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SUMMARY OF DISCOURSE LV.
LUKE, CHAP. X.-VERSE 29.
THE precepts of the law and of the gospel being conceived in general terms, and familiarly expressed, men of speculative minds have so restricted the application of this general rule, that the duty has often been lost in the explication, and the precept so pared and cut, that it is no longer serviceable to common life. The law of God, to love our neighbor as ourselves, can be better interpreted by our hearts than our heads; as we cannot help feeling the sense of our duty as long as we attend to the inward motions of nature: our own wants and infirmities will show us the matter and extent of our obedience : but when men come to limit the exact bounds of love, it generally happens that very little love remains to be disposed of among their neighbors, and very few to share what they have. This exemplified in the case of a covetous man making excuses why he should not bestow his charity on some poor wretch; and so every instance of our duty has its subterfuges: as long as men find comfort in excuses, invention will furnish them. It may seem strange that the laws of God should be liable to this usage; since being the transcript of perfect knowlege, and the work of him who knows and foresees the secrets of all hearts, we might have expected to find them so fenced about, and so express in all cases, that the meaning of the precept could not be questioned, or iniquity covered by excuses drawn from the interpretation of Scripture: but there are good rea
sons for this. Were the Scripture to consider all cases, and limit our duties in all possible circumstances, the world itself could hardly contain the things that should be written: such a law would be useless, and men might grow old in sin before they could learn their duty. Besides, God gave every man a law to direct him, when he made him a reasonable creature; and therefore he expects obedience to it. The gospel was given not to exclude, but to assist the exercise of reason; and therefore a law so circumstantial would preclude men from those nobler instances of duty which flow from a right use of their minds, and are the proper sacrifice of a rational soul to God. The uprightness of a man, and the integrity of his mind, are as discernible in his application of the rules of the gospel, as by any outward acts whatever. He who from his own reason nobly interprets the word neighbor in the gospel to be all the sons of men, is so much a better Christian than the man who confines the law to townsmen or countrymen, as his neighborhood is more universal. Besides a law so particular would not correct the evil complained of: the perverseness of the will, not the weakness of the understanding, teaches the evasions of the law were it more explicit, men would take more pains to evade it; for the plainness of the law will but little correct the malignity of the will, which alone needs improvement: this point enlarged on. Since therefore it is impracticable to give rules for all cases, and to adjust the general laws of virtue and obedience to the various circumstances of human life, without destroying the end of all laws which are intended for rules; but which, by taking in all particular cases, would grow too voluminous for use;—since reason and judgment would be of no use in virtue and obedience, if men in all cases were limited by particular clauses and provisions;—since likewise the end to be gained by such numerous and particular laws would not be attained, but men would still find room to cavil at their duty, and pretences to evade it ;—it appears that the gospel is not to
be charged with the doubts and disputes that often arise on its laws and precepts, itself being perfect as a law for the government and instruction of rational creatures; but we must seek elsewhere the cause of men differing so widely on the plainest points of duty. A careful attention to the text will show this; and the parable which our Saviour put forth, instead of an answer to the lawyer's question, will point out the remedy. Interpreters differ about the meaning of the words, but he, willing to justify himself, said; as it does not appear why he needed any justification for himself: no one had charged him with any neglect or contempt of the law. Nay, our Lord had commended his wise answer, And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right; This do, and thou shalt live. Then follows our text. Nor does it appear how any justification of himself could' arise out of this question, or the answer that might be given to it: what fault did he mean to excuse by asking, who is my neighbor? How did his virtue or innocence depend on the answer that might be given him? These difficulties have led interpreters into different sentiments; these being omitted, the most easy and natural exposition of the passage is proposed. This lawyer came to our Lord, and tempting him said, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? Our Lord answered, what readest thou? He said, that in the law he found he was to love the Lord his God with all his might, and his neighbor as himself: our Saviour says unto him, thou hast answered right, and adds, this do, that is, practise the law as well as thou seemest to understand it, and thou shalt live. But in the practice, the lawyer knew how this precept had been loaded with exceptions and limitations by the Jewish doctors; and that he esteemed him only as his neighbor, who was of the same blood and religion with himself; he therefore hated many who were actually his neighbors, as the Samaritans for instance. Since then he heard that life eternal depended on his obedience to the law, and the propriety of his obedience rested on the Jewish inter
pretation of it; in order to his own justification he very properly asks our Lord, and who is my neighbor? for by the answer to this question he would be found to have fulfilled or transgressed the commandment. Had our Lord determined in favor of the Jewish interpretation, the lawyer had been justified in his practice; and his obedience, as well as his previous prudent answer, would have deserved praise: but being forced to own that the Samaritan was his neighbor, he stood condemned by his own sentence, and by his approbation of the Samaritan's example; and he was sent away with this short but full report and admonition; go, and do thou likewise. The words, thus expounded, show us on what motives men act, and what it is which prejudices their minds in interpreting God's law: they are willing to justify themselves, and therefore use all their force and skill to make the command countenance their practice, and to speak only consistently with their inclinations. When we do what is commanded, and forbear from what is forbidden, then is our obedience perfect: this plain description of obedience cannot be disputed. He that loves not his duty, is restless, and labors to bend the law, that it may justify him in his proceedings. It is no wonder, when men are so engaged in errors either of practice or doctrine, that they should labor to reconcile themselves with the commands of God's law; for great as is the pleasure of sin, they cannot of themselves bear up against a guilty conscience. While the pleasure is new and in its full vigor, or the gain increasing, the mind wants perhaps no other comfort: but the pleasures of vice have their intermission, and are succeeded by cold damps, which seize on the spirits: this point enlarged on, and illustrated by the case of ill-gotten wealth. It is in the intervals of reflexion that a man frames devices how to escape the dreaded punishment, and convinces himself that he has not offended against the law of God, but of the interpreters, who love to lay heavy burdens on others, which they care not to touch with one finger: thus the easy
casuist comes to enjoy and justify his iniquity. When the young man inquired on what terms he might inherit eternal life, our Lord set the commands before him, (Mark x. 19.): thus far all was well these terms he willingly accepted. Our Lord, delighted with his towardly disposition, would have led him on to greater perfection, (ver. 21.): but this the young man could by no means digest, (ver. 22.) for he was exceeding rich: how gladly would he have had the precept softened! how would he have adored a teacher who could have made him a consistent title both to heaven and to his estate! In this instance we see the disposition which makes men strive to render the law of God of a piece with their own affections: in others we shall see the practice. The Jews had a law, commanding that they should honor their father and their mother; which implied an obligation on children to support their indigent parents; a precept so just and reasonable, that it is one of the prime laws of nature; but the Jews, hardhearted to their own flesh and blood, were uneasy under this burden; and yet the law was plain and they could not rest till they made the law comply; and they set up tradition against it, to dissolve its uneasy obligations: for they taught as our Saviour justly reproves them, (Mark vii. 11-13.) Thus the law was to be supplanted, to justify its open violation. But to come nearer home the Scripture expressly commands us to worship the Lord, and him only; and he has declared himself a jealous God in this respect. Two of the commandments, and all parts of the gospel, confirm this article; yet it has been controverted even by Christians more than any other. Were not the case notorious, it might be said, perhaps, how is this possible? whence such misunderstanding of the Scriptures? Whence these interpretations? It was not a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of Scripture that led to this: corrupt practices first got possession; and men, willing to justify themselves, coined new interpretations: the violence of this inclination may be