RELIGION THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND SIN THE GREATEST MADNESS AND FOLLY.
" The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom ; a good understanding have all they that do his commandments."—Psalm iii. 10.
Wisdom is a character so honorable and ornamental to a reasonable being, that those who best know the dignity of their own nature, have had no higher ambition than to be esteemed and called lovers of it.
This little world of ours is an improved spot in the creation. How vastly different an appearance does it now make from its original state of pure nature, when it emerged out of chaos, uncultivated by art! What numerous arts and trades have been found out to furnish life with necessaries and comforts! How deeply have some penetrated into the world of knowledge! They have traced the secret workings of nature; they have even brought intelligence from the worlds above us, and discovered the courses and revolutions of the planets.
When we see these discoveries, you would conclude mankind to be a wise race of creatures; and indeed in such things as these they discover no inconsiderable abilities. Almost every man in his province can manage his affairs with some judgment. Some can manage a farm; others are dexterous in mechanics; others have a turn for mercantile affairs; others can unfold the mysteries of nature, and carry their searches far into the ideal worlds; others can conduct an army, or govern a nation. In short, every man forms.some scheme which he apprehends will conduce to his temporal advancement; and prosecutes with some degree of judgment.
But is this all the wisdom that becomes a candidate for eternity? Has he a good understanding who only acts with reason in the affairs of this life; but, though he is to exist for ever in another world, and to be perfectly happy or miserable there, yet takes no thought about the concerns of his immortal state ? Is this wisdom ? Is this consistent even with common sense? No; with sorrow and solemnity I would speak it, the most of men in this respect are fools and madmen; and it is impossible for the most frantic madmen in Bedlam to act more foolishly about the affairs of religion and eternity. There is such a thing as a partial madness; a person may have, as it were, one weak side to his mind, and it may be sound and rational in other respects. You may meet with some lunatics and madmen that will converse reasonably with you, and you would not suspect their heads are disordered, till you touch upon some particular point, and then you are to expect reason from them no more; they talk the wildest nonsense, and are governed entirely by their imaginations. They are wise for this world; they talk and act at least agreeably to common sense; but hear them talk, and observe their conduct about the concerns of their souls, and you can call them reasonable creatures no longer. They are wise to do evil; but to do good they have no knowledge; there is none that understandeth ; there is none that seeketh after God. To bring them to themselves by exposing to them their madness, is my present design. The text shows us the first step to true wisdom, and the test of common sense. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all they that do his commandments. The fear of the Lord, in Scripture, signifies not only that pious passion of filial reverence of our adorable Father who is in heaven, but it is frequently put for the whole of practical religion; hence it is explained in the last part of the verse, by doing his commandments. The fear of the Lord, in this latitude, implies all the graces and all the virtues of Christianity ; in short, all that holiness of heart and life which is necessary to the enjoyment of everlasting happiness. So that the sense of the text is this: "To practice religion and virtue, to take that way which leads to everlasting happiness, is wisdom, true wisdom, the beginning of wisdom, the first step towards it; unless you begin here, you can never attain it; all your wisdom without this, does not deserve the name; it is madness and nonsense. To do his commandments is the best test of a good understanding ; a good sound understanding have all they that do this, all of them without exception: however weak some of them may be in other things, they are wise in the most important respects; but without this, however cunning they are in other things, they have lost their understandings ; they contradict common sense; and there can be none without this."
Wisdom consists in two things: choosing a right end, and using right means to obtain it. Now what end so becoming a creature to live for ever, as everlasting happiness? And in what way can it be obtained, but in the way of holiness? Consult the judgment of God in his Word; consult your own conscience, or even common sense, and you will find that this is the case. Therefore he is a man of sense that pursues this end in this way; but he is a fool, he is brutish, that chooses an inferior end, or that pursues this in another way.
My time will not allow me to do any more than to mention some instances of folly and madness of such as do not make the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom.
I. Men will not take the safest side in religion, which their reason and self-love carry them to do in other cases.
It is very possible the love of ease and pleasure, and a self-flattering disposition, may prompt your invention to form a plausible system of religion; a religion that admits of great hopes with little evidences, and that allows you many indulgences and lays few restraints upon you; a religion purged, as you imagined, from some of the melancholy and gloomy doctrines of Christianity, and that releases you from those restraints, so painful to a wicked heart, which the holy religion of Jesus lays upon you. It is very possible you may hope you shall obtain eternal happiness without much pains, and without observing the strictness of universal holiness; you may indulge hopes of heaven, though you indulge yourselves willfully in sin; you may flatter yourselves that the punishments of a future state are not intolerably dreadful, nor of everlasting duration ; you may excuse and diminish your sins, and make a great many plausible apologies for them. But are you sure of these things ? Have you demonstration for them, upon which you may venture your eternal all? Think the matter over seriously again; have you certainty that these things are so ? and are you willing to perish for ever if they should be otherwise ? What if you should be mistaken ? What if you should find God as strict and holy as his Word represents him? What if all his dreadful
threatening should be sincere and true? What if in a little time you should find that the Scriptures give a more just account of the punishments of hell than your self-flattering heart suggested to you, and that they are indeed intolerable and strictly eternal ? What if you should find, when it is too late to correct the mistake, that those neglected, ridiculed things, regeneration, conversion, holiness of heart and practice, the mortification of sin, and a laborious course of devotion-—-what if you should find that they are absolutely necessary to everlasting happiness? What if it should appear that the willful indulgence of the least-known sin will eternally ruin you? Stand and pause, and ask yourselves, what if you should find matters thus, quite the reverse to what you flattered yourselves ? What will become of you then ? You are undone, irreparably undone through eternity. Well, to speak modestly, this may be the case, for what you know; and is it not then the part of a wise man to provide against such dreadful contingency ? Will you run so terrible a risk, and yet claim a good understanding? Do you esteem a life of religion so burdensome, that you had better make such a desperate venture than choose it ? Do you esteem the pleasures of sin so sweet, so solid, so lasting, that it is your interest to run the risk of intolerable, eternal misery, rather than part with them? He is certainly not in his right mind, that would rather be tormented in hell for ever, than lead a holy life, and labor to escape the wrath to come. Therefore act in this as you do in other cases of uncertainty, choose the safest side. Believe and regard what God has said; be holy in all manner of conversation; strive with all your might to enter in at the strait gate; accept of Christ as your Lord and Saviour. Do this, and you are safe, let the case be as it will; there are no bad consequences that can possibly follow from this conduct. But if you are resolutely set upon running the risk, and fool-hardy enough to venture your eternal all upon such improbability, not to say impossibilities, you forfeit the character of a reasonable being; you are mad in this respect, however wise you may be in others.
II. Is it not the greatest folly to believe, or profess to believe, the greatest truths of religion, and yet act quite contrary to such a belief?
How many are there who own God to be the greatest pretence, and pronounce it flattery. They expect you should often think of them with tender affection, perform them all the kind offices in your power, study to please them, to be tender of their characters, solicitous about their interest, and delight in their society. These are the inseparable effects of love; certainly, if you love God, your love will have such effects, especially since, if you love him at all with sincerity, you love him above all other persons and things. But men will insist upon it that they love him above all, and yet very seldom or never think of him with tender affection; they love him above all, and yet indulge themselves in sin, that abominable thing which he hates; they love him above all, and yet have no pleasure in conversing with him in prayer, and the other ordinances of his grace where he holds spiritual interviews with his
}>eople. Indeed, it may astonish any man that knows what ove is, to find that the most of men pretend they love God, even while they are giving the most glaring evidences of disaffection to him; and after all, it is almost impossible to convince them that they do not thoroughly love him. What madness has seized the world, that they will not receive conviction in such a plain case! What mean thoughts must they have of God, when they think to put him off with such an empty compliment, and hypocritical profession!
IV. Is it not the greatest folly for men to hope for heaven, when they have no evidences at all of their title to it, or fitness for it ? Is it not the dictate of common sense, that no man can be happy in any thing but what he has a relish for, and delights in ?
There are thousands who have no relish for the enjoyment of God, no pleasure in thinking of him, no delight in his service and acts of devotion, who yet hope to be for ever happy in these exercises in heaven. The happiness of heaven, as I have often told you, consists in such things as these, and how can you hope to be happy there, while you have no pleasure in them! There are thousands who have no delight in any thing holy and religious, but only in the gratifications of their senses, and the enjoyment of earthly things, who yet hope to be happy in heaven, in the wants of all sensual and earthly enjoyment. And have they a sound understanding who can entertain such absurd hopes ? Does not common sense tell us, that God, who does every thing wisely, will bring none to heaven, but those whom he has made fit for it beforehand ? and that as none shall be sent to hell but those that were previously wicked, so none shall be admitted into the world of glory, but those who were previously made holy? None first begin to be holy in heaven, or wicked in hell: both parties bring with them those dispositions which are fit for their respective places and employments. How absurd is it therefore to hope for heaven, while you have no heavenly dispositions ! You may as well hope to see the sun without eyes. Further, God has assured you in his "Word, and you profess to believe him, that without regeneration, faith, repentance, an interest in Christ, and universal holiness, you cannot enter into his kingdom; and yet are there not some of you who are foolish enough to hope for it, though destitute of all these ? Has he not told you that drunkards, swearers, unclean, malicious, contentious persons, liars, and the like, shall not inherit the kingdom of heaven ? And yet, though you know these are your characters, and the world knows it too, you will hope for admission to it, in defiance of God's most express repeated declarations! What madness is this!
V. And lastly, Is it not the greatest madness to be more concerned about the affairs of time than those of eternity ?
It is plain to any man in his senses, that the happiness and misery which are extreme, and which shall endure for ever, are of infinitely greater importance than all the enjoyments, and all the sufferings of this transitory state. And you will hardly meet with any man but will own this to be his belief. But alas! into what consternation may it strike us, when we survey the conduct of the generality! Are they as much concerned about the eternal world to which they are hastening, as to the concerns of time? Are they as laborious and zealous to obtain everlasting happiness, as to gain the riches of this world, and to gratify their sensual appetites ? Are they as solicitous to avoid everlasting misery, as to shun sickness, poverty, or any temporal calamity ? Are they as cautious of sinning, which ruins their souls for ever, as of drinking poison, which may endanger their health or temporal life! Do not many of you know that it is quite the reverse with you ? Are not the concerns of this life the principal objects of your thoughts, your cares, and labors ? And what can be a more consummate folly ? You practically prefer a trifle of an hour to a substantial good of endless duration. You are careless about everlasting torment, and yet cautiously shun the light sufferings of a few moments. It matters not what you think or say in this matter; it is your practice that determines the affair; and does not that show that time outweighs a vast eternity with you ? And what can be more absurd! if you should prefer pebbles to crowns and kingdoms, darkness to light, or one luxurious meal to the support of your whole life, it would not be so shocking a piece of madness.
I might give you many instances of the madness of those who do not begin this wisdom with the fear of the Lord, but the inferences from the subject are so numerous and important, that I must reserve the rest of the time for them.
1. Since there is so much folly in the world in matters of religion, how astonishing is it that it is not universally contemned and ridiculed, or pitied and lamented! If men act a foolish part in other things, they soon furnish matter of laughter and contempt to the gay and witty part of mankind; and the thoughtful and benevolent view them with compassion. But let them act ever so foolishly in the concerns of eternity, there is hardly any notice taken of it; the absurdity is no way shocking; the generality commend their conduct, by imitating it themselves; and if any are so wise as to find fault with this madness, they are termed fools themselves, and the general laugh is turned against them. How unaccountable is this, that men who act prudently in other things, and are easily shocked with a mad and frantic behavior, can view the folly of mankind in this respect without horror, or perhaps with approbation! The only reason for it is, that the generality are madmen in this respect, and the folly is approved because it is common. To be singularly wise is to be foolish, in the opinion of the world; and to be fools with the multitude, is the readiest way to get the reputation of wisdom. They prove religion to be folly, by a majority of votes; and as many who are fools in this affair, are wise in other respects, their judgment is implicitly submitted to. But pray, sirs, use your own reason, and judge impartially for yourselves, and I am sure you must see the wild absurdity of their conduct. Be nobly singular in beginning wisdom, with the fear of the Lord; and whatever others think of you now, God, angels, and good men will applaud your wisdom; and even those who now ridicule it, will approve of it at last.
2. With what an ill grace do the irreligious contemn and despise those that make religion their great concern, as weak, silly creatures! Sinners, let your own reason determine, can there be any thing more foolish than your own behavior ? And does it become you to brand others with the odium of folly ? Alas! you have reason to turn your contempt upon yourselves, and to be struck with horror at your own willful stupidity. Do you set yourselves up as the standards of wisdom, who want sense to keep out of everlasting ruin? Are you wise men, who throw away your eternal happiness for the trifles of time ? No, they only are wise who are wise for eternity. You may excel them in a thousand things; nature may have favored you with a better genius; you may have had a more liberal education; you may be better acquainted with men and books; you may manage your secular affairs with more discretion; in such things you may be wiser than many of them. But they are wise for eternity! they have sense to escape everlasting burnings 1 they have wisdom to obtain everlasting happiness ! and this is a more important piece of wisdom than all your acquisitions. The wisdom of Solomon, of Socrates, or Plato is the wildest madness without this.
3. If the fear of the Lord, religion, is the perfection of wisdom, how unreasonably docs the world charge it with making people mad ? There are multitudes that lose their senses by excessive sorrows and anxieties about some temporal affair; many more than by religion; and yet they never fall out with the world on this account. But when any one, that seemed thoughtful about religion, loses his senses, then religion must bear all the blame; and sinners are glad to catch at such a handle to expose it. It is indeed very possible that too intense application of the mind to divine things, with a deep concern about our everlasting state, may be the occasion of melancholy; but there is nothing peculiar in this; let the mind be excessively attentive to any thing, it will have the same effect. How many disorders do men contract by their eager pursuit of the world? and yet the world is their favorite still. Those that are pious, are many of them much superior to the wisest of us in rill accomplishments; and they are generally as far from madness as their neighbors. Therefore drop this senseless slander, and be yourselves holy, if you would be truly wise.
4. Since men are such fools in matters of religion, since they censure it with so much severity and contempt, how astonishing is it that God should send down that divine, heaven-born thing, religion, into our world, where it is so much neglected and abused! Where the celestial guest meets with but few hearts that will entertain it; where its professors neglect it, contradict it, and by their practice call it madness; and where even its friends and subjects frequently treat it very unkindly! What astonishing condescension and grace is it, that God has not left our mad world to themselves, since they are so averse to be reclaimed! But lo! he hath sent his Son, he hath instituted the gospel, and a thousand means of grace, to bring them to themselves !
5. And lastly, Hence we may infer, that human nature is exceedingly depraved and disordered. I think this is as plain as any disorder incident to the body. Men are universally indisposed as to religion ; the same natural faculties, the same understanding, will, and affections, that render us able to act with prudence in the affairs of this life, are also sufficient for the affairs of religion; but, alas! with regard to this, they are disordered, though they exercise themselves aright about other things. They can acquire the knowledge of languages and sciences; but, alas! they have no disposition to know God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. They understand how to trade, and carry on schemes for this world; but they will not act wisely for eternity. They have sense enough not to run into the fire, or to drink poison; but they will run on in the ways of sin to everlasting misery. They will ask the way when they have lost themselves; but how hard is it to bring them to inquire. What shall I do to be saved ? In short, they can contrive with prudence, and act with vigor, courage, and perseverance, in the affairs of time; but in the concerns of religion and eternity they are ignorant, stupid, languid, and careless. And how can we account for this, but by supposing that they are degenerate creatures, and that their nature has suffered a dreadful shock by the fall, which has deprived them of their senses? Alas! this is a truth too evident to be denied,'