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securing to themselves by this means their worldly pomp and greatness, this most unjust, ungrateful, and barbarous action proved the ruin of what they thought it would preserve: For when the lord of the vineyard cometh, (whose power no creature is able to resist, nor to escape his vengeance,) what will he do unto those husbandmen? To this question, which our Lord asked the chief priests and Pharisees, at the close of the parable, they answered, (as they could not choose but do,) He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard to other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons. All the world must own that this is but just; and they themselves, against whom the parable was spoken, and who did perceive it to be so, could not but acknowledge it k: and so great is the power of truth, especially when pressed home upon the conscience by a divine reprover, they were forced to pass this terrible sentence upon themselves as no more than their just desert. And it was a sentence indeed so very terrible, that their hearts sunk within them at the very thoughts of it, and St. Luke tells us they added this deprecation to it, God forbid1!
There is a great deal of dreadful emphasis in those words, He will miserably destroy those wicked men; and which were to a tittle fulfilled about forty years after, in the total ruin of that nation; and that in so dreadful a manner, as is at large described by Josephus, an historian of their own, who was an eyewitness of it, that the like was not from the beginning of the world to that time, no, nor ever shall bem. And as for his letting out his vineyard k Matt. xxi. 45. 1 Luke xx. 16.
m Matt. xxiv. 21.
to other husbandmen, which should render him the fruits in their season"; that, though the expression is softer, yet threatens as great an evil, the subversion of their church and religion; both which most heavy judgments they lie under even to this day. God hath taken away the hedge of his ancient vineyard, (as he threatened, Isa. v. 5.) and suffered it to be eaten up, and broken down the wall thereof, so that it is trodden under foot. He has laid it waste, so that it is not pruned nor digged, and there comes up nothing but briers and thorns; and the clouds of his blessing have never since rained upon it. And the Christian church is now made his vineyard, as the Jewish was before; and by the divine mercy it is so enlarged, as to be capable of receiving all the world, and even those abandoned Jews, when God shall please to take off the veil that hath so long hindered them from seeing the things that belong to their peace; which blessed time he hasten for the sake of his infinite compassions! And the care of this his vineyard thus enlarged he has committed to his beloved Son, who is the chief dresser and cultivator of it; and he was pleased to intrust it in his absence, first to his blessed apostles, and ever since to their successors the bishops; and they to inferior labourers, whose business it is to do their utmost endeavour that it may thrive and flourish, and bring forth the fruits in their seasons. And great hath been their diligence, and admirable has been their success.
How far and wide hath this vineyard spread her branches! the hills are covered with the shadow of it, and her boughs are like the goodly cedars; and never
n Matt. xxi. 41.
was there better fruit, and more to the honour and satisfaction of God, than has been produced by the Christian church in all ages. It is true, the first times of Christianity did bring forth the greatest plenty; but the fruit is of the same excellency that the church produces now; only it must be confessed, to our shame, there is much greater scarcity of it than there was at first.
The Christian doctrines and rules of practice are the same now as ever, and the encouragements to observe and do them are the same, and so are the threatenings too, to those that refuse obedience; and now, as well as then, there is an order of men set apart purposely to urge all this upon us; and (which indeed is all in all) the assistance of the good Spirit of God, to enable us to perform our duty, is still afforded us in sufficient plenty; and one great blessing the present church of Christ enjoys which the primitive did not, and which, one would think, should mightily promote its bringing forth all the fruits of righteousness in great abundance, and that is, peace and quiet, the favour and protection of kings and states; which for some hundreds of years opposed the primitive church with all possible malice and cruelty, and persecuted it with the greatest violence, so that blood and slaughter, and inhuman torments, were every where the lot of the disciples of Jesus.
And yet then did the church flourish most in real holiness; the true life and spirit of the Christian religion appeared then in perfection, notwithstanding all those terrible discouragements; and the more its enemies endeavoured its ruin, the more still it spread even to a miracle, conquering every where by pa
tience and constancy and meekness, and unparalleled virtue, and overcoming evil with good.
It is true, they had then extraordinary aid from above, and were mightily strengthened by the Spirit of God in the inner man; and it was but needful that they should be so, considering what severe trials they were to undergo: but then, the usual and common assistances of grace, one would think, should be as effectual to keep religion alive and vigorous in the prosperous state of the church, as those more extraordinary ones were, when persecution raged against it; and so, no doubt, they would, were we as hearty and sincere, and as much Christians in earnest, as they were.
But the truth is, prosperity and ease are apt to make people careless, vain, and wanton, and to forget a future heaven, when they enjoy so much happiness at present: and this, as it exposes to many temptations, so it makes men easily yield to them, without considering the sad consequences of what looks so fair and inviting; and provided they perform the outward exercises of religion with decency, and are not guilty of any scandalous and notorious vices, they think they do very well, and aspire no higher. And by this means religion dwindles away into formalities and empty shows, and the substantial fruits of it are but rarely met with. Whereas affliction and a state of danger is naturally apt to rouse people up, and make them stand upon their guard and look about them; and with all seriousness and diligence prepare for a better place, when they find so little comfort and so much ill treatment here. It cures men's vanity, and quickens their devotion; effectually weans them from the world, and
raises their thoughts above: and then, when the time of trial comes, they are ready for it, and prepared to make a noble defence, and even to sacrifice their lives, rather than do a base, unworthy action, and prove false to him, who died a shameful and most tormenting death to rescue them from hell. Now this makes Christianity look like itself, in its native beauty and lustre, and mightily advances the glory of its divine Author, and is of all things the most grateful to him.
So that it is the peaceful condition of the church, the constant sunshine of prosperity, that has made this vineyard of Christ luxuriate so in these latter ages, and run out into suckers and superfluous branches, and bear so little fruit to what it did at first. But then let us not think that this is the natural effect of the favour and goodness of God, who designed by those benign influences of his to make it still more fruitful; no, no, it is wholly owing to men's idleness and negligence, and abuse of his continued blessings to purposes quite contrary to his gracious intentions in bestowing them and which is so highly provoking to him, that though the vineyard shall never be totally destroyed, yet several parts of it have already felt his just and heavy vengeance; and more, it is to be feared, will do so too, unless they take the advice of the angel to the church of Ephesus, and remember from whence they are fallen, and repent, and do their first works P.
And O that this church of ours, which is so excellently established, and so like the primitive in faith and doctrine, were as like it in the exemplary P Rev. ii. 5.
• Matt. xvi. 18.