« AnteriorContinuar »
On EXTREMES in RELIGIOUS and MORAL CONDUCT
PROVERBS, iv. 27.
Turn not to the right hand, nor to the left.
I WILL behave myself wisely, said the Psalmist David, in a perfect way. * Wisdom is no less necessary in religious, and moral, than in civil conduct. Unless there be a proper degree of light in the understanding, it will not be enough that there are good dispositions in the heart. Without regular guidance, they will often err from the right scope. They will be always wavering and unsteady; nay, on some occasions, they may betray us into evil. This is too much verified by that propensity to run into extremes, which so often appears in the behaviour of men. How many have originally set out with good principles and intentions, who, through want of discretion in the application of their principles, have in the end injured themselves, and brought discredit on religion? There is a certain temperate mean, in the observance of which piety and virtue consist. On each side there lies a dangerous extreme. Bewildering paths open, by deviating into which, men are apt to forfeit all the praise of their
*Psalm ci. 2.
good intentions; and to finish with reproach, what they had begun with honour. This is the ground of the wise man's exhortation in the text. Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eye-lids look straight before thee. Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established. Turn not Turn not to the right hand nor to the left; remove thy foot from evil. In discoursing from these words, I propose to point out some of the extremes into which men are apt to run in religion and morals; and to suggest directions for guarding against them.
WITH regard to religious principle in general, it may perhaps be expected, that I should warn you of the danger of being, on one hand, too rigid in adhering to it, and on the other hand, too easy in relaxing it. But the distinction between these supposed extremes, I conceive to have no foundation. No man can be too strict in his adherence to a principle of duty. Here, there is no extreme. All relaxation of principle is criminal. What conscience dictates is to be ever obeyed. Its commands are universally sacred. Even though it should be misled, yet as long as we. conceive it to utter the voice of God, in disobeying it we sin. The errour, therefore, to be here avoided, is not too scrupulous or tender regard to conscience, but too little care to have conscience properly enlightened, with respect to what is matter of duty and of sin. Receive not, without examination, whatever human tradition has consecrated as sacred. Recur, on every occasion, to those great fountains of light and knowledge, which are opened to you in the pure word of God. Distinguish, with care, between the superstitious fancies of men, and the ever
lasting commandments of God. Exhaust not on trifles that zeal which ought to be reserved for the weightier matters of the law. Overload not conscience, with what is frivolous and unnecessary. But when you have once drawn the line with intelligence and precision between duty and sin, that line you ought on no occasion to trangress.
THOUGH there is no extreme in the reverence due to conscience, there may undoubtedly be an extreme in laying too much stress, either on mere principle, or on mere practice. Here we must take particular care not to turn to the right hand, nor to the left; but to hold faith and a good conscience united, as the scripture, with great propriety, exhorts * us. The errour of resting wholly on faith, or wholly on works, is one of those seductions which most easily mislead men; under the semblance of piety on the one hand, and of virtue on the other. This is not an errour peculiar to our times. It has obtained in every age of the Christian church. It has run through all the different modes of false religion. It forms the chief distinction of all the various sects which have divided, and which still continue to divide, the church; according as they have leaned most to the side of belief, or to the side of morality.
Did we listen candidly to the voice of scripture, it would guard us against either extreme. The Apostle Paul every where testifies, that by no works of our own we can be justified; and that without faith it is impossible to please God. The Apostle James as clearly shows, that faith, if it be unproduc
tive of good works, justifies no man. Between those sentiments there is no opposition. Faith without works, is nugatory and insignificant. It is a foundation, without any superstructure raised upon it. It is a fountain which sends forth no stream; a tree which neither bears fruit, nor affords shade. Good works again, without good principles, are a fair but airy structure; without firmness or stability. They resemble the house built on the sand; the reed which shakes with every wind. You must join the two in full union, if you would exhibit the character of a real Christian. He who sets faith in opposition to morals, or morals in opposition to faith, is equally an enemy to the interests of religion. He holds up to view an imperfect and disfigured form, in the room of what ought to command respect from all beholders. By leaning to one extreme, he is in danger of falling into vice; by the other, of running into impiety.
WHATEVER the belief of men be, they generally pride themselves in the possession of some good moral qualities. The sense of duty is deeply rooted in the human heart. Without some pretence to virtue, there is no self-esteem; and no man wishes to appear, in his own view, as entirely worthless. But as there is a constant strife between the lower and higher parts of our nature, between inclination and principle, this produces much contradiction and inconsistency in conduct. Hence arise most of the extremes, into which men run in their moral behaviour; resting their whole worth on that good quality, to which, by constitution or temper, they are most inclined.
ONE of the first and most common of those extremes is that of placing all virtue, either in justice, on the one hand; or in generosity, on the other. The opposition between these is most discernible among two different classes of men in society. They who have earned their fortune by a laborious and industrious life, are naturally tenacious of what they have painfully acquired. To justice they consider themselves as obliged; but to go beyond it in acts of kindness, they consider as superfluous and extravagant. They will not take any advantage of others, which conscience tells them is iniquitous; but neither will they make any allowance for their necessities and wants. They contend, with rigorous exactness, for what is due to themselves. They are satisfied, if no man suffer unjustly by them. That no one is benefited by them, gives them little concern. Another set of men place their whole merit in generosity and mercy; while to justice and integrity they pay small regard. These are persons generally of higher rank, and of easy fortune. To them, justice appears a sort of vulgar virtue, requisite chiefly in the petty transactions which those of inferiour station carry on with one another. But humanity and liberality, they consider as more refined virtues, which dignify their character, and cover all their failings. They can relent at representations of distress; can bestow with ostentatious generosity; can even occasionally share their wealth with a companion of whom they are fond; while, at the same time, they withhold from others what is due to them; are negligent of their family and their relations; and to the just demands of their creditors give no attention.