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They would be without that opportunity of religious instruction which Christian assemblies afford. Let no one say, I stay at home because I can hear nothing at church but what I know already; but what I learn at home is learnt better by my own reflection. Be it so but if this be the case with you, it is not so with all, or with the generality of others; and whatever is for the benefit of the whole is binding upon the whole. For, to let you see how necessary your attendance upon public worship and instruction, if not for yourself, is for others, you need only reflect what would be the consequence if any one was to withdraw himself from religious assemblies who found that he was above receiving any benefit from them. First one would drop, and then another, till none was left but those whose humility and low opinion of themselves disposed them to seek assistance and instruction from any quarter, and who, in fact, were probably nearer the spirit of Christianity than the others. In one word, assemblies for religious purposes would speedily be put out of countenance and out of credit, if what we call the higher class of mánkind were to absent themselves from the appointed places, that they might be qualified to exercise their religious duties without them, and every one who pleased was at liberty to rank himself of that class. You must also observe one thing, which you must expect will be quite your own case. You absent yourself from church to employ your time more, you think, to your edification, in reading or meditation;
and possibly you may, but your ignorant neighbour, who stays from church to spend his day in idleness and drunkenness, and less religious society than any other day in the week, will think he only follows your example, because you both agree in this-in staying from church. Now one is bound to consider, not only what the actions are in themselves, but the effects they are likely to produce by their example: for loving to do good is virtue; loving to do harm is vice; and it matters little whether the good or harm is the immediate consequence of our own conduct, or proceed from the influence which our conduct has upon others.
I forbear to mention at present any subordinate, though important advantages, which result from social worship; because it is enough for one time to understand the direct ground of our obligation. I propose in the foremost place, the command of God, evidenced by the practice and example of all the apostles and first followers of Christ. I propose, in the second place, the propriety of social worship, with respect to the object of worship-the Supreme Being himself, as the only and best advance we are capable of making towards a homage in any way suited to the dignity of his nature and the immensity of our obligation. I propose, in the third place, the utility of public devotion to ourselves; which utility I ground upon three plain propositions: Religious worship, of some kind, is absolutely necessary, to uphold a sense of religion in the world. Without
public worship at stated times and places, a great part of mankind would exercise no religious worship at all. If those who thought themselves needlessly instructed and directed to hear in our religious assemblies unnecessary truths, were for that reason to forsake the assembling themselves together, religious assemblies would soon be put out of countenance and out of credit, and in process of time would be laid aside for the most ignorant and incapable, provided they were of a presumptuous temper, would take courage from the example of their betters to withdraw themselves as well as others, and convert that time which was intended for the best purposes to idleness, debauchery, and excess.
OUTWARD ACTS OF DEVOTION NO EXCUSE FOR NEGLECT OF MORALITY.
MATT. V. 20.
Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.
It will be sufficient at present to observe, that the Pharisees were a religious sect among the Jews, who set up for extraordinary sanctity and strictness, as St. Paul says, "after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee." The Scribes were the persons employed to interpret the Jewish law, as our Saviour asks, "How say the Scribes, that Christ is the son of David?" They were appointed to instruct the people, and probably the youth in particular, in that law. Both these descriptions of men were at that time of day of the greatest reputation in the country, for holiness and wisdom; and both valued themselves chiefly upon, and made their righteousness consist in, a most strict and rigid observance of the rites, ceremonies, and outward offices of religion: such, for example, as fasting, making long prayers, avoiding all unclean meat, and unclean persons, according to the
distinction of their law-attending upon the Temple at their great feast, not eating with unwashed hands, and many other such outward acts as were commanded; some very proper and reasonable, others again frivolous and superstitious. It was in the outward observance of these that the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees consisted; and our Saviour tells his disciples, that unless their righteousness was something more and better than this, "unless it exceeded the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, they could not enter into the kingdom of heaven."
If there was one thing which our Saviour laboured more than another-if there was one error against which he inveighed with more than usual earnestness, it was the trusting in the rites and ceremonies, the outward duties and offices of religion, and neglecting in the meantime, or living in the transgression of, the substantial obligations of virtue and morality. And it was with great reason, that he so industriously cautioned his followers against this notion; it being that into which mankind in all ages and countries of the world have been most apt to fall.
We will first take notice of some passages of Scripture, which show our Lord's sentiments upon the subject; and add a few reflections, by way of making them applicable to ourselves.
In the 23d chapter of Matthew, he expresses himself very strongly on this subject, and in a variety of phrases. "Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; for ye pay tithe of mint, and cummin,