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HOW THE TRUE RELIGION MAY BE DISTINGUISHED
FROM SUCH AS ARE FALSE.
• 1 Thess. v. 21.
Prove all things: hold fast that which is good. This precept of the Apostle contains sound and useful advice, in regard to all branches of knowledge, and all kinds of choice. He does but throw a die for his own happiness, who neglects the former part of; and he who acts against the latter, hath no right to complain of the thief and the robber: but the force and beauty of the precept lies in the connexion between its parts. He can never be rationally tenacious of his choice, who hath not made it on due examination ; because he can never be sure it is judiciously made, if chance or others have made it for him ; and firmly to adhere to that which he neither is nor can be sure is right, is obstinacy and folly.
As, however, the Apostle intended this most excellen piece of advice for a religious purpose only; and as our Saviour, with the same view, says, Why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right ?' we are to interpret both as an appeal to the sense and understandings of mankind, in relation to the evidence whereby one religion may be distinguished, as true and genuine, from others that are false and spurious. Be the evidence of Christianity what it will, its Author had the confidence to submit it to the reason, nay, to the very senses, of all men. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. The works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness of me. If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not; but if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works. Go and shew John the things ye do hear and see; the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk,' &c. It is plain from hence, that Christ appealed to our senses and reason, in order to the full conviction of such as should believe on him ; and desired this conviction in his disciples, to the end that, having found the religion he preached to be true and good, they might hold it fast,' as the Apostle advises.
There is no one now, I believe, who will dispute the justness of this rule, whether he submits to the authority of those who delivered it, or not. Every one must allow the rule to be good in itself. Yet what all are ready to grant in speculation, very few are willing to reduce to practice; I mean in matters of religion. In other things, indeed, as if they were of more value, we use all the sense and reason we have. If we are sick, we are not so attached to the name of a drug, or a physician, as not to postpone either to a better, for the sake of health. If we are to purchase an estate, we examine, without any manner of prejudice, the goodness and extent of the lands, and what they may be set for; nor will we close the bargain, till we have the opinion of the best lawyer concerning the title. We make it no objection to his judgment, that his name is spelled after this or that manner. If we buy any piece of goods, its properties are thoroughly examined. If we sell one, the money is not received, till it is carefully viewed and inspected. We shew surprising sharpness, and go to an hair's breadth, in our disputes about property; and if they run to a lawsuit, the very father of lies and deceits must be employed against us, or no advantage can be taken of us. But examine us in religious matters, and behold, we are almost idiots. Here we know little or nothing; can give no reason for what we maintain, or, for the most part, a very weak one; are destitute of common sense and understanding. Here names, not things, are received, are loved, are contended for. Here names, not things, are rejected, hated, and even persecuted in those who adhere to them, not because we are sensible of any material difference between their persuasion and our own, but because they spell theirs with other letters, than we employ in the name of ours. Truth and error are here
alike to us in themselves, and differ only as they get the start of each other through our education or passions. If education predominates, the most knowing son takes up contentedly with, often adheres tenaciously to, a religion handed down to him by the most stupid father; and never goes farther than the herald's office for his creed. If his passions or affections have the ascendant, his religion, instead of being a tie, according both to the nature of the thing, and the etymology of the word, must be converted into a licence, that it may countenance what it should correct, and bring his conscience to second his will, as that does his appetites and desires. He must adhere to the religion of his father, though it was evidently the cause of blindness, cruelty, and wickedness, in him; or he must have a religion of his own, because he is determined to take greater liberties than his father's principles could warrant. In these ways of choosing, or rather stumbling on, a religion, judgment and reason are not suffered to interfere, but are reserved for matters of greater consequence, such as the choice of a horse, a cook, or a strumpet. .
And yet, if it is of any moment to a man, whether he shall be good and happy, or wicked and miserable, it must equally concern him, not only to be religious, but to make a wise choice of a religion; for it is not a whit more sure, that there is a God who made us, than it is, that he made us to serve him in spirit and in truth,' and in so doing to be completely happy. He wbo believes there is no God, whatever he does with the natural world, must look on the intellectual as a moral chaos, wherein if there is a right and a wrong in actions, there is no reason for doing the right, and avoiding the wrong; no law, no duty, because no account of what is done. But he who believes there is a God, must believe that whatsoever is good is true, inasmuch as a Creator of infinite goodness and truth can no more be supposed to have set them in opposition to each other in the nature of things, than to feel them opposite in himself. Now, that religion is good, we know by experience, because man can be neither good nor happy without it. We know also, that no man can subsist long out of society; nor society, without religion ; so that a religion which hath any truth in it at all, must be better than no religion. As therefore religion is not only a good, but a necessary good, we must conclude, it is a great and necessary truth. Indeed man is under as great a necessity of having religion, as he is of having food ; and of having a true religion, as of having wholsome food.
Some men give themselves a marvellous liberty of speaking on this subject. They are so good indeed as to own religion may be useful, but deny its necessity; and as to the choice of a religion, they say, it is of no great consequence, because God may be served, and man saved, in any religion. As truth and goodness can never be separated, so this detestable way of talking hath as small a proportion of the one, as of the other, in it. Could God have been indifferent whether there should be any connexion between himself and his intelligent creatures? Or could he have judged a connexion less than necessary, at least to us, who, if separated from him, must be miserable? And how otherwise can we be connected with him, than by piety, devotion, and duty ? Of his infinite goodness he gave us being; but being, without this union, must have been a curse, instead of a blessing. Religion therefore is necessary. And though the true religion is not absolutely necessary to our subsistence in this world, experience teaching us, that society may subsist with an erroneous religion; yet if there is a heaven, and if the purification of our nature, and the love of God, are necessary to fit us for that heaven, then the true religion, which alone can produce these excellent effects in us, must be necessary to our great, our lasting happiness.' Besides, if our religion should consist in superstitious and wicked opinions, and in the worship of false gods, can we suppose that God should look with as favourable an eye on us as he would do, in case our principles were conformable to truth, and all our homage paid to himself alone? Could happiness be obtained without virtue, or virtue acquired under the influence of worship paid to a wrong object, and essentially erroneous in its practical principles ; and could all this be as easily and safely done under these circumstances, as with the assistance of true religion ; then indeed I should think the choice of a religion a matter of little moment to us. But suppositions like these are too chimerical to deserve a farther notice.
Man is so made, that he cannot help being anxious to