at the opening of the Convention:
PRINTED BY PORTERS & MITCHELL
MY REVEREND BRETHREN:
Among the fallacies which are current in the world, even in the religious world, is that of being indifferent to some of our duties, if others are fulfilled. Persons who are guided but little by their conscience, secretly allow themselves this license in morals; and claim it broadly in the generally received precepts of religion. Persons of sincere principles, while they do not avow this defective rule of conduct, give it a place in their arguments, when any of the observances neglected by them are the subject of controversy. Naturally, perhaps, this propensity to select some of our obligations, and omit others, is universal: it is only by a light above nature that we are taught to recognise them all. And hence, while an argument of much weight for the divine origin of the gospel, might be drawn from the accuracy with which its Author inculcates every duty, a lesson is afforded us, by the same consideration, not to misapprehend, not to misapply, not to misuse, the distinction between the less and the greater commandments. As the greater are but obligatory, it seems difficult to view the less as obligatory in the same sense, and in the same degree. The latter class not being so important as the former, it is not easy to regard them both as equally binding on the conscience. In this manner a thousand omissions are excused. The worldly sage glories in moral virtue, as the greater command; while religious duties, because they are deemed the less command, he almost despises. The christian of loose opinions exalts the value of practical attainments, while he detracts from that of a pure faith. Other christians magnify the graces of a new spirit, while they look with suspicion on the arguments for the [3/4] church, its ministry, and its outward order. And there are those who honor both morality and religion in general, but who regard the sacraments, particularly that of the altar, as a less commandment, which they may, at their option, either observe or disregard. Thus do many persons attempt to disburden themselves of a part of the duties required of them in the gospel: our Saviour enjoined, respecting "weightier" and lighter matters, "these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone;" but, while they endeavor to perform what he requires to be "done," what he forbids to "leave undone" they omit.
The principles which expose the fallacy of this error cannot but be an interesting study at all times: and they appear to me a proper subject for a Charge to my Rev. Brethren, that they may be strengthened in the arduous duty they are engaged in, that of declaring to their flocks "the whole counsel of God," and "teaching them to observe all things whatsoever Christ has commanded them." I shall therefore direct your further reflection--1. To a general discussion, and 2. To a practical illustration, of the less and the greater christian duties.
I. I introduce the general discussion with the declaration of our Lord--"whosoever shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." It is obvious, from this passage, that the Saviour by no means denies the distinction between less and greater duties; he asserts it, calling some of them "least;" but he teaches that these are obligatory as well as the others. When both kinds can be performed, we are to omit neither. There are indeed circumstances in which a less duty may interfere with a greater; and in such a case our Lord declares that he "will have mercy and not sacrifice." If, for example, a person in pressing need requires immediately our active benevolence, and we had appropriated that period to devotion--then the "sacrifice" we intended to offer must be deferred, and the "mercy" administered. If whoever mercy and the sacrifice do not interfere with each other, [4/5] neither may be neglected: so directs our Master, and so responds a sound conscience.
Among the Pharisees an opinion seems to have prevailed, that, as they could not obey perfectly their whole law--it being a burden which neither they nor their fathers were able to bear--they might select parts of it, and rest their character on the strict fulfilment of these. They accordingly first reduced the greater duties to the same level with the less, and then chose the latter as those in which they would excel, while they honored or dishonored the "weightier" requisitions as their interests or other temptations prompted them. The paying of tithes of even the smallest kind, ceremonial washings, the wearing of phylacteries or passages of scripture written on parchment, and the use of the bordered garment which served as a badge to distinguish the Israelites from idolaters--these were the chosen services of the Pharisees. Proud of such a perfection, they were grossly deficient in "judgment, mercy, and faith," and were often reprimanded by Christ for their extortion, excess and impurity. Christianity however has so raised the tone of religious principle, that the mistake in selecting among duties is now in favor of the greater instead of the less; moral integrity and renewed affections are preferred, while positive observances and matters of outward order are undervalued and often neglected. This is a better fault than that of the Pharisees, yet a fault it certainly is, and one which should be conscientiously avoided. Not only against the omission of the weightier duties, but against also the needless omission of lighter ones, did our Lord proclaim the broad rule, "these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone." There is a shading in the language, which recognises that one class of commandments are more important than another class: but the obligation to fulfil the less differs from that to perform the greater, only as "not leaving undone" the former, differs from "doing" the latter. Practically speaking, the obligation of both is equal. He who breaks the "least" of the commandments shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.
To comprehend more fully the proposition, that duties may be unequal [5/6] in importance, yet equal in obligation, we must recollect that our idea of the 'importance' of any matter is its bearing on human interests so far as they are open to us--the greater duties are not only commanded by the Deity, but are also acknowledged by enlightened men,--the value of the less duties is not always so clear to us, and we recognise them only because they are appointed by God. Let us however see this matter accurately. The foundation of duty or obligation is the fitness of things, as known to the divine omniscience; which fitness of things is the will of God; and the record of duty or obligation is the divine word, and these three, the fitness of things, God's will, and his word, are equivalent to each other. Hence, when God's word declares any thing to be obligatory, human discernment of its propriety cannot add to the obligation; nor does it detract from the obligation that we do not discern its propriety. Whatever has a divine injunction, be it the very "least" of the commandments, has an authority which nothing can increase or diminish. Religious and moral precepts, therefore, do not depend for their binding force on their appearing expedient to men, but on the appointment of Heaven. "Repent, and be baptized," are two inspired commands. Repentance is, to human judgment, the more important, and baptism less so. But divine wisdom, while it orders us to "do" the one, orders us likewise not to "leave undone" the other. And thus the obligation of both commands, to repent and to be baptised, is one and the same--it rests on the will of God.
Do any persons, in the sin of intellectual independence, question the principle, that the injunctions of scripture do not derive their obligation from their apparent reasonableness, but only from their having divine authority?--let them consider the variableness of human opinion, and the consequent instability of human notions of propriety and fitness, and they will acknowledge these to be too insecure a foundation for the rule of duty. What has been called good in one age, has sunk to disesteem in another. What is deemed virtue in one country, other nations hold to be crime. With some, political services, or splendid abilities, compensate for bad morals; and this theory would people heaven with the patriotic and the learned: others, while they value these good qualities, believe [6/7] them insufficient without the fear and the love of God, clean hands and a pure heart, and also faith in Christ as the vital principle of the whole. Innumerable cases, to the same effect, might be added: for though God has greatly enlightened the human mind to discern right from wrong, and to feel the obligation of the right so discerned, yet depravity has so darkened it that there is not a commandment, the breach of which has not been justified by the inventions of men. What can be said then of human standards of excellence, but that they are too uncertain to be the basis of any of our obligations! The vices of one code are duties in another. The most eminent virtues of the worldly, are but on a level with moral virtues in general, in the estimation of the pious. If, also, we rest the superiority of the gospel merely on its evident reasonableness, we must presume christians, to have, not only better hearts, but more cultivated understandings, than infidels, to enable the former to discern this its reasonableness--an advantage not always on their side. We must found, therefore, the obligation of our better morals and purer graces, the greater as well as the less obligations, not on human wisdom declaring in their favour, but on their having the undoubted stamp of divine authority,
But, it may be asked, is there no expediency, no fitness, no propriety, in our several duties?--undoubtedly there is, a propriety always known to God, and often sufficiently evident to men. And where this can be shown, we derive advantage from understanding the obligation, as well as acknowledging it. But when God commands, though we know not the reason, He does; and the obligation is none the less through our ignorance; though we discern no fitness in the command, we must regard it as perfectly binding from its mere authority. To our weak apprehension, the authority may perhaps seem arbitrary; but could we share the omniscience of the Most High, his every precept would appear the wisest and best possible. To take an example in which the divine wisdom is partly open to us. The Deity knows the wants of the world--and he appoints the church for the benefit of the world, as well as its own. He knows the elements of which the church is formed, and what is required of it--and he so orders its government and ordinances as to [7/8] adapt it to its great function of reclaiming mankind. He knows the nature of man, and he enjoins some less duties, to promote the fulfilment of the greater--some, to prevent the smaller sins, for indulgence in the slightest folly predisposes the heart to further depravity--and some, to secure our allegiance to his church, and our zeal for its welfare, and for its success as the instrument of his mercy to our sinful race.
Let us admonish, then, our flocks, not to be faithless, but believing, when they find in scripture some directions the propriety of which they do not understand, it is enough that it is open to God. Neither let them be of doubtful mind because some duties are less, and the greater only seem to require our unreserved acknowledgment; they all are divinely ordered; the divine will, the divine word, the fitness of things, gives obligation to them all; not the "least" of them may be "left undone."
II. I am to direct your attention to a few particular illustrations of the less and greater christian duties.
Our Saviour enjoined the less duty, in one sense, with the greater, when he commanded us to govern the heart as well as the conduct. A wrong desire is certainly less criminal than a wrong deed; to envy our neighbor's wealth or good name, is not so wicked as to deprive him of them; to hate him, though a dark sin, is not so dreadful a crime as to take his life. Yet these and the like passions are forbidden, as well as the several actions they may produce; they are equally forbidden. And he who indulges himself in wicked thoughts, and encourages them when in his mind, is guilty of deliberate contempt of the authority of God.
Again: Christianity commands us to be generous, as well as upright in our dealings. Justice is the greater duty, yet generosity is of the same obligation. When the Saviour said, "thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself," he surely meant that we should allow him more, or other things, than are barely his due; we must regard him with brotherly love; we must act towards him according to the mild and liberal rules which we would have applied to ourselves in like cases. The same volume which says, "thou shalt not steal," [8/9] says also, "whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them." Honesty and benevolence are thus both enjoined: the former is the weightier, and must be fulfilled; the latter, though not so weighty, is yet commanded, has the same obligation, and must not be omitted.
In another class of duties, there may also be the greater and the less, yet both of equal obligation. Repentance, as consisting of sorrow for sin and amendment, is a practical commandment, and none question its propriety, especially as a part of a religious course. Faith however is held, by many, to be of less importance; they do not perceive that it produces any benefit among mankind. Believing, as we do, that faith lies at the foundation of all christian virtues, that faith especially which knows no hope but in Jesus Christ and him crucified; it is only for argument's sake that we concede it to be a less duty than repentance: yet even with this momentary concession, what follows? it is, that repentance must be fulfilled, yet faith not omitted. The same Master who requires of us the one duty, requires also the other. The same Bible which declares, "without holiness no man shall see the Lord," declares also, "without faith it is impossible to please Him." Those therefore who allow repentance as a scriptural command, must acknowledge faith to be such likewise: no preference of either, no exclusion of either, is consonant with the gospel. Repentance is obligatory, not because human wisdom agrees that it is proper, but because God has enjoined it upon us: and as the obligation of faith is from the same divine source, we cannot hold it in disesteem, or in less esteem, without contempt of the authority of God.
So with regard to prayer--some may argue that it is a less important duty than faith, repentance, and penitent obedience. As however devotion is the great means for sustaining and increasing these graces, we can hardly allow that it ranks below them. But, waiving this objection--is its obligation less than theirs? are we not commanded, "in every thing, to make known our requests unto God," and even to '"pray without ceasing:" Were it true therefore, that "repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" are [9/10] greater commandments, and must be "done," prayer, however, deemed a less, is as real a commandment, and must not be "left undone."
But the most common error of this kind is in regard to the positive appointments of religion. The substance of christian piety is rightly judged to be the most "weighty matter of the law" bequeathed us by Christ; but they are greatly mistaken who regard its observances as of no account. They must "observe all things whatsoever their Lord has commanded them."
Some persons, who have the basis of christian character, render in private an inward or mental worship to their Maker and Redeemer, read the sacred volume, and fulfil generally its greater precepts, but refuse to join in the public solemnities of the sanctuary. Others plead that, the duties of the Sanctuary being fulfilled, the remainder of the christian sabbath has but a partial claim on their holy observance. But the Saviour never abolished the law of the Sabbath; he confirmed it, when he declared that it "was made for man," i. e. for the benefit of man, as distinguished from other days; it is to be kept, not indeed with the ceremonial strictness of the Mosaic rule, but as being entirely "the Lord's day," the whole of it appropriated to his special service. Nor is the solemn assembly abolished; for those who "forsake the assembling themselves together" are rebuked. Both the christian sabbath and public worship are as fully enjoined, as the inward reverence of God and reliance on Christ. The former are indeed, very manifestly, less duties than the latter; yet, as manifestly, they are of greater importance than were the petty tithes of the Pharisees, and their other minute observances, which, so far as they rested on the law of Moses, our Saviour bade them not to leave wilfully neglected. How then can any, who understand the nature of the obligation of duty, disregard the sacred day, or the solemnities of the christian sanctuary!
The Church is another positive institution in regard to which the mistake I am exposing is widely prevalent. Holiness is a greater subject than the means of promoting it, as "the life is more than meat, and the body than raiment:" and the church is one of these [10/11] means. And hence, because conforming to the church is a less duty, the obligation to do so is frequently overlooked or evaded. Such an error may be rebuked in several ways. He who contemns or neglects any of the means of holiness, so far contemns or neglects holiness itself. He who knows that Christ gave himself for the church, and purchased it with his own blood, yet refuses to seek for that body, or to unite with it when found, puts at hazard his interest in Christ. He who understands that the church is God's kingdom on earth, and the instrument for bringing all the earth into his kingdom, yet will not belong to it and promote its success, is retarding the progressive dominion of God, and the progressive happiness of mankind. These are arguments for this duty founded on its obvious reasonableness. But a more imperative argument for it, though perhaps not so impressive at first sight, is, that it is founded on the divine will, plainly recorded; its obligation is perfect, though it rank as a less duty: "he therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God."
So with regard to the Ministry. Ambassadors are commissioned by the Saviour, to make peace between God and men; and he sends this commission down, in an appointed channel, to the end of time: but men grasp at the peace in any way they think it attainable, and make little account of the ambassadors, and less of their commission from Christ. The servant is less than the service entrusted to him and so, the object only of that service is regarded, not the agent who is to fulfil it. And yet no obligation is clearer than that of conforming to the ministry "set in the church" by our Lord--"verily, verily, I say unto you," was His solemn declaration, just before his death, "he that receiveth whomsoever I send, receiveth me; and he that receiveth me, receiveth Him that sent me." With such an obligation before the christian, what plainer duty has he than to ascertain what ministry is 'sent' by Christ, or commissioned by him through the regular line of ordination? what plainer duty, than to "receive" that ministry, and that alone?
In like manner, because prayer is of greater importance than the mode of prayer, thousands overlook the remarkable fact, that there [11/12] is not one clear record in scripture of extemporary public prayer, yet there are numerous examples, perfectly clear, of public prayer conducted by forms. This fact surely, is argument enough for a Liturgy: to me, it seems to give that mode of worship the force of obligation.
Similar remarks may be made concerning the Sacraments and other Ordinances. But I shall only advert, under this head, to that irreligious neglect, which makes our later church so different from the church in primitive times--the neglect of the Holy Communion. If ever there was a positive and clear command, it was "do this in remembrance of me." The language is as strong as that of the decalogue: 'keep holy the sabbath day,' 'honor thy father and mother,' 'do no murder,' 'bear not false witness,' are not more explicit or more imperative than "do this in remembrance of me." The injunction is as express as any in the whole bible: 'love the Lord thy God,' 'love thy neighbor as thyself,' 'repent ye,' 'believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,' 'make you a new heart and a new spirit,' 'grieve not the Holy Spirit of God,' 'continue instant in prayer'--none are more plain or more emphatic than "do this in remembrance of me." What though the eucharist be not so weighty a matter as the godly heart and life it is intended to further, still it is enjoined, as positively as any other duty whatever. How then comes it to pass, that men, in other respects religious, select among the holy precepts, favour others, and neglect this? Would they reject the precept which forbids them to take God's name in vain, and say they will fulfill all the commandments but that one! yet if they did so, it would not be more in the face of the divine authority, more counter to explicit obligation, than their disobedience of the dying injunction of the Saviour.
In regard to the entire code of human duties, let me further remark that, if men were the independent beings they sometimes imagine themselves to be, they might acknowledge no other law than their own views of what is proper. But none are thus free. God is our sovereign; he is our master, our law giver, our judge; his authority is absolute, and to question it, in even the least particular, is as vain as it is impious: the title of the Creator to sovereignty is perfect. [12/13] Besides; being fallen creatures, redeemed by the Saviour, we are doubly "not our own;" we have been "bought with a price," the great price of his blood; we are his "purchased possession;" and we owe the duties of a vassal to Christ, as well as those of a creature to God. Who shall absolve the creature, who shall absolve the vassal, from any part of the obligation which God and Christ have laid upon him!
Moreover: we are not independent in regard to our salvation--both the method and the means are appointed by Heaven. It is a great mystery, that a just God can justify a sinner; a great mystery, that a holy God can bring an imperfect being into the joy of His presence: and therefore we ought to omit none of the conditions, or services, or rules, which God has been pleased to impose on us, lest we jeopard the attainment of our immortal hopes. It may be, that every, the least particular of human duty, is necessary, to render fully evident the glory of God in the pardon of our guilt. It may be, that the guilt of those to whom all this duty is proclaimed, is no otherwise pardonable. Nay; since it is declared that the yoke of Christ is "easy," and the divine commandments "not grievous," may we not be sure that not one injunction laid upon us is an unnecessary burden? They all are beneficial; they all are means of furthering us in the attainment of the great objects set before us--the change to holiness--growth in grace--union with Christ--a happy resurrection--the crown of glory.
My Reverend Brethren--
Tell these things, as you judge it to be proper, to your respective congregations, and bid them lay them to heart. Tell them, that the hardy independence of spirit, which affects to say, 'thus far will I obey God, and no farther,' should be unknown among Christians. Tell them, especially, that it is the thought of being unworthy of the great mercies God hath given us, and hath prepared for us, that binds willingly the humble in heart to every duty named in the sacred word. And forget not to tell them, that the neglect of those is deeply sinful, who read the last request of the dying Saviour, who view the emblems of his broken body and streaming blood, yet turn [13/14] from these emblems without remorse, and disregard the most affectionate of all his commands.
Persuade your flocks to seek an universal christian obedience. Discharging faithfully the weightier matters of duty, let them keep also the less injunctions to which God hath set his seal, not "leaving undone" any of the good works which he hath ordained for them to walk in. If they are disheartened with the difficulty of so unyielding a course, point them to their Saviour's example, who, though he had no need of salvation, "fulfilled all righteousness"--point them to Him, who, though "holy, harmless, undefiled," came even to the baptism of repentance, as he conformed also to the rules of the Mosaic law, in common with the fallen beings for whose benefit they were designed. Hold up to the view of your flocks this bright example, and beseech them, as they love Christ, and as they love their own souls, to "walk blameless in all his commandments and ordinances."
H. U. ONDERDONK.