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THE REALITY OF RELIGION.
2 TIM. iii. 5.
·Denying the power.
THE nature of ferious religion having been confidered
in the former difcourfe, let us now enter into a full and particular proof of its reality. At first view indeed, it may feem unneceffary to prove a point, which carries its own evidence with it, and to the truth of which there is in the confciences of most men, I think I may fay all, a very ftrong prefumptive teftimony. But fince it is to be feared there are fome, who would fain perfuade themselves to queftion the reality of religion, and fince it is notorious that the generality of mankind think very lightly about it; it cannot but be of confiderable use to set the argument, plain as it is, in every light it will admit of, thereby to awaken our attention to the thing itfelf, as well as to remove every fhadow of objection which may be urged against it.
It might then be very naturally expected, that our reafoning on this fubject should be deduced from fome short propofition, which is directly and fully to our purpose: but as Scripture for the most part takes it for granted, that there is fuch a thing as religion, faits chiefly employed rather in a diffusive description of the nature of it, than in a concife and exprefs affirmation of its reality. We are therefore obliged to ground our prefent enquiry on the paffage just read, which, though it does not directly affert
what we would prove, yet immediately leads us into the unhappy occafions of that scepticism and dissipation of mind, which too generally prevail; and fo opens our way to the pofitive evidence we have of the truth of religion itself.
The apostle had been speaking in the beginning of this chapter, of the last days. A phrase which some interpret of the age immediately fucceeding that of the firft establishment of Christianity; and which others refer to a more diftant period of the church. But be that as it may, he tells us that in these days there would be perilous times. Times in which perfecution on the one hand, and a general diffoluteness of manners on the other, would prevail to fuch a degree, as very greatly to try the faith and conftancy of all the real profeffors of religion. From whence he goes on to give us the character of these last days. Men fhall be lovers of their ownfelves, covetous, boafters, proud, blafphemers, difobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, truce-breakers, falfe accufers, incontinent, fierce, defpifers of thofe that are good, traitors, beady, high-minded, and lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God. To all which he subjoins the fad and striking defcription in our text: Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof. One would indeed have thought, that when men were arrived to fuch a pitch of wickednefs as had been just reprefented, there could hardly have been any circumftance added, ftill farther to blacken their character. But there was yet one, hypocrify, that put the finishing stroke to the whole. Amidst these bold impieties, fo contrary to the dictates of reafon, as well as of divine revelation, they dare to call themselves men of God and religion; and under the mask of external obfervances, they fecurely indulge the most diabolical paffions and with little or no remorse perpetrate the most horrid and shameful actions. So by their temper and conduct they deny, or contradict, the true fpirit
and power of that religion, the external appearance of which they fondly affume.
The language of the text is fo expreffive, and the uses to which we shall apply it so important, that it will be neceffary to enquire a little more particularly, what is meant by Godliness what by the Form and the Power of it-and who they are who having the one, do yet deny the other. And,
First, As to Godliness. The term properly fignifies right or acceptable worship*: fo that in the primary sense of it, it is to be restrained to acts of devotion, such as prayer and praife. Nevertheless it is commonly used to denote all that part of religion, which refpects our temper and conduct towards God. Thus it is to be understood here, and thus it stands distinguished from the duties of temperance and justice, in that paffage where the apostle exhorts us to live foberly, righteously and godlily in the prefent world. Wherefore godliness comprehends in it all the regards, which as creatures we owe to him who hath made us. And fince by fin we are reduced to an apoftate and depraved ftate, and God hath thought fit to give us an extraordinary revelation of his will; it follows, that there muft of neceffity be a change in fome of the material expreffions of our obedience, and in the manner it is to be performed. Faith in the Lord Jesus Chrift, and Repentance towards God, are indifpenfibly ne ceffary to form the character of the godly. The man therefore who anfwers to this defcription, in the sense of the facred Scriptures, is he who, being reftored to the knowledge and favour of God, converfes with him in his duties, imitates him in his practice, and hopes for ever to enjoy him in heaven; who, fenfible that he hath forfeited the divine favour, confiders his restoration to it as the fruit alone of the mediation of the Lord Jefus Chrift; and, on this principle, humbly fears to offend him, and cheerfully aims to please him. Such is godliness or internal religion, the nature of which hath in the former difcourfe been fully confidered. Now,
Secondly, As to the Form and the Power of it. These are terms which require very little explanation. Some indeed interpret the form of godliness in this place, of that rule or directory given us concerning it in the book of God, and which the apostle elsewhere calls the form of found words. And this many have in their hands, who it is to be feared are perfect strangers to the thing itself. Nay, too many there are, who, while they profess a regard to the letter of the Bible, take no fmall pains to explain away the› Spirit of it. But the phrafe is rather to be understood of the external observances of religion, fuch as the affembling together for the worship of God, and for the celebration of the two folemn institutions of the Christian difpenfation, baptiẩm and the Lord's fupper. These are the forms of godlinefs, the outward, natural, and just expreffions of it. Now to these are opposed the power of it, that is, the inward fenfe, feeling and experience of it; that principle, fpirit or temper, which animates a truly Christian man, just as the foul does the body. Such diflinction the apostle frequently makes as when he says to the Theffalonians, Our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power; and to Timothy, Bodily exercife profiteth little, but godliness is pro-fitable unto all things t. Not that the form of religion and the power of it are at variance: no, the one, as was just obferved, is the natural expreffion of the other. And fo far is the word of God from treating the externals of religion with indifference, that it exhorts us with great earnestness to pay a ferious attention to them, as the proper means, with a divine blefling, of begetting, maintaining, and promoting the true spirit of godliness. And moft certain it is, that though there may be the form, where there is not the reality of religion; yet there cannot be the reality of religion, where there is not the form of it. But the latter is here opposed to the former, to intimate, that the one is a vain, unacceptable,
*2 Tim. i. 13.
† 1. Theff. i. 5.
f 1 Tim. iv. 8.
table, useless thing without the other. And from hence we may now easily collect,
Thirdly, The true character of those who are faid in our text to have the form of godlinefs, but at the fame time to deny the power of it. They are either fuch who reft in the one, without any regard to the other; or fuch who affume the one, with an hypocritical view of being accounted the real poffeffors of the other. As to the firft of thefe, few words are neceffary to give us a juft idea of their character. They place the whole of their religion in external rites and ceremonies, vainly imagining that pofitive obfervances will make them acceptable to God; while they pay no fort of attention to the prevailing temper of their hearts, and can perhaps allow themselves in fome practices, which are abfolutely immoral and criminal. Such there have been, and fuch it is to be feared there now are : nor is it to be doubted that they come within the defcription in the text. They have no true knowledge of the nature of spiritual religion, and have no juft fenfe of the importance of it, if they do not even in fpeculation deny it. And then, as to those who hypocritically affume the form of religion, in order to gain the applause of men; however they may talk much of their regards to the power of godliness, it is as evident they can have no firm faith of its truth impreffed on their hearts. Nay, their behaviour being in many inftances wholly inconfiftent with their profeffion, men of atheistical and profane minds take occafion from hence to difpute the reality of what we would now prove. Thus you fee how perfons of both thefe characters, do either abfolutely or in effect deny the grand thing, which in appearance they may feem to acknowledge. And in much the fame fenfe the word is to be underflood, where the apoftle declares, that he who provides not for his own, and efpecially thofe of his own houfe, bath denied the faith, and is worfe than an infidel *.