on whom their Maker can look with unmixed complacency; and, when this great moral change is completed, religion may be said to have attained its end.

I now proceed to inquire into the nature of good works. Here it is proper to observe, that something is necessary to make a work good in itself; and that other things are necessary to make it good as performed by us.

That a work may be good in itself, it must be enjoined by the law of God, the sole rule of obedience. The command of man cannot make a work good, unless it be, at the same time, virtually or explicitly commanded by God: the suggestions of reason do not possess sufficient authority, because it is not our supreme guide, and is liable to error. He who created us, has alone a right to prescribe the mode in which we should exert our faculties, and fulfil the purposes of our being. We find the sinful practices of the Jews sometimes condemned, simply on the ground that they were not commanded, and without a reference to their obvious pravity. “ The children of Judah have done evil in my sight, saith the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house which is called by my name, to pollute it. And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart." And God says, “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”* On this ground, all those works are rejected, which are enjoined by superstition, and are supposed to possess so much merit, as to recommend the performer in a particular manner to the favour of God. The Papist undertakes pilgrimages to places fancied to be holy, submits to penances and frequent fasts, repeats appointed prayers in a given number and at stated times, and presents offerings to the church, in the full persuasion that his acts of piely are pleasing to God, and will procure a reward; but, as he proceeds solely upon the ground of human authority, he loses his labour, and his services are set aside by the simple question, "Who hath required this at your hands ?" It is plain that duty is a relative term, and implies obligation; but the source of all moral obligation is the will of God. This is the reason why some things should be done, and other things should not be done. Our own opinion will not give goodness to our works; for, on this supposition, we should be a law to ourselves, and independent of the Sovereign of the universe: their goodness can arise solely from their conformity to the standard which the Divine authority has established.

Some moralists have maintained that the character of an action depends upon the intention of the agent, insomuch that, if a man have a good design, it will justify the means which he employs to accomplish it. This is the meaning of the celebrated maxim of certain casuists in the church of Rome, that the end sanctifies the means; and practically it is adopted by others who excuse themselves, and even claim praise, when they have erred, on account of the alleged purity of their motives. It is acknowledged that an action good in itself may become bad through intention; or in other words, it may be divested of all moral worth by being performed with an unlawful design, and the agent may be guilty of sin in the divine estimation. The giving of alms is not a virtue when it flows from ostentation; nor zeal for truth when it originates in pride and passion; nor prayer when the object is to be seen of men. But although intention may convert good into evil, it does not possess the opposite power of turning evil into good. To ascribe to it such power is to deny that there is any essential difference of actions, to render morality entirely an arbitrary thing, to represent it as continually changing its character, so that what is vicious to-day may be virtuous to-morrow, and what is vice in one man may be virtue in another, according to the views by which they are respectively

Jer. vii. 30, 31, Matt. xv. 9.


influenced. It sets aside the law of God, and substitutes, in the room of a permanent standard, the ever-varying decisions of the human mind, blinded by prejudice, warped by passion, and forming its judgments upon deceitful appearances and short-sighted calculations. The only province which ought to be assigned to intention in morality, is to give value to such actions as are conformable to the law of God, to the goodness of which it is indispensably necessary that the state of the mind be right. Men may think that they are doing God good service, but this idea will not exculpate them, if they are like the Jews, who sought to promote his glory by opposing the truth and persecuting its friends. It is sufficient to explode the doctrine of intention to consider the extent to which it would carry us; for upon this principle many of the greatest crimes might be justified, because those who committed them imagined that they were doing their duty.

No work, therefore, is good in itself unless it be commanded. The Church of Rome teaches, that there are works of supererogation, meaning by these, works which men are not bound to perform by any positive command, and which therefore exceed the measure of their duty, and create a superfluous degree of merit that may be transferred to others for their benefit. They are not required from any man; but they are recommended by what they call sounsels of perfection, counsels to aim at higher attainments in holiness than are necessary to our salvation. They found this doctrine upon the advice or counsel of Paul to the Corinthians, not to marry;* and particularly upon the words of our Lord to the young man, “ If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.”+ With respect to the first, it is plain that abstinence from marriage was not recommended as a higher degree of holiness, but as good “for the present distress;” that is, as a matter of prudence, because it was a time of persecution, when those who were encumbered with families would be exposed to particular inconvenience and danger; and hence it appears that it is not a counsel addressed to Christians in general. With respect to the second, it was not a counsel, but a command to an individual, of whose sincerity our Lord was pleased to make trial, by demanding the sacrifice of all his earthly possessions. The perfection of which he speaks is not a higher degree of holiness than others had attained, but the perfection of sincerity; if thou wilt prove thyself sincere in seeking eternal lise, go and sell all that thou hast.' It is a proof of deplorable blindness, of unaccountable stupidity, for any man to imagine that it is possible to exceed the measure of our duty; for what more can be conceived than is implied in these two commandments, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength; and thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself ?” This is a summary of the whole duty of man. The highest possible love to God, and the highest possible love to our neighbour, are already required; and our love to both is to be manifested in every way which Scripture and Providence may point out. Works of supererogation have no existence but in the vain imaginations of ignorant and self-righteous men. The Church of England says well in her fourteenth article, “ Voluntary works, besides, over, and above God's commandments, which they call works of supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and pride. For by them men do declare, that they not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake than of bounden duty is required. Whereas, Christ saith plainly, · When ye have done all that ye are commanded to do, say, We are unprofitable servants.'”

Having seen what is necessary to render an action materially, let us next inquire how it becomes formally, good. An action may be good in its own

[ocr errors]

* 1 Cor. vii.

** Matt. xix. 21.

nature, and yet may be so vitiated by the state of mind in which it is performed, as to be of no value in the Divine estimation.

I observe, then, that it is requisite to the moral goodness of an action, that it be performed from respect for the authority of God. Its abstract nature is the same, when we are influenced by any other principle; but, then, it is not an act of obedience, and cannot therefore be acceptable to God, as our Lawgiver and Judge. Philosophers have inquired into the foundation of morality, and, as we might have expected, have come to different conclusions. They have told us, that it is agreeable to the fitness of things; that it is conformable to nature; that it is conformable to reason; that it is conformable to truth; that it is productive of good. But whatever theory we adopt, none of them proves any thing more than that there is a propriety, a decency, an order, an utility, in doing some things and not doing others. No proper obligation results from any of these systems; they do not take hold of conscience, and create the idea of duty. The Scriptures, disregarding all metaphysical speculations, go directly to the point, and lay down the only intelligible and practical foundation of morality, namely, the will of God. In reading them, you do not find that particular actions are enjoined upon the principles of philosophy, but on the stronger grounds of religion. It is the will of God, that we should do this or that; it is his law, by which we should regulate our conduct. To do our duty, is not to satisfy the dictates of our own minds, but to express our reverence for him. Virtue is obedience, that is, conformity to the will of a superior; and the great example proposed to us, is that of our Saviour, who came “not to do his own will, but the will of him who sent him."

From these observations it follows, that to constitute a work formally good, it must be done, not because it will please ourselves or others, but because it is commanded by God. Hence you perceive the reason that some works, which have a specious appearance, and excite the admiration of men, are rejected by the Searcher of hearts. The true principle of obedience is wanting. While the persons are acting in literal conformity to the law, the Lawgiver is not in all their thoughts. Hence also you may see whence that persuasion is necessary, of which the apostle speaks when he says, “ Whatsoever is not of faith, is sin." This is not justifying faith, or faith in Christ, as has sometimes been imagined ; and hence the words have been improperly quoted, to prove that none but believers can perform works acceptable to God; but it is an assurance in our minds, that what we are doing is right, founded upon the careful study of the law. If we should do what is lawful in itself, thinking it to be unlawful, to us it would be a sin; if we should do it without knowing any thing respecting its nature, the best that could be said of it is, that it is neither good nor evil. Then only are our works right, when we know them to be commanded, and do them because they are commanded.

I observe once more, That to the goodness of our works, it is necessary that they flow from love to God. Love to him is stated to be the sum of the first table of the law; and, although love to our neighbour is represented to be the sum of the second, yet, unless it be founded on love to God, it will not be a religious affection. It is conceivable that a man may perform a variety of duties because God has commanded them, and at the same time perform them unwillingly. Conscience may force him to act contrary to his inclinations. The principle which predominates may be fear; under the influence of which a person will earnestly and diligently do what is necessary to ward off the danger which he dreads; but he is only submitting to a less, in order to escape a greater evil. The works which he performs, are not his choice; he is impelled to them by a very different principle from that of obedience. Now, although


* Rom. xiv. 23.

We see,

his outward actions may be strictly conformable to the standard of duty, and much benefit may result from them to others and to the cause of religion, yet their moral worth is completely destroyed by the state of his feelings. No such service from a son would be pleasing to his father; nor would a master approve of a servant, however punctually he might execute his orders, whom he kne to be under the influence of a secret dislike to his duty. then, that love to holiness is indispensably requisite. To the all-seeing eye of God the heart is manifest; and he looks more to its movements, than to the professions of the mouth and the sanctity of the conduct. So peremptorily does he demand the heart, and so necessarily does it enter into the essence of acceptable obedience, that nothing can atone for the want of its concurrence. It is vain to think that we shall please God, while we entertain no friendly sentiments and dispositions towards him; and these, you know, are the native fruits of love. Love is the soul of duties, and the external action is the body. It is but the half, and the inferior half, which he gives who obeys without love. This point is so plain as to stand in need of no farther illustration ; and I shall only add, that a single duty emanating from love to God, is of greater account in his estimation than the multiplied services of the hypocrite, who courts the applause of men, or is stimulated by the servile principle of fear.

Lastly, It is necessary that our works be done for the glory of God; for, as all things were made for him as well as by him, we do not fulfil the end of our existence, unless we constantly refer to his honour as our ultimate end. When men make themselves their end, when they aim at the gratification of their vanity, and the advancement of their temporal interests, or even at their eternal happiness independently of the glory of God, they serve themselves and not him. The character of actions is fixed by their motives ; and there must be an essential moral difference between actions which proceed from a regard to ourselves, and those which are influenced by a regard to our Maker. “Whether ye eat or drink, or whatever ye do, do all to the glory of God."* The doing of all things to the glory of God, is an expression of frequent occurrence, but often, perhaps, it is not distinctly understood. It suggests the idea of acting with a design to acknowledge him before our fellow-men, as a glorious Being, and to excite them to reverence, admire, and praise him; and this unquestionably, is the tendency of those good actions which are of a public nature, But, as this should be the end of all our actions, even of those which our brethren have no opportunity to observe, to do all things to the glory of God, properly signifies, to do them from love to him and respect for his authority, and is therefore virtually included in the qualifications of good works which have been already mentioned. A Christian can have no intention to display the glory of God before others in his secret devotion; but he does give him due honour, even in his closet, by the pious emotions of his soul, by adoration, confession, and thanksgiving, by reverence and gratitude, and the exercises of faith and hope. Now, if we understand nothing more to be meant, than that we should do all things in obedience to his command, and from a profound regard to his character and perfections, we shall see that there is no occasion to agitate the question, Whether there should be, in each action, a distinct reference to his glory, or a general purpose to glorify him be sufficient? because it will be evident, that all our actions should be performed in the spirit of religion, and that every action so performed is good. If we are not impressed at that moment with his authority, and have no desire to please him, the action is no part of acceptable obedience.

It is so evident from what has been said, that good works can be performed only by such as have been translated into a state of grace, that it is unnecessary

[blocks in formation]

to mention it distinctly; and besides, this important point was fully considered when we were explaining the subjects of regeneration and sanctification. In man, prior to his conversion, there dwells no good thing; and the fruit will be corrupt, till the nature of the tree is changed: “We are created” in Christ Jesus unto good works;* that is, good works are the effect of the renovation of the soul by the Spirit of God. “I am the vine, ye are the branches. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine, no more can ye, except ye abide in me.”+

It is an obvious inference from the preceding discussion, that works truly good can be performed only by those who believe and live under the influence of the Gospel. There is no difficulty, therefore, in determining what estimate we should form of the boasted virtues of the heathens. They have been pronounced to be splendida peccata; but, by many, this has been deemed a harsh and uncharitable judgment. It would be a satisfactory mode of settling the dispute, or, at least, it might make a stronger impression upon some, if, instead of dwelling on vague generalities, we would come to particulars; and, having demanded a specification of the virtues in question, should then proceed to subject them to the test of Scripture and sound reason. I believe that the imposing display which is made to pass before us, by the power of declamation and loose panegyric, would thus lose much of its splendour, and would be reduced within a narrow compass; and that certain actions, when brought near and strictly examined, would not appear in the same light as when viewed at a distance, and surrounded with the false glory which ignorant admiration and prostituted eloquence have bestowed upon them. Instead of assuming it as a fact capable of demonstration, that some of the heathens were eminently virtuous, their advocates should show us what their virtues were; and then, I am confident, we should find that they were few in number and of a dubious characier, if not altogether unworthy of the name. It is intolerable to hear Christians giving the name of virtue to the mere exercise of the natural affections without any religious motive; to acts of natural courage; to patriotism, as it is commonly understood and was exemplified among the Greeks and Romans; to a proud morality, which elated the possessors with self-conceit, and led them to claim an equality, or a superiority to the gods. If it be true that a work is not good unless it be performed from respect for the authority of God, the works of heathens were not good; because they could not have an intention to obey him whom they did not know, and their virtues were founded solely upon sell-respect, or a sense of propriety, or views of utility. If it be true, that no work is good unless it is done with a view to please God, and from love to him, the works of the heathens were not good; for, as a celebraied author has observed, “before the Christian religion had, as it were, humanized the idea of the Divinity, and brought it somewhat nearer to us, there was very little said of the love of God. The followers of Plato have something of it, and only something; the other writers of pagan antiquity, whether poets or philosophers, nothing at all.” The popular deities could not be the objects of love ; and the true God, whom some are supposed to have known, removed from common apprehension and wrapt up in the obscurity of his nature, was regarded with distant reverence, and furnished only a subject of speculation. If it be true that no work is good which is not performed for the glory of God, the works of heathens were not good; because we are assured by an apostle, concerning the wisest and best of them, that they did “not glorify him;" and we know that the great de ign of their virtues was to gratify their own feelings, and to gain the admiration of their countrymen, Why should it be deemed harsh to pronounce this sentence upon the virtues

* Eph. ii. 10.

+ John xv. 4, 5.

« VorigeDoorgaan »