Saturday, May 27th, 2023
Eve of Pentacost
Eve of Pentacost
Simeon's Horae Homileticae Horae Homileticae
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Matthew 7". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ shh/ matthew-7.html. 1832.
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Matthew 7". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://studylight.org/
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AGAINST UNCHARITABLE JUDGING
Matthew 7:1-2. Judge not that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
AMONGST the many faults with which the Pharisees of old were chargeable, that of censoriousness appears to have been peculiarly prominent. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Pharisee is represented as condemning his fellow-worshipper, and building his own reputation on the ruin of his. To correct that evil disposition, our Lord proceeds to shew the danger of indulging it. We must not however limit his observations as though they were applicable to that people only; for they are of general utility; and the subject they refer to is as necessary for our consideration as for theirs. Some indeed imagine, that a sermon upon such a subject as this is scarcely to be called evangelical: but it should be remembered, that in the Gospel there are two things, a foundation, and a superstructure; that both of them are necessary to a complete building; and that if the distinction between their respective uses be kept in view, they equally tend to the edification of our souls.
In discoursing on the words before us, we must notice,
The prohibition, though given in general terms, must of necessity be limited: and it is of great importance to have its limits clearly defined. We shall therefore,
Point out what is not included in it—
[It does not forbid the exercise of magisterial judgment. Magistracy is of God’s appointment. It was ordained by him for the restraining of iniquity; and those who are invested with it are “not to bear the sword in vain [Note: Romans 13:1-7.].” They must hear, must judge, must determine, must enforce and execute the laws: and they who fulfil their magisterial duties with zeal and uprightness, are to be regarded among the brightest ornaments and the richest blessings of a land.
It does not forbid the forming of a discreet judgment, whether of things or persons, for the regulation of our own conduct. We are rational beings, and must walk agreeably to the dictates of reason and religion. Are any things proposed to us for adoption? We must examine whether they be worthy of our choice: we must “prove all things, and hold fast that which is good [Note: 1 Thessalonians 5:21.].” Do any persons tender their advice, and profess to have their views rectified by the word and Spirit of God? We must not immediately take for granted that they are right, or yield ourselves implicitly to their direction: “Believe not every spirit,” says St. John; “but try the spirits, whether they be of God [Note: 1 John 4:1.].”
It does not forbid our declaring of the judgments of God against sin and sinners. When we state, that “the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men,” we are considered by many as violating the rules of charity. But charity does not require us to confound good and evil, or to contradict the plainest assertions of Holy Writ: it would be no charity, but rather the greatest cruelty, to act thus: and it is at the peril of our souls to do so [Note: Isaiah 5:20.]. We must “in any wise rebuke a brother [Note: Leviticus 19:17.]:” we not only must “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but must rather reprove them [Note: Ephesians 5:11.].” It was no violation of this law when Paul reproved Peter for his dissimulation [Note: Galatians 2:11-14.]: nor will it be any infringement of our duty to declare, that “the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God,” or to suspend from intercourse with ourselves, and from the communion of the Church, an offending brother [Note: 1 Corinthians 5:11-13.].
Doubtless, if these things be done in an uncharitable spirit, they are wrong: but, if done with kindness, and from a sense of duty to God, they will be approved and applauded by him.]
Mark distinctly what is forbidden—
[The judgment which we pass on others is then faulty, when it is needless, unfounded, hasty, or severe.
We are not appointed judges over all mankind; nor have we a right to summon all our fellow-creatures to our bar. If their actions do not concern us, we should let them pass without presuming to pry into the merits of them. We are not to be “busy- bodies in other men’s matters.” God repeatedly puts the question to us, “Who art thou that judgest another?” The same question we should put also to ourselves: “What right have I to judge him? what call? what occasion?” And if no necessity is imposed upon us, we should leave the exercise of judgment to those to whom it properly belongs.
Not unfrequently do men form a judgment without any just or adequate grounds. There is a strong propensity in the human mind to indulge prejudice, and to harbour unkind thoughts both against individuals and bodies of men without any specific reason. When this is done, we readily listen to any report against the object of our aversion, and put a bad construction upon every thing he says or does. It was thus that our Lord was treated by the Scribes and Pharisees: though he “spake as never man spake,” and was altogether “without sin,” yet they always found fault with him, and loaded him with all manner of accusations. The same kind of prejudice still operates in the minds of many, especially against religious characters; so that if a person be only branded with some opprobrious name, it shall be sufficient to degrade him in their eyes, and to give validity to every calumny that malice can invent. Indeed where religion is out of the question, such “evil surmisings” frequently arise; and a mere look, or motion, or word, that was perfectly innocent, shall be construed into a grievous offence, and be made an occasion of vehement indignation. That such judgment as this is wrong, needs no proof: it is too palpable a violation of the golden rule to admit of the smallest defence. Happy would it be if religious people themselves were not too often blameable on this account. They are but too prone to lay a stress on matters of indifference, and to condemn those who differ from them, as severely as if their practice were ever so criminal. But, however this conduct be cloked with a plea of religion, it is most hateful in itself, most injurious to the Church, and most offensive to God [Note: Romans 14:3.Colossians 2:16; Colossians 2:16.].
But further, if our judgment have some foundation, yet is it faulty, if it be rash. We should give to every person an opportunity of assigning the reasons of his own conduct. It is the motive which chiefly stamps the quality of an action; and, till we have ascertained the principle from which any thing proceeded, we never can form a proper estimate respecting it. What injustice was there in the construction which Michal put on the conduct of David when he danced before the ark [Note: 2 Samuel 6:16; 2 Samuel 6:20.]! Had she waited till she was informed respecting the reason of his gestures, which appeared to her in such an unfavourable light, she would have seen cause rather to adore God for him, than to load him with such bitter reproaches. On the other hand, the benefit resulting from inquiry may be seen in the termination of the cause between the Reubenites and the other tribes, on the subject of raising an altar on the side of Jordan. Had not inquiry been made into the reasons of that act, thousands of lives would have been lost in causeless warfare: whereas, on an explanation of the matter, the act was approved, and every heart was filled with joy [Note: Joshua 22:9-34.]. A similar effect was produced by Peter’s explanation of his reasons for going to eat with uncircumcised Gentiles [Note: Acts 11:2-4; Acts 11:18.]. The law of Moses, and even the Roman law, required, that no man should be condemned unheard [Note: John 7:51.Acts 25:16; Acts 25:16.]: and certainly the same equitable rule is proper to be observed by us also [Note: John 7:23-24.].
It is possible, however, that where we have cause for censure, our judgment may be too severe. The act which we condemn may have been wrong, and the principle may have been wrong also; but yet there may have been many circumstances to palliate the fault; and, if we do not take them into consideration, we shall load the offender with an unmerited degree of blame. In like manner, if because of a single act we impute to him a habit of any sin; or if because one or two persons have done any thing amiss, we impute blame to all the body or party to which they belong; this is a most unjustifiable severity, though, alas! it is but too common. It was in this manner that David’s enemies acted, when they made his sin an occasion of condemning religion altogether, and of “blaspheming the very name of that God” whom he professed to serve. And the Apostle tells us, that such would be the effect of misconduct in religious persons, whether servants or others, that “the way of truth would be evil spoken of,” and that “the name of God and his doctrine would be blasphemed [Note: 1 Timothy 2:5; 1 Timothy 2:51 Timothy 2:5.].” But the persons who indulge such unhallowed tempers will ultimately be the victims of their own severity.]
Such are the limits of the prohibition before us. Let us now proceed to notice,
The considerations with which it is enforced—
There is frequently, though not always, a visible correspondence between the work and the reward of men, even in this life. “With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful,” says the Psalmist; “and with an upright man thou wilt shew thyself upright; with the pure thou wilt shew thyself pure; and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself froward [Note: Psalms 18:25-26.].” In the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount we have many expressions to the same effect. Now this consideration should operate to guard us against indulging uncharitable censures: for if we do, we may expect,
A similar recompence from man—
[People are invariably grieved when they are loaded with unmerited blame: and though they may not have it in their power to punish the injurious person in any other way, they will almost universally repay him, measure for measure, according to his desert. This is a species of revenge which every man has within his own reach, and can indulge without much danger of reprisal. Accordingly we find, that a censorious and uncharitable man, though listened to on account of the fondness which all men have for scandal, is yet disliked and dreaded by the neighbourhood in which he dwells; because the very persons who listen to his censures, expect that they themselves in their turn shall be the objects of his invective. A man that is kind and amiable, and ready to make allowance for the frailties of others, will usually find reciprocal kindness at the hands of others: but the harsh, uncharitable, censorious person has little to expect but merited hatred and general condemnation. If, like Adoni-bezek, we exercise wanton cruelty towards men, we cannot hope for much mercy when we fall into their power [Note: Judges 1:7.]. We do not indeed justify this kind of recrimination, because it is the duty of all to render good for evil, blessing for cursing: but, where divine grace has not subdued the vindictive principle, men will “measure to us according as we mete to them.”]
A suitable recompence from God—
[God considers the sin of censoriousness in a far different light from that in which it is generally viewed. He regards it as an invasion of his right, and an usurpation of his prerogative: and the indignation with which he addresses those who presume to judge their brethren, is perhaps as marked as any that is expressed on any occasion whatever: “He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another [Note: James 4:11-12.]?” So again by another Apostle, “Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth.” “Why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? We shall all stand at the judgment-seat of Christ. Let us not therefore judge one another any more [Note: Romans 14:4; Romans 14:10; Romans 14:13.].” “It is a righteous thing with God to recompense” good or evil unto men according to their conduct towards others [Note: 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7.]: and these are solemn warnings: and, if we will not attend to them, we shall disobey them at our peril: for the express determination of God is this, “He shall have judgment without mercy who hath shewed no mercy [Note: James 2:13.].”]
Search out diligently your own frailties—
[Those who are most inattentive to their own faults, are most observant of the faults of others, and most harsh in passing censures upon them. If we did but see the numberless evils that we have committed, and the base motives by which our more specious actions have been defiled, we should blush and be confounded before God; and, like those who accused the adulterous woman before our Lord, should find other employment than that of casting stones at others [Note: John 8:9.].]
Consider what mercy you have received at the Saviour’s hands—
[How justly might he have left you, as he did the fallen angels, to receive the due reward of your sins! Yet, instead of that, he pitied your state; he came down from heaven in order to apply a remedy; he even shed his own precious blood to wash away your guilt, and to cover it from the sight of an offended God. Go now, with this mercy before your eyes, and gratify your spleen in censuring and condemning your fellow-creatures. No; you cannot do it, if your minds be suitably impressed with the mercy you have received. Go then, and imitate your Lord; and exercise that “charity that shall cover a multitude of sins.”]
Cultivate a spirit of love towards all mankind—
[See how you are accustomed to act towards those of your own family, or of your own party: how ready are you to veil or to extenuate their faults! Think also how tender you are towards your own faults; and how ingenious in finding excuses for any thing which you have done amiss. Deal thus then with all mankind: regard them all as your friends, and love them as yourself. Only think what, in a change of circumstances, you would judge it right for them to do to you, and let that be the rule of your conduct towards them. Would you have them manifest towards you the “love that helieveth all things and hopeth all things?” exercise it towards them. Where their conduct will admit of a favourable construction, fail not to view it on the charitable side: and where necessity compels you to condemn, still cast a veil of love over their transgressions, and hide them, as far as the rights of justice, and the good of the community will permit. If judged yourselves, “let it be a small matter to you to be judged of man’s judgment:” and be content to leave both yourselves and others to the judgment of a righteous God [Note: 1 Corinthians 4:3-5.].]
THE BEAM AND THE MOTE
Matthew 7:3-5. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
OBSERVATION and experience shew, that the less any person is acquainted with his own infirmities, the more he will be disposed to censure the infirmities of others. But as such a disposition is totally repugnant to that love which Christianity inculcates, our Lord cautioned his hearers against it, and taught them, in the parable before us, to scrutinize and reform themselves before they presumed to take upon themselves the office of censuring and reclaiming others.
In this parable we may observe,
The evil of censoriousness—
Censoriousness is a compound of pride and malice. It originates in a high conceit of our own worth, and a desire to reduce others to a level with ourselves, or to a state below us. It is an evil,
Base in itself—
[The man who censures others professes a high regard for virtue, and a zeal for the honour of God. But what regard has he for virtue who does not cultivate it in his own soul? or what zeal has he for the honour of God, who does not bring his own heart into an obedience to his will? Even supposing that he were not himself notoriously faulty in other respects (which supposition however will never be found true) how flagrant is his breach of duty at the very instant he pretends such a regard for duty! He violates the most acknowledged principle of common equity; he acts not towards others as, in a change of circumstances, he would think it right for them to act towards him; and therefore at the very instant he condemns others, he unwittingly condemns himself. Who does not see the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who were indignant with our Lord for working miracles on the sabbath, while they themselves were conspiring against his life? Such, in their degree, are all they, who are offended with a mote in their brother’s eye, while they have a beam in their own. Well therefore does our Lord address them by that humiliating appellation, “Thou hypocrite.” A baser character than this can scarcely exist.]
Injurious to our neighbour—
[Every person values his reputation, and esteems the loss of it as a great misfortune. But in judging any man with severity, or exposing needlessly his faults, we rob him of his good name, and impoverish him without enriching ourselves. How injurious such conduct is we may see, if we will only consider what we feel when we are rigorously or unjustly censured. The sensibility we manifest, and the keen resentment we express, are sufficient indications of the injury which we suppose ourselves at least to have sustained.]
Insulting to our God—
[God claims it as his prerogative to judge. As he alone is privy to all the circumstances of any case, he alone can judge of it aright: besides, he has appointed a day wherein he will display his righteousness, in awarding to every one a judgment suited to his real character: and he requires us to defer our judgment till that time [Note: Romans 14:10. 1 Corinthians 4:5.]. But in taking upon ourselves to censure and condemn others we invade his prerogative, we usurp his power, we set ourselves in his throne, we supersede, or anticipate at least, his judgment. In this light censoriousness is often stated by God himself; and a holy indignation is invariably expressed against those who shall presume to indulge it [Note: Romans 14:4.James 4:11-12; James 4:11-12; James 2:13.].]
Our Lord having exposed the unreasonableness and impiety of this sin, gives,
The advice properfor those who are addicted to it—
The evil here reprobated is but too common, and that too, even among the professors of religion: yea, perhaps, (their profession not being sufficiently tempered with humility and love) they are more exposed to it than others, from a mistaken idea, that their professed regard for religion entitles them, as it were, to the office of censors. But to every one who has been guilty of it we should say,
Consider your own great and manifold infirmities—
[There is no greater antidote to censoriousness than this. While we continue ignorant of ourselves, we shall consider our own faults as few and venial, and shall be disposed to magnify whatever we may see amiss in others. But a knowledge of our own hearts will convince us, that if there is “a mote in our brother’s eye, there is a beam in our own.” We may conceive many extenuating circumstances that may lessen the enormity of his conduct; but we shall know many aggravating circumstances to which God and ourselves alone are privy, which may serve to heighten our guilt, and to humble us as the very chief of sinners. When the woman taken in adultery was brought to our Lord, he bade those of her accusers who were without sin to execute the law upon her. We all know the effect which a conviction of their own personal guilt produced upon them [Note: John 8:7-9.]. Thus shall we also drop the stone which we have taken up to cast at our neighbour, when once we are acquainted with our own vilencss.]
Recollect the relation in which he, whom you would condemn, stands to you—
[As every person wishes to conceal his own faults, so he will be ready to extenuate the faults of those who are near and dear to him. We do not usually hear men descanting on the infirmities of their parents or children, their wife or brethren. Now the person whom the calumniator would traduce, is his brother. No less than thrice in the short space of the text is this endearing appellation given to our neighbour. Is he not entitled then, from this consideration, to some portion of that regard which we pay to our more immediate relatives? Should we officiously pry into his defects? Should we presume to criminate his motives? Should we judge of his general character by a single act; or take an instance or two of indiscretion, and consider them as fixed and accustomed habits? Surely our “brother” should receive far different treatment at our hands. We should cast a veil over his infirmities, and exercise towards him that charity which hopeth all things and believeth all things [Note: 1 Peter 4:8. 1 Corinthians 13:7.].]
Purge your own heart from evil, that you may be the better qualified to reprove or advise others as occasion shall require—
[As persons who dispense the laws must of necessity pass judgment on those who are brought before them, so must all the members of Christ’s Cliurch administer fraternal correction or reproof to each other [Note: Leviticus 19:17. Ephesians 5:11.]. It is not all judgment that the text forbids, but all harsh and severe judgment. It prohibits an over-officious prying into the faults of others, and a needless exposing of them to the world; but it leaves us at liberty to give that reproof which is necessary for the reclaiming of an offending brother. But to admonish others with effect, we must attain some measure at least of purity ourselves. Let every one then begin with rectifying his own conduct. Let every one be solicitous to cast the beam out of his own eye, that he may afterwards assist with more propriety and effect in pulling out the mote from his brother’s eye. We must not indeed stay till we are perfect before we attempt to benefit our brother; but we should study to attain an unbiassed judgment, and should hide the lancet in a sponge if we would open an imposthume; and in every case we should regulate our endeavours with charity and discretion.]
CAUTION TO BE USED IN REPROVING
Matthew 7:6. Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you,
IN the holy Scriptures there are not only such directions as are necessary for the saving of the soul, but such also as are of a prudential nature, calculated for the rectifying of our judgment, and the regulating of our conduct, in less important matters. A pious person would obtain salvation, though he should not be discreet in his mode of communicating instruction or reproof to others. But it is desirable that “the man of God should be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works:” and therefore he should attend as well to those admonitions which are of secondary importance, as to those which relate to the fundamental points of faith or practice. The words before us are connected with the prohibition respecting the judging of others. To judge others uncharitably will expose us to similar treatment from them, as well as to the displeasure of Almighty God. Before we presume to judge others at all, we ought to be diligent in searching out and amending our own faults; without which we are but ill qualified to reprove the faults of others. We ought also to consider the state of the person whom we undertake to reprove: for if he be hardened in his wickedness, and disposed to resent our well-meant endeavours, it will be more prudent to let him alone, and to wait for some season when we may speak to him with a better prospect of success. Such is the import of the caution in our text; from whence we may observe,
That religious instruction is often most unworthily received—
The value of religious instruction is but little known—
[Education in general is esteemed one of the greatest blessings we can enjoy; nor is any sacrifice, whether of time or money, deemed too great for the obtaining of the benefits arising from it. A richly-furnished mind, a cultivated taste, a polished manner, are distinctions which the richer part of the community particularly affect: and they are most envied who possess in the highest measure such accomplishments. But divine knowledge is considered as of little worth: though it would enrich the soul beyond all conception, and adorn it with all the most amiable graces, and is therefore most fully characterized by the name of “pearls,” yet has it no beauty, no excellency, in the eyes of carnal men: the generality are as insensible of its value as swine are of the value of pearls, which they would “trample under their feet” as mire and dirt. Of this however we may be assured, that instruction, even though it be in a way of reproof, lays us under the deepest obligation to him who gives it [Note: Proverbs 25:11-12.].]
Many, instead of being pleased, are only irritated and offended at it—
[Nothing under heaven has ever given more offence than this. Men may utter lewdness and blasphemy, and create but little disgust: but let them bear their testimony against sin, or proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ, and instantly an indignation is excited in every bosom. In the house of God indeed a certain licence is allowed, provided the preacher be not too faithful: but in a private company the mention of such things is considered as a death-blow to social comfort, and is reprobated as an insufferable nuisance. Even in the public ministry those who “labour with fidelity in the word and doctrine” are not unfrequently treated with every species of indignity. No name is too odious for them to bear, no opposition too violent to be raised against them.
It is supposed indeed by some, that the offence excited by ministers arises from the erroneousness of their statements, or the injudiciousness of their manner. But what then shall we say to the treatment which Christ and his Apostles met with? Did our blessed Lord want any qualification that could recommend his doctrine? Did he not exhibit “the meekness of wisdom,” and “speak as never man spake?” And was not Paul guided and instructed by God himself in his ministrations? Yet were both he and his Divine Master represented as babblers and deceivers; and one cry was raised against them both, “Away with them; it is not fit that they should live.”
Nor is it more against the doctrines of Christianity that this prejudice exists, than it does against its practice. The doctrine of “Christ crucified is still to some a stumbling-block, and to others foolishness:” and the same anger that rankled in the bosoms of Herod and Herodias against John, who condemned their incestuous connexion, is called forth at this time against any one who shall condemn the customs of the world [Note: It is said of Herodias, ἐνεῖχεν αὺτῷ, which we translate “She had a quarrel against him” but the idea seems to be, “She fastened on him, like a dog,” that would tear him to pieces. Mark 6:19.]. Our Lord’s words may still be used by all his faithful followers, “The world hateth me, because I testify of it that the works thereof are evil [Note: John 7:7.].” Doubtless the inveteracy of wicked men will shew itself in different ways and different degrees, according to the different circumstances under which it is called forth: but no times or circumstances have ever superseded the necessity of attending to the caution in the text: there ever have been multitudes who would take offence at the kindest efforts for their welfare [Note: Proverbs 9:7-8.], and, like ferocious “dogs, would turn again and rend you.” Reprove iniquity, and you will still be deemed “the troublers of Israel;” and those who are reproved will say of you, “I hate Micaiah, for he doth not speak good of me, but evil.”]
From this aversion which men feel to religious instruction, it appears,
That great caution is to be used in administering it—
The direction in our text was given to the whole multitude of those who heard our Lord’s discourse; and therefore may be considered as applicable,
[Though it is not to be confined to them, it does not exclude them. Doubtless where numbers of persons are assembled to hear the word of God, it is not possible to suit oneself to the disposition and taste of every individual. The rule which God himself has laid down must in such cases be followed: “He that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully [Note: Jeremiah 23:28.].” A minister must “warn men, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear:” he must “commend himself to every man’s conscience in the sight of God,” “keeping back nothing that is profitable unto them,” but “declaring unto them the whole counsel of God.” Still, however, the caution in the text is necessary for him. He should consider the state of his hearers, and should adapt his discourses to their necessities. Our blessed Lord, knowing how full of prejudice the Jews were, “spake the word to them in parables, as they were able to hear it.” In like manner, though we must not seek the applause of man, (for “if we please men, we cannot he the servants of Jesus Christ;”) yet we should endeavour to “please all men for their good to edification:” we should argue with them on principles which they acknowledge; we should be content to give “milk to babes,” and to reserve the “strong meat” for such as are able to digest it. We should pay attention to every thing that may lessen prejudice and conciliate regard: and, though we must not affect “the wisdom of words, which would only make void the cross of Christ,” we should “search out acceptable words,” and be especially careful to “speak the truth in love.” Our great object should be not to “deliver our own souls,” (though doubtless we must be careful to do that,) but principally to “win the souls” of others.]
To Christians in general—
[As “men do not light a candle, to put it under a bed or under a bushel, but to give light to those who are in the house,” so God, when he illuminates any soul, expects that the light he has imparted should be diffused for the good of others. But in endeavouring to instruct others, we should consider the tune, the manner, the measure of instruction, that will be most likely to ensure success. In particular, we should not press matters when our exhortations are contemned as foolish, or resented as injurious. Not that our concern should be about ourselves, as though we feared either the contempt of men, or their resentment; but we should be afraid of hardening them, and thereby increasing their guilt and condemnation. As to ourselves, we should gladly “suffer all things for the elect’s sake:” but for them we should “weep, as it were, in secret places [Note: Jeremiah 13:17.],” and “gladly spend and be spent for them, though the more abundantly we love them the less we be loved.” If, indeed, after all our labour, we find that our efforts are only rejected by them with disdain, we may then with propriety leave them to themselves, and, like the Apostles, bestow our attention on more hopeful subjects [Note: Act 13:45-46. 2 Chronicles 25:14-16.]. As the priests imparted of the holy food to every member of their families, but gave none of it to dogs, so may you give your holy things to others, and withhold it from those who have shewn themselves so unworthy of it.]
We will now apply the subject,
To those who are strangers to the truth—
[From the indifference which is usually shewn to divine things, it is evident that the value of religious knowledge is but little known. If we could inform persons how to restore their health, or how to recover an estate, or how to obtain any great temporal benefit, they would hear us gladly, and follow our advice with thankfulness; but when we speak of spiritual benefits, they have no ears to hear, no hearts to understand: they are ready to say to us, as the demoniac to Christ, “Art thou come to torment us before our time?” But let it not be so with you. Think in what light God represents such conduct [Note: Proverbs 12:1; Proverbs 15:31-32.] — — — what regret you will hereafter feel [Note: Proverbs 5:12-13.] — — — and what augmented punishment you will endure [Note: Matthew 10:14-15.] — — — And may God “open your hearts, that you may attend to the things” that belong unto your peace, before they be for ever hid from your eyes!]
To those who know it—
[Whilst we exhort you to be cautious in admonishing others, we would caution you also against being soon discouraged. Think not every one assimilated to dogs or swine because he resists the truth for a season; but give “line upon line, and precept upon precept,” and “instruct in meekness them that oppose themselves, if God peradventure will give them repentance, and that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, by whom they have been led captive at his will.”
And whilst you take upon you to admonish others, be willing to receive admonition also yourselves. It is not every religious professor that is so open to conviction as he ought to be [Note: Galatians 4:16.], and that will receive reproof like David, esteeming it as “an excellent oil, that shall not break his head [Note: Psalms 141:5.]. Watch over your own spirit, therefore, and exemplify in yourselves the conduct you require in others.]
THE IMPORTANCE AND EFFICACY OF PRAYER
Matthew 7:7-8. Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
WE need not look for a connexion in every part of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount; because the account of it which we have in this Gospel is nothing more than an epitome, in which only the principal heads, together with some important sayings, are recorded. But, if we suppose the words of our text to arise from what has just preceded them, the connexion may easily be found. The commands, to abstain from all uncharitable judgment, and to be intent rather on searching out and removing our own imperfections, and even when the faults of our neighbour are most glaring, to exercise much prudence and caution in reproving him; these commands, I say, are difficult to be obeyed: and therefore our Lord encourages us by the consideration, that we may obtain by prayer whatever wisdom or strength we may stand in need of. The import of the text, however, will be the same, whether we take it as detached from the preceding context, or as connected with it; and it will naturally lead us to set before you the nature, the importance, and the efficacy of prayer.
Prayer is not indeed defined in the words before us; but we may collect from the different terms by which it is designated, what are its inseparable attendants and its characteristic marks;
[The words, “ask,” “seek,” “knock,” must certainly imply a solicitude to obtain some specific object. Now this is the very life and essence of prayer. It is not the posture of the body, or a repeating of any words, either with or without a form, that can be called prayer; but a prostration of the soul before God, accompanied with an ardent desire of acceptance with him. We may confess our vileness in the most humiliating terms, or petition for mercy with the most suitable pleas, or render thanks to God in copious and devout acknowledgments; and yet, if our hearts have not felt what our lips have uttered, we have offered no acceptable service to God; “we have worshipped him in vain, because we have drawn nigh to him with our lips when our hearts were far from him.” Desires in the soul will be accounted as prayer, though not expressed in words [Note: Isaiah 26:8-9. Psalms 38:9. Romans 8:26.]; but words without desires are no better than a solemn mockery.]
[A mere exclamation under an impression of terror cannot be considered as prayer; prayer imports such a desire after divine blessings as engages us in the pursuit of them from day to day; and this also is intimated in the very terms of our text. “Asking” only is not prayer, unless we “seek” also for the things in God’s appointed way; nor is “seeking” sufficient, if we do not, like persons anxious to obtain an answer, continue “knocking” at the door of mercy. We do not indeed deny but that a prayer may be offered by one who speedily turns back again from God; but it is not accepted; and it is of acceptable prayer that we speak; for nothing else deserves the name of prayer. Whatever therefore a person may do on some particular occasion, he prays not to any good purpose, unless he “set his face” determinately to seek after God, and to obtain from him those daily supplies of mercy and grace which his soul needeth. Hence the command of God is, “Pray without ceasing;” “Continue instant in prayer;” “Pray with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, watching thereunto with all perseverance [Note: Ephesians 6:18.]”]
[Here again the terms of our text afford us a correct idea of the duty of prayer. It is evident that when a person “asks,” it is with some hope of receiving; and when he “seeks,” he has some prospect of finding; and if he “knock” at a door, it is with some expectation that it shall be opened to him. Now this, beyond every thing else, marks the true character of prayer. “In the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee,” says the Psalmist, “and will look up [Note: Psalms 5:3.];” that is, I will look up in expectation of receiving an answer to my prayers. It is to the prayer of faith that the promise of an answer is given: “Whatsoever ye shall ask, believing, ye shall receive.” Prayer destitute of this qualification is declared to be of no avail whatever: the man that offers it “must not think of receiving any thing from the Lord [Note: James 1:5-7.].” Hence the true and acceptable suppliant is distinguished as “looking unto God as a servant does to the hand of his master [Note: Psalms 123:2.],” and as “waiting upon God for his salvation [Note: Psalms 130:5-6.].”]
The nature of prayer being explained from the text, we proceed to notice,
[We cannot but observe throughout the whole text the inseparable connexion between the means and the end. It is thought by many that it is unnecessary to pray; because God, being omniscient, stands in no need of information from us; and being of his own nature inclined to mercy, he needs not our importunity to prevail upon him. But these objections betray an utter ignorance of the intent of prayer. Prayer is not intended to give information to God, but to impress our own minds with a sense of our dependence upon him, and to give him glory as the only fountain of all our benefits. Moreover, prayer, though often represented as prevailing with God, is not designed to dispose him to any thing to which he was before averse; but only to bring our souls to such a state as may prepare us for a worthy reception of those blessings which God has previously determined to bestow. Though, therefore, prayer does not answer, nor is intended to answer, the ends which ignorant persons are ready to suppose, it does answer the most valuable ends; which are intimately connected with the salvation of our souls.
But we will suppose that there were no connexion whatever between the means and the end; still, if God has united them, it does not become us to put them asunder; nor can we ever expect the Divine blessing, if we attempt to separate them. Moses was commanded to take his stick, or rod, and with that to work miracles in Egypt. What would he have wrought, if, in contempt of such means, he had left his rod behind him? The Israelites were commanded to march round Jericho on seven successive days, and then to blow with rams’ horns. Suppose they had disregarded these means on account of their inadequacy to produce any important result, would the walls of Jericho have fallen down? Or if Naaman had persisted in preferring the waters of Abana and Pharpar to those of Jordan, would he have been healed of his leprosy? Thus then, whether prayer have any proper effect or not, we must use it as God’s ordinance; and if we will not use it, we shall infallibly lose those blessings, which, in the use of the appointed means, we might otherwise attain. True, it is said of the Gentiles, that “God was found of them that sought him not;” but this refers only to their heathen state: for none ever ultimately found him, who did not walk with him in the daily exercise of faith and prayer: nor can there be found in all the sacred volume one single word that justifies a hope of obtaining any thing at God’s hands in the neglect of this sacred duty [Note: James 4:2.].]
On the contrary, when prayer is offered aright, the whole inspired volume attests,
[Nothing can be more express than the declarations of our text on this subject. The repetition of them is intended to assure us that no man shall ever “seek God’s face in vain.” It is of importance to observe, that in the promises before us there is no limitation whatever, either as to the person asking or the blessing desired. A person may have been as wicked as Manasseh himself, yet shall he not be cast out, provided he come to God with unfeigned penitence in the name of Jesus Christ. It must be remembered, that, since the coming of Christ, it is indispensably necessary that we should offer all our petitions in his name. This, in fact, was done even under the Jewish dispensation: for every penitent was obliged to put his hand upon the head of his sacrifice; and, when the Jews were in captivity, and consequently were unable to offer sacrifices, they must look towards the temple; which was a distinguished type of Christ, “in whom dwelt all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” Let but our prayers be offered in an humble dependence on the sacrifice and intercession of Jesus Christ, and they shall assuredly prevail. God may not indeed answer us immediately; and, it may be, that he may not grant the precise thing which we pray for; but he will answer in the best time, and in the best manner, granting that which eventually will be most conducive to his own glory and to our good. David and the Canaanitish woman were suffered to wait for the blessings they desired [Note: Psalms 40:1-3; Psalms 69:3.Matthew 15:22-27; Matthew 15:22-27.]; and St. Paul, yea, and Christ himself too, were answered, not so much according to the letter, as according to the spirit, of their petitions [Note: 2 Corinthians 12:7-9. Hebrews 5:7.]. But if we tarry the Lord’s leisure, we may be as “confident” of an answer to our prayers, as of our own existence [Note: 1 John 5:14-15.].]
In this subject we may find abundant matter,
[How many have never gone beyond the mere forms of prayer; and remain unmoved even when their self-deceit and hypocrisy are thus plainly set before them! How astonishing is this! Methinks, if God had appointed only one hour in a man’s life, wherein he should be at liberty to avail himself of the gracious promises in the text, one would suppose that the whole universe should not be able to divert his attention from this sacred duty: he would long for the appointed season to arrive; he would meditate beforehand on every thing which he could desire to obtain; and he would employ every moment of the prescribed time in most importunate supplications. So, I say, we might suppose; but experience proves, that, notwithstanding there is not an hour in our whole lives wherein we may not avail ourselves of this privilege, the generality have never found one single hour for that holy employment. But would it be thus if God were for one hour to allow this privilege to those who are shut up in hell? If the doors of hell might be opened for their escape, would they neglect to “knock?” If all the blessings of grace and glory might be obtained by them, would they neglect to “ask?” O then, let us “seek the Lord whilst he is near; let us call upon him, whilst he may be found.” Think what a bitter reflection it will be in the eternal world, that we might have escaped the miseries of hell, and obtained the glory of heaven, by the exercise of humble and believing prayer, and we would not: we did not regard either the one or the other, as worth asking for. O that we may now be convinced of our folly, and not be left to bewail it to all eternity!]
[If God had bidden us do some great thing to obtain his favour, we should have been ready to do it. The poor benighted heathen, what pains and penances do not they undergo to obtain the favour of their gods! Yet no such things are required of us: we have nothing to do, but to “ask, and seek, and knock.” Surely we should rejoice in so great a privilege, and determine to “take the kingdom of heaven by the holy violence” of faith and prayer.
But some are discouraged, because they cannot pray with any fluency or enlargement of heart. Let not this however distress the minds of any. It is humility, and not fluency, that makes our prayers acceptable: and many a person who can only seek the Lord with sighs, and groans, and tears, will find acceptance with him, whilst others, who are admired by men, or filled with self-complacency, will be rejected. Never, from the foundation of the world, was there a better prayer than that of the publican, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”
But some are discouraged because they have prayed long without receiving any answer to their prayers. Let not, however, any despond on this account. God may have answered them, though not precisely in the way that they expected: and the very continuance of their prayers is an evidence that they have not prayed in vain. It is evident at least that God has given them his Holy Spirit, as a Spirit of grace and of supplication; and this is a pledge and earnest of other blessings which they stand in need of. Let them “tarry the Lord’s leisure, and he will comfort their hearts;” “let them wait, I say, upon the Lord [Note: See Isaiah 40:30-31. exemplified by Luke 11:1-4; Luke 18:1-7.].”]
GOD’S READINESS TO GIVE HIS HOLY SPIRIT
Matthew 7:9-11. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
TO argue from ourselves to the Deity, and to conclude that, because we should do, or forbear any particular thing, he would do the same, is, in many cases, extremely fallacious; because many things may be proper as a rule of our conduct towards others, which can in no respect be applied to the moral Governor of the universe. There are, however, some instances wherein such an argument may be urged, not only with propriety, but with great effect. Such an instance occurs in the passage we have now read; in considering which, we shall,
Point out the force of our Lord’s appeal—
Our Lord addresses himself both to our feelings and our judgment—
[Men who cannot understand a logical deduction, may comprehend, without any difficulty, the argument before us. Every one, whether he be a parent or not, knows sufficiently the feelings of a parent, to answer the question here put to him. We can scarcely conceive that any father should so divest himself of all the sensibilities of his nature, as to refuse a piece of bread to his child. Much less can we imagine, that he should mock his child, by offering him a stone; or give him, instead of necessary food, a serpent or scorpion to destroy him. Who then would think of ascribing such a disposition to God? God is the common parent of all his creatures; and he well knows that his Spirit is as necessary for the imparting and maintaining of spiritual life, as bread is for the support of our natural life. Will he then refuse that blessing to us, when we ask it at his hands; and leave us to perish without affording us the needful succour? It may happen, that an earthly parent may be indisposed, by passion or caprice, to do what is right; or he may be disabled through poverty: but there are no such impediments on the part of God, since he is subject to no infirmities; nor is there any thing impossible with him. We may be sure therefore that he will at all times act worthy of the relation which lie bears to his creatures.]
But the force of the appeal lies in the contrast between God and us—
[At first sight the appeal may seem inconclusive, since our children have a claim upon us, but we have none on God; and the gift of a piece of bread bears no proportion whatever to the unspeakable gift of God’s Spirit. But it must be considered that we are “evil,” so evil as to be capable of the greatest cruelties even towards our own children. Instances have occurred, wherein parents have not only murdered, but even eaten, their own offspring [Note: 2 Kings 6:28-29.]; and the treating of them with extreme harshness and severity is no uncommon failing. Yet, with all our proneness to evil, and our readiness, under the influence of passion or temptation, to commit the greatest enormities, there cannot be found a person on earth so depraved, as to act towards his children, in the general tenour of his conduct, in the manner stated by our Lord. But God, on the contrary, is good, supremely, and only good, and therefore incapable of doing any thing, which may in the smallest degree impeach his character. Besides, he has manifested his goodness in that most unparalleled act of mercy, the gift of his own Son; the gift of his own Son to die for us; and that too unasked; and at a time when we were in rebellion against him; and when he knew the treatment which his Son would meet with from an ungrateful world: will he then refuse us any thing? Will he not give us his holy Spirit, when we ask it at his hands [Note: What in the text is called “good things,” in the parallel passage in Luke 11:13. is called “the Holy Spirit.”]; and when he knows that the bestowing of that gift will infallibly terminate in his own eternal glory? It is in this very light that an inspired Apostle states the same argument [Note: Romans 8:32.]; and therefore we may be well assured, that it is unanswerably conclusive.]
That we may not however rest in a mere acknowledgment of this truth, we shall,
Suggest a suitable improvement of it—
Though the great scope of the text relates only to the prospect which we have of receiving answers to prayer,
We may learn from it,
In what light we are to regard God, when we come to a throne of grace—
[Men in general either think of God as a Being that has no concern about this lower world, or as a harsh master, and a severe judge. Accordingly their prayers are either a mere lip-service, in which they themselves feel no interest; or the supplications of a slave under the apprehension of the lash. But we should rather go to him as a Father; we should consider him as a Being able and willing to succour us, yea, infinitely more willing to give than we are to ask. How endearing is that address which we are taught to use, “Our Father, which art in heaven!” If we could approach him with the familiarity, and confidence, of dutiful and beloved children, how sweet would be our fellowship with him, and how successful our petitions! Then, nothing would appear too much to ask, nothing too trifling to lay before him. We should spread before him our every want; and experience, on all occasions, his condescension and grace.]
What we ought principally to desire in all our addresses to him—
[The leading subjects of men’s petitions usually are; that their sins may be pardoned, and their ways reformed: and certainly these are important subjects for our supplications. But the offices of the Holy Spirit are very much overlooked even by the saints themselves: and though God will not altogether withhold his blessings, because we do not ask for them in the best manner, yet certainly it is of importance that we should feel our need of his Spirit, and express those feelings in our petitions to him. We cannot repent or pray, unless God, “pour out upon us a Spirit of grace and of supplication.” We cannot know either our disease or our remedy, unless the Spirit be given to us “to convince us of our in-dwelling sin, and of the Saviour’s righteousness.” It is the Spirit’s office “to glorify Christ, and to take of the things that are his, and shew them unto us.” If we would “mortify the deeds of the body, it must be through the Spirit’s” influence: if we would bring forth the fruits of righteousness, it must be through the operation of the same Spirit, whose fruits they are. Every act of the spiritual life must be performed by the intervention and agency of God’s Spirit. As Christ is all in procuring salvation for us, so the Holy Spirit is all in imparting salvation to us. Our illumination and strength, our sanctification and comfort, are all his gifts; and therefore we should continually acknowledge our dependence upon him, and ask of God the communications we stand in need of. The importance of this is strongly marked by St. Matthew, who, relating the substance of our Lord’s discourse, says, “How much more shall your heavenly Father give good things to them that ask him?” but St. Luke sums up all good things in this, the gift of the Holy Spirit; because, without that gift, all that we possess is of no value; and with it, we cannot want any thing that is good.]
The efficacy and importance of prayer—
[Since God has so strongly declared his readiness to give us his Spirit, we may be well assured, that he will not refuse us any thing else: “we may ask what we will, and it shall be done unto us.” But, on the other hand, we can expect nothing without prayer: “God will be inquired of by us [Note: ver. 10.],” even for those things which he has promised to give us; nor will he give, if we neglect to ask. This also is intimated in the text itself; his favours are limited to them that ask him. It is true indeed, that the first desire after what is good is inspired by him; and, as far as relates to that, “he is found of them that sought him not, and known to them that inquired not after him:” but when he has once communicated this desire, he expects that it should be cultivated and improved at a throne of grace; nor will he open the gate of heaven to any, who do not knock at it with importunate and believing prayer. And can we think hardly of this condition? What if we ourselves had invited a child to come and ask of us the richest gifts we could possibly bestow upon him, and had done every thing in our power to assure him of our unalterable determination to grant his request; could he reasonably blame us for suspending our grant upon his performance of so easy a condition? or is there a parent in the world who would not say, If you are too proud to ask for it, you shall not have it? Surely then if, through pride, or indolence, or unbelief, we will not make our supplications to God, we may well, yea, we must inevitably, be left to perish.
If this appear awful in one view, in another view it is most encouraging. Many are ready to say, ‘Such an appeal as this affords no comfort to me: were I a child of God, I could not doubt, but that he would give me all that I could ask, with greater readiness than I would give a piece of bread to my beloved offspring: but am I his child? and, if not, what is this assurance to me?’ But behold, as though he had intended to cut off all occasion for such a doubt, our Lord has here dropped the parallel, and says, “How much more will God give his Spirit, (not to his children, but) to them that ask him?” So then we have no occasion to inquire, Am I a child? We must go immediately to God and implore his best and choicest blessings, with a full assurance of success.
Some perhaps may reply, ‘I have tried these means, and found them ineffectual.’ But we are sure either that God has already answered in a way that was not expected, or that he will answer in due time. He is a God that cannot lie; and therefore we have nothing to do but to wait his time. Only let us “continue instant in prayer,” and heaven, with all its glory, shall be ours.]
THE DOING AS WE WOULD BE DONE UNTO
Matthew 7:12. Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.
GOD is graciously pleased on some occasions to take those things which are good in men, for the purpose of illustrating his own ineffable and unbounded goodness. There is scarcely to be found a mother so destitute of feeling as to “forget her sucking child, and not to have compassion on the son of her womb.” ‘Such a monster,’ says God, ‘may be found: “yet will not I forget thee [Note: Isaiah 49:15.].” ’ So, in the words before the text, we are told, that, “evil” as men are, there exists not a father so cruel as to give his child a stone or a serpent, when importuned by him for the food that is necessary for his subsistence: from whence this inference is made; “How much more shall your heavenly Father give good things unto them that ask him.” Such inferences are just and legitimate to a certain extent: but they must not be pressed too far. We must not presume to argue, as many infidels have done, “that because a benevolent man would not punish his enemy to all eternity, therefore God will not:” for there is no parallel between the cases; nor are God’s actions to be measured by such a standard: his written word will be the rule of his procedure; and all conclusions that contradict that, will prove delusive at the last. But though we cannot always argue from what man would do to what we may expect from God, we may safely, and in all cases, infer, from the superabundant goodness of God to us, the obligation which lies on us to exercise all possible degrees of kindness to our fellow-creatures. To this thought we are led by the connexion in which our text stands with the preceding verses. The words we have just read to you are an exhortation founded on the preceding representation of the Divine goodness: and certainly the argument is exceeding strong: for, if God in any case condescends to make our good actions a rule of conduct to himself, much more should we make the unbiassed convictions of our own minds the rule of our conduct towards all.
The direction that is here given us, is as important as any in the whole sacred volume. We shall endeavour to point out,
It is almost dangerous to attempt an elucidation of so plain a command, lest we only obscure, whilst we endeavour to explain it. But it is obvious that something must be supplied, in order to guard against the misconstructions which a caviller might put upon the words. The fact is, that all people do of themselves supply what is wanting in them, without being conscious that the sense which they affix to the words is the result of their own judgment, and not the strict meaning of the words themselves. I say there are two limitations which all people do, though unconsciously, assign to the words, and without which they would not be a just rule of conduct to any man: and these are,
That we must exchange situations, as it were, with the person towards whom we are about to act—
[It would be absurd to say, that we must actually conduct ourselves towards all people precisely as we would wish them to act towards us. There are a thousand menial services, which the more opulent part of the community must have done for them, and which it would be folly and madness in them to go and do for others [Note: Though there are many kind offices which the rich may perform for the poor, there are many which, though required by themselves, they cannot do for others.]. Besides, there are duties arising out of the very situations we hold; and which are not duties to any, except to persons who are so circumstanced. Those, for instance, who are in authority, as rulers, or parents, or masters, are not called to obey their inferiors, because they desire to be obeyed by them. Were we therefore to construe the command without any limitation, we must break down all the distinctions in society, and set aside all the duties which God himself has connected with them. To prevent this, we must suppose the person to be in our situation, and ourselves in his; and then consider, what we should desire and expect from him. If, for instance, we be in authority, we should ask ourselves what treatment we should desire and expect, if we were in the place of our inferiors; and then we should act with all the kindness and condescension towards them, that we, in a change of circumstances, should expect at their hands.]
That we must make, not our inclination, but our judgment, the rule of our conduct—
[It is not sufficient to change places with the person towards whom we are about to act. For, if we put ourselves in the situation of a poor man, we might wish our rich neighbour to divide his property with us: but this is no reason why we should go and act thus: the thing is unreasonable in itself: and, however we might wish it, we should not for a moment think that justice or equity required it. So, if we were to put ourselves in the place of a convicted felon, we might wish the judge not to put the laws in force against us: but that is no reason why we, if sitting in the place of judgment, should not enforce and execute the laws against others. We must not consider so much what we might wish in such circumstances, as what we should, after full and impartial consideration, think right. We should think it right that the judge should investigate our cause with care, and make his decision with equity; and, on the whole, should lean to the side of mercy rather than of severity: but we could never persuade ourselves that felons should be permitted to violate the laws with impunity; because that would render the peaceful members of society a prey to every daring ruffian. It is evident then that we must call in the aid of judgment, and regulate our conduct according to its deliberate and unbiassed dictates.
With the help of these two remarks, we shall be in no danger of misinterpreting the rule before us. Indeed these limitations are so obvious, that, as we said before, they are unconsciously supplied even by the most ignorant of mankind: so that we might have waved all mention of them, if it had not been expedient to mark with precision the limits, which, though generally acknowledged, are but indistinctly seen. In a word, the rule is this: We must consider in all cases what we, under a change of circumstances, should think it right for another to do unto us; and that must be the rule of our conduct towards him.]
Having thus considered the import of the rule, we proceed to shew,
A greater encomium cannot be passed upon it than is in the words before us: “This is the law and the prophets.” But what is implied in this commendation? and what are those particular excellencies which it holds up to our view? It intimates, that the rule is eminently distinguished for the following properties:
It is concise—
[“The law and the prophets” constitute a very large volume; to become well acquainted with which in all its parts, requires no little expense, both of time and labour. But, vast as its circumference is, its lines all meet in this rule, as in their common centre. We speak not indeed of the doctrinal part of this volume, but of the preceptive. This limitation, like those before mentioned, is necessarily implied, though not expressed: and, if we do not bear it in mind, we shall pervert this best of principles into an occasion of the most destructive error. “The law and the prophets” have a twofold use; first, to testify of Christ as the ground of our hopes [Note: Romans 3:21-22.]; and next, to state the law as the rule and measure of our duties [Note: Matthew 22:40.]. To understand the commendation given to this rule as extending to the law and the prophets in the former sense, would annihilate the whole Gospel, and make the death of Christ of no avail. We must therefore understand our Lord as speaking of the law and the prophets only so far as they contain a rule of life. Moreover, when speaking of them expressly in this view, he comprehends the law under two great commandments, The love of God, and The love of our neighbour; and then he adds, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets [Note: Matthew 22:36-40.].” But it is only to this second commandment that the rule in our text refers; and consequently, when we speak of the rule as comprehending the law and the prophets, we must be considered as limiting our assertion not only to the preceptive part of the law, in opposition to the doctrinal, but to that part of the preceptive code which contains our duty to our neighbour. Let it be remembered, however, that there is not a page of the sacred volume which is not replete with instruction upon this point; and that this short sentence in my text is a summary of the whole.
Now if, on every occasion, we had to search the sacred volume for some precept directly to our point, the opportunities of acting would be passed before we had found such a direction as would be satisfactory to our minds. This would be the case even with those who were most conversant with the sacred writings, and much more with those whose time is almost entirely occupied with temporal concerns. But behold, here is a summary, so short, that it is easily remembered; so simple, that it is easily understood; so suited to all occasions, that it is easily applied, by any person, and at any time. Methinks this rule, to a Christian, is like the compass to a mariner. Were the master of a ship destitute of any means of directing his vessel, except those afforded him by the heavenly bodies, he might often be steering a very different course from that which he designed to take: but, by the help of the compass, the most illiterate sailor may know which way to steer: that little portable contrivance will direct him, whether by day or night, whether in a calm or tempest, and that too in every climate under heaven. Precisely thus it is with the Christian: there would be many times and occasions, when, if destitute of this rule, he would not know how to conduct himself aright: but, by the help of this, the most ignorant cannot lose his way: his path in every situation is made plain by it; and the “way-faring man, though a fool, shall not err therein [Note: Compare Isaiah 35:8. with Pro 8:9 and Hosea 14:9.; and mark the difference between those who have, and those who have not, the compass.].”]
It is comprehensive—
[“The law and the prophets” contain directions proper for every person, in every rank, under every situation and circumstance in which he can possibly be placed. Nor is this rule at all less extensive: it will direct the king on his throne no less than the meanest subject in his dominions. There is not any single act, relating either to justice and equity, or to kindness and charity, or even to common decency and civility, which it does not equally embrace, and for which it does not provide a sufficient directory.
Under the Jewish dispensation, the high-priest had an opportunity of ascertaining the mind and will of God by means of his breast-plate. What the Urim and Thummim was, or how it conveyed information to the high-priest, is not positively known: but that God did make use of it in some way to convey to him the knowledge of his will, is certain: nor was there any subject whereon God would not have given him instruction, if he had sought it in a becoming manner. Now we are repeatedly told in the New Testament, that all true Christians are both “kings and priests unto God:” and one of the most distinguished privileges which, as Christians, we enjoy, is a liberty of access to God, every one of us for ourselves, without the intervention of any human being; and a permission to seek direction from him on every occasion. And has not God furnished us with the Urim and Thummim? Yes, he has: this very rule he has given us to carry, as it were, upon our breasts, that it may instruct us in every part of our duty. We may say respecting it, as Moses says of the Gospel salvation, “we need not go up to heaven, to bring it down from above, nor descend into the deep, to bring it up from beneath; but the word is nigh us, even in our mouth and in our hearts [Note: Compare Deuteronomy 30:11-14. with Romans 10:6-9.].” Wherever we are, we need only set ourselves in the presence of God, and, with humble supplications to him, inspect our own bosoms, to see what light this rule will afford us; and we shall assuredly be guided in the right way. Whether we be rich or poor, learned or unlearned, and whether the subject be more or less important, no difference shall be made: if the point relate to states and kingdoms, or if it concern only the smallest branch of moral duty to an individual, it shall equally be made known to us: and if, after that, we err, the error will not proceed from any defect in the rule itself, but from a want of a more perfect discernment of it, or a more just application of it to the point before us.]
It is complete—
[What can be added to “the law and the prophets” to make them more complete? Vain would be the attempt either of men or angels to find in them one single flaw or defect: for whilst they comprehend every species of duty, they supply at the same time every motive for the performance of it: “The word of the Lord is perfect.” The same may be said also of the rule before us. No created wisdom can improve it: no man can find in it any thing either superfluous or defective. Its comprehensiveness and conciseness we have before spoken of: and we may now notice, what indeed still more clearly displays its excellence, its singular operation on the human mind, not merely as a light to direct us in the path we should go, but as an incentive to us to walk in it.
The mode in which this rule operates upon us is this: it takes the most corrupt principle of the human heart, even that root of bitterness from whence every species of injustice springs; it suspends all the operations of that principle on the side of evil, and constrains it to become a powerful advocate of virtue. Selfishness is the real source of all those evils and calamities which men bring on each other. It is to this principle that we must trace the wars of contending nations, the discord of families, the injustice, the fraud, and all the other evils that are found in the transactions of individuals. From this principle it is, that men are universally disposed to expect too much, and to concede too little. Now this rule, requiring us to put ourselves in the place of him towards whom we are about to act, cuts off at once all scope for the exercise of this principle in our own cause, and enlists it into the service of our neighbour: thereby inclining us as much to favour him, as it would otherwise have inclined us to benefit ourselves: at the same time it marks so strongly the reasonableness of true benevolence, as makes us abhor the thought of acting in opposition to it. I may further add too, that whilst this rule operates thus as a stimulus to virtue, a consciousness of having acted agreeably to it is one of the richest rewards that man can enjoy on earth: if a man fail of accomplishing his benevolent purposes, he has a recompence in his own bosom from a sense that he has acted right himself: and, if he attain his end, he has double recompence, the testimony of a good conscience, and the joy of seeing that he has not laboured in vain. Say then, whether this be not justly called the golden rule? Surely, whether we consider the mode of its operation, or its peculiar efficacy, or the delight that invariably proceeds from conforming to it, its value is inestimable: nor can any terms be too strong in commendation of it.]
From this subject we may learn,
The scope and intent of true religion—
[It is surprising what a jealousy prevails in the minds of men with respect to this. Talk of religion, and especially of Christ, and of “the righteousness which is of God by faith in him, unto all, and upon all them that believe;” and a doubt immediately arises, whether you are not an enemy to good works: this is declared to be the proper tendency of such sentiments; and all manner of stories are raked together to countenance the idea. As for those who deny that “the law and the prophets” testify of Christ, and point him out as the only source of “righteousness and strength [Note: Romans 10:4.Isaiah 45:24; Isaiah 45:24.Jeremiah 23:6; Jeremiah 23:6.],” we shall leave them to settle the matter with the Apostle Paul, and with the standard writings of the established Church. We shall at present notice those only who are so fearful about the interests of morality. Now we assert, that, however strongly the doctrine of justification by faith be maintained from “the law and the prophets,” no man that pays the smallest deference to their testimony can fail to insist upon good works. When we read in one part, that “the love of God and of our neighbour are the two great commandments, on which hang all the law and the prophets;” and in another part, that “the doing as we would be done unto, is (in substance) “the law and the prophets;” we are amazed that any human being should be found, who denies the necessity of good works; or that people should be so credulous as to impute this sentiment to all who embrace the doctrine of salvation through a crucified Redeemer. Let the matter be investigated: let it be seen whether Paul was an enemy to good works; whether the great body of our English Reformers were enemies to good works: let us examine the writings of those who now uphold the same doctrine, and see whether they neglect to inculcate and encourage good works. Truly, if people were not blinded by prejudice, they would see that one half at least of the obloquy that falls upon those who are contemptuously called Evangelical, is on account of the strictness of their lives and the holiness of their deportment. But, waving all these considerations, this at least is plain, that, whatever fault there may be in any set of men, “the law and the prophets” stand unimpeached: they, with one voice, require submission to the golden rule, and make the practice of that to be an indispensable test of men’s regard for their testimony. Let this then sink down into our ears; let it be remembered, that the very Scriptures, which inculcate most forcibly the doctrine of salvation by faith in Christ, inculcate also a most exalted morality. The Gospel never did, nor ever will, bring any person to salvation in the way of sin; it is in the way of holiness only, and of a very exalted degree of holiness too, that any man can attain the salvation of the Gospel. Not that holiness will save him; it is the blood and righteousness of Christ that saves him: nevertheless it is an universal and unalterable truth, that “without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” May God write that truth on the hearts of such as disregard good works, (if any such there be,) and especially on the hearts of all who set themselves against the doctrines of salvation through unfounded prejudices against them, as being of a licentious tendency!]
The effect and benefit of true religion—
[This is not to be looked for in the professions, but in the practices of men; yet not in the practice of some easy duties, such as those of generosity and kindness, but in an universal and habitual attention to the rule before us. Where Christian principles have their full operation on the mind, there this rule will be established in the heart, and be exhibited in the life. Take the conduct of the early converts to Christianity; and there you will see the precise change of which we are speaking: and their situations being peculiar, they carried the principle to the extent of selling all their possessions for the support of their poorer brethren. A still more wonderful instance we see in the Apostle Paul, who, from the time of his conversion to Christianity, was willing to do or suffer any thing whereby he might facilitate the progress of the Gospel in the world. Knowing the advantages which, as a Christian, he enjoyed, he was willing even to lay down his own life, if by so doing he might bring others to a participation of them. The same change is still accomplished in the world; only it is less visible; the circumstances of the Church not calling for such a manifest display of it, and the measure of divine grace now enjoyed by the saints being, it is to be feared, more scanty than at that period. But can any one see the effects of religion, even as it is now exhibited, and not confess its excellence? Wherever it prevails, it establishes both in the heart and life this amiable principle: it brings men to do as they would be done unto. Suppose for a moment that one single man, the present disturber of the universe [Note: This referred to Buonaparte, in 1810.], were impressed aright by the Gospel of Christ, and brought under the influence of this principle, how many thousands and even millions of the human race would have reason to rejoice! And, if that principle were universally prevalent, what happiness would pervade the world! Such then is the effect, and such the benefit of true religion. It only remains that we urge you all to cultivate this principle. Let it not be said of any of you, ‘He talks of faith in Christ, but he is covetous, dishonest, passionate, vindictive.’ Let love reign in your hearts; and whilst you profess yourselves to be “trees of righteousness, of the Lord’s planting,” let the “tree be known by its fruit.”]
THE STRAIT AND NARROW WAYS
Matthew 7:13-14. Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
AN idea of candour and philanthropy leads many to adopt sentiments directly repugnant to the Scriptures. They imagine that few, if any, perish; and that, though the bulk of mankind live in a total neglect of God, they find mercy at the last. But no pretence of candour should induce us so to contradict the plainest declarations of God. If there be any truth in the Scriptures, there are comparatively few who go to heaven. And we need to be awakened to a sense of our danger by the exhortation before us. We shall consider,
The duty enjoined—
The path of the ungodly is broad, and the entrance upon it wide—
[There is no difficulty at all in entering upon an ungodly life; we need only, follow our natural bent and inclination. Nor will they who frequent the broad road at all interfere with each other. The gross sensualist, the proud Pharisee, and the specious hypocrite, may have ample scope for their respective pursuits. Sin may be indulged in ten thousand shapes; and “all may go astray, every one in his own way [Note: Isaiah 53:6.].”]
The path of the godly is narrow, and the entrance upon it strait—
[The way of God’s commandments is that to which the godly are confined: and the entrance upon it is by conversion. A man must have seen the evil and danger of his former ways: he must have come to Christ who is “the door [Note: John 10:9.];” and, renouncing every other hope, he must cleave unto Christ with full purpose of heart. Having thus entered, he must go forward in an uniform course of dependence upon Christ, and devotedness to him. This is indeed a strait and narrow way. A partial repentance, a divided trust, a reserved obedience, will not suffice: our contrition must be deep, our faith unfeigned, and our dedication of ourselves to God entire, or we shall only deceive our own souls.]
To enter upon this path is our bounden duty—
[God never intended that men should follow the imagination of their own hearts. He calls us to himself, and invites us by every argument that can affect a rational being. Nor will he leave us to fail for want of strength. If we will exert ourselves in earnest and cry unto him for help, nothing shall be impossible unto us. Difficult as the duty is, it has been performed by many in all ages. We therefore should exert ourselves without delay. We must not stand aloof, doubting and hesitating whether we shall enter upon this way or not; nor must we put off the time of entering upon it to some more convenient season. The command of God is clear and universal, “Enter ye in at the strait gate.”]
We shall see the importance of this duty if we attend to,
The arguments with which it is enforced—
No stronger arguments can be urged than those suggested in the text—
The broad way, however crowded, will infallibly lead us to destruction—
[Every way of sin will destroy the soul: whether it be open and notorious, or secret and refined, it will surely bring upon us the wrath of God. Nor will the numbers of those who walk in any way at all affect the quality of their actions. Sin will be sin, though the whole world should countenance each other in the commission of it. The idolatrous compliance of the Babylonish nation was not the less sinful because it was sanctioned by numbers; nor was the nonconformity of the Hebrew Youths rendered less acceptable to God on account of the fewness of those who dared to follow the voice of conscience [Note: Daniel 3:0.]. Neither indeed will the end of any way be changed on account of the numbers who walk in it. The inhabitants of Sodom, and of the antediluvian world, were not exempted from punishment because they were many. They were overwhelmed, as examples of God’s vengeance to all future ages [Note: 2 Peter 2:5-6.]. Should not this then make us cautious what path we follow? Should it not stimulate us to flee from the destruction to which we are hastening? O! “strive to enter in at the strait gate [Note: Luke 13:24.].”]
The narrow path, however unfrequented, will surely lead us to glory—
[God cannot but delight in holiness; and he will testify his approbation of it in the last day. Was Lot overlooked in Sodom, or Noah in the antediluvian world? So if there were but one faithful servant of God in the whole universe, he should in no wise lose his reward. Every step he took in the good way should be marked by God; and in due season he should arrive at his desired end. And, while tribulation and anguish should be assigned to the disobedient, his patient continuance in well-doing should be rewarded with glory and honour and immortality [Note: Romans 2:7-9.]. Should anyone then be afraid of singularity? Is it not better to be a persecuted Elijah worshipping the true God, than to be an applauded worshipper of Baal? Let the prospect of glory therefore encourage us to enter upon the narrow path; nor let us doubt but that the enjoyment of the end will amply compensate for the difficulties of the way.]
To those who are not yet entered in at the strait gate—
[Perhaps you think that the multitudes by which you are countenanced, afford a reasonable hope that you shall not perish; but it is not possible for God to assert the contrary more strongly than he has done in the words before us, Will you then, in spite of this warning, hope that the saved shall be many, and the damned few? Or will you be contented to perish, seeing that you will have so many companions in misery? Alas! what comfort will it be to you to behold others as wretched as yourself? Will their torments assuage your anguish? O dare to be singular in the midst of a wicked world; and say with Joshua, “As for me, and my house, whatever others may do, we will serve the Lord [Note: Joshua 24:15.].]
To those who are walking in the narrow way—
[You, no doubt, are blamed for your singularity. But “it is a small matter to be judged of man’s judgment.” To be reproached for righteousness’ sake is no new thing. Nor have you any reason to repine if it be your lot. You have rather reason to rejoice and leap for joy [Note: Matthew 5:10-12. 1 Peter 4:12-14.]. Remember, however, that you are not to affect needless singularities, and call them religion. If you bring persecution upon yourselves by such means, you bear your own cross, and not the cross of Christ. That alone which will be pleasing to God is, the following of his commandments. In that you cannot be too exact or resolute. But in indifferent matters it is desirable rather to manifest a meek and yielding disposition [Note: 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.]. Yet compliance may easily be carried too far. And, on the whole, it is expedient always to lean to the safer side. You are in continual danger of being turned out of the good path. Nor can you ever be safe except while you are looking to God for his direction and help [Note: Psalms 119:117.].]
MEN KNOWN BY THEIR FRUITS
Matthew 7:15-20. Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
THE greater part of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount was intended to counteract the errors of the Pharisees, and the false glosses by which they had obscured the law of Moses. But, in the words before us, our Lord seems to have intended to counteract the general influence of the Pharisees. They were in high repute for sanctity among the people, even whilst they were filled with all manner of malignant passions. They pretended to have a high regard for religion; but they were, in fact, the bitterest enemies of all vital godliness. It was of great importance that the followers of Christ should know how to distinguish them: and for that purpose our Lord gave them a rule which, in its use and application, was easy, certain, and universal.
Let us consider,
Against whom we are here cautioned—
The term “prophets,” though often applied to those who foretold future events, is often to be understood of those only, who, like common ministers, were engaged in preaching the word of God. Of these, many were occupied in disseminating error, rather than truth; and therefore they are justly called “false prophets [Note: 2 Peter 2:1. False prophets and false teachers are synonymous.].” They were indeed, for the most part, very fair in their pretences, and specious in their appearance; and in this respect were in sheep’s clothing; but their views and designs were hostile to the best interests of the Church: they were proud, selfish, covetous, worldly, and oppressive; and when any opportunity arose of gratifying their malignant dispositions, they manifested their true nature, and shewed themselves to be no other than “ravening wolves.” Of this kind are they,
Who lower the standard of the law—
[This was the constant aim of the Pharisees: they explained away the spirituality of the law, and reduced it to a mere letter. Their great object was, to reduce all religion to a few unmeaning observances. Against such persons our Lord, not only in this, but in almost all his discourses, guarded his hearers. He represented them as hypocrites, and said, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees, which is hypocrisy.” Against such also it is necessary to guard men in every age. Persons of this description often obtain considerable influence by means of their rank and office in the Church; and make little use of that influence, except to decry all serious religion. Every thing beyond their own attainments they call enthusiasm; and profligacy itself finds more favour in their eyes than true piety. Whatever therefore be their station or their influence, our Lord bids us to “beware of them.” If indeed they sustain the sacred office of ministers, then we must “observe and do whatsoever they enjoin,” so far, at least, as it accords with the word of God. But we must not follow them one hair’s breadth beyond: we must not be led by their influence, either to reject truth, or to embrace error; but must be on our guard against them; and “follow them only so far as they themselves are followers of Christ.”]
Who corrupt and pervert the Gospel—
[Thus it was with the Judaizing teachers: they blended the observation of the Mosaic ritual with an affiance in the Lord Jesus Christ; and thus, in fact, destroyed the very foundations of the Gospel. St. Paul tells us, that they perverted the Gospel, and introduced another Gospel, which was, in truth, no Gospel at all [Note: Galatians 1:6-9.]: and he guards us against them with a holy vehemence, which might appear almost to border on impiety: “If any one, even though he be an angel from heaven, preach any other Gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” “I repeat it,” says he: “if an angel from heaven so corrupt the Gospel, let him be accursed.”
But are there no such teachers in later ages? Yes; in every age of the Church they are very numerous. Men are prone to unite something of their own with the meritorious work of Christ, as a joint ground of their hope; and they are very specious in their arguments: they seem as if they had a great zeal for morality, and were only afraid of countenancing licentiousness. But, whatever be their pretences, we must be on our guard against them. Hear how pointedly the Apostle speaks: “Beware of dogs, beware of evil-workers, beware of the concision.” Beware then of all such persons, and of their fatal errors; for “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified,” either in whole or in part: nor “can any man lay any other foundation than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”]
Who distract and divide the Church—
[Many there were of this description even in the Apostolic age; men who would bring forward their own particular notions with a view to draw away disciples after them. Some would insist upon something under the name of science or philosophy [Note: Colossians 2:8.]: others would deny some of the plainest truths of Christianity [Note: 2 Timothy 2:16-18.]: others would plead for a latitude in the indulgence of some particular sins [Note: Revelation 2:14-15.]: others would exalt one teacher or Apostle above all the rest [Note: 1 Corinthians 3:4.]. In short, they were men of an unquiet, disputatious, forward, contentious disposition [Note: 1 Timothy 6:3-5.]; loving to have any kind of pre-eminence, and to raise their own credit or interest on the divisions and dissensions of the Church [Note: John 3:9. Galatians 6:13.]. Now, says St. Paul, “Mark men of this description, and avoid them [Note: Romans 16:17.].” “Receive them not into your house,” says St. John, “neither bid them God speed [Note: 2 John 1:10.].” And well may we be on our guard against them. Many of them are extremely subtle; and some would almost withstand an Apostle himself [Note: 2 Timothy 4:15.]. But they are only wolves, yea ravening wolves too, in sheep’s clothing; and though they may express much concern for the welfare of the Church, they fatten on the spoils of every fold to which they can get access [Note: Titus 1:10-11.].]
But as it may often be difficult to discern the characters of these men, our Lord lays down,
The rule whereby we are to judge of them—
It is a plain, acknowledged truth, that we must judge of trees by their fruit—
[No person will expect for a moment to find “grapes on a thorn, or figs on a thistle:” common sense will tell him, that every tree has its own proper productions; and that even the fruit it does bear will not be found in perfection, unless the tree itself be good. “A bad tree cannot bring forth good fruit; nor can a good tree bring forth evil fruit.” The quality of the fruit will infallibly mark the quality of the tree itself. If the fruit be good, it will mark the tree to be deserving of culture and regard; but if bad, to merit nothing but excision and the fire.]
Precisely in the same manner we must judge of those who call themselves prophets of the Lord—
[Twice is it repeated, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” We should inquire, What is the fruit of their doctrine upon themselves and on their hearers? If the people themselves be proud, worldly, covetous, and despisers of real piety, we have no reason to think that they will ever produce the opposite dispositions in us. If they be resting on a wrong foundation themselves, they are not likely to build us up upon that which God has laid in Zion. If they be disputatious, contentious, ambitious of pre-eminence among their fellows, they are not calculated to be useful to us in bringing us to a meek, humble, and heavenly frame.
If our access to them be not such as to enable us to judge of their spirit and conduct, then we must endeavour to notice the effect of their doctrines upon others: and if we find that this is altogether unfavourable, we must be on our guard to prevent any evil accruing to ourselves. We may see in the Holy Scriptures, what was the temper, and what the conversation of Christ and his Apostles: and, if we find the word ministered unto us has a tendency to assimilate us to them, we may safely yield ourselves to its influence: but, if it be calculated to lower the standard of real piety, and to make us rest in low attainments, we should beware lest we be led astray by it, and beg of God that nothing may ever “corrupt us from the simplicity that is in Christ Jesus.”
It may be said, that this will lead those who ought to be learners to put themselves in the seat of judgment and to become judges even of their own teachers. But it must be remembered, that it is one thing to erect a tribunal for the exercising of public judgment, and another thing to form a judgment for the benefit of our own souls. The former is wrong, unless we be officially called to it: but the latter is necessary for our own salvation. We are commanded “not to believe every spirit; but to try the spirits, whether they be of God.” We are told also to “prove all things, and to hold fast that which is good.” But this we cannot do, unless we examine what we hear, and bring it to the unerring standard of “the word and testimony.” Though, therefore, we be not qualified to lay down the law for others, we must all judge for ourselves; since on the exercise of that judgment the eternal welfare of our souls depends. And, if we feel ourselves incompetent for the work, we may apply to God for help; assured that “the meek he will guide in judgment;” and that “a way-faring man, though a fool, shall not be permitted by him to err,” in any thing that shall be necessary for the salvation of his soul.]
As a proper improvement of the subject before us, we would recommend to your attention the following advice:
Take care to profit by the ministry that you do enjoy—
[Though we must so far have our judgment exercised respecting the ministry of the word, as to determine whether its general scope be likely to profit us or not, yet, when we have reason to believe that the truth of God is proposed to us, we should not listen to it with critical ears: we should rather receive it with all humility of mind; and “receive it with meekness, as an engrafted word, able to save our souls.” We should not be satisfied with understanding and approving of what we hear, but should endeavour to reduce it to practice. “If we be hearers only of the word, and not doers, we deceive ourselves [Note: James 1:22-25.]” — — — Let us then look well to the effect produced on our own souls, and, “as new-born babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that we may grow thereby.”]
Judge of your own state and character by the fruits you produce—
[If we are concerned to judge of others, much more are we of ourselves: for however wise and pious our instructors may be, it will be of no use to us, unless we be pious ourselves; nor, however erroneous they be, shall we suffer, if we be taught and sanctified by the Spirit of God. We must therefore not be contented with adopting right sentiments; but must take care that they influence us in a becoming manner. We should often bring ourselves to the touchstone of God’s word, and examine candidly what advancement we make in the divine life: knowing assuredly that if we be found cumberers of the ground at last, we shall be cut down and cast into the fire: but, if we have abounded in the fruits of righteousness to the glory of our God, we shall be accepted for Christ’s sake, and be acknowledged by him as good and faithful servants, who shall for ever participate his joy.]
THE NATURE AND IMPORTANCE OF TRUE RELIGION
Matthew 7:21-23. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
THE criterion, by which we are to judge of our spiritual state, is precisely the same as that whereby we determine the nature and value of things around us. As we know the different kinds and comparative excellence of trees by their fruits, so we may ascertain by our works whether we be real, or only nominal, Christians. It is by these that we shall be tried in the last day; and, according as they have been conformable or not to the will of God, will our eternal doom be fixed. Of this we are plainly warned in the words before us; which, as they cannot be rendered more intelligible, but would rather be enervated, by any attempt to explain them, we shall endeavour to impress on our minds by an application of them to our hearts and consciences. There are three distinct characters, to whom, in prosecution of our purpose, we shall address ourselves:
To those who make a profession of religion, but walk unworthy of it—
[Our Lord not only intimates, but expressly declares, that there are “many” who deceive themselves in the matter of religion. It is of infinite importance therefore that we should have just and accurate notions of vital godliness; and that we should bring our experience of religion to the touchstone of God’s word. It is evident that a person may have much, which bears the semblance of piety, while he is far from feeling its genuine influence. He may say, “Lord, Lord,” that is, he may not only profess to believe in Christ, and to submit to his authority, but may profess it with considerable zeal and confidence; he may also preach, and even work miracles, in the name of Christ, and yet be destitute of that, which alone can prove him to be a true Christian. The examples of Simon Magus, and of Judas, sufficiently confirm this melancholy truth [Note: Acts 8:13; Acts 8:23. Joh 6:70-71. For further instances of false confidence, see Psalms 78:35-36. Jeremiah 7:4.John 8:39; John 8:39; John 8:41; John 8:44.]. It becomes us therefore to inquire, not only what notions we entertain, but what effects they produce on our hearts and lives? Are we “doing the will of God?” Are we doing it cheerfully, uniformly, progressively? Do we walk with God, setting him constantly before us, endeavouring to approve ourselves to him in all we do, and worshipping him statedly in the Church, the family, and the closet? Do we act towards our neighbour, as we, in a change of circumstances, should expect him to act towards us? Do we pay a strict regard to truth and honesty in all our dealings? Do we exercise candour in judging, patience in forbearing, kindness in pardoning, generosity in relieving? In short, is love the principle, that regulates all our conduct? And are we conscientiously discharging all our relative duties, as husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, magistrates and subjects? Are we, moreover, duly attentive to the workings of our own hearts, in order to suppress the motions of pride, envy, malice, covetousness, impurity, or whatever else may defile the soul? Are we studious to mortify sin in the thought and desire no less than in its outward actings? Now such is the true way to judge of our state: for only in proportion as we are enabled to practise these duties, have we any scriptural evidence of our acceptance with God. We do not mean that the performance of these duties constitutes the whole of religion: but that our faith in Christ is of no farther value than as it manifests itself by these fruits. If we have not oil in our lamps, whereby we are enabled to make our light shine before men, we shall, like the foolish virgins, be excluded, however confidently we may knock at the gate of heaven in expectation of admittance [Note: Matthew 25:11-12.Luke 13:25-27; Luke 13:25-27.].]
To those who neither practise religion nor profess it—
[The text, though not so directly applicable to persons of this description, may yet suggest to them abundant matter for most serious reflection. While some deceive themselves by a mere profession of religion, there are others who are satisfied with declaiming against hypocrites: who, because they do not pretend to any serious religion, imagine themselves absolved from all obligations to it. But if our Lord does not approve of those who externally honour him, because their lives do not correspond with their professions, can we suppose that he approves of those who openly dishonour and despise him? If they be excluded from his kingdom, shall not these also? If they be disappointed in their expectations, must not the hope of these also be as a spider’s web? If they who can appeal to the judge himself that they have done much for him, be bidden to depart, shall those, who have never done any thing for him, find a favourable acceptance? Let such persons then learn, that to hate hypocrisy in others is to little purpose, unless they hate it also in themselves. The same rule of judgment is established for all. We shall all receive according to what we have done, whether it be good or evil. There shall be one doom for those who abused the Gospel, and for those who rejected it. If to the former it shall be said, “Depart, I never knew you;” of the latter it will be said, “Bring hither those that would not that I should reign over them, and slay them before me.”]
To those, who both profess religion, and adorn it by a suitable conversation—
[Our Lord expressly declares, that they, who do the will of his Father, shall enter into his kingdom: and his testimony is confirmed by numberless other passages of Holy Writ [Note: Psalms 15:1-2; Psalms 24:3-4.Hebrews 5:9; Hebrews 5:9.]. Persons of this description are extremely different from the self-deceiving professors, not only in their practice, but also in their spirit and temper. Instead of making an ostentatious parade of their religion, they are intent rather on cultivating the inward principle: instead of hastily entertaining an assured confidence, they are jealous over themselves with a godly jealousy: and instead of being forward to boast of what they have done for Christ, they are ashamed of their best services, and ready rather to dread his displeasure for what they have omitted, than to claim his favour for any thing they have done. They still have indeed many infirmities: and it is their view of these that keeps them low, and perhaps sometimes fills them with doubts and fears. But God will easily distinguish between the allowed sins of the most specious hypocrite, and the lamented infirmities of the weakest of his children: and while he says to one, “Depart accursed,” he will address the other in terms of approbation and complacency. Though neither leavened or blemished offerings should be presented in sacrifice to God, yet, if presented as free-will offerings, they were accepted [Note: Compare Leviticus 2:11. with 7:13 and 22:21–23.]. Thus shall the imperfect services of his people, if offered with a willing mind, come up with acceptance before him, and be recorded at the day of judgment as evidences of their faith and love. Let the believer then go on in a course of uniform and unreserved obedience: and let him not be discouraged because he does not possess talents that attract the admiration of men: but rather let him study to approve himself to God; and he who seeth in secret, will ere long reward him openly.]
THE WISE BUILDER
Matthew 7:24-27. Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not; for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
IT is of great importance in preaching the Gospel, to discriminate between the different characters to whom we deliver our message, and to separate the precious from the vile. If this be neglected, the wicked will hold fast their delusions, and the righteous continue in bondage to their fears: but if we be faithful in the discharge of this part of our duty, those among whom we minister, will be led to a knowledge of their own proper character and condition. Our blessed Lord, at the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount, shews us how we should apply our subjects to the hearts and consciences of our hearers. In the words before us he describes,
The character and condition of the godly—
Their character is drawn in simple but comprehensive terms—
[“They come to Christ:” this is absolutely necessary to their entrance on the divine life: till they have come to Christ under a sense of their own guilt and helplessness, they have no pretensions to godliness; they are obnoxious to the curse of the law, and the wrath of God [Note: John 3:18; John 3:36; John 5:40.].
After they have come to Christ, “they hear his sayings;” they sit at his feet, like Mary [Note: Luke 10:39.],” desiring to be fully instructed in his mind and will. With this view they study the Holy Scriptures, and “meditate in them day and night:” with this view also they attend the ordinances, and “receive the word, not as the word of man, but as it is in truth, the word of God [Note: 1 Thessalonians 2:13.].”
They do not, however, rest in hearing his sayings; but they go forth to “do them.” They desire to know his will in order that they may do it. They love the most searching discourses, because by them they discover the evil of their own hearts, and are led to aspire after a fuller conformity to the Divine image: nor would they rest, till they feel every “thought and desire captivated to the obedience of Christ.”]
Their condition is exhibited in an apt similitude—
[A man who builds his house upon a rock, shews that, however temperate the weather may be at the time he is building, he expects tempests to arise: and when the storms do come, he feels himself secure, from a consciousness that his house is so constructed as to withstand their violence.
Now a godly man resembles him in foresight and in security. He knows that, though he may at present be able to live in some tolerable comfort without religion, it will not be always so: he feels that, when misfortunes, troubles, sickness, and death shall come, he will be miserable without a well-founded hope of immortality. Hence he will not be satisfied with any religion that will not stand the test of scriptural examination; for he knows that no other will prove sufficient in the hour of trial.
When the storms blow, and the tempests beat upon him, then he finds the benefit of having “digged deep,” and laid his foundation well. Then he stands immoveable secure: the promise and oath of Jehovah are his firm support: Omnipotence itself upholds him. In vain do troubles from without, or temptations from within, assault him: even in the immediate prospect of death itself he retains his confidence, “knowing in whom he has believed [Note: 2 Timothy 1:12; 2 Timothy 4:6-8.],” and assured that Jesus will save him to the uttermost.]
In a perfect contrast to this, our Lord exhibits,
The character and condition of the ungodly—
Their character is the very reverse of that already drawn—
[It is worthy of observation, that nothing is said of their coming unto Christ. Here is their radical defect: had they ever come as perishing sinners to him, they should have wanted nothing for the perfecting of their salvation: but they are too proud to stoop to such an humiliating method of obtaining mercy: they do not feel their desert of God’s wrath, or their need of a mediator: and therefore, though they will compliment Jesus with the name of Saviour, they will not flee to him for refuge as those who know that without him they must for ever perish.
They will indeed “hear his sayings; but they will not do them.” They may take a pleasure in hearing the Gospel preached; and, like Ezekiel’s hearers, attend the ministration of the word with as much delight, as others listen to a musical performance [Note: Ezekiel 33:31-32.]. They may even shew an extraordinary zeal about the ordinances of religion [Note: Isaiah 58:2.], and may alter their conduct, like Herod, in many things [Note: Mark 6:20.]: but there is some darling lust with which they will not part. When their besetting sin comes to be exposed, they draw back, unwilling to have their wounds probed, and their lusts mortified. When they are required to “pluck out their right eye, and to cut off their right hand,” they turn away, exclaiming, “This is an hard saying; who can hear it [Note: John 6:60.]?”
This stamps their character as ungodly. It is not the commission of any gross sin that constitutes men ungodly; but it is the retaining of some bosom lust, the rendering of only a partial obedience to the law, the “not having the heart right with God.”]
The similitude also reversed exactly describes their condition—
[A person who, because the weather is fair, builds his house without any proper foundation, will, as soon as storms and tempests arise, find reason for regret. The house, for want of a foundation, will be undermined, and fall. He will then lose all the labour and money that he has bestowed upon it, and perhaps, with all his family, be overwhelmed in its ruins.
The ungodly man “is like to him” in folly, and in danger. His religion must come to the test at last: if it bear him through his trials in life, and uphold him with some degree of comfort in death, still it can never bear the scrutiny of the judgment day: then every man’s work will be tried as by fire; and that which does not endure the fire, will be burnt up [Note: 1 Corinthians 3:13.]. How will the folly of trusting to vain delusions appear in that day! What regret and sorrow will arise in the mind of him who has laboured so much for nought! And how “great will be his ruin,” when he shall have no shelter from the wrath of God, and when the goodly fabric that he built shall crush him to atoms!
O that we well considered this; and that all of us would build as for eternity!]
Let us learn from hence,
The necessity of practical religion—
[Religion does not consist in mere notions, however just or scriptural; but in a conformity of heart and life to the will of God. We must not, however, mistake, as though our works were the foundation whereon we are to build (that would indeed be a foundation of sand): Christ is the only foundation of a sinner’s hope [Note: 1 Corinthians 3:11.]; the only rock on which we must build: but then we must shew that we do build on him, by the super-structure which we raise upon him: and if the superstructure be not such as to prove that we are founded on him, our hopes of standing in the day of judgment are vain and delusive.]
The excellence of practical religion—
[A house, whose foundation is deep, and fixed upon a rock, will stand, whatever storms or tempests may beat upon it. And thus it is with the practical and consistent Christian. His principles will bear him up in the day of adversity: he may defy all the hosts both of men and devils; for none shall ever separate him from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord [Note: Romans 8:38-39.]. And when the most specious structures shall fall, to the confusion and ruin of those who erected them, the wise builder shall dwell secure amidst the desolating judgments and the wreck of worlds.]
THE EFFECT OF OUR LORD’S PREACHING
Matthew 7:28-29. And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the Scribes.
IT has been thought by many, that this which is called the Sermon on the Mount, was not delivered at one time, but is only a collection of sayings which at different times were used by our Lord. But, as our Lord went through all the cities, towns, and villages of Judζa, instructing the people, it is reasonable to suppose, that he should frequently deliver the same truths in nearly the same expressions, because the same instructions were necessary for all. The repetition of them therefore, at different times, and at distant places, is no reason at all why they should not now have been delivered all at once, when so great a multitude was attending his ministry, and he had gone up upon a mountain for the purpose of addressing them to more advantage. Moreover, the words before us clearly shew, that this was one continued sermon; or rather, that these were the chief topics contained in it, together with the principal illustrations of them.
Having successively considered all the different parts of this sermon, we now come to notice,
The peculiar character of our Lord’s preaching—
We shall not enter upon the subject of his ministry at large, but confine our attention to the discourse before us; which, both in the matter and in the manner, appears to have been well calculated to make a deep impression on his audience.
The things with which they appear to have been particularly affected, were,
[There was an astonishing depth in all that he spoke. His knowledge of the divine law was such, as infinitely surpassed all that even their most eminent prophets had ever manifested. David had acknowledged his inability to explore its depth: “I have seen an end of all perfection; but thy commandment is exceeding broad.” But the height, and depth, and length, and breadth of it were open to the view of Jesus, who saw it in all its spirituality, and in its utmost perfection. He was able to expose and refute all the false glosses with which their most learned teachers had obscured the law; and to set it forth as reaching, no less to the thoughts and intents of the heart than to the most open actions of the life.
There was also a luminousness in his statements, which, like the light of the sun, carried its own evidence along with it. And his illustrations were so apt, so easy, so familiar, so convincing, that every one who was open to conviction was constrained to assent to every word he spoke. Nor did he ever, like the Scribes, dwell upon matters that were altogether useless and unedifying; but he was always on subjects of prime importance, the knowledge of which was necessary for the salvation of the soul. In a word, as at an early period of his life the doctors in the temple “were astonished at his understanding and answers,” so now, on this and many subsequent occasions, his hearers wondered; “How knoweth this man letters (the Scriptures), having never learned,” or had a learned education?]
[He flattered not the people by countenancing for a moment their expectation of a temporal Messiah, but shewed the spiritual nature of that kingdom which he was come to establish. Moreover, in his reproofs he spared not any: the greatest and the wisest among the people were rather the more exposed to his censures, on account of the influence which they exerted over the minds of others. The fallacy of their reasonings, the defectiveness of their morals, and the hypocrisy of their religious acts, (their alms, their prayers, their fastings,) were held up to universal reprobation; and all the multitude were warned plainly, that “unless their righteousness should exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, they should in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” They were warned too that they must yield a cordial and unreserved obedience to his instructions; that the retaining of any bosom lust would infallibly destroy their souls for ever: that every sinful affection, though dear as a right eye, or apparently necessary as a right hand, must be cut off; or else they would assuredly take their portion “in hell-fire.”
These were plain truths; not such as the people had been accustomed to hear from their teachers, who only “prophesied smooth things, or amused them with deceits:” they were such truths as commended themselves to the consciences of all, and made them feel that they were sinners before God. Every person that heard him bore him witness, that “truly he was full of power by the Spirit of the Lord, and of judgment, and of might, to declare unto Jacob his transgressions, and to Israel his sin [Note: Micah 3:8.].”]
[The Scribes were in the habit of founding their instructions on their own fallacious reasonings, or on the dogmas of some of the more learned Rabbins. But our Lord appealed to no authority above his own. He reasoned indeed for the conviction of his hearers; but the ground on which he required every word of his to be received, was his own authority; “I say unto you; I say unto you.” In this he differed from all the prophets that had gone before him: they delivered their messages, as from Jehovah; “Thus saith the Lord:”—but Jesus, being himself “God manifest in the flesh, assumed a right to dictate as from himself;” “Ye have heard from others” such or such a thing; but “I say unto you” the very reverse; and require you to receive the word on my authority. To this his hearers were ready to submit: for the miracles which he had already wrought without number had evinced his almighty power and Godhead, and were a standing testimony, that his every word was to be received with implicit faith and unreserved obedience.
Doubtless there were many other things conspicuous in his ministrations: his gracefulness and ease, his tenderness and compassion, his zeal and diligence, could not fail of attracting notice; but the points above specified, are those which seem more particularly adverted to in the words of our text.]
Such was the preaching of our Lord. Let us now consider,
The effect produced by it on his hearers—
They appear to have been exceedingly struck with his address; yet not so affected as we might have hoped. We shall endeavour to point out,
How far the effect was good—
[The word which we translate “astonished.” does certainly imply a very deep impression made upon their minds. This impression consisted partly in admiration, with which they were filled; and partly in conviction, with which they were penetrated; a conviction of the truth, the importance, and the beneficial tendency of all he had spoken. The novelty, united with the circumstances before mentioned, made his ministry appear as superior to that of others, as the effulgence of the sun is to the light of a twinkling star. One sentiment evidently pervaded the whole multitude, “Never man spake like this man.” At the same time they felt in their consciences, that, if this was religion, they had hitherto been ignorant of it in their minds, and destitute of it in their hearts.
Now these two feelings were doubtless good, inasmuch as they argued an openness of mind, a freedom from offence, and a desire of further instruction: and accordingly we find, that, “when he came down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him.” But, from all that is recorded, we have no reason to conclude that the impression made upon them was altogether such as might have been wished.]
Wherein it was defective—
[They should have been “pricked to their hearts” with a deep sense of their wickedness, and should have been led to cry out, like those on the day of Pentecost, “What shall we do to be saved?” Without such humiliation as this they could never be truly penitent: they never could abhor themselves, as every penitent must do, in dust and ashes.
They should have also given up themselves entirely to the Lord Jesus Christ. He required all to take up their cross and follow him: but this was effected only to a very small extent, even to the hour of his death: the whole number of his followers amounted at the last to no more than one hundred and twenty. Hence it is evident, that, whatever effects were produced on this audience, they were only transient; and, consequently, that the word preached did not profit the people, “not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.”
They should have been brought to a new and heavenly life. Every thing that falls short of this is in vain. We must “obey from the heart that form of doctrine into which we are delivered;” just as metal, that assumes the shape of the mould whereinto it is poured [Note: See Romans 6:17. the Greek.]. But we see not in this audience any such tenderness of spirit, such melting of heart, such surrender of their souls, such transformation of their lives. They appear only to have been like Ezekiel’s hearers, who were delighted with his oratory, but were uninfluenced by his reproofs [Note: Ezekiel 33:31-32.].]
Learn then from hence,
How ineffectual is the word without the Spirit—
[If any words could of themselves convert the souls of men, surely the words of our Lord Jesus Christ would have produced this effect. But even his discourses were often as water spilled upon the ground. So it was also when his disciples preached: “Paul might plant, and Apollos water, but God alone can give the increase.” The truth is, that nothing ever has been done, or ever can, for the saving of immortal souls, but by the operation of the Spirit of God. It is the Spirit that quickeneth us from the dead: it is the Spirit that opens the understanding and the heart: it is “the Spirit that enables us to mortify the deeds of the body,” and that renews us altogether after the Divine image. When, therefore, we come up to the house of God, let us look, through the means, to Him who alone can render the means effectual for our good. Let us remember, that the ministry of Christ himself will produce no saving effects without the Spirit; and that the word, by whomsoever delivered, if accompanied with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, shall be sharper than a two-edged sword, and be more powerful than “the hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces.”]
In what a lamentable state are the generality of hearers—
[Multitudes, where the Gospel is preached with fidelity, will approve the word, and perhaps admire the preacher; but they are apt to put those feelings in the place of true conversion [Note: Mark 6:10. John 5:35.]. Surely this is a point that deserves to be well considered. We should judge ourselves, not by our feelings towards the word, or towards him that ministers it to us, but by the radical and abiding effects produced upon our hearts and lives. Let it be a matter then of serious inquiry, Wherein does my reception of the word differ from that manifested by the auditors of our Lord? Perhaps I have been often struck, yea, “exceedingly struck [Note: ἐξεπλήσσοντο.],” with admiration and conviction: but have I been brought to the exercise of deep contrition, of lively faith, of universal holiness? Know ye, beloved, that unless the word have this effect upon you, instead of being to you “a savour of life unto life, it will be a savour of death unto death;” yea, your state will be less tolerable than even that of Sodom and Gomorrha.]
What reason we have for thankfulness that we possess the written word—
[Many of Christ’s hearers probably regretted that they could not retain his discourse in their memory, and that they had it not in their hands for subsequent perusal. And the generality amongst us have reason to lament our inability to remember what we hear, even when the discourse embraces perhaps only a single point of that which was so diffusively treated by our Lord. But, whether this forgetfulness is our misfortune or our fault, we have this consolation at least, that the sermon of our blessed Lord is in our hands; that we may hear him preach it over to us, as it were, again and again; yea, that we may even ask him to explain to us every point in it. What an advantage is this! What a value should we set upon it, if now, for the first time, his sermon were put into our hands! But, alas! because it is accessible at all times, we are apt to make light of it: and not a few are blind enough to disregard it, because it refers rather to the precepts than the doctrines of the Gospel. Let us not however so slight our privileges: let us study this portion of Holy Writ with peculiar attention: and let us endeavour to get every precept wrought into our hearts, and exhibited in our lives. Then shall we be indeed improved by it, and shew forth the excellence of Christianity in all its perfection.]