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THE design of these papers is to furnish the pious Christian with such a method of devotion, as may serve to instruct and engage him in a religious course of life, as well as assist him in his retirements for meditation and prayer. It is an observation, God knows, too well attested, that the generality of Christian professors confine their Religion, as they do their Devotions, to their closet and the church: and though their lives are in many instances an apparent contradiction to the precepts of Christ; yet they fondly delude themselves with a vain conceit, that if they are but regular in observing the stated hours of public and private prayer, they have done abundantly enough to denominate themselves good Christians, and to secure their title to a good Christian's reward. That this is an opinion very absurd in itself, and manifestly repugnant to the end and design of Christianity, and to the plain declarations of Christ and his Apostles, I shall endeavour to make appear in the sequel of this discourse. At present let it suffice to observe, that prayer is a duty enjoined us, not for its own sake, but purely in order to those excel. lent purposes it is subservient to, both from its own natural tendency, and by virtue of the Divine appointment and promises. It is of admirable use to preserve in our minds a sense of God's infinite and adorable Majesty, and of His absolute sovereignty and dominion over us; as also, of our own insufficiency, and entire dependence upon Him. And it is of wonderful efficacy to procure both to ourselves and others the blessings of this, and of the other world. We have, we can have nothing but what we receive from God: and we have no promise that we shall receive any thing of Him, except we first ask it by diligent and humble prayer. So necessary indeed is it to pray, in order to receive, that even those very blessings which God has expressly declared that He designs to bestow upon us, He yet as expressly commands us to pray to Him for. Thus in the xxxvith of Ezekiel God makes to His people many particular promises of blessings, spiritual and temporal; and concludes v. 36, with this solemn declaration of His firm purpose and resolution to perform every thing that He had promised, I the Lord, says He, have spoken it, and I will do it: and yet the very next words to these are, Thus saith the Lord God, I will yet for this be enquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them. So that the promises even of the immutable God are secured only to those who pray for the accomplishment of them.
But because prayer is a duty of such absolute necessity, that no blessing can be obtained without it; shall we therefore conclude, that no other duty
but this is necessary to our obtaining the divine favour and blessing? Or, because its power and efficacy are such, that no prayer made according to the will of God does ever return without a gracious answer; does it follow from hence, that those also which are not made according to His will, must always meet with the same success? These are inferences so notoriously absurd, and so utterly inconsistent with a religious temper or practice; that he must be but a bad logician, and a much worse Christian, that can be so hardy as to espouse them.
But as extravagant and impious as this notion is, it is too sadly visible that the generality of men, that some even of those who comparatively are good men, have need to be advertised of the folly and danger of giving in to it. To this end, I beg leave to recommend to the reader's serious consideration the two following propositions, tending to shew the inseparable connexion between true devotion and a good life, and the indispensable necessity of the latter in order to the acceptableness of the former.
I. Without a good life there can be no true devotion.
II. Supposing there could, we have no warrant from Scripture to believe that it would be either acceptable to God, or of any benefit to ourselves.
And First, Without a good life there can be no true devotion. Be we ever so frequent and punctual in our prayers, if they do not influence our lives, they are but vain repetitions at the best. An unholy life is a plain demonstration that our prayers are not holy. These cannot be pure, as long as that is defiled. It is morally impossible he should worship God aright, who does not conscientiously endeavour to obey Him too.
Can he be supposed, even in his most solemn acts of worship, to have his heart affected with those reverent and awful thoughts of God, and with that humble, lowly sense of his own vileness and indigence, and absolute dependence upon Him, which become creatures and sinners addressing themselves to their Maker, and their Judge; whose life is a continued affront to the infinite Majesty he adores, a deliberate contempt of His authority, a bold defiance of His Almighty power, and a most ungrateful abuse of the exceeding riches of His goodness?
Is it reasonable to believe that he bewails his sins with that unfeigned grief and compunction of heart, which are the necessary qualifications of a true penitential sorrow; who makes it his daily practice to repeat those very sins, which he pretends daily to bewail?
Can we think him really in earnest when he prays for the pardon of his sins, and the assistance of God's Holy Spirit; who obstinately persists in such a wicked course of life, as, he very well knows, does utterly incapacitate him for either?
Lastly, Can he be thought sincerely to desire, or to have any value for that inestimable crown of glory which God has promised to those that serve Him faithfully; who is so far from making it the constant employment of his whole life to work out his salvation, that he can hardly ever afford himself leisure so much as to ask himself that short, but most necessary question, What shall I do that I may be saved? so far from being willing to sell all that
he hath, in order to purchase this pearl of great price; that he is ready every hour of the day to sell the invaluable privileges of his Christian birth-right for any the most worthless trifle; and to sacrifice all his hopes of eternal happiness to the transient gratification of a sinful appetite, and the momentary enjoyment of a forbidden pleasure? A very small degree of serious consideration will soon convince us that such practices as these are so directly opposite to, so entirely inconsistent with those pretences, that it is impossible they should ever be reconciled, unless it can be proved that we may be truly said to worship God without an inward veneration of His adorable excellencies, to pray to Him without a hearty desire of the things we pray for, and worthily to lament our offences against Him without being grieved for those sins whereby we have offended Him.
But now should we make this contradictory supposition, that a man may be as wicked as he please in his life, and yet be very sincere in his devotions; that he may pray with all the fervency and zeal imaginable, at the same time that he is resolved to go on in his sinful courses: yet, what would such an one be the better for all his devotions? What grounds have we to believe that God would answer the requests of such a prevaricating supplicant?
Our Saviour indeed has declared, that every one that asketh receivetha, and that whatsoever we ask the Father in His Name, He will give it usb. But has not He Himself likewise assured us, that there is no other way of entitling ourselves to these promises, but by a firm, immovable adherence to His doctrine, and a sincere universal obedience to His commands? If ye abide in me, says our Lord, and My words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you, John xv. 7. And has not His Apostle St. John also told us, that our confidence of receiving what we ask, can be safely built only upon this foundation, that we do what He has commanded? Beloved, says he, 1 John iii. 21, 22. if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God: And whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. To the same purpose is that of St. James, v. 16. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much: As if he had said; it is not the prayer of every man, nor every prayer of any man that has energy and force enough to pierce the clouds, and bring down from heaven the blessings it is sent up for; but the prayers only of such persons as are sincerely good; and only such prayers even of these persons as are offered up with a becoming zeal and fervency.
God has been pleased of His own free grace and bounty to declare Himself willing to bestow many inestimable blessings upon us; but He has thought fit likewise for very wise and good reasons to enjoin us the practice of several duties, and to suspend our title to those blessings upon our faithful endeavours to perform these duties.
And is it not highly reasonable, is it not absolutely necessary for us to set ourselves seriously to the doing what we are commanded, before we expect to be put in possession of what we are promised? When God has expressly acquainted us with the terms upon which alone He will be gracious unto us,
shall we be so foolishly presumptuous as to feed ourselves with hopes, that we may find favour in His sight without ever complying with the terms He has proposed? And shall we have the face also to go solemnly to Him, and desire Him to act directly contrary to His own determinations? This surely is a manifest mockery of the Divine Majesty: and yet this is what every impenitent sinner does, as often as he prays for the forgiveness of his sins, the graces of God's Spirit, or the final salvation of his own soul.
It is by virtue of that gracious covenant which God hath made with us in His Son, that we have any title at all to these blessed privileges. And because a covenant, in the very nature of it, implies a mutual stipulation, it is certain that the title this covenant conveys to us must be wholly conditional : so that if we do not prove true to our part of it, we have utterly forfeited our title to the benefits promised on God's part.
Now by the tenour of this covenant as we have it recorded in the Scriptures, the condition upon which God has promised to forgive us our sins, in consideration of the meritorious sufferings and death of our Saviour Jesus Christ, is such a lively and effectual faith, as shall produce in us true repentance, and reformation of life, and a readiness for Christ's sake to forgive our brethren their offences against us. Through His name, says St. Peter, whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins, Acts x. 43. Repent ye therefore, and be converted, says the same Apostle, that your sins may be blotted out, Acts iii. 19. If ye forgive men their trespasses, says Christ, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses, Matt. vi. 14, 15.
So also the condition, upon which He has promised us the assistances of His Spirit, is a stedfast purpose to make a faithful use of them by cherishing the good motions He shall excite in our souls, and diligently co-operating with His grace towards our daily progress in all godliness and virtue. Who soever hath, says Christ, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath; Matt. xiii. 12. Work out your own salvation, says St. Paul, with fear and trembling; For it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure, Phil. ii. 12, 13.
In like manner, the condition upon which God has promised eternal life is a sincere, constant, persevering obedience to His holy laws. If thou wilt enter into life, says our Saviour, keep the commandments, Matt. xix. 17. To them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, says St. Paul, God will render eternal life: But unto them that are cotentious, and do obey not the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, Rom. ii. 7, 8, 9.
Since therefore these, and whatever other promises God has been pleased to make us in the Gospel, are all of them suspended upon certain conditions; it evidently follows that we can have no manner of pretence to claim any interest in the blessings promised, till we have performed the conditions upon which they are suspended.
Very great things it is true are said of prayer: no duty has more encou
raging promises annexed to it: and the Scripture abounds with instances declaring its mighty power, and prevalency with God. But then, it is as true that all these promises, and all these instances are applicable to such prayers only, as are made according to the terms of the Gospel covenant: and these prayers will always be sure to find an easy access to the throne of grace. But if we venture to go beyond our commission; if we pray for things which God has no where promised; or for those things which He hath promised but conditionally, without attending to the declared conditions of those His promises; our prayers are unwarrantable, and will be so far from being acceptable to God, or advantageous to ourselves, that they will infallibly provoke His displeasure, and serve but to increase our own guilt and condemnation.
In a word: we are frail, impotent, helpless, sinful creatures; labouring under manifold wants and infirmities; encompassed with innumerable dangers; obnoxious to the Divine wrath and vengeance; and utterly unable of ourselves to do any thing for ourselves: our only hope is in God's mercy through Christ; His promises are our only comfort and security; these we must implore by incessant and earnest prayer: but as these are all of them conditional, it is certain that the success of our prayers will depend upon the sincerity of our endeavours to perform the conditions upon which God has promised the things we pray for. Though we ask ever so fervently, ever so importunately, ever so devoutly, if we do not ask according to the terms of the Gospel, the Gospel gives us no encouragement to believe that we shall receive what we ask..
This is a truth that well deserves our most serious consideration: and I have insisted the longer upon it, because a mistake in this point must needs be of very dangerous and fatal consequence. What the Apostle says of godliness in general may truly be affirmed of this single instance of it, prayer, if rightly performed; viz. that it is profitable unto all things; having the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. There is not any one thing necessary either to our temporal or eternal happiness, but what the pious Christian may procure to himself by diligent prayer to God for it. So that as much as we value our present and future welfare, so much it concerns us to take heed that our prayers be such as God has promised to accept.
I am not unmindful that there are other qualifications, besides that which I have hitherto been contending for, necessary to the rendering our prayers successful. But having already proved, that if we are defective in this, which is the foundation of all the rest, it is impossible we should not be defective in them too; or however, that those without this would be utterly vain and insignificant and considering on the other hand that if this were once well secured, we should find no manner of difficulty in acquiring the other; I shall content myself with referring the devout reader for his satisfaction to those in the preliminary instructions prefixed to the Daily Office, where he will find all the qualifications, requisite to entitle our devotions to the Divine acceptance, distinctly enumerated, and the necessity of each of them proved at large by express citations out of the Holy Scripture.
Having premised this necessary caution with respect to our devotions in general; I proceed now to acquaint the reader with what I have attempted in