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object is advanced still more, and completely secured, by the provision directly made for it in the gospel plan. The precepts of our religion are, as has been already shown in their detail, the most complete, the purest, and most comprehensive, that were ever delivered to mankind. They are indeed so perfect that they seem, at first view, to exceed the powers of a fallen and debilitated nature. It is however to be obseryed, that, even although the standard cannot be attained, it is of infinite consequence that the highest possible should be set before us, because virtue is in its nature infinitely progressive, and, if an inferior standard were adopted, human corruption would remain satisfied with attainments falling greatly short of this, and vice would be encouraged even by the rule of virtue. This was exactly the case among the most enlightened heathens. Their best moral philosophers had no conception of some of the most important branches of human duty, and deemed moral perfection to consist in what was at best a most defective character of real excellence. Hence, they were prone to indulge that pride and presumption which, if they had known such a standard of duty as the gospel places before us, they could never have entertained, but must have rejected as a deep blot in the character of wise and good men, to which they aspired, and which they arrogated to themselves. The later Jewish doc
tors, so severely censured by our Saviour, exhibited a still higher degree of spiritual pride, by reason of their having omitted “the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and fidelity,” and placed the essence of piety in paying “ tithe of mint, and anise, and cummin.”a Without the most perfect rule, therefore, of moral duty—a rule founded in the rational and moral nature of man in his relation to his Creator, and in the Creator's infinite perfections—no substantial virtue can be displayed, even in that inferior degree of which man is capable in his present state.
But Christian examples afford an admirable and animating illustration of Christian precepts. Not to mention, that the divine perfections, displayed in the New Testament in their mildest and most attractive lustre, are proposed as the objects of our imitation, and that we are required “ to be perfect, even as our Father which is in heaven is perfect,” and “ to be followers of God, as dear children ;'( the example of our Sayiour, exhibited in human nature itself, is calculated to excite the highest admiration, to engage
the warmest love, and to afford an unerring pattern to men in all conditions, and circumstances, and professions of life. While this perfect character constitutes one of the strongest
a Matt. xxiii. 23.
b Matt. v. 48.
c Eph. v. 1.
proofs of his divine mission, it is designed to have the most salutary effect on our practice, and to form us to all virtue. That we are powerfully prompted to imitate what we admire and reverence, is a truth deeply founded in experience, and rooted in human nature. Never was there exhibited to the contemplation of mankind a character so truly admirable and attractive as that of Jesus the righteous, who was, “ in all points, tempted like as we are, yet without sin. He was holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sin
“He did no sin, neithrer was guile found in his mouth.” But it is certain that he left us this example, that we should follow his steps. Not even the most indifferent to moral feelings can contemplate the character of Christ without loving it, and desiring, in some degree at least, to bear its resemblance. But how much more powerful must this affection be in those who have sincerely embraced his doctrine, and profess to be his followers ! To keep his commandments is the necessary consequence of loving him." “ He that saith he abideth in him, ought himself also to walk, even as he walked." It is therefore impossible to be a Christian without being, I say not merely a good man, in the common sense of the term, but a man who “hunger
c i Pet. ii. 21.
a Heb. iv. 15; vii. 26. d John xiv. 15.
b 1 Pet. ii. 22.
eth and thirsteth after righteousness. To the formation of this temper in the human soul, the whole scheme of the gospel is directed. Our Saviour's sermon on the mount inculcates it in the most luminous and impressive manner; and whether he or his apostles deliver the peculiar doctrines of Christianity, or elucidate and enforce its pure and purifying precepts, they always show that “ the end of the commandment is charity, out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and faith unfeigned." From the first chapter of Matthew to the last verse of the Book of Revelation, this grand object is uniformly pursued, and its reality most gloriously exemplified in the life of the “ author and finisher of our faith."
Still, however, if this should appear too perfect for the imitation of frail and degenerate man, we have placed before us a series of illustrious characters extending through the whole history of revealed religion, whether under the old or under the new dispensation. Although none of these is without blemish or defect, and
of them were unhappily stained with gross incidental immoralities, yet they were all influenced by one predominant principle, which eminently distinguishes them from the best and most illustrious men who shine in pagan story, and gives them a superiority to every preeminence which
Matt. y. 6.
b 1 Tim. i. 5.
these attained. This principle is, unshaken faith in God, and reference to him in all the noblest and most virtuous actions of their lives. Without this, there can be no real substantial virtue, because God is the source and the pattern of all moral excellence,—the prototype of all that is pure, and good, and amiable, and grand in human nature,—the vivifying energy which supports, improves, and perfects whatever can dignify and exalt it to a celestial sphere.
This reference to Deity, this intellectual and moral intercourse, enters so deeply into the essence of all moral excellence, that we find it strongly enforced even by some of the best heathen moralists, such as Marcus Antoninus and Seneca, as the most effectual means of the renovation of human nature. They represent the good man's soul as a habitation or temple in which the Divinity delights to dwell, and reprobate every notion of piety which is not accompanied by continual progress in virtue. Much more is this the case with the Christian revelation. In fact, as God made man “after his own image,” and as this image can exist only in his soul, since God is a pure Spirit; so the great object of the most perfect dispensation of religion must be, as it is really declared to be, the renovation of this image in “ knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness." The all-pure and perfect Deity can
a Col. iii. 10. Eph. iv. 24.