did oblige men to.
II, There is not one of his precepts which is not either an injunction of some moral virtue, or a prohibition of some vice, or a recommendation of the means, by which some virtue is to be acquired, or some sin to be mortified.
Whatever other liberties the Gospel may have indulged unto men, it is certain it grants none to their vices. Never was virtue taught in such perfection, or exacted with such severity, as we there find it. Never did any man set the duties of human life, in all its relations, towards God, towards our neighbours, and towards ourselves, at so high a pitch, as our Saviour hath there set them. All the Gentile world cannot show us, out of all their great masters of morality, their most refined philosophers, such a collection of sublime and accurate precepts of living, as are delivered in one single sermon of our Saviour's; that, I mean, upon the Mount.
So far is he from giving countenance to any sort of wickedness or impurity in the practice of mankind, that he hath forbid all the tendencies and approaches to it in the very thoughts; having put restraints upon the most secret and undiscernible workings of our minds towards every thing that is evil. To look upon a woman to lust after her, is, in his account, to commit adultery. To be rashly and uncharitably angry, is forbid by him as a degree of murder. Not to forgive an injury, is by his law a sin, as well as to do one.
I own that there is the greatest encouragement given by our Saviour to all repenting sinners; nay, though they have been the greatest of sinners. But then he requires both a thorough change of their minds, and a thorough reformation of their manners too, before they must hope for any benefit from him.
I own, likewise, that there is in the Gospel all the allowance made for the natural unavoidable frailties and weaknesses of mankind, that can be desired. But then it supposes the persons, to whom the allowance is made, to be sincerely (though not perfectly) pure and upright, both in their minds and lives; that they harbour no iniquity in their hearts, nor practice any known sin in their conversation; nay, and that they do their best endeavours likewise to overcome their very infirmities.
In a word, it is the fundamental law of the Gospel, that without holiness no man shall see God ;' and all the particular precepts we there meet with, do exactly answer this general one, and are a pursuance of it.
III. Nor, in the third place, is this design of making men virtuous more conspicuous in our Saviour's precepts, than in the doctrines he delivered to mankind. Those truths (I mean) which he revealed from God to be believed by all those that should embrace his religion. There was none of them calculated for the gratification of men's idle curiosities, the busying and amusing them with airy and useless speculations. Much less were they intended for an excuse of our credulity, or a trial how far we could bring our reasons to submit to our faith. But as, on one hand, they were plain and simple, and such as, by their agreeableness to the rational faculties of mankind, did highly recommend themselves to our belief; so, on the other hand, they had an immediate relation to practice; and were the genuine principles and foundations, upon which all human and divine virtues were naturally to be superstructed.
The doctrines which our Saviour delivered, will all of them fall under one of these three heads :
They were either in order to the clearing, improving, and confirming the great truths of natural religion, without which a virtuous, holy life could not be led.
Or they were in order to the removing of those erroneous wicked principles out of the minds of men, that then commonly prevailed in the world, and were great hindrances and obstructions of truo virtue and piety.
Or lastly, they were such as contained new arguments, new encouragements, new engagements to put us upon the practice of holiness, that mankind never thought of before. And of this last sort were those doctrines which we call the peculiar articles of the Christian faith; as namely, the infinite love of God to mankind, expressed in sending his own Son for their redemption : that Son of God's offering up of himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and thereby sealing a covenant of pardon and reconciliation to all true penitents that believe in him: that Son of God's being afterwards raised from the dead, and carried up into Heaven, to appear there as a perpetual Advocate and Intercessor for us at the right hand of God; and at the same time sending down his holy Spirit, as