And yet, to witness the eagerness, the constancy, the irrepressible perseverance with which men pursue its gratifications and pleasures, the confidence which they place on its principles and maxims, one would suppose that it would endure for ever. Is not this infatuation as extraordinary as it is absurd, that the aspiring thoughts, the vigorous desires, the exalted affections of an immortal spirit, a spirit which sprung from the eternal source of goodness and bliss, is designed finally to centre its enjoyment in him, should be wrapt up in a world, "the fashion of which passeth away?" Ah! may it not be said that deep sleep hath fallen upon man, darkening his understanding and benumbing his noble powers, so' that he values not the moral excellence of the divine perfections, the glories of that celestial kingdom for which he is destined, while he is pleased with the glittering toys of worldly pleasure, and eagerly seeks for happiness in the illusive phantoms of worldly wealth and honour?. In vain does the unerring voice of inspiration declare the utter incompetency of all created enjoyments to fill the boundless desires of a soul [33/34] designed to be satisfied only with the glory and bliss of the eternal source of truth and felicity. In vain does the voice of inspiration confirm the representation of daily experience, that the world is a scene ever varying and shifting, where principles, and manners, and pleasures, different, and often opposite, dazzle, and interest for a while, and then pass away, the attention of their votaries being caught by the novelty or splendour of those that succeed. Untaught by observation, and deaf to the unerring dictates of that word which proclaims that the fashion of this world passeth away, men continue ensnared by its delusive principles, bent solely on obtaining its uncertain and fleeting pleasures.
Can it be necessary, when the solemn knell yet sounds that proclaimed the departure of the past year, with the varying principles and events, characters and manners, which marked its fleeting progress--when, enlivened by new hopes, and cheered by brighter prospects, we shut out both the inquietudes and pleasures of the past year, and welcome, in that which is to come, new and more extensive schemes of aggrandisement, a more uninterrupted and exalted flow of prosperity and happiness--in the very moment when we hail the commencement of another fleeting portion of time, can it be necessary for me to prove the truth, that "the fashion of this world passeth away?"
All, no doubt, will concede that the world is changing and uncertain in its principles and customs; that its enjoyments are fleeting and disappointing; that many of the events and labours that interest and agitate the present generation, will be forgotten in the new concerns and events of suc[34/35]eeding ages. So far all will allow that "the fashion of this world passeth away."
It is, however, my design to consider the assertion of the apostle as extended to subjects in which it is deemed that certain and immutable principles may be attained by the light of reason, and which an infidel and licentious spirit opposes to revelation, to that "word of God which" only "abideth for ever."
From the uncertainty stamped on the "fashion of this world," we are called to exempt the discoveries of reason in regard to the human mind, and which, it is said, without the aid of revelation, establish the obligations and duties of man.
But have the nature and powers of the human mind been analyzed with certainty? So far from this, reason, left to itself, has maintained that a thinking principle could not exist independently of body; and supposed the soul to be but a nice organization of the more refined particles of matter. It is revelation which redeems the noblest part of man from that destruction to which matter, frail and perishing, is subjected, and restores the soul to its true dignity, as an emanation from the ever-blessed God, spiritual and eternal, as its adorable Author.
Are the discoveries of reason in regard to the human mind fixed and certain? So far from this, you find philosophers maintaining opposite and contradictory opinions on the important and fundamental question of the freedom of the will in its operations. It is revelation only which rescues man from those false theories which would make him a mere machine, irresistibly set in motion, necessarily determined in its choice by external impulses. It is [35/36] revelation which, establishing the accountableness of man to God his Maker, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked, establishes on this eternal basis his free agency.
Nor hath human reason succeeded in establishing the point, of all others most important, the foundation of the obligations of man to virtue and duty.
Various and changing theories make the obligation of virtue to arise from the nature and fitness of things, from its intrinsic worth and beauty, or from its tendency to promote public and private happiness. It is revelation only which, proclaiming God as the supreme Lawgiver, the eternal source of rectitude, the almighty Judge, infinite in power to reward and to punish--it is revelation only which thus establishes the obligation to virtue on the eternal and immutable foundation of the will of God.
Discard then, my brethren, the claims so often asserted of human reason to certainty on these momentous subjects. Many have there been who, trusting to her illusive lights, have been led through the perplexing mazes of subtle and refined argument, till, wearied with the fruitless search after truth, they fled in despair to the deadly gloom of scepticism. In every subject which relates to your nature as intelligent and accountable creatures, take for the guide and standard of your belief the unerring declarations of the word of God. Theories founded on the deductions of unassisted reason, like "the fashion of this world," pass away, but the word of God, luminous and certain as its divine Author, abideth for ever. The claims of reason, in regard to what is called [36/37] natural religion, are also like the "fashion of the world which passeth away."
Reason, say the enemies of revelation, is competent to discover all the truths which it is necessary for man to know concerning a supreme Being and a future state. But is reason able to ascertain the nature and essence of matter with which we are daily conversant, and which is the object of our senses? And can her unassisted powers discover the transcendent truth of the being of a God, infinitely removed from matter, uncreated, spiritual, and eternal? Where is to be found this system of natural religion so much extolled, which would usurp the place and authority of the revealed will of God? Shall we search for it among the wisest and best of the sages of antiquity? With them, as reason was advanced to her highest polish and strength, we ought to expect, if any where, to see delineated and established this boasted system. Alas! these enlightened sages arrived at no more certainty concerning God and his perfections, than the ignorant savage that prowls the wilderness. The father of the ancient philosophy, (Aristotle) in whom the native powers of the mind attained a degree of strength and perfection that has scarcely been rivalled, so far from ascertaining the divine nature and perfections, ascribed to gross and perishing matter the properties of divinity, and maintained that the world was eternal. And this opinion, which destroys the omnipotence, and renders unnecessary even the existence of a God, was held by almost all the ancient sects. The distinguished Roman orator (Cicero) embraced the same gross and absurd opinion of the eternity of matter, maintaining that a pure mind, thinking, intelligent, and [37/38] disconnected with matter, was altogether inconceivable. Those doctrines, without which religion is a mere illusion, the immortality of a soul and a future existence, were doubted by the wisest of the ancient philosophers. He who was the pride of Rome for his genius and eloquence, (Cicero) remained in doubt, even after having perused a celebrated treatise (of Plato) on the immortality of the soul. "While I read him," says he, "I am convinced; when I lay the book aside, and begin to consider by myself of the soul's immortality, all the conviction instantly ceases." The doubt on this interesting subject, that casts a gloom over the last moments of another virtuous heathen, (Socrates) has often been mentioned. In the awful moment when he stood on the brink of eternity, what was the light and support which natural religion afforded him? We hear from him no acknowledgment of the true God and his perfections, no adoration of his power and holiness, no trust in his goodness and mercy. The performance of a vow to a heathen deity was the subject which occupied his last thoughts. Instead of commending his soul into the hands of Him who made it, as he would have done, had he known the true God, the Author of his being, he breathes his last accents in the earnest injunction to his followers, to see that his frivolous and idolatrous vow was performed--("We owe a cock to Esculapius, forget not to pay the vow.") Oh! feeble the light of unassisted reason, which rescued not her wisest and best votaries from the most absurd and extravagant idolatry. The system of religion formed by thy efforts only, is "the fashion of this world that passeth away."
My brethren, when we find the most enlightened [38/39] of the heathen philosophers enveloped in ignorance, uncertain as to the truths of religion, need we wonder that the great mass of the Gentile world were not led, from the contemplation of the works of God, to know and adore their almighty Author! Need we be surprised at beholding the Gentile nations prostrate in adoration before the orbs that shine in the firmament, faint images of the Creator's glory? or trembling with superstitious homage before the vilest reptile that crawls on the earth? Let us no longer hear then of the ability of unassisted reason to discover and ascertain the necessary truths of religion. They were made known at the first by God himself, and spread through all nations by tradition. Reason is competent to illustrate and confirm them; and yet, alas! she disgraced and obscured them by the grossest superstitions. The world was never destitute of a revelation of God's will; natural religion, therefore, a religion discovered and established by human reason solely, never has existed. Some of the truths of revelation--as, for example, the being, and perfections, and providence, of the one supreme God, and the immortality of the soul--reason can go further in explaining and confirming, than she can those doctrines connected with the Trinity of persons in the Godhead, and man's redemption by the blood of the Son of God. But the former were made known by original revelation--reason did not discover them. It is impossible to prove that, left to herself, she ever could have discovered them, had they not been made known.
Cause then have we to bless God, that, on subjects so essential to our perfection and happiness as the knowledge of his nature and will, and our [39/40] eternal destiny; we have an authority on which to rest, more certain and stable than the discoveries of reason, which, like "the fashion of this world, passeth away." God communicated his adorable name and will to our first parents. This knowledge, obscured by the fall, he in part renewed to the patriarchs, and more fully declared in his law and covenant with the Jewish nation. But, in his unsearchable counsels, he reserved its glorious and perfect consummation for the Inst revelation of his will by Jesus Christ. In the blessed Gospel of his Son is contained a discovery of the divine perfections and will, of the way of salvation, and of our eternal existence, to which reason never could have attained, but which is perfectly agreeable to her clearest and most enlightened dictates. This Gospel rests on the luminous and conclusive evidence of miracles and prophecy. The sufferings and death of those who first proclaimed it, attested its supernatural facts, involving the truth of its holy, and salutary, and exalting doctrines. Its rapid spread through the world, though opposed by the bigotry of the Jews and the learning and power of the Gentile world, proved that the arm which sustained it is divine. So valuable then to us, as it respects the order, the peace, the purity of the present life; so indispensible, as it respects the destinies of the life to come; let us hold fast to this blessed Gospel, resisting the assaults of the vain wisdom of this world, which would wrest us from this sure anchor of all our hopes, and cast us on the troubled ocean of doubt, and gloom, and despair.
There yet lives in the recollection of the present generation, the awful example of the impiety and crimes into which men will plunge, when forsaking [40/41] the unerring light of revelation, they take for their guide the illusive dictates of reason, and the corrupt impulses of their passions. A fearful war was waged, of atheism, irreligion, and licentiousness, against religion, virtue, and social order. The din of the conflict still sounds in our ears--the traces of its ravages are not yet obliterated in the nation which it desolated. The spirit of enmity to religion and to social order that kindled this conflict and so long fed its flames, exerts among us the deadly purpose of exterminating our holy religion, that licentiousness may have no control on its corrupt and desolating reign. Let us cling with renewed steadfastness to that pure, enlightening, and consoling system of religion revealed in the word of God, which will secure us from the corrupting principles of that world, "the fashion of which passeth away," and conduct us to everlasting perfection and bliss in the future existence which it reveals.
Unchanging and substantial happiness is not to be found but in the love and favour of the ever-living God, the means of obtaining which are revealed in the Gospel of his Son. May his grace excite you from the heart to embrace, and strengthen you to hold fast his divine truths and promises. May his blessing, that maketh truly rich, that conveys unfailing and sure light and peace, follow you in all your enjoyments and pursuits. May his merciful providence preserve you, to come before him in this holy temple, on many returns of this day, more fervent and vigorous in your love and trust in him, more sincere and devoted in his service.
May he, the almighty and eternal God, be your [41/42] refuge and your portion, that when the vain wisdom of this world passeth away, your peace, stayed on him, the rock of ages, may endure for ever. May he be your Deliverer and Saviour, that, beyond this transitory and perishing world, you may find an inheritance eternal, undefiled, and that fadeth not away.