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PRACTICE IN PROPORTION TO KNOWLEDGE.
1 Thess. iv. 1. We beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord
Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and-more.
[Text taken from the Epistle for the Day.]
The general truth, comprised in this earnest exhortation, is, that practice in religion is necessary in proportion to our knowledge. If 'we have received how we ought to walk, and to please God,' it thereby becomes our duty to ' abound more and more,' and daily make new improvements in piety and virtue. There is an ignorance, which doth wholly excuse and clear from all manner of guilt, and that is an absolute and invincible ignorance; when a person is wholly ignorant of the thing, which, if he knew, he should be bound to do, but neither can nor could have helped it, that he is ignorant of it; that is, that he cither had not the capacity, or wanted the means and opportunity, of knowing it. In this case, a person is in no fault, if he did not do what he never knew, nor could know to be his duty. For God measures the faults of men by their wills, and if there be no defect there, there can be no guilt; for no man is guilty, but he that is conscious to himself, that he would not do what he knew he ought to do, or would do what he knew he ought not to do. Now if a man be simply and invincibly ignorant of his duty, his neglect of it is altogether involuntary; for the will hath nothing to do, where the understanding doth not first direct. This is the case with young children, idiots, and distracted persons. And to those who have the free and perfect use of their reason, no neglect of any duty is imputed, of which they are absolutely and invincibly ignorant. For instance, it is a duty incumbent upon all mankind, to believe in the Son of God, where he is sufficiently manifested and revealed to them; but those who never heard of him, nor had any opportunity of coming to the knowledge of him, shall not be condemned for this infidelity, because it is impossible they should * believe on him, of whom they never heard:' they may indeed be condcmned upon other accounts, for sinning against the light of nature, and for not obeying 'the law which was written in their hearts;' for what the Apostle says of the revelation of the law, is as true of any other revelation of God; 'As many as have sinned without law, shall also perish without law; and as many as have sinned under the law, shall be judged by the law.' In like manner, those who have sinned without the gospel, that is, who never had the knowledge of it, shall not be condemned for any offence against that revelation, which was never made to them, but for their violation of the law of nature.
But they who have sinned under the gospel, shall be judged by the gospel. The greater advantages and opportunities any man hath of knowing the will of God and his duty, the greater will be his condemnation, if he do not do it. The pre* paration of our mind to do the will of God, whenever there is occasion and opportunity for it, is accepted with him; a will rightly disposed to obey God, though it be not brought into act, for want of opportunity, does not lose its reward: but when, notwithstanding we know our Lord's will, there are neither the act nor the preparation and resolution of doing it, what punishment may we not expect!
The just God, in punishing the sins of men, proportions the punishment to the crime; and where the crime is greater, the punishment riseth: as amongst the Jews, where the crime was small, the malefactor was sentenced to 'a few stripes; where it was great, he was beaten with many.' Thus the great Judge of the world will deal with sinners; according as their sins are aggravated, he will add to their punishment. Now of all the aggravations of sin, there is none that doth more intrinsically heighten the malignity of it, than when it is committed against the clear knowledge of our duty; and that, principally, for these three reasons.
I. Because the knowledge of God's will is so great an advantage to the doing of it; and every advantage for doing our duty, is a certain aggravation of our neglect of it. And this is the reason, which our Saviour urges upon us: 'unto whomsoever much is given, of him much will be required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.' It was, no doubt, a great discouragement and disadvantage to the heathens, that they were so doubtful concerning the will of God, and, in many cases, left to the uncertainty of their own reason, by what means they might best apply themselves to the pleasing of him. This uncertainty discouraged several of the wisest of them from all serious endeavours in religion, thinking it as good to do nothing, as to be mistaken about it. Others that were more naturally devout, and could not satisfy their consciences without some expressions of religion, fell into various superstitions; and were ready to embrace any form of worship which custom prescribed, or the fancies of men could suggest to them. Hence sprang all the stupid and barbarous idolatries of the heathens. For ignorance growing upon the world, that natural propension which was in the minds of men to religion and the worship of a deity, for want of certain direction, expressed itself in those foolish and abominable idolatries, which were practised among the heathens.
And is it not, then, a great advantage to us, that we have the clear and certain direction of divine revelation? We have the will of God plainly discovered to us, and all the parts of our duty clearly defined and determined; so that no man that is in any measure free from interest and prejudice, can easily mistake in any great and material part of his duty. We have the nature of God plainly revealed to us, and such a character of him given, as is most suitable to our natural conceptions of a deity; as render him both awful and amiable: for the scripture represents him to us as great and good, powerful and merciful, a perfect hater of sin, and a great lover of mankind: and we have the law and manner of his worship, so far as was needful, and the rules of a good life, clearly expressed and laid down; and as a powerful motive and argument to the obedience of those laws, a plain discovery made to us of the rewards and punishments of another world. And is not this a great advantage to the doing of God's will, to have it so plainly declared to us, and so powerfully enforced upon us? Our duty lies plainly before us; we see what we have to do, and the danger of neglecting it. Considering then the advantage we have for doing God's will, by our clear knowledge of it, we are altogether inexcusable if we do it not.
II. The knowledge of our Lord's will is likewise a great obligation upon us to the doing of it. For what ought in rea* son to oblige us more to do anything, than to be fully assured that it is the will of God; that it is the law of the great Sovereign of the world, who is able to save, or to destroy; that it is the pleasure of him that made us, and who hath declared that he designs to make us happy, by our obedience to his laws? So that if we know these things to be the will of God, we have the greatest obligation to do them, whether we consider the authority of God, or our own interest; and if we neglect them, we have nothing to say in our excuse. We know the law, and the advantage of keeping it, and the penalty of breaking it; and if after this we will transgress, there is no apology to be made for us. They have something to plead for themselves, who can say, that' though they had some apprehension of some parts of their duty, and their minds were apt to dictate to them that they ought to do some things, yet the different apprehensions of mankind about several of these things, and the doubts and uncertainties of their own minds concerning them, made them easy to be carried off from their duty by the power of temptations; but had they had a clear and undoubted revelation from God, and had certainly known these things to be his will, this would have conquered and borne down all objections and temptations to the contrary; or if it had not, would have stopped their mouths, and taken away all excuse from them.' There is some colour in this plea, that in many cases they did not know certainly what the will of God was: but for us, who own a clear revelation from God, and profess to believe it, what can we say for ourselves, why he should not pour forth all his wrath, and execute upon us the fierceness of his anger?
III. The neglect of God's will when we know it, cannot be without a great deal of wilfulness and contempt. If we know it, and do it not, the fault is solely in our wills, and the more wilful any sin is, the more heinously wicked is it. There can hardly be a greater" aggravation of a crime, than that it proceeds from mere obstinacy and perverseness; and if we know it to be our Lord's will, and do it not, we are guilty of the highest contempt of the greatest authority in the world. And do we think this to be but a small aggravation, lo affront the great Sovereign and Judge of the world? not only to break his laws, but to trample upon them and despise them, when we know whose laws they are? * Will we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger than he?' We believe that it is God who said, 'Thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal 5 thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour; thou shalt not hate, or oppress, or defraud thy brother in anything; but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself;' and shall we notwithstanding venture to break these laws, knowing whose authority they are stampt withal? After this contempt of him, what favour can we hope for from him? What can we say for ourselves, why any one of those many stripes which are threatened, should be abated to us? Something may be pardoned to ignorance; but contempt can expect no forgiveness. He that strikes his prince, not knowing him to be so, hath something to say for himself, that though he did a disloyal act, yet it did not proceed from a disloyal mind: but he that first acknowledged him for his prince, and then affronts him, deserves to be prosecuted with the utmost severity, because he did it wilfully, and in mere contempt. The knowledge of our duty, and that it is the will of God which we oppose, takes away all possible excuse from us: for nothing can be said, why we should offend him who hath both authority to command us, and power to destroy us.
Thus I have, as briefly as I could, represented to you the true ground and reason of the aggravation of those sins, which are committed against the clear knowledge of God's will, and our duty: because this knowledge is so great an advantage to the doing of our duty; so great an obligation upon us to it; and because the neglect of our Lord's will in this case, cannot be without great wilfulness, and a downright contempt of his authority.
And shall I now need to tell you, how much it concerns every one of us, to live up to that knowledge which we have of our Lord's will, and to prepare ourselves to do according to it; to be always in a readiness and disposition to do what we know to be his will, and actually to do it, when there is occasion and opportunity?
God has not left us as he did the heathens for many ages, to the imperfect and uncertain direction of natural light; nor hath he revealed his will to us, as he did to the Jews, in dark types and shadows; but hath made a clear discovery of his mind and will to us. The dispensation which we are under, hath no veil upon it; 'The darkness is past, and the true light now shineth; we are of the day, and of the light;' and therefore it may justly be expected, that we should put off the works of darkness, and walk as children of the light.' Every degree of knowledge which we have, is an