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that zeal, diligence, activity and perseverance, in the cause of truth and virtue, which they shewed who had a part in those exercises. But those persons might not be altogether innocent in the principle they acted upon, nor in all their actions. Their principle might be ambition or vain glory. And in some of their combats the action might be detrimental to the antagonist.
But the exercise of faith is perfectly innocent. It proceeds from no bad principle. It is injurious to none. The principles it maintains and contends for, are certain truths, built upon sure evidence. And they have no bad tendencies. The principles of the gospel inspire not men with any hurtful designs. The actions, which they recommend, are all reasonable and beneficial. Nor are they who exercise in this exercise moved by envy, and ill-will to any nor yet by an exorbitant love of gain: nor by pride, or ambition of worldly honour.
2. It is good, inasmuch as it is worthy and important, not mean and trifling.
The celebrated contentions to which the apostle alludes, though in so much repute, were trifling, in comparison of this exercise of faith. They consisted chiefly in the show of bodily strength, and some skill in matters of small moment. But they who exercise the exercise of faith are employed in matters of great value. The principles which they maintain, and resolutely refuse to deny, are truths of great importance. And they are engaged in designs and actions of much moment; governing the affections, with regard to all the sensible things of this life, and ordering the whole of the conversation, according to the rules of right reason. This is much more considerable than all the exploits of the Grecian combatants.
3. Consequently, the exercise of faith is a good exercise, as it is very honourable.
Though Christians were then had in contempt, and their faith was ridiculed, the apostle calls the exercise of faith," that is, steadiness in the profession of truth, and the practice of virtue, a good exercise. It is a thing of more true honour than the combats so much applauded at that time in many parts of the world. It is a thing of vast difficulty. And it depends upon a very noble resolution and firmness of mind. The greatest offers which the world can make, and the worst evils which it can inflict, are oftentimes set before men, to induce them to desert the interest of known truth, and transgress the rules of virtue: and their compliance is solicited with long and tiresome importunity, and all the arts, most suited to gain the consent against the convictions of conscience: or to silence its dictates and remonstrances. To be fixed and immovable in the way of virtue upon such occasions is very honourable. Yea not only for men thus to exert themselves on some special and extraordinary occasions, as the Olympic combatants did in the time of their solemnity, and the preparatory exercises, possibly, of some few months or years continuance: but to maintain and carry on this exercise of faith, a steady regard to the principles and rules of the gospel throughout the whole life, in the various and trying occurrences of it, amidst allurements and discouragements. This is truly honourable and commendable.
4. The exercise of faith is a good exercise, with regard to its event, as it has a good reward annexed to it.
That reward is now distant, and out of sight. It is not bestowed here. But it is very sure: and it is great and transcendent. In allusion to the custom of the Grecian games, the apostle sometimes calls the reward of virtue a crown: but he gives it the preference greatly above the crowns, or garlands of the Olympic victors. And we ought to do the same: though we should take in other advantages annexed to it; some distinguished honours and privileges in the cities where they dwelt. "Now they do it," says he, " to obtain a corruptible crown: we, an incorruptible," 1 Cor. ix. 25. And St. Peter assures the elders, who behave well, that," when the chief Shepherd shall appear, they shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away,"
1 Pet. v. 4.
That is justly styled a good exercise, which has a good reward annexed to it.
5. It is a good exercise as all who perform it are entitled to the reward of eternal life.
This is a singular advantage, peculiar to the exercise which has been instituted by the Lord of all men, however willing and large-hearted, being obliged to limit the recompenses, which they propose to such as they would encourage, according to the proportion of their small abilities. This circumstance is particularly taken notice of in a text before cited. "Know ye not, that they which run in a race, run all: but one receiveth the prize. So run, that ye may obtain;" that is, that ye may all obtain, 1 Cor. ix. 24.
In those Olympic exercises, whether of race or combat, one only in each received a prize, even the victor. But in the Christian race and combat every one is victor who performs well. Every one that denies himself, and, notwithstanding the temptations of this world, is steady in the profession of truth, and the practice of virtue is a conqueror, and shall receive a crown of righteousness from the righteous judge.
6. Once more, the exercise of faith is a good exercise, on account of the supports and encouragements afforded to those who undertake it.
They are encouraged by the greatness of the reward proposed to them by him who is able to do more than we think or conceive. They are also animated by the example of many who have overcome in this combat: and especially by the victory of the Lord Jesus Christ, who has been tried, as we now are: and who has power to grant to "them who overcome, to sit with him in his throne, even as he also overcame, and is set down with his Father, in his throne,” Rev. iii. 21.
Moreover, all success in this exercise, every act of self-denial, every instance of steadiness amidst temptations, and in opposition to the adversaries of our virtue, when reflected on, casts light and joy on the mind, cheers and refreshes, and inspires with renewed ardour, and strengthens for farther difficulties. As the apostle says: "For which cause we faint not: but though the outward man perish, the inward man is renewed day by day whilst we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things seen are temporal: but the things not seen are eternal," 2 Cor. iv. 16, 18.
III. It remains only, that I conclude, as at first proposed, with some inferences, by the way of a practical application. They will be these two.
1. We are here reminded, that a life of religion and virtue has, in this world, its difficulties. It is no very easy thing to be steady in the profession of truth, and the practice of virtue. They who expect to find every thing smooth and easy in this way, and look for no opposition or discouragement, will be disappointed. For the life of a Christian, as we have seen, is compared in scripture to a warfare, a race, a combat. It is a contention, an exercise that requires a good deal of resolution, and will try all our strength and skill.
2. Nevertheless there is encouragement to hold on therein.
For it is a good exercise. It is innocent and honourable, and will have a great reward hereafter, and has at present its joys and supports; which are not small, but very exhilarating and strengthening.
It is not a little pleasing to hear it called a good exercise by those who have made trial of it. St. Paul, who was so great a master therein, who knew all its difficulties, who had met with good report and ill report, who had been in perils of every kind, who had been as laborious and diligent as any in the service of the gospel in a word, he who knew by experience, how much it might cost men, calls it a good exercise. He recommends it to others as such. And near the period of his life he says with exultation and triumph: "I have exercised a good exercise: I have finished my race: I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness," 2 Tim. iv. 7, 8. This is very encouraging to all who are well disposed.
And let us consider what the apostle adds in this exhortation to Timothy; that he had made a good profession; which may be also said of most of us. We have been taught, and we have acknowledged the principles of the Christian religion and we have engaged to fulfil its obligations. Let not expected good fruits be lost for want of perseverance. How great is the reward set before us! How great will be the honour and the joy to receive a crown of righteousness from the righteous Judge! How sad, how afflictive beyond all expression, to lose his reward! It is proposed to us. We may obtain it: but we must now work the works of rigeteous.. ness, and persevere therein. Whenever sloth and indolence, weariness and fainting of mind, are ready to prevail and gain ground on us, let us recollect this, or some other like quickening admonition of holy scripture: "Exercise the good exercise of faith. Lay hold on eternal life. And, "Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not, Gal. vi. 9.
THE POWER AND EFFICACY OF CHRIST'S DOCTRINE.
For without me ye can do nothing. John xv. 5.
Our Lord in this context compares himself to a vine, and his followers to branches. Some think that these words were spoken upon occasion of things recorded in the other gospels, after eating the paschal supper, and Christ's instituting a memorial of himself, to be observed among his people where he speaks of "the fruit of the vine," Matt. xxvi. 29; Mark xiv. 25. Others think that our Lord was now retired with the disciples to the mount of Olives, which is said to have abounded with vines. Whether either of those conjectures be right or not, unquestionably the affecting discourses recorded here, and in the adjoining chapters, are such as our blessed Lord had with his disciples at the paschal supper, and after it, the night in which he was betrayed, and a little before he was taken from them. Those discourses had made deep and lasting impressions upon the minds of the apostles. We may suppose, that St. John had often repeated them in his public preaching, and in conversation, in the history he had given of his Lord and Master by word of mouth. And now that he was induced to publish a written gospel, in which he designed to insert some particulars omitted by the former evangelists, he determined to record those discourses somewhat at length; being persuaded that they would be of signal use to all that would seriously attend to them.
Ver. 1. "I am the true vine :" a right and generous vine. Or, as the phrase is in one of the prophets," a noble vine," Jer. ii. 21. In this gospel of St. John, our Lord, at several places, styles himself the true light, the true bread, the good shepherd." He is all these by way of excellence. He is himself faithful: his words are most true and sure: and his doctrine is most excellent and powerful; suited to cherish the spiritual life, and to afford genuine fruits of righteousness and true holiness.
And my Father is the husbandman:" or the proprietor, who cultivates it in the best
Ver. 2. "Every branch in me, that beareth not fruit, he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth," or pruneth "it, that it may bring forth more fruit." All who 'make a profession of faith in me, are disciples by name, and visible members of my church. 'But there are methods of Providence, that will shew who are true and sincere. In time of 'temptation, when any extraordinary offers of worldly good, or dangers of evil, are presented, * some will fall away, whilst others will be purified and improved by the same events.'
Ver. 3. "Now ye are clean, through the word, which I have spoken unto you." As it is 'meet for me to encourage, as well as to warn and admonish you; I readily own, that you have received my word, and have shewn a great regard to it. And it has had good effects upon you.'
Ver. 4." Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine: no more can ye, except ye abide in me." And I recommend it to you, as 'what will answer the best purposes to retain your present esteem and affection for me, and regard 'to my words.'
Ver. 5. "I am the vine: ye are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit. For without me ye can do nothing. Let me inculcate this upon you under the similitude which I have mentioned. You will find the case to resemble that of a vine and its branches. If you are my disciples indeed, and throughout: if you al. 'ways maintain your respect for me, and consider my words as true and divine, the rule of your conduct, and the ground and measure of your hopes, you will abound in the practice of all virtue, and will be steadfast and unmoved. But if you neglect me, and my words, you will 'not any longer bear that good fruit, but will be like a branch, cut off and separated from the 'root.'
"Without me:" is the same as separated from me. In the margin of some of our bibles the phrase is rendered "severed from me." Which is the meaning of the expression: though the literal rendering may be, "without me," or "out of me."
Ver. 6. "If a man abide not in me, he is cast out as a branch, and is withered: and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned." If you cast off your regard for me, and for the truth and simplicity of my doctrine, you will resemble a branch separated 'from the root, which soon withers, and becomes fit for nothing, but to be burned. So you, ⚫ not bringing forth fruits of true holiness, or bearing nothing to perfection, will be worthless and contemptible.'
Which is agreeable to what is said in another gospel, under a different similitude. the salt of the earth. But if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men," Matt. v. 13.
"He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth fruit. For without me ye can do nothing.'
The general meaning is: Whereas by a close adherence to me, and my words, you may excel in virtue, and persevere therein: if you should forsake me, or abate in your respect for 'me and my doctrine, you will do nothing considerable, and may become destitute of all 'true worth.'
I shall now endeavour further to illustrate this text in some propositions: and then add [two or three remarks by way of application.
I. The propositions for illustrating the text are these.
Prop. 1. Our Lord does not here intend to say, that without the knowledge of him and his religion, no man can ever do any thing that is good, or right, or virtuous, and acceptable in the sight of God.
Indeed it is hard to think, that rational and intelligent beings should be destitute of all power to do that which is good. It is not reasonable to suppose, that God should form any intelligent beings destitute of such a power: or that he should suffer them to fall into such incapacity, whilst they are in a state of trial, and their everlasting interests are depending. And there are many things in scripture, either said occasionally, or on set purpose, from which we can conclude men to have this power.
Says St. Paul to the Romans: "For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law; these having not the law, are a law unto themselves. Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts: their conscience also bearing witness, —either accusing, or else excusing them," Rom. ii. 14, 15. They discerned some things to be good and right, others wrong and evil. When they did the one, they were well satisfied with themselves: when the other, their conscience accused them of evil. That text seems manifestly to teach, that heathens had knowledge of things praise-worthy, and otherwise; and that they had power to choose the one, and decline the other.
It is true, the apostle says in the same epistle, that "all the world was become guilty before God," ch. iii. 19. The meaning of which appears to be, that there was a great degeneracy in the world, both amongst Jews and Gentiles: that there was great need of the gospel, to reclaim and reform men: and that there are none perfectly righteous, and free from all sin: wherefore all stand in need of the pardoning mercy of God. But he does not say, I apprehend, of every individual among Jews and Gentiles, who had not the knowledge of Christ and his gospel, that there were none sincerely good and virtuous none, who had that righteousness and integrity, which a good, and holy, and gracious, God will accept and reward.
There are in the gospels instances of persons, not within the pale of the Jewish church, who gave proofs of a good disposition, and were commended, and accepted by the Lord Jesus. In like manner, it is not impossible, but that still some, not acquainted with the Christian religion, may do what is good and virtuous.
A Roman centurion, quartered in one of the cities of Galilee, sent to Jesus, saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented," Matt. viii. 6. But when Jesus was coming toward him, recollecting that it had not been usual for Jews to converse with him, and persuaded of the great power of Christ, he sends him a second message, saying,
Lord, I am not worthy, that thou shouldst come under my roof. Speak the word only, and
my servant shall be healed- When Jesus heard it he marvelled, and said to them that followed, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel."
The woman of Canaan is another remarkable instance. She cried, saying, " Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David. He answered, I am not sent, but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel," Matt. xv. 22, 24. 22, 24. But at length her importunity was so great, and the truth of her faith was so manifest, that our Lord said to her: "O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt."
Cornelius, after our Lord's ascension, is another Gentile, without the limits of the Jewish church, who performed commendably. "There was," says St. Luke, "a certain man in Cæsarea, called Cornelius, a centurion of the band, called the Italian band: a devout man, and one that feared God, with all his house: who gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always," Acts x. 1, 2. An angel appeared to him about the ninth hour of the day, or three in the afternoon, when day-light is clear, who said unto him: "Cornelius, thy prayers and thy alms have come up for a memorial before God." This person, though still a Gentile, was approved of God. He was sincere and upright, according to the light which he had: and his prayers and alms were good works, which God accepted. And he is pitched upon to be the first Gentile, who, with his family, should have afforded to them the greater advantages of the knowledge of the gospel, or way of salvation through Jesus Christ, and be received into the Christian church, or among the disciples of Christ, without subjection to the law of Moses: which had been hitherto the way of admission into the Jewish church, the only people who were professed worshippers of God.
We might further argue from things said by our Lord to the Jews. "Jesus answered them: My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself," John vii. 16-18. Where our Lord speaks of men doing the will of God before they believe in him. And his intention is, that upright and honest men, who have an unfeigned regard to the will of God, so far as they are acquainted with it, and have an opportunity of knowing it, according to the dispensation they are under will be disposed to believe in him. They who at that time were free from prejudices would soon discern, that divine attestations were afforded to him: and would own, that the doctrine taught by him was true, and from heaven.
Prop. 2. I would observe, secondly, that our blessed Lord does not intend to say, that no men, not even his disciples, can do any good thing without immediate and effectual impulses and impressions from him: but the ability to do good, which he here speaks of, is to be understood as ascribed to his word and doctrine, or the principles taught by him: without a regard to which, he says, men would do nothing.
God may give special aids to men whenever he thinks fit: but they are not always necessary, nor always to be expected. And that our Lord rather speaks of his word and doctrine, than of himself personally considered, is evident from his manner of speaking in many places.
Our Lord in this context does several times speak of his disciples " abiding in him, and he in them," as necessary to their bearing fruit: but he chiefly intends a strict and steady regard to his word, and the influences of that upon their minds. This appears from many texts. Ver. 3. "Now ye are clean through the word, which I have spoken unto you." Ver. 7. "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you."
"If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you." This latter expression explains the former: or it may be taken a little otherwise, as if he had said, If you continue to believe in me, and to pay a steady regard to my doctrine, you will be highly acceptable to God.'
Again: "I have manifested thy name unto the men, which thou gavest me out of the world: -and they have kept thy word," John xvii. 6. "I have given them thy word. Sanctify them through thy truth. Thy word is truth," ver. 14, 17. In the word of God are contained those sanctifying, strengthening influences which are needful for us, and are so powerful and effectual.
To which we might add other texts from the same gospel.
Verily, I say unto you, he that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation: but is passed from death to life," John v. 24. "Then said Jesus unto those Jews which believed on him: If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples," ch. viii. 31. In this chapter, where is the text, he speaks of