(Brooklyn, New York)
PUBLISHED BY THE VESTRY.
At a meeting of the Vestry of the Parish of Christ Church, Williamsburgh, held on the 27th day of July, 1846, the following resolution was adopted:
"Resolved, That the Vestry of Christ Church, Williamsburgh, having heard with great pleasure the Sermon of the Rev. T. S. BRITTAN, on the Right of Private Judgment, preached on the occasion of one of his late visits to our Parish, and believing that its publication will be of great service to the cause of truth, respectfully request, on behalf of the Vestry and Congregation, a copy for that purpose."
(Signed) L. T. COLES,
Clerk of the Vestry.
To the REV. T. S. BRITTAN.
Brooklyn, August 3, 1846.
Dear Sir: In compliance with the request of the Vestry of Christ Church Parish, I herewith transmit to you, for them, a copy of the Sermon which they have solicited. Although it was not composed with any view to its publication from the press, I have not deemed myself at liberty, in any way, to alter it. You will find it to be precisely the same as delivered from the pulpit. Such as it is, it is at your service. I commend it to the blessing of the Great Head of the Church, and remain
Yours to serve in the Gospel of Christ,
T. S. BRITTAN.
To Mr. L. T. COLES,
Clerk of the Vestry of
Christ Church, Williamsburgh.
SERMON. Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God;
because many false prophets are gone out into the world.--1 JOHN iv, 1.
THERE is a natural and intimate alliance between Error and Slavery; and no less inseparable is the relation subsisting between Truth and Liberty. Each of these principles reciprocally aids and establishes its congener, and mutually do they aim to destroy their antagonists. Thus, Error in perverting the understanding, shackles its energies and reduces it into bondage; whilst Slavery, in debasing its dignity, bestows power and perpetuity on Error. On the other hand, Truth rectifies the mental vision and awakens desires for its unlimited pursuit, whilst Liberty dignifies and exalts the faculties and opens an unrestricted career upon which it may expatiate. Justly, therefore, has Error been compared to the darkness of the night, which imprisons us on every side, impeding our energies, depressing our spirits, and scaring us with imaginary phantoms; whilst Truth has been compared to the brilliancy of the day, which lays fully open every object to our view, rouses the faculties, exhilarates the soul, dissipates vain illusions, and sheds beauty and loveliness over the widely extended landscape.
Never, till the intellect was darkened by Error, did Slavery obtain a foothold amongst the sons of men. It was by its influence alone, that moral evil was introduced into our world and the whole of our race reduced to a state of spiritual thraldom. By the same means, in all false religions their artful ministers have thrown the chains of captivity around a deluded population, and, having once reduced them to Slavery, they multiplied [3/4] their frauds, extortions, and cruelties, and so fortified their requirements by pains and penalties, that none dared to inquire into their own rights, or even to struggle under their bondage. Thus, Error and Slavery, like twin despots, sat enthroned in triumph, ruling the prostrate nations with an iron rod, whilst Truth and Liberty seemed to have become extinct.
But no sooner did Truth revisit the human mind, than like the genial breath of spring, which dissolves the icy bands of winter, it emancipated mankind. Everywhere, the nations joyfully burst from the fetters of their thraldom. In the days of Moses, a nation of slaves, who were enlightened thereby, broke from the bondage of Egyptian tyranny, and under its fostering influence rose to the highest eminence and dignity amidst surrounding people. In the days of the Apostles, the pagan nations shook of the cruel yoke of superstition, and dared to assert themselves possessed of the prerogatives of intellectual beings. In the days of the Reformation, also, similar results followed. As Truth progressed, Liberty, both moral and political, everywhere obtained; and the establishment of Liberty, leaving Truth unrestricted and independent, has favoured her development and nurtured her maturation. Thus, freedom of inquiry and discussion is the alone atmosphere in which Truth can breathe, or the only soil in which it can grow, and which it must either find or make, or it will pine and die.
On this account it is, that all false systems of religion, whether pagan, or papal, have been opposed to freedom of inquiry, and have denied to men the right of private judgment. Not only would they deprive us of our civil privileges, but they would rob us also, of that natural and inalienable right with which our Creator has invested us, and which it would be treason towards him to resign--viz: the privilege of employing our reason, and thinking for ourselves in matters of religion. Like Nahash, the Ammonite, who proposed to the Israelites, "On this condition will I make a covenant with you, that I may thrust out all your right eyes," [* 1 Sam. xi, 2.] so, they would blind us, in order that they might enslave us. Now, till men have resigned this precious boon, or till it be wrested from them, they cannot be reduced to the bondage [4/5] of superstition. It was, therefore, one of the most just observations, though at the same time one of the most odious reflections cast (unwittingly), upon the Romish creed, by Father Thomassin, when he said, that "THE WHOLE EARTH WOULD HAVE BEEN OVERRUN WITH HERESY, HAD NOT THE EMPERORS MAINTAINED THE FAITH." By "faith," he meant the papal religion, and by "heresy," whatever is not accordant therewith. And his assertion is correct, that Popery would long since have been annihilated, had not men been held in slavery by the power of the State and the terrors of the sword.
It cannot be dissembled, that in our days mighty efforts are again put forth, by crafty and designing men, (who have assumed the guise of protestant teachers,) to re-establish the despotism of Error, and to subject us to the thraldom of spiritual tyranny. The abettors of this design insidiously attempt its achievement by denying, or raising cavils against, the right of private judgment. In this state of affairs, it is well to recur to first principles, and examine what upon this point was the teaching of the inspired Apostles. One of them admonishes us, "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." [* Gal. v. 1.] Nor was this the counsel only of Paul, the bold, the profound, the high-minded; for John also, the gentle, the meek, the amiable, thus addresses, not one individual only, not the bishops or pastors merely, but the whole church at large, and every individual member thereof: "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; for many false prophets are gone out into the world." This counsel firstly supposes, THE ASSAILANCE OF INSIDIOUS IMPOSTURES; secondly, IT ENJOINS THE RIGHT AND DUTY OF INDIVIDUAL SCRUTINY; and thirdly, IT RECOGNIZES THE EXISTENCE OF AN INFALLIBLE TEST.
Let me lay open these three ideas.
I. As the great Ruler of the universe has, for wise and benevolent purposes, permitted both good and evil, pleasure and pain, to exist in our world; as he has allowed salutary herbs and poisonous plants to grow in the same fields, light and darkness to struggle in the same hemisphere, so does he allow Truth and [5/6] Error to exist and conflict in the same church, during her probationary state. He suffers "false" as well as true "prophets" to "go out into the world."
Such has ever been the case from the earliest ages of mankind. In paradise, a foul and malignant spirit seduced our first parents from their allegiance to God, and, by his impostures, darkened their understandings. In the days of Noah, "a preacher of righteousness," [* 2 Peter ii. 5] similar delusions blinded multitudes of the antediluvians. Immediately after the deluge, impostors of various kinds arose, who introduced systems of superstition and idolatry, for the purpose of cajoling, plundering, and enslaving their fellow men. Moses was confronted by Jannes and Jambres in Egypt, and by Balaam in the wilderness. At every period under the Jewish dispensation, evil minded men attempted to abuse the credulity of the people, so that the prophet Jeremiah complained in the name of God, "The prophets prophesy lies in my name. I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them; they prophesy unto you a false vision, and divination, and a thing of naught, and the deceit of their heart." [* Jer. xiv. 14] And our Lord himself reproached the teachers of his day as being "blind leaders of the blind." [* Math. xv. 14] "Ye have made," said he, "the commandment of God of none effect by your traditions." [* Ib. verse 6]
Was it otherwise with Christianity? It was, at the first, assailed from without by furious persecution, in order to extinguish it, and when it had gained a footing, it was perverted by corruptions within the church, to neutralize its influence. Depraved men assumed its garb or livery, that, insidiously, they might stab it. They stealthily associated with it the most deadly errors, to obscure its brightness, like those perfidious elders whom, in vision, Ezekiel beheld in the ancient temple, "with every man his censer in his hand," [*Ezek. viii. 11] raising so dense a cloud as totally to obscure the temple. Thus, the most glorious truths of Christianity were by them perverted into the most fatal delusions, as the pure juice of the grape, which interested and unprincipled men distil into an intoxicating drink, to bewilder and madden those who partake of it. Thus, even in her brightest days, the church was infested by men, [6/7] "which said they were Apostles, and were not," [* Rev. ii. 26] but only "of the synagogue of Satan," [* Ib. verse 9] men of whom both St. Paul and St. John lamented their influence in leading others astray.
Time would fail me to recount the different impostures by which, in successive ages, men have been beguiled; especially, in what have justly and emphatically been called "the dark ages." They are now matters of history, and serve, to excite our pity for the weakness and credulity of the deceived, our contempt and abhorrence of the artifices of the deceivers. Nor is it otherwise in the present day. "Men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness," indulge in "perverse disputings," [* 2 Tim. vi. 5] aiming to debase and obscure "the truth as it is in Jesus." [* Eph. iv. 21] Some would revive ancient heresies. Some would graft new theories and speculations on the doctrines of the cross. Some--but we cannot recount them all. The great majority of these deceivers would wed Christianity with much that was imposing in the mythology of heathenism and the idolatry of Rome. They would make her a religion of gaudy forms and ceremonies, whose simple sacraments should be regarded as miracles or magic--whose ministers should be arbitrary despots, armed with super-human rights and authority. They would reduce men to mere machines, who, allowing others to think for them, should become mere puppets, doing homage to altars, relics, images, and saints, acting subordinate parts to swell the pomp and parade of priestly pageantry. They would convert our worship into ridiculous mummery, in which the intellect, unfed by sacred fuel, should waste and expire, and a darkness, thick and palpable like that of Egypt, should again enshroud us.
As such has ever been the case, so will it continue to be, till the time appointed by God when Christ himself shall come again to reign over the illuminated and emancipated nations of mankind. Till then, the native enmity of their hearts will lead men who are unrenewed to war against the truth and to attempt the inveigling of others in the snares of error. Domineering legislators, desirous of enforcing their edicts and subjugating the populace to their control; ambitious prelates and time-serving [7/8] priests, anxious to aggrandize their pomp and riches, and to call forth to themselves undue veneration; speculating philosophers, puffed up with vanity and panting for distinction; unfledged theologians, just issuing from the fetid incubation of patristical schools, and eager for a stipend or promotion; in short, men of all classes, influenced by ambition, avarice, self-conceit, and such like degrading passions, will help on the imposture. Under pretext of worshipping God, they will raise altars to their own interest and vanity. They will array themselves in the garb of religion, only to advance their own secular interests. And whilst the credulous venerate their seeming piety, they will chuckle in secret over their gainful frauds. So long as men remain what they are, will many false prophets go out into the world.
Indeed, such must be the case, in order that the Scriptures may be fulfilled. However difficult may be the interpretation of many parts of this book, yet nothing can be more clear than the predictions which foretel the anti-Christian heresy which should arise in the bosom of the church, and which should continue to corrupt the doctrines, designs, and influences of Christianity from the days of the Apostles till the second coming of our Lord. The marks by which this apostacy should be distinguished are so lucidly set forth that "he may run that readeth it." [* Habb. i. 2] Its spiritual domination, worldly pomp, imposing ceremonies, affected austerities, vile hypocrisy, and persecuting spirit, with other traits, are strongly depicted. Nor is it without reason that this "mystery of iniquity" is allowed by God to work. It serves for purposes the most wise and benevolent. Among others, it is designed to test our fidelity. "For there must also be heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you." [* 1 Cor. xi. 19] It is designed to arouse our zeal--"that ye should earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints." [* Jude 3] It is designed also to call forth our most serious search and scrutiny, that we may "try the spirits whether they are of God."
These are the purposes for which God in his providence has permitted the Proteus of anti-Christian heresy to present itself to us in the present day under a new and more specious form, [8/9] and therefore he addresses us by the Apostle, in the language of the text.
II. This counsel ENJOINS THE RIGHT AND DUTY OF INDIVIDUAL SCRUTINY. It is a remarkable injunction, and its observance is of the utmost moment for regulating our conduct in matters which relate to religion or our eternal salvation. Now, the very existence of such a right is denied by the votaries of the Roman church, who insist that we ought to submit ourselves implicitly to the direction of the priesthood, and receive with absolute deference and unhesitating acquiescence whatever the church (i. e., a mere abstraction) may prescribe as dogmas of faith. In other words, that we should servilely believe without inquiry, or scrutiny, whatever the prelates or pastors may teach us.
The same sentiment is now advocated by some pretended Protestants, who, though deterred by fear from making so bold and open an avowal as that of Rome, yet insidiously maintain it and seize upon every opportunity to deride or deny the right of individuals to examine and judge for themselves. These arrogant men, affecting the dignity and mystery of priesthood, and indulging in the cajolery and misery of priestcraft, would maintain the same doctrine as that celebrated cardinal, who asserted that "the laity should be subject to the direction of the priesthood, just as the horse is obedient to the control of the equery who rides him." A fine sentiment truly! but one which, methinks, would be far more worthy of a jockey than a minister of Christ. He would fasten a halter on the necks of men, and drive them, with whip and spur, as if they were only beasts of burden, and not rational, intelligent beings!
To all such ideas our text is directly opposed. Indeed, the men who utter them not only disgrace themselves, insult mankind, and dishonor God, but they most grossly and shamefully misrepresent the Christian religion. That we may be convinced thereof, let us briefly examine the grounds of this right and duty.
It is founded on the CONSTITUTION OF OUR NATURE. We glory in the thought, and justly do we exult in it, that our great Creator has formed us intelligent beings, and endowed us with faculties capable of conceiving and examining the most sublime truths--truths even, which are beyond the reach of mere sense. [9/10] By the legitimate use of these faculties, we may reflect upon the past, anticipate the future, scrutinize and test whatever subjects may be proposed to us, in order that thereby we may be assured of their truth, or detect their fallacy.
It is, therefore, an established axiom with all wise men, that in all the various sciences we should never admit as true any proposition, till we have maturely examined it, since not only may we be imposed upon by false appearances or representations, or deceived by our heated imaginations, or seduced by our corrupt inclinations and passions, but such mistakes may have an injurious bearing upon our happiness; whilst the subsequent discovery of our error will fill us with shame and regret that we have degraded ourselves and slighted that reason which is our distinguishing prerogative,--our Creator's noblest gift.
Upon this principle, which is universally recognized, mankind act in all the ordinary affairs of human life. The mathematician never admits the truth of a problem till he has first solved it, or obtained demonstration of it. The lapidary will not purchase any precious stones till he has ascertained whether they be true or false diamonds. The merchant will not buy goods till he has examined their quality. The chemist will not admit the existence of certain properties in bodies, till by experiment he has tested them; and the most humble and illiterate of mankind will not receive a coin in payment of his labour, till he has examined whether it be genuine or counterfeit. Indeed, the more sensible he is of his ignorance, the greater is his fear of being duped, and the more scrupulous is his examination. And when such persons as the latter have presented to them some marvellous or startling proposition, they not only hesitate to receive it, but, as if their intellectual nature were outraged, they tell us, "We are not idiots; we have reason as well as you; we can think and judge for ourselves." The man who should act otherwise, who should implicitly resign himself, and credulously rely upon others, would be an object of universal pity or contempt.
Are we then in matters of religion, which are infinitely more momentous,--which involve our highest interests, our eternal destinies,--are we in these only, to lay aside our reason? To what purpose, then, are we made intellectual beings? Of all [10/11] human sciences we may be ignorant, or in them we may err with impunity, or without much real injury to our happiness; but ignorance or error upon the subject of religion must be fatal. The Saviour declares, "This is life eternal, that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." [* John xvii. 3] "God is a spirit; and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." [* Ib. iv. 20] And St. Paul tells us that the service God requires of us is "a reasonable service." [* Rom. xii. 1] In truth, religion is the only subject which can most suitably employ the faculties of intelligent beings. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians and Ephesians, did he say to them, "You must lay aside your reason; you must not attempt to examine or scrutinize what I teach you; you must implicitly receive my dogmas; I am invested with authority to think for you"?
No, he would not render himself so ridiculous; he would not so insult their reason. To the former he said, "I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say." [* 1 Cor. x. 15] To the latter he said, "Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ." [* Eph. iii. 4] Private judgment, then, is founded on the constitution of our nature.
It is equally founded on THE DESIGN OF REVELATION. The great object of divine revelation (for so itself tells us) is "to make us wise unto salvation." [* 2 Tim. iii. 15] "The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple." [* Psalm xix. 7] "By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many." [* Isa. liii. 11] If such be the design of revelation, and our Creator himself be its author, it must correspond with the nature he has imparted to us, it must be adapted to the faculties of rational, thinking beings.
And such is evidently the case. Divine revelation is distinguished by its simplicity. It was preached to "the poor," [* Matth. xi. 5] and was adapted to their wants and capacities, for of the great Teacher it is recorded, "the common people heard him gladly." [* Mark xii. 37] It combines the most awful majesty with the most winning sweetness, and brings down the most sublime truths with charming simplicity, so as to be level to the meanest understandings. Its doctrines are not theoretical speculations, but a simple record [11/12] of plain, palpable facts,--facts relating to the character of God, the condition of mankind, and the mediation of Jesus Christ; all of which are designed to have a practical bearing on our conduct and welfare, and which are supported by evidences the most strong and incontestible, that court our investigation.
True it is, that the doctrines or facts thus revealed, are connected with other truths yet unrevealed, and which are to us mysterious and incomprehensible. As the latter form no part of revelation, they can only be matters of philosophical speculation. They are as inscrutable to the minds of the greatest as of the humblest of mankind. With regard to them, the genius of a Newton has no advantage over the intellect of the meanest cottager. In this respect, revelation accords with the works of nature. It is at once, concealment and discovery. Thus, for instance, we all understand the fact, that wheat or corn is useful as an article of food. We therefore sow it, reap it, grind it, cook it, and feed upon it. These are facts which all comprehend. But, should any one ask us to explain, how it is that the same rain and sunshine make them to differ from other vegetables or plants in size, shape, colour, and qualities,--how it is that they convey strength, health, and spirit into our bodies? with a multitude of similar questions, we could not possibly answer him, and it would be useless if we could. These questions would be totally distinct from the knowledge of the fact and its uses. They would be vain philosophy. Just so is it in Religion. Revelation presents to us certain facts to be understood and improved, but to philosophize upon them, is not only rash, it is injurious.
Now, whatever is necessary for mankind to know and practise is disclosed in revelation, with such plainness of speech that "the wayfaring men though fools shall not err therein." [* Isa. xxxv. 8] Besides, the same revelation tells us, that the Spirit of God guides all good men. "As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God," [* Rom. viii. 14] and to all serious inquirers it promises his illumination, "If ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give his Holy Spirit to them that ask him." [* Luke xi. 13] "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God." [* John vii. 13] That is, he will give them the disposition to use these means, and by these means he will afford them direction. Thus, when he led the ancient Israelites by a pillar of cloud and fire, and the Eastern Magi by a star, it was by the use of means. The pillar and the star would have served to no purpose, unless the people had eyes to discern and hearts to follow them. So by divine revelation, the Holy Spirit leads us only, when our intellect is open to understand it, and our hearts are disposed to obey its directions. Hence David prayed, "Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law." [* Psalm cxix 18] "Thy word is a lamp unto my .feet and a light unto my path." [* Ib. v. 105] If, then, such be the genius of divine revelation; if it be thus adapted to intellectual beings, it implies the right, and requires the duty of private judgment.
But I go further, and maintain that it is founded upon the INJUNCTIONS OF THE DEITY. In his revelation, God has uniformly called upon mankind to examine and judge for themselves. So frequently do these injunctions occur, that our time will only admit of a few citations. In the days of Joshua, he thus addressed the Israelites by his servant, "Choose you this day whom ye will serve." [* Josh. xxiv. 15] But how could they choose without examination and deliberation? He thus called upon them by Elijah, "How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God follow him, but if Baal, then follow him." [* 1 Kings xviii 21] But how could they decide without scrutiny and judgment? By Jeremiah he said to them, "Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways and see and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. [* Jer. vi. 11] To the Jews in his day, the Saviour said, "Take heed, and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees." [* Matth. xvi. 6] "Search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life." [* John v. 39] "Ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?" [* Matth. xvi. 3] "Why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?" [* Luke xii. 57] Can any directions more fully assert the right and duty of private judgment?
By the Apostles, the same thing was taught. Often do they give warning against false teachers, but how could men obey, [13/14] unless they exercised a judgment to discriminate between the truth and error? Not to mention other of the Apostles, St. John, in the Epistle of which our text is a part, addresses himself to "fathers," "to young men," to "little children," and directs them to examine the spirits, to test them, and ascertain whether their doctrine be of God or man, whether it bear the impress of Deity upon it or not. God himself, then, prescribes the private judgment of men as an imperative duty.
Again, it is founded upon THE PRACTICE OF EXEMPLARS, since all the brightest models of piety recorded in Scripture for our imitation, were persons who exercised this right. In the court of Pharaoh, and amid all the allurements, influence, and authority of the Egyptian priesthood, Moses dared to think and judge for himself, "esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches that the treasures in Egypt." [* Heb. xi. 26] In the days of Ahab, when all Israel had lapsed into idolatry, and the priests of Baal required the entire submission of the people, Elijah dared in this respect to be singular. "I," said he, "even I only am left, and they seek my life to take it away." [* 1 Kings xiv 10.] In the days of Nebuchadnezzar, when that monarch required, under the severest penalties, universal homage to be paid to the idol he had set up, the three Hebrew children dared to think for themselves, and said, "Be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods." [* Dan. iii. 18] At the time of the Saviour's advent, the disciples, who received him, had to oppose all the weight and power of the Sanhedrim, and chose to encounter persecution, rather than to resign their own right of judgment. When Paul preached at Berea, the people tested his preaching before they would receive it, and are highly eulogised for having so done. In his Apocalyptic Epistle to the Church at Ephesus, the Saviour thus commends her: "Thou hast tried them which say they are Apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars." [* Rev. ii. 6] Nor was this commendation bestowed on the angel or bishop only, but on the flock at large, since, in the primitive church, the examination and decision upon points of doctrine was not made by the clergy only, but by the laity also, each individual of whom was admitted into the assembly. Thus, at the first council of Jerusalem, at which it was debated and [14/15] determined, whether the rite of circumcision was to be retained or discontinued, the decision was not made by the Apostles or clergy only, but by all the members, and the memorable decree of that council was drawn up in these terms, "The Apostles, and elders, and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles." [* Acts xv. 23] And it would betray great ignorance of the customs of the primitive church not to know, that such, on other occasions, was their usage. Time will only allow me to cite one instance in proof of this fact. It is from the epistles of St. Cyprian. That Father having been addressed by some ecclesiastics upon an important point, thus wrote to them: "I have not been able to return an answer to what the Presbyters Donatus, Fortunatus, and Gordius have inquired of me, because, from the commencement of my Episcopate, I have resolved to do nothing of my own individual opinion, without the advice of my clergy and the consent of the people." If, then, examples be of moment, we are taught by them the right and duty of private judgment.
Finally, It is founded upon OUR PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. That there will be a future state of existence, a period of final retribution, is not only an universal dictate of conscience, but is taught by all religions. Especially, is it set forth most clearly by divine revelation, which tells us, "We shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ." [* Rom. xiv. 10] "So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God." [* Ib. verse 14] Many are the passages of a similar kind, which teach us that we must undergo a rigid and impartial judgment as to the use or abuse of every talent confided to us by God.
If, then, we must be subject to so fearful a judgment, there is no talent for which we shall have so formidable an account to render as for our reason, one of the most precious privileges with which we could be entrusted. As we cannot be saved by proxy, so neither can we be adjudged, or condemned by proxy. Each must individually answer for himself. Surely, then, with such an interest at stake, with such fearful responsibilities hanging over us, we cannot devolve upon another the work of examining and deciding for us in matters of religion. This would be [15/16] folly, it would be madness, for "what can a man give in exchange for his soul?" [* Matth. xvi. 26]
As we dread, therefore, our final responsibility, it is imperative upon us to judge for ourselves.
Let me not, however, be misunderstood upon this point. I am not contending that every individual should judge and decide for others, but for himself. We must distinguish between a judgment of test and a judgment of authority. The first relates to our own satisfaction, the second relates to jurisdiction over others. It is of the former that our text speaks. It is the judgment which each individual should form for his own welfare, his own salvation, that he may discern and distinguish between truth and error,--understanding what doctrines he should receive, and what he should reject, whether taught by pastors or apostles, or, if such a case were possible, even by angels. For, says St. Paul, "Though we, or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you, let him he accursed." [* Gal. i. 8]
But, in order to make such a scrutiny, some standard or rule is absolutely necessary. Therefore,
III. The counsel of the text RECOGNIZES THE EXISTENCE OF AN INFALLIBLE TEST.
As the eye of the body cannot distinguish between colours, forms, proportions, and other properties, unless it have the aid of external light, so neither could light discover any thing to us, unless we possessed the faculty of vision. And as the talent of an architect could not adjust the proportions of a building, unless he had a scale or rule, so the rule would serve him to no purpose, unless he had eyes and hands to use it. It is the same in mental operations. The faculty of judgment must have a light by which it can discern, and a standard by which it may admeasure and decide. The one without the other would be useless. Reason must be the eye, and revelation is both the light and the standard. There can be no religion where there is no reason, and reason can only, be enlightened and regulated by divine revelation.
If, then, we would try any thing, we must not only have a faculty for examining, but we must also, have a rule or standard [16/17] by which assuredly we may decide. Now, to every thing there must be its peculiar or appropriate test. The jeweller does not apply the same test to gold or to precious stones, as the carpenter applies to timber, or the draper to cloth, or the astronomer to the stars. If we would ascertain the purity of gold, we must try it by the touchstone or by some potent acid. If we would test the opinion of an advocate, it must be by the written digest or code of laws; if the prescription of a physician, by the established rules of medical science; if questions of geometry, by the axioms and demonstrations of mathematics; and if we would test questions of theology, it must be by the sacred Scriptures, the revealed word of God. To try them by any other means, would be equally absurd as to apply to gold the tests of jurisprudence, or to jurisprudence the tests of chemistry. What, then, was the test which was possessed by the disciples to whom St. John wrote?
Do I hear one say, "It was the unanimous consent of the Fathers"? But alas! I can find no such consentaneous agreement in their writings. Besides, the Fathers, as they are termed, had not as yet existed in the days of the disciples, to whom St. John addressed this epistle. They could not then test any doctrine by the writings of men as yet unborn. They must, therefore, have had some other standard.
Do I hear a second say, "It was the decrees and decisions of councils by which they were regulated?" But I find these councils issuing contradictory decrees, and for the most part so unlawfully constituted, that I cannot even respect them, much more, can I not bow down to their authority. Besides, at the period in which our text was written, only one council had been held, and in it, only one point had been debated, respecting the rite of circumcision. They could not, therefore, test any other point by the authority of councils, which, at that time, had not existed. They must have had some other standard.
Do I hear another say, "It was by papal infallibility the matter was decided." But where is this infallibility to be found? Since, LIBERIUS subscribed to Arianism; HONORIUS was condemned for heresy in three general councils; several popes revoked the decrees of their predecessors; and ADRIAN the VIth taught that "a pope may err, even in matters of faith"! But [17/18] why should I thus argue? No pope existed at the time in which this epistle was written. The apostles themselves were living, and ruling in the church; and the question which the people were called upon to judge was between 'true and false teachers,' between pseudo and genuine apostles. They could not, therefore, refer to papal infallibility for a test. They must have had some other standard.
Do I hear a fourth say, "The grand test was by signs and miracles"? What! Did not false prophets perform wondrous works? Did not our Lord say, "There shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect?" [* Matth. xxiv. 24] And does not St. John, in the Apocalypse, tell us of antichrist that "he deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast"? [* Rev. xiii. 14] Surely, then, this could not be the test. There must be some other standard.
Suppose we carry the question to the Reformers, and ask of them, What is the infallible test of religious truth? They unite in referring us to the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. They tell us, in the language of our Sixth Article, "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or thought necessary to salvation." Everywhere the Reformers circulated the sacred Scriptures, and enjoined upon the people their diligent perusal.
Suppose we should carry this question to the ancient councils, and ask of them, What is the infallible test of religious truth? Uniformly do they admit, that sacred Scripture is a revelation from God and the alone standard of sound doctrine. In the council of Friuli, held in the year 791, under the pontificate of Adrian the First, it was decreed, "Cursed be he who shall dare to diminish from or add unto the things written in this book." Subsequent councils have indeed maintained, that tradition is necessary to interpret it. Yet, they have admitted, that it is the great standard of truth. Thus, Father Fulgentio when [18/19] preaching at Venice on Pilate's question, "What is truth?" [* John xviii. 31] told his hearers that after long search he had found it, and holding out a New Testament said, "There it is, in my hand"; but after a pause he put it in his pocket, saying--"but the book is prohibited."
Suppose we should carry this question to some of the Popes, and ask of them, What is the infallible test of religious truth? Some of them will have the honesty to answer us. Thus, Gregory the XIII, in writing to Philip the II, of Spain, on the subject of the imprinting of the great Bible of Anvers, uses the following language: "As to theology, which is the sovereign philosophy, all the mysteries of religion and divinity are explained in this book; and with regard to morality, you may collect from these books precepts for all virtues, and these two parts comprehend all that relates to our salvation and happiness."
Suppose we should carry this question to the Fathers, and ask of them, What is the infallible test of religious truth? Ireneus says, "The method of our salvation we have not known by any other than those men by whom the gospel came to us, which then they preached, but afterwards by the will of God delivered to us in sacred Scripture, to be for the future the foundation and pillar of the church." [* Iren. L. iii. c. 15] Jerome says, "The true sons of Judah adhere to the sacred Scriptures." [* Jer. Com. in Isa. c. 19] Augustine calls Scripture "the divine balance for weighing of doctrine." "The holy Scripture fixeth the rule of doctrine." [* De Bap. con. Don. L. ii. c. 6] Tertullian, Basil, Cyril, Chryostom, with a host of others, all testify to the same fact, that the Bible is the only true standard of religious doctrine.
Suppose we carry this question one step higher and ask of the Apostles themselves, What is the infallible test of religious truth? They refer us to the sacred oracles. They tell us that they "said none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come"; [* Acts xxvi. 22] that the church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone"; [* Eph. ii. 20] that "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, [19/20] for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." [2 Tim. iii. 18]
Further proof is needless. This is the true and only standard of faith and morals,--the true touchstone by which we may distinguish the real gold of Truth from the counterfeit and tinselled metal of Error,--the true balance of the sanctuary, by which all opinions must be weighed. By this means, the primitive disciples distinguished between true and false apostles, and by it we may do the same.
By this means let us also test the doctrines of Rome. The Scriptures tell us that we must diligently search the word of God. "We have," says St. Peter, "a more sure word of prophecy, whereunto ye do well that ye take heed," [* 2 Pet. i. 19] but Rome forbids us to look upon it, under pain of her anathema. The Scriptures tell us, that "There is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved." [* Acts iv. 12] But Rome instructs us, that by the merits of saints we may obtain salvation. The Scriptures tell us, that "we are not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ." [* 1 Pet. 1, 19] But Rome tells us, that we may buy pardon for sin by money. Let us bring in like manner all her doctrines to the test--"To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them." [[* Isa. viii. 20]
In like manner, let us test the dogmas of those innovators who have lately sprung up in our church, and see if they are not trying to taint us with the same moral leprosy and bring us into bondage. They tell us, that "Baptism imparts to us remission of sins," but Scripture tells us, that "the like figure whereunto even baptism doth even now save us (not the putting away the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience towards God) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." [* 1 pet. iii. 20] "In Jesus Christ, neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love." [* Gal. v. 6] They tell us, that "baptism imparts to us a new nature,"--"the germ of a new and spiritual life." But Scripture tells us, "Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth." [* James i. 18] "Being born again, not of corruptible seed but of [20/21] incorruptible by the word of God." [* 1 Pet. i. 23] They tell us, that "we are justified by our own works;" but Scripture tells us, that we are "justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." [* Rom. iii. 24] They would have us to submit to their dictation and domination, but Scripture tells us, "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind." [* Rom. xiv. 5] "Let every man prove his own work; and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another." [* Gal. vi. 4] If by this means we test their various doctrines, like the touch of Ithuriel's spear, it will disarray them of their assumed and borrowed garb, and cause them to start, in their own native deformity, to view.
Dare, then, my Brethren, to think for yourselves,--to examine for yourselves,--to decide for yourselves. Learn to distrust the man, be he who he may, that would deny you this prerogative. Whatever pretensions he may make, or with whatever office he may be invested, though a Bishop or an Apostle himself, he is an enemy to your soul, a traitor to the church. His friendship is like that of Joab to Amasa, who concealed the deadly weapon that should stab him to the heart. It is like the love of Delilah for Samson, who shared him of his locks that the Philistines might blind and enslave him.
Judge, I say, for yourselves. The very men who deny the right of private judgment to others, always claim and exercise it themselves. Why does any man become or continue to be a member of Rome rather than of the Protestant Church? Is it not, because in his judgment the former is the best? Why does he defer to the decrees of Trent rather than those of Geneva? Is it not, because he deems the former more correct? Why does he rely upon the faith of his Bishop rather than on the teaching of the Scriptures? Is it not because he judges it safer so to do? In all these things they exercise their private judgment. Why should not we do the same?
Brethren, we are in peril. Deceivers and seducers are multiplying around us and assailing our faith. Think not that I speak harshly. "If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for the battle?" [* 1 Cor. vi. 4] "If the watchman see the sword coming and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not [21/22] warned; if the sword come and take away any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand." [*Ezek. xxxiii. 6] Awed by such sanctions, I lift a warning voice and announce that we are in peril. In God's name, I bid you to be doubly diligent in your scrutiny of religious teachings. If our right to an estate is disputed, we examine more closely our title-deeds. If the mariner get among shoals and quicksands, he examines more studiously his chart, and takes more frequently his soundings. If false coin be abroad, we test more severely whatever may be offered. Be not deceived by the boastings of any who clamour, that they only are the true Church. Scripture exhorts us, "Trust ye not in lying words, saying, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these." [* Jerem. vii. 4] Be not imposed upon by sanctimonious austerities and punctilious ceremonials, for Scripture tells us, that "false prophets shall come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." [* Matth. vii. 15] Let not pomp or multitude mislead you, for Scripture tells us, that "strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." [* Ib. verse 14] There was only one Moses amid the courtiers of Pharaoh, only two honest men among the twelve spies that searched out the land of Canaan, only one Micaiah among a multitude of false prophets in the days of Ahab, only three Hebrew children in the court of Babylon who would not worship the golden image.--In a word, let nothing weigh with you but the word of the Lord.
Let the sacred Scriptures, then, be the subject of your constant and diligent study. "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom." [* Col. iii. 16] Then shall you "discern the things that differ, and approve things that are excellent." [* Phil. i. 10] Then shall "your faith stand, not in the wisdom of man but in the power of God." [* 1 Cor. ii. 5] Then no errors shall seduce you. You will overcome all the powers of darkness "by the blood of the Lamb and the word of his testimony." [* Rev. xii. 11] Your maxim will be that of Chillingworth, "THE BIBLE, THE BIBLE ALONE IS THE RELIGION OF PROTESTANTS."