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So that, in this first instance, (and which is the groundwork of all,) we are too much like the man's son in the parable, who put his father off only with a few good words; being as little influenced by the faith we profess, as if we believed quite contrary.
Let us now inquire, whether our plausible pretences to Christian obedience are of a better kind or no, and I am afraid we shall find as great insincerity here as before; and that, like the Pharisees, we promise much, and pretend to a great deal, and yet do but little or nothing.
For first in general, whereas we have over and over promised and vowed to keep all God's holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of our life, we pay him at best but a partial obedience; and make bold to pick and choose out of his laws what is most agreeable to our temper and complexion, and so least difficult, and which we have least temptation or desire to break; and think by our performance of those duties to compound for our neglect or breach of the rest. And even this obedience, as little worth as it is, is only by fits and starts, and great interruptions, and looks more like the ebbs and flows of a disease, than the service of a man and a Christian to his Creator and Redeemer. And after all, if the truth were known, (as God certainly knows it, though men, it may be, do not,) it is but a piece of hypocrisy, a way we use to get credit and reputation, in order to some secular ends and designs, which cannot be carried on so well without it. Thus much in general; which whether it be true or no, and how far it is so, every man's own conscience will tell him.
But to press this matter home, I shall single out
two or three particular instances of our duty, and those of greatest moment, and inquire in what manner we pay obedience to them.
1. The first shall be charity to the poor and needy, than which nothing is more earnestly urged upon us in scripture, and which our Lord has told us shall be more particularly inquired into at the day of judgment: and what more is there in this for the generality than a little empty pity, when that which is needful for the relief of their necessities is unnaturally withheld? Those that are a step above these, and do give something, how seldom is it according to the ability that God has given them; how grudgingly and as of necessity, rather than cheerfully and with a ready mind; and how often is the charity of more liberal persons misapplied, and thoughtlessly scattered among vagrants and counterfeits, such as should be sent to the house of correction rather than have an alms; and which if collected into a sum, and bestowed discreetly, would cheer the hearts of many that indeed deserve compassion.
So that obedience to this great duty comes very short of what might be expected from true disciples of the most compassionate Jesus; and though we often meet with a show of it, yet a substantial, thorough charity is very rare.
2. Secondly, forgiveness of injuries is another duty of our holy religion, of the highest importance, for upon our sincere performance of it depends our own forgiveness at the hands of God. For so our Lord expressly, If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will
your Father forgive your trespasses %. And yet
how little is there of it in the world! How few rise higher, (and that for the sake of good-breeding oftentimes more than of religion,) than to be outwardly fair and civil to such as have done them an injury, while their hearts at the same time are full of rancour and revenge! It may be they may faintly say to a good man that would make peace, God forgive them, for I do; but if a favourable opportunity happens the next minute, all this shall be forgot, and revenge take place.
Some are for the hellish distinction of forgiving but not forgetting; but this signifies no more than that I will pretend to forgive till it lies in my power to requite, and then I will glut my malice to the full.
But is this to forgive one another, as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven us h? What can be a greater piece of mockery than to pretend at this rate to obey this great command, which indeed is directly to transgress it, only we give it another name.
3. Thirdly, and to mention no more, repentance, (though it infinitely concerns us to be sincere in it, for otherwise we shall for ever perish, yet,) as we usually manage it, hath as much of deceit in it, and as little of reality, as any thing besides.
For instead of a deep sorrow and pungent remorse for sin, productive of an entire hatred of it and thorough change of life, it is seldom any more than a faint sigh or two, a formal lifting up our hands and eyes, and saying, Lord have mercy upon us, in a more mournful tone than ordinary, and a heedless,
g Matt. vi. 14, 15.
h Ephes. iv. 32.
unaffectionate repetition of some penitential expressions, to the sense of which we attend but little.
Perhaps at two or three more solemn times of the year we vouchsafe to look into our breasts, and call to mind some of our past wickednesses, and it may be are something more in earnest than we use to be, and seem to be resolved to reform for the future; when no sooner is the good time over, but all is forgot again, and we soon grow as bad as ever.
Some are for repenting when they are good for nothing else, when they are old and sick and decrepit, and upon their death-beds; any time but the present is with them the most seasonable, and every thing must take place before God and religion, and the making a good provision for their immortal souls. Good God! that ever men should dare to trifle thus with things of such infinite consequence! and yet, how seldom do we find one that goes further, and repents in earnest! I might mention many more instances wherein we are as faulty as in these; but this is enough to give us a sense of our great insincerity in the performance of our duty, and how provokingly we mock God and fatally deceive ourselves, by resting in empty pretences and a few good words, without that honest, hearty obedience, which alone God will accept and reward.
Proceed we now to make one inquiry more, namely, into the nature of our religious worship and devotion; and see whether this is not of a piece with the rest, as mere a formality, and specious nothing.
As for our religious worship, or those outward expressions of reverence to God, which are generally made use of in our public religious assemblies, how very seldom is there a correspondent awe and in
ward veneration of that Divine Being upon our minds!
How often do we bow our bodies low, in the places of his more especial presence, when our hearts at the same time refuse to be humbled before him! how often do we lift up our hands and eyes towards heaven, when all the while our souls are grovelling in the dust, and taken up with vain and worldly thoughts, and but too often defiled with impure imaginations! how often do we pay reverence at the mention of the name of Jesus, and kneel before him like good subjects and humble supplicants, and yet live like incorrigible and stubborn rebels!
Our devotion likewise is too often of the same vile stamp. For how often do we draw near to him with our lips, when our hearts, our affections, and our very thoughts too, are far from him! How seldom do we give that due attention we ought to the sense of those petitions we pretend to offer up to him; and how cold and unconcerned are we when we repeat them, and huddle them over with equal irreverence and inadvertency! Particularly, in what a shameless, remorseless manner do too many of us confess our heinous sins before the holy and almighty God; how little touched are we with a sense of our infinite baseness, vileness, and ingratitude, and of that heavy displeasure of God which we have incurred! Indeed, it looks more like the telling a story, and relating some indifferent matters of fact, that but little concern us, than a guilty self-condemned wretch's humble and penitent acknowledgment of crimes of the deepest dye, before a most just and holy Judge, who is able to punish him with eternal death. And when we beg for pardon