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answer, that if
and erring mortals ; not by us, “ who know but in part.” If it were true that they only can be accepted with God, to whose minds truth unfolds itself without any mixture of error, who, that is not exempt from all human infirmity, could presume to think himself secure ?—But to escape from this conclusion, you may say, that a small degree of error in our conceptions will be pardoned, but not error which extends to essential doctrines. We
you admit that any degree of error is pardonable, the argument for the unity of truth is gone, and what is essential must be determined on other grounds. All the considerations which have been urged, return with all their force, to bring you back to the very position we defend, which is, that the value of a christian's faith, so far as he is himself concerned, will be determined by the dispositions with which he seeks for and embraces it, and not by its entire exemption from error. You admit that something is to be pardoned to human frailty and ignorance—and who but the searcher of all hearts shall determine, how great that allowance to any individual shall be ?
The subject which we have thus considered, furnishes us with two inferences; one, as to the judgment which we should pass on our own belief; and another, as to the judgment which we should pass on the belief of others.
The great question in examining the state of our faith, is not whether it is metaphysically just and
exact; not whether it agrees with that of others; not whether we believe what our forefathers or any body else believed; not whether we embrace what men call orthodoxy or heresy. These questions are not unimportant, I allow; but they are nothing, when compared with such inquiries as these; with what fidelity have we sought to obtain truth; and what effects does our belief have on our practical conduct. If we can hope that we have faithfully and humbly used our means of knowledge; if we are true to the best convictions of our understandings, and the honest dictates of our consciences; if we can find in the habitual tenor of our lives the fruits of the Spirit; then we may meekly trust, that whatever our errors may be, they are those of the head, and not of the heart ; and that God will not mark as guilt, the involuntary weakness of our understanding. But if our conscience tells us that we have not inquired for truth with the fear of God before our eyes, with a reference to his will, with humble prayer for the guidance of his Spirit, and with sincere dispositions and endeavours to live by the principles which we embrace, it will little avail us that we understand all knowledge and all mysteries. Though we may have embraced all the faith once delivered to the saints, we have not caught their temper with their creed. We have not charity, and we are nothing. We have not the spirit of Christ, and are none of his.
Our subject affords us, in the second place, an inference with regard to the judgment we should pass on the opinions of others. Since the dispositions with which men pursue, and embrace truth, are known only to Him who knows the heart, the results of their inquiries furnish us with no test of their acceptableness with God. If the mere circumstance that they differ from us in these results be taken as this test, how many must we unchristianize of the holiest men the world has ever seen! How many must we banish from us, who can say, with the ever-memorable Hales, " For truth I have
, forsaken all hopes, all friends, all desires, which might bias, or hinder ine from driving right at what I aimed. For this, I have spent my wealth, my means, my youth, my age, and all I have. If, with
, all this cost and pains, my purchase is error, I can safely say, to err hath cost me more than it has many to find the truth."
The only criterion by which we are allowed to judge the opinions of others, is the influence of their opinions on their lives. How absurd then is it, to overlook entirely this criterion, and to make a man's abstract opinions on the most abstruse and difficult subjects in the world, the test of his christianity! What a departure from the spirit and end of all religion! What an endless source of dissension, and what deep and lasting dishonour are thus heaped on the christian name! It is melancholy to think how slowly mankind arrive at some of the simplest and
plainest of all truths; and how much it has been in the power of a few madmen to set the christian world on fire, and consume the fairest fruits of christian faith and hope and charity.
Do we then say that error is as good as truth; that it is of no importance what a man believes, provided he sincerely believes it? Far from it. Our faith is a part of our probation; and it is the very maxim I would urge, that we are responsible to God for the conduct of our understanding in every inquiry after truth, and most of all after religious truth. The doctrine of the text is simply that our power is the measure of our duty; and that when we have honestly exerted the best faculties we possess, our humble efforts will be accepted, and our imperfections will be forgiven. Still it
be supposed, that the opinion, that: our acceptance with God will be determined, not so much by what we believe, as by the manner in which we have gained that belief, would tend to diminish our zeal for the propagation of truth in the world. But let us only consider the different effects of truth and error on the minds, and hearts, and present happiness of men; let us only consider how thick and dismal is the night of ignorance; how stern and cruel is the reign of error, and we shall not want for motives to labour in
propagating truth. Of what a progeny of evils is superstition every where the parent; what bloody rites, what senseless and burdensome ceremonies, what degrading views of our nature and of its Author, what debasing terrors, does she not inspire and produce! How are the noblest faculties of man subjugated to her yoke! And even in the christian world, who but must mark the different effects of truth and error? How many are the evils, which have flowed from misconceptions of the true nature of the simple and sublime system of the gospel. How wide the difference in the freedom, the knowledge, the elevation, the happiness, of papal and protestant nations. I might go on and rehearse the thousand evils of the different forms of religious error, and the ten thousand blessings of religious truth. But one single consideration is enough.
Think only how important would be the consequence of a general diffusion of the single truth I am now endeavouring to urge.
What woes would it not have prevented in other times, if mankind would have admitted, that others had a claim to think and to judge as well as themselves; and that their errors would be fatal only so far as the dispositions with which they cherished them were bad? What rivers of christian blood might not then have forborne to flow! How foul a stain on the christian cause might then have been saved! And even now, how many malignant passions, and uncharitable judgments, and unchristian impediments to the progress of inquiry and truth, would be avoided, if christians would but remember that error is not necessarily guilt. Who then, thinking thus of the