Sermon 51

Sermon 51.


Acts iv. 6. It if hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

YOU often hear of the narrow and rugged road of religion, which lcadctli unto life; and some of you I am afraid, have not courage enough to venture upon it. You rather choose the smooth, broad, down-hill road to vice and pleasure, though it leads down to the chambers of death. It must be owned, that a religious life is a course of difficulties, a hard struggle, a constant conflict; and it is fit you should be honestly informed of it: but then it is fit you should also know, that the difficulties arise not from the nature of religion, but from the corruption and depravity of the nature of man in its present degenerate state. A course of religion is disagreeable, is hard, is difficult to mankind ; just as a course of action is difficult to the sick, though it is easy, and affords pleasure to those that are well. There are difficulties in the way of sin, as well as in that of holiness, though the depravity of mankind renders them insensible of it. This is the view of the case I would now lay before you. There is a sense, in which it is true, that it is a hard thing to be a sinner, as well as to be a saint: there are huge difficulties in the way to hell, as well as in the way to heaven. And if you are insensible of them, it is owing, as I just obVol. II. 48

served, to the corruption of your nature, and not to the real easness of the thing in itself. It may be easy and pleasing to youto sin, just as it is easy to a dead body to rot, or pleasing to a lejc to rub his sores. But to a reasonable creature, in a state of pun ty, with all his powers uncorrupted, it would indeed be an ospleasing, a hard, a difficult thing, to take that course which is so easy and so delightful to you; as it is hard and painful for a lining man to suffer the mortification of his limbs, or for a healthj man to make himself sore. If it be hard, in one sense, to lire i life of holiness, it is certainly hard, in another sense, to lire a lift of sin ; namely, to run against conscience, against reason, agaios: honour, against interest, against all the strong and endearing obligations you are under to God, to mankind, and to yourselves: or, in the words of my text, it is hard for you to kick against the pricks.

This is a proverb, in use among various nations, which hasreceived a sanction from heaven in this text. It is used by Pindar, Euripides, and -fischylus, among the Greeks; and by Terence, among the Latins: and from the sense in which they use it, we are helped to understand it. To kick against the pricks, is an allusion to a lazy or unruly plough-horse, or ox, that when pricked with a goad, (an instrument used in ploughing, in suiv places, instead of a whip) refuses to go on, and spurns and kicks against the goad, and so wounds himself, and not the driver. la such circumstances, it is much harder to kick against the goadl, and resist, than to go on ; if he goes on, he need not fear the goad; but his resistance only hurts himself. It is to this that the phrase alludes; and it signifies a resistance injurious to the person thi. makes it, when it would be both easy and advantageous to obeyHence we may learn the precise sense in which it is used by the mouth of Christ, in this pungent address to Saul the persecutor, whom we now know under the higher name of Paul, the apostle.

Saul, animated with a furious, misguided, though honest zeal, against the disciples of Jesus, was now on his way to Damascus is pursuit of them; and had a commission from the highest court of the Jews to apprehend them: a commission which he was impatient to execute. This, in human view, was a very unpromising hour for his conversion; now it appears more likely that vengeance will arrest him as a criminal, than that grace will prevent him as a vessel of mercy. But O! what agreeable exploits of grace has Jesus performed! At the first introduction of his religion, it was fit he should single out some great sinner, and make him a monument of his mercy, for the encouragement of future ages. Therefore he surprises this fierce persecutor in his daring career, darts the splendours of his glory around him, and pierces him to the heart with this irresistible expostulation, Saul, Saul, why fiersecutest thou me? Saul, in a trembling consternation, replies, Who art thou, Lord? He thought he was only bringing to justice a parcel of contemptible, blasphemous sectaries, unworthy of toleration; and little did he think that his persecuting zeal reached so high: little did he expect to hear one crying from the throne of heaven, Why fiersecutest thou me fBut Jesus feels and resents the injuries done to his people, as done to himself. The head sympathises with its members; therefore he answers, / am Jesus whom thou fiersecutest. And then follows my text, It is hard for thee to kick against the firicks. q. d. "Since it is Jesus, whom thou persecutest, the injury done to me, will only rebound upon thyself: I am infinitely advanced beyond the reach of thy rage; and even my people, who now seem in thy power, can suffer no real or lasting injury from it in the issue; for under my management, all things shall work for their good; but thy persecuting fury shall prove ruinous to thyself, as the wild ox that spurns and kicks against the goad hurts himself and not the driver.** Thus, as I told you, this proverb signifies a resistance injurious to the person resisting, and harmless to him against whom it is made. And is not this hard? Is it not an arduous, preposterous exploit, to break through the strong restraints of the innate principle of self-preservation, and ruin one's self by a blow intended against another, beyond the reach of injury? This, one would think, is a piece of folly and cruelty, of which a being that has the least remains of reason or self-love, would be incapable.

This proverb may signify more : q. d. lam Jesus whom thou fiersecutest; Jesus, the Lord of glory : Jesus, the Saviour of sinners: Jesus, who has died for such sinners as thee ; Jesus, who is all love and mercy, excellency and glory; Jesus, who has given thee such sufficient evidence of his divine mission, and the truth of his religion ; and canst thou persecute Jesus? O! is this an easy thing to one that has the least reason or gratitude ■ Art thou able to break through such strong and endearing obligations ? Is it not hard for thee to spurn against one 60 great, so glorious, so gracious and condescending? Must not this be a horrid exploit of wickedness beyond thy power?

That I may the more fully illustrate the striking thought suggested by my text, I shall point out to you some seemingly- insuperable obstacles in the way to hell, or some dire exploits, which, one would think, would be too hard for you to perform, which yet you must perform, if you persist in a course of sin.

1. Is it not a hard thing to be an unbeliever, Or a deist, in our age and country, while the light of the gospel shines around us with full blaze of evidence?

Before a man can work up himself to the disbelief of a religion attended with such undeniable evidence, and inspiring such divine dispositions and exalted hopes, what absurdities must he embrace! what strong convictions must he resist! what dark suspicions, what boding fears and misgivings, what shocking peradventures and tremendous doubts must he struggle with! what glorious hopes must he resign! what gloomy and shocking prospects must he reconcile himself to! what violence must be offered to conscience ! what care must be used to shut up all the avenues of serious thought, and harden the heart against the terrors of death and the supreme tribunal! How painful a piece of preposterous self-denial to reject the balm the gospel provides to heal a broken heart and a bleeding conscience, and the various helps and advantages it furnishes us with to obtain divine favour and everlasting happiness! How hard to work up the mind to believe that Jesus, who spoke, and acted, and suffered, and did every thing, like an incarnate God, was an impostor, or at best a moral philosopher! or that the religion of the Bible, that contains the most sublime and God-like truths, and the most pure and perfect precepts of piety and morality, is the contrivance of artful and wicked men, or evil spirits! These, brethren, are no easy things. There are many sceptics and smatterers in infidelity, but few, very few, are able to make thorough work of it, or commence staunch unbelievers. The attempt itself is a desperate shift. A man must have reduced himself to a very sad case indeed, before he can have any temptation to set about it. He has, by his wilful wickedness, set Christianity against him, before h« can have any temptation to set himself against Christianity : and when he proclaims war against it, he finds it hard, yea, impossible, to make good his cause. He may indeed put on the airs of defiance and triumph, and affect to laugh at his enemy, and at times may be half persuaded he has really got the victory. But such men find the arms of their own reason often against them, and their own conscience forms violent insurrections in favour of religion, which they cannot entirely suppress; so that they are like their father, whatever they pretend, they believe and tremble too. Alas! that there should be so many unhappy companions in this infernal cause, in our country and nation. They find it hard, even now, to kick against the goads: and O ! how much harder will they find it in the issue! Their resistance will prove ruinous to themselves ; but neither they nor the gates of hell shall prevail against the cause they oppose. Christianity will live when they are dead and damned, according to its sentence. It is a long-tried bulwark, that has withstood all the assaults of earth and hell for near 6000 years, and has still proved impregnable. Infidels may hurt themselves by opposing it ; as an unruly stupid ox, their proper emblem, may hurt himself, but not the goads, by kicking against them.

2. Is it not hard for men to profess themselves believers, and assent to the truths of Christianity, and yet live as if they were infidels!

A professed speculative atheist, or infidel, is a monster that we do not often meet with: but the more absurd and unaccountable phenomenon of a practical atheist; one who is orthodox in principle, but an infidel in practice, we may find wherever we turn: and it would be strange if none such have mingled in this assembly to day. To such I would particularly address myself.

If you believe Christianity, or even the religion of nature, you believe that there is a God of infinite excellency ; the Maker, Preserver, Benefactor, and Ruler of the world, and of you in particular; and consequently, that you are under the strongest, and most endearing obligations to love him, and make it your great study and endeavour to obey his will in all instances. Now is it not strange, that while you believe this, you are able to live as you do? How can you live so thoughtless of this great and glorious God, who bears such august and endearing relations to you? How can you withhold your love from him, and ungratefully refuse obedience ? Is not this a hard thing to you? Does it not cost you some labour to reconcile your consciences to it? If this be easy to you, what champions in wickedness arc you! how mighty to do evil! This would not be easy to the mightiest archangel: n o, it is a dire atchievement he would tremble to think of. And if it be easy to you, it is, as I observed before, in the same sense, that it is easy to a dead body to rot. Your strength to do evil is your real weakness, or, which is the same, the strength of your disease.

Again, if you believe the christian religion, you believe the glorious doctrine of redemption through Jesus Christ; you believe that he, the Father's great co-equal Son, assumed our nature, passed through the various hardships of life, and died upon a cross for you ; and all this out of pure unmerited love. And is it no difficulty to neglect him, to dishonour him, to slight his love, and disobey his commands? Does this monstrous wickedness never put you to a stand? Degenerate and corrupt as you are, have you not such remains of generous principles within you, as that you cannot, without great violence to your own hearts, reject such a Saviour? Does not at least a spark of gratitude sometimes kindle in your hearts, which you find it hard to quench entirely ? Does not conscience often take up arms in the cause of its Lord, and do you not find it hard to quell the insurrection? Alas! if you find little or no difficulty in treating the blessed Jesus with neglect, it shews that you are mighty giants in iniquity, and gin with the strength of a devil.

Again ; If you believe the christian religion, you must believe that regeneration, or a thorough change of heart and life, and universal holiness, are essentially necessary to constitute you a real christian, and prepare you for everlasting happiness. And while you have this conviciion, is it not a hard thing for you to be only christians in name, or self-condemued hypocrites, or to rest contented in any attainments short of real religion ? Is it an easy thing to you to keep your eyes always shut against the light, which would shew you to yourselves in your true colours? to keep such a close guard, as never to let the mortifying secret pass, that you are indeed but a hypocrite, and to harden yourselves against the portion of hypocrites, which will ere long be distributed to you i Finally, If you believe Christianity, or even natural religion, you believe a future state of rewards and punishments; rewards and punishments the highest that human nature is capable of. And is it not a hard thing to make light of immortal happiness, or everlasting misery? Since you love yourselves, and have a strong innate desire of pleasure and horror of pain, how can you reconcile yourselves to the thoughts of giving up your portion in heaven, and being ingulfed forever in the infernal pit? Or how can you support your hope of enjoying the one, and escaping the other, while you have no sufficient evidence? Can you venture so important an interest upon an uncertainty, or dare to take your chance, without caring what might be the issue? Are you capable of such dreadful fool-hardiness? Do you not often shrink buck aghast from the prospect? Does not the happiness of heaven sometimes so strongly attract you, ihat you find it hard to resist? And do not the terrors of hell start up before you in the way ol sin, and are you not brought to a stand, and ready to turn back? The pit of hell, like a raging volcano, thunders at a distance, that you may not fall thereinto by surprise. You may perceive its flames, and smoke, and roarings in the threatenings of God's law, while you are yet at a distance from it. And is it easy for you to push on your way, when thus warned? O ! one -would think, it would be much more easy and delightful to a creature endowed with reason and self-love, to abandon this dangerous road, and choose the safe and pleasant way of life.

I might multiply instances under this head: but these must suffice at present. And I proceed to ask,

3. Is it not hard for a man to live in a constant conflict with himself? I mean with his conscience.

This obstacle in the way to hell has appeared in all the former particulars: but it is so great, and seemingly insuperable, that it deserves to be pointed out by itself. When the sinner would continue his career to hell, conscience, like the cherubim at the gates of paradise, or the angel in Balaam's road, meets him with its flaming sword, and turns every way, to guard the dreadful entrance into the chambers of death.

When a man goes on in the thoughtless neglect of God, and the concerns of eternity, or indulges himself in vice and irreligion, conscience whispers, " What will be the end of this course? thou shalt yet suffer for this. Is it fit thou shouldest thus treat the blessed God, and the Saviour Jesus Christ? Is it wise to neglect the great work of salvation, and run the risque of eternal ruin?" I may appeal to sinners themselves, whether they do not often hear such remonstrances as these from within? Indeed, in the hurry and bustle of business and company, and the headlong career of pleasure and amusement, the voice of conscience is not heard. But you cannot always avoid retirement; sometimes you must be by yourselves, and then you find it hard to close up and guard all the avenues of serious thought. Then conscience in•

sists upon a fufr hearing, and enter* many a solemn protestation against your conduct, warns you of the consequence, and urgi* you to take another course. Whatever airs of impious bravery you put on in public, and however boldly you bid defiance to then things, yet, in such pensive hours, do yqu not find that you arc cowards at heart I Is not conscience like to get the victory I Am you not obliged to break out into the world, and rally all its forces to your assistance, that you may suppress your conscience Now, how hard a life is this! The life of the sinner is a warfcre, as well as that of the christian. Conscience is his enemy, alvsy* disturbing him; that is, he himself is an enemy to himself whik he continues an enemy to God. Some, indeed, by repeated violences, stun their conscience, and it seems to lie still, like a conquered enemy. But this is a conquest fatal to the conquerors. O! would it not be much easier to let conscience have fair play. to pursue your own happiness, as it urges you, and leave the smooth, down-hill road to ruin, from which it would restrain you? Conscience urges you to your duty and interest with many sharp goads, and will you still kick against them! O! do you not find this hard? I am sure it would be very hard, it would be impossible to a creature under the right conduct of reason and self-love And before you can be capable of performing this dire exploit with ease, you must have acquired a prodigious, gigantic strength in sinning. This is what the mightiest saint upon earth could not dare to do. No; he owns conscience is his master: long did he resist, but now he must submit: and he would not incur the displeasure of his conscience for all the world. O ! that we were all weak in this respect! My time will allow me only to add, A. Is it not a hard piece of self-denial for you to deprive yourselves of the exalted pleasures of religion?

You love yourselves, and you love happiness, and therefore out would reasonably expect you would choose that which will afford you the most solid, refined and lasting happiness, and abandon whatever is inconsistent with it. Now religion is a source of happiness. Yes; that dull, melancholy thing, religion, which you think perhaps, would put an end to all your pleasures, and which, for that reason, you have kept at a distance from; religion, which its enemies will tell you has made some intolerably precise, and dead to all the joys of life, and turned others mid and melancholy; religion, I say, will afford you a happiness more pure, more noble, and more durable than all the world can give. Religion not only proposes future happiness beyond the comprehension of thought, but will afford you present happiness beyond whatever you have known While strangers to it. The pleasures of a peaceful, approving conscience, of communion with God, the supreme good, of the most noble dispositions and most delightful contemplations; these are the pleasures of religion. And ask those who have enjoyed them, those whom experience has qualified to be judges, and they will tell you with one voice, " There are no pleasures comparable to these." Besides, religion has infinitely the advantage of oilier things as to futurity. Those pleasures which are inconsistent with it end in shocking prospects, as well as pale reviews. But religion opens the brightesfprospects; prospects of everlasting salvation and happiness; prospects that brighten the gloomy shades of death, and the awful world beyond, and run out infinitely beyond our ken through a vast eternal duration. My heart is so full of my subject, that I must borrow the more expressive words of another, to give it vent.<

"Let the proud Witling argue all he can,
It is religion still that makes the man;
'Tig this, my friends, that streaks our morning bright;
'Tjs this that gilds the horrors of our night.
When wealth forsakes us, and when friends are few;
When friends are faithless, or when foes pursue;
'Tis thii that wards the blow, or stills the smart:
Disarms affliction, or repels its dart;
Within the breast bids purest pleasures rise t
Bids smiling conscience spread her cloudless skies.

When the storm thickens, and the thunder rolls;
When the earth trembles to th' affrighted poles l
The pious mind nor doubts nor fears assail,
For storms are zephyrs, or a gentler gale.

And when disease obstructs the labouring breath,
When the heart sickens, and each pulse is death,
Even then Religion shall sustain the ju9t,
Grace their last moments, nor desert their dust."

Such, my brethren, is religion; the highest, the most substantial, and most lasting happiness of man. And is it not a painful piece^of self-denial to you, to give up all this happiness, when nothing is required to purchase it but only your choice of it ! Is not this doing violence to the innate principle of self-love and desire of happiness? Can you be so stupid, as to imagine that the worldi or sin, or any thing that can come in competition with religion, can be of equal or comparable advantage to you? Sure your own

i * See a Letter to Mr. Hervey by a physician, prefixed to his Meditations, Vol.t - -'' '--. - - .. ,. . ....

Vol. ii. 49

reason must give in its verdict in favour of religion. And is t not a hard thing for you to act against your own reason, agaisst your own interest, your highest, your immortal interest, aid against your own innate desire of happiness? Do you never fir. it any difficulty to live for years in ihe world, without once tasting the sweets of the love of God, or the pleasures of an applauding conscience! Is it not hard, that while others around you, in the use of the very means which you enjoy, are made meet for tbe inheritance of the saints in light, and are animated to endure the calamities of life, and encounter the terrors of death, by the prospect of everlasting glory, while they are now often lost in exuuc wonder, while surveying the things that God hath laid up far them that love him: 1 say, is it not hard, that you should be destitute of all these transporting prospects, and have nothing but a fearful expectation of wrath and fiery indignation, or at best a Tain self-flattering hope, which will issue in the more confounding disappointment? Is not this really hard'' Must it not be a difficulty to you to live at this rate?

And now, sinners, will you with infernal bravery breakthrough all these obstacles, and force a passage into the flames below 1 Or will you not give over the preposterous struggle to ruin yourselves, and suffer yourselves to be saved? O! let me arrest you in your dangerous career, as the voice which pronounced my text did St. Paul ; and let me prevail upon you for the future to choose the highway to life, and take that course to which God, conscience, duty, and interest urge you. In that indeed you will meet with difficulties; it is a narrow and rugged road; and it will require hard striving to make a progress in it. But then the difficulties yon have here to surmount are in the road to happiness, with which therefore it is worth your while to struggle; but those in the other are in the road to destruction; and your striving to surmount them, is but striving to destroy yourselves forever. It may be worth your while to labour and confii& bard to be saved; but is it worth while to take so much pains,* and strive so hard to be damned? Besides, the difficulties in tbs heavenly road result from the weak, disordered, and wicked state of human nature, as the difficulty of animal action and enjoyment proceeds from sickness of body: and consequently, every endeavour to surmount these difficulties tends to heal, to rectify, to strengthen, and ennoble- our nature, and advance it to perfection. But the difficulties in the way to hell proceed from tbe

The Characters of the Whole and Sick, &c. 387

contrariety of that course to the best principles of human nature, and to the most strong and rational obligations; and consequently, the more we struggle with these difficulties, the more we labour to suppress and root out the remains of all good principles, and break the most inviolable obligations to God and ourselves. The easier it is for us to sin, the more base and corrupt we are: just as the more rotten a limb is, the easier for it to drop off; the more disordered and stupified the body is, the more easy to die. To meet with no obstacle in the way to hell, but to run on -without restraint, is terrible indeed; it shews a man abandoned of God, and ripe for destruction. Such an ease in sinning is the quality of a devil.

Upon the whole, you see, that though there be difficulties on both sides, yet the way to heaven has infinitely the advantage; and therefore, let me again urge you to choose it. You have -walked long enough at variance with God, with your own conscience, with your own interest, and duty: come now be reconciled: make these your antagonists no longer. While you persist in this opposition, you do but kick against the pricks ; that is, you make a resistance injurious to yourselves. For the future, declare war against sin, Satan, and all their confederates, and ere long ye shall be made more than conquerors ; and for your encouragement remember. He that overcometh shall inherit all things: and I Tot// be his God, and he shall be my son, saith the Lord God- Almighty.